Which point guard is Michigan’s best NBA prospect?

April 10, 2012 in Cover Story, Division I

Trey Burk, Ray McCallum and Keith Appling.

By Patrick Hayes

The state of Michigan boasts three college point guards right now who are legitimately NBA prospects. Michigan‘s Trey Burke nearly entered this year’s NBA Draft (where he was projected as a mid to late second round pick) before deciding to return to Ann Arbor for another year. Michigan State‘s Keith Appling may not be a natural point guard, but he’s a former Mr. Basketball, lightning fast and already one of the best defensive guards in the country. The best high school prospect out of the bunch might have been University of Detroit‘s Ray McCallum, a high major recruit who went the Mid-Major route to play for his dad.

Here is what ESPN NBA Draft Analyst Chad Ford has to say about each guy. Burke:

Burke was another player that wasn’t on many draft boards going into (the) Maui (Invitational). By the time he left, he was on everyone’s. Burke isn’t a special athlete and he lacks ideal size for his position, so what’s the buzz about? He played with amazing poise, got all of his teammates involved and hit big shots from all over the floor. There is a dearth of true point guards in the college ranks right now. Burke looked the part of a future NBA backup point guard as a freshman playing in the first month of his career. If he can continue to improve, he’s a possible first-round prospect down the road.

McCallum:

McCallum is a pure point guard who plays the game with his head and his heart. He surprised a lot of recruiters by turning down offers from UCLA and Florida to play for his father at Detroit Mercy.

McCallum’s basketball IQ and floor leadership are off the charts. He’s got sneaky speed and explosiveness and he’s going to come in and dominate from day one. He may not be the type to be a one-and-done guard, but several NBA scouts say he could be a lottery pick down the road.

Appling:

For starters, he’s an NBA athlete, has a quick first step and can play both the 1 and the 2 in the backcourt. He was known primarily as a slasher in high school but shot a very respectable 41 percent from 3-point range as a freshman at MSU. He plays hard and is aggressive on both ends of the floor.

Some scouts worry that he’s a “tweener” — i.e. an undersized 2 — but there have been a number of recently drafted players who fit his profile and have fared well in the NBA.

It has been a long time since the state has had three college guards of this caliber on three different teams who are all close to the same age (Burke will be a sophomore, Appling and McCallum will be juniors next season) playing at once. With Burke foregoing the draft and all three teams returning a lot of talent from already successful teams, next season is certainly going to be a fun one to watch college basketball in Michigan. But what’s the use of sports if you can’t have pointless debates with no right or wrong answer? In that spirit, which of these three guards would you expect to have the best shot at turning into a NBA point guard?

The Prototype

McCallum was one of the most complete high school point guards I’ve ever watched. He was smooth and athletic, unselfish and, in my opinion, the player who should’ve won the Mr. Basketball award in 2010 (he finished third behind Appling and Trey Zeigler). The first time I watched him live, he and Detroit Country Day were playing an average Flint Northern team. McCallum didn’t look bad early in that game, but he just didn’t do much that stood out — took care of the ball, ran the offense, passed when he was supposed to pass, took open shots if he had them. He seemed like a fine, steady player, but I wasn’t quite sure what all the fuss was about. Then, he leaped to catch a bad pass in the corner, maintained his balance, split a double team with one dribble and extended himself for a contested baseline dunk. I started to get it.

McCallum was a really good player in the Horizon League from the moment he stepped on the court at Detroit. He led the Titans to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1999 this year. If there is a criticism of his game, it has been that as a highly touted recruit who went to a smaller school and conference, he hasn’t been quite  as dominant as expected. He had a great freshman season, but his numbers didn’t improve dramatically as a sophomore.

His shooting percentage got better (46 percent as a sophomore vs. 44 percent as a freshman), but his 3-point percentage fell to 24 percent from 31 percent. He also got to the line less, attempting one fewer free throw per game as a sophomore than he did as a freshman. For as good and unselfish a passer as he was in high school, he hasn’t shown off his passing much as a college player yet. He averaged four assists per game as a sophomore (down from 4.9 the previous season) and his 25.2 assist percentage was below Burke’s (28.6) and only slightly better than Appling’s (23.7).

That’s not meant to be overly-critical of McCallum. It’s just that I truly believe he has the best overall mix of size and skill to go on to a standout professional career of any of the three. And it’s not like he didn’t improve things — his free throw percentage went up to 77 percent from 69 percent and he takes good care of the basketball. His turnover rate of 16 percent was down two percent from a year ago and it was far superior to Burke’s (18.7 percent) and Appling’s (20.6 percent).

