2019 NBA Draft Mailbag: Addressing Zion Williamson, Bol Bol and Burning Questions
Well, believe it or not, it’s draft week. Last week we called for all your burning questions. Today, we answer (most of) them. I couldn’t fit in every email, but there was some conceptual overlap, and I tried to hit on all the pertinent topics I could. From the depth of the draft to some team-specific questions and some general philosophizing, it’s all here.
Lots of people believe there’s a big drop off in this draft after Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, and RJ Barrett. Where do you think those 4-10 guys (Culver, Garland, Hunter, Reddish, etc.) would’ve gone in last year's draft? Right after Trae Young? Or following Mikal Bridges at 10?
Let’s start off with this one, which I think is helpful for context. Putting the two classes in context and knowing what we know now, I think it’s fair to posit a few things.
1) Zion probably would have still gone first, ahead of Deandre Ayton, but it would have been a more interesting debate, at least. Knowing what everyone knows for certain about Luka Doncic now, I’d *probably* take him ahead of those two guys, but a year ago, knowing how I felt, I might not have. (I regret that). Gun to my head, all things equal, I’d go Zion, but Doncic is pretty special, and it’s close. The possibility of Williamson putting everything together is just too hard to pass up for me.
2) Ja Morant and RJ Barrett would probably fall somewhere in the 5-6-7 group with Trae Young, Mo Bamba and Wendell Carter. They’d be clearly behind Jaren Jackson. Had they been in the same draft, I probably would have preferred Morant to Marvin Bagley. I’d have RJ behind those guys.
3) Just a reminder that we all screwed up when Shai Gilgeous-Alexander fell to No. 11 last year. Retroactively, he’d be in the above group.
4) Jarrett Culver (who I personally have above Barrett, but most don’t) would probably fall into the next tier of players, and I’d guess he and Garland would have been preferable to Collin Sexton and Kevin Knox. De’Andre Hunter versus Mikal Bridges versus Miles Bridges would have been a real debate. And I’d put Reddish somewhere at the back of this group, just based on how lukewarm teams seem to be as far as he’s concerned.
What does this tell us? This draft is not replete with top-end talent that everyone feels good about. There’s a lower sense of security among teams starting at No. 4 and working down. People are all over the board on the next group of guys. That brings us, neatly, to the next question.
I keep hearing that this is a weak draft after the first three picks, but how is the depth? Are NBA teams drafting in the back half also less enthusiastic with the players available?
I wouldn’t say there’s a lack of enthusiasm, but I would say there’s an increased sense of uncertainty about a process that’s inherently uncertain. As noted above, there’s not as much easily projectable top-end talent. That doesn’t mean all these lottery picks are going to fail. Some of them always do, and some of them will. But the draft essentially operates on a curve year to year, and there are always teams who evaluate well and find ways to take advantage of the circumstances. We don’t think it’s deep, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be good players, particularly because the difference in ability between many of these guys is very thin.
From a philosophical standpoint, my feeling about whether a draft is “good” or “bad” is that those designations are essentially irrelevant. Every year, there are guys who fall in the draft or go undrafted completely (hi, Fred VanVleet) that leave us wondering, in hindsight, how and why that was ever possible. Just because it’s a thinner, more challenging talent pool doesn’t mean teams’ approach should change—it should always be about making the best decision possible, relative to which players are on the board. So while it definitely feels like there’s a little bit less to get excited about this year, I wouldn’t fret if your team is picking between 20 and 40—in fact, I kind of have a feeling that range is going to be the sweet spot where teams can take advantage of the market relative to their own needs.
Who do you think the Brooklyn Nets are the most likely to target at 27? How would you rank Mfiondu Kabengele, Nicolas Claxton, Bruno Fernando, and Daniel Gafford as centers in this class?
The Nets are in an interesting spot at 27, noting that they also hold pick No. 31, and that if they pass on someone with their first pick, that guy could ostensibly still be on the board if they pick again. So, figuring out what the Warriors, Spurs and Bucks are going to do from 28–30 is probably high on their list of priorities. Word was that Brooklyn was targeting a big man at No. 17, and even after trading down, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll still be able to get a decent one 10 picks later. I would be shocked if one of their two picks isn’t a big.
The names you mentioned above have come to form a pretty clear tier. On our Big Board, I have it as Claxton, Fernando, Kabengele and then Gafford. It may go a different way on draft night, but I think Claxton has the most tangible upside, Fernando probably has the safest pathway to contributing, Kabengele is clearly the best shooter of the group and Gafford might be the most athletic. It does seem like Claxton has gathered considerable momentum with teams, and is trending ahead of the others. I think Gafford is the most likely to slip to the second round.
