What Should We Really Be Looking For in NBA Prospects?

Marvin Bagley.

Luka Doncic.

Jaren Jackson Jr.

Trae Young.

That is a list of the immediate four players the Phoenix Suns passed on in last year’s NBA Draft in order to select Arizona Center DeAndre Ayton. My next list …. Four NBA Rookies who seem to be better selections than DeAndre Ayton:

Marvin Bagley.

Luka Doncic.

Jaren Jackson Jr.

Trae Young.

Well crap. More than seventy years of having a professional basketball league, and despite all the progress we’ve made, we still suck at predicting who are the best prospects in the NBA Draft. And trust me, it’s not that DeAndre Ayton is bad, he averages a nice 16-10, has a really nice midrange stroke, and definitely appears mobile. But he has serious shortcomings, i.e. he is a horrible, and I mean HORRIBLE, defender. That’s not to say a chubby European (Luka Doncic) and tiny, frail six footer (Trae Young) are not defensive liabilities themselves, in fact Trae Young actually ranks 435th out of 435 players in terms of defensive rating. However, Trae and Luka are infinitely better than DeAndre as scorers, playmakers, and effective court leaders, which matters much more than any rebounding and slightly less horrific defensive prowess that Ayton provides.

Should we just draft guards and ball handlers then and completely turn on behemoth 7 footers that used to dominate the game? Probably not considering the 6’11’’ Bagley might actually have more frightening potential than Doncic. Prior to his knee injury against the Bucks last week, Bagley was on a rollicking tear, averaging 23 points and 9 rebounds over a five game stretch, highlighted by a 28 point, 14 rebound outing against the Warriors in which everyone in Golden State’s corner left the game thinking “Man, that kid is dangerous.” Don’t leave Jaren Jackson Jr. (affectionately known as Triple J by NBA nerds) out of this conversation either. Even though Triple J probably has received less hype than any productive top 5 pick of the last decade, he has proved he will make it in the NBA. Don’t let his subpar 13-5 stat line fool you, because he has something that none of these other four guys have … he is a wrecker on defense already. You don’t even have to look at the advanced statistics which heavily favor Jackson over Ayton, but just watching Grizzlies and Suns games (something that not a lot of people want to do these days), you can tell that Jackson moves quicker, reacts quicker in order to challenge shots, and has earned the confidence of his coaches in order to switch onto perimeter players. He may not be as productive as Ayton on offense by raw numbers, but he shoots 3s at a solid 36% compared to Ayton’s 0%, and he can sprint the floor for rim running dunks at a higher level than the heavier set Ayton.

My point is not to tear Ayton to shreds. He’s not going to be a total bust unlike last year’s number one pick, and in all honesty he probably will end up better than Jackson, but I definitely would not say that about the other three. My point is that almost every NBA analyst on the planet praised Ayton as the unassailable number one prospect last year, with the exception of a few writers and Euro lovers (including myself) that favored Luka, and in actuality the Suns could have done much better. Ayton fit the typical mold of the number one pick. Seven foot center, thought of as strong enough to dominate guys in the post, and played at a big time collegiate university. And sure that philosophy gave us some great number one picks such as Shaquille O’Neal and Anthony Davis, but it also gave us the historic blunders of picking Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan and Hasheem Thabeet over James Harden and Steph Curry. It’s not just that the NBA has changed to favor guards and that suddenly all of the top 5 picks should be six foot guys who can shoot over 40% from three. I just saw my own team use their riches from enduring Hinkie’s torment to pick Markelle Fultz first overall, with his only contributions being a single triple double, Jonathan Simmons, and a top 20 protected first round pick. Excuse me as I go slam my head in the door. Okay, I’m back.

We need to understand at each position what specifically we’re looking for. That’s what I’m going to attempt to do, to identify what specific traits a prospect at each position needs in order to be considered a top prospect.

For starters, let’s categorize the first round picks from the last three drafts. Keep in mind that mainly only lottery picks will be mentioned, with the exception of a few notable busts or steals in the later picks.

Undoubtable Stars Picked at the Right Spot

Ben Simmons (Picked 1st)

Undoubtable Stars that were Drafted too Low

Donovan Mitchell (Picked 13th)

Luka Doncic (Picked 3rd)

Actually the Second Best Player in his Class but was Unfortunately Drafted Before Luka

Marvin Bagley (Picked 2nd)

Probable Stars that were only Drafted a Little too Low

Buddy Hield (Picked 6th)

Jamal Murray (Picked 7th)

Jayson Tatum (Picked 3rd)

Trae Young (Picked 5th)

Probable Stars that were Drafted Way too Low

Pascal Siakam (Picked 27th)

De’Aaron Fox (Picked 5th)

Lauri Markkanen (Picked 7th)

John Collins (Picked 18th)

Quality Players who were Steals at that Pick

Domantas Sabonis (Picked 11th)

Taurean Prince (Picked 12th)

