Lessons Learned and Top 9 Pre-Conference Play Big Board

If you read this site consistently from a draft evaluation perspective I think it is best characterized holistically as a work in progress. I really just started seriously digging into the draft last year, and most of that work came April and beyond, which even then left out critical pieces to the puzzle. Before that it was mostly just getting my feet wet with the elite prospects in 2014 and 2015.

This is really the first year where I’ve seen most of the elite prospects in person at the Hoop Summit, and have watched college basketball consistently from the off to measure eye-test improvement. Before I was mostly an avid NBA League Pass watcher who retroactively went back and watched YouTube college film.

Each year I’m trying to push back the evaluation clock to earlier stages. I attended Adidas Nations in August to get eyes on the 2017 high school class, extending my in person sample back beyond just Hoop Summit practices the year prior and the Hoop Summit game only the year before that. I still believe that college is the *best* sample to project prospects to the NBA, but there are multiple steps in the analysis process, and seeing guys in-person is crucial.

This is not meant as any kind of event name drop or setup for making excuses. It’s just the honest truth. When I read draft-related content I like to know context and what the evaluator’s framework is. Are you an analytics guy? Intel-based? Eye-test? How highly do you rate off-court “intangibles”? What skill-sets do you value? Without that context I have no idea why you’re ranking things the way you are, and it’s meaningless to me.

At the very least I think my rankings last year divulged my overall philosophy of valuing two-way players with feel floors who can operate in read-and-react settings. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my player archetypes work done in time to really give full context to why I did what I did. I have learned a lot since June, and that’s kind of what’s great about draft work and basketball overall: you can never learn enough, and you’re never going to be right about everything.

I really enjoy the draft and being self-critical over time, partly because it’s at least in part a crapshoot. Everyone likes to be right, but with so many variables at play (team fit, opportunity, not having access to players directly etc) all you can really do is make “educated guesses” on how players will turn out. This uncertainty is immensely enjoyable and challenging, especially when paired next to the similarly challenging but more certain salary cap/CBA work.

I’ll never delete anything on this site, even some ridiculously ludicrous shit in hindsight. I’d rather explain in-depth why I thought the way I did, even if the reasoning turns out to be overtly wrong. Part of me wishes I would have held off on a big board last year until the foundation was fully created, but the fallout is probably more useful to have on record than not.

I don’t pretend to be a seasoned NBA scout. I’ve met multiple scouts and have a great deal of respect for those who spend a majority of their time on the road traveling around the world seeing a ridiculous amount of games in person. Those guys do so much more than merely evaluate: they are diligent information-collectors who put in long hours because good information wins in this game. Talent evaluation, especially that which comes not in person, is such a small part of the equation that it’s almost absurd to self-proclaim scout status at a bird’s-eye view, even though it’s *technically* what those who write about the draft do.

Anyways, the following includes lessons I learned (some obvious, some perhaps not so much) since the 2016 draft. I also included an initial top 9 pre-conference play “big board” for this draft class. You’ll probably notice more conformity with national rankings, and that’s due to this class having more easily identifiable top-level talent than the previous class, the latter which was full-blown pandemonium after the top 3.

1.*Likely* Opportunity Is Crucial

You can’t predict team destination for most players pre-draft of course, but it’s faulty to ignore the fact that the likelihood of receiving ample opportunity increases earlier in the draft corresponding with enhanced investment. Player development, team fit, and general opportunity are vastly overlooked in favor of general talent in the draft process, and they have to be factors when applicable. Teams have their own specific boards reflecting personalized need, scheme fit and preference, and some teams are historically far superior at cultivating young talent than others. We unfortunately don’t have that kind of information and foresight pre-draft. What we do usually have is a strong sense of what players will be drafted high in the draft from intel-based sites like DX and that kind of information is significant to likely opportunity.

