Covering the Golden State Warriors' championship run this year, I was unfortunately unable to evaluate the rookie class in my normal level of depth.
While this draft class does not have any super-high end guys (think the best player on a title team), it should produce a nice amount of starters and high rotation players that help make the league more enjoyable top to bottom.
One of my guiding principles in the draft is that swingmen (shooting guards and small forwards) who are not No. 1 scorers or elite defenders do not provide nearly as much value as players capable of filling those roles. Top-10 misses like Wesley Johnson and Joe Alexander help explain this issue.
The 2015 Draft class has lots of talent on the wing but not many stoppers and likely zero No. 1 scorers on high-level teams. In fact, the best perimeter defender in this class likely will not go in the lottery: Arizona’s Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. That said, this class has some guys who are dynamic and talented enough to still be valuable and you will see them on the lists below.
Another strange weakness in this class is rim protection. Karl-Anthony Towns has the ability to fill that defensive role but there are more than a few bigs that do not fit that bill. The incredible value of rim protection in today’s NBA is part of the reason why I feel that Myles Turner and Willie Cauley-Stein will end up making the teams that draft them very happy in time.
Something else to consider: NBA teams need capable primary ballhandlers all 48 minutes, which means even players who will primarily be backups with that ability are quite valuable. I am not completely sold on Tyus Jones and Cameron Payne as starting-caliber point guards in the NBA, but being a bench player capable of running the show and scaling up in role and minutes when the starter is out can keep a team above water against quality opponents. Golden State spent on Shaun Livingston to fill this role after seeing the catastrophic effect of leaving the backup ballhandler role empty behind Stephen Curry the season before. Jones, Payne, Jerian Grant and Delon Wright are worthy of a solid draft spot for this reason.
Prospects I am higher on than most
RJ Hunter, SG, Georgia State: He can shoot the ball incredibly well and will be a useful passer in the league. Hunter also possesses the physical potential to be a solid defender even though he did not have to show it at Georgia State. I would not be surprised in the slightest to see him as a starter in the NBA eventually.
Myles Turner, C, Texas: Some have focused on Turner’s flaws, but his strengths are remarkable for a 19-year-old center prospect. Turner blocked shots and collected defensive rebounds at an elite rate during his year at Texas and did so against a wide variety of opponents. His offensive game has some limitations (though shooting 84 percent from the line is remarkable) and his terrible running form inspired the most compelling piece of the 2015 Draft process, but Turner should be an important rotation rim protector at worst and could become an above-average starter at a pivotal position.
Mario Hezonja, SG/SF, Croatia: I have been in the Church of Hezonja for a long time, comparing him to JR Smith (as a prospect) for RealGM back in November 2013. The Croatian swingman will thrive playing in the NBA with capable surrounding talent. He can be a terror in transition and dangerous in halfcourt situations, especially with good coaching. Hezonja also shows respectable defensive potential and developing a better handle would elevate him to another level of importance to an NBA team.
Willie Cauley-Stein, C, Kentucky: As someone lucky enough to cover the Warriors throughout the season, I experienced the importance of Draymond Green’s defensive versatility firsthand. Willie Cauley-Stein has some of what makes Draymond so special, but does it as a seven footer with remarkable physical gifts for a human being his size. Cauley-Stein will not be a Rudy Gobert or Tyson Chandler style rim protector- he will be an overall defensive force who does not need to score to have an outsized impact against any opponent.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, SF/SG/PF, Arizona: From what I have seen, RHJ is the best perimeter defender in this class and that ability extends to power forwards as well in some circumstances. While his limited offensive skillset could be a problem in a playoff series (like it was for Tony Allen against the Warriors), Hollis-Jefferson provides enough capability on the defensive end to be worth a heavy rotation spot at the very least. His versatility also means that you can fit him in with talented offensive players at a variety of positions and do well. Depending on who falls, I would consider him as early as the late lottery and be thrilled if he fell to me in the 20’s.