Caris LeVert (Picked 20th)

Jake Layman (Picked 47th)

Bam Adebayo (Picked 14th)

Jarrett Allen (Picked 22nd)

OG Anunoby (Picked 23rd)

Kyle Kuzma (Picked 27th)

Josh Hart (Picked 30th)

Monte Morris (Picked 51st)

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Picked 11th)

Kevin Huerter (Picked 19th)

Josh Okogie (Picked 20th)

Landry Shamet (Picked 26th)

Jalen Brunson (Picked 33rd)

Mitchell Robinson (Picked 36th)

Good and Drafted at the Right Spot

Jaren Jackson Jr. (Picked 4th)

Good but He was Drafted too High

Lonzo Ball (Picked 2nd)

DeAndre Ayton (Picked 1st)

I Just Don’t Know

Brandon Ingram (Picked 2nd)

Jaylen Brown (Picked 3rd)

Jonathan Isaac (Picked 6th)

Wendell Carter Jr. (Picked 7th)

Kevin Knox (Picked 9th)

His Team Probably Doesn’t Want to Talk About It

Kris Dunn (Picked 5th)

Thon Maker (Picked 10th)

Josh Jackson (Picked 4th)

Frank Ntilikina (Picked 8th)

Dennis Smith Jr. (Picked 9th)

Malik Monk (Picked 11th)

Luke Kennard (Picked 12th)

Mo Bamba (Picked 6th)

Collin Sexton (Picked ith)

The Undoubtable Busts

Dragan Bender (Picked 4th)

Marquese Chriss (Picked 8th)

Georgios Papagiannis (Picked 13th)

Markelle Fultz (Picked 1st)

 

So what first jumps off that list besides the fact that Phoenix picked two busts at the same position in the same draft? What do the good picks have in common and what do the bad picks have in common? It’s not obvious at first, but I think I have the answers:

 

The Keys to Drafting Guards

 

  • Do Not Look for a Guy Who is Solely a Defender – I know that most basketball purists just threw up after reading that statement. Trust me it was hard to bring myself to write it, but the facts don’t lie. Look at these three young players that all have been disappointing to say the least: Kris Dunn, Frank Ntilikina, and Josh Jackson. Dunn was regarded as a shutdown guy at Providence, and that has carried over to the NBA, but any value over replacement level he has at the defensive end of the floor is outweighed by his discrepancies on offense, as no one gets excited about a 6’4” guard that can’t pass, is poor at penetrating, and shoots 42% from the field on low volume. Same goes who for Ntilikina, who scouts loved for his defensive-friendly wingspan, but showed limits on offense as a prospect, and has struggled at a historic rate, shooting a 1950s esque 36% from the field on once again low volume. Jackson is an athletic, switchable guy, the player that everyone craves in this era, yet his broken shot mechanics and lack of contributing anything significant during a game simply adds him to the list of questionable Suns draft picks. The rules today make it almost impossible to defend any guard effectively without fouling. There are few guards in the NBA who can solely base their whole identity on their defensive prowess, but many can start as talented scorers and creators who eventually become passable on defense. Just about every young player starts as an awful defender, so we need to be careful to not place too much value on their immediate defensive impact. What matters is that they eventually become capable of stopping other NBA guards, not that they have to be guys who live for defense.
  • Guards Need To Be The Right Kinds Of Shooters – If this sounds subjective, that’s because it is. If you’re a team with a top 5 pick and possess no significant playmaker on your current roster, then you need to draft a guard who has already mastered a pull up jump shot. Whether it be like Luka and Trae who can hit all manners of step back, quick stop, and deep range threes, or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who lacks a consistent three point shot but can get to anywhere inside the arc and hit mid range shots at an efficiency that makes it viable. Mainly, the guard you draft should not be uncomfortable when he an NBA defense give him an open look off the dribble (I’m looking at you Lonzo). The guard cannot just be a spot up, off the catch shooter unless he is a later draft pick like Landry Shamet or arguably the greatest spot up shooter of all time, also known as Klay Thompson. Since it’s unlikely that another Klay will appear, I suggest teams in the top 10 take my advice.
  • The Guard You Pick Must Be Someone That NBA Vets Would Want To Play With – We knew that Luka would be fun to play with because the former NBA pros that he played with in Europe attested to the fact. We knew people would respect De’Aaron Fox after we saw him cry following Kentucky’s loss to North Carolina in which he sobbed about how much he loved each of his teammates. Even though some may deny this, you could tell Trae Young would be appreciated by seasoned players for his excellent passing ability, his fearless attitude despite his size, and his confidence on the court. He’s not arrogant and constantly snarling at opponents, but rather, gets vocal with his fans and teammates, pumping them up after he makes big plays in order to keep the momentum going. Arrogance is different. Arrogance is flexing on guys even though you get scored on (Collin Sexton). Arrogance is getting in disputes with your coaches at the collegiate and professional level (Dennis Smith). Arrogance is acting as though you’re the victim when you’ve been given more than enough grace (Markelle Fultz). Vets don’t want to play with young, arrogant guards.

