Willie Cauley-Stein Scouting Report

(Orginally posted at Upside & Motor)

Willie Cauley-Stein has arguably been the most impactful player in college basketball this season. Kentucky is undefeated through its first 13 games – which featured quality opponents such as Kansas, Texas, North Carolina, California Los Angeles and Louisville – due to its defense. The Wildcats lead the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com, and Cauley-Stein has been the difference maker.

The combination of his physical profile and athleticism makes him a huge asset in rim protection. Cauley-Stein is very aggressive rotating off the weak-side and can elevate off the ground in a pinch. He ranked sixth in the country in blocks last season and his numbers are only down in this one because his frontcourt-mate Karl Towns, Jr. is a capable shot blocker himself, which has given John Calipari the flexibility to have Cauley-Stein defending away from the basket more.

Cauley-Stein is very comfortable moving in space and had already exhibited the ability to guard smaller players on switches, possessing the lateral quickness to keep pace on drives and the closing speed to effectively contest shots on the perimeter. But Calipari has stretched Cauley-Stein some more this season, having him guard Jonathan Holmes for most of the game against Texas and be the man on the top of the full-court press he broke out for a few possessions against Louisville.

He plays with really active hands, often trying to strip opposing big men when they catch the ball in the high post or on the perimeter, and uses his length and quickness to deflect or jump in front of a number of passes around his general area. Cauley-Stein is currently averaging 2.1 steals per 40 minutes and his per-game average ranks fifth among all SEC players.

When I profiled him in the offseason, I mentioned how Cauley-Stein’s toughness is what concerns most regarding his transition to the next level. Because of Towns Jr.’s presence, he hasn’t always matched up with the opponent’s most physical big man this season, but he looked comfortable guarding the likes of Holmes, Myles Turner and Montrezl Harrell, though it’s important to notice all these players are shorter and weaker than him.

His defensive rebounding rate was very underwhelming in SEC play last season, not just because of Julius Randle and Dakari Johnson but also because he often relied on his athleticism to control the glass rather than boxing out opponents and keeping them from getting inside position. That’s still been a problem at times this season but his physical profile and his athletic ability permit him to track the ball off the rim with quickness. As a result, he’s still rebounding at a high level (collecting 17.4 percent of opponents’ misses, according to Basketball Reference) even without full time attention to detail.

Kentucky has a pretty bad offense without much structure, which fails to maximize Cauley-Stein’s top skill on that end of the court. He is a prototype catch-and-score big but the team doesn’t run many pick-and-rolls, so we only get to see him finishing in fast-breaks or off of offensive rebounds. Cauley-Stein is great in transition, sprinting up the court fluidly, proving able to handle the ball on the break and capable of playing above the rim as a target for lobs. He can rebound outside of his area thanks to his seven-foot-two wingspan and has collected 12 percent of Kentucky’s misses for the third straight year. According to Hoop Math.com, Cauley-Stein has shot 76 percent on 58 attempts at the rim and transformed 17 of his 31 offensive rebounds into putbacks.

But Cauley-Stein’s lack of touch on non-dunk opportunities remains the same. He is an explosive leaper but can’t hang in the air and struggles to make layups around length. Kentucky is going to him in the post more often this season and Cauley-Stein has flashed a soft touch on a turnaround, right-handed hook when he gets separation. Nevertheless, his footwork is not always polished and he has consistently bricked those looks (21 misses on 31 two-point jump-shots) when contested, which happens often because Kentucky can’t generate any spacing around him.

On a high note, Cauley-Stein is improving his foul shooting percentage for the third straight season. He doesn’t bend his knees but has been very calm going through his progression at the foul line, flexing his elbows and flicking his wrist consistently well, only struggling with the force with which he releases the ball – sometimes short-arming, sometimes bricking. His turnovers are also down, which is another promising sign for his long-term development.

Editor’s Note: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at Upside & Motor, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara.

Advertisements

Serge Ibaka Scouting Report

(Originally posted at BballBreakdown)

Most people probably viewed Serge Ibaka peaking as a menace shot blocker and a volume rebounder when he first entered the NBA as a 20-year old. The evolution of his individual skill-set season after season is a huge testament to his work ethic and the Thunder’s player development program.

