Hey everyone, back for one last round of rankings, this time with my first and second tiers. Let’s dive into the elite eight.
8. Goga Bitadze
Among non-Zion players, Goga Bitadze has arguably the best chance to be a very good NBA player, because he’s produced big numbers in professional settings before. In 51 games with KK Mega Bemax and Buducnost this year, he averaged 13.9 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 1.7 blocks per game on 65.2 percent true shooting (.571/.400/.679 split). Extrapolate those stats to a per-36-minute average and his numbers swell to 20.9 points, 9.7 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 2.9 blocks — all at the age of 19 against professionals.
Bitadze shoots an incredibly easy shot from deep (36.1 percent on 194 attempts dating back to 2015-16) and has some offensive mobility, enabling him to attack closeouts. Just look at this, as a 6-foot-11 dude comes off an Iverson screen and drives downhill:
Goga misses the layup but this mobility and fluidity is pretty dope for a big man pic.twitter.com/Q4sgAaMAAx— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) May 14, 2019
He’s a very good pick-and-roll partner with the versatility to pop out or dive to the rim, possessing good recognition and feel in those situations. Down low, he does an excellent job of establishing a wide base with his footwork to seal off the edge. He creates space when he pivots, opening up easier shooting angles. He has some passing ability with plays like this, but he’s nowhere near willing enough as a playmaker. He’ll often see potential reads but opt for the simplistic play instead.
One of the biggest issues for Bitadze on both ends is a lack of vertical explosion. He compensates for that as a rim protector with good instincts and timing, but that won’t be enough against certain dynamic finishers in the NBA. Bitadze has a bit of a reputation as a plodder to those who haven’t watched much of his recent film, and while he’s not a switch-heavy big, he has pretty good lateral mobility. When asked to quickly turn his hips or change directions, he falls short. But in drop coverage, he should be very effective, given the rim protection and lateral mobility skills. Essentially, he’s mobile enough to not play extreme drop coverage and can track some side-to-side movement from ball-handlers while allowing the on-ball defender to recover.
Bitadze is already a very good, productive basketball player with a well-rounded scoring package and impactful rim protection. If he becomes a more ambitious passer and unearths upside as an offensive fulcrum, he could become one of the league’s premier centers. I’m fairly confident in his passing repertoire expanding and expect Bitadze to be quite valuable for years to come.
7. Jaxson Hayes
As the year progressed, Jaxson Hayes became one of my favorite prospects to watch. Every once in a while, he would do something special. He’d catch a lob that was seemingly out of reach. He’d cover improbable amounts of ground to block a shot. He’d dunk on a play where dunking didn’t look realistic. Hayes is an incredibly rare athlete with regards to fluidity, movement skills and coordination. He’s 6-foot-11 but moves like a wing. That’s not hyperbole.
Hayes is one of the best pick-and-roll threats in this year’s crop of big men. He has an incredibly large catch radius on lobs, corrals errant passes with ease, recognizes when to slip screens, moves gracefully on the roll, and shot 86.7 percent at the rim. Most of those buckets were dunks, but that’s insane efficiency nonetheless and he’s able to score (and dunk!) from awkward angles inside due to his length and coordination.
He’s still incredibly raw as a rim protector. The dude bites at every shot fake. But refined discipline and added strength — he has an incredibly weak lower body, meaning he’s easily pushed off his spots inside — could tap into some special upside as an interior defender. The way Hayes moves and eats up space is rare. He can trap, hedge and recover, and play drop coverage (he’ll need to improve his ball-screen defense altogether, though). Most likely, he won’t box your defense into one scheme and provides teams with defensive malleability. I’m also a relatively big believer in his awareness. He’s not a savant but he’s far from the prototypical archetype of an all-tools, no-IQ prospect. That outlier fluidity for a center projects him as a valuable switch big who can protect the rim.
But to leave it at that with Hayes would be underselling his special upside. He only tallied nine assists on the season, yet flashed some passing feel from the elbow, on the interior and on short rolls. Hayes is also on a rapid development curve, seeing that he hardly played rotation minutes as a junior in high school, didn’t start a single game until his senior year and wasn’t a top-100 recruit. I’d bank on him continuing to grow as a passer and shooter, because he’s shown strong indicators of the latter. He displayed soft touch around the rim on non-dunks, converted 38.8 percent of his 2-point jumpers (a decent mark for his size) and was a 74 percent free throw shooter this season.
