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Throughout the rest of the year, I'll be taking a look at three NBA draft prospects per week. This week, I delve in and take a closer look at Nerlens Noel, Isaiah Austin, and Zeke Marshall.
With many Cavaliers' fans already having their eyes on the draft, I've been scouting college basketball pretty intensely over the past month or so. Until the draft, I will hopefully be able to bring you a set of profiles every week.
Since I missed last week (due to school and vacation), hopefully I'll be able to get out some more profiles by Saturday to make up for missed time. This mid-week set of profiles though is dedicated to the center position, which might be the deepest this class has to offer as far as first round talent. As usual, I took a look at two high-profile prospects, and one under-the-radar one. The first two I looked at are Nerlens Noel and Isaiah Austin, whom I have at entirely different ends of the spectrum. The final profile is devoted to Zeke Marshall of Akron, an intriguing prospect due to his size.
Nerlens Noel, Fr. C, Kentucky
Strengths: Noel is a freak athletically. He’s 6’11" with a 7’4" wingspan, which gives him ample size to play center in the NBA. Running like a man 8 inches shorter and jumping like an NBA swingman, Noel possesses athletic ability that few can match at his size. One term that gets bandied about on draft-day is "re-jumpability," and there are few NBA prospects I’ve ever seen who possess this skill in the way Noel does. "Re-jumpability" is the ability to jump, land, then jump again quickly in order to defend shots/rebound.
Where that skill benefits Noel most is in his shot blocking. This may come as surprising to some, but Noel is a better shot blocker than Anthony Davis was last year. Possessing an exceptional sense of timing and the ability to jump straight up and down (he rarely commits fouls in that circumstance), he will be a weak side defensive force in the NBA from day one.
His defensive skill isn’t limited to just shot blocking though. An active defender who always has his hands in the proper places, Noel looks for strips and steals in passing lanes constantly. With his high-level athleticism and length, he defends the pick-and-roll on the perimeter really well. Rarely overplaying either when closing out or off of screens on the perimeter, he knows exactly how to use his length to push players out of the paint or even dissuade them from entering entirely.
Another thing that should be mentioned is that Noel is second in the SEC in steals at just over two per game. Those long arms are absolute terrors in passing lanes, and within the condensed NCAA offensive zone he makes it difficult for anyone to find angles for passes. He's also quite adept at pick-pocketing guards while he's guarding out in space -- normally leading to fast breaks -- which is a really rare attribute for a center to have.
Nerlens Noel Defense Tape (via Sam Vecenie)
For a somewhat skinny player, Noel is already a really strong rebounder. He’s fourth in the SEC with a 22% defensive rebounding rate, and shows strong rebounding fundamentals. He doesn’t get too far under the hoop, and his lower body strength allows him to push opponents out of the rebounding area while boxing out.
One place offensively where Noel does thrive is, unsurprisingly, in transition. With his guard-like running ability and thunderous power above the rim, Noel should be able to help NBA teams in that regard immediately.
Weaknesses: Noel could stand to put on some pounds, but he’s a pretty solid and strong 230 pounds already. I imagine that this will continue to improve as he hits the professional weight room.
His offense is still a work in progress. He doesn’t have any discernible signs of a post game yet, and I’m not sure he’s taken a shot outside of seven feet this season. Kentucky just didn’t ask him to do anything out of his comfort zone this year on the offensive end. I’m not sure he has a lot of coordination with the ball right now.
To me, the bigger problem is that I was pretty disappointed in Noel’s ability to set screens. Noel doesn’t set a good base with his lower body, nor does he stand still long enough for the ball-handler to go around him. To become an adequate offensive player in the NBA, he’s going to need to learn this talent. As an offensively unskilled but athletic big man, Noel could make up some of his offensive deficiency by rolling to the hoop with a good point guard and getting easy buckets.
Of course, we have to mention the injury factor here too. Noel tore his ACL in the late stages of the Florida game on February 12. While there’s concern that it will sap some of his quickness and jumping ability, people come back from these injuries now all the time with rehab and hard work. It is possible that the knee injury stemmed from a previous growth plate fracture this summer that may not have fully healed. With Noel getting around nine months off to heal totally, neither injury should be a problem in the future.
Overall Outlook: Noel is the best prospect in the class when healthy. Even without the phenomenal offensive ability that you normally look for from a #1 overall pick, Noel simply has the ability to change a game defensively that few prospects have. My hope is that he can become a "basketball minimalist" (this is one of my favorite pieces ever written about a basketball player) in the way that Tyson Chandler is. At worst I think he ends up as a Marcus Camby who can be a potential defensive player of the year every season of his prime. If the Cavaliers are able to scoop him up, it will be a legitimate building block to place alongside Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, and Tristan Thompson.