In his sixth season, Ibaka has completed the expansion of his scoring zone. He’s gone from proving capable of hitting the eventual long-two when left open in his first year to now taking over a quarter of his shots from three-point range and 80.7% of such shots from above the break. Ibaka quickly developed into one of the league’s very best mid-range shooters by his third season and it makes sense that the Thunder have attempted to extract the most value out of this skill by selectively sending him to the corner these previous two seasons and now parking him on the wings with more frequency.

In a vacuum, this has been a success. It might seem a bit excessive that Ibaka is on pace to triple his career high in three-point attempts, but he has hit his 113 long range shots at a 40.7% clip. Of particular importance is the fact that the Thunder were able to get him open (i.e. shooting with no defender within four feet) on 101 of his 113 three-point attempts, according to NBA.com’s SportVU tracking technology. This is important, for Ibaka is not a complete shooter yet. He has a rather natural stroke for a big guy, but doesn’t have a particularly quick release and needs the extra time to load his shot in rhythm, missing eight of his 11 contested three-point attempts so far.

While Ibaka is producing at an above average clip from beyond the arc, the increase of possessions in which he spots up in the perimeter has cost him production around the basket, where he was once an elite player. According to basketball-reference.com, Ibaka is taking less than a quarter of his shots at the rim this season, after taking almost a third of them there the previous two seasons. He’s a truly great finisher at the basket due to his ability to play above the rim as target for lobs, the speed and force with which he can attack off the catch diving down the lane with momentum, and his activity on the offensive glass. According to nbasavant.com, dunks and tip shots accounted for 24.2% of his 501 two-point field goals last season. But we are seeing far less of that this season.

Ibaka gets most of his mid-range jump-shots out of pick-and-pops with Russell Westbrook, so his long-two point jumpshot rate has only slightly declined, and is still large enough to represent over a quarter of his shots. What has changed however is, on those possessions where Ibaka is on the weak-side, he is no longer cutting baseline or establishing rebounding position below the rim as much due to his tendency to spot up from beyond the arc a lot more. He collected 10% of Oklahoma City’s misses last season and ranked in the top 10 in the league in this category a couple of seasons ago, but that number is now down to just 7.3%. Dunks and tip shots have accounted for just 25 of his 145 two-point field goals this season, and he is averaging less than two free throws per 36 minutes.

While one can understand why Oklahoma City is developing Ibaka into a player with an unlimited scoring zone, one also ponders if by doing so they aren’t failing to maximize what he does best and what the eventual net gain is. Ibaka is extracting that extra point of value out of his spot-up jump-shooting, but he’s averaging the same scoring per 36 minutes as a season ago on roughly the same usage rate, and his effective field goal percentage is down a bit as an effect of operating farther away from the rim.

Perhaps Oklahoma City’s motivation is hidden below the surface. In a breakdown of the Thunder’s game four loss to the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, Coach Nick raised the question of whether Ibaka could be one of the reasons why the Thunder don’t run a more complex offense. If that’s the case, by developing Ibaka into a player who can be parked anywhere beyond the three-point line on the weak-side late in games, Oklahoma City can try running better plays (with Durant screening, perhaps) than it has been able to with Ibaka potentially failing to recognize what’s needed of him based on how the opposing defense is reacting.

It is of huge importance for the Thunder to have Ibaka on the floor late in the game because of his help defense. While he doesn’t play position defense at the same level that Andrew Bogut and Tyson Chandler do, for example, Ibaka is an elite rim protector due to his shot blocking skills. He has great quickness for somebody his size rotating off the weak-side, elevating off the ground in a pinch and using his nine-foot-three standing reach to erase layup attempts. Ibaka led the league in blocks last season and currently ranks second in this one. Opponents are shooting just 41.9% at the rim with him protecting it – the fifth best mark among players who defend a minimum of five shots at the rim per game, according to SportVU.

Logging more minutes with Steven Adams than the floor-bound Kendrick Perkins has affected Ibaka’s defensive rebounding rate some. Nevertheless, he remains a good rebounder, who looks to box out consistently on long-range shots and can get off the ground quicker to track the ball off the rim than most opposing big men. Most importantly, perhaps, he has proven able to box out bigger players thanks to the strength in his 220-pound frame, which is vital for Oklahoma City’s flexibility to downsize with Durant as a big man in the second half of important games. He is the rebounder and defender that this team – every team – needs, and year on year, he has improved and expanded his offensive game.

