Several West Coast prospects would fit nicely in San Antonio
Considering the NBA season is in full swing, there’s decent chance what’s happening in the NCAA is out of sight out of mind for a lot of fans. And since the Spurs are a lock for 50 wins every year, NBA draft prospects also aren’t a big priority for fans in the middle of January. However, much like the rest of the Spurs season, scouting the draft is about the process as much as it is the result.
In case you haven’t been paying attention, some of the best basketball in the country is being played out west this season. The Arizona Wildcats are the number one team in the country, boasting a 17-0 record, including a 79-75 win at UCLA last Thursday. That game featured as many as many as eight players that could be picked in this year’s draft, many of those who are likely to be around when the Spurs select at the back end of the first round.
Arizona’s top prospect is a freshman named Aaron Gordon. He’s hyper athletic and never stops playing hard. He’s a lock to be a top six or seven pick in June’s draft, so for the purposes of this exercise, go ahead and look past Gordon. Same goes for UCLA’s Zach LaVine, a 6’5″ guard who kind of snuck up on scouts early in the season. If he declares, he’s going top 20 for sure and likely a late lottery pick.
The first prospect I focused on during this game was Arizona’s other starting forward, Brandon Ashley. Ashley is a 6’8″ sophomore and not quite as athletic as Gordon, but a good athlete in his own right. He’s tied with Gordon as the Wildcats second leading scorer at 12 a game. While he’s listed as the team’s starting power forward, he and Gordon are really interchangeable at those spots. I talked to Wildcats writer Kevin Zimmerman of Valley of the Suns and AZ Desert Storm about Ashley and he’s more skeptical of Ashley’s potential as even a stretch four, but agrees he can play small forward at the next level, at least defensively.
“He’s not the best athlete, but he’s pretty fluid and actually has shut down some guys who are NBA small forwards or 2 guards. Defensively I think he can become a solid small forward. During the Duke-Arizona game this year, it was Ashley who did a lot of good work on Jabari Parker, though everyone wanted to say it was Gordon (honestly, I felt like people were forcing the Gordon angle a bit),” Zimmerman said. “The biggest thing holding Ashley back is that he’s got a really limited offensive game. You cringe when he’s dribbling the ball and aside from going on the block, which he won’t be able to do in the NBA, he’s got nothing other than an improved spot-up jumper.”
I agree Ashley needs to work on his jumper, but he is shooting 36 percent from three this season, so the tools are there. I also think, with the way league seems to be skewing, Ashley could easily play some power forward, at least in small stretches. If you’re looking for an NBA comparison, his skill set is similar to Shawn Marion’s, but Marion’s offense is more varied than Ashley’s.
The other Arizona prospect that should be intriguing to Spurs fans is Nick Johnson, Arizona’s leading scorer. He’s a 6’3″ shooting guard. Before you scream “GARY F’ING NEAL” settle down. Johnson is nothing like Neal. He’s also pretty athletic, is a decent shooter but not awesome and excels defensively. The question is whether he can defend both guard positions.
“ I think Johnson is too small to play against starting NBA shooting guards, but then again, there aren’t a whole lot of Kobe Bryants out there,” Zimmerman said. “With more teams going with smaller backcourts, I don’t think it’s much of an issue — Johnson would be a perfect fit for how Pop uses his guards.”
So that’s fun. Zimmerman went on to compare Johnson to Cory Joseph, though I’d argue he’s a better athlete than Joseph and a better shooter. This isn’t to say the Spurs should give up Joseph, but Patty Mills and Nando De Colo could be gone next year, and in that case, there could be a spot for Johnson on the bench (or in Austin). The other part about Johnson is he’s a great leader for the Wildcats. He’s willing to handle the ball at the end of games and put a really well balanced team on his back when they need a shot.
On UCLA’s side, there’s one player that really jumps out, both because of his draft prospects and his unique skill set. Kyle Anderson is a 6’8″ point guard who is really good at what he does. However, there isn’t a chance in Hell he’ll be a point guard at the next level. Why you ask, because he’s almost always the slowest guy on the court. He has so little athletic ability, that his nickname is “SlowMo,” a nickname he wears with pride. Despite the athletic limitations, Anderson is a stat stuffer playing in one of the best conferences in the country (averages of 15.3 points, 9.3 rebounds, 6.6 assists and 1.8 steals per game). Grantland’s Danny Chau went to Pauley Pavilion and had this to say about Anderson’s game.
His use of hesitations, fakes, and weight-shifting is next-level — it’s as if his defender is entranced by watching Anderson move so slowly in real time that his own reaction time is forced to adapt. Then, once the defender finds himself playing in Anderson’s time signature, it’s too late. He merely adopted the slow. Anderson was born in it.
Everything Danny wrote is accurate. Watching Anderson play is like watching the scenes in the Matrix once Neo figures out he’s the one and everything just slows down. He knows what his defenders are doing before they know it themselves and he just waits for his spot and attacks. Again, Anderson’s position in the NBA is a huge question mark. He’s a little slight to play power forward, but for my money I’d say that’s his future. He’s Boris Diaw 2.0. He needs to bulk up, but he’s not so slow that he wouldn’t have an advantage against bigs trying to guard him. Bottom line is he’s SO smart and the Spurs have figured out a way to maximize Diaw’s skills, it feels like a match made in heaven, especially if Diaw was still around to teach Anderson a few extra tricks.
Given the Spurs late first round draft status the Spurs appear to always be stuck in, scouting prospects is always a little tricky, but that’s also what makes it fun. This year, the draft appears to be the deepest it’s been in a long time, which bodes well for the Spurs. Of course, we’ll talk about these college guys and they’ll draft someone playing in Europe.