I fell victim of this last year, ranking Gary Payton II and Robert Carter (amongst many others) ahead of Jamal Murray on my pre-draft big board. I’d like to think there was a rationale behind it, but the simple fact is it was a bad call entirely relative to opportunity-based outcome (and it is certainly arguable from a skill translation standpoint as well). Murray was a shoe-in top 10 pick from every credible news source, and as such there was little chance he wasn’t going to get every opportunity to succeed at the next level. GP2 and Carter where both likely second rounders who went undrafted due to an unwillingness to agree to a draft and stash (this is a HUGE component of modern drafting for 2nd round guys). The road to breaking an NBA rotation at a time when the league is perhaps as deep as it’s ever been is difficult enough for a player with investment tied to him. It’s substantially more difficult when there is little or no investment.

I would extend this opportunity point mostly to established or projectable prospects. Murray was an established overall shooter adding a special niche shooting off-screens, and that skill-set combined with his likely opportunity warranted about 7 or so spots higher on my board (he was 21) at minimum in that class specifically, which was objectively bad and has been so. A 19 year-old with some ball skills and an established skill going in the top 10 warranted more than what I afforded him. It’s fairly obvious I wasn’t and am not high on Murray as a winning archetype on a competitive team as a 1 position defensive liability (especially at the highest levels of play) who doesn’t have the athleticism and shake to create separation/playmake, doesn’t have plus lead guard vision and who I overall gave 0% confidence to becoming a scheme-changing lead guard. It is possible I underrated his athleticism some (he looks a touch quicker this year, especially with a head of steam), and his avenue to becoming a lead guard, though miniscule, is probably non-zero. The point is that he was going to at least be given a chance to provide answers to these questions, whereas a 22 year-old below the athletic baseline tough positional fit (in the NBA’s eyes) in Carter and a now 24 year-old non-shooting guard in GP2 were substantially less likely to even get a shot. Even though I wont miss on Murray being an impact player unless he becomes said lead guard (I actually really liked him as a 6th man scorer), the thought process was faulty.

Even Buddy Hield, a true one-skill shooter, 1 position defender without Murray’s youth or off-screen shooting niche probably deserved to be higher than the mid 2nd round for me even though he’s a historically failing archetype, due again almost entirely to opportunity.

It is reasonable to assume that some skill-sets and archetypes will have a higher success rate to succeed in the NBA in a vacuum. But this process does not operate in a vacuum.

2.The League Places a Premium on Athleticism & Shooting

What the league values, like it or not, trumps what those not affiliated with the league value in terms of how most of these prospects end up. My affinity for two-way players with emphasis on defense, intelligence and passing is probably well-known again if you read this site. The league however has shown repeatedly the affinity for banking on athleticism and shooting above all other components, often times at the expense of defense or passing. Jaylen Brown being selected third overall illuminates the “ball of athletic clay/you can teach a player to pass and shoot but you can’t teach athleticism” stance that I’ve heard from numerous scouts before. And who’s to blame them? I don’t think you can teach instincts or feel, at least to an impactful degree, but I’m not a coach or skill-developer. The Celtics are a sharp organization with a fantastic coach. It’s fair to say Brown’s likelihood of becoming an impactful player increased after being drafted by Boston. I did a better job calculating Brown into a rank last year than Murray for this reason, but it still might not have been enough. What the league values -> creates opportunity for projectable or established players.

3.Established Skill (What a Player CAN do) v. Projectable Skill

As one of my 2 other hosts on the What’s On Draft NBA Draft Podcast (shameless plug) Marc Whittington noted on a recent episode, there is a significant difference between possessing an established skill and a projectable skill in college. Lauri Markkenen is a perfect example of this. He’s an established blue-chip, dead-eye shooter right now supported by both the eye-test and a legitimate numbers sample. Conversely, he flashes perimeter prowess sliding laterally in space containing athletic wings like Miles Bridges defensively, but at the same time gets blown by a fair amount (along with showing minus off-ball awareness and possessing no avenue to defend the interior). You really have to project his perimeter defense based on inconsistency to arrive at any two-way player conclusion, and I’m growing inherently more skeptical in doing so on the defensive end specifically. That being said, we know Lauri can shoot the hell out of the ball, and has rare skill shooting off the dribble for a 7 footer. That established skill has rare value, and can’t be overshadowed entirely by what Lauri can’t do.

