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2017 NBA Draft Prospect Profiles: Malik Monk thrived at Kentucky, but does he have NBA star potential?

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There wasn’t a player in college basketball last season that was required viewing in the way that Malik Monk was required viewing.

He had nights where he struggled, as any college freshman does. But when Monk got it going it was unlike anything that we’ve seem in college basketball in quite sometime.

It started with the seven threes that he hit against Michigan State in his first collegiate game against high-major competition. Then there was the 47 point outburst that he had in Kentucky’s win over North Carolina. He scored 31 points in a half in a come-from-behind win over Georgia. He had 30 second half points to lead Kentucky to a win over Florida that just about locked up an SEC title for the Wildcats. Two nights later he had 20 second half points in a win over Vanderbilt in which Kentucky erased a 19 point deficit. He scored at least 20 points in a half six times.

Without question, Monk is an elite shooter and scorer.

But given the lack of diversity in his game and the fact that he is just 6-foot-3 with a short wingspan and narrow frame, is he a good enough shooter that he can rely on carving out on NBA career based on shooting alone? Or will he have to rely on becoming a combo-guard — a scoring point guard — if he wants to pay off on being a potential top five pick?

Height: 6’3″
Weight: 197
Wingspan: 6’3.5″
2016-17 Stats: 19.8 points, 2.3 assists, 2.5 boards, 39.7% 3PT

STRENGTHS: There wasn’t a more explosive scorer in college basketball last season than Malik Monk. When he got into a rhythm, when his confidence was high and he saw a couple of shots go down, he was capable of putting up NBA Jam numbers: Twice he went for 30 points in the second half of a game Kentucky was losing. He had 47 points against National Champions North Carolina in a game in December.

And frankly, there isn’t really anything that he can’t do as a shooter. He’s dangerous in transition, whether he’s spotting up on a wing or leading the break with the ball in his hands. He’s terrific moving without the ball — he has an innate feel for where to slide to create an opening for himself to spot-up on a teammate’s penetration, and he knows how run off of screens. He can score on curls and he can read the defense, fading a screen if a defender tries to go over; 64 percent of his offense in half court settings came when he was spotting up or coming off of a screen.

Monk also understands how to attack close-outs, using pump-fakes and jab-steps and rip-throughs to get into his pull-up jumper, which is dangerous. He makes 43 percent of his off-the-dribble jumpers in the half court, many of which were three-pointers and deep twos. Everyone know about just how athletic he is, but Monk’s footwork is terrific, too — he has the first-step burst and the elevation to 1-2 step into one-dribble pull-ups going either direction. He’s the prototype of what you would call a tough shot maker.

Here’s the proof, and also the weirdest Malik Monk stat: He’s a much better shooter when he’s guarded than when he’s ‘unguarded’. According to Synergy, he shot 43.2 percent and averaged 1.271 points per possession on guarded jumpers, good for the 87th percentile nationally. He shot 36 percent and averaged 1.056 PPP on open jumpers, good for the 41st percentile.

Lastly, Monk just so happens to be a guy that, time and again, hit huge jumpers for the Wildcats. He’s got the clutch gene.

Put simply: I don’t know what there is when it comes to shooting that Monk doesn’t do well, except for, you know, making open shots.

Malik Monk (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

WEAKNESSES: This is where it gets complicated with Monk, because he doesn’t do all that much else to affect a game.

Let’s start with the offensive side of the ball, where roughly 75 percent of Monk’s offensive came in quick actions — transition, spot-ups or running off of screens. Just 10 percent of his offense came in pick-and-roll actions or isolation. Some of that is a result of being the one guy that is capable of shooting in a back court that also includes playmakers De'Aaron Fox and Isaiah Briscoe, but when Monk did have the chance to put the ball on the floor, he was not all that effective getting to the rim or playing through contact once he got there. Monk penetrated looking to pull-up.

