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The Prospect Overview: I Still Like Dereck Lively II
Duke's Dereck Lively II has had a cold start to his college career. Still, he's displayed flashes of his enormous potential. PLUS: The Expanding Big Board and Quick Hits across college basketball!
Feature: I Still Like Dereck Lively II
It’s not uncommon for a college prospect to fail to meet the expectations put upon them. I’ve seen it several times throughout my life. Delvon Roe was a Top 10 recruit saddled with devastating injuries, ultimately leaving basketball before his senior year of college. Since then, he has embarked on a tremendous acting career. Kaleb Tarczewksi was simply at the tail end of his development, showing minimal growth during his time at Arizona while still being a good, productive player. Cliff Alexander walked into a situation at Kansas where he wasn’t given much playing time before an NCAA investigation prevented him from completing the season. Trevon Duval’s skillset didn’t scale up as well as anticipated, and the small guard’s poor outside shooting turned off NBA front offices. Prospects can struggle out of the gate for a myriad of reasons, but none of them have been as relatable to me as the struggles of Dereck Lively II.
My eighth-grade basketball coach, we’ll call him Coach L, was the best basketball coach I ever had. Coaching isn’t just one thing. It’s a mishmash of tactical strategy, motivational speaking, time management, human relations, and life advice. Coach L could do all of it. He was wildly overqualified, previously serving as a varsity coach at the rival of our high school program. While others may have viewed the opportunity as a step backward, Coach L instead leveraged his legitimacy to create a high level of cultural buy-in. I remember him telling us, “8th Grade basketball is when Boy’s Basketball becomes Men’s Basketball.” It sounds silly, the idea of a bunch of 13-year-olds drenched in Axe Body Spray with Dorito breath calling themselves men. But I’m telling you, we bought it. We held each other accountable in practice, making sure everyone was giving full effort and paying full attention. Coach stayed on top of our grades. We started dressing up on game days. Coach L was savvy, picking up on how to best utilize us and how we learned at warp speed. Early in the year, he told me he noticed that I do best with calm instruction as opposed to a more fiery approach. After our first game, he told me he would make sure to play me in spurts as opposed to long stretches so I wouldn’t tire out. Following a particularly disappointing loss, the whole team agreed to watch game film during our lunch period. The practice later that night was one of the most intense I ever had in any sport in my entire life—we still talk about it to this day. In our next game, we blew the doors off our opponents with a final score of something like 48-8. We finished the year 29-2, winning the regular season and tournament titles for our conference.
I have a lot of fond memories of that season. It was the best basketball team I ever played for…but I use the term “played” liberally. I’m a tall guy, and I got my growing out of the way fast. Unfortunately, it took a long time for my coordination to catch up. I’m 6’5” now and was already 6’3” in 8th grade. I was a big, lumbering, doughy kid. We would run “9s,” a sideline-to-sideline sprint where you had to touch each line and run back to the other a total of nine times within a designated time limit. I was always the last man across the line and usually barely within the allotted time window. I posted respectable counting numbers in our “B Team” games, shooting over smaller, outmatched opponents, but in standalone “A Team” games, I’d occasionally get no minutes at all.
It wasn’t all because of my slow, plodding feet or lack of coordination. I didn’t have THAT DOG IN ME. I was a gentle giant. In 7th grade, I played a pick-up game with some 8th graders. One of the older kids, who was roughly my size but not a tub of lard, threw his hip into me for a box out. I wanted no part of it. I remember thinking something like, “Jeez, I wish he wasn’t playing so hard; no thanks!” Physicality was of no interest to me. I was a softy. I was afraid of hurting someone, and I definitely didn’t want to get hurt myself. This presented a big problem for someone who was supposed to bang on the block down low but lacked the polish and finesse to play a different brand of basketball.
