NCAA Weekly Performers, 01/15/2008 – Part One

NCAA Weekly Performers, 01/15/2008 – Part One
Jan 15, 2008, 09:50 pm
James Harden, 6-5, Freshman, Shooting Guard, Arizona State
18.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 2.1 turnovers, 1.8 steals, 55% FG, 79% FT, 45% 3PT

Jonathan Givony

Arizona State’s excellent start to their Pac-10 schedule (3-0 in conference, 13-2 overall) combined with the terrific season their freshman wing player is having warrants another look at James Harden—one of the nicer stories from this terrific class. He’s the youngest player in the Pac-10, but has regardless jumped out as the early favorite for freshman of the year honors (although it’s certainly neck and neck with Jerryd Bayless and Kevin Love), in addition to All-Conference team consideration.

Harden has become Arizona State’s go-to guy already, the player they look to late in games and early in possessions to give them some serious scoring punch from the perimeter. Harden is a long-armed freshman with an outstanding frame, but just average athleticism for an NBA shooting guard prospect—although his strength, coordination and timing help make up for that.

Not the greatest ball-handler in the world, nor super explosive with his first step, Herb Sendek has regardless found ways to get the ball in Harden’s hands in stride to take advantage of his terrific scoring instincts. They like to bring him off a handoff or short cut coming off a curl to allow him to catch the ball and go straight to the basket with his left hand (his natural hand), where he can either take contact and get to the free throw line or finish craftily around the rim. Harden is a terrific fit for Sendek’s offense since he’s extremely intelligent and is very adept at moving off the ball for backdoor and flex cuts.

Harden is a mature player with great poise and excellent scoring instincts, showing great understanding of angles and terrific fundamentals to get the job done. He possesses excellent timing and really sees the floor well, reading defenses and knowing how to exploit openings as soon as they materialize. He likes to use jab-steps and shot-fakes on the perimeter and has plenty of counters he can go to. Even though he favors his left hand, he’s not afraid to go to his right hand if he feels like the defense is overplaying his stronger hand. He doesn’t blow players away with his first step, but he’s very adept at getting his man off balance and then keeping them at bay riding them on his hip all the way to the basket for a crafty finish.

Making Harden even more dangerous is the fact that he’s also a very effective shooter from the perimeter, hitting a terrific 45% of his 3-point attempts on the year. He doesn’t take a ton of them, but hits the ones he tries at a good rate and is excellent with his feet set, even showing range out to the NBA 3-point line if left open. Something that he can probably still add to his game is an effective pull-up jumper he can utilize from mid-range. Having a weapon like that at his disposal would make him a very complete scorer, and really could take his offensive game to the next level in his sophomore season.

Defensively, Harden is not the easiest player to evaluate since Arizona State spends a considerable amount of time in a matchup zone. He does seem to have a good understanding on this end of the floor though, looking pretty intense, with good fundamentals, and a nice wingspan, and doing a solid job of keeping his man in front of him, although his lateral quickness does not look outstanding.

As far as his NBA prospects go, even though there is clearly a lot to like here, it feels a bit early to definitively evaluate his NBA potential at this point. Not being a prototypical athlete at the shooting guard position (think Martell Webster), nor a superb shot-creator, there are some question marks regarding how his scoring prowess will carry over to the next level. The incredibly tough Pac-10 slate should teach us a lot from here until the end of the season. We must keep in mind that he’s only a freshman, though, and that he still seems to be finding a way to get the job done, even with his obvious limitations. That’s pretty impressive regardless of how you look at it, so you can be sure that this is a prospect we’ll be following closely from here on out.

Nick Calathes, 6-5, Freshman, PG/SG, Florida
15.2 points, 4.9 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 3.0 turnovers, 1.8 fouls, 43% FG, 74% FT

Eric Weiss

A McDonald’s All-American out of high school, Nick Calathes has been Florida’s most important player already as a freshman, flirting with a triple double on a number of occasions this season and really showing a lot of potential playing all three perimeter positions for the Gators.

