It’s the off-season, so we will occasionally touch on timely non-political topics. The NBA Draft is Thursday. Below are the guys I would take.
Everyone has a different methodology. My perspective is to pick a guy most likely to help a team win a title. That seems obvious, but a good role player is more valuable than a guy who will take a ton of possessions and command a max contract.
The NBA may change the most of any sports league going forward. With the Warriors dominance, the owners may decide they want to prevent a team like that from ever forming again. Maybe the league eliminates the max contract so the best players all go to their own teams. Maybe the league changes things to allow teams that draft a player to pay them more. Or the league could decide things are fine. Maybe Golden State is just a historic anomaly that happened because of a weird cap increase.
Small ball is the dominant force in the NBA, and many mock drafts focus on quality wings. Those players are important, but bad wings are not as valuable as good big men. Many think the big men in this draft are terrible after the top 12. Those folks could be right. I don’t think they are.
There are people that spend way more time on this that have radically different views. I’d recommend reading: Chris Stone, Dean Demakis, Cole Zwicker, JZ Mazlish, Ben Rubin, Ricky O’Donnell, Sam Vecenie, Kevin O’Connor and Jonathan Tjarks. In addition, Draft Express is always excellent.
I do not rank the international guys. I do not watch nearly enough of them to have an opinion. I have two takes about the international guys. First, I have real worries about Frank Ntilikina’s athleticism (though I’d take him in the first round), and I would not select Terrance Ferguson in the first round. The first opinion is based off watching some clips but no games. It is not a take worth investing much in. The second take is based on Ferguson’s bad year in Australia and his poor shooting. I do not see him playing meaningful minutes in the NBA.
Tier 1: Franchise Talents
1. Lonzo Ball- I believe he is a transcendent talent.
The UCLA Bruins went from the No. 51 KenPom offense to the No. 2 KenPom offense. They added Ball and T.J. Leaf.
Ball made everyone better. He will immediately be one of the best passers in the NBA, and he has the best basketball I.Q. I’ve seen from a point guard. He’s like having the coach you’d want your school to hire on the floor at all times.
There are fair questions about his athleticism, shooting form, work in the pick-and-roll and ability to get to the rim on his own. My view is that Ball is quite athletic—-certainly enough with his size to defend. The shot is funky, but he can nail looks from NBA range. That’s more valuable than a pure form and lower percentage.
His best work will not be in the pick-and-roll. That’s not a requirement for an excellent player. With the way he runs the court and his ability to fire passes, he’ll overcome any difficulties scoring in high pick-and-rolls. And he rarely needed to get to the rim. Instead, he took the best option. Plus, there’s tape of him getting to the rim, but his game is not isolation scoring.
His father has turned people off. I don’t care about that for selecting a player. He makes everyone around him better and he can fit seamlessly with anyone around him. He doesn’t demand the ball to be great, and whatever franchise (likely the Lakers) that adds him will be able to reconstruct their team without worrying about Ball fitting in.
2. Markelle Fultz- Washington was awful and he was spectacular. The latter rightfully matters far more than the former.
Almost everyone has Fultz at the top. He can shoot off the dribble, gets to the rim well, makes pristine passes and is phenomenal in the pick-and-roll.
The big knock on Fultz is his defense. Part of his issue was probably framed by how awful Washington was. Locking in all the time for a team that was behind all the time is not easy.
Regardless of his defensive issues, his offensive game more than makes up for it. If Joel Embiid can stay healthy, they may be the team to finally save us from the Warriors (in like 2023).
Tier 2- Good Starters
3. Josh Jackson- The best motor in the draft with good athleticism. With the demand for defensive wings, the hope is that Jackson can be a force on defense and develop an outside shot.
He shot well at the end of the year, but his shot is a mess. I think he’ll have to retool it in the NBA.
Jackson is one of the best passing wings and has good defensive upside. He moves well and should be a good defender. He struggled at times defending on the perimeter and his wingspan is average. Those are fair concerns.
I think Jackson could struggle early but will put it together. If he develops a 3-point shot, he will likely be All-NBA.
4. Malik Monk- This is higher than just about anyone has him. If his shot translates, he’ll be one of the five best players in this draft. If his shot doesn’t translate, he has little chance to stick in the NBA. That’s a scary risk.
Monk is a super shooter. Kentucky had limited spacing with De’Aaron Fox and a host of big men sharing the court with Monk. But Monk continued to drain looks with defenders ready to help.
His defense is not great, and he’s not going to be a combo guard. He’ll be one of the best shooters in the NBA. That’s worth a top five pick.
