24 Jun

In Malik Monk, Michael Jordan Finally Has a Protege In His Own Likeness

Malik Monk

Michael Jordan has been an NBA owner since 2006, when he bought a minority stake in what was then the Charlotte Bobcats. He’s seen some talented, high-scoring guards come through the franchise in that time, including Jason Richardson, Corey Maggette, Ben Gordon and Kemba Walker. He occasionally dishes advice to his players and has even played a few one-on-one.

Before this week, though, Jordan never had the opportunity to mentor someone who plays like him. That changed Thursday night, when the Charlotte Hornets drafted Lepanto native Malik Monk.

Even when Malik Monk was a sophomore in high school, I pointed out he’s the closest thing Arkansas has ever produced to its own M.J. The rest of the nation began catching on in full this past December after his 47-point explosion against Jordan’s alma mater. In that UNC detonation, broadcaster Bill Raftery compared him to M.J. (and Jerry West, to boot).

Monk finished his only season in college as a 20-point scorer with a devastatingly effective midrange jumper. He doesn’t yet have the fadeaway M.J. developed, but his three-point shot (he made nearly 40% of his nearly 7 attempts per game) is already superior. Many speculated he would be drafted by the New York Knicks with the No. 8 pick of this year’s draft. When he dropped out of the Top 10, his college coach John Calipari said he knew he wouldn’t slide past Charlotte at No. 11. “I knew that he wasn’t going to fall by Michael,” Calipari said. “He plays like Mike.”

As talented, explosive, skilled and fundamentally sound as Malik Monk is on the offensive side of the ball, don’t expect him to evoke M.J.’s otherworldly defense any time soon. For starters, at 6-3, he doesn’t have the length of an M.J., who stood 6-6 and had longer arms. And Monk himself has said he needs to learn to give max effort on that side of the ball each time out.

But, then again, Malik Monk just needs to be a good defender—not a great one—to do what the Hornets will need him to do in order to improve their bottom-of-the-barrell 2018 NBA Championship odds according to major sportsbooks.

In Jordan’s era and earlier in the 21st century, NBA rules allowed more physical contact, which allowed defense-first players who couldn’t shoot well (e.g. Dennis Rodman and Ben Wallace) to play major roles on championship teams. The modern NBA, however, allows for far less physical contact and puts a premium on players’  ability to create and make shots. The Golden State Warriors, the modern era’s best team, regularly unleash at least four players on the court at the same time who can not only create for themselves, but others.

This has created an evolved style in which great offense tends to beat good-to-great defense on most days. To beat the Warriors, or the Cavaliers or Spurs for that matter, the Hornets “got to put the ball in the basket. That becomes your defense,” Kenny Smith, Michael Jordan’s college teammate, said on the NBA Draft 2017 broadcast. “If [Monk] learns how to score the same the way he did in college, against taller, bigger, faster players, then he is what they needed.”

We’ll see how rapidly Monk can pick up the intricacies of Charlotte’s offense and get the consistency of defensive effort up to an acceptable level. He, for one, shows no lack of confidence involving anything to do with basketball.

After the draft, Monk gushed about the opportunity to learn from Michael Jordan. “I think he’ll teach me a lot and I’ll take an even bigger step each year. Each year I’m going to try to learn as much as I can from him.”

And if he gets the chance to play M.J. one-on-one?.

“I’m going to beat him,” Monk said with a smile.

All-Time Highest Selected Arkansan Guards* In the NBA Draft 

1.(t) Eddie Miles (North Little Rock): Pick 4, 1964 Draft

1.(t)Mike Conley (Fayetteville): Pick 4, 2007 Draft

2. Ron Brewer (Fort Smith): Pick 7, 1978 Draft

3. (t) Fat Lever (Pine Bluff): Pick 11, 1982 Draft

3. (t) Malik Monk (Lepanto): Pick 11, 2017 Draft

 

*I’m looking at players who primarily played guard in both college and the NBA. Sidney Moncrief and Scottie Pippen both were Top 5 draft picks, but the former played more as a forward in college while the latter played forward in the pros. 

19 Dec

Bill Raftery Compares Malik Monk to Michael Jordan, Jerry West

Malik Monk jumper

During Monk’s 47-point detonation, the longtime CBS announcer didn’t hold back with the praise

 

At the start of the 2016-17 season, Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman assessed Kentucky freshman Malik Monk’s NBA potential. Names like “J.R. Smith” and “Monta Ellis” were thrown out. In the comments, someone chimed in with “DeMar DeRozan” as Monk’s ceiling. Someone else agreed that’s a very good apex.

