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2021 NBA Draft scouting report: Usman Garuba

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A contributor for one of Europe’s most prolific teams...

Real Madrid v Valencia - ACB Semi Finals Photo by Sonia Canada/Getty Images

Today in continuing our 2021 NBA Draft scouting report series, we examine a promising young forward out of Spain, Usman Garuba.


Defense-first players are commodities that aren’t quite as common in today’s NBA landscape and that can extend to the NBA Draft as well — though not always as exclusively. The issue that can tend to rise when it comes to defense-first players is that they can struggle on offense, meaning that when it comes to the playoffs, teams can load up elsewhere.

For the Hawks themselves in their second round series against the Philadelphia 76ers, Ben Simmons’ struggles offensively became a key point in the series as the Hawks advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Offense-first players tend to get the nod ahead in the playoffs of defensive players who can’t contribute offensively — so long as said offensive player isn’t a complete turnstile on defense. For the Hawks, Lou Williams vs. Kris Dunn was a good example when it comes to this topic, and there are other examples around the league too.

This leads us to today’s prospect: 19-year old Spanish forward Usman Garuba.

At 6’8 with a 7’3 wingspan, Garuba plies his trade with one of Europe’s top teams in the form of Real Madrid, averaging 4.7 points per game on 47% shooting from the field on 3.8 field goal attempts, 31% from three on 1.5 attempts, 65% from the free throw line on 0.9 attempts per game, 4.6 rebounds, 1.4 offensive rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.5 blocks in an average of 17 minutes per game in 86 games played and 42 starts, per RealGM.

You’d look at those stats and not have an especially high opinion of Garuba — his stats don’t pop like Alperen Sengun, for example. In fact, what probably stands out the most are Garuba’s average of 3.8 shots a game and the fact Garuba totaled an astonishing 86 games on the season for Real Madrid which arguably isn’t the greatest of leading points when it comes to breaking down Garuba as a prospect.

That said, there’s more to Garuba than the stats would outline. So let’s take a look at the film and see what separates Garuba from the competition (Garuba wears the number 16).

Defense

Defense is Garuba’s greatest strength as a prospect heading into this draft.

Garuba’s intensity on defense is clear from the get-go.

On this defensive possession — Garuba’s first after checking into the game for the first time — he immediately shadows Nick Calathes on the full-court press, briefly displaying his comfort to switch as Calathes passes elsewhere:

Again, Garuba picks up deep in the opposing half, shadows the ball-handler to the sideline, gets a hand in to knock the ball away, dives to the floor, manages to claim the ball and gets the ball to a teammate to complete the steal:

One of Garuba’s most impressive physical traits is his speed/movement. Garuba is able to switch on almost any position and compete defensively.

Let’s look at some of Garuba’s pace in action defensively before looking at his ability to switch.

After missing the three-pointer, Garuba turbos back in transition and is able to prevent any notion of a transition basket before the turnover is committed:

On a switch off of the screen, Garuba sticks with the drive and the pass has to be made:

On the pick-and-roll switch, Garuba is able to get tight to the offensive player in the lane, perhaps deterring from making the lob-pass to the open Bryant Dunston. In the end, the floater goes up but is missed:

This time, the switch from Garuba prevents the penetration and when the ball is returned to the perimeter for the offensive player to try again Garuba sticks with the dribble and the help defense slides over to draw the offensive foul:

Here, Garuba lumbers into the switch on the perimeter before Rodrigue Beaubois tries to shake him off of the dribble and his moves and hesitations are not fallen for by Garuba, who sticks with Beaubois and contests the shot at the rim which is missed:

Against Norris Cole on the switch, Garuba is easily able to prevent Cole from penetrating and instead the former Heat guard settles for a heavily contested and settled three-pointer which is missed:

Garuba’s one-on-one defense is quite strong, and of course these don’t always lend themselves exclusive to switches.

