This year’s draft is extremely interesting to me. The big knock on this draft is that it’s not very deep, but it matters what kind of depth about which you’re talking. It’s not deep on star talent, that’s for sure. There’s really only one guy I feel confident has a good chance to make multiple All-NBA teams, and it’s not going to be a big surprise who that is. However, what this draft lacks in star depth, it makes up in rotation depth – there are a ton of guys who bring enough to the table in their median NBA outcome to be rotation players on playoff teams, even if few of them are likely to be All-NBA talents.
Risk and reward are the hallmarks of any draft and teams all take different approaches to risk tolerance. In a draft that levels off after the top few guys but has somewhere between 30 and 50 players who could all make a case as a top ten player in this class when it’s all said and done, risk tolerance comes to the forefront in a major way. This begins near the top, where the conversation surrounding Jarrett Culver and De’Andre Hunter can be boiled down to how much Culver’s upside as a secondary playmaker outweighs the uncertainty surrounding his outside shot. Hunter has a tighter window of potential outcomes – he already has a solid-if-unspectacular three-point shot and is one of the better wing defenders in the draft. Even Hunter’s defensive upside is risk versus reward, as he’s notoriously very conservative in his approach to individual and team defense, opting to stay solid, get his chest into opposing offensive players and not reach for steals and blocks. Like he is on offense, he’s not a playmaker and won’t do much that’ll put him on a highlight reel, but his ability to knock down open shots and defend at a high level makes him perhaps the most ready-made NBA player in the draft outside of Zion Williamson.
The Culver-Hunter debate is just one of many in this draft that bank on a team’s risk tolerance, as a team looking to hit a single or double might go with Hunter, whereas a team swinging for a triple or homer would be more interested in Culver. There are some true home run swings to be had in this draft, players who could be franchise-changing picks or could flame out before the end of this draft class has its five-year reunion.
As a general statement, my risk tolerance in the draft looks like a reverse bell curve. At the top, taking a risk on a player with a wide floor-ceiling gap is fine, but as the draft exits the top handful of players, I’m spending the next 30 picks or so looking for guys who can play a role on my team and fit well with my conception of the future. Then, once the draft hits about 40 picks, my risk tolerance starts to go up dramatically; that’s the time to take swings on guys who might only have a one in ten chance of making it, but that one in ten is a really high-level player.
I build my board in as much of a vacuum as possible, though once you get into that middle 30, where I’m really looking for role players, the order can change dramatically based on the team in question. This is in no way a mock draft and the needs of the particular teams picking in the particular draft slots were not considered in any way.
With that said, let’s get into my 2019 board.
The top three are relative no-brainers to me. Williamson is No. 1 by a mile, discussing him against his draft classmates isn’t even worth doing. The more interesting conversation about him has to do with where he stacks up historically against the great top draft prospects, though I’m not going to pretend to have the sort of draft knowledge going back far enough to accurately assess where he falls in those rankings. All I know is that he’s absolutely the top pick in this draft. That doesn’t mean he’s a perfect player – he has his faults like any other top pick – but his pure athleticism and basketball IQ will win out over any of his deficiencies. I’m slightly worried about his passing and outside shooting translating, but not so much that I’d consider anybody else at No. 1.
Ja Morant is a pretty easy No. 2 for me. The upside of nabbing a primary playmaker with his passing and scoring ceiling is too much to pass up for a slightly safer choice in R.J. Barrett. The two of them would make up my second tier, if I were to be doing this in tiers, as Barrett’s value as a wing and scoring acumen make him a really strong pick at No. 3.
I hashed out the Culver-Hunter debate in the introduction to this article – Hunter is the safer pick, but Culver’s upside as a two-way secondary playmaker makes him a better pick at No. 4. If this were a more normal draft and these two were available at, say, Nos. 11 and 12, I think I’d be all about Hunter over Culver, since he’d be a safer pick at that point, but at the top of the draft, my higher risk tolerance leads me to pick want Culver over Hunter. The nature of the draft being as flat as it is means that I’d be looking to trade out of either of these spots if I were the Pelicans or Cavaliers, but that requires a team valuing those guys enough to give up assets to move up.
