Over at Ridiculous Upside, SB Nation has been conducting a mock draft, with bloggers from the respective teams making selections(and trades). I was tasked with picking for Dallas.
Now, if you believe the commentators around SB Nation, you'd think this was a fruitless exercise, because of course Dallas is going to trade the pick. But, for the moment, I'm the GM, not Donnie Nelson(or Mark Cuban).
I did contact a few GM's about trades. My first email was to the Clippers about Eric Bledsoe, but my offer of the 13th pick and one or two of Dallas' rookie trio of Jae Crowder, Bernard James and Jared Cunningham did (predictably) not sway them.
In the end, the best option seemed to be simply staying put and taking a player. This was the draft board at the time:
1. Cleveland Cavaliers: NERLENS NOEL
2. Orlando Magic BEN MCLEMORE
3. Washington Wizards OTTO PORTER
4. Charlotte Hornets ALEX LEN
5. Phoenix Suns VICTOR OLADIPO
6. New Orleans Pelicans TREY BURKE
7. Sacramento Kings ANTHONY BENNETT (for Philly)
8. Detroit Pistons C.J. MCCOLLUM
9. Minnesota Timberwolves KENTAVIOUS CALDWELL-POPE
10. Portland Trail Blazers RUDY GOBERT
11. Philadelphia 76ers MICHAEL CARTER-WILLIAMS
12. Oklahoma City Thunder CODY ZELLER
The top seven players I expected to be gone, in whatever order. My next tier of guys started with Michael Carter-Williams, who nearly made it to #13. With both him and C.J. McCollum gone, the next three guys on my board were Shabazz Muhammad, Dennis Schroeder, and Steven Adams.
I gave a brief writeup on Shabazz here, which I encourage you to read(as well as the other great content on Ridiculous Upside), but I thought I'd expound on it a little.
Shabazz Muhammad is, of course, a well-known name in draft circles. As I wrote, he is very possibly the most polarizing prospect in the draft, and his journey to the pros so far has seen its share of tumult. Coming out of high school, he was widely considered the top player in the country. He dominated the McDonald's All-American game, winning MVP honors, and after a long recruiting campaign, signed with UCLA with much fanfare.
In his only season in Westwood, Muhammad averaged nearly 18 points a game, and led the Bruins back to the NCAA tournament after missing it the year before. Yet, it would be difficult to categorize his time there as anything but disappointing. Partly, the blame lies not with him, but us. The media is quick to label a player "the next big thing", and the fans follow quickly in turn. Muhammad fell prey to the dreaded hype machine, as others have before him.
However, scandal also surrounded Shabazz his freshman year, starting almost immediately, as he was declared ineligible for the first three games of the season due to alleged recruiting violations. When Shabazz did finally play, he appeared out of shape, and was slow to round into form. As the season progressed, he drew criticism from outsiders for selfish play, highlighted by a strange incident where he seemed angry after a teammate hit a game winning shot instead of him.
As if that wasn't bad enough, we later learned that Shabazz was in fact a year older than he had been believed to be, and it's still uncertain exactly who most perpetuated that lie, and how often. The most likely candidate is probably Shabazz's father, Ronald Holmes, who has since gotten in a bit of trouble.
Truthfully, most or all of these things would probably be overlooked if Shabazz had dominated the way his reputed talent suggested he should have. While he did play well, some fairly large holes emerged in his game, and that may the biggest reason of all that Muhammad's stock has plummeted from eight months ago. While there are a few talent evaluators out there that still see star quality in Shabazz, many others see a ballhog who isn't near the athlete we thought he was as a high schooler. Advanced metrics also do not look so favorably on him, and I will elaborate on that in a moment.
So, why did I pick him? Well, the simple reason is that at pick #13, you shouldn't look at what a player can't do(because by this point, they all can't do something), but what he can. And what Shabazz Muhammad can do is score. Infact, the only prospect from a major conference to average more points per 40 minutes last year was Virginia Tech's Erik Green(who's team was absolutely dreadful). Muhammad, who was billed as more of a slasher than a shooter, shot a very respectable 38% from three. He did plenty of slashing, too, of course, posting one of the best free throw rates of any wing in the draft, and giving him a potent inside-outside offensive game.
