Spain’s Usman Garuba offers a high defensive ceiling in the 2021 NBA Draft, although his offensive contributions remain a work in progress.
Tom Thibodeau was nothing short of a miracle worker in his first season as head coach of the New York Knicks. Thibodeau took a “gutted, rudderless” roster that struggled to eclipse 20 wins prior to his arrival and managed to win 41 games—with Elfrid Payton as his starting point guard no less!
Taking home Coach of the Year was a strong recognition of Thibodeau’s diligent work, and as sweet as it must have been for Thibodeau to win the award as a Knick, Leon Rose could go a step further to rewarding his head coach for the rapid turnaround. That reward could be doing everything in his power to ensure that Usman Garuba ends draft night as a New York Knick.
The 19-year-old, born Destiny Usman Garuba Alari in Madrid, Spain, spent the last four seasons honing his skills at Spanish powerhouse Real Madrid. True to the Spanish culture, Garuba’s first love was soccer before his height got in the way. Garuba used the principles learned in soccer—agility, anticipation, and ability to move without the ball—to make a successful Euro step into basketball.
By 2013 Garuba found his way to Real Madrid, climbing to the top of the totem pole by 2019. Garuba became the youngest starter in Real Madrid’s history that year, a record previously held by Luka Doncic. Garuba would break another record of Doncic’s, becoming the youngest player to notch a double-double in Liga ACB history.
Like many young European prospects, you have to rely on tape more than raw numbers. To any Knicks fans getting Frank Ntilikina PTSD, don’t. Garuba did log solid rotation minutes this past season, averaging 18.7 a game in Liga ACB and 16.5 minutes in EuroLeague. Per 36 minutes, Garuba averaged 10.8 points, 10.2 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 1.4 steals in Liga ACB and provided similar levels of production in the EuroLeague, averaging 8.7 points, 9.0 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.3 steals, and 1.5 blocks per 36 minutes.
NBA fans will get a preview of how effective Garuba can be during the Olympics, as he is representing his native Spain in Tokyo, but there is little doubt that he will become a solid NBA player at the very least.
For a defensive buff like Thibodeau, Usman Garuba is his type of player: a relentless defender with phenomenal instincts and strong off-ball awareness on offense. The Knicks were one of the best defensive teams in the league last season, so logic would say they shift their focus toward improving the offense. But that ignores the value Garuba can yield, especially if a trade-up for him isn’t necessary.
Why You Want Him: Mature Beyond His Years
There is not a better defender in this class not named Evan Mobley than Usman Garuba. Playing in a much more physical European game, Garuba thrived on the defensive end for Real Madrid at 19 years old. He blends his strength and I.Q. to always be in the right place at the right time.
Usman Garuba had yet another strong defensive outing today vs Valencia with 3 blocks and a steal and overall sound defense, shown below pic.twitter.com/0HtImVMTpN
— Mavs / Magic Draft (@MavsDraft) June 7, 2021
Point-of-attack, help-side, whatever is needed on the defensive end, Garuba can get done. His athleticism leaves some things to be desired, yet he knows how to utilize his 7-foot-2 wingspan to rim protect and his strength to stonewall drivers.
— Dmitry Planidin (@DmitryPlanidin) September 27, 2020
His versatility on defense opens the door for Garuba to be deployed as the end-of-game stopper that Thibodeau sends on the opposing team’s best scorer.
Usman Garuba showed all his versatility on defense in the second quarter as he guarded Micic for 3/4 minutes, forcing the Serbian playmaker to a couple of turnovers and contested shots. pic.twitter.com/qbsnqJGhTG
— Pietro Cristofori (@PCristofori03) April 20, 2021
And if you are skeptical that Garuba’s success is tied directly to playing European competition, Garuba looked like he belonged in Spain’s exhibition against Team USA. He got a crash course on the type of scorers he will be asked to stop on a nightly basis, including Kevin Durant.
Good look at Usman Garuba's defensive physicality from yesterday, helping to stonewall Jerami Grant's drive before making the one-more pass in transition. Reminder that Grant averaged 22.3 PTS last season for the Pistons. pic.twitter.com/kI4TPhUmff
— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) July 19, 2021
Even as a rookie, Garuba should have no problem being thrown to the fire as a defensive stopper. The bigger concern lies on the other side of the ball.
Moving Fast and Smart
Before moving to the less appealing portions of Garuba’s game, let’s stay on what Garuba does well. His nonstop motor is one of the first things to pop off the screen when you watch. Like most good players, Garuba is never doing nothing.
