Blog Entry

NBA Draft: The joy and agony of combo forwards

Posted on: June 21, 2011 7:58 pm
Edited on: June 21, 2011 10:09 pm

Posted by Matt Moore

In every draft there's a gluttony at a position. It never seems to be point guards, though 2009 came close. This year, it's combo forwards.

First there's Derrick Williams, who projects himself as a small forward. But most of the kids project themselves as a small forward, thinking their jumper is good enough and they'll always have that lithe frame. As Williams puts on muscle (or fat) he's likely to morph into more of a stretch four model. His athleticism and explosiveness is good enough to keep him playing on the perimeter, but defensively he's likely to wind up defending bigger players. Which is problematic since he's not as tall as most power forwards. You can see why the movement to get Williams to the top selection (likely) fell short. On the other hand, if he manages to keep his weight down and play the 3 smoothly, his combination of range and athleticism combined with a nasty set of shoulders could put him in great position.

Jan Vesely is the underrated small forward with the height to play power forward. That's right. Derrick Williams will likely wind up playing power forward even though he's too short and Jan Vesely will probably play small forward even though he's 6-11. It's a weird NBA, really. Vesely has incredible explosiveness but needs to be on a team where he can be a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none. He doesn't have a reliable jumper and can be turnover heavy. He actually translates well to a poor man's Josh Smith. Vesely will be a steal at his position while everyone flocks to Enes Kanter who has earned a living in the last three months scoring on chairs.

The Morris twins are both tweeneres that will spend more time at PF than SF mostly due to their more limited athleticism. They do have range (Marcus' obviously being higher), but lack the athleticism to get up and down the floor as a small forward. Still, without dominant size, they're looking at a struggle regardless of position, unless they hit another gear in the NBA.

Chris Singleton is yet another player that's going to drift from position to position. Unlike the Morris twins, he's got the athleticism, but not the range. His rebounding abilities are particularly alluring as a prospect, but he lacks a post game.

Are you sensing a patttern? There is a plethora of combo forwards available and the reason they're combo forwards is that they're incomplete. This is just inside the top 15, before we get to players like Tristan Thompson and Tobias Harris. It's a draft that's rife with holes in talent, and even the talent that is there is more fraught with concerns than the usual.

And still that talent is alluring. That's the thing with combo forwards. No type of player sucks in fans so easily as those with the ability to leap, muscle, hook, run the floor, swat, and still have range. For a long time the myth was based on a fictional player, some sort of hybrid between Magic Johnson and Moses Malone. Then LeBron James came along and made the prototype a reality. Then we all decided we hated him because he's a jerk. But the myth goes on. The idea is for a player with size, length, and athleticism to develop range, handle, and savvy. It's like asking Voltron to strap a transformer to his back. 

The bar has to be much lower for these players. It's often a struggle just to find a place for them, and for them to mold to that spot. This year's class is no exception with a collection of rare strengths and witnesses that make you think the forwards in this class grabbed their attributes blindly from a top hat. 

That's why in this draft, even moreso than in the usual crasphoot that is the yearly selection process, teams need to be cognizant not only of whether the player is a good fit for what they want, but if they are capable of defending that talent. Have an overstock of mid-range shooters but struggle with post scoring? Don't target a player who can't play back to the basket and hope he turns into it. Have issues with developing defensive personnel? Don't bring in the player who lacks awareness. It will only compound your problem.

Sounds obvious, right? Except that traditionally teams are resistant to these ideals instead opting to do what's best for them or aim for talent by default. But this draft allows for some creativity precisely because it isn't stocked, or even partially filled, with All-Stars. Having so many role players and tweeners can be a good thing because it makes every pick that much more crucial. There's no defense for not knowing this is a weak draft class. So teams which are gambling on these forwards need to have a set development plan in place. This is not a "stick them in and see what happens" kind of draft. The convenient part is knowing that ahead of time and planning accordingly.

The myth of the athletic big man is as old as the league itself. Tyrus Thomas, Stromile Swift, Anthony Randolph, even the league's recent history is filled with players of the prototype who can't put the tools together with any skill. They key in the 2011 NBA Draft isn't staying away from any and all combo fowards. It's merely recognizing that best talent available doesn't mean best talent available for your team. Maybe if they can learn that this year, it will become a trend they can use in all situations.

Since: Sep 20, 2006
Posted on: June 22, 2011 6:55 am

NBA Draft: The joy and agony of combo forwards

Coolest cities in the country? Are you on drugs?You want to live where you need bars on the doors and windows of your home to keep people out?

