2014 was the first draft I blogged about, and I started this blog largely because it was so much fun to analyze that crop. Now 2021 is loaded with parallels with makes it similarly exciting to analyze.
It started with Andrew Wiggins being hyped as the next LeBron, and then massively disappointing as a college freshman while his teammate Joel Embiid looked like a mega stud out of nowhere as an exceptionally coordinated 7 footer.
But in spite of his disappointment, Wiggins still went #1 overall as his freshman performance was good enough to not wash away the shiny hype he entered the season with, and the prospect of improvement based on his elite athleticism.
Now this year, Cade Cunningham was hyped as a Luka Doncic type generational prospect, but has performed more on Wiggins’ level while Evan Mobley has been the elite, athletic 7 footer who stuffs the stat sheet. Yet Cade’s preseason hype has helped him maintain the consensus #1 overall status.
In fact, Cade’s hype has held up even stronger than than Wiggins, as at least there were genuine discussions as to whether Embiid should go #1 before his medical red flags caused him to drop to #3. In this case, Cade is still holding strong as the consensus #1 overall in spite of Mobley being completely healthy.
The Cade/Wiggins comparison has been commonly dismissed as Wiggins being an athlete who has no idea how to play, and that Cade’s passing and shooting means that he won’t fail. But that ignores the fact that Wiggins was not any worse of an NCAA player than Cade, while also being 5 months younger. Let’s look at a quick and dirty spot check of NCAA goodness with Box Score Plus/Minus
In retrospect is is easy to reduce Wiggins to an athlete who has no clue how to play, but it just was not that apparent at the time. He had decent scoring ability offensively, averaged 17 points on solid shooting %’s, drew a ton of free throws, and was a good defensive player due to his excellent athleticism.
Now people may lament that Cade’s teammates were the worst thing since sliced bread, while Wiggins played on a perennially great Kansas team. But then when we look at their on/off splits, Wiggins is the one who made a clearly positive impact on his team. From hooplens.com:
Wiggins not only had a major impact on the defense as a long, athletic player who could defend multiple positions, but he also had a more clearly positive impact on the offense where he could at least use his athleticism to get some easy shots, crash the offensive glass, and draw a high volume of free throws. Whereas in spite of his passing, Cade’s team seemed to get more easy 2 pointers with him off the floor.
Of course this doesn’t prove that Cade will be as bad as Wiggins, as college on/off stats are very noisy and plenty of players with lower freshman BPMs have gone on to be all-stars. On average, Cade should be better than Wiggins. But it is enough information to at least start questioning what makes Cade’s floor necessarily higher than Wiggins.
The common answer would be that athleticism is overrated, and Cade’s shooting and passing is what is actually the more valuable trait. But that isn’t necessarily the case– athleticism is and always has been an incredibly valuable NBA trait. Further, OJ Mayo could shoot and pass as well as Cade and had a pedestrian NBA career. The real lesson from Wiggins should be that being well rounded with limited flaws is predictive of NBA stardom– not checking a few magical boxes regardless of the flaws that come with it.
One funny commonality is that both were arguably better as role players. Wiggins had a narrative that worst case he would be a great role player as he could make an open 3 and be a defensive stopper. But Minnesota had different plans for him to relentlessly chuck stepback jumpers from mid-range instead, and it did not amount to a good player.
There seems to be a similar notion with Cade, that worst case he can be a more athletic Joe Ingles who provides excellent 3 + D support. But Joe Ingles wouldn’t be Joe Ingles if he was drafted #1 and expected to carry the offense like Luka Doncic, because he would do very poorly in that role.
Cade may do a better job of it than Joe Ingles would, but that doesn’t mean he will necessarily be an adequate primary creator in the NBA. And if he always has the ball in his hands– how much value does his shooting *really* carry? Being able to make pullup 3’s is a helpful skill, but if he is still collectively inefficient and his shooting is not often being used to provide spacing gravity to his other teammates, it diminishes the value of it.
Maybe Cade Turns Out Better than Wiggins
But does it really matter? This kid from USC is an obvious stud and everything about him is wired for efficiency. You would think that with the advent of statistics that qualities like elite efficiency, passing, defense, in a player who is also taller, longer, and more athletic than Cade would be valued higher. But the level of analysis has gotten so basic that all that matters are checking the magical boxes of being a wing creator (doesn’t matter if you are good or bad at it as long as you tried!) and being able to shoot. Conversely being tall makes you automatically bad, even if you are capable of doing perimeter things like handle, pass, shoot, and switch onto smaller players.
