Calling Walter Tavares a 7-footer is actually selling him a bit short.
The 22-year-old from Cape Verde is 7'2", really a smidgen short of 7'3", allowing him to tower over even the biggest players he's asked to square off against. Size wins over NBA general managers and front offices, and Tavares has plenty of it.
RealGM.com has the mysterious prospect listed at 260 pounds, and it appears as though he could continue filling out that massive frame as he keeps working out and eventually gets to train under the supervision of an NBA coaching staff and set of athletic trainers.
Now that he's starting to work out with teams on the Association's side of the pond, per Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, that could happen as soon as the 2014-15 season: "Walter Tavares, one of the best 7-foot prospects in the world, is working on a contract buyout with his team in the Spanish ACB League and will travel soon to the United States to work out for several NBA teams, league sources told Yahoo Sports."
So, who is this guy?
Is he just another one of the massive international players who's more sizzle than steak? Where did he come from, and why are NBA teams suddenly so interested in acquiring his services?
Many young prospects are labeled "raw" before they enter the ranks of the sport's highest level. They're compared to sushi, undercooked steaks and everything in between.
For Tavares, however, "raw" doesn't begin to do him justice.
The big man is 22 years old now, but he'd literally never touched a basketball until he was 17. This isn't a situation in which the prospect played low-level hoops prior to undergoing a growth spurt and getting discovered by scouts; he was already a 7-footer and was spending his time working for his mother in Cape Verde.
Here's DraftExpress.com's Jonathan Givony on what changed:
Tavares was discovered by a German tourist in 2009 in his home country of Cape Verde , a small island [nation] located about 600 miles off the coast of Senegal. The then 7-feet tall 17 year old was working at his mother's convenience store, and the German tourist, amazed at his height, decided to recommend him to his friends in Gran Canaria, an ACB team with a strong tradition based in the Canary Islands, off the coast of Morocco. After travelling to Cape Verde for inspection, Gran Canaria decided to bring Tavares over in November of 2009 and try to teach him the game of basketball from scratch. He had never touched a basketball prior to that.
Ultimately, Gran Canaria liked what it saw.
Tavares didn't play in international competition until the 2011-12 season, when he suited up for U.B. La Palma, a team in the Spanish LEB Silver. That's one of the secondary leagues in Spain, the equivalent of the NBA's D-League in terms of comparison to the country's top level.
As shown by RealGM.com, Tavares made an immediate impact. Keep in mind that he played only 6.7 minutes per game, but these are his numbers prorated to 36 minutes so you have a better indication of his level:
|Tavares' "Rookie" Season|
That looks an awful lot like a big man getting by because he's, well, big.
The blocks and rebounds, coupled with the ridiculously low free-throw percentage, indicate that Tavares was able to make an impact simply because he towered over everyone else in a low-level Spanish league.
But now, take a gander at how he fared during the next two seasons, once more prorated to 36 minutes:
At first glance, you might not think he improved this past year.
Context is important, especially because per-36-minute numbers are difficult to maintain. In 2012-13, Tavares spent just 8.9 minutes per game on the court, and he split his time between U.B. La Palma and Gran Canaria. The latter is part of the Spanish ACB, which represents a significant step up in difficulty.
When the 2013-14 season rolled around, there was no more splitting time. The 7'2" center not only remained with Gran Canaria for all 35 games, but he started 17 contests and averaged 21.5 minutes per game.
The numbers may have declined, but his skills only improved.
Here's Givony once more:
His coming out party from a NBA standpoint came in early February in the Spanish Cup (the Copa del Rey), where he posted 16 points and 8 rebounds in a loss to Real Madrid and their star-studded frontcourt.
Tavares exceeded all expectations this season relative to his experience-level and the quality of the competition he faced in arguably the toughest domestic league in Europe, as the starting center of a team currently in fifth place in the ACB.
After this latest season, it's abundantly clear that he has the size and skill necessary to make the jump to the NBA.
But what are those skills?
