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On Kelly Olynyk’s summer league and upside, gauging athleticism

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Kelly Olynyk was the star of Orlando Summer league. His averages of 19.5 points, 8.0 rebounds. 2.8 assists and 2.3 steals per game in 26.5 minutes is dominant production per minute. More impressive to people was how he did it. Easily. Consistent. With a variety of skill moves. On a different level than his peers.

Naturally summer league statistics are close to meaningless. Just check out the history of players like Jerryd Bayless and Anthony Randolph during it. However, since he’s a hot product at the moment, I thought I’d dive into why I was so high on Olynyk before his draft – ranking him as my 2nd most talented prospect behind Anthony Bennett.

What’s obvious about Kelly is his feel for the game is one of the best in the class and potentially will be one of the best at his position in the NBA. Everything he does is smooth, under control and with layers of craftiness if he needs it. These instincts and superior sense of space were clear in summer league, as they were at Gonzaga.

His shooting skill may actually be a little overstated. Olynyk has been rated by some as a future Mehmet Okur, Ryan Anderson type 3 point shooting big, but he only hit 9 of 30 from the shorter NCAA 3 point line his entire senior season as Gonzaga and 25 for 75 his entire college career. Anthony Bennett took and hit more 3s as a freshman at UNLV than Olynyk did in his three seasons at Gonzaga. In summer league Olynyk went a fairly meek 3 for 13 from 3 point range. With that said, hitting 77.6% of his FTs his final year in college is impressive touch for a big man and it’s clear that Olynyk’s midrange shooting tough is great. Furthermore even hitting any 3s at this stage in summer league is fine, considering many prospects need time and struggle early extending their range from NCAA to NBA. For example, Trey Burke went 1 for 19 from 3, while Kentavious Caldwell-Pope went 7 for 31, in both cases far below their shooting aptitude in college. With that said if I had to venture a guess, it’d be that Olynyk’s shooting career based on his numbers now is more likely to resemble Chris Bosh and Kevin Garnett’s. Both players had an exceptional midrange stroke but didn’t lean on their 3 point shot as a consistent weapon, albeit both did occasionally take them. Bosh attempted 1 3 pointer a game last year for the first time, his career high before that 0.6. Garnett attempted over a 3 a game on two occasions in Minnesota, peaking at 1.4 3PA – but 13 of his 18 seasons he had 0.5 3PA or less.

The most interesting area of debate for Olynyk is his athleticism and general physical talents. The reason Kelly slipped in the draft is that despite gaining obvious attention for his skill and feel, he had been labeled too underwhelming an athlete to be more than a 3rd big. Some said his footspeed was too poor to guard PFs, forcing him to be a stretch center who would potentially be abused in the post defensively.

First of all even in a vacuum, the idea that Olynyk is any sort of weak athlete, just seems false to me. This play alone dispels the myth of Olynyk being a plodding spot up shooting C who can’t move, such as what Ryan Kelly is:

That one play covers a lot of athletic skills. He shows elite transition speed for a 7 footer and even acceleration late. Then of course, he shows impressive leaping and finishing ability for the poster. While one play is one play, a Kelly-like slouch athletically can’t make that play, ever.

However what really impresses me is shown in this video

The whole video serves to show some of Olynyk’s athletic traits, such as his transition speed and leap finishing. However, the section that really stands out to me starts at 1:26, in “Off the Dribble”. On a few plays Olynyk creates plays by facing a defender off the dribble, then driving into the paint, going right by them to score. He does this with what appears to be a very good, long first step for a PF, which is the most important thing for just about any prospect. In the NBA not all athletic traits are created equal. One of the reasons that Kyrie Irving and James Harden were underrated coming out of college – they were labeled as not having perennial all-star upside – is that they were called average athletes despite their skills. One of the reasons for this is that you didn’t see Irving and Harden showcasing their vertical leap and putting down highlight reel dunks. However, both Irving and Harden do have an exceptional first step, allowing them to attack the basket off the dribble. In reality, this first step meant more than standout leaping ability. More leaping ability presumably helps finishing skills at the basket, however Irving and Harden have the size, enough vertical athleticism and skill to finish there not only passably, but an elite level for their position. In reality, their athletic strength of a first step has unlimited value to their games, while their weakness of lacking a high max vertical, doesn’t seem to affect their game at all. My lukewarm position on Andrew Wiggins is built on a similar idea. Where Wiggins is wowing people athletically is that he jumps higher off two feet than just about any NBA player we’ve seen has. However personally I see a decent, but not great first step and ability to attack the basket off the dribble. This has made me presume that Wiggins from an NBA/value perspective, is a good but overrated athlete. It may be true that he’s one of the most athletic HUMANS of his size that has played basketball, in a vacuum – but if it’s not the right combination of athleticism to translate to equally elite NBA value, it won’t matter. Wiggins is an excellent prospect and potential all-star for other reasons (I see Paul George’s feel and athleticism, but in a 6’7 body with a raw jumpshot) but I do not see a generational athlete, for the inverse reasons of why Irving and Harden’s athleticism is so valuable. The opposite of Wiggins is Julius Randle, who may have one of the most explosive first steps and ability to penetrate that the power forward position has seen. I would call Randle the most physically gifted player of his highly ranked 2014 peers and the most likely superstar, although he needs to prove himself on a skill level to cement that.

