Context is important when evaluating NBA Draft prospect Rodions Kurucs

Jun 23, 2016; New York, NY, USA; A general view of a video board displaying all thirty draft picks in the first round of the 2016 NBA Draft at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 23, 2016; New York, NY, USA; A general view of a video board displaying all thirty draft picks in the first round of the 2016 NBA Draft at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports /

Situation is so important in influencing how we think about an NBA Draft prospect. Just like how players in the NBA can perform wildly different roles depending on what team they’re on, college and international draft prospects are somewhat married to their team context. While we think of college basketball as a proving ground for the NBA, not every player can show the full extent of their talents each year, often due to outside circumstances.

A good example of this is Dennis Smith Jr., who played this season for a bad N.C. State team. Smith was able to showcase a lot of his offensive capabilities, particularly when it comes to scoring. We have a ton of great video of Smith’s scoring profile, partially because he’s great at it, and partially because the Wolfpack had minimal other options to create offense for them. On the flip side, his passing ability and defense come into question. If you just take his game tape at face value, you’d think Smith is a lot like Kyrie Irving — a great scorer, but someone who can’t be trusted to set the table for teammates or care consistently enough to be anything positive on defense.

But consider this N.C. State team — minimal shooters, bad defense, and a season-long meltdown that ended with the ousting of coach Mark Gottfried before the season even ended. The Wolfpack really struggled to be consistently competitive, despite Smith’s brilliance. Now consider if he’d been at Kentucky, or UNC, or even Wake Forest. Given better coaching and talent around him, isn’t it possible that he tries harder on defense, and his passing becomes more showcased because his teammates can actually hit shots? Put Smith on a better team, and some of the concerns about his game may be less on display.

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This type of situational context influences how we think of every future NBA player. Some players come into the league having been in a perfect context to display their talents, and may not be able to replicate that situation at the next level. Other players have attributes limited by their team contexts, and may prove more effective at the next level because they go to a situation that maximizes the particular skill. Context is the ultimate X-Factor, hiding problems and potential strengths alike to cloud the ability to obtain a full scouting profile.

Internationally, situation is even more of a factor. These players suit up for professional teams, meaning their development and earning of playing time is usually secondary to a larger goal. Sure, there are teams like Mega Leks and Anadolu Efes who have consistently given opportunities to young talent. But for a majority of teams, giving young players a chance at the highest level is something that must be earned, often through arbitrary coach-specific benchmarks.

That has been the case for this year’s international class, which has featured several players who struggled to see the floor at the highest level. Isaiah Hartenstein has only played senior team minutes in the Lithuanian League, struggling to earn a rotation spot for much of the year due to conditioning. Jonathan Jeanne couldn’t even sniff Le Mans’s senior team, and ended up being loaned to Nancy, a mid-tier French club. Frank Ntilikina got rotation minutes, but due to Strasbourg’s roster construction, played a majority of his time off-ball. And coming off a meniscus injury, Rodions Kurucs played almost exclusively with Barcelona’s junior team this year, save for one Euroleague game against Red Star.

Much like with college players, this contextual information can either limit or enhance the a player’s scouting profile. In Kurucs’s case, it probably enhanced it. He was able to play 21.2 minutes per game in 24 contests in the LEB Gold, the second division of Spanish basketball, playing more total minutes than Hartenstein this year despite missing the first month of the season. While he started slow, he averaged 9.2 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 1.4 assists per game, shooting 43.5 percent from the field. This was his first season of consistent action due to the meniscus injury, and he fit into the lineup as a secondary creator for Barcelona B.

Playing at the junior level allowed Kurucs to hint at a more well-rounded game than what other prospects have been able to show this year. Instead of being pigeon-holed into a small, specific role, Kurucs got some quality opportunities with the ball in his hands, and further fleshed out his on-ball capabilities. He doesn’t have consistent burst off the dribble, but he’s pretty crafty with the ball, and uses his length well to gain an edge driving into the paint.

