Why do modern NBA Draft prospects not stick around in the league? Our four-part series on the 2011-15 NBA Drafts attempts to answer this question. Part one looked at functional strength. Today, we tackle skill development.
Skill level can be tough to evaluate with NBA Draft prospects. A player may show the ability to perform certain skills in college, but that may not translate to the NBA level due to a variety of reasons — the athleticism gap closing, confidence or a role change. Conversely, certain players may not have skills in college that bloom once they hit the NBA level. We see that every year with players who are able to add a jumper or improve technique on the defensive end of the ball. It can be a challenge figuring out which players aren’t going to be able to grow at the next level. Of our four categories, this one can be the most confounding to those that watch a lot of film, because often you’re not going to see the work that is or isn’t going into improvement in these areas.
“Skill” is also a multi-faceted term for us, because a lot of different modern NBA skills can doom a prospect. Point guards can be undone by a lack of touch, lack of court vision or inability to shoot pull-up jumpers. Wings need to be able to shoot off the catch and switch on defense. Bigs need to be able to mirror on the perimeter, time shots for blocks and rebound. They have to be able to do these things at NBA levels or be able to compensate for them to some degree.
The more specific your skill-set needs to be to fit into an NBA system, the more likely a lack of skill is going to doom a prospect. It should be no surprise, then, that this piece will focus entirely on point guards and big men. Wings have it easier in this regard. There’s more demand for them, for one, because teams can play two or even three wings with overlapping skill-sets at the same time. There’s also more variety in terms of the things wings can bring to the table. It’s easier to be a specialist on the wing — whether it be a defensive stopper, shooter, slasher or ball-handler — because of the versatility that can be created by playing multiple wings at the same time. For lead guards and big men, the freedom to specialize isn’t as great.
That problem is most easily seen in two players at the point guard position who never developed one of the core skills needed to function in modern pick-and-roll offenses: pull-up shooting.
Point Guard, Louisiana-Layfette, 2014 Draft
Selling Points: Plus rebounder, plus court vision, excellent defensive point guard prospect
Demise: Traded to Phoenix for a second-round pick
Elfrid Payton started for three and a half years in Orlando, but was in contention for the worst starter at the point guard position in the NBA over that time. While his raw counting stats certainly aren’t bad — 11.1 points, 6.6 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game as a member of the Magic — he was a main reason the team didn’t have a top-20 league offense during his tenure. It was known at the time that Payton wasn’t really a shooter from outside — he shot just 26.8 percent from 3 on 112 attempts in three years in college — but Payton has never developed a meaningful jumper at the NBA level.
The unique hair he sported early in his career has been linked to his poor shooting, but his pull-up mechanics have been far more problematic than just his vision (maybe) being obscured. Consistently, Payton struggles to square himself when driving at the rim, and his rigid lower body mechanics make it difficult for him to get arc on the shot, which doubles the difficulty when combined with his slow gather off the dribble.
Payton has taken just 77 pull-up 3-point attempts in his career, and while he’s found somewhat of a stroke from mid-range (38.8 percent on pull-ups in 2017-18), he still took less than one per game last year. And that unwillingness to even pose a threat kills Payton’s value as a scorer. It doesn’t matter as much that Payton has good touch at the rim, or that he’s a good passer from the perimeter because defenses can bend to him in ways that even a player like Emmanuel Mudiay can avoid by simply posing a threat.
Hey, speaking of Mudiay:
Point Guard, Guangzhou, 2015 Draft
Selling Points: Physical tools, court vision
Demise: Traded to New York for a second-round pick as part of a three-team deal in 2018
Mudiay was billed as a rough ball of clay coming into the NBA, and while his physical tools have allowed him to have moments in four years with Denver and New York, he eventually wore out his welcome with the Nuggets, in part because he is too reliant on a very poor pull-up jumper. A player with Mudiay’s skill-set should get to the rim more than he does, but too often Mudiay settles for shots in the mid-range, where he’d never shot higher than 35.4 percent prior to this season.
Mudiay and Payton both have poor technique on pull-up jumpers, but it affects them in different ways, and they are far from the only poor pull-up shooters at this position in the league. But the problems for both affect them in ways that seep into the rest of their games as well. Neither player controls his momentum well going into his pull-up shot, which also affects Payton on his gather for catch-and-shoots, and Mudiay in attacking the rim. This is the real skill problem for both. The ability to transfer momentum is improbable, but it’s such a pervasive problem for both players that it ultimately led to falling off their drafted teams.
When looking at point guards, we know pull-up shooting is an important skill, and without it, it’s very hard to score, unless you’re a Russell Westbrook-type athlete that can bully your way to the rim. You can improve here (Dennis Schroder is a good example), but much of the improvement seen in this area comes from shot mechanics or ball-handling, not so much from getting better at energy transfer into the shot. Without that, it’s tough to be a good offensive player.