"Yes, I watch [the NBA] a lot. I like Dwight Howard and Tim Duncan," Tavares said during an interview with HoopsHype.com's Jorge Sierra before the 2013 NBA draft, though he'd ultimately withdraw his name from consideration that year.
Though it would be asking a lot for him to ever reach the level of either aforementioned player, those are the perfect guys for Tavares to be watching.
Defensively, the 7'2" center plays a lot like D12. He excels as a pick-and-roll defender, much like the current Houston Rocket, and he's mobile enough to do a convincing Howard imitation when he flashes out against a defender and recovers with his lateral quickness and ridiculous wingspan.
On offense, Duncan is the perfect model, though it's almost inconceivable that Tavares would ever reach the offensive level of The Big Fundamental. Aim high, right?
After struggling with his jumper during his initial foray into professional basketball, Tavares didn't do much to change that over the next few years. There's still not much of a working mid-range game, but he improved rather dramatically at the charity stripe.
As you can see below at 6:24, he has incredible consistency on his shooting stroke, which hopefully can one day be transferred to his game in the flow of action.
However, as Davide Bortoluzzi writes for NBADraft.net, "Offensively he’s still rather raw, he lacks post moves and struggles to effectively take position in the painted area ... Furthermore his lack of solid ball handling skills makes it difficult for him to create his own shot."
Givony explains further:
He's not much of a scorer at all, averaging just 11.5 points per-40 minutes, as he doesn't have much of a post game (just 17 attempts all season), and doesn't show much range outside of five feet, attempting only six jumpers all season. 77% of Tavares' offense this season came off cuts, pick and roll finishes, and offensive rebound put-back attempts.
Rawness is to be expected. But that can be changed, especially if he's tutored by a legend of the game.
After all, it's about the coveted upside here.
Tavares already looks like a quality shot-blocker and defender who can capably finish some plays around the basket. But given his height, his work ethic and his lack of experience with a basketball in his hands, it's easy to see him showcasing drastic improvement over the next few years.
The Draft Projection
The NBA draft is all about mixing risk with safety.
Ideally, teams can select a high-upside player who, at worst, will still be a quality player in the rotation. But that's obviously not easy to find, and Tavares certainly doesn't fall into that category.
Still, that upside, potential or ceiling—whatever you want to call it—is quite tantalizing.
It's why Wojnarowski writes the following:
Several NBA executives believe Tavares, who is 7-foot-3, has a strong chance to work himself into the first round of this month's NBA draft, and several teams choosing in the range of the 20s plan to bring him in for closer inspections, sources said.
So, where do some of the most prominent mock drafts have Tavares going?
DraftExpress.com has the big man coming off the board at No. 32, making him one of the Philadelphia 76ers' many second-round picks. NBADraft.net has him lasting a bit longer, with the Minnesota Timberwolves springing for him at No. 40. Sam Amico, writing for Fox Sports Ohio, has Tavares going at No. 33 to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
And finally, we have the team from BasketballInsiders.com.
Alex Kennedy agrees with Amico and puts Tavares at No. 33. Yannis Koutroupis and Steve Kyler are the only ones who have the 7-footer going in the first round, slotting him at No. 27 (Phoenix Suns) and No. 30 (San Antonio Spurs), respectively. Finally, Joel Brigham has the least lofty projection—No. 41 to the Denver Nuggets.
Obviously, there's a wide range here.
Those seven two-round mocks have him going anywhere from No. 27 to No. 41, and Wojnarowski's report indicates that teams in the 20s are interested in the big man. But there's only so much that closer inspections can reveal.
Ultimately, game tape is limited, and the lack of elite athleticism and explosiveness will hinder what Tavares can show during individual workouts in gyms. This isn't going to be the second coming of Bismack Biyombo, when an international prospect bursts on the scene and experiences an astronomical rise on most big boards because of his insane hops and physical tools.
Tavares remains shrouded in mystery.
But for him to come off the board, all it takes is one interested team deciding to peel back the curtains for itself.