That ceiling may need to be raised a floor or two after Saturday. At night, in front of a national television audience,  Malik Monk scored 47 points in a thriller against North Carolina. The 6-3 shooting  guard produced the impressive shooting performance from an Arkansas native on a collegiate stage this big that I can recall:

 

 

If anybody thought Monk’s scoring ability or skill was overrated, this performance puts those doubts to bed. He is simply the most talented/electrifying scorer Arkansas has ever produced, and could overtake Joe Johnson as the most skilled. During the game, longtime CBS color commentator Bill Raftery, 73 years old and a college coach in the late 1960s through early 1980s – compared Monk’s first step to that of  Michael Jordan’s. (It’s very likely M.J. has watched this UNC-UK game. I’m sure the Tarheel was disappointed in the ending, but he was probably also glad to see Malik Monk — who was affiliated with Nike throughout the summer circuit — develop as a potential Jumpman representative in the future.)

Raftery also made a point of comparing Monk to the most skilled 6-2/6-3 scorer to ever play in the NBA: Jerry West. Specifically, he said Monk’s ability to “get those puppies aligned*” (i.e. his footwork on the jump shot)  reminded him of West’s.

This comparison is important to keep in mind when assessing where Monk will be drafted. He is only 6-3 and only has a wingspan just short of 6-4, and yes, that is short for a pure  shooting guard. Monk, though, projects to become a combo guard years down the line, in the mold of a Russell Westbrook or C.J. McCollum. Almost all all-time players are “combo” in the sense that their skills exploit  personnel mismatches, even if those mismatches come in the form of bigger, taller players.  Given up a few inches in height and arm span isn’t a death wish if the player is talented/skilled/driven enough to not only push through that deficit, but dominate despite of it.

Hakeem Olajuwon, at just over 6-9, is a case in point. He never seemed undersized against the giants of his day, though, because he almost always had the advantage in every other intangible and tangible you would want. Same goes with Steph Curry today at 6-2/6-3, who often has a strength and foot speed disadvantage. While in the 1960s, Curry’s height was more in line with the standard for a shooting guard, Jerry West still would have been a dominant scorer even if had he been a couple inches shorter.

In the pros, Malik Monk can do the same even as an undersized “scoring” guard.

His 47-point first-semester magnum opus hints at that more strongly than anything else. NBA executives are taking notice. In the last few weeks, Monk has more often appeared as a projected pick in the upper half of the 2017 NBA lottery. And, after the UNC win, ESPN’s Jeff Goodman reported an NBA executive can see him going No. 1 overall in the 2017 NBA Draft.**

 

*Credit to Marcus Monk, Malik’s older brother, for so consistently drilling him on the fundamentals over these last few years. 

**Monk would be the third Arkansan to be selected No. 1 overall in an NBA Draft. 

 

 

17 Jun

Scottie Pippen, Charles Oakley Agree ’96 Bulls Would Make Kebab Of Warriors

pippen

Arkansas native Scottie Pippen, Alabama native Charles Barkley and Ohioan Charles Oakley have a long history of disagreement. Oakley and Barkley have seemingly never gotten along, with perhaps the worst of it coming in 1999 around the time of a lockout. Oakley, then a free agent, claimed he power-slapped  Barkley, then heavily involved in the players’  union, in the face — during a meeting. “I’m fed up with him, ” Oakley later said. “I told him you need to change your name. I’m the only Charles.”

This was coming off Oakley’s decade-long stint as a key player for the Knicks, a perennial playoff opponent of the mighty Bulls, which featured Pippen and Michael Jordan. Yet even when Pippen and Oakley were Bulls teammates in the late 1980s, Oakley was still slapping the mess out of him.

Check this evidence from the Pippen’s rookie season in 1987-88:

At last, though, these three can agree on something: the best team of the 1990s was a helluva lot better than the best team of this decade. The debate of whether the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls or 2015-16 Golden State Warriors are better has been raging all season long, with Charles Barkley wading in early. “That Bulls team would kill this little team,” Barkley said in December.

Pippin got into the action a few months later, opining that if the ’96 Bulls were matched up with the ’16 Warriors in a seven-game series he and Jordan would cause severe problems for the Warriors’ gunners with their length and quickness.  Enough problems to sweep the Dubs.

