Titus’s NBA Draft Enigma All-Stars

The most vital NBA draft coverage in the world continues today with the Enigma All-Stars. These are the pro prospects whom most casual basketball fans probably haven’t seen play much. Some of you might not even know who the hell these guys are. Basically, these are the players who will make fans of the teams that draft them say, “I think I’ve heard of him but I have no idea whether this pick is any good.” Let’s get to it.

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P.J. Hairston (North Carolina/Texas Legends)

Even though North Carolina fans got to know Hairston pretty well over the last three years, my guess is that even they would agree he’s still something of an enigma.

THE GOOD

Among this year’s projected top-40 picks, Hairston is in the discussion with Doug McDermott and Nik Stauskas for the title of best shooter. (For the record, I rank Stauskas first and then have Hairston and McBuckets tied for second.) Hairston can knock down 3s in transition and spot up in half-court sets, off the dribble in isolation, off the dribble in pick-and-roll situations, and off screens or dribble handoffs. In other words, every time Hairston has the ball near the 3-point line, he’s a threat to make it rain.

He’s also one of the few perimeter players in this year’s draft who appears to be completely mature physically. He’s a little over 6-foot-5, weighs 230 pounds, and his body fat is just 8.2 percent. That frame, along with his shooting ability, makes him really tough to guard. Defenders have to respect his range, but if they guard him too close he can muscle his way past them and finish at the rim. (For clarification, when I say he can finish at the rim, I mean he’s an “absorb the contact, collect himself in the air, and bank it in on his way down” type of guy, not necessarily a “meet 7-footers at the zenith and poop on their faces as they try to block the shot” guy.)

There’s a reason why North Carolina was expected to contend for the ACC title and maybe even the national title this past season. Hairston was a big part of that, and things didn’t work out, but that doesn’t mean his career can’t get back on track in the NBA.

THE BAD

There’s also a reason why North Carolina didn’t achieve those goals, and that reason — to a large extent — is that Hairston was kicked off the team in December following run-ins with the law that prompted an NCAA investigation. In a span of about 10 weeks last summer, Hairston (1) was pulled over for speeding while driving a rental car that had been loaned to him by a convicted felon named Fats, (2) was again pulled over in Fats’s rental car, only this time he had weed, a 9mm handgun, and no driver’s license, and (3) was caught going 28 mph over the speed limit.

I’m not going to pretend to know if Hairston will cause problems for whatever team drafts him. For all we know, he could end up being a good guy who just ran with the wrong crowd for a couple of months. But I’m also not going to pretend like everyone in America has a felon friend named Fats. That’s a much bigger deal to me than the handgun and weed in his car. People who have felon friends named Fats are named things like “Bugsy,” “Tommy Shakes,” or “Paulie the Butcher” and act like they’re on Angels With Filthy Souls. They aren’t college basketball players named P.J.

Regardless of the questions about Hairston’s character, it’s not as if he’s a can’t-miss talent who only has off-court issues. I’m not sold on his midrange game and he’s not a great ball handler outside of straight-line drives. His decision-making on the court can be almost as bad as it is off the court, which is another way of saying that Hairston took so many ill-advised 3s at North Carolina that I’m convinced Duke fans still yell “Hairston!” when they wad up paper and try to throw it into a trash can from an impossible distance.

Elfrid Payton (Louisiana-Lafayette)

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Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

If you claim to have seen Payton play more than once this season, you’re probably either a fan of the Sun Belt Conference, an Arkansas fan, a Louisville fan, a Baylor fan, or a liar. Louisiana made the NCAA tournament this year, but it did so only because it won three close games (six-point win, one-point win, one-point OT win) in the Sun Belt tournament to earn an automatic bid. In truth, the Ragin’ Cajuns lost seven games in a subpar conference and played only a handful of marquee teams, all of which defeated them rather easily.

This is what makes it difficult to figure out how good Payton is. He led his conference in assists (5.9 per game) and steals (2.3), he was second in scoring (19.2), and he was named the conference’s defensive player of the year while playing for the only Sun Belt team to make the NCAA tournament. (And yet he somehow wasn’t named conference player of the year.) But what does that really mean? Only three guys — Derek Fisher, Courtney Lee, and Jeremy Evans — from the Sun Belt were in the NBA this season. History says that NBA starters almost never come from the Sun Belt, which is why the best way to gauge Payton’s talent is to examine how he played against Arkansas, Louisville, Baylor, and Creighton.

