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?
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.
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.
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.