Alex Len or Nerlens Noel: What Would Grunfeld Do? (W.W.G.D.)
Depending on your level of interest and who you hoped the Wizards would select in last year’s NBA draft, the event may have induced a fair amount of anxiety. Not so for “Cool” Ernie Grunfeld, who had already taken his morning coffee, read the Lifestyle section, and dictated the 2012 third overall pick to his secretary who then telegraphed it to the entire NBA. After acquiring a defensive-minded small forward (Trevor Ariza) and a starting center (Emeka Okafor) in a trade with New Orleans about a week prior, Kentucky’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist seemed like less of a smart pick. Likewise, Thomas Robinson of Kansas and Andre Drummond of Connecticut were, in an instant, judged considerably more redundant.
With Florida’s Bradley Beal a clear favorite and potentially filling a hopelessly glaring need—shooting—there was even talk that the Wizards could attempt to move up one spot, from No. 3 to No. 2, in order to prevent the Cleveland Cavaliers from performing a similar maneuver, leapfrogging Washington and taking Beal for use in their own macabre plans. We’ll never know what options were on the table at the end of the day for the Charlotte Bobcats. If there were potential trades to be made, none were. The Verizon Center, then host to a “Draft Party” (code for face paint and overpriced beers), was a temporarily joyful venue. Attendees cheered when Charlotte kept their pick and chose Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at No. 2, knowing full well that it meant Washington would get their guy.
This summer, certainty is in shorter supply than Lyme disease medication (seriously, comb for ticks). While Nerlens Noel was the “default” No. 1 for narrative purposes in the days preceding and immediately following the lottery, Cleveland’s first overall choice has become increasingly turbid. On June 11th, ESPN.com’s Chad Ford had this to say:
“Noel’s hold on this spot has never been more tenuous. Yes, his doctor, James Andrews, is pleased with his rehab, but are teams willing to be patient with a player who might not be ready to play until early next year? Especially when he’s one of the most developmentally raw players in the draft? After telling me all year the answer to those questions was “yes,” it sounds like some of those teams at the top have changed their answer to “no.” Even the Cavs’ desire for Noel appears to be waning.”
Mr. Ford also took the time to note that Porter was “in the mix” for the Cavaliers at No. 1. It’s always the Cavaliers, always. This time around, it will be more difficult to rhyme a word that means thievery with the last name of Washington’s targeted player. We may have to settle for alliteration: #DontStealBeal is now #DontPoachPorter, because all movements need a hashtag these days, and anxious dread brings people together.
The Orlando Magic, who were the primary victims of Marcus Smart’s non-declaration, aren’t convinced they’ll be the eventual selectors at No. 2, and are considering several options, including trading down, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Their willingness to trade the pick means that the Wizards should prepare for the possibility that teams will attempt to leapfrog them and preemptively select the player of Washington’s primary interest.
Consider a scenario in which Cleveland decides to forgo the historically risky “ceiling” pick and draft Otto Porter, a projected upgrade to small forward and ex-Wizard Alonzo Gee. Two years ago, the Cavaliers drafted Tristan Thompson with the fourth overall pick, and they may be reticent to draft another power forward so soon.
A roundup of the initial mock drafts after the lottery identified a second target for Washington: UNLV power forward Anthony Bennett, who arguably fits the “pick-and-pop” forward profile mentioned by John Wall as a need at the end of last season (concerns about defense, screen-setting and selflessness aside). But Bennett will be hard to evaluate presently. He has a torn left rotator cuff, an injury which will prevent him from working out for teams. His proper draft value is similarly hard to pinpoint. He’s been mentioned as an option for teams slotted both before and after the Wizards at No. 3. With Orlando listening to any and all offers, the Wizards would be wise to have a contingency plan in the case that Porter has been selected, and Bennett has either been selected or fallen out of favor with the team’s front office.
