Top 25 Countdown: #23 San Diego State

Rotation

G Jeremy Hemsley (So.)

G Trey Kell (Jr.)

G Montaque Gill-Caesar (So.)

F Malik Pope (Jr.)

C Valentine Izundu (Sr.)

Bench: F Zylan Cheatham (So.), G Dakarai Allen (Sr.), F Jalen McDaniels (Fr.), F Max Hoetzel (So.), F Matt Shrigley (Sr.), F Nolan Narain (Fr.)

I was not old enough to remember when Steve Fisher took the men’s basketball head coaching job at San Diego State University back in 1999. If I was, there would have been little reason for me to care. Steve Fisher, the high-profile coach of the Fab 5 at Michigan, took a job in the Mountain West with a program that hadn’t sniffed the NCAA Tournament in over a decade and was suffering from abysmal attendance numbers. Fisher, however, viewed this school in southern California as a diamond in the rough, and he has clearly uncovered the diamond since then. The 2015-16 season marked the end of a 6-year run of the Aztecs reaching The Dance, a run that very easily could have continued as San Diego State was one of the biggest at-large snubs in the country last season. The reality is that Fisher, now 71, has choreographed one of the most consistent programs in all of college basketball. Since that run of consecutive NCAA appearances began in 2010, the Aztecs have gone 194-55 (78%). West coast tip-times and the lack of power conference exposure grants San Diego State a best-kept-secret mentality.

Without a doubt, Fisher has established defense as the foundation of his rags-to-riches transformation of San Diego State basketball. In 5 of 7 seasons since 2010, the Aztecs have owned a top 15 defense nationally. Yet, it is almost alarming how each San Diego State team under Fisher is a carbon copy of all the others. On the recruiting trail, Fisher actively seeks out long and rangy athletes in order to execute his pesky defensive schemes, and the 2016-17 roster is a perfect example of the archetypal Steve Fisher prospect. On the other hand, the Aztecs’ hindrance during their rise has been efficient scoring. In those same 7 seasons since 2010, San Diego State has finished with a top 50 offense just twice, bottoming out at 170th nationally in 2015-16. To find the root of the offensive issues, we have to look no further than the complete absence of a floor general on the roster. There has not been a player in San Diego that can be classified as a point guard since the departure of Xavier Thames. The Trey Kell point guard experiment in 2014-15 was nothing to write home about to put it lightly, as that was a large contributor to the Aztecs’ slow start. Kell is much better-suited as a spot-up shooter anyway. Last season, then-senior Winston Shepard led the team in assist rate as a natural small forward. The last two years, overall, have been marked by stagnant and brutal half-court offense, little movement, and isolations that go nowhere. For example, in an NIT game against Washington last year:

aztecs

After Kell fiddles with the ball for 15 seconds, the Aztecs late-clock solution was a ball screen for Winston Shepard, a non-shooter, who sizes up his defender on a switch and fires an airball. After completing last campaign assisting only 46.2% of makes, good for 305th out of 351 Division I teams, the 2016-17 story appears it will be scripted a bit differently. Sophomore combo guard Jeremy Hemsley seems primed to grab hold of the full-time point guard duty reins. Hemsley, a former top 100 recruit, truly has a chance to erupt into a college basketball star and has the makings of developing into the dynamic scoring point guard that Xavier Thames was in 2013-14. Three key additions will also aid in amending the Aztecs’ bone-dry offensive crisis. A cornerstone of Steve Fisher’s outline has been key transfer additions. Montaque Gill-Caesar enters after a lone season at Missouri. A proficient shot-creator, Gill-Caesar’s isos will produce some better results than several of the ones we saw last year. Indiana transfer Max Hoetzel instantly becomes San Diego State’s best pure shooter, and utilizing him in pick-and-pop and as a floor spacer at 6-9 will be essential for the Aztecs to have an efficient enough offense to be considered a national menace. Matt Shrigley also returns from injury in the same role: knock-down shooter. Good looks have been hard to come by, but that can all be disentangled by the mere threat of outside shooting on the floor.

If you ask ESPN’s Chad Ford, Malik Pope is the best NBA prospect since Jordan, and his underwhelming first two seasons in college will not allow you to tell him otherwise. San Diego State fans hope the third year’s the charm for Pope, who oozes upside, sure, but has failed to put it together due to poor shot selection and lack of an edge. Zylan Cheatham brings invaluable energy and activity off the bench. Replacing the departed Skylar Spencer is grad transfer Valentine Izundu, who makes San Diego State his third different college stop. Izundu provides the capabilities that Spencer vacates: feared rim protector. In limited minutes for Washington State in 2015-16, Izundu amassed an astounding 13.9% block rate, and should see an increase in overall production with an increase in minutes and step-down in level of competition. In the end, one thing’s for certain: a stingy defense in San Diego will always be a constant. The season will hinge on how quickly and how well Hemsley is able to adjust to the point guard role, as well as what exactly the supposed added offense is indeed able to add. The Aztecs should be able to drill threes at an at least respectable rate. If that comes to fruition, don’t be surprised to see Steve Fisher enjoy yet another 30+ win season.

Namedrop Corner: People forget….. San Diego State went 34-3 in 2010-11. They only lost 3 games!!! 2 were at the hands of JIMMER, and the other came in the Sweet 16 against the eventual National Champion UConn Huskies. Not too shabby. The team was comprised of a bunch seniors and some springy dude with huge hands and cornrows named Kawhi. I was a sophomore in high school watching the waning hours of the ESPN College Basketball Tip-Off Marathon late on a Tuesday night/Wednesday morning, and that was when the special season was born. San Diego State trudged into Spokane and exited with a 79-76 victory against #11 Gonzaga, all thanks to Billy White. Instantly growing attached to a lefty hoopster as I naturally do, White dazzled with a clinically masterful 30-point performance, going 14-18 from the field, for the one shining moment of his career.

billywhite

Top 25 Countdown: #24 Northwestern

I can almost hear Greg Gumbel now. “Now Thursday/Saturday games out of the Midwest… and they will be playing the 10th seeded Wildcats of Northwestern…” I can’t hear anything else because my insides will have already exploded. Please bury my remains beneath the three point line. CBS tries to cut to their live feed of Welsh Ryan Arena. Nate Taphorn dabs and points at America. Gavin Skelly stands up and sprints around the floor twice, while loudly emanating a rash of incomprehensible syllables. Dererk stares quizzically ahead and whispers “Pardon me?”, believing wholeheartedly that he had just cleverly birthed an original pun at the perfect moment. And Bryant sits at the center of it all with his eyes closed. He keeps his eyes closed for a little longer, hoping that if he never opens them, he never has to stop dreaming. It couldn’t be real. It just couldn’t. Finally, he opens his eyes. He looks at the video board. It’s feed is split in half. Drew has been holding a three stache for the better part of thirty minutes. Alex, from across the pond, has been screaming for almost that entire time, although the speakers had given out a long time ago. They couldn’t handle that much noise. He looks up and winks. And then all of a sudden the live feed cuts out. Tries to return. And cuts out. Evanston erupts in flames.

The Northwestern Wildcats will make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history in 2017. But Mike, you say that every year, why should I even consider believing you now? Admittedly, over the past few years, there hasn’t genuinely been a team that was equipped to make it that far. My belief in our tournament hopes stretched much more into wishful thinking than they did into any kind of honest truth. But this year is different, I promise you.

Rotation

G Bryant McIntosh (Jr.)

G Scottie Lindsey (Jr.)

F Sanjay Lumpkin (R Sr.)

F Aaron Falzon (So.)

C Dererk Pardon (So.)

Bench

F Vic Law (R So.)

G Isiah Brown (Fr.)

F Gavin Skelly (Jr.)

F Nathan Taphorn (Sr.)

F/C Barret Benson (Fr.)

G Jordan Ash (So.)

Heading into his junior season, this team will go as far as Bryant McIntosh is able to take them. Which is not to say that the supporting cast is not capable. Rather, it’s more that Bryant is just really fucking good. 14th nationally in assist rate last year and 2nd in the Big Ten, Bryant is as close to an archetypal floor general as you can get. Not only that, but his assist rate jumped from 53rd his freshman year to that spot at 14 as season ago, while he simultaneously improved his turnover rate and played much heavier minutes. Frankly, he almost never came off the floor. And yet, where he improved most significantly last year and where his greatest upside resides is in his offensive assertiveness. There were a frustratingly large number of games last year in which Bryant and Tre Demps were the only two people capable of getting something even resembling a quality look, most often occurring near the end of the shot clock after several pick and rolls and half-hearted attempts at moving the ball around the perimeter had inevitably failed. And yet, there were also several games in which his unselfishness almost came at a detriment. A really crafty play-maker in the pick and roll, there are few things as enjoyable to watch as his careful probes into the lanes only to draw a defender and dish it off at the perfect moment. But knowing when to look for his shot and committing himself to that raises this team’s ceiling significantly. Last year against Columbia and Wisconsin at home, McIntosh ostensibly won each of those games single-handedly with his shot-making, scoring 32 and 28 points respectively; games that wielded his two highest shot attempt totals of the year.

Nevertheless, quite possibly the biggest question heading into the year is how exactly the Cats will replace Tre Demps. Not only was he the player on the team best at creating for himself and getting his own shot, but he was also an invaluable second ball handler who never turned the ball over, ranking 25th in the entire country in turnover rate. He played the most minutes of anyone in the conference, never leaving the floor much like his backcourt partner. This year, McIntosh will be ostensibly flanked by junior Scottie Lindsey, and it is Lindsey, who might actually hold the key to the entire season. Fitting the profile of a conventional 3 and D wing, Lindsey jumped to 41 % from behind the three point line last year, up from 35% his freshman year. However, with an inevitable increase in minutes and usage, it remains to be seen whether or not those numbers are sustainable.

The frontcourt will be comprised of redshirt senior Sanjay Lumpkin and sophomore Aaron Falzon, who, if they were capable of combining their talents into one body may very well be an All-American. Lumpkin is a quintessential glue guy, a player who might be the best individual on ball defender on the team, and whose willingness to crash the boards and become the face to a defensive identity purportedly committed to physicality renders him invaluable. However, there are few things harder to watch than a possession that ends in a Sanjay Lumpkin corner three. The ball seems to just close its eyes and pray that it finds the rim. Which is where Falzon steps in. A 35% shooter from deep last year, Falzon is already a skilled bomber and mover without the basketball. And if added strength and a year of experience can help him negotiate everything inside the line, he will almost certainly transform into our best and most complete offensive threat. I envision the best version of this offense being predicated around a spread pick and roll attack between McIntosh and sophomore center Dererk Pardon, allowing McIntosh to move downhill, Pardon and his enviable length to be around the rim, and Lindsey and Falzon to space the floor and stretch the defense. Supplementing the attack will be instant offense freshman guard Isiah Brown, energizer bunny junior forward Gavin Skelly, floor stretching (well maybe) senior Nate Taphorn,  and most importantly, the return of redshirt sophomore forward Vic Law. The most heralded Northwestern recruit in some time when he arrived on campus, Law showed flashes his freshman year of the player he was expected to be, an uber athletic and long forward, capable of being a terror on the defensive end. And while his offense was slow to come along, he shot 44% from beyond the arc in Big Ten Play. Yes you read that right, 44%. Good for 5th in the conference. Whether or not that kind of shooting ability is transferable after a year away from the court is another thing, but the talent is there, and his ceiling only keeps rising.

