March 30, 2018, 3:42 pm
Welcome back Hoop Ballers to our International Spotlight weekly feature where we will be taking a look into Terrance Ferguson, an American-born player who decided to go pro and play in Australia instead of spending at least one year of college basketball in US.
Ferguson has been an electrifying talent since his high school days where he finished as a top-20 national recruit and was selected for several prestigious high school All-Star games including the McDonald’s All-American and the Nike Hoop Summit. After a standout career playing for Prime Prep and Advanced Prep International he won three gold medals while representing Team USA youth teams, so his decision to skip college and play overseas caught a lot of people by surprise. Still, the combination of size, athleticism and scoring ability made him an exceptionally intriguing project and he ended up being the No. 21 selection in the 2017 NBA draft after being picked by the Thunder.
Oklahoma City’s biggest need this past offseason was the clear need to surround Russell Westbrook with secondary scoring as well as perimeter shooting and defense. Terrance Ferguson was far from a ready product and he is expected to take a couple of years to develop, but he has the chance to thrive in this role as he matures physically. He really gets it going from the outside, and with the lack of a reliable shooter in OKC he was expected to have the opportunity to put his shooting on display immediately, alleviating some of the scoring burden from Westbrook’s shoulders.
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Australia as the New Front in the College Recruiting Wars
Ferguson was not the first high-profile American teenager to head overseas rather than take the one-and-done route to the NBA. He is believed though to be the first to have been actively recruited by a team from Australia, a country that could lure more young stars away from the college game and emerge as the incubator of choice for NBA prospects. After benefiting from the exposure of helping Ferguson reach the NBA, the NBL has formalized a rule that should make it much easier for future prospects to forgo college and develop in Australia instead. Earlier this month it was announced that as a part of its new “Next Stars” program, the NBL will be adding an extra roster spot next season intended strictly for draft-eligible players such as Ferguson, funded directly by the league.
By joining the Adelaide 36ers of Australia’s National Basketball League, Ferguson became a professional basketball player at 18 years of age and as expected, he struggled and didn’t put up gaudy numbers, only averaging 4.4 points per game in 15.1 minutes of play. In a physical league where opponents targeted him since day one, he failed to gain consistent playing time but the experience he gained definitely helped him mature, familiarize himself with complex defensive schemes and prepare for the next level. And what stood out to scouts was how his Adelaide coach was impressed by his toughness and his good work habits as the kid put in the work necessary to earn his playing time.
The Need for 3-and-D Guys in the Modern NBA
One of the most valuable commodities in the NBA today is what we call a “3-and-D” guy. Three-pointers were introduced in the league almost 40 years ago, but only now are teams beginning to maximize their value. A combination of recent rule changes and an increased emphasis on statistical analysis has created a niche for a group of players who once were considered an afterthought. A player who can stretch the defense by making 3-pointers and guard multiple positions on the other end of the floor has become a necessity for any team intent on competing in the modern NBA. And this recent trend can best be seen in the immense contracts given the last few offseasons to prototypical “3-and-D” players like Otto Porter, Wesley Matthews, Khris Middleton and DeMarre Carroll who, in another era, would be relegated to “role player” status.
Corner threes have more than doubled over the past 20 years, and emerging specialists are a big part of the reason. When a star such as Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook runs a pick-and-roll, the defense is forced to adjust. And the forgotten man often gets left open, either on the slot or at the corner. Look at how the defense is denying the drive to the basket to Russ, creating the corner open three for Ferguson as Carmelo Anthony makes the crucial extra pass without any hesitation.
Ferguson figures to be a prototypical “3 and D” type of player as long as he’s able to develop and work on both parts of his game. While he does not have elite length (6’9” wingspan), he posted a 38” max vertical at the NBA Combine and has nice size and athleticism for an NBA wing player at 6’7”. He also moves up and down the court with excellent fluidity and possesses a quick, explosive first step.
