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?

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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

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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 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.

Is Luka Doncic The Best Prospect Ever?

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17 year old Luka Doncic is currently projected to go #2 overall in the 2018 draft, and it seems absurd to discuss whether he may be the best prospect ever. But when I say best prospect ever, I really mean “best prospect of past 35ish years” because I honestly have no idea how to retrospectively rate prospects like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, or Wilt Chamberlain.

It is not that probabilistically unlikely that any given draft will contain the best prospect of a 35 year stretch. It is akin to winning a bet on a specific number in roulette, which happens all the time. And in 5 drafts since my blog has existed, this is the first time I have raised the question. The odds of the top prospect existing in a 5 year stretch is 1 out 7, barely lower than the odds of rolling a particular number with a die. It stands to reason that in 1/7 of the sample of drafts that at least one player should raise the possibility, so this should not taken as a hyperbolic question, but rather a level headed, rational analysis of an impressively outlier 17 year old.

Why Is Doncic Special?

At age 17, Doncic is already one of the best players for the best team in the best basketball league outside of the NBA. Playing for Real Madrid in Spanish ACB, Doncic is likely the team’s 3rd best player behind Sergio Llull and Gustavo Ayon. Among the 12 man rotation, here are his per 40 minute ranks:

MP PTS 2P% 3P% FT% REB AST STL BLK
5 6 4 3 4 6 2 5 3

Seeing that 6.5 would be the median, he rank as above average at everything. And this is a roster full of former NBA players, mostly in their primes (age in parentheses): Gustavo Ayon (31), Rudy Fernandez (31), Anthony Randolph (27), Jeff Taylor (27), Andres Nocioni (37), Othello Hunter (30). And that does not include best player Sergio Llull who is a former #34 overall pick likely good enough to play in the NBA if he wanted. Or Jaycee Carroll, an exceptionally skilled Utah State grad who did not have the physical tools to draw NBA interest.

Yet this 17 year old kid is average or better relative to these players at EVERY PHASE of the game. It is one thing to be a good professional player at age 17, but to also lack any notable weakness in the profile puts him on an entirely different level.

Doncic also has elite qualities, and it starts with his skill level. He has the vision and ball skills to run Real Madrid’s offense, and is also an elite shotmaker converting 56% 2P, 41.9% 3P, and 83.8% FT. If you append with his 16 y/o ACB + Euro samples his numbers become 59.5% 2P, 39.1% 3P, 78.4% FT. These are elite percentages for a medium volume scoring 16/17 year old, and he also has great passing ability as evidenced by his assist rate. By all indications, his skill, feel package is transcendent.

He supports his incredible skill level with a great physical profile. He is already 6’8″, and has a solid frame and athleticism. This may not sound impressive on its own, but most super skilled players are much smaller (i.e. Chris Paul) and often less athletic as well (Steve Nash, Steph Curry). His height should make it easy to translate his production to the NBA, and everything else is good enough such that there is no reason to fear that he may fail.

How Can Luka Be The Best Without Elite Athleticism?

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The answer is simple– elite skill level is AT LEAST as important for upside as elite physical tools. Let’s take the example of Stephen Curry, who was so frail physically that he did not even draw major conference recruiting interest as a high school prospect. Then after nearly singlehandedly carrying Davidson to the Final 4, he still went just 7th in the NBA draft because his tools were so worrisome. He is the most polarizing example of outlier skill and poor physical tools, yet he won back to back MVP’s that were both deserved. This proves that an outlier skill level can yield elite upside with even a poor physical profile.

The polarizing example of outlier physical tools and poor basketball playing ability is Andrew Wiggins. He was the #1 RSCI recruit and was picked #1 in the draft, and in his 3rd season he is only performing at a replacement level. This proves that elite athleticism is not an automatic ticket to greatness when skill is lacking.

There are other examples of players with supreme physical profiles failing, as well as questionable physical profiles flourishing due to elite skill. I could list other examples, but these two alone are enough to disprove the notion that elite athleticism should be valued greater than elite skill. Further, they strongly suggest that skill level should be valued as the top input for upside valuation with athleticism being secondary.

One may counter that for every Curry success story, there are multiple Jimmer Fredette or Doug McDermott types who flop completely. But McDermott and Fredette had nothing resembling special skill level, they merely developed enough to dominate mid-major NCAA competition as 22 year olds– a common and trivial accomplishment. Their draft hype is a failure by NBA GM’s to identify the nuances between a commonly good skill level and outlier great. This may explain why scouts gravitate toward athleticism– because they actually can detect the nuances that separate the elite from the commonly good without any statistical expertise.

As we develop increasingly good analytics to help us predict skill level with greater confidence, we should increase the importance of skill as the most valuable input and decrease the value placed on athleticism.

Doncic vs LeBron

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LeBron is the gold standard for prospects in the lottery era, and it is sacrilegious to suggest that any young player may be on his level. At this point you may be thinking that his skill cannot possibly be that far ahead of LeBron, because LeBron is amazing at everything which is why he is the best.

But is LeBron really THAT skilled? He is a career 34% 3P 74% FT. His shooting is average, and there is no evidence that his passing touch is special either. He nevertheless makes a big impact with his passing because he has great vision as well as feel for when to attack vs. dish.

LeBron’s transcendent physical profile paired with great vision and IQ overpowered him as a player, and just having an decent skill level was enough to make him arguably the greatest player ever.

