clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

2021 NBA Draft Profile: Is Usman Garuba the defender the Nuggets need?

New, comments

Profiling Real Madrid’s Usman Garuba, a 19-year-old athletic forward and excellent defensive prospect from Spain

Willy Hernan Gomez (L) and Usman Garuba (R) of Spain seen in... Photo by Francis Gonzalez/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

As the NBA playoffs near completion with Game 1 of the NBA Finals between the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks happening tonight, the rest of the NBA has firmly turned the page on the season and is focusing instead on the 2021 NBA Draft. As Brandon mentioned in yesterday’s profile of Chris Duarte, the Denver Nuggets are currently slated to have the 26th pick of the first round, and we will have a draft profile each and every day here at Denver Stiffs leading up to the draft to help get you ready.

Continuing with the Stiffs draft profiles today is Real Madrid’s Usman Garuba. A former teammate of Nuggets point guard Facundo Campazzo, Garuba is one of the youngest, most physically gifted players in the entire draft class. He’s strong, stocky, and has the wider frame needed to be a versatile forward and even small ball center at the next level of competition.

Garuba was awarded EuroLeague’s Rising Star trophy after contributing to one of the top teams in international play at such a young age. Young players to win the honor are a who’s who of top European stars to appear in the NBA, including Andrea Bargnani, Danilo Gallinari, Ricky Rubio, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and most recently, Luka Doncic. Nobody will confuse Garuba for Doncic, but the powers that be believe in his talent and impact at the EuroLeague level.

Will Garuba develop into a similar talent? It’s possible.

Usman Garuba - Real Madrid

Vitals

Age: 19 (born March 9, 2002)

Height: 6-foot-8

Weight: 229 pounds

Wingspan: 7-foot-3

Per game Stats (Age-19 season)

Garuba appeared in 86 games for Real Madrid during his Age-19 season across multiple leagues and competitions. Overall, he averaged 17.2 minutes, 4.7 points, 4.6 rebounds, 0.7 steals, and 0.5 blocks per game. Pedestrian numbers though they might seem, keep in mind that Real Madrid is a powerhouse with several NBA caliber players. Even Luka Doncic averaged just 16.0 points per game, the historic talent that he was. Garuba’s defensive numbers stand out, though his shooting efficiency leaves much to be desired as he shot 47.1% from the field, 31.6% from three, and 65.9% from the free throw line.

Strengths

Physical gifts

Blessed with a reported 7’3” wingspan, Garuba is still learning how to use his body at just 19 years old. He has the look of an extreme athlete still finding out how to best coordinate his movements to do what his mind is telling him to do. When he figures it out, he will be an exceptional athlete, even by NBA standards.

At 6’8” Garuba already has the height to see most prototypical NBA wings eye to eye. The 7’3” wingspan helps with blocking shots, getting his fingertips on steals for wide open dunks. His actual vertical leaping leaves something to be desired, but he uses his length and his strong frame for blocks, rebounds, and some impressive dunks.

What stands out most though is the aforementioned frame. Even at 19 years old, Garuba is already 230 pounds and stocky. Most European prospects are relatively skinny and recommended to get with an NBA strength and conditioning program, but Garuba is already well on his way. He used that size and strength to be a strong rebounder with a 23.1% defensive rebounding rate, and it showed up in other ways as he defended bigger players and fought for inside position on both ends of the ball. To be an impactful rebounder at 19 years old in the EuroLeague is an impressive accomplishment.

Defensive Profile

There may not be another prospect in the 2021 draft class with as high of a ceiling for impact as Usman Garuba. He sees the floor well defensively and makes plays from everywhere, flying in from the weak side for blocks, poking the ball free when getting his hands in dribbling and passing lanes, and simply doing a good job of keeping his man from the basket.

What gives most scouts confidence, however, is the defensive versatility. Garuba was seen defending centers, forwards, and small guards consistently, and he had success in every scenario due to his combination of length, strength, and quickness. His form and stance could certainly use work, but at 19 years old, he isn’t a polished product in that regard.

