When Draymond Green was asked by the Warriors front office what type of player he wanted them to select in the 2018 NBA draft, he said, “There are 82-game players, then there are 16-game players.” Green wanted a player who could assist in the mission to compete for titles. The NBA is full of athletes who can make you question the laws of physics, but the players who historically earn important minutes deep into the postseason are also the ones with high basketball IQs who make smart, quick decisions and decisive cuts, passes, and rotations. A dial-up basketball IQ doesn’t get it done.
In 2019, Duke phenom Zion Williamson is the crown jewel—a gravity-defying athlete who also has a cerebral nature to his game. Beyond Zion, it’s a mixed bag full of players, all with their own question marks. It is, however, a class deep with prospects who fit the criteria to someday become important role players who could contribute in a playoff setting, provided their skills continue to improve. The 2019 NBA Finals happen to be littered with examples of these kinds of guys, from Draymond to Fred VanVleet to Kevon Looney to Pascal Siakam.
In the Finals, it’s the clutch moments at the end of games that get immortalized, but before we get LeBron blocking Andre Iguodala, or Ray Allen saving the Heat, there are countless forgotten possessions that add up to victory. In the second quarter of Toronto’s Game 1 victory, it was VanVleet securing a loose ball, then instinctively recognizing Serge Ibaka hustling up the floor and delivering a dime:
Or Draymond Green’s spin-cycle defensive rotation to prevent a layup in the third quarter of Game 2:
Or in Game 3 when a five-man Raptors unit worked as one to force a 24-second violation with perfect rotations and switches to snuff out a Steph Curry off-ball action, while former second-round pick Marc Gasol rotated to halt two drives.
Incredible defensive possession from the Raptors. Snuff out all of Curry as screener tricks, rotations are pristine. Championship caliber preparation and execution. That was fun pic.twitter.com/uor0V5sNS9— Will Gottlieb (@wontgottlieb) June 6, 2019
The Raptors beat the Warriors on Wednesday partially due to these points saved, and it could eventually lead to Toronto’s first championship in franchise history. Yet the discourse surrounding players and teams tends to still primarily focus on the athletic feats that make it so visually stimulating. We value the pull-up 3 over the solid screen to shake loose the ball handler. Unheralded plays are unheralded for a reason, but their importance should never be undersold when it’s apparent just how much they matter every single year come April, May, and June.
At this year’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Golden State president Bob Myers said, “You watch the playoffs, you’ll learn who can play basketball.” The NBA Finals has long been a platform for players with big basketball brains who slipped through the cracks as prospects. Key players on championship teams this century include late-first-round gems like Derek Fisher and James Posey, second-round steals like Trevor Ariza and Danny Green, and undrafted diamonds in the rough such as J.J. Barea and Bruce Bowen. In 2019, it’s Draymond, Siakam, and VanVleet, and Danny Green again. Really, the entire Raptors roster is composed of non-lottery picks; Kawhi Leonard, selected 15th in 2011, is the highest pick.
Most teams, especially those picking earlier in the first round, are looking for upside—they want Kevin Durant, not Kevon Looney. If a franchise is selecting among the lottery picks, they’re usually not looking for a complementary piece to put around a championship-caliber core. They want the cornerstone to build on. Teams conduct interviews, give personality assessment tests, and dig for intel by talking to everyone from a player’s grandmother to the custodian at his high school, all to better understand which players have the intangibles and work ethic to be a true professional.
The 2019 draft class is often called “weak,” a sentiment that stems from the lack of star power beyond Zion. Maybe there aren’t a lot of future All-Stars, but as we look beyond projected lottery picks, we’ll find a group of high-IQ players with a chance to make a real difference, depending on where they land. Let’s briefly assess a handful of these prospects not on whether they project to be 25-point-a-night highlight-reel guys, but whether they could feasibly contribute to a Finals contender in the way Draymond and VanVleet have. These aren’t meant to be perfect player-to-prospect comparisons; the aim is to identify prospects who share multiple traits with a pro who’s had success in this year’s Finals.
Is Draymond One of a Kind?
Green has a rare blend of skills: He’s a defensive genius who can quickly diagnose plays and has the lateral quickness, strength, and long wingspan to defend players tall and short, thicc and thin. With his ballhandling and playmaking prowess, he uses his brains on offense to make plays for his teammates. There is no other Draymond on the planet. However, there are players who fit the mold.
Williams could be the first one of the bunch off the board, though NBA scouts project him anywhere from a mid-first to an early second. Tennessee ran its offense through the 6-foot-8 junior forward last season; he projects as a complementary offensive player who enhances his teammates with his fundamental screening, passable shooting, and hyperaware playmaking. Williams lacks Draymond’s wingspan, but he shares his hustle, toughness, and IQ. Here’s Williams at this year’s NBA draft combine, breaking down one of his more impressive defensive rotations of the year:
Enjoyed breaking down film with Tennessee big man Grant Williams, one of the smartest defenders in the draft. pic.twitter.com/o4HVu2yEgl— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) May 22, 2019
If Williams doesn’t succeed as a playoff-caliber rotation player, it won’t be for a lack of skill or intelligence. It’ll be because his mobility defending guards didn’t develop enough for him to reach his ceiling as a versatile defender.
Cheatham, a redshirt senior out of Arizona State, is more athletic than Williams. The Sun Devils frequently tasked Cheatham with defending the perimeter, and he flourished as a weak-side help defender. He has all the makings of a small-ball pick-and-roll defender. Watch below how Cheatham helps snuff out an opponent attacking on a broken play, then swings his head around and rotates for a block.