The bottom half of my top ten is led by a pair of lead guards. Darius Garland and Coby White are very similar players overall, with slight differences on each side of the floor. Garland has the higher upside as a primary creator and the shot he showed in his few games with Vanderbilt gives him a better chance to dominate the game as a long-range threat, but White is no slouch in that area either. White’s also a better defensive player, though if he even tops out at average on that end, it’ll be a win. Garland also has the inherent risk that comes with a player who barely played in college and didn’t get to play much of his team’s conference schedule against high-level college opponents, whereas White played the full season and therefore has more projectability to his game going forward.
If you told me right now that Brandon Clarke would turn out to be the second-best player in this draft class, I wouldn’t blink an eye. He’s got preternatural instincts and athleticism, which help to offset what he lacks in height and prototypical length for his position. The defensive ceiling is as high as anybody’s in this draft, including Williamson at the top.
Rounding out the top ten are Cam Reddish and Goga Bitadze. Reddish is an enigma after his one year at Duke went about as poorly as it reasonably could have, though the revelation that he was playing through a core injury for much of the year makes me feel a lot better about his draft stock. Still, given what he was able to do in his only collegiate season, drafting Reddish is almost entirely an upside play – he’s going to have to improve drastically over what we saw last year in order to be a worthwhile NBA player.
To be frank, I haven’t seen a lot of Bitadze, nor many of the other international players. The version of Synergy I have is limited in this capacity, though it does give me access to his international matches with Georgia. From what I was able to watch, including some limited film on YouTube, he’s a perfect modern NBA big man, with the ability to do it all on offense and the size and length to play as a defensive anchor in the middle of the floor. He’s not particularly versatile defensively, but he can play his role as a drop man in pick-and-roll well. His combination of size and IQ will make him a solid defensive player, with upside to become one of the better paint-bound big man defenders in the league. I would have liked to see a bit more playmaking out of him offensively, but it may well have been that he’s more of a featured scorer for club and country than he will be as an NBA player.
I attended Nassir Little’s pro day in Las Vegas last month and came away more impressed with him than what he showed on film during his one year at North Carolina, but I still have questions about his feel for the game and basketball IQ on both ends of the floor. The three-point shot looks much better now than it did a few months ago, whether he was taking catch-and-shoot or off-the-dribble jumpers. He’s got prototypical size for a forward and uses his strength to his advantage on both ends, but when it comes to playing within a team concept and making the right reads on both ends, I have questions. By all reports, he’s a great kid and a hard worker, so it’s by no means impossible that he improves in these areas, just as he improved on his jumper over the last few months, and there’s a world in which he beats out Hunter as the best wing defender in the lottery, but Hunter is already leagues ahead of him from a defensive intelligence perspective.
Grant Williams is a bit of an Internet darling and has shot up draft boards in the last little while, though people in the know seem to be lower on him than the majority of the Internet. I’m not so high on Williams that I have him in my top ten, but I’m still higher than the consensus – now that we’re into the role player section of the draft, Williams’ intelligence shines through. He’s going to know what it takes to win and do just that, whether it’s using his size defensively or being an elbow or short roll playmaker. A lack of athleticism will keep him out of being a top-tier player on either end of the floor, but if he turned into this generation’s Al Horford, I wouldn’t be shocked in the least.
I’m a sucker for big guards, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker is right in my wheelhouse. I made the mistake last year of not leaning into my love for big guards with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and paid for it dearly; I really should have had him in the top 7 or 8 last year, but got scared off by a perceived lack of athleticism. Alexander-Walker isn’t exactly the same sort of player as Gilgeous-Alexander, but he fills the same big secondary playmaker role that I really love in today’s NBA. Like Williams ahead of him, Alexander-Walker is going to struggle athletically at the NBA level, which matters more for him on the perimeter, where the margins are smaller, but I think his combination of secondary playmaking and catch-and-shoot ability make him a perfect off-guard in a league that’s moving more and more to having as many ball handlers and shooters as possible on the floor at the same time. His physical frame gives me hope for his defense as well, with great height and length for a combo guard.