To compare him to Doncic, let’s consider the following:

  1. Is LeBron’s physical profile more transcendent than Doncic’s skill level?
  2. Is LeBron’s vision and IQ for an elite athlete rarer than Doncic’s height for a point god?
  3. Is LeBron’s skill level a stronger “weakness” than Doncic’s athleticism?

For #3 I would say no because LeBron’s shooting splits prove that his skill level is not special, and Doncic is already a decent athlete at age 17. For #2, it is hard to measure vision and basketball IQ but Doncic is approximately Magic Johnson’s height which is as tall as point gods have been made thus far. Again, no seems to be a reasonable response.

The challenging question is #1, mostly because it is difficult to isolate Doncic’s skill level from his statistics which are still a relatively small sample. And if his performance declines this season and then he does not improve at age 18, his skill level will seem less transcendent. But based on what he does so far, it is not clear that any prospect has a much better skill level than Doncic.

Granted, the top point guards such as Curry and Chris Paul are more skilled than Doncic, but that’s about as relevant as Shaq or Dwight Howard having physical tools superior to LeBron. Because Doncic’s physical profile is so far ahead of Curry and CP3 and LeBron’s skill level is so far ahead of Shaq and Dwight, it doesn’t really detract from the transcendent quality of either player involved.

Ultimately the answer to question #1 is inconclusive. And with my earlier argument that transcendent athleticism does not yield greater upside than transcendent skill, there is no clear reason to rate LeBron as the superior prospect. This is especially true without the hindsight bias of LeBron’s greatness, as he did not have any pre-draft statistical sample validating his greatness like Doncic does.

Of course this is all intuitive analysis from afar. I could be wrong, and perhaps if they were compared side by side during the draft process LeBron would clearly outshine Doncic. But it is extremely easy to argue that LeBron waffle crushes most #1 picks– you cannot assemble any compelling logical argument that Markelle Fultz, Ben Simmons, or Andrew Wiggins are superior talents.

I am not arguing that Doncic is necessarily superior, rather that he appears to be in the ballpark of LeBron’s greatness. I have no idea which one actually should be rated higher. But how many other prospects can you say that for? That is the best possible assessment for a prospect, as no teenager will ever be conclusively better than teenage LeBron.

What About Ricky Rubio?

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As Doncic hype builds, Ricky Rubio will be a popular cautionary tale for getting too excited over Doncic’s young production. Rubio was also a great ACB player at a young age. At 8 months younger than Doncic, he posted a similar PER (18.5 vs 18.7) and then at 4 months older he had a superior PER at 20.5 as well as more pace adjusted points per 40 (17.0 vs 16.2) all while winning ACB defensive player of the year and breaking statistical models with elite steal and assist rates.

If Ricky Rubio can do all of that and not even become an NBA all-star, am I not a psychotic maniac for comparing Doncic to LeBron? Nope, I am not!

A big key of both Doncic and LeBron’s profiles are that they have no clear weaknesses, which is awesome for players with such overpowered strengths. Rubio, however had one glaring weakness that he could not put the biscuit in the basket. During his 18 y/o DPOY season, he shot 39.1% inside the arc with the next worst 2P% on his team among regulars being Jan Jagla at 48.3%. Not only did he have a weakness, but he had an scary outlier bad weakness.

 

This weakness has translated to his NBA play, as Rubio simply cannot score against NBA defenses. His passing and defense have been as great as his ACB sample implied, but there is an upper bound to the defensive impact a 6’4″ player can make to counterbalance an inability to score. Thus while he was an attractive gamble that could have panned out better, it should not be a surprise to anybody that he never came close to blossoming into a top 10 player.

The counter would be that statistics do not prove that Doncic is bereft of weakness. Maybe in spite of his good but not great rebound, steal, and block rates, he proves to be an awful defensive player. Let’s go as far as to say he is as bad defensively as James Harden. Is that really a terrifying flag? Harden is shorter and showed much less skill at the same age, yet is performing at an MVP level in spite of the mixtapes of bad defense that exist. If significant defensive flags for Doncic arise prior to his draft, it would diminish his value as a LeBron type prospect but he would still be the clear choice at #1 overall.

Doncic’s strengths are so special that he needs some extremely negative gravity to preclude him from becoming great. Even if he has a poor work ethic, Tracy McGrady is an example of natural super talent with poor work ethic and he still had an excellent prime.

Perhaps I am missing some key perspective here, but I cannot envision a single rational reason why Doncic may fail to become great. The best argument against is that he is 17 years old and there is plenty of time for things to go wrong. But that can be said for any prospect, and there is nothing specific to his profile that inspires a sliver of doubt for his ability to achieve greatness. At this juncture, all signs point toward piles and piles of upside and not much downside.

Bottom Line

It may seem like a hyperbolic question to ask if a 17 year old could be the greatest prospect of all time, but the same narrative arose for LeBron at the same age. So why not Doncic? It is because the people who drive the consensus wrongfully give athleticism a significant edge over skill and statistical production, when the latter is likely more important.

And the fact of the matter is that we NEED to ask ourselves hyperbolic questions about prospects to gauge how they should be valued. Most of the value of draft picks is packed into the upside tail, and any analysis should start with whether the answer to a hyperbolic question might be yes.

