It seems that it is a rule that regardless of how weak an international class is, that at least two internationals must go in round 1. Even if there are no NBA caliber prospects overseas in a particular class, teams will look for and find a few guys to latch onto and treat them as if they are deserving.
Going back to 1998, 22 of 24 drafts have featured at least two internationals in round 1, and all drafts have had at least two picked in the top 32. Internationals tend to be higher variance picks since NBA teams tend to be bad at evaluating them, with colossal mistakes such as Darko Milicic 2nd over Anthony, Wade, and Bosh and Nikola Jokic sliding all the way to #41.
This year is decisively a bad year for internationals, but there are nevertheless four guys in round 1 consideration at the moment currently ranked in ESPN’s top 33. Let’s run through them one at a time and see if any have them have decent odds of justifying the hype.
Ousmane Dieng (#12 ESPN)
Dieng burst onto prospect radar in 2019, playing for France’s u16 team that won the silver medal. In 22 minutes he averaged 8.9 pts 2.7 rebounds 3.6 assists, showing an intriguing intersection of passing and shooting for a 6’9 wing but also shooting just 33% from the field.
Most recently he has played for the New Zealand Breakers, by far the worst team in the Australian NBL who went 5-23 with -8.7 point differential.
After a dreadful start to the season, he finished strong. He finished the year averaging 20.8 minutes, 8.9 points, 3.1 rebs, 1 ast, 1.4 tovs, 0.6 stls, and 0.3 blks with 47.9% TS and a paltry 10.7 PER. His biggest appeal is his shooting, or at least his belief that he can shoot as he attempted 4.2 3’s per game and made 27.1%.
Over the past 3 seasons from ages 16 thru 18 he has shot 138/462 (29.9%) from 3 and 88/112 (78.6%) FT. So he’s not exactly a good shooter at this point, but in time he could develop into one for his size.
And whoever drafts him better hope that he does, because there is not much to like outside of that. He does not have much shake or burst, and struggles to beat anybody off the dribble. And in spite of his size, he is not much of a defensive playmaker with mediocre rebound, steal, and block numbers.
He turns 19 in May before the draft and is basically a gamble on youth and tools, even though his tools outside of height are not all that special as like most French people he is a mediocre athlete.
Interestingly, he has a domestic twin who was recently taken in the lottery. Per 40 minute stats:
Granted, Australian NBL is not the same as the SEC, but it is certainly not more difficult. And when you factor in that Knox played for a good SEC team with a coach who routinely makes prospects underperform statistically, and Dieng played for a horrific NBL team who had nothing better to do with their season than pump up his stats, it is clear that Knox is the much stronger candidate to be underrated by statistics than Dieng.
And based on just the numbers, Knox has a clear edge as they are near identical in most categories, except Knox is much more efficient due to drawing significantly more FT’s and making 34% 3P compared to 27% for Dieng and was 3 months younger.
Knox was a reasonable lottery selection because of the possibility that he might be better than his box score indicated, as is common with prospects who play for John Calipari. This is not so common with European prospects, as outside of Giannis everybody who becomes great has a clear statistical signal of high potential. And Dieng is nowhere near Giannis physically.
Dieng is essentially Kevin Knox minus the upside that never came to fruition. Perhaps he improves better than Knox and maybe he develops into an excellent shooter over time, but there is no clear reason to actively believe in him.
And even if he does develop well, it is difficult to see him having any sort of compelling payoff. People may try to compare him to Brandon Ingram or Nicolas Batum, but both of those guys were much better at the same age and hit their NBA upside as shooters, so it is difficult to see what path Dieng would have to get there.
Perhaps he can be something like a Bojan Bogdanovic in his best outcomes. But it’s a relatively thin path that results on him developing well and becoming a great shooter, and his much more common outcome is similar to Kevin Knox where he is nowhere near NBA caliber.
And if you want to take a tall wing who shoots and does nothing else, there is a domestic in this current draft projected at #29 in Bryce McGowens:
Dieng is 6 months younger and approximately 2″ taller and 3″ longer, but McGowens gets to the free throw line much more frequently and made 83.1%. He also struggled from 3 making just 27%, but his free throws give him better hope of shooting and his FT drawing shows some capacity to play physical.
I would not rate McGowens as good value at #29, but would still lean toward gambling on him in spite of Dieng’s youth and dimensions edge if forced to pick between the two, although it is fairly close.
Ultimately there is probably enough there to justify a round 2 flier on Dieng, but it would be flat out insane to take him lottery and even in late round 1 he is a still a mediocre value proposition.
Nikola Jovic (#19 ESPN)
Jovic looked like a potential lottery pick in his 17 year old small sample, as he was efficient in 99 Adriatic League minutes and had a strong FIBA u19 performance where he averaged 31 mins, 18.1 pts, 8.3 rebs 2.9 asts, 1.9 tovs 56.6% TS over 7 games.
But unfortunately he has fallen completely flat as an 18 year old playing a larger sample in the Adriatic League. In 28.5 minutes he had posted 12 pts, 4.8 rebs, 3.6 assists, 3.1 turnovers, 0.7 steals, 0.5 blocks in 29 games across all competition, which includes two u18 games.
Collectively this amounts to a meager 11.9 PER which is not inspiring. He is unsurprisingly like an off brand version of Nikola Jokic who was only 4 months older when he posted 21.2 Adriatic PER. So it is rather amusing that the real thing went in round 2 while the cheap knockoff is slated to go in round 1.
But on the bright side, the most obvious part of that failure was underrating the Joker. And what makes Jovic interesting is that he had a higher assist rate (22.5% vs 18.1% if you include Joker’s Serbian sample) and a slightly better shooting signal, making 31.5% 3P, 5 3PA/G, 71.8% FT vs 31.5% 3P, 2.9 3PA/G, 65.6% FT.
Granted, he is unlikely to have the outlier shooting development of the real Joker, but height, passing, and shooting can go far in tandem so it is reasonable to consider him a serious prospect.
But he still is not as big as Joker, as he is 1″ shorter with 2″ less length, and plays drastically smaller on the court as he gets crushed in all of rebounds (10% vs 15.5%) steals (1.3% vs 1.9%) and blocks (1.6% vs 3.4%). He is not a true center, and likely lacks the footspeed to guard anybody on the perimeter, which is enigmatic for his defensive projection.
Offensively his main concern is that he is a disaster in terms of efficiency, as he is highly turnover prone and struggles to score inside the arc. He posted 96 ORtg on 23.8 usage compared to Jokic 119 ORtg on 20.2 usg– he completely gets destroyed in terms of efficiency.
Jovic has some shades of Jokic with his passing, shooting, and height, except he is smaller with no clear defensive role in the NBA and overall bad on offense instead of good.
It’s tough to come up with a real comparison for Jovic. We could try to comp him to a different Nikola with Mirotic, but Mirotic is much better everywhere outside of passing never being a strength.
Boris Diaw has some similarities, but was more agile and always had higher steal rates. Danilo Gallinari was a much better shooter with a much better steal rate pre-draft.
There really isn’t a clear comparison to make for Jovic. You are basically just hoping that his true talent is closer to his smaller sample last year plus his FIBA performance this past summer than this year, and that he learns to shoot and his passing gravity helps overcome his myriad flaws.
Ultimately he is in a similar boat to Dieng where he has outs to hit, but overall is a bland and boring prospect and is more of a round 2 flier than somebody worth a late 1st.
Hugo Besson (ESPN #32)
It’s surprising enough that there is one prospect on by far the worst Australian league team. But at least Dieng is 18 years old and toolsy. Besson has no excuse, since he is 21 years old and a horrible mold of 6’3 SG who is near guaranteed to be a disaster on defense.
You would have to figure well this guy must have elite skill level to make him worth consideration, but he had a pedestrian 35.7% 3P 79.1% FT and barely more assists (3) than turnovers (2.5).
In summary he is old playing for a bad team in a bad league in a bad NBA mold with bad dimensions and athleticism and has no clear strengths whatsoever.
Perhaps I am missing somebody, but I cannot recall a past prospect who seemed this hopeless to be an NBA caliber player. There is not even a clear selling point in his favor. If the draft was 10 rounds long, it is still difficult to see how he would deserve to be picked.
How he is flirting with round 1 radar is difficult to comprehend. Perhaps when NBA teams all actually see him they will universally agree that he is terrible and nobody will pick him. Nothing about him being on the radar makes sense.
Ismael Kamagate(#33 ESPN)
It is difficult to reconcile how we live in a world where bigs are rapidly dying and quality big prospects often slide through the cracks in the draft, yet this nondescript 21 year old is knocking on the door of round 1.
Physically his tools are OK for a big. He is 6’11 with 7’3 wingspan, and OK-ish athleticism, although he is slightly on the skinny side weighing 220.
In terms of basketball playing ability, he can dunk and occasionally block shots and his FT% is not completely busted at 68.3% over the past 3 years combined. But he is a mediocre rebounder, does not create steals, and had a meager 0.38 assist:TOV ratio this past season playing in France.
Further, there is a clear superior player currently mocked a few slots later at #36 overall. Per 40 minutes:
Jeep Elite and Pac-12 are not the same, but Jeep Elite is not a good international league and is not a bigger challenge.
Christian Koloko has 1″ more length and is a better athlete, and outclasses Kamagate in every category of basketball playing ability.
I would rate Koloko as decent value in the early 2nd, as he has an easy path to serviceable NBA big, but it is difficult to get into him as a 1st rounder as it seems like he should be a replacement level big fairly commonly.
In Kamagate’s case, it seems like replacement big is approximately his upside as he has no clear strengths in terms of physical tools, skill level, and especially basketball IQ.
He is not quite as hopeless as Hugo Besson, but he nevertheless has no business being drafted.
If you are going to try to draft a player without an impressive statistical profile, it is typically an error to pick an international as opposed to a domestic player. America is the most proven source of NBA talent and has the best athletes. Its prospects typically have better odds of outperforming their pre-draft statistical profiles than random internationals do.
Really the only international who has hit with bad stats has been Giannis, and we could possibly go another 1000 drafts without seeing another prospect like him. He had a small sample of Greek stats that made him look like not a serious prospect, but he is a rare international who has elite physical tools. It is difficult to think of any past international prospect who is even close to him physically.
Because of this, you are playing with fire trying to project uniquely good NBA translation and/or development from internationals. Even if they seem athletic, they may not be by NBA standards (see: Mario Hezonja).
But there are have been so many draft steals from international players, scouts and teams are always going to look at a few of them every year. If there is not anybody who is clearly NBA talent, they will squint and squint and squint until they have a cute read that some bland talent has upside, and that guy will almost always flop.
This exemplifies this year. Dieng and Jovic have limited strengths for non-athletes, and should not be going in round 1. And they are the only guys who should be getting drafted at all, as everybody else seems more or less doomed to either fail or be a bland bench player.
If you want to draft an international prospect, there should be clear evidence that he is good at basketball. Since none of the prospects this year fit that qualification, each international drafted is likely to look like a mistake in the long term.
Alperen Sengun is one of the most fascinating prospects in the draft, as he won Turkish League MVP at age 18 and stuffed the stat sheet in every way conceivable. Turkey has one of the best professional leagues in Europe, and the past 4 MVP winners were all NBA players at a prime age in their mid-late 20’s: Shane Larkin, Brad Wanamaker, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Gigi Datome. Yet Sengun did it while being more than a full year younger than Evan Mobley and Jalen Suggs.
And he wasn’t just MVP by being a one dimensional post up player and gobbling rebounds– he also was a good passer with more assists than turnovers, made 79.4% FT, and had a better steal rate than Cade Cunningham and a better block rate than Kai Jones. Based on his #’s, he appears to be an elite all round player who should be the runaway choice for #1 overall in the draft.
But he is nowhere near that conversation for valid reasons, currently projected at #16 in ESPN’s mock. He is undersized for a center at 6’10” with a ~7’1″ wingspan, and is not particularly quick or explosive to guard the perimeter, and there are major question marks how he will fit into an NBA defense. And even if he is passable in the regular season, will he get hunted and played off the floor in the playoffs?
It is also difficult to gauge how much value to place on his elite interior scoring. He shot at staggering 67.4% inside the arc on 26.7% usage, but it is worth pondering how well that will translate vs bigger and stronger NBA bigs. And even if he is effective, how badly do NBA teams want to run the offense through the low post given all of the turnovers and time consumption that comes with feeding the post.
Sengun has one clear and obvious comp, and that player is Kevin Love. Let’s compare Sengun’s Turkish performance to Love at UCLA:
Right off the bat you can see how special Sengun is– at nearly a year younger in a better league, he was slightly more impressive across the board with better scoring efficiency and assist to turnover ratio. And what is really juicy is his huge advantage in steal rate– perhaps this indicates some subtle cerebral or athletic advantage that will enable him to be better than Love on defense.
