This piece will contain an updated ranking, sticking mostly to the top 13 prospects.
We’ve now gone through one weekend of the NCAA tournament. That means time to make irrational, myopic and short-sighted conclusions which fundamentally alter the nature of lists you made less than two weeks ago. Because really, what’s the use of being myopic if you can’t be short-sighted too? So here we go.
1) At the top, we still have Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball. I personally like Lonzo Ball better. I like the possibilities Ball allows in terms of team building. However, what ultimately decides which player is better in the future is team context, which player ends up in the best situation. You’d have to love either player’s chances if they end up somehow in Denver or Philadelphia.
2) If I’m Portland and I get a top two pick, I start taking offers for Damian Lillard immediately. CJ McCollum is not a bad defender. He more than held his own when playing behind Lillard and Matthews.
That’s because he was very often defending Point Guards. That role suits McCollum. At that, he might be an even up defender, even were he to get starter’s minutes.
What’s wrong with CJ McCollum now is that he’s being asked to do things he can’t do. (Lock and trail. Off-ball defense vs. bigger players.) Of course, Lillard can do neither. So picking between Lillard and McCollum should be an easy decision.
I don’t believe that much in the single player metrics to which we have access. Though if we were to buy into them, we’d see Lillard is a +4 to +5 offensive player, but always going to be a -2 defender or worse. Whereas McCollum is a +3 to +3.5 offensive player, but, were he in the right role, could be even up on defense. At least that would be my bet. And even if I’m wrong and McCollum is a -1 defender, he’s still basically an equivalent player to Lillard overall.
That’s why trading Lillard in such a situation would make so much sense. Lillard is bound to have more value to the league, but the players values to Portland are roughly equivalent, especially if Portland can get a big passer who can play the smaller Wing position on defense. We talk abut Ball being better suited to shooting guard on defense, but it’s highly possible that Fultz is better suited to that position as well.
3) If Portland wants to trade McCollum and the Sixers are stuck with the 6th pick in the draft, McCollum might make a lot of sense. Arguably, in many of the better scenarios for Malik Monk, he turns out a lot like CJ McCollum.
4) CJ McCollum’s career is illustrative of some of the problems that may face many of the players in this draft class, specifically those with cross matched offensive and defensive skills. I’m talking about Malik Monk and OG Anunoby to be sure, but also potentially Lonzo Ball, Markelle Fultz, Jayson Tatum, Josh Jackson, and Jevon Carter. Players who offensive skills might play best at one position, while their defensive abilities more naturally fit another.
5) In the second tier, I now have De’Aaron Fox, Josh Jackson, Robert Williams, Malik Monk, Jonathan Isaac, OG Anunoby, and Zach Collins. Likely in that order.
6) Fox is 3rd because he has the highest upside. His speed is potentially a killer, and his shot is by no means broken. Though he may need some time to stretch his range, and he may never get there. However, not shooting is not the most dangerous situation for Fox, even in today’s NBA. A point guard can get by without shooting threes, and anyone who thinks otherwise clearly isn’t paying attention to the careers or Tony Parker or Russell Westbrook.
That’s not to say the player doesn’t need to shoot. This kind of player needs to be proficient 15 feet and in and needs to be able to score in the paint. He also needs to be paired with lots of shooters so that lanes to the paint are available. That’s the most dangerous situation for a player like Fox. Being drafted to a team with a bunch of bricklayers, a team like the Michael Carter-Williams era Sixers. So watching team context for Fox is going to be especially important.
It’s very likely I’m lower on him after the draft than I am before it.
7) I don’t believe in Josh Jackson being a player of extraordinary upside. I do believe in him being possibly a borderline Top 20 guy. His Point-of-Attack defense is overrated. His athleticism is overrated. His potential to initiate at the NBA level is overrated, at least if we’re putting Jackson in the midst of a capable offense.