To begin this possession, Garuba quickly slides over to cover Dunston on the catch, preventing the opportunity at the rim on the move. Dunston then enters the post and Garuba absorbs the contact and does a good job contesting the jump-hook, which is missed:

On the entry pass into the post, Garuba initially tries to go for the steal but does well to recover in both moving his feet and contesting the shot, producing a great block on the play as he protects the rim:

Against one of the Euroleagues top players, Shane Larkin, Garuba pokes the ball away and comes up with the steal, turning it into two points on the other end:

On the pick-and-roll, when the ball is passed to the screen on the perimeter and the drive is in full swing, Garuba is able to stick with the drive, tries to reach in but is able to contest well on the shot attempt near the rim:

Garuba — as we’ve seen on a few possessions already — is able to create havoc defensively and create turnovers/steals.

On the interior pass here, he extends and gets his hand to the ball first, poking it away and diving to the floor and helping create a turnover:

In the post against a much larger offensive player, Garuba does well to force the offensive player to kill his dribble before the ball is fired back out to the perimeter. On the re-entry to the big, he is able to get in front enough to poke the ball away and helps create another turnover:

All of this looks great from Garuba but there are issues that can crop up at times here and there.

His full/mid-court presses can occasionally backfire, as he loses ground here but does at least recover to contest the shot inside, a bit of a wild shot from Nikola Mirotic:

Again picking up Calathes on the press, Garuba this time commits the foul on the bump, leading to free throws with Barcelona in the bonus:

On this play, Garuba bites on the fake which leads to the basket plus the foul, committed by his teammate (who also bites on the fake):

Garuba can tend to go for reaches and while some of these do result in steals, it can also end up in committed fouls:

I really don’t have a ton of negatives when it comes to Garuba’s defense: he can switch through multiple positions, he’s quick and agile, he’s strong and Real Madrid, at times, relied on him to be able to defend out front on his own and set their defense behind him to account for Garuba’s ability to guard one-on-one.

Offense/scoring

A little less to detail here, considering that Garuba averaged 4.7 points per game on an average of 3.8 attempts a game but some to detail nevertheless...

Garuba’s role and minutes were a bit all over the place this season. There’d be games where he’d play 30+ minutes (out of 40 regulation minutes) and other times where he’d play less than 10.

It was a similar situation with his shots/scoring.

The most shot attempts Garuba put up in a game this season was 15 in Game 4 of Real Madrid’s Euroleague matchup with Anadolu Efes — the same game where he scored his season-high of 24 points (a big increase from his previous best of 16 points).

That game against Efes will serve as a reference for the things Garuba might be able to accomplish offensively, so some of the clips we show here will be from that game (as well as others).

Garuba’s offensive work right now is primarily done around the rim.

Off of a missed shot, Garuba turbos in transition before receiving the ball and dunking in transition:

That is quick.

Garuba showcases some of his athleticism again as he punches home the putback dunk on the offensive rebound:

This next clip was a nice play that Real Madrid would run a few times for Garuba but it basically starts with him setting an off-ball screen for another off-ball player and when the defense uses the second defender to cover for Garuba’s screen, Garuba cuts to the rim and the path is open for him to receive the ball and finish with the dunk:

Again, a similar play where Garuba seems as though he’s going to set the off-ball screen and then cuts to the rim. On the catch, his path is cut off by Larkin but Garuba works to his left instead and finishes off of the glass:

Here, after the runner is missed from Sergio Llull, Garuba is able to collect the loose ball — after Edy Tavares is unable to gather the offensive rebound himself — and scores at the rim:

Blink and you might miss it but, here, Garuba shows a bit of finesse at the rim as he finishes with the reverse layup:

On the pick-and-roll this time, Garuba slips to the rim, receives on the catch before bouncing back up to finish at the rim:

Garuba did try expand his range and out of his 3.8 shot attempts per game, 1.5 of those were three-pointers. However, Garuba shot 31% on his threes and has some work to do on his shot.

