NCAA Weekly Performers, 12/28/08

NCAA Weekly Performers, 12/28/08
Dec 28, 2008, 05:31 pm
We're back with another version of Top Weekly Performers, to evaluate four of the more impressive prospects in the early part of the NCAA season thus far. Ohio State's Evan Turner, North Carolina's Ty Lawson, Pitt's DeJuan Blair and Kansas' Cole Aldrich receive an extended look.

Evan Turner, 6-7, Sophomore, Shooting Guard, Ohio State
16.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 3.5 turnovers, 2.7 steals, 51% FG, 75% FT, 55% 3P

Jonathan Givony

Although he’s been discussed repeatedly on this site for the past two and a half years, even we’ve had a hard time not being impressed with the progress Evan Turner has made from his freshman to sophomore year.

With Jamar Butler, Kosta Koufos and Othello Hunter out of the picture, Turner has stepped up his game and established himself as Ohio State’s clear-cut go-to guy, a leader on the floor and a Mr. Everything-type in the stat-sheet. His per-40 minute pace-adjusted stats (22 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals, 5 turnovers, 51% FG) are simply off the charts at this point, even if the sample size is still small just ten games into the season and with a strength of schedule that leaves something to be desired. Still, the Buckeyes are 9-1 with solid wins over Notre Dame, Butler and Miami, which definitely stands for something, despite an embarrassing home loss this weekend to West Virginia.

Turner grew an inch over the summer, and now stands a very imposing 6-7 for a wing player. He’s a clear-cut shooting guard prospect for the NBA, even if he’s been forced to play as many as four different positions this season for Ohio State. With second option David Lighty out for the next 6-12 weeks with a broken bone in his left foot, the Buckeyes will be asking Turner to do even more for them on both ends of the court. Looking at the way Turner has embraced his new role this season—never shying away from responsibility on the court and often directing traffic out on the floor—that likely won’t be a problem for him.

What stands out the most about Turner’s play this season—besides his terrific versatility—is just how naturally his game appears to translate to the next level. Incredibly smooth and fluid, almost effortless in his movements, and clearly the type that everything comes quite naturally for, Turner does an outstanding job creating offense for himself and others. He loves to come off short curls and flex-type screens to catch and shoot jumpers from 15-17 feet, but he’s clearly at his best when operating on the perimeter with the ball in his hands.

Turner does a masterful job in the triple threat position, showing an advanced understanding for utilizing jabs, body fakes, crossovers and hesitation moves to keep his defender off-balance. He is terrific at changing speeds and directions with the ball in his hands, looking perfectly capable of creating shots with either hand, and is absolutely deadly creating separation from his matchup with his picture perfect pull-up jumper.

His demeanor and style of play is eerily reminiscent Brandon Roy at Washington, even if his skill-level obviously isn’t as high at this point. Not quite the incredible passer Roy is, he’s still pretty good in his own right, particularly off the dribble. With a rookie point guard running the show for OSU at the moment, they’ve turned quite a bit to Turner to help break a full-court press and get them into their offense.

Perimeter shooting appears to be an area that Turner has improved on substantially, even if it might be a bit early still to draw any final conclusions. He’s made six of the eleven 3-pointers he’s attempted this season, showing a slow, deliberate release, but very fundamental and consistent mechanics. His free throw shooting is up from 70 to 75% this season as well, and he’s drawing over six attempts per game, which is very solid. Continuing to shoot the ball at a good rate from beyond the arc will be huge for his draft stock.

Another area of improvement lies in his post-up game, something that Ohio State has turned to repeatedly taking advantage of mismatch situations. Turner has terrific footwork and a beautiful turnaround jumper, both of which he’s utilized repeatedly this season in the paint.

Turnovers have been an issue for Turner from very early in his freshman campaign as a Buckeye, and this season has not been an exception thus far. He was amongst the NCAA leaders in turnovers per possessions last season—coughing up the ball on 30% of his possessions, and that has dropped to a still poor 24% this year. The excessive amount of offensive responsibilities he’s forced to shoulder on a team that is sorely lacking in shot-creators has a lot to do with this, but he really needs to do a better job not being so careless with the ball. He has a tendency to look out of control with his drives at times, and will suffer the occasional mental lapses trying to make very complicated passes in the half-court.

