The most challenging aspect of the draft for me is evaluating the international crop. NCAA players are easy for me to work with since I’m intimately familiar with all of the players, coaches, and systems. On the other hand, I am lacking in expertise in overseas leagues so solving the internationals involves quite a bit of thin slicing and guesswork. But as I have tried to piece together the value of the respective internationals in this class, I have become increasingly high on the crop being especially strong. This was reinforced when Kevin Pelton released his WARP ranking with 4 of his top 5 prospects being internationals. Further, Dario Saric, Damien Inglis, and Walter Tavares rank as late 1st rounders and Vasilije Micic is an early 2nd according to WARP. This not only aligns with my suspicion that the class is strong, but suggests that it is historically good. That said his WARP formula also ranks Jordan Adams ahead of Joel Embiid, which is a friendly reminder that stats do not tell the entire story. So let’s dive in to each player and discuss how scouting narratives may affect their value implied by statistical performances.
I have already raved about Exum’s FIBA performance, where his statistics ranked him 4th according to WARP. This seems correct to me, and WARP may even underrate his performance. Most of the players used for translation analysis played in USA’s pressing defense, where they posted high steal rates which weighs heavily into the WARP formula. Aaron Gordon looks significantly better according to his FIBA stats than he did playing in Arizona’s non-gambly shot prevention defense. He had significantly better steal rate in the press (and suggests that he is underrated by his NCAA stats). On the other hand, Tyler Ennis’s statistical performance was much weaker than his at Syracuse. This is the most apples to apples comparison as he had to carry team Canada the same way Exum was forced to carry Australia.
On the other hand, Dario Saric was forced to carry team Croatia and performed on Exum’s level whereas he is ranked far lower according to his translated Adriatic stats. This is a reminder that FIBA stats are only a 9 game sample, which is far too small to take at face value. But Exum nevertheless posted a significantly better assist:turnover ratio (34:21 vs 44:43) in spite of having a bad game vs team USA, who Saric never faced. His ability to carry the offense while protecting the ball so well at such a young age is both highly impressive and less prone to sample size variance than shooting percentages, for instance. If nothing else, his vision and ability to protect the ball while creating loads of offense offer enough promise in tandem with his physical profile to justify the top 4 hype.
What the stats don’t show is that Exum hardly moves off the ball. I don’t know if this is because he lacks stamina, competitiveness, or simply hasn’t been pushed to develop this aspect of his game yet. It’s not a fatal flaw since he clearly has enough offensive upside to become an all-star even if he subscribes to the James Harden school of defense. And with his tools and personality, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him eventually develop into a good defender anyway. But this does give me enough pause to not instantly elevate him to #1 now that Joel Embiid’s injury concern has been heightened, and it does open the door for an argument that Marcus Smart is a superior prospect since Smart is such a safe commodity on defense. I still have Exum locked in as a top 3 prospect and am considering him as the #1 prospect in the draft, but if there is a subtle reason to be skeptical of him this would be it.
I wrote about Nurkic’s impressive Adriatic stats earlier in the season, and now that is supported by Pelton ranking him #3 in terms of WARP. Nate Duncan (who seems to have a good eye test) recently shared a great scouting report on Nurkic, which I find encouraging for his prospect value beyond the stats for 2 reasons:
1) Duncan claims that Nurkic passes well out of double teams. This bodes well for his ability to score efficiently against higher levels of competitions and not be a black hole of turnovers.
2) His quick feet allowed him to stop Dario Saric in their 1 on 1 matchups on multiple occasions. The concern with Nurkic is that he doesn’t have the length or athleticism to be a traditional shot blocking rim protector. But given his quick feet, strength, and size, it sounds like he can certainly be a defensive presence in his own rite.
Between his stats, physical profile, and scouting reports, I feel comfortable locking Nurkic in as a top 5 prospect. There aren’t any scouting narratives that cast doubt on his potential outside of his poor leaping ability, which doesn’t seem particularly debilitating given his strengths.
Capela ranks as the top international in the class according to WARP, ranking #2 behind only Marcus Smart. Every statistical model I have seen ranks Capela exceptionally high, and he often appears ahead of Nurkic. Further, he has good tools to translate his abilities to the NBA as he offers good length, athleticism, and quicks. His weak tool physically is strength as he only weighs 222, but that shouldn’t preclude him from being a top end defensive center. How his pre-draft measurements compare to those of other players who have recently served as good defensive centers:
The fact of the matter is that once you have great height, length, athleticism, and mobility, you don’t need a world of strength to make a big impact defensively. After all, there aren’t any Shaq level bullies at center that must be stopped in order to win a title these days. DX and ESPN list him as a PF, and I vehemently disagree: Capela is a center all the way.