So many factors went into Sam Presti’s decision to trade James Harden in order to maintain financial flexibility for a longer period. One of them was him prioritizing getting Ibaka signed first, likely because he envisioned Ibaka developing into the perfect hybrid big man to complement Westbrook’s and Durant’s style of play. And with the addition of his jumpshot range, it has worked out that way.

Editor’s Note: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at Upside & Motor, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara.

Andrew Bogut Scouting Report

(Originally posted at BballBreakdown)

Stephen Curry is playing at a ridiculous high level right now. His .594 effective field goal percentage ranks seventh in the league, but three of the players ahead of him are centers who do most of their shooting at the rim. At the helm of a more dynamic attack than he was a part of last season, Curry is also complementing his prolific shooting by ranking fifth in assist rate. He is an offense all to himself, a destroyer of defensive schemes, and the difference-making star his Golden State Warriors team had not had for almost 20 years.

But as great of a player as Curry is, Golden State’s championship odds reside just as much in Andrew Bogut’s ankles as Steph’s.

Unless you have LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers shutting down passing lanes and flying all over the perimeter, it is essentially impossible to win a title without rim protection. The Warriors have several plus-defenders on the wing (Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson, Shaun Livingston and Harrison Barnes) but Bogut remains the key component of the unit drilled into excellence by Mike Malone and taken over by Ron Adams, which currently leads the league in scoring allowed per possession.

With Adams on board, Golden State is running a version of Tom Thibodeau’s strong-side zone guarding of the pick-and-roll, which asks perimeter players to go over the screen and keep the opponent from getting to the middle of the floor, funneling them into the big man who must position himself to cut the path to the basket or challenge a drive from a position of leverage. Bogut has been excellent as the linchpin of such scheme. While his stance is not quite textbook (probably because he cannot bend much at this point of his career), Bogut moves exceptionally well laterally and plays great position defense.

Bogut has a well documented long history of injuries, but it is one composed of freaky occurrences. The most impactful issues of his career were the broken ankle suffered in 2012, that time Amar’e Stoudemire broke his arm and the rib fracture that kept him sidelined through the 2014 postseason. Without ever having had major problems to his feet and knees, Bogut seems to have preserved most of the athleticism that makes him a superior kind of seven-footer, which has translated in his short range quickness rotating off the weak-side and elevation to block shots. He has blocked 33 shots in 16 appearances (a top five mark) and held opponents to 39.7% shooting at the rim – third best among players who have logged a minimum of 20 minutes per game and defended five shots at the basket per game.

David Lee has logged only seven minutes played so far this season and his absence has affected the Warriors’ defensive rebounding, which has declined from fifth last year to 13th this. Bogut has kept them at least average in this department, however, collecting 27.1% of opponent misses when he is on the floor, which ranks 11th in the league. He is often in position to control the glass due to the nature of his size and general role within Golden State’s scheme, but what makes him above average is his diligence in boxing out and activity tracking the ball off the rim.

The size that makes it hard for opponents to rebound when he is around also makes it challenging for them to score on him in the post. Bogut manages to absorb contact without giving up his base due to the strength in his 245-pound frame. Brook Lopez, the league’s premier post scorer in the age of no post scoring, did not have much success backing him down and creating separation to get his shots off when the two met a couple of weeks ago. Andre Drummond is not a good post scorer against anyone, but he looked even more inept against Bogut on Sunday.

But as much of a difference maker as he is on defense, and as much as the Warriors rely on him because of his proficiency on that end, Bogut has also become a truly vital player on offense due to the addition of Steve Kerr. Golden State ran some good looking pet sets under Mark Jackson, but overall the offense was not as dynamic as it should have been given the personnel he had to work with. The Warriors went into the low post quite a lot under Jackson, and when they did not have a clear mismatch to take advantage with their wings, they ran straight pick-and-rolls with Curry at the top. Curry is excellent, and the odds of him getting a good shot for himself or others are always good. But there was this constant feeling that the Warriors were not maximizing this great asset, the league’s leader in gravitational pull. And that was translated on the Warriors ranking a mere 12th in scoring per possession last season.

