Did The Celtics Overpay for Kyrie Irving?

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In a mega deal, the Boston Celtics sent Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the Nets’ 2018 1st round pick for Kyrie Irving. I will break down this deal piece by piece:

Kyrie Irving vs Isaiah Thomas

These two players are near doppelgängers in the regular season, as they are both efficient scorers who give back much of their goodness on defense. But there are a few key factors in Kyrie’s favor that make him more attractive to the Celtics:

–Being the #1 pick vs Thomas’s #60, he has more natural talent that a coach like Brad Stevens may be able to help realize
–He is a bit more than 2 years younger and under team control for an additional year
–He has a stronger track record in the playoffs and clutch moments
–He is not coming off hip surgery

How much can Stevens help Kyrie?

The Celtics must believe Kyrie will explode under Stevens’ tutelage, as he already brought out the best in Jordan Crawford and Isaiah Thomas. And it is reasonable to expect some uptick, but how much upside is there?

Kyrie has been the same player for his 6 year career in Cleveland, and playing alongside LeBron he wasn’t leaving a bad situation. He has always struggled with passing and defense, and even if those improve slightly under Stevens it is difficult to envision those weaknesses going away entirely. And the shortest player on the floor cannot be elite with subpar passing and defense.

Further, it’s not like he is surrounded by a perfect cast of defense and shooting to maximize his scoring. This is especially true since they traded their best 3 + D player to acquire him.

In Boston’s favor, this is the most slippery aspect of the trade. Kyrie is outlier elite at creating his own offense efficiently, and his instincts are not broken. I was super high on him pre-draft, and he has been consistently above average without ever playing for a good coach ever since his 19 year old rookie season. He is still 25 and has some untapped potential, so there is some realistic chance he blossoms into a true star playing for Brad Stevens.

That said I wouldn’t bet on Kyrie being a top 5 PG next year, as he will likely remain inferior to Curry, Paul, Westbrook, Harden, Lowry, and Wall.

But He’s Clutch!

Kyrie’s isolation scoring ability tends to translate well to high leverage situations, and he has more potential to play competent defense in tense moments than Thomas who is 6 inches shorter. But in his 6 years with Cleveland, the Cavaliers overachieved at end games by a total of 3 wins, i.e. half a win per year. This is a nice tick to have but not overwhelmingly significant.

Further, the Celtics are left with a cast that has no prayer of winning a finals, let alone against a team like the Warriors. So whatever extra degree he has in the playoffs is hardly relevant as the base talent is not good enough to be a clutch play or two away from a championship.

At Least The Celtics Do Not Need To Max Isaiah

Giving Isaiah Thomas a big contract next offseason would have been a disaster, as he is not great now and speedy 5’9″ players do not age well. But Boston was never required to do so– they could have let him walk or traded him without including elite assets.

They only get 1 additional year of Kyrie under team control (at the cost of $33M extra since IT is discounted at $6.3M for 17-18), and then will need to offer him a max contract to keep him. That is not a favorable deal for Boston. He will not be a top 5 PG or top 25 player, and the Celtics will commit nearly $100M to Kyrie, Horford, and Hayward, which is a good but not great trio. They will likely not be able to add any meaningful pieces, and may have to let some current useful pieces go. Thus they are all in on their current personnel, which is not championship caliber.

How much more valuable is Kyrie?

Kyrie is an upgrade over IT in a handful of small ways, that collectively add up to a decent but not exceptional margin. Now let’s analyze the price paid:

Jae Crowder

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There is an underlying assumption that Jae Crowder cannot be as good as his elite RPM suggests, as multi-year RPM rates him as the #21 player in the NBA. It is plausible that he is merely the 30th-60th most valuable player, but that is nevertheless very good:

–He can rebound and defend multiple positions well
–He moves the ball and avoids mistakes, with an excellent 1.8 assist:TOV ratio during his Boston career
–He has developed into a good shooter and is an efficient shot maker from 2, 3, and FT
–Advanced stats have ALWAYS suggested he is wildly underrated– from his college career to the draft to his Maverick days. It’s not like his RPM is a recent fluke.

Crowder’s sole weakness is that he cannot create a high volume of offense, so his strengths are less perceptible to casual fans. And while he is not a franchise centerpiece, the teams involved already have the necessary centerpieces.

When you factor in that he is wildly underpaid at $7M/year over the next 3 years, when he should be making $20M+, he is the ultimate asset for a contender. He fits perfectly within a star cast while tying up minimal payroll and flexibility.

Even if he comes in a less sexy mold, Crowder is similarly valuable to a contender as Kyrie Irving. And he will cost slightly more than a quarter of the price over the next 3 years. In this vein, his less attractive mold is more of a feature than a bug.

IT and Crowder on their own for Kyrie would be a bad trade for the Celtics and a good trade for Cleveland.

But Wait, There’s More!

The Celtics also gave up the Nets’ 2018 first round pick! There are ways to look at this as selling high on the pick. It is plausible that the Nets are much better than last year, and that this year’s draft class is much less hyped in a year by the time the draft rolls around.

A significant % of the time, this pick will fall in the #3 to #8 range and be used on a non-star.

But that is a the DOWNSIDE of the pick. High lottery picks are still valuable assets, and if it is a #1 or #2 pick and one or two of Doncic, Bagley, Ayton, or Porter performs better than expected, this suddenly is an elite asset that waffle crushes the value of Kyrie on his own.

It is more likely that the pick is merely a good asset than an elite one, but they are adding it to a deal that is already losing. Even if it was top 2 protected it would be an awful inclusion, the fact that they are selling some non-trivial % of monster upside is indefensible.

Ante Up!

Also Ante Zizic was included for some reason. He didn’t look great in summer league, but  he didn’t look awful either. He looked like a late 1st round pick who may be decent or may not be, but either way he is under cheap team control for the next 4 years and is a useful flier when loads of money are tied up in three players. There was no reason for the Celtics to include him when they were already crushing all other offers against a team with no leverage, but they did.

Where Does This Leave Both Teams?

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The Cavs looked like they were doomed with LeBron likely to leave, but this rejuvenates everything. Crowder gives them a ray of hope vs. Golden State this year, and the Brooklyn pick is an excellent asset that can append the run and possibly entice LeBron to stay. If I were the Cavs, I would try to line up the best trade available and tell LeBron that it will be executed if he opts in for 18-19.

Meanwhile the Celtics are left with  4 above average players for ’17-18: Kyrie, Hayward, Horford, and Smart. And none of these players are top 20 stars, so even with a great coach like Brad Stevens optimism should be tempered.

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown will be 19 and 21 this year, and neither are ready to be positive players this season, nor are they guaranteed to ever be. Tatum has star potential but it is unlikely he will carry a franchise on his own, and Jaylen Brown will be fortunate to peak as an above average NBA player.

I would guess the Celtics are building for 2020-21 when Tatum is 22, Brown is 24, Hayward is 30, Kyrie is 28, Smart is 26, and Horford is off the books. LeBron will be 36 and past his prime, and the Warriors may be vulnerable by then. And frankly things *COULD* work out for them at that point, as they get a few years where the beginning of Tatum + Brown’s prime intersect with the tail end of Kyrie + Hayward’s.

But why they would want to commit to 28 year supermaxed Kyrie 3 years in advance at the cost of an inferior current product, a possibly elite pick, and extremely limited roster flexibility over the next few years is beyond me. Danny Ainge normally trades well, but he completely bungled this deal and set back the franchise while possibly saving the Cavaliers from their imminent doom.

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2018 Preview: Is Michael Porter a Future NBA Star?

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Now that the 2017 draft is over, attention shifts to 2018 where Michael Porter Jr. is battling Luka Doncic for #1 overall, where league executives are allegedly split. I decided to get a taste of Michael Porter Jr. by watching the Nike Hoop Summit where he led team USA with 19 points.

Michael Porter Jr. Scouting Report

Porter is a 6’10” knockdown shooter who rebounds well and has decent athleticism. So it is easy to see why he is labeled as a possible #1, as that baseline of skill makes it sound like he has Kevin Durant upside.

But his warts are apparent in watching him play. He is not particularly smooth, explosive, or advanced with the handle so he struggled to get by defenders and often drove directly into the crowd and hoisted some awkward looking shots. On several occasions he was able to flail and draw free throws, but it appears that and pulling up for jumpers are the only creation he can muster off the dribble.

He does not have good passing instincts, as while he is a willing passer it is with the objective of moving the ball rather than setting up a teammate. For all of the goodness that his shooting presents on offense, his shaky instincts shown in his slashing and passing are going to detract from his shooting goodness.

Defensively he has the size and mobility to make an occasional play, but his awareness is not great as he had lapses where he got caught watching the ball or out of position. On the upside has has great height and moves well and was able to use his tools be useful at times, so it is difficult to judge his defense as either good or bad based on this game. But based on his limited instincts he does not appear to be a stopper on this end and has clear downside.

Overall Sentiment

Porter strongly reminisces of my first time viewing Andrew Wiggins, where it stunned me that people viewed him as a tanking candidate. They have a number of marked similarities as prospects, as Porter essentially has two inches of height and better shooting in lieu of Wiggins’ otherworldly athleticism.

