Tag Archives: 2010-11 college basketball season

NBA Draft 2011 Preview: Interview with NBA Scouting Director Ryan Blake

I recently spoke with NBA Scouting Director Ryan Blake about the upcoming draft (June 23). He wouldn’t comment on the potential lockout that looms over the league, but he did share his thoughts on the abundance of point guards, questionable decisions by early entries, and sleeper players, among other things.

This year, 69 underclassmen and 20 international players declared for the NBA Draft. Remember, there are only two rounds—a total of 60 selections—so when you factor in the seniors expected to be chosen you’re left with a lot of kids who should have stayed in school. “It’s been the case for quite some time,” Blake said. “The numbers don’t work out. I try to get the information out to the media because people forget all those guys who came out who didn’t make it. I sort of feel like the grand papa who wants to protect the players who may be making mistakes, but sometimes you can’t do it. These guys are going to do what they want. The guys that are pulled into the draft by advisors who want a piece of them and they get burned and don’t get to live out their dreams, that’s when it hits the heart.

“I’m a percentage guy. You want to create the most opportunities to get that guaranteed money by getting drafted in the first round. On the other hand, it only takes one team to like you.”

And teams often seem to fall in love with players at pre-draft workouts. Instead of taking into account a college career—even if it was just one season—scouts and GMs place too much weight on individual workouts. Blake, though, said that is just part of the evaluation process. “Everything is a circle graph and there are little pieces of the pie that go into any decision. When you get into a team’s war room you’re going to have several scouts and everyone is going to have their own opinion.”

Some scouts/teams are better at evaluating international players, of which there are several that could go in this year’s lottery. “San Antonio has done a good job drafting international players,” Blake said, and guys like Tony Parker (28th pick in 2001) and Manu Ginobli (57th, 1999) come to mind. “Many of these players are under contract, but NBA teams don’t have to offer a buyout. They can store the players and let the foreign teams develop them. If you’re drafting late or have multiple picks, that’s a perfect opportunity to take an international player that is already under contract. It’s an investment that doesn’t cost you anything.”

Many of the international players in this draft are big men, while an unusually large number of the college hopefuls are point guards. Blake thinks some of the underclassmen point guards may have been wise to return to school, as they are not just competing against other early entries but also talented senior point guards like Norris Cole and Nolan Smith. “I think some teams are going to say, ‘I need someone in there who has the proven experience that can come off the bench,’” Blake said.

One of those underclassman point guards is Michigan’s Darius Morris (6’4, 190 pounds), who had an incredible sophomore season (15 ppg, 6.7 apg, 2.28 assist-to-turnover ratio) in leading the Wolverines to a surprise appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Morris does have a glaring weakness, however. “He can’t even find the rim outside of 20 feet,” says Blake, a fact corroborated by Morris’ 25 percent mark on three-pointers. Blake did say Morris does a lot of things well, calling him a “lock-down defender” and a “proven floor general.” But he questions if, without a reliable jumper, Morris has the quickness to get by NBA defenders. Think of Rajon Rondo without his quickness: Is that someone you’d want on the court?

Can Darius Morris drive past NBA defenders, too? (Credit: joshuak8)

Texas freshman Cory Joseph (6’3, 185) is another player in the same realm as Morris, according to Blake. “He can penetrate, he can finish, and he’s a pretty good shooter, but he’s more of a combo guard than a point. If a team is playing small ball at times and using two point guards on the floor, he could fit.” Still, given his unimpressive college numbers (10 points, 3 assists), he’s certainly a risk.

Josh Selby (6’2, 183) will likely get taken before either of these players. A top-ranked player coming of out high school, Selby never blossomed during his one year at Kansas, making him an intriguing prospect. In fact, Selby would have been much better off without the NBA age requirement, as he likely would have been a lottery pick in last year’s draft. Now, he could go anywhere from the middle of the first round to the second round.

