clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

2015 NBA Draft: Scouting Syracuse F Chris McCullough's Pro Potential

New, 5 comments

Before the NBA draft, we examine the good and the bad of Chris McCullough's game.

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

As recently ago as late November, Chris McCullough was projected as a lottery pick in the 2015 NBA draft. At the 2K Classic in New York City, the (now former) Syracuse Orange forward impressed scouts so much that, according to ESPN's Chad Ford, they unanimously viewed him as such.

You know what happened next: McCullough's play cooled off by mid-December, and his season ended when he tore his ACL on Jan. 11. When he still opted to declare for the draft, a number of scouts and draft experts were left puzzled.

Few will deny that McCullough has serious potential as an NBA prospect. And, as we've learned over the years, potential carries weight at the draft.

But what's also impossible to deny is the risk that comes with drafting McCullough. He's only a few months removed from major knee surgery, and many aspects of his game need polishing.

So while there's plenty to like about the Bronx native, there's also reason for teams to have their reservations.

Ahead of next month's draft, let's delve further into the strengths and weaknesses of McCullough's game.

STRENGTHS

Capable shooter: In an NBA obsessed with the 3, big men who can shoot and thus stretch the floor are more valuable than ever.

No, McCullough didn't have rampant success shooting the ball at Syracuse. According to Hoop-Math, he shot just 34 percent on 2-point jumpers last season.

But those numbers, which come from a 16 game sample, don't tell the full story. McCullough has excellent form and a nice touch on his jump shot. He'll need to become a smarter jump-shooter by taking fewer long 2s and more 3s, but he's certainly proven capable of hitting from outside.

Versatility on defense: McCullough, for whatever reason, is often unfairly pegged as a bad defender. He's not the most fundamentally sound defender, but by no means is McCullough, who had a defensive rating of 88.6 last season, a bad defender.

It starts with his rim protection, as McCullough is among a rare breed of bigs who can protect the rim in addition to being able to stretch the floor.

With a 7-foot-3 wingspan and a standing reach of 9-foot-1, he can flat out block shots. He averaged 2.1 blocks per game last season, even blocking five shots in a loss to Cal in November.

Below, you'll see SU momentarily suffer a defensive breakdown. McCullough is drifting too far away from St. John's forward Chris Obekpa. Meanwhile, Michael Gbinije is forced to account for sharpshooter Rysheed Jordan, alone in the right corner. That leaves Obekpa open under the basket, which Sir'Dominic Pointer notices before getting him the ball. Obekpa should have an easy bucket, but McCullough is able to recover and block the dunk attempt.

Impressively, McCullough can also defend the perimeter. Thanks to his quickness and length, he's able to close out on open jump shooters. Take a look, courtesy of DraftExpress:

Plays above the rim: At the draft combine, McCullough compared his game to NBA power forwards LaMarcus Aldridge and Chris Bosh, a pair of the best stretch 4s in the league. But even those two All Stars aren't the high-risers that No. 5 is.

McCullough uses his athleticism to do things above the rim that others can't. He catches passes that seem far out of his reach and turns them into alley-oop dunks. Or he does it on his own and posterizes helpless defenders, like Cornell's David Onuorah.

Running the floor: Big men who can run the floor are difficult to find -- Blake Griffins don't grow on trees -- but McCullough moves up and down the court like a guard. It makes him especially dangerous in transition, as proven by his effective field goal mark of 62.5 percent in transition last season, per Hoop-Math.

Watch as McCullough runs coast to coast, beating everyone down the floor and slamming home the alley-oop from Ron Patterson.

--------------

WEAKNESSES

Post-up game: Despite standing at 6-foot-9, McCullough struggles in post-up situations. In non-transition offense last season, he shot just 57.4 percent at the rim, according to Hoop-Math. For reference, fellow Syracuse big men Rakeem Christmas and Tyler Roberson shot 69.9 percent and 64.7 percent, respectively, in the same category.

The above shot chart doesn't include data from the Holy Cross game, when McCullough finished 7-for-11 from the field. But you get the idea: he struggles around the rim. And it won't be any easier at the next level, where power forwards will be bigger and stronger.

Watch what happens when McCullough has a one-on-one opportunity on the right block against Georgia Tech's Demarco Cox, a 6-foot-8, 276 pound center who recently signed with the NFL's Indianapolis Colts.

Low-post defense: Just as he has difficulty scoring against stronger big men in the low post, the 199-pound McCullough has difficulty guarding them on the other end. His size disadvantage enables other bigs to bully him around the basket.

In a December win over Syracuse, Villanova's JayVaughn Pinkston caught a pass with his back to McCullough. Using only one dribble, as you'll see, he backed down the SU forward, turned and scored from the right block.

To succeed against NBA power forwards on both ends of the floor, McCullough needs to add some weight and get stronger. If he doesn't, he likely won't last.

Turnover prone: McCullough averaged 2.2 turnovers per game in 2014-15, nearly matching point guard Kaleb Joseph's 2.3 turnovers per game mark. (Joseph, you'll remember, was maligned for frequently committing turnovers.) Only three NBA power forwards -- Griffin, Paul Millsap, and Greg Monroe -- turned the ball over at the same or a higher rate this season.

He has a tendency to play recklessly at times, particularly when he puts his head down and drives to the basket, and it often results in turnovers.

Motor: After the Orange beat Colgate in December, Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim derided McCullough for scoring only four points on 1-of-6 shooting. It was harsh, but in fairness, a player with McCullough's talent shouldn't struggle against a Patriot League team. Not if he's invested, at least.

And therein lies the problem: McCullough doesn't always seem to be fully engaged. He lacks a consistently high motor. At times, he gets lazy, especially on the defensive end.

Here, McCullough jogs back on defense while Georgia Tech pushes the ball up the floor. He then doesn't make much effort to get in front of Marcus Georges-Hunt, who glides in for an easy layup.

Health: Unfortunate as it might be, McCullough's draft stock dipped the moment he tore his ACL.

The ACL tear happens almost exclusively to athletes, and many of them are never the same after the injury. Some suffer second and third ACL tears. Others never recover mentally, always doubting themselves and their post-surgery abilities.

Just as the Sixers gambled by selecting Nerlens Noel in 2013 after he tore his ACL at Kentucky, drafting McCullough will require gambling on his long-term health.

--------------

OUTLOOK

As an NBA prospect, Chris McCullough is certainly a project. Drafting him means you'll need to have patience -- not only with his health, but also with the development of his game.

But, like the risk, the potential reward in drafting McCullough is high. He has an NBA body and excellent physical tools, two things you can't coach or teach. If his game pans out, he could become a dependable scoring option and an above average defender.

In a draft where so few players are sure things, odds are that some team will take a chance on McCullough late in the first round.