Also take Frank Ntilikina and Malik Monk defensively for example. The former busts his ass defensively with high aggression and effort, and when paired with elite lateral agility, size and length creates an impactful defender right now. Conversely, Monk shows far less consistent effort, but does flash elite quicks in spurts to render him projectable defensively defending ones, which has value. Still, one player can defend, and one player might be able to defend. There is a sizable difference. Monk, similar to Lauri, passes the established skill test in shooting the hell out of the ball both off the catch and off the dribble. We know he can do that, and his shortcomings as a playmaker and lack of defensive versatility can’t entirely overshadow that.

Malcolm Brogdon, arguably the most impactful rookie from the ’16 draft thus far personified the projectable component. His low 3pt attempts and modest percentages until his senior year spike painted an uncovincing “established skill” shooting picture. He had positive indicators such as consistently high FT%, but his shot was more projectable, and even with his frame and defensive competitiveness without a consistent shot he was likely to be a low level rotation/fringe player at his age (I didn’t see a ton of him in college, but definitely underrated his secondary creation ability). Fast forward 6 months and Brogdon is shooting 44% from 3, and that’s really been the difference. Sometimes projectable skills turn into actual skills (and this is of course a small NBA sample). Denzel Valentine was a blue-chip two-dimensional shooter who blew Brogdon out of the water as a shooting and playmaking prospect. Sometimes established skills don’t translate immediately (Valentine is a strong bet to regress to the mean and start shooting well).

4.Don’t Take Overly Hardline Stances on International Players You’ve Never Seen in Person (Especially Those With Poor Stat Translations)

I gave a pretty elongated disclaimer when I ranked Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot 4th overall last draft that I had never seen him in person and to heavily weight that. But taking that hardline of a stance in general just wasn’t optimal for an international player I hadn’t seen. It’s not that I’m not a fan of him anymore. That’s not the case at all. It’s just I noticed things in 30 seconds watching him in person in summer league that I didn’t get grasp well on tape, mainly just how diminutive he looked frame wise compared to NBA prospects in person and just how he carried himself on the court in terms of adjusting to the speed of the game (he was much farther away than I thought). I didn’t see a lot of Juancho Hernangomez tape before summer league, and with him the allure was obvious within a small amount of time (elite second jumper with good bounce and nose for the ball on the glass). Luwawu had poor statistical translations but I thought promising tapewhile Juancho had the opposite. I watched 8 or 9 games of Dragan Bender, and felt far more confident about him because he passed the eye test and translation benchmarks.

The intersection between international players and not seeing them in person has certainly been damning to my evals on both sides of the spectrum.

5.Diminishing Value of Non-Starter/Impact Bigs

As Jonathan Tjarks recently touched on in an article, there is a surplus of big men in the league right now. This is a component I thought I built into my big board effectively last year, having only 2 centers in my top 20 in Deyonta Davis and Chinanu Onuaku, the two bigs I felt best about in terms of providing starting level defensive value (and one of the few who didn’t have Jakob Poeltl, a backup player IMO in that range). The truth is though both of those guys had far from starting level floors. It can be argued that the only 2 bigs if you include fours that should have been top 20 in the draft class last year were Ben Simmons and Dragan Bender.

This year the only real blue-chip big man prospect who looks like a legit starter (based on physique and prior sample) is Harry Giles. Positional value and demand has to be built into rankings, and right now the demand for non-impactful fives is low.

6.Aggressiveness & Confidence are Skills

Just from clearly fixating on rookies early in the year mostly due to writing obligations, it is clear that most are incredibly tentative on the court, which impacts their ability to seize a place in the rotation. This is really where Jamal Murray separates himself: he’s ultra confident as a scorer/shooter and is aggressive on the floor, showing consistent purpose. That aggressive mindset and confidence is something I haven’t given enough credit to, and will be more cognitive incorporating into analysis in the future.

Pre-Conference Play Top 9 2016 “Big Board”

*I only included players I have seen religiously and who I feel like I have a strong grasp on. I could probably churn out a top 20 but I want more information via conference play etc. before generating an actual ranking.

Tier 1: 

1.Markelle Fultz

Most drafts have one or MAYBE two legit potential franchise players (if even that), and Fultz has clearly separated himself from the pack in this class. I noted in the preseason big board that if he shot the ball well off the dribble especially he’d be hard to keep out of this spot. Well, he’s 23/51 shooting off the dribble in the half-court this year, in the 90th percentile. I’ve seen him in person 4 times now and his comfort level and confidence as a shooter was something I did not expect.