Blake had a lot of positive things to say about Selby—athletic, attacks the rim, good body, good range on his jumper—but did say he is more of a combo than a true point and that he can get selfish. “You do have those concerns. His assist-to-turnover ratio wasn’t good and he played for a very good team, so he should have done better in that regard. He’s out because he’s got to get out [Selby left school to prepare for the draft shortly after the season ended and didn’t attend classes this past semester], so we hope for the best for him.”

Like Selby, it’s hard to predict exactly where Boston College junior Reggie Jackson (6’3, 208) will be selected. There aren’t too many points guards with a 7’ wingspan, and Jackson’s jumper did improve quite a bit this past season (50 percent from the field; 42 percent from deep), but Blake said he “needs improvement on his shot selection and while he can play both guard spots he still needs work to become point at the NBA level. His breakout year yields confidence—can he continue to supply this evidence in workouts?”

Moving into lottery-pick talents, Blake, like most everyone, is high on BYU senior point guard Jimmer Fredette (6’2, 195). Blake compared Fredette’s anticipatory skills to Jason Kidd and Steve Nash. “He was relied on to score so much and had the bull’s eye on his back and was still able to score—and it wasn’t running off screens, it was with the ball in his hands. The concern that a lot of people talk about is his defense. In going over tapes, his lateral quickness has to become better, but a lot of times he is just trying to stay out of foul trouble which I think he was instructed to do. So he came from behind screens and didn’t hedge.”

Fredette’s lateral quickness raises concerns, but Blake’s theory on his poor defense certainly has merit—Fredette was simply too valuable to his team to sit on the bench with foul trouble, even if it meant conceding a basket or two on the defensive end. As for whether The Jimmer can star at the next level, Blake reminds us that aside from a very special few, “it rarely happens that a player comes in and is the go-to guy. But he can be a contributor. If he is chosen by a veteran team with a veteran point guard, then he’s got a mentor. Do I think he can make an impact by the end of the year, which is what any team wants to have? Yes, and the sky is the limit after that.”

Another potential lottery pick from the Mountain West Conference is San Diego State sophomore forward Kawhi Leonard (6’7, 225), a high-energy guy who plays hard every possession and was the best player on a very strong San Diego State team. “The guy has a great work ethic. You can never look into a guy’s heart, but you can at least try to gauge it, and it seems Leonard has that going for him.”

Can Kawhi Leonard soar into the lottery? (Credit: SD Dirk)

Blake also highlighted some under-the-radar players who he feels will be chosen in the second round or go undrafted, but will likely make, and contribute to, an NBA team. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that all of the players he mentioned are seniors. Among them are:

Diante Garrett (6’4, 190), a point guard from Iowa State. “He played extremely well at the Portsmouth Invitational. He’s an elite athlete with a lot of quickness who can come off the bench and run a team.”

Marquette’s Jimmy Butler (6’7, 220), a small forward who Blake believes can be the Landry Fields or Wesley Matthews of this draft class.

Andrew Goudelock (6’2, 200), a point guard from Charleston, who has shown in workouts that he has a great shooting touch. “He’d be a perfect guy to come off the bench. He’s got great athleticism and was unbelievable at Portsmouth.”

Purdue power forward JaJuan Johnson (6’10, 221), who “nobody is talking about even though he was Big Ten player of the year. He has improved so much every year and although he is thin he can spread defenses.”

Blake also mentioned Leonard’s frontcourt teammate Malcolm Thomas (6’9, 220) and Florida power forward Vernon Macklin (6’10, 245).

As noted earlier, Blake would not comment on the lockout situation. However, with the NBA summer league already cancelled, it is certainly possible that some players returned to school fearing there may be no NBA season next year. Scanning the list of stars who returned—Jared Sullinger, Terrence Jones, Perry Jones, John Henson, Harrison Barnes, to name five who may have been lottery picks—and you have to wonder if they caught wind of a lockout. On the flipside, this left vacant slots in the draft for other players previously considered questionable candidates.

Butler Loses to UConn in National Championship

“Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.”

