Despite being a consensus top-10 player in the 2014 recruiting class, Trey Lyles was at times an afterthought on Kentucky’s road to a 38-1 season.
Often resigned to playing out of position at the nominal small forward spot after Alex Poythress’ season-ending injury in December, Lyles was seemingly forced out of his comfort zone with the Wildcats. In that role, Lyles performed admirably, averaging 8.7 points and 5.2 rebounds in 23 minutes per game. However, his efficiency numbers suffered, as he is the owner of the second-lowest PER among players currently in my top-30.
So where does that leave Lyles’ draft stock after his year with Kentucky? Let’s take a look at what could become of the forward prospect.
I’ll start by discussing his frame, which is terrific for an NBA power forward at 6-foot-10, 235 pounds with a 7-foot-3.5 wingspan (measured last year at Nike Hoop Summit). I’m a bit skeptical of that wingspan measurement, but even if it fell all the way to 7-2 Lyles would have no problem playing the 4-spot in the NBA. His athleticism also profiles reasonably well at the NBA level due to his smoothness and fluidity, although that’s not what will make him an NBA player.
Lyles has awesome skill and basketball IQ levels that separate him from most prospects, particularly on the offensive end.
As you can see, Lyles has tremendous touch around the rim, making 73 percent of his shots from within five feet. It’s worth pointing out as well that Lyles was actually more effective around the rim in halfcourt settings than he was in transition settings, meaning this number is not inflated by easy run outs off of steals.
However, Lyles did get many of his easy halfcourt buckets off of set-play cuts which led to either alley-oops or wide-open looks at the rim. The Wildcats specifically ran two plays involving Lyles coming off of screens to get him open looks at the rim. The first play seems to have been implemented around the midway point of the season after Lyles was inserted into the starting lineup, and was often used as their opening play of the game on offense. Lyles would start on the right wing, then run around rub screens at the foul line from Karl Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein before Andrew Harrison would pass the ball to Towns who would throw it up for an alley oop to Lyles after he came off the second screen. The second play was more simple, and was used early in the season when teams zoned the Wildcats more. Lyles would simply lurk around the wing, then would run behind a back screen set for him by another big man to free him for an alley-oop. Here are examples of these plays, and they show how smart and efficient his movements are off-ball.
He’s a smart player who knows how to play within an offense, but it’s not just set plays where he excels off-ball. Here’s another example of him finding space. In this one, Lyles recognizes a defense in the middle of a scrambling rotation, and moves into a space where it pressures the man rotated onto him to either commit to him at the rim, or to move to the 3-point shooter. Regardless of which direction the defender committed, this little flash toward the rim opened up an open shot for the Wildcats, that he ultimately finished. This is clearly an intelligent player who understands offense.
He also excelled as an offensive rebounder, in spite of his position. His 9.9 percent rebounding rate on that end was top-15 in the SEC despite the fact that he played away from the hoop on that side of the ball often. That number is all the more impressive when considering the fact that he was playing next to two of the SEC’s top-10 offensive rebounders in Towns and Cauley-Stein a majority of the time, giving him fewer opportunities to grab boards.
Once he got his mits on the ball, he was also very efficient at finishing in traffic. Utilizing his above-average sized hands and that aforementioned soft touch, he converted put-back attempts at a rate of nearly 1.3 points-per-possession, good for the 83rd percentile nationally. That should be a fairly translatable skill to the NBA if a team utilizes him on the interior or allows him to crash the boards. Here’s an example of how he uses his lower body to carve out space inside, and then his soft touch to finish in traffic.
Lyles also is known as a good post-up player, even though he wasn’t utilized there often this season due to his role. In limited possessions there (36), Lyles scored over one point-per-possession (placing him in the 92nd percentile of all college players), shot 50 percent, and got fouled one-fourth of the time. His smooth, fluid athleticism and terrific body control in conjunction with his length shows up well here. Particularly, watch for the drop step on the left block as well as his ability to get to the middle of the lane due to his quickness.