It used to be that you could become a serviceable point guard without an effective jumper, but those days are gone. The game manager types like Maurice Cheeks and Avery Johnson that thrived on passing alone are dead, and the last of them was Kendall Marshall.
Point Guard, UNC, 2012 Draft
Selling Points: Court vision, passing touch, ball-handling
Demise: Traded from Phoenix to Washington in the Marcin Gortat trade; waived three days later
The reasons for Marshall’s failure were simple: In the modern NBA that’s so focused on outside scoring, you can’t be a below-average finisher, bad mid-range pull-up shooter and reluctant 3-point shooter off the catch. Marshall’s assist numbers were phenomenal, and he had the size to not be a sieve on defense, though that never really came together. This was just a poor read of the situation by Phoenix. There was minimal potential from his college film that Marshall was going to be able to keep up in a league that was already well into trending towards the modern point guard’s demands, and it’s not a surprise that he didn’t last long.
Occasionally, players come along in the draft that remind us of what worked in a bygone era, and teams and fans assume that this skill-set will work again. But the game is constantly evolving, and what might have worked even 10 years ago may not anymore. That’s what happened to Marshall, it’s what may be happening with Malik Monk, and most famously, it’s what took down Jahlil Okafor.
Center, Duke, 2015 Draft
Selling Points: Postgame on volume, footwork
Demise: Traded to Brooklyn for Trevor Booker, then had his fourth-year option declined
The sell of Okafor was that he was going to bring back the post-game, but outside of a stat-stuffing rookie season on what may have been the worst team of the last decade, that didn’t happen because Okafor couldn’t evolve enough to fit what the NBA needed him to be. He never developed a jumper, and he couldn’t defend the rim even passably due to poor lateral agility. He was also a victim of the athleticism gap closing, as the court vision and footwork that helped him dominate the college level weren’t able to materialize in a meaningful way against NBA length and schemes.
Okafor and Marshall were fairly easy to spot cases for the archaic skill-set archetype of player failure. They both were missing huge pieces of what is the prerequisite skill for success at this level. Fortunately, these types of players don’t get overinflated frequently, and if they do, more often than not players with outdated skill-sets have things to draw on that will keep them afloat (like Deandre Ayton). But, it’s important to note this subsection exists, and that the likelihood of a player who looks straight out of the 1994 recruiting class succeeding in 2019 is extremely low.
Finally, there are two more players in this category that lack another skill that’s make-or-break for the NBA — touch.
Point Guard, Syracuse, 2014 Draft
Selling points: Decision-making, outside shooting potential
Demise: Traded three times in three years with his fourth-year option declined by Houston
I’ll let my colleague Cole Zwicker explain the fundamentals of why touch matters for overall scoring potential, but this was a major sticking point in Tyler Ennis’ struggle for playing time in the NBA. He peaked as a 57 percent finisher at the rim, and he never showed much ability to hit floaters — a must for a player who can’t get to the rim consistently.
In college, Ennis’ lack of touch wasn’t a huge issue, as he was more easily able to get his pull-up jumper. But when the athleticism gap closed, and he wasn’t able to create space as easily, that jumper wasn’t as big of a threat, and suddenly Ennis’ scoring profile collapsed.
But lack of touch doesn’t just affect point guards; it can also affect bigs, especially if they’re undersized.
Forward, Czech Republic, 2011 Draft
Selling Points: Screen-setting, athleticism, strength
Demise: Fourth-year option declined by Washington
Now, saying Jan Vesely doesn’t have touch may seem out of place, especially if you’ve been paying attention to how the reigning EuroLeague MVP won that award.
Vesely has one favorite tool — a sledgehammer, which he’s going to bury in the basket over and over and over again. But ask him to step away from the basket, which happened much more frequently against the size of the NBA, and Vesely became a 28.7 percent finisher from 3-10 feet. Vesely has the skill-set of a modern pick-and-roll dive man, especially with how strong he became and how well he can power through defenders at the point of contact. But without a jumper or counter moves like a hook shot or floater, he couldn’t face up in the NBA, and that made it difficult to make use of that skill-set.
When looking at the skill development aspect of why draft picks fall out of favor, it isn’t as easy as pointing to tangible actions to improve on. The problems we see here weren’t as simple as, “spend an offseason taking 500 jumpers a day,” or “work on advanced dribble moves.”
Instead, the skills necessary in the NBA to perform those types of moves are much more granular, and much harder to develop. Touch and momentum transfer can be improved upon, but they’re hard to fix to a degree that makes a huge difference. Fortunately, they are things that can be identified on film. You just have to know what to look for.