Capela thrives as a shot blocker, rebounder, and finisher, as his skill set seems similar to that of Tyson Chandler. Further, he posted 2.2 assists vs 2.6 turnovers pace adjusted per 40 this past season in French play (it was only 0.6 vs 2.9 in the smaller Eurocup sample where he had an excuse to not pass w/ his whopping 71.8% FG%), which is excellent for a center of his age and implies that he may be able to develop into a Joakim Noah level playmaker. If nothing else he should be able to move the ball within the offense as opposed to being a Bismack Biyombo who never touches it. Assist to turnover also correlates with feel for the game, and in tandem with his finishing ability it seems like he offers enough offensively to make it worth getting his defense and rebounding on the floor.
Based on his stats and tools Capela seems to offer a world of upside. If scouts loved him and ESPN/DX were clamoring for him to go #1 overall, I don’t think I’d take a strong stance against that sentiment. But in reality the sentiment is quite the opposite, DX ranks him 17th, ESPN 27th, and Nate Duncan thinks he belongs in round 2 after watching him at the Nike Hoop Summit (I like Duncan’s scouting reports but he is drastically underselling Capela’s strengths with that conclusion).
The common scouting narratives are that Capela has poor basketball IQ, poor feel for the game, and is lazy. It is hard for me to reconcile how these narratives may be completely true in spite of the stats he posted, but they likely aren’t completely made up either. So let’s start by examining Duncan’s critiques. He starts by mentioning Capela’s poor jump shot (which is a viable flaw) and goes on to note:
He looks like his skill level is always going to be more center than power forward, and that is a problem given how thin he is.
I agree that his skill set mandates that he plays center. Do not agree it’s a significant problem given his weight with so many thin players succeeding as defensive centers.
Most concerning is Capela’s lack of feel overall. He was the most likely World player to make mental errors, although there may have been a bit of a language barrier involved there as well. During the game, he picked up four fouls in the first half with some silly over the backs. Throughout the week he did not prove particularly adept at finding creases for guards to give him dumpoffs, and his few postups invariably resulted in wild misses or turnovers.
I would have found this disconcerting if his lack of feel resulted in a number of defensive lapses. Let’s tackle each critique point by point:
-A few over the back fouls for a young big hardly sound indicting.
-DX noted in their situational stats that Capela finished an amazing 73.8% of his shot attempts off of cuts. Perhaps this is a minor indictment for his feel, but a larger indictment on the lack of structure of a hastily whipped together all-star team.
-He’s bad at posting up: who cares? It’s not part of his repertoire and he likely should never be used as a post-up player in the NBA.
Duncan then mentions that his strength is lacking and he struggled to even post up guards in 2 on 2 drills. It is unclear whether this is a greater indictment on his lack of strength or post up skill, but I assume it’s a bit of both.
And that’s all Duncan has to offer. There’s nothing there that strongly pokes holes in my hypothesis that he may be Tyson Chandler 2.0. I believe the worst than can be concluded is that Capela is a deeply dependent scorer, and he will suffer if he plays in a poorly coached offense with poor ball movement. French teams typically have good ball movement (which is why the Spurs always draft French players) so it is likely that playing in France accentuated his offensive production. His 2 point scoring stats are not that different from those of Joel Embiid. But in terms of footwork, shooting touch, and offensive upside Embiid completely blows him away. Stat models cannot fully detect the disparity in footwork and overall skill level, so this is one reason to take his stats at less than face value.
DX shares similar critiques with his feel for the game and also notes that he has questionable intangibles and defensive fundamentals. I’d say there are enough red flag narratives from people who are competent at scouting to throw some cold water on his upside implied by tools and stats.
Overall, scouting narratives strike me as less discouraging than his positives are encouraging. If there is one position where skill and intelligence flaws can be overcome to produce at an elite level, it’s center. Nobody ever accused Dwight Howard of having good basketball IQ or feel for the game, but he was the 2nd most valuable player in the league when he had Stan Van Gundy coaching him. Everybody questioned Andre Drummond’s passion and basketball IQ and he slid too far and instantly smashed expectations as a rookie. I have no idea how DeAndre Jordan slid to the 2nd round with his physical tools, but he didn’t even have good stats in college and he’s become a useful NBA player anyway. Even Javale McGee convinced Masai Ujiri to gamble on him at 4/44, and he is responsible for some of the most inexplicably dumb plays in NBA history. Athletic bigs are capable of such a significant defensive impact that they have quite a bit of margin for error in their skill and basketball IQ in order to still be productive.
My closing caveat is that I have compared Capela to two groups of athletic bigs: skinny and smart (KG, Bosh, Noah, Chandler) and strong and not smart/skilled (DAJ, Dwight, Drummond, Javale). There are not many examples of skinny and not smart/skilled, so it’s possible that he simply does not become good at all. But his French stats suggest that he has some “je ne sais quoi” that gives him his own form of unique upside (it wouldn’t be surprising if he’s smarter than scouts think he is), and I believe that’s worth gambling on in the 6-10 range.
Capela is a truly fascinating prospect given his polarizing features, and it makes me a bit sad that I’m closing by citing his “je ne sais quoi,” because that was a really long writeup to conclude with “I don’t know” in French.
That’s all for part 1. I’m going to split this up into 2 or 3 pieces in order to address the international class in its entirety.