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NBA Draft Big Board: An Introduction and Tier 4 Rankings

Ranking the players in the bottom third of the first round

Washington v Utah State Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Hey everyone, leading up to the 2019 NBA Draft, I’m going to be releasing the top 30 of my tiered Big Board over the next few days. As such, I think it’s worth publicizing the guidelines by which I usually construct my rankings.

I tend to gravitate toward guys who are very good basketball players or those who flash intriguing skill packages at a young age or early in their development curve. If you’re tall, traditionally athletic (run fast, jump high) and long, but rarely hint at any type of special upside, I’m unlikely to be very interested. I also aim to project what types of things prospects will both be capable of and allowed to do in the NBA, and how valuable those things are. For instance, Charles Matthews flashed impressive shot-making from time to time at Michigan, despite overwhelmingly struggling as a scorer. He won’t be given the same ball-handling duties at the next level, so that part of his game doesn’t really matter much to me as an evaluator (though it is fun to watch).

I’m also drawn toward dribble-pass-shoot guys, ideally wings, past the mid-teens (or wherever the cutoff is for prospects with one or more elite skills in a given draft). Assuming those players meet the NBA threshold as decision-makers and athletes, I generally buy in to them. But unless they’re elite as passers or shooters for their position, they have a clear ceiling. You need to be elite or above average by NBA standards in at least one area for teams to find consistent minutes for you. Otherwise, being replacement-level means you can be, well, replaced. As an example, Brandon Clarke is an elite weak-side rim protector. That’s one of the reasons he’ll find minutes.

It’s worth noting context with every prospect as well. Sometimes, that’s ignored when merely looking at per-game averages. RJ Barrett struggled to finish and get to the rim at times because Duke’s floor-spacing was uniquely terrible, not just by NCAA standards. Whether or not he’s surrounded by elite shooters in the NBA, it cannot be worse than it was in college. That will help his slashing ability. Lastly, I value prospects that merge high IQ/awareness with skill. As I continue to unveil my rankings, that’ll become more prevalent.

Up first is my fourth tier, which is everyone ranked between 21 and 30. I’ll go in descending order to create some intrigue.

30. Shamorie Ponds

I’m personally not a huge fan of Shamorie Ponds, but the skill package and upside as a primary initiator is too much to pass up at this stage. He’s a dynamic pull-up shooter (81st percentile off the dribble this season) with weaponized ball-handling that enables him to get to his spots and helps compensate for subpar traditional athleticism. He leverages the threat of his pull-up shooting well against defenders, either drawing fouls or zipping past guys to attack the rim. As a playmaker, he’s capable of getting into the lane and making weak-side kick-out passes to shooters. But the issue with Ponds is his margin for error is so slim. He wasn’t an elite scorer or passer in college (55.5 percent true shooting), and to be handed the reins as a primary ball-handler, he needs to be a high-level pull-up shooter and facilitator.

I think he could approach the necessary threshold as one of the two, but it feels slim that he meets both. Nonetheless, his off-the-dribble package and distributing flair make him an intriguing option.

His anticipation, quick hands and 3.7 percent career steal rate also mitigate some of his on-ball deficiencies at 6-foot with a 6-foot-3.5 wingspan. He’s prone to gambling off the ball occasionally, but displayed impressive reaction times and three years averaging two-plus steals per game isn’t a fluke. There’s a chance his off-the-bounce shooting doesn’t translate or that he’s never really given an extended opportunity to prove himself as a primary ball-handler, quelling much of his potential. Either way, at the bottom of the first round, he’s worth a gamble because he is a good basketball player with an outside shot to be a high-level starter.

29. Nassir Little

Nassir Little has the physical profile of a dynamic 3-and-D wing capable of exploding to the rim in transition, knocking down 3s, and switching across multiple positions. While he was fairly proficient in transition at North Carolina (71st percentile, per Synergy), nearly every other part of his game was incompetent. He shot just 26.9 percent from 3 and showed a highly disappointing lack of feel and awareness on both sides of the ball. His closeouts are sloppy. He’s routinely beaten off the bounce. Aside from a few flashes, his off-ball defense was poor. With above-average wing strength, he can defend guys bigger than him in the post, but I’m not sure how valuable that is when post-centric players and schemes aren’t all that common nowadays.

When given rein to create for himself on offense, his unrefined handle and troublesome decision-making reared their head, tossing up ill-advised jumpers, barreling into a crowded paint or missing simple passing reads. Little should become a good shooter in time; his free throw numbers are solid (77 percent) and there doesn’t seem to be any glaring mechanical issues. He scored efficiently at the rim as a freshman and, by most accounts, is a tireless worker with a charming personality. It wasn’t an easy circumstance to adjust to a bench role, so I buy into that playing a part in his struggles.

