This is the first of my 2009 draft analysis threads, giving a detailed breakdown of players who may be available at or near the Pacers draft slot at #13.
I begin this series today with a look at the national champion point guard from North Carolina, Ty Lawson. Lawson is a player who it was rumored was highly thought of last draft season by the Pacers front office, before pulling out of the draft because of a DUI charge. Lawson rebounded from that mistake by being the central driving force to lead his Tar Heels to a national championship last march.
And make no mistake, Lawson did LEAD them to the title. It is remarkable really on film when you look at how dominant UNC was with him on the floor, and how much of a dropoff they experienced when he was either on the bench or injured. Lawson was clearly the most valuable player on a very talented roster coached by the affable Roy Williams.
Like most players in this draft not named Blake Griffin, Lawson has some very specific strengths and some glaring question marks and weaknesses that need to be thought about strongly. Whatever team/coach/system Lawson ends up in will likely play a determining factor in his long term NBA success.
Lawson's strengths are numerous. The most standout thing to see on film is just his outstanding straightline quickness with the basketball. His game was a perfect marriage with the high octane system played at UNC, where their famous running game was fueled by Lawson's ability to just fly up court with the basketball, getting UNC into scoring position quickly. Teams at the college level usually didn't dare to attempt to try to pressure Lawson at all, fearing his amazing speed dribble. I think many teams may have been remiss in not trying full court pressure against him, because Lawson doesn't show a great deal of "wiggle" in his dribble, although since he was rarely pressured, he really had no need to. Even when some teams did attempt to rattle him with backcourt pressure, he basically was so much quicker than his opponents at the college level that he was able to manuever through them.
His breakneck speed getting up the floor with the dribble is interesting to think about, because it isn't clear to me that that is a skill that will always translate to the NBA. It would be useless to get the ball up that quickly for instance, if none of your teammates bother to run with you. You would have to wonder about Lawson in a half court controlled type system, as that style would clearly hinder him and not be a good fit for his best skill. It is also not clear how in the course of an 82 game schedule how much of this particular talent would simply fade away due to fatigue and extra minutes.
Unlike many players in this draft, Lawson is a true point guard with a pass first mentality. He clearly would rather drive and pass the ball to someone else that be forced to finish a play himself. However, at the college level he was able to score in traffic, but again, whether he can do that in the NBA would be a question mark due to his lack of ideal size. One thing in his favor that I really like is that I thought Lawson showed really good strength and balance after contact, showing good upperbody coordination and toughness when bumped on a drive, even while in mid air. Like most young guards, Lawson does leave his feet a little too often, but while aggravating that isn't a fatal flaw. I will say that Lawson is obviously short at barely if at all 6 feet, and he also from what I can tell doesnt make up for that by being a dynamic leaper either. He lacks the freakish athleticism of a Rajon Rondo, for example.
His ability to stay balanced and be strong with the basketball enables him to get to the line very well, and gives him a chance to finish the play too. That is a skill that will translate very well I think, and portends well for his future as a double figure scorer in the NBA. Lawson is one of the strongest guards upperbody wise in this draft, along with being the quickest with the basketball by a good margin.
Lawson shoots fairly well off the dribble, although my guess would be that is a function more of his ballhandling skill than shooting prowess. His speed and quickness enable him to get more open than other average guards, enabling him to make a better percentage of shots....it won't be that he is a better "shooter" per se, just that he will get himself free a bit easier than most.
Lawson will need to put in serious work to improve his jump shot and gain NBA three point range. Some players dedicate themselves to that skill and get at least somewhat better at it, and some players come into the league and do not. Almost everyone that guards Lawson will try to back off him and cut off his drive, so he will need to at least be able to hit enough of a percentage from the perimeter to make teams guard him closer. Due to his lack of height and awkward release, Lawson will need to be able to have room and time to be accurate, but his speed will likely get him that time on most nights. He'll be a player that teams will want to double off of but won't be able to, because if he catches a return pass from the post and is unguarded he will be into the paint before your defense can rotate.
In the screen/roll environment in the NBA, teams will definitely need a strategy to try to contain him. The obvious best one early in his career will be to have his man go "under" the screen, and force him to make the wide open jumper. If he gets the ability to make that happen, he might be almost unguardable in this area, as most bigs won't be able to step out on him and prevent him from turning the corner, and once he does that almost no one in basketball will be able to contain his dribble.
As a decision maker, so far he appears to be pretty good, although his team at UNC and their style of play kept him out of "difficult decision" situations. He makes great decisions while driving into the paint or in transition, but is a much weaker decision maker in a half court controlled set. As a point guard, he rarely was asked to survey the floor from the top and "choose a side and take it to the action", which is a critical skill in my opinion for a point guard to have. Generally, Lawson created easy decisions for himself, and Coach Williams did a great job of not getting in the way too often by slowing him down or overcoaching him.
Speaking of Coach Williams, the freedom to play he gives players within the UNC controlled break system has got to make him a blast to play for. I'm not sure we'd be talking about Lawson so much if he hadn't played for Williams, a soft touch who clearly got the most out of Lawson's skills. Players play free and easy for Williams, and it is easy to see why the nation's best high school players gravitate to him.
Having said that, the soft touch Williams displays does give me pause when evaluating UNC players. A person cannot be sure how a player from UNC will respond in losing streaks, or when a coach really chews and rides them....as that will be a new experience for them. UNC rarely calls set plays from the bench, so a more half court oriented team will have to be cautious when trying to decide how a UNC player will fit their style.
Williams also substitutes more often than any coach in college basketball. I think that is a great thing in general, and its exactly what I would do if I were him, playing a breakneck offensive style with a roster full of All Americans. As good as Lawson was in college, he only played around just over 2/3's of the possessions. Even more noticable, he played in short spurts, often playing in much shorter intervals than he will asked to at the NBA level. Perhaps a small thing, perhaps not. Lawson wasn't asked to play through fatigue, play through tough stretches, or play through failure or mistakes for very long.
In short, you have to at least wonder about his ability to play through being winded, through being heckled by veteran opponents or hostile crowds, or playing for a tough coach who is hard on rookies. Lawson will not be a finished product in these areas when he gets to training camp.
Basically, I really like Lawson as an offensive player....but now we need to talk defense.
UNC under Roy Williams is generally a team that outscores you, not a team that really buckles down. Lawson shows some good defensive traits, such as the ability to get steals and read passing lanes, but sometimes his effort and concentration just isn't there. He should/could be a really good ball pressure point guard defensively, and sometimes in college he was, but not consistently. Again, his athleticism was just too much for college guards to handle, but that won't be the case in the NBA....he'll be a good athlete among many.
To be an all-star or difference maker, Lawson will need to be coached up to be at least a good and consistent defender that you can count on. Right now he can get steals and convert them better into transition opportunities better than most, but he also is just as likely to drift off and lose his man due to lack of concentration. Lawson shows much better on the ball than off, and in a defensive system based on help more than ball pressure that could be a problem.
A smart coach would use Lawson as a big time pressure defender I think, as I suspect he has the lateral quickness to handle a role like that. I will say though that I don't think his lateral quickness is as impressive as you would think....it isn't all world like I project his quickness with the dribble to be. Like Roy Williams did, I think it would be smart for an NBA coach to limit his minutes somewhat in his first year or 2 just to let him get acclimated into the NBA.
Lawson will basically just need to get tougher to be a good defender....more concentration, more coaching, more effort.....the skills and talent are there.
He will always struggle defensively in the low post, as his lack of height will be an issue there. However, his upperbody strength will negate that to a degree as he will be strong in the chest and be able to be physical with people. I wouldn't demerit a point guard for not being a good post defender too much anyway.
But, I would demerit a defender for Lawson's biggest defensive weakness I see, which is overall "lazy arms". Lawson has a major defensive tendency to play with his arms dropped and hands not being active. This hurts his ability to slide his feet, and is devastating to his ability to contest shots. Not being a great leaper along with being short already, you simply can't be a decent defensive player playing with your hands and arms that low. Lawson doesn't contest shots well, he just lets guys shoot over him, often then leaking out to recieve an outlet pass after a make or a miss in the UNC fast break/early offense system.
That won't work for me, and it will need to be fixed by someone at the NBA level. Again, I view that as an effort, concentration, and coaching issue, not one of talent. Can't do anything with his height, and can do little with his leaping ability. But you can certainly improve his conditioning and technique, and he will need to be individually coached up at this big time at the NBA level.
Because he will never rate as a superior NBA defensive player (his ceiling is likely average to slightly above at max) to ever be a player on a championship team he will need to be on a team with a great defensive system and coaching, and ideally be with one or 2 superior individual defenders. Offensively, Lawson will be good enough to win big with, but defensively will be the question, making where he fits in to be very important to him for early success. In the perfect world he will need a bigger backcourt partner, and possibly a defensive oriented back up point guard as a caddy early in his career.
Even though he has negatives, you certainly in my view cannot ignore the talent and championship pedigree of Ty Lawson. To me he rates as a definite NBA starter early in his career, and a fine offensive player that you can win with big if he improves a little defensively.
Is he a great fit for the Pacers currently in our present system???? That is debateable, but by the time we are contenders again for a title/consistent playoff runs our system likely won't be the same anyway. Lawson will be most effective with the ball in his hands with the freedom to create and use his alarming speed, not as effective in a "passing game" motion system as we run currently. He wouldn't necessarily be a defensive upgrade currently over what we have either, particularly playing in the sagging defensive scheme we use now. However, that will likely change as our roster and coaching staff evolves anyway, so you would need to think big picture when evaluating Lawson for the Pacers future.
Coming up with NBA comparables for Lawson isn't that difficult to me. I think he projects as slightly below Tony Parker, closer to his fellow UNC brethren Raymond Felton. Felton by the way I predict will be a great free agent pickup for somebody this off season.....he has gotten significantly tougher and better playing a year for Larry Brown, a great teacher of point guards.
Keeping my tradtion of the past NBA players to compare him to, the easiest and most obvious one to me is Terrell Brandon, long time point guard of the Cleveland Cavaliers.....and I see now by looking that's exactly who one of the draft web sites used as well.
Lawson will be a very effective and good long time NBA starting point guard, and certainly should and will be a strong consideration for the Pacers at #13, especially if the Pacers have plans to move another similar player to Lawson: TJ Ford. I see Lawson long term as a slight upgrade on Ford, and in the short term would be cheaper and healthier obviously. If the Pacers do select Lawson, you can almost certainly guarantee that Ford would be on the move....those players would be somewhat redundant on the same roster I think. If we pass on Lawson, I highly doubt he gets past Philadelphia at #17, as I think the Sixers would be a strong fit for him. In fact, a deal with the Sixers and the Pacers makes some sense involving either the rights to Lawson or Ford.
And obviously, in building a team with a future championship mentality you can't overlook Lawson's pedigree and past successes of being the best and most important player on a title winning team. Lawson looks like a good long term point guard to me in the right situation....not perfect, but definitely starting quality in the very least.
As always, the above is just my opinion.