Today’s post focuses on players who quite possibly won’t be drafted at all, though I think they should be. In my opinion, each of these guys could have a long and productive NBA career. I see them as very good value picks in the mid- to late second round, where any sort of usefulness is a welcome surprise, or as undrafted free agents signing a minimum-salary or hybrid contract.
Jeremy Morgan (Northern Iowa) – 22.1 years old, 6’5” 195 pounds, wingspan unknown
Comp: Garrett Temple or Danny Green, with a jumper somewhere in between
Position: Perimeter Defender
Am I crazy, or is everyone else? This is how I feel when I compare my evaluation of Jeremy Morgan to the consensus. Because I think Jeremy Morgan should be a first round pick, or early second rounder at worst . . . and I may be alone in that regard. On DraftExpress, for example, Morgan doesn’t crack the top 100 overall prospects, the top 25 prospects outside major conferences, or even the top 70(!) NCAA Seniors.
So, what’s the source of this disconnect? I’ll start with why I think scouts are so low on him.
With the ball in his hands, Morgan is neither quick nor shifty nor explosive. He certainly can’t break down a defense off the dribble. Morgan also doesn’t have textbook form or an especially quick release on his jumper. His shooting form on dribble jumpers is particularly awkward and inconsistent, as his shaky handle and long strides prevent him from gathering and shooting in a smooth, controlled, repeatable motion. Morgan’s shot creation ability is more along the lines of a Forward rather than a Guard, yet he lacks the size and strength of a typical Forward.
Now the rebuttal:
Morgan’s offensive game isn’t flashy, but it’s functional. He’s always converted a respectable percentage of his catch-and-shoot jumpers, shooting 36% from 3 on high volume in his college career. He makes his free throws at an 80% clip, and prior to this year he shot a high percentage inside the arc as well, largely off of smart cuts to the rim, putbacks, and transition opportunities. More than that, Morgan consistently makes good decisions with the ball, with more assists than turnovers all 4 years, including the past 2 years where he averaged 3 assists per 40 minutes.
Defensively, few players are as active or engaged. Morgan spent his career as Northern Iowa’s defensive stopper, guiding the team to a top-50ish defensive rating each of the past 3 years. Earlier this week I said that the most important physical traits to be an effective and versatile NBA defender are lateral quickness, long arms, and quick hands—and Morgan has all 3. He deftly slides his feet to stay in front of point guards, and he generates boatloads of steals and blocks with his anticipation, reach, and effort both on-the-ball and as a help defender. I’m particularly impressed by his defense of post entry passes, as he invariably contests the pass and then often the catch as well, reaching back to deflect the ball away from the post player or pressuring him into a bad spot. Here’s an example from his DraftExpress video:
In addition, I think many scouts and analysts fail to appreciate just how productive he’s been. Few players lead their team in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks, yet Morgan did precisely that this year. His achievement is especially noteworthy considering that he played hurt much of the time. On January 4 against Loyola, Morgan sprained his ankle. He soldiered through the rest of the game plus the following game against Wichita State, where he badly re-aggravated the injury in the first half, landing on Markis McDuffie’s foot, and nevertheless came back to play the whole second half. Morgan spent the next game on the bench in a walking boot—Northern Iowa lost by double digits to a 20-loss team.
From there on out Morgan played every game, injured or not, because the team was hopeless without him. Seth Tuttle wasn’t walking through that door. Wes Washpun wasn’t walking through that door. Ali Farokhmanesh wasn’t walking through that door. I’m fairly confident Northern Iowa would’ve finished last in the Missouri Valley without Morgan. They ultimately tied for 3rd place.
In the 13 games before Morgan’s injury, he averaged 17.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 2.5 steals, and 1.7 blocks a game, while shooting 40.3% beyond the arc. And that was against the toughest part of Northern Iowa’s schedule, facing a non-conference slate that ranked 16th in the nation.
Looking back at the weaknesses identified above, I’m reminded that there are successful NBA players with all of those same flaws. Garrett Temple, for example. Check out this scouting report on Garrett Temple, and see that his strengths and weaknesses are virtually identical to Morgan’s. Temple has been roughly an average NBA player for a few years now, mixing good perimeter D with a limited though useful offensive skill set. And Temple’s jumper was actually in substantially worse shape coming out of college, with lots of moving parts and lacking fluidity and balance. Temple’s best collegiate season in terms of 3-point percentage wasn’t as good as Morgan’s worst.
There’s one more area in which Morgan is very much like Temple, and Danny Green for that matter, and that’s character. Morgan is continually praised for his attitude and work ethic, and when you’re dealing with role players beginning their careers at the end of the bench, you want someone who won’t sulk or complain about playing time and who’ll push everyone else on the team to be better.
Sterling Brown (SMU) – 22.4 years old, 6’5” 225 pounds, 6’9.5” wingspan
Comp: Jared Dudley
Position: 3&D Swingman
Sometimes a player’s greatest strength is a lack of weaknesses.
Sterling Brown doesn’t really stand out in any particular area, though it’s hard to identify any significant flaws in his game. He shoots the ball well. He’s a stout defender at multiple positions. His handle’s pretty solid for a Forward and adequate for a Shooting Guard. He converts around the rim, decently at least. He fights for rebounds and boxes out. He tends to make good decisions. What else is there?
The biggest knock on Brown is that he doesn’t create offense for himself, but even there he showed some real ability this season. His unassisted field goals skyrocketed, both in raw numbers and as a percentage of his total output. Last season 16 of his 50 jumpers (32%) were unassisted; this year 48 of 112 (43%), including a quarter of his 3s. Around the rim he was assisted on half of his made field goals last year compared to just 26.5% this year [all data from hoop-math]. He couldn’t keep up the insane efficiency of his 2015-16 campaign (68.5% eFG, 54% from 3) while generating much of his own offense, though 45% from downtown still isn’t too shabby.
