Cross-Country Workout Swing: Part Two, Abunassar Impact Basketball

Cross-Country Workout Swing: Part Two, Abunassar Impact Basketball
May 20, 2008, 01:39 am
After a day and a half in Bradenton, we flew cross-country to Las Vegas to take in two full days of workouts and extensive 3 on 3 games featuring no less than 28 players preparing for the NBA Draft. Some of the prospects here included Joe Alexander, Marreese Speights, J.J. Hickson, Richard Hendrix, Malik Hairston, Giorgi Shermadini, James Mays, Marcus Dove, Alonzo Gee, Quan Prowell, Rudy Mbemba, Deron Washington, Aleks Maric, Mickell Gladness, Bruce Price, Longar Longar and Mykal Riley. Also present and working out were current NBA players Aaron Gray, Cedric Simmons and Patrick O’Bryant.

The first day was mostly about shooting drills and physical training (weight lifting and such)—with the players quickly zipping on and off the court and the trainers very efficiently ensuring that they get up as many shots up as humanly possible. The second day was slightly more interesting for us—two full hours of three on three half-court games being played on both end of the court.

The afternoon concluded with a phenomenally entertaining make-shift dunk contest between Joe Alexander and Deron Washington Since there were a lot of players on hand to evaluate, we’ll get right to it, but unfortunately won’t able to write about everyone.

Player Evaluations

Joe Alexander

Alexander came into his morning workout with a great reputation, as everyone we spoke with that had been working with him over the past week could not stop raving about how well he had been responding to them thus far. “A fierce worker,” Joe Abunassar told us. “He’s an animal in the weight room,” strength trainer Tony Falce told us. “He’s worked non-stop for every minute since the second he got here.” One after one, each of the trainers filtered over to our direction to share a story about their favorite pupil. And indeed, physically he’s extremely impressive, quick off his feet, agile, with a great frame, and big hands. “He has great strength, balance, and power” Abunassar told us. Alexander looks like he’s in incredible shape, having finished off the grueling shooting session much stronger than he started, and looking like he could easily have gone for another hour.

Any question about just how freakishly athletic he is vertically were answered as we watched him perform a series of highlight reel caliber dunks as the day of workouts came to a close—360s, off the backboard, windmills, the Vince Carter “honey-dip“/elbow inside the rim, between the legs, taking off from a step inside the free throw line, he visibly wowed each and every one of the players on the sidelines with his antics. Just for good measure, he finished off by jogging lightly towards the basket, jumping off two feet and viciously head-butting the rim, as you can see in the photo.

Ironically, Alexander started off his first workout quite unimpressively actually, looking very streaky from outside. As he went on, though, he found his rhythm, looking excellent from mid-range and showing off terrific form on what appears to be his go-to move—a one-dribble crossover pull-up jumper from about 18 feet. He gets terrific separation off the ground to create space from his imaginary defender, which, coupled with his extremely high release point, will make this shot very hard to stop in one on one isolation situations. He attacked every drill with the same balls to the wall aggressiveness you would expect from the reputation he’s earned here and in college as a phenomenal worker, and this, combined with his terrific athleticism and seemingly very high character should make him somewhat of a hit on the NBA private workout trail. We walked out of his first day workout being much higher on him than we were before we came in. “He shoots the ball very well, is quick and explosive off the dribble,” his trainer Joe Abunassar said. “He’s dangerous both inside and out.”

That impression did not lessen from what we saw during the competitive three on three games in the second day. His combination of quickness, explosiveness and intensity made him extremely difficult to contain, even if his rawness in the half-court was definitely evident, and the level of competition left something to be desired. Alexander still has considerable work to do on his ball-handling skills, shooting range, footwork, balance and overall technique if he’s to reach his extremely high ceiling as a player. The ball seems to slow him down and he looks a bit out of control with his dribble by the time he reaches the rim on his slashing moves. His mid-range pull-up jumper is not the most refined you’ll find, as he’s somewhat off-balance as he elevates—but he’s so athletic that he is able to recalibrate himself in the air as he reaches the apex of his jump. There are also concerns from what we could see here about his lateral movement on the perimeter defensively as he makes the transition to playing the small forward position fill time.

