NCAA Weekly Performers, 1/30/07-- Part One

NCAA Weekly Performers, 1/30/07-- Part One
Jan 31, 2007, 02:54 am
Part one of our NCAA weekly performers series includes in-depth progress reports on Tywon Lawson of North Carolina, Nick Fazekas of Nevada, Aaron Bruce of Baylor, and Gary Neal of Towson.

Ty Lawson, 5-11, Freshman, Point Guard, North Carolina
Vs. Arizona: 18 points, 8 assists, 1 turnover, 3 rebounds, 4 steals, 8-14 FG, 1-5 3P, 1-2 FT


Jonathan Watters

Headed into Saturday's game against Arizona, everybody knew the name Ty Lawson. He was a McDonald's All-American point guard who signed early with North Carolina, generally considered to be the best floor general in his graduating class. People might have seen flashes of his ability to put a defense on edge simply by touching the ball, the near-blinding speed in which he can change directions, or the 2 to 1 assist to turnover ratio in the box scores. But up until Saturday, Lawson was a complementary player, one talented player in a virtual sea of talent in Chapel Hill.

Then came the trip to Arizona, where Lawson literally ran America's fastest fast breaking team right into the ground on their own home court. Going up against vastly improved senior Mustafa Shakur, Lawson blazed up and down the court, creating fast break opportunities for himself and for teammates seemingly at will. If he wasn't dribbling straight through defenders in the open court, he was threading the needle on high degree of difficulty cross-court passes or exploding into the lane for acrobatic finishes at the rim. While this was a statement game for the entire team, it was Lawson who dictated the message, to the tune of 18 points, (8-14 shooting, 8 assists [to 1 turnover], and 4 steals.

So what kind of player is Ty Lawson? The resemblance to UNC predecessor Raymond Felton is uncanny, and a good place to start. Both players have that stocky, running back-ish build, mentality and explosiveness. Lawson certainly displays Felton's trademark ability to create for his teammates at spectacularly high speeds, to the point where he will often turn an opponents' made basket into a fast break. His open-court passing ability is something rarely seen in a point guard, and the way he can keep an entire team of defenders on edge is an invaluable asset to any team. And where Felton was rarely one to create his own offense in the halfcourt, Lawson will attack the basket fearlessly and finish his own drives in a variety of ways. He is strong enough to create through contact, and his explosive first step makes it difficult for even the best college defenders to keep in front of him.

Of course, Lawson isn't quite as tall as Felton, and also shares a few of his weak points. There will always be a few mistakes when playing at such high speeds. Felton was never immune to this, and Lawson will leave everybody scratching their heads at times as he learns how to play at different speeds. Lawson hits the 3-pointer at a respectable clip, but his shot is nearly flat-footed and will require some serious work to become effective at the NBA level. Teams don't play Lawson honestly unless they absolutely have to, though he may be a bit ahead of where Felton was at this stage as a shooter.

In an open-court game like Saturday's, nobody in the country is going to keep pace with Ty Lawson. He is a once every couple of years type of talent, capable of changing a game with his mere presence. But in more of a half-court dominated setting, such as North Carolina's game against Georgia Tech the prior weekend, Lawson's weaknesses become more pronounced. Without space to get around defenders, his speed becomes marginalized and his decision making comes more into focus. And this is where Lawson will need to improve the most between now and when the NBA calls. If Saturday's performance against Arizona was any indication, that could be approaching very quickly.

Nick Fazekas, 6’11, PF/C, Senior, Nevada
Vs Utah State: 24 points, 18 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks, 9-17 FG, 6-8 FT


Joseph Treutlein

After declaring for the NBA draft last April, only to eventually pull his name out at the deadline, Nick Fazekas has come back to school in his senior year to continue working on his game. Fazekas hasn’t changed his style of play much, but a few small, but important strides could go a long way in improving his stock. He’s added a bit more weight to his wiry frame, his attentiveness on the defensive end seems a bit improved, he’s rebounding and shooting the ball notably better, and he’s continuing to show the versatile inside-out scoring game that is the primary reason he’s highly regarded as an NCAA player and NBA prospect.

Fazekas and 13th ranked Nevada haven’t faced too much steep competition on their schedule, but he has consistently scored almost at will in nearly all of their games this season, which has been an ongoing trend for the past three years. Fazekas hasn’t dipped below double-digit scoring in any of his games, and has recorded a double-double in 13 of his 19 games this season.

In the past few years, Fazekas has evolved from a perimeter-oriented jump-shooting big man to one who now scores at least half of his points around the basket, using his skilled finesse post game to score in a variety of ways. Fazekas has two very reliable moves on the low block, one being a hook shot and the other a turnaround jumper, both of which he exhibits excellent touch on and both of which he usually can get off in the blink of an eye with ease. Despite his slight build, Fazekas doesn’t have much of any problems at the collegiate level establishing position on the low block, and can hit his hook shot with decent regularity from out to five feet away from the basket, and his turnaround jumper out to 10 or 15 feet. He occasionally tries to draw contact with these moves, but predominantly will fade away on both, having the skill to consistently score without having to power his way to the basket, which he isn’t consistently capable of doing anyhow. Fazekas will occasionally go around his man for a lay-up, or use a fake to make a step-through move, but the vast majority of the time he settles for the hook or jump shot.

