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2018 NBA Draft Notebook: Trae Young, Mikal Bridges’ Two-Way Stardom, and Fitting the Dominant Bigs

Yeah, it’s January. But this collegiate season has been much too good to ignore.

NCAA Basketball: Alabama at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

We’re just two months into this collegiate season, and the potential 2018 NBA Draft class has gifted us with four varied, dominant bigs; the best international performer of the decade; two supernova lead guards; two beefy Bridges; and tantalizing hints that an injured star, arguably the best prospect in the class, might not actually miss the whole year.

Apologizes to everyone who ignores the draft until April, but the characters and plot twists have made this year impossible for this armchair scout to ignore. It’s too early in the year to worry about draft positioning (unless your motto starts with a pro- prefix, teams won’t really start tanking until March). Yet as the Kings record continues to bounce around the mid-lottery, the best sign for the team isn’t just that more 2018 talent is rising to the top—this class is certainly looking top heavy, but the top tiers are bolstering—but that so many of the players in the top 10 look like they could be strong fits in Sacramento.

Here are some of the most interesting story lines of the season so far.

Measuring the Fits of the Dominant Bigs

Even if you think Sacramento has other needs to fill, the center position isn’t one that can be ignored this year. But the good news is that the four most promising big men in this class—Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton, Texas’ Mohamed Bamba, Duke’s Marvin Bagley, and Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson Jr.—are all varied, and conceivably fit needs for Sacramento. Let’s take a look at how two of them could fit with the Kings’ long term planning.

DeAndre Ayton

Ayton’s combination of a strong faceup game, developing touch in the PnR, soft touch on the mid-range (and further) jumper, pogostick legs (43.5 inch vertical?), great fluidity and mobility for his size (7’1, 250 lbs, 7’6 wingspan), on and on and on... project him to be a primary scorer in the NBA if this curve continues. Averaging 20.4 points, 11.6 rebounds, and 3.5 Bill Walton freakouts per game, Ayton is a marvel on offense, drawing in defensive souls and feasting on their fears with the tag-team of “I’m better than you” and “No one in college can match up with me”. Well, except perhaps for the other three guys named above—and Arizona doesn’t have them on the schedule (yet...)

Unless one of Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere, or Georgios Papagiannis are really hiding massive usage abilities in their developing games (or Harry Giles becomes Harry Giles, but... baby steps), having a dominant low-post scorer with the ability to step outside the paint has worked in the past for Sacramento. Ayton’s range of scoring abilities would conceivably make him a solid fit on offense with either Cauley-Stein or Skal, although one of every pair used might get annoyed with the other dominating the “control the ball from the top of the key” role.

Arizona (12-4) has been a disappointment due to their poor team defense, and this is Ayton’s biggest area of improvement. He’s averaging 1.6 blocks per game, which looks ok until you see that’s on a 5.2% block rate; looking at the bigs drafted in the past ten years, that’s Jahlil Okafor/Frank Kaminsky level. He’s a decent perimeter defender and looks confident trying to stay with slashing guards, but he gets too lost with post defense for his gamebreaking size. Perhaps this is just a motivational thing—plenty of top recruits have had uninspired defensive careers in college and only got their first extensive defensive “you WILL play this” lessons in the pros (Jayson Tatum, Noah Vonleh, Myles Turner, Skal, Buddy Hield)—but the Kings are already in the bottom 13 of the league for blocks per game.

Mo Bamba

Bamba is the mirror opposite of Ayton in terms of developed skills; his offensive game is raw, developing, and isn’t likely to scare opposing coaches immediately (11.9 points)... but that defense...

A 6’11 player with a record 7’9 wingspan, Bamba snags 4.6 blocks (16.8% block rate!!), and 10.6 rebounds (26.7% defensive rebounding rate), and has the gravity to completely shift offenses with his incredible help-defense range. He’s a terrifying prospect for 29 future teams if he continues to improve his one-on-one patience and bulks up (even some collegiate guys can move him out of the way, but his Gumby arms mean he can disrupt dudes from stupid amounts of space.

With the Kings big core missing a true full-time rim protector (Cauley-Stein by desire, Skal by size, Papa by mobility, and Giles by... well, again, babysteps...), Bamba seems a great fit alongside whichever of those three emerges as the long-term starter. And as Mo carries on with this Conference play explosion (15.7 points, 13.3 rebounds, 5.7 blocks, 1 3PG), he’s beginning to flash a Hulk-smash gene that he was missing early in the year.

