The 2011 NBA Draft is finally here and the meme of this being a supremely weak crop of players has been repeated as many million times as the owners and players are apart in dollars on their CBA talks.
But Kenyon Martin, Stromile Swift, Marcus Fizer and Darius Miles can pop the champagne like they’re the ’72 Dolphins because 2011 won’t displace 2000 as the worst class of all-time. At least I'm betting strongly against it.
This class is capable of being special in the way it produces role players that directly facilitate titles for those true superduperstars. Up and down the draft and into the second round, those players exist and they are the type that have long careers and ultimately are considered shrewd draft picks. These are workhorses and the NBA probably needs a little bit of that given the trajectory of the top 2% increasingly running everything over the past few years.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers: Kyrie Irving, Duke
While there is an argument that can be made against the Cavaliers selecting Irving, it is one that is ultimately far easier to live with when made by a bystander. Irving is the correct choice for this franchise and it isn’t just because they are in some ways still reeling from the departure of LeBron James.
He is a pure point guard in a draft where most players are difficult to classify. What he lacks in world-class athleticism, he makes up for in his basketball acumen and the way he maximizes the still impressive physical attributes he does possess. Irving is simultaneously the safest pick of the draft and also the player who objectively has the greatest upside.
Irving is the correct choice for Cleveland and it isn’t even close, even if the gap between he and Derrick Williams is relatively nominal.
2. Minnesota Timberwolves: Derrick Williams, Arizona
Since Kentucky reached the Final Four even without Enes Kanter, the real loser in his year-long ineligibility dilemma turns out to be David Kahn and the Wolves. Kanter could be the absolute best fit imaginable at center to pair with Kevin Love, but the grainy high school footage and Nike Hoop Summit becomes a tease that is tough to trust.
Williams is a member of this draft’s ‘Proven Two’ and he becomes the default pick if Minnesota fails to unload the pick. But he duplicates Michael Beasley and overlaps with Love, which means a trade of the 2008 second overall pick becomes necessary to clear room for the 2011 guy. It also means the Wolves will have a similar defensive conundrum at the forward positions that the last two seasons of the Golden State backcourt have proven to be difficult to bear.
Williams can create his own offense both in the paint and as a jump shooter, which is the most precious commodity in the NBA after a breathing center.
3. Utah Jazz: Enes Kanter, Kentucky
If the Jazz believe Kanter is a legitimate center and Brandon Knight is a throwback to the late 90s combo guards of the Stephon Marbury ilk (with a completely different wired mentality), this absolute lynch-pin portion of the draft swings in favor of the bigs and the trickle down effect upon the point guards means the odds of Utah finding one at 12 increase.
With Kanter, the upcoming 12th pick and some sort of trade to free the power forward glut, the Jazz almost instantly morph into a team that should win approximately 40 games.
4. Cleveland Cavaliers: Jonas Valanciunas, Lietuvos Rytas
Part of the equation in the Cavaliers drafting Irving over Williams with the first overall pick is that they are guaranteed to walk away with either Kanter or Valanciunas. These are two players that the Cavaliers seem to like at approximately the same level and the team is far enough away from competing in earnest where there is no real rush on either developing Kanter or waiting on Valanciunas to be free to migrate to the NBA.
My initial analysis on Valanciunas was unenthusiastic, but I’ve rewatched him more recently after speaking to a number of people about what I was missing initially. He is much more athletic than one may initially presume and the amount of skill he possesses at such a young age indicates he could become a multidimensional scorer.
5. Toronto Raptors: Brandon Knight, Kentucky
I’m not sure Knight will lead to an immediate turnaround for the Raptors, but his slippage in this mock is terribly fortuitous for the newly reupped Bryan Colangelo. He is the type of point guard that thrives in the pick and roll and would pair nicely with Andrea Bargnani in that capacity. Knight is capable of becoming an All-Star in the NBA, something that can’t be said about Kemba Walker or Jan Vesely, two candidates the Raptors had been widely expecting to be forced to pick between.