Oh, right, I don’t have to steal a lede because the mid-major school with the enrollment of 3,600 and basketball budget that just this season cracked the top 100 (but still ranks just 98) did not win the national championship. Then again, perhaps the fact that it found itself in the game for the second straight year warrants its inclusion. Butler did a lot of things more difficult than beating Connecticut in the past two seasons, but Butler did not beat Connecticut so here we are.

If you wanted a thorough breakdown of the game itself, you came to the wrong place. Then again, where would you go for such a thing? I’d say the box score does the trick. Butler could not put the ball in the basket—not from close (3-for-31), from far (9-of-33 on threes), or even that well when there was literally no defense (8-of-14 from the free throw line).

Butler star Shelvin Mack had scored 24 in the semifinal game just two days before, his third time scoring at least that many in this Tournament, but he missed two open layups in the first few possessions that proved to be foretelling. The Bulldogs led 25-19 after hitting a three to open the half, but then shot an unfathomably bad 1-of-23 over a 13 minute span, scoring just three points as UConn built a 13-point lead.

I’d say this best sums up Butler’s offensive woes: Two days later, I can recall every two-point basket (who made it, where they were on the floor) and could probably reconstruct most of the threes, too, if I really thought about it.

It’s a testament to how good the Bulldogs are at other phases of the game that at the under-12 media timeout in the second half they were only down five. But at the end Butler was down 11, 53-41, in the lowest scoring national championship game since 1949.

So Butler does not get to put a national title banner in Hinkle Fieldhouse but it does get to hang another Final Four banner, and that is utterly remarkable. Butler trailed by six to UTEP in its opening round game of last year’s NCAA Tournament, then played tight games with Murray State, Syracuse, Kansas State, and Michigan State before losing to Duke. This year, as an 8-seed, the Bulldogs beat Old Dominion at the buzzer, knocked off Pitt by one in a game analysts are still trying to understand, and, later, topped Florida in overtime.

Much of America was hoping this year’s title game would be a lot like the 2010 version except, you know, Butler would win. The stars certainly seemed aligned as UConn was a weaker foe than Duke. Of course the opponent becomes inconsequential when you can’t make a basket.

But I urge you, regardless of your level of college basketball fandom, to remember Butler not for its inability to play well in one particular game, but its ability to play extremely well in so many other games these past two years. It is extraordinarily difficult to navigate through an NCAA Tournament, as Ohio State, Pittsburgh, Kansas, and so many other really good teams found out this year and every year. Butler managed to do it twice, coming up just one win short each time.

You could look at Monday night as a missed opportunity, as a second chance that is rarely given in sports, especially sports that crown their champion through a single elimination, month-long tournament. And, in many ways, it was that. But Brad Stevens and the Butler Bulldogs capitalized on so many other opportunities that will have far more lasting effects than a win would have.

I hope you enjoyed the ride.

NCAA Tournament 2011: Final Four Preview

(Credit: NCAA)

The 2011 Final Four in Houston will be a memorable one. We know this before the games are even played because of the teams involved: Kentucky, which will play Connecticut, and Butler, which faces Virginia Commonwealth. In a year when you should be proud of yourself for correctly predicting one Final Four team and should get your own college hoops radio show if you got two, let’s take a look at some of the facts, figures, and other tidbits relating to the 2011 Final Four.