Gritty energy from Usman Garuba
It is cliché, but some things do simply come down to desire pic.twitter.com/SEueE8kOqp
— Jackson Lloyd (@JLloyd952) July 20, 2021
In addition to the relentless energy, Garuba knows how and when to cut off the ball. His ability to thrive off-ball makes him a low-maintenance fit that could thrive in just about any lineup, as long as an able playmaker is also on the floor with him.
Two early buckets for projected first round pick, Usman Garuba. The 19 year old showing his feel, athleticism, and ability to score at the rim here in the 1st quarter. pic.twitter.com/bGHb5wIUkx
— Derek Murray (@dmurrayNBA) July 19, 2021
Why You Stay Away: The Offensive Enigma
One consensus opinion on Garuba is he is not an explosive athlete. He knows his way around the floor, but does not move around the floor with great speed, nor does he have phenomenal leaping skills to become a lob threat.
At 6-foot-8, he projects as a 4 or small-ball 5. Not being able to become a clear lob threat or a strong shooter raises questions of how Garuba can open up the floor; playing next to Julius Randle and/or Obi Toppin makes this less of a concern, but should Garuba have to take on a larger responsibility on offense, it’s unclear how he could make an impact.
It is not atypical for promising defensive prospects to have a suspect jump shot, which is the case for Garuba. The jumper is not so much of a disaster that it would sink his effectiveness as a pro, however, on a spectrum where Klay Thompson is at one end and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at the other, Garuba’s release would lean more towards MKG.
Slow-motion look at Usman Garuba’s shooting mechanics pic.twitter.com/PHf3FJSUue
— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) July 19, 2021
He brings the ball in front of his face when he shoots, which is less than ideal, and in-game he takes a bit to get his shot off and has very little arc on his shot. There is not much potential for Garuba to self create his own shot in the immediate future, catch-and-shoots is more his lane, and one he could prove to be bearable in, if the defense doesn’t respect his shot.
A couple of offseasons of extensive mechanical reconstruction could seal one of the few holes in Garuba’s game. For now, though, if you are looking for Garuba to make an impact on offense it will be off rolls to the rim.
The Fit: Adding Another Wolf to the Den
The great thing about Garuba is that you can envision a clear role from day one. His offense may be a work in progress, but he will be able to hit the ground running on defense.
Garuba can become the yin to Toppin’s yang. Thibodeau could redefine offense-to-defense line switches late in games between the two, and possibly go small with both on the floor at the same time. Toppin pairing aside, Garuba’s comfort operating without the ball in his hand, and knowing the spots on the court to occupy and when to cut, making him an easy fit regardless of personnel.
Thibodeau was sheepish going small with Toppin or Randle last season. That apprehension could have come from the expected dip in defense down low. The comfort level with Garuba will be much different. Despite his hops leaving a lot to be desired, Garuba’s defensive instincts will endear him to his coach, not to mention the possibility of Taj Gibson remaining with the team to serve as a mentor.
The more interesting storyline if Garuba is brought in, is, do the Knicks then move on from Toppin? Collin Sexton is “very available” and the Cleveland Cavaliers had reported interest in Dayton alum Toppin pre-draft. A deal for Sexton would look similar to the Kevin Knox, Toppin and a first-round pick that is found in the TKW Offseason 3.0 app, and Garuba’s presence makes it easier to part with the talented Toppin. As promising as the end of Toppin’s rookie season was, the greater need is adding a 20-points-per-night scorer, which Sexton has proved capable of producing.
Parting with a top-10 pick a year after selecting them is never ideal; however, Garuba would soften the blow considerably while perhaps meshing with the existing ethos of the team: 10 toes down defense and going balls-to-the-wall every second of the game.
Thibodeau took major strides in restoring the feeling of the Knicks team he coached as an assistant. Garuba is a throwback to that era, while also being a weapon for the modern, smaller game.
No matter the circumstance, if Usman Garuba leaves draft night a Knick, New York will be welcoming the best defender in this draft, a defender that will remind the bully ball relics of the ‘90s of the good ole days and Draft Twitter hipsters of the future of the big man position.
Garuba’s ceiling remains TBD, but his floor is higher than most of the players the Knicks could theoretically end up with, and if there is a head coach who can extract the very most out of a defensive prospect of Garuba’s stature, it is Tom Thibodeau.