There was a practice where we were doing a rebounding drill. I was matched up with my friend Jon. Jon was a good basketball player. He could shoot and dribble, and he was a fantastic perimeter defender. I probably had about eight inches of height on him at the time and at least 50 pounds, but Jon had THAT DOG IN HIM. The ball went up, and Jon fought around me to get it. Coach L made me face off with him again, to the same result. We did a third time, and again, Jon snagged the board. Coach L pulled me out of practice and gave me a lesson I never forgot.
“Maxwell, you’re a nice kid. I know you’re a nice kid, and I know you don’t like contact. We’re just playing a game, and it’s okay to be competitive. You’re not going to hurt anybody; nobody is going to hurt you. You’ve got this size, and you need to use it. Everybody on this team needs you to use it. It doesn’t make you a bad guy to put your body on someone. It’s okay to compete. Let’s go do it again.”
We went out and did the drill again, and I did everything I could to keep Jon off the glass. I succeeded. It helped me turn a mental corner. I wish I could tell you I became a starter and had massive success afterward—I didn’t. But I did become serviceable. The summer before my freshman year, I got stronger and became more confident, blossoming into an acceptable, routine backup player. For me, it was a big victory.
Duke’s Dereck Lively II is everything I wasn’t. First off, he’s good at basketball. Lively’s exceptionally coordinated, he moves unbelievably well, and I doubt he’s ever struggled to finish a sprinting drill in his life. Also, when I didn’t box out, I didn’t have to deal with thousands of people yelling at me on social media. But when I’ve watched him play during his freshman season, there are times I find myself wishing Coach L was on Duke’s bench to pull him aside and give him that same talk.
The First Impression
I’d seen a bit of Dereck Lively II’s tape during the EYBL Peach Jam event and during his senior year of high school. At the time, I wasn’t yet writing for No Ceilings and was far more casual in my scouting approach. The first time I was fully engaged with the process of watching him was in person at the McDonald’s All-American Game. Lively blew me away during warm-ups. I couldn’t believe how effortlessly he bounced around the court and threw down monster dunks. He was 7’1” but was moving like a guard. During the game, his offensive performance was quiet, but his defense stood out, and I was all in on the Dereck Lively II hype train. He was penciled into my Top 5.
The Red Flag Game
When one draft ends, the next draft cycle begins. As soon as the 2022 Draft concluded, I started digging into the film for the next class. While looking through InStat, I noticed they had a Lively game where he matched up with Thomas Haugh, one of my favorite high school class of 2023 sleeper prospects. Lively had a considerable height advantage, but it would still be worth watching. I came away less than enthused. His motor ran low. Despite having pogo-stick leaping ability and an easy second jump, Lively gave up plays on the glass because he failed to both box out and jump. He’d get beat, then not work to get back in the play despite his absurd set of recovery tools. His post arsenal was incomplete, and he failed to capitalize on his size down low. On the perimeter, he’d be too quick to abandon his stance and let his man get downhill. Lively finished with 11 points, 14 rebounds, two blocks, and a steal, but it left me wanting so much more. I chalked it up to the fact that he was facing lesser opposition, so maybe he wasn’t that motivated.
Dereck Lively II’s college career started not with a bang, but with a whimper. He was injured during the off-season and would be eased into Duke’s rotation. Understandable. But now that he’s been back on the court, the results haven’t met expectations, particularly on offense and on the boards. Lively is averaging 4.4 PPG, a letdown for a player ranked #2 in his class using the RSCI metric. InStat’s tracking data shows that all of his field goal attempts except two have come inside the restricted area. While he has literally not taken a single “bad” shot this season, he’s been overly timid, subsisting on a shot diet composed almost entirely of putbacks, lobs, and easy feeds for dunks. In college, Lively hasn’t shown a willingness to shoot or the ability to create his own looks in any meaningful capacity. He’s also reluctant to go back up after offensive rebounds, preferring to kick it out to the perimeter even when it isn’t prudent to do so. It’s as if he’s totally averse to contact. As a result, he’s only gone to the free-throw line nine times this season. He’s also posted a meager 12.9 Defensive Rebound Percentage. That ranks him behind wing prospects Anthony Black, Brandon Miller, and Max Lewis. Even worse, it slots him behind guard prospects Amari Bailey and Keyonte George (who has received criticism for being too ground-bound). While he can soar for putbacks on the offensive glass and fares better on that end, he’s too content to remain upright and grounded on the other end of the floor.
