The Development of Len Schoormann
Len Schoormann has been regarded one of the best prospects in the 2002-generation for a long time. During the 2017/18 season, the athletic guard averaged 35 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists and 5 steals per-40 minutes in the German JBBL, the U16 league. Athletic players have been known to dominate at the JBBL level, because there’s a large talent disparity within the league. JBBL currently consists of 56 teams in eight divisions, which, given basketball is still a fringe sport in Germany, means that many teams are not competitive with the elite youth development programs in the country. Schoormann was unstoppable at this level, relentlessly attacking defenders from the perimeter, throwing down countless highlight dunks and ultimately being rewarded with the MVP-trophy in 2018.
In the JBBL Final 2017, Len Schoormann (14 y/o) was matched up against possible 2021 lottery pick Franz Wagner (15 y/o). At the time, Schoormann was an outstanding athlete at 6’3″, while Wagner was 6’1″ with far less athletic ability. Wagner was as physically literate as they come, but he lacked fast-twitch athleticism, which shows in the two possessions in the video, going against one another. Wagner has since then developed into a mobile, defensively versatile 6’9″ forward as you can see in the clips in Jake Rosen‘s fantastic scouting report. Schoormann was a physical early bloomer, while Wagner was a late bloomer. The latter’s late growth spurt and athletic progress, combined with the skills he was already showing at 15, ultimately turned him into an NBA prospect. This is a fascinating reminder of how hard it is to predict long-term development, especially physically, and it’s one of many reasons I consider ranking 14-year olds a malpractice.
The disadvantage of the big talent disparity in the JBBL is that many players can dominate in ways, which don’t work at higher levels. Athletically-gifted players can become productive by heavily relying on their physical tools, but when the competition starts matching up athletically, these tools need to be combined with ball-handling, shooting, passing and perceptual skills to maintain the same productivity. Despite his dominance at a young age, Schoormann also needed significant improvements in those areas, since almost no player in the world can dominate senior competition by heavily relying on tools. You can’t expect a successful 16-year old to have this kind of long-term vision on his own development, so it’s the coaches’ responsibility to prepare these players for the senior level by making them aware of the skills they need to improve to succeed there. In Schoormann’s case, he needed to add more deception to his driving game and improve his handle to continue getting by defenders as easily as he did at the U16 level.
Fast forward a few years and Schoormann’s driving game still mostly consists of straight-line drives. He’s had some success with it in the ProB (German 3rd Division) – though even at that level a lot of his baskets come in transition – but it’s unlikely to be sufficient at the BBL level. The efficiency in the table above is a subsidiary matter: what really matters is the process. The reason Luka Doncic is borderline impossible to stay in front of, despite his non-elite straight-line athleticism, is his unpredictability. He probes defenders with his handle and his tremendous ability to change speeds, quickly recognizes holes in the defense with his spatial awareness and court vision and punishes them by using his incredible footwork to create his own shots at the rim or by finding open teammates with pinpoint passes. Luka’s level is, of course, unattainable for most ordinary mortals, but for Schoormann to become a lead guard in the BBL or even make the NBA, he needed to make improvements to his footwork to execute quick, technically-sound direction changes and especially to his handle to effectively change pace or shift defenders out of their shoes. He’s gotten quite good at creating separation before / at the start of the drive, but once he’s on the move, it’s mostly full speed in a straight line.
In the above clip, Schoormann lacks the unpredictability. With the time winding down, he backs up to get a full head of steam to attack D.J. Seeley, a solid EuroLeague player. He creates a bit of a driving angle with the crossover, but it’s ultimately neither quick nor deceptive enough to shift Seeley out of his shoes. Schoormann initiates the straight-line drive, but Seeley catches up to him right after the free-throw line and forces him into a tough hanging shot, one he’s taken several times this season. Schoormann has built up enough muscle to use his body to create space and that should come in handy in several situations, but these kind of “head through a wall”-attempts are not the way to long-term success.
For an 18-year old, this is impressive stuff. In Nihad Đedović, he takes one of the BBL’s better defenders off the dribble out of a non-advantage situation, creating a driving angle by taking the ball to the left and then using his foot speed to get to the cup. The degree of difficulty is high, but the ability to finish through the contact is really good for his age. Reliance on foot speed won’t cut it at the highest levels, however. Schoormann’s best counters are his spin move and his Eurostep, but he could open up a whole new world of possibilities by setting defenders up prior to attacking their top foot and then adding hesitations to freeze defenders during the drive, jump stops to get into more controlled scoring positions and up-fakes to lose defenders at the basket.
Here’s another situation where Schoormann runs himself into trouble, because Diego Flaccadori is already prepared for the right-hand drive and beats him to the spot. Seven of the nineteen turnovers Schoormann has commited against BBL competition (until March 24th) occurred in similar situations.