Sengun also likely has slightly better dimensions. There are no official measurements on him, but the most common ones say that he is about 0.5″ taller than Love with ~1.5″ more wingspan, and he is young enough such that he may not be done growing, or may have grown since his last measurements.
Love was a better 3 point shooter in college, making 35.4% on 2.1 3PA per game vs Sengun 20% on 1 3PA per game. Sengun was better on FT% making 79.4% vs 76.7% while also being younger, so it is not clear whether he will be a better or worse NBA shooter than Love.
What is clear is that if they were in the same draft, Sengun should get picked before Love. And it’s not like Love wildly overachieved in the NBA– he crushed stat models and was the 5th overall choice. So there is no clear reason to expect Sengun to be worse than Love in the NBA on average.
The trouble is that it is incredibly difficult to evaluate Love, as he ranged from posting insanely good stats for a terrible Minnesota team to solidly good stats starting for a championship team in Cleveland. He did have issues staying on the floor in the playoffs at times for the Cavaliers, so his box score production cannot be taken at face value. But he also was a 5 time all-star and an NBA champion, and cannot be devalued too aggressively for his flaws.
Sengun is currently projected to go #16 overall. If we knew for a fact that he would be the next Kevin Love, is it actually reasonable to let him slide out of the lottery?
And if he overperforms Love’s NBA career to the extent he overperformed pre-draft, and is a slightly better shot maker, passer, and defensive player, is that not an immensely valuable NBA player?
Love is clearly his top comp. The next closest one is based on postup PF archetype is Domantis Sabonis:
Sengun also had a better FT%, 3PA rate, and FT rate (0.61 vs 0.51) and 2″ more wingspan while being more than a full year younger. Sabonis is nowhere near the same league as Sengun as a prospect.
Sabonis is another guy who is tricky to evaluate, as he is a 2x all-star but it is unclear what value his bruising offense and defensive limitations will provide in the playoffs. But being massively better than a regular season all-star at the same age is a good start, as it is not clear precisely how much value these PF’s lose in the playoffs.
Now we are veering to a slightly different archetype, but just for fun let’s compare him to some fat kid from Serbia who slid to round 2:
Jokic is a true center at 6’11” with a longer wingspan at 7’3″ which makes this comp a little weird. But he was 5 months older than Sengun, playing in the slightly weaker Adriatic League, and gets largely dwarfed by Sengun. Sengun also crushes him at FT rate (0.61 vs 0.19) and FT% (79.4% vs 65.6%). Joker was taking more than 3x the 3PA and making 31.5%, but collectively Sengun was the better shot creator, shot maker, rebounder, and defensive play maker.
And he even had a slightly higher assist rate than the best passing big of all time! Joker had a better assist:TOV, but this was in part due to his lower usage so let’s not rule out the possibility that Sengun becomes an elite passer that completely picks apart opposing defenses.
It’s difficult to say how good Jokic would be with PF dimensions, but he would still certainly be valuable. And Sengun is so young with such dicey measurements, what if he grows another inch and peaks at say 6’11” with 7’2″ wingspan? Are we safe from ruling him out from being a future MVP? Probably not!
The Funniest Comp in the History of Comps
It’s easy to get focused on the fact that Cade Cunningham fits a better mold of point forward with better odds of defending the perimeter. But when we look at these numbers side by side, it is worth wondering if he really does.
Cade is the better 3 point shooter, making 40% on a much higher rate than Sengun. But Sengun is 10 months younger, and Cade’s AAU FT% was less good than Sengun’s, and he did not have a particularly higher 3PA rate pre-NCAA either.
Then we look at Cade’s point forward skills, but Sengun’s assist rate is right behind him with a better assist to turnover ratio.
In terms of perimeter defense, Cade should be the favorite to be better, but he doesn’t have the best foot speed or athleticism and is prone to getting beat, and Sengun actually edges out steal rate which is somewhat predictive of perimeter defense.
Even if we completely ignore Sengun’s obvious big man advantages of blocking shots, finishing inside, drawing free throws, and being massively better on the offensive glass. There isn’t a clear signal that he is inferior to Cade as a point forward or perimeter defensive player, and he could easily catch up to Cade as a shooter.
This is not meant to imply that he is necessarily better than Cade as he is likely the inferior athlete and playing a different role and a different situation, and it is far from an apples to apples comparison. But it is interesting food for thought. Are people so hung up on how archaic Sengun’s mold is that they are overlooking how many things he does well (or at least possibly well) outside of big man things?
What Exactly Does Sengun Offer?
It is difficult to say since he spends so much time down low and we only see glimpses of his perimeter play in film. But his post game is definitely worth something. He may struggle vs elite centers like Joel Embiid, but if a team tries to play small ball Sengun will absolutely feast inside.
He also is an excellent garbage man and pick and roll finisher, as he has excellent hands and touch around the basket.
His 3 point shooting is not a guarantee with limited attempts from that range, but based on his FT% and age he does project to be an above average shooter more often than not.
And he shows a capable handle and occasionally has an impressive drive from the perimeter. In tandem with his passing, there is some potential that he can eventually learn to run pick and rolls as a handler and well as the finisher.
Defensively, he shows the occasional flash of better than expected mobility or burst, and makes a nice play. He also shows good intelligence and understanding of position. But there are plenty of other times where he gets beat comfortably, and it is difficult to imagine any future for him other than getting played off the floor in the playoffs.
Offensively he offers so much, it is difficult to see him being less than good and he can possibly be an elite weapon. Defensively…it is complicated.
Is There Hope for Sengun on Defense?
It seems like the safe assumption is that a PF with mediocre athleticism and foot speed should be a bad on defense. And without any tangible proof on film that he is good, why risk wasting a pick on him? But let’s take a trip down memory lane to a certain prospect who DraftExpress shared concerns on in each of his two final pre-draft seasons:
“Unfortunately, [21 year old prospect]’s defensive deficiencies have become even more pronounced as a senior. At 6’7, he is too small to guard elite post players, and lacks the lateral quickness to defend perimeter players, even face-up power forwards at the NCAA level. While his effort and aggressiveness will never be questioned, it is difficult to project him as an adequate NBA defender at this time.”
“Unfortunately, [20 year old prospect]’s physical limitations make it quite difficult to project him as being anything more than a liability on this end of the floor in the NBA. His lack of size means he’s quite easy to post up and just shoot over the top of even at the NCAA level, and his poor lateral quickness makes it tough to envision him being able to guard most power forwards on the perimeter or even less likely small forwards, which his height suggests he’d have to. This will be a major hurdle for [prospect] to overcome, and it’s not quite clear whether a NBA team will be able to get past this issue, despite what he contributes in various other facets of the game”
To make it even spicier, this player is one of a few on a short list of players who share Sengun’s statistical intersection of 15%+ rebounds, 11%+ assists, 2.1%+ steals, and 2.5%+ blocks as an NCAA freshman for a high major conference in the past 20 years:
By now you may have guessed the aforementioned player is 2016-17 NBA defensive player of the year Draymond Green. If scouts were saying that about Draymond at ages 20 and 21, how can we be remotely confident that Sengun will be below average at age 18? Instead of spending so much time fretting about drafting him and having him played off the court in the playoffs, should we not spend a moment to worry about passing him and watch him be a stud on both sides of the ball who becomes a future hall of famer?
Zion, Kawhi, and Simmons are much more athletic than Sengun, and Embiid is much bigger. But you have to be either a physical freak and/or exceptionally good at basketball to check these boxes at a young age.
Kyle Anderson is 2″ longer than Sengun, but he definitely is not quicker or more explosive. And he is also a good defensive player in the NBA. It may be a bit much to hope for Draymond’s defense from Sengun, but a player with Kevin Love’s offense and SloMo’s defense would be worth a #1 overall choice.
The only player on this list who is not so great on defense is Blake Griffin, who was slightly worse than Sengun in all 4 categories and also has perhaps 1.5″ less wingspan at 6’11.25″. Griffin is an odd case with exceptional vertical explosion but limited lateral movement, and as a 6 time all-star he isn’t the scariest cautionary tale.
The closest prospect to a negative example is Greg Monroe, who missed the cut with 13.2% TRB as a freshman, which is surprisingly soft for a slow big. But if you include his career averages over his 2 NCAA seasons, he does make the cut at 15.5% TRB, 20.8% AST, 2.9% STL, 4.9% BLK. He is a friendly reminder that checking the boxes for different statistics do not ensure success on their own.
But conversely, who can look at this and be confident that Sengun is not going to be good on defense? He has some very promising signals for an 18 year old.
Sengun is an enigma wrapped in a mystery, and we have really never seen anything like him. Offensively he is highly similar to Kevin Love, and possibly even better.
Defensively he is a mystery box. He could be too slow and played off the floor in the playoffs, or he could be OK, or he could be surprisingly good and massively punish everybody who doubted and passed on him. For the sake of argument, let’s err on the side of negativity say this is his distribution of defensive outcomes:
10% Draymond Green 20% Kyle Anderson 20% Blake Griffin 20% Greg Monroe 30% Kevin Love
That seems like a prospect who should at least be considered at #1 overall.
It is scary to gamble on the law of averages without any clear evidence on film, but everybody thinks Cade Cunningham is a lock #1 pick without a lick of visual evidence he can play efficiently, rebound, or defend. We are always making a guess and taking a leap of faith in drafting, and it can be easy to glaze over important signals while latching onto arbitrary points.
In this case it seems that consensus is too eager to put Sengun in a box of slow PF who doesn’t fit in the modern NBA rather than a versatile + outlier talent unlike any prospect we have ever seen in our lives.
His weirdness makes him difficult to peg with any confidence, but it seems the concern is that he is merely a regular season all-star whose value erodes in the playoffs. Which is still better than the upside of many of the boring role players projected ahead of him such as Davion Mitchell, Corey Kispert, and Kai Jones.
And there are so many different things that can go surprisingly right for him, and we cannot rule out the possibility that he becomes an MVP candidate and future hall of famer.
The most bearish position that can reasonably taken in light of his weirdness and unclear NBA role is that he is the clear top choice after the top 5 guys go off the board. The most bullish position is that we should be debating him vs Evan Mobley for #1 overall because he is currently better at basketball than Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green by a ridiculous margin.
Thus far I have erred on the side of caution and leaned toward the bearish route, simply because he is such a difficult prospect to understand with any confidence. But the least that can be said is if Sengun eventually becomes the Jokic to Cade’s Wiggins, it is going to seem like it should have been extremely obvious in hindsight.
With the lottery order being determined tonight, let’s run through the prospects at stake
Tier 1: Likely star
Evan Mobley 7′ PF/C USC
Mobley has good dimensions for a big at 7′ and 7’4 and has a unique combination of fluidity and passing for his size.
He is one of the best passing bigs in recent memory, as he averaged more assists (2.4) than turnovers (2.2). He is physically similar to Chris Bosh (1.2 vs 2.3) and has Joel Embiid’s fluidity (1.4 vs 2.4), but is a much better passer than both as NCAA freshmen. He isn’t quite Nikola Jokic who averaged 2.5 vs 1.5 in the Adriatic league while being 8 months younger, but he is a much better athlete than Jokic.
Given that he is able to play with precision both physically and mentally, he has an easy path to becoming a highly efficient NBA player.
Passing and height pair particularly well because he can pass over the defense, and because passing has a strong correlation with defensive ability. He was a very good rim protector for USC, anchoring the 6th best defense in the country with 2nd lowest 2P%.
His team massively overachieved overall, as he led a team of mediocre transfers that probably should have missed the tournament to the elite 8 and #6 kenpom ranking. This was by far Andy Enfield’s best team ever, as he peaked at #49 in 7 prior seasons at USC.
His shooting is acceptable for a big at 69.4% FT and 30% 3P, but a bit of a question mark.
His biggest weakness is his thin frame makes him a mediocre rebounder and prone to getting bullied by stronger bigs. He will often work as a 5 in the NBA, but may need to slide to the 4 when he faces a stronger big like Jokic or Embiid. This is the flaw that likely prevents him from being a generational prospect and Kevin Garnett level hall of famer, but it’s really the only thing to dislike.
Overall Mobley is loaded with unique strengths with limited flaws in his game, and has an easy path to stardom. He is not quite a lock star but since he is more well rounded and less flawed than everybody else in the draft, he should be the easy choice at #1 overall.
