Men's Basketball

Southerland’s draft stock benefits from modern NBA’s need for floor spacers

When James Southerland put the ball on the floor and sliced through the Michigan defense for an emphatic dunk in the final minutes of Syracuse’s 61-56 Final Four loss, it elicited groans from the Orange faithful. They had heard tales of Southerland’s otherworldly athleticism and seen flashes of it during layup lines—dunk lines in his case—during pregame warmups, so why couldn’t he just do that for his whole career?

The same thought crosses the mind of NBA scouts. They can see the devastating 3-point shooting. The athleticism, the defense, the skills — those were the nature of myth, so often unseen on the court at SU.

As Southerland makes the workout rounds, showcasing his skills for NBA teams across the nation — from the Washington Wizards to the Los Angeles Lakers, from the San Antonio Spurs to the Milwaukee Bucks — NBA teams have finally been able to see it firsthand.

“As much as God gave him,” Southerland’s high school coach Ron Naclerio said, referring to his 3-point-shooting ability, “he has more.”

Therein lies the need for a careful balance. While Syracuse fans longed for Southerland to be more than just a 3-point specialist, that niche makes scouts drool, and on Thursday at the NBA Draft at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, it’s what all but guarantees that some team will take a shot on him.

The biggest criticism he faced at SU was his largely one-dimensional skill set. He could shoot as well as anyone in the country, but often that was all he did, catch and shoot. He spent his Orange career working to become a better defender – which he achieved relatively well in the 2-3 zone – and a better dribbler, so that those flashes like the ones against Michigan would be more than just blips on his career radar.

So he must strike a careful balance when he prepares for the NBA. While there are dreams of the stardom that comes with being a complete player, the safer option is becoming a specialist.

“You want to make your weaknesses less weak, but don’t take those strengths for granted,” Naclerio said. “You want to have more of those Big East tournaments, more of those Arkansas games.”

Southerland’s almost comical barrage of 3-pointers at the Big East tournament showed the world what Syracuse fans already knew: James Southerland is one hell of a shooter.

Naclerio — who also writes for The Hoop Scoop, a national recruiting website — sat nearby as scouts marveled at Southerland’s record-setting performance. One scout for an Eastern Conference team that primarily scouts other professional teams attended the Big East tournament and was blown away. One weekend can leave a big impression.

A new era of basketball has created new jobs — ones that Southerland is perfectly suited for. Never before have athletic forwards who can defend and knock down 3-pointers been more valuable.

The Miami Heat built an entire system around it, surrounding skilled penetrators Dwyane Wade and LeBron James with floor spacers such as Rashard Lewis, Mike Miller, Shane Battier and Ray Allen.

“If you do one thing really well, that’s almost better than being pretty good at a lot of things. So that’s in his favor,” said Aran Smith, owner of and analyst at NBADraft.net. “Teams could see him as a shooting specialist and live with the deficiencies sort of thing, as long as he can go in and throw it up when he’s in there, you know, spread the floor.”

Southerland is up to 221 pounds, from 215 with the Orange, Naclerio said. At 6 feet, 8 inches with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, he’s always been a good rebounder, ranking second on the team last season. Scouts now get to see that.

The shooting is still what sets him apart, but teams are surprised by his rebounding, athleticism and dribbling, Naclerio said.

Compare him with Tim Hardaway Jr., the Michigan shooting guard whose NBA role seems similar to Southerland’s. Even as the 6-foot-6 Hardaway outplayed Southerland in the Final Four game – though Southerland was playing sick, Naclerio said – Southerland’s complete body of work bested Hardaway’s.

The shooting guard posted an 17.7 player efficiency rating last season, according to Sports-Reference.com. Southerland scored a 22.8 in the closest thing basketball has to an all-encompassing metric, better than other potential floor spacers Kenny Kadji (21.4) and Seth Curry (22.7).

He and the team that draft him can dream about that play against Michigan becoming a regularity. The potential is there. But they can almost certainly watch him develop into an even greater shooter, and in today’s NBA that’s nearly as valuable.

“It’s like in American League baseball, they all want to have a great DH,” Naclerio said. “In the NBA, everybody needs at least one guy to stretch the defense and James is that guy.”

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