Many of Garuba’s threes were short as Garuba himself doesn’t elevate very high on his jumpshots.

Here’s an example on the catch-and-shoot three:

Another look at a three which is short from Garuba:

Garuba is mostly a catch-and-shoot three-point shooter but will continue to need development on this shot:

Right now, it’s all just about showing flashes offensively for Garuba. His place in the rotation was a bit messy and — this isn’t exclusive to Garuba — on a Euroleague powerhouse like Real Madrid, it can be difficult to get consistent playing time so young.

Passing/playmaking

To cap off, let’s look a little bit of Garuba’s passing/vision plays.

On the pick-and-roll, Garuba receives the ball in the paint and makes a nice quick read and pass to his teammate near the rim, who draws the foul and free throws:

Again, a nice quick touch-pass from Garuba opens an opportunity and an easy assist for Tavares at the rim:

Off of a three-point miss, Garuba battles underneath the rim and wins the offensive rebound before kicking it out to a teammate for the assist on the three-pointer:

On an out-of-bounds play, Garuba is inbounded the ball and makes a nice, quick read to deliver the bounce-pass back to the inbounder on the cut:

Not a ton to show but there’s enough here to see that Garuba is capable of making some solid, quick reads and can make those passes — enough to warrant taking a liking to.

In closing...

Garuba is a defense-first prospect.

I think guarding 5’s might be problematic but if the 5 is a small-ball 5, I really believe Garuba could have the ability to guard 4.5 positions. He’s agile, he moves his feet well...he’s just bloody quick, and as soon as he eliminates some of his errors with experience he’s going to be a mega defender in the NBA.

Already for Madrid, Garuba is a focal point defensively when he’s on the floor. They could just allow him to switch out front and build their zone behind him, should the offensive player even get by one-on-one. His ability to guard one-on-one, grab steals, block shots is hugely impressive and there’s a chance Garuba could immediately be a solid defender in the NBA in his rookie season — not a very common thing among rookies.

This is a player that, during the series against Efes, and single-handedly swung Game 4 with his 24 point and 12 rebound performance and a PIR of 30 and a game where Madrid’s season was on the line.

The main worry when it comes to Garuba is his offense/scoring. With Madrid, he basically had zero role offensively. Garuba may become a fantastic defender in the NBA but come playoff time he might be sidelined due to a lack of offense.

In general, there seems to be a lot of untapped potential with Garuba’s offense but what that offensive ceiling is is unclear.

ESPN have Garuba listed 15th in their ‘Best Available’ rankings, with ESPN’s Jonathan Givony adding this with regards Garuba:

Strengths

- Rock solid resume’ competing at the highest levels of basketball outside the NBA. Played nearly 90 professional games this past season for Real Madrid, the top team in Spain. Won the Rising Star trophy, given to the Euroleague’s best player under the age of 22, as well as the “Best Young Player” of the 2020-2021 ACB season. Won gold medals at the U16 and U18 European Championships and a U18 club championship at the ANGT.

- Arguably the best defender in the 2021 draft. Not incredibly tall at 6-8, but has a 7-3 wingspan, as well as quick feet, excellent hands and outstanding intensity. Regularly tasked with guarding the Euroleague’s top point guards, but strong and long enough to bang with most big men. Should be able to slide and contain opposing team’s star playmakers with his versatility and smarts.

- Has shown the ability to push the ball off the defensive glass and make plays for teammates with strong passing ability at the youth level. Showed progress with his perimeter shooting late in the season after getting off to a slow start. Has always displayed a willingness to embrace his role and do the little things to help his team win games. Beloved by teammates and coaches because of his approach to the game.

Improvement areas

- Not much of a scorer, averaging just 4.8 points in 17 minutes per game this season. Mostly stays out of the way for Real Madrid, being tasked with very little offensive responsibility as a screener and floor-spacer.

- Career 26.5% 3-point shooter and 57% from the free throw line through 216 games. Mechanics and confidence waver from beyond the arc. Misses at times in concerning fashion.