Tier 2: Possible stars with a few warts to work through
2. Scottie Barnes 6’8″ PG FSU
I have written an extensive analysis of Barnes, but the cliff notes are that he checks every box for upside in a way that we have rarely seen before. He is 6’8″ with a 7’2.75″ wingspan, and while not the most explosive athlete is fluid and agile with a good handle. He also is an exceptionally good passer for his dimensions and plays under control making good decisions with the ball.
He also had a good assist to turnover rate for any height at 1.66. For perspective, this was higher than Steve Nash’s assist:TOV ratio for his first 3 seasons at Santa Clara until his senior season edges out Barnes at 1.69.
He used his length to be disruptive defensively, and often guarded opposing PG’s, although not always well as he was prone to getting beat off the dribble and defensive lapses. He has excellent upside on defense but is currently a work in progress on that end.
His biggest question mark is his shooting as he only made 62.1% FT and 27.5% 3P for FSU. But he had a tiny sample of FTA at 41/66, and in a much bigger pre-NCAA sample he shot 67.5% (166/246) and his form doesn’t look too bad.
If he can eventually become a reliable NBA 3 point shooter and improve defensively, Barnes essentially has an uncapped upside and can make teams feel awfully bad for passing on him.
3. Jalen Suggs 6’4 PG Gonzaga
Suggs is slippery to pin down, as there have not been many prospects to similar to him. The scary angle is that he is a 6’4″ combo guard who recently turned 20 and does not have the best shooting or handle, which is not the ideal archetype to take in the top 3.
But the upside is that he seems to be good at basketball, and may be a big athletic PG who can do it all. He did not play point guard full time for Gonzaga as they often played 3 guards capable of running an offense, and everybody’s assist rate suffered for it. Andrew Nembhard dropped from 33.1% at Florida to 20.2% for Gonzaga, Joel Ayayi dropped from 16.6% the prior season to 12.6%, and Aaron Cook dropped from 27.2% at Southern Illinois to 17.5% for Gonzaga.
Suggs led the team with 23.7% assist rate, and had a solid 1.55 assist to turnover ratio. Given that he also showed exceptional instincts defensively with a 3.5% steal rate, he likely has the vision and instincts to be a good decision maker with the ball as a full time handler.
The question is exactly how much he will be able to create offensively. He is a good athlete but not elite, and his handle can stand to improve as well.
He can get to the rim and finish against set defenses proficiently enough to have a big upside on that end, but whether he hits his upside largely hinges on how much his handling and shooting improve, as he is a capable but not great shooter at 76.1% FT 33.7% 3P.
It’s difficult to come up with a satisfactory comp for him, but he is something like a John Wall or Derrick Rose hybrid with Marcus Smart, where he trades a notch of athleticism for better instincts and IQ.
Perhaps it is crazy to rank a prospect who is so much smaller and worse at shooting above Cade, but Suggs smashes the eye test as a guy who knows how to play and doesn’t have any major weaknesses outside of some minor questions about his skill level.
It is easy to see why he has so much hype, as he has excellent wing dimensions at 6’8″ with a 7’1″ wingspan and is a great shooter for any size as he made 40% 3P and 84.6% FT as freshman for Oklahoma State. He also has a point forward skill set with a 20.4% assist rate and showed competent switch-ability on defense, and it’s just not common to see a prospect with this intersection of strengths.
But before getting too excited with his strengths, Cade has some serious flags to address. First, his assist to turnover ratio was awful at 3.5 vs 4.0. From watching film, his passing just isn’t on the level of the other guys in this tier. He often makes bad decisions, throwing turnovers into traffic or feeding teammates in unfavorable positions that lead to them getting blocked or turning it over.
Further, his self creation was inefficient as he has a somewhat loose handle and was prone to getting stripped. And he was more of a bulldozer who tried to run over defenses instead of finding seams in the defense for easy buckets. Consequently, he shot a pedestrian 46.1% inside the arc and his team performed equal to slightly better with him off the floor.
He also has a suspect motor, as he is sometimes lackadaiscal on defense and has an anemic offensive rebounding rate for his size at 2.3%. This makes it questionable how good he will really be on defense.
If he improves his effort, decision making, and handling, then he has an excellent upside based on his strengths. But these are some nasty warts for a guy to be consensus #1 overall, as he currently has quite a bit of fat to be trimmed from his game.
Tier 3: Quality Prospects with Difficult Paths to Stardom
5. Franz Wagner, 6’9″ SF/PF Michigan
Wagner does not share the high upside of the prospects rated above him, but he fits a mold for being an elite role player that fits into any NBA lineup.
While he doesn’t have the typical strength or athleticism of an NBA stopper, he was an elite defensive player for Michigan based on his unique intersection of dimensions at 6’9″ with 7’0″ wingspan, intelligence, quick hands, and exceptional lateral movement. He is outlier good at containing penetration, and moves his feet laterally better than any wing prospect in recent memory.
He played a huge role in Michigan having the 4th best NCAA defense, as the defense was elite with him on the floor and turned to mush when he went to the bench:
The team was significantly better in each of the four factors with him on the floor, and notably the turnovers. On paper his 2.3% steal rate looks good but not exceptional for a wing, until you realize that Juwan Howard massively suppresses steals in a defense that heavily emphasizes forcing difficult shots over forcing turnovers. Most Michigan players who played for other coaches saw their steal rates fall off a cliff. When you consider that Franz was responsible for 29.1% of his team’s steals, his steal rate is much more impressive.
Further, he did this without heavily gambling, as he was very rarely beaten off the dribble and had a significantly positive impact on his team’s defensive eFG%.
His weakness is that he is not the most athletic or physical player, and had a mediocre rebound rate, which likely sets him below Kawhi and Draymond as an outlier defensive player. But he nevertheless is very good on this end.
Offensively he had a limited 19.1% usage rate. But he was able to create off the dribble in doses as he has a capable handle and is coordinated enough to step through seams in the defense. He shined with his lack of mistakes, as he had an excellent 3.8 assists vs 1.6 turnovers per game. His shooting is a work in progress, as he only made 32.5% from 3 in two years at Michigan and his form needs improvement, but his 83.5% FT offers hope for his ability to develop into a good shooter longterm.
He is not in the top tier without the athleticism or creation upside to have all-NBA upside. But in spite of being a sophomore, Franz is younger than Mobley, Suggs, and Barnes and is only a month older than Cade, and has an awesome role player skill set with a very low rate of making mistakes.
He fits a similar mold to Mikal Bridges and Otto Porter of hyperefficient role player, fits into any NBA lineup, and has very low odds of busting.
Once the possible stars are off the board, it’s difficult to see how taking Franz will be a regrettable choice.
6.Josh Giddey 6’8″ PG Australia
If the intersection of 3 indicators could be used to predict upside, the best choices would likely would be age, height, and passing. And Giddey smashes all 3. Here’s a list of teenage 6’7+ prospects who posted the highest pre-draft assist rate in the past 20 years:
Giddey doesn’t just edge out the competition– he posted *by far* the highest assist rate at by far the youngest age. His passing also eye tests as elite, as he seems to always make the right decision, and even on non-assists often puts his teammates in a strong position to score.
Unfortunately, almost everything else is a weakness for him. Among prospects in the table, he has the lowest steal rate of the group without length to be as disruptive on defense as the typical point forward. He also doesn’t have particularly good frame or athleticism, and isn’t the best shooter (29.3% 3P 69.1% FT) or shot creator.
This gives Giddey one of the most polarizing distributions in draft history, and makes his NBA future extremely difficult to predict. The obvious comparison for him is Lonzo Ball, who is only 2″ shorter at 6’6″ with 1.5″ more wingspan and has similarly overpowered passing and underpowered everything else.
Lonzo had a solidly better steal rate at 2.8% vs 1.8% as well as blocks at 2.1% vs 1.4%, so the prospect of drafting a Lonzo with less defensive impact is not exceptionally thrilling, and there is no doubt Giddey has some non-trivial bust risk.
But Giddey is much more fluid than Lonzo, who may be the most awkward lottery prospect of all time. If he can parlay his fluidity into a capable scoring ability and develops a decent outside shot to boot, that may be enough to be a weapon offensively with such excellent passing. And he did have better usage (19.6 vs 18.1) and assist rate (36.3 vs 31.4) for Adelaide than Lonzo did at UCLA while being a full year younger, so the greater potential for creation is clearly there.
And even though they are completely different players, it is worth considering how badly Nikola Jokic smashed expectations. Being the best passer of all time at your height range is an overpowered ability when everything else develops well, and Giddey is likely the best passing prospect of all time at 6’7+.
There’s definitely risk in a prospect with such limited skills and physical tools. But if he develops well, Giddey has excellent upside and could be the NBA player that everybody hoped Lonzo Ball would be when he was chosen #2 overall.
7. Alperen Sengun6’10” PF, Turkey
Sengun does not fit the ideal for a modern NBA archetype, as he is a post-up PF that has become completely obsolete.
At 6’10” with 7’1″ wingspan and limited vertical explosion, he can play as a small center in some situations but lacks the rim protection to be ideal for the role consistently. And it’s not clear if he has the mobility to defend the perimeter, although he has a chance as his feet seem decent enough.
But once you get past the physical limitations, Sengun has a rare combination of skill and IQ. He has a capable handle, and is a sharp passer for his size, averaging more assists than turnovers (2.7 vs 2.4). He is also an exceptional offensive rebounder at 17.5% and shot maker with 63.2% 2P and 79.4% FT. He only made 7/35 from 3, but given his FT% at age 18 it seems likely he should be able to develop into an above average NBA 3 point shooter in time.
And what he lacks physically defensively, he helps atone with high IQ with good steal (2.6%) and block (5.9%) rates. If he proves capable of lateral movement and sharp decision making, he may not be a defensive sieve as feared.
The obvious comparison for him is Kevin Love. Which raises an interesting question– if you knew for sure you would get Kevin Love, where do you draft him in this modern era? It’s difficult to say, but there is a limit to how bearish you can be on such a statistically productive player. And Sengun’s statistical output smashes everybody else in the draft– even Mobley. So there is some wiggle room for him to be even better than Love.
While the prospect of drafting such an archaic mold with a high pick is scary for a modern GM, this mentality could also lead to Sengun being a steal with such a rare combinaton of youth, skill, and intelligence.
8. Jalen Green 6’5″ SG, G League Ignite
Green is universally considered to be a top 4 pick, as he is an exceptional athlete and scorer who was decent in the G League while only turning 19 years old in February.
The downside is that he is an undersized SG at 6’5″ or 6’6″ with a 6’8 to 6’9ish wingspan, and is somewhat one dimensional as a scorer. He has clear all-star upside in the Devin Booker or Zach LaVine mold, and largely deserves his hype.
But he may be slightly overrated with so many bigger and well rounded players slated to go above him. Everybody else ranked above him is a clearly better passer, and he is only slightly bigger than Jalen Suggs. This makes his goodness far from guaranteed and puts a healthy dent in his upside, as he is clearly the weakest link the consensus top 4 along with Cade, Mobley, and Suggs.
9. Jalen Johnson 6’9″ PF, Duke
Johnson is one of the most enigmatic players in the draft. He is a huge point forward at 6’9″ with 7’0″ wingspan and is a great athlete, stuffing the statsheet with bulk output in every category.
But his game is somewhat erratic, as he averaged more turnovers (2.5) than assists (2.2) and is not a good shooter with 63.2% FT and a low 3PA rate.
Also, he quit Duke’s team midseason. His team performed better with him off the floor, and it is not common to see top prospects leave their team midseason, which may suggest that his personality is erratic as his game. I really don’t know what to make of it, perhaps he had valid reasons and it does not deserve a significant reaction in light of his talent. But it is an odd point that makes him a bit uncomfortable to draft over the other talented prospects who do not have any similar nagging question marks.
It’s tough to know where to rank Johnson. His intersection of strengths is very rare, but to be comfortable drafting him a team should want to gather intelligence on what happened at Duke and whether he is worth betting on fulfilling his potential or not.
10. Jaden Springer, 6’4″ SG Tennessee
Springer is a funky guy with funky upside. He is one of the youngest prospects in the draft, turning 19 in September. And he does quite a bit well, as he can handle, pass, shoot, and defend.
On the downside, he is very small for SG at 6’4.25″ with 6’7.75″ wingspan, and is a decent but not great athlete. And he tends to overdribble and live in the mid-range which is a turn off for most scouts. Through this lens, it is easy to understand why he is only ranked 27th at ESPN currently.
But he made 81% FT at Tennessee, and while he shot a low volume of 3PA, there is no reason why he cannot develop his shooting to NBA 3 point range given his age. He can also get to the rim in a pinch, and if he develops his handling and passing he has some potential to operate as a big PG. And he is defensively very good for his size.