Offensively, Calathes is most effective as a spot-up shooter and in pick-and-roll situations. His 3-point shooting has been streaky at times, but it shows great promise. Calathes has consistent shooting form with only minor flaws in his fundamentals. He leans to the left on most of his shots and releases out in front of his face, which lowers his release point. But he squares his body, has almost no wasted motion in his delivery, and every shot looks the same. Calathes does have a little trouble with his accuracy when defenders are closing out. He’s nearly automatic when given time to set, but when rushed his percentage drops substantially. He’s probably not used to the speed of the college game just yet and will have to continue to work on getting shots off faster, while improving his percentages. Not a bad scorer at all, his 15 points per game ranks 15th amongst freshmen, but his 36 percent 3-point shooting(17th) and 43 percent overall(35th) will have to improve.

Calathes isn’t a tremendous athlete and because of it he has trouble finishing inside. His ball-handling is very solid, but his first step is average on the NCAA level, so high pick-and-roll situations are his best bet to initiate the offense. Once he’s in the lane, Calathes makes smart decisions with the ball. Calathes ranks 1st amongst freshmen in assists and 1st in assist-to-turnover ratio. Overall, he is 9th in assists and 20th in assist-to-turnover ratio in the entire NCAA. His court awareness is high, which enables him to find his teammates with quick touch passes, kick-outs, and dump offs in the lane.

Off-ball, Calathes remains an active player. He moves continuously and with purpose when he’s not directing traffic, and provides excellent spacing by always seeming to find the right spot on the floor to get the open spot-up shot. He’s a player that keeps the ball moving and keeps his teammates aware and active because he doesn’t take much time to make a decision – he gets into his shot or drive quickly and will get rid of the ball hastily if he doesn’t see an opportunity to get a quality shot. Calathes is the leading scorer for his team as a freshmen, which puts him into pretty elite company for this freshmen class. His usage rate is top 10 amongst freshmen and his PER rating ranks ahead of O.J. Mayo, Jerryd Bayless, and Derrick Rose.

Calathes’ biggest problem is his slight build and lack of explosiveness. His mid-range shooting stroke is somewhat slow and the lowered angle makes it easier to defend and disrupt. He also lacks great core-strength, which hurts his ability to stop and rise quickly on pull-ups or drives to the basket. Body contact completely eliminates his ability to finish forward as he is easily bodied off his shot and forced off balance. He will need to get stronger and shoulder defenders off of him to free himself up for quality shots off the dribble. His size should allow him to be effective in these areas, but only if he can rid himself of defenders with a strong shoulder or a powerfully built base to rise up and re-align for a smooth shot.

Defensively, Calathes shows good awareness in the team defensive sets and doesn’t lack effort. But his lack of foot-speed and tendency to give his opponent space hurts his ability to defend on drives. Calathes most often goes underneath picks on the perimeter, which could be his way of compensating for his lack of upper body strength. It’s easier for him to avoid a pick than it is for him to battle through it. Thus far, he hasn’t been burned by any top-notch perimeter shooters, but the room is there for them to fire away.

Calathes has pretty good hands and doesn’t give up when an opponent gets going toward the basket. He gets his share of steals, but is easily ridden off of a play in the lane because he lacks the strength to force his man back out or into a difficult off-balance shot. The result is typically a drive in toward the basket or a foul. Again, better competition will ultimately expose this more tangibly than the weak non-conference schedule has thus far. It should be noted that neither Jamar Butler of OSU or Toney Douglas of FSU had particularly strong offensive showings against Florida. Calathes had some hand in that, but wasn’t matched up against either player for over half of their possessions.

The biggest area of development for Calathes defensively will be getting stronger and savvier as a defender. He is noted for his work ethic and has a good head for the game, so learning his opponents’ offensive tendencies, mastering his role in the team defense, and gaining the strength necessary to physically do his part will be his best weapons. He’ll most likely never be a great defender, but with his size he could become adequate with a better physique and more experience using it.