Since: Sep 22, 2006
Posted on: June 22, 2011 4:22 am

NBA Draft: The joy and agony of combo forwards

Nick Collison, at 6'10" 255lbs, is an undersized power forward?

LeBron James only signed a hefty contract in a cool city?  He didn't play god, try to clown his opponents, celebrate early and often when it wasn't called for, annoint himself with fairy dust (yeah, I said it, fairy dust), then demonstrate a tin ear to the public, stage the most shameful press "spectacular" ever seen in athletics, then collapse in crunch time and, blame everyone but himself?  What's not to hate?

The Morris brothers are athletic, beyond comparison to mere mortals, but relative to your "average" NBA small forward?  They don't compare to Tyrus Thomas, it's true, but that's because Thomas was much more athletic, "longer" and a huge head case.

Dirk Nowitzki is/was the model?  The string-bean, can't jump, proto-typical soft European big man who took a few years to even hit the glass, and almost a decade to become "unguardable"?

Do any of us think before we type?

Since: Jan 5, 2007
Posted on: June 22, 2011 3:31 am

NBA Draft: The joy and agony of combo forwards

I agree with you 100% Diegolini. 

Since: Sep 7, 2007
Posted on: June 22, 2011 2:43 am

NBA Draft: The joy and agony of combo forwards

I was enjoying the article until I got to the "until we all decided to hate Lebron" part.  Give it a rest already.  I'm so sick of the media trying to demonize him--and for what?  For taking a sweet contract in one of the coolest cities in the country, maybe world?  For reaching the NBA Finals? 

Since: Jan 30, 2007
Posted on: June 22, 2011 12:43 am

NBA Draft: The joy and agony of combo forwards

The Morris twins lack athleticism? That's funny as I watched nearly every Kansas game this season and I can honestly say I didn't see any lack of athleticism you so boldy state. The fact is the NBA is bloated with tweener forwards playing out of position as there are few dominant, physical big men playing the Center and Power Forward position. Most big men tend to favor perimeter play, and few are truely physical enough to "bang" inside and do the dirty work that the post position demands. Markieff Morris is a 6'10 240lbs. post player who can consistantly knock down the 3 but prefers to bang inside, clean up the glass, and do the dirty work that coaches appreciate. Marcus at 6'9 can legitemately play the 3 or 4, as he has NBA range but has very good post moves and footwork inside. Transition wise both are adept at running the floor and finishing at the rim or knocking down the trailing 3. Along with Derick Williams they are some of the more offensively polished "tweener" forwards to come out in the past couple of drafts. To compare them to such projects as Tyrus Thomas, Stromile Swift, and Anthony Randolph is laughable as they were drafted more on potential based on thier length and "athleticism" but weren't near as polished as Williams and the Morris Twins.

Since: Dec 5, 2006
Posted on: June 21, 2011 11:38 pm

NBA Draft: The joy and agony of combo forwards

Matt, I appreciated your perspective of the combo forward position. Your points are well made and mostly supported. However it appears that you are overvaluing athleticism in the first part and undervaluing it in the second part. You can teach a player a lot of things but not speed, athleticism, and height.

I also question your dismissal of combo forwards being able to defend the PF position. Perhaps the best example of an un-guardable big man this year was Dirk Nowitzke. And by all accounts the player who did guard him the best was an undersized PF in Nick Collison of OKC. Of this year's candidates the Morris twins have had three years of intensive defensive focus at Kansas (also where Nick Collison learned his craft). When Kansas played Arizona, Williams had the better stats but each of the Morris twins was close and together they won the game. They are not as un-athletic you imply. Also of the two, Markieff is the much better outside shooter. (Marcus was 34.2%) In fact with 42.4% 3-point shooting Markieff has opened up the lane for his athletic drives. Markieff is assumed to be the weaker player but looking at the learning curve he is improving while his brother regressed a bit (or moved over for 'Kieff).

This draft has been badmouthed as a weak draft. And perhaps because it is so close to the date, the players are being hyped more now. But reality is there are going to be 10-12 starters in this draft. Finding which one? That is this difficult part. It will certainly also be a factor if a lockout eliminates part of the season as the rookies will not have time to assimilate into their teams and into the NBA. Even so, Thursday is an interesting day where the selection order of picks 3-25 are difficult to pin down. Combo forwards are sure to have a significant effect.

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