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2023 NBA Draft Scouting Tips: Forwards and Centers
Before the new season gets underway, our own Nathan Grubel is publishing a series covering some key tips in scouting by position for the upcoming NBA Draft finishing with forwards and centers.
It feels great to be back in the saddle, ready to study prospects for the 2023 NBA Draft!
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Admittedly, I take some time away in July and August to refresh and recharge. The amount of time and effort that goes into evaluating hundreds of players during a draft cycle can be exhausting, and I encourage everyone to take a break in the offseason to avoid burnout.
Even so, I still focus on other basketball-related topics during that time that don’t steer me toward the upcoming class. I’ll take a look and review NBA Summer League film to evaluate rookie fits and how newly drafted players will fit with their new teams. Free agency and signings, as well as cuts, are also fun to monitor in the summer months.
As I’ve talked about before, knowing what’s going on in the NBA can help you advance further as a scout. It’s important to analyze and discuss roster constructions and trends in the leagues above those you’re focused on scouting.
All of those things give me plenty to sink my teeth into that’s different than what I primarily focus on in the fall and winter. But September is here, and with it comes a heavy dose of preseason prep leading into November.
So instead of trying to hammer out a bunch of prospect preview pieces (we’re already down a rabbit hole here at No Ceilings, and we are also starting down that path this week on Draft Deeper), I thought it would be beneficial to set the scene for the audience as to what I’ll be looking for in my coming evaluations.
Each scout has their own philosophies and methods, but sometimes we overlook sharing tips and insights as to what others should be looking for and get lost in what each prospect has or doesn’t have.
This series will try and steer the ship in the direction of the former. I want to lay out some helpful “boxes” I’ll be looking to check, so to speak, when studying players this year.
While I can’t fit every single characteristic or behavior into one piece, I’ll take four or five important traits and skills that I look for by position to give a better idea of what I’m learning to prioritize and identify in prospects sooner rather than later.
Minor disclaimer: I evaluate prospects based on four position groups which are guards, wings, forwards, and centers. I’ve discussed these categorizations on previous podcasts and in written pieces, but it’s important to note this up front for the coming weeks.
When I discuss guards, I’m talking about pure points or combos that could fit in either the one or two mold. I separate wings from guards in terms of, are they closer to being a 3/2 or a 2/3 than a 2/1? And forwards fall in a similar group when comparing them to wings. Are they much better suited to play up in position than scale down? Lastly, centers are just that by my evaluation. True bigs space the floor more frequently than ever; however, by defensive positioning and role within the flow of the offense, they’re geared towards impacting on the interior more often than not.
To finish out the series, I’ll be combining forwards and centers together into one piece. There’s a ton of overlap between the two positional groups, so let’s dive into what commonalities exist between the two and what I’m looking for from the “trees” on the court!
As you’ll notice with almost all of the attributes listed and thoughtfully explained in this series, they can apply to more than just one position group. In a game that’s going about as positionless as it’s ever been, players have to cover more ground and thrive in multiple roles for their team to win at the highest level.
With that being said, though, communication holds true for big men the most, and forwards get lumped in here because of how often they’re involved in different pick-and-roll coverages defensively.
But with centers, they’re the guys in the middle of the court who have to act like middle linebackers in football and serve as the eyes and ears of everyone defensively—calling out screens, communicating switches and closeouts, and making sure everyone is on the same page.
Being vocal in the game of basketball because with the speed at which the game is played, it’s difficult for perimeter defenders to always see everything going on. We talk about having your head on a swivel at No Ceilings, not keeping the blinders up, and being aware of one’s surroundings. That’s easier said than done when NBA teams are running guys off multiple screens with the focus on confusing the hell out of defenses.
If a team’s center is vocal on the defensive end, however, calling out as much of what’s happening as possible, that helps those guards and wings. That, in turn, keeps that same center from having to cover too much ground.
Screen navigation is hard enough for a number of guards, but if they have a better idea that it’s coming, it’s easier to get through the screen and/or play it appropriately in terms of containing the ball handler. And when there’s less frequent penetration, the center has less ground to have to come out and cover. Especially if they’re more of a drop coverage big due to not having the most fleet of feet.
And don’t forget about talking on switches! Evan Mobley stands out in this regard. He’s not one of the most versatile forwards in the NBA solely because of his size, length, and quickness (although yes, those physical traits make up a significant piece of the pie).