“It doesn’t really matter how fast a guard is, as long as the defense doesn’t know what speed is next and the angle to stopping the next speed is poor, it’s a wrap. Adding on layers of counters with finishing footwork and passing angles and voilá.” – PD WebSource: Twitter
In this tweet, PD describes the key to effective slashing; the offensive player needs to keep the defense guessing and then have the capabilities to capitalize on bad defensive positioning. If Frankfurt only wants Schoormann to develop into a good closeout attacker, straight-line drives can be successful to a certain degree. But if they want him to develop into an initiator (they wouldn’t give him as many isolation possessions if they didn’t), they should take this quote to heart. Schoormann has shown promise creating driving angles, but the defense always knows what speed is next, and there’s room for improvement in terms of finishing footwork and passing angles as well.
I wouldn’t rule out that Schoormann still develops into a high-level European guard or even an NBA player. He’s only 18 years old, the athleticism is there (and it’s extremely fun when he gets an open lane), and his improvement in other areas of his game (added a significant amount of muscle, sped up his jump shot release (at least from my perspective), and improved his defense, especially in terms of maneuvering screens) hints at him being a hard worker, but, in my opinion, it’s more likely at this point that he ends up being a solid BBL player. And that’s still fantastic. No matter what people thought you could be at age 14, if you’re able to earn good money doing something you enjoy, you’ve won in life. I just believe he has potential to be even more.
A Case Study into the Longevity of the Tallest NBA Players
Basketball is notoriously physically taxing, especially for taller players. Many of the NBA’s most talented giants, such as Yao Ming and Ralph Sampson, had their careers cut short by devastating injuries. With the emergence of prospects like Victor Wembanyama (7’2” at 17) and Aday Mara (7’2” at 16), it’s therefore important to consider how longevous the careers of the tallest players in NBA history were and if there are any lessons to be learned, which may help prolong careers in the future.
The table on the right lists the seventeen players in NBA history who stood at least 7’3” and played 50 or more NBA games. It adds some (context-free) indicators of longevity. Context is extremely important, however, so we’ll dive deeper into the careers of the four players highlighted in green. These players are most similar to modern big men (and therefore also to Wembanyama, Mara and their successors) with their size, mobility and physically draining playstyles:
Standing at 7’4” with outlier agility and vertical pop for his size, Ralph Sampson was a highly-touted prospect from a young age. When he was drafted in 1983, Sampson had already played roughly seven seasons of serious basketball with a heavy minute load, which includes four seasons at Virginia (and three “national college player of the year”-titles). He constantly applied his athleticism on the court, going for highlight dunks, protecting the basket on the other end and running the break at high speeds. Sampson played over 9000 minutes in his first three years in the league, before he suffered a knee injury in 1987, which sent his career into a downward spiral. He was rushed back too quickly and suffered back injuries shortly after. He was never the same and only played roughly 3500 NBA minutes after his 27th birthday.
The case of Arvydas Sabonis was quite similar. His career isn’t accurately portrayed by the table above as he entered the pro ranks in 1981 and only retired in 2004, aged almost 40. Sabonis was a gangly teenager with outlier agility for his size, excellent vertical athleticism as well as a multi-faceted scoring game (paint, post and midrange – he added the three-pointer after the line was instituted in FIBA play in 1984), whose game involved a lot of running and jumping. While minute totals have not been preserved, Sabonis was already Žalgiris Kaunas’ leading scorer before his 20th birthday (19.4 points per game during the 1984 Soviet league season). This went well for a while, but in 1986, Sabonis’ schedule of nonstop basketball with Kaunas and the Soviet Union caught up to him when he suffered his first Achilles’ tendon injury. He later reported that his injuries were not given enough time to recover and he was often rushed back, because his talent was so desperately needed. The catastrophic handling of his injuries robbed him of most of his athleticism, and by the time he got to Portland in 1995, Sabonis could’ve qualified for a handicapped parking spot based on his X-ray alone, according to the team’s doctor. The Lithuanian was still an impactful player for almost a decade afterwards, but he became a more stationary presence, reliant on skill, size and strength as his knees had little left to give.
7’6″ Shawn Bradley didn’t have quite such a large workload at a young age. By the time he was drafted, he had played roughly four years of high-level basketball. He made three All-State teams in Utah and played one season at BYU, before he left college for two years to go on a Mormon mission in Australia. Afterwards, he declared for the draft in 1993. Bradley was very mobile for his size and focused a lot of his efforts on protecting the basket. He was too skinny to play physical in the post offensively, but moving around the court and defending the strong centers of the ’90s was still taxing for a man his size. He had several injuries throughout his career: 50 games into rookie year, he dislocated his knee cap. During preseason of his sophomore year, he injured the same knee while trying to block a shot. He had several minor injuries afterwards, but he managed to play at least 49 games in every season of his career and finished with over 20,000 minutes played in the NBA, a remarkable number for a man his size. It’s impossible to determine why he was able to have a long career, but the reasons could include a less physical playstyle on offense, less weight relative to his height or luck.