With that said, we need to keep in mind that he’s only been playing organized basketball for about five years now, which means that his learning curve is still pretty steep as far as NBA talent-evaluators are concerned. That is certainly a good thing when you begin to project where he’ll be a few years down the road, especially when you take his work ethic into consideration. Before we started our workout swing, we reeled off a couple of names of the players we’ll be seeing on our various stops to an NBA Director of Scouting. “Right now he’s probably somewhere in the early 20’s on most teams boards, but he’s going to be one of the fastest risers in this draft,“ the executive predicted. We like to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism as we make the rounds around the country, keeping in mind the very loose and informal nature of the workouts we’ll be watching. But Alexander is definitely someone who left a very strong impression on us. Keep an eye out for a transcript of the interview we conducted with him over the next day or two.

Marreese Speights

More than any other player, Marreese Speights’ write-up needs to be separated into two sections: the drills, and the competitive three on three setting.

We walked away from the first day shaking our head at what we witnessed—a 6-10, 20-year old power forward who is about as skilled a big man facing the basket as you will find in this draft. “He’s really more skilled than anyone knows,“ Joe Abunassar told us. The first thing you notice is how fundamentally sound Speights’ shooting mechanics are. He’s got a natural, flawless stroke, showing small-forward like elevation creating separation from his defender, a high release point, excellent body control on his fade-aways, great technique squaring his shoulders and his hips simultaneously in perfect unison—and not surprisingly, getting unbelievable results in the process. He operates strictly on the balls of his feet as he catches and fires away, draining shot after shot from 16-18 feet with machine-like efficiency, and then proceeding to step-away and knock down college and even NBA 3-pointers with impressive accuracy as well.

In the post, he has a beautiful hook-shot and an even prettier turn-around jumper, to go along with great hands, length and size for his position and excellent agility finishing around the hoop. On top of that, there was nothing resembling any of the problems Speights had with his conditioning back at Florida, as he’s looking to be in phenomenal shape and had no problem at all finishing up his workout in very strong fashion. “He has really has worked on his body and conditioning,” Abunassar told us. Needless to say, we came away almost floored at what we saw—telling basically anyone that would listen that we’re talking about a starting NBA power forward any day of the week.

Alas, workouts can be somewhat of fool’s gold at times—something we need to constantly remind ourselves as we continue to make the rounds. What we saw during the second day probably brought us back to the proper proportions, for his sake, and ours as well. Speights seemed to fall in love with his jump-shot way too much for our personal liking, spending virtually the entire two hours behind the 3-point line and rarely if ever going inside to make his presence felt.

We need to keep in mind that this was a very informal setting where the players were more interested for the most part in having fun than winning at all costs, but it was still hard not to be bothered at times by his shot-selection and extremely poor defensive (and overall) intensity. When he did decide to focus and take things seriously, again we saw the flashes of talent that made many people think he’s a lottery pick in the making, putting the ball on the deck and finishing a play with a running one-handed floater, taking an offensive rebound, dribbling backwards and draining an incredibly difficult contested 19-foot turnaround jumper while being fouled, or spotting up effortlessly and knocking down an NBA 3-pointer. He has more potential as a two-dribble slasher taking his man off the bounce from the high post than we were able to see at Florida, something that could serve to be a great weapon for him in the pros considering the superior spacing he’ll enjoy in the NBA.

All in all, we still feel pretty strongly about the fact that if Speights is somehow able to harness all the talent he shows and put it all together over the next few years, he will be looked back at as a player that clearly should have been drafted in the lottery. With that said, we can see why he isn’t there right now considering what we saw and know from the rumblings about his overall approach to the game, as opposed to his talent. What we want to know is: how bad could his work ethic be if he went from barely being considered a top-50 high school recruit to one of the most skilled big men in the draft and a potential lottery pick in the span of just two years? Like so many players in this whacky draft, though, he’s incredibly young, incredibly talented, and still has a great deal of time to pan out in a huge way and reward the team that decides to “take a chance on him.” That just goes to show you how difficult a job NBA teams have…especially in this case.