Overall, Calathes has a lot going for him as a prospect, but is going to have to stick around for a couple more years to mature physically, as he lacks the athletic upside of some of the more heralded members of this freshman class. As a combo-guard, Calathes has tremendous court-vision and passing ability to complement his outside shooting potential. His size will allow him to play both backcourt positions and a commitment to his strength and conditioning over the next two years should get him the muscle he needs. 185lbs isn’t going to be enough to play the physical style of offense and defense he’ll need to survive at the next level, but his frame can carry more weight, which should enhance his best attributes.

As it stands now he doesn’t have the ability to finish in the lane or to defend it. He’s going to have to transition his game from pure finesse to one that incorporates power, which is tough to project until he’s got the physical attributes to work with. But a solid overall skill-set, a good basketball IQ, and a terrific work ethic is a good starting point for the freshmen guard. It will be fun to watch his development over the next few seasons.

Austin Freeman, 6-4, Freshman, Shooting Guard, Georgetown
9.9 points, 2.7 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 59% FG, 92% FT, 42% 3PT

Jonathan Givony

Although not quite as productive as some of his McDonald’s All-American counterparts, Austin Freeman is nonetheless having an excellent freshman season, playing an important starting role for one of the best teams in the NCAA, and doing so with incredible efficiency.

Known as a scorer in high school, Freeman has done very little to disprove that notion so far, averaging just under 10 points per game in 24 minutes while shooting an incredible 59% from the field and over 42% from behind the 3-point line. Freeman seems to have made an extremely wise choice with the college he chose for himself, as he has both found himself plenty of minutes right off the bat in his college career playing at the very highest level of competition, but also fits in like a glove in John Thompson III’s system, making it easy for him to adjust to the college game so quickly.

Although he’s somewhat undersized for the shooting guard position at 6-4, Freeman possesses a strong build, which he uses to the fullest. He’s not an explosive player by any means, but uses the tools he has to their fullest—not being forced to go out of his element at this point, and seemingly not having a problem with that from the way he’s been playing.

Freeman’s best attribute as a player and draft prospect (down the road) revolves heavily around his jump-shot. He has picture perfect mechanics, NBA range and an incredibly quick release, to go along with superb confidence to come off a curl and fire away the moment he sees even a glimmer of daylight, even in clutch situations. He moves off the ball intelligently both within Georgetown’s rigid half-court offense and also outside of it, finding open spots for himself playing off his teammates’ post-ups, and being especially deadly if left open in transition, where he gets a good deal of his shot opportunities.

Even though he can get his jumper off quickly, rarely do you see Freeman take a bad shot, as he’s incredibly poised and mature for such a young player, which is another reason he seems to have gained the coaching staff’s trust so quickly. The fact that he’s already one of the most efficient players in the country (ranked first in points per possession and first in true shooting percentage among draft prospects) speaks volumes for that. His jumper seems to lose some accuracy in off the dribble mode, but we haven’t seen him take enough of these to gauge that with complete confidence.

Although he’s somewhat of a one dimensional player for Georgetown here in his freshman season (partially due to Georgetown’s system and partially due to his status in their pecking order as an offensive option), Freeman shows some signs of being capable of doing more once he’ll be called upon later on in his career. He’s a very fundamental offensive player, capable of posting up in the paint (using his very mature body to look for turnaround jumpers), or cutting to the basket for a handoff or back-door cut—all staples of this offense.

He finishes very intelligently at the rim as well, utilizing both hands and showing excellent touch and creativity to make up for his lack of explosiveness, along with great strength. He’ll also come up with an occasional offensive rebound at times, looking willing to fight inside and having somewhat of a nose for being in the right place at the right time. He doesn’t have great size or lateral quickness on the defensive end, but is intelligent and competes on this end of the floor, which if often more than enough at the collegiate level, especially when you have a monster like Roy Hibbert behind you who can quickly erase any mistakes his guards make on the perimeter.