If the Chicago Bulls have the opportunity to trade Jimmy Butler for the Nets 2018 1st round pick, the difference between Doncic being in the ballpark of LeBron vs an average top 3 pick makes the difference at to whether they should accept a trade with the 2018 Nets pick as a centerpiece. The difference between expecting an average #1 and a possible LeBron type prospect immensely swings the value of that pick. My take is that it would be a clear mistake to pass up a 5-10% chance of Doncic for 2.5 more underpriced years of Butler based on signals thus far.

It is possible that I am wrong, as I have only watched Doncic sparingly in highlights and he is only 17. Also it is possible that I will change my position between now and the 2018 draft, as there will be an abundance of new information to have a clearer grasp on his goodness. But based on current information, it is not an absurd question to ponder whether Luka Doncic is a transcendent prospect on the level of LeBron James, and there is no clear logical reason why he cannot blossom into the greatest basketball player we have ever seen.

Dennis Smith Jr: Great or Merely Good?

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Dennis Smith Jr. is receiving hype as a possible top 3 pick in this year’s draft, and he recently  greased the wheels of his hype train with a 32 point performance in a road win at Duke. This gives us a glimpse of his NBA upside, so let’s dive deeper into his NCAA performance to assess exactly how high his ceiling extends.

Why He Is Good

The reasons for Smith’s appeal are straightforward– he is a great athlete who can dribble, pass, shoot, and score. He checks off all of the boxes that people look for in a star point guard, as it is rare for a player with his athleticism to be above average at all of the aforementioned skills. This gives him the potential to take on a massive role offensively, and if he develops his skill level and decision making well, he can make a big positive impact as a lead guard.

Smith’s talent is undeniable, and he is definitely a good prospect. But he also has some flaws that make me skeptical of his ability to become great.

Why He Is Not Great

While he has a number of good traits he is not elite at any one thing. He is great athlete but is nowhere near an explosive freak like Russell Westbrook, John Wall, or Derrick Rose. He is an above average shooter but not a great one, and he can create a high volume of offense for himself and others but with merely good but not great efficiency. While he checks a number of boxes as being above average, he does not qualify an outlier at any one thing.

This is not problematic on its own, as being well rounded with few weaknesses can sum up to a highly valuable player. But DSJ’s profile is rife with flaws:

–He has average height and short arms for a PG
–He projects to be poor defensively
–His game is not smooth and lacks polish
–He is not the best floor general. He makes questionable decisions and his passes are often inaccurate
–His motor and toughness are questionable

These weaknesses are not trivial. They are all concerning on their own, and taken in tandem there are some heavy flags weighing down his goodness. This is not the profile of a player on the path to NBA stardom, but one of an enigmatic talent who will be wildly hit or miss as a pro.

T-Rex Woes

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Smith measured 6’1.5 with a 6’3″ wingspan in 2014. He is currently listed at 6’3″ and should have at least a 6’4″ wingspan by draft time, but that pales in comparison to most of the freaky PG’s like Westbrook (6’7.75″) Rose (6’8″) and Wall (6’9.25″). This detracts from his athleticism, and overall his physical profile is (surprise) good but not great.

This is problematic on both ends. Defensively, he will not have the reach to effectively contest shots for anybody but small point guards.  This issue becomes magnified as NBA teams employ defensive schemes that entail heavy switching with increasing frequency. Kyrie Irving has nearly identical dimensions (6’3.5″ height 6’4″ wingspan) and is one of the worst defensive starting point guards in the NBA in large part due to his poor reach. Kyrie is also lazy and over gambles on defense, but the same could be said for Smith.

This is also problematic on offense, as his short arms make it difficult to finish in traffic. Kyrie makes his defense worth stomaching with his elite shooting and finishing, as his incredible body control and coordination gives him a unique ability to make tough, off balance shots. Smith does not have this superpower, which makes his short arms a greater obstacle to overcome.

Kyrie’s profile is largely similar to Smith, as they share similar bodies and both are great ball handlers and shot creators. But Irving is widely considered overrated by advanced stats and intelligent fans because of his poor passing and defense, as he is merely a solid starter rather than an actual star. And this is for a player that offers elite shooting, finishing, and efficiency– all areas where Smith is merely good.

To become a solid starter like Irving, Smith needs to have a more well rounded game to atone for his shotmaking disadvantage. And to become a star, he needs to have a huge edge in both passing and defense. Smith has a good chance of becoming better defensively than Kyrie given how low the bar is, but I would not bet on his defense as his ticket to greatness. So let’s see if his passing offers more hope of goodness:

Passing

Passing is slippery to quantify, as not all assists are created equally and passes that are not assists matter too. Smith has a high assist rate, which is a good start for his passing upside. But the truly great passers make a big positive impact on their teammates, which intuitively makes sense since that is the whole point of passing.

Smith’s teammates are not that bad. Entering the season, Dan Hanner’s excellent statistical model projected NC State as the #10 offense and #18 team overall. This was close to UCLA’s projection of #12 offense and #16 overall. Meanwhile UCLA has the #1 offense by a comfy margin and NC State’s offense is just #47, and both defenses are bad but NC State’s is worse.

This is a HUGE signal for both players’ passing abilities. It cannot be stressed enough that great point guards make great offensive impacts. They are being flanked with similar talent– TJ Leaf is much better than Omer Yurtseven but this only explains a small fraction of the gargantuan offensive gap. And outside of their 5* freshmen PG/big duos, the rosters are largely similar. I believe the majority of the difference between UCLA and NC State’s offensive goodness is due to Ball being a vastly superior passer to DSJ.