Despite all the upside, Hayes is not without noteworthy flaws. He’s very weak, is too jumpy as a rim protector, displays poor defensive technique, lacks much go-to scoring upside at this point, and isn’t actually a good passer right now. There’s too much intrigue to ignore, though. Hayes is a uniquely coordinated and fluid athlete with good feel and awareness. He applies his length/fluidity well on both ends of the floor (especially on the glass, even if his weak core restricts him overall as a rebounder), has potential as a shooter, face-up/post scorer and short roll creator, and could be one of the most versatile defensive centers in the league. Sign me up.
6. Grant Williams
I’ve previously articulated why I believe in Grant Williams (here), so I’ll keep it fairly brief. Williams is a basketball genius with great awareness/verticality as a weak-side rim protector, versatile passing, and signs of being a good pick-and-pop big. He’ll immediately be one of the most functionally strong players in the NBA and puts it on display as a screener, post scorer and rim protector. He isn’t athletic by traditional standards but that functional strength, along with the power he generates from his lower body, are clearly exceptional by NBA standards. Williams is simply too good in too many areas with outlier IQ and functional strength to pass up. He’s going to be a damn good NBA player and teams will regret having passed on him. When you merge versatile skill with rare intellect, you get a player like Williams, who isn’t flashy but is highly effective and can fill various gaps on any team. Most of these blurbs have run pretty long but if you really want to know why I’m such a big fan of Williams, I’d recommend reading the piece linked above, as I dive into much greater detail with film included.
5. Ja Morant
Ja Morant is a prospect I really, really tried to fully buy into. I watched and rewatched games against high-caliber opponents. I read articles about him. I looked at in-depth stats. I toyed with him as my No. 2 or No. 3 prospect for parts of the season. Ultimately, I just couldn’t quite get there. Morant’s strengths are clear and incredibly valuable. He’s an ambidextrous passer, has pretty explosive athleticism as a downhill driver — not quite elite, though — and works angles very well in pick-and-rolls. A lead guard who puts pressure on the rim and is the best facilitator in the draft is a very good starting point for any prospect.
I’m just not sure Morant ever reaches the level necessary as a pull-up shooter to be one of the league’s best primary initiators. Due to weak core strength as a 175-pound guard, he struggles to shoot off forward momentum (think coming off a screen and rising for a jumper against drop coverage), and prefers to dance into step-back 3s. His two-handed push shot is also concerning and worries me as to how he can shoot off the bounce amid defensive pressure. Weak core strength plus a lack of one-foot explosion limits his upside as a rim scorer (61 percent this season). Even if he’s able to get there with regularity, he’s not very adept at finishing through size or length. As a playmaker, his decision-making is erratic at times. It’s OK to attempt daring, high-reward passes, but he made too many high-risk, low-reward passes (particularly on lobs).
None of this even acknowledges Morant’s monumental defensive struggles. It’s not just a lack of effort due to insanely high usage. He’s simply short on the requisite awareness to compensate for his 6-foot-3, 175-pound frame, making him, at best, a two-position defender. He loses shooters, dies on screens, doesn’t tag rollers and is beat off the dribble on a consistent basis. It’s entirely possible his motor runs hot once in the NBA and that his athleticism allows him to be serviceable as an on-ball defender against guards. I just saw far too many concerning habits and lack of defensive know-how to believe that.
Morant is a very good prospect. He’s tough to contain one-on-one, is a very crafty pick-and-roll guard, can get to the rim, makes nearly every pass in the playmaking textbook, and should be a decent spot-up shooter. But I have questions about his shooting versatility, decision-making as a lead guard and defensive ceiling that leave me a bit lower than the consensus.
4. RJ Barrett
For the longest time, I was out on RJ Barrett. I couldn’t get past the tunnel vision on drives, ugly shooting numbers, and apathetic defense. But the more I watched, the more I came to believe his tunnel vision was overstated. Barrett is a very good passer for a wing, capable of slinging feeds to rollers in ball screens, creating off a live dribble, making skip passes from the top of the key/on drives, and whipping darts to cutters. He still has bouts of poor decision-making as a primary ball-handler, but I do find those occurrences to be less prevalent than the anti-Barrett crowd suggests.
