This year’s draft is exceptionally weak at the top. There is no real prize that should go #1 in an average draft. Rather there’s a cluster of players who should typically go in the #3 to #8 range. In my opinion there are 4 players in the class that could reasonably considered for #1 overall this year.
4. LaMelo Ball, 6’7″ PG
Lonzo’s younger brother is a tricky one to solve, because he has such a small sample of statistical performance against any known competition.
Their father Lavar says that LaMelo is the best prospect of his children, as he has more natural scoring abilities than Lonzo. Also he is 1″ taller, and may be slightly more strong and athletic.
Lonzo has been a significant disappointment relative to expectations, as he crushed statistical models with his freshman performance at UCLA. I personally believed he was a future star, but instead he looks like a quality young role player whose unique strengths make him useful, but his significant flaws limit his value.
How LaMelo’s basketball IQ precisely compares to Lonzo is unclear, but he does rack up similar triple double statistics and have a similar propensity for full court assists. It’s plausible that he is a slightly rich man’s version of his brother with less pronounced flaws, which could make the difference between being a quality role player and a star.
But there is also significant downside. Lonzo was much more statistically proven pre-draft, as he elevated a UCLA team to massively outperform their talent level by stuffing the statsheet even better than LaMelo, as he had slightly more steals, significantly more blocks, and a much better eFG 66.8% vs 44.6%.
Lonzo also did this over a larger sample of 1263 minutes vs 407 minutes vs LaMelo, against a more known level of competition playing in the Pac-12 that is also likely tougher than professional Australian basketball.
LaMelo has a similarly broken shooting form to Lonzo, and given his poor Australian shooting there’s no clear evidence he is going to be notably better as a scorer than Lonzo. And there’s no clear evidence that his basketball IQ is on Lonzo’s level, as he was an extreme outlier in that regard.
LaMelo compounds his lower steal and block rates with a reputation for indifference on defense that Lonzo didn’t have. One of the main reasons why Lonzo has been useful in the NBA is because of his defense, and there is no assurance that LaMelo will match his performance given his current mentality on that end.
It’s difficult to do a perfect comparison between the brothers because LaMelo has just 13 games in a league that isn’t quite the same as NCAA, but they share a similarly weird mold. But I would say that Lonzo has the meatier profile with outlier good efficiency, defense, and proven performance vs known competition whereas Melo’s slight physical and ball handling advantages aren’t as clear or significant.
There’s a sliver of star potential for Melo, but more likely is he going to be similar to or worse than Lonzo since there’s no clear proof that he either has the remedy for Lonzo’s weaknesses or matches his strengths. And if the statistically superior Ball already disappointed us once, why buy the hype on a slightly different and likely worse version?
It’s easy to see what a better ball handling version of Lonzo would be worth a #1 overall pick, but the bust risk is far too significant to be worth chasing that sliver of upside in the top 3, even in a weak draft.
3. Anthony Edwards, 6’5″ SG Georgia
Edwards is a young shooting guard who just turned 19 on August 5 and offers a bit of everything.
He has a good frame and athleticism, and solid 6’9″ wingspan. He is capable of creating a high volume of shots, as he can get to the rim, takes a high volume of 3’s, and makes 77% of his free throws. He only shot 29.4% from 3, but given his youth, FT%, and 3PA rate it’s easy to see him shooting much better than that long term.
Other than that, he’s just OK. He has some passing ability, but isn’t a natural point guard or decision maker. He also has a competent level of rebounds and blocks, but nothing that suggests defensive star.
And while his physical profile is good, his dimensions are a bit small for a wing and his athleticism is very good but not elite.
Edwards doesn’t have any single glaring flaw, but he is ordinary in a few too many categories to be an exciting #1 pick. His closest NBA comp is fellow Georgia alum Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
It’s not a thrilling comparison for #3 overall, but KCP was likely underdrafted at #8 in the similarly weak 2013 draft, and he hasn’t improved much from age 22. If Edwards happens to have a better development trajectory, he could be a good player and perhaps a fringe all-star.
But he could also develop worse as he is very young and raw, and his median outcome is at best slightly better than KCP.
Edwards is the most bland player with the least interesting upside in consideration for #1. And there is some argument that Ball should go ahead of him. But I am giving him the edge over LaMelo because he has a thicker sample of statistical competence and doesn’t have the glaring disappointment of a highly similar brother on his resume.
2. James Wiseman, 7’0″, C
Wiseman has similar evaluation challenges as LaMelo, as both are weird prospects with thin samples of statistical goodness.
In fact, Wiseman looks like he belongs nowhere near the top 3 based on his biggest statistical sample from AAU, where he posted poor rebound, steal, and assist:TOV ratios for such a highly touted prospect.
But he has exceptional physical tools, as he is 7’0″ with 7’5″ wingspan, and excellent frame and agility for a big man. Further, he complements this with excellent intangibles. He learned to speak Mandarin at his private school, which indicates some level of off court intelligence.