6. Washington Wizards: Jan Vesely, Partizan
It is difficult to distinguish a hierarchy between Vesely and Kawhi Leonard. In these types of situations, we must visualize how the player will fit and the free-flowing, sky-flying Vesely feels far more logical to be handed over to John Wall than the more plodding Leonard. Vesely is absolutely not the perimeter shooter that Wall will eventually need to prevent defenses from collapsing on his dribble penetration, but the Wizards should eventually find floor-stretchers at shooting guard and power forward to offset the carnage of those two on the break.
7. Sacramento Kings: Kemba Walker, Connecticut
Finding a point guard who can play off the ball is certainly the biggest need for the Kings and they have their choice of two that will be capable of contributing immediately in Walker and Jimmer Fredette. Similar to the Vesely/Leonard quandary, arguments can be made going both ways. Fredette is probably the more purely logical pick for Sacramento because of his superior perimeter shooting, but the gap in defense and overall difference in NBA-level athleticism should sober the franchise into the Walker pick.
8. Detroit Pistons: Tristan Thompson, Texas
If Thompson walked off the street six months ago, would we have formed a similar opinion about him as we now have about his contemporary in the Bismack Biyombo? Thompson is similarly long and athletic as Biyombo, but he also has the foundation of an excellent offensive game even though he is in dire need of improvement with anything beyond a few feet. Thompson would be a nice fit beside Greg Monroe in what would be an emerging frontcourt.
9. Charlotte Bobcats: Kawhi Leonard, San Diego State
Based purely on talent and potential, Leonard deserves to be drafted several slots higher. He will fill a definite niche as a deluxe rebounder and defender at the small forward position, while he has plenty of latent talent to eventually become a respectable offensive player. He is the middle ground sweet spot between Kwame Brown/Alexis Ajinca and Adam Morrison/Gerald Henderson where Michael Jordan has yet to truly hit.
10. Milwaukee Bucks: Klay Thompson, Washington State
I’m slightly dubious of Thompson any higher than here, but he fits Milwaukee’s need on the wing perfectly and there is little question he will be one of the better spot-up shooters in the NBA. He also is capable of craftily creating his own offense on occasion off the dribble.
11. Golden State Warriors: Marcus Morris, Kansas
In terms of team need and talent, few picks this low would yield so perfectly as Morris. The Warriors are in search for a small forward and he instantly becomes their best interior scorer.
12. Utah Jazz: Jimmer Fredette, BYU
Kevin O’Connor shockingly traded Deron Williams in the dead of Trade Deadline Eve morning and passing on an opportunity to draft Fredette here if he remains on the board would probably get him run out of Utah. The trade of Williams has worked out beautifully, but that type of controversial decision again here would also be illogical considering team need and the fact that it wouldn’t purely be a fan-pleasing move.
13. Phoenix Suns: Alec Burks, Colorado
If someone as undeserving as Marshon Brooks can receive Kobe Bryant comparisons, let’s allow those who crave comparisons do the Alec Burks/Brandon Roy in peace, especially when he drops in a similar way. Burks suits Phoenix as a ballhandling shooting guard who can contribute immediately and also be a long-term asset with upside as the team simultaneously window-dresses their hopes of continuing to compete while also rebuilding.
14. Houston Rockets: Chris Singleton, Florida State
I offered Singleton to the Rockets on the night of the lottery, then bumped him up to the Jazz under the assumption the team would go with Knight at four and then for a good part of Wednesday shifted him convincingly to the Warriors, but now he returns to the Rockets. Wherever Singleton ends up, they are receiving a gritty player that was built for playoff games. He also is essentially what Ron Artest is these days, as a plus defender at small forward with offensive contributions that begin and end as a spot-up shooter since he can’t dribble.
15. Indiana Pacers: Bismack Biyombo, Baloncesto Fuenlabrada
As my colleague Jonathan Tjarks articulated on Wednesday, teams like the Pacers have been stuck in the limbo between the lottery and sincerely competing for titles by drafting too conservatively. The Pacers are in a perfect position to gamble aggressively at No. 15 by picking a player who unexpectedly falls without the guilt of the reach.
Biyombo is in play as high as No. 5, so a ten pick range is highly unusual unless we’re talking about second rounders, but this is the type of draft we’ve been dealt this season. I like Biyombo well enough to approve taking him in the top-six, but this is a more appropriate risk/reward area.
