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Clippers Trade Up to 27 for Florida State’s Mfiondu Kabengele

In somewhat of a surprise, the Clippers moved up to the 1st round to take Florida State’s big man Mfiondu Kabengele.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-West Regional-Gonzaga vs Florida State Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

The Clippers have moved up to the 27th pick in the NBA draft to select Florida State center Mfiondu Kabengele, per Woj. To move up, they used a 2020 1st round pick from the Philadelphia Sixers (received in Tobias Harris trade) and the 56th pick in this draft.

Basic Information:

Name: Mfiondu Kabengele

Position: Center

Age: 21

Stats: 13.2 points, 5.9 rebounds, 0.3 assists, 0.6 steals, and 1.5 blocks per game on 50.2/36.9/76.1 shooting splits.

Brief thoughts:

I am not a huge Kabengele fan. He’s a big man who can shoot and has some shot-blocking prowess, but his feel for the game is extremely raw. He can’t pass or make quick reads in a modern NBA offense, so the Clippers have to hope they can groom him in that regard, or that his defense will make up for it.

In terms of the trade, the 2020 Sixers pick is not likely to be very good, as their team is stacked, and the 56th pick in this draft is obviously low, so the value in the deal is fine. I just question the target a bit, as of right now.

That said, Kabengele is supposed to be smart, dedicated, and hard-working, the exact type of player the Clippers have targeted in recent years. The Clippers also held onto the 48th pick, so they could still use that or make further moves.

More extended thoughts:

Mfiondu Kabengele is a 6’10 big man who weighs 256 pounds, has a 7’3 wingspan, and a 9’1 reach, but moves very well for his size. He has great length, and is a fearsome shot-blocker at the rim. However, that lateral quickness makes Kabengele (nicknamed “Kab”) a big man who could potentially defend out on the perimeter as well, giving him the much-vaunted “switchable defender” archetype in addition to “rim-protector”. He has the tools to be a very valuable defensive player.

However, he’s plagued by poor decision-making on that end. An exceedingly raw player, Kab often leaps at pump-fakes, rotates too hard, and generally gets himself out of position. This makes him foul-prone, and less of a positive defensively than you’d think when watching his highlights.

Kabengele has a similar gap between hypothetical and actual production offensively. On one hand, he possesses a legitimate jumpshot, shooting 36.9% on threes (on a low but semi-useful sample size of 1.8 attempts per game), and further demonstrates plus touch with a 76.1% mark from the line. That kind of ability is rare for such an athletic big man, giving Kabengele some rare upside.

On the downside, Kabengele’s lack of feel for the game extends to his offense as well. He averaged merely 0.3 assists per game last season for Florida State to 1.5 turnovers, giving him a simply atrocious 1:5 assist to turnover ratio. And the eye test backs up the statistics. He’s a slow decision-maker who can’t make even simple reads with the ball in his hands, often freezing when he has an open pass, or driving into traffic instead of moving things along. Nearly 22 years old, Kabengele was late to the game of basketball, so it’s possible he develops those instincts as he gets more familiar with the sport, especially with a coaching staff as strong as the Clippers. In my opinion, basketball feel and instincts are much, much harder to develop than purer basketball skills (shooting, handles, etc.), so it’s a risk. But the upside is certainly present.

The strongest positives regarding Kabengele outside of his physical tools are the reports on his intangibles. He’s supposed to be a smart, good kid, who is extremely hard-working and will do whatever it takes to improve. On the court, he plays with an energy and motor that would make Pat Beverley and Montrezl Harrell proud. He won’t always make the correct decision, but the effort will be there.

In terms of assets, I think the Clippers did ok here. The 2020 pick they traded from the Sixers was acquired in the Philadelphia trade, and is protected 1-14. The Sixers are likely to be one of the best teams in the NBA next year, so the pick will probably land around pick 27 anyway (albeit in a potentially stronger draft). The 56th pick is ultimately negligible in terms of assets, so that’s not a huge loss either. The Clippers also held onto 48, which is obviously a somewhat more valuable pick, which is another positive.

The bigger implications regard cap space, which the Clippers have been hoarding to sign two max free agents this summer. Per our own Lucas Hann below, Kabengele will be a $1,974,480 cap hit, which is $1.1 million more than the $900,000 of an empty roster hold. In order to clear cap space for two max or near-max contracts, the Clippers will probably have to cut the non-guaranteed salaries of Sindarius Thornwell and Ty Wallace, both of whom are young and have given the Clippers real minutes the past two seasons. They might have been waived anyway, but that’s not nothing. Other moves could still take place, but this increases the likelihood that at least one, probably both, of those guys are out the door soon. It’s certainly possible that the extra $1 million doesn’t come into play, but as we have seen before, every bit counts, even at near-max levels.

This also might increase the chance that the Clippers do not bring restricted free agent Ivica Zubac back, as Kabengele is more of a center (though he could theoretically play power forward), and Montrezl Harrell will already eat a bunch of minutes there. Zubac was a big part of the Clippers’ push after the trade deadline, but the addition of Kabengele could force him out.

For more information on Kabengele, check out this scouting report on Kabengele from our friends over at Peachtree Hoops.

The bottom line is that I think the overall trade was fine, and that Kabengele has a lot of upside, probably worthy of a late 1st round flier. He’s not who I would have picked, but lots of smart people liked him in that area, and he has the talent to vastly outplay his slot. Hopefully the Clippers can coach him up and turn that raw talent into a positively impactful NBA player.