Having turned 19 in March, he is the prototype for a player capable of massive improvements. And he showed huge improvements in the glimpses we have seen since high school.
It started at the Hoop Summit, where he posted 12 points, 8 rebounds, 6 blocks on 6/8 FG in 22 minutes and looked far better than expected based on his AAU sample.
He continued the trend in his 3 game NCAA sample where he played like a clear #1 overall pick, and he almost certainly improved significantly from his AAU self.
Most notably over the 4 games he went from a poor rebounder to a beast on the glass. And he was a highly effective finisher who avoided turnovers, and made a respectable 22/32 FT (69%) between the four games. If he can finish inside, develop an outside shot, protect the rim, hold his own on switches, and be a solid rebounder, that sums to quite the useful player.
But even after including the Hoop Summit, this sample is only 91 minutes with 47 of those minutes coming against two terrible low major teams. It’s difficult to say precisely how much he improved. He would have significantly regressed over a larger sample against better teams, and nobody knows how good he really is since there is such a wide range of performance between his AAU and Hoop Summit + NCAA samples.
He still had just 1 assist and 1 steal in his 91 minutes between NCAA and Hoop Summit, so he likely has some vision/instincts flaws. And we still cannot take his rebounding for granted, and seems to have some level of motor issues as well as an unproven shot. So there’s a clear downside risk in Wiseman with so many unanswered questions.
But he has a highly useful mold, and will be good if his blanks are filled in adequately. Taking Wiseman top 2 overall is a big gamble with such limited sample of statistical goodness, but it is also a sane gamble given his intersection of physical tools, intangibles, and improvement from high school to college. He needs a number of things to go right for his upside to hit, but so does everybody else in this draft.
In spite of the risks that come with Wiseman, I rank him above Ball and Edwards simply because he has a fatter upside tail. All 3 guys have clear downside and underwhelming median outcomes for top 3 candidates, so thickest upside tail wins.
1. Onyeka Okongwu, 6’9″ PF/C
Okongwu’s NBA role is difficult to discern, as he is an undersized center in a league moving away from bigs, but he brings quite a bit to the table.
He has good physical tools with a 7’2″ wingspan and good athleticism and agility. This gives him the versatility to defend multiple positions.
He used his physical gifts well as an NCAA freshman, posting 1.6 steals and 3.5 blocks per 40 while anchoring Andy Enfield’s best defense ever.
In 7 seasons of USC and 2 at Florida Gulf Coast, Enfield prior best defense ranked 84th in 2P% and 80th overall. This was until Okongwu anchored the #18 defense with #7 defensive 2P%.
Okongwu had the assistance of a couple of decent bigs, but he posted 50% of the team’s total blocks while also being a close 3rd in steals. He was the clear heart and soul of the defense, and deserves significant credit for USC’s big defensive leap.
He was also excellent offensively in spite of being surrounded by inefficient players with limited creation ability. USC posted a dreadful 0.86 points per possession with Okongwu off the floor. The team was sorely lacking in offensive talent and would have had a dismal season without Onyeka.
With him on the floor, they posted a respectable 0.98 points/possession, as he led the team in usage and was by far the most efficient player on the roster. He is an excellent finisher, scoring 62.1% inside the arc while rebounding well offensively cleaning up 12.4% of his team’s misses.
He only shot 1/4 from beyond the arc, but his 72% FT offers hope of being able to develop a jumper long term as he is still only 19.
And he showed traces of passing ability with 1.4 assists vs 2.6 turnovers per 40. This isn’t a great assist:TOV, but for a 19 year old big in a dreadful offense it is decent enough.
From most angles, Okongwu looks like a promising prospect. He is a versatile and impactful defensive player as well as an efficient offensive player with a decent baseline of skills to build on. The only lingering question is: what is his NBA role?
The answer depends on how he develops in the NBA. But we consistently see tweener bigs with good length and ability to guard multiple positions as draft steals: Bam Adebayo, Pascal Siakam, Draymond Green, Paul Millsap, Robert Covington. Questions about his NBA role will quickly evaporate if he fulfills his potential.
Okongwu at worst should be a useful defensive player who is an efficient garbageman offensively. At best he develops his shooting and perimeter skill and becomes a two way star with elite defensive impact and versatility. It’s a favorable range of outcomes, and there is no clear reason why he should not succeed.
Considering the myriad warts, questionable upside, and limited proof of statistical goodness of the other prospects at the top of the draft, it’s hard to see how any of them belong above Okongwu. He has the physical tools, he has by far the best numbers, he fits a modern mold, and he doesn’t have any major warts that impede his path to greatness.
He is currently slated to go just 6th overall on ESPN, but if he slides that far there are decent odds that looks silly in retrospect. Everybody slated to go ahead of him has serious downside and probably less upside as well. Not even trying to drop a hot take here, Okongwu seems like the best prospect in the draft and unless I’m missing some major concern it seems somewhat obvious.