Lack of Strength a Concern
Ferguson checked in at the NBA Draft Combine at just 184 pounds and his weight still hasn’t changed to this day, causing him to struggle containing bigger guards. In order for him to take the next step, it’s absolutely essential to bulk up considerably since his thin frame results in being easily bullied by opponents on both ends of the floor – especially on defense, where he gets pushed out of position pretty easily and gets caught on screens. Against bigger guards and wings, he allows his man to go right through him most times without showing much resistance. And even though he is competitive with opponents down low on switches, he is too thin to be a true threat when defending them. Look at how he is not able to contain a shorter Lou Williams on a switch that leaves him alone to protect the paint.
The lack of muscle also causes him to get pushed out of his spots on offense, as he often is not able to get all the way to the rim without an open lane. He gets easily knocked off balance and he shies away from contact, limiting his size advantage. As a consequence, he rarely gets to the free-throw line (only 10 free throw attempts so far this season) while committing plenty of silly fouls due to the lack of size.
A Capable Shooter but Underdeveloped Overall
Offensively right now, Ferguson is limited to mostly catch and shoot offense and straight line drives. He hits his shots and keeps moving without the basketball around the perimeter, cutting to the rim when the opportunity arises. Although he is not a great shot creator, he gets great elevation on his mid range jumper and is able to shoot over the top of most defenders. Where he particularly stands out is his tremendous leaping ability in space, particularly off of one foot. He has great straight line burst, which allows him to build momentum on his way to the basket and finish above the rim with ease. Look at him recognizing the open lane and finishing with the layup over an athletic defender like Tomas Satoransky who fails to stay with him.
Ferguson is a very capable spot up shooter with potential for even further improvement with more repetition. He shot a very mediocre 31 percent from distance in Australia but he has great footwork before the catch, an above average elevation and a quick release. Speaking about proper fundamentals, his shoulders are consistently squared to the basket, and he is almost always on balance when coming off screens. His ability to get his feet under him and step into his shot with confidence before rising is a thing of beauty and I really believe he can become automatic from behind the line. Here are the highlights from a game against the Lakers earlier this season where he made six triples.
As expected, he is only an accessory to the offense this season, but he can play and guard all three perimeter positions with his length and athleticism while he has better-than-expected handle and court vision. There is plenty of room for improvement as he needs to develop as a passer and learn how to initiate the offense, since he currently turns the ball over much more frequently than he registers assists.
Defense Will Determine Longevity
What really stands out more than his shooting and athleticism is Ferguson’s defense. He has active hands, solid foot speed and above average upside as a defender thanks to his lateral quickness and competitiveness, so it’s no surprise that Billy Donovan speaks about how quickly he picks things up. He made some starts earlier this year but at this point I believe he will be ideal to put in a game to protect the lead and gives the team another nice defensive option. As a rookie playing alongside three stars this will be a great learning curve for him. His physical tools give him plenty of upside as a rebounder and while he still has work to do to become a reliable factor on the glass, he has good motor and the necessary explosiveness to eventually be a consistent contributor in this area. Unfortunately, the lack of muscle really hurts him. Here is Ferguson failing to box out Robert Covington and fouling him as he loses ground.
Ferguson has terrific feet, he can cover a lot of ground, and does well to stay in front of smaller players. Even though he lacks the requisite strength to be an interior defensive presence, he competes for position down low and does not back down against bigger players while also demonstrating great effort chasing shooters off of the 3-point line and applying the full court press occasionally. Look at him chasing a stronger Jimmy Butler but being able to use his long arms to successfully defend the low-post pass to him.
Plenty of Room to Grow
Ferguson isn’t going to be a star on the next level, but his combination of scoring and defense can certainly be a special skill most teams would love to have. The Thunder will continue to work with him in order to develop these skills and the international experience he earned early in his career has definitely helped him as at times he already plays like a veteran even though physically he does look like a rookie.
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Stats are courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com and are accurate as of March 30th.