In the same vein as Sabonis, Kristaps Porzingis entered the pro ranks at 17, after he had already seriously practiced to become a pro for five years prior. He played two full pro seasons in Sevilla, averaging 15 minutes per game (531 in total) in the first and over 21 minutes (1072 in total) in the second, while only missing two games over that span. Despite his physically-taxing playstyle, which involves constant movement to get open for three-pointers, the occasional high-flying dunk and lots of covered ground on defense (not necessarily relative to his peers, but definitely in comparison to earlier NBA eras), he coped well with the NBA’s schedule for over two years, before he tore his ACL in February 2018, aged 22. After a long road to recovery, he returned for a successful 2019-20 season, which unfortunately ended with a torn meniscus, his second major injury at age 25. Luckily, these injuries haven’t caused a major decline, but he’s lost a small amount of the athleticism he showed in his early twenties and he’s gotten a bit more cautious about applying it as well.
These are cautionary tales not to overtax the big-man’s body. Luckily, the awareness for this issue has grown tremendously over the past decades, so we’ll hopefully never ever see a big pushed to play through terrible injuries again. Despite his young age, Victor Wembanyama already has a team behind him, which monitors his physical progression and tries to make sure he doesn’t get overworked. Nevertheless, the workload of an NBA schedule with 48-minute games every 2-3 days definitely exceeds Sabonis’ during the mid-eighties, which is far from ideal for 7’2”+ players of the future. Some of the conclusions to take away from these historical examples are that skill-based playstyle age better and that it’s desirable to limit strain on the knees as much as possible. Even though that’s not fun for the player, limiting the amounts of dunks could be one method in that regard, especially considering Wembanyama’s recent fibula stress fracture occured after the game in which he had four thundering dunks.
(Credit “NBA Cobwebs” for providing detailed background information on the careers of Sampson and Bradley)
Owen Foxwell – Under-the-Radar Guard from Down Under
At the 2016 Olympics, the Australian men’s national team roster was 33 years old on average, and at the World Cup in 2019, their players averaged 31 years old. With that generation slowly entering the final stretch of their careers, it’s been time for a rejuvenation. Luckily, the next generation of Australian basketball, headed by projected 2021 first round pick Josh Giddey, looks to be similarly promising as the last one. In the facilities of NBA Global Academy and the Centre of Excellence in Canberra, many of the country’s most talented youngsters are getting high-level training. However, not everyone earns a scholarship to these elite academies, and there are plenty of amazing young players, who play in small local teams or in Australian AAU tournaments and don’t really get the attention they deserve. Owen Foxwell, in my opinion, is one of these players.
Foxwell is a 2003-born (unconfirmed, but if it’s true, he’s likely class of ’21 or ’22) guard from Victoria, who is currently excelling in the U21 Victorian Junior Basketball League (VJBL). Last year, he was nominated for the VIC Metro team for the U18 Australian Championships, which would’ve been his first chance on the big stage, but the tournament was cancelled. Because of these unfortunate circumstances, he’s flying under the radar. Luckily, he was recently selected to represent the Victoria state team at the U20 AusChamps in May, which should put him on the map of coaches from the US. If he’s interested in college, low-major D1 (and everything below that, because D1 roster spots are hard to come by this year) schools looking for an initiator should definitely consider him. Simplistically put, there are three types of initiator archetypes, who can run a successful offense:
- Excellent scorers with enough passing chops to capitalize on their scoring gravity.
- Excellent passers either with perimeter gravity, so they can blow by their matchup and create overloads, or rim gravity to constantly force help at the basket and create openings for teammates.
- Players who are excellent at scoring and passing. These are the players heliocentric offenses are often built around.
In the three games I’ve seen, Foxwell hasn’t clearly fit into one of those categories, though I think he’ll ultimately fit best into category 2. Watching his EXYBL games, the passing was most intriguing. Despite his youth, he was able to execute a vast array of passes from different angles, proved comfortable against various defensive coverages (reading help, double and triple teams) and was especially impressive throwing accurate passes with his left hand. He complements the passing chops with a really good shot (through three games I’ve hand-tracked he shot 9-24 from three and 15-18 from the line). The game linked above convinced me fully of his shooting ability as he kept hitting nothing-but-net pull-up threes, which is relatively rare for a teenager. His shooting forces defenders to stick to him tightly on the perimeter, which he can take advantage of with his fluid ball-handling and wide arsenal of direction/pace moves and thereby create passing windows for his teammates.
The one big question mark about Foxwell is his height as measurements are unavailable. He seems to be somewhere between 6’0″ and 6’3″, and the closer he comes to the latter measurement, the more interesting he’ll be for D1-teams. Small-ish guards seem to have a significantly harder time garnering interest from colleges than seven footers, but Foxwell’s skill set should still be really intriguing for a good amount of US-colleges. And given that he’s not a high-profile recruit, he could end up being a steal for whatever team recruits him to come to the US.