He’s capable in pick-and-rolls, but what he does is predictable — he’s either looking to shoot a three if a defender goes under the screen or trying to find the screener for a lob if he rolls or a three if he pops. He’s not throwing pocket passes and he’s not getting all the way to the basket.

This is a concern because Monk is just 6-foot-3 with a 6-foot-4 wingspan and a slight, narrow frame that many not be able to add all that much weight. Put another way, he’s the size of a point guard but still has a long way to go to develop NBA-caliber point guard skills.

He has the quicks to be a good defender when he’s locked in, although he projects as a guy that is only going to be able to guard point guards at the next level. He also developed a bad habit of ball-watching and losing track of his man defensively this past season, and got beaten on straight line drives far too often by guys that have no business beating him to the rim. Monk doesn’t provide much help on the defensive glass, either, and can disappear on the floor when he’s not making shots.

Ironically enough, the knock on Monk coming into college was that he was a streaky shooter, a guy that could make six in a row just as easily as he could go 2-for-18. Some of that was still there at Kentucky — he often let the game come to him, taking over in the second half, and went through a couple of elongated cold stretches late in the year — but for the most part, Monk ran hot for long stretches of time without having too many terrible nights. It’s hard to quibble with a guy that shot basically 40 percent from three while shooting nearly seven per game.

Malik Monk (Kentucky Athletics)

NBA COMPARISON: It’s hard to think of a direct comparison for the player that Monk will be at the next level. Generally speaking, it’s hard for someone that is nothing but a shooter to to carve out a role for himself in the NBA, particularly when that player in the size of an average point guard. It’s a testament to how good Monk is at what he does that he’s being discussed as a potential top five pick.

We can, however, talk about the role that Monk will play, and I think it will end up being somewhere between JR Smith and Lou Williams. Williams is closer to Monk’s size and comes off the bench — I see Monk’s ideal role being as a scorer for a playoff team’s second unit — while Smith, who is 6-foot-6 and a physical specimen, plays more like Monk does, a three-point gunner that is streaky but that can rip off five threes in a half when he gets rolling.

OUTLOOK: I just don’t see Monk being a star at the next level. I don’t think he develops the ability to play the point full time, and given his size and inherent defensive limitations, as an off-guard he likely would need to be teamed in a back court with a point guard that’s big enough to guard NBA wings. There’s a reason that 6-foot-3 scoring guards aren’t all that common in the NBA.

That said, I do think that Monk is good enough at what he does to have a role in the NBA for a long time, and he may actually be the best fit for Philadelphia, who is picking third. With 6-foot-9 Ben Simmons expected to handle point guard duties, it would allow Monk to slide over and defend opposing point guards while providing some much needed floor-spacing. Think about the way that Cleveland uses Kyrie Irving, an unbelievable 1-on-1 scorer with limitations when it comes to defending or creating for others. They play him off the ball, allow the offense to run through LeBron and put Kyrie in a position where all he has to do is what comes naturally to him.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Monk will be Kyrie or that Simmons is the next LeBron, and it would be silly for Philly to use the No. 3 pick on Monk when they can get the likes or Josh Jackson, Lonzo Ball or Jayson Tatum anyway.

But finding a place like that to land, a place where he isn’t going to be asked to do much more than what he’s capable of doing, is where he will be at his best.

Russell Westbrook set to learn if his historic season was an MVP one

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A year ago, uncertainty surrounded Russell Westbrook.

Kevin Durant stunned the league by leaving Oklahoma City for rival Golden State in free agency. The four-time scoring champion and former MVP had been the central piece in making the Thunder one of the league’s elite teams since the franchise’s move to Oklahoma City in 2008.

Westbrook had played his entire NBA career alongside Durant, so questions about how Westbrook would respond immediately cropped up.

He defiantly answered them with memorable performances.

Westbrook became the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62 to average a triple-double for a season and won his second scoring title. He broke Robertson’s single-season record with 42 triple-doubles and led the Thunder to the playoffs. Now, he will join Houston’s James Harden and San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard as finalists for the league’s MVP award. The winner will be announced Monday at the inaugural NBA Awards show.

