As the Sixers approach their March slate of games Philadelphia should avoid picking within the lottery for the first time since the 2012 draft. They're stocking their bench with shooters as supplements to their core and don't have to rely on their own undoing to land a possible top-10 pick. The Lakers hold a 26-34 record with a revamped roster but aren't making piercing noise as a playoff contender and 10 of their next 11 are against current seeded playoff teams.
2018 might be Bryan Colangelo's coup de grace on a six-year run of lottery hauls, bolstered by the team's previous regime, and we needed quality insight as to how to prep and what we should monitor as June nears. Much obliged, Liberty Ballers talked with The Stepien's Cole Zwicker with a focus on Sixers-related questions. Cole's work can be found primarily at The Stepien, and he recently went into heavy depth about both differentiating athleticism and shot creation from wings.
Liberty Ballers: Hi Cole. How are things going?
Cole Zwicker: Going good Jake. Fun time of year with the tournament coming up and starting to move into the step of “how valuable a prospect projects to be” rather than “what a prospect is.”
LB: We’ve ventured into the conference tournament portion of this season. Who are some standout players who’ve developed some momentum?
CZ: Four players stand out here: De’Andre Hunter (Virginia), Zhaire Smith (Texas Tech), Jontay Porter (Missouri) and Shamorie Ponds (St John’s). Hunter, Smith (I’ll talk about him more below) and Porter are considered 2019 prospects by most sites, so they hadn’t received their fair share of hype until sites like ours campaigned effectively. Hunter is playing a key role for arguably the best team in the country. The 6-foot- 8 wing projects as one of the hardest archetypes to find in the league; a bigger wing who can guard combo-forward types and really switch across 4 positions. His skill level as a ball-handler and face up game is also underrated. As I’m writing this Porter just had his best game of the year in front of all the scouts who came to Vanderbilt hoping to see his brother play. Jontay is the youngest player in the class (should be a high school senior) and once you get over his athletic limitations you appreciate just how skilled and cerebral he is for a big man. Lastly, Ponds’ lower 3-point percentage mark his sophomore year is keeping people from jumping on the bandwagon despite the obvious 3-level scoring talent. Other indicators such as high free throw marks over his college career and the ease in which he converts pull-ups from NBA distance outweigh what could be small sample 3-point variance for me. He has a little Isaiah Thomas equity in terms of ceiling and is bigger with far better defensive instincts. His recent scoring barrage over the last month should put him on the map more.
LB: We'll definitely touch on Smith a little later. On your individual draft board for The Stepien you have a cluster of seven player in Tier 3. How do you value that specific tier and is there a sizable separation from Mo Bamba (No. 6) to Zhaire Smith (No. 13)?
CZ: This is a tricky tier because we’re dealing with players with star equity (Bamba, Bagley) in a traditional “all-star” sense versus players who projects as star role player types who really contribute to winning. Bamba and Bagley have higher ceilings than a Smith type, but the likelihood that Bamba reaches his or that Bagley is in position to reach his makes it possible to rank lower ceiling players but with comparable median outcomes in the same range. A lot comes down to your ranking philosophy. If you rank purely on upside, Bamba and Bagley should probably be a tier ahead potentially (although then a player like Mitchell Robinson would probably have to receive similar treatment). If you’re trying to capture the totality of outcomes and especially median outcomes, the non-Bamba/Bagley players in this tier it can be argued have cleaner avenues to value.
LB: That segues into the Lakers pick and where it currently sits; how big is the gulf from picking sixth to picking 10th is this draft?
CZ: For most teams I’d say there’s a decent gap between #6 and #10 just because one or a few of the players I value in the top 5 (Trae Young, Michael Porter, Jaren Jackson Jr.) could fall to #6 because NBA teams value players like Bamba and Bagley higher than I do. For the Sixers it’s different due to Philadelphia’s very clear non-need for bigs, but there’s still a drop-off IF Young or Porter for example make it to #6. If I did a Sixers-centric big board Mikal Bridges would be in the top 5, and it’s likely he’s available at #10 and more valuable to the Sixers than a Bamba or Bagley type at #6 should that reality arise (doubtful). The Sixers have their primaries in place, especially if Fultz returns to form, which lessens the blow of going from Trae to a Mikal type, even though it’s still a downgrade in my opinion.
LB: That's comforting to note based on your evaluation. Who do you think could be a prime faller among the consensus top-6 that draftniks have?
CZ: Trae Young seems like the most obvious candidate if we’re talking faller in the actual draft due to his tools deficiencies and production drop-off in conference play. The history of non-outlier athlete guards at his size projecting to the NBA is dicey and it will be hard for executives to ignore the Jimmer Fredette and Trey Burke parallels. A big like Jaren Jackson Jr, could also slide a little due to positional demand at the top of the draft and the fact he isn’t viewed through the same upside lens as some of his counterparts, but Jackson has the physical tools that make his fall unlikely to last long.