But when I squint…I still see it with Dereck Lively II. His tools are too special, his flashes too exciting, his defensive upside too great, his passing too intriguing, and his outside shot remains in his back pocket. While many are fleeing the ship, at a certain point, it makes more sense to stay on board. It’s easy to look at those big-picture issues (and don’t get me wrong, they definitely ARE issues), but if you look into the details, there’s plenty to be encouraged about.
Dereck Lively is far from a finished product on defense. Take a look at the play below.
It’s a handoff set, and Lively has to balance the guard going downhill with monitoring his man, who rolls to the basket. He ends up lost in between, not pressuring the guard while allowing the lob to be thrown over him for the easy dunk. This type of thing happens to him from time to time. He’s yet to consistently find the balance of playing in a drop, tracking the ball and his man simultaneously to prevent easy opportunities. It’s typical stuff for a young big man. What isn’t typical, though, is THE GOOD STUFF.
Here, Lively gets switched onto Colby Jones, a real-deal prospect. Jones hesitates to try and throw Lively off-balance before penetrating. It does enough to get Lively out of his slide, forcing him to turn and chase. But folks, Lively can turn and chase like few others. Lively stays right behind Jones and swats his shot at the rim. Even when he has to cede some ground, Lively’s fluidity, mobility, and speed off the floor make him a force when he goes into recovery mode. Generally, he does a wonderful job of staying in front of quicker players, especially for his size. But his long strides and 7’8” wingspan make him one of the most switchable big men in this class.
Lively is truly dynamic as a rim protector. He can get your basic weakside blocks on drives, sure. But he does much more than that. Even without ideal positioning, his long arms allow him to swat away shots that other centers could never even touch. His recognition is good; paired with his size, he can spring into position in short order to help off his man and knock the ball out of the air. Even if his man pops off a screen, his ability to cover ground allows him to help, then recover if need be. His 4.6 blocks per 40 minutes and 12.5 BLK% are a great starting point and will only improve as he gets more experience working in ball screen coverages.
I get the “all he does is dunk” criticism, but it ignores the fact that Lively is a stellar play finisher. Per Synergy, Lively is finishing 70% of his shots at the basket in the halfcourt this season. His catch radius is absolutely bonkers. Drivers can throw the ball anywhere in Lively’s vicinity, and he has the springs, length, and coordination to grab the ball and dunk it. He doesn’t need a runway, and he doesn’t need to load up to fly off the floor. Lively gets up with the greatest of ease at a moment’s notice to send the rock home.
Lively only has nine assists through 11 games, but much of that can be attributed to his role. He doesn’t play with the ball much and doesn’t often get to operate from handoffs or the short roll. Heck, he doesn’t even get to dissect the defense from the nail or elbows often, either. While the opportunities haven’t been there, I believe the skills are present. Lively is able to make quick decisions, he sees the floor well, and he knows how to use his length to his advantage. He loves to place passes at difficult angles for defenders to read or impede, going around or over the top of his smaller opponents. His vision goes beyond basic reads, and with more responsibility, he’d likely receive more acclaim in this regard.
While Lively is 0-for-2 from long range on the year, I’m confident that he’ll eventually develop into a reliable floor spacer. InStat’s available data from high school and EYBL games lists him as 8-for-36, a 22% mark. It’s not stellar, but it shows that Lively can be a willing shooter, particularly from the corners and the top of the arc. His stroke is clean, too. Add in a high release, and these are great building blocks for a big man his age. With downhill gravity as a roller and a budding passing portfolio, further developing his outside shot could make him one of the more dynamic screener options in basketball.
