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Magic 8 Ballers: The Marvelous Mr. Mara
In the first edition of Magic 8 Ballers, Rowan peers into the future through film to see if Aday Mara can bring his might and magic to the UCLA Bruins!
When peering into the future of basketball as we know it, a multitude of possible kaleidoscopic futures present themselves. There are equally likely divergent paths where, as a sport, the game increasingly favors the smaller players and their crafty quickness compared to a hooping world dominated by impossible dexterous giants who tower over the guards and wings of the past.
At a glance, the purported perimeter invasion seems overrated. Big men like Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, and Giannis Antetokounmpo have all taken turns winning an MVP award while leading their teams toward title contention. Other bigs like Bam Adebayo, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Karl-Anthony Towns have also clearly established themselves as stars in the face of the league’s prolonged pivot towards increased perimeter play.
If you keep your eyes trained on the draft side of things, however, the supposed rise of the big man hasn’t played out quite the same. During the ten NBA drafts in the 2010s, an average of 4.2 pure big men were selected in the lottery, while the past four drafts have only seen an average of two players taken each year in the lottery who can strictly be labeled as bigs.
When prognosticating the 2024 NBA draft class and its potential entrants, it’s worth considering how narrow the bands have become for true big men to earn lottery looks. When a dominant center prospect comes along like Victor Wembanyama, the league bends over backward for him, but outside of the megastars, it’s tougher sledding for pure big men who look predestined to fit into the frontcourt.
That’s why, as I peer into my crystal ball today, it’s time to discern if Aday Mara, the Spanish sorcerer center heading to UCLA this fall, has enough high-level skills to warrant not only consideration in the lottery itself as a pure big, but also toward the top of a still-uncertain draft class that’s waiting for a star prospect emerge and take the reins.
Quick Shakes of the 8 Ball
Towering over the field at 7’3”, Aday Mara is hard to miss when scouting players for the 2024 draft. Although a few numbers are floating out on the interwebs, UCLA’s website has him at around 240 pounds, which is a bit on the lighter side for a player his size. Due to his 2005 birth year, Mara will have just turned nineteen by next June, making him on the younger and more malleable end for NBA teams.
Mara had an eventful last year, including his current process of extricating himself from a professional contract with his hometown club of Casademont Zaragoza to head to Westwood in L.A. During that time, Mara made the All-Star Five of the FIBA U18 European Championship, serving as the backbone of a Spanish team that fell to Serbia in the gold medal game.
During the tournament, Mara led the team in minutes at 27.1 per game while ranking second in the whole tournament in both rebounds (9.1) and blocks (2.7) per contest. He was just barely the second-leading scorer on Spain’s squad and also ranked third in assists per game for the team, highlighting his overall impact on both ends of the floor for the team.
Numbers only tell you a part of the story of Mara, however, since you get more of a complete picture by watching him work. Right now, some parts of Mara’s game are further ahead than others, which makes watching him somewhat of a curious experience as an evaluator.
There are moments where Mara is a magician, weaving no-look feeds through crowds to cutting defenders before swatting shots on the other end of the floor. Other times, as is common with younger big men, Mara’s luck runs out, and he struggles to make a pronounced impact on either end of the floor.
On a first glance through the Baskcrystball at Aday Mara, he looks like a center with the size and length to cause problems inside on defense and the finishing and passing chops on offense to play a sizeable role at the next level. Peel the onion back a few more layers, however, and the evaluation of Mara gets infinitely more complex and difficult, with many potential futures set out before him depending on which of his attributes he’s able to improve.
The first thing that jumps out of the screen with Mara is his aforementioned height and weight, as he lankily looms over most plays on either side of the ball. Mara boasts a reported 7’7” wingspan, which further adds to his massive but thin presence on the court.
Mara’s quick reflexes on defense around the rim also serve him well on offense, as he’s a frequent roll threat off of the Spanish pick-and-roll attack. The ability to crush lobs without having to load up and jump is a major weapon for Mara and is one of the most pro-ready tools he has at his disposal today:
From a pure touch standpoint, Mara’s right and left hands are both solid close to the rim or from the mid-post area. Crafty push shots, hooks, and short floaters are all cantrips that he utilized during the European Championship when he couldn’t back his way down further into the paint.
