2015 Initial NBA Draft Big Board: Lottery Edition

*Note on rankings: I tend to value all-around skilled players (without any glaring weaknesses) with high basketball IQ and the ability to defend multiple positions in the NBA higher than most (and discount to a greater extent elements such as pure production). The NBA has evolved into pick and roll dominated schemes with more motion in the pace and space era, but as importantly, defenses (such as Milwaukee) have evolved as a counter by switching more, placing an emphasis on defensive versatility, especially on the perimeter. Thus, the next natural progression is assembling teams as Atlanta, San Antonio and Golden State have done based on read and react principles to spawn unpredictability (harder to game plan for). These elements, which I’m sure will be illustrated in obvious fashion, are built into the following rankings

Tier 1

1.Karl Towns 

Towns possesses the two main qualities you want in a big man in today’s NBA: rim protection and floor-spacing. Throw in advanced passing instincts/basketball IQ and the ability to put the ball on the floor and you have a complete big man prospect. Towns was utilized predominately in the post at Kentucky, but his skill-set translates to the NBA more so as a pick and pop big man who can space the floor and dissect defenses from the elbows with his passing. Towns also has enough mobility to play in space on the perimeter defensively and is a tremendous back line defender with his timing as a shot-blocker.

Towns is the ideal big man to implement an offense based on read and react principles, possessing a rare blend of shooting and passing. I’ve compared him to a better shot-blocking Al Horford skill-set wise and believe he has a similar unselfish temperament. Towns, by virtue of being a big man and thus more rare, mans the top spot in these rankings. You simply cannot acquire a player like Towns outside of the draft until the late 20’s age (of course by design in the CBA).

2.D’Angelo Russell

Russell has the ability to fundamentally change the way defenses scheme with his ability to shoot threes off the dribble, a rare skill. As we’ve seen with lead guards such as Curry and Lillard, more conservative ice-schemes who have bigs drop down and “zone up” pick and roll have to modify their approach against highly regarded lead guard shooters in pick and roll, and getting a defense to change its principles has tremendous value (Lillard isn’t even an especially efficient three point shooter, but because the three point shot is by nature a more efficient shot and because the mere threat of his shooting alters scheme, he’s immensely valuable). Russell has that ability with his devastating pull-up game, and also adds another dimension with the combination of advanced court vision and pinpoint passing. He also has the versatility to play off the ball as a catch and shoot threat, and one that defenses must track, again impacting scheme.

Russell is the prototype pick and roll lead guard for the pace and space era with his combination of size, shooting, and passing. His translatable skill-set should not be tainted by one game against an elite defensive team with the best perimeter defender in college as the focal point of the opposing team’s scheme without any real accompanying talent. He still has some work to do defensively, especially in pick and roll, but he has the size, length and work ethic to improve. Russell is the real deal.

3.Justise Winslow

Winslow is a swiss-army knife wing who at worst projects as a solid 3 & D wing player who has the size to switch assignments on defense, a plus motor and a blue collar work ethic. That skill-set alone is tremendously valuable. Winslow’s only real (not-glaring) weakness currently is his half-court offensive shot-creation ability in both pick and roll and isolation. If his transition acumen translates to the half-court, Winslow will be an all-star at a position where it is incredibly difficult to find players with his two-way abilities, especially talents of his caliber willing to do all the small things to win.

Winslow may never be a Harden-lite half court scorer (despite possessing eerily similar transition qualities like showing the ball at high speeds to draw fouls and a euro-step finish), but he’s a well-rounded surefire prospect with a high floor and a high ceiling. I liken Winslow to a Jimmy Butler kind of player with the infectious personality and work ethic, a kind of player that any team could use.

