With The Rookies, It’s More Art Than Science

The NBA Draft is a tricky business. It is an imperfect process that exposes human frailty under the brightest of spotlights. More art than science. More theory than fact. More misses than hits. A draft pick (particularly a lottery pick) is the most valuable, yet unpredictable commodity in the NBA. That’s an uneasy reality for NBA teams with millions of dollars at stake. Information is vital. But even more important, is how that information is weighed and processed by NBA decision makers. Easily identifiable information (perceived as elite) translates to the lottery (i.e., physical attributes and basketball-related skills). Unfortunately, it’s the obscure information that translates to NBA success (i.e., intangibles). Latter strengths can make up for former deficiencies. The converse, however, is not true.

Of course, the NBA Draft’s holy grail is the gifted athlete ranked high in basketball IQ and even higher in character. Some teams have mastered the art of identifying the players who check all or most of these boxes (see Spurs, Warriors, and more recently, Celtics), while others continue to falter. Coincidentally, 2 of the 3 rookies I love from the 2017 draft class were chosen by Golden State and Boston. Not so coincidentally, I love all 3 more because of who they are as men than who they are as basketball players. Meet Kyle Kuzma, Semi Ojeleye, and Jordan Bell.

Kyle Kuzma, Lakers (Drafted 27th by Brooklyn, traded to L.A.) 

Lonzo Ball was the more heralded draft choice, but Kuzma might be the true face of the Lakers future. Kuzma impressed in 2017 Summer League, fueling the Lakers run to the Vegas title while capturing title game MVP honors with 30 points and 10 rebounds. His size and athleticism allows him to defend and play multiple positions, which is invaluable in today’s NBA.

To date, he’s averaging 16.4 points and 7.0 rebounds per game. His ability to get to the rim has offset his poor 3P% early on, resulting in an eFG% ranked 13th among all players with at least 200 FGA. Given Kuzma shot 48% from behind the arc during Summer League, his true 3P% is probably somewhere between that and his 31% clip through 16 regular season games. It’s worth noting his shot is smooth and consistent and his FT% has seen a significant jump since college (82% vs. 63%). The sample sizes are small, but the early returns are positive.

With Kuzma though, it’s less about the numbers and more about the chip on his shoulder. It’s no coincidence that Lakers’ President of Basketball Operations, Magic Johnson, and Kuzma grew up in two of the poorest, hard luck towns in Michigan. Johnson being from Lansing, Kuzma from Flint. Kuzma describes life in Flint:

“It was tough. Flint, Michigan, was very tough to live in. A lot of temptations on the streets. There was a lot of negativity with the violence…You see a lot. Every liquor store had someone selling drugs. On my street, specifically, there were houses on one side, and across the street there were three houses and then maybe every other house was burned down. It was really like a Third World country type of feel with how it looked and depleted it was. It made me who I am.”

And who is Kyle Kuzma? A hard-working, confident, fearless competitor, desperate to never return to life in Flint, Michigan. This is an edge you can’t teach, an edge Magic Johnson intimately understands, and an edge that will drive Kuzma to outperform his 27th draft slot.

Semi Ojeleye, Celtics (Drafted 37th by Boston)

 To some, Ojeleye’s college path may have raised some red flags. A player, who was once the No. 32 prospect in the Class of 2013 per the Recruiting Services Consensus Index, joining a talented Duke recruiting class headlined by Jabari Parker, only to log 143 minutes and 46 points in 23 games over two seasons. Ojeleye sat out a season after transferring to SMU where he eventually flourished averaging 19 points and 6.9 rebounds per game, earning American Athletic Conference Player of the Year.

Any concerns over Ojeleye’s struggles prior to SMU miss the point; response to struggle is more important than struggle itself. Ojeleye acknowledges his lack of maturity at the time, his inability to bring his best on a daily basis, and mentally prepare himself to perform at the highest level.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski sheds some light on Ojeleye’s transition to Duke, “We always felt, and it’s proven to be true, that he’s an outstanding young man. He came from a real small environment basketball-wise. There was going to be a process of adjustment, and he was making that progress. And obviously he’s made it. We’re happy for him.”

What that struggle spawned is an unquenchable work ethic. SMU coach Tim Jankovich speaks to Ojeleye’s dedication to the gym during his time at SMU, “Every single day that you come here, he’s in there. I mean, he’s like a machine. Sometimes we try to get him out of there because we’d rather have him resting. But he’s so passionate that you can set your clock on him.”