Even though he looks like a superb college player in the making already, there are some doubts that arise when starting to gauge his NBA potential—as early as it might be to start thinking about that. His physical tools can’t be considered anything more than below average for an NBA shooting guard, when you look at his height, his average first step, his lack of explosiveness at the rim, and his unimpressive lateral quickness. He could probably still stand to tone up his body to better maximize his physical potential--which will likely help--but he’ll probably never be considered a prospect with great upside as far as his draft stock is concerned, and thus will have to win over NBA scouts the old fashioned way—by producing and winning. There are many players in his mold (think David Wesley, Voshon Lenard) who have made fantastic careers in the NBA, so he’s surely someone to keep an eye on considering the many different things he brings to the table, even if he isn’t your prototypical early-entry candidate.

Arinze Onuaku, 6-9, Sophomore, PF/C, Syracuse
13.8 points, 7.9 rebounds, 1.1 blocks, 1.1 steals, 67% FG

Joey Whelan

After missing all of last season due to surgery on his left knee, Arinze Onuaku is back on the floor for Syracuse and providing a solid presence in the middle. Currently the sophomore is one of five players on the team averaging in double figures scoring and is second on the team in rebounding.

Onuaku is exclusively a post player at this level, proving to be more center than power forward and showing essentially no ability to play on the perimeter. While he is able to be an effective player at the collegiate level doing this, he isn’t big enough to be solely an interior player at the next level. Onuaku is an effective scorer when his teammates get him the ball within eight feet of the basket, though. He has a very solid 260-pound frame and does a good job of sealing defenders on his back when posting up. He doesn’t get a tremendous number of touches here, only accounting for 15% of his teams possessions this season, but when he does he looks to be pretty comfortable. Onuaku’s go to move is a soft baby hook shot which he can hit with either hand on a fairly consistent basis. While he isn’t a great leaper he can still get this shot off against most players due to the nice job he does using his body to shield the ball.

Currently second in the Big East in field goal percentage, Onuaku gets loads of point blank looks thanks to his teammates being able to penetrate and draw defenders. With that said though, Onuaku shows great touch around the rim and his strength allows him to finish in traffic and with contact. He isn’t explosive enough to elevate over defenders as much as he goes through them, but if given room he can thrown down a thunderous dunk. Despite all of the looks he gets inside from slashing teammates Onuaku typically doesn’t move very well without the basketball. Aside from the occasional screen to set up the offense, he usually plants himself on the block even when on the weak side. Since he isn’t a threat to shoot at all from outside the immediate area of the hoop or to put the ball on the floor, Onuaku rarely will flash to the foul line area unless it is to screen the ball handler.

The other major source of offensive touches for Onuaku comes on the offensive glass. On the season he is averaging 3.4 offensive boards a night which generally result in points for the big man. While he is almost impossible to move or get around when he has an opponent boxed out, Onuaku typically only brings in rebounds that fall directly in his area, and this is true on both ends of the floor. His lack of great length and athleticism prevent him from even attempting to bring in loose balls outside his immediate vicinity.

On the defensive side of the ball we didn’t get to see a tremendous amount of Onuaku in man-to-man situations due to Syracuse’s famed use of the 2-3 zone. Typically in the zone, Onuaku isn’t tremendously active. He plays the middle position, but often just floats around in the paint, not picking up opponents that cut through. When he does man up against ball handlers he tends to be a fairly passive defender. Onuaku doesn’t contest many shots in the post or when he steps up against shooters from mid-range, and the fact that he plays with his hands at his sides often makes it easier for opponents to get position inside.

Onuaku still has a couple of years to develop as a pro prospect, but he needs to start extending his game beyond the immediate area around the basket. His lack of size and athleticism will always be strikes against him in the eyes of NBA scouts. Onuaku needs to develop a mid-range jump shot and improve his ball handling skills. Improving his ability to step out and guard perimeter players would certainly help his stock as well. His strength, toughness and solid post play coupled with Syracuse being a team usually around come March, will help Onuaku’s case.

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