The NCAA Tourney, Part Three: In Search of a Glue Guy
This has been a disappointing March for NBA fans hoping to get one last good look at the top prospects before the draft. Not one player that I’ve written about so far made it to the Final Four. Most of them didn’t even make the Sweet Sixteen. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t destined to be winners in the NBA; it’s more of a testament to how different the professional game is from college. Talent reigns supreme in the NBA. College depends more on system and coaching especially in the single-elimination tournament that is March Madness. Still, winning is winning. It’s something that can’t be taught; it must be earned.
Everyone knows that to win in the NBA, you need a superstar (or two, or three). But, you also need to surround those stars with valuable role players or “glue guys”. These players usually excel at one or two things, or they are “jack of all trades, master of none” types. Either way, these guys are crucial to constructing a championship-caliber roster. They need to know how to win, which is why I love to look for them on teams that make deep runs into the NCAA tournament.
The 3-and-D Savant
Mikal Bridges (4 games) – 16 PTS, 43% FG, 46% 3PT, 5 REB, 0.5 AST, 0.8 STL, 0.8 BLK
As the NBA has evolved into a pace and space league, 3-and-D guys have become the most coveted archetype for role players. They have a place on virtually any team. Mikal Bridges’ has been touted as a prototypical 3-and-D guy by most scouts, and his play in the tournament has only solidified that notion.
There was no better display of Mikal Bridges’ ceiling than the first five and half minutes of the second half against Alabama. He scored 19 of Villanova’s first 21 points in the half, hitting four threes and getting fouled on another attempt. He has a quick release on his shot, and his long arms allow him to shoot over most defenders. He also played stellar defense hounding Collin Sexton on the perimeter while also recording two blocks as a help defender. It’s this versatility that allows Villanova to play an aggressive switching defense that renders screens useless.
The knock on Bridges is whether he can be effective on offense if his shot isn’t falling. This was the case against Texas Tech, whose elite perimeter defense made it tough on Bridges to get good looks. His handle isn’t great. He isn’t going to create much offense with it, but it’s good enough for him to get to the rim against mismatches or when defenders are running at him. He has above average athleticism and basketball IQ which makes him an ideal cutter/finisher.
Bridges is already 21 years old so he doesn’t have the same superstar ceiling that some of the other prospects do, but he has the chance to be an elite glue guy in the mold of Andre Iguodala or Danny Green. He’s the type of player that can get big minutes right away and make a positive impact on a team. He’s as much of a sure thing as there is in the draft which could vault him into the top 10 come June.
The Jack-Of-All-Trades Big Man
Wendell Carter (4 games) – 11.5 PTS, 53% FG, 7 REB, 1.5 AST, 1.3 BLK, 1 STL, 3.5 PF
While most teams are in search for the next unicorn in their big man, there is still value in a big man that understands his limitations. These players aren’t going to put up 20 and 10 every night, but they are essential in running a smooth flowing offense and anchoring a switch-heavy defense. Wendell Carter was overshadowed by Marvin Bagley most of the year, but his versatile skillset was just as important to Duke’s success.
Wendell Carter was plagued with foul trouble for much of the tournament which can be attributed to his job as the anchor of Duke’s zone defense. He rotates well on defense and is long enough to get into passing lanes and protect the rim. On offense, he’s a great passer for a big man. He showed this off against Syracuse as he constantly flashed in the middle of their swarming zone in order to collapse it so he could kick it out to shooters or Bagley underneath. If anything, he was a bit too passive in this role as he passed up numerous open jumpers. He didn’t show it in the tournament, but he has a nice touch on his three-point shot, hitting 41% on the season (albeit on only 1.2 attempts per game).
Carter is pretty good at everything, but he doesn’t have one elite skill. His post-game is solid. Combined with his passing, that could make him an efficient weapon on offense, but he doesn’t seem to have a scorer’s mentality. Perhaps he repressed it playing next to an offensive force such as Bagley. If he can keep developing every asset of his game, he has a chance to be Al Horford. He has lottery aspirations after the potential unicorns are drafted, but whatever team that drafts him will be getting a high IQ guy that would pair perfectly next to a dominant scorer.