The offense is still posting an average rating under Kerr, only ranking eighth in offensive efficiency so far this season, per NBA.com statistics. But it has been a much different looking kind of average, mostly only kept average because of a sky high turnover rate. Kerr has emphasized more ball movement and player movement, and as a result, Golden State is averaging roughly 69 more passes per game this season in comparison to last one, improving from last in the league to 11th.
And Bogut has been at the center of this improvement.

Bogut has excellent ball skills for someone his height, and Kerr has fully utilized them to feature him as a hub for shot creation from the high post. The shooters (Curry, Thompson) constantly dart towards him for catch-and-shoot or one-dribble pull-ups off his dribble hand-offs, and the athletes (Barnes, Iguodala, Leandrinho Barbosa, Draymond Green) cutting backdoor for catch-and-finish looks at the rim. Using Bogut in this way is a principle Kerr has transferred from San Antonio’s magnificent offense. Whenever it stalls midway through or late in the shot clock, Gregg Popovich has taught his best players to run at the ball-handler and run some variation of a two-man game. Imitating this has maximized the value of Bogut’s passing, and his 18.2% assist rate ranks second among centers, behind only Joakim Noah’s. The risk involved is reflected in his turnover rate, a sky high 22.9% in the context of his 14.5% usage rate – bad passes account for 14 of his 31 giveaways, according to basketball-reference. But that turnover risk comes with the territory in regards to playmaking.

Bogut could only be more perfect for this principle if he were Kevin Love and could also shoot jump shots off of fake hand-offs. That is not the case, however. Bogut’s scoring zone is limited to inside 10 feet, as he has only shot roughly 32.5% outside that range in his NBA career. That lack of shooting skill is also reflected at the foul line, as he has hit his free throws at a historically poor 56.1% clip. That problem does not manifest itself much in the flow of the game because Bogut rarely draws shooting fouls, at least – his free throw rate has consistently declined since that fall that broke his arm in 2010, to a point where he now averages less than one attempt per game.

Some of this is explained by his role in the offense, where he is often working in an area where he is not a scoring threat and therefore is never fouled in the act of shooting there. But some of it is also a general lack of aggressiveness looking for the contact when he is in the post. Bogut does not get isolated in the low block much these days, and when he does, he is more often looking to hit a cutter darting towards the rim. But when he is looked to finish, Bogut has shown a strong preference for a turnaround left-handed hook falling away from the opponent. That move has been effective on its own (Bogut has shot 13-for-28 on hook shots this season, according to nbasavant.com) but it has not helped generate free throws.

Although a decent post scorer, the majority of Bogut’s points come at the rim via pick-and-rolls and putbacks. Those dribble hand-offs used to set up catch-and-shoots for Curry and Thompson have also often led to lobs for Bogut diving to the basket. As mentioned previously, he is moving very comfortably at this point and that has translated into sharp cutting on these plays. He remains capable of playing above the rim as a target for alley-oops, and although he is not the constant threat guys like Tyson Chandler and Dwight Howard are with their elite athleticism, Bogut’s effectiveness in this area comes from his soft hands to catch the ball on the move and his great touch to finish at rim level. 54.1% of his shots have been in the restricted area, and he has hit them at a 71.7% clip.

Due to the nature of his role in Golden State’s offense, Bogut is below the rim a little less often now when the shooters take those long range bombs, and his offensive rebounding rate has declined this season. Nevertheless, when he is positioned to chase misses, Bogut remains a difficult behemoth to box out due to the combination of his size and general activity. His seven-foot-three wingspan also helps him rebound outside of his area, and despite the small decline he is averaging three offensive rebounds per 36 minutes, which is still a decent number.

Injuries derailed the end of Bogut’s tenure in Milwaukee, to such a frustrating point where he ended up traded for Monta Ellis. Ellis did not move the needle for the Bucks, which continues cycling through mediocrity – in large part because Bogut’s replacement, Larry Sanders, had his development stagnated by injury as well. Golden State, meanwhile, won what has become a very lopsided trade. On first thought, it can be a bit stunning to see how many strong points Bogut has in his game when he is at full health. But then you remember he was drafted number one overall; he is supposed to be this good. So good, in fact, that Golden State’s shot at the title reside on his ankles just as much as Curry’s.

