The NBA will always be a star driven league, but those top talents need to be surrounded by players that understand and fill their role. The Shaq/Kobe Lakers would have disintegrated even earlier if it weren’t for Brian Shaw and Derek Fisher. How many championships would Michael Jordan have if not for John Paxson and Steve Kerr? We saw exactly what happened to the defending champion Dallas Mavericks in 2012 after losing the hyper-active Tyson Chandler. Role players are the glue that keeps the top teams together, and there are a plethora of potential names in the NCAA Tournament field that could fill a major role in the NBA.
For simplicity, we broke down the players into four categories: rim-running bigs, 3-and-D wings, back-up point guards, and bucket getters.
Targets: Daniel Gafford (Arkansas), Malik Pope (Missouri), Ajdin Penava (Marshall), Jontay Porter (Missouri)
The rise of DeAndre Jordan, Rudy Gobert, and — most recently — Clint Capela has signaled the need for centers that can alter shots and finish lobs.
Gafford and Pope fill the prototypical needs for a modern day big man. They’re bordering around 7′ tall, shoot a high percentage from the field, and protect the rim with their length and instincts. Pope even has a bit of an outside jumper that he knocks down at around a 38-percent rate.
You can group Porter with them too. His older brother, Michael Jr., is set to be a lottery pick this April. Jontay isn’t quite as skilled as his brother, but you can certainly tell they’re related. Jontay is a smooth athlete for a guy that weighs in at 240-pounds. He’s also an inch taller than Michael, and a far more effective defensive player. He’s active with his hands, and switches from defense to offense seamlessly. Jontay will join his brother as a first round pick.
Penava is a mold-breaker, and could sneak onto draft boards with a strong showing. His most eye-popping skill is shot blocking. He’s smart and has great timing, currently leading the nation in blocks per game with 4.1. Even more interesting about Penava though is his skill level. The Bosnian played point guard until he was 16 years old, and has shown the ability to lead a break after a defensive stop. Oh, he also shots 33-percent from three on nearly three attempts per game. He’s the real deal.
Targets: Mikal Bridges (Villanova), Zhaire Smith (Texas Tech), Gary Trent (Duke), Rawle Alkins (Arizona)
Like effective pass rushers in the NFL, you can never have enough guys that can shoot threes and play defense in the NBA. The best teams in the league today have a bevy of two-way players that fill that role on both ends — think Danny Green, Gary Harris, Otto Porter, Trevor Ariza and — to the highest degree — Klay Thompson. They give teams flexibility, they can defend multiple positions, and they help spread the floor for ball handlers and rolling big men. Needless to say, finding these types of players is imperative to a team’s overall success.
Trent is a bit more “3” than “D”, as his so-so athleticism limits him on the defensive end. But Trent is a pure shooter that is knocking down 41-percent from downtown this year. His stroke is smooth, and he’s already comfortable moving off screens and hitting triples off the catch. I feel confident saying his ceiling is Bradley Beal.
Alkins is the inverse of Trent — a ferocious defender with a passable, but unreliable, jump shot. The Arizona swingman has a strong upper body and explosive leaping ability. Offensively, he does a little bit of everything. He’s knocking down 37-percent of his threes, but has a bit of a funky release. He can post up smaller guards, and even does some ball handling from time to time. For a comparison, look to Boston’s Marcus Smart — a tweener that can guard multiple positions and has a high motor.
Tech’s Smith bares a strong resemblance to 76ers’ forward Robert Covington. He’s the most active wing in the country on the defensive end, constantly getting his hands in passing and consistently disrupting offensive flow. Standing at just 6’5″, the athletic Smith averages over a block per game. And although he doesn’t shoot it often, the 41-percent mark from deep is promising.
Bridges is a bit of anomaly. He’s probably going to be a lottery pick in April, and teams drafting that high are looking for stars — not role players. But Bridges is a special case. His floor is that of a top-tier 3-and-D wing. He’s an experienced, versatile tweener that knocks down 43-percent of his threes, and can defend the opposing team’s best player. He could go to any team in the league and stick around for the next decade as a quality rotation player.
If the right team gets him though, Bridges’ ceiling is limitless and he could develop into a true star.