J.J. Hickson

Considering that he didn’t play in the three on three portion of the workouts in day two, there was really only so much we can say about what we saw here in the shooting drills. His bread and butter will always be the work he does with his back to the basket around the paint, so trying to judge him off his perimeter shooting doesn’t do him a lot of justice. Hickson is not at the same level conditioning wise as his workout partners Joe Alexander and Marreese Speights, but he looked extremely focused and resolute on executing everything he’s been taught by the people here. His length and athleticism are clearly terrific, and he looked very good using the glass to finish around the rim and even stepping out and knocking down shots out to 17 or 18 feet. He has a tendency to fade away excessively and sports an inconsistent release point, but his touch isn’t bad and it seems like he shouldn’t have a problem developing an effective mid-range game if he can clean up his shooting mechanics.

Joe Abunassar’s take: “Powerful and explosive with great size. Skilled both facing and on the block. Reminds me of a young Al Harrington the way he can take bigger players out on the floor and face up and out-quick them, then bury smaller players with his strength in the post. Also working really hard on his conditioning and body and has trimmed up quite a bit. “

Malik Hairston

We’ve been a little bit down on Hairston over the past few years, partially due to the incredible expectations that were put on his shoulders after being ranked as one of the top high school players in one of the best high school classes of all time—something that really isn’t his fault when you think about it.

He looks very good out here in Vegas, both skill-wise and in terms of his conditioning. Hairston has always sported a little bit of baby fat since his days as a prep-star, and he seems to have shed a good amount of weight since he started working out here—which definitely helps his cause.

Hairston was very consistent in the shooting drills, showing the same exact mechanics on every attempt and getting his jumper off with a fairly quick release as well, albeit very little elevation. He saw good results both in the drills as well as in the competitive part of the workout, particularly from college range. His overall feel for the game is much better than we initially gave him credit for—he looks like a very natural talent and was able to dominate almost every game he played in, playing very aggressively and taking the ball to the basket extremely well.

What Hairston needs to work on to stick in the NBA is most likely finding his bread and butter that he can hang his hat on when he comes into a game. He’s a good, but not great athlete (although he’s much improved), has good, but not great ball-handling skills, plays good, but not great defense, is just decent with his pull-up jumper, and definitely needs to improve his overall mid-range game. He can really dominate offensively in a setting like this thanks to his excellent strength, but will need to continue to work on his all-around polish to be able to translate that to an NBA environment as well. There were times when he got to the rim and had a difficult time finishing, either because of his average handle or over-exuberance driving into traffic.

With that said, Hairston is extremely young for his class (he’s still only 21) and is certainly not a finished product at this point. He looks to have an excellent attitude and seems like a very intelligent person off the court, which is obviously a big plus. That, combined with his scoring instincts and overall feel for the game will certainly bode well for his future, and gives him a great framework to build upon over the next few years—which will ultimately decide how his career pans out. We’re definitely looking forward to seeing how he plays in the NBA pre-draft camp.

Joe Abunassar’s take: “Very solid player who does a lot of things well. Shoots the ball very well and has been with us for almost 6 weeks now, so has made huge strides with his body and conditioning and speed as well as improved his ability to create his own shot off the dribble. Very smart player who knows how to play and makes everyone around him better. Strong and has really improved his quickness and first step.”

Richard Hendrix

The shooting drills were definitely not the place to evaluate Hendrix as a prospect—he’s a five on five player on the way, and the poor point guard play he suffered from in many of the three on three games he participated in didn’t really do him any favors either—meaning we’ll definitely have to wait until the pre-draft camp to get a better read than we were able to during the regular season.

