Over the past few days, I have been hard at work on my annual draft board and tiers piece. While it looks like that will not come to pass this year for a few reasons, there are a few takeaways from the experience that would be worthwhile to get out there before the NBA Draft itself on Thursday.
I would like to take a moment at the outset to send my best wishes to Isaiah Austin. As someone who has followed him for years, it was heartbreaking to see Austin’s dream taken away so close to it coming to fruition. Thankfully he reportedly has an insurance policy that could help ease the financial transition. Best wishes moving forward, Isaiah.
The top of this class has incredible balance to it- Now, some of this comes from Joel Embiid falling back to earth a little with the injuries, but the margin between my No. 1 player (Dante Exum, though that changed three times in the last five days) and my No. 9 player (Aaron Gordon) really is not that big. While there are no clear-cut superstars in this class, there should be a high number of at least solid starters. The 2013 NBA Draft had very few of those and we could see as many as 15 on Thursday with another huge group behind them.
We should see a ton of rotation players come into the league- Going through the guards I was struck by just how many of them could stick in the NBA. I am not in love with point guards like Elfrid Payton and Tyler Ennis, but both should be quality third guards at the absolute worst and the batch of lower rotation players like Lamar Patterson, Fuquan Edwin and Bogdan Bogdanovic could bring depth to a shooting guard position sorely in need of people to soak up minutes.
Throw traditional positional definitions out the window if you have not already- I wrote a few years ago on RealGM that writers and fans alike needed to stop clinging to combining the offensive and defensive roles into one concept of position. The NBA has too much versatility now to define what a guy should do on offense by who he guards on the other end.
Forwards like Dario Saric and Kyle Anderson thrive with the ball in their hands, while Arizona guard Nick Johnson would be better off defending opposing point guards but not running the show. This trend shows up all over the board from Dante Exum and potential revolutionary power forward Jabari Parker at the top to big ballhandlers like Spencer Dinwiddie and Jordan Clarkson in the second round. Teams that understand what they are working with and how to maximize it will reap the benefits like the Spurs did the last few seasons with unconventional talents like Boris Diaw.
The non-Americans in this class might steal the show- While Exum gets the headlines and some of the scorn due to the lack of high level competition in a way that parallels Giannis Antetokounmpo last year, a shocking number of young European players have proven their talents already against better basketball players than the NCAA offers. Clint Capela, Jusuf Nurkic, Vasilije Micic, Dario Saric and Nikola Jokic are all talented players that could play key roles in rotations soon and end up starting in the NBA down the road.
Prospects I am higher on than most
Dante Exum: Exum will get at least one NBA General Manager fired. At present, I cannot be sure if that will be the GM who takes him, one who passes on him, or one who gives up on him too early because of how raw he will come into the league but I do fully expect it to happen. While miles away from his ceiling, Exum could become a genuine rarity in basketball: a player who can legitimately defend both guard positions and succeed on offense against either as well. He is insanely fast for his size with a good handle and I love that he often keeps his head up looking for the pass even when getting into good position to score, one of the marks of a quality distributor. His defense will take a while to come around but I fully expect it to.
Zach LaVine: Take everything I wrote about Exum, temper it with the knowledge that LaVine has a much lower basketball IQ and PG skills at this point and you have what intrigues me so much about the UCLA product. LaVine is more of a vertical athlete and less of a horizontal one than Exum from what I have seen, but he should be able to defend either guard position eventually while being an absolute terror in transition and playing successfully off the ball even if he can never run an offense as the primary ballhandler. Another guy with a seriously low floor with the ceiling to justify a high pick. Be very, very wary of anyone who throws a Russell Westbrook comparison at you- the only thing they have in common is that both attended the same college and are high-end athletes for their position. That’s it.
Clint Capela: Currently, I have Capela at #5 on my board. Rim protection has become one of the best predictors of team success and Capela should bring that from either big man spot. His 7’4.5” wingspan and potent athleticism helped Capela do a nice job blocking shots and grabbing rebounds for Chalon this season despite turning 20 just over a month ago. Serge Ibaka is probably too lofty of a bar to set but even Serge Lite would be an incredibly valuable NBA player.