A big reason I believe Muhammad will be able to continue to put up points at the next level, though, is how he did so much of his scoring. For a player with the "ball hog" rep, you might expect him to do a lot of one-on-one style play, heavy on isolations. However, as astutely pointed out over at Detroit Bad Boys, Shabazz didn't isolate very often at all, instead scoring most effectively by spotting up, cutting to the basket, and crashing the offensive glass. This may help explain Muhammad's very poor assist rate(it also explains why a guy who shot so much turned it over so little), but also identifies Muhammad's aggressive nature. A confident, driven kid, Shabazz attacks relentlessly, which is why there weren't many small forwards in college basketball who grabbed more offensive rebounds or drew more fouls.
In the transition from college to NBA, one thing big time college scorers most often struggle with is playing off the ball. They won't be allowed to isolate all the time and when they do, they're usually facing a comparable athlete. Shabazz already shows a knack for playing this way, which might make him a more likely candidate to succeed as a scorer than extreme iso-heavy college players like, say, Trey Burke or C.J. McCollum, who won't be able to simply beat their man every time down the floor the way they did as amateurs.
Muhammad has been labeled by some as a B-grade athlete, but it is worth pointing out that he did not test poorly at the combine. His vertical and sprint times outpaced more than one perimeter lottery prospect, and whatever shortcomings he may have in explosiveness should be mitigated by his motor, his insane 6'11 wingspan, and strength(he's a solidly built 222).
From a statistical standpoint, his athletic indicators are not great, as he posted average steal, block and defensive rebound rates, but if I can offer a defense, there is something in stat circles known as the "Howland Effect". Under now-former UCLA head coach Ben Howland, there was the tendency for players, under his system, to have their production stifled. Russell Westbrook also had mediocre block and steal rates, which normally suggests a player lacks explosive athleticism. I think we all know Westbrook is a fine athlete, and that he, along with fellow Bruins Arron Afflalo and Jrue Holiday, far outplayed their college statistical profiles(not to mention their draft slotting).
While on the subject of Howland, it is probably worth briefly mentioning how the culture of UCLA basketball turned very ugly the last few years. This scathing article from Sports Illustrated details some of the ways Howland resorted in his later seasons to letting the inmates run the asylum. For a player like Shabazz, who had already been pushed by a clearly overbearing father for years to be a great athlete, and grown accustomed to the fame that was heaped on him as a teenager, there probably couldn't have been a much worse landing spot for him than under Howland's watch.
For all the negative press Muhammad has received, I think most would tell you that he is also a very hard working young man, who comes off as intelligent and respectful, if perhaps overconfident. Having perused the UCLA Bruins blog here at SB Nation, the most common opinion I find is that Shabazz isn't a bad guy, just a guy in a bad situation.
And that brings us to the scenario of Shabazz in Dallas. No lottery team save the Thunder can offer a more stable environment or better recent track record than the Mavericks. With a star player already in town, Shabazz would not feel the burden of being "the guy", but because that star player is the ultra-efficient and incredibly unselfish Dirk Nowitzki, Shabazz would more than likely be able to get the shots he'd need, too. Under Rick Carlisle, Shabazz has a better chance to fix the weaker parts of his game, like his passing.
Interestingly, there are a few parallels between Muhammad and O.J. Mayo, another super-touted player who built an inflated high school reputation on the strength of being older and more developed than his competition. Like Shabazz, Mayo wasn't as athletic as he was perceived to be initially, and had a disappointing, scandal-filled year in California, before entering the draft with questions about both his ultimate position and true upside. The comparison isn't perfect, though(Shabazz is bigger and Mayo can pass), and the reason I'd trust Muhammad to play better alongside Dirk is that I don't see any of the timidity in him that I saw in Mayo. Muhammad seems to have that jealous desire to win and to be the best; the sort of quasi-psychotic confidence that helped Jason Terry step on the court every night and think he was the best guy there, even when facing LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in the Finals.
In the end, Muhammad is a player with red flags, but while that might make him a risky pick in the top eight picks or so, the rewards outweigh the risk all the way at the end of the lottery. While Muhammad may not develop much in the way of secondary skills, his floor could be a role similar to the one Vince Carter has played the last two years here in Dallas. For a rookie contract, that's value.
I can't remember who pointed this out, but if you look at the draft, you'll notice that players with high defensive upside and a more uncertain offensive profile tend to go before players with the reverse. Meanwhile, in free agency, the opposite is true, and the basketball equivalent of what baseball calls "all-hit, no-glove" guys get paid much more often than defensive specialists. There are exceptions(winning a championship usually helps you get overpaid no matter what), but the idea there is that you can more readily find value drafting offense and buying defense. Last year, Sullinger fell to and past Dallas in the draft. This year, if Shabazz is there(and a better wing isn't), I'm hoping Dallas pounces.