This aligns with my eye test, as Lonzo crisply moves the ball, makes great decisions, and delivers passes with pinpoint precision. Meanwhile DSJ over-dribbles, makes questionable decisions, and blows a fair amount of assist opportunities by delivering passes off the mark.

Smith’s vision seems good enough and it is plausible that he will eventually develop into a good passer. His athleticism and handling ability gives him the capacity to take advantage of this skill if he ever develops it. But the best predictor of future passing ability is current passing ability, and right now Smith is merely average.

Naturals vs Beasts

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Some elite NBA point guards such as Chris Paul and Steph Curry showed clear signs of natural offensive excellence in college. But others such as Russell Westbrook and Kyle Lowry played limited roles as freshmen and were not clear stars as sophomores, yet developed into NBA stars over time because they are great athletes who progressed well.

Why not gamble on Smith following the Westbrook or Lowry path since his athleticism and skill level are good enough? He is not a freak like Westbrook but if Lowry can be a star, why not DSJ?

That is a great question! Glad you asked it. Both players are fiercely intense competitors who complement their great athleticism with non-stop motors and toughness that enable them to make a huge impact on the game. Motor is tough to quantify, but there is one stat that does a sneaky good job for guards: offensive rebound rate! Let’s just take a quick look at how DSJ stacks up vs the top 5 current NBA lead guards NCAA ORB%:

Lowry 5.9
Harden 5.4
RWB 5.2
Curry 2.6
CP3 2.3
DSJ 1.8

There is no subtlety to this signal– Lowry and Westbrook clearly displayed their deep desire to dominate in beast mode in their NCAA performances as elite offensive rebounders with approximately triple the rate of DSJ.

Harden showed signs of being a natural lead guard in college, but for good measure he also posted a great ORB%. His motor is not quite up there with Lowry and Westbrook, but he is helped by superior height and length which are also lacking in DSJ’s profile.

The offensive naturals in Curry and CP3 are closer to DSJ, but still higher. Considering DSJ’s massive edge in frame and athleticism– how much internal drive to dominate can he have if he grabs offensive rebounds less frequently than the physically frail Curry?

Go back further and you will find most favorable DSJ comps were vastly superior NCAA offensive rebounders: Steve Francis, Baron Davis, Chauncey Billups, and Dwyane Wade provide further examples.

It is a reasonable hypothesis that either elite skill and smarts or elite offensive rebounding are pre-requisites to become a superstar lead guard in the NBA. Because DSJ is neither a natural floor general nor a beast in the paint, it is difficult to fathom how he could become great.

But He Can Still Be Good!

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The fortunate news for DSJ is that offensive rebounding is not a pre-requisite for goodness. Here is a list of reasonable upside comps for him who were in the same ballpark of NCAA ORB%:

Conley 2.6
Kyrie 2.3
Bledsoe 1.9
DSJ 1.8
Lillard 1.7

Stephon Marbury would also make the list as his total NCAA rebound rate was pitiful, but I cannot find his offensive split. He really is the best DSJ comp.

Mike Conley is one reasonable upside scenario. They share similar physical profiles, and Conley was not clearly on the path to greatness as an NCAA freshman or even in his first few years in the NBA. But with hard work and steady improvement, he eventually became a very good two way point guard. Smith’s game is more centered on explosiveness and volume whereas Conley leans on smoothness and efficiency, but they can be similarly valuable overall.

Eric Bledsoe is another reasonable upside comp, as he showed no statistical signs of goodness in college and developed into a solid NBA PG with the aid of great physical tools.

Damian Lillard is an example of what DSJ may look like as a pro if he makes an outlier leap into a great shooter.

These are all good players, they are all happy outcomes for a pick outside the top 3 in most seasons. But if you are aiming for Kyrie, Lillard, or Conley in this year’s LOADED top 5, you are aiming too low.

Conclusion

You could argue that I am overrating some of these flags. Perhaps my eye test is too harsh, I could be giving his short arms too much attention and his great athleticism too little, and I could be overestimating the relevance of his poor team performance and poor offensive rebound rate. But taken in tandem, they cannot be collectively trivial. At least one of these will weigh heavier than expected, and Smith just does not super powers to become great anyway.

This draft has 10 freshmen dripping with talent and draft hype. They are not all going to become all-stars, and some of them will disappoint severely. Some will disappoint due to unforeseeably poor development, but others will because their strengths received too much attention and subtle but significant flags went overlooked. If I had to single out one player with less impressive strengths and more significant flags than commonly perceived, that player is clearly Dennis Smith Jr.

Smith is still a good prospect, as he has the skill and his athleticism cannot be overlooked. He is already a good NCAA player, and if he develops his game at a good rate he will become a good NBA player. But he does not have the skill or smarts to be a naturally elite floor general, and he does not have the reach or motor to use his athleticism to physically dominate. These are significant problems, and they will preclude him from becoming the transcendent star that teams are seeking with a top 3 pick.

How Good Is This Year’s Draft?

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It is a common exercise to rate prospects in the class against each other, as this drives the selections made on draft night. But this class is being hyped as historically good, and it is worth discussing how this crop collectively compares to an average draft class.

The Short Answer:

This draft is completely loaded at the top. I count 8 players who normally belong in the top 3, including 2 above average #1 picks. There are also 3 high risk elite talents who are just outside of most top 3’s, and then after that the draft becomes normal as the upperclass is fairly thin.

