- David Thorpe, ESPN Staff Writer
This week we're studying two guys that are considered "tweeners" by most draft experts, Terrence Jones from Kentucky and Kawhi Leonard from San Diego State. Both guys are having outstanding seasons, as Jones is one of the top freshmen in America and Leonard is the best player on a potential No. 1 seed. Those facts alone help their draft status, but packaged with their NBA bodies, they become highly valuable prospects. But are they powerful small forwards or small power forwards? Let's review what is apparent on tape.
Jones is the more valued prospect, thanks to a huge wingspan on a 6-foot-8 frame combined with outstanding production on a Top 25 team. Freshman forwards in the SEC who average 18 and 10 with a 7-2-plus wingspan are lottery picks. Teams have to love his ability to get buckets in the paint, and he should also be a very effective pick-and-pop guy because he has a great stroke inside the 3-point line. He's not a consistent 3-point threat yet, but projects to be a solid shooter from deep.
I like his "slink" game, his ability to slither by guys using timing and craft to get points or draw fouls -- that's a talent that's tough to teach. It's a talent that carries forward well if guys have size (as opposed to similarly talented guys in college in small bodies who get eaten up by size and length in the NBA). Ed Davis, last year's lottery pick in Toronto, and Reggie Williams, an undrafted forward now in his second season at Golden State, are two guys who have been successful at scoring without exploding by defenders.
This is an important point because other than on a handful of plays, Jones is not blowing by defenders off the dribble. In fact, on many occasions, he's been defended with ease on dribble moves by slow-footed guys. Breaking this down, I see that his first step is decent, but he lacks high-end top speed by his second step. And the critical part of a good slasher's game is the second step.
When I'm teaching, I analogize this to a baseball player's need to reach top speed by his second step when he's trying to steal second base. Getting a jump is great, but without hitting a top speed early he has little chance of reaching second safely. First steps in basketball, just like for a baserunner, depend on good timing. But after that it's all about speed. Carmelo Anthony has a devastating first step because no one can catch him once he's by them. Jones routinely gets a small advantage with his first step, but then lets his defender back into the play. And on a few occasions, against quicker guys, he gets eaten up or loses the ball altogether.
Can his speed improve? Of course, he's just 19 and has not even played a full season of college ball. But few players get faster with the ball, at least enough to become slashers in the NBA.
More importantly, why does he need to convert to a small forward position? He's tall and long enough to play the power spot, and his talent as a guy who can score around the rim will be better enabled at that spot. And don't forget that his two blocked shots per game mean he'll be a player who can help protect the rim if he's close enough to get there. Locking up 3-point shooters, even if he's capable of doing so, means he won't be inside making plays. The same thing can be said for his rebounding talents.
Overall, consider that only about half the teams in the league have a power forward who can score inside and out in a one-on-one situation. That is why Jones is projected to be a top-10 pick. The team picking him will expect to feature him as a scorer as soon as he arrives, and that has to happen as a power forward.
Kawhi Leonard, to the eye, is a much different athlete than Jones. Where Jones relies on length and craft to make plays, Leonard uses huge hands, long arms and great speed to overwhelm guys. He makes me think of guys like Clyde Drexler or Gerald Wallace, who were better athletically and physically than anyone they matched up against for much of their careers.
There is one problem, though, and that is that those two guys were far more explosive vertically than I've seen from Leonard thus far. Far too often I see Leonard get stuck on a drive and wind up with his shot blocked when a better athlete would have a dunk. His quickness and speed, though, help him a great deal on defense, as do those mitts he calls hands. Seeing him lock down NBA small forwards is easy, far more than it is for Jones.
I love his motor, and while he one day will need to learn how to play at different speeds, his top speed now is terrific and gets him where he wants to go before his defender arrives. Because he only plays ultra fast, he's predictable, so helpers can beat him to the paint, which is why he gets in trouble down there. He's also a poor shooter, throwing up too many line drives that have little chance of going in. And he's not a great scorer, lacking some creativity around the rim.
So why do I think Leonard can make the transition to the 3 in the NBA, and is an interesting top-20 candidate overall? Simple: He has no idea what he's doing, yet he leads one of the best teams in college in points, offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds and steals and is second in assists.
Guys with that body, those hands, that speed and length, with an engine that runs hot all the time -- those are the guys that find their way on an NBA court for 30-plus minutes a game. If he never improves his skill game, he'll be able to score in transition and off slashes, as well in the rebounding game. He's going to "outman" people, which is not easy to do in a man's league.
Gerald Wallace never learned to shoot, but once he went to a team that knew how to utilize that athleticism, he went from never averaging over 4.7 ppg to one that has scored 15 or better for five straight years. Leonard is young, turning 20 right after the draft in June, so he'll still develop his explosiveness at least somewhat. He's not Drexler or Wallace as a jumper, but he's not Larry Bird either. He's all over the rim, just not like a Travis Leslie is (the player he is most like in this draft).
I'm anxious to see Leonard compete against bigger athletes come NCAA tourney time, as are the NBA scouts and execs watching him. If SDSU makes a long March run, and Leonard carries them there, he'll make a big move toward the lottery, and he'll do it as a projected small forward.