Sterling Brown’s defense is built on strength, which enables him to defend taller post players and perimeter players alike. His strength isn’t concentrated in his upper body but rather it’s evenly apportioned; he has a strong core, lower body, and especially strong hands. His thick frame may create the impression that he’s somewhat slow or unathletic, yet this isn’t the case. Brown moves his feet really well defensively and maintains a low stance with his weight forward, so it’s surprisingly tough to get by him. And once a shot goes up, he’s quick to body his man up and help his team secure the rebound.
Brown’s 8 rebounds, 1.7 steals, and 0.8 blocks per 40 are all comfortably above average for either Wing position, which is where he should spend most of his time at the next level. I expect him to defend everyone other than Point Guards and Centers, much like Jared Dudley over the course of his career. In his 20s Dudley’s rough split was 25% SG, 60% SF, 15% PF according to basketball-reference. That seems like a reasonable approximation for Brown to me.
Another area where Brown resembles Dudley is in his outside shooting. He has a very compact and fluid, almost effortless stroke that’s served him very well to this point. Brown’s a 45% career 3-point shooter, 47% over the past 3 years. He’s always been excellent in catch-and-shoot situations and this year added the 1-2 dribble pull-up jumper to his arsenal, to combat hard closeouts and increase his volume. If his 3-point accuracy translates to the tune of Dudley’s 40% career mark, he could be quite a draft steal.
Lately I’ve seen a bunch of mock drafts with Sterling Brown in the latter half of the second round. He’s another first round pick to me. Just compare him to other Wings projected in the mid- to late first round, like Justin Jackson. What makes Justin Jackson a better prospect than Sterling Brown? I honestly don’t know. Maybe an extra inch or so of wingspan and leaping ability? So why is Jackson projected to go 15 and Brown 50? Championship pedigree? A more slender, more conventional body type? As they say in Oakland, we’re not selling jeans here. If you’re a team looking for that type of player in the middle of the first round, I suggest trading down, picking up an extra asset, and then drafting Sterling Brown in round 2.
Kennedy Meeks (UNC) – 22.4 years old, 6’10.25” 277 pounds, 7’1” wingspan
Comp: a more portly Trevor Booker
To demonstrate that I’m not just irrationally critical of UNC players, I’ve selected Kennedy Meeks as my final Deep Sleeper.
No, I do not think that Kennedy Meeks should be a first round pick. As I stated a few days ago in my draft overview, I think this is a weak draft for big men, filled with likely bench players or worse—and Kennedy Meeks is no exception. Yet, rather than spending a first round pick on a big man with a very low floor and minimal chance of approaching his ceiling, why not go small in the first round and then spend a late second round pick on Kennedy Meeks, a big man with a pretty good chance of being a solid backup in the near future?
Kennedy Meeks’s negatives are fairly obvious and well-known. He doesn’t run fast or jump high, his standing reach is underwhelming, especially at Center, he didn’t make a single 3 in college, and he has problems staying in shape.
So then . . . why do I like him?
Even in his admittedly poor shape, Kennedy Meeks was a very productive player, in both expected and unexpected ways. He combined above-average usage with above-average efficiency all 4 years, along with being one of the nation’s best rebounders. This past season he ranked 2nd in the ACC in total rebound percentage, trailing only John Collins. Moreover, despite his reputation for being unathletic and his poor performance in most of the combine’s drills and measurements, Meeks fares surprisingly well by the BOSS stats—Blocks, O-Rebounds, and Steals (x2)—that tend to reflect NBA defensive potential. His steal percentage and offensive rebound rate place him at or near the top of this class of big men. He blocks shots at a respectable rate as well, with 2 blocks per 40 minutes every year. Compare him to fringe first rounder Caleb Swanigan and find that Meeks is well ahead in each category.
I find that Meeks’s athleticism is deceptive due to his lumbering appearance. He really is quite slow running from end to end, but in the half court setting he’s actually fairly spry. He’s more nimble and flexible than quick or explosive, which serves him well as a rebounder and post defender. He has very good body control in confined areas.
Meeks will likely struggle defending in space, limiting his upside, but I predict he’ll be a competent defender overall. He makes up for his lack of quickness and explosiveness with outstanding anticipation skills. He reads opposing sets, passes, and rebounding angles exceptionally well, affording him the time he needs to get in position. This was evidenced in the 5-on-5 games at the combine, where one play in particular stood out to me. While defending a sideline out of bounds play, Meeks recognized a mismatch and seal down low, prompting him to cheat off his man and break immediately when the inbounds lob was thrown, knocking the ball away and preventing an easy bucket. Plays like that can earn him minutes at the next level.
Offensively Meeks probably won’t be as effective in the post as he was in college, though he has a couple things going for him. First, he’s strong enough to overpower most small-ball and stretch PF/C types, so he should be able to establish favorable positions to score or grab an offensive rebound. Second, he’s a capable ball handler, passer, and decision-maker, at least relative to Centers. He’s especially strong with outlet passes—crisp overhead or chest passes mainly—which helped UNC get out in transition and sustain a fast pace despite his plodding nature. Recently Meeks also has shown a decent mid-range jumper, hitting a few in 5-on-5 action at the combine. He’ll need to make that a consistent weapon going forward.
Meeks looks like a great candidate for a hybrid contract this year, affording him time to work with an NBA team’s resources while playing in the developmental league, hereafter known as the G League. Set him up with a nutritionist and a trainer, see if he can get himself in shape, and then hopefully watch him prove he can give you 15-20 solid minutes a game.
This concludes our multi-part series on underrated prospects. Enjoy the draft!