Basically, he does almost everything on the court well outside of defend consistently, and his offense is so damn good that even if he was a zero on the defensive side it might not matter. The fact he has projectable tools and creates events, especially in chase-down block situations, just pushes his ceiling even higher to a potential generational scheme-changing lead guard.

Fultz just does things that few other 18 year-old prospects have ever done, and he does it regularly:

https://streamable.com/u0byl

He’s the best lead guard prospect I can remember, profiling as a 3 level scorer and elite playmaker with plus vision and really looks like ideal lead guard for the modern age.

Tier 2:

2.Josh Jackson

Jackson has lived up to the bill in almost every way, and has even exceeded expectations as a playmaker for others. He highlights the valuable intersection of being hyper competitive, versatile and effective defensively at a marquee position while also being a playmaking force offensively. The bugaboo of course is the shooting, Jackson’s one glaring weakness. He’s 4 of 18 on catch and shoot attempts in the half-court,7 of 19 shooting off the dribble there, 7 of 26 on total 3s and 32 of 59 from the line. It’s fair at this juncture to label Jackson a non-shooter, especially when you buttress the numbers with his wonky two-part form, but that doesn’t mean he’s a non-threat on offense. He has a workable handle and can eat up space off the dribble, he can read the floor and operate in pick and roll, and has outstanding touch finishing around the basket (noticeably on his floater). Kansas hasn’t attempted to tweak Jackson’s shot, and his form will likely have to be reconstructed in the pros. Jackson has an established skill set otherwise as a two-way playmaking wing, and his floor even sans a shot is incredibly high. In the unlikely event he develops a workable jumper (we can’t project this, but he has green flag work ethic which is encouraging) he has top 20 player potential as a two-way wing who can really create for others.

3.Jayson Tatum

I was skeptical of Tatum entering the season due mostly to inconsistency, especially defensively, and lack of range beyond the arc. Tatum has really surprised in the former respect, showing consistent off-ball awareness, solid lateral quickness and the ability to create events. He’s been far more engaged as a defender than I thought he would be, and him being a two-way wing changes his ceiling outcome signficantly.

Offensively, Tatum is a natural scorer armed with insanely advanced footwork operating in the midpost area for his age and a smooth high release jump shot he can get off at any time. His ball-skills from a handling and shot-making standpoint are phenomenal. With his developed frame (which looks comical compared to college wings) and high skill level, Tatum will wreak havoc kicking over to the 4 spot at the next level, but he has the skill of a wing.

There are still concerns that place him slightly below Jackson for me. He’s not an advanced creator for others and doesn’t have outstanding vision. He’s a capable passer when he wants to be, but he hasn’t found that medium of self-creation and creation for others yet. He’s also not a bouncy athlete in traffic which inhibits his finishing potential. Lastly, he’s only shot 14 3s and has made 5, so the jury is still very much out on his range potential. He is 23 of 25 from the line however, which silences some shooting concerns.

Tatum’s blue-chip skill is his advanced and versatile scoring prowess paired with aggressiveness, with the power to go through smaller players in the midpost and separate with his footwork and the agility to blow by bigs in face up situations. He has shown enough in swing skills like passing and defense especially where he is projectable in the former and probably established in the latter at the next level.

4.Jonathan Isaac

This is perhaps an overly optimistic ranking of Isaac based on the available sample, and this assessment I’m honestly the least confident in. I just can’t shake Isaac’s intersection of positional size, shooting prowess and handling baseline offensively and his plus overall defense thus far, even though he’s clearly the most “jack of all trades, master of none” player here. I think his passing instincts are better on film than the stats indicate as well.

Isaac’s handle needs a follow-up here. As outlined in the preseason big board he doesn’t have a ton of burst and isn’t a blow-by guy with a dynamic first step. His handle translating to the dribble-drive game isn’t there, as he rarely gets all the way to the basket. Instead, he uses his dribble to set up pull-up situations, and the fluidity at times is tantalizing:

https://streamable.com/jzotf

He’s just 5 of 14 shooting off dribble in the half-court this season, operating mostly as a spot up shooter (11 of 27 off the catch in the half-court). The volume is lacking (only 34 3pt attempts and 33 FTAs), but a lot of that is role playing mostly the 4 off-ball.

