The early returns of the 2017 NBA Draft have been outstanding, bringing a wealth of young talent into the league. The draft has had everything from high-usage guards (Donovan Mitchell, Dennis Smith Jr), impressive transition players (Lonzo Ball, Frank Ntilikina), and what looks like some of the league’s best up and coming wing players (Jayson Tatum, Kyle Kuzma, OG Anunoby). Anunoby, and Tatum reside on the top two teams in the eastern conference in Boston, and Toronto. Meanwhile Kuzma is out in Laker-Land running in transition with Lonzo Ball, and toiling away in the bottom of the western conference.
One thing that ties these three players together is composure. Anunoby has achieved cult status in Toronto for his elite defense, and demeanor, mostly speaking to media and fans in dead-pan. Kuzma seems to be the lone bright spot on the Lakers in a year full of drama, and a disappointing start for Lonzo Ball. On top of that, he often exhibits characteristics – that were made famous by former Laker D’angelo Russell – of having “Ice in his veins”. Most succinctly, Tatum was bred for the NBA. His parents taking a direct approach of methodically preparing him for a future in the NBA.
With Anunoby displaying significantly less offensive upside than both Tatum, and Kuzma, it’s important for him to make good on his elite defensive potential. Coming off of a torn ACL, the expectation was that Anunoby wouldn’t be back for a long period of time, and that he may have lost some of his athletic explosion. The latter has been correct, Anunoby has definitely lost some of his explosion on his first step, in addition to being less dynamic in the air, and around the rim. From the start of the year to now, he’s definitely made strides in that area, and you can see him starting to gain back his elite athleticism. The most important part is the fact that he’s been playing since the start of the year, effectively recovering from his ACL tear roughly 3 months earlier than expected. On top of all this, Anunoby has been a bonified defensive stalwart for the Raptors, and he’s been more than competent shooting from downtown (another concern around the draft).
The Raptors invested heavily into Norman Powell (4 years $42 million), and he’s been in what amounts to a season long slump. The Raptors also traded for CJ Miles in the offseason, and signed him to a 3-year $25-million-dollar contract. All things considered, it looked as if the Raptors could afford to bring Anunoby along slowly. It ended up that Anunoby would end up being an irreplaceable cog for the Raptors, becoming one of the NBA’s elite “net rating” players along the way.
Anunoby is a “cure-all” for the Raptors. DeMar DeRozan is likely going to start in the NBA All-Star game this year, he’s been fantastic. Almost as impressive as that, is how much Anunoby aids DeRozan on the floor, or any player for that matter. Incredibly, the Raptors are almost never losing, when Anunoby is on the floor. His floor-spacing mixed with his elite defense has helped the Raptors become the greatest team that the franchise has ever had. For the first year the Raptors are looked on favourably by analytics, and they’re flourishing in traditional stats as well. The Raptors of course are driven by DeRozan and Lowry, but Anunoby’s ability to slide in perfectly next to players like this in his first year is very Kawhi Leonard-esque.
With the Raptors as 1-of-2 teams that possess an offensive and defensive officiency in the top 10 – Raptors and Warriors – it’s clear what Anunoby means to this team. He’s got an outstanding defensive rating of 102 (NBA.com/stats) and despite often lining up with opposing team’s best wing threats, he’s still holding players to below league average shooting splits. A stand-out game against James Harden holding him to 8-25 shooting, and offensively 20 points on 7-9 (6-7 from three) against Charlotte in a win. It’s safe to say Anunoby has cemented himself as a huge piece in Toronto’s future.
Taking it to the west coast, and stumbling across a Lakers team that is 15-29, and the main draw of the team seems to be Lonzo Ball and all the Big Baller Brand drama that comes with him. If you take a closer look you can see one of the biggest steals of the 2017 NBA Draft. Kuzma is by no means a flashy player, the same way Jakob Poeltl, and Delon Wright aren’t. All 3 of these players came out of Utah, and all 3 were impressive in the NBA from the jump. Kuzma has a polish to his game that many didn’t see, and his offensive IQ is something that most players never find in the league. Shabazz Muhammad is a large guard in the NBA, but his play style had him in such close proximity to the basket that we saw him set the record for highest amount of hook-shots taken by a guard per-36. To be very clear, a hook-shot is almost always a bad shot to take for a guard or a wing. LeBron is one of the most dominant players of all time, often has a size mismatch, and even he thinks twice about taking a hook-shot. However, Kyle Kuzma has made the hook-shot a viable part of his arsenal.
In the video above you’ll see Kuzma attack a close-out. He doesn’t possess elite athleticism on the wing, and his original attack of the close-out is largely unsuccessful. He creates no space, and is met by the chest of Josh Jackson. The moves he puts on display afterwards are an example of his impressive floor game. Two things happen that are important; Kuzma realizes he can’t use his momentum to take a running hook-shot because help-side defense is coming, so he shifts all of his momentum into a post-up. Next, he waits for the help-side defense to give him the single coverage matchup he wants, and he efficiently throws his body into Jackson (putting him on his heels, taking away his ability to contest) and takes a step into the empty paint for an easy hook-shot. It’s paramount to Kuzma’s game that he gets himself easy looks in the paint, because he doesn’t possess the athleticism to finish over imposing paint protectors. This is one spotlight of an IQ that Kuzma is always putting on display, he’s a savvy offensive operator, and shows flashes of a game similar to of Paul Pierce.