I estimate that this draft is similar to an average draft, but with three times as much top 3 talent as normal. To demonstrate, let’s stack the top 11 talents from the past 3 drafts up against my top 11 rankings:

2014-16 2017
1 Embiid Ball
2 Towns Fultz
3 Simmons Jackson
4 DAR Monk
5 Porzingis Lauri
6 Gordon Fox
7 Ingram Isaac
8 Jabari Tatum
9 Okafor Giles
10 Exum Ntilikina
11 Wiggins DSJ

These lists are well balanced, each side has similar prospect value.

I tried to match current prospects with similar ones from prior drafts while also having a reasonable rank of prior prospects, and it all worked out surprisingly well. The prior prospect list is almost a perfect ranking of how they would be valued today with the aid of partial hindsight.

The only improvement to be made with respect to pairings are swapping non-shooters to match primary handlers (Fox and Simmons) and off ball SF athletes (Gordon and Jackson). It is arguable whether this means that Gordon is underrated, Jackson is overrated, or simply that they are not the same exact prospect. But they are deeply similar, and I have more to say on this comp later.

Obviously the 2017 prospects will not all have parallel fates with their parallel prospect, but I feel this accurately conveys my perception of this draft’s goodness: It is amazingly good, and has clear potential to be the best top 11 of all time.

The Extremely Long Answer:

I am going to break this down into 4 classes: transcendent stars, possible stars, risks, and the non-elite.

Transcendent Stars (Strong #1 picks)

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1a. Lonzo Ball– 6’6″ PG, UCLA
1b. Markelle Fultz– 6’4″ PG, Washington

Fultz is a transcendent physical talent, Ball is a transcendent mental talent. They are extremely close, and I have a difficult time settling on one as superior to the other.

For now I put Lonzo in the lead because he glows with goodness that has captured my attention in a strong way. I cannot stop watching him, I cannot stop writing about why he is great and why his flags are of little concern. Fultz is amazing in his own rite, but I’m giving the edge to the guy who is aggressively pinging my intuition with signs of greatness.

Among historic point gods, I believe Lonzo Ball is most similar to Steve Nash. He may never match Nash’s off the dribble shooting ability, but he also might. Even if he falls short, he can atone for it with a much lower turnover rate and better physical tools to hold his own on defense. It is difficult to envision him becoming less good than Nash. But his incredibly assist:TOV ratio and elite eFG% reminisces of Chris Paul, and Ball has clear potential to be that good. And with his massive 6″ height advantage over Paul, there is wiggle room for Ball to become even better.

Fultz is a hybrid of Dwyane Wade and James Harden with potential to be better. It is almost easier to see him becoming better than those two than worse. His combination of slashing, finishing, and vision at such a young age is exceptionally rare and he is clearly on the path to greatness. Perhaps he develops at a poor rate and falls well short, but how bad can he be at developing his game if he is already this good this young? His biggest question mark is whether his basketball IQ trails his intuitive instincts by enough to preclude him from greatness. It is plausible, but he is so insanely talented that he is definitely going to be good.

I do not think either of these players measures up to Anthony Davis or Joel Embiid in terms of raw pre-draft talent. But they are likely both top 5 prospects of the past decade, as they both have strong cases to be rated superior to Karl Anthony Towns, Blake Griffin, John Wall, and Ben Simmons. I’d rate them as similar to KAT and superior to the latter 3.

Possible Stars (Strong #2 picks to weak #3 picks):

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You can rank this tier in almost any order without getting an objection from me. All of the players have clear star upside, but also have flaws that could render them ordinary NBA players.

3. Josh Jackson– 6’8″ SF, Kansas

Jackson offers loads of goodness, as he is elite at everything but shooting and creation off the dribble. But the worries with Jackson are mounting

  1. His 26% 3P and 56% FT are major flags. It’s fun to imagine him making a Kawhi level shooting leap, but Kawhi shot 74% FT in college and had a much better starting point.
  2. Aside from spacing issues– can he be a point forward? As per synergy, he is averaging 0.59 PPP as P&R Handler and 0.46 in Isolation, good for 24th and 9th percentile respectively. This is largely correlated with his shooting woes, as when he does not get to the rim he will often pull up and brick, as he his shooting 29.3% eFG off the dribble (23%ile)

I still have him at #3 because he has such great strengths, and still manages to produce on offense thanks to excellent passing, cutting, and touch near the rim. He reminisces most of the awesome and underrated Shawn Marion with a worse shot and better passing and athleticism. But I also said the same thing about Aaron Gordon in 2014. Gordon appeared to be on the path to stardom after his sophomore NBA season, but now has an unclear upside in the midst of a third year slump.

As mentioned earlier, they are deeply similar prospects who are excellent at everything but shooting and shot creation. Gordon bricked harder on NCAA FT’s at 42%, but he was 1 year 7 months younger as a freshman. His average NBA age is similar to Jackson’s NCAA age, and he has shot better on FT’s (66% vs 56%) and 3’s in spite of longer distance (30% vs 26%). Jackson is a different person and player with his own share of advantages (better rim touch, more steals/blocks, better cutting) and he could develop at a faster rate. But are his advantages enough to outweigh his inferior shooting by a significant enough margin to make him a star? Should we be encouraged by Gordon’s promising sophomore season, or are his third year struggles a sign that it is crazy to take Jackson #3 overall? It’s tough to say–  Jackson is an extremely weird prospect.

