I Wouldn’t Take Ben McLemore Number One If I Were You
Don’t get me wrong. I think McLemore is a solid wing prospect. He’s a fantastic athlete and his shooting stroke is great. But I’m just not sure he has the characteristics of a player that a team wants to spend its coveted first overall pick on. And I’m gonna tell you why.
This Draft Isn’t As Weak As the Pundits Would Have You Believe
The more time passes, the more I hear how “weak” this draft is. I hear people make this assertion every year, but this year the notion has become particularly popular. Chad Ford has been saying it for a while, and I think the more people say it, the more others buy in. Just the other day I heard Jay Williams claim that it’s the weakest draft in the last twenty years. Yet, somehow I can’t imagine that Williams would be picked second in this draft. Regardless, the “weak” draft claim is the reason why McLemore has a good chance of going number one. “Oh, he’s not as good as your typical number one pick, but it’s a weak draft.” I simply can’t get behind this.
According to my projections, this may be the best draft since 2009. It’s still early, and some lottery projected players could still certainly take their names out and decide to stay in school, but consider this: my model projects six players this year as being +1 or better in the NBA. Compare this to the three players from last year’s draft, just two from the previous year, and four from 2010. You have to go back to 2009 (7) to find a draft that had more guys projected at +1 or better than this year.
And it’s even more impressive that I’m projecting four guys at +2 or better. This has only happened in three drafts since 2002. Sure, maybe this changes by the end of June, and maybe this isn’t one of the strongest drafts in history, but the point is this: there just isn’t any evidence that this draft is as “weak” as people are claiming. As a result, picking McLemore – who is a solid shooter and may develop into a good offensive player – first overall just because it’s a “weak” draft is not just silly, it’s flat out uninformed.
McLemore’s Size-Skillset Combination Poses Legitimate Issues
McLemore, who is 6-5 on platform shoes, can really only play one position in the league – shooting guard. He is simply not big enough to guard opposing small forwards today’s league. And he can’t play point guard because he is below average at ballhandling and penetrating and his court vision is poor. In general, one-position-only guys are only particularly valuable if they’re point guards who run offenses and centers who anchor defenses. Think about it, how many great NBA players can you think of that could only play shooting guard and weren’t great with the ball? Jordan and Kobe were both ball dominant players with an ability to create good shots in practically any given possession. Jordan proved he could play point guard in 1989, and both he and Kobe could swing to the three position if their team needed them to. Wade could play point – and did early in his career. But Wade isn’t a good comparison either anyway – unlike McLemore, Wade’s strengths have always been slashing and either finishing or finding the open man. Same goes for James Harden – a ball dominant guard whose value primarily lies in his ability to get to the basket. McLemore has not demonstrated this kind of ability. To compare, Harden and Wade at McLemore’s age both averaged well over twice as many assists per pace-adjusted 36 as McLemore while maintaining a significantly higher usage rate.
So who does that leave? The only comparison that’s even partly legitimate is the guy I guess everyone is comparing Ben to: Ray Allen. But is McLemore Ray Allen? I’m not so sure. For one, Allen was a much more prolific scorer than McLemore, even at the same age. Allen’s ability to create good shots for himself seems to have been much more advanced than McLemore’s. But even if McLemore does become Ray Allen (and I don’t think he will), is Ray Allen the guy you want with a #1 pick? Yeah, he led some good Milwaukee and Seattle teams, but he is a player better suited to be a second or third option.
McLemore’s position limitations are even more problematic when we look at some of the bottom teams – who are most likely to wind up with the top pick. New Orleans just gave up the best point guard of the last decade for Eric Gordon and used its lottery pick last year on a 19-year-old shooting guard. Neither of these guys can play the 3. Sacramento has 15 shooting guards. Washington and Cleveland used their #3 and #4 overall picks, respectively, last year on small shooting guards. So that leaves Orlando and Charlotte. Both these teams could use a shooting guard, but would both be smarter to take a different position. Orlando starts Arron Afflalo (also small) at the 2, and while he’s certainly not great, he might be their strongest starter at this point. Charlotte would be better off going after a big or a true point guard – two areas where the team lacks big time. A guy who can only play shooting guard just doesn’t meet any of these teams’ needs. And yeah, team needs go out the window if we’re talking about a big time player, but remember, “he’s not as good as your typical number one pick, but it’s a weak draft.”
He Isn’t As Young As You Think
Ok, you might think I’m just being nitpicky, but this kind of stuff matters. I’ve said before age is one of the most (if not THE most) important factor in predicting a college player’s future success. Hell, I even revised my model to make sure my values for age were exact to the day. So when you hear that McLemore is the highest scoring “freshman” in college basketball, take it with a grain of salt. McLemore is older than, among others, Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Bradley Beal (the top three picks of last year’s draft).
