Big Global Prospects
Updated: Jun 18, 2019
I don’t think the NBA big man has ever been at legitimate risk of becoming extinct. Rather, a certain type of NBA big man with a certain set of skills and motor could become extinct-ish, but even then, there are strange paths to survival and it only takes one front office to roll the dice on a back-to-the-basket big man who’s unwilling or unable to defend with consistency or effort. As I’m writing this and thinking about what this potentially extinct player type looks like, all I can think of is Jahlil Okafor which is both fair and unfair. Fair in the sense that Okafor fits the description. Unfair in that circumstance and informational evolution have expedited the demise of Jahlil and other Jahlils of the world – who we’ll likely see less and less of.
The Drafting with Zion big board which is both definitive and flawed, you won’t see a traditional center until Bruno Fernando at 27. The players who we turn to for rim protection and rebounding include non-traditionals like Zion and Brandon Clarke. Not long ago, a 7-2 youngster with rim protecting capability like Bol Bol, could find himself pigeonholed. And so, in 2019 we have a handful of big man prospects from all over the planet: Canada, Georgia, Angola, Croatia. There are some American-born big men as well, but frankly they fail to inspire. We don’t put down America to lift up the global game, rather this is a natural unfolding of games and game types as two of the four big men we’ll focus on played their college ball in the states and have no doubt been shaped by the game as it’s played in America. Their games may run the gamut of modern types of bigs, but the commonality is that they’re big and they’re from earth.
6’10.25”, 237-pounds, 7’3.25” wingspan, 33.5” max vertical, turns 21 in August, ranked 31st overall by Fenrich:
Bruno Fernando of Maryland by way of Angola is a large, large human that would likely dunk on your whole family which isn’t to put down your family. I know this because I watched him almost complete a tip dunk on the entirety of Michigan State’s basketball team in 2018 and your family is highly unlikely to possess either the size or rebounding ability of the 2017-18 Spartan basketball team.
Familial dunking aside, Fernando is sticking in the draft this summer after testing the waters last year as a freshman and he’s doing so with good reason. Between his freshman and sophomore seasons, this huge young man improved in almost every facet of the game. His per-40-minute rate stats increased almost across the board with his assists more than doubling and his fouls-per-40 dropping significantly. He improved his free throw shooting, free throw rate, assist rate, and true shooting. His usage went down, but his points and assists went up. He became better at being Bruno Fernando which is really all any of us can strive for.
Beyond the stats, there were three areas that popped on film for Fernando’s improvement:
Passing: In Terrapin games I watched this season, Fernando consistently found cutters out of the post or at the elbow. He showed a feel and sense of timing that I don’t recall having seen at all in his first year. This isn’t to suggest he’s the next Vlade Divac, but it does show he’s developing and capable of continuing to develop his basketball IQ and awareness which adds a new dimension to what was a very basic array of skills.
Attacking off the dribble: I don’t necessarily see this as a strength or as a translatable skill, but Fernando flashed moments of versatility attacking slower big men off the dribble. He’s awfully upright when he puts the ball on the floor, but he does exhibit an ability to read a mismatch or read the floor for potential attacking opportunities. I’d expect this part of his game would be limited to practice or the G-League and rarely see the light of day on an NBA court until it is further developed.
Athleticism: Fernando’s athletic testing (33.5” vertical) doesn’t exactly blow one away, but he’s highly functional as an athlete with a quick and high burst bolstered by a 9’2” standing reach. It’s easy to imagine Fernando hanging around the dunker spot and creeping in for quick lobs or attacking the offensive glass.
Fernando seems to be most comfortable with his back-to-the-basket in post-up situations and likes to rely on a little jump hook which has OK touch.
Per stats.nba.com, “48% of his possessions came on post ups … .83 points per possession (53rd percentile.”
I don’t teams spending much time putting him in post-up situations and if they do, I’d like to see him as more of a pass-first option for a second unit.
Defensively, Fernando has the makings of a competent defender. He averaged nearly 2 blocks-per-game as a sophomore; a material improvement from his freshman year while also seeing a significant dip on his foul rate. He’s only listed at 6’10” with shoes on, but he looks and plays bigger. His size and athleticism give him a little added advantage as a rim protector. You hope that some of his development as a defensive decision maker carryover to general defensive awareness; particularly in help situations where the speed of the NBA game vastly exceeds anything Fernando experienced frigid bowels of Big 10 basketball. As an on-the-ball switch defender, it’s hard to see him excelling. In my viewing, his lateral quickness rarely popped.
