Malachi Flynn has star potential

26 mins read
Feb 16, 2020; Boise, Idaho, USA; San Diego State Aztecs guard Malachi Flynn (22) drives to the key during the first half against the Boise State Broncos at ExtraMile Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

It’s easy to get sucked into the belief that Masai Ujiri and company can do no wrong. Drafting Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby 27th and 23rd, respectively, in 2016 and 2017, can earn that title. So too can finding undrafted contributors time and again, such as Fred VanVleet, Terence Davis, or Matt Thomas. (Paul Watson Jr. has next.)

Of course, that’s not true. Ujiri has made mistakes. You can’t automatically assume that any Ujiri draft pick will exceed expectations. That’s unscientific. It’s become such a trope that the Raptors will find a steal in the draft that I wanted to double and triple check to make sure I believed whatever I would end up saying. I didn’t want to parrot the line that the Raptors found a steal. It was not the plan.

But now I’ve done my research, and, folks: the Raptors found a steal.

Let’s dive deep into the land of film to analyze his strengths, weaknesses, player comparisons, and potential career paths. Here’s the full rundown on Malachi Flynn.

Offense

Having won the Mountain West conference Defensive Player of the Year award, Flynn can obviously not be classified as an offense-only player. Yet, due to his size, his ceiling is much higher on that end than the defensive end. So let’s start with offense, where Flynn’s strengths are most evident.

Shooting

One of the most important aspects of any prospect, these days, is shooting. And at first glance, Flynn’s 37.3 percent from deep may not be earth-shattering, but when you account for the difficulty in his diet of triples, it is all the more impressive. Flynn took a Trae Young-esque diet of triples this year, many of which were pull-ups or deep behind the line or well-contested or sometimes all three.

Flynn recognizes that such shots are key to thriving in the NBA as an undersized player.

I think those are some of things you’ve kinda got have in the league if you want to be successful for an undersized point guard like me, just being able to shoot a little farther back kind of makes people have to respect you from farther. You have space it just makes everything easier,” explained Flynn when I asked about his range in college.

Given that so many of his triples were from an NBA distance, and often further, his 37.3 percent looks far more palatable. If you separate out his three-point diet, his percentage on ‘easy’ shots was far superior; he shot 43.1 percent on spot-up triples last year and an insane 51.4 percent on unguarded catch-and-shoot attempts. Furthermore, his free throw percentage of 85.7 points towards his shot being all the more accurate.

And when you dive into the structure of his shot, it looks just as positive. He has little excess motion, and his form looks something like that of Mike Miller, a flamethrower who shot 40.7 percent from deep over his career. Flynn’s form is consistent though portable, in that he shoots the same way in different situations, whether off the bounce, running off a screen, or catching while stationary. He sports a wildly quick release with perhaps too low a dip, though he dips speedily enough that it doesn’t allow defenders time to contest.

He is happy to play off the ball, and he’ll kill you if you leave him unguarded.

On the ball, Flynn has an impressive pull-up jumper. He can fall in love with it, sometimes to his own detriment, but he can create for himself in the mid-range — a weakness of the Raptors this past year.

Flynn could end up a top-tier shooter in the NBA. He has the release speed, creativity, and multi-dimensionality to find shots in the tight confines of the half-court. His numbers should actually improve in the NBA, particularly when he’s alongside teammates who can create for themselves and others. In the league, he will see an a more open diet of triples and more catch-and-shoot attempts. Shooting is nothing to worry about for Flynn.

Touch and finishing

When Flynn does get inside the arc, he has elite touch from the mid-range. He needs it because he doesn’t have elite separation ability (and there’s more on that to come). But he’s smart enough to manipulate the defense and create space in that way. And what is usually a poor shot for most players is an average or even good one for him. His touch is perhaps the most Steph-like of his many attributes.

Even his wrong-footed, fling-it-at-the-rim-and-hope shots have a good chance of going in.