This was just one game, and I cannot yet rule out that he will be good. But elite stars normally stand out to my eye immediately: Joel Embiid and Lonzo Ball were love at first sight, and Karl Anthony Towns, Ben Simmons, and Markelle Fultz were extremely attractive at first blush (even if I have my doubts about the latter two, their talent is undeniable).

Porter is in a class with Andrew Wiggins of putting me in shock that people can look at a prospect like this and somehow believe he is better than prospects like Luka Doncic or Lonzo Ball. I would bet every dollar I own that he is not.

I am not going to call him a likely bust based on a one game eye test, as Andrew Wiggins could have been pretty good if he was able to develop better from his rookie year. But it is difficult to argue that the hype machine be given any benefit of the doubt to treat Porter as anything remotely special this early.

No Proof of Goodness Means More Downside

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The fact of the matter is that the draft hype machine has not exactly been nailing NCAA top 3’s a year ahead of time lately

2014: Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle
2015: Jahlil Okafor, Emmanuel Mudiay, Stanley Johnson
2016: Ben Simmons, Skal Labissiere, Jaylen Brown
2017: Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum, Josh Jackson

8 of those 12 have playing at least one NBA season, and all look disappointing relative to hype. Simmons, Tatum, and Jackson are the only ones with clear star potential, and none of them are guarantees.

If you randomly select a player from this pile, he is more likely than not to be an ordinary, meh NBA player. It is extremely difficult to predict NBA success without observation vs. NCAA or professional competition. Intuitively Porter, Ayton, and Bamba do not seem any better than prior early top 3’s, and are each more likely to be below average NBA players than good starters.

How Does Porter Compare to 2017?

Everybody who thinks Porter should go #1 in 2017 is crazy. It would be terrible if any of Porter, Ayton, or Bamba were chosen in this year’s top 6, as it was a especially good top 6 (Fultz, Ball, Tatum, Jackson, Fox, Isaac) who all showed strong potential vs. NCAA competition compared to 19 y/o’s who have been feasting on 17 and 18 y/o’s.

I would also take Real Madrid star Luka Doncic over all 3 prospects combined, as he has been one of the best players in the second best professional league behind the NBA, all at a younger age than these guys as high school seniors. It may seem crazy now, but in a few years it will not.

I know these are many piping hot takes at once, but if nothing else they will be fun to re-visit in a few years. On to the rankings:

Tier 1: Basketball God

1. Luka Doncic 6’8″ Real Madrid

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I still need to watch him before singing his praises too loudly, but he is 6’8″, athletic, super skilled, and smart and has clear GOAT potential. It is difficult to see him failing, and there is no reasonable argument that anybody else should even sniff #1.

Tier 2: Regular Basketball Players

2. Collin Sexton, 6’2″ Freshman, Alabama

Sexton is the only player in the Hoop Summit who glowed to my eye. He is incredibly athletic, smooth, and shifty, and has strong potential as a slasher. He also showed legitimate passing and vision, and can be a pest on defense and was willing to battle with bigs for rebounds.

It is difficult to get too excited for a 6’2″ player this far from the draft, and Sexton does seem to be a risk of taking poor shots and over gambling on defense. But he is the only player in the Hoop Summit who looked like a possible future star, so he gets my #2 slot.

3. Wendell Carter, 6’10” Freshman, Duke

Carter was more quiet than I had hoped in the Hoop Summit, but it is still easy to see him being good. He has a 7’3″+ wingspan which gives him potential to play center in the NBA, and he seems to be above average at everything.

The main thing holding him back from top 3 hype is lack of elite explosiveness, but he is a good, well rounded basketball player who is almost a year younger than each of Ayton, Bamba, and Porter.

4. DeAndre Ayton, 7’0″ Freshman, Arizona

Ayton did not play in the Hoop Summit, so my eyes have yet to qualify him. I have my doubts about him as he has a reputation for not caring a ton, but he has monster height and a 7’5″ wingspan with real talent, so I will see how he looks for Arizona before passing firm judgment.

5. Mohamed Bamba, 7’0″ Freshman, Texas

Bamba has a 7’9″ wingspan and projects to be a force defensively, and he did look impressive on that end at the Hoop Summit. Unfortunately, he looked like a zero offensively as he cannot handle and his touch around the rim looked bad.

On the upside he can make FT’s and the announcers were saying his touch is normally good, so if he can at least make shots offensively he has upside to be a Rudy Gobert or Tyson Chandler type.

6. Michael Porter Jr., 6’10” Freshman, Missouri

As I have detailed, I do not believe he is great. Maybe he is nevertheless good, but at this juncture there is no compelling reason to believe that he is anything other than an ordinary top 10 prospect.

That said this is a low confidence opinion, and it will be easier to have a grasp on him when he plays for Missouri. By draft time it is possible I will move him up into the top 3, or he may be out of the top 10. It could go either way.

7. Ethan Happ, 6’9″ Junior, Wisconsin

Happ hardly has any draft hype, as he is only ranked 36th on DraftExpress. The knock on him is that he is a traditional white PF who cannot shoot and lacks explosive athleticism, so he is getting overlooked as a draft prospect.

But people are wrong to overlook him, as he is a stud at everything but shooting. He may not be a leaper but he moves his feet well, and at 6’9″ he is an elite handler, passer, rebounder, and defensive player who excels at everything except scoring from a distance. At age 21 with a 57% FT you have to be worried about his shot, and it is genuinely a major wart.

But given how elite the rest of his profile is, I would happily gamble on it all working out.

8. DeAnthony Melton, 6’4″ Sophomore, USC

DeAnthony Melton completely stuffed the statsheet as an 18 year old freshman, as he racked up rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. He has exceptional instincts to go with great length and quickness, and has the foundation to be a star combo guard.

The downside is that he still has a long way to go to fit in offensively as he posted just a 33rd percentile half court efficiency on low usage as a freshman. He still is not a reliable 3P shooter at 28% and he cannot yet create against a set defense.

If Melton makes a major offensive leap as a sophomore he has star upside, otherwise he is an intriguing role player.

While Melton and Happ have their share of flaws, they also have unique strengths to help them overcome. Don’t be surprised when one of the duo is a better pro than Michael Porter Jr.

9. Robert Williams, 6’9″ Sophomore, Texas A&M

The Aggies had no point guard this past season and all of their returners badly regressed. Now that they have help at the position, Williams who excels at moving off the ball and finishing may see a big sophomore breakout.

10. Miles Bridges, 6’6″ Sophomore, Michigan St.

Bridges is smooth and athletic, and coming off a good freshman season for Michigan State where he did a bit of everything.

The only worry with Bridges is that his dimensions are a bit weak as he last measured 6’6.25″ with a 6’8.75″ wingspan. Given that he also had a mediocre efficiency, he will have extra worry about his ability to be an efficient NBA player without better combine measurements.

11. Jarred Vanderbilt, 6’9″ Freshman, Kentucky

Vanderbilt was the surprise star of the Hoop Summit, and he has strong feel for the game with excellent rebounding and passing. He also is able to make plays on defense and is one of the younger members of the class having recently turned 18.

His downside is that he is a poor shooter, and does not look like an elite defensive stopper to make his shot worth stomaching. But I would nevertheless not be surprised if he emerges as the best freshman in the class.

12. Jaren Jackson Jr., 6’10” Freshman, Michigan St.

Jackson is still just 17 and has good physical tools for a big, and made a number of impressive finishes and defensive plays in the Hoop Summit. He also has traces of an outside shot, and is another player who has potential to climb my board by the draft. While the freshman class lacks a likely star, there is a significant cluster of players that have a chance of shining in NCAA.

I only have Jackson 12th because he appears to be a role player with questionable instincts, but he could just as easily be argued to be much higher.

13. Troy Brown, 6’6″ Freshman, Oregon

Brown is the super role player of the class, as he has a 6’11” wingspan and made some impressive passes for a wing in the Hoop Summit. He also competed and moved his feet well defensively and at 17 is one of the youngest players in the class.

He is a prototypical 3 + D wing, as his only weaknesses are lack of elite athleticism and scoring ability. This does inhibit his upside, but if teams pay this too much attention he could be a steal in the back end of the lottery.

Overall I believe the freshman class should be seen as 5 good but not great prospects battling for #2 (Sexton, Carter, Ayton, Bamba, Porter) with Vanderbilt, Jackson, and Brown right behind them as role players with sneaky potential.