- Plays a somewhat mechanical style that may prevent him from ever emerging as more than a fifth option offensively. Isn’t blessed with elite explosiveness to compensate.

Projected role: Versatile defender

The three-point shooting and offensive ceiling are concerns for Garuba but the fact he has embraced his role so far says a lot about him, as does his fellow teammates and coaches respect for him and his approach to the game. Givony also highlights a concern about Garuba’s explosiveness...I’d describe Garuba as athletic but not explosive right now. He seems to lack an elite leap.

Sam Vecenie of The Athletic lists Garuba at 11th overall on his big board and mocks him 19th in his latest mock draft to the Knicks, one pick ahead of the Hawks.

The player: Defense, defense, defense. Garuba is already one of the best defenders in Europe as a teenager and profiles as a potential All-Defense Team guy in the NBA by the time he’s 25. He can defend on the interior, with terrific fundamentals for verticality and weakside shot blocking. His ability to slide his feet and drop his hips laterally is ridiculous, and his instincts as a pick-and-roll defender are terrific. The problems come on offense. He’s still not a particularly effective player on that end, but there have been signs of progress. He has been making more 3s recently, but it’s going to take some time. He can also pass the ball out of short rolls a bit, and he’s not totally afraid to put the ball on the deck.

The fit: Tom Thibodeau’s favorite player is Taj Gibson. There are a lot of similarities between Garuba and Gibson, as both are absolutely elite defenders positionally. The difference is that Garuba has a bit more athleticism and pop than Gibson ever did, and thus has a real chance to be the kind of impact defender it’s worth consistently keeping on the court. Also, the Knicks will be very familiar with Garuba, as he’s repped by CAA. While I do think that connection to the current front office has been slightly overblown, I also believe it’ll help in regard to familiarity with a player they might not have gotten a chance to see overseas this year.

A similar trend emerging among draft experts is the offense, which is no surprise. Vecenie seems optimistic that there is progress offensively and I think there’s good reason for optimism on that front given how much of a lack of role he had at Madrid — I think whoever selects Garuba will have a more clear role for him than Madrid did.

Sports Illustrated’s Jeremy Woo mocks Garuba 18th overall to the Oklahoma City Thunder with this to add:

Garuba is exceptionally well-tested for his age, having cut his teeth in Real Madrid’s senior team and the Spanish national team and boasting strong physical tools and a defensive mindset. He should have utility as a legitimately switchable ball screen defender, and while he’s not big enough to moonlight at center in more than a situational capacity, he’s physically ready for the NBA and appears to have a good understanding of what his role is. However, Garuba’s pathway to becoming a legitimate starter requires a real evolution on offense, where he’s unlikely to be featured, but is a quality cutter and could add value as a passer and shooter with continued development. He’s got a chance to be more than a specialist, and would add a different dimension to Oklahoma City’s young roster.

Woo references the potential value of Garuba as a passer, which I think there is some potential in too. He makes good reads and can make solid passes on those reads.

The more I’ve looked at Garuba and thought about it, the more I wonder... A very common practice in drafts gone by is for analysts and the such to label players from different regions as ‘The (insert word/nationality here) Michael Jordan.’

I see a lot of shades of Draymond Green-potential in Garuba. I don’t mean to say Garuba would be better than Green but perhaps the Spanish Draymond Green? An excellent defender who can guard almost every position, potential in passing and perhaps somewhat limited offense/shooter, which we know Green to be at times.

It’s a reach, I know full well, but that’s the kind of potential I could see in Garuba if things work out. Defensively, I think it’s very possible but the offense is where things are obviously less clear.

The Warriors themselves have the 14th selection and I think it’s a perfect fit. Should Garuba fall to the Hawks at 20, I think he’d be the best player available at 20 and think the Hawks should absolutely select him.

Is he likely to be available at 20? I’d lean towards no, but we shall see...