 

The Keys to Drafting Wings

 

  • A Wing Should Not Be Jacking Long, Contested Twos – I could’ve also titled this section “Don’t do what Jayson Tatum’s been doing this season.” Should we seriously consider the theory that Kobe convinced Tatum to play like this when they worked out during the summer as a ploy to ruin the Celtics? I mean, it can’t be ruled out, right? Conspiracies aside, this is very important. There’s a difference between shooting a mid range pull up once in a while when the defense gives it to you and shooting a step back 18 footer over a 6’9” defender after isolating for seven seconds. It’s the sinful trend that has entrapped Tatum and Ingram, who are probably the two best young wings we have right now. So if you can find a wing as talented as them with the proper understanding of this concept, don’t think twice, draft the kid.
  • A Wing Should Show The Ability To Take Over In The Clutch – It’s the same reason why I have doubts about prospect RJ Barrett, who too often cannot make his forced runners late in close games, and still have hope for Jimmy Butler to work with the Sixers as we continually rely on him as our closer. Guards can’t always be the closer because they’re not big enough to enforce their will. Bigs can’t do it because, plain and simple, they don’t have the ball in their hands often enough. That leaves wings, who combine size, shooting, and ball handling in order to form the optimal closers. Look for wings who can hit contested jumpers over great defense like Paul George and Durant, or post up and shoot over mismatches like Kawhi and LeBron when he’s trying. Once again, it is rare for a college wing to already possess this attribute, so pounce on it when it’s there.
  • Keep It Simple And Pick The Guy Who Seems Like A Better Player – This is not me refuting all the things I’ve already discussed. If you read the prior two paragraphs, you know that both the concepts are more special things that you should keep in mind if a prospect somehow displays them, not traits that are littered throughout a pool of players. The truth is that wings are hard to understand in the NBA today, mainly because they usually transition into either point forwards or stretch fours, not a traditional wing. So when you see a guy listed as Small Forward in college, just watch some of his highlights and use your genuine basketball instincts to determine his draft value.

 

The Keys to Drafting  Bigs

 

  • A Big Must Have What I Call Fluidity of Motion – I cannot stress this enough. It’s the best way to describe what Bagley and Triple J have that Ayton doesn’t. Stealing a Bill Simmons’ comparison, it was the difference between Kevin Durant and Greg Oden when they were drafted. Kevin Durant glided like a smooth elegant creation, while Greg Oden lumbered with his awkward, massive body. That’s not to say Bagley is as smooth as the Slim Reaper himself, or that Ayton moves like a guy whose left leg is larger than his right, but there’s a similarity. Ayton just doesn’t have that guard-like explosive first step that Bagley does. In the modern NBA, big men need to be active, fearless jumpers who the other team is aware of at all times because they can cover so much of the court. And when I say fluidity, I mean that are no hitches or stops when he’s engaged. Ayton move like he’s taking it one step at a time and he keeps shifting to his next phase, while Bagley is just out their moving every single ligament at once, like he has nothing holding him back. Gone are the days where a center’s greatest skill is absorbing the paint, enter modern basketball where big guys need to be like lions free safeties, patrolling the court and keeping everybody in line with their destructive presence.
  • A Big Needs To Be A Huge Matchup Problem In Some Form – There are three variations to this. The first is the Joel Embiid “I’m so huge, strong, and coordinated that I will bully you to get foul shots and own the paint” option. Second, we have centers who are such fantastic three point shooters that they make a living draining threes out of pick and pops, taking advantage of a centers’ usual inclination that he should stay back in the paint to give his team rim protection and avoid getting burnt off the dribble. Think Brook Lopez and Nikola Vucevic, as well as the promise shown by Jaren Jackson Jr., Lauri Markkanen, and John Collins. Third and rarest of all is the seven footers that have great handles and can beat slower, plodding guys off the dribble. It’s what’s evident in superstar Anthony Davis, positionless freak Ben Simmons, and the hopeful progression of Marvin Bagley, Pascal Siakam, and pro-to-be Zion Williamson.
  • A Big Needs To Give Full Effort At All Times – This tip is a bit more of conventional wisdom, but one that must be discussed. I saw Ayton in last year’s March Madness fade in and out, not really trying to dominate undersized competition, just watching his team get blitzed by 13 seed Buffalo. I’ve also seen Marvin Bagley advance four rounds into the tournament, with his best trait being how he is always jumping and second jumping in order to keep scoring chances alive for his team. There’s guys like Montrez Harrell, Kenneth Faried, and even Mitchell Robinson, who’ve been able to scrap out a good spot in the league as high energy guys that run like someone is chasing them. Big guys want their guards to give them ball, and when they don’t, big men stop trying hard and just go through the motions. We need to look for bigs who have the same high effort mindset at all times.

 

 

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