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The Clippers’ Backcourt of the Future Is a Calculated Gamble

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson may have seemed like reaches on draft night, but in drafting the complementary perimeter players, L.A.’s other team is betting on the odds, the modern game, and themselves

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The Los Angeles Clippers had a unique opportunity to reshape their franchise on draft night. They had consecutive picks in the latter half of the lottery: the one they received from the Pistons in the Blake Griffin trade (no. 12 overall), as well as their own (no. 13). The players they selected—Kentucky freshman Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (whom they moved up to no. 11 to acquire) and Boston College junior Jerome Robinson—began a run of 14 straight perimeter players taken after the top 10. History tells us at least one of the guys in that group will become an All-Star. Los Angeles got two of the first cracks at finding that star.

In the 30 years between 1985, the start of the lottery system, and 2014, an average of 1.27 multiple-time All-Stars were taken at no. 11 or later. The majority of those players (24 of 38) went between no. 11 and no. 24. Players selected in that range in recent years include Kawhi Leonard (no. 15 in 2011), Giannis Antetokounmpo (no. 15 in 2013), Devin Booker (no. 13 in 2015), and Donovan Mitchell (no. 13 in 2017). But for every mid-first-round pick who outperforms expectations, there are just as many, like Kendall Marshall (no. 13 in 2012), Adreian Payne (no. 15 in 2014), and Georgios Papagiannis (no. 13 in 2016), who might not make an NBA roster this season. It’s hard to make the right choice at that point in the draft. Between 1984 and 2015, the players taken at no. 12 have averaged fewer estimated added wins in their NBA career (2.99) and a lower PER (12.41) than the ones taken at no. 24 (4.31 and 13.74).

The Clippers didn’t play it safe with their picks. They targeted Gilgeous-Alexander early in the draft process, convincing him to shut down his workouts and not talk to other teams after meeting with him at the NBA draft combine.

“After those meetings, I felt really comfortable with them and their staff,” he told me after a morning practice during summer league. “I felt like the organization was in a good spot. I really wanted to play with them.”

Word of the arrangement got out. The Hornets squeezed two second-round picks out of the Clippers by taking SGA at no. 11 and forcing them to trade up, which allowed them to acquire the player they wanted all along (Michigan State swingman Miles Bridges) at no. 12.

Robinson was a late riser in the draft process. Much like Mitchell, he stayed under the radar during the college season and was only testing the waters when he initially declared for the draft. The Clippers brain trust, including president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank and consultant Jerry West, fell in love with him. They didn’t promise Robinson, but they also didn’t want to risk trading back and losing him.

“I don’t really see [Robinson] as a reach,” an executive from a different lottery team told me. “Everyone in the ACC loved him. The Duke coaches told us he was easily the best player they faced in the conference all season.”

The best-case scenario for the Clippers is the two becoming better than the sum of their parts. The hope is that they can cover for each other’s weaknesses and grow together over the course of their rookie contracts. It’s a fairly unusual situation. Minnesota’s ill-fated 2009 draft, when the Timberwolves famously selected Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn at no. 5 and no. 6, respectively, over Stephen Curry, is the only other time an NBA team has taken two guards in the lottery since the turn of the century. But Los Angeles isn’t worried about history repeating itself.

“With Shai’s court vision and ability to pass the basketball and Jerome’s ability to get himself open and make plays as a secondary ball handler, they couldn’t fit better,” said Casey Hill, the head coach of the Clippers’ G League and summer league teams. “Now it’s just giving them the time and opportunity to blend their instincts.”