Isaiah Austin, Fr. C, Baylor
Strengths: With most of these profiles, I open with a remark about how physically impressive the prospect is. After all, we are talking about the cream of the crop here, so most of these guys are going to be incredible mixes of size and athleticism.
Well, I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that Isaiah Austin may have the best pure physical tools in this draft. Standing 7’0" without shoes and possessing a 7’3" wingspan (that actually looks longer on tape), Austin’s length is the first thing anyone notices about him. He’s undersized at 220 pounds, which I’ll touch on later, but the height and length tool is there for him to succeed. To go along with his height, he is extremely coordinated as an athlete and runs well. He’s not an extremely strong leaper, but his mix of size and coordination sets him apart from most big men that I’ve ever seen at 19 years old.
As far as skill, offense is where Austin will make his money. With his ability to look so smooth at times, there is real Dirk Nowitzki potential here (even down to the somewhat slow-developing, high arcing shot). Possessing a beautiful shooting stroke, Austin has the ability to step out and drop a 3 (he takes about 3 per game, shooting 32%), but also at times has the ability to make a pretty post move into a step-back jumper. He has great ball-handling ability for a seven-footer that allows him to take opposing bigs to the hole. While he still doesn’t have a go-to move yet, he displays decent footwork in all facets of the game, which is encouraging for him moving forward.
I also like what I see out of Austin as far as his defensive potential. He seems to understand how to use his length and mobility to affect shots both in help and on-ball situations. His length allows him to block nearly two shots per-game (mostly on-ball), but he doesn’t really show much aptitude for timing blocks on the weak side. One thing he specifically does is always keep his arms outstretched, making it difficult for ball-handlers to find passing lanes. I don’t think he knows exactly where he’s supposed to be when rotating yet, but that’s something that should continue to improve as he plays more basketball.
Weaknesses: It might be fair to say that all of the problems in Austin’s game stem from his lack of strength. I’m not sure that Austin would be able to do one bench press rep at the combine (this, of course, has to do with arm length as well) if he enters the draft. He gets shoved under the bucket far too easily on the defensive end while rebounding, putting him in terrible position to garner boards (while he’s second in the Big 12 in rebounding at 8.6 rebounds, he has a very pedestrian ~20% defensive rebounding rate placing him 10th in the conference). Literally, Austin is so unable to gain rebounding position that Baylor puts two other players in the lane when shooting free throws if possible. When setting picks, it’s not uncommon for swingmen to bump Austin just out of the way and continue guarding their man. To be successful, Austin is really going to need to work on his lower body strength to where he can not only establish position inside, but also keep that position so he doesn’t have to be so reliant on his physical tools.
Another problem that festers in the background of Austin’s game is his mentality. First off, from time-to-time he seems to get lazy on the court. Sometimes he’ll lay on the court after being fouled or dropping an entry pass and just sit there. That’s only a youth problem though with him I think, and it’ll get better. The real issue is that I’m not sure Austin understands his strengths. Too often, he will float on the perimeter and look for jumpers. He attempts to handle the ball like a guard from time-to-time, which causes issues (even though he does handle the ball exceptionally well for a legit seven-footer) leading to turnovers. This weakness may simply have to do with the fact that he’s too weak to actually establish post-position, but they’re worrisome habits that are forming in his 19-year-old mind. Here's a small video that shows some of Austin's mistakes with the ball (albeit this is not comprehensive by any stretch):
Isaiah Austin stuff (via Sam Vecenie)
Overall Outlook: If he comes out, Austin is going to make people look really stupid on draft day no matter what. Either he’s going to reach his potential and be an all-star offensive player, or he’s never going to gain the necessary strength to play in the NBA and toil in the D-League for his entire career. I’m not sure that I’ve ever felt more strongly that a player needs to stay in college and continue to get stronger than I do about Austin. He could potentially be the first overall pick in 2015 if he continues to grow into his body and game. As it stands now, he’s probably a middle of the first round pick who could end up anywhere on the spectrum from Dirk to Tskitishvili.
Zeke Marshall, Sr. C, Akron
Strengths: There’s a lot to like about Zeke Marshall’s size and athleticism. At 7’0" with a 7’5" wingspan, Marshall will fit right in at center in the NBA. At only 235 pounds he’s slightly underweight, but he has shown the ability to gain weight, as he’s at least 30 pounds heavier now than he was when he entered college.