Hendrix’s shooting stroke is nothing to write home about—he has a bit of a hitch and seems to fling the ball at the basket on his way down as well. We did like what we saw physically, though—he has tree trunks for legs, a great frame, and surely has been putting in significant time in on his body. He is down about 3% on his body fat to 9% since he finished school, and weighs in at a chiseled 253 pounds now, with the goal being to get down to 245 eventually. Talking to him, he seems very aware of his situation and is very focused on getting as much as he can out of his body quickness and agility-wise. He didn’t seem to play all that much in the competitive three on threes during the last day, preferring to take a step back and let the more enthusiastic guys here have their fun. He knocked down a few 15-foot jumpers, struggled a bit to get his shot off in the post, and played fairly average defense, like most players here. He needs to have a strong outing in Orlando to show that his Carlos Boozer-esqe college numbers can translate over to the next level.

Giorgi Shermadini

Shermadini didn’t leave all that great of an impression in the first day we saw him—he seemed to have an off-day shooting, and is never going to wow you on first glance with his body or athleticism.

In the second day, though, the 19-year Georgian definitely showed a lot more. Despite only playing basketball for three years now reportedly, he seems to have very nice skills on the offensive end—taking over at times and almost being dominant on this end of the floor. He can play both facing or with his back to the basket, displaying a very high skill-level that could only come from putting a great deal of time in the gym. In the paint he has some fairly decent footwork, including a nice drop-step, some solid pivot moves, a pretty swooping hook-shot, the ability to turn to either shoulder, and good instincts using fakes and baiting his man off his feet. He can finish with either hand, has very good touch, and seems to have a pretty good feel for putting the ball in the net.

On the perimeter, Shermadini has a very effective jumper with range out to the 3-point line that he gets off with a very high release point. He ran a lot of pick and pop plays and got very good results, not hesitating in the least bit to take charge and aggressively make his presence felt. He moves off the ball well and has pretty good hands catching the ball on the move off pick and roll plays, and the coordination to not look too bad doing so. He also used jab-steps effectively from the top of the key, and took his man off the dribble with a slow developing first step.

Shermadini’s shortcomings mostly lie in his below average athletic ability, which will make it difficult for him to be much of a factor on the defensive end in particular. He isn’t quick enough getting out on the perimeter to close out on open shooters. His average frame makes it difficult for him to establish very good position in the post, and he’s not the most explosive guy around in terms of finishing around the rim or getting up to contest shots. While his ability to guard in space and cover ground may be limited, Shermadini does have a chance to improve the strength of his base. A stronger base will help him to hold his ground in the post against thicker, stronger opponents.
Shermadini isn’t getting any breaks whatsoever from the mostly collegiate players around him. He was getting fouled hard time after time every time he took it strong to the basket, but had no problem bouncing back and getting right back to work as if nothing happened. That’s something you have to respect, as even though he’s not the most physically imposing player around, he doesn’t look soft either.

We’ve watched footage of Shermadini in the incredibly poor level of competition he plays in in the Republic of Georgia—this was obviously 100% more informative than anything we saw there. He’s listed as being a very young player at the age of 19 (although not every NBA scout we talked to about this is so sure), so time is definitely on his side here if that’s indeed the case. His problem is that very little is known about his background and how he compares with other players in this draft in real five on five games. We’re interested to see how he looks at the NBA pre-draft camp next week (if he plays) and the Reebok Eurocamp in Treviso in a few weeks. We’re somewhat skeptical by nature about evaluating players in a setting like this—but there were definitely some things to be intrigued by. This was not just our opinion only. We had the chance to watch Shermadini in a private workout attended by Mavericks guard Jason Terry and run by Ivorie Manning. 20 minutes into the workout, Terry was noticeably impressed. By the end of the session he had nothing but glowing things to say about the young big man’s performance

Joe Abunassar’s take: “Very skilled big man in the mold of a lot or Europeans. Has added 15 lbs of muscle since arriving. Runs well and shoots very well. Continues to improve every day, tough, hard worker. Faces the basket very well and with the added strength now has the ability to use his post moves inside by maintaining position.”

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