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Insider

Improvement plans for lottery picks

6/20/2012

No matter where a player gets drafted on June 28, the chapter on that player's college career closes and his next one as an NBA player begins. No amount of All-American or all-conference accolades accumulated in college will help as he begins his professional career.

The failure rate of lottery picks is high enough historically that all the top prospects should be focusing on getting better and identifying the weaknesses in their games.

The work to improve on weaknesses -- and every player has them -- that weren't apparent in the ACC, the Big 12 or the SEC must start immediately. If not, they will be exposed by much better players and teams on a nightly basis in the NBA.

The following five players are expected to have productive NBA careers, but nothing is a certainty. After breaking down tape on these prospects, here is my evaluation of the areas of improvement needed for each:

Harrison Barnes, North Carolina Tar Heels

Needs to improve: Footwork

Barnes has had enough success at the high school and college level that few have doubted that he would be an outstanding NBA prospect. His performance at the NBA combine in Chicago likely alleviated any fears that he was an average NBA athlete. In fact, his stock likely got a boost from the fact that he tested out as one of the most athletic players in the draft.

But Barnes will arrive in the NBA with some questions because he didn't always put his athleticism to use. His inability to drive effectively during his college career resulted in only 4.3 free throws attempts per game over two seasons. In addition, his one perceived strength, his outside shooting, was an inconsistent facet during his two years as a Tar Heel. This, I believe, was because of a propensity for taking contested shots.

I may have identified the reason behind both flaws in Barnes' game after studying him on film.

I believe Barnes' offensive game in the NBA will be enhanced by a commitment to improving his footwork. His ability to get to the basket and create open shots for himself would improve dramatically if he "educated" his feet.

If there were one NBA player at his position I would go to school on, it would be Carmelo Anthony, who has perfected the "jab series."

Too often Barnes plays off his front foot as his pivot foot, so he can't create the opportunity to jab at a defender to back him off and create space for an open jump shot. Once a defender must honor a shooter's ability, it opens up the driving game. A jab series creates indecision on the part of the defender, like a pitcher with an arsenal of pitches.

In addition, Barnes is a better driver to his right than his left, so a commitment to improving his weaker hand will be critical. He'll have to keep defenders off balance by driving to both hands as he mixes in open jump shot. He'll find that with film study and scouting in the NBA, teams will exploit his predictability until he makes his weaknesses his strengths.

Barnes is an intelligent young man, a gym rat and a quality NBA athlete at the small forward position. He is a better than average open shooter with his feet set. He'll learn that the game on offense is played from the feet up. He and his new NBA team should get to work on that right away.

Perry Jones III, Baylor Bears

Needs to improve: Low-post game

Few in this draft have the physique to play the power forward position in the NBA like Jones does. At 6-foot-11.5 in shoes and 234 pounds, he is 20 pounds away from being a prototype at the position.

Here's the problem: He must improve his low-post game.

Jones shot an anemic 2.7 free throws per game last season, in part because he had an aversion to contact in the paint. Instead of taking the ball to the rim and at his defender, he often settled for fadeaway jump shots.

In Jones' defense, Baylor had a team with great size across the front line, so he could often float to the perimeter. Because of his ability to handle the ball and shoot from range, he could get away with doing that. It's why some see him as a small forward. I don't.

The team that drafts Jones needs to immediately address his low-post offense and get him started on developing a go-to move. Then he should work on a "second pitch" countermove. Once Jones starts to score on a consistent basis, teaching him to effectively pass out of double-teams will be critical. In the NBA, it's perfectly fine for an offensive player to dish it out in the paint. Finally, along with improving Jones' physical strength as a young big man, I'd get the football blocking pads out to teach him to play through contact.

I've watched Jones since he was a junior in high school, and I'm one of the people who has few questions about his motor and attitude. He will be a low-maintenance player to coach, but he needs to be taught the NBA game by the right coaching staff. Right now, he doesn't know how much he doesn't know.

Bradley Beal, Florida Gators

Needs to improve: Ballhandling

Beal has a beautiful shooting stroke and started to heat up behind the arc at the end of the Gators' season. He shot 34 percent from behind the 3-point line in his only college season, but that would be the least of my concerns if I were an NBA team.

By measuring at almost 6-5 at the combine, Beal eliminated most doubts by those who thought he might be too small to be an NBA shooting guard. While he is not explosive at the rim like the New Orleans Hornets' Eric Gordon, he'll compare favorably as a shooter.

So what's the problem?

In my mind, Beal's ability to handle the basketball and create for himself and his teammates has been overstated. In fact, improving his ballhandling has been a major focus of his pre-draft workouts -- a wise move.

Beal's screen-and-roll ability in Billy Donovan's screen-and-roll-oriented offense was average at best. Often when challenged by the screener's defender (usually a big man), Beal was not able to take him on and beat him off the dribble. Ultimately, Beal shot just 35 percent in the screen-and-roll, and his overall points produced for himself or his teammates was a paltry 0.7 points per possession.

Part of the reason Beal struggled in the screen-and-roll is that he is a straight-line driver. I don't doubt that he has been working hard on his ballhandling creativity. If he is going to be more than a one-dimensional jump-shooter, he'll be handling the ball a lot, especially because the NBA's 24-second shot clock demands it.

Ultimately, Beal has a bright NBA future. He won't turn 19 until the night of the draft. He has stepped up at each level, and there's no reason why he won't now. But like every player in the draft, there are improvements to be made, and he is already working on them.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kentucky Wildcats

Needs to improve: Outside shooting

Kidd-Gilchrist is a winner. It's apparent that no matter what area of his game needs improvement, it's not going to stop a team from drafting him in the top five. But it would really help his NBA team if he learns to consistently make jump shots.

Kidd-Gilchrist shot 26 percent from the college 3-point line, an NBA midrange jump shot, as a freshman at Kentucky. My sense is that at the high school and college level, he didn't need an accurate jump shot in order to have a positive effect on any game. In fact, most of his energy on the offensive end has been directed at attacking the basket.

At the NBA level, teams will play off him and dare him to shoot, so his lack of accuracy will become problematic. From what I know of Kidd-Gilchrist's work habits, he will spend a good deal of time in the gym, and I expect that he will improve. From a technical standpoint, he has a hitch in his shot and a different release point each time he shoots the ball. Working under a watchful eye, these are correctable issues.

Andre Drummond, Connecticut Huskies

Needs to improve: Free throw shooting

I love Drummond's NBA potential. A 6-11, 270-pound guy who should have been a high school senior, he struggled as a freshman at UConn last season, but he will become a good NBA player in time. He is athletic and moves his feet well for such an enormous player. Although his offense is major work in progress, he'll affect games on the defensive end.

Drummond's major problem is "invisible turnovers" in the form of his woeful 30 percent rate from the free throw line. If Drummond doesn't improve in this area, he will be victim of the Hack-a-Shaq defense on a regular basis.

Technically, Drummond has too many moving parts in his free throw technique. The more parts that move, the more things that can go wrong. Both his shooting hand and guide hand move toward the basket when only his shooting hand should be following through.

The problem with poor free throw technique is that it not only takes time to alter and correct it, but also the massive number of missed shots become ingrained in a player's mind. Drummond's NBA team will need to start quickly to reverse his bad habits and rebuild his psyche. It will take time but will be well worth it.