The college game is not perfect. It is not a perfect translation to the NBA for sure.
Teams tend to play slower. Zone defenses tend to clutter the paint. The shortened three-point tends to condense space. The big man is often still viewed as a traditional back-to-the-basket player. Teams have not quite embraced the spread-it-out, stretch-4 styles of the modern game.
And that does not even get into the pressures of managing upperclassmen who can help a team win with the young freshman who always seem to have one foot out of the door.
There is a long list of players who seemed to be cramped and compressed in the college style of game that do not get the chance to spread their wings.
Just look at Paolo Banchero and his time at Duke.
With the guards they recruited, the Blue Devils pigeon-holed Banchero into a mid-post and low-post attacker. He ran more pick and rolls in his first month with the Orlando Magic than he did in college. That should tell you the difference between the two levels of play.
That example is instructive though for a player like Dereck Lively.
Dereck Lively had his share of disappointment in his lone season at Duke. He did not wrack up impressive stats. But he has a lot more to show than he did at Duke and he could thrive in the NBA.
Duke especially is a team that has winning expectations. They fit their freshmen into the system they are running — and there is probably not much difference between Mike Krzyzewski and John Scheyer at this point.
A player like Lively seemed to get pigeonholed into a specific role. And, at least by the accounts during his workouts, never really got to spread his wings.
That is why a player who seemingly struggled at Duke despite his prodigious talent has suddenly started to turn heads in workouts. He is one of the big risers in the post-Combine part of the draft process.
That seems to be where Lively is letting his considerable wingspan fly.
Lively’s season at Duke though was rough, to say the least.
The 7-foot-1 center was the No. 2 rated prospect in his draft and a seeming surefire top-five pick before the season. But he struggled throughout the year, averaging only 5.2 points per game and 5.4 rebounds per game in 20.6 minutes per game.
It did not help that he played alongside and behind Kyle Filipowski (who was No. 4 in his high school class). This is at least partly a product of talent squeezing each other out. Filipowski proved to be the better player at the collegiate level (15.1 points per game and 9.0 rebounds per game).
Statistically, Lively just did not have many great games. And he was fairly inconsistent, rarely stringing together his strong games together.
His season-high topped off at 13 points, seven rebounds and three blocks in February win over Virginia Tech and 13 points, four rebounds and two blocks in an ACC Tournament win over NCAA Tournament-bound Pittsburgh.
He had only five games with double-digit scoring. That is probably what limited his playing time.
Lively still was able to make an impact as a big-bodied defender.
Like Jaren Jackson Jr. coming off the bench in his lone year at Michigan State, Dereck Lively’s role was largely to go in and cause some chaos on defense. He certainly did not have the same fouling issues a player like Jackson did in college, although Lively is not the defender he was.
Defense is where Lively will make his biggest immediate impact. His 7-foot-7 wingspan stands out most about him. And he knows how to use it effectively at this point in his development.
Shot blocking and rim protection at that level is something that many college scouts believe translates from college to the NBA. So the fact that Lively is able to block shots — he had a 12.7 percent block rate and an even more incredible 13.1 percent block rate in conference play — is a good sign of what his immediate impact could be in the NBA.
Certainly, the Magic could use some better rim protection. Lively might be the best shot blocker in this draft — not named Victor Wembanyama or not a behemoth like Zach Edey (who is projected as a second-round pick, if that).
It is also worth noting that Duke had a 91.1 defensive rating with Lively on the floor according to Sports-Reference. Lively had a positive impact on Duke’s defense.
The mobility he shows as someone who can protect the rim and slide over to help at the basket on drives is also evident on the perimeter. He has the length to be disruptive showing on pick and rolls and the quickness to slow ball handlers on hedges and switches. His wingspan and shot-blocking instincts serve him well in drop coverage too.
Certainly, Lively will fall into the trap of other young shot blockers. NBA players are going to test him physically and force him to improve his verticality on defense. But his size is going to make up for a lot of mistakes.
The question, for now, remains what Lively’s offensive game looks like.
He is certainly a lob threat and pick-and-roll threat going toward the basket. But his game is just very rudimentary. For a Duke team that was trying to win a national championship, that raw offensive ability was something the team could not rely on, thus the team often went with the more polished Filipowski.
He was not effective on really anything more than lobs and dunks around the basket though. And his penchant for trying to block shots or use his size to overpower players, predictably got him in foul trouble. That is a normal thing for young bigs who rely on their shot-blocking prowess and athleticism.
What has happened though in the last month since the NBA Draft Lottery as Lively has made his way around the draft circuit is that teams are starting to see whether he can shoot the ball from the perimeter a bit more than he showed at Duke.
The word around the circuit is that in his workouts, he is showing improved touch around the basket and some perimeter shooting to expand his game. The fact that he would show that off successfully even in a workout condition would suggest there is something to mine there.
He may not be hitting deep hooks or stepping out to 15-18 feet for jumpers on pick and rolls his rookie year, but the potential that this is there is what makes him so promising. There is still plenty of room to grow.
And that is the tantalizing thing about Lively and why he should get consideration for the Magic at 11 and could even climb the board a bit more.
Talent just does not go away. Players who were at the top of their high school class may just be in the wrong fit or may just need time to get used to the higher level of play. And that goes especially for centers who usually need more time to develop anyway.
The Magic need some help at backup center behind Wendell Carter. They need rim protection too — the teams shot 68.4 percent at the rim against the Magic according to Second Spectrum, the fourth-worst mark in the league.
Lively would begin to help a lot of those issues and he would have a clear pathway to play. And perhaps the trust to do more if it is likely called for.
More than that, Lively is already showing that he has areas of his game that can continue to grow. There is clearly something to work with immediately even if it is limited to a specific role.
But this is a prospect who clearly has a lot more to show. And it seems like he is ready to do so.