Westbrook gained satisfaction from the team’s success, which largely was fueled by his personal dominance.

“With everything happening last summer, people counted us out,” he said the day after Oklahoma City’s season ended. “They weren’t sure how many games we were going to win or how far we were going to go or whatever, but I think the group of guys, we never let that sink in our building. We stuck together, and that’s the thing I’m most proud about.”

Westbrook wasn’t just stat stuffing, either. The Thunder went 33-9 when he had a triple-double and 14-26 when he didn’t. He seemingly gained energy as the season progressed and was statistically better after the All-Star break than before. As for those late-game situations, he led the league with 10 points per game in the fourth quarter and was one of the most dynamic closers in the league.

Westbrook topped Robertson’s single-season, triple-double record on April 9 in Denver. His 36-foot game-winning dagger put the final touch on a 50-point, 16-rebound, 10-assist performance that eliminated the Nuggets from playoff contention.

Robertson himself showed up to the Thunder’s regular-season finale and endorsed Westbrook for the MVP award.

“What he has done has been historic in nature,” Robertson told the crowd that night. “He’s played with passion and pride and ability. It’s just outstanding what he has done and the way he did it.”

Durant might be the least surprised player in the league. Westbrook was dominant while Durant was out with a foot injury during the 2014-15 season and claimed his first scoring title, but it wasn’t clear if he could do it all – score, dominate the boards, consistently feed his teammates and come through in big moments – for an entire season.

Turns out, he could.

In the second game of the season, he had 51 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists in a victory over Phoenix, the first 50-point triple-double since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it in 1975. On March 27, he had 13 points in a 3-minute barrage to rally the Thunder past Dallas. Two days later in Orlando, he scored 57 points and posted the most points ever in a triple-double. He hit a deep 3-pointer to force overtime, and eventually helped the Thunder win. In one of his most memorable games, he scored 47 points in a loss to Durant’s Warriors.

Harden and Leonard also had MVP-caliber seasons:

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JAMES HARDEN, HOUSTON

As stunning as Westbrook’s triple-double binge was this season, Harden’s was impressive, too.

He posted 22 triple-doubles and helped the Rockets finish with the league’s third-best record. Harden, known primarily as a scorer throughout his career, shifted from shooting guard to point guard and was nearly unstoppable in coach Mike D’Antoni’s fast-paced offense.

Harden led the league with 11.2 assists per game and finished second with 29.1 points per contest. In perhaps his best performance, he had 53 points, 16 rebounds and 17 assists against the New York Knicks on New Year’s Eve.

KAWHI LEONARD, SAN ANTONIO

Leonard is the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, and he’s up for the honor again.

Yet, it was the 6-foot-7 forward’s offensive improvement that put him in the mix for the MVP award. He averaged 25.5 points this season after averaging 21.2 the previous year.

Leonard helped the Spurs finish with the league’s second-best record. He seemed to play as the stage got bigger.

He opened the season with a career-high 35 points in a blowout win over the Warriors. Leonard upped that career high with 41 points in a win over Cleveland on Jan. 21, and he dropped 39 points in a victory over Houston on March 6.

 

New Jordan brand ad asks: Could Kawhi score on Kawhi?

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Kawhi Leonard is the NBA’s best perimeter defender right now.

Kawhi Leonard is the cornerstone of the seventh best offense in the NBA last season, averaging 25.5 points per game.

He’s a dominant force on both ends, which leads to the question from this fantastic new ad from the Jordan brand:

Could Kawhi score on Kawhi?

Report: Minnesota “intent” on trading Ricky Rubio to get more shooting

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It’s easy to look at the trio of Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Andrew Wiggins in Minnesota now and think “that team will make the playoffs next season and be a contender in a few years.” They have set themselves up for that potential run.

