Height - 6’8
Weight - 229 lbs
Wingspan - 7’3
Usman Garuba emerged as mid first round pick this season for Real Madrid Baloncesto on the back of his defense. Garuba was a precocious, physical defender who was consistently excellent over the course of an entire season for one of Europe’s most prestigious teams. Real Madrid do not simply hand out minutes to promising young players, those minutes have to be earned.
A lot of people will look at Garuba’s physicals and will believe that Usman’s positive contributions only stemmed from him playing in a weak, unathletic league. I would argue that this is a stereotype about athletic players who are in the leagues other than the NBA.
The Spanish league, Liga ACB, is the best league in Europe and has a serious case for being the second best league in the world. It is a league that is tough and physical. To succeed in Spain, a player has to be smart and they have to be ready to take contact. Garuba played really well in a grown man’s league and there is enough past history to indicate that Liga ACB players go on to contribute positively for NBA teams.
Ricky Rubio, Serge Ibaka and Kristaps Porzingis have all gone on to have careers in the NBA where they have contributed to winning. In the last year, Facundo Campazzo and Gabriel Deck came over from Madrid and played important roles on their NBA teams. It is not unrealistic to say that Usman could have a similar impact.
Usman should be an elite defensive player who can defend multiple positions and who has the motor to play hard for all 48 minutes. Moreover, Garuba has shown some feel for passing for his teammates into scoring opportunities.
Garuba’s swing skill will be his shooting. Garuba’s shot has only recently started to come around and it is difficult to determine whether Usman’s recent hot streak is just a streak. Garuba needs to be an efficient shooter from downtown to be a valuable contributor in the NBA; wings that cannot shoot struggle to earn playing time.
In Spain, Coach Laso liked to put Usman down low and allowed him to facilitate out of the post. Mark Daigneault ran actions for Gabriel Deck in the post last season and it is not unreasonable to assume that Coach Mark would do something similar for Garuba.
Garuba’s positional fit is quite tricky. Garuba’s skill-set profiles to be being a ‘4’ in the modern NBA but he will be under-sized for that position at just 6’8. His wingspan will help him to guard larger players but it could be difficult for Usman at times. Garuba will likely be a decent role player to have off the bench while he develops his offensive game.
Garuba’s best game of the season came late in the Liga ACB season. Liga ACB is structured similarly to the NBA, there is a regular season which then feeds into the playoffs. Garuba’s performance came in the league’s semifinals against Valencia Basket.
The series was tied at 1-1 heading into the final game of the series; the winner would go on to play a stacked Barcelona team. Garuba scored 16 points with three makes from downtown while also accumulating 14 rebounds as he got Real Madrid over the line. It was a mature, necessary performance from the Spanish youngster.
Usman is already a smart defensive player who has feel for the game on that end of the floor. Garuba is comfortable holding his own against bigger players due to his wingspan and active hands. Usman racks up deflections and disrupts the opposing team’s rhythm. His activity is rather controlled for a young player; Garuba will attempt to deflect the ball when he is in good position rather than just swinging at every single pass.
His awareness on defense is strong; Usman consistently makes the timely rotation and anticipates danger before the attacking threat materialises. Garuba uses his length well by being in the right position on defense; it is rare to see Usman chasing the play desperately, he is almost always attached to his assignment.
Garuba’s ceiling as a defensive player is high; Usman has the length to guard bigger players while also being quick enough to adequately defend smaller guards on switches. Garuba has good lateral quickness and his motor means that he is capable of sticking with faster players.
His size and instincts do suggest that Usman Garuba could play the same sort of role that PJ Tucker currently plays for the Milwaukee Bucks. Tucker has been linchpin of defenses for contending teams for the last four years due to his versatility, intelligence and motor. Garuba can fill that role in a few years time.
Garuba has also shown playmaking instincts during his time at Real Madrid. Usman’s raw numbers (1.1 assists per game) do not necessarily reflect his ability to find the pass but from the film, it is evident that Usman understands how to stretch the defence out and create for others using his passing.
Given that Garuba was used in the post regularly by Coach Laso, he became proficient at finding really nice reads out of the post. Garuba executed simple reads such as kick-outs to the perimeter or bounce passes to cutters well.
The encouraging aspect of Usman’s passing was his burgeoning ability to make more advanced reads. There were possessions where Garuba would find the reverse pass to the shooter on the weak-side or he would make an unsighted pass to a player cutting middle. Those are difficult passes to make for veteran players; for a young player who is still learning the game, that is seriously impressive.
His understanding of spacing and movement that was learned in the post will translate to other zones of the floor. I think Usman would do well in hand-off situations or on the short roll to the rim. I am confident that Garuba will be able to find the corners with the pass in a timely manner.
Garuba’s jumper is questionable right now but there are signs of encouragement. Over the last ten games of the season, Usman shot 38.5% from deep in Liga ACB competition. Since early February, Usman has taken 55 3-point attempts and he has made 20 shots from downtown. His shooting percentage on 3-point shots over this period works out to be 36.4%. The statistics clearly indicate that Usman has improved as a shooter during the latter half of his season.
Garuba’s shot mechanics are relatively fluid but his shot will need to be refined for Usman to be effective in the NBA. At the moment, Garuba’s release point is quite low and he would benefit from getting his shot off higher in his trajectory. Those few extra inches will make his shot harder to contest for the opposing team.
Moreover, Garuba’s release could be cleaner; he is prone to letting his guide hand influence the shot’s path which is not proper technique. These issues can be fixed over time and with repetition.
Usman is already a well-rounded, technically sound prospect with one glaring weakness. His shooting is inconsistent right now and there are no guarantees that he develops into being a reliable option from downtown. Garuba needs his shooting to come around for him to reach his full potential.
Garuba with shooting could be a Paul Millsap level player. His versatility on defense, his passing and intelligence certainly mirror the Nuggets’ power forward. Millsap was on a similar sort of career path until he developed a reliable three-ball in 2013.
Garuba at 16 or 18 is an excellent pick by the Thunder who will bring value to the team with his defense and passing. In the short-term, Garuba would be a useful player off the bench who can provide steel to a bench unit that struggled to guard last season. In the long-run, Garuba could realistically be an excellent role player on a very good team.