I think all those guys are plausible targets for Brooklyn. I also don’t think it’s totally crazy to think Bol Bol, who as I understand it was in the mix for them at 17, could slip down to them. And if the Nets really wanted to, they could probably package 27 and 31 to move up a bit and get someone they like, noting that picks 20-23 all seem likely to remain obtainable via trade.
That brings us to…
What type of role do you see Bol Bol playing in the NBA?
The Bol conversation is complicated on a number of levels, but ultimately the only position he’ll feasibly be able to play is as a stretch-five. That can obviously mean different things in terms of scheme and usage, but Bol’s primary selling point that sets him apart from other centers is his natural shooting ability from distance, and his ability to get that shot off while also being a 7’2” person. That’s a valuable, unique thing unto itself. The big worry offensively is that he’ll never be strong enough to do much scoring on the interior, whether it’s posting up or even just finishing and rebounding in traffic. Bol gets pushed around, his center of gravity makes it tough to hold position, and that’s just a biological factor that impacts the ways he can be effective. What you’ll also likely see a creative team do is flash him into the mid-post, create pick-and-pop opportunities for him as much as possible and try to generate quick face-up touches in space, where he can comfortably get shots off over people with less burden of contact.
Defensively, Bol is limited in the sense that he’s not going to be mobile enough to step out on the perimeter. He’s going to be more useful in drop coverages where he can sag back, then come forward and contest with his length, as opposed to risking him hedging or getting stuck on an island, where he just doesn’t move his feet quickly enough to stay with smaller, stronger players. Bol’s a natural shot blocker, but that impact is most felt when he’s helping at the rim or closing out on shooters—situations where he’s not being physically impeded when making a play on the ball. These factors exclusively limit him to playing center, and while there’s some room for creativity (zone defense, anyone?), these are the things teams have to consider. Do you take a guy with his distinct limitations and hope he blossoms into the best version of himself? Or do the risks posed by his health, body type and reputation for not always working hard make another player more worthy of a bet at your first-round selection? At some point, Bol is going to be worth a shot. But people are all over the board, understandably.
Do the Hawks like Cam Reddish? Is he a target for them?
Reddish is another one of the more polarizing players on the board right now—there are scenarios where he could fall out of the Top 10—but if Atlanta keeps one or both of Nos. 8 and 10, I think Reddish will be in play. Based on conversations I’ve had, the Hawks have been linked on some level to all of Jarrett Culver, De'Andre Hunter, Reddish and Sekou Doumbouya. Based on all the chatter about the Hawks trying to trade up, the sense I get is that Culver and Hunter are estimably the two players they’d have to come up from eight to get. I noted this in last week’s mock, but they’re supposedly targeting Culver if they pull the trigger to come up to four or five.
If they stay put and Reddish is on the board, he’s too clean a fit there for Atlanta not to consider it. He needs to be tasked with some responsibility in order to work through the adversity, but nobody wants to foist the franchise savior label on him anytime soon. There are a lot of skeptics around the league, and justifiably so, but Reddish is a fair gamble at eight or 10 if the Hawks make those picks. I can see them doing it, but there are moving parts to this.
What do you think the best case scenario is for the Cavs?
If I were Cleveland, holding picks Nos. 5 and 26, I would probably approach Atlanta about coming down from No. 5 to pick up No. 8 and either pick 10 or 17 in exchange. This depends on who gets picked at No. 4—if Jarrett Culver makes it to five, I’d be happy to walk out of the draft with him as a long-term piece. But after that, I don’t see it as a steep drop-off, and I’d rather be in position to place multiple bets, particularly with how much room there is for the Cavs to add youth to the roster.
Also, the Cavs are going to come into a lot of cap space beginning in 2020-21. It’s probably more than they need. If there’s a chance for them to attach one of the various expiring deals on their roster (Tristan Thompson, John Henson, J.R. Smith, Brandon Knight, Jordan Clarkson and Matthew Dellavedova) and take on someone else’s longer-term money in exchange for creating draft value in some fashion, say, acquiring another first-rounder, I think that’s something Cleveland should and will explore. Kevin Love, Collin Sexton and Larry Nance are the only players under long-term control at the moment. It’s not a destination franchise for free agents. Using that future flexibility to add value is a huge key for them moving forward—look at how the Nets operated under Sean Marks to get to this point, and that’s a pretty solid blueprint. Drafting well is imperative, and the more players the Cavs can draft and develop over the next couple seasons, the better.
What first-round talents do you expect to see fall into the second round?
