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Marc Whittington's Draft Thoughts and Big Board

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Plenty of surprises on this big board, including some notable omissions.

Roberto Serra/Iguana Press/Getty Images

I feel like I've missed almost all of the draft discussion this year, and I've been pining for a release for some of my unorthodox draft opinions. They don't really fit in a normal LB post, so I decided to just write a fan post to generate some discussion (or else, allow y'all to rehash some of what I've missed while I haven't been paying attention), and to put my thoughts down in one place. Would love to swap ideas and talk about what we think about this draft.

I've read Rubes' posts over at Deep(ish) Thoughts (or at least skimmed most of them; dude is not short on words), and I think he makes a lot of really smart points about traits that bring value at the NBA-level, and the things to look for in prospects to best implement those traits. That said, I disagree with many of the prospects he has touted, which is good, because life would be boring if everyone agreed all the time.

I think the most important points that he brings up are:

1. The fear of being different and wrong, leading to group think rankings and a poor understanding of why prognosticators have been wrong, which then leads to a repetition of previous mistakes.

2. The importance of being a primary initiator on offense in order to reach superstar level.

3. The importance and continued undervaluing of defense. This is especially true for bigs, for whom it is the most important factor in determining their future NBA viability. Championship-contending teams don't have poor defenders at the 4 and 5 positions.

I'll add a component of my own that is important in the NBA generally, but can also be critically important in enabling prospects to reach their fullest potential-- Teams putting players in position to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. It should go without saying that this is a key part of team building, but I think it should be an important part of prospect evaluation as well. I think the biggest issue with a lot of traditional draft evaluation is that they assess every prospect as if they're looking for superstars. The reality is, there are only 1-2 superstars per draft in the best of drafts, but that the next best players from each draft can often bring lots of value even without creating their own shot at will.

So this year, when I have looked at prospects, I've tried to imagine how their current skillset might fit into the NBA if they were put into a role that maximized their strengths as much as possible. This is why the Spurs have had so much success drafting so late in the draft-- they don't ask Danny Green (I know they didn't draft him, but he's an important representation for this point) or Kyle Anderson to run the offense and create great shots on every possession. Instead, they let Anderson operate as a secondary ball handler, where his lack of athleticism isn't exposed, but his vision and passing creativity are able to shine; and they ask Green to focus on playing outstanding defense and hitting his jumpers, without ever having to demonstrate his terrible handle.

I think this is a really important thing to incorporate into prospect evals. Too often, the focus is on all of the individual components of scoring that a player can or (most often) cannot do, when instead it should be about his strengths, and how to put him in positions that minimize what he can't do.

I've already written way too many words and haven't even gotten to my board, so I'll just jump in and try to explain thinking as I go. This is a general board, not Sixers-specific (aka: There ARE bigs on this board).

1. Ben Simmons: PF, 19 years old, 6'10 / 6'11 wingspan
DX: 2; Ford: 1

I briefly had Ingram slotted above Simmons about a month and a half ago. That lasted about a week before I quickly reversed, and now I no longer think it's even remotely close.

My piece on draft age really impacted how I view the search for superstars. I think it's really important to note that there is very rarely more than one in a given draft class, and that traditional scouts are usually pretty good at finding them. Also, the most impactful superstars are almost always either primary initiators, or else destructive two-way big men. Simmons is the only player in this class with the ball handling and creation skills to reach that highest ceiling. Ingram is an average initiator and creator now, and far behind where Simmons was as a high school senior. If there's a future Top 5 player in this draft, it's Ben Simmons, not Brandon Ingram.

I think defensive concerns are overblown right now. Simmons still managed to have a big impact on that end even while playing out of position in a zone, and being forced to play the 5. When he was dialed in and trying, he was a shutdown defender, and he created enough defensive events that he was effective even with all his help-D mistakes.

As for the "mental" concerns-- mental make-up is important. It's not something to dismiss. However, armchair psycho-analyzing a teenager based on body language when he's trapped on a crap team during a year he'd rather be anywhere else? I put zero emphasis on that right now. If I were a GM, I'd be sure to pay careful attention to an interview with Simmons. As I am not privy to any information about these players beyond their on court production, my default view is that they all want to work hard to have a career in basketball.

2. Brandon Ingram: SF/PF, 18 years old, 6'10 / 7'3
DX: 1; Ford: 2

I think Ingram's ceiling is quite a bit below Simmons'. But he's also pretty clearly the second best prospect in this class. I don't ever see him as a primary creator. His handle isn't consistently strong enough, and he lacks a first step to beat his defender at will. He's very clear a Durant-lite, and Durant-lite is maybe a Top 15 player rather than an annual MVP candidate. Still, there's so much to like in his profile, that he's an easy choice here.