The Cats never help themselves with a perpetually barren non-conference schedule, but this year is a little bit different. With early season games against Butler, Texas, Notre Dame, and Dayton, Northwestern has something it often does not. Opportunities to bolster its resume outside of Big Ten conference games. This is the year. The momentum feels tangible. Like something is genuinely building. Undoubtedly a team whose footprint last year was characterized best by its unwillingness to turn the ball over but also its inability to turn the other team over needs to be incredibly precise and has little room for error. But everything is there to do something that has never been done before. When Evanston burns down in March, Chris Collins won’t have started the fire. But he will surely have brought it.

Namedrop Corner

Michael “Juice” Thomspon

juicepumpedvsosu3

January 29, 2011. The day was introduced to Northwestern basketball. The day I became a fan. That day the Cats welcomed #1 Ohio State to Evanston in a game that will forever be lamented as the Jared Sullinger game. That day the Cats lost 58-57, but I remember standing in my family room, screaming for a team I had never watched before. To me, it will always be the Juice Thompson game. Trailing the entire second half, he hit a three with 7:56 remaining to bring the Cats within 9, and assisted on a JerShon Cobb three just moments later to cut the lead to 5. He made another bomb a minute later to keep the lead at 4 and with 3:53 remaining, hit one more to put the Cats on top by a point. Welsh-Ryan was shaking. It felt special even while all I was able to have was a distant, vicarious experience through a television set. And even though the Cats lost on a regrettable Sullinger free throw in the final seconds, I received an ephemeral glimpse into how special an environment Welsh-Ryan could be. I was in. Thank you Juice.

 

Top 25 Countdown: #25 Princeton

Rotation

G Amir Bell (Jr.)

G Henry Caruso (Sr.)

G Steven Cook (Sr.)

F Hans Brase (Sr.)

F Pete Miller (Sr.)

Bench: F Spencer Weisz (Sr.), G Devin Cannady (So.), G Myles Stephens (So.), F Alec Brennan (Jr.)

Another March passed, and yet another set of dreams were dashed by a congregation of hoopster virtuosos. If it wasn’t evident already, the Ivy League can ball. Harvard won a first round game as a double-digit seed in consecutive tournaments. Yale, of course, owned complete control of almost the entirety of their 12-over-5 upset of Baylor seven months ago. This go-round, however, the Ivy League’s readiest opportunity to bust brackets will belong to the Princeton Tigers. The conference’s track record as a giant-killer can be traced back to the frustrations the patented Princeton offense caused in some of the nation’s bluebloods. The 1989 Tigers were the closest any 16-seed has ever been to actualizing the impossible against the mighty Hoyas. A 13-seeded Princeton meticulously snuck past defending national champion UCLA in 1996. Most recently, in the Tigers’ last NCAA appearance in 2011, they nearly halted a Kentucky Final Four run in its tracks on opening weekend. Those three games saw Princeton score less than 50 points on average. It’s safe to say the 2016-17 version of Princeton will be quite incongruent from that trend, attributable to one of the nation’s most efficient offenses.

Mitch Henderson’s team receives a shot in the arm with the reappearance of All-Ivy League performer Hans Brase, who returns to the floor after taking a medical redshirt year due to a torn ACL. Brase was Princeton’s second-leading scorer and leading rebounder in both his sophomore and junior seasons. Size was the Tigers’ most noticeable hole last season, and Brase plugs it. In spite of occasionally mobilizing a lineup with five players 6-5 and under, Princeton still managed to finish 45th in the nation in defensive rebounding rate as a team. Brase, personally, was 32nd nationally in 2014-15. Thus, Princeton will possess the size and glass-cleaning ability blended with offensive skill necessary to be Sweet 16 caliber. The Tigers, in general, are incredibly difficult to defend. Amir Bell technically is the man that initiates their offense, but they more utilize a point guard-by-committee approach with a half-court offense predicated on constant movement, inversion, and pinpoint execution.

princeton

Speaking of Bell, the improvement of his jumper by leaps and bounds was a major driver behind the Tigers adding 6 wins last season. Already a nifty pick-and-roll scorer, Bell was able to force defenses to respect him from beyond the arc, opening up even more avenues for the remainder of his team. Princeton is stabilized on the wing by senior leaders Henry Caruso and Steven Cook, who both not only stretch the floor, but are very proficient scorers off of cuts and straight-line drives. Devin Cannady, on the other hand, is no longer the new kid on the block. Exploding onto the scene in his freshman season as a sparkplug sixth man, the certified bucket-getter was one of the nation’s most efficient offensive players (126.8 O-Rating), and will be expected to deliver the same type of production off the bench again. He is a sophomore in a sea of upperclassmen. The successful mid-major scheme is a senior-laden squad, and that is exactly what the Tigers have assembled. Their collective chemistry and basketball IQ makes for a beautiful brand of basketball. Princeton will have chances to garner national attention in the non-conference with games at BYU, at VCU, at Monmouth and against Cal. If the secret is not out by then, the Tigers will surely have the potential to torch brackets courtesy of the Ivy League once again.

Namedrop Corner: As each top 25 team is introduced, a player namedrop from the respective team from our generation will accompany it. You know, the guys where the name is merely said and your fellow college basketball connoisseurs die of laughter. Out of Write Field lives for those names, and Princeton owns plenty from their successes since 2010. The hero of the aforementioned 2011 tournament team was combo guard Douglas Davis, who provided a special moment for Tigers basketball in a one-game playoff against Harvard.

Davis delivered the up-and-under move I would attempt to emulate for the remainder of my unstoried high school basketball career. Davis’ uncanny Juwan Staten-esque mid-range game gave the Ivy League fits for years, but the memorable shot during championship week of 2011 will never be lost in college hoops lore.

 

Wanna win the World Series? Don’t strike out.

Sports is a copycat business. For this very reason, the Sabermetrics movement in Major League Baseball is in full swing and has completely overtaken America’s national pastime, with seemingly every organization in professional baseball adopting some variation of the same blueprint. Young, spry, Ivy League grad front office executives fully delving into analytics, a youth movement in the managerial position, and an on-field philosophy of taking pitches at the plate, working counts, and walking. If you strike out, that’s fine. It’s just another out. These are the permeating centerpieces of the new-school template across the MLB, trickling down now to all levels of competitive baseball. The ideas, in all likelihood, stemmed from the successes of Theo Epstein and the Billy Beane/Paul DePodesta dynamic duo, but they have spread like wildfire, as now almost every single franchise is attempting to unearth the next whiz kid general manager to engineer a team destined for the Promised Land. A few of these hires have enjoyed immediate success, such as David Stearns in Milwaukee. Others, not so much (I’m talking to you, A.J. Preller). Nonetheless, baseball overall is undeniably being revolutionized by the number-crunchers, the white collar geniuses, and, in the most complimentary manner possible, the nerds.

If it wasn’t obvious already, I’m kind of one of those nerds, but even as a Sabermetrics disciple, I don’t need to follow these principles religiously. Never should one stray away from the old adage, the three fundamental ingredients of winning in the game of baseball: pitching, defense, and timely hitting. Come October, pitching oftentimes receives the publicity and is the primary focus in determining a team’s potential postseason success or failure, and rightfully so. Pitching, however, is merely one piece of the pie. Here, we are about to prove why the latter category, timely hitting, is just as, if not more, essential to a baseball team, especially once the postseason hits. Timely hitting and the manufacturing of runs, clearly, entails avoiding the K and putting the ball in play. Of course, logically speaking, this goes without being said, but when examining past World Series winners, the significance of the findings is actually astonishing. Here is a snapshot of the strikeout rates of the World Series winner each year since the turn of the millennium in relation to the league strikeout rate of that respective season, brought to you by R Studio:

k-rates

Strikeout rate is a simple calculation: the percentage of plate appearances of a particular team or player that result in a strikeout. This graph, for one, can serve as a visual representation of Sabermetrics at play, as the league strikeout rate has increased every season since 2005 and has grown at an alarming rate over that span. Digging deeper, we discover a common thread among the majority of the data. We see that 12 of the past 16 World Series Champions struck out at a lower rate than the league average. In fact, 11 of those 12 World Series winners found themselves in the bottom third in strikeout rate in all of baseball in that specific season. The 2011 Fall Classic pitted the eventual champion St. Louis Cardinals, owning the second-lowest strikeout rate in baseball, against the Texas Rangers, the team that struck out on the fewest occasions in baseball that year. The Kansas City Royals of the past two campaigns could very well be considered the poster children of this statistical revelation, as their rise to prominence was a direct result of their model centered on contact and athleticism. One win away in 2014 from being in the rarefied air of back-to-back titles, the Royals terminated a 30-year title drought in 2015. In both 2014 and 2015, Kansas City owned the lowest strikeout rate in the game, punching out at a rate approximately 5% lower than the remainder of baseball, and their identity took the MLB by storm in subsequent Octobers. An Alcides Escobar first pitch inside-the-park home run was the most Royals way possible to lead off a World Series last fall. Let’s not be too quick to forget how they knifed through the Angels and Orioles two seasons ago, exquisitely manufacturing runs and wreaking havoc on the basepaths. Prior, they single-handedly defeated Oakland in the Wild Card Game on the basepaths. That Royals run, in the end, epitomized the vast rewards of merely putting the ball in play. A modest starting rotation devoid of an ace was ameliorated by a dynamite bullpen and the lineup’s ability to pepper opponents’ to death with seeing-eye singles, gappers, productive outs, and blinding speed.

Of course there are anomalies in the data. 2004 sticks out like a sore thumb, with the “Reverse the Curse” Boston Red Sox hoisting the Commissioner’s Trophy after amassing the third highest strikeout rate in baseball during the regular season (18.25%). Attached to that historic Red Sox team are the images: the Bloody Sock, the Big Papi clutch gene, critical home runs from freakin’ Mark Bellhorn…the list goes on. We will remember the broken curse and ALCS comeback against the New York Yankees as miracles on Earth, but the true miracle that occurred has been hidden from us. The 2004 Red Sox cut their strikeout rate by an astronomical amount in the playoffs in comparison to their first 162 games. After being the most strikeout-prone team in the American League for the entirety of the regular season, somehow, someway, Boston reduced their strikeout rate to 15.81% during the postseason, an unheard of and almost inexplicable transformation. This included a microscopic rate below 12% in their four-game sweep of the Cardinals in the World Series. Red Sox fans can thank whatever sparked the change in approach at the plate of their team’s lineup for at last tasting victory rather than divine intervention.