2018 NBA Summer League - Las Vegas - Los Angeles Clippers v Golden State Warriors Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Gilgeous-Alexander was a revelation in summer league, averaging 19 points on 46 percent shooting, 4.8 rebounds, 4.0 assists, and 2.3 steals per game. Much like his Kentucky teammate Kevin Knox, Gilgeous-Alexander didn’t get a chance to showcase his game in college, where he was surrounded by traditional big men and non-shooters. At 6-foot-6 and 180 pounds with a 7-foot wingspan, he towered over other point guards in Las Vegas. He’s not an elite athlete, but the 19-year-old already knows how to use his size to his advantage. SGA changes speeds to get a step on defenders, and then puts them on his back and elevates over them, making it hard for opponents to even challenge his stepback and turnaround jumpers. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, he was in the 84th percentile of players in Las Vegas when scoring out of the pick-and-roll.

The big question mark is his outside shot. He shot 40.4 percent from 3 at Kentucky, but he attempted only 1.5 3s per game. He was a reluctant shooter who put his head down and went to the rim almost every time down the court in college. He took more long-range jumpers in Las Vegas, where he shot 3-for-12 (25 percent) from 3 in four games, nearly doubling his per-game average in college.

“I’m more comfortable shooting [3s] now,” said SGA when I asked him about the difference. “Last year I was more focused on getting into the paint and creating.”

No matter how far along his jumper is, Gilgeous-Alexander will likely be more successful with the ball in his hands at this stage of his career. He only looked like a star in college after Kentucky head coach John Calipari tweaked his rotation by spreading the floor with 3-point shooters. Even high-level NCAA defenders had trouble staying in front of SGA in a one-on-one situation. And when defenses sent help, he picked them apart, either hitting a big man at the rim or finding a shooter at the 3-point line.

“[Playing in the NBA] will definitely be fun. At this level, there is a lot more space. That only helps my game,” Gilgeous-Alexander said.

The Clippers want Robinson to be one of his floor spacers. The 21-year-old was an elite shooter at Boston College last season, averaging 20.7 points a game on 48.5 percent shooting, including 40.9 percent from 3 on 5.7 attempts per game, despite being swarmed by opposing defenses. BC was one of the least-talented teams in the ACC last season, but the Eagles were able to squeeze out a 19-16 record and a 7-11 mark in conference play thanks to the high-scoring duo of Robinson and sophomore point guard Ky Bowman.

“In the big picture, you look at where I came from in my freshman year [7-25, 0-18 in the conference] to what we did this year,” Robinson said when I asked him about his NCAA career. “It was good to see growth like that and progress and being able to show that I was a winner.”

The game that put Robinson on the map was an 89-84 upset of Duke in early December, when the Blue Devils were the no. 1 team in the country. He had 24 points on 8-of-11 shooting, tearing up future lottery picks Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. in space. Coach K wound up going to a 2-3 zone last season because of what NBA-caliber guards like Robinson were doing to his freshman big men. Robinson can fill it up from behind the 3-point line, and he’s effective shooting off the catch (77th percentile of players nationwide on 140 attempts) and off the dribble (91st percentile of players on 146 attempts). He’s not just a shooter, either. He got to the free throw line (5.0 attempts per game), and had more assists (3.3) than turnovers (2.7).

Los Angeles used him in a smaller role in summer league, where SGA and Sindarius Thornwell, the no. 48 pick in the 2017 draft, were the team’s leading scorers. Robinson took 49.7 percent of his shots in Las Vegas off of either spot-ups or running around screens off the ball, and only 4.1 percent of his shots in the pick-and-roll, compared to 14.9 percent at Boston College. He’s a well-rounded scorer whom the Clippers hope becomes more efficient in a smaller role playing off of Gilgeous-Alexander.

At 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-6, respectively, Robinson and Gilgeous-Alexander would be one of the biggest backcourts in the NBA, leaving opponents no place to hide a smaller defender. The normal adjustment to a supersized point guard like Gilgeous-Alexander is cross-switching a shooting guard on him. Doing that against the Clippers would leave the point guard on Robinson, who could then run him around screens and shoot over the top of him. Although the young Clippers are different kinds of players than Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, that same dynamic is what makes the Splash Brothers such a tough matchup. A team that puts a longer defender on Curry winds up leaving a smaller one on Thompson, who can bury them in the post.