There’s not a great comp for him, but there is a lot to like. And he has more PG skills than Gary Harris and overall offensive polish than DeAnthony Melton, so he may have more upside than a mere quality role player.
Frankly it’s not clear that he is a weaker prospect than Jalen Green– he is about 1″ shorter and definitely less athletic and proficient at scoring, but much more well rounded.
11. Isaiah Jackson 6’10” C, Kentucky
Jackson offers an impressive 7’5″ wingspan to go with explosive athleticism, as he was an excellent rebounder and shot blocker with potential for switching at Kentucky.
Offensively he seems fairly raw, but does have hope for shooting with 70% FT and John Calipari is an expert at making futurue NBA stars look like ordinary college players. So if he has more offense than he has shown at Kentucky and his skills develop well, he has potential to be an Al Horford type which would be an outright steal in the late lottery.
The downside is that there’s only one Al Horford and he is much more likely to be a Willie Cauley Stein dime a dozen big. The upside makes him clearly worth a lottery pick, but its likelihood of hitting is less clear which makes somewhere in the late lottery seem like a fair slot for Jackson.
12. Moses Moody, 6’6 SG/SF, Arkansas
Moody is a prototypical 3 + D prospect, as he made 35.8% 3P and 81.2% at age 18, as he turned 19 recently in late May. He complements this with a 7’0.75″ wingspan that should help him hang defensively in the pros.
He is fairly limited as a shot creator, but he does have some interesting perks to his game. He is a good offensive rebounder (6.3%) for a SG, he has low turnover rate and about a 1:1 assist:TOV. And he has a surprisingly high FT rate for a non-creator at 0.482– higher than all of Cade Cunningham (.39), Jalen Suggs (.367), and Scottie Barnes (.339). This makes him both an effective spacer and efficient overall offensive player.
If there is one gripe to be had is that he uses his length surprising not well to generate steals, as he had a disappointing 1.6% steal rate– easily the lowest of Arkansas’s top 6 players. This leaves some questions about how much D he actually comes equipped with, but nevertheless he has an easy path to useful role player.
Tier 4: Now the Draft Gets Boring
13. BJ Boston, 6’7″ SF Kentucky
This may seem like an odd choice to rank this high since Boston is currently ranked 37th at ESPN after a dismal freshman season where he chucked brick after brick shooting 38.4% from 2 and 30% from 3.
But the draft gets horribly uninteresting after the aforementioned 12 go off the board, and there are reasons to be high on Boston.
For starters, he as #4 RSCI and seemed like a top 5 pick entering the season, and playing for John Calipari whose prospects routinely underperform in college, see their draft stock slip, and then overperform in the NBA. And the pandemic added extra randomness and weirdness to the season, which may give Boston further excuse for his relentless bricklaying.
Further, his season was not all *that* bad. He had more assists (1.6) than turnovers (1.4) and shot 78.5% FT, and led his team with 2.5% steal rate. For a wing prospect who is 6’7″ with 6’10.25″ wingspan, that is a solid foundation for 3 + D player who should attempt higher quality shots once he swaps his bad NCAA coach for a competent NBA coach.
His horrible shotmaking is a flag to be sure, but it seems excessive to drop Boston to round 2 just for that when he otherwise fits such a strong role player mold with such strong priors. Especially considering how bland this draft gets post-lottery.
14. Keon Johnson 6’5″ SG Tennessee
The good news for Johnson is that he is young, athletic, and capable of making plays on both sides of the ball.
The bad news is that he is highly inefficient for a small SG, as. he measured 6’4.75″ with 6’7.25″ wingspan with more turnovers (2.6) than assists per game (2.5). He also isn’t much of a shooter, making just 13/48 from 3. His 70.1% FT offers a ray of hope
Personally I would have a tough time getting excited drafting a tiny and inefficient SG, but he is really young and athletic which is more than can be said for most players available at this stage
15. Sharife Cooper 6’1″ PG Auburn
Cooper has an odd profile as a sort of Trae Young lite, which isn’t the most attractive mold since it needs to either hit hard or it is a miss since he is likely going to be a sieve on defense and needs to offer a huge amount of offensive creation to atone for that wart.
But he had an insane 34.3% usage and 51.5% assist rate for Auburn, and that level of shot creation cannot be ignored.
What sets him well behind Trae is that his jump shot is mechanically poor and likely needs to be completely re-worked, as he only made 13/57 (22.8%) 3P on the season. On the upside he did make 82.5% FT, so it’s a reasonable gamble that if he correct his mechanics he may have the natural touch to be a good shooter and realize his upside.
Overall he is a strange value proposition, but Cooper has enough home run upside to be more interesting than most post-lottery, and even if he doesn’t hit his upside perhaps he can be a bench microwave.
16. Jared Butler, 6’3″ PG/SG Baylor
Butler is somewhat of a boring role player, as he is not particularly athletic or adept at getting to the rim, which is a worrisome flaw for a SG in a PG body.
But he is a very good shooter, defensive player, and passer, and was clearly the best overall player on Baylor’s championship team. And he is a young junior at age 20, not turning 21 until August.
He doesn’t have much of an upside as a 3 + D PG who makes intelligent decisions, but he does figure to be an effective role player especially if he plays alongside a bigger ballhandler like Luka Doncic or Giannis.
One note that may dampen his stock is that he was allegedly playing with a heart condtiion for Baylor, and it’s not clear. how significant of a risk it is moving forward. It is plausible that NBA teams deem it to be an unnecessary risk to take and it causes him to slide in the draft.
17. Jonathan Kuminga 6’8″ SF/PF G League Ignite
Kuminga is the epitome of mystery box, as he has an excellent physical profile at aprpoximately 6’8″ with 7’1″ wingspan and good athleticism. For all intents and purposes he is a slightly bigger Jaylen Brown, and if he develops his skill level the sky is the limit for him.
The challenge for him is twofold. First, his skill level is not very good right now. He made just 24.6% 3P 62.5% FT in his G League stint, and has a loose handle that needs improvements.
He is listed as 18 not turning 19 until October. Based on that, he has reasonable odds of improving his skill set enough to be a Jaylen Brown-esque player in due time given his excellent physical tools.
But the second challenge is that it is not clear that he is actually 18 years old. He was born in Democratic Republic of Congo where only 25% of kids are born with birth certificates, and didn’t move to America until 2016 when he should have received advice to lie about his age to maximize his odds of an NBA future.
And there is a HUGE difference between 18 vs 19 vs 20, especially for a kid like Kuminga who you are betting on to make a major leap in skill level. So if he is 18, it is completely reasonable to take him in the #5-7 range as he is currently projected. But if he is 19, he takes a hit to his stock and perhaps belongs in the mid-1st. And if he is 20, he likely belongs in round 2. And if he is 21+, then he arguably does not deserve to be drafted.
Personally, I have no idea what the odds of each outcome actually are. Whatever NBA team that drafts him needs to be diligent on their intelligence regarding his age, because being wrong is very costly. For a quick and dirty estimate, let’s use Kevin Pelton’s draft pick value chart
If we say he should go #6 if 18, #15 if 19, #35 if 20, and #60 if 21+, and give 25% odds to each possibility, his respective values are 2110, 1240, 300, and 50 which average out to 925, or approximately the 21st pick in the draft.
Given that this draft is weak after the top 12, perhaps he can be bumped to the #15-20 range as a reasonable estimate. But that is pure guess work, as I have no clear info regarding his true age.
I don’t want to drop any hot takes about how he is not deserving of being drafted high, because it is unfair to him if his age is real and he gets punished for being born into a terrible situation that nobody would want to live through.
But at the same time, it would have been wise for him to lie about his age upon arrival in America, and if an NBA team is going to invest a top 10 pick in him, they should have a higher confidence in his youth than can be had based on available information.
Ultimately Kuminga is exceptionally difficult to value without any clear evidence regarding his age, and all that can be said is that he is extremely risky to take high lotto without any special intelligence that his age is likely accurate.
Davion Mitchell6’1″ PG, Baylor
Currently projected to go #8 overall at ESPN, he is being sold as the next Patrick Beverley as he is a good defensive PG with the nickname “off night” for his reputation of shutting down his matchup defensively.
Offensively he has a quick first step and can get to the rim often enough, averaged 5.5 assists vs 2.4 turnovers, and made 44.7% from 3. So at a glance it would seem that he offers enough to be decent on that end and justify his defense.
But when we dig deeper, there are some flags. First he is 22 years old turning 23 in September, which is fairly old. Second, he was dismal offensively as a 21 year old sophomore, posting an anemic 100.5 ORtg on 19.1 usage. It’s very difficult to be that limited offensively that old as a little guy and thrive in the NBA.
He did clearly improve as a junior, but the biggest part of his leap was increasing his 3P% from 32.4% to 44.7%. But his FT% did not improve, and was actually slightly worse declining from 66.2% to 64.1%. This makes it unclear how much he actually improved his outside shooting vs happened to make more due to small sample size variance.
He did improve his 2P% and passing as well, as his handle likely did improve. But his handle remains fairly weak for his age, as he does not look particularly comfortable doing anything off the dribble in traffic, and moreso is capable of finding opening that present himself due to his quickness.
Most likely he is a mediocre shooter and mediocre ball handler who is too old to progress these skills to an NBA starter level, especially not for a 6’1 guy with 6’4″ wingspan where skill is paramount to success.
Yes he is very good defensively, but defense cannot be the main skill for somebody taht small with so many offensive warts. Especially when he comes with an anemic 1.7% ORB, 8.0% DRB rate and a low FT rate and isn’t the most physical player, it’s worth wondering if he is truly as good as his reputation on that end.
Most likely he will be an outright bust or an ordinary bench player, and it is difficult to see how his lottery hype is justified.
This is espcially true when he has a teammate who was better at just about everything while being 2 years younger and 2″ taller. Mitchell is more athletic and slightly more proficient at creating his own shot at the rim, but that’s a small advantage compared to Butler being outright better.
It is difficult to say exactly where to rank him because entering the season he did not even vaguely resemble a prospect and now his hype is out of control.
NBA teams have historically had a spotty record drafting Euros, with Darko Milicic being chosen over Carmelo, Bosh, and Wade as one of the most infamously bad choices in NBA draft history.
Conversely, future stars have sliped and provided excellent value such as Dirk Nowitzki at #9 overall, Giannis 15th, Nikola Jokic sliding to round 2, and Luka Doncic curiously being passed up for Ayton, Bagley, and Trae in spite of clearly being a generational talent.
Historically, euros drafted in the lottery have been very hit or miss. But when NBA teams miss, they miss hard:
This could be expanded to include Yi Jianlian, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Dante Exum if we include all internationals. But the benefit of comparing European prospects is that most of them play in Euroleague, which presents us with an apples to apples statistical comparison.
19 year old Israeli Deni Avdija is currently projected to go 5th overall in the NBA draft. Israel offers a low tier of competition, but fortunately he played 26 games and 371 minutes in Euroleague to see how he stacks up to recent successful Euros picked in the high lottery in their final pre-draft season:
Note: Porzingis played in Eurocup which is a 2nd tier version of Euroleague, and Rubio includes ACB stats with only 5 games in EL.
Right off the bat, we can see one of these guys is not like the other. They are all approximately the same age, and all of the guys stuffed the stat sheet, outside of Deni who was a scrappy low usage role player with mediocre efficiency.
This is a huge red flag. PER is far from a perfect stat, but it’s rare for prospects to contribute so little at a young age and nevertheless become stars. Even if we look at his 910 minutes in the much weaker Israel BSL, he only posted 17.1 PER– still weaker than any of the success stories in Euroleague!
Granted, there are a number of reasons to value Deni beyond the box score. He has good wing height at 6’9″, he has decent athleticism, and he has good IQ and work ethic. And in spite of his poor shooting #’s, his shooting form looks good and the percentages may improve over time.
This makes him salvageable as a prospect, as it’s easy to see him becoming a useful NBA role player. But his physical tools aren’t good enough to offer much upside as he has just 6’9.5″ wingspan and below average frame. And there is major risk that he joins the initial list of top 10 picks who busted completely.
Deni built most of his hype with an excellent performance for FIBA u20 in 2019, leading Israel to gold while being just 18 years old. In this regard, he is similar to Dragan Bender who had an excellent u18 performance in 2014 while being only 16.
Incidentally, they also both played for Maccabi Tel Aviv after FIBA. Bender’s PER was slightly worse in Israel (16.8 vs 17.1) and Euroleague (6.0 vs 10.5) while being 10.5 months younger. Statistically they are in the same tier, and it’s plausible that Deni flops just as hard as Bender.
