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The Two Elite Recruits Hiding in the Draft’s Second Round

Any NBA team looking for a late steal should take hard looks at Kentucky’s Jarred Vanderbilt and Kansas’s Malik Newman

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Finding good players in the second round of the NBA draft is more art than science. There are no sure things; everyone left on the board has significant flaws. The key is identifying prospects with clear strengths, and then developing them into roles that hide their weaknesses. That type of team-building doesn’t happen much in college, where coaches often try to reel in as many elite recruits as possible without worrying about how they fit together. But players caught up in those situations in the NCAA, like Jarred Vanderbilt (Kentucky) and Malik Newman (Kansas via Mississippi State), can end up being draft steals for NBA teams.

Vanderbilt and Newman were marked for stardom in high school. Vanderbilt was the no. 13 overall recruit in the Class of 2017, per RSCI, and Newman was no. 8 overall in the Class of 2015. Neither was able to showcase his game as a freshman. Vanderbilt played in only 14 games at Kentucky because of foot injuries, and he was lost in a crowded frontcourt rotation when he was healthy. Newman struggled in Ben Howland’s conservative offense at Mississippi State two years ago, so he transferred to Kansas to rebuild his draft stock before going pro.

NBA stardom probably isn’t in the cards for either, but they could still become valuable role players. Each has a skill in high demand at the next level: Vanderbilt is one of the best perimeter defenders, regardless of position, in this year’s draft, while Newman is one of the best off-the-dribble shooters. The question is whether they can contribute enough in other areas of the game to stay on the floor. They are specialists who need to be in fairly specific situations to succeed, and NBA teams don’t usually prioritize finding a role for second-round picks. But Vanderbilt and Newman could be worth the trouble.

Vanderbilt Is a Prototypical Small-Ball 5

There aren’t many players at any level of basketball with Vanderbilt’s skill set. At 6-foot-9 and 214 pounds with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, he’s a freakish athlete with the ability to defend players at all five positions. He grabbed a higher percentage of total rebounds when he was on the floor (25.7 percent) than any of John Calipari’s players in his eight seasons in Lexington. DeMarcus Cousins (22.5 percent) is the only other of Calipari’s players who even made it above 20 percent. And once Vanderbilt cleaned the defensive glass, he could lead the break himself and create easy shots for his teammates in transition.

The problem for Vanderbilt came in the half court, where he was miserable in almost every offensive category. While he played on the perimeter in high school, he has never shown the ability to knock down outside shots. He shot 63.2 percent from the free throw line on 2.7 attempts per game this past season, and he attempted only four shots outside of the paint, according to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports. He wasn’t much better finishing at the rim either, ranking in the 21st percentile of college players on those plays.

It wasn’t just a Vanderbilt problem, though. Kentucky was no. 327 in Division I in 3-point attempts this season, which allowed opposing defenses to pack the paint against them. There was no room inside for any of their big men to operate. Calipari has always emphasized size and speed over shooting ability, and he took that philosophy to its logical conclusion with this team. He didn’t find a lineup that made sense until March, when he rotated all his non-shooting big men at center and played his only three shooters (Kevin Knox, Wenyen Gabriel, and Quade Green) around Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

Unfortunately for Vanderbilt, he was already out for the season with a sprained ankle at that point. His long history of foot injuries, including missing the first 17 games of the season with a broken foot, has made NBA teams leery of him. Few want to give first-round money to an undersized big man with his medical history. Vanderbilt could have improved his draft stock if he had returned to school, but he almost had to go pro and take whatever money he could get; he would have been undraftable if he had injured his foot again.

It won’t be easy for Vanderbilt to carve out a role at the next level. His poor shooting means he almost has to be a 5, and almost every team in the league has more centers than they can use. Just look what happened to Nerlens Noel, another former Kentucky big man. After a logjam at center forced him out of Philadelphia, he wound up fighting for minutes (and with the coaching staff) in Dallas before suffering a thumb injury. Vanderbilt will have to battle for a spot in the rotation wherever he goes. However, if he can stay healthy, his rebounding and defensive versatility will give him a chance at playing time.

Newman Could Be the Next Patty Mills

Newman is a one-dimensional player, but that dimension is valuable in the NBA these days. He’s an elite 3-point shooter (41.5 percent from 3 on 5.3 attempts per game last season) who can shoot off the dribble (92nd percentile of college players on 64 attempts) and out of the pick-and-roll (94th percentile on 58 attempts). He averaged only 14.2 points a game on a loaded Kansas team that featured two other NBA prospects (seniors Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk) on the perimeter, but he could score at will when given the opportunity. He shot Duke out of the NCAA tournament with 32 points in the Elite Eight.

The question for Newman is whether he can do anything else. At 6-foot-3 and 189 pounds with a 6-foot-6 wingspan, he’s a gunner trapped in the body of a point guard, and he’s an average athlete by NBA standards who has never been much of a defender. Newman had a positive assist-to-turnover ratio as a freshman at Mississippi State and a redshirt sophomore at Kansas, but neither Howland nor Jayhawks coach Bill Self was willing to give him complete control of the offense. He declared for the draft after one season in Lawrence rather than moving into more of a playmaking role with Graham gone.

There are players like Newman in every draft, and most wash out of the league quickly. Few young players are given the green light to shoot off the dribble early in their NBA careers, which makes it difficult for those who can’t do anything else. A 6-foot-3 player like Newman who doesn’t run point only works if he can play next to a bigger wing who serves as the primary ball handler, allowing him to cross-switch onto the point guard on defense. That’s why the Spurs always pair Mills with Manu Ginobili on the second unit.

It all comes down to what a team wants from its backup point guard. Every type is available in the second round. There are well-rounded playmakers like Graham, defensive specialists like Jevon Carter (West Virginia), bigger combo guards like Shake Milton (SMU), and high-upside flyers like Trevon Duval (Duke). Like Vanderbilt, Newman has his work cut out for him to crack an NBA rotation because the competition for playing time at his position is so intense. There aren’t many spots for one-position defenders who aren’t primary options.

Newman will have to be such a dynamic scorer that his NBA coach is compelled to play him. The one thing he has going for him is that he has the confidence that comes from being a star almost his entire life. Newman was ranked ahead of lottery picks like Jamal Murray and Luke Kennard in high school, and he has their ability to shoot from anywhere and score off the dribble. Put him in the right situation in the NBA and he could score in bunches. Put him in the wrong one and he’ll end up playing in China.