Tier 2

4.Willie Cauley-Stein

Cauley-Stein’s combination of athleticism and defensive mobility make him a potential defensive player of the year candidate. Offensively, he isn’t particularly skilled, but he’s a very capable pick and roll dive man as well as a rim runner in transition with his combination of hands, speed and athleticism. Similar to Towns, Cauley-Stein was not optimally utilized at Kentucky. Give him floor spacing in the NBA and he can operate in the Tyson Chandler, Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan mold, diving hard to the rim off high screens, sucking defenses in and either finishing off lobs or creating space for perimeter players.

Defensively, centers of Cauley-Stein’s mold don’t come around often. He has incredible feet, can play in space on the perimeter (of which he did plenty at Kentucky) and serve as the back line rim protector. His versatility will allow teams to employ more aggressive switching defensive schemes.

While Cauley-Stein’s fit on a team requires more tinkering than Towns because of WCS’ offensive limitations, he’s a potential blue chip all NBA defender. Interviews will be big for Cauley-Stein in trying to best ascertain whether he is willing to do the trench work in the league, mostly entailing setting hard screens, getting banged around and playing mostly off the ball. Cauley-Stein does not fit the mold of a highly instinctual offensive player or passer, but in this case, his potential defensively as the pick and roll destroyer outweighs his deficiencies. In the current NBA, his skill-set is simply more valuable than Okafor’s.

5.Jahlil Okafor

Okafor’s ranking is perhaps the most fit-dependent in the draft. He has a clear-cut incredibly advanced post game, with nimble footwork, a plethora of moves/counters and is a gifted passer. However, post-up centric offenses in the league have gone by the wayside, especially big men post-up driven schemes (some team utilize wings or guards to facilitate out of the post frequently). Post ups are a lower efficiency shot than spot up jumpers off of dribble penetration or straight shots at the rim.   Because of this, Okafor’s main skill for most systems is outweighed negatively by his detracting qualities, mainly a limited face-up floor-spacing game offensively and the lack of ability to play in space in pick and roll and protect the rim as a back line player defensively.

For teams like Oklahoma City who have the personnel (mainly Ibaka but also perimeter defensive length with capable floor-spacing) to overcompensate for Okafor’s deficiencies (though the Thunder usually ask their bigs to play more aggressively in perimeter defense than Okafor is capable of mobility wise), or a slower pace, half-court driven scheme that emphasis post ups like New York (though the fit with Anthony, who at this point in his career should be playing the four, and is better served being surrounded by defensive oriented shooters, is tenuous), Okafor can vault into the top 4 in these rankings. However, his skill-set requires much more tailoring to as far as team building, and his style is not conducive to most schemes.

Okafor is a plug and play 20 and 10 player who will likely have to be consistently doubled in the post eventually. He’s a better passing, bigger and longer Al Jefferson. That has value in the league as a rare commodity. The question of how great of a commodity it is depends on scheme and personnel fit, and for that, Okafor is a tier 2 player.

6.Emmanuel Mudiay

Mudiay’s most coveted skill is his ability to break down defenses in the pick and roll by getting into the paint and either finishing through contact or kicking it out to open shooters on the wing (or dump-offs to bigs). He has the explosiveness, first step, acceleration, and craftiness to turn the corner in the NBA and move defenses, an essential element to a successful offense in today’s NBA. He also has a rare combination of size and strength for a lead guard, aiding his potential as a finisher through contact.

The question with Mudiay is his shooting ability. 6’5 point guards who can drive, pass and operate in pick and roll are tremendously valuable. However, if he can’t shoot consistently opposing teams will just go under screens which kills spacing, detracting from Mudiay’s optimal contribution operating in tighter spaces. It’s rare to see an efficient pick and roll player who can’t shoot (see players like Elfrid Payton).  That isn’t an accident.

Simply put, point guards who can shoot are typically more valuable than point guards who can’t. There are exceptions like John Wall, an expert passer and top-tier athlete. Mudiay projects to be a Wall type, but a lesser athlete. That’s high praise, and why he is ranked so high. But until Mudiay shows a consistent stroke from outside to pair with his finishing and ability to draw fouls potential, he remains a tier 2 player.