The Future Dunk Contest Champion
Zhaire Smith (4 games) – 12 PTS, 50% FG, 56% 3PT, 7.3 REB, 2.5 AST, 1 BLK, 1 STL
Athleticism is always going to have a place in the NBA. You can teach shooting and defense but you can’t teach a guy to hit his head on the rim. Zhaire Smith gets UP. He is sure to get a spot on the “One Shining Moment” montage with his 180 alley-oop dunk in the first round. He is relentless in attacking the offensive glass. He’s a good slasher off the ball and is always a threat for an alley-oop. He tries to dunk everything. He has solid form on his jumper, but he has a slow release and little confidence in it. His calling card in the NBA will probably be his defense. He gets happy feet that allows savvy ball handlers to blow past him. However, he is athletic and long enough to recover more often than not as he showed against Villanova’s Jalen Brunson.
It’s hard to put a ceiling on Smith because he’d probably just jump through it. He is a sloppy ball handler at this point, but he can tighten that up over time. As of now he projects to be an energetic defender off the bench that will get most of his points off cuts and in transition. His NBA comparison ranges from Shannon Brown to Gerald Wallace. He could go anywhere in the second half of the first round, but another year of college could make him a surefire lottery pick next year.
The Back-Up Floor General
Jalen Brunson (4 games) – 17.5 PTS, 49% FG, 42% 3PT, 3.3 REB, 4 AST, 1.3 STL, 2.3 TO
Point guard is the most important position in the basketball. So, it stands to reason that the back-up point guard is one of the most important bench positions. As good as Mikal Bridges has been, Jalen Brunson is the main reason for Villanova’s dominant season. Everything Villanova does on offense is facilitated by him. He recognizes when he needs to dominate the scoring like when he dropped 27 on West Virginia and when he needs to spread the wealth like when five players scored in double figures against Texas Tech. He runs Villanova’s NBA-style spacing offense to perfection. He is a willing defender that struggles against quicker players.
Brunson’s lack of athleticism is what will hold him back in the NBA. He won’t be able to finish at the rim against the longer, more athletic players. But, he is a good shooter and has a crafty post game that will keep defenses honest. He’s a Derek Fisher/Andre Miller-type. His leadership and basketball IQ will make him an attractive pick for any team looking for a stabilizing force for their bench unit. He’ll be a solid pick for anyone picking in the mid-to-late 20s or a steal in the second round.
The Instant Offense Sixth Man
Malik Newman (4 games) – 21.8 PTS, 48% FG, 45% 3PT, 91% FT%, 5.8 REB, 2.3 AST, 1.3 STL
The Sixth Man of the Year award is dominated by score-first guards. They are usually undersized shooting guards whose only job is to get buckets. Malik Newman is a former five-star prospect out of high school that flamed out his first year at Mississippi State before transferring to Kansas. Perhaps no one has improved their draft stock in March more than Newman. He wasn’t even on the radar before the tournament, but he’s been March Madness’ most valuable player. He single-handedly willed Kansas to a win over Duke, scoring all 13 of Kansas’ points in overtime en route to a 32-point performance. He’s showcased his sweet shooting stroke and the ability to get to the rim, nearly putting up 50/40/90 shooting splits.
Since his rise has been so sudden, most mock drafts don’t even have him on their radar. If he truly has turned a corner, a team late in the first round could get great value. If he can play in the NBA like he has in March, then he can have a similar impact of a Lou Williams or Jamal Crawford. It’s still unknown whether he will even come out this year, as another year of seasoning in college could really skyrocket his stock going into the 2019 draft.
The Stretch Four
Moritz Wagner (5 games) – 14.8 PTS, 47% FG, 40% 3PT, 5.5 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.3 BLK, 1 STL
If you’re tall and you can shoot the three, then an NBA team will probably give you a shot. Big men that can stretch the floor are key to spacing in today’s NBA. Moritz Wagner’s tournament has been a mixed bag. He struggled in the first few rounds but had a coming out party in the Final Four with a 24-point, 15 rebound effort. He dominated Loyola’s smaller frontcourt, but those types of performances won’t be as easy against NBA size.
Wagner’s value is directly tied to his ability to score. He has a good shooting stroke and can face up a bit. He’s not good at all on defense. He’s too slow to stop dribble drives on the perimeter and not physical enough to hold his own in the post. If he’s not scoring, though, he’s a net negative on the court. He can be a Channing Frye type in the league, but his defensive shortcomings will probably cause him to fall to the second round.