Yet, Jackson still has real defensive strengths which could be very valuable in an off-ball or weakside role. He also has real athleticism. It’s only that he’s probably somewhere between the 10th and 20th best athlete at a Wing position for the duration of his career and not a truly elite guy. And Jackson has real offensive ability. He’s probably not elite in any one area, but he can dribble, pass and shoot. Most of the time, he makes reasonably good decisions.
What you’re betting on with Jackson is that there’s legitimate Two-Way ability and that his coach is smart enough to realize his strengths and limitations on defense. For instance, if you want to guard Lebron or Kawhi or Jimmy Butler, I don’t think Jackson is going to provide much resistance.
8) 5th through 9th you can order pretty much anyway you want. You want Isaac 5th, that’s fine. The reason I don’t have him higher? I don’t believe in his feel. When I watch him, a great portion of the time I’m left wondering if he knows what he’s doing? Even if I believe Isaac has higher upside than Josh Jackson, that lack of on court sense makes him a lot less likely to realize it. Players with questionable BBIQ almost never turn out as good as you might expect them to be.
Rasheed Wallace, one of the most gifted players ever to step foot on a basketball court, is a good example of this. Rasheed Wallace was great. A legitimate all-star type player. But watching him always left one with the feeling that he could have been so much more. He could hit threes, yes. But he was also unstoppable in the post, adding to his height-length-athleticism package a wide array of post moves that made him virtually indefensible. And yet he defensed himself by choosing to stand on the three point-line for vast swathes of time.
9) I’ve gone over Malik Monk’s upside a good amount. Everyone can see the package is not without risk. He has to shoot. He’s a good bet to do so, but he has to do it. The thing is, almost every perimeter player has to shoot. With but a few exceptions.
10) Robert Williams whole profile comes down to one question: Are his deficiencies because of poor conditioning or are they because of lack of consistent hustle and effort? If they are because of the former, he’s a top 5 player in the class. So long as he’s willing to put in the work and tries hard on the court, I have little doubt that he’s going to be one of the players from this class we are talking about ten years from now. However, if Williams just isn’t hustling, just isn’t putting in consistent effort, I have no doubt he’s an NBA guy, but I’ll pass on him entirely. In that case, he’s a bonus big.
Whatever NBA team figures out how to answer this question will potentially get the steal of the draft or perhaps save themselves a lot of heartache.
11) Collins is a Center who can hit three point-shots, can finish inside, and can even play a little defense. Centers are everywhere in the league, and Collins leaves a lot to be desired as a passer. But if you can get away with a non-passer at one position, it’s Center. Threes+Rim Protection. Offense+Defense. Those are good combinations.
12) That leaves Anunoby. There’s a very good chance he fails. He has no clear cut offensive skill except offensive rebounding and finishing in close. But he also has a chance to be a Wing with a +3, +4 or even +5 defensive outcome. Those guys rarely come around.
That’s not to say he’s there. His defense is still very inconsistent and as much a hypothesis as it is a reality. But he’s the kind of guy, it’s worth gambling on so far as a jump shot. If he Anunoby turns out well, everyone regrets passing on him and people are writing articles asking about how he went 15 or 20th ten years from now. And Anunoby doesn’t necessarily even need to shoot all that well to make that happen. He only needs to be good enough to keep the defense honest.
13) One caveat on Isaac: If a team that believes Isaac can put enough muscle on his frame to play Center consistently, Isaac might be in the tier above this one. He has great timing and an excellent ability to contest shots at the rim, and for the Center position Isaac’s feel and offense would profile as a step and a half below special. (Shaq, Wilt, Kareem, Jokic, Hakeem are special.) His frame doesn’t necessarily make that a great bet, but I’m also not a strength and conditioning coach.
14) The next tier: Dennis Smith, Jr. Miles Bridges, Jayson Tatum and Sindarius Thornwell.
