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Xavier Cooks is League Approved
Plus some #NBLxNBA history and a mailbag.
“He’s an outside shot away from being in the NBA.”
It’s week one of the newsletter and I’m already out to bust one of my most hated agendas while simultaneously combining another, adjacent agenda I’ve been formulating for the better part of twelve months.
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Xavier Cooks is absolutely an NBA player and I’m absolutely sick and tired of hearing how he needs to develop a consistent three point shot to show teams in the Association his value.
The reigning Finals MVP, early (this season) MVP frontrunner and perennial DPOY candidate has started the 2022-23 NBL campaign with a proverbial, and literal, bang.
Sidenote, that is very large human and former Duke Blue Devil Isaac Humphries that Cooks detonated on, but I digress.
In the Sydney Kings opening three games of the new season, Cooks has averaged over 23 points a game to go along with 8 rebounds and 2.3 assists. He’s shooting over 62% from the field and over 55% from three (on 3 attempts a game no less).
Is that sustainable? No, probably not, especially for a guy who’s career NBL 3P% is hovering in the high 20s, but that isn’t really the point here.
I think the argument to players needing to develop consistent outside shots has some merit but only in circumstances where they don’t have a clearly defined role on the team, or if their main strengths aren’t so differential that they demand playing time regardless of their offensive deficiencies.
Cooks doesn’t really fit either category there in my opinion.
Examining Cooks in the lens of the NBL, he’s obviously one of the best players in the league straight off the bat. As I mentioned above, he’s the reigning Finals MVP, leading the Kings to their first title since 2005 (although you are free to speculate whether Cooks wins the FMVP if regular season MVP Jaylen Adams doesn’t hurt his hamstring late in the Game 1 win).
Cooks is a two way force in the NBL without having a consistent three point shot. At 6’8” with long arms and genuine burst athleticism (see dunk above), he has the tools and smarts to wreak havoc on the defensive end, as well as the rare ability to “rip and run” by grabbing rebounds off the defensive glass and pushing in transition as a one man fastbreak. Not many players can average nearly 10 rebounds a game over a season in a 40 minute game, especially when they aren’t the centre.
On that fastbreak ability, Cooks is so much more than a raw athlete. He has the burst to get into the paint and then finish with an array of floaters, runners and, in some instances, poster dunks. But he also maintains a savvy passing ability and has a knack for hitting shooters in transition.
In a halfcourt setting Cooks’ role pivots into a screener, roll man, driver, diver, and occasional corner spot up man. A lot of the Kings offense revolves around pick and rolls with Cooks as the roll man, getting him the ball at the top of the key in drop coverage against an athletic mismatch in an opposing, slow-footed power forward. From there, Cooks has the freedom to attack with his bevy of spins, Eurosteps and janky one legged push shots, and if the defence collapses around him, which is often the case, he has the vision to kick out to a shooter or dump off to a cutter.
To me, the discourse around “developing an outside shot” ignores some of the fundamentals of winning basketball. Why do you want to force a questionable shooter into an area of the game that pales his impact? At his prime, Josh Smith was one of the most devastating, rim-running athletic four-men in the NBA, and yet I had to sit and watch him hoist up countless threes for my Pistons, and it was no fun.
The caveat is that if Cooks actually does maintain a respectable three point percentage and volume, all bets are off, and his projection turns from NBA minor role player to possible impact man.
Does Cooks’ role in the NBA project the same as how this Kings team uses him? No, of course not. You can point to the improvements in the NBL and the increased respect it has garnered worldwide, but parachuting in its best players into starring roles in the NBA is asinine and no one realistically thinks that will happen (Josh Giddey does not count before someone questions me).
Remember my adjacent agenda I alluded to at the start? Well, anyone who knows me knows that one of my favourite players in the NBA is Utah Jazz forward Jarred Vanderbilt. An offensive nuff, his entire role is being an athletic cyborg, playing elite defence and cleaning the glass.
The only plays coaches run on offense for Vanderbilt are missed shots off his teammates, because he is an offensive rebounding demon with absolutely zero shooting ability. He carved out a quality role for himself on a playoff team last year in Minnesota by just being that token “hustle man” and being an absolute menace.
The flipside of that is, as a four man himself, you need specific lineups for Vanderbilt to be effective, and Minnesota just so happened to have maybe the best shooting big man in NBA history in Karl-Anthony Towns at the five, so Vanderbilt could still be effective without being clogged by a traditional centre, but he isn’t obviously the player to revolve an entire lineup around. It’s going to be interesting to see what role he gets on a significantly worse Utah team, although Kelly Olynyk is at least a centre that can shoot, if nothing else.
Xavier Cooks with an outside jumper is absolutely an NBA player. Xavier Cooks without an outside jumper can be a pretty effective player in the league in his own right. He just needs that chance.
A lot has been written about the Adelaide 36ers win over the Phoenix Suns, and I don’t have much to add here, but this is just the natural progression the league has taken over the last few years.
An underrated impact of the NBL Next Star program and its subsequent capture of LaMelo Ball, besides the eyes it drew to the league, was the calibre of import player it attracted as well. The league leveraged the attention into being able to attract guys like Antonius Cleveland, Robert Franks and Craig Randall II.
There were genuine fears that at least one of those guys wouldn’t even make it on the plane back to Australia, with NBA teams reportedly sniffing around Randall II and the standard nature of NBL contracts having NBA-out clauses.
Thankfully for Adelaide and the wider league, they all stayed, for now, and Adelaide are poised for an assault on the league.