A place that Turner can definitely afford to make strides in is in his ability to get all the way to the rim and finish strong. He lacks some upper body strength and explosiveness taking contact at the basket, and tends to get a little too cute with his finishes at times. Getting a little bit tougher and learning how to finish better amongst the trees will be a priority for him once he reaches the NBA, in order to compensate for his good, but not amazing athleticism.

Defensively, Turner appears to project very well to the next level, as he has great size and length for his position and also puts a good effort on this end of the floor. He’s active and fundamentally sound and doesn’t appear to take any possessions off. His numbers definitely support this claim, as he gets in the passing lanes at an outstanding rate (actually making him the best ball-thief amongst all players in our database), and also rebounds the ball exceptionally well. Ohio State’s extreme reliance on zone defenses makes him a little bit difficult to properly evaluate at times, and as mentioned the competition level hasn’t been great thus far, so we’ll have to continue to watch him as the season moves on.

All in all, there aren’t many players in college basketball who have improved as much as Evan Turner, and very few of them share the combination of physical tools and versatile skills that he does as an exceptionally talented 6-7 shooting guard. If he keeps this up, he could very well establish himself as one of the more intriguing wing prospects in this year’s draft. Only a sophomore, there isn’t a huge rush for Turner to jump to the NBA too soon. Considering how weak this draft is shaping up to be, though, he might have a hard time passing up the prospects of being a lottery pick—as early as it might be right now to be saying that.

Ty Lawson, 5'11, Point Guard, Junior, North Carolina
15.7 points, 6.6 assists, 1.4 turnovers, 2.3 rebounds, 2.7 steals, 55% FG, 50% 3P, 79% FT

Joseph Treutlein

Likely the best point guard in the country on the season to this point, Ty Lawson has taken his game to the next level, with his production and efficiency rising across the board, despite not seeing an increase in minutes. The 5'11 point guard has put the offseason's distractions behind him, and is making it look like it was a no-brainer decision to come back to school, given the way his game has seemingly improved.

On the offensive end, Lawson is playing the best basketball of his career, showing the same strengths he's always had, but also filling in some of the weaker areas to make a much more complete game. The first area of improvement to note is his three-point shooting, as he's surprised many by showing flashes of NBA three-point range while shooting 50% from behind the line, albeit on just under three 3-point attempts per game. It's very possible that his increase in efficiency is a misnomer from the small sample size, but his shooting in general has improved over time (as evidenced by his FT%), and coupled with the improved confidence in his shot, it's very likely that his 3-point shot is becoming a legitimate weapon.

Looking at his shot, it is important to note that he is effective with it in a very limited way, only really showing success either when spotting up or pulling up from a static motion, not being able to create his own shot off the dribble and not showing the capability of hitting for consistency when moving either right or left. His shot still definitely has some areas for improvement in mechanics as well, with a slow-releasing, low-arcing trajectory that is not always consistent with extension or follow-through.

On the bright side, his form is much closer to textbook on his free throws, so it's not unreasonable to expect it to carry over to his in-game shooting over time. He’s doubled his rate of makes from 3-point range from his freshman to junior seasons, while increasing his percentages 14% thus far. His true shooting percentage currently ranks second amongst all point guards, and would rank tops of any point guard in the last four drafts if he maintained the same rate through ACC play.

While Lawson has shown some prowess spotting up from deep, his mid-range game is still highly suspect, attempting very few shots from inside the arc that aren't lay-ups, showing little effectiveness with pull-up shots or floaters.

In terms of attacking the basket, Lawson has arguably taken his game to the next level here as well, showing the same prowess in the transition game, but also looking a bit more comfortable attacking off the dribble in the half-court, making excellent utilization of hesitation and in-and-out dribbles in combination with his footwork and body control, getting into the lane with ease.

As a point guard, Lawson has been exceptional thus far, boasting an outstanding 4.87 assist to turnover ratio on 6.6 assists per game, with his assists per 40 pace adjusted good for 1st in our database, his PPR also ranked 1st and his A:T ratio good for second best. The biggest thing to notice here is how Lawson has taken his half-court game a lot closer to his full-court game, showing much more comfort in the half-court, using good court vision to find open shooters and cutters across the court, while taking advantage of the respect opponents give him on drives, making a lot of quick drive-and-kicks. Playing on the best team in the country obviously helps in this regard, but one of the main reasons they are so good has a lot to do with Lawson, and the numbers clearly back that up.