Fernando can play as is, but the intriguing thing with him will be his ongoing development. Can he make another jump in skill over the next 1-2 years similarly to what he did in his sophomore season at Maryland? If so, he can work himself into an NBA starter, if not, he can still be a rotation or situational play. Fernando is large and his future is still to be written.
6’11”, 251-pounds, 7’2” wingspan, mysterious max vertical, turns 20 in July, ranked 22nd overall by Fenrich:
Scouting European pros is easier than it’s ever been, but compared to NCAA games and the ease of DVR, it still presents challenges – relatively speaking. I rely somewhat on the outside opinions of Draft Twitter and Draft Express to get a feel for which foreign players I need to seek out and Draft Twitter, in particular Mike Gribanov of The Stepien if I recall correctly, were high on Goga. And so I sought out the 19-year-old Georgian who played this past season for Buducnost in the Montenegrin league.
At a first glance, I saw what appeared to be an Enes Kanter clone. At near 7-feet and over 250-pounds, Bitadze is a big, sturdy kid with somewhat heavy feet. Then I started watching and the Kanter comparisons quickly went out the window.
Despite being just 19 and playing against grown men and former NBAers in the Euro League, Bitadze seeks out contact and looks to bang with anyone in proximity. In this regard, he is completely Kanterian. It’s his defense that breaks with the outspoken Turkish rebounding machine. While not quick afoot, Bitadze is willing as a switch defender, happy to drop into a stance and compete against smaller, much quicker ball handlers. This doesn’t mean he always has success, but he doesn’t drop back or shy away from the challenge.
Effort appears to be one of his calling cards. The young Georgian has a high motor and goes balls out. This is most effective contesting shots in both help and man-to-man situations. Bitadze is occasionally overzealous biting fakes and trying to block shots, but his ability to time shots and react is excellent, particularly given his age.
While he isn’t the quickest leaper in terms of raw speed, his timing and length make up for any athletic disadvantages. In 13 Euro League games, he averaged over 2 blocks-per-game in just 24 minutes per and nearly 3.5 per/36.
Maybe it’s my own overinsistence on Kanter comparisons, but in the games I’ve watched Bitadze, his motor, effort, and timing don’t translate nearly as well to rebounding the ball. I haven’t seen enough to determine if he just has a poor nose for the ball or is slow to pursue loose ones, but his strengths that stand out protecting the rim (timing and effort, specifically) don’t seem to carryover to rebounding.
Offensively, I was neither impressed or unimpressed with Bitadze. He seems to have a good feel for floor spacing and intuitively does the little things like screening off help defenders when a teammate is penetrating. In those 13 Euro League games, just 31% from three on 16 total attempts, but his mechanics didn’t appear grossly flawed. He was a 71% free throw shooter on 8 attempts/36. The free throw attempts are a good indication of what I saw as one of his best offensive attributes: Adaptation. Against Madrid stalwart Walter Tavares and former NBA object of affection Anthony Randolph, Bitadze had a couple of shots blocked early on, but started mixing in fakes and counters and drawing fouls. This was a micro-sample, but evidence of an ability to learn and adapt on the fly against NBA-level competition.
Goga doesn’t wow me and I’m not convinced is ceiling is the roof or whatever. He’s a good, smart, and young player who, from an NBA perspective, is getting started with what is already a sound foundation of effort and defensive principles. If he can improve his shot and polish his passing and rebounding, he has the potential to be an average-to-above-average NBA starter.
6’10.25”, 256-pounds, 7’3” wingspan, 35.5” max vertical, turns 22 in August, ranked 40th overall by Fenrich:
I’m kind of torn or confused or something about Kabengele. He’s 6’10” with a 7’3” wingspan and 9’1.5” standing reach. HeHe turns 22 in August, but in 71 career games at Florida State, he never once started. Starting isn’t really indicative of much, but he also only played 21 minutes/game as a sophomore and yet here is landing at the 17th pick in ESPN’s latest mock draft.
What I like about Kabengele is the aforementioned size. He’s a tank with length and good, not great, athleticism. Physically, he’s one of the few guys I’ve seen at least capable of slowing down Zion Williamson. Despite his limited minutes, Kabengele put up 13-points and nearly 6-rebounds per-game which project out to 24 and 11 per/40. And he continued to develop his shooting over his time at FSU: improving his free throw shooting from 66% to 76% on 9 attempts/40. As a redshirt sophomore, he more than doubled his 3-point attempts (from 26 to 65) while only seeing a mild decrease in accuracy (38% to 37%). The improved shooting combined with the athleticism and aggressiveness are things to get excited about and things that, in theory, translate into present-day NBA. It’s easy to envision Kabengele as an NBA 5-man capable of defending fours and fives while spreading the floor on the offensive end. It’s not strange or absurd to see in him an ideal mix two-way versatility. I don’t agree with it, but the pieces are seemingly in place.