NBL Preview Pod
I realise it’s a couple of weeks old now but I don’t think the takes have aged badly and Adelaide still haven’t played a league game, but I sat down with Michael Houben from the Pick and Roll to preview #NBL23. Check it out below.
Mailbag is back, and this week we actually have a few questions, not the standard one. Let’s go.
Maybe my answer would change if the Pistons weren’t projected to suck again, but I honestly don’t think so. I liked the change to equalise the top three and even out the top five so you weren’t guaranteed a top 3-5 pick simply by losing a lot, a scourge the league recognised.
The point of flattening the odds is to try and de-incentivise the outward tanking that takes over the league later in the season as the clear have-nots jockey for ping pong ball position, but it’s important to strike that balance between also allowing the bad teams a legitimate avenue back to contention.
We hear so much about “flyover cities” and “big markets” that I wonder if inhibiting a smaller team’s path to contention ensures more perpetually mediocre franchises with no end goal.
Or this was all a smokescreen to get Wembanyama to the Bulls and I’ve just wasted my time.
Speaking of Wembanyama…
My god, those highlights, it was absolute peak 2K create-a-player-with-the-sliders-turned-up nonsense. The length, the fluidity of movement, the shooting touch, the recovery athleticism, just a bonkers prospect all round. I’ve seen people calling Wemby the best prospect they’ve seen in their lifetime, INCLUDING LEBRON. And…it isn’t ridiculous?
Anyway, the race to the bottom figures to be the most intense in years after Wembanyama’s showing in preseason gave NBA scouts and GMs a collective erection. But does he influence betting lines?
At a guess…not really?
The Pistons, Thunder, Rockets, Magic, Spurs, Jazz and Pacers are the teams with win projections below 30 (according to Sportsbet anyway). To me, those aren’t the interesting win totals, because we kind of know those teams will suck, and suck openly, to try and get Wembanyama.
I think the more interesting lines are the ones in the 30-40 win range, and there’s two I want to point out in Charlotte and New York.
Charlotte (35.5) have been through a lot this summer with the unsavoury Miles Bridges situation. From a basketball standpoint, that’s close to 20 points a game they’ve lost and not really replaced in any way. LaMelo Ball is in line to take a leap, but they spent their draft capital this year on a young centre who’ll back up Mason Plumlee.
Add to that, Gordon Hayward, while effective, is now 32 and coming off another disrupted season, Kelly Oubre is still a volatile player, PJ Washington is solid if unspectacular, and Terry Rozier is Terry Rozier. The big wildcard in all of this is previous lottery pick James Bouknight, but he has not shown anything to warrant me leaping to take the Hornets overs. They seem like a team who can very easily start 5-15 and just never recover, and unofficially enter the Wemby stakes.
New York (38.5) had a very down year last year after surging to a #4 seed the year before off the back of a surprise MIP year from Julius Randle. Add to that Jalen Brunson, recently-extended RJ Barrett and a surplus of quality young role guys like Immanuel Quickley, Quentin Grimes and Mitchell Robinson, and this team could very easily shoot past that projection.
Do I think New York will ever be bad enough this year to seriously entertain a full tank? No I don’t. Brunson will win you enough games on his own, as will Randle. The problem with New York is whether Randle is the guy he was in 20-21 and not last year, and whether they recognise their best player is RJ Barrett quickly enough.
If both of those things happen, New York should go well over that 38.5 but it’s a big if.
One last team I did want to highlight is Washington (35.5). If there was ever a team sitting on a ticking time bomb it’s these guys.
Bradley Beal hasn’t played more than 60 games since 18-19, Kristaps Porzingis hasn’t played 60+ since 16-17 and Rui Hachimura hasn’t eclipsed that mark in any of his first three seasons. As good as Kyle Kuzma is, and as interesting as some of the Wizards supporting cast are (I really like Daniel Gafford and Deni Avdija), that team cannot sustain a decent win pace if those guys all play their projected games totals.
Some of the Wizards moves recently have indicated a lean to the now for winning, but I’d be inclined to take their unders and bank on normal rest patterns as their season slips away.
Or all these teams prove me horribly wrong, let’s find out in six months.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, footage has emerged of Draymond Green giving Jordan Poole the ol’ left-right-goodnight in Warriors practice.
I feel like Ben Simmons is the obvious answer here, no? Anyway, my top five with no thought would be:
Michael Porter Jr
Logic is as follows. Simmons and Towns can get a bit mopey, so wake them up, Porter Jr to rattle some of the shot selection issues out of his head, Herro in the same vein as Poole, wake up the scorer inside, and Grayson Allen because imagine him as a full heel with backstory.
I also considered Jonathan Isaac but he hasn’t played since the bubble so I didn’t want to break him again.
I don’t think it’ll affect them in the regular season too much. I think we as outsiders overrate how much players actually care about organisational drama that doesn’t affect them on the court. What you have to remember is a lot of these guys have gone through coaching change in their careers. Hell, Boston themselves transitioned from Brad Stevens this time last year. To them this is just another face on the sidelines.
Joe Mazzulla has been a Celtics assistant since 2019 so the transition shouldn’t be too fierce. I imagine the system will remain unchanged. The challenge will be in the playoffs, where scheme becomes less important and you’re judged on your ability to adjust on the fly, something I thought Ime Udoka did a great job of as the playoffs wore on last year.
I still think Boston will be up there in the East, but there may be a cap on their immediate ceiling regarding true contention. Then again, if Brown and Tatum play as expected it might not make any difference at all.
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