Expectations can be a tricky thing to navigate. Duke fans and draft pundits like myself came into the season with an idea of Dereck Lively that hasn’t materialized. It can be frustrating. We want to see him be more aggressive and assertive, but bigger than that, we want him to succeed. The last thing I want to see is a prospect crumble in the face of adversity. These aren’t just basketball players; these are human beings. Lively is under a greater microscope than I could ever imagine, facing constant criticism, scrutiny, and unwarranted levels of personal bitterness from his more extreme detractors.
As evaluators, we cannot be anchored by what we once thought, or by what we expected to see. We must look at the data in front of us and do our best to project what a player will look like in the future. Dereck Lively II hasn’t done everything I hoped he would do on a basketball court yet, but he still offers tremendous value. He’s been an impactful defender, and at 7’1” with the mobility of a wing, he could be the perfect playoff big man. There’s a world where his instincts progress, and with his tools, he could be impossible for opposing offenses to exploit. His feel is evident in his passing, his catch radius projects well for his lob finishing, and there’s a chance he could become a legitimate floor spacer in time. For those reasons, I still like Dereck Lively II! There are things he needs to do— go up stronger and more often, set better screens, and be more aggressive on the glass. But at a certain point in the draft, his awareness, size, and mobility will be impossible to pass on. Dereck Lively II hasn’t met expectations yet, but let’s not anchor ourselves on this eleven-game sample just yet. Let’s see where it goes and keep in mind what he can still become.
The Expanding Big Board
Welcome to The Expanding Big Board! Every week, a new player is added to the board. Once a player is added, they cannot be removed. The current ranking is listed first, with last week’s ranking in parenthesis.
1. Victor Wembanyama (1)
This man is ridiculous. He continues to hit impressive shots, embrace getting to the free throw line, and see the floor better on a consistent basis. He’s a force, and he’s driving winning, as his squad’s record sits at 9-2.
2. Scoot Henderson (2)
3. Amen Thompson (3)
4. Cam Whitmore (4)
It’s great to have Cam Whitmore back on the court. He’s clearly still easing his way back into form. At times, his feet look a little heavy, and sometimes he jumps easier than others. Whitmore is a powerhouse with a springling of finesse, using his strength to get inside with sublime body control to contort and finish tough looks at the cup. He eats contact for breakfast. I’m still not totally sure how his long ball sits at this point. Occasionally, he has a pure release, the ball rotates beautifully, and it falls through the net softly. Other times, he’ll shoot a hard ball that clanks off the rim or there will be an evident, small sidespin on it. I love his willingness to launch, though. Whitmore is taking threes every time he’s given too much space or defenders go under screens on him, and I want him to keep doing that.
5. Ausar Thompson (5)
Ausar had a wild outing on 12/6 with 14 points, 14 rebounds, four assists, two blocks, and one steal. Unfortunately, he was also 0-4 from three and 0-5 from the free throw line and posted six turnovers. His shooting numbers were exceeding expectations, but it’s back to wait-and-see for now. There’s still a real path for him to claim the #3 spot. At the moment, it’s a tight race between Amen, Cam, and Ausar.
6. Nick Smith Jr. (6)
7. Anthony Black (Unranked)
Welcome to the party, Anthony Black! I wrote about Black HERE two weeks ago, so that full column has my complete thoughts on him as a player. What I will add is that I love how he’s continued to take and make open threes. I’m now feeling much more confident in his ability to provide adequate spacing, thus forcing defenders to play tighter on him and opening up his driving game. His inside finishing and playmaking give him an edge over Brandon Miller for now, but I’m not ready to live or die by that ranking at this stage in the cycle.