The modern-day Oakland Athletics, sadly, do not fall under the category of “World Series Champion” during this timeframe. Billy Beane’s demesne has, however, been one of Major League Baseball’s models of consistency in this period. They are brought up because the revolution begins with them. The A’s were the first organization to fully adopt the computerization of the game from the top-down, treating players as their own separate entities and reforming how a player’s value is appraised. A new on-field philosophy was engendered, where we first see the full-scale implementation and encouragement of working counts and drawing walks.

getonbase

Oakland’s ability to instantly recover from the departures of superstars Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi and immediately return to October baseball with a collection of no-names replacing them caught the eye of the rest of the league. Just as analytics has evolved the game, analytics itself has evolved, so a difference needs to be clarified between what the A’s had and the pervasiveness of numbers today. Analytics has spun out of control and has created a feast-or-famine mess. Today’s Sabermetricians maintain that the strikeout is no more costly than any other way, shape, or form of an out. Ballclubs, simply put, have been geared towards walks, strikeouts, and hitting bombs. The A’s, ironically on the contrary, have finished below the league’s strikeout rate EVERY YEAR since 2001, accumulating 7 postseason appearances in that span on a tight budget with a revolving door of cast-aways year after year. This is a far cry from the analytical approach of 2016. Yes, getting on base is fine and dandy and is the first step of the equation, but the notion that a strikeout is on the same level as, say, a productive out is pure nonsense, and the Royals’ October dominance has irrefutably debunked this myth. There are numerous ways to score a runner at third with less than 2 outs, but the ball has to be put in play for that to be accomplished. In any situation, a strikeout is the worst possible result as a hitter, because you are losing an opportunity to pressurize the defense or find a hole. Placing the ball in fair territory, you have done your job. You have controlled what you can control. Now the onus is on the defense to do the same. This probably sounds just about as rudimentary as it gets, but enough with the overanalysis. Back to the basics. I wish there was an intricate and exact formula to solve the forecasting puzzle, but it’s sports, whose variability and volatility offer little to no predictability, especially when home teams only win 56% of the time. In an era where the strikeout propensity continues to balloon, the team whose style more resembles that of a college baseball team has been the darling of the past two seasons. Also hitting the fewest home runs in baseball each of the past two years, Kansas City has avoided the cold, dense air of October nights, where home runs go to die. Small ball is in, but I guess everyone missed the memo.

Enough of the past. Playoff baseball is nearly upon us, so we must study how the historical commonality in World Series Champs stacks up with 2016’s contenders. Here are their strikeout rates (again, the lower the better):

Team

Strikeout Rate

Toronto Blue Jays

22.03

Baltimore Orioles

21.66

New York Mets

21.60

Los Angeles Dodgers

21.57

Chicago Cubs

21.24

St. Louis Cardinals

21.12

Detroit Tigers

21.11

LEAGUE AVERAGE

21.06

Seattle Mariners

20.54

Cleveland Indians

20.24

Washington Nationals

19.92

Texas Rangers

19.91

New York Yankees

19.63

Boston Red Sox

18.33

San Francisco Giants

17.75

Seven contenders lie both above and below the league average line. The Cubs, who led baseball in strikeouts a season ago, have drastically cut down on their punchout rate, attributed to the addition of Ben Zobrist and Kris Bryant decreasing his personal rate by more than eight percentage points. Chicago was diced up by the New York Mets’ flamethrowers last fall, but a higher contact percentage and neither Matt Harvey nor Jacob deGrom in the fold bodes well for the Cubbies in a possible rematch. The American League comes across as a complete and utter crapshoot. Likely filled with high-powered offenses fueled by the long ball, we may see the strikeout rate principle rise to a head in the AL. The Red Sox lineup thrives from gap-to-gap, and their ability to play the merry-go-round, hit parade game will be conducive to shivering October nights in the Northeast.

With Herro commitment, Wisconsin has officially escalated to powerhouse status

March 27, 2005. The East Regional Final in Syracuse pitted a traditional power against a 6-seed with party-crashing aspirations. Raymond Felton, Sean May, Rashad McCants, and Marvin Williams were never required to attend class and would all be lottery picks in the ensuing June’s NBA Draft. On the other side, Mike Wilkinson, the underdogs’ senior leader, honed his skill on a hoop nailed to his family’s barn in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin. The Badgers’ 3-star wonders went toe-to-toe with the blue-chippers, holding multiple leads in the second half, but the Tar Heels’ athletic superiority proved to be far too much in the end in an 88-82 barnburner. For the longest time during the Bo Ryan era, that was the nearest the Badger program ever was to the seemingly foreign land known as the Final Four, and the ubiquitous blockade surrounding the grandest stage in collegiate basketball haunted Ryan as he attended the event each year in the audience rather than squatting on the sideline. McDonald’s All-Americans vs. high-major afterthoughts. That 2005 Elite Eight matchup epitomized the same narrative that has followed Wisconsin throughout its David vs. Goliath successes since the turn of the millennium. Said narrative still persisted as the media’s storyline when Wisconsin at last knocked down the Final Four barrier in consecutive years, playing their three games against the high school mixtape deities of Kentucky and Duke.

Wisconsin has been forever kindly described as one of college basketball’s “models of consistency.” The methodical system, the personnel fit, the four-year player development, and the March omnipresence were the major aspects of this program’s highest national compliment. With each passing season, however, the recruiting trail remained relatively constant. They developed an overlooked 3-star point guard from Bloomington, MN into a first team All-American. Josh Gasser went from his lone high-major offer being from Northwestern to Captain America. Same goes for Frank Kaminsky, and we know what happened there. The recruiting pitch was all pieced together. Second-to-none player development, a winning brand of Big Ten Basketball, and a prestigious academic institution could sell itself. Nonetheless, it was still Wisconsin, still having the same perception construed by whatever the national media had to say, and more importantly, no Final Four exposure, a recruiting pitch in and of itself. The lack of top-flight prospects even considering the Badgers was certainly partially due to the program’s targeting of what many characterize as “Wisconsin guys,” but Ryan, Greg Gard, and company had never passed up an opportunity to woo the uppermost talent, especially if in-state. The staff simply had to live with swings and misses, fully adopting the Wisconsin Basketball motto of “Next.” In 2014 and 2015, as Wisconsin twice cut down the nets in Southern California, many were apprehensive about the careers of the likes of Gasser and Kaminsky coming to a close in the Badgers’ route to becoming America’s team. The farewell was heartfelt, principally with the manner in which the ending took place, but the idea that this was only the beginning was no joke. Wisconsin basketball was just getting started. The uptick began with Sam Dekker. He committed to Wisconsin as a sophomore in high school prior to his explosion, and by the time his senior year rolled around, he’d become the highest rated recruit in Badger history. As he and an island of misfit toys captivated the nation’s hearts with flawless offense, unprecedented looseness, and pursuit of dreamy stenographers, that assemblage of Badgers made it cool to play for Wisconsin. The program has since reaped the colossal benefits, and it has two Final Fours to thank.

Presently, another iconic senior class is unquestionably primed for a third Final Four trip in four years (five for Showy), with the first title since 1941 still alluding them. With the Jon Rothstein tracker heating up, we are fully armed with the knowledge of official practice beginning in 17 days. Just ahead of the 2016-17 season, Badger fans received some exhilarating news on Monday afternoon as Wisconsin was able to keep yet another state product at home. Tyler Herro of Whitnall, sitting at #25 in ESPN’s 2018 rankings, committed to the Badgers via Twitter after being blown away on his official campus visit this past weekend. After months of speculation of Herro being lost to a school of perceived greater attractiveness, specifically after Herro stating himself that Arizona was his dream school, Wisconsin achieved yet another victory on the recruiting trail this offseason. The majority of the summer’s energy was spent on the class of 2017, whose story can be traced back to approximately a calendar year prior to now with the commitment of LaCrosse wing Kobe King. Wisconsin owns a top 5 recruiting class in 2017 (for the time being), comprised of King, point guard Brad Davison, and stretch big Nathan Reuvers. The cliché of “almost unheard of” could be applied, but this simply is quite literally unheard of. Wisconsin has attained its stretch of triumphs this millennium while amassing a grand total of one top 25 recruiting class. Landing Herro for 2018 also has auxiliary perks, as this improves Wisconsin’s chances for inking an additional in-state stud, Joey Hauser of Stevens Point. The primary competitors for Hauser will likely be Michigan State and Marquette, for whom his brother Sam will play this season as a freshman. Wisconsin stealing Hauser from the lure of playing with his brother would further cement the new level the Badger program has achieved, and would, not to mention, provide a scary 2018-19 roster. No more backup plans. Wisconsin is a destination, and frankly, it’s about damn time. What the Wisconsin program could accomplish acquiring players with a higher baseline and more tools entering school is only up to our imagination at this stage, but we will see it play out over the next, well, who knows how many, years, and we see it in action now. Nigel Hayes was poached from Ohio State. Bronson Koenig spurned North Carolina and Duke to remain home. How fitting this graduating class is the one with an opportunity for a third Final Four in four years. As this procurement of talent appears to be progressing in almost a linear fashion, we can only expect the sky is the limit. Josh Gasser has paved the way for Brad Davison. Michael Flowers has paved the way for Kobe King. Ben Brust has paved the way for Tyler Herro. Everything is cyclical. This next phase of Wisconsin basketball will transform itself from a “model of consistency” to purely great. Clearly, for this past decade plus, Madison has been basketball’s best kept secret. The irony is, however, it required two trips to the Final Four for the basketball world to realize it was even a secret, which is why a collection of young men who mere addendums in high school to the coaches and programs that Wisconsin trampled can be directly attributed to the fast-emerging epiphany. The bluebloods need to make room for one more, because Wisconsin is here, and won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

2016 Wisconsin Football Preview: Reasons to Be Excited

For some time now, the Wisconsin Badgers have been college football’s version of Groundhog’s Day. Similar expectations of the type of product on the field each August and end results nearly mimicking that of the season prior have bogged down the program from the casual fan’s perspective. The Badgers’ ripest chance at national title contention in 2011 was derailed by not one, but two Hail Mary’s, rendering the perfect storm Russell Wilson offered a waste. That season was sandwiched by a pair of Rose Bowl losses. As Kurt Vonnegut so ardently proclaims: so it goes, Wisconsin. The post-Rose Bowl trifecta era of Wisconsin football brings us to present-day, and following a season noted by the program’s worst rushing attack in decades, one would figure things would continue to look south. However, year two of Paul Chryst may rather be one of excelsior, as there’s plenty fresh and engaging to look forward to in 2016.