Tier 3: The Rest
14. Mikal Bridges, 6’8″ Junior, Villanova
15. Bruce Brown, 6’4″ Sophomore, Miami FL
16. Andrew Jones, 6’4″ Sophomore, Texas
17. Hamidou Diallo, 6’5″ Freshman, Kentucky
18. Emmanuel Akot, 6’8″ Freshman, Arizona
19. Mitchell Robinson, 6’11” Freshman, Western Kentucky
20. Markis McDuffie, 6’8″ Junior, Wichita St.
21. Jacob Evans, 6’6″ Junior, Cincinnati
22. Rawle Alkins, 6’5″ Sophomore, Arizona
23. Tyler Hall, 6’4″ Junior, Montana St.
24. Shamorie Ponds, 6’0″ Sophomore, St. John’s
25. Gary Clark, 6’7″ Senior, Cincinnati
26. Trent Forrest, 6’5″ Sophomore, Florida St.
27. Bryant Crawford, 6’3″ Junior, Wake Forest
28. John Petty, 6’6″ Freshman, Alabama
29. Kevin Huerter, 6’6″ Sophomore, Maryland
30. Kevin Hervey, 6’7″ Senior, UT Arlington

Draft Reactions

Winners

Los Angeles Lakers:
2. Lonzo Ball
27. Kyle Kuzma
30. Josh Hart
42. Thomas Bryant

After a questionable trade of D’Angelo Russell prior to the draft, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka absolutely crushed their first draft ever.

Lonzo Ball was the best pick in the draft– both Boston and Philadelphia had the option to take him and both opted for inferior players, and the Lakers ended up with the #1.

Kyle Kuzma has appeal as a tall, fluid, point forward who is rumored to be better at shooting than his NCAA stats suggest. He was a solid choice at #28.

Then Magic channeled his inner Hinkie to trade #28 to Utah (who drafted Tony Bradley) for a nice haul of #30  who he used on one of my favorite sleepers in Josh Hart as well as Thomas Bryant at #42. Bryant will struggle to survive defensively as a pro, but he had good stats and is a decent flier in the mid-2nd.

Toronto Raptors
23. OG Anunoby

A 19 year old freak with Kawhi’s physical profile tears his ACL, and he drops all way to 23 because of it. Yes, he is raw offensively and may never be decent on that end. But I had him as the #9 prospect and he has far more upside than most of the players that were taken ahead of him. He should not have slid outside of the lottery.

San Antonio Spurs
29. Derrick White
59. Jaron Blossomgame

Every year the Spurs take a guy that I rate as a late 1st steal, and every year it makes me second guess whether I didn’t rate him highly enough. White does a little bit of everything, as he has legit point guard skills to create his own shot at the rim, pass, shoot, and he’s a great shot blocker with SG size. Easy to see him as a big steal.

Blossomgame is fine at #59 but this draft is all about White.

Portland Trailblazers
10. Zach Collins
26. Caleb Swanigan

The Blazers had a pretty good night as traded #15 and #20 for my clear best player available at #10 in Zach Collins, and then also took my best player available at #26 in Caleb Swanigan.

Factoring in Jusuf Nurkic’s, they are a bit heavy on bigs but it is no matter. They have plenty of room to develop all three and then decide who to hold and who to deal.

Orlando Magic
6. Jonathan Isaac
33. Wesley Iwundu

Isaac was a great steal at #6 and the 2nd best value pick in the draft after Ball. This alone makes Orlando’s night great.

And it better because the rest of their draft was weak. They traded #25 for an OKC 2020 top 20 protected 1st, reached for Wesley Iwundu at #33, and then traded #35 for something.

Golden State Warriors
38. Jordan Bell

Of course the best team makes the best possible use of $3.5M to buy into the second round and draft a great value and perfect fit. Bell is an incredibly versatile defensive piece who can do it all from protect the rim to switch onto LeBron. He’s raw offensively but he fits well on GSW’s shooting heavy roster.

Losers

Chicago Bulls: Jimmy Butler and #16 (Justin Patton) for #7 (Lauri Markkannen), Zach LaVine, and Kris Dunn

I don’t know how the Timberwolves convinced them to send #16 back for a package centered around Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, and Kris Dunn. Kris Dunn is a 23 year old defensive specialist at PG who posted an 8.1 rookie PER, and is worth about a late 1st pick. LaVine has developed into a solid offensive threat, but is still hardly a centerpiece for the deal.

I had Markkanen as the best player available at #7, but that’s after the draft fell off a cliff with the 6 great talents off the board. He should be a useful role player with a bit of sneaky upside, but he’s too one dimensional to be a justifiable centerpiece for Butler.

The fact that the Bulls sent #16 back is just insanity. They got crushed in the deal for just #7, LaVine, and Dunn, and somehow Minny convinced them they were getting such a great haul they needed to balance it out by throwing back a mid-1st.

Of course Minnesota completely blew the pick on Justin Patton, a big reach who doesn’t fit with KAT. But Minny is nevertheless a clear winner and Chicago is a big loser.

Boston Celtics: 3. Jayson Tatum
Philadelphia 76ers: 1. Markelle Fultz

It’s hard to say who will look better on the Fultz for Tatum and LAL/SAC pick swap. I may slightly favor Boston, simply because Tatum gets to play for Brad Stevens while Fultz is stuck fighting for touches on a team over indexed on ball dominant players. But overall the deal is close, and it could go either way.

Where both teams failed is that they both had the chance to draft Lonzo Ball, and they both failed. The #1 pick is a crucial decision for the franchise, and neither team made the correct choice here.

They also picked other guys later, but who cares. Both teams had access to a stud at #1, and both teams blew it.

New York Knicks
8. Frank Ntilikina
44. Damyean Dotson
58. Ognen Jaramaz

The Knicks got off to a bad start when Phil Jackson publicly suggested that Kristaps Porzingis needs to be traded, then failed to do so.

Then he reached for Frank Ntilikina with Dennis Smith Jr. at #9 and Zach Collins at #10 being clearly superior options. Damyean Dotson isn’t good value at #44, and I don’t know who Ognen Jaramaz is but I highly doubt he redeems the draft whatsoever.

The Knicks are a joke. They have an awful owner who is paying a senile Phil Jackson $12M/year to throw his stars under the bus and make awful decisions, and they are going to stay awful as long as Dolan owns the team. The rest of the NBA is rapidly getting smarter while Dolan stays as out of touch as ever, and as bad as I feel for Knicks fans I would just quit.

If I lived in NY, I’d start caring more about Brooklyn as they are somehow rebuilding faster without having any veteran talent or draft picks.

Detroit Pistons
12. Luke Kennard

Stan Van Gundy is really struggling to both GM and coach the Pistons. If he wanted a quality role playing SG, Donovan Mitchell was on the board as the glaringly obvious best option. There was also a slew of more interesting players at other positions.

Instead he took a one dimensional shooter who doesn’t have the tools to defend anybody in the NBA, but at least he has great intangibles.

Detroit is doomed until they find somebody new to build the roster.

Milwaukee Bucks
17. DJ Wilson
46. Sterling Brown

Jon Horst had his first draft as Bucks GM, and DJ Wilson is not an inspiring first decision. He is tall, long, can shoot, and move, but doesn’t really stuff the statsheet in any bulk category and does not feel like a sharp pick at #17 with players like OG Anunoby, John Collins, Harry Giles, and many other better gambles on the board.

It’s not super harmful, just bodes ill for the future given that Horst was a questionable hire to begin with.

2017 Mega Board

Tier 1: Star

1. Lonzo Ball, 6’6″ PG UCLA

Ball is a basketball genius who has elite PG size and skill and could be one the best passer in NBA history. He also is an outlier of offensive efficiency, both at the individual and team level.

There are doubts about his ability to get to the rim off the dribble, and it is a valid weakness. I believe his strengths are so outlier good that they will comfortably outweigh his flaws, and he is the clear #1 in the class.

Tier 2: Possible Stars

2. Markelle Fultz, 6’5″ PG Washington

Fultz is a do it all scorer with great vision and instincts and a 6’10” wingspan that gives him James Harden-esque upside. The only flag is that his basketball IQ and defense are not elite, and his team woefully underperformed for a major conference team with a #1 overall pick.

He could be really great, or he could be an empty calories volume scorer.

3. Jonathan Isaac, 6’11” SF/PF, Florida St.

Isaac is a unicorn of elite perimeter defense, rim protection, and rebounding who also is great at playing off the ball offensively with good shooting, cutting, and finishing.

His major flaw is that he is extremely limited off the dribble, and also is an average passer. But he could be an elite role player that fits well in a heavy switching defense that is becoming so prevalent in the NBA.

4. Jayson Tatum, 6’8″ SF/PF, Duke

Tatum offers passable PF size and SF quickness, and fits the mold for a small PF that is becoming the standard in the modern NBA. He has potential be a two way star, as he can create his own shot, passes decently, and his 85% FT gives him elite shooting upside for a player that can switch onto multiple positions and make plays defensively.

But he has a number of minor flaws that could preclude him from being good: he lacks explosiveness, a strong handle, and he is often stripped or blocked and plays inconsistent defense. He could also be below average on both ends.

5. Josh Jackson, 6’8 SF/PF, Kansas

Jackson is the ultimate role player, as he rebounds, defends, passes, moves well without the ball, finishes, and is incredibly competitive. He is also 6’8″ and an explosive athlete, and with good intangibles seems likely to be a useful NBA player.

But does he have star upside? He is sophomore aged with an ugly hitch in his shot and 57% FT, a loose handle, and short arms and tiny frame that may limit his ability to guard PF’s. He has clear limitations offensively and his body may preclude him from being a beast defensively. His star upside is limited, although his competitive spirit gives him some small chance of being great.