McCallum’s passing was hurt by the fact that Detroit had key offensive weapons miss time this year. Nick Minnerath was out for the year with an injury and Eli Holman missed games early on due to off-court issues. Minus those two at times, Detroit’s lineup had exactly one player — McCallum — who could reliably get his own shot whenever he needed to. Having that responsibility would make any player a bit less efficient. Surrounded by more offensive talent next year, McCallum should both see less attention from opposing defenses and be free to switch back and forth more often between scorer and distributor.

The Underdog

After a highly productive college career at St. Joseph’s, undersized point guard Jameer Nelson turned his ability to make long-range jumpers and take care of the ball into a successful NBA career despite his lack of height. Burke has a ways to go before he’s as productive a college player as Nelson was, but he’s skilled enough to take a similar career path if he keeps improving at Michigan.

Burke, like McCallum, is a natural point guard. Unlike McCallum, Burke doesn’t have the size for the position that the NBA craves. That doesn’t mean Burke isn’t capable of being a useful or even above average pro, it just means that he’s going to have to work harder than the bigger McCallum and Appling to convince measurables-obsessed scouts.

Burke’s best attributes are his vision, IQ and his fearlessness. Based on their bodies of work last season, Burke is the best passer of the three (although I think McCallum will be the better passer in the long run). As a freshman, he already had a good understanding of when to push the pace, when to slow things down and was great at kicking out to Michigan’s many shooters when his dribble penetration broke down a defense. In the right NBA offense, his drive and kick ability would come in handy, as would his ability to hit the three.

Burke is arguably the most complete college point guard of the three at the moment. He’s better at running an offense right now, he’s a better shooter right now and he’s a better passer right now. He’s also a good bet to improve on all those skills. He wasn’t expected to make the impact he did as a freshman, but obviously worked hard and exceeded expectations. He should be able to do so again as a sophomore. The problem for him is his main weakness when it comes to NBA potential — height — is not something he can improve, so the only way for him to shatter those preconceived ideals of what a NBA point guard is supposed to look like is for him to become too productive to ignore (similar to what Draymond Green did in his MSU career). Burke can do it, it’s just a much higher threshold that he has to reach. Players with prototypical size or superior athleticism for their position are given a bit more leeway to make mistakes than guys who are undersized. Burke is already well on his way to doing just that after his surprising freshman season.

The Enigma

Appling is the most difficult to forecast of the group. He’s the worst current point guard of the three, but he’s also the fastest, the most athletic and the best defensive player. Oh, and he’s the guy who teams stopped guarding on the perimeter late in the season, begging him to shoot his jumper.

He might have the furthest to go of any of the three to be an actual point guard, but he also might have the highest ceiling if he can get there. His perimeter shooting was certainly wretched as a sophomore — he shot 25 percent from three after hitting 41 percent as a freshman. He also got worse at the free throw line, hitting 79 percent this year as opposed to 89 percent as a freshman. His true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentages also took nosedives. Now, because he played more minutes as a sophomore than as a freshman, it’s hard to target exactly where he should be at in those categories. His jumper doesn’t look reliable enough for him to be a 41 percent 3-point shooter, but I’m not sure his 25 percent mark accurately pegs him either. He clearly needs to improve his outside shot. What is unclear is how far he has to go — in other words, did he just slump some with a bigger workload or was his freshman shooting a mirage?

One area of hope that Appling can dramatically improve, however, is his turnover rate. He still turns it over way too much (20.6 percent turnover rate as a sophomore). The good news is that 20.6 percent represents a nearly seven percent improvement from where he was as a freshman. Appling is still too sloppy with the ball at times, but to improve his turnover rate by seven percent while playing more minutes at point guard and having the ball in his hands a lot more represents significant progress.

Appling is a good finisher, he’s nearly impossible to stop in the open court and he’s one of the fastest guards with the ball in the country. Those things, plus his defense, make him an intriguing NBA prospect, even with his shooting decline this year. It’s not as if there is no precedent in the NBA for non-traditional guards who are athletic, lockdown defenders succeeding despite sometimes erratic offense — Rajon Rondo and Tony Allen come to mind as a couple of best-case examples. Appling has nowhere near Rondo’s ability as a passer or facilitator and he’s not as big as Allen, but Appling is also the type of athlete that NBA teams might look past some flaws in his production because of the physical tools and potential for improvement he offers. The new wave of NBA point guards features athletic guys who are shoot-first, but they put enough pressure on a defense that they can set up shots for others too. Appling has the physical tools to be that kind of player, he’s still working on the when to shoot/when to pass part.

Burke, Appling and McCallum all have very different styles that make them fun to watch and all three will be driving forces on successful teams. I would probably bet on McCallum as the guy with the best shot at having NBA success as a point guard — he has the natural feel for the position, the size that Burke lacks and though he’s not the defender or athlete Appling is, he’s no slouch when it comes to athleticism. That balance, I think, makes him closer. It will definitely be fun watching all three continue to develop next season.