Deni has a number of advantages that give him potential to be much better than Bender– better athleticism, better passing, and the possibilty of developing into a better shooter. He is likely a better prospect than Bender at the same point as he is in a more useful mold, but the parallels are strong enough to place caution on caring much about his FIBA sample which generated his hype to begin with.
Hezonja played just 86 minutes in Euroleague when he was 2 months younger than Deni, but if we combine his ACB (just slightly softer than Euroleague) he posted 14 PER with similar assists, rebound, steal, and block rates to Deni. He also has similar dimensions at 6’8″ with 6’10” wingspan.
Hezonja scored more volume with better athleticism and much better shooting, and was hands down the better talent at the same age.
Granted, he didn’t progress to the next season posting just a 13.3 PER, and then his shooting didn’t translate to the NBA, and he has overall been a disaster.
Deni should progress better than Hezonja due to his allegedly good work ethic, but he is the inferior raw talent and there is no guarantee that he has a better NBA career.
Casspi is also a native Israeli who played for Maccabi Tel Aviv, and is physically very similar to Deni as he measured 6’9.25″ in both height and wingspan with similar athleticism.
He was 6 months older in his first Euroleague season posting 15.8 PER and then 18.6 PER the following year before getting drafted. Combining the two samples, he was approximately 1 year older on average.
Casspi showed greater ability to score inside as he had more than twice Deni’s 2PA per 40 (10.7 vs 5.1) with a slightly worse % 55.6 vs 59.6. He also got to the line much more frequently with .355 vs .191 free throw rate.
Also Casspi shot 38.2% from 3 vs 27.7% for Deni. This is an area where Deni needs to catch up to succeed longterm.
Deni’s key advantage is a much better assist rate per 40 at 3.2 vs 1.5 for Casspi. This indicates that Deni has a high IQ that can help him on both ends. Although Casspi negates some of that edge with a better steal rate with 1.5 vs 1.1 per 40.
Overall these guys feel like similar tier prospects with maybe a small edge to Casspi due to better shooting signal. Casspi was a solid return on #23 overall, but definitely not a player to target in the top 10.
Saric is an inch taller at 6’10” with a similar t-rex wingspan about equal to his height.
He was 9 months older than Deni in his last pre-draft season. He posted 15.8 Eurocup PER with better rebounds, steals, blocks, and usage than Deni, and similar assist rate.
He only shot 4/13 from 3 in 10 games, but his shooting has developed nicely as a pro with 35.8% career 3 and 83.7% FT.
He is a rich man’s version of Deni in about every sense, and still the Timberwolves couldn’t wait to ship him out for the small move up from #11 to #6 overall in a crappy draft to take Jarrett Culver in order to avoid paying him as an RFA.
Deni is likely a better athlete and may have more success switching onto perimeter players than Saric, but that’s his only discernible advantage at this stage.
Diaw was 1.7 years older than Deni in his draft year, and had two seasons of Euroleague where he posted a 13.1 PER then 14.7 in a similar low usage, high assist role to Deni. He struggled shooting similarly making just 29% from 3 and 63% FT over the two years.
Diaw has better length (7′), strength, and lateral quickness, but Deni is more explosive. Overall Diaw’s physical tools seem better, and it shows in his steal and block rates as he posted 1.8 steals and 1.4 blocks per 40 compared to 1.1 steals and 0.6 blocks for Deni.
Diaw had a good career as a role player picked 21st overall. He was overall likely the slightly better prospect given his physical and steals/blocks advantages, but Deni isn’t far behind and it’s plausible he could have a similarly good career.
Diaw seems to be near the pinnacle of optimism for Deni.
Hedo has been tossed around as an upside comp. It’s hard to compare because he doesn’t have any Euroleague stats on record.
Deni is young, and if he works hard *maybe* he can improve both his handle and shooting enough to maximize his passing ability in a point forward role a la Hedo.
But his handle is just so weak at this stage it seems far fetched. Especially since Hedo is an inch taller and Deni doesn’t have any clear physical advantages over him. It feels like a massive longshot, and is a shoddy comparison to justify Deni as a high lottery pick.
What is Deni specifically lacking?
Statistics aren’t everything, but most of the people who overperform statistics tend to have great physical tools. Deni has decent athleticism, but overall his physical tools aren’t that good outside of his height for a wing.
Giannis averaged 8 pts, 2.2 assists. 2.8 turnovers on 36% shooting in his FIBA u20 pale sorely in comparison to Deni’s numbers at the same age.
But Giannis has massive genetic advantages, as he is taller, longer, stronger, and more athletic. Outlier improvements to his game resulted in a huge upside that prospects like Deni don’t remotely share.
The white European prospects who became NBA stars like Luka, Jokic, and Dirk all shared the qualities of exceptional basketball skill to go along with excellent basketball IQ and good height.
Deni has good height and high IQ, but his skill level is a poor right now, which is why his stats are so weak. He can sometimes make 3’s and is an intelligent cutter, but he is sorely limited at creating his own shot and only made 59% of his free throws in 19-20. Those are some massive skill flags for a guy with a pedestrian physical profile.
In Class Comparisons
If you want to roll the dice on a young mystery box wing, Williams is obviously a better bet than Deni seeing that he is 8.5 months younger with better length, frame, athleticism, defensive playmaking, and much better FT% making 83.8% in 74 freshman attempts.
Deni has the better passing and IQ, but that’s not enough to make it defensible to value him over the much better physical specimen in Williams.
Bey is one of the most similar prospects to Deni, as his main selling points are 6’8″ wing height and high IQ play.
Bey is a better handler, shooter, has 1.5″ more length, better frame, and more lateral quickness as he was able to switch onto guards with elite quickness like Devon Dotson.
Deni is 21 months younger and more explosive, but if you want a high IQ 3 + D guy, why not take the guy who has proven more ability in both 3 + D?
Between the two, Bey seems like the better bet to become a Boris Diaw type role player. Neither guy is exciting in terms of upside, but Bey feels safer.
Even in round 2 there are guys like Jordan Nwora and Paul Reed who figure to be NBA role players. Nwora has similar athleticism but better length and frame, much better shooting, but worse passing and IQ and is 2 years, 3 months older.
Reed has much better physical tools, rebounding, and defensive playmaking, but is even more offensively limited than Deni while being 1.5 years older.
Perhaps Deni’s additional youth makes him feel like he has more upside, but without great skill or genetics to build on it’s hard to imagine that he would blow past these two guys in quality with two years more of development. In terms of raw talent, he seems to be in a similar tier to these guys.
On paper, Deni seems to be a 2nd round talent. There are reasons why he may outperform his talent since he works hard, tries on defense, and his shooting may be better than his poor FT% implies. But how far can we reasonably elevate him based on this?
These are the sort of traits that can cause somebody to overachieve, but they are not the type of points that lead to stardom as they are relatively minor compared to the macro view of skill level and physical tools being the strongest predictors of NBA upside.
Especially given the NBA’s poor track record at evaluating internationals, there is no clear reason to give teams the benefit of the doubt in this particular instance.
It seems unrealistic to project his upside to be better than Omri Casspi, Boris Diaw, or Dario Saric types, and there is significant risk that he flops completely like Mario Hezonja or Dragan Bender. Even in a weak draft, it does not seem defensible to choose this player in the top 10.
Diaw went 21st and Casspi went 23rd. Deni seems slightly less talented, but if you want to argue that his intangibles make up for it, then why not rate him in a similar slot to these guys? It seems like a reasonable slot relative to his potential.
Ultimately this is the type of prospect that NBA teams have overrated in the past, and there is no clear reason to believe they are currently rating Deni accurately. He is reasonable in the mid-late first on the possibility he becomes a useful high IQ role player in the coveted 3 + D wing mold, but the raw talent just isn’t there for him to justify the high lottery hype.
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:
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?
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
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:
Is LeBron’s physical profile more transcendent than Doncic’s skill level?
Is LeBron’s vision and IQ for an elite athlete rarer than Doncic’s height for a point god?
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?
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.
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.
Damien Inglis Inglis checks in at the 6th highest international WARP and 23rd overall, and he offers reasons to be liked beyond the box score. At the Nike Hoop Summit, he measured 6’8.5″ with a 7’3″ wingspan and 240 pounds. For comparison, LeBron James measured 6’8″ 7’0.25″ wingspan 245 pounds pre-draft. For a 19 year old SF prospect, Inglis has an absolutely stellar body. Weight is not precisely descriptive of strength, but based on his defense of Jahlil Okafor who is 6’10.75″ 272 pounds, it appears that his strength is good. His combination of strength, height, and length advantage give him the flexibility to comfortably defend PFs.
The area where he trails LeBron physically is his athleticism, which is only average as opposed to freakish. But if your tools all range from average to great, you net have good tools. Further, DraftExpress believes that he moves well laterally and has good defensive fundamentals. I wouldn’t take this as an absolute truth, but DX is accurate more often than not. Leaving some margin for error on his lateral movement and defensive acumen, Inglis still has quite a bit of intrigue. Size, length, quicks, and defensive instincts collectively offer a ton of upside and versatility defensively. He has the tools to guard either forward position and seems custom built to match up 1 on 1 with star wings such as LeBron. Before getting too excited it’s worth noting that his steal rate was solid but not great (1.6 per 40 pace adjusted) and his block rate was surprisingly low (0.4 per 40 pace adjusted), so he’s far from a guarantee to be a stud defensively. But based on his physical tools and scouting, there is quite a bit more to like about his D than stats suggest, and WARP already likes him as a 1st round pick.
Offensively Inglis shows why he is not receiving 1st round consideration, as he only averaged 4.6 pts per game in 15.3 minutes and is turnover prone. But he doesn’t appear to be a complete zero offensively. He shot well in a small sample making 12/31 3P (38.7%) and 21/29 FT (72.4%). The small samples likely overstate his shooting ability as he is reportedly streaky and his form needs work, but he appears competent enough for his age to be a solid bet to develop into a capable NBA floor spacer. He also has a good assist rate, posting 2.7 assists per 40 pace adjusted.
Layne Vashro has hypothesized that assist:turnover ratio is especially important for projecting 3/4 tweeners to translate to the NBA, and I find that hypothesis to be compelling. Undersized PF’s such as Michael Beasley and Derrick Williams have dominated undersized NCAA competition, and then lacked the basketball IQ to thrive vs. NBA competition that can physically match up versus them. Here are some examples of assist:turnover rate from that mold, and Inglis checks in at a solid 0.84. Note that not all of the players listed were freshmen, and Inglis is the age of an NCAA freshman playing in a tougher league.
Inglis is a bit of mystery box because of his age and limited sample, but add everything up and you have a toolsy 3/4 who offers plenty of defensive upside and versatility as well as the ability to likely space the floor and move the ball. Even though he likely won’t be a big time scorer, his pace adjusted scoring is only a shade under Nic Batum’s first season in France (12.1 vs 12.3). It seems his handles are a work in progress but he has some handling ability to work with nevertheless. If he develops well, he could become an awesome 3 + D role player who fits into almost any lineup. His physical profile and skill set are similar to those of Kawhi Leonard. Even though he is a clear underdog to become as good as Kawhi, he is not drawing dead and is a painfully obvious 1st round value to me.
So why is he rated as a 2nd round pick (36th DX, 37th ESPN)? As far as I can tell it’s because bulk scoring is overrated and French prospects are underrated. If the San Antonio Spurs showed us anything in their demolition of the Heat, it’s that off the dribble scoring isn’t all that important when you move the ball, space the floor, and play intelligent team basketball. Incidentally, the Spurs have drafted three French players in round 1 since 2000 (Tony Parker, Ian Mahinmi, Livio Jean-Charles) as well as Nando de Colo in round 2. They also signed Boris Diaw as a FA after he was released by the Bobcats. Damien Inglis appears to be completely in their wheelhouse. With the Spurs picking last in round 1, I believe he is an underdog to slide past them into round 2.
Nikola Jokic The 4th member of the super statistical international quartet, Nikola Jokic is an exceptionally skilled, but slow and unathletic big man. His lack of mobility or explosiveness mean that his stats should be de-valued as he projects to become a defensive liability and poor athleticism casts doubt on his ability to translate offensively, but there is still plenty to like.
Jokic is 6’11” with a 7’3″ wingspan and weighs 253 pounds, which gives him acceptable size to play center. What stands out about Jokic is his incredible assist to turnover ratio at 3.0 vs 2.3 pace adjusted per 40. That is absolutely stellar for a 19 year old center playing in a professional league. In Marc Gasol’s final season of European play, he turned 23 midseason and posted 3.0 pace adjusted assists vs. 2.4 turnovers in the ACB and 3.7 vs 3.4 in a smaller Eurocup sample. ACB is a tougher league than the Adriatic, but the discrepancy between leagues is completely dwarfed by Gasol’s 4 year age advantage at the time, and Gasol is arguably the best passing big man in the NBA. Nikola Jokic’s passing is an outlier level of good for a big prospect, and it gives him his own unique form of upside.