LB: And the team might have the capital to move up if they view one of the fallers in a different light than their peers. Local fans will naturally stan for when Mikal Bridges is available during their selection. Leaving with the toolsy swingman would be a successful draft regardless of other selections for you?
CZ: Mikal would be a huge win for the Sixers. He’s worth more to the Sixers than most teams given that Philadelphia’s creation core is already intact. Bridges provides the Sixers exactly what they need: a versatile wing who can guard smaller players especially and space the floor offensively. Bridges could be a Danny Green/Shane Battier type role player on Philly, and there is a touch more shot diversity upside with him at his ceiling. But yes, adding one of the most complete 3&D wings with instincts, feel and some offensive upside to come around the draft in the last 5 years would be a hell of a pick.
LB: Another name that’s surfaced as a lottery grab this year is Zhaire Smith. Comparative to Bridges, could he be polished enough to provide value in the late lottery?
CZ: Smith is actually pretty polished if he doesn’t have to fill a high usage creation role, which he wouldn’t have to do in Philly. He shows great instincts and feel on both sides of the floor playing in a team construct, and if you refine his role to spot up shooting, cutting, moving the ball and defense, I think he can play a role immediately. The shot isn’t a shoe-in of course, which is one of the reasons I have Bridges higher in that tier. But Smith’s athleticism and IQ intersection could allow him to play a bigger and better team defender Avery Bradley type role for the Sixers if the shot translates.
LB: Bryan Colangelo also has a wealth of seconds to maneuver with and potentially stash. Can you go on record being an advocate of utilizing the picks instead of selling them?
CZ: I’ll never advocate for trading a basketball asset for a non-basketball asset. The hit rate in the second round of course is miniscule, but it only takes one hit like a Draymond Green or Khris Middleton to change your franchise. On a lesser scale, even Jordan Bell makes a difference being an impactful NBA player. You think the Bulls wish they could have that one back?
LB: Most definitely and at least Jonah Bolden's production overseas provides some relief. Depth has been a pronounced issue this season. Are there any wings worth monitoring in our periphery alongside a Sixers playoff stretch?
CZ: Jacob Evans (Cincinnati), De’Anthony Melton (USC) Josh Okogie (Georgia Tech), Kenrich Williams (TCU), Josh Reaves (Penn State), Shake Milton (SMU), Melvin Frazier (Tulane), Khyri Thomas (Creighton) and Gary Trent (Duke) are all worth monitoring. I have Evans and Melton in my personal top 20, but both come with risk to the Sixers (Evans is more of a team defender than an impactful on-ball defender and Melton’s shot can’t be confidently projected). Reaves might be the best defensive fit of the bunch but his shot similar to Melton’s is rickety. Same goes for Frazier. On the other side of the coin, guys like Trent can shoot but aren’t going to defend. The happy medium here might be Okogie, Milton, or Thomas because they are good bets to shoot and also be respectable defensively, although none project as valuable defenders in my opinion. Williams is one of the smartest players in the country but is more of a Jared Dudley type team defender than quick twitch on-ball defender of the guards that exploit the Sixers. But in terms of value and the way the Sixers move the ball Williams would be a fun fit (he might not even get drafted due to age). It’s a pretty deep class of wings depending on who declares.
LB: Maybe watching some Georgia Tech, SMU and Creighton tape is in the cards moving forward. Finally, to our last question of interest: The Sixers will enter with both the Lakers pick, their own and three seconds. What’s your reasonably ideal outcome that will best suit them moving forward?
CZ: Operating from the current standings projection (10th and 16th picks in the first round) and dealing more in a realistically ideal outcome sense rather than fanciful thinking, snagging Mikal at 10 and either Smith (if he declares) or Troy Brown (Oregon wing if he declares) at 16 doubling-down on wing equity seems like an ideal first round outcome, especially if Markelle continues to show some progress in his return. I will say, if there are real reasons to doubt whether Markelle will return to his prior form, I might look to package both firsts to move up for Trae. Philadelphia will probably be too good in the future to acquire another high-level core piece via the draft, and with the Lakers pick expecting to convey to the Sixers the Kings landing the #1 pick in 2019 in a more egalitarian lottery system becomes the last recourse for the Sixers to add an elite core piece. But that’s a pessimistic stance, and let’s assume Fultz makes a full recovery. I want as many shots at wings as possible. I’d package multiple seconds to move up into the late first for a player like Melton who can guard smaller perimeter players and fit well in a team construct. The Sixers are unlikely to keep all 5 picks, and this international class from what limited tape I’ve watched beyond Doncic isn’t that alluring. I don’t think you’re getting a Jonah Bolden type international stash caliber player this year, so packaging multiple seconds for a higher pick or a veteran who can actually help the Sixers long-term is the smart play. DO NOT SELL THE PICKS.
LB: We at Liberty Ballers and the Sixers faithful wholeheartedly agree with you on that sentiment. Thanks, Cole. We appreciate the valuable Sixers-centric insight.