In a lot of ways, it’s no coincidence that when Boston went on the clock with the 37th pick in the 2017 NBA Draft they went with Ojeleye. Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens had a vision. As one pre-draft Sporting News headline read, “Semi Ojeleye isn’t a star prospect, but he can be a star in his role.”

A fitting premonition, given how Boston has deployed Ojeleye early on this season. His primary responsibility is to defend the opposition’s best player. Think LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Kristaps Porzingis to name a few.

“That’s kind of what we need Semi to be,” Stevens said following a 96-89 win over the Bucks earlier this season, during which Ojeleye guarded Antetokounmpo. We need him to be a guy that can go in and guard some of these guys with his body and athleticism.”

For his part, Ojeleye is accepting his defensive role with open arms. “You just try to prepare, watch film, try to be always ready,” he said. “You try to take it seriously, know their tendencies, and go out there and just do what you can.”

Boston is really the perfect incubator for a player like Ojeleye. An opportunity to slowly develop a specialization within a thriving, positive culture under the tutelage of basketball genius Brad Stevens. Perhaps that specialization is 3-and-D?

Ojeleye’s college 3P%, although a small sample, indicate his early NBA struggles from deep may trend upward. This would fit well with the impressive defensive responsibilities Ojeleye has already earned.

Jordan Bell, Warriors (Drafted 38th  by Chicago, traded to Golden State)

It’s really no surprise the Warriors coveted Bell from Chicago for $3.5M cash on draft night. What’s more surprising is the Bulls didn’t stop to think maybe they should hold onto Bell given the Warriors level of interest combined with their successful track record. But then again, it is the Bulls.

According to Bell, Golden State is the perfect fit.

“I think I came into the right situation. The right organization, with [Warriors GM] Bob Myers, the executive of the year. The person I try to play like as much as possible [Green] was Defensive Player of the Year. This team just won the world championship, so I think this is set up perfectly for me to succeed.” I for one, find it hard to disagree.

Bell has only played 100 minutes, but I’m going to throw out a few fun stats anyways. He has the highest FG% of the 2017 Draft class (70%) as well as the highest Box Plus Minus (4.8). Bell’s per 36 minutes stat line reads 13.7 points, 9.4 boards, 4.0 assists, 2.2 blocks, and 1.8 steals. That’s kind of ridiculous.

At the very least, he has an extremely high ceiling. This much was evident in 2017 Summer League where Bell’s feats included a 5×5 game in a double-overtime loss to Minnesota (5 points, 6 blocks, 5 steals, 5 assists, and 11 rebounds) as well as a record setting game for rebounds (16).

But as with Kuzma and Ojeleye, Bell also transcends statistics with the type of person he is.

Following Oregon’s Final Four loss to North Carolina last season Bell gave one of the most emotional NCAA post-game interviews I’ve ever seen. His tears induced my tears. Bell accepted full responsibility for his team’s loss. It was genuine. It was heartfelt.

Stories abound regarding Bell’s character. As a freshman in high school he couldn’t afford the travel fees for his summer league team so he cleaned the gym and did whatever other dirty work the head coach needed done to pay off his debt. Throughout high school and college Bell received glowing reviews applauding his supportiveness of teammates, lack of jealousy for the success of others, and his ability to accept discipline without complaint. There was also the summer of 2016, when Bell drove back to his home in Long Beach and gave away all of his Oregon Nike gear to teammates, friends, and family.

The more you read the more you understand why Bell, according to one league source, was the top target on Golden State’s 2017 draft board. The Warriors place a premium on finding exceptional basketball players that are also exceptional people. Bell fits the mold and it would be no surprise if those per 36 minutes stats over Bell’s first 100 professional minutes eventually translate to career numbers. The Warriors are hopeful while the Bulls are hoping they’re not regretful.

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Interestingly, all of this NBA Draft and rookie talk reminds me of a show on The Cartoon Network’s late-night programming block, Adult Swim. The show is called Rick and Morty. Rick is an alcoholic, cynical, mad-scientist type and Morty is his grandson. In one, particularly, awesome moment on the show, Rick makes a bad mistake and reacts with the following, “Ok…Well, sometimes science is more art than science, Morty. A lot of people don’t get that.”

To Rick’s point, players like Kyle Kuzma, Semi Ojeleye, and Jordan Bell embody the art of finding truly capable rookies in the NBA Draft. And while NBA teams try to weed out the uncertainty inherent in the draft by making every effort to turn the process into a science, what they really should be doing is repeating after Rick, “Sometimes science is more art than science.” Maybe then, there might be more draft hits than misses.

 

photo via llananba