On offense, without the necessary beef to back down wings, Mara can be knocked off balance on what should be easy finishes around the rim. These shots should be much more automatic for a mystic like Mara, but until he fills out his frame, he’ll have the same struggles against players with strong cores.
Just like most young big men these days, the objective marker of Mara’s offensive ceiling comes in his jump shot. It’s not bad, per se, but it’s still a bit stiff of a form that hardly relies on his base and uses too much of his upper body. After taking one three-pointer during the entire U18 tournament and being a reluctant shooter at Casademont Zaragoza, it would be a major surprise for Mara to suddenly develop into even an average floor spacer at UCLA.
The most mystical part of Mara’s offensive arsenal is his passing, which Spain used to full effect during the tournament. A good amount of base offensive plays for Spain were centered around getting Mara the ball on either block and letting him use his preternatural timing and placement of passes to streaking cutters darting toward the rim.
It certainly helps that Mara is much taller and longer than other players, as that lets him see over the top of defenses and stretch to deliver passes that shorter players cannot. The magic of Mara’s passing game, however, comes from his mind, as he picks out skips and cross-court swings that leave the defense ensorcelled and unable to counter them:
Mara doesn’t quite have the ceiling to be one of the superstar passing big men like Nikola Jokic or Arvydas Sabonis, but there is enough substance to back up the flashes in Aday Mara’s game that it’s not outlandish to imagine him making some of these same reads as stellar passing centers like Domantas Sabonis and Alperen Sengun on an NBA court in the future.
Overall, Mara’s offense is right now predicated on his preternatural passing and his finishing due to his height. For him to take his game to the next level, he’ll need to become a stronger rim finisher outside of dump-offs and lobs and continue to expand his range as a shooter. Whether he can get there is the real mystery, as that type of developmental track separates the truly magical from the merely mystical:
Inside Scoring Package: Signs Point to Yes
Outside Scoring Package: Don’t Count on it
Passing Package: It is Decidedly So
Just like on offense, the first defensive detail that emerges for Aday Mara is his massive size. Mara’s yawning locus of control with his arms and height led to him often manning the middle of the paint on both offense and defense, especially with the FIBA rules around zone defense. In Spain’s team context, Mara often served as the last line of defense and the first option out of the post for the team, where he was expected to make something out of nothing.
As the focal point of the defense, Mara saw a variety of drives and floaters funneled toward him when opposing players broke down the Spanish defense. There, he demonstrated not only the same type of frightening length that made players like Victor Wembanyama and Chet Holmgren such touted shot-blockers but also the same sorts of anticipatory leaps and reads to put him in a similar air:
His slight frame, however, raises some doubts about how his rim protection will develop. Thicker forwards and centers can back Mara down and toss him aside with enough force, rendering his long reach useless in the face of enough brawn, which is exactly what he’ll face at the college and NBA levels.
Defensively, Mara also shows enough consistent flashes of brilliance to dub him a potential rim anchor for an NBA team in the future. What his ultimate ceiling is as a defender at both the college and the professional level, however, has nothing to do with his height or wingspan; it has to do with his feet.
Right now, Mara plays too far upright on defense, relying on his monstrous arms to herd players where he wants to go until he pokes the ball free or swats their shot. This can lead to explosive guards and wings blowing by him to the rim, where his lack of foot speed can’t save him either.
There’s no two ways about it: Aday Mara is a pretty slow basketball player speed-wise. His body proportions never would’ve made him a quick-twitch sprinter, but he is slower than the average center, which doesn’t bode well for his shot-blocking prowess to translate into full defensive success at the NBA level.
A number of teams smartly schemed Mara to have to make impossible decisions for a player his speed in the pick-and-roll game. When he stepped up too far, his rim protection was neutered and he instead served as a turnstile. If he stayed in the paint, the ball handler was able to get enough space to bend and eventually break Spain’s defense.
It’s not a fatal curse for Mara’s career that he isn’t the fleetest of feet, but it is the skill with the strongest correlation to his ultimate ceiling as a basketball player while being one of the hardest aspects of one’s game to improve. Almost every seven-footer is slow, except for the rare unicorns like Giannis Antetokounmpo, which puts a natural cap on their games. Mara’s going to have to shatter this glass ceiling that’s more bulletproof than other limitations.
