In advance of the 2020 NBA Draft, Peachtree Hoops is evaluating prospects with a look at what the Atlanta Hawks might be considering from now until the selection process occurs. Dozens of prospects will be profiled in this space and, in this installment, we glance at the play of Saint Mary’s forward Malik Fitts.
Malik Fitts seems to be the archetype the Hawks typically look for, and he fills a current positional need for the franchise. Fitts is a three-year college player and was a complementary piece around a high-volume point guard the past two seasons.
Fitts spent four years practicing with Division I teams but in only three of those years was he eligible to play. He started his career at South Florida and watched the coach who recruited him, Orlando Antigua, be fired mid-season amid an academic fraud investigation. The interim coach, Murry Bartow, then guided the team to a disastrous 1-16 finish. At the end of the season, Fitts made the decision to transfer closer to his home of Rancho Cucamonga in California and join the St. Mary’s Gaels.
Fitts is looking to take his talents to the NBA now, and he just may be the glue guy Atlanta is seeking.
Fitts spent his freshman year in the Tampa area, getting the feel for the college game in the American Athletic Conference, but he then became one of the West Coast Conference’s leading players in his last two seasons in Moraga in the East Bay region. He averaged 17.6 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 1.1 assists per 36 minutes, on 51.4/40.7/78.6 shooting from two, three and the free throw line respectively. That three-point shooting isn’t a fluke either. Fitts took a high volume of threes, around five attempts per 36 minutes.
His defense graded out pretty well too, posting a sub-100 DRtg in each of the past two seasons, per Sports Reference. These accomplishments helped him earn two-time All-WCC honors in the same two year span.
At 6’8” and 230 pounds, Fitts slots into a more and more common role of combo forward or swing forward, who can occupy both the small and power forward positions when necessary. He performs better as a low post 4, however, as his lateral mobility is limited when operating in space.
He did demonstrate the ability to catch-and-shoot three pointers from above the break and in the corner, which forced defenses to stretch to the sideline and opened up lanes for his dynamic point guard Jordan Ford to exploit.
Fitts is a freight train in transition, with the handles and mobility to take it coast to coast and lay it in with either hand. His raw size makes defenses scared to take charges in an effort to preserve their bodies.
Fitts has deft footwork in the paint for a big man, and he can order his moves in such a way to leave his match-up off balance. He can take even the best defenders for a ride off a face up when the defense isn’t set to offer backside help.
Below, witness a nice spin back to get to his left hand for the finish.
He is built like a small tractor, and can use his width equally well to carve out space on drives as well as for offensive boards. Fitts logged 1.5 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes over the past two seasons, putting him among the best in his conference. He’s definitely not shy about throwing his body around and out-muscling even taller foes en route to dominating the glass.
Fitts prefers driving to his right and excels at taking it right to his opponent by barreling toward the rim with the ability to lay it up on the front side or put up a reverse from the backside of the hoop.
Similarly, it’s incredibly difficult to push him off his spot on the court on either end. There are many examples of him preventing an entry pass to the post by simply commanding his defensive position with lower body strength. Even when the pass gets there, Fitts takes it upon himself to limit the operating space and force smaller guys to kick it out of the post.
Although this clip is the least flashy play imaginable, it’s a good representation of how fundamentally sound Fitts’ post defense is at this stage. He defends without reaching, using his lower body leverage to avoid being pushed toward the basket.
Fitts has a high basketball IQ on the defensive end, with a good ability to read passes before they happen and create turnovers. He registered 1.4 steals per 36 minutes this past season with plays just like this.
Fitts excels at a lot of the little things. He decent passer out of the post and has the vision and awareness to see where the double team is coming from and finding the open man. His commitment to setting firm screens can waver, but he is a load to push off his spot when he does. As a 40 percent (or better) shooter from deep, he’ll be equally threatening in the pick-and-pop game as he is in the pick-and-roll game.
The West Coast Conference emerged as one of the fiercest mid-major conferences, with the Gaels playing perennial power Gonzaga and probable NCAA tournament selection (had it occurred) BYU each three times. In effect, his level of competition was much closer to that of a power conference than the bulk of mid-major play.
To put it lightly, Fitts rarely sees a shot he didn’t like. He has a tendency to toss up all kinds of wild, off-balance shots and torpedo a good offensive possession. Here, Fitts uses some nice moves to clear space and reach the low post, but ultimately spins right toward the paint. Instead of using his lefty hook, he uses his right against his momentum.
At the same time, he’ll hesitate on releasing rhythm shots if he’s not at one of his favored spots on the floor. For him to fully unlock his potential as a stretch forward, a quick trigger will be key to not give defenses the chance to close out. His jump shot mechanics aren’t the worry here, as he has a high and swift release as displayed below. But instead of letting the game come to him, he tries to create off the dribble when the situation doesn’t always call for it.
For someone as powerful as he is, Fitts can make shots harder than the need to be by fading away from his defender. In games where his shooting performance is suffering, like an unfortunate 2-of-12 shooting night against Pacific that saw him foul out, he can press and take wilder and wilder shot attempts to try to get himself going.
Fitts improved at not giving away cheap fouls year over year, but even as a junior he committed almost 3 personal fouls per 36 minutes. Occasionally his physicality and forcefulness will manifest as clumsiness. Below, he uses his arm illegally to clear out space and pick up his fifth and final foul.
Fitts is an awkward perimeter defender, and fails to close out or chase shooters off their spot too often. His ability to switch onto smaller players is poor as well. On possessions when he switched onto a pick-and-roll ball handler, he surrendered an ugly 1.077 PPP (points per possession) per Synergy in 2019-20.
Here, he gets spun around the wrong way after a subtle fake and completely takes himself out of the play.
His lateral speed is hampered by his stiff hips, which limits his ability to range out beyond th paint. In essence, Fitts can step out and play the small forward position on offense, but will struggle to guard most wing small forwards at the next level.
Fitts turned 23 this July, so he enters the draft at an advanced age when compared to other prospects. He’ll have to hit the ground running to prove his worth to an NBA team without much delay for development as he rapidly approaches the ages of peak athleticism.
Possible fit with the Hawks
The fit with the Hawks on the surface is pretty strong. The Hawks have a high-usage point guard (who is a budding superstar), a bevy of pure big men, and a collection of young wing players. A combo forward in Fitts could fill the role off the bench that Jabari Parker filled the first half of last season by spelling either Collins or whoever is starting at the 3 and look to stretch the floor, rim run, and defend along the baseline ranging out to the corner.
In addition, Atlanta’s brass seem to covet multi-year college players in their draft targets. I just don’t believe the ability or decision making is there for Fitts to be a draftable prospect. Despite high efficiency numbers, he was too erratic with the ball at times and doesn’t possess enough utility on defense to be more than just a good post defender.
Fitts reminds me a lot of immortalized Villanova hero Kris Jenkins when he declared, who proved to be a bit undersized and not skilled enough to make it in the league. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if the Hawks select him at No. 52 overall, as it may cheaply fill a need. But depending on how the draft unfolds, there may be better options available at that spot.