My biggest issue with Isaac is a lack of assertiveness. He seems overly passive thus far, and it would be nice to see him attack more looking for his own offense ala Tatum. He’s more of an eye-test vote of confidence rather than one fortified by stats yet. I just like the overall skill versatility he’s shown along with surprising defensive prowess. He desperately needs to add strength, and if/when he does he’ll add a dynamic creation threat at 4 at the next level. He has a shot at being a primary two-wing creator in the NBA, and those types are almost always found on good teams.

5.Dennis Smith Jr.

Smith Jr’s stats haven’t caught up with his reputation, but with Yurtseven especially returning to the fold he’s already started to ascend on paper. Smith Jr’s archetype as a fringe outlier athlete (more Eric Bledsoe than Derek Rose, Russell Westbrook or John Wall) and his heavy pick and roll and 3 level scoring/creation playstyle are just more alluring to me than Ntilikina or Ball at this juncture.

Smith Jr. has the volume to buttress the eye-test ability to create his own on the floor, shooting 41 shots off the dribble in the half-court this year. He’s only 12 of 41 there, but he’s able to contort his body and convert off-balance looks in ways other guys here simply cant. He can get to his spots on the floor possessing the best burst of any lead guard in the class and excels finishing off one foot:

https://streamable.com/n0i75
His defensive intensity has been poor for the most part, although he’s been more active in the passing lanes of late. You can’t project him to be a plus defender at the next level based solely on the tape thus far, but he has the ability to be non-terrible here.

Overall, Smith Jr. really does remind me of a more natural lead guard Eric Bledsoe offensively (he obviously doesn’t have Bledsoe’s tenacity on the defensive side). That comparison might disparage some, but a healthy Bledsoe (a rare sight) is a hell of a player. You’d like to see the shooting ascend off the dribble (he’s been better off the catch albeit in a limited 9-19 on catch and shoot attempts in the half-court). From the eye test his jumper is fluid, compact, consistent and he gets good elevation. He’s also shooting almost 80% from the line on a healthy 79 total attempts, which is promising, but at a certain point results are results. I see Smith Jr. as being one of the two primary handling high-level starter lead guards in this class along with Fultz capable of consistently running an offense with a 3 level attack.

6.Harry Giles

There isn’t much to say yet with such a limited sample. Giles has always looked the part athletically, and in his brief stints thus far has flashed outlier quickness in space defensively for a 5. I tend to give outlier athletes at the 5, being one of the most projectable archetypes, the benefit of the doubt unless proven otherwise. Giles might be the only starting level big in this class considering the factors discussed above.

7.Frank Ntilikina

I watched the semifinal and final of U18 Euros and came away incredibly impressed with Ntilikina having seen only limited game tape before. He is an established two-way player who showed way more comfort and confidence shooting off the dribble than I ever expected to see. Defensively, he confirmed his status as the best point of attack defender in the draft, where he pairs elite lateral quickness with dogged energy, hyper competitiveness and plus length.

I came into the season with my biggest question-marks relating to him being shooting and finishing. Ntilikina has mostly suppressed the former concern. He doesn’t have the most fluid shot with a lower release point but it’s aesthetic enough and the results have been there to pair with suprisingly fantastic confidence as a shot-taker. The latter is really my concern now. Ntilikina gets good length extension on finishes but doesn’t have outlier stop/start burst in the half-court and isn’t explosive finishing off one foot in traffic. More importantly, however, he is a reluctant driver, lacking the mindset to blow by defenders in space. He overly relies on his handle, which is fairly strong, to create separation, with hang dribbles that usually result in a pull-up jumper. He is a little like Ball in that he rarely gets all the way to the basket and into the teeth of the defense.

