It seems a little amazing that just six months ago, we were all* convinced that Syracuse University freshman forward Chris McCullough would be a surefire NBA Lottery selection. And now, here we are the day after the lottery order was determined, and the general consensus is that the one and done talent will either be a late first or early second round pick. If teams are smart, they’ll snag him at the end of the first round.
Syracuse basketball fans are going to continue having a rough relationship with McCullough, and unfortunately there have been those taking to social media and message boards ragging on his decision to go pro early and voicing their hopes he turns into a bust. Honestly, I’ll never understand any fans of a program wishing ill on their own representative. The better a player from Syracuse performs, the better it reflects on the program and ultimately helps bring more talented players with their own NBA aspirations into the program.
That said, I personally think McCullough could have used another year of seasoning at the college ranks, in large part because of his season ending injury. Returning from an ACL tear is a long, difficult process, and declaring for the draft after a dismal eight game stretch against ACC competition, coupled with that devastating knee injury, seems suspect at best.
But that’s neither here nor there. It was McCullough’s decision to make, and his alone, and I wish him success. I still think he’s got all of the tools to find that success, hence why I think some smart team is going to scoop him up in a hurry somewhere in the 20’s on draft night.
Yes, McCullough needs to add a lot of muscle to be able to compete in the NBA on a nightly basis. He showed time and again that he just wasn’t strong enough to muscle through contact and finish consistently at the rim. His inability to explode to the hoop hindered his ability to show off his length and leaping ability, because it doesn’t matter how long you are or how high you can jump if you aren’t powerful enough to get through the outstretched arms of your defender.
Still, McCullough has the combination of size, athleticism, and skill that in most years would have scouts drooling. At 6-foot-9, he’s got great height to play the forward position at the next level and has the offensive skills to, potentially, develop into a combo forward. He’s got a better than average handle and jump shot for his size, and could turn into a matchup nightmare as the NBA continues trending toward stretch power forwards.
He’s also got the ability to become a disruptive defender, specifically with his shot blocking capabilities. Last season in his 16 games with the Orange, he averaged 2.1 blocks per game along with 1.7 steals, and maybe most amazingly, just 2.6 fouls per game. For a freshman big man, that’s very solid. For example: Karl-Anthony Towns, the probable top pick in the draft, averaged 2.9 fouls per game in fewer minutes. McCullough’s own teammate, Rakeem Christmas, was whistled for 3.4 fouls per game.
If Chris McCullough had returned for a sophomore season and come back at full strength, with a full offseason of working out and packing on muscle, I don’t think there’s any question he’d have become a lottery pick in the 2016 draft. Elite athletes (not just in his leaping ability, but also his quickness and ability to run the floor) with his combination of size, length, and skill will always be a hot commodity. When it comes to his potential ceiling, it’s easy to see Jay Bilas raving about his “upside” to go along with his “wingspan.” And if you play the Jay Bilas draft night drinking game, go ahead and take a couple of shots, because when draft night rolls around those are the two words that will be most often used to describe why a GM will be willing to roll the dice on a player coming off of an ACL tear.
The bottom line is that McCullough is clearly a lottery talent, as long as his health is in order and he’s able to gain strength. The smart GMs in the league are the ones who pick at the end of the first round, because those are the GMs who put together winning franchises. One of them will certainly be smart enough to snag a lottery talent for a greatly discounted price.