Fazekas also has a bit of a face-up game from out to the three-point line, but as his game has progressed over the years, he’s come to spend more time working with his back to the basket in the painted area. Fazekas doesn’t have a very quick first step or great ball-handling abilities, but because defenders have to play him so close to respect him jump shot, he can usually get by them for a few dribbles to the basket when necessary. He’s been hitting his three-point shot with great regularity this season, shooting .475 on the year, but it’s only on a sample of 40 attempts, or one make a game. Despite his good shooting form, Fazekas only shot .290 from behind the arc last season. Still, it’s a very positive sign for NBA scouts to see him hitting 3-pointers at a near 50% clip, and something that should help ease the doubts about how his offensive game will translate to the league in a more complimentary role.

Fazekas has a consistent motor on the offensive end, always working to get open without the ball when he isn’t trying to establish position in the post. Though he spends the most of his time trying to establish position down low, he does a good job moving to open space and utilizing screens off the ball, as well as a good job finishing on cuts to the basket or hitting spot-up shots from outside in this fashion. Fazekas also runs the floor well in transition, working to get ahead of the defense and finish on fast break opportunities. He also does a good job as a trailer, using his rebounding ability to capitalize on putback attempts.

In terms of rebounding the ball, Fazekas is doing yeoman’s work for Nevada this year considering his lack of bulk, establishing good inside position around the basket and using his craftiness and length to get around defenders when he doesn’t have the position. He shows good touch on his putback attempts, but his lack of leaping ability sometimes leaves him falling up short on his tip-in attempts, as he rarely plays above the rim. This lack of leaping ability is not a prevalent problem with the rest of his offensive game, but when consistently matched against bigger, more athletic opponents at the next level, it may become more of a problem. Improving his rebounding numbers by 1.3 per game despite playing 3 minutes less every contest has to be considered a good sign as far as scouts are concerned, though, especially since this was always viewed as one of the biggest concerns surrounding his NBA potential. He is currently ranked as the 2nd best rebounder in the entire country.

Defensively, Fazekas seems to be more aware and active this season than in previous seasons, but he still has a long way to go. He doesn’t consistently step up on weak-side rotations, likely preferring to stay out of foul trouble, and he doesn’t always make the rotations at all. His perimeter defense is also still a problem due to poor lateral quickness, though he seems to be putting in more effort defending in the post.

Fazekas has done a nice job addressing many of the weaknesses in his game we pointed out as potential concerns in the scouting report we wrote on him last year. Still, question marks about the level of competition he is putting up his phenomenal numbers against remain. Making a deep run in the NCAA tournament and inevitably matching up and faring well against an NBA prospect big man or two along the way could do wonders for his stock.

Aaron Bruce, 6-3, Point Guard, Baylor, Junior
Vs. Kansas: 25 points, 1 assist, 2 steals, 8/12 FG, 4/4, FT, 5/8 3P


Mike Schmidt

After a phenomenal freshman season (18.2 points, 3.8 assists per game, 47% FG) and a less impressive injury riddled sophomore season (13.2 points, 3.1 assists, 37% FG), Aaron Bruce has again been streaky this year. Though he is adapting to a different role playing next to two fellow combo guards with fairly questionable decision making skills, in an offense that has little rhyme, rhythm or balance to it, he finally displayed many of the skills that make him an NBA draft prospect against Texas on Saturday. He will have to show plenty more before the end of the season on a much more consistent basis, but Bruce has a lot of assets to work with, and always seems to display different wrinkles to his game every time we watch him play.

Against Texas, Bruce started out the game by setting the pace for Baylor. He hit a couple early three pointers, and also made a nice layup in transition where he used the left side of the rim on a reverse to shield the ball intelligently from a defender. Bruce continued to score well throughout the first half, and finished near the hoop after using ball fakes to get his defender off balance. Baylor had a 6 point lead at halftime, and it was largely due to Bruce’s contribution. In the second half, he continued to shoot the three-pointers with confidence. He also displayed his ability to be smart with the ball around the rim. Despite Bruce’s 25 points, Baylor couldn’t hold Texas and Kevin Durant from coming away with the home win.

Bruce has a few things working for him when it comes to the NBA. He has good size for a point guard, and very good court vision as well. His passing ability sometimes goes unnoticed because of his role within the team, but it’s very clear that he has no problem finding the open man either in traffic or the half-court. Bruce also has the ability to knock down 3-pointers at a good clip, and shoots the mid-range shot well, especially when moving to the left. He can use ball-fakes to compensate for his lack of explosiveness and get to the rim, and has the ability to fool defenders by changing speeds in traffic.