One of those contingencies could be to trade the draft pick after learning that Porter is off the table, but it is almost impossible to anticipate what will be, what won’t be, and what teams will still be willing to part with as things shake out. Assuming that the Wizards can’t make a last-minute deal and are essentially “stuck” with the third overall pick, who would they consider?
Two players who are seeing their draft projections pulled into the chaotic atmosphere of Washington’s selection, coming from opposite sides, are Alex Len and Nerlens Noel. Len, once in the conversation for the Wizards at No. 8, is now ranked No. 1 overall on DraftExpress’s big board. Noel, once believed to be the near-consensus first overall pick, is sliding down some draft boards.
Alex Len: Ukrainian Grunfeldian Kryptonite
Oleksiy “Alex” Len is a local boy from the University of Maryland, and a not-so-local boy who played amateur ball in Ukraine (where he’s from) before his transition to American college ball. Long-suffering Wizards fans who have stuck with the team through Grunfeld’s tenure will remember another prominent Oleksiy: he of the Pecherov surname. Not that Len’s parents’ decision to name him Oleksiy has anything to do with his NBA potential. I mean, I’m not haunted by the memory of a snow-white Ukrainian codenamed “Big Zima” who could often be found on the Wizards bench, or in the club with Ser Blatche. But enough about me, I’m not terrified by the prospect of drafting Len at all. At all. At … oh biscuits, yes I am.
Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress had this to say in his scouting report of Alex Len:
“Len has added a significant amount of weight to his outstanding 7-1 frame, even if he wasn’t quite able to maintain it as the season moved on. Nevertheless, his physical potential is off the charts, a he sports a 7-4 wingspan, a very solid base, and excellent agility and dexterity for a player his size.”
Regarding Len’s back to the basket play:
“41% of Len’s offense came with his back to the basket, and he showed to be able to score over some of the best centers in college basketball this season, such as Nerlens Noel and Mason Plumlee. He dropped some terrific glimpses of potential from time to time, using pivot moves, fakes, jabs and rip-throughs, and being able to finish creatively from many different vantage points thanks to the excellent extension he gets due to his length and agility.”
And now the caveats:
“With that said, Len is not yet an efficient option in the post, as he converted just 38% of his field goal attempts in these situations this season. His footwork, countermoves, left hand, and the range on his jump-hook are all a work in progress, as he isn’t always strong enough to establish deep post position against bulkier defenders at this stage, making it difficult for him to impose his will on opponents. He also lacks a degree of toughness and nastiness in this area both establishing himself and calling for the ball aggressively once he has his man sealed off, something that should improve in time with added experience and strength.
“Len is unlikely to be a dominating presence in the NBA from day one, as he’ll need to go to a team that is willing to be patient with him as his body improves and his skill-level continues to round out.”
Patience … is a virtue. And yet the tea leaves (a final contract year for Ariza, Okafor, Wittman, and Grunfeld before re-evaluation) can be read to display a distinct lack of patience as Washington enters the fourth year of their “rebuild,” with nothing to show for their efforts but a little lottery luck and a full payroll. Experts seem to agree that a player like Len will require significant development, something that the Wizards just haven’t been able to pull off in the last decade. If he is drafted by the Wizards, it could likely mean that Emeka Okafor’s days with the team will be limited to next year, and that Okafor wouldn’t be re-signed at a more reasonable rate following the end of the 2013-14 season. Further complicating the matter is the stress fracture in Len’s left ankle, which will prevent him from working out, and probably from meaningful summer training. Len is apparently making progress with a fairly intense and specific workout regimen, designed around improving ball skills while compensating for typical rehabilitation pitfalls, but since he’s not sure he will be able to walk across the stage on draft night, it may be a while before he can take the court for an NBA team.
Nerlens Noel: Anterior Cruciate List of Disclaimers
One of the reasons that big, undeveloped men like Alex Len, and Nerlens Noel, are so popular in the draft, despite the risk, is that it is very difficult to acquire a top-tier center via any other means, and without a gigantic financial investment.