Adreian Payne: One of the major draft narratives that has persisted over the last few years is that older prospects can be problematic. In terms of projecting ceiling and calibrating against their competition, those concerns are wholly valid and must be considered when evaluating talent. One underappreciated perk of drafting a quality player like Payne in the first round is that you get an immediate impact rotation player while also controlling his rights until he hits 31. That means you get a player’s entire prime before they hit unrestricted free agency for the first time. Payne can shoot well for his position and I expect him to thrive with a coach and teammates who understand how to maximize his substantial talents.
Nick Johnson: People get down on Nick Johson as a prospect because he is undersized at shooting guard. Guess what? He should not be a shooting guard! Johnson reminds me of Avery Bradley: an athletic guy with great energy best suited to blunting the tip of the spear of an opponent’s offense while letting someone else run the show for his team. Taking the ball out of Johnson’s hands could also help his efficiency in terms of both scoring and turnovers which could also enhance his success.
Spencer Dinwiddie: As well as he did in college, I think Dinwiddie could be an even better pro by playing shooting guard on both ends of the floor. While he would lose some of his size advantage, playing a lead guard at the two forces opponents not used to defending primary ballhandlers to do so while also better suiting his own defensive limitations. A quality shooter and distributor, a smart team will take advantage of his low stock due to an ACL injury and pick up a rotation player on the cheap.
Prospects I am lower on than most
Doug McDermott: Kyle Korver’s name has been thrown out a ton recently and folks need to remember that the former Creighton player had to work incredibly hard and improve a ton to become an NBA starter. While McDermott had the far superior collegiate career, he measures out as a straight small forward in the league and will not have athletic advantages on very many of his opponents to create for himself around the arc or in the paint. On top of that, his defense should be horrendous as some have illustrated by pointing out that McBuckets tallied a total of 34 steals and 14 blocks in 145 games at Creighton along with shaky rebounding. His shooting and overall scoring talent coupled with a good work ethic could propel him into a role in the league but his ceiling and floor are both too low for McDermott to be worth a lottery pick in such a good draft.
Elfrid Payton: Payton has been getting substantial hype for justifiable reasons: he tries incredibly hard and has the tools to be an impactful player as both a defender and rebounder. Unfortunately, the NBA still asks the smallest guy on the court to run the offense most of the time and take on some of the scoring load as well in recent years. I have sincere doubts Payton will be able to do either outside of transition, as his 59% free throw shooting backs up his poor offensive numbers against largely inferior competition. People compare him to small school darling Damian Lillard (who I was also low on, for what it’s worth) but the two are very different players.
Gary Harris: While there are many things more in the intangible realm to like about Harris, he had immense trouble finishing at the rim in college and may not have the size to reliably get a jumper off at either guard position in the pros. In my eyes, Harris would ideally defend opposing PG’s but play off the ball because some of his poor shots at Michigan State came from him having too much faith in his jumper when the ball was in his hands. He absolutely could make it but is far from the sure thing some have been portraying him as.
Jerami Grant: I seriously have little idea why he could potentially go in the first round. An athlete who never had to defend in a way that will translate thanks to Syracuse’s system, Grant’s inability to shoot makes it incredibly unlikely that he can stick at Small Forward and only being a good athlete is not enough to even get into a rotation now at any position.
To close it out, here is my current Top 10 of players in this draft:
1. Dante Exum, PG/SG, Austrialia
2. Joel Embiid, C, Kansas
3. Jabari Parker, PF/SF, Duke
4. Andrew Wiggins, SG/SF, Kansas
5. Clint Capela, PF/C, Switzerland
6. Julius Randle, PF, Kentucky
7. Jusuf Nurkic, C, Bosnia
8. Noah Vonleh, PF/C, Indiana
9. Aaron Gordon, PF/SF, Arizona
10. James Young, SG/SF, Kentucky
Enjoy the draft and get ready for what looks to be a more exciting than expected offseason.