While all of these smart, smooth aspects of his game will make him a fine role player in the Drew Gooden mold, what will ultimately be Lyles’ swing skill will be his shot. If Lyles is to move from being a solid rotation option at the 4 (something I feel reasonably confident he’ll become) to a starting-caliber NBA 4 in the modern NBA, he’ll need to improve as a jump shooter, particularly in catch-and-shoot situations.
Lyles only made 30.8 percent of his catch-and-shoot opportunities this season. This number wasn’t just because he took a lot of 3s either, as his .673 points-per-possession was only in the 15th percentile among all college players this season. It was even worse among players who had at least 50 catch-and-shoot attempts this season, as he finished tied for 1,336th out of 1,364 players, good for the third percentile in the country.
His problem is more the upper part of his mechanics. He can get a little bit hitchy, his release point is inconsistent, and his follow-through wavers to where it sometimes looks like he’s aiming it. The ball just doesn’t come out of his hands cleanly quite yet.
Still, there are things to be taken away from this shot that weren’t there last year, and that makes it fairly projectable going forward. His lower body mechanics look smoother and more consistent, and all of the problems mentioned above are even much improved from last year. All of his problems are only marginal ones, and they’re fixable. A team selecting him would have to put their faith in their shooting coaches, but that team could also be well-rewarded in the future.
Lyles’ other offensive skills are a mixed bag. He’s a good ball-handler for a power forward, but probably won’t have the explosiveness athletically to get by NBA big men on midrange slashes. Still, it’ll help him attack closeouts as he continues to develop as a shooter. Also, he’s not much of a playmaker for others at this stage, as his 9.2 assist rate shows. He’s a willing passer though, and isn’t a ball-stopper that won’t swing the ball or kick it back out if he doesn’t have anything. Because of that solid ball-handling and decision-making, Lyles isn’t really a turnover threat, which is exactly what coaches will want from a role player.
Defensively, there isn’t a ton to say or show about Lyles, simply because he was put into a different situation at Kentucky than he will be in the NBA. Forced to guard 3s on the college level, Lyles very rarely was asked to defend as the help/roll man in pick-and-roll situations, something essential to an NBA 4s responsibilities. Also, he didn’t get a ton of chances to defend in the post or near the rim due to the size of Towns and Cauley-Stein, as well as his role. So early on, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him struggle there.
Also, Lyles doesn’t really force turnovers either, despite his long arms. He wasn’t really active on that end in passing lanes or in attempting to force turnovers this season, probably due partially to his inexperience on the perimeter. His block and steal rates are quite substandard for a guy with his length, and it might be a bit of a worry given his generally average athleticism. Still, the experience he’s had defending on the perimeter will likely help him in the long run, and I don’t think he’ll actively harm anyone on that end by the midway point of his career. Just don’t expect a difference-maker, either.
So where does this scouting report leave Lyles as a prospect? That’s a good question. His stock will probably be pretty variable throughout the league. Some will point to his average athleticism and see a low ceiling. Others may not want to take the time to develop his shot and make it a weapon. Those teams might have him rated in the mid-20s.
Still, my guess is that a majority of teams will see his level of skill and basketball intelligence and want him on their team as a modern, inside-out option at the 4. Players like Lyles are currently extremely important to offenses in the NBA. The ability to clear out the lane and create space for guards is vital, and Lyles profiles as one of those players that could be able to pull his man away from the hoop. That’s worth taking the time to develop, in my mind. Even if he only ever develops into a semi-consistent shooting threat from 18 feet and out, that should still turn into a solid rotation player that would be well worth a mid-first round pick. If things go right for his jump shot development, he could even become a starter in the NBA.
That’s well worth a pick in the middle of the first round, starting in the late lottery. Workouts will be important for him. If he shoots well during the right one, a team might really fall in love with him. Still, my guess is that he ends up just slightly on the outside looking in of the top-14, which is where I have him now at No. 16. He may not ever be a star — which limits his upside in this NBA Draft — but he should become a solid player for a while in the modern NBA.