Sekou Doumbouya has the same international caveats that surrounded Bitadze earlier, so I’m open to being wildly wrong about being this low on him. The issue with Doumbouya is my relative low risk tolerance by the time we get outside the top eight picks or so, which pushes him further down my board. The athleticism is otherworldly, but the rest of his game has to catch up to that athleticism, from a technical and mental perspective. Right now, he’s a fantastic athlete in transition and is capable of making the wow plays, but when it comes to possession-in, possession-out value and consistency of that possession-by-possession value, I worry that he’s not particularly close to providing value at the NBA level. He may get there and make me look like a moron, but for me, the upside isn’t quite worth the downside with Doumbouya.
I’m lower on Hayes than the consensus almost entirely because of the positional value of a center versus the other positions on the floor. Hayes may well by Clint Capela with better lateral agility, though projecting him to be that good requires you to be higher on him than I am in the first place, but the value of that player against a replacement-level center isn’t nearly as high as a similarly-valued player at another position. His offensive versatility is essentially non-existent at this point, though his free throw shooting numbers would indicate that he has better touch than he showed during his time at Texas. Defensively, he has such a long ways to go from a basketball IQ perspective that I worry about whether he’ll ever get to a requisite level to use his length and athleticism to be a really strong positive on that end of the floor.
I’m higher than the league on Matisse Thybulle by more than any other prospect this year. Thybulle’s defensive production last year at Washington was out of this world, though there are concerns with how he’ll translate back to man defense from a zone that accentuated his best skills. He wasn’t particularly influential as a man defender during his first two years with the Huskies, but there was enough in his tape as a zone defender to make me think that he’ll be a disruptive force on that end of the floor in any NBA scheme. Particularly as a help defender, Thybulle’s strengths will outshine his weaknesses. Almost all of his offensive value will be tied to his jumper, which is a very risky proposition, as players’ jumpers can come and go on a near-daily basis. The numbers there weren’t particularly prolific at Washington, but he shot 85 percent from the free throw line, an elite mark, and there’s nothing about his jumper that looks broken; it just didn’t go in as often as it should have. The jumper has to translate for him to be a high-level rotation player, but I believe it will and I’m happy to take him ahead of some of the other players in this range on that belief.
I originally had Chuma Okeke as high as No. 14 before pushing him back down the board and settling him in at No. 23. He’s another wing who won’t make the plays that end up on SportsCenter, but he’ll make enough little plays to help an entire team lead SportsCenter as NBA champions someday. He’s more of a 16-game player than an 82-game player; his value will show up in a huge way in the playoffs, where his basketball IQ will have a chance to shine as a passer and key cog in a good defense. If he hadn’t suffered the torn ACL in the NCAA tournament, I guarantee I would have kept him as a late lottery pick, but the future injury risk and the chance he doesn’t come back with all of the athleticism he flashed through this past season at Auburn pushes him down the board.
Carsen Edwards might be the most valuable guard in this draft relative to where he gets picked, though there’s always a chance that there’s a late second-rounder or undrafted guard who pops. Certainly, among the handful of first-round guards, I like Edwards the most as a value play late in the first round. He brings a similar high-end scoring ceiling as Garland and White at the top, though the chances he actually hits that ceiling are relatively low. For how much a team would have to pay, both in salary and draft capital, to pick Edwards, I’d rather have the small chance he becomes better than Garland and White and a relatively similar floor as sparkplug bench scorers with enough shooting ability to make teams change up their defensive schemes whenever they’re on the floor.