8. Brandon Miller (7)
-It’s starting to come together for Amari Bailey! After a slow start, the freshman solidified his spot in the rotation the old fashion way— through grit and defense. Over his past five games, he’s averaging 1.2 SPG and 0.6 BPG. He’s also knocked down 41.7% of his threes during that stretch. Bailey’s outside shot and off-ball fit were questions coming into the year, and he’s starting to show more than just signs of life. He’s still 4-for-17 on catch-and-shoot triples, a number that will need to improve. Bailey needs to create that gravity to open up his passing and on-the-go creation. But his ability to scrap and stay on the floor for a Mick Cronin coach team speaks volumes about his willingness to do the little things.
-A deep-cut prospect I’ve been enjoying lately: Texas A&M-Commerce senior Demarcus Demonia. He may be tucked away in the Southland, but he moves like a high-major athlete, soaring for rebounds and dunks in heavy traffic. At 6’6”, he has pro size, too. Demonia is a fearless finisher, he’s unafraid of contact, and he gets to the line a lot. He’s a quick thinker who can make smart, soft touch passes in a hurry. Demonia drives with his head up and keeps a lookout for open teammates. His tools and awareness help him defensively, where he has a 2.1 STL% and a 2.3 BLK%. Where the case for Demonia becomes difficult is his outside shot. Demonia is 27.9% from three on the year. He did shoot 33.8% from distance a year ago, though, and he’ll comfortably take shots from NBA distance. He started at a JuCo before playing for TAMC, a program playing at the D-1 level for the first time this season. Given his tools and a likely lack of resources, I think he’s particularly worth monitoring for G League affiliates. There may be a lot of juice left to be squeezed from Demonia, a good athlete with size and a smart but aggressive playstyle.
-As a WEIGHT LOSS GUY myself, I love what I’m seeing from Donovan Clingan! In his high school film, Clingan looked slow and heavy, more like a project player who would pop up more meaningfully in a few years. Instead, he’s been one of the most impactful players in college hoops. UConn’s 7’2” big man shooting 76.6% on twos, blocking 7.7 shots per 100 possessions, and owns a 16.4 BPM. His physique has transformed dramatically, and his mobility is respectable. There are obvious caveats—he’s only playing around 15 minutes per game, he still fouls a lot, and his speed still needs to come along. But Clingan is now firmly in the mix for the 2024 draft with a chance at 2023.
-I’m talking myself into Taylor Hendricks more and more by the minute. The 6’9” UCF prospect is enormous, with his length giving headaches for opponents both on and off the ball defensively. His jumper is gorgeous, with a high, impenetrable release. He’s knocked down 19 of his 38 threes this season and converted 72.4% of his free throws. The freshman is still raw with the ball in his hands, both as a passer and dribbler. Still, his defensive feel, speed, leaping ability, and shooting touch are outstanding starting points for a modern NBA forward.
-Miami-Ohio sophomore Julian Lewis has caught my year as an interesting multi-year prospect. He’s 6’6”, he’s a good passer, and he can shoot the cover off the ball. Lewis has only appeared in five games, but he’s hit 36.8% of his threes and is 12-for-13 at the free-throw line. He plays with real tenacity on the glass and does an exceptional job of reading plays on the defensive end. Lewis’ help swipes and ability to stay connected around screens stood out. Two of his five games came against high-major competition (Georgia and Indiana), and he didn’t look out of place athletically. He’s currently the team’s fourth leading scorer, and I’m generally cautious about mid-major players who aren’t leading options, but Lewis has a lot going for him. He’s worth monitoring.
-Denver’s Justin Mullins likely belongs in a similar boat. The 6’6” wing is local to me, having played at Oak Park River Forest High School. He’s got good length and really gets after it defensively. He has a 2.7 STL% and 2.4 BLK%, but he also forces opponents to make mistakes that don’t show up on the stat sheet. Offensively, he’s an efficient scorer (61.2% on twos, 44.4% on threes) and he moves well off the ball. His shot prep is rock solid and he’s ready to let it fly off the catch. Mullins bites off more than he can chew as a creator at times, leading to turnover issues that were on display against UCLA. He could stand to get stronger and quicker, and he’s limited on the glass, but he’s a freshman and those things take time. Mullins is one for down the road with good building blocks in place.