Though Flynn doesn’t have great vertical bounce or nearly enough strength, he still managed to shoot an elite 55.6 percent at the rim and 53.3 percent from the short mid-range. Those are incredible numbers comparable to Ja Morant (56.6 percent at the rim in 2019) or Trae Young (53.5 percent at the rim in 2017). Now, Flynn doesn’t have nearly the athleticism of those players, and he doesn’t get to the line at a rate even close, but his similar percentage at the rim testifies to his touch.

And his percentage from the short mid-range is just god-level. Flynn’s percentages at the rim probably won’t port to the NBA, at least not immediately, but his touch from the short mid-range suggests he should still be dangerous enough inside the arc.

Craft is one of Flynn’s biggest strengths, in all areas, and it helps his finishing in a big way. Although he’s never going to be the most athletic player on the floor, he can create advantages and capitalize. He leverages his shooting ability to create space, and he gets the ball on the backboard before help can arrive. He’s got an array of finishes, all of which are designed for utility. As a result, he created a lot of open layups for himself this past year.

At times, Flynn can beat challenges at the rim, but that’s more rare. He can do it because of body control and an ability to maneuver angles before the defender is able to attack the ball.

That move won’t work in the NBA, but it’s positive that he has a knack for body control. Kyle Lowry will help him there, significantly. But first, there is plenty of room for improvement. For one, Flynn has to get significantly stronger. It will help virtually every area of his game, but particularly his finishing.

He needs to improve on his core to be able to power through contests, whether in the air, as above, or on the ground.

He also has virtually no chance at and-ones, when he does draw a foul, when he can’t hold his line despite over-physical defenders.

Despite a strength deficit — and it is a real deficit — Flynn still managed such strong finishing numbers. His touch is the biggest reason why. If he adds some strength, he can finish well in the NBA, and his free throw rate can improve significantly. He projects as a three-tier scorer, if all things break right. But he’ll need to be much stronger around the rim for that to happen.

Handling

Flynn has the handles. He’s a shifty dribbler who makes moves with purpose. He has crossovers, changes of pace, hesitations: the whole array. And he uses them to create advantages. He loves to snake the pick-and-roll, and then when he reaches the second line of defense, he is great at beating defenders to the corner to create space for a scoop.

Or hesitating and using his body to shield defenders away from his layup attempt.

He sets up defenders with each move, but he’s able to adapt to changing situations. For example, if two players fall for a fake, he’s able to step back and finish them.

Flynn’s handle is NBA-ready, and he should be able to use it to create space against NBA defenders.

Yet he wasn’t always able to create that separation in the NCAA. Because of athletic limitations, that problem will continue in the league against primary defenders, let alone against the world-ending help defenders that roam the NBA. Flynn can get stuck in the mid-range and be unable to penetrate to the paint. Not even his touch can save such possessions.

There are ways to improve that shot attempt. There was a fraction of a second when a runner would have been available. Or if Flynn were stronger, his driving line would have been much straighter, allowing him to get into the shot blocker’s body and draw a foul with his attempt. Even when Flynn seems bottled, and the shot clock is too spent to reset, having the ability to stay on his line and loft a shot at the rim would be extremely beneficial. It largely all comes down to core strength.

Flynn’s handle is not to blame. He almost never turns over a live dribble, and he shot such a high percentage at the rim last year because so many of his attempts were uncontested. He leverages the threats of his shot and pass to create open layups for himself. That won’t always be the case in the NBA, but it’s a testament to his dribbling ability. He needs to tighten his handle, add slightly more craft to keep an advantage over the ball hawks in the NBA, but what rookie doesn’t? That will come with time.

Passing

Passing is Flynn’s biggest strength. If he is going to become an above-average starting point guard, or even a star, it will be because of his ability to create easy-peasy looks for his teammates.