The Schedule

Badger fans should savor this season’s early spotlight. For the third consecutive year, Wisconsin will initiate its campaign with a bang with tomorrow’s 2:30 kickoff at Lambeau Field, the final marquee Badger non-conference game for the foreseeable future. #5 LSU now enters the state of Wisconsin two years after being on the ropes in Tiger Country against the Badgers. That collapse in Houston in 2014 will surely be in the back of the minds of the Cardinal and White in Green Bay. Yet, tomorrow’s colossal matchup is simply a fraction of the behemoth Wisconsin will face in 2016. An SEC-like 5 matchups with preseason top 15 teams forms perhaps the most difficult schedule in the program’s history and a plethora of opportunities to make statements and be heard. Largely saddled with bland conference slates since the inception of the Big Ten’s East/West format, Wisconsin fans will finally be able to see their team be subject to a national barometer on a weekly basis. While luck of the draw may prevent the Badgers from winning the Big Ten West at the end of the day, the gauntlet from September 24 through November 5, highlighted by a pair of home primetime games, will undoubtedly maintain anticipation and optimism.

Old Faces

The 2016 edition of Wisconsin football still contains plenty of carryover. After a tumultuous and injury-plagued 2015, Corey Clement appears healthy and primed to finally seize the role of feature back. Judging from his spring game performance, Clement’s groin issues give the impression of being a thing of the past, as he showed great burst and quickness. His partners in crime, change-of-pace man Dare Ogunbowale and Taiwan Deal, combine to compose one of the nation’s better backfields. The absence of Clement for much of 2015 certainly contributed to a dip in the production of the ground game, but a youthful and inexperienced offensive line was also to blame. As a combination was settled on in the latter half of the season, one could see the running game methodically improve, culminating in terrific performances against Minnesota and USC. While the loss of Dan Voltz is certainly a blow, continuity is key, and the sophomore quartet of Micah Kapoi, Michael Deiter, Beau Benzschawel, and Jacob Maxwell has had an opportunity to grow together for an entire year and will be a major factor in the Wisconsin run game returning to its formidable self. Several returnees in the front seven defensively should be able to account for the departure of one of the nation’s premier pass rushers last season in Joe Schobert. High-profile NFL prospect and team captain Vince Biegel is the cream of the crop and could enjoy a season similar to Schobert’s 2015. Wisconsin’s playmaker up the middle and most reliable tackler in T.J. Edwards will surely be missed Week 1 against Leonard Fournette and the Tigers, but the sophomore has a bright future. Three-Sack Jack Cichy, Chris Orr, and T.J. Watt complete the five-linebacker rotation for new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, probably the Badgers’ best single position group. On the contrary, much turnover exists in the Wisconsin secondary, but the scrappy Sojourn Shelton returns for his fourth season as a starter to lead the way.

New Faces

Bart

Bart Houston threw two touchdown passes in relief of a concussed Joel Stave in a come-from-behind-win at Illinois last year.

The winningest quarterback in Wisconsin football history truly owns one of the most curious legacies in sports today. The reality concerning the much-maligned, and apparent threat to make the Minnesota Vikings’ 53-man cut, Joel Stave is the post-Rose Bowl rut is indubitably on his behalf. After only improving marginally, if anything, over his four seasons as a starting quarterback in school, his college career arc, or lack thereof, is one that would even make Wayne Blackshear cringe. The reality of 2016, however, is that Wisconsin fans no longer have to endure Stave being under center. Bart Houston isn’t exactly a new face, but the fifth year senior will, at last, be making his first career start tomorrow afternoon. The “newness,” so to speak, surrounding the California native and former 5-star recruit is not necessarily simply his presence, but Houston brings something entirely different to the table than most of his predecessors. Equipped with a cannon of an arm and a fearless gunslinger’s mentality, Houston will be able to make throws and squeeze through windows that rival Russell Wilson’s dazzling lone season in Madison. Houston, in the end, makes the Badger offense far more dynamic while not exactly conforming to the Jim Sorgi/John Stocco/Scott Tolzien mold. Look for him to hit on a few deep balls with speedster George Rushing, whose first true chance at being a pass-catcher arrives this season after a sensational fall camp. A pair of true freshman, while they may not appear on Wisconsin’s two-deep, are also threatening to see snaps at wide receiver as early as tomorrow. A Quintez Cephus YouTube search would be littered with videos of the high-flying high school dunks of the former Furman basketball commit, and an A.J. Taylor YouTube search would warrant highlight videos of him as a high school running back. Yet, undeniable athleticism and quick playbook comprehension have both in position to play a significant role in their first year on campus.

Prognosis

The three-year run of kicking off the season pitted against an SEC power concludes with tomorrow’s get-together in Titletown. Dave Aranda on the opposing sideline may grant the Badgers a tactical advantage. Bart Houston, Corey Clement, and co. will be staring across at 10 returning starters on an LSU defense. Without hesitation, this game will be won at the line of scrimmage, and Wisconsin’s continuity on the line combined with a stellar, but still under-the-radar, front seven power the Badgers to grinding victory in front of a de facto home crowd. Saturday, along with the remainder of the schedule, will be difficult to navigate, as aforementioned. My 2016 prediction:

9-3, (6-3 B1G), with losses coming in East Lansing, at Michigan, and at Ryan Field against Northwestern, a place where the Badgers never seem to win. I may be a bit overzealous. The presence of a home night game against Ohio State may deceive me into believing David Gilreath will return the opening kickoff. But if the first 1000+ words weren’t an indication, I’m optimistic. On, Wisconsin.

Roll of Thunder, Hear Me Cry

The detonation of a Woj bomb unlike any I had experienced before – the reverberations of which would ostensibly extend far beyond its one hundred forty character radius. “Kevin Durant signs with the Golden State Warriors”. Yes, those Golden State Warriors. The 73 win, you had to see it to believe it and you probably still wouldn’t believe it, Draymond Game 6 suspension away from back to back world championships and a rightful claim to the moniker of best team of all time Golden State Warriors. It has now been a little over a week since the decision. A decision purposefully invoked in lowercase type so as to not confuse it with its older brother, six summers its elder, The Decision. It has been a little over a week and I’m still not quite sure that I have distilled my labyrinthine thoughts into anything resembling a cohesive whole. But ostensibly my emotional arc has traced something close to a transformation from anger to sadness, although it is a transformation that feels somewhat misguided. And maybe even uncomfortably narcissistic. My anger was almost surprising. Not because I didn’t feel like it wasn’t warranted, but because it was directed at Kevin Durant of all people. Synonyms for soft and antonyms for loyalty were what my mind was ardently searching for, and that seemed incomprehensible and downright antithetical to everything that KD purportedly represented. I mean the man had positioned himself as a walking embodiment of Oklahoma City, fully encapsulating a humility and allegiance that wove himself into the fabric of the community rather than simply superimposing himself onto it. Just hours later, fans dressed in an orange and blue that appeared unusually muted, took a picture in front of the banner with his face on it that hung from the façade of the Peake – a banner that was situated directly between Russ and Steven. Maybe façade was the word to focus on because it was what provoked what I so vehemently felt. In the hours after his letter in the Players Tribune, there was this unshakable feeling that Kevin Durant was exactly that – just a facade. I remember the man’s MVP acceptance in speech in 2014 more indelibly than almost any other one because it was imbued with a sense of genuineness that usually felt absent, especially when was it being emanated from a soul already located in the stratosphere of his profession. His was a superstardom that felt casual, a talent that felt so banal you almost had to remain actively conscious of the fact that what took the floor each night was a 6’10” anomaly of a basketball player. Kevin Durant is veritably unlike any other player professional basketball has previously seen. Players his size are not supposed to be able to do anything as well as he does. And for glimpses in these past playoffs, most notably in their series against the Spurs, we saw one of the greatest two-way players ever to step on the floor. He seemed like a guy that was all about the journey. That championships were important, of course. But the process was what mattered. And he made it seem like he ardently believed all of that. But it’s just hard to believe that he still does. He left for the second greatest team of all time.

He left for a team that had the most regular season wins in NBA history. And he left for a team with the two greatest shooters in the history of the league. Yet, worst of all, and the hardest to swallow, is that he left for a team he was four minutes away from beating. Had Steph Curry and Klay Thompson not combined for the greatest shooting performance I have ever seen, the Oklahoma City Thunder would have conceivably been the 2016 world champions. KD would have resigned. Russ would have undoubtedly resigned next summer. And the Warriors and Thunder would ostensibly go on to actualize the greatest in conference rivalry since who knows when. But they lost Game 6. And they inevitably lost Game 7. But the dominoes didn’t stop falling there. See, the Warriors blew a 3-1 Finals lead to the Cavaliers that not only brought a championship to a city that had been starving for one but also cemented the legacy of the greatest player of our generation. The Cavs won and they will forever be remembered as champions. However, it is still abundantly clear that the Warriors were the better team. The 2014-15 Cavs did not have a puncher’s chance. They took the Dubs to six games on the back of what might go down as LeBron’s most impressive career performance – an effort precipitated by Delly wrong foot floaters and thirty-five point outbursts from a man who somehow just received sixty-four million dollars from the Lakers. But this year’s Cleveland Cavaliers did have a chance. And the Warriors opened the door for them. Images continue to persist in my head of Draymond stepping over LeBron in Game 5. Of Steph throwing his mouth guard after fouling out in Game 6. Of Steph throwing a behind the back pass to a fan in the front row in the waning moments of Game 7. Although it nears naïve overstatement, the last few games of the Finals and certain desperate moments in the Western Conference Finals were some of the first and realest moments of adversity this incarnation of the Warriors had had to face over the last two years. And they folded in the face of it. Thus their loss in the Finals naturally provokes an endless series of questions. As constructed, is the Warriors team capable of rendering themselves a dynasty? Unprecedented and still largely unsolvable, is this team capable of becoming something professional sports has never seen before, and not ephemerally? Does this team need something else?

