What Would Masai Do?
While NBA teams draft for the now, Masai Ujiri and the Raptors lay out the blueprint of the future.
Philosophy is one of the central themes of much of the NBA Draft discourse across the World Wide Web. As we opine about the skills we should value most based on the current trends of where the league is, the smarter franchises also project where it’s going.
Many teams struggle at various parts of the draft with choosing between the best player available or the best fit for their roster. But what if this conundrum was made a bit easier by formulating a long-term vision where you tackle this issue by hatching out a plan to build an identity.
Having an NBA identity is not necessarily some new concept. The Heat acquire bad ass mother fuckers, the Cavs hoard 7 footers, and the Lakers collect washed old dudes. In the context of the draft, the most interesting example of identity is what we’re observing in the Great White North.
The draft community let out a collective gasp when Masai Ujiri drafted Scottie Barnes fourth overall in the 2021 draft. Did the Raptors really pass up the guy that led an undefeated Gonzaga team to the National Championship game? The reality of that pick is that Toronto taking Scottie should have been the obvious result as soon as the lottery order was set.
Measuring in at 6’8” 225, to go along with a 7’3” wingspan, Barnes is a physical marvel made for the modern NBA. But more importantly, Barnes was made for the Raptors’ long-term vision.
Valuing long athletic small-ball fours with ball skills isn’t unique to Toronto. Patrick Williams went 4th to Chicago just a year prior to Barnes, Draymond laid the blueprint for small ball in Golden State, and amongst a thousand other examples, there’s going to be a heated bidding war for the services of Jerami Grant and Harrison Barnes in about a week. In a league dominated by big wings, it makes sense to value big wings. But what makes the Raptors draft philosophy unique is that they took the idea of valuing this archetype, cranked that bitch up to eleven, and decided to make a Real Slim Shady factory of position-less jumbo wings.
Following the success of the Masai blueprint has reshaped the way I look at certain prospects and how they may fit into the modern game. Whenever I get stuck on a prospect evaluation I find myself asking more and more “what would Masai do?”
Let’s take a look at some of the most Masai prospects in the class.
Tari Eason, LSU Tigers
If you’re looking for a big, strong, mean, switchable dude with length, it doesn’t get much better than Tari Eason. Sporting a 3.7 STL% and 5.7 BLK%, Eason has been a havoc wreaker for LSU. The versatile wing can stick quicker guards due to his lateral ability and length, but he’s also strong enough to body up and guard stronger forwards. Eason’s ability to switch up or down fits perfectly in modern NBA defensive schemes and his ability to rebound and protect the rim allows you to play small whilst staying big.
On the other side of the ball, Eason has finished everything near the rim. Whether as a play finisher in transition or a downhill driver, Eason uses his strength and underrated handle to finish amongst the trees.
The shot is Eason’s swing skill, but he’s shown intriguing flashes of creating space and connecting off the bounce. The form is a little unorthodox, as Eason loads up high to the right side of his head, but he’s now over 30% on the year and though the sample is small, Eason is at 36% in SEC play. Add in the nearly 80% from the free-throw line on around five attempts a game and there’s reason to buy into Eason being a capable floor spacer down the line.
Eason may be a bit older for a sophomore, and that may cause a bit of hesitation for some, but there’s no denying the massive production and the fit as a modern NBA prototype wing at the next level.
Harrison Ingram, Stanford Cardinal
The elevator pitch for Ingram is that jumbo wings with playmaking chops don’t grow on trees. Squint hard enough and there are times when Ingram even looks like Scottie Barnes lite, initiating offense and making plays out of the pick-and-roll. Ingram won’t blow you away with athleticism, but the Cardinal wing is a master of pace, methodically picking you apart with his skill and IQ. While Ingram does most of his playmaking on-ball at the college level, it’s fun to envision the type of creative sets a coach could use him in at the next level, functioning in the short roll or initiating out of elbow actions.
Ingram isn’t a sniper from behind the arc, but he’s shown enough flashes to keep me intrigued. Teams will initially go under screens at the next level and he’ll have to prove he can make them pay at volume before he gets respect, but a good team that is confident in developing shooters should feel comfortable working with Ingram’s foundation.