Editor’s Note: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at Upside & Motor, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara.

Nikola Vucevic Scouting Report

(Originally posted at BballBreakdown)

As first reported by the Orlando Sentinel, the Orlando Magic and Nikola Vucevic reached an agreement yesterday on a four-year, $53-million extension that will keep the young center under contract through 2019.

Neither the monetary figure nor the deal in itself is particularly surprising. There is a new financial landscape in place in the NBA now due to the signing of the new television rights contract, and the first group helped by it is constituted of players like Vucevic, with just enough production and promise left as they get in line for their second NBA contract. Orlando’s front office is now entering the third year of its post-Dwight Howard rebuilding, and it identified Vucevic as a linchpin back when it started this process by trading Dwight Howard. And while he does not appear to be developing into one of the 10 most impactful centers in the league, he is one of the 10 most productive.

With three years remaining on Victor Oladipo’s rookie deal and four in those of Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon, Vucevic’s extension is by no means crippling to Orlando’s cap sheet. Other spending will of course still need to happen during the term of Vucevic’s extension, but their core will stay cheap for a while yet. Vucevic represents the largest expense so far and at any point in the near future, but with a phenomenal amount of financial flexibility even before the upcoming spike in the salary cap, Orlando can certainly afford this amount. The question is whether the amount is right.

Ultimately, Orlando invested two years developing Vucevic, not just in terms of giving him playing time but also emotionally. After Howard forced his way out and cost the franchise Stan Van Gundy in the process, Vucevic has become part of their culture and a certain part of their core, in comparison to the less certain prognoses of others such as Tobias Harris, Moe Harkless, Andrew Nicholson and head coach Jacque Vaughn. Even if Vucevic does not develop into more than what he is now – very much a worse case scenario considering his age – the Magic are retaining him at fair market value, especially in light of comparable deals elsewhere this summer – the Washington Wizards, for example, signed the considerably older Marcin Gortat to a five-year, $60 million contract. Bigs, of course, have always cost more.

Entering his age-24 season, Vucevic is an average scorer at this point. He dealt with injuries that limited him to just 57 appearances last season, yet his 1.16 point per shot average was in line with his 1.12 career average, and low for a center. His main role in Orlando’s offense was as a finisher off of ball-screens, but despite this, Vucevic is only an iffy screener, in part because the Magic’s guards were not particularly great at leading on-ball defenders into him and he often needed to drag his leg in order to draw contact. For a guy listed at seven-feet tall and 250 pounds, Vucevic is not all that big in comparison to other NBA centers and opponents managed to navigate around his picks without much struggle.

Orlando ran a lot of pick-and-rolls from about 28 to 30 feet away from the basket, and Vucevic showed good hands to catch the ball on the move and good quickness when diving down the lane with momentum. But he does not play above the rim as a target for lobs (only 19 alley-oop scores in his three-year NBA career) or play with a lot of explosiveness through traffic. And with Orlando’s inability to generate any sort of spacing last season, there was a lot of traffic inside the lane. As a result, he shot just 42% out of the pick-and-roll.

Popping into the in-between range, Vucevic was elite, hitting his 254 shots at a 44.5% clip. He is a very good jump-shooter off the catch due to smooth mechanics, a quick trigger in comparison to other big men, and a high release point. This is also reflected in his 76.7& foul line shooting, and perhaps Orlando should attempt to extract higher value from his jumpshooting by having him develop into a stretch five, stretching out the jump shot he already has. It seems like a waste of a rare shooting talent not to, especially considering that Vucevic does not earn free throws at a rate expected of someone his size (shooting a single foul shot for every five field goals he attempted last season).

As a shot creator, Vucevic improved a lot from his second season and did rather well in the post. He lacked strength to back opponents down or create much separation, but nevertheless proved quite effective with his turnaround jump-shots and hooks, capable of releasing over either shoulder, even when well contested. His 46& shooting on post-ups ranked him in the top 100 in the league. He is a capable passer out of there, too, identifying shooters rotating into open spots on the perimeter, although he is far from the type of player who can ignite consistent ball movement at this point.