And maybe this is where KD comes in. It has been said that the impetus for his move to the Bay was a Team USA connection with Steph and Andre Iguodala conceived years ago. So maybe they sold him on the idea of something. Maybe they sold him on the idea that he was the missing link to the ascertainment of something great. Of something transcendent. Maybe this is where my frustration originated. Because the move felt, and to a large extent still resides in some philosophical area outside my understanding. There are certain limitations to empathy here that made themselves clear. Why did he make the decision he did? I needed to know. Because from a competitiveness standpoint it made no sense. If loyalty was still a cornerstone, it made no sense. If a philosophical reverence of the process and the journey was still important, then it made no sense. So why then? Maybe in some ways, it was an omnipotent allure of the unknown. The fundamental human attraction to something else, to something beyond our understanding. He had spent his whole career in Oklahoma City. Maybe it was just time for a change. He had been steps away from a championship, sure. But he would have come back to largely the same thing. Sans Serge. And plus an athletically supreme backcourt of Westbrook and Oladipo. Maybe he had watched Steph. And LeBron. And D-Wade. And Kobe. And Timmy. And Dirk. And just maybe he had thought about his legacy. About the fact that he is the second best basketball player on the face of the earth and he doesn’t yet have a ring. Historical narrative dictates that he needs one to remain relevant in any kind of contextual discussion of the best players of all time lest he want his name included in a pantheon with Barkley, Iverson, Stockton, and Malone. Certainly signing with the Warriors is primarily motivated by a desire for a championship. And yet, there has been a perpetuated sentiment that this is the worst way to do it. But the cognitive dissonance is increasingly apparent. Kevin Durant needs a ring. And he has been surprisingly able to eschew the often pervasive discussion in any sport about the best players without a championship. He can thank LeBron for that one. However, he can also thank LeBron for making what he is doing now somewhat reproachable. Surely much of the disdain surrounding his move to Miami involved his televised Decision, because it posited an egocentrism that had seemingly no concern for the implications of what he was saying, his jersey simultaneously being burned by fans in northeast Ohio. LeBron understandably left a roster he was never going to win a title with to join two of his best friends, and fellow superstars. Yet it’s hard, if not disingenuous to compare the two decisions. LeBron ostensibly left to build something. KD left to join something. Nevertheless, what they both have become a reflection of is the phenomenon of the superteam; an amalgamation of players most often conceived out a need to win. To just finally get a ring. Players are not good enough if they never win a ring. But they are also not good enough if they win a ring by leaving the team they started with to construct something largely conceptualized as artificial. The only way for a ring to mean something is if it is earned, eventually obtained through an unyielding adherence to the necessity of adversity. LeBron helped write and embolden the legacy of Dirk and Tim because of this immediate juxtaposition. The two of them represent a kind of purity that falls in line with a capital R romanticism that governs fandom. A capital R romanticism that extracted a deep rooted desire for KD to be like one of them.

Yet as I’ve thought more about it, maybe it wasn’t actually Kevin Durant that bothered me most about Kevin Durant’s decision. No, it was too centralized and too individual. Honestly, who was I to pass any kind of merited judgement on the choice he made for his life and his career. No, see what initially angered me instead changed into a melancholic rumination on the phenomenology of fandom. It wasn’t actually about Kevin Durant about all. It was about the Oklahoma City Thunder, and what they represented. Ever since Clay Bennett robbed the city of Seattle of its basketball team and moved them to Oklahoma City, the team became a weird kind of beacon of light for me. Kevin Durant. Russell Westbrook. Jeff Green. Serge Ibaka. James Harden. An initial core that was built entirely through the draft. And don’t forget Sonics and Thunder lifer Nick Collison. Now the most dominant and universally acclaimed organization in all of sports over the last twenty years resides in San Antonio, Texas. Five championships in the last seventeen years. And playoff appearances in each of Tim Duncan’s nineteen seasons. But there is one word that seems to characterize the Spurs better than anything else. Culture. A word that has evolved into a rather ambiguous platitude when discussing team building and organizational success. Yet, to succeed to so completely in the single team city of San Antonio, something magical and unprecedented was needed. Timmy was something. Pop was something too. Tony and Manu surely played a role also. But I’m talking about something much deeper. A top down model of organizational success. Something that can manifest itself in an extended period of joy and fulfillment. R.C. Buford is a team building savant and the system itself was exceedingly malleable, ostensibly even operating at two ends of the basketball spectrum. The early 2000s Spurs were grinders. The early 2010s Spurs were virtuosos. And they had a superstar that never left. Ultimately they could build their team however they wanted because Tim always stayed. And almost every player brought in unfailingly became better. They bought into an identity meticulously cultivated and maintained. Players want to play in San Antonio because they want to be a Spur. Hell David West took a veteran minimum last summer, leaving ridiculous amounts of money on the table because he knew the last thing he wanted could maybe be best obtained in black, silver, and white.

However, the Spurs are an anomaly. There is no other organization in professional basketball whose success is so indebted to culture and top down leadership. Los Angeles. Boston. Chicago. Miami. New York. These are destinations and big markets. Carmelo forced his way out of Denver for one. CP3 in much the same manner, left New Orleans for one. But since I was old enough to really genuinely remember what I was watching on the court (sorry Michael), the Spurs have been better than all of them. And that’s why the Thunder were so special. And so special to me. They represented possibility in a way the Bucks had never been able to. A team completely homegrown in a market that was small and realistically could not attract anyone. They had everything in place. Sam Presti is a Spurs disciple. And he, and the Thunder have done almost everything right. Building nearly exclusively through the draft, they assembled a team with two of the top five players in the world and tried to surround them with the pieces that complemented in a meaningful way. I still remember sitting in a hotel room in Omaha, Nebraska watching the 2009-10 Thunder play the eventual world champion Lakers in their first round series and it was obvious that something special was just beginning. The Peake was absolute mayhem. Russ was trying to dunk through three guys from the free throw line. The next season was the start of their actualized rise to prominence before being forced to acquiesce to the buzz saw that was Dirk’s coronation. They reached the finals in 2012 on the back of KD, Russ, and James. I don’t know, maybe they weren’t ready. And at the time that seemed fine. It was team whose four best players did not exceed the age of 23. They had to go up against a Heat team that had finally figured things out. So it was understandable because undoubtedly they were going to be back. That first Finals appearance was just going to be the first of many. Until it wasn’t. That summer after contract disputes could not resolve themselves, James was traded for the once promising Jeremy Lamb, sixth man extraordinaire Kevin Martin and a pick that would eventually become Steven Adams. That team in 2013 won 60 games and once again looked the part. That was until Pat Beverly stepped into his role as antagonist and precipitated a Westbrook injury that ruined any chance at a title. Serge was hurt in 2014. Durant hurt in 2015. Which takes us to this year. Out goes Scott Brooks and in steps Billy Donovan. Now Scott Brooks is interesting to consider. Surely he isn’t Gregg Popovich but he is still a very good basketball coach. However, to what extent he is culpable for the Thunder still being championship-less is ambiguous at best. Sam Presti did an unprecedentedly good job in back to back years of obtaining two absolute superstars. And yet, just placing two superstars on the court with each other does not necessarily ensure success and the relationship between Durant and Westbrook has been a complicated case study into whether or not positive coexistence is possible with personalities and egos that when juxtaposed next to each other, seem so antithetical. So much has been made of the fact that the two can never coalesce, that just maybe their fit with each other is more problematic than it is beneficial. And yet in reality the fit has always had the potential to be something wholly transcendent. Yes, Russ is a ball dominant lead guard that has not always looked the part of a lead guard, but he is an insanely willing passer and at his most relentless and ferocious might just be the hardest player to guard in the entire league. And Kevin with the ball or without it is quite possibly the most skilled offensive threat the league has. On the surface it doesn’t seem all that problematic. That’s why it’s always been so hard to actually discern what percentage of the purported conflict between them has been fabricated. It’s no secret that KD was deeply attracted to the free flowing, selfless, ball averse offense of the Warriors – an offense the Thunder could never quite execute under Brooks – and the fact that it only just began to finally emerge in spurts during this year’s playoff run had to be understandably frustrating. But this team was so close. They were up 3-1 largely behind incomprehensibly great performances from the two of them. The pieces around them were working in nearly perfect concert. Steven Adams became the rim running pick and roll partner both of them needed. Serge stretched and hit timely shots. Enes gobbled up rebounds and made the Death Lineup almost unplayable. Dion passed. And Dion made plays. Yeah those last two sentences weren’t lies. There were no excuses anymore. Youth and inexperience was a card that could no longer be played. Injuries and overall health could not be played either. And that was fine, because they were on the brink of culminating a journey that began on draft night in June of 2007, ten years in the making. And then it all came crashing down. Kevin left. Russ will probably leave. And the Thunder will inevitably have to start all over. That fundamentally is what makes me so sad about this whole thing. The line for success in professional sports is so fragile and razor thin that when an opportunity presents itself you have to take advantage. Windows don’t stay open in places like Oklahoma City for very long. And when the window closes, it inevitably remains shut until a new journey is undertaken. The Thunder have been an analogue for everything I want the Bucks to be. A team in a small market with a rabidly enthusiastic fan base and a homegrown roster with an organization committed to a cohesive and measured vision. To reaching the top of the mountain by climbing up it and sticking a green and white flag in the ground and vehemently shouting that it is possible. That investing in even the smallest promise of eventual transcendence is worth it. It’s what makes relinquishing your soul to a team and to sports worth it. So KD I want to thank you for always perpetuating that. Thank you for being a reflection of something I want to believe in. But damn it, why couldn’t you have just stayed and supported that belief just a little bit longer?

The Office Free Agency (Part 1)

Out of Write Field has its favorites. Wisconsin sports, Ron Baker, Ken Pomeroy, Harry Potter, Spotted Cow, fried pickles, etc. One that has yet to be introduced to the world is the greatest show television has ever seen, The Office. And in the spirit of the NBA’s free agency period and lucrative contract bonanza, we decided to do our own version, Scranton style, examining key characters and analyzing their NBA worth. Here is our first installment.

Jim Halpert

Jim

Comp: Kevin Durant with a general sense of what commitment means

Among available Dunder Mifflinites, Jim Halpert is the cream of the crop, the undisputed #1 on the board. As fluid an athlete as they come, Jim has the prototypical size and length for an NBA wing. He truly emerged onto the scene with a dominant performance head-to-head against archrival Roy Anderson at Dunder Mifflin Warehouse Arena in Season 1. From that point on, a max contract for Halpert became a forgone conclusion within the basketball inner circle once he hits the market. The crowd on that day of his attention-grabbing exhibition provided plenty of motivation for Jim, but several scouts question his drive on a day-to-day basis. A notorious locker room prankster, Halpert is surely to have a number of run-ins with gullible teammates. He has, on several occasions, been accused of being too loose, and his utter lack of seriousness towards his career has become a growing concern for numerous organizations. Yet, time and time again, once the ball tips, Jim has exuded an uncanny ability to flip a switch and perform brilliantly. He fully understands that patience is a virtue and will stick to the process in Oklahoma City, just ask Pam.