In the site’s most recent mock draft, NBADraft.net’s Aran Smith detailed a litany of concerns about Noel: his torn ACL, “rail thin” body and legs, and an “extremely raw” offensive game that may be limited to “just put backs and jump shots.” It speaks volumes about the state of NBA big men that after detailing so many potential failings, the takeaway was this:
“Regardless, Noel’s ability to impact the defensive end puts him in the running for the top overall pick and he should land in the top 2, despite not being able to fully work out for teams leading up to the draft.”
Noel is known as an excellent weak-side shot blocker, much like ex-Wizard JaVale McGee. Unlike McGee, Noel is patient, more deliberate, but still favors appearing out of nowhere rather than dominating in man-to-man defense. Solid defense can be taught. Incredible athleticism, on the other hand, can’t be. If the Wizards weren’t the Wizards, and were, let’s say, the Spurs, they could probably afford to draft raw potential and trust their staff to do the rest. That’s the thing about drafting for raw talent, though… The Spurs don’t have to do it anymore. If you’re looking for examples as to why the Wizards should proceed with caution, then see: Singleton, Chris; Seraphin, Kevin; Young, Nick; Vesely, Jan; Ramos, Party John … and, unfortunately, many others.
What sticks out the most about both Len and Noel is that their NBA futures will depend a great deal on the support system they find with the team who drafts them. While an argument can certainly be made that the Wizards should embrace a long-term project who has the potential to become a member of the Wall-Beal-Nene core, the team seems more set on competing (for a playoff spot) now. That environment, and the expectations which accompany it, may not be appropriate for a “project” draft choice. If the Wizards draft either Len or Neol, they should be plan on bringing them along over the course of a rookie contract and restricted free agency re-signing, not on inserting them into the rotation right away.
What Would Grunfeld Do? (W.W.G.D.)
If faced with this particular predicament, what would Ernie decide? It’s really a zombie carnival fun house of scouting adages that are common among Grunfeld favorites: Len has “great potential” but his “intensity level leaves something to be desired.” Noel is “offensively raw” but “has the makings of” a defensive anchor. In the end, Ernie probably goes with the guy who checks the majority of his historical boxes. Ernie’s been seduced by an Oleksiy before, loves drafting players who require time to develop, and he possesses “elite” physical characteristics (in Len’s case, a 7-foot-4 wingspan coupled with enough weight to avoid looking like a pinball). While Noel has a certain “Javale ne sais quoi” about him, and probably will be the better NBA player (think: Larry Sanders), he doesn’t quite have the offensive panache (or at least potential) that Grunfeld requires.
Is there another option? Of course. One could question the sagacity of drafting another guard one year after picking up Bradley Beal, but Indiana’s Victor Oladipo may fill just as much of a need as Georgetown’s Otto Porter. While he wouldn’t be drafted to be an eventual starter, Oladipo’s defense and athleticism separate him enough as a player from Beal to fill a role backing up both guard spots and leading an energy-heavy second unit. According to Chad Ford (ESPN Insider), Oladipo is on the table for most teams in the top 5, including the Cavaliers and Magic:
“Sources say that Oladipo has moved into the Cavs’ conversation for the No. 1 pick, and also is under heavy consideration from the Magic at No. 2. Sounds like it would be a surprise if he goes past the Suns at No. 5.”
The match between Otto Porter and the Wizards seems almost too serendipitous: Porter would be quite at home at the Verizon Center (where he’s played for Georgetown for two years), and fills a need at a position to which the Wizards have yet to commit long-term money. In the event Porter is gone and Bennett is out of consideration (via a Magic trade or shifting tides), Grunfeld should strongly consider drafting Victor Oladipo to fill a Harden-esque (circa 2011) role with the team. As draft day approaches, brace yourself for the assault of what-ifs that is endemic to perennial lottery teams with “needs” aplenty. Len and Noel are “what-if” personified, despite all the data gathering, and two weeks from today that uncertainty is going to be very real for teams, like the Wizards, that need surety the most.