3. Dragan Bender: PF/C, 18 years old, 7'1 / 7'0
DX: 3; Ford: 3

Again, this is a pretty obvious choice. Very little info about his Maccabi season, but I'm going to trust previous scouting enough to leave him here. Things that could make him a real franchise cornerstone:

1. His potential to switch on perimeter players.

2. His shot blocking.

3. His passing.

4. His shooting.

Defense and passing are by far his most important traits. He's tall enough to play center, so the shooting is a bonus.

4. Wade Baldwin IV: PG/SG, 20 years old, 6'4 / 6'11
DX: 15; Ford: 36

First off, Chad Ford is an idiot. I can't stand him, and his Baldwin ranking is so, so dumb.

I love Baldwin.

But if you're expecting him to become a Westbrook-lite or a Rondo with a shot, you're going to be disappointed. He doesn't have a strong handle or first step, and, while he gets fouled a lot, he's a very poor finisher at the rim. A more accurate hope would be Patrick Beverley with more creation, or George Hill. Neither operates as a primary creator on offense, but they shoot spot ups incredibly well, Hill can attack a scrambled defense, and they move the ball well. The most attractive part of both (and Baldwin) is their elite point guard defense. With his awesome frame and ridiculous wingspan, Baldwin has a very high defensive ceiling at the point of attack.

This is where the fallacy of searching for a superstar comes in, I think. George Hill isn't an outcome most GM's look for at the 4th pick. But it's a really good outcome! In draft history, players approximating Hill's peak BPM are approximately 2nd through 4th in a normal draft. Hill himself has had the 4th highest BPM peak in the loaded 2008 class. That's a really good outcome! And something I think teams should be shooting for at any point in the draft. (Note: I don't think he's the 4th best player out of that class. But you could make an argument that he's anywhere from the 4th to the 9th best player, all of which would be respectable outcomes for the 4th overall pick). Instead, teams will talk themselves into Jaylen Brown's "superstar potential" because of his freakish tools, even though the dude doesn't have the slightest clue how to play basketball. Value comes in many ways; primary scorers aren't the only impact picks a team can make.

5. Timothe Luwawu: SG/SF, 21 years old, 6'7 / 6'10ish
DX: 14; Ford: 28

Admittedly, my Euro placements are based on considerably less info, and I'm therefore thin slicing the crap out of them. My worry with Luwawu is that he's not actually as good of a defender as scouts are projecting him to be. Too frequently, scouts see NBA-level tools and assume a player will defend at the next level, even if he hasn't at his current level. I think that's wrong. So if Luwawu isn't currently a real plus defender, you can drop him to the late lottery.

Jake's done a nice scouting write-up of Luwawu. I think he's got a chance to be a Nic Batum level player, which is definitely someone capable of being your #3 on a championship team.

6. Denzel Valentine: SG/SF, 22 years old, 6'6 / 6'11
DX: 12; Ford: 13

I'm all in on Valentine. He's going to be an awesome 6th man. His vision and decision-making is tops in this class, he is a knockdown shooter, he's an outstanding rebounder for his position, and his defensive fundamentals are solid as an Izzo player.

I don't think he'll be a lockdown defender, but I also don't think he'll actively hurt teams on the defensive end. I see no reason not to think about him at 5, which could be the Lakers pick.

7. Kris Dunn: PG, 22 years old, 6'4 / 6'10
DX: 4; Ford: 4

Dunn is one of the players I'm least certain of how to rank on a Big Board. I simultaneously think he'll be a starting caliber point guard, and that if you're serious about contending for a championship, he can't start on your team. And that's a really strange conundrum as far as ranking players, because I see him as having a better outcome than many other players, but others may better contribute to a top team.

So I'll compromise and put him here, while saying I probably wouldn't draft him at 7 if it were me.

The problem is that Dunn can't play off ball, but his turnovers are too big of a problem for him to run a top offense. While TO rate doesn't correlate well from the NCAA to the NBA, much of that is due to changing roles within offense. In Dunn's case, it's unlikely his role would be reduced, as he can only play the lead guard role.

So you're left with a wildly talented player who handicaps a team just enough to put a hard ceiling on its potential if he is the primary distributor and initiator. I guess he can be 7th on my board.