Contract: 5yr/$164mil to the Oklahoma City Thunder

 

Dwight Schrute

Dwight

Comp: Zaza Pachulia

Culture. The moment Dwight Schrute walks through that door, his presence is felt. Said presence can transform the aura of an entire organization, and that is the greatest quality Schrute provides. On the court, Dwight being “an extension of the coaching staff” is an understatement, because he will quite literally do anything his superiors ask of him. Off the court, Dwight can conquer almost any language barrier that exists with his teammates, as the Schrute language is a very close relative to several spoken in Eastern Europe. Much of Dwight’s discipline and hardworking identity can be attributed to his upbringing. Dwight took perhaps one of the most unconventional routes to professional basketball. Having to spend every breath of his free time working a 60-acre farm, AAU was never an option. Schrute, in fact, developed his attachment to the game at a young age by shooting beets into a wicker basket. Thus, Dwight obviously never received the proper skill development, but the values instilled in him as a boy that highlight his intriguing backstory will resonate with particularly youthful players in need of direction. Intangibles. Accountability. Leadership. Dwight’s wrath will immediately rub off on those surrounding him. Unless Battlestar Galactica is in your repertoire, you will find it deathly difficult to maintain a conversation with him, but when Dwight hits the court, it’s all business.

Contract: 3yr/$36mil to the Milwaukee Bucks

 

Ryan Howard

Ryan

Comp: Devin Booker with J.R. Smith off-the-court mentality

Boom-or-bust defines Ryan Howard, one of the more controversial players on the market. The former 5-star recruit’s talent is undeniable. Ryan’s unfathomably rapid rise from temp to Dunder Mifflin’s #2 man reaffirmed everything we knew about his abilities. His stardom, however, was only short-lived, as questionable nightclub escapades and drug use, along with a fraud scandal regressed Howard back to square one. Ryan’s prioritization of scoring off the court over scoring on it has shied the majority of teams away from seeking his services. A few franchises, though, maintain the belief that with the correct grooming, the basketball ceiling is still tremendously high for him. It would be reasonable for the local team in search of hitting a home run to give the Pennsylvania product a shot. Philadelphia nightclubs beware, but at least this polarizing shooting guard will assuredly always be wearing a shirt.

Contract: 2yr/$22mil (team option after first year) to the Philadelphia 76ers

 

Toby Flenderson

Toby

Comp: Leandro Barbosa

Toby is on the back end of his basketball career, but the expressionless HR rep still has plenty left in the tank. Flenderson is desperate to evacuate his previous situation in which he was the victim of repetitive verbal abuse at the hands of his team captain for simply doing his job correctly.  Toby is eager to contribute to a winner and eager to find a home where his talents are appreciated. Although more than likely coming off the bench at this stage, Toby showcased his stamina as the runaway winner of the first annual Fun Run, so he is certainly capable of playing big minutes if pressed into such a duty. He felt no need of pacing himself either, a direct reflection of his ability to command and play in an up-tempo attack on the hardwood. Unparalleled, painful social awkwardness offer concerns from team psychologists for his fit in an NBA locker room. Nonetheless, Toby can lead by example and push the envelope for a team’s second unit.

Contract: 2yr/$12mil to the Cleveland Cavaliers

 

Phyllis Lapin-Vance

Phyllis

Comp: Brian Scalabrine

Phyllis’ days as a double-double machine are well in the rearview mirror, and there exists serious doubt as to whether or not she can contribute in any fashion to an NBA team. Those doubters, however, haven’t looked at the tape recently. Phyllis is very much still a serviceable stretch 5 for quick spurts here and there. She demonstrated soft shooting touch in Season 1, sparking a spirited reaction from the man in charge.

Stretch5

Looks can also be deceiving, as Phyllis is actually the owner of sneaky agility proven by a Flonkerton gold medal, edging out world-class athlete Kevin Malone. Her veteran locker room presence also seems to unfailingly go overlooked, and her warmth, believe it or not, has its place in the NBA. Her Mama Bear qualities are viewed as a positive by particularly young organizations. So when Kris Dunn needs a consoling embrace after an inevitable 9-turnover performance this season, he’ll know where to find one.

Contract: Veteran’s Minimum (1yr/$1.5mil) to the Minnesota Timberwolves

 

Roy Anderson

Roy

Comp: Boris Diaw with Grayson Allen villain appeal

Roy finds himself in the midst of the prime of his basketball career, and his window of opportunity is just beginning to close. Highly-touted extending back to his high school days, front office personnel have always drooled over his combination of size and skill, but repeated emotional flare-ups and locker room issues have stunted his growth as a player and place his NBA future in jeopardy. A free agent signing of Roy Anderson just screams Vivek Ranadive’s name. The last thing the Kings need is another incendiary personality in the fold, but it’s the very first thing they will pursue. Boogie better be sure he has a can of pepper spray handy.

Contract: 1yr/$10mil to the Sacramento Kings

 

Pam Beesly-Halpert

Pam

Comp: Jenna Fischer with Georgia O’Keeffe artistic abilities

Once admitting to faking having PMS to avoid playing basketball in high school physical education classes, Pam’s basketball future does not, in any way, involve the playing of the sport. Unfortunately for Pam, her college-level volleyball talents did not translate when the court was extended to 94 feet. She can, contrarily, play a major role in the makeover of a franchise’s appearance (I’m talking to you, San Antonio Spurs). Pam’s credentials on LinkedIn aren’t going to wow you, as she, in fact, took time off from her receptionist post only to fail art school.

BoomRoasted

Yet, her quietly burning ambition is all franchises need to see during the interview process. Pam’s (at least basic) knowledge of graphic design can help transmute the dullness of a black and grey color scheme and logo that looks like a rusty field goal post into something more lively. Perhaps the rainbow scheme of the ‘90s can even be brought back. In the end, Pam is eager to pursue dreams of artistic creation, and she could be a key cog in ushering in a new, post-Tim Duncan era.

Contract: $60,000 annual salary under the reserve clause from the San Antonio Spurs

 

Bob Vance, Vance Refrigeration

Bob Vance

Comp: Kendrick Perkins

Bob’s Swaggy P-esque self-promotion of his company, Vance Refrigeration, is the antithesis of the values he holds as a basketball player. Bob comes across as a no-nonsense person, and his “enforcer” mentality makes Memphis and the Grindhouse an obvious destination. Just as on The Office, his presence from the outside may seem fleeting, but he is being paid the big bucks for his unspoken leadership and intimidation on the bench.

“What line of work are you in, Bob?”

“I’m a Memphis Grizzly.”

Contract: 2yr/$8mil to the Memphis Grizzlies

 

Robert California

Robert California

Comp: Andre Miller, with Dennis Rodman flamboyance and Phil Jackson Zen Master ruminations combined

The comp speaks for itself. Robert California has a better shot as the successor to the Dos Equis man than an NBA career. He would frankly make his teammates unprecedentedly uncomfortable with his indescribably overconfident presence. Throw any expectations with Robert California out the window, because there truly is now way of knowing what the man will do or say. How does he fit into the NBA? The Miami Heat need players. Robert California is a man noteworthy for indulging in his wealth. His talent level and the Heat already being handcuffed by three max players will only place a cheap one-year deal on the table. The only kickers that would lure Robert California would be Florida weather and Miami nightlife, and good news for him, that comes with the terrain.

Contract: 1yr/$2.5mil to the Miami Heat

 

Holly Flax

Holly

Comp: Dan Dickau with Frank Kaminsky goofballery

Holly, the more lively HR rep Dunder Mifflin Scranton employed, is the exact wily veteran contenders are looking for in rounding out their rosters. After spending the majority of her career in Nashua, Holly caught on in Scranton in a hurry, which speaks volumes for her ability to fit in any environment, particularly one that tolerates surprisingly decent Yoda impersonations. Holly will likely have to disconnect from Michael Scott, and while Michael will refuse to understand that it is a business decision, Holly will. Portland seems to be a match made in heaven, as Neil Olshey is going all in with this roster in an effort to give Golden State a run for its money. Similar to Steve Blake in 2014-15, Holly can be the calming backcourt presence off the bench, spelling Damian Lillard in the meanwhile.

Contract: 2yr/$5mil to the Portland Trail Blazers

 

Erin Hannon

Erin

Comp: Poor Man’s Matthew Dellavedova

The question of whether or not Kelly “Erin” Hannon can actually play basketball remains. Wait… correction: Erin Hannon cannot play basketball, but that fact is understandable given her background. The ex-orphan was never granted the opportunity to participate in competitive organized sport. Shockingly, however, loneliness failed to wreck Erin’s spirit, as she is armed with endless enthusiasm, optimism, and fierceness to this day.

Erin

Yet, her perpetual positive energy does far from overshadow her complete lack of skill. Owning some of the worst hand-eye coordination scouts say they’ve ever seen, as evidenced by multiple swings and misses during Dunder Mifflin picnic volleyball games, Erin can do nothing for an NBA team. The Orlando Magic send two full squads to their hosted summer league, so possibly there is space for Erin. Even though she is not nearly half the prospect Kimmy Schmidt is, Rob Hennigan has proven he isn’t afraid to try a thing or two.

Contract: Summer League Invite from the Orlando Magic

 

Gabe Lewis

Gabe

Comp: An unathletic Rosco Allen

The laughing stock of the Dunder Mifflin Scranton branch, Gabe seems to have worn out his NBA welcome. With a long, lanky frame providing false upside, Gabe’s allergy to the weight room hasn’t allowed him to fill out one bit, and for that reason, most organizations feel his days of American professional basketball are finished. There most likely remains a market for his services overseas, however, and that may prove to be a much better fit for the finesse combo forward. With a peculiar taste in movies and simply being a cripplingly peculiar person in general, Gabe often found himself alienated from his teammates and the target of cruel jokes. The change of scenery is a necessity for him at this point.

Contract: 3yr/$2.4mil to Alba Berlin

OOWF Official 2016 NBA Mock Draft

It’s here. Time to quickly shift gears after an exhilerating Game 7. Out of Write Field wrapped up its second annual alternating NBA mock draft this morning. For those new to this, we each take turns acting as the front office of the NBA franchise selecting with our pick, making the call based on what we would personally do (disregarding trades, sorry Boston) rather than what likely will occur. After patiently trudging through last year’s NBA mock and this year’s NFL mock, Miggy gets his shot at a Wisconsin team’s first rounder, but conveniently the end product saw each of us making one of the Bucks’ three selections. On the whole, the results were littered with surprises. The Philadelphia 76ers have made a promise to Ben Simmons, much to the chagrin of OOWF. Jack’s beloved Thon Maker fell to 47. Milwaukee’s own Diamond Stone fell to, well, no one. It’s draft night. After the Larry Nance Jr. fiasco, who knows what we have in store?