Synergy stats listed him with a 96th-percentile scorer in the pick-and-roll. He was one of the best, if not the best, guard in the pick-and-roll in the entire NCAA last year. His passing ability is similar to Steph Curry’s in that he doesn’t average a huge number of assists, but the ones he does create are very high-calorie. Flynn, also like Curry, doesn’t dribble the air out of the ball. He wants to get rid of it, and he doesn’t kill a play by holding the ball. That quick decision-making combined with elite vision and execution mean that when he does get to attack, Flynn is deadly.

In the pick-and-roll, Flynn has pretty much every pass in the book. He’s patient until something opens.

He’s terrific at manipulating the pick-and-roll, leveraging his shooting, and eventually dishing to the roller.

If he catches the big defender flat-footed, he’ll toss a bounce pass immediately into space.

He sees when the second line of defense tries to tag the roller too early

His lobs over the top are Trae Young-esque.

He even has the skip to the weak-side, one of the most complicated pick-and-roll pass available to college guards. Few see this opening.

Flynn always keeps his head up, whether on the drive or in transition. He wasn’t billed as a passer coming into San Diego, but Flynn has turned the area into the strongest part of his game.

While Curry had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.5 in his final year at Davidson, Flynn’s was far more impressive last year at 2.8. Despite the high-risk-high-reward nature of Flynn’s passes, that he only averaged 1.8 turnovers per game is almost unbelievable. He rarely makes mistakes even though his passes often penetrate the heart of the defense.

If Flynn is going to become a star in the NBA, it will be through his passing. And there’s precedent for that. The most important aspect of Lowry’s offensive game, at this point, is passing. Lowry can teach Flynn how to turn his meticulous array of passes into wins for the Raps.

Off-ball 

There’s really not much here. It’s possible that Flynn’s lack of off-ball skills was an aspect of Head Coach Brian Dutcher’s offense, in that Flynn was required to stay immobile as a release valve. Or perhaps it was because of flaws in Flynn’s game. Either way, he didn’t offer much off the ball. He is an incredible catch-and-shoot bomber, so he does offer gravity wherever he goes. But he doesn’t cut or screen or relocate after giving up the ball. He needs to add those things.

Unless you’re a tier-one superstar, like LeBron James, you aren’t going to dominate the ball all game long and still manufacture an elite offense. Flynn will never be that. And when he does give up the ball, he needs to offer positives elsewhere. Flynn can take those elements from Lowry or VanVleet — two of the best in such areas, particularly Lowry.

Clutch

Oh, he clutch.

Defense

One of the reasons Flynn slipped all the way to 29 is because he doesn’t project well as a defender. That he won Defensive Player of the Year for his conference doesn’t seem to matter to critics; he’s only six-foot-one (maybe six-foot-two) and weighs 185 pounds. His wingspan is only an inch or two longer than his height. How could such a player be a good defender? Let’s find out.

Attitude

Flynn has the attitude of a good defender. He constantly fights, no matter the scenario. It’s because of that trait, even more than his on-court skills, that Flynn has been compared so often to Lowry and VanVleet since the draft.

Just watching those two guys over the past couple years, what I take from it is just how hard they compete,” said Flynn of Lowry and VanVleet. “Being undersized, you’ve got to find a way to make up for that. You’ve got to be tough. And they both do that on the defensive end. They just throw guys’ timing off. Super tough. Never back down. So that’s what I look at. Like, a mindset, not so much a skillset, just really being determined on defense, and taking that challenge. I think I can kind of come in with a similar attitude.”

He’s always fighting on the defensive end. He fights for rebounds, and he’s excellent at blocking out larger players. He fights through screens well. He fights when players try to seal him in the post, often attacking the seal with his quick hands and feet before he’s buried.

That consistency of effort is the biggest reason why Flynn will never be a truly weak defender, though his ceiling may be limited by his physical attributes.

Intelligence

Speaking of steals, Flynn finished with a very high steal rate of 3.2 percent. He rarely gambles himself out of position, however. He manages to create so many steals while still playing good defense because of his intelligence.

Flynn is active off the ball. He’s always moving his feet, rotating his head, communicating. He rarely falls asleep.

Because of his engagement, Flynn always knows when is the best time to jump an opponent. For example, as soon as a drive turns his head the other way, Flynn is attacking.

But his intelligence doesn’t just show up in the box score. It shows up in transition, when Flynn remains a floor general and barks orders while back-pedaling. He is always talking. But his intelligence also shows up in random plays, when Flynn deters a variety of advantages.

On that play, Flynn played the gap beautifully, eventually stunting at the ball long enough to force a jump pass before recovering to the corner. He closed out under control and convinced his man not to drive baseline. (Or the cluster in the dunker spot did that, but still.) Flynn then navigated a slip screen, closed out once more, before finally having the play move past him. None of that is PhD-level basketball, but each instance is an opportunity for poor defense to shine through the cracks. As in, each of those moments was a small test, and Flynn aced them all. The offense didn’t open an advantage despite running a series of actions aimed at Flynn. That’s what good defenders do, not bad ones. So, two points in his favour, then.

Tools

This is where Flynn’s weaknesses show. His lack of size means that people can shoot over him, no matter how hard he tries. And he’s not strong enough to prevent those situations from happening all too often. VanVleet, for example, uses his immense strength to make sure that when players try to isolate against him, they are never balanced and never comfortable. Flynn’s not there yet.

Flynn has some tools; he has quick feet and hands. Those, combined with his awareness, mean that he thrived in the NCAA on the defensive end. That won’t be true in the NBA, where many players are as smart as he is, and far more athletic to boot. Flynn won’t be winning any defensive player of the year awards any more, but that doesn’t mean he can’t compete.

Flynn actually defends much like Steph Curry. He’s smart and tries hard in all scenarios, and he should be able to manufacture plenty of turnovers, which are incredible valuable. But Flynn could still be a target in the playoffs. That being said, he’s a great team defender, and it’s doubtful attacking him will yield easy baskets over and again against all but the best teams. Flynn is smart enough to know when to switch, how to get out of those scenarios, and when to fight when he has no other choice. As a rookie, his defense could be choppy. But he should improve after some time in the NBA.

All that to say: he’s no Trae Young on the defensive end, or at least he won’t be. He needs to add plenty of muscle to be able to continue to defend well in the NBA, but what rookie doesn’t need to adapt their body to the league?

Projection

I’ve thrown out a lot of comparisons, from Mike Miller to Steph Curry to Trae Young. To be sure, he probably won’t be as good as any of those guys, although it’s possible he surpasses Miller.

But there are a lot of similarities. Flynn plays like a Curry who shoots well, instead of GOAT-level, and isn’t quite as burst-y a dribbler or an athlete. That’s still a very good player. Think Jamal Murray, who, by the way, Jalen Harris cited as one of his favourite players.

That’s the path to stardom for Flynn. Plenty has to break right for him to sniff Murray territory. He needs to improve his strength, most of all, but his ability to create separation from defenders also needs work. His jumper has to carry into the NBA and perhaps become even more accurate. He needs to prove that his reputation as a defender remains true in the NBA. Basically, everything needs sharpening, which is a normal expectation for a rookie.

All of those improvements, seperately, are reasonable outcomes. Together? Perhaps unlikely. But that’s never stopped a Raptors prospect before.

All that to say: Malachi Flynn is a hell of a steal at 29. There’s a reason Bobby Webster and Dan Tolzman said to media that they had him significantly higher than 29 on their draft board. Flynn was a great college player with the ability to grow into a great NBA player. You’re not supposed to find players like that at the end of the first round, let alone repeatedly, year after year.

I didn’t go into this research wanting to parrot the line that the Raptors continually find steals in the draft. I really didn’t. But in Malachi Flynn, the Raptors stole a good one. It’s unlikely, but he could eventually become a star in the NBA. And so the story repeats itself.