8. Chinanu Onuaku: C, 19 years old, 6'10 / 7'3
DX: 38; Ford: 70

Center matters for defense, first and foremost. I don't care if my center scores 2 points a game, as long as he protects the rim and boards. Teams don't seriously contend for championships starting centers who are minus defenders. Any offensive production is gravy.

Not coincidentally, Onuaku is the best defensive center in the college basketball. He's got an awesome Defensive Box Plus Minus of 10.5, and is the same age Karl-Anthony Towns was as a freshman. In fact his 10.8 DBPM is equal to Towns' at the same age. Towns has better tools, but Onuaku is no joke on D.

After rebounding merely adequately as a freshman, Onuaku was a beast this year, too, grabbing over a quarter of all available defensive rebounds. Over the last two years, only Ben Simmons (yeah, he's a beast) has been better. It might be a bit fluky, bit it's still encouraging, especially at Onuaku's age. (Embiid and Vonleh were at 27% in 2014. Embiid was a ridiculous prospect.)

On offense, he lacks a lot of refinement. But he is a smart player, with a very high assist rate for a big man, and has made some really fancy finds for his teammates. Beyond that, why does he need to do anything other than screen and dive for dunks? Scouts continuing fixation on needing big men to score in the post is bewildering to me, as the most efficient centers have been one skill dunkers like Tyson Chandler and DeAndre Jordan for a few years now.

Plus, the kid shoots free throws granny style. Seeing him continue to do that at the NBA Combine this week was one of the most endearing moments I can remember in the draft lead up.

9. Patrick McCaw: SG, 20 years old, 6'7 / 6'10
DX: 31; Ford: 37

Passing and defense are McCaw's calling cards. He was an ace creating for his teammates, sporting an AST% of 22% and a sparkling AST:TO ratio of 1.9. Part of these numbers may be his lack of comfort creating offense for himself. He's hesitant to shoot at times, and has trouble beating his defender off the dribble.

Still, a defender who does nothing but move the ball successfully and shoot spot-up triples is a good player. And McCaw can provide all of that easily. JZ Mazlish (one of my favorite draft guys, and definitely someone worth following on Twitter if you like the draft) wrote about why his shot might be more promising than his percentages suggest. And really, his percentages suggest he has a decent possibility to shoot at the next level.

With a STL% near 4% this year, he's an ace defender who digs in and knows how to create events. He sometimes overplays screens, but he's one of the best 3-and-D prospects in the draft.

10. Deyonta Davis, C: 19 years old, 6'11 / 7'3
DX: 10; Ford: 14

Like Onuaku, he's a defensive beast at a young age lacking "offensive polish." As far as I'm concerned, if he defends in space, blocks shots, and rebounds, all he needs to do on offense is grab lobs and stuff them in the hole. Like Onuaku, he's slightly undersized at the center position, but I think he'll be productive.

11. DeAndre Bembry: SG/SF, 21 years old, 6'6 / 6'9
DX: 29; Ford: 24

Bembry does everything you could ask for a wing player to do except shoot. Friday's 5-on-5 demonstrated why he's a NBA player. While he only scored 5 points, he had 3 assists, 4 rebounds, and a block, making an impact without needing to score.

My only worry with Bembry is his shot. He has solid mechanics, but in three years at St. Joe's, he has never really gotten it to fall effectively, and his free throw percentages have never even reached the high 60's. If he can't shoot, he'll struggle to be impactful. 12 seems like a good place to bet on his shot coming around.

12. Isaia Cordinier: SG/SG, 19 years old, 6'5 / 6'8
DX: 39; Ford: 58

Cordinier looked really bad at the Hoop Summit. He wasn't put in any position to succeed, but it caused me to be a bit more cautious on him.

He appears to have a lot of the tools, but it's hard to find tape of him, and his competition hasn't been good, all of which makes me nervous about selecting him very high. Still, I don't see any reason not to take a flyer on someone with tools who appears to be a plus defender, shooter, and passer. Plus he's one of the younger prospects in the draft.

13. Daniel Hamilton: SG/SF, 20 years old, 6'8 / 6'8
DX: 88; Ford: 64

If I'm going to swing on a wing, I want to swing on someone who knows how to play, who defends the crap out of the ball, and who has a chance to be a plus shooter.

Hamilton did everything for UConn the last two years. He had a 29% AST rate this year, had the highest rebound rate among the 22 wings I looked at, handled point duties, took care of the ball, and defended really well. He doesn't have a sexy wingspan, but he has all the tools necessary to be a plus defender on the wing.