Round 1

  1. Philadelphia 76ers (Miggy) – Brandon Ingram, F, Duke
  2. Los Angeles Lakers (Jack) – Ben Simmons, F, LSU
  3. Boston Celtics (Swit) – Marquese Chriss, F, Washington
  4. Phoenix Suns (Miggy) – Dragan Bender, F/C, Croatia
  5. Minnesota Timberwolves (Jack) – Jamal Murray, G, Kentucky
  6. New Orleans Pelicans (Swit) – Buddy Hield, G, Oklahoma
  7. Denver Nuggets (Miggy) – Jaylen Brown, F, California
  8. Sacramento Kings (Jack) – Kris Dunn, G, Providence
  9. Toronto Raptors (Swit) – Henry Ellenson, F/C, Marquette
  10. Milwaukee Bucks (Miggy) – Timothe Luwawu, G/F, France
  11. Orlando Magic (Jack) – Skal Labissiere, F/C, Kentucky
  12. Utah Jazz (Swit) – Demetrius Jackson, G, Notre Dame
  13. Phoenix Suns (Miggy) – Domantas Sabonis, F/C, Gonzaga
  14. Chicago Bulls (Jack) – Wade Baldwin IV, G, Vanderbilt
  15. Denver Nuggets (Swit) – Jakob Poeltl, C, Utah
  16. Boston Celtics (Miggy) – Deyonta Davis, F/C, Michigan State
  17. Memphis Grizzlies (Jack) – Denzel Valentine, G, Michigan State
  18. Detroit Pistons (Swit) – DeAndre Bembry, G/F, St. Joseph’s
  19. Denver Nuggets (Miggy) – Furkan Korkmaz, G/F, Turkey
  20. Indiana Pacers (Jack) – Taurean Prince, F, Baylor
  21. Atlanta Hawks (Swit) – Juan Hernangomez, F, Spain
  22. Charlotte Hornets (Miggy) – Patrick McCaw, G, UNLV
  23. Boston Celtics (Jack) – Dejounte Murray, G, Washington
  24. Philadelphia 76ers (Swit) – Caris LeVert, G, Michigan
  25. Los Angeles Clippers (Miggy) – Malcolm Brogdon, G, Virginia
  26. Philadelphia 76ers (Jack) – Cheick Diallo, F/C, Kansas
  27. Toronto Raptors (Swit) – Chinanu Onuaku, C, Louisville
  28. Phoenix Suns (Miggy) – Paul Zipser, F, Germany
  29. San Antonio Spurs (Jack) – Malachi Richardson, G/F, Syracuse
  30. Golden State Warriors (Swit) – Petr Cornelie, F/C, France

Round 2

  1. Boston Celtics (Miggy) – Ivica Zubac, C, Croatia
  2. Los Angeles Lakers (Jack) – Michael Gbinije, G, Syracuse
  3. Los Angeles Clippers (Swit) – Tyler Ulis, G, Kentucky
  4. Phoenix Suns (Miggy) – Malik Beasley, G, Florida State
  5. Boston Celtics (Jack) – Isaia Cordinier, G, France
  6. Milwaukee Bucks (Swit) – Ben Bentil, F, Providence
  7. Houston Rockets (Miggy) – Guerschon Yabusele, F, France
  8. Milwaukee Bucks (Jack) – Rade Zagorac, F, Serbia
  9. New Orleans Pelicans (Swit) – Zhou Qi, F/C, China
  10. New Orleans Pelicans (Miggy) – Brice Johnson, F, North Carolina
  11. Orlando Magic (Jack) – Ante Zizic, C, Croatia
  12. Utah Jazz (Swit) – A.J. Hammons, C, Purdue
  13. Houston Rockets (Miggy) – Kahlil Felder, G, Oakland
  14. Atlanta Hawks (Jack) – Joel Bolomboy, F/C, Weber State
  15. Boston Celtics (Swit) – Georgios Papagiannis, C, Greece
  16. Dallas Mavericks (Miggy) – Yogi Ferrell, G, Indiana
  17. Orlando Magic (Jack) – Thon Maker, F, Australia
  18. Chicago Bulls (Swit) – Gary Payton II, G, Oregon State
  19. Detroit Pistons (Miggy) – Robert Carter, F, Maryland
  20. Indiana Pacers (Jack) – Ron Baker, G, Wichita State
  21. Boston Celtics (Swit) – Daniel Ochefu, C, Villanova
  22. Utah Jazz (Miggy) – Damian Jones, C, Vanderbilt
  23. Denver Nuggets (Jack) – Danilo Fuzaro, G, Brazil
  24. Atlanta Hawks (Swit) – Pascal Siakam, F/C, New Mexico State
  25. Brooklyn Nets (Miggy) – Isaiah Whitehead, G, Seton Hall
  26. Denver Nuggets (Jack) – Stephen Zimmerman, C, UNLV
  27. Memphis Grizzlies (Swit) – Tyrone Wallace, G, California
  28. Boston Celtics (Miggy) – Alex Olah, C, Northwestern
  29. Sacramento Kings (Jack) – Wayne Selden, G, Kansas
  30. Utah Jazz (Swit) – James Webb III, F, Boise State

NBA Draft Primer: Value can be found at shooting guard

“Value” is a precious term for front offices in the present-day NBA. With the salary cap escalating to unimaginable levels and contracts soon to become unspeakably lucrative for free agents, “value” will be placed at a premium, just as it always has been. Players offering general managers and executives the highest output-to-cost ratios are naturally sought after. These players, more often than not, take the form of rookie contracts, placing considerable emphasis on the NBA Draft process.

Concerning the shooting guard position in the draft two weeks from now, National Player of the Year Buddy Hield and freshman sensation Jamal Murray are top 10 guarantees. A pair of international prospects, 3-and-D Frenchman Timothe Luwawu and Turkish mystery man Furkan Korkmaz, are projected to find a new home either late lottery or in the middle of the first round. The true value of the 2016 NBA Draft lies after these four are vacated from the board. Teams in need of a value pick should look no further than the flurry of 2-guards slated late in the first round and throughout the second. This year’s deep crop of shooting guards is underscored by a pristine mixture of prospects capable of playing NBA minutes tomorrow and prospects with sizeable upside. We analyze 10 of these 2-guards that will be available in value spots here.

Pay no attention to the order in which the prospects are listed. I initially tried ranking them but found it far too difficult, although I do have a favorite (McCaw) and least favorite (Richardson). Instead, I separated the players into two categories, either identified as “Immediate Impact” players or “Upside” players. Along with each prospect’s analyses are all the important measurables and the particular player’s latest DraftExpress mock draft projection. Also included are player comps. For those who have wider range of what they could develop into, a ceiling comp and floor comp are given. Let’s run.

Immediate Impact Guys

DeAndre Bembry, St. Joseph’s

DX Mock: 28

Age: 21

Height: 6’5¾”

Weight: 207

Wingspan: 6’9¼”

Max Vert: 38”

Bembry, as a mere freshman, was the undeniable glue of a St. Joe’s squad that was a defensive rebound shy of rewriting history and knocking off the eventual National Champion UConn Huskies in the first round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament. Bembry spurned the likes of Virginia Tech and Seton Hall for St. Joe’s, and it didn’t take a trained eye tell he would develop into an Atlantic-10 star. There are only a handful of players in this draft class that can greater impact an NBA game at this moment in time than the St. Patrick High School product. Likely remaining on the board until the 20s, Bembry will be one of the steals of the draft and the rich will get richer. Bembry is defined as a two-way player with a well-rounded game and crazy scoring versatility. Just because he is identified as an immediate impact prospect, however, does not entail he is lacking in upside. Bembry is a consistent 3-point jumper away from being a potential All-Star caliber wing. Established stars such as Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler were viewed as defensive stalwarts before realizing their full potential offensively after reaching the Association. Bembry could fall under the same category. #FearTheFro.

BembryHair

Ceiling: Jimmy Butler

Floor: Iman Shumpert

 

Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia

DX Mock: 41

Age: 23

Height: 6’5½”

Weight: 223

Wingspan: 6’10½”

Max Vert: 35½”

Brogdon is a near-lock to be able to instantly make a difference for an NBA team, just as a handful of these 2-guards. The 4-year star at UVA’s calling card, just as it was in college, will be the defensive end of the floor. Captaining the nation’s best defense over the past three seasons, Brogdon was surely schooled well on defensive concepts by Tony Bennett. Brogdon notched a tremendous 93.9 career defensive rating in Charlottesville thanks to an unsullied amalgam of strength and length, which will assuredly translate to the NBA. For any team selecting in the early-to-mid second round, Brogdon should be near the top of their boards, as he will, at minimum, immediately be a defensive stopper off the bench, being able to guard anywhere from 1-3 and potentially the 4 in smaller lineups. Any offense he generates would be a luxury, but that is a luxury Brogdon is capable of providing. He improved his shooting percentage each of his four seasons, a testament to his work ethic, and with a bit tighter handle would be capable of running the point in a pinch. A grown man with a decorated college career as the winningest player in Virginia history, Brogdon should enjoy an extended NBA career.

Player Comp: Keith Bogans

 

Michael Gbinije, Syracuse

DX Mock: 53

Age: 24

Height: 6’6¾”

Weight: 205

Wingspan: 6’7½”

Max Vert: 37½”

Gbinije is owner of one of the more intriguing backstories in the 2016 draft class. Gbinije was a rare transfer out of Mike Krzyzewski’s program at Duke after one year. A former 5-star recruit, Gbinije landed in upstate New York at Syracuse and steadily progressed each year, culminating in a Final Four run in his senior season. Gbinije is only found lower on draft boards due to his age, as he turned 24 last Sunday. He projects anywhere from point guard to small forward in the NBA. As a result of his size causing potential matchup issues for defenses, the point, just as in college, may be where his greatest professional future lies. The best thing Gbinije has going for him is improved shooting mechanics, almost to the point where they are near-flawless, a tribute to his work ethic. Whether it’s off the dribble, or catch-and-shoot either in spot-up situations or on the move, Gbinije always finds a way to square his feet and has a pretty stroke.

Gbinije

Gbinije can drill threes with deep range and combines that with size and a decently quick release to be able to hoist shots up over most defenders from both distance and mid-range. Shooting is likely to be his best asset offensively at the next level, but Gbinije is nowhere near a one-trick pony, which gives him such high second round value. He can see over the top of defenders in pick-and-roll situations, contributing to his 4.5 assists per 40 minutes, and was also the stabilizer of the top of Syracuse’s 2-3 zone, amassing 2 steals per 40 minutes for his career without elite length. Gbinije was scary consistent over his final two seasons in school, shooting 46% from the field and 39% from deep both years. He utilized to 2015 summer to hone his game, winning the Afrobasket championship with the Nigerian national team. He parlayed that into a stellar senior year and hopefully a lengthy NBA career.