6. De’Aaron Fox, 6’3″ PG, Kentucky

Fox is as super quick, super smooth slasher who gets wherever he wants to go and finishes well. Of all of the PG’s in the class, he is easily the most prolific at creating his own shot at the rim against set defenses. He also is a good passer and a pest defensively, and has a good baseline to become a 2 way PG.

But his big flaw is that he cannot shoot, making just 25% of his scant 3PA. His 74% FT gives him some hope for future improvement, but he struggled badly off the dribble and his shot clearly needs work. Also his thin frame makes it unlikely he can guard most SG’s, and even though he has upside on defense he is not a lock to be a positive on that end either.

7. Lauri Markkanen, 7’0″ PF, Arizona

Markkanen shot 83.5% FT and 42% 3P for Arizona, and the only NBA 7 footer with a higher career FT% is Dirk Nowitzki. Markkanen is also smooth and fluid with flashes of ability to create his own shot off the dribble and he holds his own on perimeter switches. He is somewhat one dimensional, but being a non-statue makes it worth wondering how much an NBA team can build on his unicorn combination of height and shooting.

His downside is that he is not long or explosive and is a bit passive. He had anemic block and steal rates defensively, mediocre rebounds, and a surprisingly moderate usage given his offensive talent. He also posted a low assist rate, and will need to develop his passing to be more complete offensively.

The traces of Dirk cannot be ignored, although he is far more likely to mirror players like Ryan Anderson and Channing Frye. This is nevertheless useful as 7’0″ with elite shooting gravity are few and far between, so it is worth gambling on the his rare intersection and seeing what happens.

8. Zach Collins, 7’0″ C, Gonzaga

Collins was the #28 recruit in the class who came out of nowhere to be an elite bench player for the Zags. He scores inside and out and can rebound and block shots, which is a nice combination of strengths.

His passing instincts are limited and he does not project to be elite defensively, but he nevertheless offers an intriguing gamble in the back end of the lottery.

Tier 3: Fun Gambles

9. OG Anunoby, 6’8″ PF, Indiana

Anunoby is the most intriguing upperclassmen, as he has similar measurements and athleticism to Kawhi Leonard and monster steal and block numbers to imply strong defensive upside for a prospect who is still just 19.

The only question is whether he can play offense. He is an elite finisher with 65% 2P in 2 years at Indiana and improved his passing as a sophomore, but his medium usage and 52% FT make him a possible liability on offense. And in spite of his defensive upside, he is still not consistent enough to be a guarantee to be great like Kawhi.

He is coming off an ACL tear that may hurt his stock but really should not factor in heavily.

10. Dennis Smith Jr. 6’3″ PG, NC State

Smith checks all of the boxes for a star PG: handle, athleticism, quickness, strength, the ability to score inside and out and the vision to rack up assists.

The only problem is that all of his stat stuffing and athleticism failed to add up to wins for NC State, as he struggled to be an efficient floor general and played exceptionally lazy defense.

I personally do not believe he will live up to his theoretical upside.

 

11. Donovan Mitchell, 6’3″ SG, Louisville

Mitchell is the prototypical 3 + D combo guard. His 6’10” wingspan, quickness, and competitiveness gives him the potential to defend both guard positions at a high level. He pairs this with a solid shot as he made 35% 3P and 81% FT as a sophomore. He does not have the ball skills to be a lead guard, but is decent enough across the board to be a positive player overall.

Mitchell is not likely to be a star, but he has great odds of being a useful player who fits in a wide range of lineups.

12. Malik Monk, 6’3″ PG/SG, Kentucky

Monk is a hyperathletic shooter who can make shots of any difficulty both off the dribble or spot up. And he flashed a bit of passing ability, and it is possible that he has some PG skills that were masked by sharing the backcourt with non-shooting PG’s De’Aaron Fox and Isaiah Briscoe.

That said, he doesn’t rebound, he doesn’t defend, he can’t get to the rim against a half court defense, and he may not have the vision to be a full time floor general. Those are a lot of strikes for a one dimensional shooter, and without surprise floor general skills he is unlikely to be more than a Lou Williams type.

13. Harry Giles, 6’10” C, Duke

Giles is coming off back to back ACL tears and an additional knee surgery that caused him to miss the early part of Duke’s season. Then he was a disappointment in the 300 minutes he played for the Blue Devils, as he looked lost on the floor.

But his medical reports are allegedly better than expected, and he was supposed to be a candidate for #1 overall before all of the injury noise. His instincts looked bad but it could be a product of rust and shaky confidence post-injury. Given that Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan both became all-stars without stellar instincts, is it plausible to believe Giles can as well.

He has stellar tools for a big man and while he has risk of both injury and poor skill and IQ, it’s worth the upside to gamble on him and see what happens once the prizes of the draft are off the board.

14. John Collins, 6’9 PF, Wake Forest

Collins stuffed the statsheet at Wake Forest with points and rebounds, as he posted a monster 36 PER as a 19 year old sophomore. He also has potential to develop a 3 point shot and pretty good athleticism, and his offensive upside is good for a PF.

That said his poor instincts and short arms caused his passing and defense to both be poor. Collins is a weird prospect with pointed strengths and weaknesses, and given his youth I like the idea of gambling on a polarizing weirdo in the back of the lottery.

15. Frank Ntilikina, 6’5″ PG/SG, France

Ntilikina boasts elite intangibles, IQ, and monster 7’0″ wingspan, and projects to be a 3 + D guard/wing.

He is listed as a PG as he reportedly has great vision, although he lacks the ball skills or burst to get to the rim and finish. And it’s not clear that he is great at either shooting or defense, as stat models are not particularly fond. That said he is incredibly young and as his adds bulk to his thin frame, he could develop into a useful rotation player.

Tier 4: Rotation Players:

Note that everybody in this tier is on a similar level

16. Caleb Swanigan, 6’9″ PF, Purdue

Caleb Swanigan is the Kyle Anderson of this year’s draft, as he has an elite statistical profile with gaudy rebound, assist, and scoring totals with good %’s from all levels.

But he had poor steal and block rates and is undersized for center and under quick for PF. He may not be able to fit on to an NBA defense without getting roasted.

But nobody else has nearly his offense and rebounding strengths, and he did manage to anchor the #23 defense as the starting center for Purdue. Maybe he continues to improve his body as he ages and just finds a way to fit and and make it worth all

17. Ivan Rabb, 6’10” PF/C, California

I don’t know why, I just like Rabb. He’s tall, smooth, and good at all of the role-player things.

He struggled to be the centerpiece for a dreadful California offense as a sophomore, but he fits best playing off the ball in the NBA as a cutter, rebounder, and pick and roll finisher. He is a former top 5 recruit who would have been a top 10 pick last year, and I feel that teams are overreacting to his sophomore performance.

18. Josh Hart, 6’5″ SG, Villanova

Hart is just a bit short of being a real prospect in terms of size, quickness, and athleticism. But he is not particularly weak in any of those areas, and he was an elite player for a Villanova program that was incredibly successful in his 4 seasons there.

He does a little bit of everything and has great IQ for making winning plays. He just feels like he is going to be a decent NBA rotation player, even if he cannot be a star.

19. Jawun Evans, 6’0″ PG, Oklahoma State

Evans did everything for the #1 offense in the NCAA as a sophomore. His lack of size and explosiveness prevents him from being a high upside prospect, but his length, quickness, vision, and basketball IQ gives him a chance at surprising as a better than expected floor general.

20. Ike Anigbogu, 6’10” C, UCLA

Anigbogu is a giant pile of tools in its fetal form as you are gambling on his monster 7’6″ wingspan to go with great length and quickness in the youngest player in the draft.

Anigbogu is a complete and utter mystery box. Right now is completely inept on offense, but his combination of tools gives him immense defensive upside. He’s a fine gamble somewhere in the late first.

21. Derrick White, 6’4″ PG/SG, Colorado

This division 2 transfer came out of nowhere to be a star for Colorado last year, and he can do a bit of everything: shoot, pass, get to the rim, and is an exceptional shot blocker for a guard.

At 23 he is on the older side of things but he does enough things well to be one of the more attractive late 1st/early 2nd gambles.

22. TJ Leaf, 6’10 PF, UCLA

Leaf is a skilled PF who does everything offensively, as he is a great cutter who scores inside and out and moves the ball well. But he also does nothing well defensively, as he lacks the length and athleticism to be more than a liability on this end.

It’s hard to say how much credit Lonzo Ball deserves for his draft hype, but he does have a nice skill level for a 6’10” player and that alone is worth a late 1st flier.

23. Frank Jackson 6’3″ SG, Duke

Jackson just turned 19 shortly before the draft and has good scoring upside for a young player. He is a good shooter and an athlete who can get to the rim, and his 6’7.5 wingspan gives him a chance to guard SG’s.

That said he is still in the awkward state of lacking vision to play PG and too small to defend SG’s, and projects to be a bit one dimensional in the pros.

24. Jordan Bell, 6’9″ PF, Oregon

Bell is a fascinating defense weapon, as his athleticism and quickness give him potential to be a versatile force as he is an great shot blocker that also racks up steals and rebounds.

