As our summer mainstay, Aaron's writing a 370-part series discussing almost every notable player who was -- as of last season -- getting minutes in the NBA. Intent is to get you talking, thinking, and appreciating the myriad of wonderful folks who play in our favorite sports league. Today we continue with DeMarre Carroll, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Ekpe Udoh.
I distinctly remember enjoying DeMarre Carroll's infectious, energetic, frenetic play on those late-aughts Missouri teams. I didn't think he'd be a splendid NBA prospect, but I figured him good enough. The one question I had about him was his shot. I never saw a game where it looked particularly on, and it gave me the impression he played like more of a big than a wing. Given his size, that's dangerous -- he's certainly not an NBA-caliber big man on size or width alone, and while he was a solid rebounder in college, he wasn't overwhelming. So you had a player who, like many others, was blessed with an endless motor, a knack for hustle, and a lack of a shot. Clearly one of the better players at his game on the earth, but also clearly not a splendid fit for the best league on the planet. Probably better overseas, where he could actually play as a big man. Players surprise you, sometimes. But often they don't, and what you see heading into their career is exactly what you get on the back-end.
Unfortunately for Carroll, that's how he's been so far. Extremely predictable. He struggles with a non-obvious position, the skillset of a four in the body of a three. Near the end of last season, he started to make a few threes -- but I mean it when I say they were sparse. Carroll only took 19 threes on the year. He made 7. In a vacuum, it's a great percentage, but one of those where the sample size is so small it's hard to put a wealth of confidence into it. Had Carroll made one more three, he would've gone from 37% to 42% -- among the best in the league. Had he made one fewer, he would've gone from 37% to 31% -- ridiculously below average. Much like Darius Morris, when people point to Carroll's shooting as an awesome sign, I'm not really sure what to say. It's certainly possible that the brief outburst was his true mean, but it's exceedingly unlikely. Especially given that over his career he's been a dismal shooter on anything beyond the basket area -- last year, in fact, he went 19-0f-54 from directly outside the rim to the three point line. Which is atrocious. He's made his free throws on an NBA level, but he was a career 60% free throw shooter at Mizzou, so I have trouble buying that as his true mean either.
There's clearly some value here. One thing that absolutely can't be said enough is that Carroll has a ton of value in the kinds of trap-and-press lineups coaches use at the end of games to try and force turnovers. He's not a wide player, but he is a quick and feisty one, and he's effective at cutting off running angles when you specifically assign him to dog the other player and keep them from crossing halfcourt. He works hard to disrupt possessions and he does his job well. That's an NBA-level skill, even if it's a bit undervalued in the league today. He's the kind of player who would've been excellent on a Rick Pitino-styled team, constantly pushing the envelope to try and steal the ball throughout the course of a game. Few NBA coaches play like that, but in that sort of a college system, Carroll could be a value add. Still, without a developed set-foot three point shot and the explicit tamping down of his empty offensive possessions, Carroll is going to have a lot of trouble finding minutes on ANY team, let alone a team as solid and deep as next year's Jazz. It's rough out there in the fringes. But his attitude seems good going into the year, and he seems to be working hard. When you're in his position, it's tough to do all that much else. Good on him for putting in the work, though.
Remember last offseason, when the Clippers and the Hornets were enthralled in high-intensity trade talks for Chris Paul? Seems like a decade ago, but bear with me. Remember how the two teams had fought it out to finally come to a tentative agreement, but the news was intensely convinced that the deal had come down to two hilariously minor players? That is to say, Eric Bledsoe and Al-Farouq Aminu. The Hornets, it was said, wanted Bledsoe. The Clippers wanted Bledsoe. Neither team much wanted Aminu. The back and forth went on and on, until finally, the Hornets relented and the deal was done. Many laughed, wondering why on Earth the Clippers wanted Bledsoe and noted (rather aptly) that on a team with Chris Paul, Bledsoe wouldn't see nearly the floor time he'd need to be effective. They also noted that the difference between the two players was barely worth arguing over, and how it was a weird thing to even theoretically mess up a trade involving a piece as big as Paul.