His biggest flags are his shooting and his FG% both of which were concerning in his two college seasons. Shooting wise, there are positive signs. For starters, he shot 86% from the line this year. Second, he had one of the highest rates of unassisted 3FGA's of any wing prospect. Only 70% of his 3-point makes were assisted according to Hoop-Math, which is very low. For reference, 95% of Ingram's makes and 89% of Jamal Murray's were assisted. If Hamilton's shot quality were improved in an NBA offense, his 3-point shooting could come around, too.

The other cause for his low FG and TS percentages was his shot selection. He took a LOT of self-created mid-range jumpers and floaters. And he generally had difficulty getting to the rim. My hope is that this could be coached out of him, and if he weren't constantly creating at the point of attack, he would have an easier time reaching the basket.

I think Hamilton is a great prospect and massively underrated across the traditional sites. I have no idea how DraftExpress sees 87 superior prospects to a two-way wing with great size and strong creation ability.

(Addendum: Apparently he didn't look great in 5-on-5 last week and tested poorly athletically. I'm certainly not going to put more weight on a glorified pick-up game than on two seasons of college play, but it's also not something to ignore completley. I'll leave him here for now.)

14. Dedric Lawson: SF/PF, 18 years old, 6'8 / 7'3

DX: 80; Ford: 44

I made this comparison once, and I can't unsee it. His best case is Marvin Williams or Harry Barnes. A big, long wing who offers stretch 4 ability, but whose only real offense comes off of spot-ups or assisted dunks. (And yes, that is me saying I would absolutely not give Barnes a max).

He rebounds and he blocks shots. He's really young, and he shoots it respectably well already. He passes well and he gets to the line. Worth a shot at this point.

Lawson tested as one of the very worst athletes at the Combine last week. I think this is a great example for why those drills are overly relied upon. Despite apparently being a poor athlete, Lawson had outlier athletic stats in blocks, steals, and rebounds. If he's a poor athlete by NBA standards, it's certainly not affecting his gameplay.

For example, Lawson has only a 28 inch vertical, but blocked 5.1% of opponents' shots while on the floor. Malachi Richardson, meanwhile, can jump 10 inches higher, but blocks less than a fifth the number of shots that Lawson does. Why should Richardson's athleticism be more enticing than someone who can actually maximize his body's abilities in gameplay? After all, these players are selected for their ability to play basketball, not for how cool they look when they jump.

15. Robert Carter: PF/C, 22 years old, 6'9 / 7'3
DX: 44; Ford: 49

I summed this up a few months ago, and nothing has really changed my opinion since then. Carter is a big who:

1. Defends in space
2. Shoots
3. Blocks shots

Those are the holy grail of skillsets you want from a big in the NBA right now, and he can do all three. He's not going to be the offensive focal point or even the defensive focal point of a team, but he's going to be a rotation-quality player who plays on both provides everything you want from his position without taking anything important away. He could easily become a Draymond Green-lite as a 4 who doe s alittle of everything. He rebounds adequately and passes far above average for a big man (15.5% AST rate) to add to his already strong skill set.

Carter is not going to be a star, but he's going to be a useful players, and he's the type of player I want on my team. I know exactly what his role will be and how he'll fit in at the next level.

16. Jakob Poeltl: C, 20 years old, 7'1 / 7'2
DX: 8; Ford: 9

I'm remarkably unexcited about Poeltl. I think he's a fine center prospect with a high floor, and he'll likely have a nice career in the league. But I don't know that I ever see him as a Top 10-15 center.

I will say this in his defense, though: Poeltl's defensive impact fell off a cliff this year, even as he showed a massively improved offensive skillset that few scouts expected to see from him this year. I think the two are directly related. Poeltl was Utah's entire offense this year, initiating from the elbows, doubling his assist rate while upping his usage and continuing to score efficiently. That's tiring. It's entirely plausible that it took a toll on the Austrian, and that he expended all his energy on offense, preventing him from giving the same energy on the opposite side of the floor.

At the NBA level, he won't be asked to do as much offensively, and I think his defense will bounce back for it. While the dip in numbers this year is worrying, I'm less concerned about it than I would have been if he hadn't been such a good defender as a freshman.

17. Taurean Prince, SF/PF, 21 years old, 6'8 / 7'0
DX: 18; Ford: 33

Big and athletic, a prototypical 3-and-D prospect. The problem is that he has never actually played defense well enough to merit high expectations on that end.

18. Gary Payton II, PG, 22 years old, 6'3 / 6'8
DX: 48; Ford: 47

23 year old rookie.