Ntilikina is still at least a 3&D plus lead guard, armed with incredible vision and patience for his age. He never gets sped up reading the floor, and has that “it” intelligence you look for on-ball. He might not be an every possession 3 level creator like Fultz or Smith, but he’s certainly a legitimate playmaker. His shooting display and big-game play at the U18’s will garner a lot of attention from NBA scouts, probably enough to make him a surefire top 10 pick and carry that corresponding opportunity. I’m banking on his two-way playmaking ability here.

Tier 3

8.OG Anunoby

OG remains a safe floor play as the established best overall defender in the draft with his combination of tools, athleticism, outlier strength and versatility at a premium position. The concern is of course the other side of the ball. OG can’t dribble outside of big space straight-line plays or create anything off the bounce, lacking any semblance of playmaking for himself or for others, placing enormous pressure on his shooting prowess to generate offensive value in the half-court especially. He’s now 24 of 60 on career 3s, but only 35 of 69 in his career from the foul line. Some will take his 40% from 3 and project him as a capable shooter, but we learned that lesson with Justise Winslow when there were negative shooting indicators in his profile outside of 3pt % on a limited sample.

OG doesn’t have ball-skills to fall back on like Winslow or MKG did if he can’t shoot, but he is probably a better bet to shoot it well given his more workable shooting form. Even if OG doesn’t shoot it well he has a high-defensive floor with his incredible versatility due mostly to his strong frame and length. If used correctly OG can swing to the 4 spot with ease and even the small-ball 5 in some lineups with his ability to protect the rim. It will take utilizing him that way to extract full top 10 value for OG, and it’s hard to project that he will be used in this manner of course not knowing the destination. Ergo, he ranks a tier behind the masses here.

9.Lonzo Ball

The hyperbole train is running rampant with Lonzo Ball takes this year, and these takes are severely missing the mark and mischaracterizing what Lonzo *is* as a player. From the sample we’ve seen of Ball on film he’s playing the role of transition dynamo + souped up triangle lead guard in the half-court, more akin to a secondary handler than a primary NBA lead guard. Almost all his offense comes in transition and of the off-ball variety. He’s taken just 8 shots off the dribble all year in the half-court, and has finished only 9 possessions as a pick and roll ball-handler thus far. He rarely ever drives to the basket or gets into the teeth of the defense in a self-creation situation. He’s also noticeably struggled laterally at the point of attack defensively navigating around screens and containing dribble penetration laterally in space. So why is he getting compared to Jason Kidd (9 time all-defense), Steve Nash (the best off the dribble shooting lead guard behind Curry arguably ever) and Derek Rose (an outlier athlete who gets to the rim at will) when he hasn’t shown a proclivity to do any of those things?

This all sounds like I’m down on Ball, and that’s not true. I really like him. I just have a grounded assessment on what he’s actually shown. He has a high floor as an outlier intelligent passer and off the catch shooter with insane range who is also a savvy cutter. In the right system (motion-based etc) that has definitive value. But expecting him to be a primary initiator every time down the floor in a pick-and-roll fulcrum offense where he has to probe, get to the rim and create unassisted offense off the dribble is not projectable at this point. I thought he could be a spread pick and roll scheme-changing lead guard who could hit 3s off the dribble, ala D’Angelo Russell (a poor man’s Russell in terms of scoring) but there are shooting concerns there. His form being Kevin-Martin esque doesn’t allow for a lot of contorting in pull-up situations. He’s not going to make those tough one footed fall-away jumpers off the dribble like a Steve Nash because his form doesn’t allow him to shoot in that manner when he’s not set and he’s moving to the right.

Basically, I like Lonzo in the right scheme. If you put him in Luke Walton’s offense, he’s a real asset. But he doesn’t have the shake, outlier burst, explosive leaping ability off one foot in traffic or shooting off the dribble package to be a full-blown primary creator. He’s far more similar to a faster and more athletic Denzel Valentine (without the off-the-dribble shooting) than he is to any of the players listed above, as he’s really a slightly above average athlete in the half-court.  At worst he’s a secondary handler who is an ace spot up shooter bringing lead guard vision to a wing spot. That’s still top 10 value. But pump the brakes a bit.

*All Spot up/Shooting off the Catch/Shooting off the Dribble Info and Playtype Stats are Derived from Synergy Sports unless Otherwise Stated

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