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NBA Draft 2020: The easy case for Aleksej Pokusevski

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No player this tall should be this good at this age — so what are we afraid of?

Olympiacos Piraeus v FC Bayern Munich - Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Photo by Panagiotis Moschandreou/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images

I know we’ve been over this. I thought a primer/compendium on the intrigue and enigma known as Aleksej Pokusevski (or Poku around these parts) might be appropriate and helpful, just to put all of the questions and critiques in one place. The short version — the suggestions that Pokusevski is a joke or a mascot is entirely wrong, and he should be viewed as one of the best prospects in this draft.

There is no reason for me to link to any of the highlight videos that are all over Twitter, because we’ve all seen them, and from what I can tell there are two camps. The first represents those smitten with the historical rarity of skillset times length times lateral movement times age. The second faction is unimpressed because Poku hasn’t played anywhere near NBA-quality opponents. I have a sub-theory about age and contextual memory here regarding the observers in the two camps, although I might be wrong.

Poku > Obi

This begs a fairly simple comparison: Obi Toppin. Dayton’s schedule was HORRIBLE, which means that Toppin was doing all those cool dunks on the heads of young men who will be going pro in dentistry and accounting. At least Poku’s opponents were getting paid. (Insert joke about NCAA here).

The ostensible problems with Toppin’s translational fit in the NBA involve lateral movement and leverage. It involves his center of gravity and being “a man without a country” on defense in every meaningful way. Those things just weren’t really problems against smaller, worse players in the Atlantic 10. In contrast, the thing that jumped out at me when I first started seeing Poku highlights is the combination of lateral agility and change-of-direction speed that is legitimately unusual in such a tall player. Remember, Poku is a 7-foot-tall 18-year-old.

The next question naturally follows: is college basketball good? My answer is no, and I think the whole reason it sucks is because all the players who are even remotely good leave as soon as possible. I think there is an assumed disparity in competition level between college and even mid-tier leagues overseas that is exaggerated, if not completely backwards, and that anybody who views Toppin as a better prospect than Poku is perceiving their respective situations wrong, at the very least.

So, why Poku? To quote myself from my last big board:

Let’s move on before I spend several thousand more words waxing rhapsodic about lateral agility and movement shooting and weakside rim protection and advanced passing reads. Just remember two things: he is a wing who needs to add upper-body strength while maintaining his outrageous movement skills rather than a big who needs to pack on fifty pounds, and the intersection of dribble + pass + shoot + lateral agility + stocks + 7-3 #wingspan + 18.5 years old just doesn’t HAPPEN very often.

‘Shot diet’ indicates Poku could feast in the NBA

The shooting stats are good, if you understand the necessity of parsing beyond raw percentages: specifically, I think that free-throw percentage in conjunction with volume of jumpers in live play is a better proxy for future skill level than raw percentages on twos and threes, because the latter are often more a proxy for shot “diet” in terms of difficulty and ambition. (See prospect Joe, Isaiah.) It is also necessary to distinguish among different types of jump shots, just because off-the-dribble shooting is a lot more difficult than standstill catch-and-shoot. (See prospect Riller, Grant.)

In spite of pedestrian (or worse) percentages, Poku is actually a really good shooting prospect relative to the history of players with similar length and agility because in addition to his high free-throw percentage he takes a lot of really difficult pull-up shots off the dribble, including deep treys, without missing all of them. (This is basically also the case for LaMelo Ball, except Poku is a better free-throw shooter and half a foot taller.) He can shoot, and will likely get better with improved strength, and very tall players shooting off the dribble like guards is the next stage in the evolution of NBA offense. If he fails as an NBA player, it won’t be because he can’t shoot; even in median (or worse) outcomes he would provide stand-still floor spacing like an emaciated Ryan Anderson.

A prototypical 7-foot .... shooting guard?

Does anybody remember when P.J. Carlisemo played Kevin Durant at shooting guard during his rookie year? It was a decision that was widely criticized, and Durant himself has since said that he didn’t understand it, either. It is not a direct comparison, in part because Durant did mid-post and elbow stuff in college like the big scoring forward that he would eventually become. I mention this to suggest that that same decision would not be a mistake with Poku, just because of how weirdly good he is at dribbling. Just let him keep handling the ball in pick-and-roll, and see what happens. Google the videos, crack a Miller High Life, enjoy yourself.

The passing is WILD. As Bruce Arena once said of Clint Dempsey, “he tries shit.” In spite of a level of creative ambition that would not always be considered advisable, he didn’t really turn it over that much, which I regard as a good sign for the future in terms of feel, spatial awareness, and an understanding of timing. This is what we should want out of every player now, particularly the ones who are going to have the ball and be doing stuff with it. Now that Carmelo Anthony’s career is winding down, there simply aren’t any stars who don’t pass. For instance, Aaron Nesmith, proud owner of the lowest assist rate that I have ever seen, can only be a role player because he doesn’t pass. This is not something that we will have to worry about with Poku.

Not really a reach when you’re already this good

Let’s wrap this up, because I promised to be brief. It has been repeatedly mentioned that Giannis came from the same Greek second division, and that fact has been repeatedly met with dismissive eye-rolling, which is at least partially understandable because Giannis is a generational development case. Regardless, Poku’s stats (rebounds, stocks, assists, A/TO) were significantly better in the same league at the same age. Do we really think that same league got significantly worse in the past seven years?

It is not evidence of anything in particular, but the comparison is situationally instructive: if the Pistons had taken Giannis instead of KCP in 2013, it might have been perceived as an inappropriate “reach” on length and toolsiness and potential.

In summation: I have seen a lot of very tall very skinny teenagers play basketball, and it just never LOOKS like this. Poku is one of the best prospects in this draft, and a potential steal for the Pistons at seven. I hope Mr. Weaver agrees.

(My title is an homage to Ben Rubin, formerly of the Stepien, who gave me a lot to think about a while back regarding shooting evals before disappearing from the internet. I hope he is working for the Pistons.)