It is such a basic level of analysis, it is like watching everything go backwards. At least in 2014 teams were open enough to bigs for Embiid over Wiggins to be a realistic discussion before Embiid’s injury flags mucked everything up. Now we have a stud in Mobley who isn’t even in the conversation with a clean bill of health.
It makes sense to place an additional emphasis on speed and skill over taking whatever big stiff is available to fill the middle. But this has gone overboard. Being tall always has been and always will be an incredibly useful trait for basketball. And momentum can always shift back toward bigs– for instance the coming rule changes to reduce cheap fouls on shooters adds just a bit more value back toward bigs and away from guards and wings.
And regardless, a tall guy like Mobley who can protect the rim and do perimeter things like handle, pass, and shoot are going to give you a ton of lineup flexibility.
And the #2 pick is even worse than #1
As flawed and overhyped as Wiggins was, he still fit a quality NBA mold and had enough strengths such that in his mid 20’s, he has finally become a useful NBA player. And he still has room to grow into a solidly + player, much like Rudy Gay who was his negative comp, but ended up having a better than expected second act for the Spurs.
On the other hand, Jabari Parker was the ultimate empty calories scorer, and he is so one dimensional with such bad defense that he is nothing more than a cheap flier for his 6th team in Boston as he enters his prime age.
Granted, there is no reason to believe Jalen Green will necessarily be that bad. His athletic scoring off the dribble looks quite a bit more aesthetically pleasing and should have better NBA translation than Parker’s bully ball. Perhaps he can have a career closer to his physical doppelganger Zach LaVine, who was chosen later in the 2014 lottery.
But Green is much smaller than Parker and there are so many scenarios where he is just dreadful on defense without offering much more than scoring offensively, he has a nasty downside tail and his upside is capped at the Zach LaVine/Devin Booker tier, which is not good enough to win a championship as your best player.
Booker needed MVP candidate Chris Paul, a quality big in former #1 overall pick DeAndre Ayton, and a strong cast of quality role players just to be a 2nd tier contender who was able to make the finals when every star player in their path got injured. He is a good player and contributed to the run to be sure, but you want to aim higher than a Booker best case at #2 overall, especially when it comes attached to a fair amount of bust risk.
The Rest of the Draft May Be Even Better
It would really be something to see a top 3 of 1. Cade 2. Green 3. Mobley perfectly mirror the Wiggins, Parker, Embiid top 3 of 2014. And even after that, there are some similarities.
Scottie Barnes, like Aaron Gordon is the big, toolsy wing with questionable shooting. Gordon is the more explosive athlete, but Barnes is longer with better PG skills. I would rate Barnes as the better prospect between the two based on pre-draft.
Jalen Suggs is the high IQ combo guard, similar to Marcus Smart. But he has a better first step with more offensive potential, which makes him the better pre-draft prospect than Smart.
We even have a young, tall point guard from Australia in Josh Giddey, who hopefully has a better NBA career than Dante Exum. Giddey is stylistically closer to Lonzo Ball than Exum, but is smoother with his movement as well as being the more skillful passer. He has a certain wizardry to his passing, as he not only is exceptionally high IQ with great vision, but is also highly accurate and passes like he has the ball on the string. He has limited tools and scoring which give him a wide range of future outcomes, but his passing is so outlier good for his height and youth he clearly has a nice upside tail.
International Man of Mystery
The 2014 draft was also loaded with awesome international bigs. I ranked Jusuf Nurkic and Clint Capela 5th and 6th ahead of Parker and Wiggins, and Nikola Jokic 16th. This year there is only one elite big but he is better than all of them: Alperen Sengun.
But the trouble is that they were all true centers, whereas Sengun is more of an old school PF. Is he more of a Julius Randle, who in spite of quality box score production, does not fit the modern NBA and will turn into a pumpkin in the playoffs?
In some ways Sengun is similar to Randle, but he also offers more than 2x the steal and block rates (2.6/5.9 vs 1.0/2.6) almost 2x the assist:TOV ratio (1.11 vs 0.57), a wetter jump shot (79.4% FT vs 70.6%), and much better interior scoring (67.4% 2P vs 51.7%) on higher usage (26.7 vs 25.5). All while playing in a better league at 8 months younger.
At the time I argued that Randle is just not an interesting mold, and even if he posts good stats he may not be that useful in the NBA. And it is an interesting debate where he should rank in a re-draft. I ranked him #22, which feels too low based on his recent season in NYK. But that was after his initial team let him walk for nothing when New Orleans signed him for the mid level exception. So perhaps it was a reasonable place to rate him, as there is no clear answer.