His biggest strength comes in his timing and innate shot-blocking talent. Marshall is a shot-blocking machine in the MAC. He has more blocks by himself than seven whole teams in the MAC, setting a conference record with 118 so far this season. As a two-time MAC defensive player of the year, Marshall shows solid defensive instincts and knows how to take up space in the lane to challenge shots. He’s at his best around the rim, but he’s at least shown the ability to close out on spot-up shooters with his length. Big Zeke also runs the floor really well for a 7-footer. He often will beat his teammates down the floor to get back on defense to set up their anchor in the paint. This surely helped contribute to the Zips’ MAC-leading 39% opponents field goal percentage.
The most surprising thing I took away from Marshall’s game is that he actually has pretty good form on his hook shot. Overall, he actually has decent fundamental (albeit slow) footwork in the post. While there is a concern that he’s taking these against guys he’s simply much bigger than, the hope is that with sustained work on his athleticism that he will continue to convert at a high rate around the basket. At times, Marshall can make a 7-foot turn around jumper over his right shoulder, but his range does not extend much farther out than that. He shows average passing instincts for a big man.
Weaknesses: While Marshall does have a lot of strengths, his weaknesses may prove to be damning. Coordination may be a problem for him, as he seems to have a slow reaction time when he has the ball and on offense. Marshall often simply looks like he’s moving in slow motion on the floor, and I don’t mean that in a good way.
One thing that he can improve upon is that he doesn’t attack the ball when receiving entry passes. Instead, he lets the ball come to him. This stems from his tendency to get passive on the court from time-to-time. For instance, against Buffalo, 6’6" forward Javon McCrea overplayed every single entry pass against Marshall and made it difficult for him to get the ball.
It seems that Marshall doesn’t have a lot of leaping ability. In offensive situations where Marshall doesn’t receive the ball in classic "post position," he becomes easy to defend and tends to get blocked at early-career Tristan Thompson-type levels. Here are a few examples:
Zeke Marshall Blocked (via Sam Vecenie)
Lateral quickness is a problem even in the MAC for Marshall. He picks up more fouls on people dribbling/driving than on attempted blocks. Six-foot-six Reggie Keely gave him fits in the early going of the MAC championship game, scoring 10 points in the first six minutes by simply going around him and getting to the rim.
That lack of lateral quickness and slow movement hurts him while rebounding too. He seems to box out an area as opposed to a man a lot of the time. While it’s easy for Marshall to rely on his size at this time, it’s pretty damning when one of the only two seven-footers in the MAC is seventh in the conference in rebounding.
Overall Outlook: Given what we see from him fundamentally and the improvements that he’s made in the strength department, I think it’s fair to say that Marshall is a really hard worker. Just knowing what I know about Marshall having grown up around Pittsburgh, Marshall has developed exponentially from where he was as a skinny kid at McKeesport High School. If he continues along this curve, Marshall has a chance of one day making the NBA.
But Marshall’s game still needs to evolve quite a bit for him to reach that goal. He’s just not quick enough, strong enough, or polished enough yet to get there. There is hope for Zeke, but for him to get drafted he’ll really need a team to become enamored with his tools and size. While it’s not out of the realm of possibility that this may happen, it’s not exactly something he should count on either. DraftExpress has him as its 96th overall prospect. Pretty much anyone from 50-100 is in the same boat as far as getting drafted, so he’s in the ballpark, but ultimately is unlikely to reach the NBA next season. Personally, I think there are other big men more worth taking the chance on this year than Marshall, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if Marshall ended up proving me wrong.
EDIT: It's worth noting that in today's chat, Chad Ford said that he thinks Zeke Marshall has a chance at the first round.
At the end of each post, I'll try to rank each of the prospects that I've looked at so far. This will obviously begin to fill in more as the season progresses (therefore meaning more), but now isn't a bad time to start. This isn't meant to be a Cavaliers' draft board (yet), but simply just a ranking of players in a vacuum based on their current tools, potential, and how close they are to making an impact.
1. Nerlens Noel, Kentucky
2. Otto Porter, Georgetown
3. Alex Poythress, Kentucky
4. Isaiah Austin, Baylor
5. Reggie Bullock, North Carolina
6. Zeke Marshall, Akron
Notes: I struggled with whether or not to place Bullock ahead of Austin because he's SO much closer to making an impact. But ultimately, Austin's potential is too great that I can't see anyone passing it up for Bullock.
Later on this week I'll definitely be looking at Steven Adams and Tony Mitchell. Any other suggestions from you guys?