Player Comp: Josh Richardson

 

Caris LeVert, Michigan

DX Mock: 46

Age: 21

Height: 6’7”

Weight: 191

Wingspan: 6’10”

Max Vert: N/A

We would not be having this conversation if it weren’t for LeVert’s unfortunate and ongoing health issues. He’d likely have wrapped up his rookie season in the NBA by now, but a torn ACL damaged his draft stock and forced him to remain at Michigan for his senior season, which was cut well-short by another leg injury. Once viewed as a top 10 prospect and now a second round pick in all likelihood, LeVert is perhaps the epitome of “value” in basketball terms. The old adage is that the most imperative offseason in collegiate athletics is the one between your freshman and sophomore seasons. LeVert seemed to take that to heart, as not only did he evolve his game, but he added 2 inches and 20 pounds of muscle to his frame. All of the tools are there. Late bloomers, such as LeVert, are always more intriguing because logically there is plenty more room to grow. His injury-shortened 2015-16 campaign was his best yet percentage-wise, shooting a blistering 51/45/79. LeVert has more than sufficient point guard skills to be a menace at that position at the next level with scary size and length to accompany excellent vision and scoring versatility. Once the second round hits in the NBA Draft, guaranteed contracts are out the window, eliminating almost every ounce of risk. Logically, nabbing LeVert and praying he is able to overcome the run-ins with the trainer makes too much sense.

Player Comp: Doug Christie

 

Denzel Valentine, Michigan State

DX Mock: 23

Age: 22

Height: 6’5¾”

Weight: 210

Wingspan: 6’10¾”

Max Vert: 32”

Several scouting outlets categorize Valentine as a shooting guard, which is why he is among this group. However, his NBA future likely lies as a lead guard, just as in East Lansing, but his shooting ability will allow him to play some off the ball. What the 2016 AP Player of the Year lacks in explosiveness he makes up for in basketball IQ. Valentine constantly plays with his head up and loves to push the ball off both misses and makes, throwing lead passes to not only wings, but also threading the needle to bigs running the middle of the floor. A major component of the NBA, of course, is pick-and-roll, and Valentine is one of the best PnR ballhandler prospects we have seen in recent memory. A threat offensively in so many ways, Valentine navigates the PnR patiently and with ease. Coming off of ball screens, he always keeps his dribble alive and surveys the floor, calculating the best move. Go under the screen and this 44% 3-point shooter will make you pay. Blitz the screen and he will find a way to hit the roll man. Valentine, above all out of the PnR, is unparalleled in whipping cross-court passes to shooters when weak side help collapses on the roll man, all credited to his ability to see the entire floor at all times.

Valentine

For these reasons, Valentine is a guarantee to find a niche in the NBA. 23 points, 9 rebounds, and 9 assists per 40 minutes in the Big Ten speaks for itself. Valentine plays with a fearlessness that will not allow him to fail. For every Tom Izzo verbal haymaker thrown his way, he calmly buried a three on the ensuing possession. Denzel is one of the most NBA-ready prospects in the 2016 class.

Player Comp: Draymond Green (guard version)

 

Upside Guys

Malik Beasley, Florida State

DX Mock: 32

Age: 19

Height: 6’4½”

Weight: 190

Wingspan: 6’7”

Max Vert: N/A

Dwayne Bacon was the more heralded incoming Seminole prior to the 2015-16 season, but Beasley proved to be more NBA-ready with a quietly outstanding and efficient freshman year, shooting 47/39/81 and averaging 21 points per 40 minutes. The theme of scoring versatility continues, and among the prospects we have analyzed here, Beasley is probably the best pure scorer. The Florida State product is highlighted by sound shooting mechanics and can showcase his athleticism when given space. Beasley may need a bit longer of an incubation period and is possibly best-suited joining a contender late in the first round. In the end, a proficient college scorer with a solid understanding of shot selection has a lot to offer NBA teams.

Ceiling: C.J. McCollum

Floor: Rashad Vaughn

 

Isaia Cordinier, France

 DX Mock: 39

Age: 19

Height: 6’4¾”

Weight: 177

Wingspan: 6’8”

Max Vert: N/A, but….

Cordinier

Cordinier is the same age as this year’s freshman class, and there’s a lot to like about the French high-flyer. First and foremost, his athleticism jumps out at you on tape (no pun intended). Cordinier is a dynamic athlete who is at his best when in transition and is an explosive leaper off both one and two feet. He, however, is more than solely a dunk artist. Although he cooled off a bit after a red hot start in the LNB Pro B League in France, the development of his shooting stroke from last year to this is incredibly encouraging, improving from 25% from 3 in 2014-15 to 40% in 2015-16. Cordinier, like several of the others highlighted here, is a high-character prospect. An energizer bunny with a motor running non-stop on both ends, Cordinier never takes a possession off. Conversely, Cordinier only knows how to play one speed, and that’s 100 mph, which causes him to be turnover-prone and undisciplined at times defensively. Added issues about his level of competition in France’s B-League, per se, have also contributed to him falling into the second round in most mocks. Once Cordinier is able to bottle up that energy and play more under control, he will be primed to play a role in an NBA franchise. A team selecting early in the second round seeking a draft and stash option such as Boston, who owns eight (EIGHT!) picks on the night of June 23rd, would be wise to go with the bouncy 19 year-old project hungering to improve his game.

Player Comp: Rudy Fernandez

 

Patrick McCaw, UNLV

DX Mock: 40

Age: 20

Height: 6’6¾”

Weight: 181

Wingspan: 6’10”

Max Vert: 38”

This, when the dust settles, may end up being the true hidden gem of the 2016 draft class. McCaw was a quiet 2016 NBA Draft early entry on the heels of a quietly excellent sophomore season. Bucks fans witnessed Rashad Vaughn play out the worst PER rookie season in NBA history among those rookies that played 600+ minutes. I promise this UNLV guard will be a much different story because of his overall versatility. McCaw excels when he can get out in transition, specifically as a ballhandler. He frequently makes this happen attributable to an intrinsic ability to create turnovers. McCaw’s defensive instincts are at the top of this class. He relentlessly hunts for steals with his 6’10” wingspan and anticipation that cannot be taught.

McCaw

That anticipation will be one of the initial items in McCaw’s toolshed early in his NBA career. With 2.9 thefts per 40 minutes and countless Mountain West guards falling victim to pick pockets, he undoubtedly makes his presence felt on the defensive end of the floor. Moreover, similar to Bembry, McCaw will factor on the offensive end scoring in a variety of ways and acting as a secondary facilitator. In transition, McCaw makes plays both for himself and his teammates. Shooting 47/37/77 this past season and racking up nearly 5 assists per 40 minutes gives us a glimpse of the holistic nature of his game. Broad shoulders indicate he will be able to add onto his 181-pound frame. He remains a lesser-known commodity due to a relative lack of visibility in school. Don’t be surprised if we see McCaw jolt up boards here in the latter stages of the draft process as he becomes less of a secret. For me personally, it’s not too farfetched to claim the former Runnin’ Rebel is a down-the-road All-Star. A number of teams will eventually be kicking themselves for passing on him.

Player Comp: Corey Brewer with a jumper

 

Dejounte Murray, Washington

DX Mock: 35

Age: 19

Height: 6’5”

Weight: 170

Wingspan: 6’9½”

Max Vert: N/A

Murray was one of the most impressive freshmen in college basketball this past season. While there are certain areas of his game he must improve upon to have staying power in the NBA, this combo guard is oozing with upside. Murray’s game is very reminiscent of Jamal Crawford’s. Playing a streetball-type style, Murray is ultra-wriggly with the ball in his hands, knifing through defenders with Crawford-esque hesitations and behind-the-back dribbles and finishing with creative, high-degree-of-difficulty floaters and runners.

Murray

Murray’s floater game accounts for a good portion of his offense, and he consistently showed through his lone season in Seattle an innate ability to stop on a dime and avoid charges along with a soft touch, providing optimism for ameliorating a 29% 3-point jumpshot. There exist some obvious red flags, however. Turnovers (3.9 per 40 min) and efficiency (99.7 offensive rating) are a glaring issue, and while some of that may be attributed to Washington’s up-tempo, care-free style of play, Murray remains a volume shooter, occasionally extremely loose with his handle, and struggles against physicality at just 170 pounds. He was foolishly advised by his agent to bypass the NBA Draft Combine, causing us not only to have out-of-date measurements, but more importantly for Murray himself, a gaping draft range. He can be seen slotted in mocks as early as mid-lottery and as late as early second round. Nevertheless, no matter where he is selected, his potential makes him worth the flier and a no-brainer if that comes later in the draft.

Ceiling: Jamal Crawford

Floor: Archie Goodwin

 

Malachi Richardson, Syracuse

DX Mock: 33

Age: 20

Height: 6’6¼”

Weight: 200

Wingspan: 7’0”

Max Vert: 38”

With Richardson, we have the annual classic case of striking while the iron is hot. The Syracuse freshman came of age in the NCAA Tournament, especially in an Elite Eight win over Virginia with a 23-point performance and a second half takeover. Naturally his draft stock skyrocketed and he parlayed his tourney run into a one-and-done season. I was never too involved with the Malachi Richardson hype train and view him as strictly a second round prospect, but there’s more to like about him than just his First Team All-Hair selection.

MalachiHair

Richardson’s positives are all tied together by his upside. A 7-foot wingspan indicates 3-and-D potential. He’s still only 20, but our evaluations of him at the next level are relying on a two-week hot streak. A disconcerting 37% field goal percentage is particularly what stands out. I wasn’t predominantly fond of Richardson’s draft decision, but, again, the upside is certainly worth a second round choice.

Ceiling: Alec Burks

Floor: James Anderson

 

Each of the preceding players certainly has his own defining skillset. In digging deeper into the numbers, we do, however, find a trend. Basketball is in full-fledged evolution mode with the propensity of 3-point attempts growing each year. Going hand-in-hand with that evolution, though, is the ball movement, well, movement, for lack of a better word. Isolation is down and assists are up, and having 5 players on the floor who are threats to dribble, pass, and score is becoming a necessity. This year’s shooting guard/combo guard class embodies the trendy style of basketball, as almost all of the prospects we have highlighted here are proven facilitators.

PLAYER

AST/40 MIN

Valentine

9.4

LeVert

6.4

Murray

5.3

Bembry

4.8

McCaw

4.6

Gbinije

4.5

Brogdon

3.6

Cordinier

3.4

Richardson

2.4

Beasley

2.0

Even Beasley, as primarily a scorer, showed in his time at Florida State he was more than willing to make the extra pass and rarely took poor shots. This, exactly, is the value pinpointed as well as it possibly can be. With this year’s group of 2-guards, whether they can contribute instantly or down the road, teams are getting all-around basketball players.