The main reason I came around on Barrett as a prospect is because I think he’s going to be very, very functionally strong for a wing creator. While prone to bowling over defenders and being called for charges from time to time, Barrett regularly dislodged guys by lowering his shoulder and creating space or displaying acute body control. That type of strength application at 18 years old is uncommon and as Barrett physically matures — hopefully becoming more discreet in harnessing his strength — he’s only going to pose further problems as a downhill slasher. At times, Barrett relies on that strength too much, using it to compensate for his middling first step and mediocre quickness off the bounce. But once in space (often in transition), I think his wiggle and fluidity are much better, busting out spin moves, Euro-steps and hop-steps to evade defenders.
Much like his wing counterpart Jarrett Culver, Barrett’s swing skill is shooting. He only connected on 30.8 percent of his 3s and shot 66.5 percent from the free throw line. Many of his misses at the rim, from deep and at the free throw line displayed poor touch. Other times, he swished long balls and dropped in soft floaters. Barrett is comfortable as a pull-up shooter (64th percentile in the half-court) and should be adequate on spot-ups, but to believe in him as a top-two pick, you have to see him as very good off the bounce, so he can leverage it into driving lanes or openings as a passer. I’m not quite there, which caps his upside as an offensive engine.
Beyond shooting woes, Barrett’s defense is my main point of concern. To put it bluntly, Barrett was very bad as a freshman. He plays way too upright/stiff on the ball, is constantly hung up by screens, zones out off the ball and misses important rotations or decisions easily executed with added effort. In essence, he commonly fails to do the little things with regards to positioning and engagement, and they breed together for a debilitating presence. There are times he flashes off-ball reads, but his steal and block rates were both south of 1.5 percent. Right now, his best assets defensively are the fact that he’s 6-foot-7 and functionally strong.
Barrett projects as a high-level playmaker, above-average pull-up shooter, lethal downhill slasher, and has the frame to be versatile defensively. I’m a fraction lower on his shooting, have concerns about his decision-making as a ball-handler and am not sold his defensive apathy completely disappears in the NBA. Regardless, Barrett is a 6-foot-7 ball-handler who should be effective in a secondary creation role, bullying defenders on drives to the rim while being a valuable facilitator and periodic pull-up scorer.
3. Brandon Clarke
Last season, Brandon Clarke was not just a very good college basketball player, he was a historically dominant one. He would have been touted as the nation’s best player if not for Zion’s generational campaign. Clarke posted a BPM of 18.9, second only to Zion at 20.0. Zion and Clarke have the two highest BPMs in Sports Reference’s database (min. 20 games). The only other player to ever notch a BPM of at least 18 is Anthony Davis. So, Clarke is grouped with a top-eight NBA player and the greatest prospect since LeBron James. Pretty decent. Lower the threshold to 17, and Victor Oladipo and Karl-Anthony Towns join him. Very good company as well.
Sure, he’ll be 23 in September. Yeah, he didn’t shoot 3s in college (6-of-24 in three years) but that’s partially because he didn’t need to. As for the age, he’s 23, he’s not actually old in the grand scheme of things. He has many impactful years of basketball ahead of him and is more likely to return positive value on his first contract than younger guys because his pluses as a prospect are not primarily flashes, they are genuine NBA skills.
Let’s dive into those skills, which are headlined by elite weak-side rim protection, fueled by high IQ, awareness, verticality, instincts and timing. Clarke has basically everything besides ideal length (6-foot-8 wingspan), but largely makes up for that with his 40.5-inch vertical. If you watched him at Gonzaga, you know he didn’t average 3.2 blocks per game (11.3 percent) because of his wingspan; it was all the aforementioned traits, especially his quick leaping. The vertical isn’t just for show. Clarke requires very little load-up time before jumping and applies that very well when protecting the rim. He’s also able to contort his body in mid-air to alter plays as a shot-blocker and has a very quick second jump off the ground. Even when knocked off kilter by bigger players at times, his balance and verticality allowed him to remain a shot-blocking threat.
