Barry Jackson

Pitino offers insight on Heat draft possibilities

Louisville head coach Rick Pitino, in town recently, has some thoughts on players in the Miami Heat’s draft range.
Louisville head coach Rick Pitino, in town recently, has some thoughts on players in the Miami Heat’s draft range. ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Heat placed a premium on shooting last season – a strategy that paid dividends in the second half of the season - and that makes a few prospects in the Heat’s draft range – UCLA’s TJ Leaf and Duke’s Luke Kennard, and to a lesser extent, North Carolina’s Justin Jackson – particularly interesting.

In a recent private conversation about draft prospects in the Heat’s range at No. 14, always-interesting Louisville coach Rick Pitino was particularly effusive about Leaf and Kennard, who are both being closely studied by Heat officials.

For Leaf, “it was down to us and UCLA,” Pitino said of his recruitment. “He has tremendous upside. Great athlete, great size, great midrange game. Great leaper. And he’s a great young man, too.”

Leaf, 6-10, averaged 16.3 points and 8.2 rebounds, shooting 61.7 percent overall and 46.6 on threes (27 for 58). His defense must improve.

As for the 6-6 Kennard -- who averaged 19.5 points, shot 48.9 percent and 43.8 percent on threes last season (88-201) -- some draftniks have him going in the mid to late teens. Pitino believes that’s undervaluing him, saying his skills are good enough to go between five and 12.

“I love him,” Pitino said. “Absoutely love him. Luke Kennard is a sixth, seventh man on an NBA team who is going to give you 15 points a night.”

Draft analysts believe Kennard can not only shoot, but also can be an effective playmaker as a swingman.

Jackson, also linked to the Heat, made 105 threes last season (37 percent shooting, up from 29 percent three-point shooting the previous season), and is “the most improved jump shooter in the draft,” according to draft analyst Jonathan Givony.

The concern is that he shot poorly late in the season, going 19 for 49 to close the Tournament against Kentucky, Oregon and Gonzaga. He was 6 for 19 in that national championship game win against Gonzaga, including 0 for 9 on threes.

“He's got size [6-8], he scores [18.3 points per game],” Pitino said. “He reminds me of [former Detroit Pistons star] Rip Hamilton.”

Pitino, who has a residence in South Florida and was in town recently to play in the Masters Basketball Tournament, shared with me his thoughts on a few other players in Miami’s range:

• On Duke center Harry Giles: “I was extremely impressed before the knee injury. But with the double ACL, I never saw the same player at Duke that I saw in high school. He would be a five in the NBA.”

• With Hassan Whiteside, there would be position overlap with Wake Forest 6-10 center John Collins, who averaged 19.2 points and 9.8 rebounds last season.

“He's a great college player but you don't know in the pros because he's small in the pros [for center],” Pitino said.

And he doesn’t have a three-point game, so he’s not exactly a stretch four. He’s more of an old-school power forward if teams try to play him there instead of center.

• On Indiana guard OG Anunoby, who’s coming off knee surgery: “If he's healthy, I love him. He's got big-time upside.”

• Though it would be surprising if FSU forward Jonathan Isaac slips to 14th, Pitino has questions about him.

“He can blossom into a great one or he can be just ordinary,” Pitino said. “You don't know with him. He's the puzzle of the group. He's got the skill to play small forward but he's not there yet.”

• One of Pitino’s players, 6-3 guard Donovan Mitchell, is considered on the fringes of Miami’s range, with some having going later.

Pitino says Mitchell will be a point guard in the pros.

“They keep referring to Donovan as a shooting guard,” Pitino said in a radio interview. “He’s not; he’s a point guard. Matter of fact, we played our best basketball when he was at the point and he played his best.”

Pitino, incidentally, told me that if he had the No. 1 pick (Boston does), he would take Kentucky point guard De’Aaron Fox.

“Fox 1 and [Washington’s] Markelle Fultz 1A,” Pitino said. “[Kansas’] Josh Jackson is maybe the most physically talented player in the draft.”

Pitino had several noteworthy things to say about the UM basketball program, which we’ll share in a post next week.

For a look at some players the Heat has worked out, including Cal forward Ivan Rabb (in the mix at No. 14) and Dolphins and UM notes, please click here.

For a Saturday update on the Marlins sale and Marlins nuggets, please click here.