7.Mario Hezonja

Hezonja is not your stereotypical foreign player: he plays with an edge and has a great deal of confidence. He’s received some red flag blemishes for not being a good teammate in not subscribing to his team’s seniority-based system for playing time. However, that confidence and edginess projects positively to the NBA as he wont come over and get lost in translation.

As a talent, Hezonja is a terrific athlete who can really finish at the rim and shoot the three. Foreign players typically have an adjustment period to a longer NBA three-point line, but Hezonja has displayed deep range consistently on his shot. He has the size, athleticism and stroke to be an effective NBA wing.

Hezonja does not yet understand team defense, which keeps him out of a higher ranking here, but he has the lateral quicks, size and athleticism to be a plus both on and off the ball defensively. I’m significantly intrigued, and with more expansive access to the predraft process such as individual workouts (especially if he participates against other wings), I could move him up to #5.

Tier 3

8.Kristaps Porzingis

Porzingis is an intriguing prospect because of his combination of size, length, mobility, floor spacing potential with a sweet shooting stroke, ability to attack off the dribble and also protect the rim some. He’s long and mobile for a 7 footer, and is reportedly still growing. He also has an edge to his game.

His biggest detracting feature is his wiry frame and corresponding lack of strength/toughness to defend/box out the forward position in the league. From the admittedly limited highlights I’ve seen of him (obviously prefer actual full game tape to watch these things) his offensive (passing) and defensive instincts are not that far along, making the transition period to the NBA longer than Hezonja’s. He also does not have a post game to capitalize on his size advantage yet.

Still, Porzingis’ potential as a stretch 4 who has the mobility to play a higher pace game with the size and enough off the dribble to get his shot-off over defenses is very intriguing, and given the flaws of the following players on the list, it renders him a solid risk/reward selection at this spot.

9.Myles Turner

Following the trend of Towns and Porzingis, Turner is an appealing prospect because of his ability to space the floor and protect the rim as a back line defender. He’s an instinctive weak side shot-blocker, ace defensive rebounder and offensively has a perimeter comfortability rare for a 7 footer.

My biggest issue with Turner is body build and running style. Turner runs the court in laboring fashion, placing a lot of strain on his legs. He’s a stiff mover who lacks fluidity. While Towns runs awkward as well it’s muss less strenuous visually than Turner.

With advanced medical capabilities such as predicting body wear with running style, teams will have more information to make informed decisions on Turner. In my opinion, Turner’s medical is the most significant input data in the draft. He projects to play in a slower pace system, but due to his combination of perimeter shooting stroke and shot blocking ability could be an asset for a team if his body holds up.

10.Kelly Oubre

If I was Oubre’s agent, I’d be slipping in Kawhi length comps at every opportunity. Oubre’s intrigue begins with his 7’3’’ wingspan defensively. From the eye test, he plays passing lanes well and either swipes down on drives or on dig-downs in the post.  Also, his metrics are incredibly favorable towards his impact on opponent shooting percentage contesting shots.

Oubre does not possess Winslow’s court sense or overall fluidity at this stage, but he has the physical tools to develop. Plus, I’m always wary on over-scrutinizing wing players in Bill Self’s inside-out system.

Oubre has shown a good three-point shooting stroke despite some inconsistency, the ability to attack closeouts and athleticism finishing at the rim. He’s not ready to immediately contribute, but he could be a 3 and D wing a few years down the road. Oubre does not have the red flags of Johnson, which is why he resides a spot higher. 

11.Stanley Johnson

Speaking of those red flags, Johnson has two in the finishing department: 52.7% FG% at the rim and .992 PPP in transition (courtesy of hoop-math.com and synerysports.com respectively). In regards to the former, the lower-end NBA wing prospects over the last 3 years finish around 63% at the rim, with the elite finishers at or above 70% (Johnson’s teammate Hollis-Jefferson finishes 72.3% at the rim). That’s a stark difference. As for the latter, Johnson ranks in the 43rd percentile in transition, an average mark for college players, let alone NBA prospects. Both of these metrics call into question Johnson’s athleticism and ability to finish over NBA length.