At the NBA level, having as many versatile, smart athletes as possible is generally the best way to field a great defense in a playoff environment. Garuba checks a number of boxes there, and his intuition at 19 years old will aid in his development for when he’s 24 or 25, which is when most teams should be expecting peak performance out of a player like him.

Flashes passing skills

It’s often a good sign for a player with Garuba’s athleticism to be as good of a passer as he is at such a young age. Having played professionally for awhile, Garuba sees the court fairly well and makes passes that might not expect from a defense-first prospect.

Garuba averaged just 0.8 assists per game for Real Madrid during EuroLeague, but he did average slightly more (1.1 per game) during ACB league play. Assists are often dependent on role and style though, and in a more wide open, free passing game like the NBA, Garuba’s ability to make reads on the fly and hit the open man would likely translate well. It isn’t the most important part of his game, but Garuba certainly shows promise there, and a high basketball IQ generally leads to good places.

Weaknesses

Shooting

Garuba’s biggest weakness is probably the most important singular skill for a young role player to develop at the NBA level. Offenses are becoming so high powered that shooting a below average percentage from three-point range just doesn’t cut it anymore, and Garuba will need to iron out his shooting, both at the three-point and free throw line, to stick in the NBA.

His shooting mechanics need work, and his shooting stance is very wide open and square to the basket, sometimes bordering on over-rotation. These are all correctable, but the real test will be how confident he can become with his outside jumper. Could he become a 35% three-point shooter on volume at the NBA level? Would that be enough to consistently take advantage of his defensive tools? It’s a fair question.

Ability to self-create offensively

Very few of Garuba’s baskets were self-created during his time with Real Madrid. He sometimes found his way to quick duck-ins to the post, maybe some transition baskets in the open court, but he wasn’t asked to create for himself beyond that.

As a result, Garuba’s handle and coordination off the dribble are well behind other aspects of his development. His turnover rate was very high, and it was often the result of losing the ball, dribbling into traffic, or committing offensive fouls he could have avoided. He flashes the occasional dribble move, but it will take awhile for him to feel significant comfort with the ball in his hands. Putting it all together could take some time.

Raw Prospect, not immediately ready

Speaking of time, it’s clear that Garuba is a raw prospect who will need minutes and time to develop his overall game. Despite being pro ready in many areas defensively, Garuba is bound to struggle offensively with such a limited scope of impact on that end. He’s the size of a forward but has the limited skill set of a rim rolling center who occasionally spots up from three-point range and spends the rest of the time in the short corner. That’s how Real Madrid used him and it will take time for him to be used any differently.


Verdict

Despite his raw nature on the offensive end and potential pitfalls of selecting a project player for a Nuggets team that needs contributors now, color me intrigued by the idea of adding Garuba to the roster. Whoever the Nuggets select is unlikely to walk into a rotation spot, meaning the Nuggets will be game planning for the future as much as they can. The most glaring issue with the Nuggets going forward? Defense. That’s Garuba’s calling card, and his athleticism and versatility on that end would make him an interesting addition to the rotation around Nikola Jokić, Jamal Murray, and Michael Porter Jr. in the 2022-23 season.

Moreover, the most important takeaway of the 2021 playoffs has been the death of the tall, rim protecting backup center. Most teams are filling that role by downsizing, using a forward-sized player, and becoming more versatile. I can’t quite shake the idea of adding Garuba to a frontcourt that also features Zeke Nnaji and having those two young, athletic bigs anchor Denver’s defensive units with Nikola Jokić off the floor. Playing switching defense, protecting the three-point line, and becoming more athletic would certain elevate Denver’s defensive profile in a playoff environment.

If Garuba were to figure out how to shoot 38% from three and/or become a weapon in the short roll in the process, he would be a successful selection at 26th overall. No question about it.