But the fact of the matter remains he’s a very poor basketball player lacking important intangibles like IQ, feel, and awareness, which bleed into his problematic tendencies as a ball-handler. He has some intrigue as a burly wing or power forward who hits spot-up 3s and defends other 4-men, but the chances of him eradicating the long list of flaws that currently plague him are small. Pedigree, high-level character, and rim-scoring efficiency allowed him to squeak into the first round. Given his projected draft range of mid-teens, I’d steer clear.

28. Rui Hachimura

There are a handful of positives in Rui Hachimura’s game. He’s a strong face-up scorer. His grab-and-go potential off rebounds leading the break is tantalizing at 6-foot-8. His ball-handling is above-average at his position. He does well to seal off smaller defenders inside for easy scores. He took significant steps forward in his three years at Gonzaga — notably as a scorer and on-ball defender. As someone who covered him for two seasons, I know he’s a fantastic human being who worked tirelessly to become a collegiate star. Everyone connected to him at Gonzaga raves about those things.

Unfortunately for Hachimura, he’s one of the worst passers projected in the first round (120 turnovers to 81 assists in three years), constantly missing easy kick-outs or swing passes while operating in the post — though he has shown intermittent flashes of sharp reads. As an off-ball defender, he lacks virtually all awareness. He’s late tagging rollers (it’s abhorrently bad), closing out on shooters or making the proper read in pick-and-roll coverage. It’s the type of off-ball defense that’s debilitating to a team. He also struggles to finish in traffic and is neither a quick nor explosive leaper, capping his upside as a dominant rim scorer.

There are hopes he becomes a good pick-and-pop big, but right now, he’s not there, shooting 31.6 percent (24 of 76) from deep in college. Hachimura’s offensive arsenal is refined but a bit archaic. Given his deficiencies as a playmaker, you can’t run a ton of possessions through him to maximize his abilities. Even so, he has some clearly valuable skills, is a solid on-ball defender at his position, and is a high-character guy. Sporting a sharp growth curve — he went from benchwarmer to All-American in two years — there’s a chance Hachimura continues to develop at a quick rate in the NBA and out-performs this ranking. I just wouldn’t count on it. Awareness, feel and instincts are tough to develop.

27. Ignas Brazdeikis

Unlike the player who sits a spot below him, Ignas Brazdeikis was very good in his freshman season and seems poised to stick in the league as a competent role player. He can shoot the 3 (39.2 percent on 3.9 attempts per game), is capable of finishing at the rim with either hand (74th percentile in scoring around the basket in the half-court), applies his 6-foot-7, 221-pound frame well to get to the rim, and is a perceptive cutter. He’s attentive off the ball, mucking up plays on the interior defensively, and should hold his own against other power forwards in the NBA, given his functional strength. His underwhelming 6-foot-9 wingspan and lack of dynamic lateral quickness will limit his defensive upside, but strength, awareness and IQ are all valuable pluses. Brazdeikis can help teams at the next level as a smart player who shoots, finishes at the rim, and defends both forward spots, even if the significant strength advantage dries up and limits some of his slashing game (my main concern when projecting his offensive viability).

26. Darius Bazley

Admittedly, my sample of film with Darius Bazley is fairly limited. He didn’t play collegiately or in the G League and AAU games are challenging to find. But I unearthed a handful of games and came away liking what I saw. Bazley boasts an intriguing face-up package with fluid ball-handling, impressive movement skills and ambidexterity as a finisher. He’s not a lethal playmaking 4, but has shown a capacity for making solid finds and meets the threshold necessary to capitalize against defensive breakdowns. Bazley exhibited good mobility on the perimeter but is glaringly inattentive off the ball, particularly struggling to identify weak-side rotations inside. His shot selection can be puzzling and I’m not entirely sold he develops a proficient jumper, lacking deft touch as a finisher. Yet the scoring and passing upside at just 19 years old are worth the gamble.

25. Tyler Herro

Unless a player shows a special skill in a given area in college, I’m generally skeptical of them becoming elite at said skill in the NBA. With Tyler Herro and his potential as a shooter, that’s the case. Herro is garnering significant buzz in the mid-teens range of this draft, in large part because of his ceiling as a shooter. There are some indicators that suggest he could reach that level. He shot 93.5 percent at the free throw line, 46.9 percent on 2-point jumpers, and ranked in the 82nd percentile in off-the-dribble jumpers. But with the most important number, Herro falls short, connecting on just 35.5 percent of his 3-pointers. I do buy him as a very good shooter, but he lacks the ancillary skills or defensive upside to offset being a sub-elite shooter. Plus, that off-the-dribble mark is buoyed by Herro’s propensity for shot-fake, one-dribble pull-ups. Working in his favor is sharp instincts as an off-ball relocator and some on-ball talent that makes him more than a pure shooter. He’s comfortable attacking closeouts to operate in the intermediate zones of the floor, rising for runners/pull-up jumpers or making crisp interior feeds to big men.

