Draft: The UCLA dilemma – Three riddles for NBA GMs

As we get closer to the NBA Draft with its four-headed monster at the top (one head is an Aussie, mate!), the headaches GMs are having makes for a sugar rush for the rest of us.

Here is a look at the three prospects coming from UCLA who will challenge the NBA’s general managers and scouts in very different ways.

Let me say first that trying to evaluate a prospect without the roster context is very much like trying to pick out a knife from the kitchen drawer with your eyes closed. It’s stupid and dangerous. But it can be fun — unless your kitchen knives and made by a samurai. So let’s dive in.

kyleanderson'1. Kyle Anderson. My idol, coach David Thorpe, once said: “When you are super quick and don’t have a plan, you get to the wrong place faster.”

At the other end of the spectrum is Kyle “Slo-Mo” Anderson. Anderson has a plan. He is not super quick. He is actually as far from ‘super quick’ as any of the non-bigs in this draft. So why is he projected as high as a lottery pick in this year’s fine vintage of players?

The 6’9″ point guard flat out dominated the college level – facilitating an offense molded by all the things he can do with the ball. The former USA U19 gold medalist is a proud leader. He is competitive and smart, therefore his game keeps developing in response to the athletic gap that is widening against him.

But where is his ceiling? He wasn’t considered explosive at college level, and you must assume he will be a below average athlete for his entire career. But his passing and size are elite. And that makes him extremely intriguing despite his physical shortcomings. Good passing is everything for an offense. It’s oil for a machine that badly needs it. Easy baskets, roster chemistry, floor balance and even “off the court stuff” are all directly affected by good passing. Teams know this, and it sometimes will buy a player a few bad possessions on D, even if no one admits it.

In a league trying to copy the Spurs (some in the literal sense of it – hiring from the ever so praised Gregg Popovich coaching tree and R.C. Buford’s burning bush of GMs) you know Kyle is getting some love. The problems start when you try and picture him on the NBA floor. What’s his position? Not even a tweener! Here is a point guard the size of a new age PF. The ‘lovers’ hope he can guard wings, although I doubt it, I’d like to see him playing SF. He is an outside player.

Another question mark surrounds his offense – does he play as a wing? A PG? A point-forward type? It’s all very dependent on which team takes him. But he is not going to pick up where he left off as the guy with the ball in his hands. That’s not happening. Is he ready to contribute as a role player? His family raised him as a second coming of Magic Johnson. Can he even play another position? Is he willing to? The interviews suggest so, and while they are extremely agent-controlled and rarely mean much, I think he is saying the right things.

It’s also easy to slip up when you take 1000 questions a day. He even mentioned playing the 4. So let’s go with it. Say he’s buying in – how good is he playing off the ball? Here’s a guy who is a magician as a creator. And you’re going to have him spot up in the corner? That’s what makes him a riddle.

LaVine2. Zach LaVine. The most recent evidence: At a One-on-None workout, you see him gliding through the trainers on what was basically second gear, yet blowing right past them in real time (this went “viral” very quickly). He crosses over at the wing, takes one hard dribble and goes between his legs for the jam. His eyes aggressively flirting with the rim. He had 360s, off of one leg and off of two legs rim rocking dunks. He shoots smoothly, the ball lingers as it leaves his fingertips, follows the high arc slowly as it drops in, grazing the net ever so gently.

Those workouts are usually constructed by the agents, meaning a prospect has everything to win and nothing to lose. So, playing with house money – LaVine wins. Yet you watch him and there’s an itch you can’t scratch. When everything is so effortless – where IS the effort? There should be at least some effort, why so effortless?

While I find the Russell Westbrook comparisons lazy at best, LaVine does have the physical tools to be a go-to-guy in the league. But, and this “but” is well-known to all GMs – Europe, China, the D-league and prison cells are all filled with guys who had those tools, in many cases dragging their first NBA GMs down with them.

Sometimes other talent is just better than you are. Along with the expectations weighing in, the fierce competition from that top 1% of athletes is nothing us mortal fans can really wrap our heads around. In the grueling NBA life you have to want it. You have to be addicted to it. Not only do you have to stay in shape during summer – you have to actively get better. 99% are coming after your spot. Does Lavine want it? He’s 19. Did you know what you want at 19? There’s your second riddle.

JordanAdams3. Jordan Adams is the anti-LaVine. It seems that unlike his skinny teammate, Adams’ ceiling and floor are much closer to one another. That being said, he still presents a challenge of his own. Comically, Adams is even a polarizing prospect for himself, as he decided to stay another year in college before changing his mind and declaring for this year’s draft.

Coming from the highly touted Oak Hill Academy lineage of future NBA players, Adams is a pure “baller,” a versatile scoring threat with and without the ball. On defense he has a nose for the ball. He also has hands. With a 6’10 wingspan. Steals are one of those tell-tail signs scouts look for. And they tell a story much bigger than defense.

Steals say that you are smart, greedy and play the game with the context of all 10 guys. Always thinking and trying to make a play. Adams has 3.3 steals per 40 minutes, making him tied for first in this year’s crop of players along with Marcus Smart. He is relentless. it’s almost like he is playing offense on defense, simply trying to get the ball so he can score again. You have to respect that.

His rebounding from the guard position attests to that as well. However there’s another side to it – he is actually a poor defender. Gambling out of position, ball watching and bad fundamentals are just some of the problems he faces. NBA players will burn you for that. And if you can’t play D, you can’t play, as any coach will attest. On offense, Adams is basically auditioning for a role-player spot. Not an athlete (though he did impressively shed about 15-20 lbs. this offseason), a hair under 6’5 in shoes, he will not be your top scorer. Only 8% of his offense comes from pick & roll and isolations (take that stat with a grain of salt).

Adams is a floor spacer, which means more than standing in the corner. He will use his heady style to get with the offensive scheme of his team, cutting, coming off of screens and spotting up. On that end of the floor, the key will be his shooting. A decent shooter at the college level, he did show some inconsistency, especially “when guarded” (meaning a defender was close to him as he shot). The NBA court shrinks with bigger, longer and better players out there.

There are also better players checking you. More athletic. Does he get better looks at the basket, or worse? Does he improve his shot as he grows older? Will he tighten up his mechanics?

Jordan Adams has some valuable skills that translate well to the league. He also has weaknesses which translate poorly that might negate those skills. You can call it “the GM’s paradox.”

(RELATED: Check out Joe Kotoch’s latest Mock Draft)
(RELATED: The top European draft prospects not from Croatia)
(RELATED: The two Croatians, Dario Saric and Jusuf Nurkic, who might end up in the lottery
(RELATED: Profile of Australia’s Dante Exum)

Oren Levi is a 27 die-hard NBA fan, and an amateur scout and writer. Follow him on Twitter.

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