As you may have guessed, Payton had his ups and downs in those four games. He averaged 20.8 points, 5.5 assists, and 2.5 steals, but he also averaged 4.5 turnovers. And to be honest, that turnover average is skewed downward thanks to his one-turnover game in the NCAA tourney against Creighton, which was so bad defensively this season that if you handed the Bluejays the ball, they’d probably just hand it right back and say, “You accidentally didn’t score on us.” Remove that game and Payton averaged 5.7 turnovers, including a nine-turnover game at Arkansas and a five-turnover game at Louisville (two teams that emphasize ball pressure on defense). Yeesh.

Another big concern for Payton is that he’s a 27 percent 3-point shooter who made only 30 threes in 3,155 minutes, or one triple every 105 minutes he played. (For reference, I made one 3 for every 24 minutes I played at Ohio State, and my goal every time I took the court was to stand in the corner and do nothing.) So, to recap, you might be telling yourself, Payton is a guard from a crappy conference who can’t shoot and turns the ball over way too much. Why, exactly, is he projected to go in the first round?

Well, scouts are high on him because he possesses all the physical tools you’d ever want from an NBA point guard. He’s 6-foot-3, he’s explosive, he can finish above the rim, he rebounds well, and he’s probably the best point guard defender in the draft not named Marcus Smart. (Cue the Syracuse fans screaming about Tyler Ennis and the Ohio State fans saying, “What about Aaron Cra— ah, screw it.”) Basically, whatever team drafts Payton is saying, “It’s easier to teach an athlete who does the dirty work how to shoot and take care of the ball than it is to teach an average point guard how to be a chiseled 6-foot-4 and dunk on people.”

T.J. Warren (North Carolina State)

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Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

T.J. Warren’s 2014 ACC Player of the Year campaign was enough to knock Khalif Wyatt out of the top spot on my list of favorite college players with “old-man game.” I’m not sure anybody will ever take the title from Warren. I watched most of his games this past season and I still can’t think of another way to describe Warren’s game. It almost feels as if the more you watch him play, the less you understand him. Watch the highlights from his 41-point game at Pitt and see what I mean.

(FYI: This 41-point game wasn’t his career high because he scored 42 IN HIS VERY NEXT GAME.)

He’s somehow great at nothing and everything. He’s not a very good shooter, yet he can consistently knock down tough jumpers. He has no natural position. He’s limited athletically, yet he seems to find surprising bursts to explode by defenders. He’s awkward and smooth at the same time. He’s a living contradiction whose game doesn’t have any analogues in today’s NBA.

Despite being confused by about 90 percent of his game, there are some things I’ve figured out about Warren:

1. He has a great feel for the game.

This is something you can begin to understand from watching his highlights, but you can’t fully appreciate it unless you watch entire games. Warren is great at reading defenses as he cuts off screens, and he always seems to be in the right position on both ends of the floor. This goes a long way in helping him overcome his athletic deficiencies. A lot of guys playing off the ball will think about where they should be and then react and get to that spot. Warren eliminates a half-second (and therefore nullifies the athletic advantage an opponent might have) by not needing to think — he naturally gravitates to the right spot. That’s a really important skill that I’m not sure can even be taught.

2. He is good at putting the basketball through the basket.

I like to think the following conversation occurred when Warren began playing basketball:

Coach: T.J., I’m going to teach you about basketball. The idea is to take this ball and put it through that ring up there.

Warren: You mean like this?

[Warren proceeds to swish a 15-footer with his unorthodox form.]

Coach: Well, sort of. Your form needs some work. Let me —

Warren: Oh, so I should do this instead?

[Warren shoots a hook shot runner off one foot that hits nothing but net.]

Coach: No. There’s a specific form that you have to use. Look, I’ll show you.

Warren: Wait, I think I’ve got it.

[Warren sinks 20 straight circus shots from all over the court.]

Coach: You know what? Just do it your way.

That’s Warren. You can pick apart his game. You can knock his shooting form and question whether he can create his own shot. But at the end of the day, the point of the game is to put the ball through the basket. And no draft prospect other than Doug McDermott does that better than Warren.

Mitch McGary (Michigan)

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Lance King/Getty Images

The following events transpired in chronological order:

1. Mitch McGary was projected to be a lottery pick (if not a top-five pick) in last year’s NBA draft.
2. Mitch McGary did not enter last year’s draft.
3. Mitch McGary smoked marijuana for apparently the first and only time in his life.
4. Mitch McGary is now projected to be drafted in the second round of this year’s draft.

Marijuana: Not even once.