15) Dennis Smith, Jr. He’s not Steve Francis. He’s like half of Steve Francis in that he’s vertically explosive without being particularly laterally gifted. But also without the part where Steve Francis played defense.
With Dennis Smith, Jr. you are betting on his jump shot. You are betting big-time on his jump shot. It’s unlikely he lives at the rim in the NBA, since he mostly only gets there vs. mismatches or in transition and semi-transition situations. I think Smith Jr. can make shots. However, I’m not betting on him to be elite and think even so, he kind of personifies “The Wrong Initiator.”
He could be good, but likely he won’t be good enough to offset his weaknesses, and likely he’s worth more to whatever team drafts him as a trade chip than as a player. Best case scenario seems to be a guy about as valuable as Damian Lillard, similar strengths and weaknesses. That guy can take his team to the 2nd round of the playoffs in a good year.
16) I like Miles Bridges >>>>>>>>>> more than Tatum. Did you see how Tatum couldn’t do anything on Thornwell or Dozier vs. South Carolina? That’s the point I’ve been making about Tatum all year. During the regular season, Tatum might be successful, but he’s also a player teams are going to be able to game plan against in the playoffs, which makes him the kind of a guy whose the 4th or 5th best offensive player on Championship team. He’s much more likely to get paid handsomely by a mediocre team than end up that guy.
Tatum also just isn’t very good defensively. But if you want a guy whose going to play in the NBA for decade, Tatum is a good bet. The best argument for him being higher than this is that he’s likely to carry a lot of trade value moving forward. (That’s a common theme with this group of players. Other than perhaps Thornwell.)
17) Miles Bridges might be slightly less likely to shoot than Tatum, but he’s legitimately strong enough to play Power Forward and has big-time vertical explosion. He’s going to have to shoot moving forward and not a 100% bet to do so. However, that’s not why I don’t like him higher than this.
What I don’t like about Miles Bridges is his defense. He looks like an average at best defender who might game individual metrics by rebounding well and playing in good offensive units.
18) Otto Porter, Jr. is another version of this kind of player. He’s going to get paid. But how is Washington going to make the leap from mid-tier playoff team to contender with so much money tied up in Wall, Beal and Porter Jr?
19) Sindarius Thornwell. You want a POA 3&D guy who might be able to attack a closeout and has solid BBIQ? In this class, Thornwell is probably you’re best bet. At the college level, his strength is a major advantage. It won’t be nearly so much so at the NBA level. That’s not to say he’s without speed and quickness. He completely took Jayson Tatum out of his element and also looked at home against Luke Kennard. Those guys have a good chance to play in the NBA and neither of them is getting more athletic. So at least we know, there’s a group of players Thornwell should be able to affect.
But it’s also possible he can hold his own against bigger, more athletic guys, against whom superior strength is less an asset than an utter necessity. I’m talking about guys like Lebron and Kawhi. Though that remains something of a question. Still, I think you could be pretty confident with him in a role similar to that of Danny Green. He likely won’t be as good a shooter, but he’s good enough at making shots in college that his shot is worth the gamble.
20) Shooting really is a gamble for almost every player. And Thornwell isn’t the only guy to learn how to shoot late in his career. Check out Wesley Matthews. Or if you want, Matt Barnes and DeMarre Carroll.
21) Who’s in the next group? Mikal Bridges, Jevon Carter, Jawun Evans, Allonzo Trier, Cameron Oliver, Donovan Mitchell and Bruce Brown. Bridges and Carter are my personal favorites of this group. I like them as players.
Terence Davis, De’Anthony Melton, Kamar Baldwin, Markis McDuffie and Andrew Jones all interest me as players, but they should all return to school. The NBA would eat them alive. Readiness to enter the league really does give the player a better chance to succeed, not least of all because it makes it more likely that a team will invest in their future.
22) Still missing from the list. Bigs who don’t figure to play defense. Guys like Josh Hart or Jeremy Morgan who figure to rank at the back end of the 1st when underclassmen return to school.