Dereck Lively: 2023 NBA Draft Scouting Report
After a rough start to his freshman season, Lively became one of the most important defenders in all of college basketball down the stretch. Can that carry over to the NBA?
After the conclusion of the first round of the NBA Playoffs, I sat down and penned a somewhat-rambling treatise on the value of rim-bound big men in today’s NBA. The link to that piece is below, and grapples with the challenges that come from playing a 5-man who cannot provide offensive impact for his team away from the basket.
The idea isn’t new, just getting played out in real-time during the NBA Playoffs. Versatility is a buzz word, and many of these screen-and-roll big men don’t provide any versatility on the offensive end.
When determining value, the matrix I tend to rely on discusses the intersection of versatility and impact. The most impactful big men end up in the top right quadrant, where they’re both versatile and impactful. That versatility comes in their role on offense, where they play on the floor, and how many different schemes they can unlock on defense.
Those guys aren’t necessarily easy to spot — they’re really rare and often take time to develop at the next level. But they’re not very controversial in terms of roster construction. I’m thinking of guys like Anthony Davis and Pascal Siakam here, who can play either the 4 or the 5 at an All-Star level and fit in different types of defensive schemes.
The real debate comes in on the top left or bottom right quadrants. What is better: a big man who can have a positive impact in one specific way, or a versatile piece who really blends in and isn’t incredibly good at one thing?
I first saw Dereck Lively play in January of 2020 when I made a recruiting visit to see a practice at Westtown School. I was recruiting a teammate of Lively’s and knew I’d be in for a thrilling practice. Lively, a sophomore, caught my eye with his fluid movements and insane burst. Two years later, he was positioned as the top player in the entire high school recruiting class.
Upon arriving at Duke, Lively struggled. The beginning of his freshman campaign, as highly touted as he was, was not pretty. Duke’s tough non-conference schedule exposed him early, and Lively did not look the part of a one-and-done, let alone a top player in the class. He struggled with foul trouble, wasn’t pristine with positioning, and didn’t have enough offensive skill to mitigate those issues.
Bigs take longer to adjust to NBA spacing and rules — generally, it’s a two-year process to become an adequate rim protector. The same learning curve takes place in college as well, and we saw that throughout Lively’s freshman year.
By late January, Lively was much sharper on defense and could stay on the floor for prolonged stretches. From January 21st to the end of the year, Lively averaged 6.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.0 blocks, and shot 69% from the field while playing 25 minutes a night. Duke was 14-4 in that span.
We saw the best and worst versions of Lively this year. The worst version is a player who is timid on offense, doesn’t know how to make an impact on that end, and wasn’t disciplined enough on defense to make up for it. The best version of him was paired with lob-throwing ball handlers on offense and was swatting or outright deterring shots at the hoop.
NBA teams are hopeful they can get the latter version of Lively on a nightly basis. He’s a really nice kid — perhaps too nice — and has flashes of defensive dominance. But he does have a long way to go on the offensive end of the floor to make an impact other than throwing down lobs.