In Mario Kart on Nintendo 64, the mother of all tracks is Rainbow Road. With its length and difficulty, it separates the pros from mere amateurs. Racers have a choice at the beginning of the track. If you jump off the edge, and time it juuuuuuust right, you bypass a large part of the track and give yourself a huge advantage over your opponents. But you have to nail it exactly; if you miss, you tumble through the abyss of space for what feels like forever, only to be dropped back at the beginning, too far behind everyone else to make a comeback.
Betting big on Christian Wood is a similar proposition; it is an incredibly risky proposition, but the potential reward is amazing. In his fourth NBA season and first real run at significant playing time, Wood was excellent, the rare big man who can hurt teams both inside and from the perimeter on offense. Even though he has only played a little over 100 games in his career, including only 14 starts, the 24-year-old Wood has shown enough to be considered one of the best options in this limited pool of free agents.
Elite Inside Scoring
One of the fundamental truths of basketball is that taller players have an advantage because they are closer to the hoop. Even with all the small-ball that has swept the league in recent years, that is still true, as evidenced by the Lakers’ dominance in the paint throughout their championship run. Christian Wood has elite size; he is 6-foot-10, with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, and he can jump out of the gym. He is an incredible lob threat who can jump up and corral passes from insane heights and throw them down. According to Cleaning the Glass, Wood shot 77% at the rim, ranking him in the 89th percentile among big men.
What separates Wood from most bouncy big men is that he can hit threes as well. He shot 38.6% from three on 2.3 attempts per game— well above average, especially for someone of his size. Prior to last season, he was just a 30.9% shooter on 42 career attempts, but he has a high release and good form (and took significantly more attempts this season than ever before), so it is likely the improvement is sustainable. The percentage may come down a little as defenses start to key on him outside, but this can help him in another way: Wood is an incredible inside threat, and if defenses have to watch for him popping to the three-point line, it makes it that much harder to prevent him from getting to the rim. This showed up in his play-type numbers this year; Wood averaged 1.5 points per possession as the roller in the pick-and-roll, an elite number.
In one of his best games last season, against the 76ers on March 11, Wood showed how he could put it all together on offense:
Passing Needs Improvement
The missing piece for Wood’s offensive game is playmaking. He struggles in this area, averaging a paltry 1.0 assist per game, with a 7.3 assist percentage and 0.36 assist-to-usage ratio, according to Cleaning the Glass. Those are all poor numbers, even for a big man. As defenses adjust to Wood, they will throw more and better defenders at him and force him to make a pass. He needs to improve in this area to continue to be effective on offense. But the bar is low. As a center with great scoring ability, he only needs to make basic reads for his passing to be effective.
Owing to his immense length (again, he has a 7-foot-3 wingspan), Wood has a lot of potential on defense, but was closer to average than great this season. He was decent at blocking shots (66th percentile among big men in block percentage, according to Cleaning the Glass) and jumping passing lanes (48th percentile in steal percentage), but not incredible. He is a good rebounder, with Cleaning the Glass putting him in the 54th percentile for offensive rebounding percentage and 75th for defensive rebounding percentage. At the rim, he allowed opponents to shoot 56.9% on 4.1 contested shots per game, solid but not elite. Since Wood came off the bench for most of the season, he was often playing against opponents’ benches. It will get tougher for him to put up these numbers against better lineups. He has not shown enough to be relied upon as a primary rim-protector for a good team, but he could get there. He has the tools.
While Wood does not have a long track record and has shortcomings to his game, he should be highly sought after this offseason. Bobby Marks estimates Wood to get the mid-level exception, $9.3 million per year. If that is really his market, every team in the NBA should go after him. Any team could use a big man who can score in the ways Wood can, and if he can develop his passing and defense (I’m more bullish on the defense), he could be great. In this year’s market, there are not a lot of other players you can say that about—and the only ones you can (Anthony Davis, Brandon Ingram) are likely staying put.
Because of this, teams that have no other opportunities to sign stars should go higher than the mid-level exception to sign Wood. The Pistons, Sacramento Kings, and Charlotte Hornets are not traditional free agent destinations and are at various stages of rebuilds. While many teams might understandably prefer to save their free agency dollars for next offseason, when far more talent should be available, Wood provides a good opportunity to land a potential star. For these teams, having money for next season is not going to get them that star; Giannis Antetokounmpo is not coming to Sacramento.
What Wood has shown so far is stardom, just in an extremely small dose. If it is at all likely that that is who he is going forward, then Detroit, Sacramento, and Charlotte should bet big on him. Sure, it is a risk to spend a ton of money on such an unproven player, but for these teams, the alternative is overpaying a veteran or taking on a bad contract to pick up a mid-to-low first-round draft pick. Neither of those options is as likely to result in acquiring a star as signing Wood. Teams should be willing to bet big on Wood, even going as high as $15–20 million per season.
Featured Image By Tim Fuller / USA Today Sports