I am erring on the side of optimism for now because Jackson’s intangibles are reputedly excellent, as he is a fiery competitor with 3 technical fouls on the season. He is not the type of player I am in a rush to bet against, and placing him outside of the top 3 feels like it would be such a bet. So for now Jackson leads my second tier, but he may creep down to the 4-6 range by draft night.

4. Malik Monk– 6’3″ SG, Kentucky

I normally am opposed to drafting one dimensional shooters with defensive question marks too early. My first post on the site was about Doug McDermott being an overrated prospect, and last season I singled out Buddy Hield as the clear dud of the lottery. But Monk and Lauri Markkanen are outliers, so they get special consideration.

I already wrote about Malik Monk’s elite shooting, and I am not sure why has not received more comparison to Steph Curry. Let’s compare pace adjusted per 40 stats from their freshman seasons:

2PtA 2P% 3PtA 3P% FTA FT%
Monk 9.6 59.3 8.9 41.4 4.6 83.3
Curry 7.8 53.6 10.4 40.8 5.1 85.5

The differences in 3PA rate and FT% such that Monk is not a Curry level outlier in either accuracy or trigger, but the fact that he is even in the ballpark is exciting. He has a chance of becoming the 2nd best shooter in NBA history. And he does far more damage than Curry did inside the arc. Granted, much of that is in transition which translates poorly to the NBA, but Monk’s additional production and athleticism cannot be ignored.

Pts Rebs Asts TOs Stls Blks
Monk 26.3 2.9 2.7 2.3 1.4 0.4
Curry 25.5 5.5 3.3 3.3 2.2 0.2

Curry’s comfortably superior steal and rebound rates in spite of comfortably inferior athleticism imply some drastic instinctual advantage that likely precludes Monk from becoming as good as Curry.

But Monk’s athleticism is evident in his higher block rate, and his ability to avoid turnovers is another feature that helps counter-balance the comparison a bit. And most importantly– Monk’s assist rate is surprisingly close considering that he shares the backcourt with two traditional PG’s in De’Aaron Fox and Isaiah Briscoe. He has shown flashes of impressive vision and passing ability, and it is feasible that he develops into a great distributor like Curry.

Overall Monk’s inferior shot, instincts, rebounding, and ball handling likely preclude him from achieving Curry’s level of greatness. But his athleticism and ability to avoid mistakes give him a shot of coming close. Even if he falls short of Curry, he can still be as good as another hyperefficient shooter who was allergic to rebounds: Reggie Miller.

He could also fall short of Miller, but I would be surprised if he fell on his face altogether. His combination of elite shooting accuracy, volume, athleticism, and offensive feel for the game is too much to not become good offensively. I would be surprised if he is not at least as good as the 2016-17 version of Bradley Beal.

Monk’s flaws are real, and they cannot be ignored. His defense and rebounding will almost certainly be bad as a pro, and it detracts from his value. But offense is much higher leverage for guards, and he has such a high floor high ceiling offensively that I suspect his defensive warts will be well worth stomaching.

5. Lauri Markkanen– 7’0″ PF, Arizona

Markkanen is shooting 83.5% from the line, and the only 7’0″ NBA player with a greater career FT% is Dirk Nowitzki. If you include 6’11” players: Mike Gminski, Jack Sikma, and Bill Laimbeer all check in between 83.7% and 84.9%. Gminski only made 6 career 3P, and Sikma and Laimber shot 33% from 3 on low volume, yet the latter two collectively appeared in 11 all-star games. Then Yao checks in at 83.3%, and the combination of being tall and great at FT’s continues to look like a strong combination.

You need to go below Lauri’s current FT% to find the discouraging comps of Channing Frye, Andrea Bargani, and Meyers Leonard in the 82-83% range for their NBA careers. But their pre-draft FT%’s all pale compared to Lauri as they were all in the 73-76% range, and Bargnani and Leonard were rife with flaws that precluded them from NBA goodness. A better shooting version of Frye would be a reasonable floor for Lauri, which is good for a non-top 3 pick.

Now let’s consider the meaning of his elite FT%. First it loudly suggests that he has a chance to become the best 6’11″+ shooter in NBA history, especially taken in tandem with his 50% 3P. It also hints that he has an outlier level of coordination, which gives him potential to develop an elite creation ability to complement his elite shooting. This is why the Dirk comparison is so pertinent, especially when he has the ability to pull off a move like this off the dribble.

Most are not convinced of the Dirk comp, as Markkanen does not score high volume for Arizona and is consensus rated outside the top 7. But given his hyper efficient 137 O-Rtg and how well he eye tests, I believe his Dirk upside is more attainable than commonly perceived. If nothing else he will be a highly efficient complementary scorer who physically can hold his own on defense, as he does not have lead feet like Steve Novak. He may nevertheless be a poor NBA defensive player due to lackluster instincts and length, but at least he has a chance of competence.

Markkanen’s range is a better version of Channing Frye or Ryan Anderson to the second coming of Dirk. I believe he is underrated by consensus.

6. De’Aaron Fox– 6’3″ PG, Kentucky

With a strong start to SEC play, the quick De’Aaron Fox jumps over the lazy Dennis Smith Jr. in my rankings.

