He is a born winner. He has "it". He has all of the intangibles. His value doesn't show up on the stat sheet. Every single ridiculously annoying cliche that the sports world is infected with has been applied to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. For top basketball prospects, winning is something that is the norm. If you have an NBA future and are playing against the average high school team, dominance is expected. But for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, winning has not been something that usually happens; winning has been something that almost always happens. MKG was a state champion as a sophomore in high school, a gold medalist a year later for team USA at the Fiba U-17 World Championships, and his coach for his freshman season at the University of Kentucky, John Calipari, called him the "heart and soul" of one of the most dominant National Champions in recent memory. At what point do cliches have relevance? How important are intangibles? What about MKG's tangibles? After the jump, we will try and figure it out.Let's start with the flaws, because they are pretty well known by most at this point. MKG has a "hitch" in his shot that makes consistency pretty difficult. There is a lot of unnecessary motion throughout his body as he elevates on jump shots, from his lower body where his right leg drifts towards the basket, pulling his lower body with him. His top half, on a good shot will be able to withstand the momentum and stay straight up, but oftentimes his left side will fade away from the basket. There is simply too much going on; fluidity is not a big part of MKG's game. Sebastian Pruiti, who you should all read consistently, observes that he holds onto the ball too long when he shoots, rendering his jump shot all arms. MKG understands that this is where his game needs to improve, and rarely settles for jump shots at this stage of his career. Given his reported unparallelled work ethic, it stands to reason that there will be improvement as he gets older. At 18, he is the youngest player in this year's draft. He also may be the most mature.
Another major weakness involves ball-handling. While MKG is excellent in transition, he isn't someone that you can run a half-court offense around at this point in time. He projects as an elite slasher, and when he drives he can finish with ease, but if the Cavaliers draft him, a couple years of a lackluster turnover rate are probable. While the Cavaliers certainly need offense, they have a primary ball handler that can usually make good, and sometimes spectacular things happen when he has it in his hands.
So why is Michael Kidd-Gilchrist going to be selected in the top 5 of the NBA Draft Thursday night? For one, he has the ability to be a truly special perimeter defender. He is athletic enough to guard either wing position, and perhaps a few 4's with his strength. He has excellent control over his body (which one hopes would someday help lead to a more consistent shot) and can play aggressively without getting into foul trouble (he only averaged 2.5 fouls in over 31 minutes per game). In a league where LeBron James and Kevin Durant seem poised to be dominant players on the wing for the foreseeable future, having defenders, and preferably multiple defenders, who can spend time on those guys and have even limited success, will be invaluable. MKG is strong enough to give Durant a little bit of trouble (though its easy to see KD shooting over him) and aggressive enough to convince LeBron that maybe he does like taking those 20-24 foot jumpers. While his blocks and steals numbers are not overly impressive, he is good at forcing his man into situations where he knows that help is coming and that sets up teammates for easy steals.
And when you have MKG on your team, steals are a wonderful thing, especially with a Point Guard who can move the ball in transition. The Cavaliers, it turns out, have just that. If I am making predictions, MKG will be in the top 10% of NBA wings in finishing on the break as a rookie. There will be nights where he does things that take your breath away. If there is an area where "will to win" and a non-stop motor come in handy for MKG, it will be here. He will simply outwork a lot of NBA players and get down the court faster than they can. He is strong enough that his efficiency once he gets to the open court is going to be extremely high. He may not be LeBron, but defenders will be very, very hesitant to stand in front of MKG once he gets moving.
About the intangibles. MKG plays a selfless style of basketball. He averaged 12 points a game as a freshman, not a bad number, but certainly not overwhelming. But for a wing who gets consistently knocked because of his jump shot, 49% from the field is a pretty good number. He doesn't need the ball in his hands to be effective. He shot 75% from the free throw line, a pretty good number, and all the more important for a guy who attacks the rim as much as he does. His 2 assists per game isn't a bad number for a guy who didn't have the ball in his hands consistently. His three point shooting percentage was bad at essentially 25%, but you know what, he barely ever took any three pointers, only one per game. His intangibles inform his tangibles. He knows where he helps the team, and seeks to maximize his difference in them. He knows where his weaknesses can hurt the team, and he minimizes those areas of his game as best as he can. He is the perfect compliment player, who will never need to be The Man. If you are a team still looking for The Man, well, you may still be looking after selecting MKG. The Cavaliers aren't that team.
The Cleveland Cavaliers, barring a trade to move up and select Brad Beal, will choose between Harrison Barnes and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on Thursday night. The two played against each other in a summer league game in high school, and again this season in a December match-up between North Carolina and Kentucky. In both games, MKG both looked like the better player, and found himself on the winning team. I happened to be at the University of Kentucky that weekend because I coach a high school debate team, and one of the biggest tournaments of the national debate circuit was taking place there. I found some time to watch the game, and quite frankly, it was probably MKG's best game of the season, and if there were any Wildcats fans that didn't love him before, they vanished after the game. He finished with 17 points on 6-10 shooting, was 5-7 from the free throw line, had 11 rebounds, an assist, a steal, a block, and only 2 fouls in a game his team won by a single point.
Tim Tebow annoys me to no end, and it isn't just because I am an Ohio State graduate. I get tired of constantly hearing about how hard he works, and how motivated he is. These are professional athletes, in top physical condition, playing for the right to earn a lot of money. They all work hard. On some level I feel the same way about MKG. He has a great work ethic? Cool. He should. I want him on the Cleveland Cavaliers, but it has very little do with how good of a person he may be. He is a relentless defender, scores efficiently by understanding his strengths and weaknesses, and is a ferocious finisher in transition. Sign me up.