-I know graduate players aren’t the sexiest, but Jordan Miller knows how to play. The Miami (FL) wing is as well-rounded as they come. He’s demonstrated some phenomenal passing flashes, and his feel is off the charts. You can trust Jordan Miller in any situation. He’s converting 71.9% of his shots at the basket in the halfcourt, per Synergy, and has no problem finishing through contact. Defensively, he’ll make veteran plays like getting in low on the ball when players go up with it to generate strips. “Jack of all trades, master of none” is a scary archetype, especially when it’s an older player, but I could see him working his way into an NBA cup of coffee.
-I touched on Noah Clowney early in the college season, and he’s looking more and more like he might be a 2023 NBA Draft prospect. His 26.5% from three isn’t ideal, but the shot is clean with minimal dip off the catch. He’s fluid on both ends, whether covering ground to close out or attacking downhill with the ball. I’m starting to see more encouraging passes from him, too. He’s still raw in many ways and likely needs the shot to fall at a higher clip from both long range and the free throw line, but the indicators are positive.
-THE MID-MAJOR GAME OF THE WEEK was Pepperdine vs. Nevada! Nevada got the win, 85-78. Max Lewis had another strong performance, generating 18 points on 12 shots. He’s always ready to shoot, but he’s also done a much better job of recognizing when his shot isn’t there and moving on. Lewis is blowing by slower players, posting up smaller ones, and staying in front of opponents better on defense. He’s done everything we could have asked for. Mike Mitchell Jr. went on a heater from three, connecting on 4-of-7 triples. Mitchell’s range is “inside half court.” In order to be a serious draft prospect, he needs to improve inside the arc. He was 1-for-6 on twos and is a 34.2% two-point shooter throughout his college career. Given his playmaking and shooting, there could be a viable path for Mitchell if he can figure out his inside game. BartTorvik query darling Darrion Williams had a rough outing offensively, scoring two points on eight shots. Lewis did a great job of stifling him on a few occasions. His limited vertical pop is an issue. Williams did well on defense, though, adding three steals and a block. His awareness is there and he knows how to play, but the physical tools remain a question. Kenan Blackshear made me start to wonder if he can get his three-ball going, given how well he scored in the mid-range. The 6’6” guard also held up well defensively when forced to cover bigger players. His playmaking and size remain intriguing. Tre Coleman also deserves a tip of the cap, as his on-ball defense was critical for Nevada.
-Next week’s MID-MAJOR GAME OF THE WEEK is Belmont vs. Chattanooga! Belmont’s No Stone Unturned wing prospect Ben Sheppard has handled his increased workload well, scoring 20.6 PPG and shooting 42.7% from three. He’s still upright with his dribble, leading to 2.6 TOV, but he’s also playmaking for others consistently and tallying 3.6 APG. Most puzzling is his free throw shooting, where he’s 50.8% on the year. If he can get that together, his lateral mobility on defense, length, and stroke will make him a real shooting guard prospect. When I interviewed him over the summer, I was impressed by his maturity, professionalism, and approach to the game. Freshman Cade Tyson is also one to watch, a 6’7” wing with scoring prowess and good feel. For Chattanooga, Jake Stephens is the name to watch. I focused on him during No Stone Unturned as well. Stephens is a big man with an 8-foot wingspan (!!!) who is shooting 44.7% from three on the year. It’s not a coincidence, either— he made 49% of his threes last season. He’s a graduate player, and he doesn’t get off the floor that easily, so there are valid questions about how his defense and rim protection would work at the NBA level. But still, few can shoot it like Stephens, and the ones who can aren’t seven feet tall.
-I’ll be on the ground at the Legends of Basketball Showcase in Chicago this weekend! Next week’s feature portion of the column will be focused on that event. I’m excited to see Terquavion Smith and DaRon Holmes II up close!