5. Jonathan Isaac- The 6-foot-10 man from Florida State begins a run of guys that are difficult to project. Some, like Jonathan Tjarks, view him as a small ball center. Others think he’ll be a lock-down wing defender.
If the league gets smaller, his potential is immense as a disruptive center that can switch everything.
He’s a good shooter and a great defensive rebounder. His upside as a defender will make him a top ten pick.
6. De’Aaron Fox- Can he develop a 3-point shot? If he can, he may be the best player in this draft.
Fox shot just 25% from deep. Teams will sag off him and his blistering athleticism won’t be as big of an advantage at the next level. If he’s a 25% 3-point shooter in the NBA, he’s going to struggle to be an NBA starter.
Fox plays superb defense and is good at nearly everything except shooting. He has the second best motor in the draft, and he outplayed Ball in the NCAA Tournament.
I’m not sold on Fox’s shot developing. If I was, I’d have him in the top three. His other skills are so strong that the chance his shot develops warrants a selection here.
Tier 3: Good Starters/Quality Backups
7. OG Anunoby- The Indiana wing is top ten on some boards and barely in the first round on others.
I have him here because he’s an incredible athlete with a 7-foot-2 wingspan. I am convinced he’ll be in the league as a defensive stopper for a long time.
His shot needs work and he may not be a great offensive player. Tony Allen has made a career out of cutting and locking down men. Anunoby may not develop into that kind of on ball defender, but he can be one of the best wing defenders in the league.
8. Dennis Smith Jr.- I do not like his game. He is an absolute freak athlete, but his tenure at North Carolina State was awful.
Smith can pull up from 3-point range and his speed and size makes him a terror at the rim. But his effort was awful last season and his defense was pedestrian.
If his shot improves and he locks in on defense, he could be one of the best players in the NBA. There is nobody in this draft I feel less confident projecting. Cole Zwicker makes a good case he’s the second best player in the draft. Dean DeMakis has argued all season that his problems with the Wolfpack are terrifying. I agree with him. But as I said, this is the guy I believe could be anything.
9. Jawun Evans- This is higher than any mock I can remember. The skills he needs to hit on are easier to see him developing than some of these other guys.
Evans led the nation’s No. 1 KenPom offense. He’s a monster in transition and had the nation’s 3rd best assist rate. He also managed to hit 37% of his triples.
The knock on Evans is that he’s small—he measured less than 6 feet in shoes at the combine. With his size, his finishing at the rim has not been wonderful. He also had problems with teams that blitzed the pick-and-roll. Others worry about his 3-point shot as the line moves back in the NBA.
Evans is a speed demon with a fantastic mind. I don’t think he’s going to be a Hall of Fame guy like Ball or Fultz, but I’d be surprised if he did not end up as at least a good backup point guard. His floor is high and his ceiling is high enough. His size will make him a steal.
10. Zach Collins- Gonzaga’s sixth man will likely be the highest draft pick from the national championship game.
His per 40 numbers are excellent. He rebounds, moves well and can score. The fear is that his foul rate is high and he may not be quite as good if he actually played 20+ minutes.
I like his game and think he could be the fifth best player on a championship team. His upside is higher, but he also has a good floor.
11. Jayson Tatum- This is lower than nearly anyone has him. I think he’s likely to be a Rudy Gay type player—an inefficient wing who demands the ball and struggles on defense.
Tatum may be one of the better rookies, but I have real concerns about how he fits in an offense with good ball movement. Kevin O’Connor has him No. 2 on his board. A lot of people think he’s the most NBA ready player. I am very worried about his fit on a winning team.
12. Lauri Markkanen- If all a 7 footer can do is hit 3-point shots and score near the basket, how value is he? He’d still be a first round guy, but his value on a winning team would be way lower.
Someone recently compared him to Ryan Anderson, and their college numbers are strikingly similar. The issue that person brought up with both of them is that they can struggle to defend, which can make them unplayable later in the playoffs—see Anderson against the Spurs.
Markkanen hit 42% of his 3s, and he’s good near the hoop. But his foot speed is not happening, and he’s a very bad rebounder. You take a chance on a man that tall who shoots that well. I am not confident in his defensive game.
13. T.J. Leaf- A good shooter and rebounder with pronounced concerns about his athleticism and ability to play either the 4 or the 5 in the NBA.
Leaf drilled open looks and is a solid passer. His floor is higher than Markkanen’s (to me at least) but his ceiling is also quite lower.
14. Donovan Mitchell- A giant guard with a fantastic wingspan. He was a defensive force on Rick Pitino’s defensive monster.
