ESPN’s Ryen Russillo is back with another edition of NBA Draft Confidential. In the first installment, Ryen talked with NBA talent evaluators, who gave us frank assessments of Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, and Julius Randle. In this edition, Ryen talks to a general manager and two directors of college scouting for NBA teams about Dante Exum, Noah Vonleh, and Aaron Gordon. The talent evaluators are anonymously identified as Scout 1, Scout 2, and Scout 3. As Ryen said in the first NBA Draft Confidential, “these conversations are transcribed to illustrate the raw, unfiltered dialogue I have had over the last few months with these sources.” At the end of each player section, Ryen gives his own breakdown of the prospect’s game.
Scout 1: I’m not putting my nuts on the line for this guy. I’m not drafting the next Tskitishvili. Now, the guys that saw him in Prague, if they’ve seen enough, then fine, but I can’t do it. There is no frame of reference. He’s going top five or six. But if you think it’s a lock to Orlando, they like [Marcus] Smart too.
You can look like a hero or get fired taking this kid, that’s who he is. There are a lot of sexy things there. I’ve seen him practice, mostly against other Euros. I’ve seen Wiggins 15 times.
It’s very hard for me. I didn’t go to Prague. I’m a Hoop Summit guy. It’s basically drafting a high school kid out of Australia. Not debating his athleticism. He’s a hard worker, smart. His dad played, so that helps with the transition if you are worried about that. It reminds me of Nikoloz Tskitishvili [drafted no. 5 in 2002] a little, but obviously not the same player.
Here’s how that went down:
We had a good relationship with [Mike] D’Antoni, Tskitishvili’s coach at Benetton. At the time, we weren’t in on him. Teams were coming in to watch him practice, and I mean just limited practices. The vets on the team didn’t even take the court. So scouts would watch him go one-on-zero, and D’Antoni couldn’t believe how excited teams were. Mike was like, I’m not even playing the guy and teams are talking lottery. Now, Mike talked him up and helped the kid out, but this is what scares me about Exum.
Scout 2: He’s riding the wave, like Dion Waiters. Same agent. It’s all mystery and intrigue. He did enough at the Hoop Summit to be in the conversation. Everyone else, we have seen the film, we know the positives and the negatives. Embiid, injuries; Parker, body; Wiggins, shot. [The process] exposes the flaws. It’s all positives for Exum. We haven’t seen much, so we all think he’s great. With the other guys, we built them up pre-draft, then spent months picking them apart. Exum avoided all of this.
I think he’s a high-turnover guy, and he can’t shoot. We talk about Wiggins’s shot … well, it’s better than Exum’s.
Here’s the deal: At the time, when Russell Westbrook wasn’t thought to be a PG, Oklahoma City was ahead of the curve. That’s what Orlando was thinking with [Victor] Oladipo. Same thing. Re-create that model. Exum is the closest thing to this.
Where our league is going now, no one is a true PG anymore. You are either really good with the ball, as a shooter — Curry, Lillard, or Kyrie — or no one can stay in front of you — Westbrook, Wall, and Rose. There aren’t any Chris Pauls anymore.
He’s not a top-three pick, but talentwise, he’s ahead of Parker. Watching him five minutes, it doesn’t take long for him to stand out in the group. I saw him at the Adidas camp, versus the Harrison twins; he was better than them.
Smart is a better shooter than Exum. They hid Exum in workouts, and part of it is to keep the mystery. The other part is, I think they want him to fall to the Lakers. Not going to happen.
Scout 3: I have no comparisons for him. None.
Unless you are some super-scout that saw him on some JV vocational team in Australia, you have only seen him live twice in like 14 months. The workouts give you nothing; we already know he’s big and an athlete. It’s a risk, but last time we saw him at the under-19 he dominated.
It’s all upside, but he’s never played against men. He has all the physical skills, great feel for the game, so that is where you start when you think about position in the NBA. We project PG will be his primary position.
