Through the halfway point of the NBA season it’s pretty clear that the class of 2015 has a chance to be one of the greatest draft classes in recent memory, as good as the class of 2008 if not the class of 2003. The class of 2014 got more hype coming out of high school because Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle have been stars since adolescence, but the players from the 2014 draft been much more up-and-down in the NBA and they haven’t shown the same type of depth or starpower as the class of 2015 has in their first four months in the league.
Forget Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, who look like future superstars and franchise players. The top of the 2015 draft already features several players playing big roles on playoff-caliber teams - Justise Winslow, Frank Kaminsky, Stanley Johnson - as well as guys taken towards the end of the first round who have already shown flashes of being good players - Bobby Portis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Justin Anderson. In terms of the strength of the draft, maybe the most impressive part comes from the end of the lottery, where Myles Turner, Devin Booker and Trey Lyles look like future stars.
Myles Turner: A broken hand kept Turner out for well over a month this season, but it only delayed the inevitable, as the Indiana Pacers have already gone away from their small-ball experiment in order to start their super-sized rookie big man at PF. Turner is playing 30+ minutes a night and he’s more than holding his own against some of the best frontlines in the NBA. In the last few weeks, he 31 points, 8 rebounds and 2 blocks against the Golden State Warriors and 20 points and 6 rebounds against the Atlanta Hawks. His per-36 minute numbers jump off the page - 17.7 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.6 blocks a game on 54% shooting.
At 6’11 245 with a 7’4 wingspan, Turner has prototype size for the C position in the modern NBA but he’s a good enough shooter and a good enough athlete to at least slide over to the PF position in bigger line-ups. He has just about everything you would want in a big man - he’s only 19 years old and he can already protect the rim at a high level, step out and knock down perimeter jumpers and score with his back to the basket. The stretch 5 is the wave of the future and Turner is on the forefront of the way the game is changing and how young big men are adjusting to the pace-and-space era.
Trey Lyles: Lyles needed a little while to get comfortable at the next level, but an injury to Rudy Gobert opened up some playing time for him and he thrived in the starting unit before returning to the bench in the last few weeks. He is now a bonafide member of the Utah Jazz rotation and he looks like a huge piece of their future. A Jazz front-line that features two C’s who can’t stretch the floor or make plays off the dribble desperately needs the skill-set that Lyles provides upfront.
At 6’10 235 with a 7’2 wingspan, Lyles is a fairly average athlete by NBA standards but he moves really well for a big man with the size to play at the C position. What makes him stand out is his skill level and overall feel for the game - he played as a SF at Kentucky and he has the ball-handling ability of a guard and the ability to do multiple things on offense. He can step out to 20+ feet and knock down jumpers, create his own shot off the dribble and make plays in tight spaces. The best players at the PF position in the modern NBA are guards with the size of big men and big men with the games of guards and Lyles is a comfortable mix of the two.
Devin Booker: Like Lyles, Booker was a one-and-done player at Kentucky who spent most of his only season in the NCAA playing in the shadow of Karl Towns on a team with so many NBA prospects that it was hard for too many of them to stand out. Like Lyles, he didn’t play a lot early in his rookie season but he has slowly emerged as an impact contributor for the Phoenix Suns. In a season where just about everything that could go wrong has go wrong, Booker’s emergence has been a rare ray of sunshine in Phoenix.
The similarities with Lyles don’t end there. At 6’6 205 with a 6’8 wingspan, Booker is only an average athlete by NBA standards and he lacks the high-level physical gifts that most SG’s taken in the lottery have. Where he makes up for it is in his shooting ability, his feel for the game and his basketball IQ. Booker, who just turned 19 in October, is the youngest player in the league but he plays like a 10-year veteran. His shooting stroke hasn’t needed to adjust to the longer 3-point line and he has already proven he can create his own shot off the dribble and run the pick-and-roll, two things which he was almost never asked to do at Kentucky. JJ Redick is probably closer to the floor of who he could be.
Put it all together and it’s clear that three guys this talented shouldn’t have been available at picks 11-13 in the draft. The usual argument for why it’s better to make a push to make the playoffs rather than finish in the lottery is that late lottery picks usually don’t become difference makers. That wasn’t the case in 2015 because Turner, Booker and Lyles should never have been available at that stage in the first round. In a normal year, all three of them would have returned to school and become some of the best players in the country as sophomores.
There was no reason for any of them to declare for the draft. None of them produced big numbers and none of them was even an All-Conference selection. Turner averaged 10.1 points and 6.5 rebounds coming off the bench for an underachieving Texas team that wound up firing its head coach at the end of the season while Lyles (8.7 points, 5.2 rebounds) and Booker (10.1 points, 1.1 assists) were nothing more than role-playing cogs on a Kentucky team that went 38-1 and lost in the Final Four. Those aren’t the type of stats that generally excite NBA front offices.
In an alternate universe where all three stayed in school, Turner would be leading Texas to a Big 12 championship in Shaka Smart’s first season in Austin while Booker and Lyles would be the best two players on a Kentucky team that was once again competing for a national championship. Given how weak this year’s freshman class looks, all three guys would be right there with Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram as possible Top 5 picks in the 2016 draft.
That goes double for Turner and Booker, both of whom are fairly young for their age. Their birthdays sandwich Simmons - Turner was born in March 1996, Simmons was born in July 1996 and Booker was born in October 1996. By all rights, they probably should be in this year’s freshman class. That’s one of the biggest reasons why the freshman class of 2016 has been so comparatively weak - two of its best players are in the class of 2015.
When it comes to the draft, two of the most important storylines in recent years are the relative strength of 2015 and the relative weakness of 2016. The back half of the 2015 lottery looks like it could be as good as the top end of the 2016 lottery in large part because the back half of the 2015 lottery should have been the top end of 2016.