Well, while I'm not generally one to give the Clips a surfeit of credit, former Clippers GM Neil Olshey called this one exactly right. While the naysayers had a few excellent points (Aminu would've seen far more court time on last year's Clippers than Bledsoe did, and would probably still see more court time on next year's Clippers than Bledsoe will), in terms of assessing the pure talent of his pieces he did a good job in keeping the better asset. It's true -- Bledsoe's play in last year's playoffs is basically the only reason I'm saying this. But it wasn't exactly a minuscule sample, as the Clippers made the 2nd round and (at 11 games) played exactly half the games an average champion plays in a postseason. And Bledsoe displayed a lot of (frankly) incredibly valuable skills that should help him find a lot more value going forward than most people expected, even if the Clippers' roster isn't particularly well-oriented to help him find it. He's an infinitely better trade asset than Aminu, and perhaps better yet, he allows the Clippers to build contingency plans in the event Paul departs.
This isn't to say they wouldn't be worse for the wear without Paul. They clearly would be. But they wouldn't be rudderless -- when you have a star talent like Griffin locked up long-term, Bledsoe's ability to act as "Paul insurance" allows the Clippers to be confident they won't completely waste years of Griffin's prime on dismal, dismal teams (much like the Blazers are regrettably doing with LaMarcus Aldridge at this very moment). Which Aminu couldn't have necessarily done. Although all this isn't to say Aminu is necessarily chopped liver -- he could yet develop into an NBA-caliber starter. He just, well, hasn't. His offensive game is prokaryotic even at its best -- unorganized, unrefined, and lacking the general offensive cleverness that typifies players with the potential to grow to be much better. His rebounding for his position is downright excellent, but that's mostly because (much like our previous player, Demarre Carroll) he's stuck in between positions. He'd be better off playing as a large forward, but at 6'9" and a hyper-athletic but thin-type frame, he's much better suited to defensively match with NBA wing players.
Still. There's some promise in these here hills. One of Aminu's biggest problems, to this point in his career, is that of aggression -- or, more aptly, a lack thereof. He plays tentatively on both offense and defense, approaching each shot like a father would have a child approach crossing the street. Look both ways, signal what you're doing, hoist up and heave. It's excellent practice for crossing the street. It's also terrible practice for shooting a basketball, as it gives defenders time to close off your airspace and get in your grill. If Aminu can simply tamp down the amount of time it takes him to throw up his shots, I'd imagine you could add a few percentage points from every jump-shot range. His turnover problem is a bit tougher -- I'm not really sure how Aminu improves his ball control from here, although he really needs to. Turnover percentages at just under 20% are bad no matter who you are, but they're especially gross when you aren't at all supposed to be your team's primary ballhandler. The one thing that should soothe Hornets fans a tad is Aminu's work ethic -- it's extremely high, from all reports, and under Monty's tutelage he does seem to be turning into a decent defender. Going forward, if he can tamp down on his hesitation in his shots and stop pretending he has the ability to dribble, he should be able to carve out a role as a legitimate starter. Lord knows players with his length, work ethic, and curious resemblance to Fat Albert characters don't come around every day!
Ekpe Udoh is an interesting case of a player whose box score stats tell you virtually nothing about his game. To wit, if you were simply looking at Udoh's box scores, you'd uncover tales of a player who has no perceivable offensive game, shoots atrocious marks from just about every range on the floor (his roughly 60% career mark at the rim is simply woeful, and ranks in the bottom 25% of PF/C players in today's league) and confines many of his shots to an utterly busted 3-9 foot post-up game. He's quite a poor rebounder, regularly ranking as one of the absolute worst per-possession rebounders for his position. And he can't stay on the floor extremely well, either -- at a career mark of roughly 5 fouls per 36 minutes, he spends much of each game in foul trouble. Problems galore. If you looked at his box score stats alone, you'd think he was among the worst players in the league.