Mobley is always talking with his teammates. He goes back and forth with fellow Cleveland Cavaliers center Jarrett Allen to better understand each other’s positioning and timing in certain actions. His awareness and willingness to call out everything he sees, along with the physical tools, give him a massive advantage over other players sharing similar measurables. Not every college prospect is an Evan Mobley waiting to take shape in the league, but guys who keep talking on each possession give themselves a chance at seeing some of that same defensive success.
Guards who are excellent communicators make everyone’s lives easier on the offensive end. Bigs who practice the same standard of communication can tactfully help a defense excel to greatness much more efficiently than those who let their guards run into 15 screens and give up open jumpers or runs in the lane.
2. Hands and Feet
Fellow No Ceilings mastermind Tyler Rucker has talked with me on multiple occasions about how the first things he looks for in big men are hands and feet.
One of the most important parts of being an efficient center or forward is finishing around the basket. I’ll be touching more on that aspect in a second, but you can’t be in a position to do so if you have stone hands and are fumbling the ball before you can turn and slam it home.
Michael Foster Jr. had some of that problem when I reviewed his G-League Ignite tape last year. He was a talented above-the-rim forward who had springs in his legs for days as a two-foot leaper. What held Foster Jr. back on some plays, though, was he didn’t quite have the best hands for clean entry pass catches off a seal to turn and finish. Being able to catch entry passes, lobs, and passes off cuts is crucial to any player who needs to be assisted on field goal opportunities to live up to their potential.
On that same notion, having the feet to keep up on the defensive end, put together coordinated drives and spin moves on the way to or around the basket, and effectively run the floor in transition is also key to forwards and bigs having success in the NBA.
There’s more to one’s anatomy than feet when it comes to overall movement, but you’ve heard before that big men who are lumbering and don’t appear to move well are liabilities in the up-and-down game of the NBA.
College basketball is still built around halfcourt offenses going through the low post. Centers can post up as much as they please depending on the scheme in a game that has six more seconds on the shot clock. The NBA has better players and better defenders, for that matter. Stops lead to runouts in transition, and if big men can’t get back and keep up to a certain degree, they become a liability to play starter’s minutes.
There are a number of big men who are best suited in an 18-22 MPG role, but even then they’re players like Daniel Gafford who possess excellent feet, quickness, and verticality for their position.
Not every big man is built to rely on quickness, but footwork is still a tremendously huge part of their game. Alperen Sengun and Nikola Jokic are two guys who aren’t known for their leaping ability. But their drop steps, Euros, and coordination make them who they are as effective post scorers. And when they have to catch the ball at the nail or the top of the key, they aren’t clumsily making their way to the basket. Both are effective drivers who can spin, dodge, or turn and pummel their way through defenses.
In order to score, you have to be able to establish position, catch the ball, and get to where you need to go. Hands and feet are very important physical attributes for all basketball players, but forwards and bigs in particular.
Rebounding doesn’t always get the attention it deserves in mainstream basketball circles unless it’s a counting stat being associated with a double-double.
Those who have been around the game for a long time understand the significance of having multiple players on the court with a nose for the glass.
Defensive rebounding ends possessions and gets teams going on the break. Cleaning up on the offensive boards gets teams second chance opportunities to put points on the board underneath the basket or even potential looks at open triples, depending on the decision to skip the ball back out to the perimeter.
Shots must always go up, and not every one of those looks will go in. Having guys who live to go up and get that ball at all costs can save extra possessions for the opposing team and, in turn, controlling the game in an incredibly effective fashion.
Analysts who are looking to see which team has an edge in the box score will look at rebounding differential. Dominating the boards signifies toughness, effort, and a will to win at all costs. It’s not easy boxing out possession after possession against post players like Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid night in and night out. Having guys who are willing to grind and support one another in the rebounding department brings energy and life to any lineup, something that can turn the tide of any game.
Yes, rebounding specialists may be dead in a sense, but high-level impact big men like Robert Williams for the Boston Celtics make life so much harder for everyone else around them. Williams cleans up on defense and gets his team started on the break while also making the most of misses from a team that has the same propensity as many other professional squads when it comes to launching threes at will.
I’ve said so many times that three is greater than two (I know, simple math, I’m such a genius). BUT… two is greater than zero. Turning those missed jumpers into garbage points enough times can swing a game in your favor quicker than one may think.