He Doesn’t Steal the Basketball
Now this just seems silly. But I’m not so sure it is. Whether the number in the steals column measures hustle, athleticism, a general feel for the game, a combination of the three, or something else, it is highly indicative of future success for wings. And when we look at the results, it’s pretty telling. McLemore averages 1.4 steals per pace-adjusted 40 minutes. When we look at all the players who were drafted between 2002 and now who averaged 1.5 or fewer steals, very few have been successful in the NBA by any player measure, and none have been all-stars (or, if you don’t like the all-star measure, none have been better than above average players). That’s not to say that a player can’t be good if he doesn’t rack up the steals in college, I’m just saying that history isn’t on Ben’s side here.
Who I’d Take Instead
It wouldn’t be fair to McLemore or the reader if I didn’t at least offer some alternatives. In my mind, there are three reasonable choices a team could use its number one pick on: Nerlens Noel, Marcus Smart, and Otto Porter. Each of these three guys plays a different position, and each of them boasts a very unique skillset. Oh yeah, and they all project as +2 or better in my model (if you recall what I’ve said before, +2 is basically the threshold where a player is all but guaranteed to be successful in the NBA if he crosses it).
Yes, Mr. Noel had a knee injury. But I’m still confident he will have a solid NBA career and I think he’ll be able to help a team’s interior defense immediately once he recovers. Noel leads the entire NCAA in blocks per game (as a freshman!) and he’s second in the SEC in steals per game (as a center!!). He’s a solid rebounder as well. The one nitpick, besides his ACL injury I guess, is his offensive game, which is miles behind his defense. He is sloppy with the basketball and very unpolished in the post. His jumper is basically nonexistant: he shot 37% on his jump shots in college. But despite offensive struggles, his defensive prowess – and particularly his ability to protect the rim – is very intriguing. At the risk of sounding cliche, offensive skills can be taught. Defensive instincts can’t. Having an elite interior defensive presence can change a team’s fortunes quickly. And when we consider what Noel is – a giant teenage super-athlete – I think we should be willing to look past his hiccup of a knee injury, assuming of course his recovery continues to go as planned.
Smart has been on top of or very close to the top of my draft rankings since I first put them out last month. The reasons are simple: he’s 18, he’s built like a brick shithouse, and he’s really good at basketball, specifically with respect to the aspects of the game that reflect hustle and athleticism. Of the point guards in the draft discussion this year, Smart is the best at rebounding (and is particularly good on the offensive glass), the best at stealing the ball, and the best at shot-blocking. My favorite way-too-early comparisons are Westbrook and Wade – where Smart loses ground in athleticism he makes up for it in strength. Smart is very good at getting to the rim and he’s especially good at posting up – with his size there are few if any point guards who can guard him in the post. Smart’s primary weakness appears to be his jump shooting. But again, he’s 18 and there’s lots of time to work on this – he’s not that bad at shooting. Smart could also become a better passer, which I think will happen. His instincts and court vision are there, he just needs to polish his decision-making. Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Smart is his reputation for being a leader and willingness to fill that role. With everything he brings to the table, I’m taking Smart first if I need a point guard for the future. If I need interior defense I’m taking Noel. And if I need a solid all-around wing, I’m taking…
Porter was able to fly under my radar for a few weeks until I fixed an error I had in my data. Then he immediately shot up to the #4 prospect in my top 100. Then he started playing out of his mind, including a game where he scored 58% of his team’s points in a win over Syracuse. Now he’s my #1 prospect. He has a fantastic size-skill combination, which will cause nightmare matchups for teams with small small forwards or slow power forwards. He’s an underrated shooter – he shoots 45% from three (!) and he’s basically a scoring threat from anywhere on the court. But his skills don’t end with his shooting: he is a very good rebounder, he is quite adept at forcing turnovers (2.4 pace-adjusted stl/40) and blocking shots, and he’s exceptionally good at taking care of the ball. I think an old exercise that I used to use quite frequently would be particularly enlightening here. The following table compares Porter’s numbers with McLemore’s:
Compared to McLemore, Porter is younger, bigger, and better at just about everything. McLemore is a bit more efficient from the field, but his usage is a bit lower. And just about all of Porter’s other numbers are substantially stronger. In other words, the two are comparable scorers, but Porter is better at every other facet of the game. Plus he’s younger and his size allows him to be much more versatile both as an offensive threat and as a defender who can check multiple positions. In fact, Porter’s production and versatility make him the best wing prospect in this draft – my draft model rates him as the best player. So if I were a team in need of a wing, I’d take Porter first overall.
Again, I don’t mean to get too down on McLemore. I think he’s a very good prospect. I also think he could be a very good NBA player. I just wouldn’t use a number one overall pick on him. I’d go for Noel, Smart, or Porter instead.