Finally, Oakley joined into the fray yesterday on The Mike & Mike Show. He gave his take on the NBA Finals between Cleveland and Golden State and upcoming Game 6, in which Cleveland is a slight favorite according to William Hill. Then Oakley was reminded of Pippen’s take and asked for his own on the same question.

I think Scottie might be right,” Oakley said.  “They were too long, they had some great guys back then and like I said, to play in my era, you had to be a student of the game. I don’t see that no more. I see guys  out there just playing basketball and doing individual stuff, not team chemistry. Golden State is pretty fine playing together as far as guys knowing who should get the ball, who shouldn’t get the ball.”

“I think the Bulls, there was Scottie, Michael, Ron Harper, Horace, everybody just knowing that whatever they do, they got to shut down scorers. I think they’ll really trap guys, they’ll work guys with the ball coming up the court, and I don’t think [the Warriors] will have the legs by the time the fourth quarter comes — because they having to be really, really strong individuals.

I think some of them are, but I think that being smart, like I said the Bulls wouldn’t be winning six, seven, eight years if they wasn’t that smart of a team. They had to go through a lot with other teams and on the court and they found a way to win.”

I can see why Oakley would reflexively think more highly of his own generation, but I don’t agree with his reasoning. The NBA is more team-oriented and complex now than it was 20 years ago. The elimination of the illegal defense rule has created a domino effect which has allowed teams to deploy complex and sophisticated zone and hybrid defenses. Those, in turn, have inspired the evolution of more intricate and fluid offenses, like the one which the Warriors employ as they hunt for a dynasty of their own.

13 May

Ruminations on Joe Johnson and Failure

Little Rock native Joe Johnson isn’t quite the superstar we wanted him to be.

For these last few painful springs, I wanted Joe Johnson to be Michael Jordan.

At times, it seemed like he was off to a pretty good start – better than most of us. The man has started in an All-Star game.  He has thrown up multiple 30 point+ games in the playoffs, and even cracked the 25 ppg average in 2007.  He’d steadily improved in each of the six seasons before that.

All Joe had to do was keep improving, just a little bit per year, and by now he would have even eclipsed M.J.

But Joe didn’t keep improving. In fact, his production has just as steadily tailed off in the last five years. And while he’s still been good enough to be a six-time All-Star, he’s also been widely disparaged for not playing like a 12-time All-NBAer.

This was never more evident than on Thursday night in Boston.  All Joe had to do was channel a little M.J., and the Hawks would be on their way back to Atlanta for Game 7 with all the momentum in the world on their side. A win there and the next opponent, Philadelphia, would present the Johnson-era Hawk’s best opportunity yet to make the Eastern Conference Finals.

For the most part, Joe spread the ball around in the close-fought fourth quarter. He allowed young guns Josh Smith, Al Horford and Jeff Teague to take the lion’s share of the shots that brought the Hawks back. Still, Joe had his chances. He missed a six-foot hook shot with 6:18 left; with a minute left, the Hawks clinging to a one-point lead, he crossed up seven-footer Ryan Hollins and fired up the kind of long jumper with which M.J. made a living plunging through the heart of opponents. It clanged off the back of the rim.

Joe had another chance to get his superstar on with a little more than nine seconds to go,  his team down 81-79. From the wing, he crossed up Paul Pierce and sort of blew by him. But there wasn’t much separation. And as Johnson tried to explode to the basket,  to flush the ball home or at least draw a foul,  he simply could not get his Jumpman sneakers high enough off the ground.

Pierce swatted the ball out of bounds, and Joe wouldn’t have another chance to redeem himself as the last few seconds of the Hawks’ season ticked away.

It kills me that my high school classmate can’t help get his Hawks over the hump, that his legacy is slowly becoming defined by coming up short. That he’ll soon be 31 years old, and if hasn’t been M.J. for a spring by now, he probably never will.

But, really, none of us get to taste what it’s like to be the best in the world at what we do. We may try our very best for years, but at some point reality swallows up that dream and leaves us with an irksome, possibly painful, realization that our future is limited. Granted – none of us will be paid like a Joe Johnson relative to our chosen profession. But deep down inside, we know he represents the absolute ceiling on the kind of success we can realistically aspire to.

There shouldn’t be shame in failing to channel Jordan. In fact, I now realize that shouldn’t even be the goal. If it’s a title Joe wants, then it’s the right mix of teammates he needs. As he figures out where and how he wants his career to end, he should aim to be the next Paul Pierce.