Perimeter Defense: Better Not Tell You Now
Interior Defense: As I See It, Yes
That’s what makes Mara’s decision to play for the UCLA Bruins so fascinating. It has become increasingly common in the age of NIL and crumbling amateurism at the NCAA level for young former professional European players to land on college rosters, but for Mara, his fit on the team isn’t one that is catered toward his success in the way that other schools often roll out the red carpet for their new additions.
Mara’s main recruiter to get him to campus was Ivo Simovic, who helped the Bruins nab not only him but also other big international fish like Jan Vide from Slovenia and Berke Buyuktuncel from Turkey for next season. Simovic is no longer in L.A., however, as he accepted a job with the Toronto Raptors.
It’s not like Mick Cronin is suddenly going to disavow his newfound magician in Mara now that the main man in his recruitment took a new job; it’s simply one of a handful of dominos that has made his fit with the Bruins thornier than initially expected.
For one, UCLA doesn’t have a lot of experienced college pieces to insulate Mara’s transition to the PAC-12. Sure, the team nabbed Lazar Stefanovic from Utah, but Stefanovic has so far been more of a tertiary piece than the veteran leader. With all of Jaime Jaquez Jr., Tyger Campbell, Jaylen Clark, Amari Bailey, and David Singleton onto greener pastures, the Bruins lost a whopping 87% (!) of their scoring from last year.
The next most experienced players on the roster are Dylan Andrews, Will McClendon, Kenneth Nwuba, and Adem Bona, only one of whom played a major role for the team last season. Andrew, McClendon, and Nwuba all averaged under 12.5 minutes per game: is it fair to believe that either McClendon or Nwuba can be key bench contributors, much less for Andrews to leap into the starting lineup and excel there?
I left out Bona for a moment because he’s the best returning player that the Bruins have. He started all but one of UCLA’s games last season and was their rock in the middle of the floor, using his fast feet to smother drives before sending shots back from whence they came with ferocity. Bona could’ve gone out for the 2023 NBA draft, but he chose to return and main the middle for UCLA to improve his draft stock.
Therein lies the issue with UCLA’s roster construction around Aday Mara: how will he and Adem Bona work on the floor? This isn’t to say that Mara hasn’t played with fellow big men before. He just shared the floor with Alvaro Folgueiras, a 6’9” Spanish combo forward, during U18 play, and he played alongside legit center-sized players in Ivan Cruz, Borisa Simanic, Maodo Nguirane, and Tryggvi Hlinason at Casademont Zaragoza.
The difference between Mara’s past stops and his upcoming stint at UCLA is that so far, other than his age-level competitions, Mara’s hardly seen the floor. He only averaged 11.7 minutes a night for Zaragoza last year, which makes any sweeping proclamations about his ability to play in a two-center lineup fall a bit flat. That’s compounded by the fact that he was often the lone giant out there making magic in the middle for Spain on their way to the silver medal.
This isn’t just a potential issue for Mara; Adem Bona is used to being the only sheriff in town for UCLA’s paint. Per Evan Miya’s lineup data from last season, none of the five lineups with over 40 possessions that Bona played in had another true big man next to him. That helped him succeed, as he could patrol the paint on defense and detonate rims on offense.
Often, arguments over positional issues with great basketball players are overblown; the greats always figure out how to mesh their game with their fellow stars and make magic happen. That’s what could happen with Mara and Bona, given they could form an impenetrable wall around the rim and infuse UCLA’s offense with a devastating high-low passing combination.
The Final Shake
In a draft class that hasn’t fully emerged from the shadows of uncertainty, Aday Mara fits right in with an equal share of mystical moments and troublesome trends.
Mara’s game is akin to a rollercoaster right now; there are thrilling highs abound, but at the same time, there are a number of lows that will make your stomach drop. That’s true of every prospect in some regard, but due to Mara’s current drawbacks with quickness and shooting, he has a narrower band of success than other big men in this draft class.
If he can harness his magic and fit quickly into UCLA’s system and lineups, he and Adem Bona could form one of the most brutal big-man duos in the NCAA while powering both of their draft stocks. That’s a 7’3” sized “if” though, and it could be the biggest swing factor in Mara’s 2024 draft stock.
Due to his combination of size and feel, however, I have faith in Mara’s magic to shine through and make him one of the more tempting high-upside players in the entire class, which should put him right in the eventual lottery conversation due to his marvelous moments on both ends of the floor.