Regardless, it’s fascinating how much the market has adjusted since then. Randle went 7th overall and was considered a reasonable or even good pick by most at the time. Now Sengun is a massively suped up version with much more perimeter qualities and hope on defense, yet he isn’t even projected to go in the lottery.
At this point it doesn’t seem that most people are critically thinking about the ways in which Sengun can provide value to a team, and are just blindly fading him based on his perceived mold.
It is completely reasonable to dock his value for having questions about how he fits into the modern NBA, but based on just the #’s he is the clear #1 pick in this draft. You are heavily shorting his mold just by dropping him out of the top 5. Dropping him out of the top 10 seems like a clear overreaction to the recent trends in the modern NBA.
Trends Don’t Last Forever
It is crazy how much has changed in the past 7 years after the Warriors built the death lineup around Steph Curry and Draymond Green, and the rest of the league started adapting to combat them. Now that the Warriors are no longer a contender, the small ball trend has continued, and may continue indefinitely.
But that doesn’t mean that the momentum cannot slightly swing back toward bigs whether it be with small rule changes such as reducing fouls on non-basketball moves. Or perhaps a new super team emerges, which causes a shift back the other way.
Imagine if Mobley and Sengun were paired together. They would be a perfect duo on defense– Sengun cleans up the glass and puts a body on stronger bigs in the post, while Mobley handles the rim protection. Offensively, you have two bigs who can handle, pass, shoot, and score inside. Sengun should be an especially good floor spacer, while Mobley can at least make an open shot.
When you have that level of creation, passing, finishing, and shooting from your two bigs, it is ridiculously easy to build a good offense. It will be especially difficult for small lineups to match up with them, even though Sengun is short for a 5 and Mobley is skinny, their passing and interior scoring could collectively provide nightmares for a team that needs to put a big wing on either one of them. As of now almost every starting lineup in the NBA would need to do this.
It may be hard to believe that a great offense can come from somewhere other than wing or guard with a great first step, but let’s bear in mind that the Nuggets won a playoff series against Portland with a monster 123.4 ORtg in spite of having a guard rotation of Austin Rivers, Facundo Campazzo, Monte Morris, and Markus Howard. Michael Porter Jr. is a great shooter but nothing close to a point forward, and Aaron Gordon is not a volume creator.
Jokic is the MVP and one of the best offensive bigs of all time, but based on pre-draft Sengun clearly has more offensive talent and Mobley arguably does too. Even without either peaking nearly as high as Jokic, you can still build a really awesome offense around those two. Sengun may give a decent bit back on defense, but if he proves adept at guarding the perimeter, it would be over for the rest of the NBA.
And if teams are forced to match up with two bigs who provide those sort of matchup issues offensively, playing two bigs may start to become more commonplace once again. And if it does not, they can destroy the rest of the league with any decent supporting guards and wings.
By far the two drafts that I have been most motivated to scout film and generate content for have been 2014 and 2021, and there is a good reason for that– because they had the biggest inefficiencies at the top.
And the source of current inefficiencies is this obsession with mold. Which matters to some extent, as I noted in my 2014 writeups on Julius Randle. But at this point it has gotten so extreme that a significant portion of the basketball world is lazily grouping players into buckets without any further analysis for what they actually do on the floor.
Even though consensus should be getting sharper 7 years later, in certain ways it may be getting duller.
This is especially the case since at least Wiggins in 2014 had a clear argument for #1 with Embiid’s injury. He was actually better than Jabari Parker. Aaron Gordon and Marcus Smart proved to be better, but they are still mere role players.
Now this year, Mobley is healthier than Embiid, Suggs has more potential than Smart, Barnes has more potential than Gordon, Giddey may be better than Exum, Sengun is drastically better than Randle, and there isn’t even a Franz Wagner super role player in the mix. So the prizes at the top all offer possibly much richer payoffs, yet Cade is even more firmly entrenched in #1 than Wiggins was. This is not an efficient market.
At this point you cannot get ahead of the curve by going all in on wing creators and all out on anybody over 6’9. The recent trends toward small ball have been so fast and furious, at this point lineups cannot plausibly trend any smaller. And even if they tread water at current levels, elite bigs are still elite and mediocre wings are still mediocre.
The NBA has been a big centered game for 60+ years. There has been a vicious correction over the past 7 years, which should stay to a significant extent. But at this point it is safe to say that the correction is over, and even after all of that elite bigs are still elite and mediocre wings are still mediocre. At this point you cannot get ahead of the curve by overvaluing wings and disregarding bigs, but you can create elite opportunities for other teams who are interested in elite basketball players.