Trae Young’s Ascension

Trae Young has defined this collegiate season; he’s been the best shooter, scorer, and passer in the first two months of college basketball, and has pulled a preseason unranked Oklahoma team into a top 10 ranking.

If you haven’t seen Young yet, go watch his highlights against Wichita State. Or Oregon. Or Oklahoma State. Or Northwestern. Or Northwestern State. Any of them are fine. He scored at least 27 points and dished at least 7 assists in every one of those games. He has a combined true shooting percentage of 64.3%... and he’s making 30 footers! He deserves the hype, and must be one of the most discussed players in NBA front offices right now.

But he is mortal.

Saturday’s matchup against West Virginia reminded us that Young truly is a freshman, and not a video game avatar. The Mountaineers tough, physical defense gunked up Oklahoma’s spacing, Jevon Carter eclipsed Young from the rest of the court, and Trae showed mortality for 34 of the 40 minutes. He still produced 29 points, thanks to his ability to get to the line (10-13 FG), but it wasn’t a strong game (6-17 FG, 8 turnovers).

His defense is also painfully freshman star lackluster, and he doesn’t get pressed on it much because Lon Kruger would rather he save all the energy. When forced to give the ball up, he sometimes ends up taking himself out of the play and stands around as if he’s just a spot up shooter. And if these criticisms sound harsh for a freshman only two months into his career, just go watch another one of those highlight reels up above; this kid is not playing like any freshman guard I’ve seen.

Carter’s performance against Young will make his response to physical defense—which, any smart coach should now order to try and shield against the meteor storm—the biggest storyline for college’s biggest new storyteller.

The best thing for Sacramento could be Young’s explosion onto the scene; not as a fit for the Kings themselves, but as a guard who will possibly demand an early lottery selection. The more depth that appears in this draft class, the better.

Mikal Bridges is a Two-Way Star

If you follow me on twitter, you might have seen me ranting about Mikal “the better Bridges” Bridges for the past eight months. If you’re already sick of me talking about Mikal – the best player on the best team in college basketball – then skip ahead. But after seeing the growth from his sophomore to junior year, I fully believe Bridges will be a two-way stud at the NBA level.

On offense, Bridges spent the last two years as mainly a three-point threat alongside Villanova’s veteran scorers. Last season, he finished with a TS% of 67.6%, shot 39% from three on 3.1 attempts per game, and had a 3PA rate (the rate of shots that are threes) of 48.1%. With the departure of Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart last summer, Bridges was going to have to diversify his offensive game to become the lead scorer Villanova needed him to be. So far, that diversity has come to fruition:

  • His increased usage percentage (15.4% last year to 24% this year) has come with only small drops in his efficiency.
  • He’s managed to IMPROVE his three-point shooting to 45.6% on 5.6 attempts per game, while improving his spot-up success as well (per Synergy).
  • He’s added a post-up element to his game – after zero recorded post-up possessions last season, according to Synergy, it’s now his third most used scoring type and he’s in the 97% percentile for success.
  • Most importantly, Bridges has shown significant improvement in his handling. After finishing last season with a 15.1% turnover rate – many of which came on drives to the hoop – Bridges has tightened up his handle and is now comfortable driving into the teeth of the defense. I’ll never get sick of watching this highlight

And while Bridges is developing into a capable scorer, he’s ALWAYS been a dynamic defender. He’s got a 7’1 wingspan (ranges between 7’0.5 and 7’2, depending on who you ask), and this, combined with his excellent athleticism, body control, and determination, allows him to switch between guarding collegiate points and collegiate bigs. As Mike Gribanov‏ over at the Stepien pointed out, if you look at the Synergy list of players with at least 90 possessions as primary defender, Bridges is number one for least points per possession allowed (.462). He’s averaging 2.7 steals (3.7% rate) and 1.8 blocks (4.8% rate) per 40 minutes. One of Coach Jay Wright’s favorite things to do is unleash his kraken in a full court press. A surprising amount of the time, it turns out like this.

At the NBA level, he should be able to handle a strong number of guards and up to some bigs in a smallball lineup (assuming he can add more bulk… he’s 200 lbs currently, and considering how much flak I gave Justin Jackson last year for being a skinny junior, I’d be a hypocrite not to point it out here). And while understanding that this borders hyperbole… aside from his lack of bulk (which will slow his immediate defensive transition to the NBA level), he has a physical profile (height, wingspan, athleticism) and defensive motor comparable to Kawhi Leonard’s last season at San Diego State.

He’s a top 7 pick in my book, and as the best player on one of the most fun teams to watch, he’ll be getting plenty of hype over the next few months.