The downside is that he is 22 years old and limited offensively. He mustered a 70% FT as a junior after 51% his first 2 years, so if he can build on that to somehow make 3’s he is an exciting piece, even if it is a long shot to happen.

25. Luke Kennard, 6’5″ SG, Duke

Kennard is a great shooter with excellent toughness, IQ, and intangibles, but is that really enough to overcome his weaknesses?

He has a poor 6’5″ wingspan and lacks the quickness or athleticism to get to the rim, and he also gets roasted on defense. Outside of shooting and moving the ball within the offense it’s not clear what value he offers.

He could surprise and become a decent role player like fellow Duke alum JJ Redick, but he does not have the upside to justify a lottery pick.

26. DJ Wilson, 6’10 PF/C, Michigan

Wilson offers good length, shooting, and efficient offense for a big. He also has solid quickness to switch onto perimeter players.

On the downside he is a poor rebounder for his height, and has a low usage rate and pedestrian steals and blocks. He has some role player potential for his tools and efficiency, but limitations are there.

27. Jarrett Allen, 6’10” C, Texas

Allen just turned 19 and has a monster 7’5.25″ wingspan to go with a pretty good interior scoring ability for Texas. He posted solid scoring numbers in spite of having no PG in a disastrous offense.

But he also seems to have broken instincts, as he posted an awful assist to turnover ratio and anemic steal and block rates for a player with his length.

There is enough hope for Allen to make his talent worth a gamble, but it is hard to ignore the fact that he profiles similar to a poor man’s Jahlil Okafor.

28. Bam Adebayo, 6’9″ PF, Kentucky

Bam offers interior scoring and the quickness to guard multiple positions.

That said he is undersized for center and his steal and block rates cast doubt on whether he actually can be a defensive weapon.

29. Jonah Bolden, 6’10” PF, Radnicki BAsket

Bolden was really bad as a sophomore for UCLA and then really good in a season in the Adriatic league. I have no idea what he is but he is tall, can make 3’s, and has quickness to switch so he could be decent.

30. Tony Bradley, 6’10” PF, North Carolina

Bradley is long, smart, and an offensive rebounding machine. He lacks exceptional skill or athleticism, but could be a nice rotation big.

31. Tyler Lydon, 6’10” PF, Syracuse
32. Isaiah Hartenstein, 6’11” PF/C, Zalgiris
33. Anzejs Pasecniks, 7’0″ C, Gran Canaria
34. Sindarius Thornwell, 6’5″ SG, South Carolina
35. Monte Morris, 6’3″ PG, Iowa St.
36. Kyle Kuzma, 6’9 SF/PF, Utah
37. Semi Ojeleye, 6’6″ SF, SMU
38. Justin Patton, 6’11” C, Creighton
39. Cameron Oliver, 6’9″ PF, Nevada
40. Justin Jackson, 6’8″ SF/PF, North Carolina
41. Alec Peters, 6’9″ PF, Valparaiso
42. Johnathan Motley, 6’9″ PF, Baylor
43. PJ Dozier, 6’5″ PG/SG, South Carolina
44. Sterling Brown, 6’6″ SG/SF, SMU
45. Dillon Brooks, 6’6″ SG/SF, Oregon
46. Thomas Bryant, 6’9″ PF/C, Indiana
47. Edmond Sumner, 6’5″ PG, Xavier
48. Terrance Ferguson, 6’8″ SG/SF, Australia
49. Jonathan Jeanne, 7’2″ C, Nancy

I had Jeanne as a top 15 pick before news of his Marfan syndrome. Now I’m just guessing where he belongs– but obviously his value is crushed.

50. Mathias Lesort, 6’9″ PF, Nanterre
51. Nigel Williams-Goss, 6’4″ PG, Gonzaga
52. Jeremy Morgan, 6’5″ SG, Northern Iowa
53. Luke Kornet, 7’0″ C, Vanderbilt
54. Davon Reed, 6’6″ SF, Miami FL
55. Wesley Iwundu, 6’6″ SG, Kansas St.
56. Devin Robinson 6’8″ SF/PF, Florida
57. Jake Wiley, 6’8 SF/PF, Eastern Washington
58. Reggie Upshaw, 6’7″ SF/PF, Middle Tennessee
59. Derrick Walton, 6’0″ PG, Michigan
60. Charles Cooke, 6’4″ SF, Dayton

Just Missed Cut: LJ Peak, Malcolm Hill, Nigel Hayes, Paris Lee, Ben Moore, Lorenzo Bonam, James Blackmon, Frank Mason, Damyean Dotson, Antonius Cleveland, Jarron Blossomgame, probably some internationals I know nothing about

Is Dennis Smith Jr. a Loser?

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Dennis Smith Jr. is a polarizing talent. His high end athleticism and handle is extremely  attractive for a PG who stuffs the statsheet. But his reportedly lackluster intangibles and awful team play has harmed his draft hype, as he may fall to the back end of the lottery in spite of many people believing he is a top 3 talent.

The Talent

Smith is 6’3″ with elite quickness, athleticism, and handle. This gives him an excellent foundation to carry a massive role offensively, as he did everything for NC State. He can get to the rim, finish, pass, and is a competent shooter making 36% of his 3’s and 71% FT as a freshman.

Also he has potential to be a good defensive PG based on his quickness, strength, and good rebound, steal, and block totals.

Smith checks all of the boxes of baseline talent for a star PG, and it is easy to see why piques everybody’s interest.

The Warts

It starts with Smith’s awful team production. On a team loaded with proven NCAA talent and top 100 recruits, NC State was one of the biggest underachievers this past season even though Smith lived up to expectations on paper.

This was coach Mark Gottfried’s worst team in 14 years of coaching at Alabama and NC State, and his worst offense in 6 years at NC State. The only other 1st round pick he has coached during that span is TJ Warren. Gottfried’s offenses normally perform well, and he could barely crack the top 50 with a roster loaded with size, shooting, and athleticism centered around a point guard who projects to be a top 10 pick. That does not bode well for Smith.

Limitations As Floor General

Smith’s problems start with his questionable basketball IQ. Point guard is a cerebral position which requires constant decision making that affects the offense’s likelihood of scoring. He sees the floor reasonably well, but he overdribbles, makes poor decisions with the ball, and often throws off target passes.

NC State posted by far their highest team turnover rate during Mark Gottfried’s tenure, which is the opposite effect that a high volume shot creator like Smith should have. His floor general skills comfortably trail behind his gaudy assist rate.

Can He Perform vs. NBA Defenses?

While athleticism helps players translate to NBA defense, intelligence is arguably more important for small guards who must constantly navigate through traffic. Here is how Smith compares to some of his volume scoring peers based on overall offensive rating, offensive rating vs top 50 teams (per kenpom), and half court points per possession (per synergy):

Player ORtg vs. Top 50 HC Pts/Poss
Tatum 108.8 105.6 0.931
Fultz 113.6 101.2 0.93
Jackson 108.2 108.7 0.926
Fox 110.7 104.6 0.885
Smith Jr. 109.5 94.1 0.862

He is in the middle of the pack in overall offensive rating, but when you take away transition opportunities and weaker opponents he is clearly the weakest link of the group.

Defense

The other problem for Smith is that offense was NC state’s strength. They had a dreadful defense, and in spite of his tools and steal/block rates he projects to struggle on this end. His 6’5″ wingspan prevents him from switching on to most SG’s, and he is incredibly lazy and over gambles and often does not try on defense. He has similar dimensions and effort level to Kyrie Irving, and will often be similarly bad without Kyrie’s offensive impact.

Bottom Line

On paper, Dennis Smith Jr. is definitely an NBA talent and has the ability to rack up points and assists as a pro. The best outcome for him would be that he develops his skill level well and becomes a high volume, moderate efficiency offensive centerpiece who improves his defensive habits enough to be adequate on that end.

Theoretically that outcome is within grasp, but I would bet heavily against it. While he has talent to fill the box score, he has shown poor intuition for making a positive impact on his team. Once you factor in his reputed poor intangibles, he starts to feel like an incredibly shaky bet to fix the many bad habits in his game.

He needs the ball to be useful, and I would not gamble on an average sized PG with a below average IQ and non-elite skill level to run an NBA offense for a winning team. Smith has a solid chance of becoming a good NBA fantasy player, but he is extremely unlikely to make a star impact. The narrative that he is a loser appears to be accurate.

Did Boston Make a Bad Bet Against Fultz?

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Consensus is that Philly won their recent mega deal with Boston as there is a steep decline from #1 to #3 in this draft. I largely agreed with this consensus, and I explained why I believe Josh Jackson does not have the upside to merit passing on Lonzo Ball and Markelle Fultz.

Boston is also rumored to be interested in Jayson Tatum. To provide a deeper analysis of the deal, I will break down the elite prospects in question.

Fultz scouting report

Fultz is essentially a James Harden doppelgänger. They share similar dimensions, frames, and athletic profiles. Neither is particularly explosive, but both are able to navigate through the defense with smooth footwork and great body control. They also similarly stuff the statsheet as offensive centerpieces with SG size, and they both play lackadaisical defense in spite of strong rebound, steal, and block rates.