Paul Pierce happens to be 5th all time on the 3-pointers made list, and Kuzma shows great acumen from beyond the arc. Kuzma has a slow jump-shot (he works the ball from below his waist all the way through his right shoulder) but it’s consistent and smooth. He’s worked out the hitch he had in college, and earlier parts of the season, and projects as a +40 percent shooter from the corners and on catch and shoot opportunities. He’s still quite young, and if he can reliably nail down his off-the-ball shooting, it leaves him with plenty of time to work in a pull-up jumper – he still leaves a lot to be desired pulling up – as he’s currently shooting a paltry 36 percent on pull-ups across the board.
Boston had the first overall pick headed into the NBA draft in 2017, and elected to trade down to the 3rd overall pick. On their way they scooped up an extra draft pick from the 76ers and at 3rd they chose Jayson Tatum. Donovan Mitchell has been uber-impressive in Utah, but to most people – pundits and fans alike – it seems clear that Tatum is the player to be had from this draft. A long, smooth athlete, Tatum steps through the paint and to the rim with relative ease. His long wingspan makes it easy for him to beat defenders to the glass, and he’s showcased serious defensive chops along with an undeniable offensive polish.
Tatum doesn’t have the raw defensive numbers of Anunoby, but he’s been a more than capable defender for the Celtics this year. The Celtics have been one of the NBA’s elite defensive squads, and a lot of the recognition belongs to Al Horford who has been an excellent leader of their defense. A key compartment in the Celtics defense is their litany of energetic and athletic wings. Jaylen Brown, Tatum, Marcus Smart, and Terry Rozier (the Untradeable one) are all positive impact defenders. A common critique of rookies is their defense, as it’s difficult to get acclimated to NBA defense, and Tatum is hanging in with very good company.
One of the hurdles the Celtics have had this year has been Marcus Smart’s offense. One of the reason’s the Celtics thrive in-spite of Smart’s struggles, is that certain players step up next to him. Tatum shoots a ridiculous 61% from three when sharing the floor with Smart, which no doubt allows the Celtics to give Smart more minutes, and they benefit greatly from his defensive prowess. All this in addition to helping out a lot on the defensive glass – Horford is notoriously weak on the boards – and Tatum has taken up the task of helping out, snatching over 50% of his rebounds within 6 feet of the backboards.
With Tatum possessing the most potential of these three – he looks to be an All-NBA candidate in the next 5 years – it’s likely that he’ll run into the same critiques that great wing players have for millennia. Does he have the killer instinct? Can he score in crunch time? Can he beat the defense with his jumper? LeBron didn’t get that monkey off his back until he finally beat the San Antonio Spurs in the finals (Jumper). Kevin Durant was “soft” until he got Finals MVP (Killer Instinct). Paul George still has his doubters when it comes to crunch time scoring, even though he eviscerated the Raptors in the 2015-16 playoffs.
Luckily for Tatum he’ll be in a position to get crunch time reps from the get-go, and more importantly he’ll be brought up along a dominant clutch-time scorer in Kyrie Irving. Kobe came up with Shaq, Kawhi came up with Tim Duncan, and Kyrie came up with LeBron. It’s important to learn from the best, and Kyrie is one of the most impressive clutch time scorers to ever grace the NBA. Even better than that, Tatum (like Durant before him) is Taylor-made to be a scorer. He’s got good size for the position, he’s long – 6’11” Wingspan – with a tight handle, and he’s a crafty finisher at the rim.
For someone who has lots of years left to grow and learn, Tatum is already an elite finisher at the rim. He finishes shots there at 63 percent, and 4-out-of-10 of his shots are coming in the paint. The video above is just one example, but just watch. He attacks the close-out with ease – defenders are eager to jump because Tatum is elite from 3-point range at 46 percent – and once he knows his defender is behind him, he slows way down to observe the defense, seeing an opportunity at the rim, he kicks it back into high gear before taking off from just below the circle, stretching out completely, and laying it in softly with his off-hand. This is the type of move you can expect to see from players like James Harden, and DeMar DeRozan, both masters of pace, and it’s impressive to see Tatum exhibit similar skill.
The jumper seems to be something he’s got figured out. He’s one of the NBA’s best catch-and-shoot players from downtown at 46 percent, and while he’s hesitant working in a pull-up from 3 (only 6 percent of his takes are pull-up threes) he’s comfortable inside the arc, where he shoots similar mid-range numbers to DeMar DeRozan – the resident mid-range assassin in the NBA – and he’s not shy at all hoisting away from there (21 percent of all shot attempts).
Of the three wing players discussed in this article (Anunoby, Kuzma, Tatum) Tatum’s star shines the brightest, and he’s got incredible potential. It’s funny that the Lakers (eg., Showtime) have a future All-Star under their nose considering LA’s star burns brighter than anyone’s but I’m excited to see Kuzma acknowledge, then conquer his limitations. For Anunoby, he’s loved dearly in Toronto, and has gotten love from a few players including LeBron James, and Kevin Durant. He’s going to grow into a great 3 and D player at the very least.
General Stats for all 3:
OG Anunoby: 6.3 points – 21.6 minutes per game – 37 percent from 3
Kyle Kuzma: 16.5 points – 31.2 minutes per game – 37 percent from 3 – 6.2 rebounds
Jayson Tatum: 13.8 points – 30.9 minutes per game – 46 percent from 3 – 50 percent from the field – 2.3 box score plus-minus
Who do you think will end up being the best player of these three? Let me know on the article, facebook, or on twitter @samfolkk.
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