  • As far as seeds, this is the highest cumulative number in a Final Four (11 + 8 + 4 + 3 = 26), breaking the previous high of 22 in 2000.
  • Two of the teams were unranked in the preseason polls: UConn and VCU. Kentucky, ranked 10/11 in the preseason, remained in the polls all season while Butler (preseason 17/18) fell out after two weeks and never returned. UConn entered the polls in Week 4 and never left. According to TheresAStatForThat.blogspot.com, this is only the fifth time since 1989 (when the polls expanded to 25 teams) that a Final Four matchup features teams unranked at any point during the season (and, as noted, in this case neither was ranked for all but two weeks of the season).
  • This is the first time there is no 1 or 2 seed in the Final Four. Three 1 or 2 seeds played in regional finals (Kansas, North Carolina, and Florida), but all lost to lower seeds.
  • This is the first time since the Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 that two teams outside of the BCS conferences are in the Final Four (and first time since 1979, when Indiana State and Penn both made it).
  • Butler coach Brad Stevens is 34. VCU coach Shaka Smart is 33. Those two ages combined do not reach 68, the age of UConn coach Jim Calhoun. It could be the lowest combined age of coaches in a Final Four matchup, but I’m not certain of that.
  • Two of the teams—UConn and VCU—were not in the Tournament last year. The two that were, however, did quite well. Kentucky lost in the Elite 8 and Butler, as I’m sure you remember, was the national runner-up.
  • There are probably not a ton of future NBA players in this year’s group, especially on the right side of the bracket, which is unusual. According to The Wall Street Journal, 94 of the 96 teams that reached the Final Four between 1985 and 2008 had at least one player who eventually appeared in an NBA game. In fact, 91 percent of the teams over that span had at least two such players and the majority of teams had at least four. Kentucky and UConn are both young teams but appear to fit the mold, while Butler and VCU certainly do not. Both teams have just two players each on ESPN’s draft tracker, and all four of those players are listed as “second round to undrafted.” Neither NBADraft.net nor DraftExpress.com have any Butler or VCU players getting selected in their 2011 mock drafts.
  • Only VCU did not win its conference tournament, as the Rams lost in the CAA finals, but given their extra NCAA Tourney game, they are on a five-game win streak. UConn had its historic run in the Big East tournament, winning five games in five days, so the Huskies enter Houston on a nine-game win streak. Kentucky’s streak is at 10, while Butler’s is at an impressive 13.

Kentucky Wildcats

  • John Calipari is taking his third team to the Final Four (UMass and Memphis were the others), joining Rick Pitino (Providence, Kentucky, Louisville) as the only coach ever to do that. Calipari’s previous two appearances were eventually vacated.
  • Kentucky has already gone one step further than it did last season despite losing five players (four freshmen and a junior) in last year’s NBA Draft.
  • Young teams have more room for improvement, and Kentucky has certainly improved as the season has progressed. Evidence of this is UK’s win over North Carolina in the regional final, as the Cats had lost to UNC earlier in the season. Kentucky will get a chance to prove this again on Saturday—they also lost to UConn, 84-67, back in November.
  • Darius Miller was a starter last season and DeAndre Liggins played 15 minutes a game, but the other four players in Kentucky’s rotation have little big-game experience. Three are freshmen and the other is Josh Harrellson, a senior who averaged just four minutes per game last season and played a total of six in last year’s Tourney.
  • Speaking of Harrellson, where did this guy come from? He has upped his season averages in all major categories, tallying 14.7 points and 9 rebounds a game in the Tournament. Most impressive was his ability to guard Ohio State All-America center Jared Sullinger one-on-one, which allowed the rest of the Kentucky defenders to stay home on OSU’s deadly three-point shooters. I realize last year’s squad was loaded with talent—including two frontcourt players that were lottery picks—but I find it hard to believe that Harrellson couldn’t have contributed. Then again, I have not coached three different schools to the Final Four.

Connecticut Huskies

  • This is UConn’s fourth appearance in the Final Four (all under Jim Calhoun) and all four times the Huskies have emerged from the West Region.
  • UConn is now 12-0 in tournament games this season, having won three to claim the Maui Invitational title, five to win the Big East tournament, and four so far in the Big Dance.
  • UConn has not lost an out of conference game this season (15-0).
  • Of the names that have surfaced over the course of the season for Player of the Year—Kemba Walker, Jimmer Fredette, Jared Sullginer, Nolan Smith—only Walker is still playing. (That being said, Jimmer is still going to win the award.)
  • Walker is the unquestioned leader of this very young UConn squad. According to KenPom.com’s experience rating, which takes into account minutes played, the Huskies rank 332 out of 345 teams, second lowest among BCS schools.
  • I questioned whether UConn’s season had peaked in Madison Square Garden for the conference tournament and if the Huskies had anything in the tank for the Big Dance. Boy was that silly.