Despite turning 22 in August, Kabengele’s age doesn’t bother me much. He took a prep year after high school and then redshirted his first season at FSU so despite his age, he doesn’t have a ton of experience. Additionally, as a player coming off the bench, a portion of his productivity came against second units. FSU coach Leonard Hamilton loves to go deep into his bench and play an aggressive style. Both Hamilton’s deep rotations and aggressive defending likely contributed to Kabengele’s limited minutes. He was prone to foul trouble (4.8 fouls/40), but a wrecking ball protecting the rim (2.8 blocks/40).
Offensively, the main area of concern is his 21 career assists to 83 career turnovers – roughly 1:4 assist-to-turnover ratio which is appalling by any standard.
And this is where Kabengele’s age does start to raise a little red flag: he doesn’t seem to think the game at a high level. The high foul rate and inability (or unwillingness) to see the floor well enough to create for others are one thing for an 18 or 19-year-old. For a player who will be a 22-year-old rookie, he’s getting a late start on the thinking part of the game. In and of itself, this doesn’t disqualify him from a lengthy and productive pro career, but if we think about the players in this year’s NBA Finals, it’s a long list of intelligent players who are capable of reading and reacting to a fast-paced, complex game in the moment. Kabengele is nothing like Jordan Bell in terms of his skillset, but like Bell, he has all the physical to be a player, but without currently exhibiting the requisite basketball intelligence to contribute to winning at a high level. Could he fill a Mareese Speights Warriors role on a championship team someday? Absolutely. Is it likely? Not to me.
6’11”, 227-pounds, 6’10.5” wingspan, 38” max vertical turned 19 in January, ranked 38th overall by Fenrich:
I don’t mind admitting Samanic wasn’t on my radar beyond being just a name prior to the combine in Chicago. In June of last year, Draft Express had him going 15th overall in this current draft. They dropped him to 38th in March and now, after a strong combine, he’s bumped up to 30th.
At just 19, it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that Samanic has skipped around the mock draft boards. Between the Adriatic League and the Slovenian League, he appeared in 35 games, averaging under 20 minutes/game in each league. Neither his volume nor efficiency were overwhelmingly impressive.
Then the combine happened and Samanic impressed both with his athletic testing and his play in the scrimmages.
His 38-inch max vertical was the highest of any player 6-9 or taller and per NBAthlete.com, that placed him in the 97th percentile.
His lane agility time of 11.01 seconds placed him in the 94th percentile. The testing is nice as a standalone metric but needs to be applied to actual basketball to be more than a curio.
While his handle is still developing, he showed confidence in both grab-and-go situations and attacking off the dribble. In Chicago, he appeared willing to do more than he was capable of and I interpret this as a positive sign of an attack mentality rather than playing outside of himself. At just 19, he has time to develop combination dribble moves and learn to better read how and when to attack.
Despite measuring well on his vertical, I didn’t see much explosiveness in the half court or around the rim. He’s willing to bang and doesn’t shy away from contact, but he’s still growing physically and will have to add strength and/or mass to reach his highest levels.
As a shooter, his form from the line and from three are both sound despite the sub-optimal percentages this past season. It’s not too concerning and given his mechanics, I anticipate he’ll mature into a better shooter than what we’ve seen in Europe. As mentioned above, he’s comfortable using the shot fake to put the ball on the floor and attack closeout defenders. In my limited viewing, this has resulted in attacks at the rim without much interest in finding open teammates or seeking out the highest percentage look. Again, not too concerning, but it does reinforce a trend that at present Samanic’s default is primarily to attack and shoot.
Defensively, he competes. Like Bitadze, he shows a willingness to switch onto quicker, smaller opponents, but Samanic has greater lateral quickness and with his size is able to cover ground with broad defensive slides. He does have a negative wingspan and relative to his height, has a shorter standing reach (8-11). Given his lack of beef and length, it’s hard to see him as a plus defender against bigs or on rim protection, but his willingness, competitiveness, and athleticism mean he at least has the tools to not be a total minus on the defensive side.
Basing so much of his overall assessment on a handful of viewings at the combine feels like an overreaction, but it’s likely a better glimpse into his NBA role and how he holds up against consistent athleticism than the Slovenian or Adriatic leagues – though there is plenty of high level competition in the Adriatic. Despite the strong athletic testing, it was his motor and effort that stood out to me. These are the bedrock attributes of winning basketball and if Samanic can continue to work on his body while, like Kabengele, better learning to read the game, he projects out as a potential rotational contributor on a good team or a starter on a not-so-good one.