Vucevic’s strengths and weakness are roughly the same on the other end. He played very impressive post defense, allowing just 0.72 points per possession, which ranked him 43rd in the league. He surrendered deep position at times, and struggled to hold his ground against stronger players but kept himself alive in these plays and contested shots extremely well thanks to his length. That length also helped him challenge a lot of close range shots, although it did not translate into quality rim protection, as opponents shot 56.6% at the basket with him protecting it. Vucevic is a capable shot blocker on occasion and has flashed decent quickness rotating from the weak side, but either he was coached to stay bound to the ground or he simply does not feel as comfortable leaving his feet. As a result, his mere lengthy presence was not as effective as hoped.

Vucevic also was not very effective contesting shots out of the pick-and-pop. The Magic had Vucevic guarding the ball screen flat, positioning himself at the foul line, even against notoriously good mid-range shooters, for it was the best he could do. Vucevic has good feet to move in space, but lacks great short range quickness to be effective against these plays. Overall, Orlando allowed almost a point and a half less per 100 possessions without him in the line-up.

A player of average efficiency on offense and negative impact on defense, Vucevic’s difference making skill is as a rebounder. He collected 66.5 percent of available boards last season, which ranked 10th in the league among big men who logged a minimum of 20 games and 20 minutes per game. Vucevic has very good instincts tracking the ball off the rim a split second quicker than the opposition, and can rebound outside of his area due to his seven-foot-four wingspan. He is also very active fighting for tipped balls thanks to impressive “second jump-ability” (term coined by Jay Bilas). Tip-ins and put-back layups accounted for 98 of his 181 field-goals at the rim.

By re-signing Vucevic now rather than letting him reach restricted free agency next summer, the Magic are counting on him having a better season and making that deal look better after the fact. The Raptors, for example, lucked out when doing that with DeMar DeRozan. Orlando worked this offseason on making sure there is a better ecosystem around Vucevic for that to happen – after drafting Oladipo last year, the Magic added two more athletes with the same defensive pedigree in Payton and Gordon to play in front of him, a signed star role player Channing Frye in free agency to open up the lane some on offense. Yet the supporting cast can only do so much. The real justification for the paycheck can only come from Vucevic. And when still stuck with defensive concerns and offensive inefficiency, Vucevic has a way to go yet.

Editor’s Note: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at Upside & Motor, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara.

Willie Cauley-Stein Scouting Report

Willie Cauley-Stein would have surely been a lottery pick on this year’s draft and last one’s too. Yet he’s returning for his junior season at Kentucky. This is as uncommon as it gets these days. According to rumors, Cauley-Stein comes from a family with financial stability and doesn’t need to hurry to start receiving NBA paychecks. And if he really likes the environment at Kentucky and wants to stick around a little while longer, there is nothing wrong with it.

Cauley-Stein is prepared to play in the NBA right now, though. He is a prototypical Tyson Chandler prospect; a rim protector who can catch-and-score out of the pick-and-roll on the other end.

The 21-year-old has great mobility for someone his size (seven-feet, 244 pounds), which makes him a great asset defending the pick-and-roll. John Calipari had Kentucky showing-and-recovering and at times switching against the ball-screen and Cauley-Stein was very good, particularly impressive when forced to guard smaller players in space. He can’t bend his knees much but got in as much of a stance as he could and displayed lateral quickness to stay in front and contain dribble penetration through contact. He played with active hands and his three percent steal rate ranked 10th in the SEC.

His biggest impact on defense came out of his shot blocking, though. Cauley-Stein showed excellent instincts rotating off the weak side and great timing elevating to contest shots. His 12.3 percent block rate led the conference and he averaged only 4.5 personal fouls per 40 minutes.

His toughness is what concerns most regarding his transition to the next level. A strong but smaller opponent like Cory Jefferson was able to push him around in the post, but his rebounding is the most head-scratching aspect of his game. Cauley-Stein collected just 13.4 percent of opponents’ misses last season. It’s important to put those numbers in context; he shared all of his minutes with either Julius Randle or Dakari Johnson, two great rebounders on their own. But Cauley-Stein too often wanted to rely on his athleticism to control the glass rather than boxing out opponents and keep them from getting position below the rim.

Kentucky played far better defense with him rather than without him on the floor, though. The Wildcats gave up only 91.5 points per 100 possessions in 880 minutes with Cauley-Stein in the lineup and 100.1 overall, the difference between the ninth- and the 78th-best defenses in college basketball, according to Ken Pomeroy.