To think he’s the third pick in the draft, and hasn’t played in 12 months … man, that is impressive.
Russillo: I swear we should just replace the word “upside” with the phrase “we don’t know how bad he could be.” Like everyone else, I’m not sure. He is a product of human nature; we don’t know enough about him, so we assume he is going to be good.
If he had played in the States this year and were listed as a shooting guard who can’t shoot, would we be as excited? Because that is what he looks like.
He gets to the hoop and has all the size you would want, but it’s going to take a patient coach to let him learn how to run an offense.
These teams that are talking about taking him — Philadelphia, Orlando, maybe Utah — all drafted point guards last year. Maybe Orlando moves Oladipo to the 2, and that would be scary length to play against. We are either going to see the next Westbrook-type PG — limited as a playmaker but athletically dominant — or he will be a punch line in five years. I don’t know.
Scout 1: Another young guy. Man, these guys are so young this year. Not a huge 4, but his measurements were great. The hand size and reach make me less worried about his height. Just a huge man, huge ass, and legs. Not a great athlete, doesn’t have that quick-twitch muscle, but his ass will create space. Reminds me, bodywise, of Elton Brand.
He may not have that Elton Brand mentality, though. Just his body type.
Good rebounder, not elite. Will have trouble with the bigger, athletic guys. His dribbling blew me away. He did some shit with the ball — right hand, left hand in tight spaces — that caught my attention.
I’m not sold on his potential as this great shooter. Don’t like his mechanics; his misses in a workout were horrible. I mean just bad misses. He shoots it better moving into a shot. His spacing shots and spot shots were broken. He’s better when rhythm is created for him. [I’m] just not completely sold he’ll be this shooter he’s billed as. Pick-and-pop? I don’t know.
I think he’s so thick he’ll score around the basket. He’s got a little left-shoulder hook shot.
His NBA team needs to let him dribble. Don’t think he’ll be a star. It’s not his personality. He’s a starter but has to be your third- or fourth-best player.
I like him — [I’m] not goo-goo-ga-ga over him. Work ethic is a question because he wasn’t in great shape when I saw him. How is that possible? June 26 is the biggest night of your life. He said he was hurt, which I get … but does that mean you can’t get on a bike? This is an audition. It’s not an overriding factor, but you consider it.
Like him as a kid, not sure what happened at Indiana. He didn’t get a lot of minutes, and I’m not sure he wanted to leave. Too good of a kid not to figure it out.
Scout 2: He’s the biggest riser of all the guys. He wins all the analytical shit, but if he works and keeps developing that shot he’s a stretch 4 for us.
Better ball skills than we saw at Indiana. At the Adidas Nations camp he showed these skills, so it’s not a total surprise. He’s also got more face-up game than you think. He needs his shot to get better. I saw him work out and he didn’t shoot it well, but you could see he was adjusting his mechanics. We were like, “What are you doing?”
I’ve heard the conditioning stuff; I don’t care. It’s June. He’ll be fine. I haven’t heard anything negative about the kid — great in interviews.
I’d take Randle. There is a difference in how these two kids have been packaged. Randle only needs to hit the 15-footer to be the guy we hope he can be. Vonleh needs to hit from further out to be the player he’s being billed as.
Russillo: No player benefited more from measurements at the combine than Vonleh. I don’t remember anyone talking about him going ahead of Julius Randle during the season, and I don’t think he should.
You always worry about a guy who shows more in workouts than he did while actually playing. Indiana was kind of a mess this year, and I didn’t love their guard play, but his rebounding numbers in the minutes he played were outstanding. Nine rebounds per game in 26.5 minutes. He turns it over more than you want, but if he really is the shooter some think he is, then we are talking about a special player. But he took only 41 jump shots this season.
I’ve heard conflicting reports about his conditioning. At 18 years old it’s not a big deal, but I just like Randle’s motor and competitiveness more.