Harden is clearly a strong return on a #1 overall pick, and if Fultz becomes similarly good this trade will sting for the Celtics. But they are not actually the same person, so let us examine the flaws that may keep Fultz from attaining his upside.

Is Fultz a Loser?

j-harden

James Harden joined an Arizona State program coming off a down year. As a freshman 3 months younger than Fultz, he revitalized their offense and led the team to its 4th best team in 16 seasons of kenpom records. Then as a sophomore he led them to easily their best offense and overall season over that span before hightailing it to the NBA. Like most NBA stars, he made a clear positive impact for his NCAA team.

Conversely, Markelle Fultz’s Washington team was the worst in 15 years coached by Lorenzo Romar, and the worst offense since his first season in 2002-03. Romar is a dreadful coach who has recruited more NBA talent than Arizona State, but Fultz is his first top 5 pick.

Fultz’s team was extremely bad, and it is amazing how many intelligent people are writing this off as lazy as the “rings” appeal. We are talking about the #1 pick in the NBA draft– you are trying to draft a superstar who makes a massive impact on his team’s win and loss column, and this impact is usually easy to discern at the team level.

He had a dreadful cast and coach to be sure, and it is not a death knell for an 18 year old with Fultz’s talent. But the bottom line did not add up like it should have, and there should be concern that the bottom line will not add for his NBA team in the future. There are a few possible weaknesses we can derive from this:

Passing

Fultz’s main selling point is his ability to carry an NBA offense, so it is disconcerting that his college offense struggled so badly. This is especially true since he is in the mold of a player who should elevate a poor team to adequacy. The fact that Washington couldn’t even muster a top 100 offense suggests that maybe his passing impact is not nearly as good as his assist rate implies. Fultz may lack the basketball IQ to make good decisions with the ball, even if he sees the floor well.

Perhaps as he matures and receives higher quality coaching, he develops into a good floor general. But it is also possible that he does not make nearly the same passing impact as Harden in spite of a higher NCAA assist rate.

 

Defense

Washington’s biggest issue was their catastrophic defense. And in the 6 games that Fultz missed, the defense actually performed slightly better (although the offense fell of a cliff with no other ball handlers to run the offense). Even though Harden is weak defensively, there is some chance that Fultz is worse.

Shooting

Another area of concern is Fultz’s 65% FT compared to 75% for Harden. Fultz shot well from 3 and was exceptional shooting off the dribble at an extremely high volume. But his poor FT% casts some doubt into the sustainability of that performance and the overall goodness of his shooting. And shooting is extremely important for Fultz, as he is not adept at getting to the rim as his peer De’Aaron Fox, and he relies heavily on pull-up jumpers.

Fultz’s Downside?

Fultz is an immense talent, and there are easily enough points in his favor to amount to an NBA MVP candidate. But there are enough flags in his passing, shooting, defense, and basketball IQ to create a downside tail as well, as he is far from a safe bet.

I could see him disappointing as a Kyrie Irving type. Irving is seen as a star by many casual fans, but advanced stats see him as a slightly above average starting point guard as his awful defense and poor passing vision detract from his excellent scoring ability.

Fultz has clear upside to trump Kyrie’s passing with better vision and his defense with much better length, but it is also plausible that he is similarly as poor on these ends. If Fultz struggles nearly as much as Kyrie in these areas, he will be a disappointing return on #1 overall as he is a clearly inferior shooter and likely does not come equipped with Kyrie’s clutch factor.

It is difficult to see Fultz busting entirely, but if Danny Ainge sees him as closer to Kyrie than Harden, it is understandable that he prefers to gamble on somebody else. His talent is undeniable and he is still the 2nd best prospect on my board, but there are good reasons for an NBA front office to be reluctant to stake their future on him.

Jayson Tatum

jayson-tatum

Tatum has an excellent body for a SF at 6’8″ with a 6’11” wingspan and an excellent frame, which is essentially the prototype for a PF in the modern NBA. He can score from all levels of the court, as he can get to the rim, score from the post, and has excellent shooting potential with 85% FT. He also stuffs the statsheet with rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks, and has good defensive upside with the quickness to guard SF’s and size to defend PF’s.

His flaws are that he is inconsistent defensively and he is surprisingly inefficient on offense for a player with his scoring talent. He had the lowest ORtg (albeit on the highest usage) of Duke’s 6 man rotation, and he has a slightly lower ORtg once adjusted for usage than his defensive specialist peers Jonathan Isaac and Josh Jackson.

Efficiency is Everything

It is surprising that a player who made 85% FT at an above average rate of attempts with as much scoring talent as Tatum had such pedestrian efficiency. There were a number of factors working against his favor:

–He is not a good offensive rebounder and does not move well off the ball– Jackson and Isaac did far more damage than him on putbacks and cuts
–Inconsistent finishing as he had average explosiveness and was rejected surprisingly often
–Turnover prone with a loose handle. In tandem with finishing issues may also have lackluster feel for finding space in traffic
–His 3 point shot is not currently a weapon
–Duke lacked a true point guard

There are reasons for optimism. It starts with his 85% FT, which is backed up by 87% FT in AAU play. Yet in AAU he hardly even attempted 3’s– who knows what level of coaching he was getting there. It is plausible that developing 3 point range only became a focus once he arrived at Duke, and any NBA team will stress this skill. And while a great NBA 3 point shot is not guaranteed, the upside is clearly there.

Everything else could go either way. He could improve his off ball movement, reduce turnovers, improve shot selection, tighten his handle, etc. Or he could struggle to shed his inefficient habits, operate as a team player, and make the necessary skill improvements to become a good player.

For players who thrive on volume scoring, their overall value heavily hinges on their efficiency. Tatum has a wide range of outcomes, and it is difficult to have a decisive opinion on him in either direction.

Tatum Summary

Tatum just turned 19 in March, and the framework for a future star is there. He has legitimate two way potential, as he offers creation, shooting, and passing upside offensively as well as potential for defensive versatility.

Whether he achieves his potential is a different question. His NBA future could entail empty calories scoring and matador defense, or he could be a two way stud like Paul Pierce or a version of Carmelo Anthony that plays defense.

Conclusions

The one clear conclusion about this deal is that the Celtics are betting against Fultz. I cannot state with any confidence that they are wrong for doing this. Fultz is a compelling talent, but he is no LeBron or Duncan and has enough holes in his profile to become an ordinary pro.

The other leg of the trade remains incomplete. If the plan is to trade #3 straight up for Jimmy Butler, that is a solid move. If the plan is to draft Jayson Tatum, I am not convinced this is smart, but see potential for the gamble to pay off. If the plan is to draft Josh Jackson, it feels a bit more like Danny Ainge was suckered by intangibles but nevertheless could work out. And if the Celtics somehow end up with Lonzo, the trade was masterful.

As much as I like to perceive myself as an expert, I am not particularly confident about many players in this draft. The only thing that can be said for sure is that Lonzo Ball should go #1 and everybody who passes on him is making a mistake. This is my only major qualm with swapping #1– betting against Lonzo is not as likely to succeed as a bet against Fultz.

Who is the 3rd best player in the draft?

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Josh Jackson appears to be in line to be chosen in the top 3, as there are both rumors that the Lakers are interested at #2 as well as the Celtics trading down to #3 for him. Let’s discuss what he brings to the table.

Josh Jackson Scouting Report

Jackson is 6’8″, extremely athletic, and excels at playing within the scope of a team. He stuffs the stat sheet in every category, as he excels at rebounding, defense, passing, and also moves well off the ball and is a great finisher, as he has excel touch on short shots in the paint. He also is a tremendous competitor with excellent intangibles.

His big flaws are that he is a poor shooter, making just 57% of his FT’s and also struggles to create off the dribble. Even though he led Kansas in usage rate, his most efficient scoring came on cuts, putbacks, and (ironically) spot-up shooting.

Per synergy, he struggled badly in both PnR handler and isolation situations, ranking 16th and 23rd percentile respectively. This is because he struggles both to shoot off the dribble and get to the rim and finish because his handling ability is weak. He can adequately attack closeouts, but this inhibits his ability to play point forward.

And even though his tools are overall great, they are not perfect as his slight frame, small hands, and 6’10” wingspan are underwhelming and limit his ability to play as a small big.

What Does This Amount To?

The best case scenario for Jackson is that he becomes similar to Shawn Marion, Andre Iguodala, Ron Artest, or Gerald Wallace as they were all extremely valuable role players.

But the trouble is that all of these players were much stronger and longer than Jackson. Because of his slight frame and short arms, he may not become an elite defensive force as he is too small to regularly defend PF’s. He is likely miscast as a LeBron James stopper without strength or length on his side, even if he is better equipped for the task than most.

And this is for a sophomore aged player who can neither shoot nor get to the rim. There is a serious risk that he is just an MKG or Justise Winslow on offense while being a merely good but not great defensive player.

As attractive as his role player strengths and intangibles are, Jackson is essentially a more athletic Marcus Smart who trades strength for height. That is a useful player to be sure, but pales in comparison to prospects with star upside such as Lonzo Ball and Markelle Fultz.