Beyond his passing, Jokic is a capable shooter although it didn’t show in his Adriatic sample as he only converted 15/68 3PA (22.1%). By all accounts this is not reflective of his shooting ability and the low % should be chalked up to poor variance. He seems to have a solid shot of becoming a competent NBA floor spacer. His struggles from 3 were atoned for by his dominance from 2, where he converted 63.6% of his attempts. I am not sure he necessarily projects to be a great interior scorer in the NBA since he lacks the explosiveness to finish around the rim with dunks, and it is possible that his 2p% is padded by good variance on mid-range and short jumpers. But he also may have succeeded due to high IQ, good post moves, and touch around the rim. I imagine his interior scoring is translatable to some extent based on his size and skill level, but his lack of athleticism also casts some doubt.
The problem for Jokic is that his poor tools outside of size will likely cause him to struggle defensively. Nate Duncan confirms this narrative with his eye test, although I am not nearly as bearish as Duncan on the implications of Jokic’s physical deficiencies. The fact of the matter is that size is a tool, and a prospect with center height and length and guard skill level cannot be written off due to poor athleticism. He doesn’t need to jump a mile in the air to get his shot or passes off over the defense. When I see DX and ESPN both rate him as 42nd on their big boards, I can’t help but think of Brad Miller who was a statistical beast in college but went undrafted due to being slow, white, and unathletic.
I buy that his poor athleticism drops Jokic out of the top 10 in spite of having top 5 stats. I do not buy that it pushes him out of round 1, as I have him as a clear top 20 value. And frankly I can’t fathom why anybody should rather have Julius Randle than Jokic. Randle is just as slow mentally as Jokic is physically, except instead of being center sized he’s an undersized PF. It shows in steal + block rates, with Jokic’s per 40 rates crushing Randle’s (1.1/1.4 vs 0.6/1.0) in spite of playing in a tougher league. Randle is a much better rebounder (13.5 vs 9.5 per 40), but that is clearly less important than Jokic’s edges in size, skill, and basketball IQ. Randle’s outlier skill is bullying players who are too small to play in the NBA, Jokic’s is one that correlates strongly with NBA success. A similar comparison would also demonstrate that Jokic has superior potential on both sides of the ball to Doug McDermott, yet both McDermott and Randle are projected as lotto picks and Jokic is slated to go in round 2.
Dario Saric I don’t have much to say about Saric. His translated stats are solid but not great as they put him 20th in the WARP rankings. That’s roughly what I anticipated, and outside of his 6’10” height he doesn’t have a single tool that is average or better. I simply don’t see how he has the physical package to thrive as a primary ball handler in the NBA. The scouting narrative is that he has a virtuoso passing ability that gives him unique upside, which doesn’t strike me as quite enough to override his deficiencies. I could see him being a Boris Diaw stretch 4 type who can move the ball and occasionally knock down 3’s or create a little of his own offense. Or he could be an Evan Turner who cannot translate his ball dominant ways to the NBA as he faces tougher defenses. He seems like a fine flier in the late 1st round, but I don’t see how he’s worth a gamble in the lottery. It appears that Nate Duncan agrees with my assessment, which is enough to make me feel comfortable that I’m not missing any details of integral importance with my assessment from afar.
Even though Saric is hyped as the 2nd best international prospect in this class, I believe he’s only the 6th or 7th best in the class.
Vasilije Micic Micic only rates as an early 2nd rounder according to WARP, but based on Duncan’s scouting report WARP may underrate him. Duncan is especially impressed with Micic’s handling and passing ability, and those skills are not always fully captured by statistics. That is the primary reason why I am comfortable rating Nik Stauskas higher than statistical models, so I do not see any reason why it should not apply to Micic. Also WARP appears to value high assist rates less so than other models, as Kyle Anderson ranks as the 14th best NCAA prospect by WARP whereas he ranks 2nd according to Layne Vashro’s EWP model.
The biggest strike against Micic is that he’s not exceptionally athletic which inhibits his upside. But he has a solid 2p% and DX notes that he finishes surprisingly well in their situational stats. Also his jump shot is mediocre, as he shot 22/76 (28.9%) from 3 and (60/86) 69.8% on FT’s. But shooting is also a skill where prospects are capable of making significant leaps, and that sample hardly seems condemning of Micic’s upside.
Defense is also a concern, but given his strong steal rate (2.1 per 40 pace adjusted), good size (6’5.75″ height 6’7″ wingspan 202 pounds), and the fact that he is not woefully slow or unathletic, I wouldn’t say he’s guaranteed to be a sieve. Also he has the size to guard SG’s at least part time, which opens the door for a wide range of back-court pairings and mitigates the fact that he plays the current deepest position in the NBA.
People tend to associate athleticism with upside, but certain skill sets can buck that trend. I doubt anybody pegged John Stockton or Steve Nash as high upside prospects when they were drafted in the mid 1st round, but they went on to become two of the best offensive players of all-time. That level of greatness may not be within grasp for Micic, but if he’s as crafty as Duncan suggests it’s fair to say he has an outside shot of becoming great. Even if it’s only 2% that’s worth enough to make him a 1st round value. There are so many good PG’s in the draft and the league already that it naturally depresses the value of players at the position, but I buy Micic as somebody who should get drafted in the 20’s instead of the 30’s as consensus suggests. I also believe there is a fair case to be made that he’s a more valuable prospect than Saric.
2nd rounders Walter Tavares has appeal as an Omer Asik type of prospect who thrives off size, defense, and rebounding, and is a complete zero offensively. He is already 22 and still making up for a late start, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he simply started playing too late to make a big impact. I think he’s likely worth an early 2nd or maybe even a late 1st based on his body and mobility, but he’s going to be a drag offensively no matter what so I’ll likely rate him in the 30’s on my final big board.
Bogdan Bogdanovic rates as an early-mid 2nd rounder according to DX and ESPN, and a mid-late 2nd rounder based on most statistical models. I don’t have a strong opinion on him one way or the other– he seems like a fairly balanced prospect without any sharp strengths or weaknesses that make me inclined to doubt models or scouting. He’s a 2nd round flier who might become a decent role player or might not.
Artem Klimenko is a complete and utter mystery box who doesn’t have any translatable stats. If nothing else his physical profile and the fact that he made 74% of his FT’s seems to make him worth an early-mid 2nd round flier. Maybe he has no clue how to play basketball, or maybe he turns out to be a good defensive piece who isn’t a trainwreck offensively. It’s difficult to assign probabilities without a baseline performance against legitimate competition, but I think it’s correct to err on the side of pessimism and gamble on him once the available known quantities are unlikely to amount to anything of substance.
Ioannis Papapetrou also seems draftable as a skilled role playing SF who will likely be a defensive liability. Beyond that I’m not sure if anybody merits a pick– perhaps Alessandro Gentile but he sounds like more of a undrafted FA.
Conclusions While WARP rating internationals as 4 of the top 5 players in the draft slightly overstates the goodness of this international class, I believe it is closer to correct than the scouting consensus. In my estimation, there are 7 internationals who are worthy of a 1st round selection. 6 of those players are underrated by ESPN and DX big boards, most of them by comfortable margins. Dario Saric is the lone overrated international. There are another 3-5 players who merit a look in round 2 who all seem rated roughly appropriately by DX and ESPN. This international class is loaded, and with enough luck it may measure up to the 2008 class that included Danilo Gallinari, Serge Ibaka, Nicolas Batum, Nikola Pekovic, Omer Asik, and Goran Dragic.
The funny thing is that the draft at first was pitched to be the best NCAA class ever. But then Wiggins, Randle, and Parker all started to look like possible busts, and the class was salvaged by the emergence of Joel Embiid as a possible superstar. Now Embiid has a frightening injury narrative, and there may not be a single player in the class who makes for an above average #1 overall pick. At this point, the NCAA crop has a number of solidly good prospects but overall is unspectacular, and the international class is responsible for keeping this draft afloat. While Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins are currently projected as the top two picks in the draft, I would not be at all surprised if a handful of internationals end up developing into better pros than one or both of them.
I believe that colossal international busts like Darko Milicic and Nikoloz Tzkitishvili frightened scouts into taking a more conservative approach in evaluating internationals, but after the success of the 2008 class and Giannis Antetokoumpo appearing to be the steal of the 2013 draft it’s worth wondering when that trend is due to reverse. Given the strong statistical crop this year as well as the increased emphasis on analytics across the NBA, I am fascinated to see how many of the top internationals go above their expected slot this season.
The most challenging aspect of the draft for me is evaluating the international crop. NCAA players are easy for me to work with since I’m intimately familiar with all of the players, coaches, and systems. On the other hand, I am lacking in expertise in overseas leagues so solving the internationals involves quite a bit of thin slicing and guesswork. But as I have tried to piece together the value of the respective internationals in this class, I have become increasingly high on the crop being especially strong. This was reinforced when Kevin Pelton released his WARP ranking with 4 of his top 5 prospects being internationals. Further, Dario Saric, Damien Inglis, and Walter Tavares rank as late 1st rounders and Vasilije Micic is an early 2nd according to WARP. This not only aligns with my suspicion that the class is strong, but suggests that it is historically good. That said his WARP formula also ranks Jordan Adams ahead of Joel Embiid, which is a friendly reminder that stats do not tell the entire story. So let’s dive in to each player and discuss how scouting narratives may affect their value implied by statistical performances.
Dante Exum I have already raved about Exum’s FIBA performance, where his statistics ranked him 4th according to WARP. This seems correct to me, and WARP may even underrate his performance. Most of the players used for translation analysis played in USA’s pressing defense, where they posted high steal rates which weighs heavily into the WARP formula. Aaron Gordon looks significantly better according to his FIBA stats than he did playing in Arizona’s non-gambly shot prevention defense. He had significantly better steal rate in the press (and suggests that he is underrated by his NCAA stats). On the other hand, Tyler Ennis’s statistical performance was much weaker than his at Syracuse. This is the most apples to apples comparison as he had to carry team Canada the same way Exum was forced to carry Australia.
On the other hand, Dario Saric was forced to carry team Croatia and performed on Exum’s level whereas he is ranked far lower according to his translated Adriatic stats. This is a reminder that FIBA stats are only a 9 game sample, which is far too small to take at face value. But Exum nevertheless posted a significantly better assist:turnover ratio (34:21 vs 44:43) in spite of having a bad game vs team USA, who Saric never faced. His ability to carry the offense while protecting the ball so well at such a young age is both highly impressive and less prone to sample size variance than shooting percentages, for instance. If nothing else, his vision and ability to protect the ball while creating loads of offense offer enough promise in tandem with his physical profile to justify the top 4 hype.
What the stats don’t show is that Exum hardly moves off the ball. I don’t know if this is because he lacks stamina, competitiveness, or simply hasn’t been pushed to develop this aspect of his game yet. It’s not a fatal flaw since he clearly has enough offensive upside to become an all-star even if he subscribes to the James Harden school of defense. And with his tools and personality, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him eventually develop into a good defender anyway. But this does give me enough pause to not instantly elevate him to #1 now that Joel Embiid’s injury concern has been heightened, and it does open the door for an argument that Marcus Smart is a superior prospect since Smart is such a safe commodity on defense. I still have Exum locked in as a top 3 prospect and am considering him as the #1 prospect in the draft, but if there is a subtle reason to be skeptical of him this would be it.
Jusuf Nurkic I wrote about Nurkic’s impressive Adriatic stats earlier in the season, and now that is supported by Pelton ranking him #3 in terms of WARP. Nate Duncan (who seems to have a good eye test) recently shared a great scouting report on Nurkic, which I find encouraging for his prospect value beyond the stats for 2 reasons:
1) Duncan claims that Nurkic passes well out of double teams. This bodes well for his ability to score efficiently against higher levels of competitions and not be a black hole of turnovers.
2) His quick feet allowed him to stop Dario Saric in their 1 on 1 matchups on multiple occasions. The concern with Nurkic is that he doesn’t have the length or athleticism to be a traditional shot blocking rim protector. But given his quick feet, strength, and size, it sounds like he can certainly be a defensive presence in his own rite.
Between his stats, physical profile, and scouting reports, I feel comfortable locking Nurkic in as a top 5 prospect. There aren’t any scouting narratives that cast doubt on his potential outside of his poor leaping ability, which doesn’t seem particularly debilitating given his strengths.