It's a real shame that Payton's first collegiate season was at 21 years old, because it's hard to know how impactful he would have been at a young age. If he had produced similarly as a frosh as he did as a junior, I would have no qualms about sticking him higher. As it stands, this is the best I feel comfortable with.

He looks likely to be an outstanding defender at the point of attack, and a useful role player on offense. He lacks the creation ability and handle to be a team's primary creator, but he can still hurt a defense as a bench player or alongside a better ball handler.

The problem with Payton will always be his shot. At almost 23, it's dubious that he'll be able to fix it.

19. Brice Johnson, PF/C, 22 years old, 6'11 / 7'0
DX: 30; Ford: 29

He was really productive this year. All he needs to do is rebound, dunk, and guard off the bench, and he can be a plus player in the league, and he does all of those things at the college level. My worry is that he was really bad as a freshman. Players who see large increases in production as their peers age out of college concern me. I like Brice well enough, so I'll stick him here for now.

20. Caris LeVert, SG/SF, 21 years old, 6'7 / 6'10
DX: 46; 32

This is assuming he can get healthy. If his medical report is scary, I wouldn't touch him.

LeVert has all the secondary offensive skills you can ask of a wing. He's a knockdown shooter off the catch or the bounce, he was a de facto point guard at Michigan, displaying great passing skills, and he can attack close-outs well. He's unlikely to be a positive defender, but he has the tools not to be a negative, and he isn't a negative now. At 20, he's worth taking a shot at, if healthy.

Notable Omissions:

Jaylen Brown: I don't think he can play. He can't shoot, and he doesn't look likely to figure it out. His only skill involves careening towards the hoop and hoping the refs will bail him out. I've said this on Twitter plenty, but he can't play on-ball because of his TO rate, and he can't play off-ball because he can't shoot. As an average defender, how is he brining value at the next level? I don't think he is.

Jamal Murray, Buddy Hield, Furkan Korkmaz: These players all have one skill-- shooting. That's an important skill, but it doesn't make them plus players on their own. You can always pick up a shooter who can't defend on the free agent market. Why should you waste a high leverage draft pick to develop one? All three players struggle to create for others, can't rebound, and don't play D. Murray and Hield have turnover problems to boot. I'll pass.

Skal Labissiere, Marquese Chriss: Have you ever seen these guys grab a rebound? I sure haven't. (I have. I watched a lot of NCAA ball.) Presuming either Skal or Chriss will be impact player projects too much development as rebounders and passers for me to feel comfortable drafting them. No thanks.

Henry Ellenson: Remember when I said 4's and 5's have to defend? Ellenson can't defend a sloth in a skirt. He has the tools, so perhaps there's hope for him, but he had the worst defensive stats of all the bigs I looked at, and the tape backs it up.

Malachi Richardson, Malik Beasley: These guys have been getting a lot of buzz recently. But there's very little separating them from the shooting triumvirate above. They're both one-way players who don't create for others or provide any defense. So they can score against college defenders; that doesn't mean they'll be impactful against NBA defenders.

Demetrius Jackson: He's more athlete than he is great basketball player. He shows flashes of ability, but he doesn't do enough on a consistent enough basis to make me believe he'll be a starting point guard.

Final Note on Athletic Testing:

DeMarcus Cousins: 27.5" max vertical
Rudy Gobert: 29" max vertical
David West: 31.5" max vertical
Kawhi Leonard: 32" max vertical
Draymond Greettn: 33" max vertical
Danny Green: 33" max vertical
Shane Battier: 33" max vertical

These are some of the best players of the last 10 years. All of them have what could be considered "below average" athletic testing measurements, and yet they all had great success at the NBA level. This shows me that athletic testing should be taken as important data only insofar as it supplements existing knowledge about a player's game. If someone can jump out of the gym, but can't leverage that athleticism into defensive production, I shouldn't put more weight on his athleticism than a weaker athlete who locks down opponents and creates defensive events.

Of course athleticism matters. LeBron wouldn't be LeBron without his insane physical tools. But it only matters when it can be harnessed into discrete game occurrences. And frequently, those who know how to use their bodies best may lack some of those tools. I prefer to emphasize game play over combine results, and I won't downgrade Lawson, Hamilton, or Carter too much because they showed poorly in testing.

That's it for my thoughts. Sorry this was so freaking long. It's really hard to write cogent draft thoughts about more than a few prospects without rambling on for an ice age. Let me know what you agree with and what you disagree with!