Here's the thing. He's not. The game is played beyond a simple box score, and that's where Udoh finds his value. On the defensive end, there's virtually nothing Udoh can't do -- there are a scarce few defenders who provide essentially a system-in-a-box, improving even barely-decent players to a level of solid defense far above expectations. Udoh, on his good nights, can be one of those. How does he do it? Simple. Incredible and outright ridiculous help defense, of course! He's something of the polar opposite to Andrew Bogut, in a silly way. Bogut was a great, great center when he was healthy with Milwaukee. But he was great in extremely obvious ways -- he controlled the boards with aplomb, finished strong at the rim, and had an old school heaviness to his game. Udoh? He doesn't control the boards -- at best, he holds his own on them. He doesn't finish strong -- to call him tentative at the rim is to understate it. And heaviness? Psh. Ekpe Udoh moves like water on the court, hyper-mobile with an alarming fluidity and quickness on the defensive end.
So, again. He's the exact opposite of Andrew Bogut. Where Bogut wouldn't really mess with his man, preferring to just reach over him and rip down the rebound over his head, Udoh simply slithers his way under the other team's primary rebounder and drags them down into the murky abyss, requiring the opposing team's worse rebounders try to wrangle the possession -- a prospect that usually fails. Udoh sets these strange, fluid screens that often seem to be made of spiderweb -- even the quickest players get tied up and stopped, mucking up the opposing offense and letting everyone on his team play closer to their man. Even though he's somewhat offensively lacking, he somehow manages to drag his defender all over the court, relying on excellent instincts and his insane mobility to play mind-games with the offensive players guarding him, forcing them to expend a ton of energy defending a player with almost no legitimate offensive skills. The ways he impacts a game are hardly obvious, but they're ever-present, and they make you wonder how good he'd look if he had, say, a semblance of an offensive game. Or better rebounding instincts himself. Or passing talent. Or... well, you get the picture.
So that's your boy Friday. (Fun fact: that's actually true, his middle name is seriously Friday -- among the better middle names in the entire league, I think.) He's a bit of a riddle wrapped in a mystery -- many wonder (legitimately) how good a player with his tepid stats could actually be. I myself am completely in-between. I see the incredible on/off court stats, understand (mostly) why they happen, and I see some degree of promise in his offensive game, if only just. I see the hard work he puts in on the floor every single possession. But I also look at Ian Segovia's paean and wonder if we aren't all getting a bit too wrapped up in his intangibles and his (admittedly hilarious) humor -- this is a player who's getting defensive players to chase him around the floor with some of the worst offensive numbers at his position in the league. If teams ever actually started to scout him (or if he was ever on a team that other teams felt was good enough it required scouting), that would essentially stop entirely, and there goes a big part of his value. He works hard, and he's overcome a general lack of NBA-level talent thus far -- but that certainly doesn't mean he never needs to develop these talents, nor does it mean that he'll be able to do this forever. It means he's staved off the tendrils of the box score for a year or two -- eventually, he will need to develop some moves, some rebounding, or some discernible box-score talent. Because if not, "great on/off court numbers on terrible teams that nobody bothers to scout" may be the sum total of his resume in the future.
• • •
At the end of each post, I'll be scribing riddles for the next group. Whoever gets the most right will get a shout out at the end of the next post. Tweet me your answers at @docrostov, or post them in the comments. Lots of 2/3 votes, but nobody figured out that I was talking Bledsoe vs Aminu. Good job to comment-folk Mike and Atori.
- Don't really know how he fell so far from his Houston highs. Still, he rebounded last year, and should be a serviceable bench friend for the 'Dubs.
- Player #191 is pretty good at the game of basketball. Maybe. Will be a Capsule (Plus).
- Good rebounder, awful defender. Some think Player #192 made progress on that end last season. Me, I think it was just Gasol.
See you tomorrow. And if you missed it, check out this morning's halfway retrospective!