Mfiondu Kabengele is another Internet darling, mirroring Williams’ jump up draft boards, though for far different reasons. Kabengele’s one of the better athletes in the draft, but the first time he passes to an open teammate in the NBA will be the first pass he’s made in his life and he generally has very little idea of what he’s supposed to do or where he’s supposed to be on either end of the floor. The outside shooting potential is there and it’s clear why teams and analysts are enamored of him, as his two-way 3-and-D ability at the center or power forward spots is tantalizing, but I’m very skeptical he can put it together at a high enough level to offset his deficiencies as a decision maker.
Jontay Porter is impossible to place on this board. There’s so much we don’t know from the outside looking in that anybody who knows what his NBA career is going to be is far more confident than I am. His offense-first profile as a center is even higher than Bitadze, who I have at No. 10, but after consecutive torn ACLs, I have no idea what he’ll look like athletically. His game isn’t overly reliant on his athleticism, but he already struggled with the aspects of the game that require him to be an above-average athlete, namely finishing at the rim and lateral mobility defensively. He could be the best offensive big man in the class…or he could be Greg Oden. I have no idea.
I toyed around with the idea of not even listing Bol Bol in my top 60. In a vacuum, somebody will take a chance on him much higher than 41, but if I were in charge of an NBA team, I’m not sure he’d even be on my board. There are so many issues and so many risks involved with drafting Bol – his physical stature lends itself very easily to further injury and he’s already suffered a stress fracture in his foot, a problem area for big men. Even if he’s fully healthy, he has such a long way to go before he’s a positive contributor, particularly on the defensive end. Relative to position, as center is a more important defensive position than guard, Bol is the worst defender in the class, with absolutely zero idea of what he’s supposed to be doing on that end of the floor. His length made up for a lot of those mistakes at lower levels, but his lack of defensive IQ will make things untenable for him defensively early in his career. The offensive profile is certainly enticing, but, for me, he’s only worth the immense risk if a team could get by without any problems if that draft pick was completely wasted.
This is the rest of my top 75, though the order at the bottom here is incredibly fungible. There are a couple of players in here I like more than the others, but ranking these guys is more of a formality than a hard and fast numbering. Charles Matthews has a chance to be a terrifying defensive player and was at least ten spots higher on the board before he tore his ACL in pre-draft workouts. Iggy Brazdeikis was also working out at Little’s pro day and impressed me with his shotmaking and athleticism. John Konchar is one of my guys, though he’s likely nowhere near No. 60 on a lot of teams’ boards. I believe in his ability to be a 16-game player with his versatility on both ends of the floor, though a lack of athleticism and experience against high-end competition could make that statement look very foolish. There are a number of guys who should get looks as undrafted free agents or two-way contracts. Justin Wright-Foreman’s shot creation and scoring ability is really intriguing, as is Cody Martin’s secondary playmaking and outside shooting.
There are several players in here who are in different places on teams’ boards or most analysts. I’ve found that I’m a lot more risk-averse than most public draft analysts, which leads me to somewhat overvalue guys who can fit a particular role and undervalue the guys who are a bit more of a dice roll but have a higher ceiling outcome. There are number of players in the teens whom I have lower than they’ll likely go and the chances that one of these players pops and becomes a top player in this class is pretty high, considering how many of them there are, but on an individual basis, once the draft exits the top eight or so choices, my risk tolerance goes way down. Doumbouya, Hayes, Rui Hachimura, and Romeo Langford are a few of the guys I have outside of the lottery who very well may creep into the back end of that grouping and one or two of these guys will come out the other end in a few years as clearly a top ten player in this class, but without any way of knowing who that’s going to be, I bump all of them down a few spots and leave the higher spots for guys in which I feel more confident (Williams and Alexander-Walker, in particular). The same goes further down, as we close out the first round. Players like Kabengele, Luguentz Dort, and KZ Okpala scare me with their lack of basketball IQ or other deficiencies that make them difficult fits in my risk-averse draft philosophy.