Clarke is just 207 pounds and struggled against stronger front-court opponents — guys like Grant Williams and Noah Dickerson. That’ll be an issue at times in the NBA, but as I previously stated, he has the rare ability to absorb blows and quickly regain positioning to stay involved in the play. As a perimeter defender, Clarke proved capable of containing ball-handlers on switches with good lateral mobility (seventh-fastest lane agility time at the combine) and tends to spread his arms out wide to deter passing outlets, merely another sign of intelligence.
Offensively, he’s an absolutely dominant rim finisher (79.7 percent at the basket). He’s a great rim roller who can adjust his body to finish around defenders and wields incredibly soft touch. I’m also of the belief his overall offensive package is a bit underrated. He’s a good enough ball-handler to attack from the wing, using that quick first step and vertical athleticism to explode inside. He boasts soft touch from mid-range (51.7 percent on 2-point jumpers), and has some passing upside on the short roll that wasn’t fully unlocked at Gonzaga. The big question offensively with him is whether or not he can hit spot-up 3s at a reliable rate. My answer is a resounding yes. He drastically improved his shooting form during his redshirt year at Gonzaga, which produced a 12.2 percent jump at the free throw line (57.2 to 69.4); the efficiency at the rim and on 2-point jumpers signals good touch conducive to becoming adequate beyond the arc. His soft touch is best represented in push shots and floaters that he often relied on for easy buckets.
Clarke does so many things well defensively, should provide some offensive versatility, is a highly intelligent player and an incredibly functional athlete. Maybe the lack of strength and length hinder him on defense and the jumper never materializes. I’m very skeptical of the former happening while the latter seems unlikely as well. Too many positive indicators work in his favor. He’s a pretty easy plug-and-play with clearly valuable skills to impact winning on the highest level.
2. Jarrett Culver
Outside of Zion, Jarrett Culver is the prospect whose ranking I’ve wavered on the least in recent months. He’s been No. 2 for me for a long while. He isn’t without concerns — and I’ll mention some of them — but I’m a firm believer in many of the things he does well, which I flesh out here. He uses long strides, off-beat rhythm/steps/timing and finishing craft to score at the rim effectively (67.1 percent this year). In pick-and-rolls, he plays with patience, applies his 6-foot-6 frame to shield defenders and is a very smart/diverse playmaker. Defensively, he has lively feet on the ball, regularly stonewalls drivers and has the versatility to guard multiple positions. Off the ball, he displays sharp awareness and a nose for the ball. His defense regressed as a sophomore with higher usage, but his offensive responsibilities in the NBA should better reflect his freshman duties, when he was a hounding point-of-attack defender and less susceptible to breakdowns.
He doesn’t have an elite first step and his struggles against De’Andre Hunter in the national title game are mildly concerning. It’s possible he just isn’t explosive enough to attack the rim against NBA athletes and that his shooting (30.8 percent from 3 this year) isn’t good enough to offset that. However, he radically altered his mechanics for the better this season and I’m confident a smaller role (fewer late clock pull-up attempts) and more time to smooth out the slight hitch on his release (muscle memory will help, sometimes he shot without a hitch) can buoy his efficiency.
Culver is a high-IQ player who scores effectively at the rim, utilizes his frame well as a ball-handler, is a strong plus in many facets defensively, and should be a moderately good shooter. He does a handful of things very well and can fit in nicely as a complementary wing creator who defends three or four positions. For a deeper look, I’d read my piece from a few months back.
1. Zion Williamson
I don’t need to say too much about Zion. He has a generational blend of skill, functional athleticism, size and motor. He’s the best offensive and defensive prospect in the class, as well as the one with the highest ceiling and floor. He’s going to be an absolute stud from day one as a versatile scorer (roller, wing attacker, transition engine, post-up scorer, ball-handler, spot-up shooter), ancillary playmaker and defensive disruptor. His gravity as a rim scorer and driver is going to alter the geometry of the floor in unique ways. It’s rare guys with his skill and athleticism play as hard as Zion does. He’s special and was a joy to watch dominate at Duke. He’ll do the same in the NBA.