Defensively, Lawson is very much the same player, a huge disruptive force on the weak-side (3.7 steals per 40 minutes pace adjusted, ranked 2nd in our database), and capable of being a highly effective man-to-man defender when he locks down, but often shows an inconsistent stance in that area, while his size is also a disadvantage.

If Lawson continues playing the way he has, it'd be extremely surprising to see him pass up the draft this season, where he should be firmly in lottery discussions, and a very attractive pick. In addition to the skills and physical abilities he's shown over his 2+ seasons in college, the learning curve he's shown this season and the experience he’s garnered should be a huge boost to his stock, as many could foresee him to continue improving in many areas. He should be about as close as one will get to being ready to step in and run an NBA team from day one, which is definitely an important factor.

DeJuan Blair, 6’7”, Sophomore, Power Forward, Pittsburgh
14.7 points, 13 rebounds, .9 blocks, 2.1 steals, 1.5 turnovers, 63.3% FG, 55.8% FT, 26.1 minutes

Joey Whelan

After a strong freshman season that put him firmly on the national map, DeJuan Blair has stepped up his production substantially about a third of the way through his sophomore campaign. The undersized power forward committed himself this summer to working out and improving his physique, and the results have been very noticeable, both in how Blair looks and moves on the court. This added agility and quickness has made him even more of a force on the glass, and has allowed him to be more of an offensive threat with the basketball.

A tremendous number of Blair’s points still come as a result of his tireless work on the offensive glass. He by far and away ranks as the top offensive rebounder in our database (nearly 50% better than his nearest competitor) and is second only to Blake Griffin in total rebounds per game so far this season. The Pittsburgh native continues to show an amazing nose for the basketball, relying on his great positioning, freakish 7’3” wingspan and outstanding hustle to haul in six offensive rebounds per game. As was the case last season though, Blair is still hurt by his lack of explosiveness around the rim. He still gets a fair number of his put back attempts blocked or altered since he doesn’t elevate well. Granted, he has always done a great job of using his body to create space for a shot, but when talking about the NBA, simply creating contact won’t be enough to ensure a free look in the paint.

Blair’s post game last season showed promise, but clearly needed time to develop; that is still the case, even if we’ve seen noticeable improvement. His touch has gotten softer, as he still goes to the middle a lot with a nice looking baby hook, but the rest of his game is still built around his physical ability. He is lighter on his feet somewhat this season so he does a better job of pinning his man and shooting quickly, but there just isn’t a real back to the basket game here yet. The most glaring issue that has carried over from last season is Blair still needs to improve on recognizing where he is in relation to the basket. Often times he finds himself fighting to shoot from underneath the backboard as a result of setting up shop too low on the block.

Considering what his role will be at the next level, in spite of the nitpicking, Blair has likely become an adequate enough scorer to justify the minutes he earns through his tenacious hustle. He is after all scoring the ball at a very nice rate this season (23 points per-40 minutes pace adjusted) and is doing so on terrific efficiency, currently shooting 63% from the field.

We mentioned Blair’s jump shot as showing a little bit of promise last season based on his shooting form, but he hasn’t stepped out to shoot very often this year. Occasionally when he is forced off the block, which isn’t often, he will step away and shoot a mid-range baseline jumper. His form still looks solid, albeit sometimes he line drives his shot, but based on his declining free throw percentage (currently at a very poor 56%), it still looks like he has a ways to go before this is a consistent weapon.

Defensively, Blair is still being plagued by the many of the same problems as last season. When he is forced to step out and cover perimeter players he is susceptible to being beaten off the dribble. On the block, though he holds his position very well, he is undersized and can’t jump all that well; therefore he is an easy player to shoot over for more athletic big men. As far as his professional aspirations are concerned, he will certainly have to do a better job of defending the pick and roll in order to be a success. Scouts will love the hustle that he brings to this end of the floor, if nothing else. And you can’t ignore the results he gets at the collegiate level, being the anchor of arguably the best defensive team in the NCAA. Blair’s intensity level and toughness are a great foundation to build off of—now it’s time to improve his technique and fundamentals.

Blair is the classic case of a frontcourt force at the collegiate level that initially projects out as a tweener in the NBA. There have been several examples of players like this who have managed to develop into successful contributors, most notably Jason Maxiell and Paul Millsap in recent years. Blair bears a strong resemblance to both of these players, and if anything projects as a terrific rebounder and backup power forward—if not more than that. Only being a 19-year old sophomore, Blair still has upside to grow into, as he’s shown with the improvements he’s made this season. Blair’s hustle, strength and toughness make him an appealing prospect to NBA teams looking for a quality banger inside who can provide solid minutes to a competitive half-court team.