Johnson still has desirable traits of course. He has a strong NBA frame and the physique and lateral agility to defend up to 4 NBA positions. He has a good motor defensively despite mental lapses such as overpursuing or jumping on closeouts. He’s also shot the three consistently enough this year to be a perimeter threat in the league.

However, the red flags cannot be ignored. Johnson, despite his build, is not a big-time athlete and if he struggles to finish and is only an above average outside shooter, it puts a ceiling on his overall impact in the league. He’s perhaps the most comfortable wing in scoring in pick and rolls in the draft, already showing the ability to split the defense and convert floaters. He’s also has a polished midrange game. But his blemishes keep him out of the top 10 here.

Tier 4

12.Kevon Looney

Looney’s only current elite skill is his ability to convert putbacks on offensive rebounds. One of the longest players in the draft, Looney really utilizes his 7’3” wingspan, especially on the glass. His length is also a deterrent defensively in post-ups and contesting shots on the perimeter.

You’re banking partially on upside when translating Looney to the NBA with his size and length. Looney has shown flashes of a consistent three-point shot, making him a potential stretch 4, pick and pop floor spacer in the league. But he isn’t a plus athlete nor does he have the handle to likely ever be a shot-creator in the half-court offensively.

Team workouts in assessing Looney’s three-point shooting ability will be crucial. If he can build on his limited positive three-point resume, the combination of that and his length warrant a lottery selection. His role in the NBA if he does so is clear-cut, especially if he adds strength.

13.Rondae Hollis-Jefferson

Defensive versatility and the ability to switch assignments on the fly reigns in today’s NBA, and no one in the draft is more equipped in this capacity than Hollis-Jefferson. He has the size, length, athleticism and instincts to guard multiple NBA positions effectively, affording a team flexibility in defensive scheming.

The glaring weakness with RHJ is his floor-spacing ability. He does not have any range on his jumper, and furthermore has never demonstrated anything to suggest he will ever be able to shoot. Teams wont guard him in the NBA, which will significantly impact spacing.

Still, Hollis-Jefferson has high character and good worth ethic, and although he does not have the ball skills a player like MKG had as a prospect (not to mention MKG was younger), he’s worth a lottery gamble that he will work hard enough to mitigate the damage. RHJ will have to become an expert slasher in the Tony Allen mold to be a useful offensive player with his finishing ability. He is best utilized in a transition based system that capitalizes on his finishing ability and keeps him out of halfcourt situations as much as possible.  RHJ might not be a starter, but at worst he’s a situational specialist off the bench.

Tier 5

14.Frank Kaminsky

I originally had Malik Pope in the top 14 until he returned to San Diego State, and while this is the highest I will have Kaminsky going and will likely alter this rank once I get through more prospects, he deserves a mention here.

Kaminsky can shoot threes while providing some rim protection, making him an intriguing prospect as a 7 footer. He can also attack closeouts with his go-to dribble spin move stems into his established running shot, affording him a workable dual-threat as a perimeter oriented big in the NBA.

I just question his ability to guard either starting frontcourt position in the league. He doesn’t have the strength or toughness to defend bigs on the block or in box out situations. He has deceptive nimble feet to play in space but he’s only average mobility wise laterally. His value in the league is as a floor-spacing big who can attack closeouts, but because of these limitations he’s best served as a third big/high end reserve who can be hid against more limited talent.

Kaminsky’s skill-set has value on the right team. Put him in Utah as the third big where he’s consistently surrounded by Favors or Gobert and he could thrive. But I don’t see Kaminsky as a starting frontcourt player on a good team.

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