Just so there’s no confusion, smoking the reefer isn’t what caused McGary’s stock to plummet. In fact, believe it or not, if you look hard enough you can find other examples of NBA teams using top picks on guys who have previously consumed cannabis. No, what has doomed McGary is that he sat out basically his entire sophomore season with back pain, he turns 22 today (ancient for NBA rookies), and 95 percent of his stock was based on four NCAA tournament games.

That last part is most important. Joel Embiid also has back issues. Doug McDermott is also 22. But those guys either have a proven track record (McDermott) or have shown vast improvement from game to game (Embiid). McGary hasn’t gotten worse, but a year off has given everyone time to ditch 2013’s McGary Mania and develop rational assessments of his game. How much of his success in the 2013 NCAA tourney came from sharing a court with four NBA players? Can he consistently make jump shots? Can he make post moves? How good of a defender will he be? Excluding “hustle plays,” how effective can he really be?

Nobody knows the answers because we’ve barely seen the real McGary play. He didn’t emerge as an NBA talent until the 2013 NCAA tourney and he played in just eight games this year, with mixed success. His best game came at Duke, when he scored 15 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in 27 minutes. But Duke’s interior play was poor all year, so lighting up the Blue Devils bigs isn’t a reason to celebrate. Especially when, 11 days later against Arizona’s front line, which is stacked with NBA talent, McGary went for just 8 and 4 in his final game in a Michigan uniform. How much of his underwhelming play in that game can be attributed to his back pain? Is post–back surgery McGary going to be “good as new” or “never quite the same”? Time will tell.

It wouldn’t surprise me if one of the teams picking in the 23-28 range pulled a premature trigger on McGary, especially since every NBA draft is pretty much a toss-up once you get outside the lottery. We’ll be reminded a million times on draft night that McGary possesses an unbelievable “motor,” that he’s already got an NBA body, and he’s a remarkable passer for his size. But any team wanting to pull that trigger had better first find answers to all sorts of questions.

Jarnell Stokes (Tennessee)

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Grant Halverson

If the Memphis Grizzlies don’t figure out a way to get an early second-round pick so they can take Jarnell Stokes, then everything I know about the Grizzlies is a lie. It’s like he was manufactured specifically for Memphis, which would make sense considering that’s where he was born and raised. Stokes is a 6-foot-8 brick wall rebounding machine who busts his ass and who has said, “My biggest strength is my strength.” Even better, he can’t shoot much and his idea of defense is to be so physical that his man stops trying to score because he has run out of body parts to have bruised.

I’m dead serious about this: Stokes belongs on the Grizzlies. The more I think about how perfect they are for each other, the more upset it makes me that the Grizzlies are inevitably going to select P.J. Hairston with the 22nd pick because they need a shooter, only to bury him on the bench when he doesn’t play hard on D. Meanwhile, Minnesota will take Stokes with one of its three second-round picks, Kevin Love will leave, Stokes will get more minutes, and T-Wolves fans will hate Stokes because he’s not Love. DON’T LET THIS HAPPEN, MEMPHIS.

But alas, it’s almost certainly going to happen. Between Seth Rollins betraying the Shield and pretty much every episode of Game of Thrones, I’ve conditioned myself to expect the exact opposite of what I want to happen in these situations. If Stokes were to end up in Memphis, he wouldn’t be an enigma — he’d be Zach Randolph’s understudy and a purveyor of both grit and grind. But since we’ve already established that Stokes won’t end up in Memphis, his NBA role will be tougher to nail down.

Standing just 6-foot-8, there’s no way Stokes could play center in the NBA. This wouldn’t be the end of the world, since he has a great power forward body, except that he can’t really shoot. Stokes averaged 63 percent from the free throw line and he missed the only three 3-pointers he attempted at Tennessee. Again, maybe that’s not the end of the world if he has a solid low-post game. And he does, just not so much against length, which is plentiful in the NBA. (Or against Jordan Morgan’s flopping.) He’s great at scoring through defenders, but not so great at scoring over defenders. Throw in that he’s not a great defender but rather just a player who knows how to stand his ground and wall up, and it’s hard to say how effective he’ll be in the NBA.

Unless, you know, he goes to Memphis.

Filed Under: 2014 NBA Draft, P.J. Hairston, Elfrid Payton, T.J. Warren, Mitch McGary, Jarnell Stokes

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Mark Titus is the founder and author of the blog Club Trillion. His book, Don’t Put Me In, Coach, chronicles his career as a walk-on benchwarmer for the Ohio State basketball team and is on sale now.

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