Rev, who is this year's K.J. McDaniels?
I have gotten that question on Twitter and from friends more than anything else this year. As much as I led the charge on McDaniels as an elite prospect last season, I only thought of him as a second rounder just 15 months ago. He got better, dominated other higher-rated prospects, and blocked shots at an unprecedented rate (currently on pace to break rookie block record for a guard). All of those things have translated into him being one of only a few impact rookies this season (albeit on a bad team).
So who is this year's K.J. McDaniels? There is not one. McDaniels has the power to raise people from the deadwhen he is not killing them. I am not one to overstate human ability, but my Doctor KJ script was rejected by Marvel for his powers being too unbelievable (was rejected by DC due to having actual character development). You have to keep a level head in evaluating prospects and KJesus already came back. We have to move on.
Feeling good about my evaluation of last year's draft, the last mistake I want to make is to go all-in on a prospect that most experts value as being much lower in the pecking order. I especially care even less to do so on behalf of someone who wears a school color most commonly found in a penitentiary, but alas Tennessee's Josh Richardson has me entrapped. Richardson is a team player who has improved every season, can defend his position, and shoot from multiple spots on the floor. Despite his production and athletic ability, he is not in the top 100 of popular draft boards. I have reached out to a few gurus to ask what the issue is with Richardson being off the radar and have not received a response. Beyond not having an elite skill--a problem common to many players in this class--Richardson checks off on all other areas I look for in a prospect.
On the flip side, Wisconsin's Sam Dekker is collectively rated just outside of the lottery. Dekker is a good overall player who can shoot and defend, but does none of those things at an impact level. His evaluation in the 15-25 range seems on target to me due to his ability to play off the ball, yet he still mostly plays like the same prospect he was as a freshman. Even the most elite prospects have to keep getting better to make it in the NBA and I am not sure Dekker has markedly improved. While Dekker and Richardson have similar production, Richardson's growth is measuarable and points toward being able to continue improving:
In breaking down the traditional numbers, Dekker does not do anything measurably better than Richardson beyond making 2-point shots at a higher rate. This is an area where Dekker's 6'9 frame helps him finish better closer to the basket. Richardson is a better shooter overall, although Dekker is the one tagged with the shooter label. Under the microscope, Richardson's numbers are even stronger. Having moved to point guard this season due to being the only player on the Vols who can dribble a basketball, Richardson has been forced to take a high percentage of shots off the dribble and late in the shot clock. Playing alongside Frank Kaminsky for a team adept at moving the basketball, Dekker enjoys the luxury of taking most shots from a direct pass and being able to drive more often in thinner traffic. Breaking this down in NBA terms, Stephen Curry is shooting 39% from the three-point line this season and DeMarre Carroll is shooting 40% from the arc. Who do you want taking the shot covered and under pressure? Homerism aside, this is a rhetorical question. Richardson's gap over Dekker as a shooter is wider than the numbers indicate.
Sam Dekker is a pro with a relatively high floor. He is a good spot-up shooter who finishes strong at the basket. He is a solid rebounder who defends the perimeter well and can create mismatches when used as a power forward. At worst, he should be able to play in an NBA rotation with flexibility to slide to both forward spots. I love players who do not need the basketball to be effective and Dekker is definitely able to contribute without needing the basketball. The challenge is that he is not a GREAT shooter, he is not a dynamic defender, and he has games where he just drifts away. He can play very forgettable basketball for stretches and some of his best games have come against weaker opponents, but he certainly has flashes where he looks like a reliable NBA starter:
You could cut a similar video from nearly every game he plays, but that is also the challenge with Dekker. The clip above is Dekker as a freshman and he still mostly plays like the same guy. It is not a coincidence that the sequence occurs against Cornell because that is where he has done the most damage in college. He is really good at using his size and athleticism against lesser opponents, but it remains to be seen what that looks like when he is in a league where everyone possesses similar size and athleticism. His gap in play against the best competition when compared to Josh Richardson is what led me to put Richardson (#22) ahead of Dekker (#23) in the most recent draft rankings. It is not easy for me to accept that ranking when watching highlights of Dekker, but getting better and playing well against tougher competition has to matter--even if it is hard to measure.
Dekker is prized by DraftExpress for his size, versatility, and intangibles. While Richardson lacks equal size, his length is virtually the same. He is a shooting guard with an ability to play as an undersized small forward. While no one will project him as a point guard, his experience may allow him to do in spots if need arises. That versatility is in higher demand than what Dekker offers in playing both forward spots. Only coaches can fully measure intangibles, but both guys play hard on both ends and are consummate team-first prospects. Richardson can do more with the basketball in his hands while still demonstrating an ability to be effective without the basketball. Prior to this season, he played primarily without the ball in his hands and you can best see him play that role well in his game against Virginia as a junior. In the upset, Richardson scored 20 points on only 9 shots while going 4/4 from the three-point line. It was a breakout performance offensively and would set the tone for Josh being best in the biggest games.
It is tough to make direct comparisons between players at different positions, but there are some common opponents with NBA talent that provide some interesting assistance. Richardson played against Iowa and Michigan in last season's NCAA Tournament. In those games, he scored 19 against Devyn Marble (now with Orlando Magic) while holding Marble to 7 points and out-pointed Michigan's Caris LeVert 19-10. While Richardson was primarily locked in head-to-head with Marble and LeVert in those games, Dekker was only a part-time defender. In four games against Iowa and Michigan last year, Dekker posted 8, 15, 15, and 10. Meanwhile, Marble had 27 and 21, while LeVert had 25 and 20. Given that Wisconsin has an excellent defensive team overall, it makes it even more impressive Richardson was against legitimate NBA prospects. Richardson is not K.J. McDaniels, but he has his moments:
The game that most bothers me about Dekker is his 5-point performance against Duke this season. It is not just the lack of points, but he only managed 1 rebound with no blocks or steals in 24 minutes of play. The worst statistic may be that he never committed a foul. I am not endorsing fouls as a positive skill, but Dekker did not exactly go down with the ship in an 80-70 loss. No amount of highlights can hide that type of performance and it is one more commonly found among freshman prospects. It certainly is not present in Josh Richardson's profile.
Am I crazy? Have I huffed on the McDaniels' fumes too long? Who am I to think a prospect universally listed out of the top 100 is a first-round pick? I love DraftExpress and will tout them as the best in the business at evaluating NBA prospects, but I cannot understand how Josh Richardson is the 44th-ranked SENIOR* in the 2015 NBA Draft. Good athletes who can defend their position, handle the basketball, make shots off-the-ball and spotting up, and give production at the college level are hard to find. Richardson has a strong college resume and will still be only 21 on draft night. If DraftExpress can put an "athletic" 6'7 French small forward who has not blocked a shot this season at #28, then maybe having Richardson at #22 is not all that crazy. I really dislike touting a player from Tennessee, but I dislike being wrong more.
I am pushing all of my chips to the table: Josh Richardson is a pro. Pass on him at your own peril. I will bet on him stealing his way into the league.
*[Editing note: Richardson was upgraded to 19th among DX senior rankings prior to publication of this article on February 5, 2015.]