Heady Back-Up Guard
Targets: Landry Shamet (Wichita State), Jalen Brunson (Villanova), Theo Pinson (North Carolina), Jevon Carter (West Virginia)
A more apt phrase for describing these players would be “stabilizers”. They’re essentially the calming, smart presence off the bench. Shaun Livingston, Fred VanVleet, Raymond Felton, T.J. McConnell, and Devin Harris all have a special role in their respective teams’ rotation. They’re back-ups to the most stacked position in the league, and are asked to help guide their team while Westbrook, Curry, Lillard and Lowry get some much needed rest.
Shamet is one of the most entertaining players in the country. He’s a gifted shooter, with natural passing instincts, and can play either guard position. Those traits typically lead to success at the next level. His versatility and feel for the game will keep him around for a long time.
Brunson has arguably been college hoops’ best player on college hoops’ best team this year. He plays with the best pace in the country. The diminutitve guard lull defenders to sleep, speeds up when he has to, and always has Villanova playing under control. He’s shown the ability to make difficult shots, and has the shiftiness to get by defenders at the next level. Most importantly, Brunson rarely turns the ball over at just 1.7 giveaways a game. Just looking at prospects from last season, Brunson is a far more polished player than Frank Mason was. Further proof that Brunson will latch onto an NBA roster whenever he calls it a career at Villanova.
Carter is in a bit of a bind because he’s only 6’2″, and isn’t a prototypical lead guard. He’s scoring minded, doesn’t have the tightest of handles, and isn’t a natural playmaker. But much of the same could have been said about Boston’s Terry Rozier. The common skill that both Carter and Rozier have is their ability to defend opposing ball handlers. Carter is a ball hawk on the defensive end, averaging nearly three steals per game during his senior year. Even if he plays off the ball on offense in the league, he’ll find a way on the court because he’s such a valuable asset on the defensive end.
Teams are going to be scared away by Pinson’s three-point numbers. He’s a brick layer from deep, and hasn’t shot over 29-percent in any of his four seasons at North Carolina. Though he isn’t a great shooter, Pinson does virtually every other thing well on the court. He’s got good size at 6’6″, is a willing (and gifted) passer, rebounds well, defends with intensity, and typically makes the correct basketball play. There’s plenty of room for improvement, but if Tony Allen and Lance Stephenson can make it, then Pinson has a shot (it’s funny because he can’t shoot).
Targets: Trevon Bluiett (Xavier), Khyri Thomas (Creighton), Allonzo Trier (Arizona), Mike Daum (South Dakota State)
At the end of the day, basketball will always be about scoring the ball. Everybody loves doing it, but only a select few can fill it up at the NBA level. These type of players sign massive contracts, despite having limitations in other facets of their game. Lou Williams, T.J. Warren, Will Barton, Jamal Crawford and J.R. Smith are all on the floor for one reason — they get buckets.
Bluiett has averaged double-digits all four years of his Xavier career. There isn’t a spot on the floor he can’t score from. His field goal percentage floats in the low-to-mid-40’s, but that’s with him attempting over seven threes while shooting 42-percent from deep. Of the 84 players that hoist at least seven threes per game, Bluiett ranks 10th in true shooting percentage — higher than Trae Young, Grayson Allen, and Devonte Graham. He’s crafty, has range, and has a picture perfect release on his jump shot.
Thomas and Trier are in the same ilk of a Williams or a Crawford. 6’3″ to 6’4″ guards with shiftiness and the ability to make tough shots. Thomas and Trier have been able to fill it up while still maintaining great efficiency. Both are shooting over 50-percent from the field and around 40-percent from three (Thomas is at 41.9 and Trier is at 39.1). They just know how to find the basket — whether it’s knocking down contested jumpers, finishing in transition, or connecting from the free throw line. You’re looking at two front runners for the Sixth Man of the Year Award for years to come.
Daum is the oddball of this group because he isn’t a guard. However, South Dakota State’s best player can score in bunches. He’s a skilled low post target with legitimate NBA range (42.1-percent from three on 6.4 attempts). It’s plausible that Daum develops into a Antawn Jamison/Al Harrington-type that can chip in both scoring and rebounding.
The tournament will feature plenty of star power, but don’t overlook all of the other talent across the country. There might be the next Robert Horry, Dennis Rodman, or James Jones among the field.
Sources: Stats per Basketball Reference, Denny Medley/USA TODAY Sports, Vincent Carchietta/USA TODAY Sports, William Purnell/USA TODAY Sports, Vincent Carchietta/USA TODAY Sports, Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY Sports