Fox may seem high at #6 considering his poor shooting from all levels: 3P (5/37), mid-range (4/20), and short range (6/21). But he has super powers that cannot be ignored:

  1. His unique combination of quickness, coordination, and ball handling enables him to get to the rim at will, and his touch near the rim enables him to finish efficiently.
  2. He has an elite assist and turnover rate for a volume scorer

His 69% FT suggest that his shot is not hopelessly broken, and it is worth gambling that he makes an outlier leap. One sneaky benefit is that he is so adept at getting to the rim he does not pull up for bricks as often as other bricklaying PG’s, and is shooting 55% on 2P thus far. It is feasible that he becomes a good offensive player even if his shot stays broken, and if he makes a big leap he will become a full fledged stud lead guard.

Most will want to compare him to past Kentucky guards like Rajon Rondo and John Wall, but Rondo is more cerebrally gifted, Wall is more physically gifted, and neither has Fox’s ability to smoothly navigate through defenses.

The best comparison for Fox is Rod Strickland, who shared similar dimensions (6’3″, 175) and had a good statistical prime in spite of limited shooting range. Isiah Thomas has similarities as well. The most optimistic upside comp if he makes the shooting leap is Gary Payton. Although Fox is an extreme long-shot to match Payton’s shooting AND defense, he is a much more advanced scorer at the same age. Yes, it is the pinnacle of optimism, but it is hard to find pertinent comps for Fox since he is such a special snowflake.

The fact that most Fox comps inspire optimism is a good sign, as it is difficult to find a past guard who offered scoring, passing, and limited mistakes while amounting to little in the NBA. In spite of the poor shot, #6 may be too low for Fox as he arguably has as much upside as anybody outside the top 2.

7. Jonathan Isaac– 6’10” SF/PF, Florida St.

Isaac is the defensive specialist of the draft, as his profile is highlight by a rare combination of height and quickness that gives him elite versatility to guard multiple positions. He fits especially well into a heavy switching scheme, and considering his awesome steal, block, and rebound rates he has potential to be an extraordinarily valuable defensive player as a pro.

His biggest warts appear on offense, as he is limited off the dribble and a long windup on his shot results in a low 3PA rate. Consequently, he has a medium usage that does not have great upside to be stretched, and his limited ball skills show in his poor assist:turnover ratio. But he is not a complete disaster on this end– his 38.5% 3P and 82.4% FT imply that he should be an acceptable NBA floor spacer, and he moves well off the ball with great efficiency on cuts (95%ile per synergy) and put backs (97%ile).

Isaac is a one of a kind super role player. There is one strong upside comp who mirrors his physical profile and skill set: Andrei Kirilenko.  Kirilenko is highly underrated and would be an awesome return on any draft slot. Isaac is far from certain to be as good defensively as AK47, and his passing is far behind. But he his a much better shooter and has a reasonable chance of matching Kirilenko’s overall peak value. But Kirilenko is an extremely special snowflake, and Isaac may end up closer to the strikingly similar Marvin Williams. Pace adjusted per 40 freshman stats:

Pts 2P% 3PA 3P% FT%
Isaac 19.9 63.2 4.6 38.5 82.4
Marvin 18.1 52.2 2 43.2 84.7

Isaac converted more shots inside the arc and displayed more comfort shooting from 3 point range. But at 8 months older, there is not much separating their NCAA offensive output.

Rebs Asts Stls Blks TOs PFs
Isaac 11.7 1.6 1.9 2.3 2.6 2.9
Marvin 10.5 1.2 1.7 0.8 2.5 4.1

This is where Isaac sets himself apart, with slightly better rebounding and steal rates and much better block and foul rates. And while he also has an assist:turnover flag, it is a lighter shade of red than Marvin’s.

Overall Isaac is clearly the superior prospect, and a better defensive version of Marvin Williams is not a bad floor. But Williams is a cautionary tale for Isaac’s offensive warts, as his lack of NBA 3P range and ball skills depressed his offensive output early in his career. If Isaac runs into similar translation problems, his offensive weakness may offset his defensive goodness.

Marvin Williams to Andrei Kirilenko presents a wide range of outcomes, but Isaac’s upside and ability to fit in almost any NBA lineup is highly attractive for a non-top 3 pick.

8. Jayson Tatum– 6’8″ SF, Duke

Tatum is the top 8 player that I have the toughest time grasping. On one hand– he has clear two way star potential as his scoring instincts and 85% FT give him offensive upside, and his steal and block rates imply great defensive upside.

Conversely, nothing is guaranteed on either side of the ball. Offensively his FT% is extremely promising, and he also has the ability to score volume and the vision to whip an occasional great pass. But there is also a laundry list of warts to fret over:

  1. Does he have NBA 3 point range? Only making 30% of 3’s on low volume for Duke and seems to be more comfortable in the mid-range.
  2. He gets stripped and swatted a ton for a player of his talent. His high turnover rate and 48% 2P makes his overall efficiency meh in spite of his free throw dominance.
  3. He is a poor offensive rebounder for his size, and pales in comparison to similar players such as Jabari Parker and Carmelo Anthony in that regard.

So he is a mystery box. Maybe he will always be a black hole of inefficiency with limited spacing gravity, or maybe the rest of his skill level will catch up with his elite FT% and he becomes a star on this end. I don’t know.

Defensively the steals and blocks are exciting, but he was never reputed as a lockdown defensive player and Duke as a team has been underachieving on defense relative to their talent level. So maybe he is a sieve, or maybe he makes a positive impact on this end. Again, I don’t know.