Clint Capela Capela ranks as the top international in the class according to WARP, ranking #2 behind only Marcus Smart. Every statistical model I have seen ranks Capela exceptionally high, and he often appears ahead of Nurkic. Further, he has good tools to translate his abilities to the NBA as he offers good length, athleticism, and quicks. His weak tool physically is strength as he only weighs 222, but that shouldn’t preclude him from being a top end defensive center. How his pre-draft measurements compare to those of other players who have recently served as good defensive centers:
The fact of the matter is that once you have great height, length, athleticism, and mobility, you don’t need a world of strength to make a big impact defensively. After all, there aren’t any Shaq level bullies at center that must be stopped in order to win a title these days. DX and ESPN list him as a PF, and I vehemently disagree: Capela is a center all the way.
Capela thrives as a shot blocker, rebounder, and finisher, as his skill set seems similar to that of Tyson Chandler. Further, he posted 2.2 assists vs 2.6 turnovers pace adjusted per 40 this past season in French play (it was only 0.6 vs 2.9 in the smaller Eurocup sample where he had an excuse to not pass w/ his whopping 71.8% FG%), which is excellent for a center of his age and implies that he may be able to develop into a Joakim Noah level playmaker. If nothing else he should be able to move the ball within the offense as opposed to being a Bismack Biyombo who never touches it. Assist to turnover also correlates with feel for the game, and in tandem with his finishing ability it seems like he offers enough offensively to make it worth getting his defense and rebounding on the floor.
Based on his stats and tools Capela seems to offer a world of upside. If scouts loved him and ESPN/DX were clamoring for him to go #1 overall, I don’t think I’d take a strong stance against that sentiment. But in reality the sentiment is quite the opposite, DX ranks him 17th, ESPN 27th, and Nate Duncan thinks he belongs in round 2 after watching him at the Nike Hoop Summit (I like Duncan’s scouting reports but he is drastically underselling Capela’s strengths with that conclusion).
The common scouting narratives are that Capela has poor basketball IQ, poor feel for the game, and is lazy. It is hard for me to reconcile how these narratives may be completely true in spite of the stats he posted, but they likely aren’t completely made up either. So let’s start by examining Duncan’s critiques. He starts by mentioning Capela’s poor jump shot (which is a viable flaw) and goes on to note:
He looks like his skill level is always going to be more center than power forward, and that is a problem given how thin he is.
I agree that his skill set mandates that he plays center. Do not agree it’s a significant problem given his weight with so many thin players succeeding as defensive centers.
Most concerning is Capela’s lack of feel overall. He was the most likely World player to make mental errors, although there may have been a bit of a language barrier involved there as well. During the game, he picked up four fouls in the first half with some silly over the backs. Throughout the week he did not prove particularly adept at finding creases for guards to give him dumpoffs, and his few postups invariably resulted in wild misses or turnovers.
I would have found this disconcerting if his lack of feel resulted in a number of defensive lapses. Let’s tackle each critique point by point:
-A few over the back fouls for a young big hardly sound indicting.
-DX noted in their situational stats that Capela finished an amazing 73.8% of his shot attempts off of cuts. Perhaps this is a minor indictment for his feel, but a larger indictment on the lack of structure of a hastily whipped together all-star team.
-He’s bad at posting up: who cares? It’s not part of his repertoire and he likely should never be used as a post-up player in the NBA.
Duncan then mentions that his strength is lacking and he struggled to even post up guards in 2 on 2 drills. It is unclear whether this is a greater indictment on his lack of strength or post up skill, but I assume it’s a bit of both.
And that’s all Duncan has to offer. There’s nothing there that strongly pokes holes in my hypothesis that he may be Tyson Chandler 2.0. I believe the worst than can be concluded is that Capela is a deeply dependent scorer, and he will suffer if he plays in a poorly coached offense with poor ball movement. French teams typically have good ball movement (which is why the Spurs always draft French players) so it is likely that playing in France accentuated his offensive production. His 2 point scoring stats are not that different from those of Joel Embiid. But in terms of footwork, shooting touch, and offensive upside Embiid completely blows him away. Stat models cannot fully detect the disparity in footwork and overall skill level, so this is one reason to take his stats at less than face value.
DX shares similar critiques with his feel for the game and also notes that he has questionable intangibles and defensive fundamentals. I’d say there are enough red flag narratives from people who are competent at scouting to throw some cold water on his upside implied by tools and stats.
Overall, scouting narratives strike me as less discouraging than his positives are encouraging. If there is one position where skill and intelligence flaws can be overcome to produce at an elite level, it’s center. Nobody ever accused Dwight Howard of having good basketball IQ or feel for the game, but he was the 2nd most valuable player in the league when he had Stan Van Gundy coaching him. Everybody questioned Andre Drummond’s passion and basketball IQ and he slid too far and instantly smashed expectations as a rookie. I have no idea how DeAndre Jordan slid to the 2nd round with his physical tools, but he didn’t even have good stats in college and he’s become a useful NBA player anyway. Even Javale McGee convinced Masai Ujiri to gamble on him at 4/44, and he is responsible for some of the most inexplicably dumb plays in NBA history. Athletic bigs are capable of such a significant defensive impact that they have quite a bit of margin for error in their skill and basketball IQ in order to still be productive.
My closing caveat is that I have compared Capela to two groups of athletic bigs: skinny and smart (KG, Bosh, Noah, Chandler) and strong and not smart/skilled (DAJ, Dwight, Drummond, Javale). There are not many examples of skinny and not smart/skilled, so it’s possible that he simply does not become good at all. But his French stats suggest that he has some “je ne sais quoi” that gives him his own form of unique upside (it wouldn’t be surprising if he’s smarter than scouts think he is), and I believe that’s worth gambling on in the 6-10 range.
Capela is a truly fascinating prospect given his polarizing features, and it makes me a bit sad that I’m closing by citing his “je ne sais quoi,” because that was a really long writeup to conclude with “I don’t know” in French.
That’s all for part 1. I’m going to split this up into 2 or 3 pieces in order to address the international class in its entirety.
The word “tweener” has become a common draft lexicon to describe players who are stuck between positions. It normally carries a negative connotation, but is not always fleshed out. And not all tweeners are created equally, in some cases it can be a strength. It largely depends on how each player’s offensive fit meshes with his defensive fit. I’ll run through some examples from this draft to demonstrate my interpretation of a few players’ tweener relevance:
Good Tweener: Jabari Parker
Parker’s concern is that he is too small to play PF and too slow to play SF. This is valid to an extent, but nobody is projecting him to be a positive defensively. He only needs to not be a sieve so teams can get his offense in the lineup, and I believe he certainly has the tools for that. I quite like him as a PF, he’s 6’8 235 lbs with a 7’0 wingspan. He plays like he weighs 300 lbs, as he doesn’t mind getting physical in the post and rebounds well for his size. Further, his length enables him to average 1.7 blocks per 40 minutes. Playing at PF mitigates the impact of his lack of quickness, as he will spend less time defending wings on the perimeter. He is listed as having an 8’8 standing reach at DraftExpress, which is lower than you’d expect for a player with his height + length and is a mild concern. But I’d like to see how he measures at the combine before harping on this too loudly, as reach measurements are not always done with precision. For reference Carmelo Anthony is half an inch shorter with the same wingspan and measured with a 8’9.5 reach, and he has performed extremely well as a small PF paired with Tyson Chandler at C. Parker shows similar potential to be an elite stretch 4, as if you surround him with a strong defensive center and three shooters, you have a synergistic NBA lineup.
While I would err on the side of giving Jabari PF minutes, he also does have the capacity to play SF. He has the perimeter skills to play on the wing offensively, and his size and length may atone to prevent his quickness issues from holding him back too much. Further, it is possible that he proves to be more adept at defending the perimeter than the post, so this gives an alternative means of success if his lack of reach causes him to struggle to defend bigger PF’s.
Although he’s not a perfect fit at either position, the fact that Parker can fit in well enough at either position to get his offense into the lineup is a bit of a bonus. And even if he doesn’t find a niche where he can play solid defense, his offense still may outweigh his defensive shortcomings as is the case for his upside comparison Carmelo Anthony.
Bad Tweener: Aaron Gordon.
Earlier I wrote about Aaron Gordon’s shooting woes. He almost certainly will not be able to play the wing offensively in the pros, and needs to focus on adding strength and developing a post game. PF is clearly going to be his niche offensively, but his main appeal is the defensive upside that his tools offer. And as far as I can tell, he has much better tools to be a perimeter stopper than a post presence. He is listed at 6’9 with a 6’11.5 wingspan and an 8’10.5 reach, which is adequate to play PF, especially with his athleticism. But he only weighs 212 pounds, and being below average in all of length, reach, or strength it makes it a bit more daunting of a proposition. Further, using him at SF does not capitalize on his lateral quickness that offer promise for his potential as a perimeter defender. His ideal situation would be to pair him with a perimeter shooting PF such as Ryan Anderson, and play him in the post offensively and on the perimeter defensively. But that makes it a pain to build around him as an integral part of your core, as it disqualifies the majority of starting PF’s as plausible pairings and precludes an offense from ever being perfectly spaced with 4 shooters. His synergy between his offensive and defensive skill sets are quite messy, and frankly he doesn’t offer enough upside promise to be worth the hassle as a top 20 pick.
Tweener comparison: Kyle Anderson vs Dario Saric
I have mentioned that these players strike me as similar, as they are both tall ball handlers who lack burst. They also both have questionable outside shots, and offer much more appeal playing as primary ball handlers than complementary pieces on offense. They are both best served to play PF, since it is easier to pair them with a SF who can shoot than it is to find a floor spacing PF. It also is ideal to mitigate the defensive issues caused by their lack of quickness. There is quite a bit of value to these two players fitting into NBA lineups at PF. Saric is 1.5 inches taller (6’10 vs 6’8.5) and DX lists him as a possible SF/PF whereas Anderson is listed as a possible SF, so one may initially be inclined to give the edge to Saric. But Anderson has a much longer wingspan at 7’2.25 vs 6’10, and his 9’0 standing reach is likely greater than that of Saric as well. Further he is listed at 233 vs 223 and is possibly slightly stronger. It’s not by an enormous margin, but if Anderson does indeed have the edge in all of length, strength, and reach it is a significant advantage over Saric. Ability to defend bigger positions is always a bonus, but it is especially helpful for players in their offensive mold.
Bad Tweener That Isn’t Too Bad: Nick Johnson
Johnson is the classic SG in a PG’s body. He has good tools and defensive acumen defending the perimeter for the best defense in the nation, but he is just a bit small to regularly defend SG’s. DraftExpress lists his height at 6’2.5″ with a 6.5.5″ wingspan, which makes him big enough to only situationally defend SG’s. But since he doesn’t have the PG skills to run an offense, he will likely be available in the 2nd round. But that doesn’t make him necessarily difficult to fit into NBA lineups. If his outside shot develops well he can be a 3 + D PG in a lineup where a taller player runs the offense. A team with a big PG such as John Wall, Deron Williams, Michael Carter-Williams, Marcus Smart, or Dante Exum could pair him with their bigger point guard and cross match accordingly. He also fits well alongside ball dominant stars such as Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, as he could fill the Mario Chalmers role in Miami. There is a common perception that the smaller player on the court should necessarily run the offense, and this isn’t true. He’d be a significantly more appealing prospect if he was 2-3 inches taller + longer, but he remains an appealing 2nd round flier for a team that has a bigger ball-handler to pair him with.
What happens when an unstoppable force meets Adriatic League big men? You get Jusuf Nurkic (25th DX, 33rd ESPN), a 19 year old big man prospect who is currently terrorizing European basketball. He is still raw as he has only been playing basketball since 2009, but his stats per 40 minutes closely parallel those of DeMarcus Cousins as a college freshman:
Nurkic is a better FT shooter and gets more steals, Cousins is a better rebounder and gets more blocks, and other than that they are statistically dead ringers for one another. Nurkic also fouls more as he only plays 16.1 mpg vs Cousins’s 23.5.
Physically they are both massive human beings as Cousins weighed in at 292 at the draft and Nurkic is listed at 280. They are both 6’11, but Cousins has longer arms with a 7’5.5″ wingspan vs 7’2″, 9.5″ reach vs 9’1.5″. Nurkic atones for this with a significant advantage in quickness, and neither of them are explosive athletes. It’s arguable that Cousins has superior tools overall, but if so it’s likely by a slim margin. And they are going to share the same draft night age if Nurkic declares, as their birthdays are 10 days apart.