But with those three on the floor, Minnesota needs shooters at the other two spots to provide spacing. Butler may have hit 36.7 percent of his threes last season, but he is far more dangerous as a slasher getting to the rim. Same with Wiggins (who shot 35 percent from three). Obviously, Towns operates around the basket. The defensive strategy against the Timberwolves is not hard to envision: Pack the paint and make them shoot over the top of you. Take away the inside.

Minnesota needs shooters. To get that they are dangling Ricky Rubio, reports Marc Stein of ESPN.

Rubio should have value, and he makes a reasonable $14.3 million next season and $15 million the one after (a fair price for a point guard of his quality). He remains one of the best passers in the league, a guy with amazing court vision. He’s also one of the better defensive point guards in the NBA. He shot the ball well after the All-Star break last season (35.3 percent from three) and was more aggressive getting his shot, but Tom Thibodeau is clearly not sold that’s a permanent change.

Minnesota has some cap space and could chase a player like Patty Mills at the point or Kyle Korver as a free agent to give them shooting, plus try to trade Rubio. They have options, although they don’t have the money to chase the J.J. Redicks of the world.

If you hear of a shooter being available, know that Thibodeau is lurking, trying to land him.

Report: Cavaliers, Nuggets, Pacers three-way trade involving Paul George “very unlikely”

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We knew back on the night of the draft that as the Cavaliers desperately looked for a way to pry Paul George out of Indiana, they started involving third teams in the talks (because Indy had no interest in Kevin Love for Paul George straight up, not should they). Phoenix was involved, but that fizzled. So did talks involving Denver.

But those latter ones didn’t die the night of the draft, according to reports that came out over the weekend. Denver, Cleveland, and Indiana were still talking about a three-team deal that would land Love in Denver and George in Cleveland. The challenge for Cleveland was finding the combination of young players and draft picks that Indiana wants in a deal — Indy is rumored to want a lottery pick (preferably high lottery) and a young player or players.

Now that Denver three-team is “very unlikely” to happen, according to Joe Varden of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

As first reported by ESPN, the Cavs engaged the Nuggets as a possible third team to facilitate a trade for the All-Star George on draft night, but a source said the discussion was “nothing serious” and “very unlikely” to happen now…

The Nuggets had the No. 13 pick in Thursday’s draft and traded it to Utah for Trey Lyles — obviously giving up on getting Love, at least for the time being.

Indiana would have wanted the No. 13 pick, because future Dever picks are likely to be outside of the lottery as this is a team poised to make a leap into the playoffs, with Nikola Jokic leading them. As for players, Denver had shot down all requests for Jamal Murray. Indiana likely asked for Gary Harris, but if Murray was off-limits then Harris likely was as well. Emmanuel Mudiay was available but that wasn’t going to get the job done.

Denver likes its roster and what it’s building. While Love could have been an upgrade over Danilo Gallinari‘s role, it wasn’t enough to get them to break up the team to make it happen. And that ultimately has been Cleveland’s challenge in getting a deal done — Love isn’t commanding as much as they hoped on the trade market.

In the same article, Varden has an update on Cleveland’s discussions with Chauncey Billups about becoming the president of basketball operations.

The Cavs are still in discussions with Chauncey Billups to lead Cleveland’s front office after the departure of David Griffin. They’re also remaining active in the trade market, with a host of remaining front-office personnel, including Koby Altman, an assistant GM under Griffin, working the phones.

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, speaking on the Lowe Post podcast with Zach Lowe, said Billups is weighing a lot of things, on and off the court, in making a complex decision. He likes living in Denver (his hometown) as does his family, and with his television schedule, he can be home a lot. On the other hand, he knows the importance and need for more African-American executives in the NBA had how important it could be for him to be in that role. There’s no easy answer for Billups.

The lesson here should be one for Dan Gilbert (and other owners): If you are going to fire a GM right before the draft and the start of free agency, you must have a replacement ready to go. Plan B has to be set. To fire a guy not having that plan, then go searching right before a critical off-season for your team, is how long-struggling teams operate.