An Alernate Choice

Jonathan Isaac is an intriguing prospect as he is remarkably similar to Jackson, except with the bonus of being 3 inches taller and longer:

Height DRB% STL% BLK%
Isaac 6’11” 25 2.4 6.2
Jackson 6’8″ 17.4 3.1 3.5

Otherwise their tools are similar, as Isaac shares Jackson’s quickness and athleticism (although Jackson is slightly more explosive) and both have small hands and slight frames. But the extra height, rebounding, and rim protection gives Isaac an extra dimension on defense while being nearly as good as Jackson on the perimeter.

It is incredibly rare for a player to have Isaac’s ability to switch onto perimeter players and the size to protect the rim, and it gives Isaac a unique defensive upside that Jackson lacks. Further, Isaac should prove exceptionally valuable in a heavy switching defense that is becoming increasingly popular.

What about offense?

Isaac is also strikingly similar to Jackson offensively. He struggles to create off the dribble even more than Jackson, as he almost never attacks as a PnR handler or in isolation situations. This is likely why he has failed to garner top 3 hype– he is virtual guarantee to be a non-creator. Like Jackson, Isaac thrives off cuts, putbacks, and spot up situations.

Isaac’s key advantage is that while he shot 34.8% from 3 compared to Jackson’s 37.8%, he had a slightly higher 3PA rate and a vastly better FT% at 78% vs 57%. At 8 months younger, Isaac is much more likely to become a viable threat from NBA 3.

Jackson counters with more than double Isaac’s assist rate. This balances out Isaac’s shooting advantage, but without the handle to become an elite point forward this does not give Jackson any significant overall advantage on offense.

Isaac’s inability to create will prevent him from being an offensive star. But he ability to shoot, move off the ball, avoid mistakes, and finish should enable him to be efficient in a low usage role. This pairs well with his elite defensive profile, as he has all of the traits to be a super role player.

Bottom Line

Isaac and Jackson are similar in that they have good role player skills but are limited offensively and project to make their best impact on defense. Given that Isaac has the height to protect the rim and the quickness to guard the perimeter, he has more versatility to play as a 4 or 5 as well as more upside. It naturally follows that Isaac is the better prospect.

Jackson is a good prospect who is falls in a cluster of reasonable choices at #4 overall along with Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, and De’Aaron Fox. But at #3, Jonathan Isaac stands out as the best bet, as he projects to be a uniquely special role player.

Estimating $ Values of the 2017 prospects

One limit of big boards is that a ranked list only orders value, it doesn’t estimate individual values with any specificity. For instance, I have Fultz #2 and Josh Jackson #3, but that does little to describe the disparity between the two, only that I have Fultz better to some unknown extent.

So I am estimating numerical values to each player’s draft rights in terms of millions of dollars. This is my first endeavor and it is strictly intuitive so will be nowhere near perfect, but it is an exercise that conveys my assessments with as much precision as possible. It should be a common practice beyond ranking, because it is far more descriptive of evaluations:

 

Once again– these are just off the top of my head guesses to try to convey how good this draft is at the top and how much it falls of a cliff after. Also I do believe Ball and Fultz are a cut above the rest, as the disparity between Fultz and Jackson is as significant as the disparity between Jackson and #16.

Fultz for #3 and LAL/SAC pick

If Josh Jackson is the choice at #3, there is a clear decline from Fultz. Granted, Fultz is slippery to evaluate as his immense talent is being weighed against his NCAA team’s surprisingly shaky performance. If his team thrived and he had elite intangibles I would rate him closer to $200M, but his bottom line impact was weak enough to add some doubt here. It is possible I am being too pessimistic at $140M, but it seems the Celtics are even more pessimistic and who knows what intangible flags they uncovered in the evaluation process.

I would estimate the Lakers/Kings pick acquired is worth about $40M, so if the deal is JJ + pick for Fultz means the Sixers won this trade by a bit ($140M vs $115M of value). These numbers do not need to be adjusted much for the deal to be even, but it is hard to see this as any clear win for Celtics if they draft Josh Jackson. Fultz is a much better fit since they are already loaded with deep, quality role players and badly need a star. And even if they could eventually be proven right on Jackson they are alone on an island in believing that the two prospects are of similar value.

If #3 is flipped for Jimmy Butler, the deal is arguably slightly better for the Celtics. If we say Butler is underpaid by $25M for each of the next 2 years and his bird rights are worth $35M, that means he is an $85M asset, slightly better than any #3 candidate. I still do not believe it is a good deal for them but it makes a bit more sense than preferring Josh Jackson to Fultz.

If the Celtics draft Lonzo Ball at #3, this deal is a smashing win for them because Ball is better than Fultz and they get a nice asset to boot.

From the Sixers perspective, this is a solidly good deal for them if Lonzo Ball is the Lakers’ choice at #2 overall. If Ball is available this is a big time failure by Colangelo as Ball is the superior prospect and superior fit with Embiid and Simmons. Even ignoring my own assessment of Lonzo (which is likely accurate), if we swap my values for Lonzo and Fultz to mirror consensus it still is not good for Philly.

In summary:

–If the Celtics draft and keep Lonzo Ball they are big winners and the deal is bad for Philly
–If Lonzo Ball is the choice at #2, Philly is the clear winner of the deal.
–If the Celtics ship #3 and not much (say Avery Bradley + Jaylen Brown) for Jimmy Butler or draft and keep Josh Jackson, the deal is meh at best for the Celtics. If they draft and keep Jayson Tatum the deal is actively awful and it adds a strong bullet point to the narrative that Danny Ainge is a bad drafter.

Lonzo Ball: Point God or No Points Guard?

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lonzo-ball-ucla-dribbling

Lonzo Ball is an incredibly polarizing prospect as he boasts elite passing, basketball IQ, and PG size at 6’6″.  But he induces skepticism with merely decent athleticism and ball handling ability, and infrequently creates his own shot inside in the arc. There are doubts that a guard with his scoring limitations can merit a top 3 selection in such a strong draft, let alone #1 overall.

Efficiency Seeker Extraordinaire

The most unique aspect of Ball’s game is that he seeks efficiency and attains it to an unprecedented degree. This manifests in Ball’s 66.8% eFG, which is higher than any drafted NCAA player who averaged 5+ assists per game in the past 25 years (junior Kirk Hinrich comes closest 63.1%).

When the range is narrowed to major conference freshmen who averaged 8+ points and 5+ assists, Lonzo really shines (averages shown are per 40 mins):

Pts eFG% 2P% AST TOV
Lonzo 16.6 66.8% 73.2% 8.7 2.8
Baron 14.9 57.5% 62.4% 6.4 3.9
CP3 17.7 57.0% 51.1% 7 3.2
Lawson 14.1 55.5% 56.9% 7.8 3
Conley 14.3 55.2% 57.9% 7.7 2.8
Bibby 16.5 54.4% 49.7% 6.3 3.6
DRussell 22.7 54.1% 47.9% 5.9 3.4

All players listed went on to varying degrees of successful NBA careers. This chart suggests that the intersection of shotmaking, passing, and youth is a strong predictor of NBA success.

Ball has more assists and fewer turnovers than anybody in the group while also being the tallest. He stands out as a player likely to have a great NBA career before even considering that he waffle crushes everybody in eFG% and 2P%. His advantage over Baron Davis’s eFG% is similar to the degree that Baron is above average. This alone conveys that Ball is special in a way that has not been seen in any prior prospect.

More Than Just An Assister

Ball isn’t efficient with his own shot selection– he also assisted his teammates to elite efficiency.

This past season UCLA posted the best team eFG% of the past 12 years. That means that they had the #1 offensive eFG% out of the past 4,147 NCAA offenses.

And this is for an offense that was barely above average in 2015-16, ranking #147 out of 351. Ball and TJ Leaf are the only newcomers, and they elevated the team eFG% from 58th percentile to 99.9 percentile.

Ball set up his teammates with elite shots by making lightning fast reads and sharp decisions. He moved the ball quickly, and delivered passes to teammates in their hotspots with pinpoint accuracy. His fingerprints are all over UCLA’s offense, as the team saw massive spikes in 3PA rate, 2P%, 3P%, and much faster average possession length.

Ball’s passing is amazing to the eye test, and every shred of statistical evidence suggests that it is special. He clearly has upside to become the best passer in NBA history.

But He Has No Mid-Range Game!

There is some prevalent notion that Ball only attempted 8 two point jumpers on the season because of an inability to get his funky shot off in traffic. This is hands down the silliest narrative of the 2017 draft. The numbers make it abundantly clear that he refrained because he values efficiency and was consistently able to create a better attempt for his team than the least efficient shot in basketball.

But He Can’t Drive and Finish!

The more reasonable concern is that he infrequently created his own shot at the rim. But to his credit, he did not struggle on a per possession basis. Summing Synergy’s PnR Handler and isolation statistics, here is how he compares to his peers:

Poss PPP
Ball 82 1.000
Fultz 222 0.950
Fox 233 0.884
DSJ 286 0.846

He attacked MUCH less frequently than his peers, but he was more efficient than anybody else. And it’s not like he abused the weak teams and then shied away when the defenses tightened up, as he created clutch scores at the rim twice against Oregon— the conference’s top team.