Scout 1: I think he’s Shawn Marion.
Here’s why I like Gordon, and it’s rare for me (my teams have always been about shooting; you need it to win). It’s simple: Gordon impacts the game without being a shooter. It’s hard to do that. He knows 100 percent what he is. Jabari Parker will take a million bad shots; Gordon already knows he can’t take them.
In the NBA he will guard 1 through 4. He rebounds, disrupts the glass. Not as great with defensive rebounds as he is on the offensive glass. He can dribble and pass. On defense, he gives you deflections. He dives on the floor, makes winning plays. He only cares about winning. He can switch everywhere on defense; there is a lot of value in that.
If you get him fifth or sixth, that’s really good. For me to be this complimentary to a kid that isn’t a shooter is rare. He just needs to develop as a representative shooter over time, to at least be a guy you have to put a defender on. I hear he can’t make 3s — who the fuck cares? Sixteen-footer, 33 percent from 3, five years from now? That’s all you’ll need.
Scout 2: “He’s Blake Griffin … blah blah … ”
Not even close. Thankfully, that comparison is over. Blake was almost 250 pounds when he came in. Blake scored a ton of points in college, like a real scorer. This kid doesn’t. Not sure if he ever is an offensive threat.
Most skewed perspective coming in. He’s an undersized 4 but plays like a 3. He’s like Shawn Marion or Andrei Kirilenko — a power forward that’s a small forward, depending on the lineup.
Great motor. Great kid. Great teammate. He’s the only guy, along with Embiid and Wiggins, where the attraction is defense first.
Owners drafting high want offense. Think about draft night — “Hey, we drafted a really versatile defensive specialist.” How’s that going to go over?
He can’t guard the guys like Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Blake. But he can guard the stretch 4s and definitely small forwards.
Scout 3: He’s one of the two best athletes in the draft. His biggest attribute is his defense. An underrated skill is his passing. He can handle out on the break and he’s a north-south guy. Now, I’m not saying he’s going to break you down off the dribble. And you aren’t going to run isolation for him, at least not now, not that anyone would ask him to anyway. He’s a two-dribble player that will get to the rim.
Offensively, his game is he’s going to get fouled, he’s an attacker. But he has to start making his free throws. Today it’s a joke. He shot 3s in college. He thought it was part of his game. It isn’t.
There are two things you usually get better at in our league: shooting and getting stronger. I think he will do both. He’s a worker, so I think he gets better. But his ceiling is probably [as] an adequate shooter.
What position does he play in the NBA? The body of a 3, the game of a 4. Does he know who he is? He was billed as an SF, and he just isn’t right now.
The position thing really concerns me. He’ll guard 3s — that means chasing guys through screens. But you can’t play him defensively against the bigger guys. They are going to torture him in the paint.
Russillo: The best way I can describe Gordon is that if you decide that you don’t like him before you evaluate him, you won’t. If you want to be positive and talk yourself into him, you will.
Everybody is supposed to be a scorer when they are drafted this high. He wasn’t in college, so why is he going to be one in the NBA? Not everyone on the floor has to be able to shoot. In theory, it’d be great if all five guys could score, like we see with some lineups, like when Portland goes small. But you also need those complementary guys who do other things. That is who Gordon is. He’ll do all that stuff — defend, grab a board, lead a break, and just annoy the hell out of you, all combined with elite athleticism.
He is constantly moving in the half court, sets a lot of screens, and doesn’t need the ball. When I think back on other athletes who didn’t work out, a guy like Tyrus Thomas, it is usually about fighting who you are as a player. Thomas was supposed to score; he couldn’t do it well enough to last. Gordon won’t have any plays run for him, and that’s a good thing.
Ryen Russillo has hosted ESPN’s NBA combine coverage for the past four years and is part of ESPN Radio’s NBA draft-night team. He is the cohost of “SVP & Russillo.”