His range is roughly an overrated mediocrity like Glenn Robinson to a suped up version of Carmelo Anthony. I am slightly more pessimistic regarding Tatum than consensus, largely because his mold presents a more worrisome downside tail than the other prospects in this tier. But he definitely offers enough goodness to have star upside, thus he occupies the final slot in the tier.

Tier 3: Risky Talents (Standard #4-7 picks):

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9. Harry Giles– 6’10” PF/C, Duke

On top of injury flags, Giles has also looked like a disaster since entering Duke’s rotation as he appears completely lost on defense. His instincts look bad, and he also may have some lack of physical confidence as he appears surprisingly prone to bullying for a player of his physical profile.

It is hard to project his NBA future, as he could so easily be a zero. But prior to the injuries, he was a front-runner for the #1 overall pick in front of all of these studs. His AAU stats are awesome, his physical profile is awesome, and he is a rare enough talent to be worth a shot in the dark gamble in the back end of the lottery.

His downside is Andre Drummond with injury flags, his upside is a better version of DeAndre Jordan. Once the tier 1 and 2 players are off the board, it is likely worth it to take a shot on him and hope for the best.

10. Frank Ntilikina– 6’5″ PG, France

Ntilikina is a complete mystery box. His profile suggests that he has clear star potential, but without any reasonable gauge of statistical production we must reduce the odds of his upside being attained and fatten up his downside tail.

Most people will point to Giannis Antetokounmpo as an example of an upsidey mystery box being underrated in the draft, and yes he was an incredible steal who is much better than all 14 players drafted ahead of him. But for every Giannis that binks, there is a truckload of Bruno Caboclos that come nowhere close. How do we tell the difference from afar? We cannot, we can only accept the uncertainty and try our best to rank him at a level headed slot considering his wide error bars.

Ntilikina is playing professionally in France, but due to low minutes and a limited offensive role as an 18 year old string bean, it is nearly impossible to gauge his level of goodness. If he played NCAA we would at least have an idea of how he looks as a primary handler, but as is he averages 3.2 pts per game with more turnovers than assists. He has some home run potential, but is more likely to be a complete whiff.

He cannot go ahead of elite freshmen who solidified their appeal with great NCAA production, but once they are all off the board it is reasonable to gamble.

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

I rate DSJ as the clear fraud of the lottery, as in spite of his great athleticism and statistical production his team continues to rack up losses. This is because he has poor basketball IQ, makes inaccurate passes, and over gambles on defense.

And while his talent is good, it is not great. He has great athleticism, but isn’t an explosive freak and his poor wingspan and reach diminish his physical profile. And while he is a capable shooter, he is not great. His intersection of handles, shooting, athleticism, and vision are nice, but not special or outlier enough to make him an exciting gamble in the top 5 given his losing tendencies.

I have a hard time seeing Smith as a star that helps his NBA team win games, although he may post nice fantasy stats as a pro. His upside is Stephon Marbury and his downside is just bad. Maybe I am underrating him– I do not feel quite as pessimistic for him as I did for Andrew Wiggins. But I have a hard time getting excited for him relative to the other studs in the class.

Tier 4: The Rest (standard #8-16 picks)

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12. Isaiah Hartenstein
13. Rodions Kurucs
14. Ethan Happ
15. Ivan Rabb
16. Miles Bridges
17. TJ Leaf
18. Robert Williams
19. Andrew Jones

20. OG Anunoby

After the top 11, the draft starts to lose appeal as the non-freshmen are fairly weak this year. But there are a few players who deserve mention.

Interationals:

Hartenstein is a rapidly rising international who is gaining appeal based on his great physical profile and balanced stat stuffing in FIBA U18 play. I just skimmed his DX profile and know little about him, but it is possible that after further analysis he should belong a tier higher. He is highly appealing at a glance.

Kurucs is a young, versatile, international wing who may not declare for this draft.

NCAA non-freshmen:

Happ, Rabb, and Anunoby are my super sophomores and the only NCAA non-freshmen I have in my top 21. The ones who just missed the cut are Dedric Lawson, Bryant Crawford, and Josh Hart.

Happ is the underrated gem of the draft, as he excels at everything but shooting and has potential to be a Draymond/Millsap level steal when he declares.

Rabb will likely be a solid NBA player similar to the Zeller bros, but it is difficult to see his path to stardom. Anunoby is a one way defensive beast who recently underwent season ending knee surgery. I believe he is too much of an offensive zero to justify a lottery selection as he is currently projected.

The Other Freshmen:

Bridges is the consensus next best freshman after the elite group. He has the athleticism, smoothness, and balanced production to sum to a quality NBA player, although his questionable efficiency and steal rate hint at him not being a future star.

TJ Leaf has significant appeal as a skilled and smart PF that offers versatile scoring and passing. His downside is his limited athleticism and defense. I would have an easier time getting excited over Leaf’s offense if he shot better than 62% FT, but he nevertheless pings my intuition as a player whose upside is underrated.

Robert Williams is a weirdo who pairs great length and athleticism with a unique skill set, as he offers great passing, cutting, and rim touch for a pogo stick. But his shot is a work in progress, and his offensive creation ability is sorely limited.

I wrote about Andrew Jones as Diet Russ, and since then he has committed many turnovers. He still piques my interest as a player who has nice upside if his skill level improves at an outlier rate, but right now he is incredibly raw.

Bruce Brown is my top freshman to miss the cut. He is an unheralded athletic freshman SG for Miami who is a nice athlete and does a little bit of everything.