He also fits the category of players with broad outcomes. If his shot doesn’t quite develop (35% from 3-point land in college), then he may not last long in the NBA.
Tier 4- Worth the risk:
15. Justin Jackson- He’s older and didn’t shoot much running off screens. In the NBA he’s going to have to do that.
He’s long and made a giant leap as a shooter last season. If he shoots like he did as a sophomore or freshman he won’t last in the NBA.
16. Luke Kennard- He ended the season as one of college basketball’s best player. And now he’s moving up draft boards and will likely be off the board before this.
My worry with Kennard is that his jump shot takes a second and he will suffer when his faces a different level of competition. But if I’m wrong about that, the Pistons will look like geniuses if they pick him higher than some of us think he should go.
17. Jordan Bell- His role is clear: switch all screens and make shots near the hoop. His ceiling is not close to many in this draft. But he’d be an immediate difference maker on so many teams. Not only does he not need to shoot or take up possessions, he should rarely shoot. A safe pick for a good team.
18. Sindarius Thornwell- A defensive beast with a good shot. He led No. 7 seed South Carolina to a Final Four with an offense that entered the tournament outside of the top 100 on KenPom.
The worry is that he struggles as he faces bigger players and his shot doesn’t stretch out. I think he has a long NBA career.
19. Johnathan Motley- This is certainly earlier than he will go, but this is where I’d take him. I’ve watched every college game he’s played and root for him. I am not objective, despite trying to be.
If he doesn’t develop a 3-point shot, he may not last too long in the NBA. If he does, he’ll be a starter.
20. Semi Ojeleye- Another guy I have higher than just about anybody else. He’s a physical force with a chance to have above average ability at nearly every aspect of basketball.
He’s old and played in a non power five league. But he seems like a guy who will stick for a while. I don’t expect him to be a top 25 player, but I think it’s more likely he’s in the NBA in 2025 than several lottery picks.
21. Justin Patton- His stock has fallen a lot since the season ended, so it’s worth remembering why he was so high early on.
He’s a good shooter with the potential to become a stretch five. With excellent size and still young, he’s worth a first round selection.
Tier 5- Potential but likely to flame out
22. Harry Giles- He was the best player in his class at 16. At 19, he’s likely never going to be close to what he was before surgery.
This is the range of the draft where someone will likely take a shot that he can rediscover what he was. At Duke he was bad. Hopefully he can be the defensive player and athlete he once was. I don’t think he will.
23. Jarrett Allen- A young guy who came on well to end the season. If his shot extends out in the NBA, he could be a stater for years. His rebounding skills are likely to translate too.
My worry with Allen is that he won’t be able to shoot quite well enough, and his pick-and-roll potential is too low. He’s not a good fit for the modern NBA.
24. John Collins- He’s flying up draft boards, but his defense is a huge problem. Danny Manning has developed a number of bigs from his days with Kansas, Tulsa and Wake Forrest, and Collins may be the most gifted on offense.
I think he’s likely to be a decent scorer in the NBA, but his defense and inability to rebound at the next level will make him a fringe rotation guy. He has a chance to be way better if he finds something to do positively on defense.
25. P.J. Dozier- Another of South Carolina’s good defensive perimeter guys. If he can develop a 3-pointer, he’ll be a starter. If he can’t, he’s not likely to make it long. That’s the modern NBA.
26. Ike Anigbogu- One of the youngest players in the draft with strong per 40 numbers. He moves well and should be a good shot blocker in the NBA. If he can’t shoot, his skills as a rebounder may not let him be playable much. Worth a selection at the end of the first.
27. Tony Bradley- Tjarks convinced me on him today. He didn’t play much at North Carolina, but he had good moments. I worry what he can do without a shot though.
28. D.J. Wilson- he made a big leap in his efficiency this season and is a fierce competitor. With a need for wings in the NBA, Wilson flashed hope that he could make it. His good end of the year run is moving him up boards.
29. Josh Hart- Finished the season as KenPom’s Player of the Year. He’s the perfect college player. Whether he can be a good NBA player when he’s the same age as the competition and they’re much more athletic is a fair question. He has potential as a small ball four, if he can keep shooting well.
30. Derrick White- Colorado’s guard has a good shot and is skilled in many areas. He’s 23, so his potential to improve is lower than many in the first half of the draft, but he could play in the NBA for a while.
My strongest beliefs are that Lonzo Ball will be fantastic and Jayson Tatum is overrated. But I have been wrong many times, and when I look back at these picks in a few years, I will have gotten plenty wrong.