When Kentucky forced misses, Cauley-Stein flashed his athleticism as an option in transition. He sprints down the court far faster than most players his size at this level of competition due to his long strides. On the break, Cauley-Stein can go from the top of the key to the rim in two steps.

Kentucky didn’t run many pick-and-rolls in the half-court but when it did, Cauley-Stein either preferred or was coached to slip screen, prioritizing diving down the lane quickly rather than drawing full contact. He showed great hands to catch the ball on the move, was a target for lobs the few times Kentucky’s guards managed to get him the ball there and flashed decent touch to finish at rim level. 74 percent of his shots were within five feet of the rim and he finished them at a 73 percent clip.

Índice2

His athleticism also translated in the offensive glass, where Cauley-Stein is able to rebound outside of area due to the combination of his leaping ability, timing chasing the ball off the rim and seven-foot-two wingspan. He grabbed 11.5 percent of Kentucky’s misses, which ranked seventh in the conference. Second chance opportunities are gold and as a result, Kentucky averaged 122.8 points per possessions with Cauley-Stein on the floor and just 112.4 overall.

Away from the basket area, Cauley-Stein is a far less positive presence. His frame helps him set good position in the post but his moves are all unpolished at this point and his hooks are low percentage attempts, as he made just 37.7 percent of his 77 shots away from the rim. He struggles when double-teamed or crowded and turned it over on 14.3 percent of Kentucky’s possessions when he was on the floor, which is not necessarily low in the context of his 14.7 percent usage rate. Cauley-Stein is not an option to short his rolls and find shooters in the perimeter at this point and also missed over half of his free throws last season.

Editor’s Note: Statistical data for this post was researched at Upside & Motor, kenpom.com, basketball-reference and hoop-math

Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at Upside & Motor, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara.

Domantas Sabonis Scouting Report

(Originally posted at Upside & Motor)

It was always a possibility Domantas Sabonis would go to college in the United States, since he declined to earn a salary in Spain specifically in order to maintain his eligibility. But it was nonetheless surprising when the son of the great Lithuanian legend confirmed he would be joining the Gonzaga Bulldogs for next season, after he was just given 521 minutes of quality pro level experience with Unicaja Malaga in the Spanish league and the Euroleague at age 17. In an interview with FIBA’s YouTube channel, he revealed the option to play for Mark Few’s coaching staff was made with the intention to work on his individual skill-set.

But before moving to Spokane, Sabonis led the Lithuanian national team to a seventh-place finish in the FIBA European championships U18, which ended on Sunday. And he was dominant in the aspects you would expect someone who already played against grown men to be against teenagers. Listed at six-foot-eight and 215 pounds, Sabonis was an elite athlete for this level of competition, which translated best in transition, in the post and on the glass.

He was able to establish deep position on the block due his quickness navigating the baseline in order to set up on the opposite side of where he was when the play began and also due to his core strength on straight post ups with his back to the basket. Sabonis displayed very good footwork and decent touch to score at rim level but struggled against Croatia and Serbia, two teams with elite size, which lowered his efficiency at the rim to an underwhelming 61.4% on 57 attempts. He strongly favored finishing with his left hand; hooking over his left shoulder or laying it in when he turned left and throwing a little push-up shot when he opted to go right.

Sabonis drew fouls at a very high rate, averaging 5.4 per 28 minutes, but didn’t materialize it into a real significant plus for Lithuania’s scoring as he made just 23 of his 40 free throws. Though left-handed, he shoots his free throws with his right hand. He impressed with his passing, especially out of the low post to the weak side, and averaged 3.6 assists per 28 minutes, which was well above average among positional peers. He was a really impactful force on the glass thanks to his general activity and edge in athleticism against the average competition, averaging three offensive rebounds per 28 minutes, which ranked sixth in the tournament.

Sabonis looked great in the open court, sprinting very fluidly, and even flashed the ability to lead the break. On the pick-and-roll, he was a good screener who looked to draw contact and showed good hands to catch the ball on the move but didn’t really play above the rim. Sabonis proved himself a good face-up driver at this level, with long strides attacking from the perimeter and looking to dribble the ball low in traffic. But he struggled with his handle and passing on the move, turning it over 3.2 times per 28 minutes, with those two aspects accounting for 16 of his 29 giveaways in the play-by-play data.