Like Harden and Irving, Olynyk’s outstanding ballhandling for a 7 footer, helps mask some of that athletic “weakness”, if he has it. That ballhandling is one of the reasons why he looks to have the potential to attack the basket off the dribble. From a slashing perspective, his good athleticism with elite ballhandling, may be as good for as having more clearly explosive athleticism, but average to subpar ballhandling. As for his finishing at the basket, Olynyk has both showed the ability to leap vertically, plus at 7 feet tall he may not need to leap once he gets there. I’m not positive that Olynyk’s ability to slash off the dribble will stand out, but it has the chance to. In addition to his skill and feel, it could make him a tremendous prospect.

Olynyk really has many similarities to Chris Bosh. Bosh has an elite feel for the game and is a strong midrange shooter. Bosh is also skinny like Olynyk and is one of the best ballhandlers for a PF, which along with his elite first step, allows him to attack the basket off the dribble to compliment his shooting game and feel. The main difference between them is I feel Bosh has the superior first step. Where Olynyk could actually make up that difference, is if his 3 point shot developed into a more consistent weapon than it has for Bosh. In that case Kelly could showcase similar talent. Either way, the comparison is favorable to Kelly and it wouldn’t surprise me if we see him in an all-star game, if not multiple ones.

Written by jr.

July 13, 2013 at 12:45 pm

Debunking the Fluidity = Athleticism concept

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Iman Shumpert, New York Knicks, Paul George, I...

Iman Shumpert, New York Knicks, Paul George, Indiana Pacers (Photo credit: MattBritt00)

For some time I’ve been the pusher you’ll find of “feel for the game”. In fact now that I am looking for it, a player’s feel jumps off the screen to me as easily as athleticism does to everyone else. While others exclaim over the length of Paul George and Roy Hibbert, I as much am looking at their natural feel and instincts.

I believe even for those who rarely or never use the concept, they are at least noticing when a player is more fluid, smooth or natural than others. What I’ve seen in the past by some, is the connection of fluidity and athleticism. That is another brand of athleticism that is leading to a more fluid game and movement.

While fluidity may be related to athleticism at least a little, I believe there is more reason to believe fluidity and “feel” is a mental trait. Consider this:

1. There is virtually no correlation between fluidity and the other forms of athleticism, such as athletic explosiveness. That is why players like Pablo Prigioni and Brad Miller can have excellent feel and fluidity, but among the weakest athleticism in the league. While on the other end, there may be athletic freaks like Javale McGee and Tyrus Thomas who are among the most lacking in feel and fluidity. Feel and fluidity seems equally distributed regardless of athleticism. Furthermore, fluidity and feel doesn’t decrease when a player ages, unlike other signs of athleticism such as speed or vertical life.

2. There appears to be a strong correlation between feel for the game and basketball intelligence. The most fluid and feel heavy players, often make good decisions and are able to recognize plays better. The vast majority of the leaders in assists per game, are players with a high feel for the game, helping them have the vision to make those passers. Likewise the ones lacking it, make poor decisions. Furthermore feel appears to be related to passing and vision. Sometimes there are elite feel for the game and fluidity players, who do not start as playmakers, but add it to their games later. The breakout of Paul George and Nicolas Batum as playmakers this season is an example of this.

3. Finally, perhaps the strongest evidence that feel for the game isn’t athletic, is its existence outside of athletics. Feel for the game is a concept that can be applied to any field where it’s acknowledged talent exists. Such as musicians, artists, writers of various forms, speakers, comedians, doctors, mathematicians etc. For example, for one to be a world class violinist, chances are that person needs an advanced “feel” for playing and the music that goes beyond what can be taught. In fields like this, there will be “naturals” and those for whom their ability is an unteachable gift that they make look too easy. It’s unlikely one has a chance to be a world class violinist without the luck of a natural, superior feel for it. Have you ever read someone’s writing where it feels like their words come out more naturally and more smooth than others can manage? That is feel.

None of this evidence is absolute, of course. But I believe when taken together, it’s enough to at least strongly feel, that fluidity and “feel for the game” comes from the head as likely a combination of innate instincts and mental conditioning from the way they initially picked up the game deep in their developmental past.