Cole Aldrich, 6-11, Sophomore, Center, Kansas
13.6 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.4 blocks, 1.5 assists, 1.5 turnovers, 59% FG, 82% FT

Kyle Nelson

In September, we rated Kansas center Cole Aldrich as one of the top five returning Big 12 prospects and, as of this week, he is certainly living up to those high expectations. After a freshman campaign full of potential, Aldrich returned in fine form, thus far posting career high averages in every statistical category alongside of efficiency numbers that include a 33.3 PER that ranks 18th among players in our database, and the 12th best rebounding rate. Although his team has hit some rough patches, particularly in losses against Massachusetts, Arizona, and Syracuse, Aldrich has put his many off-season improvements on display and shown why he is considered by many to be a sure-fire NBA player when he decides the team is right.

From an NBA perspective, Aldrich certainly looks the part, standing 6’11 with a great wingspan and wide shoulders. It looks as though he added a good amount of muscle in the offseason, an improvement that speaks to one of our most significant concerns coming into this season. He is still an incredible athlete, possessing neither elite leaping ability nor lateral quickness, but for his size he is certainly a mobile player who clearly has ample physical tools to play in the NBA. He looks far more comfortable in Kansas’ offensive and defensive sets, and is learning how to use his size to be productive on a nightly basis.

Offensively, Aldrich looks much more comfortable this season and his bump in consistency and efficiency have been a testament to his offseason work. Sporting a very solid 59% shooting percentage from the field, he made strides this year to diversify his offensive repertoire, showing range out to 18-feet and a variety of moves in the post, including a trusty turnaround jumpshot and a baby hook off of the dribble. In addition, Aldrich is doing a much better job of getting open in the post, using his body and his soft hands to establish position under the basket. Once he receives the ball in the deep post, he tends to either score, get his own rebound should he miss, or get to the line. His 6.4 free throw attempts per 40 minutes pace adjusted is a fairly solid rate. Similarly, the 82% he shoots from the line is awfully impressive, showing the potential he displays on his jump-shot down the road, as awkward as his behind the head, sling-shot mechanics might look.

Aldrich’s potential as a jump-shooter also signals his biggest problem at this stage: his propensity to avoid contact, choosing to fall away from the basket or take a spot-up jump-shot rather than bang in the post. A player with Aldrich’s body should attack the basket at a much greater rate than he currently does. His handle also still has a long way to go, which hurts him in half court situations, as he struggles to create his own shot. One of the most improved areas of Aldrich’s game, however, is his decision making. His court sense seems to have improved a lot last year, which is evidenced in his assist to turnover ratio. Last year, his assist to turnover ratio was 0.24; this year, it is a much better 0.94.

Defensively, Aldrich is showing improvements in terms of his awareness and working on limiting his fouls. Per 40 minutes pace adjusted, he is only averaging 3.8 personal fouls per game, and watching him on film, he looks much better in Kansas’s defensive rotations. His gaudy shot blocking numbers are impressive and a testament to his timing and awareness, rather than his athleticism. The most significant area of concern in Aldrich’s defensive game is his lack of elite lateral quickness. He has trouble guarding perimeter oriented big men and has trouble guarding quicker players off of the dribble. Both situations often result in fouls.

His bread and butter, however, is his rebounding ability, which has taken off this season. Averaging 9.9 rebounds per game and 14.3 rebounds per 40 minutes pace adjusted, Aldrich uses his superb sense of timing and developing awareness, not to mention his soft hands, to always grab rebounds that fall near him on both ends of the floor. He might not be quite as productive at the next level, but there is no reason to think that he can’t be a very good rebounder as a professional.

There is quite a bit more hype surrounding Cole Aldrich this year, and much of it is justified. He looks much better this season and is one of the most dominant big men in the Big 12. While much of his flaws have to do his average skill-level and toughness, Aldrich must make sure to be aggressive and constantly attack the basket on the offensive end. Should Aldrich continue to play at a high level this season and considering the relative lack of true post players in this year’s draft class, there is no reason to think that he can’t be a top-20 pick. The question is whether he is better served gaining experience (something that he sorely lacks) through consistent playing time at the collegiate level, something that may warrant returning for another year of high-level seasoning at Kansas.

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