Cheatham will turn 24 as a rookie, making him a geezer by draft standards. He’s likely a second-round pick or even an undrafted free agent. He has plenty of room to improve; his jumper could be a fatal flaw, but with his elite athleticism and cerebral game on both ends of the floor, he brings enough, in my eyes, to be a borderline first-round pick.
Clarke averaged only 1.9 assists, but is arguably the best passer of the group. He is a superb athlete who can defend across positions, though he isn’t quite as bulky as Draymond, so he’ll be limited against true bigs. Nonetheless, he quickly processes decisions, as evidenced by his decisive rotations and passes on the break. Clarke is a likely mid-first-round pick who will be drafted behind younger, theoretically higher-upside players such as Texas center Jaxson Hayes and North Carolina forward Nassir Little. But years from now, teams may just be left wondering why they didn’t go with the surer thing in Clarke, who already shows the skill, athleticism, and intelligence to thrive.
The Wing Squadron
Both Finals teams have a collection of versatile wings and forwards who can be used in varying roles. Toronto’s Danny Green is a knockdown shooter who plays smart, hard-nosed defense. Pascal Siakam is still finding his way as a young player, but runs the floor like his life is on the line and displays awareness on defense. For Golden State, the former Finals MVP Andre Iguodala, a ninth pick way back in 2004, is a stout defender who rarely misses rotations and serves as a talented playmaker on offense. Each of them brings different traits to the floor, but all of them can defend multiple positions.
Which prospects share qualities with the wings: Matisse Thybulle (Washington), DaQuan Jeffries (Tulsa), Dylan Windler (Belmont), Cody Martin (Nevada), Terance Mann (Florida State), John Konchar (Purdue Fort Wayne)
Thybulle was playing football on the basketball court in college. Washington used him like former Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor, letting him roam around the court, accumulating deflections, steals, and blocks. With this unusual remit, Thybulle posted historic numbers as a senior, with 3.5 steals and 2.2 blocks, and was named Naismith Defensive Player of the Year.
In the clips above, Thybulle reads a passing lane to intercept the ball from a potential lottery pick, freshman Kevin Porter Jr., and then he strips Porter clean defending one-on-one. Thybulle’s numbers are extraordinary, but his film is even more mouth-watering. You see a defender who rotates, races around screens, sticks to shooters like glue, and has the athleticism to slide laterally with go-to scorers. Thybulle has the potential to be a true stopper, and his intelligence translates to offense as well; he makes team-first decisions. The consistency of his jumper will determine his success.
Thybulle will likely be a mid-late first-round pick. He pulled out of the combine, leading some executives to believe that he received a promise. If he did, it could be a good thing for his career. While early playing time might be alluring, it can be more beneficial for a supporting player to end up on a team like the Warriors or Raptors. These clubs may not be able to provide immediate minutes, but they do provide structure. Players make their life-changing money on their second and third contracts, and an off-ball player is only as good as the star creating for them.
The same goes for the other players in this group. None of them is expected to be selected any higher than that mid-first. Guys like Konchar and Mann could even go undrafted. One of my personal favorites is Jeffries. His draft stock varies greatly depending on who you ask. Some project him as borderline first round; some see him going undrafted. Jeffries shot 36.6 percent from 3 last season, and effectively defended multiple positions with his burly frame. He’s a clunky ball handler but displays excellent passing vision off the dribble.
Jeffries is like a quarterback going through his reads in the clip above. He notices that the entry pass is well covered before throwing a dart across the court to an open shooter. Are you betting on the player who has an innate feel for the game but needs to improve his handle? Or the player with a slick crossover who doesn’t notice an open shooter or cutter? Give me Jeffries.
The Next VanVleet
VanVleet is one of the NBA’s quintessential rotation guards—a knockdown shooter who makes smart plays within the flow of the offense and grinds on defense. College basketball fans grew to love him during his four years at Wichita State. NBA scouts were more tepid. VanVleet went undrafted in 2016, and with every game, that looks like a bigger and bigger mistake. I had him ranked 85th in my Draft Guide even though his first couple of scouting report strengths read: High basketball IQ. Team leader...knows how to control the game...Pure point guard instincts...Plays Under Control...Spot Up Shooting...Plays hard on defense. I underestimated his ability to hang on defense since he’s undersized and has a short wingspan. Now he’s become the freaking Steph stopper! The lesson: Bet on players like VanVleet who are smart as hell, bust their ass, and can shoot the ball, even if they’re lacking ideal athleticism.
Full disclosure: I dream about Jerome’s footwork. The man moves like an elegant dancer as the ball bounces to the tempo playing in my head. I’d be willing to bet today that if Jerome were to someday compete on Dancing With the Stars, he’d win.
Look at how he waltzes into the paint, and as soon as the defense rotates to stop his drive, he fires an off-the-bounce bull’s-eye to a shooter. Without wasting any time, he delivers the ball. These are the types of plays that make NCAA champions, and it’s no different in the pros. Jerome is much bigger than VanVleet, but the story is eerily similar: an accomplished college athlete, a leader for his team, a knockdown shooter, a nifty passer, and a tough defender. Jerome will likely be picked in the late first round because he needs to make similar strides on defense to survive on the perimeter, but he has the tools, the will, and the mind to excel.