Written by jr.

June 2, 2013 at 3:51 pm

Of Andrew Wiggins, Shabazz Muhammad and the weird relationship between athleticism and camera angles

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If you follow draft prospects, you know Andrew Wiggins. Despite not being eligible until the 2014 draft, he’s a bigger prospect than anyone in the 2013 draft. This is because not only is he ranked #1 in 2014, but has some extra sauce with that. He’s getting “best prospect since Lebron???” next superduperstar treatment by the media. Chad Ford of ESPN.com has repeatedly mentioned “Tracy McGrady with a motor” as his prediction for him. The basis for this hype is his physical tools. Wiggins actually has a raw skill game, with an inconsistent outside shot and shaky ball-handling. The book on him is that his physical tools are so great that it gives him unlimited upside if his skill game catches up.

Now, assessment of the athleticism of high school players is hit and miss. One reason Marvin Williams went 2nd overall over Chris Paul and Deron Williams in 2005, is that he had a Wiggins-like profile in high school as an all-time great wing athlete. Of course, we know now he’s an average athlete in the NBA. Likewise O.J. Mayo and Harrison Barnes were thought to have much more impressive athletic profiles beside their skill games and Demar Derozan was thought to be a freakish athletic specimen, only to turn out average. The best recent example may be Shabazz Muhammad, who has been an extremely underwhelming athlete during his NCAA career. Shabazz is relevant because it tipped me over an edge in regards to judging high school athletes by the footage available of them at the time. Here is a video I made before the NCAA started trying to evaluate Shabazz and admittedly, almost everything I said in it turned out inaccurate

Here are some other videos of Shabazz in high school

 

Watching videos like this would give no reason to doubt Shabazz’s athleticism or to call him anything less than good to great in the area. He’s blowing by defenders and playing above the rim. However this is how Shabazz has looked at UCLA:

 

The difference is quite striking. Perhaps it’s the competition he’s playing with, but my guess is it’s simply the camera angle that makes Shabazz look like he’s covering much less ground. The frame of reference is different. We are used to judging athletes so much based on the NCAA and NBA courts, that if the angle changes, they may be moving at a speed that looks elite based on what our eyes are used to into the NBA – but without the common denominator of the same court size and angles, it may be an optical illusion. What I now realize is that the best indicator for Shabazz’s athleticism was the Nike Hoop Summit, a game played on NBA style cameras between the top prospects.

 

In this game he looks identical to his UCLA version. Skilled and crafty, but with weak blow-by ability and mostly an under the rim player. After this, I’m not going to trust any more clips of high school players unless they have the frame of reference of NCAA/NBA style cameras. No more clips of players with the camera near the floor, no more highlight videos.

What does this have to do with Andrew Wiggins’ athleticism? Everything. Here are some clips where Wiggins looks like an unstoppable combination of speed and size attacking the basket and exploding above the rim

 

If one only saw these they would have little reason to doubt the massive Lebron, McGrady-like hype around Wiggins’ athleticism. But for the reasons I listed, the NBA style cameras during the Nike Hoop Summit may be the more reliable indicator

 

Wiggins’ athleticism looks shockingly underwhelming in that clip. His first step certainly does not wow, which in combination with shaky ball-handling, makes him look hardly unstoppable slashing to the basket. He has to pull up on many drives instead of taking it all the way to the basket. Even when it comes to vertical explosiveness around the rim, his supposed strength, he underwhelms. At 3:23 he awkwardly lays in a basket instead of having the power to finish the dunk. From 4:55 to 5:17 he misses multiple finishes inside in traffic. At 6:07, he misses a dunk at the rim due to a lack of power going up strong. If one saw this clip without the other, alternate angle ones or highlight videos, they likely in no way would compare Wiggins to Lebron and McGrady athletically. Wiggins looks like a great, smooth athlete, but not a freakishly explosive one. I have watched the above video many times and simply cannot see the type of athlete that should be garnering Lebron comparisons.

Now since seeing the above clip, I have tried to watch Wiggins whenever his games are shown on ESPN, which they have been regularly this season. While not as perfect a match for the NBA style cameras that the Nike Hoop Summit is, they’re filmed in a way that’s fairly reliable. Once again his explosiveness did not stand out to me, as a wing relying on his size, power, skill and feel, but not freakish speed or blow-by ability.

Does Wiggins have a chance to be an excellent wing player in the NBA? Yes. His feel for the game is elite if not transcendent. He has the shooting form to develop strongly in that area and is a natural in the post. He’s at worst, a very good athlete for a wing player. But I’m convinced his athleticism is badly overrated, possibly as much as Marvin Williams’ was.

Written by jr.

January 28, 2013 at 9:12 pm