Andrew Harrison, SG, Kentucky: The Harrison as a primary ballhandler experiment failed at Kentucky. Big whoop. That time and his pre-existing skills make Andrew well-suited to life as a secondary ballhandler who defends opposing shooting guards. Harrison would thrive in bench units with less attentive defenders and presumably a less capable lead guard who can let him take the reins from time to time. Sliding into that role should also help Andrew’s shot selection and like RJ Hunter that should make him a much more valuable NBA player than collegian.
Robert Upshaw, C, Washington: Upshaw’s troubles cannot be ignored, but his potential as a rim protector is too good to pass up. He blocked seven shots per 40 minutes at Washington and opponents shot more than 10 percent better from two when he was off the court per Draft Express. Add in some rebounding chops and you have a seriously valuable player if he can get his head together. Depending on how the interviews went in this process, I would seriously consider taking Upshaw in the late first round because having him on cheap team options for the third and fourth seasons could be an astonishing value.
Prospects I am lower on than most
Kristaps Porzingis, PF, Latvia: While clearly an interesting talent, Porzingis does not presently possess the connective tissue to be a true difference-maker in the NBA. The Latvian has a nice jumper that he can hit as a set shooter or on the move (unusual for a PF) but his handle and passing ability are poor even for the position. Defense tells a similar story as Porzingis can block shots but does not have great instincts or rebounding prowess. Porzingis has unusual strengths that could form the foundation of a legit NBA player but it will take a ton of coaching, time and luck for that to become reality.
Trey Lyles, PF, Kentucky: Non-elite power forwards who cannot guard centers need to be awfully good to be key pieces in the league. Lyles shot a horrendous 37 percent on jump shots though he did well from the line and in the post, showing some potential to be a positive offensive player. Lyles is not strong defensively either and will have to improve markedly to justify his current draft position.
Kelly Oubre, SF, Kansas: Oubre has a pretty high ceiling but a very low floor, which is worrisome. He profiles as a complementary piece on offense with the capability of hitting open shots (35.8 percent from three his only season in college) but not great at generating offensive for himself or others. I saw more from him defensively towards the end of the year but Oubre’s appeal on that end comes more from potential than production.
A few second rounders to watch
Christian Wood, PF/C, UNLV: Should be a first rounder, plain and simple. Wood has the ability to play power forward offensively and should be able to provide nice weak side shot blocking from that spot. He could eventually get some minutes at center, which only amplifies his value.
Michael Frazier, SG, Florida: A classic rotation Shooting Guard with a nice jumper and an effort level that will work in practice and small bursts in games. Frazier shot 87.1% from the free throw line this season, which bodes well for his shooting at the next level.
Cliff Alexander, PF/C, Kansas: Scout had Alexander as the No. 6 player in the 2014 high school class, two spots below Karl-Anthony Towns while sitting between Myles Turner and Kelly Oubre. Aelxander had a disappointing season at Kansas and may not be an NBA starter but should provide value as a rotation player who can contribute relatively early and improve with good coaching.
Joe Young, PG/SG, Oregon: A true scorer who gets hurt because he does not appear to be starter caliber as a primary ballhandler. Having a backup that can put the ball in the bucket is very valuable- just ask Raptors fans how Lou Williams helped them this season. Imperfect but useful.
Pat Connaughton, SG, Notre Dame: A quality athlete with a solid jumper who can rebound very well for a guard. People forget how shallow the rotation depth can be at off-guard in the NBA, especially right now.
My final Top 10 big board:
1. Karl Anthony Towns, C/PF, Kentucky
2. Jahlil Okafor, C, Duke
3. Emmanuel Mudiay, PG, Democratic Republic of the Congo
4. D’Angelo Russell, SG/PG, Ohio State
5. Willie Cauley-Stein, C, Kentucky
6. Mario Hezonja, SG/SF, Croatia
7. Myles Turner, C, Texas
8. Justise Winslow, SF, Duke
9. Kristaps Porzingis, PF, Latvia
10. Frank Kaminsky, PF/C, Wisconsin