I am not that smart.
But by being friendly to people and awkwardly initiating conversations at credentialed events, I’ve formed relationships with enough legitimate experts to write informed stories with semblances of intelligence.
When DePaul Blue Demon basketball star Max Strus announced at the end of March that he would declare for the 2018 NBA draft, many questioned whether the 6-foot-6-inch, Hickory Hills, Ill. native has what it takes to make the leap to the next level. To get a feel for the answer, I tapped into my network of smart basketball people.
Ideally, I would have had access to NBA scouts. I talked to one of these magical people at a Windy City Bulls game last winter and he told me some interesting stuff, but I didn’t have the foresight to ask for his number or email. So, really smart writers were the next best option.
The analysis and commentary for this story comes from SB Nation editor Ricky O’Donnell, NBC Sports Chicago contributor Scott Phillips, and 670 The Score radio host and Blue Demon color commentator Laurence Holmes.
Strus is a 6-foot-6-inch, 215 pound wing player who transferred over to DePaul two seasons ago from Division II Lewis University (he sat out 2016-2017 in accordance with NCAA transfer policy).
“Strus is a very intriguing wing in that he’s 6-foot-6-inches, very athletic, and capable of playing above the rim and beyond the 3-point line,” Phillips said. “That’s something you don’t typically see from a wing athlete of the 6-foot-6-inch variety like Max. To have that athleticism and the shooting ability, it’s that rare combination that makes him an intriguing prospect at the next level.”
Last season, to incessant chants of “Struuuus” from the Wintrust Arena crowd, he led all Blue Demon scorers with 16.8 points per contest, nailing 40.8 percent of his shots on a team-high 13.5 field goal attempts per game. The focal point of the Blue Demons offense for much of the season, the redshirt junior exploded for 12 games with 20 or more points including season-high totals of 33 points against Northwestern and Xavier.
With his size and strength, he was also a good rebounder for his position averaging 5.6 boards per contest. A grinder, Strus averaged a team-high 35.7 minutes per game and was one of four Blue Demon players to play in all 31 of DePaul’s games.
On a Blue Demon team that finished 182nd in adjusted offensive efficiency per KenPom.com, Strus needed to be the go-to guy offensively. Scoring the ball is the meat and potatoes of his game and he uses an NBA-ready physical profile to help generate that scoring.
“A lot of NBA teams are seeking out those 6-foot-5-inch to 6-foot-9-inch wings who can shoot the ball and who can be athletic enough to contribute in other facets of the game,” Phillips said. “With Strus’ leaping ability, he’d be able to help rebound and be quick enough to guard some of the point guards who maybe aren’t as quick as the elite guys. He’s got some versatility and some things about him that NBA teams covet.”
Moving without the ball, defensive versatility that stems from his size and athleticism, and creating shots off the dribble were also mentioned as strengths by Phillips, Holmes, and O’Donnell.
As counterintuitive as it seems, Strus’ role on this Blue Demon squad has allowed him to accentuate some of his strengths and both O’Donnell and Phillips believe he’d be best served remaining a Blue Demon.
“He’s already had some buzz,” O’Donnell explained. “I wouldn’t (transfer) and sit out a year if I was him. DePaul is going to be probably pretty rough, but I would just ride with that team. He’ll be the clear-cut star. He’ll be in position for big per game numbers.”
Areas of Improvement:
Billed as a lights out shooter, opponents defended him accordingly using double teams and traps to chase him away from the 3-point line or deter him from his path as he curled off down screens.
The attention didn’t stop him from casting up 7.8 attempts from 3-point land per game (third in the Big East). Surprisingly, he nailed a pedestrian 33.3 percent of these attempts.
Phillips mentioned shot selection as an improvement area for Strus. In an offense that struggled at times, Strus had to be a chucker and didn’t have much of an opportunity to showcase the full range of his offensive skillset because he was so focused on scoring. If he can flash playmaking skills, that would add another valuable layer to his offensive arsenal.
“He has to improve as a ball handler and [with his] passing,” O’Donnell said. “You can say that about just about every young wing. He had 85 assists to 82 turnovers [last season], so I wouldn’t call him a great playmaker or a great passer. If he really wants to take the next step in his career beyond just being a shooter, then he needs to be a secondary playmaker somebody who can run a pick-and-roll at the end of the shot clock when the defense breaks down. I think he has some potential in that regard, but he has to keep honing those skills.”
In terms of defense, it’s a mixed bag. Strus didn’t shine in traditional defensive statistics like steals (1.4) or blocks (0.6) per 40 minutes, but the advanced metrics liked his performance on that end of the floor. He led the team with 1.4 defensive win shares while generating a defensive box plus-minus of 2.2.
Holmes cited moving his feet better on defense as a potential area of improvement (2.9 fouls per game which was tops on the team). O’Donnell is less concerned about Strus defensively and thinks his combination of size, athleticism, and intelligence makes him workable on that side of the floor
“Defensively, no one expects him to be a stopper he just has to hold his own similar to Kyle Korver,” O’Donnell said. “I think athletically, Strus is a much better athlete than Korver but I think Korver is just a really smart disciplined team defender and Strus is going to have to be able to do that.”
All Strus wants to do is win. Here’s his evaluation of his 27-point outburst in a Jan. 20 loss against Butler.
“Teams always value high character guys, people who they can have at the end of the bench and they won’t cause a scene or be a big distraction,” O’Donnell said.
Another strength for Strus in the intangibles department is that he plays with competitive fire. He also always plays like he has something to prove.
This probably stems from the fact that he earned just one Division I scholarship offer (Chicago State) coming out of Stagg High School in Palos Hills, Ill.
“He plays with a chip on his shoulder, like he always has something to prove,” Holmes said. “NBA teams are going to love that, especially when you consider he made the transition to Division I smoothly and then went on to be the best player on a Big East team. He’s definitely a leader, in words and action. He works and works and works on his game to try and get better. On top of being really athletic, he’s also really smart and has a good feel for the game. He’s not afraid of pressure at all.”
So, what they are saying is there is a chance?
“I think he’s good enough to have a chance to play in the NBA someday,” O’Donnell said.
“I think he has a shot,” Phillips added. “I think when you look at the NBA now the way that teams are shuffling players into the mix with two-way contracts and the G League and with injuries and tanking I think we’re seeing such a unique number of players entering the league each year.”
Whether it’s this summer or the next, Strus has his sights set on the NBA. He’ll be pleased to know that there’s three really smart people (and a not so smart guy, me) who believe in his chances.