A year ago, Jeff Van Gundy asserted that Festus Ezeli could start for most teams in the NBA. And at the beginning of this season's playoff run, he proclaimed Ezeli to be a $15 million-per-year player.
So why is everyone so down on the big Nigerian?
Fans are all prisoners of the moment, and it will take time to get over a poor sendoff performance in the decisive Game Seven of the 2016 NBA Finals. But that shouldn't obscure what was plainly a positive season for the Vanderbilt product.
Playing in a truncated season due to a knee injury, Ezeli only saw the court in 46 games for the second consecutive season. But in that time, he earned career highs in minutes per game (16.7), points per game (7.0), rebounds per game (5.6), and blocks per game (1.1).
According to Basketball-Reference, the rate statistics tell the same story: this improvement wasn't a result of Ezeli simply getting more playing time. For every 100 possessions, Ezeli produced more assists (as evidenced by his assist rate, 5.8%), more rebounds (21.9%) and fewer turnovers (11.9%) than ever before.
The turnover figure was especially noteworthy — Ezeli's hands have always been poor, leading to fumbled passes and missed dunk opportunities his entire career. But that turnover rate, which has dropped from 23.5% to 15.6% to 11.9% in consecutive seasons, tells the story of a defensive specialist who has made strides towards being a complete two-way center. And two-way centers are worth at least $15 million per season in today's NBA -- if not much more.
Festivus still has a ways to go. He's got no range for a jump shot, and his edgy take on the sky hook is simply cringe-worthy, and hardly consistent. But he has value as a wide-bodied screen-setter, and he's athletic enough to finish above the rim. And years of watching Andrew Bogut have taught us that there is a real benefit to a center who can sprint down the court with a fast-paced team like the Warriors.
ESPN's RAPM tracks Ezeli as a net-negative on offense, but that isn't uncommon for centers nowadays. In fact, only 16 centers (out of 77!) ranked as a net-positive, and two of those were pretty negligible positives. In a league that strives to be smaller and faster, and heavily reliant on three point shots, there are few centers who remain elite offensive producers (DeMarcus Cousins, Al Horford, Karl-Anthony Towns, Enes Kanter and that's pretty much your list. And two of those guys are arguably power forwards, anyway).
RAPM loves Ezeli's defense, however, and grades him as a fairly significant net-positive as a complete player. NBA.com/stats has a handy feature that allows us to track field goal percentage allowed by opponent's shooting zone. While Ezeli's at-rim numbers are underwhelming (opponents shot about 6% better at the rim when facing Ezeli, compared to the utterly elite Bogut), he shows his worth further out. In 2015-2016, Ezeli was better than Bogut and Draymond Green, two of the NBA's very best defenders, against shooters in the paint (36.2% beyond the restricted area in the paint, or 3-10 feet), and he was solid to mid-range (39.2%). His size and athletic profile will always make him an intimidating defender, and his hand-eye coordination for blocking shots is excellent.
During last week's draft, the Golden State Warriors selected fellow Vanderbilt prospect Damian Jones, a soft-handed big man with the same physical profile as Ezeli. Maybe the Warriors are shrewdly guarding against the possibility that Ezeli leaves in free agency. And maybe, Ezeli's injury history (he's only played 170 of 328 career games) makes him too unreliable to count on.
But then again, maybe the two aren't related. Maybe Ezeli's injury history is something the team can work around, as they did with Andrew Bogut and even Stephen Curry in years past. Maybe his defensive skills, combined with Bogut's own age and contract status, make him too valuable a contributor to move from, even at a significant cost.
As a restricted free agent, the ball is ultimately in Golden State's court. What do you think the team should do?
Should be noted: Ezeli was good before midseason knee surgery. https://t.co/9MEMmQ9UAi— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) June 20, 2016