16. Philadelphia 76ers: Nikola Vucevic, USC
Despite the uncertainty before and after the 76ers, this is beginning to feel like one of the safer assumptions beyond the top-two since he is likely to remain available and fits a need for the club.
17. New York Knicks: Josh Selby, Kansas
Based on projected talent from a year ago, Selby would be a steal for the Knicks. They are unlikely to draft this high again in the near future and he is a definitive gamble, but one worth pulling the trigger upon. Selby fits the system as a big, athletic point guard capable of hitting the perimeter jumper. He just as easily could have had the Brandon Knight experience if we erase the suspension and injury.
18. Washington Wizards: Markieff Morris, Kansas
Morris plays hard and grinds, which means he’s the antithesis of Anday Blatche. Morris will make an excellent NBA enforcer and he isn’t completely lacking skill offensively. Like so many of his fellow role players in this draft, Morris was built for playoff games.
19. Charlotte Bobcats: Iman Shumpert, Georgia Tech
If the type of minutes and mentoring is just right, Shumpert could deliver upon all of the promise and athleticism that he was unable to while in college.
20. Minnesota Timberwolves: Travis Leslie, Georgia
A shooting guard would be the logical play for Minnesota here, with Marshon Brooks serving as an alternative that makes less sense than Leslie. Brooks is the type of player that needs the ball in his hands, whereas Leslie is the type of preternatural athlete a team may as well put at Ricky Rubio’s disposal.
21. Portland Trail Blazers: Kenneth Faried, Morehead State
Which playoff team wants constant energy and one of the best rebound rates in the NBA?
22. Denver Nuggets: Jordan Hamilton, Texas
Hamilton is capable of becoming an excellent all-around player, but his limited athleticism and somewhat selfish demeanor will hopefully be offset with the fact that anyone picked in the twenties in a weak draft year must prove everything.
23. Houston Rockets: Donatas Motiejunas, Benneton Treviso
Motiejunas was an international flavor of the year back in 2009, but he put off his draft year and has been supplanted by the newer unknowns in Valanciunas and Biyombo. He is a good fit for Houston and good value as well.
24. Oklahoma City Thunder: Tobias Harris, Tennessee
Predicting what Sam Presti will do is an exercise in futility, but Harris would be a good alternative if Hamilton is unavailable and he doesn’t feel comfortable waiting a few years on Nikola Mirotic.
25. Boston Celtics: Justin Harper, Richmond
Harper should be considered a veteran by the age standards of this draft, which means he should contribute right away to the Celtics in the ways they were expecting from Jeff Green.
26. Dallas Mavericks: Jeremy Tyler, Tokyo Apache
The GM/owner who picks Tyler automatically wins the “I’m Keith Hernandez” award, so my money is on Cuban.
27. New Jersey Nets: Marshon Brooks, Providence
The Nets were in desperate need of scorers on the wing and Brooks is one of those par excellence. Hopefully, Avery Johnson can accomplish a complete turnaround on his defense.
28. Chicago Bulls: Davis Bertans, Union Olimpija
If the Bulls don’t trade up by packaging their two picks, they may as well preserve a roster spot and take a player that would go significantly higher if he could come over immediately.
29. San Antonio Spurs: Nikola Mirotic, Real Madrid
The Spurs have been positively Machiavellian this week with the way they planted the Tony Parker for a lottery pick trade rumor. First of all, it sends a message to Parker that this era will not go quietly into the dark night (with or without him). It also shakes up the entire draft perception by placing value upon a previously considered somewhat disposal lottery pick. Most fascinatingly, it has created a riddle to discover which specific player the Spurs covet with said lottery pick.
In the end, the script could be the same as it was when they picked Luis Scola and Tiago Splitter to stash them overseas.
30. Chicago Bulls: Reggie Jackson, Boston College
Jackson to the Heat at 31 is such a foregone conclusion that I mistakenly wrote Miami Heat beside his name instead of Boston College. But the Bulls are in need of a backup point guard who is also capable of playing alongside Derrick Rose. Drafting Jackson also is a nice way of playing prevent defense against a team they are likely to meet again in the Eastern Conference Finals next season.