His jump-shot was a legit weapon against the soft defense played at this level. Sabonis gets very little elevation and has a slow release but hit a high rate when left open. Like most left handed shooters, he doesn’t angle his body straight towards the basket but rather on a 45 degree angle. He hit 47% of his 49 jump-shots, including four of 10 from three-point range.
His core strength translated into tough post defense, even against players with bigger frames such as Marko Arapovic. And he dominated the glass on that end as well, leading the tournament with nine rebounds per 28 minutes. But Sabonis wasn’t a particularly impactful player on defense. He flashed his athleticism on a few blocks and playing the passing lanes to manufacture turnovers but was unable to anchor the talent around him into an above average unit, as Lithuania allowed the sixth most points in the 16-nation tournament.

Editor’s Note: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at Upside & Motor, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara.

Li Muhao Scouting Report

Li Muhao seems to have taken a step forward in his development last season. He logged a career high 763 minutes for Dongguan and led the Chinese league in scoring per shot, averaging 1.78 on 176 attempts. Dongguan was swept by Xianjing in the semifinals but Li dropped a 17-point outing on eight-of-nine shooting in the elimination game.

But that growing curve stalled a bit in the 2014 Stankovic Cup held in Luoyang, which ended on Monday. With Wang Zhelin available (which wasn’t the case in the Sino-Australia challenge) and Qi Zhou getting a surprising 34 minutes, Li was held to just 24 in three appearances. He was specially limited in the final game against Angola, used for this evaluation.

Li is no longer that skinny kid we saw when Duke visited China a few years ago. He is currently listed at 238 pounds, with noticeable upper body strength, and was even rumored to be out of shape in a pre-draft workout for NBA teams a couple of months ago. With that weight distributed in his seven-foot-two of height, Li now possesses a large frame.

That frame helps him set deep position on the block, where he looked mechanical with his moves and favored finishing with his left hand but flashed rather nice footwork with his back to the basket and touch to score at rim level when he got separation. Li played with some power in the soft environment of the Chinese league, with over a quarter of his field goals coming off dunks, but struggled to finish through contact in this setting. And he is not much of a passer.

His propensity to draw shooting fouls held, though. After averaging 4.6 free throws per 28 minutes last season, he took a foul shot every three minutes last weekend. Li is an OK foul shooter considering his size. He looked capable of bending his knees and flexing his elbows enough, hitting six of his eight attempts in Luoyang and 82 of his 127 in the Chinese league.

Li showed himself an effective screener due to his frame, as defenders struggled to navigate around his wide body. He set numerous illegal picks, though, and was called for them enough times for it to be a problem. Li didn’t prove himself able to cut hard to the basket off the ball-screen and put pressure on the defense but has looked able to catch the ball on the move off a diagonal pass in the past.

He flashed a catch-and-shoot jump-shot from mid-range, which he probably worked harder to develop when he was skinny and limited within close range. Li actually gets off the ground (most players of his size don’t) but gets little elevation and has a slow trigger. He’s capable of hitting it if left completely open, though. Li’s not as effective on the glass as his size would suggest because he simply doesn’t play with enough activity and is therefore unable to rebound outside of his area at this point.

The Chinese head coach had his big men defending the pick-and-roll by hedging way high on the perimeter and Li was absolutely not suited for this strategy. He possesses limited lateral mobility and looked completely exposed in space in several occasions. It’s very difficult to understand the rationale behind intentionally sending a seven-foot-two, 238-pound center away from the rim.

When positioned on the weak side, he was adequate rotating to provide help defense and actively got off the ground to contest shots, which is something you don’t always see from players his size. Li ranked sixth in the Chinese league among centers in block rate last season. He played tough post defense but was very slow running back up the court.

Though a difficult body to rebound around due to his frame and able to get off the ground to grab the ball at a higher point than most of his opponents, Li was still also a poor rebounder on this end. He looked to box out but lacked the quickness reacting off the rim, controlling just four defensive rebounds in his 24 minutes and fewer than 15% of opponents’ misses in the Chinese league, which was below average among position peers.

Editor’s Note: Statistical data for this post was researched at basketball.realgm.com and sina.com

Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at Upside & Motor, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara.