Running with Zaza

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Observations from the June 2008 NBDL Pre-Draft Camp

Yesterday, I went to the Saturday games of the NBDL Pre-draft Camp at the Suwanee Sports Complex in Suwanee. I called on Friday to see if I could get into the camp, but the receptionist told me it was a private event and spectators were not allowed in to watch the games. One of my character traits is stubbornness. I went in the morning and did what any NBA blogger would do. I parked, walked around the building, and entered the back door of the facility. After walking through a couple of empty gyms where guys were shooting around, I got into the gym and grabbed a seat on the metal bleachers. Here is what I saw, what I learned, and what players stood out in Saturday’s games.

Apparently, the camp opened on Friday night with some team meetings and possibly some drills. Saturday started bright and early with team practices at 8 am and the games started 30 minutes later. The Suwanee Sports Complex has 7 regulation NBA courts and the camp used 4 courts. I have some experience in recruiting, AAU basketball, and basketball camp games. Usually, when guys who do not know each other are thrown together on a team, bad basketball is the result. In a strange way, this was the case, but the games were competitive. The players played hard, competed, and generally listened to the coaches. However, the basketball was not well played. In this country, we simply do not teach the fundamentals. Passing, shooting, cutting, screening and other fundamentals are lost to almost every player. Jeff Caha, a 6’6” 235 pound forward from Wayland Baptist, is one guy that screened, passed, and knocked down open jumpers. I have never heard of Wayland Baptist and Caha looked slow (he kind of looked injured to me), but he played hard. I actually saw him cheering for a couple of teammates when he was on the bench.

The games were better than I expected. Athleticism, physical play, and defense were all on display. Most of the games were low scoring (they played two 20 minutes halves) and there were hardly any easy baskets until the end of games. The campers clearly knew that defense would be looked at by scouts, and I overheard a couple of guys talking about that fact when they did not get enough shot attempts. Probably, you can chalk this up to coaching. Most of the coaches seemed to be ex-NBA players. I recognized coaches Tracy Murray, Grant Long, and Tony Campbell. I am sure some of the other guys were in the NBDL, but I did not recognize everyone doing the coaching. Tony Campbell was impressive though. He did not have good players on his team, but he was up coaching, talking to guys, and working the officials. He stood the whole time I watched his team. His team executed some plays and played hard. The players and coaches have to be commended for the intensity of the games.

On the roster I was able to grab from one of the campers, there were 200 players listed. Probably, 100 of those players had no business being on the court at this level, but they did pay their money. The best prospect I saw on Saturday was Kojo Mensah, a 23 year-old, 6’0 185 pound combination guard from Duquesne University. This guy can play the point for someone in the D League. He is a little smaller than listed, but athletic with long arms. Clearly, he can be a great on the ball defender if he wants to be. What he does best is score and he will be able to get to the free throw line. Outside shot is a question mark. He is a solid point guard prospect, but he seemed to want to play off the ball. Too small to be effective at the shooting guard. In no particular order, here are some other players that I liked and would be worth a look for a D League team:

Jeff Caha, 6’6 235, Wayland Baptist
Willie Richard, 6’3 185, Jarvis Christian College
Matthew Barrow, 6’4 185, Lamar University
Latreven Henry, 6’6 212
Richard Chaney, 6’5 200, University of Utah
Damien Goodman, 6’6 225, UNC Pembroke
Bennet Davis, 6’9 235, Northeastern University
Darius Mattear, 6’7 230, UTEP
Ty Morrison, 6’8 220, Grand Canyon University


Opportunity Is Knocking, Will Sund Open the door?

If you are looking for my column on possible NBA assistants the Hawks should pursue, you have to wait a couple of days; because, I have to comment on Mark Bradley’s AJC online article (you actually have to pay to get the real paper) about Rick Sund from Friday. This passion-less, analysis free article is what drives me crazy about AJC writers. Bradley describes what a great quality it is for Sund to come to the Hawks with an outsider’s perspective; and then later in the column, he quotes Sund as saying that he wants to keep the Hawks top eight intact for next season. Does Bradley make any analysis about Sund’s statement? No, he just wraps up the column with a few throw away sentences, and the inane from juvenile Atlanta sports fans commence. We need analysis, commentary, ideas. Try to get Sund to admit that staying the same is not going to work in today’s NBA.

Today, at least Sekou Smith tries to analyze the situation (you can tell he has a passion for the Association), but he clearly has fallen in love with Josh Smith. There is a man crush there. Listen, the Hawks have developed Smith, and now is the time to get something for him. In the NBA, you do not lose a guy without getting a player in return. Josh Smith has qualities that other NBA teams want. The Hawks do not have a position for Smith. The Hawks fill a huge need with the right player. The Hawks need a Number 1 guy! That allows Joe Johnson to be your Number 2 guy. Al Horford gives you another borderline All-Star. You have Marvin Williams to start or come off the bench with scoring. Zaza can start, or he can come off the bench if you sign a veteran big for comparatively little money—maybe Kurt Thomas (fill in your own relatively cheap NBA center that can play 20 minutes a game). Will Josh Smith put fans in the seats? Some, but the evidence is overwhelming that Atlanta needs a winning team. Veteran leadership with experience wins games, puts people in the seats, and makes Philips Arena into a great home court advantage.

My guess and hope is that Rick Sund was spreading a little misinformation. Hopefully, he is involved in some talks with other GMs for some of these guys that clearly are being shopped around. What if the Hawks could deal Josh Smith and Marvin Williams for Carmelo Anthony? Anthony is a star. He would be the biggest star in this town. Bigger than Vick? Close. The Highlight Factory would have every major music and entertainment person in the front row. All 41 games would be happenings—the place to see and be seen. Plus, with Anthony, there would be no question who the number one option is on offense. Carmelo would be a good fit in Atlanta, but the better deal for the Hawks is to deal Mike Bibby (and his expiring contract) and Josh Smith to the Pistons for Tayshaun Prince. You say the Pistons would never do that. The Pistons could start Rodney Stuckey, Bibby’s contract comes off the books next year, and then they could go after another max free agent. The Hawks might actually save money on that deal next year with the rumors the Josh Smith is looking for $11 million in the first year of his deal. On October 1st, your Hawks potential starting line up is A.C. Law, Johnson, Prince, Horford, Pachulia (or Solomon Jones or someone else). You probably still are way under the salary cap and can get someone for the veteran minimum to play the point. The Celtics picked up P.J. Brown out of semi-retirement and he played huge, crucial minutes for them in the playoffs. Please, Rick Sund think outside the box, be creative, fill the Hawks’ need for a great player. Prince and Anthony are Olympic team caliber players. Prince is a proven winner, one of the most clutch players in the Eastern Conference, and a game changer at both ends of the court. This Detroit guy knows Mike Woodson, and after squabbling with Flip Saunders, they have motivation to get deep into the post season.

The Hawks need a couple of 50 win seasons to fill the seats and get season ticket holders. If they fall back a little after that, people will still buy the tickets. Look at the Chicago Bulls. In many respects during the Tim Floyd years, the Bulls were at a lower point than the Hawks. They made some moves, and now the Bulls still reap the benefits of the recent winning seasons under Scott Skiles. The Eastern Conference is going to be better next year. Rick Sund and the Hawks have to make some moves to get better as well. The opportunity to be in the top 4 in the Eastern Conference is knocking--Rick Sund and the Hawk’s ownership group (which includes a small group of Georgia Tech students that meet every Sunday afternoon for coffee) need to open that door and pull a true NBA star into our foyer and into our success-starved city.


To Josh, or not to Josh, that is the question?

Rick Sund’s job for the summer is to make the Atlanta Hawks a better basketball team for 2008-2009. With the Celtics’ victory over the Lakers, the pressure is on NBA general managers. Every fan thinks that with a few personnel moves their team can go from last to first. Atlanta fans are geared up, because they made the playoffs last year and took the Celtics to 7 games. Every game in Atlanta was hard fought, and one can argue that the Hawks gave the Celtics huge match up problems. Here are the decisions to improve the Hawks that face Rick Sund in the next 3-4 weeks. Sund must decide on the two Joshes questions. Who to sign, who to keep, and who to trade are big questions and probably the most controversial in Atlanta. Seondly, Sund must upgrade Mike Woodson’s coaching staff. Simply put, Woodson needs a Thibodeaux-type on the offensive side of the basketball court. Coaching is a funny business though, and Woodson needs a behind the scenes guru that is not gunning for his job. Think, old guy with smarts. Lastly, Sund has to upgrade the bench. Role players are keys and without a draft pick the Hawks are not in a great position. Even, a second round pick would be great at this point. This column is the first of three part series addressing these pressing issues.

To Josh, or not to Josh, that is the question? What Sund needs to do about Josh Childress is make him a qualifying offer before July 1. The Hawks need to negotiate from a position of strength. There is not going to be a great market for J-Chill. He is solid, but cannot shoot from the outside to stretch the defense. He can guard, but is kind of slight to guard bigger perimeter players like Kobe, Artest, Lebron, Pierce, etc. He reminds me of a second tier Tayshaun Prince. My problem is that Childress is not even a starter in the Association. If he is starting for the Hawks, they will not make much improvement over 2007-2008. Plus, does Childress have any upside? He can score a little bit more in transition, but the shooting is never going to get better. He can get stronger and he seems like a great, coachable teammate, but you have to ask yourself this question: who would you want at the small forward spot, Josh Childress or James Posey? Posey will probably go back to the Celtics, but what if Atlanta offered him 3 years guaranteed for $15 million. Posey is 31 and this is most likely his last contract. There are some other guys out there that can come off the bench with 3 point shooting and play some defense. If Rick Sund is listening, you have to make J-Chill an offer to extend his contract for 3 years, but do not break the bank for this guy. I say 3 years and somewhere in the “West Paces Ferry neighborhood” of $22 million.

On the Josh Smith decision, Sund is going to have to face the slings and arrows of fans and take up arms against some sports radio talkies. Sund must face the more daunting decision to deal the beloved Josh Smith, J-Smooth, the Human Highlight Reel #2, Count Blockula, the Master of the Disastrous Pass, etc. This guy fills up the stats sheet with flare. He is athletically gifted beyond others in a league where every one is freakish athletic. J-Smooth can do almost everything one night and almost nothing the next night. Imagine if Josh Smith played with the fire of Paul Millsap, Leon Powe, the old Ben Wallace, Al Horford, or Antonio McDyess? There would be no question of what Rick Sund should do. The problem is Smith does not play that way, and certainly not every night. He is a power forward that wants to play on the perimeter, face up and shoot 3 point shots. When the playoffs came around and transition baskets were more limited, Smith had loads of trouble scoring in the half court offense. He is a man really without a position on this team. Additionally, J-Smooth did not seem to listen to the coaches before, and now you are going to pay him max dollars. Probably, next year, he will not listen at all! The Hawks have to build around Horford and Joe Johnson. Get a true 3 man or a proven scorer. There are not any big guys out there that excite me. People have been calling for the Hawks to get Mutombo or Theo Ratliff. That might work if done cheaply, but the Hawks need an all-star caliber perimeter player in return for Smith.

Rick Sund has to work some magic. He has to weather the storm, to take a nap, and perchance to dream. He has to pull a great player out of his hat. He has to work out a sign-and-trade with Josh Smith and get a natural small forward or lead guard that can excite fans. Here are some guys that would look great in a Hawks uniform: Andre Iguodala, Luol Deng, Monta Ellis, Jose Calderon, Ron Artest. Calderon and Ellis are not small forwards, but they would be great additions to the Hawks (I know Calderon just a contract offer, but he is point guard with a great future in the NBA). How about a backcourt of Bibby, Ellis, and Joe Johnson? And then bring in Childress for Bibby and go with Ellis, Joe Johnson, and Childress? That is a quality four man backcourt. Maybe, you could even get Salim Stoudamire some minutes as a game changing 3 point assassin. The Hawks cannot afford to go into next year believing in Bibby. Bibby can still shoot, blend in with the team, and convert down the stretch in the 4th quarter; but, he clearly he is at the injury prone stage of his career. He is the 19th highest paid player in the NBA, but he cannot really create shots for other people off penetration. Clearly, the Hawks payroll is going to jump this year from 23rd highest in the league, but then Bibby’s $15 million will come off the books. The recommendation here is sign-and-trade Josh Smith to Golden State for Monta Ellis. Okay, Chris Mullin has said he will match any offers for Ellis, but Josh Smith would be a great fit for Don Nelson’s team in Golden State. The problem is this move might just make too much sense. Look for my next post and part two of this column, I take a look at some possible assistant coaches that Rick Sund could hire to upgrade Mike Woodson’s staff.


Keeping Woodson Right Move for Hawks

Once again, Mark Bradley from the AJC is wrong. Rick Sund was correct to not listen to detractors and to give Mike Woodson a new two year contract. Woodson earned the chance to coach this team next year. He has gone through the lowest of the Hawk’s ugly losses these last four years, and he has overcome a huge barrier by getting the team to the playoffs. Here are my top five reasons why Rick Sund (and Mike Gearon and maybe a committee of six people the Hawks’ trainer asked for their opinions while on vacation) made the right decision to keep Mike Woodson:

1. On the “things he can control level”, Mike Woodson has NBA playing and coaching experience and a coaching pedigree. He still is hungry to prove he is a winner. This guy played for Bob Knight and coached with Larry Brown! Listen, Woodson has his faults (he is bad at end of the game X’s and O’s for one--he refused to let Joe Johnson isolate all season until Celtics’ series), but you cannot win in the NBA without talent, period. See, the Celtics’ improvement from last season to this season. Stop focusing on his overall record. It is meaningless.

2. It is not Woodson’s fault that the Hawks did not draft Chris Paul. If Chris Paul were on the Hawks, there would have been 33 sellouts at Philips Arena this year. We would not have Al Horford, but we would have a bona fide NBA superstar. There are only about 11 of these players in the entire NBA. Guys like Chris Paul are on a higher level than Josh Smith, Al Horford, or Joe Johnson. With Chris Paul, the Hawks are a 50 win team in 2007-2008! Billy Knight and Mike Woodson would be signing new contracts over dinner in a private, glass enclosed room at Stats with the Cheetah girls as waitresses.

3. Woodson will have continuity with this roster next year. Make no mistake; having a two year deal is not job security in the NBA. Woodson knows this and the players know this. This keeps Woodson working hard to make the team better next year. There have to be roster changes made, but Woodson has good relationships with the two guys that matter: Joe Johnson and Al Horford. Who cares what his relationship is with my man Zaza or Josh Smith? Players have to play hard, produce, and listen to the coach. Against the Celtics, the Hawks were posting Horford, not Josh Smith, against Garnett with lots of success. That should be enough said about the future of the organization.

4. You cannot blame Woodson for team’s lack of fire. Successful NBA teams are led by passionate players with fire, leadership qualities, and dominant personalities. In this era, think Kobe, Garnett, Duncan, and Nash just to name a few. In past eras, you can look at Jordan, Magic, Bird, and Olajuwon. These guys brought intensity every night. This is not rah-rah, let’s get fired up college bullshit. These kind of guys play hard in games, practice, and in the poker games on the team plane. Does Woodson have anybody that does that? Clearly, no.

5. Coach Woodson has improved the team without any resemblance of good point guard play. It is kind of hard for me to even remember the point guard for the Hawks. The guys who have been starting are back-ups that should play 15-25 minutes a night. Speedy Claxton, Anthony Johnson, Acie Law, Tyronn Lue, Boris Diaw, Kenny Anderson? I mean, if I were choosing for a pick up game today, I would take Kenny Anderson first. That is a major problem and why Billy Knight lost his job. Chris Paul and Deron Williams are NBA All-Stars for the next 5-10 years.


Another NBA blog, why bother?

Running with Zaza is a blog about the NBA, the National Basketball Association. Does the world really need another blog about the NBA? Clearly, the answer is yes and here is why I will be writing this column.

A basic maxim of any new business venture, product, or entrepreneur is to fill a lack in the marketplace. You can make money by providing something that people need and they cannot easily find. Here in Atlanta the sports marketplace lacks someone that can provide analysis of the NBA. There are lots of guys out there that try, but few are any good. I listen to both sports radio stations, read the paper, and even watch that crazy sports talk show on CSS TV (What is up with that set, anyway. Does anyone else feel badly for Bob Neal that he has to do the Atlanta Dream games?). They have their strengths, but their weakness is clearly NBA commentary. The sports talk and conventional media usually consist of boring, rehashed cliches about the Association and its players, coaches, referees, and front office personnel. This blog will bring a different point of view backed up with some solid, in-depth reasoned analysis, and it will provide the NBA fans in this town with a place to get their NBA fix.

Like most people in this town, I am a transplant from somewhere else that has grown to follow the Atlanta Hawks. I was down on the streets outside of Philips Arena high-fiving strangers after Game 6 against Boston this year. When Zaza went nose-to-nose with Garnett, the passion spilled into my living room. Unlike most fans, I watch hundreds of NBA games every year. I tape games and watch them over to look for trends, certain plays, match-ups, etc. I love breaking down tape! From this perspective, this blog can help the Hawks. The blog can be a voice of reason for Rick Sund, Mike Gearon, and anyone of the other thirty people that might have a say in the Hawks' decision-making process. The Atlanta Hawks are at a major crossroads for next year. They could be great or they could take some steps back. These guys clearly need help. Running with Zaza will be here to provide the analysis to get the Hawks back to the play-offs in the 2008-2009 season!

Readers, be on the lookout for my upcoming posts about Mike Woodson resigning, what Rick Sund needs to do, the Josh Smith Question, the NBA Draft, and my Hawks' 2009 roster analysis.