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Malik Pope Poised for Breakout Year and 2016 NBA Draft Lottery

While the NBA Draft world is waiting eagerly for fabulous freshmen like LSU’s Ben Simmons or international studs like Dragan Bender, a sleeper sophomore is poised to crash the party.

San Diego State’s Malik Pope played just 14.8 minutes per game last year, but he has the tools and tangible potential to climb into the lottery discussion soon. The 6’10” small forward from Sacramento should enjoy an expanded role during 2015-16, so he’ll have a chance to showcase his improving skills and perimeter prowess.

What exactly makes him so appealing to scouts and analysts at the next level?

Pope won’t be automatically handed a place in the lottery or even in the first round, as he must prove he can consistently generate offense from the inside and out. But his physical profile puts him on the radar and keeps decision makers interested in his potential.

ELITE PHYSICAL GIFTS

It’s not just that Pope is nearly 6’10” in shoes. He owns a 7’2″ wingspan and a 9’0.75″ standing reach, which means he has the size to shoot over any wing and the length to challenge the trees in the paint.

Pope didn’t always put his length to good use last year, but he unleashed it in transition and during open-floor slashes. When he attacked the rim aggressively and athletically, he elevated miles above the rim for no-doubt slams and put-backs:

His explosiveness last year was encouraging considering his recent health history. Pope entered San Diego State after back-to-back left leg fractures during his junior and senior year of high school, but it looks like he recovered nicely from that nearly two-year setback.

The long limbs and springiness could be equally valuable on defense. Pope delivered glimpses of terrific range when guarding a variety of forwards and altered a bunch of shots in 2014-15. He turned in an admirable block-to-foul ratio of 2.1 blocks and 2.6 fouls per 40 minutes, which is an excellent rate for a freshman.

When you pair his pterodactyl frame with a promising, fluid skill set, you have a truly intriguing prospect.

BUDDING SKILLS

Pope’s shooting stroke is his most appealing offensive trait at this stage. Thanks to a smooth motion and quick, confident delivery, he’s more consistent from mid-range and beyond the arc than we typically see from players his size and age.

He converted 42 percent of his two-point jumpers last year, and more than three-quarters of those buckets were unassisted (per Hoop-math.com). From long distance, he drilled a tidy 41 percent, including 44 percent against Mountain West Conference opponents. While Pope’s shot isn’t perfect —  he could use a little more lift and a higher release point — it’s easy to see that he could become a dangerous scorer from every angle in the NBA:

This alluring shooting talent is also accompanied by noticeable ball-handling potential. Pope enjoyed intermittent success when operating off the bounce as a freshman, making some graceful drives to the rim and creating separation for mid-range jumpers.

ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT

As he sharpens his repertoire and gets more touches, Pope should settle for pull-up shots less frequently and drive more consistently to the basket. In addition, he must work on mixing in some back-to-the-basket moves and turnarounds from the low-to-mid post:

“He needs to get stronger and improve on his low-post game (he spends way too much time on the perimeter), but…he’s going to get a lot of looks at the end of the lottery to mid-first round,” noted ESPN.com’s Chad Ford.

The point is that he has the wherewithal to fill the hoop from several avenues. He won’t be an instant scoring machine when he reaches the NBA, but we could see a dramatic production improvement at San Diego State. Instead of notching 13.9 points per 40 minutes like he did in 2014-15, he could post 17-20 this year and push his way into the draft’s upper tier.

Pope’s defense is fundamentally behind his offense. His length alone wasn’t enough to mask some critical errors away from the ball.

“He would get beat on backdoors, get caught behind screens, or find himself completely lost on help defense,” said Matt Calkins of the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Fortunately, his long arms, agility and aforementioned rim-protecting potential could yield potent defense down the road. With the right tutelage, he might access a lofty ceiling on that end.

San Diego State lost key seniors J.J. O’Brien, Aqeel Quinn and Dwayne Polee this offseason, so Pope will be afforded a golden opportunity for a breakout year. Not only will he get more minutes, he’ll have a more featured place in the rotation with more touches.

If he capitalizes on his bigger role and exhibits the propensity to improve on both ends, Pope will undoubtedly be  a lottery candidate come draft night.

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