You may be wondering how the Adriatic League compares to the SEC, and whether we can trust such a small sample from Nurkic (the stats were posted in 322 minutes). First to address the latter, these stats are somewhat cherry picked. Nurkic’s Eurocup stats are far worse, as his PER falls off from a mammoth 35.0 down to a humane 22.2 in 210 minutes. His turnovers rise, his rebounds plummet, and he scores less. He also gets fewer steals, but on the bright side he gets more blocks at 3.5 per 40, which is a sign that his lack of athleticism doesn’t cripple him. The split is likely due to both sample size variance and Nurkic facing (literally) stronger competition in Eurocup. It could be argued that his translation to matching up against stronger post players bodes ill for his NBA future, but then again his numbers still aren’t bad for an inexperienced 19 year old going against adult men.
This good news is that the leagues Nurkic is playing in offer a much higher level of competition than the NCAA. He currently plays on a team with 3 former major conference NCAA stars who are now in the prime of their careers. I took their Adriatic League PER, Eurocup PER, a minute weighted average of the two, and compared it to their senior year PER:
Granted, this quick and simple analysis may overstate the gap between NCAA and the European competition that Nurkic is facing, as Ray had a PER in the low 20’s in 12-13 as did Suton in 11-12. But the fact remains that players who starred for college programs during their developmental years generally fail to exceed their college production at this level of competition in the prime of their careers. For inquiring minds: Nurkic’s weighted PER is 29.8 and leads the team. Second is Miro Bilan at 21.8 and Nolan Smith is 3rd. Their team is fairly successful as they have a 15-5 Adriatic Record and a +3.6 point differential, and are 8-7 in Eurocup with a +2.7 PD.
For a quick and dirty comparison: consensus lottery prospect Dario Saric (11th DX, 9th ESPN) plays in the same leagues, and he has posted a 24.1 Adriatic PER and a 16.5 Eurocup PER while being several months older. As usual PER doesn’t tell the full story, as Saric is in a different mold. Saric accrues an Evan Turner-esque combination of points, rebounds, assists, and turnovers as the primary ballhandler, with a questionable shot and tools that cause translation concerns. We have already seen Evan Turner erroneously get selected before DeMarcus Cousins before, so the fact that history may be repeating itself with Saric and Nurkic is delightfully juicy to me.
The most similar NBA prospect to Nurkic who has come from the Adriatic League is Nikola Pekovic. Pekovic was the 1st pick in the 2nd round in 2008, but in reality his draft stock was higher. Teams refrained from selecting him in round 1 due to the belief that he was unwilling to come to the NBA for a mid-1st round salary, and by selecting him in round 2 the Timberwolves were able to offer him a 3 year $13.3 million contract to entice him across the ocean. Later Pekovic returned to the Adriatic League for 10 games during the 2011 NBA lockout at age 25 before returning to the NBA to have his breakout season. Let’s compare each sample as well as Pek’s 19 year old season (where he was really 8.5 months older than Nurkic is currently) to that of Nurkic (all statistics per 40 mins):
19 y/o Pek
21 y/o Pek
25 y/o Pek
19 y/o Pek
21 y/o Pek
25 y/o Pek
First note how incredibly distant from Nurkic’s production Pek was at a similar age. He also shared Nurkic’s exorbitant foul rate, which is a sign that we should likely not fret too much over this. By the time he declared for the draft, Pek was a much more polished prospect as reflected in his shooting percentages and foul rate, but Nurkic clearly has much more upside. He accrues points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks at a faster rate in spite of being far younger. The blocks and steals are especially encouraging since Pek’s defense strongly inhibits his value as an NBA player. It doesn’t mean that Nurkic will necessarily be better on defense as his defensive fundamentals need work, but his potential is clear.
Again, this is somewhat of a cherry pick since we aren’t including Nurkic’s Eurocup stats. But Pek’s stats also fell off in Eurocup play. He has a career 25.2 Adriatic PER and in those seasons in which he played in the Adriatic he averaged a 20.9 Eurocup PER. It’s not as pronounced as Nurkic’s dropoff, but even if you combine the two leagues Nurkic stands out as the more exciting prospect. Pekovic’s weighted PER between the two leagues pre-lockout was 27.9 (Nurkic’s is 29.8), and then he went on to drop a 21.4 NBA PER.
The undeniable conclusion from this analysis is that Nurkic is posting outliery good statistics for a 19 year old European prospect. I am still acquainting myself with the world of European basketball to glean the meaning of this, but at a glance I cannot find many busts who statistically dominated similar competition. Really I am struggling to find any international prospects at all who posted Nurkic level statistics. Jonas Valanciunas seems to be on par, as he posted a 25.2 Eurocup PER at age 18 and 27.0 at age 19. Valanciunas also has better tools, so it makes sense to qualify Nurkic as an inferior prospect. But that also sets the bar awfully high, as Valanciunas posted a strong 20 year old rookie season and has plenty of room to grow; he was clearly the best prospect other than Kyrie in the 2011 draft and I believe he would merit top 3 consideration in this draft.
So why does Nurkic not merit top 5 consideration? On one hand he is raw and needs to cut his fouls and turnovers as well as improve his basketball IQ. But that description also applies to Joel Embiid, and it has not prevented scouts, GM’s, and myself from drooling all over him. Nurkic may have more translation concerns than Embiid since he’s so reliant on his strength, and that’s a topic that I will explore before anointing him as a future stud at a loud volume. But he’s playing at an inordinately high level for such a young and inexperienced player, and it does seem that his tools will enable him to translate enough of his production to become a good NBA player. If he proves to excel at learning and developing, he might provide a monstrous return for whatever team gambles on him.
If nothing else, Nurkic is one of the more unique and intriguing prospects in this class. I ranked him 11th on my recent big board, which was a semi-conservative ranking pending further investigation. I still have plenty of analysis to do before arriving at a confident assessment, since the Adriatic League is much less familiar territory for me than the NCAA. But the more digging I have done, the more captivated I have become with Nurkic, and at this point I cannot fathom how he is not worth a lottery selection.
Now that Dante Exum has officially declared for the draft, I figured it’s time to put him under the microscope to see whether his hype is justified. I analyzed his performance vs Spain in the FIBA u19 games this summer to try to get a feel for what he brings to the table as a prospective NBA player. Note that this game occurred the week before he turned 18:
This was Exum’s best scoring game, so perhaps not all of his weaknesses were fully exposed. I looked at DraftExpress’s scouting report to see if they listed any weaknesses that may not have been on display. Their list:
-Perimeter shooting- this is the one that everybody acknowledges
-TO Prone/PG Skills- this took my by surprise- I’ll touch on this below
-Shot selection- easy to see why, although I don’t think it is a significant weakness.
-Strength- this is the other obvious one on top of shooting.
With respect to turnovers, they claimed that he sometimes plays out of control which is true to an extent- one or two of his turnovers this game could have been qualified as such. Also against the US he was benched due to playing out of control after committing 4 turnovers in 11 minutes, as Australia went on to lose 94-51. But he still only had 21 total turnovers in 9 games over the tournament, which is excellent.
Let’s compare his FIBA stats to those of Tyler Ennis. Ennis played for Canada which was a similar caliber team (Canada finished 6th, Australia finished 4th, the teams shared a 4-5 record, and Australia had a slightly better PD +1.8 vs +0.6). Differences of note are that Australia played a tougher schedule (both teams played the US once, but Australia played the second best team in Serbia twice while Canada didn’t play them at all), and Ennis had Trey Lyles on his team as a second big time scorer to draw defensive attention. Ennis led the u19 games scoring 20.9 points per game, Lyles was third with 20.3. Australia’s second leading scorer was Dane Pineau who averaged 11.8 pts/game. Also Australia was slightly better defensively (97.2 D-Rating vs 98.2) so it’s not like Exum had the benefit of a hugely pro-offense team construction that Ennis did not:
As a freshman at Syracuse, Ennis is averaging 34.4 mpg 12.1 ppg 5.6 apg 1.5 topg playing as more of a distributor than scorer. That is an excellent turnover rate for any point guard, let alone a college freshman and it will be a large reason why he is likely a lottery pick. Yet at the FIBAs, Exum had more assists and fewer turnovers against a tougher schedule with just a slightly larger scoring load, and DraftExpress gleaned that turnovers and PG skills is a weakness!
On one hand they are doing their due diligence to list everything that can be perceived as inadequate for an unproven player vying for such a high draft slot. And it’s possible that he got lucky to have a low number, as 9 games is a small sample and I noted in the video that the scorekeeper miscredited one of his turnovers vs Spain. But even after you add up the out of control possessions and the lazy low leverage passes that went awry, his bottom line result was excellent. He clearly is doing something correct to avoid them, and I believe it is a testament to his ball handling, passing, and basketball IQ. Against Spain he repeatedly got into the lane and made beautiful passes to his teammates, but of his pile of turnovers only one of them came on a drive and kick when his pass was deflected.
DX’s qualm with his PG skills is that sometimes he misses teammates and forces shots, which is a perspective I understand after seeing some of his forced shots in the paint vs Spain. But in that game, he did much more finding teammates than he did missing them. I’m not sure if it was an above average distribution game where his teammates did a below average job of converting. But he was credited with 4 assists and averaged 3.8 for the tournament, and it’s inevitable that his teammates failed to convert some significant amount of quality looks created by Exum in other games.
With respect to shot selection, I again do not think he was particularly bad. He should inevitably attempt some bad shots with such a great disparity between his talent and that of his teammates, and his intelligence inspires confidence that he will learn to improve his shot selection with better NBA teammates. Also DX takes exception to his volume of 3 point attempts, but he shot 33.3% for the tournament so again the bottom line does not look bad. It would be more upsetting if he instead insisted on launching long 2 pointers.
Taken altogether, I’d qualify all things efficiency and basketball IQ related (turnovers, PG skills, shot selection) to be a distinct positive. The fact that DraftExpress listed this as a weakness is a testament to the fact that there’s so little to dislike about Exum. His actual weaknesses are his shot and strength, and he is reportedly investing significant effort to improve both. My next biggest qualm is that while he is a fluid athlete, he is not particularly explosive.
Even without great strength or explosiveness, his tools are decidedly positive as he brings elite speed, quicks, height, and length to the PG position. Even without a great shot, his combination of ball handling, passing, and touch around the rim offer promise as a future offensive centerpiece, especially if surround by good shooting. He projects to be a positive defensively as well. The only thing that could prevent him from becoming good is poor development, but he reputedly has an excellent work ethic.
Exum idolizes Derrick Rose, which is sensible as the players offer similar value. They both have a great combination of size and speed for the PG position. Rose is stronger and more explosive, but Exum is taller and longer as he is 6’6 with a 6’9 wingspan vs Rose’s 6’2.5 with a 6’8 wingspan. They share questionable shooting as their weakness, as Rose’s shooting improvement played a large role in his winning MVP in his 3rd season in the league. While Rose’s freshman season was good, his ability to grow was what made him such an appealing prospect and successful NBA player until derailed by injury. While Exum’s future growth rate is a mystery, his work ethic and intelligence are two strong points in favor of it being good. Even his college stats parallel closely to Exum’s FIBA stats:
This is not an apples to apples comparison by any stretch, but you can see the similarities in their mold. It’s possible that Exum would have been worse than Rose with a season in college, but he also may have been better and I don’t think he would be at risk of being as bad as Andrew Harrison. Also Exum will be a year younger on draft night than Rose was. It’s fair to give Rose the edge as an overall prospect due to his edge in athleticism and his excellent performance in the NCAA tournament, but I do not believe Exum is particularly far behind.
Exum’s value largely hinges on his performance in workouts. If he is as working as hard on his shot and body as people around him indicate, he will likely boost his stock and vault into the top 3. Exum is perceived as the mystery box of the draft, but with Andrew Wiggins’ underwhelming freshman performance he is no longer a can’t miss star. Even if you assign a Marvin Williams level floor to Wiggins, that’s hardly much consolation for a top 3 pick. I doubt that Williams becoming a semi-useful pro makes Billy Knight feel particularly better about selecting him over Chris Paul. Especially at the top of the lottery, a player’s value is almost entirely driven by his upside and his odds of achieving it. While Wiggins has shown better outside touch and more potential as a complementary piece on offense, Exum’s upside as an offensive centerpiece is more attractive. I don’t think Wiggins has a significant enough (if any) defensive edge to offset this. As of right now, I rate Exum as the 2nd best prospect overall in this draft, with Jabari Parker having the best shot of supplanting him with a strong finish to his season.
The worst thing that can be said about Exum is that he is young and needs to spend time developing before making a large impact as a pro. But I believe in his upside, and I believe that he is unlikely to flop completely. Indications are that this mystery box just might contain a boat after all, and you know how much we wanted one of those.