The Dallas Mavericks traded for Ray Spalding during the 2018 NBA draft Thursday. The Philadelphia 76ers had selected him with the No. 56 overall pick.
The Louisville product has long been considered a big man with upside. Two years ago, I was chatting about Louisville with an NBA scout, and he told me he thought Spalding was the best pro prospect on that roster. It's important to note Donovan Mitchell was a Louisville Cardinal then. Most front offices would probably like a mulligan on Mitchell, but it speaks to Spalding's potential. He moves exceptionally well for his size, has some offensive skill, can defend multiple positions and is long. That's a good combination in today's NBA.
Weight: 215.4 pounds
Pro-player comparison: Hakim Warrick
Spalding put up solid numbers this past season (12.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game), and he may have performed better had he been paired with better guards. He has potential to be an excellent rim-roller, as he's smooth while coming out of the roll, and his long arms help him go get just about anything thrown around the rim.
Spalding performed decent as a low-post scorer this season—123 points on 137 opportunities—and while that might not be efficient enough to be considered a strength, he has a good enough low-post game to take advantage of mismatches. He can score over either shoulder and has both a lefty and righty jump hook.
Spalding also understands angles, and if he's up against a smaller defender, which happens a lot in the switch-heavy NBA, he can take advantage.
He also has good instincts as an offensive rebounder, and his length plus his willingness to use both hands on the glass helps him get to a lot of balls. He's also a quick second jumper, and it doesn't take him long to gather and go back up.
Sometimes we put too much stock in numbers when a big man is going to play a lesser role. There's a lot to like about Spalding's strengths, and there's some upside as well if he improves his shooting. He handles the ball well for a player his size and could be used in dribble hand-off action that leads him to roll to the rim. He also transitions quickly from defense to offense, and that should lead to easy buckets.
Spalding would have gone much higher in the draft if he'd shown the ability to consistently make jump shots. He made only five of 19 threes this year and went 10-of-33 on jumpers. His form is not bad, but sometimes he rushes his shot.
Spalding was also a poor free-throw shooter for his career (57.9 percent), but he did shoot a career-best 64.0 percent this past season.
There's a workable jump shot there, and it should not be ruled out that he can become a threat in the mid-range and maybe even out to the three-point line. Watch the video below. Granted, there's no defense, but he looks like someone who could turn into a capable shooter.
Spalding is a capable shot-blocker (1.7 per game as a junior), but what makes him intriguing as a defender is his ability to switch onto guards and also create turnovers. He averaged 1.5 steals per game, which is a number you rarely see from a big man. Spalding slides his feet well and embraces a switch. On 21 possessions this past year against the handler in a pick-and-roll, he allowed only six points.
There are not many centers who can move defensively like this. (Spalding is listed as a power forward, but he makes more sense and provides more value as a center.) He will need to continue to get stronger to be able to hold his ground against NBA centers, but he should hang against a lot of different lineups. If an opponent inserts a small-ball center, you can keep Spalding on the floor.
He's comfortable defending on the perimeter, and he can cover a lot of ground quickly. It's also beneficial he's coming into the league having been coached for two years by Rick Pitino. Pitino was one of the best defensive coaches in college basketball. There are subtle things Spalding will do on the defensive end that show he's been well-coached. For instance, notice on the closeout below how he uses his left hand to contest against a right-handed shooter.
NBA coaches will appreciate these technical aspects of Spalding's defense.
Projected role: Starting center
It's becoming increasingly difficult to justify starting a non-shooter, even at center. But if Spalding ever develops a reliable jump shot, he could evolve into a startable center. Of course, there's a reason he was drafted where he was. Spalding has often left evaluators wanting more, and his coaches could end up feeling the same way. Maybe he'll become a fringe NBA player.
But the building blocks are there for Spalding to become an ideal center. His ability to guard multiple positions is extremely valuable. He has good hands, is long and a decent rim protector, plus he works well in the pick-and-roll. Louisville players seem to be outperforming their draft stock in recent years (Hello, Mitchell and Terry Rozier), and Spalding could be the next one to do that.