The main weakness for Aaron Bruce at this point is his body and lack of athleticism. The lack of foot speed was obvious on Saturday, when Bruce would be alone in transition, and the defender managed to catch up to him before he reached the other end of the floor. The lack of lateral quickness hurts him as well, though his fundamentals on this side of the ball are solid. Bruce also lacks a great first step, and usually settles for jump shots anyway. This is highlighted by the lack of free throw attempts he has this season.

Baylor is overloaded with dominant ball-handlers who like to make things happen off the bounce this year, and Bruce doesn’t have the chance to be a full time point guard at this point in time. He is clearly better with the ball in his hands, but has started playing better recently thanks to the reemergence of his outside shooting touch. As a 22-year old junior, Bruce is free to test his draft stock this April. He has a chance to be a second round pick if NBA teams like his passing ability enough, but will also have considerable opportunities to play overseas for a lucrative contract thanks to his skill-set, basketball IQ and high-level experience in international basketball. He’s probably better than he’s able to show right now playing for Baylor, but unless he decides to get up and do something about that, we’ll probably never know for sure.

Gary Neal, 6-4, Senior, Shooting Guard, Towson
36 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 0 turnovers, 3 steals, 14-24 FG, 6-12 3P, 2-4 FT


Jonathan Givony

Currently the 3rd leading scorer in the country at 26 points a game, Gary Neal is a player who is very much deserving of at least a mention on this site. Playing in a fairly strong conference as far as mid-majors go (the Colonial—which sent George Mason to the Final Four last year), his numbers are legit when looking at the way he scores them, on tape at least.

Neal has decent, but not great size for the NBA shooting guard position, standing right around 6-4 and with a pretty good build. He doesn’t have a great wingspan, but is athletic enough to play in the NBA. He is a very fluid player who moves effortlessly on the court, possessing a solid first step, good quickness, and the ability to create separation from defenders with the way he gets off the floor in the mid-range area. Not terribly explosive vertically, he seems to prefer pulling-up off the dribble rather than slashing all the way to the basket and finishing strong.

This is exactly Neal’s best attribute as far as the NBA is concerned -- his mid-range game. He is very much adept at finding spaces within his team’s half-court offense to get his shot off, and is excellent at pulling up sharply and creating quick separation from defenders for a variety of tough jumpers from 18-20 feet out, contorting his body thanks to his strength and sometimes using the glass to his advantage. Although his numbers from 3-point range aren’t fantastic-- 32.6% on the year-- he appears to be a very good shooter who will certainly be able to knock down shots at a good rate at the next level once he has the benefit or true spacing on the floor, not to mention man to man coverage rather than an entire team defense geared almost solely towards stopping him. Once Neal gets his feet set, he is extremely dangerous, possessing excellent shooting mechanics and range that extends well beyond the 3-point line. In the game against Delaware in particular, he hit a couple of open shots from 25-30 feet out, and looked extremely smooth and effortless doing so.

The reason Neal’s percentages suffer are two-fold. For one, he plays for a very average team (5-6 in the CAA, 11-11 overall) and therefore draws an excessive amount of attention from opposing defenses. Even more so, though, his shot-selection is pretty poor, having a tendency to rely too much on his perimeter jumper, forcing the issue excessively, and taking contested shots early in possessions with multiple hands in his face. He’s getting better in this area as the season moves along, as indicated by his rising assist totals (9 for example just last week against UNC-Wilmington), but this is still very much a concern as it often is with high-volume scorers at the mid-major level. His court vision seems to be pretty solid, particularly off the dribble (he even gets some minutes at the point on occasion), but his decision making is still lacking all too often.

The fact remains, though, that Neal is capable of hitting some really difficult off-balance shots, especially coming off screens where he has a second to get his feet set and release a clean look. One problem we noticed on tape is that he doesn’t have a particularly quick release, so there are question marks about his ability to get his shot off against bigger and more athletic defenders—the kind the NBA is known for at the 2-guard position. This is something he’ll have to show starting at the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament (all-seniors camp held in April) and if he does well there, then at the Orlando pre-draft camp in June and in NBA workouts.

In terms of his ball-handling and slashing ability, we should note that he averages about 8 free throw attempts per game, but only had 6 free throws total in the two games we saw him participating in, meaning he’s likely better in this area than he looked in the games we saw on tape. It’s quite clear that he is much better going left than he is right, but we’re eager to see him in person to get a better read on just how advanced his slashing ability is.

Defensively, we can’t say that Neal is anything more than average. He doesn’t seem to put that much effort into this part of his game, letting less athletic players blow right by him apathetically all too often, especially following possessions where he wasn’t the one who ended up shooting the ball. His body language in particular can look very concerning at times, hanging his head a bit when things don’t go exactly his way, and visibly pouting when a teammate dares to look him off and deny him a touch. It’s possible that we just caught him in some bad moments compared with the way he usually plays, so this is another thing we’ll be looking at when we inevitably see him in early April in Portsmouth.

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