It’s worth prefacing this by noting how much the 20–35 range seems to vary from person to person and team to team—with a lot of those picks available, it’s a bit tricky to peg who’s a first-rounder and who isn’t right now, but safe to say this is fluid. (I promise this isn’t just a cop-out answer). That said, some guys who may fall into the 30s, then end up well outperforming those slots are Carsen Edwards, Chuma Okeke and Grant Williams.
I’ll start by admitting I have a bit of a soft spot for Edwards—I’ve scouted so many nondescript Big Ten games live over the past two years that maybe I’ve been overexposed—but I had a very difficult time watching Fred VanVleet nailing huge shots in the Finals and without flashing back visually to watching Edwards at Purdue. They aren’t the same player: VanVleet, first and foremost, always profiled well as a pass-first guard, has always been a tough defender, and blossomed in the pros by fine-tuning the things he’s always done. Edwards is an occasionally volcanic scorer who was asked to score at Purdue, and whose facilitation skills and defense are the big questionmarks. Which is all to say that this is probably a very lazy comparison on my end. But at the end of the day, I think Edwards’ strength will help compensate for his size, I think he’s an intelligent player and person and I think the lessened scoring burden in the NBA will help him round out some of the problem spots and become a viable third guard. Some of the shots he hits offensively are breathtaking. I would be comfortable finding out in the 20s.
Okeke’s case is of interest because he was tracking toward the first round before tearing his ACL in the NCAA tournament. If a team is optimistic, maybe they roll the dice in the 20s. There’s more than enough on tape and from a statistical perspective to support his case, provided the medical stuff comes back clean. He’s a little bit stuck between the three and the four, but his ability to defend both those spots, his strong block and steal rates and the fact he can knock down spot-up threes with some consistency makes that less of a concern. At risk of smoothing over the specifics with a buzzwordy term, Okeke has a perfectly modern skill set for a forward. He’d begun to string together more consistent play at the end of the season, too. I don’t know if he goes in the first, but he shouldn’t fall out of the 30s.
Finally, Williams—I don’t know if I’d grab him in the first, because I’m not confident enough in his offense translating that I’d allocate the slot value of a first-round contract and extended team control. Some people are, and in that event, it makes sense why he’d go in the 20s. Most of the teams I’ve talked to see him as a better bet in the early second round. His skill set is unique—he’s a great passer, he makes small, winning plays and he’s built like a brick, which made him a really effective offensive player at Tennessee.
The issue is that in the NBA, Williams won’t be able to eat off post-ups as often, nor will it be as easy for him to play in traffic, so the development of his jumper is key, and he’ll have to be able to put the ball on the floor a little bit better. But on the right team, he has the chops to be a useful role player, potentially a pretty good one if he continues getting better. Williams is also extremely smart, and he’s someone teams feel very comfortable with from a personality standpoint, and all of this is going to give him a chance. I wouldn’t do it crazy high in the draft, but if he falls into the 30s, I’d be fine grabbing him there and trying it.
Is there a positive impact on being included on early season mock drafts? Two players I’m thinking of are Armoni Brooks (Houston) and Amir Coffey (Minnesota). Could they have improved their stock by simply being on the radar since they unexpectedly stayed in the draft this year?
As someone whose job includes putting together said early mock drafts, this question is almost uncomfortably meta, but I’ll go with it. As far as media mock drafts are concerned within the basketball industry, I would point out that only a few of them are actually informed with intel and opinions from NBA personnel (which I mean with zero condescension), and those mocks are at least indicative of how the league is thinking. NBA teams actually do read these mock drafts and rankings, but how much value they actually put into them varies from person to person, and everything changes quickly. In terms of legitimacy, I would say it certainly helps for a player to be listed early on, but it doesn’t always mean anything.
The early mock drafts in particular should be very helpful in terms of knowing things like which prospects are on the NBA’s radar, which freshmen are on track to be one-and-done, and things like that, but they are also often wrong. A good example is Quentin Grimes, who was widely projected by me and others as a lottery pick to start the season, and ended up having a rough year at Kansas before transferring.
The way I like to explain the concept of “draft stock” is that most of the time, players who are very good NBA prospects are always going to be very good prospects—it’s not like their talent level changes drastically. Players’ performance obviously matters, and their individual development is fluid, and they can be hurt or helped by intangibles, but really, for most of the season, “stock” is just a reflection of how long it takes for NBA scouts and people who cover the draft to figure out how good a prospect someone actually is. Being that the draft is in a few days, this time of year, it becomes much more concrete as to which way a player is trending. But circling back to your original point, I would hesitate to ever treat an early mock draft is gospel. We all get stuff wrong.
And…all that being said, look our for our first 2020 Big Board on this site next week. (Gulp.)