But he’s not explosive enough or intuitive enough as a passer to demand significant on-ball usage. He has good size at 6-foot-6, but a 6-foot-3 wingspan handicaps his positional versatility, which, when coupled with his overaggressive nature and inability to quickly rotate his hips, makes him a problematic defensive prospect. Herro could become a fun, valuable bench dynamo but I’d worry about his defense and can’t project him as a special shooter, leaving him in the mid-20s on my board.

24. Nickeil Alexander-Walker

I’ve already written extensively on my concerns with Nickeil Alexander-Walker (here), so I won’t say too much. Basically, I have significant worries about whether or not he’s an NBA-caliber athlete, which will limit his self-creation skills and man-to-man defense. But he’s a smart, crafty player who’s a plus shooter (38.3 percent from 3 in two seasons), off-ball defender and playmaker — even if I think the latter is overstated because of his jaw-dropping skip passes.

Alexander-Walker is a good bet to stick as a rotation player, but I don’t see much upside because of the aforementioned issues, along with some questionable decision-making as a ball-handler. His guile and off-beat rhythm will periodically help him get to the rim and break down defenses — not at an elite rate, though — but to me, Alexander-Walker is missing an intriguing ceiling and has a floor that’s lower than the general consensus believes.

23. Cameron Johnson

Cameron Johnson is the closest thing you’ll get to an elite shooter in this year’s class. He boasts very quick shot prep, precise footwork, and hardly dips the ball off the catch, giving him a succinct release that’s tough for defenders to affect. He shot 45.7 percent from deep, ranked in the 97th percentile on spot-ups, off-screen shooting and catch-and-shoots this season, and is even capable off the dribble to an extent — enabling him to attack some closeouts — finishing in the 66th percentile off the dribble. By no means is he a high-level creator, but he’s adequate in his role as a shooter, good enough to make simple reads when necessary, sometimes even off a live dribble.

He struggles to change directions defensively and questions about who he guards in the NBA are legitimate, considering he’s 6-foot-8 and 205 pounds without much functional strength or guard-like quickness. But he’s also a smart off-ball defender with quick hands, decent lateral mobility and probably just enough length (6-foot-10 wingspan) to stick on 2-guards. Having an elite and diverse skill is valuable. It gives NBA teams a reason to play and draft you. Johnson has just that with regards to 3-point shooting. There are justifiable concerns about his frame and defense, but he’s well worth a pick at this point. The shooting is too good and versatile to ignore.

22. Matisse Thybulle

Much like Cameron Johnson, Matisse Thybulle provides an elite skill that’ll get him drafted. He’s a special, special off-ball defender. His instincts diagnosing plays and ability to apply his 7-foot wingspan to consistently blow up possessions are rare. When he’s not turning other teams over, he’s bouncing around, arms out wide, shutting down once-open pockets in the defense. He’s able to contort his body to block shots and uses underrated straight-line speed to close down passing lanes or gobble up steals. Washington’s 2-3 zone inflated his steal/block averages (3.5 and 2.3 per game, respectively) but those are absurdly dominant totals and underscore Thybulle’s talents. If everybody could do that in a zone, we’d see far more gaudy stock numbers. But nobody is Thybulle and that’s why those numbers are special. On the ball, that straight-line speed doesn’t quite translate to lateral quickness — he’s susceptible to getting burned off the dribble — but his quick hands and timing allow him to stay in plays while trailing from behind. At just 195 pounds as a senior, brawnier guards and wings will overpower him on drives or in the post.

Expecting him to offer much more than neutral offensive contributions is lofty. He lacks dynamic athleticism to create for himself or others and is prone to passing up open 3s. But he’s a career 35.8 percent 3-point shooter and 78.2 percent free throw shooter. A four-year period suggests he should be serviceable on spot-ups. At times, he’s capable of getting to the rim off closeouts, relying on that straight-line speed, and even flashed some on-the-move passing as a drive-and-kick creator when run off the 3-point line. Thybulle won’t do much more than hit catch-and-shoot 3s and score on the occasional closeout, but he’s a brilliant and hyper-aware off-ball defender with enough smarts and physical tools to be passable on the ball. He’s worth the late first-round investment.

21. Sekou Doumbouya

Sekou Doumbouya is an upside play and seems slated to be drafted in the late lottery. I just can’t get there because he meets the criteria of an athletic player who lacks truly special skills. His closeouts are some of the worst I’ve seen from a prospect in this class, while his general defensive engagement is lacking. That, plus, incredibly poor decision-making as a creator are tough starting points for a top-14 pick. Anyhow, Doumbouya is a fluid athlete with intriguing measurables (6-foot-9, 7-foot wingspan) who uses long strides to eat up space attacking downhill or in transition. Despite poor numbers beyond the arc (never better than 33.3 percent over an extended sample of five-plus games), he has smooth mechanics and has flashed off-the-dribble prowess. He also can attack closeouts and hints at passing talent in the pick-and-roll. There’s a legitimate NBA player inside Doumbouya but it feels a long way off, given his erratic decision-making on both sides of the ball and generally inefficient scoring/passing.

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