He wasn’t always able to get to the rim against length, which is a concern moving to the next level. But he can compensate for that with his court vision, and he’s a pretty decent passer coming off attacking moves.

Kurucs is a great finisher when he has space, and that will help him project as a slasher at the next level. He has good touch around the basket, and once he gets a head of steam, he’s harder to contest at the rim because of his frame.

This could indicate that despite his record as an on-ball isolation scorer in the LEB Gold, Kurucs could be more effective as a slasher in the NBA. Against longer and more athletic defenders, Kurucs might be more successful attacking the rim off ball, where he can build up that head of steam without getting cut off at the outset. His court vision could allow him to build that into a secondary creator role eventually, but at the beginning he should translate to more of an outlet role attacking the rim.

Another area where Kurucs’s situation influences him in outside shooting. His raw percentage is a pretty pedestrian 31.6 percent, which isn’t great, but context plays a role here. For that context, I’ll turn to Austin Green, who wrote the most comprehensive breakdown of Kurucs’s game to date at Los Crossovers.

"Kurucs’ 3-point percentage (32.5%) is a little disappointing, but he has pretty good form and it’s a small sample size (27/83).In comparison, this year Kansas’ Josh Jackson made 34/90 threes (37.7%), Duke’s Jayson Tatum made 40/117 (34.1%) and Jonathan Isaac made 31/89 (34.8%). The FIBA 3-point line is also farther away than the NCAA line.With some more practice, Kurucs should develop into a good NBA 3-point shooter.Curiously, according to Synergy, he is 11-of-22 in guarded catch-and-shoot situations and 2-of-16 in unguarded situations. I’m thinking this stat is somewhat skewed by end-of-quarter heaves, but I’m not positive."

We can infer a few things here. One, is that we’re dealing with very small sample sizes. The difference between a 37.7 percent shooter and a 31.6 percent shooter seems significant, but it means on the same number of attempts, Jackson would have hit four more 3s than Kurucs did. When you consider how much better of a free throw shooter Kurucs is (79.6 percent to Jackson’s 56.6), it’s reasonable to put him on the same level of shooting prospect as the three players mentioned above.

The other big consideration to make are those catch-and-shoot numbers. While the open shots are disconcerting, Kurucs does appear comfortable shooting under pressure at this juncture, and his upper body mechanics are pretty decent at this point.

A majority of Kurucs’s shots came off the dribble, which makes sense given his on-ball usage for Barcelona B. This is another contextual piece to keep in mind when assessing his shooting potential. Kurucs struggles to set his feet when he is coming off screens or pulling up, which can account for a lot of his issues on those open catch-and-shoot shots. If he can fine-tune that aspect of his shooting, he may be able to progress into an NBA-level shooter, given how the rest of the motion looks. I’d expect NBA teams will also try to push him towards more catch-and-shoot opportunities, making better use of his off-ball capabilities by developing the threat of him being left alone.

Kurucs played at a lower level this season than many of his international cohorts. However, this should not be seen as a criticism of him as a prospect. This opened opportunities for him, as he was able to play perhaps the biggest role of any draft-eligible player for his team. And when you look at how the Barcelona senior team did (11th in Euroleague, tied for 4th in ACB, wrecked by injuries with a coach on the hot seat), it’s probably a good thing for his overall draft stock that he avoided that mess by playing with the junior squad.

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Instead of Kurucs being glued to the bench, we got to see Kurucs playing in a role that was probably the best-case scenario for him at the NBA level. As a wing that can drift between attacking off the dribble and playing spot-up or slashing roles, the potential is there for Kurucs to eventually become a Khris Middleton-type secondary offensive player. However, we can also see how some of the things he was doing in the LEB gold may not translate to the NBA directly, and instead could hint at potential as an outlet option on offense. Either way, Kurucs did well to prove himself this season. You just have to take context into consideration when you look at the player you’ll be getting versus the player he was this year.

(h/t to Austin Green for all video]