Butler Bulldogs

  • When Gordon Hayward declared for the NBA Draft, the national sentiment was, “That’s too bad, this team could’ve made a serious run next year, too.” Instead, following somewhat of a similar script to last year—ranked in preseason, written off in regular season, improbable run to Final Four—the Bulldogs have wowed the nation again.
  • It’s been said a lot already, including multiple times by my roommate Ryan, who picked Butler to reach Houston, but here it is again: This year’s Butler is…Butler!
  • Brad Stevens is the youngest coach to reach two Final Fours. His calm sideline demeanor has been a big reason why. In Underdawgs, a book by Indianapolis Star columnist David Woods about Butler’s memorable run last season, I learned that Stevens often settles his team in late-game huddles by telling them, “We’re going to win this game.” Consecutive Final Fours seem wildly improbable to outsiders, but to those within the Butler program it was expected. To expect and to achieve are two very different things, but it’s hard to do the latter without believing you can.
  • Butler has the most big game experience of any of the Final Four teams and it’s not even close.
  • Here is my thoroughly detailed, heavily researched analysis of Butler’s offense: Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard can get you 20 points each, and the others chip in here and there and somehow at the end of the game they have more points than the other team.

Virginia Commonwealth Rams

  • VCU is the first team to win five games to reach the Final Four. From the First Four to the Final Four—truly remarkable.
  • As an 11 seed, VCU has tied the mark for the highest seed to reach the Final Four. LSU in 1986 and George Mason (more on them later) in 2006 are the others.
  • VCU has been the most dominant team in the Tournament. I repeat: VCU has been the most dominant team in the Tournament. The Rams have won their five Tourney games by margins of 13, 18, 18, 1 (overtime), and 10, an average margin of 15. They’ve been putting teams away early, too, holding a double-digit halftime lead in three of those games. These would be impressive performances by a 1 seed, and is absolutely mind-blowing for an 11 seed.
  • I don’t think this is as big a deal as others are making it out to be, but VCU has defeated teams from the Pac-10, Big East, Big Ten, ACC, and Big 12 en route to the Final Four. It will now face a team from the Horizon with a chance to play an SEC school in the finals.
  • Shaka Smart, in just his second season as a head coach after serving as an assistant at Florida, Clemson, and Akron, seems to be a great tournament coach. You know what he’s done this season, but last year VCU won the College Basketball Invitational (CBI).
  • Wait, VCU was in the CBI last year? Yes, and it’s yet another fact that underscores how improbable this run really is. People made a big deal of UNC’s turnaround—the Heels were one game away from the Final Four after not qualifying for the Tourney last year—but they went to the finals of the NIT. What Smart has done in year two is incredible.
  • This explains why most of the Rams did not bother to watch the Selection Show.
  • The obvious comparison is to George Mason, a fellow Colonial team that got a questionable at-large bid and marched to the Final Four as an 11 seed. A key difference, if I recall correctly, is that Mason was viewed as a dangerous team entering the Dance. The invitation still came as a surprise after the early exit from the CAA tournament, but many felt George Mason had a team capable of pulling off an upset or two. The same can’t be said of VCU, which was viewed as undeserving and not all that good.
  • I was not in favor of expanding the field and VCU’s run does not change my opinion. However, the Rams’ Tournament run has been unbelievably exciting and had the field not expanded, they almost certainly would not have received a bid, so it’s not all bad.
  • There is a very fine line between making the Final Four and getting bounced earlier in the Tournament. Kentucky needed a basket with two seconds left to beat Princeton by two in its opening game. It got another basket in the final seconds to beat Ohio State in the Sweet 16. UConn led by just one with less than two minutes left against San Diego State and survived two three-point attempts in the closing seconds that would have given Arizona a win in the regional final. Butler has been on a wild ride, beating Old Dominion at the buzzer, Pittsburgh by one, and Florida by three in overtime. VCU, of course, was one of the last teams invited to the Tournament.

Related Articles:

UConn’s path to Final Four
Kentucky’s path to Final Four
Butler’s path to Final Four