What’s preventing Ingram from being in the lotto conversation at the moment is his struggles with efficiency on offense, where his lack of burst and vertical pop hurts his ability to finish effectively at the rim (51% on close 2’s per Barttorvik).
Still, I buy the smooth footwork and soft touch. Ingram won’t be relied upon to be the engine of an NBA offense and he should find more success near the hoop as a second side initiator where he can make quick decision and attack gaps in the defense.
Ingram isn’t quite the disruptive defender of any of the guys on this list, but the playmaking he offers at his size fits perfectly in the league as a modern day connector.
Justin Lewis, Marquette Golden Eagles
Lewis is a guy that’s been a bit under the radar during the draft cycle, but he’s worth paying attention to. Fresh off of a 33 point, 9 rebound, 6 assist performance against Seton Hall, the Marquette wing has really started to heat up in conference play.
It’s easy to see his NBA appeal. Lewis offers the potential combination of size and shooting that every NBA team lusts after. Lewis can spot up and space the floor off the ball, pick and pop, and he’s a powerful downhill driver attacking closeouts. Lewis may not be a high usage on ball creator early on (or ever), but with the luxury of NBA spacing, you’ll be able to throw him into some Miami action to allow him to come off of a DHO where he can use his big ass tree trunk legs to power his way to the rim.
Defensively, Lewis has the frame to switch up and down a lineup. When he gets low and wide, he moves well enough to stay hip to hip with ball handlers, and his strong base allows him to wall up and guard up on more traditional bigs.
There are times where Lewis gets a little too upright in his stance and he needs to work on his close out discipline, but the dude has the tools to be a modern two way player.
Jeremy Sochan, Baylor Bears
You can’t say the name Jeremy Sochan without burning your tongue as of late. Sochan is every bit of the 6’9” 230 he’s listed at and the Baylor wing is looking like a potential lotto guy.
Sochan mostly functions as a play finisher/garbage guy, and at times feels a little invisible playing off of Baylor’s guards; but every now and then he shows you what makes him so intriguing. Sochan will just be chilling for a few possessions and then out of nowhere he’ll bust out a little self creation ability that makes you go “where the fuck did that come from?”
The jumper is a little funky and inconsistent, and the free throw percentage isn’t super encouraging, but Sochan will let it fly when teams sag off. Sochan is ways away from a high volume of off the bounce attempts, but the 36% is enough that teams will close out to him.
When teams do close out to him, Sochan is comfortable getting downhill and attacking. Sochan isn’t a bursty wing, but his size and handle allows him to be patient with the ball in his hands and when teams rotate off his penetration, he’s flashed the ability to make the right reads and make plays for his teammates.
The offense is a work in progress and contains the skeleton of an excellent complimentary piece, but Sochan’s real allure comes on the defensive end. Sochan is big and long enough to guard jumbo wings, while also moving well enough laterally to stick with guards.
Sochan isn’t a quick twitch vertical pop kind of defender, but he’s smart. He positions himself well off the ball and his anticipation allows him to make plays in the passing lanes and as a rim protector.
The deeper you get into Sochan’s tape, the more you find things to like. I can see the shades of what makes a dude like OG Anunoby such a valuable piece of the Raptors identity in Sochan. Ultimately, Sochan may be the most Masai of all of these prospects.
I used this exercise to try and look at some of the prospects that most fit the Raptors blueprint, but I want to emphasize that these are dudes that should fit almost any roster. The Raptors compete nightly now, but what Masai has done is target guys that will fit where the NBA may be going in five years time. It seems strange to picture a league full of five man lineups where everyone is between 6’6” and 6’9”, but teams across the league in 2030 may look more like 2022 Toronto than your more traditional roster construction of yesteryear. What seems like a quirky gimmick today may just prove to be well ahead of the curve. When in doubt while looking at a prospect, just ask yourself…”What would Masai do?”
Excellent piece Corey, I haven’t had much chance to see a couple of these guys ball this season!