Whether you’re just that much more athletic than everyone else and can sky for a board with your leaping ability and length, or a box-out technician who understands timing and positioning underneath the basket to seal off anyone looking to steal your thunder, give me the guys who grind it out each trip down the floor hunting for those extra opportunities.
4. Pick-And-Roll/Finishing Ability
Now it’s all coming together.
What have I already talked about here with forwards and bigs? Communication and awareness, hands to catch the ball effectively, feet to turn and get to where one needs to go, and now we get to combining all of those elements with the coordination and finishing ability to execute effective pick-and-roll offense.
There’s more than one way to get a bucket in the league; that much we can agree on. But NBA teams LOVE spread pick-and-roll offense because of the choices it makes defenses commit to with the right spacing in place.
Do you help off the weakside corner to help double an effective roller, or trap a ball handler before they can dance in the PnR? Do that, and you’re likely giving up an open three to a league-average or better shooter. Switch on the coverage, and you’re playing with fire with either a vertical finisher having everything they need to sky over a smaller defender OR giving a skilled guard the opportunity to blow by or create separation on a big who just can’t keep up.
That one action throws inexperienced defenses for loops, so it’s important to have both pieces in that puzzle as legitimate threats to score.
Bigs who are effective rollers both by powering through defenders or finishing over them are as important as the guards who should be able to come off screens and distribute, pull up, or accelerate past matchups on their way to the rim.
If you aren’t a threat to score efficiently, then why should defenders pay any attention to you? Defenses make decisions based on the likelihood of the opposing player getting a bucket. There’s more that goes into PnR play than just the two directly involved in the action. Much more. But the basis of any strong combination involves a guard who can get their big man the ball on the roll, and on that same notion, the guy on the receiving end needs to either throw it down or lay it in with ease.
I mentioned Robert Williams in the rebounding section, but he stands out here as well because he’s a dynamic PnR finisher. One of the best lob threats we have in the NBA, Williams also has good feet to catch, turn, and lay it in if he has to. Bigs who are 70-plus percent finishers cause problems for opposing defenses. Sure, they can sit at home on the wing shooters and prevent the threes from raining in. But give up too many baskets, and if that same team is playing lockdown defense, then good luck coming out of that one with the W.
5. Corner Spacing
This last section is more in relation to forwards, or should I say “small-ball power forwards” when it comes to today’s game.
But gone are a lot of the days where high-low action was a determining factor in a lot of professional basketball games. Nowadays, most PFs are acting as corner spacers, with the responsibility of stretching the defense thin to open up lanes for pick-and-roll actions, as highlighted in the last section to occur.
Having both corners covered by above-average shooters creates such a problem for defenses and a major advantage for guards who love getting downhill.
Bojan Bogdanovic comes to mind, someone who I talked about on the latest Draft Deeper podcast, where I posed the question of if his addition was one of the most important in all of basketball this offseason from a developmental perspective.
Think about it. Both Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey need room to operate out of multiple sets, not just PnR. Get Ivey coming downhill off a DHO that could effectively turn into a roll situation for a big man, and it could put defenders in a real bind—especially if no one can play off the corner because a sniper like Bogdanovic is sitting there waiting to capitalize on an open attempt.
Not everyone is Bojan, who sports a near 47% career mark from the corners. But forwards coming up in the game should aspire to shoot the ball like him on those spot-up looks.
Corner shooting is as important as it’s ever been, and it is a skill that has helped guys secure roles, even starting spots, on good to great teams. Sometimes it’s not just about what you can do at the top of the court. Not everyone is adept at creating their own shot off the dribble.
But a power forward who can defend multiple positions, act as a threat in PnR offense, space the floor, and rebound at a high level is a superior weapon for any NBA team to be able to lean on in the playoffs. That’s the type of player that can scale up or down in almost any situation.
Part of what I’ve loved doing in this series is looking at the game through a simplified lens and then breaking down skills and traits that build off of the basics.
Some of what I’ve discussed requires an understanding far beyond the fundamentals of the game. But corner three-point shooting should be prioritized in player development.
Whether it’s opening things up in the halfcourt, or making life hell for defenses in transition with multiple shooters sprinting to the corners, I truly value players who shoot a high percentage from these spots on the floor in my evaluations.
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