Ball’s handle is analogous to his shot: it is much more effective than it appears it should be. He excels at passing, shooting, and finishing off the dribble to an extent that should be impossible for a player with a severely limited handle. Further, there is no discernible negative impact in his own or team statistics, as his lightning fast instincts prevent his handling limitations from leading to many mistakes.

His infrequent scoring cannot be dismissed entirely, as there is inevitably some mystery in how his unique style will translate to the NBA. But without it manifesting in any discernible struggle as a 19 year old playing a major conference schedule, it is not reasonable to treat it as a major issue.

Upside Comps

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Further mitigating Ball’s lack of volume scoring is the fact that most all-time great PG’s do not relentlessly assault the rim like Russell Westbrook. Magic Johnson, Chris Paul, John Stockton, Jason Kidd, Steph Curry, and Steve Nash are all greats defined by their unique skill, vision, and intelligence rather than ability to get to the rim.

There is a common aversion to comparing Ball to all-time great PGs, and it is not rational.  Imagine the converse scenario where Ball had already completed a hall of fame NBA career, and a young Nash or Stockton was being compared to him. Neither comparison would withstand a moment of rational scrutiny given their vastly inferior physical profiles and NCAA performances.

Even Paul and Kidd would struggle to keep up. I already showed Paul’s inferior NCAA efficiency while being six inches shorter, and he went on to the most efficient NBA career ever of any player shorter than Ball. Kidd’s is two inches shorter, and he suffered a boatload of additional bricks and turnovers to accumulate similar freshman point and assist totals as Ball.

Curry is a different animal from Ball, as his shooting super power gives him upside that nobody fathomed was possible for a player with such frail physical tools. Ball doesn’t have Curry’s super power, but he has a different super power that might yield similarly surprising upside.

All of these players had strengths that Ball lacks, and people will be quick to point these out when a comparison is drawn. But it is impossible to match every strength of an hall of famer, and Ball’s advantages are even more glaring. It is painfully obvious that he belongs with this group, as he has superior prospect profile to all of the aforementioned except for maybe Magic. If he outperforms expectations as much as these players did, there is no cap to his NBA upside.

Downside Comps

If Ball does not deserve to be compared to hall of famers, there should be other examples of players similar to Ball who failed. But if we look at young passing PG’s who made shots with competency let alone otherworldly efficiency, flops are hard to find.

Jason Williams and Mark Jackson both passed and made shots and neither was great. But they were both 6’1″ with comfortably inferior NCAA performances to Ball, and both had decent NBA careers. If Ball outshines their NBA careers as much as he outshines their pre-draft profiles, he will be a star.

After that negative comps are scant. Kendall Marshall, Tyler Ennis, Michael Carter-Williams, and Ricky Rubio were all incorrigible bricklayers, posting well below average eFGs. Javaris Crittenton and Drew Barry were both 6’5″ but nowhere near Lonzo’s production level.

It is simply not possible to find any young NCAA player who comes close to matching Lonzo’s strengths while disappointing as a pro. The intersection of passing and shot-making in young NCAA PGs tends to be a reliable predictor of NBA success, and Ball happens to be outlier elite at both.

Weaknesses
Ball Handling
As I have already stated, this is an issue but not a major one. It is difficult to predict exactly how it will affect Ball’s NBA translation, but his intelligence and instincts will likely enable him to overcome this limitation much like he did at UCLA.

Shooting
His funky shooting form is overstated, as Kevin Martin had a similar form and a long career of successful shooting and scoring in the NBA. But Ball was not reputed as a great shooter before his arrival at UCLA, and his 67% FT makes it further unlikely that his 41.2% 3P% is indicative of his true shooting ability.

If he had only made 35% of his 3PA, his eFG% would take a big hit to 61.5%. But he would remain a massive positive outlier relative to other freshman passing PG’s, and he does not require an elite shot to be an elite prospect.

Defense
His physical profile as well as good rebound, steal, and block totals imply that he has pretty good defensive upside. But he also had downside, as his steal rate is not elite and his defense at UCLA was inconsistent. This is an area where he is unlikely to measure up to Kidd, Stockton, and Paul.

Bottom Line

Ball has a number of outlier strengths in extremely high leverage categories: intelligence, passing, and efficiency. He has genuine equity to be the GOAT in all three categories, and his physical tools are excellent for a player in this mold.

His shooting, ball handling, and defensive consistency present small but non-trivial weaknesses that create enough uncertainty to preclude him from being a god level prospect. But all of the criticism directed toward him massively overstates the relevance of these weaknesses, while glazing over his super powers that have not been sniffed by any prior prospect.

My only unique and confident take for this draft is that Ball would be the correct selection at #1 overall in most drafts, and this year is no exception. I would be shocked if he is not at least an all-star, and he is likely going to become an all-time great.

 

Big Board Update 5/25

Now that the draft pool is set, here is my updated top 50. Note that I am ignoring the internationals who do not project to round 1:

Screen Shot 2017-05-25 at 10.34.13 AM

Just missed: Kyle Kuzma, Devin Robinson, Jake Wiley, Malcolm Hill, Jeremy Morgan, PJ Dozier, Wesley Iwundu, Jonah Bolden, Dillon Brooks

Lonzo Ball has unsurprisingly emerged as my #1. He is such an outlier of IQ and passing I find it overwhelmingly likely that he will be an NBA star.

Markelle Fultz is nevertheless a strong #1 pick if the Celtics choose him as expected. I expect him to become a star playing for Brad Stevens

Josh Jackson has aroused skepticism due to his poor shot and inability to be a #1 scoring option, but he’s holding strong as my clear choice at #3. He posted elite statistics, has elite athleticism for a 6’8″ player, and his competitiveness bodes well for good development. His poor shooting places him clearly below Ball + Fultz, but he has clear star upside.

Lauri Markkanen, Jonathan Isaac, De’Aaron Fox, and Jayson Tatum could be arranged in any order. Markannen is my big sleeper in the late lotto because it is understated how exceptionally rare it is for a 7’0″ to be such an elite shooter.

Zach Collins, Dennis Smith Jr, and Malik Monk form the next tier. Although I was a fan  of Monk throughout the season, it is difficult to overlook the fact that he has a PG body without PG skill and is also allergic to defense and rebounding. There is hope of him developing into a Lillard type on offense, but he may not be much more than a spot up shooter who is a disaster on defense.

Beyond the top 10, the pickings get slim. OG Anunoby is a major risk to be a disaster on offense, but his elite tools, defense, and youth make him worth a gamble once the freshman are off the board.

Donovan Mitchell lacking PG skills at 6’3″ inhibits his upside, but his 6’10” wingspan enables him to guard SG’s and gives him a good chance of becoming a valuable 3 + D combo guard.

Harry Giles is a challenging prospect to assess, as he has significant injury flags and his basketball instincts looked awful at Duke. But his physical tools are stellar, and he was once upon a time the top prospect in this loaded class. DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard prove that top notch basketball IQ is not a pre-requisite to thrive as an explosive giant, and I believe Giles has the most upside of any non top 10 freshman.

Frank Ntilikina is another challenge. He lacks both skill and athleticism for a guard, and his statistics do not imply any hope of future stardom. But his 7’0″ wingspan, and reported elite intangibles and intelligence offer hope for strong development in the youngest player in the draft.

Caleb Swanigan is one of the funkier prospects in the draft. He is too short to protect the rim, and too slow to guard the perimeter. Yet he anchored a top 25 defense for Purdue, and posted stellar scoring, passing, and rebounding statistics. He is an awkward fit into NBA lineups, but if he fits in on defense he could be a late 1st or 2nd round steal.

Josh Hart is my senior sleeper. Hart would be exciting if he had a bit more height, burst, or shooting ability, but as it is he is still decent enough in all of the categories. And he had an excellent NCAA career, as he makes winning plays and led Villanova to 4 years of immense success. He has no special upside but has a solid chance of becoming a useful rotation player.

Luke Kennard is a fine selection in the late first for his shooting and offensive promise, but I am surprised that he is rated as a possible lotto choice in spite of his poor physical tools and defense. He could find NBA success similar to JJ Redick, but ranking near the lottery feels a bit too optimistic.

Justin Patton is an explosive big man who can finish lobs and do little else. He is soft on the boards and defense, and drew surprisingly few free throws for such a physically gifted interior scorer. If a team wants a young big outside of the lottery, Tony Bradley is a much better choice as his monster 18.7% ORB rate crushes Patton’s measly 8.0%.

Justin Jackson is another fraudulent Justin, and I am not sure how he even entered the lottery conversation. He offers a nice combination of size and basketball IQ, but excels at nothing. His frame and athleticism are limited, he is not an offensive centerpiece, and did not develop reliable NCAA 3 point shooting until he was a senior aged junior.

Terrance Ferguson is young with good tools, but has been awful statistically everywhere he plays. He does nothing but shoot 3’s at an average rate, and his draft hype seems predicated on the mystery of not knowing how he would play alongside his peers at the NCAA level.

Reggie Upshaw is my deep undrafted sleeper. He led Middle Tennessee to back to back seasons with NCAA tournament wins, and with a shooting leap could become a useful NBA small forward.