Summer league is a feeling-out process, and the two rookies are already beginning to embrace the opportunity they have to make their mark in the NBA together.

“I only watched Kentucky once this year in their conference tournament. I really only saw highlights of [SGA],” said Robinson. “Just seeing the kind of player he is in practice, I like the way he plays, and how he carries himself. The way he plays is phenomenal. It translates easily to the NBA.”

“That’s my guy. We do everything together,” said Gilgeous-Alexander, when I asked him about Robinson.

The two also complement each other on defense. SGA has the size to guard either backcourt position, and that defensive versatility is what separates him from Trae Young and Collin Sexton, the two point guards taken ahead of him. As he puts on weight and fills out physically, Gilgeous-Alexander could cover for Robinson in the same way Thompson, who often guards the toughest assignment in the backcourt regardless of position, covers for Curry. Defense was the biggest question about Robinson coming into the draft. At 6-foot-5 and 190 pounds with a 6-foot-7 wingspan, he’s an average athlete by NBA standards with a slight frame, and he didn’t exert much effort when defending screens in college.

Getting into an NBA strength and conditioning program will be important for both, as they struggled at times to finish through contact in Las Vegas. “I’m playing against grown men, so I need to get my body ready for the length of the season, for the battle and the grind of the season,” Robinson said. “The physicality is another level. The different reads and sets, and being able to figure out screens. Everyone is getting better with screening, and making plays, and different actions and stuff. It’s the best of the best.”

Both young guards are far from finished products, and neither figures to have a big role right away. Even after trading Austin Rivers, the Clippers still have Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Avery Bradley, and Milos Teodosic in their backcourt. SGA and Robinson will have to fight for playing time, and they could spend a lot of time in the G League.

“With Doc [Rivers], everything is earned. You aren’t going to be given anything, especially as a rookie. I think with these guys it’s important to come in with confidence, but also learn from their teammates and prove they deserve time,” Hill said.

The Clippers are one of many teams in the Western Conference in the race for the no. 8 seed. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan are gone, but the franchise isn’t blowing things up and starting over. While they don’t have an established All-Star, they will be one of the deepest teams in the conference. They brought back their top three remaining scorers (Williams, Tobias Harris, and Danilo Gallinari) from a team that won 42 games last season. Williams has won Sixth Man of the Year twice in the past four seasons, and Harris, still only 26, averaged 19.3 points on 47.3 percent shooting in 32 games with the Clippers.

Los Angeles is currently stuck in the middle of the pack out West, trying to rebuild without bottoming out. The Clippers will have enough salary-cap room to offer two maximum contracts in the summer of 2019, but that doesn’t mean any of the elite players expected to hit the market (Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, and Kyrie Irving) will take it. Stars want to pair up with other stars, and the Clippers don’t have much to sell without Paul or Griffin.

They’ll need to strike rich in the middle of the draft, much like Golden State did with Curry (no. 7 in 2009) and Thompson (no. 11 in 2011). There are no guarantees with either Gilgeous-Alexander or Robinson, and there were plenty of other directions they could have gone. Michael Porter Jr., once considered a top-five pick before undergoing back surgery, went to the Nuggets at no. 14. Zhaire Smith (no. 16) and Lonnie Walker IV (no. 18) were interesting sleepers, while Donte DiVincenzo (no. 17) was the hero of the NCAA tournament, and Kevin Huerter (no. 19) the analytical darling. It will take years to figure out which was the right pick. There is no consensus among the people I’ve talked to around the league.

The Clippers really need to get these picks right. Their long-term future is a blank slate. SGA, Robinson, and Williams are their only three players currently under contract for 2020-21. If their two young guards become a SoCal version of the Splash Brothers, the Clippers will be one of the most intriguing free-agent destinations in the NBA. If they fizzle out, the franchise could sink to the bottom of the league. Lob City is over. The hope is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson are good enough to one day get a nickname of their own.