Top 10 NBA Draft Player Fits Outside the Top 2

Dec 12, 2015; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans guard Denzel Valentine (45) reacts to a play against the Florida State Seminoles during the 1st half of a game at Jack Breslin Student Events Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 12, 2015; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans guard Denzel Valentine (45) reacts to a play against the Florida State Seminoles during the 1st half of a game at Jack Breslin Student Events Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports /

*As a brief disclaimer, I tried to match team fit with actual realistic range a prospect could be selected in. Thus, you wont see Bender to the Spurs (everyone can now relax avoiding that asteroid).

1. Dragan Bender: Minnesota Timberwolves (Pick No. 5)

Frankly, the possibility of Bender falling to the Wolves should terrify the living hell out of the league. The Wolves took the second fewest threes in the league last season under Sam Mitchell, based on both scheme and personnel. The floor was shrunk considerably with the non-shooting threats of Rubio and Prince, paired with range deficient Wiggins and Dieng (more aptly suited for a 3rd big man off the bench role), both of whom do not command the gravity of defenses beyond the midrange area. As a result, teams collapsed in the lane, rendering few driving opportunities available (the Wolves finished 26th in drives per game last season) and given the lack of overall range the Wolves averaged the 3rd most mid range shot attempts per game. It’s a modern miracle that Minnesota finished 11th in offensive efficiency, and by modern miracle I mean testament to Lord Towns. Bender could really give the Wolves a floor-spacing and ball movement boost.

Thibodeau is also the perfect coach to extract Bender’s defensive versatility. While Thibs usually employs more conservative pick and roll schemes in dropping bigs back “zoning up” any PNR to encourage lower percentage long twos, having two bigs like Towns and Bender who can both guard the perimeter in space and protect the rim should afford him an immense amount of scheme versatility.

It’s historically rare for a team to have two unicorn bigs who can both make plays and potentially switch everything on the perimeter, while also maintaining a size advantage on the glass. If you’re looking for a pairing on draft night that might ultimately be able to unseat the Warriors down the road, this is a combination to root for.

2. Timothe Luwawu: Milwaukee Bucks (Pick No. 10)

You don’t want to be in the 4-10 range in the draft this year if your team isn’t named the Milwaukee Bucks.   The board projects to break wonderfully for Milwaukee, with the rare occurrence of multiple BPA options aligning with team positional and skill-set needs. You could make a very credible argument for Wade Baldwin or Deyonta Davis here, but I’m rolling with Luwawu.

The Bucks could employ a niche attack with Giannis at lead guard point center, armed with an arsenal of wings + Jabari (who admittedly might never be even an average defender) for stretches. What the Bucks really need is a versatile switch-capable defender who can especially check opposing lead guards, because you want to conserve Middleton and Giannis’ energy as the secondary and primary offensive handlers respectively on the offensive side of the ball. Enter Luwawu, who’s on-ball elite athleticism, quickness and lateral agility could really be unleashed in a specified role. Luwawu is adept off the catch as a three point shooter, showing good rhythm tendencies with very smooth mechanics. He can run a pick and roll and pass with success out of the PNR, so he would theoretically provide spacing and playmaking if his shot translates.

The Bucks trade is defensive versatility, length and athleticism, so adding to that rare commodity by doubling down while also addressing a need of point of attack defense is an underrated team-building aspect to watch come draft night.

3. Wade Baldwin: Utah Jazz (Pick No. 12)

The Jazz have Dante Exum in waiting after that unfortunate ACL tear in an international exhibition game. I’m still bullish on Exum’s outlier size/speed/burst combination, and he proved to have a plus trajectory as a defender in his rookie year, thus I’m not on board with selecting a pure lead guard archetype who needs the ball and would stunt Exum’s growth.

Enter Baldwin, who projects more as a quasi-lead guard, George Hill variation who is a seamless fit on almost any roster with his package of perimeter defense and catch and shoot 3-point shooting prowess. Baldwin can play on or off ball, and has the frame and outlier length (6-11.25 wingspan) to switch and defend most wings.

This selection essentially allows the Jazz to fortify the lead guard spot but also take a player who can play next to Exum in two-guard sets. Utah already has two high usage, efficient wing handlers, which a player like Baldwin again fits in seamlessly with. This is doubling down on a need position who is also likely to be BPA and can serve as a long-term personnel conducive building block. Win-Win-Win.

4. Denzel Valentine: Chicago Bulls (Pick No. 14)

It’s difficult to assess the Bulls current franchise trajectory. There are rumors of a potential Jimmy Butler trade and of a corresponding rebuild. I’m going to fade that and treat Chicago as a team who will try to remain competitive with a win-now mentality.

It’s hard to imagine a better scheme and personnel fit than Valentine in Chicago. Hoiberg runs an uptempo, motion centered offense that is predicated on movement and spacing. Valentine’s skill-set is tailor-made for such as scheme with his generational court vision, passing acumen and multi-dimensional shooting capability.

As far as personnel, you don’t want Valentine to be the primary wing creator defended by the opposing team’s primary (and likely most athletic) wing stopper, and conversely don’t want Valentine as the primary wing stopper defending the other team’s primary (and likely most athletic) wing creator. Butler is a perfect compliment for Valentine because he is both a primary wing creator and stopper, rendering Valentine likely a one-position defender off-ball, which is the easiest position to hide (I’m somewhat confident Valentine can get to league average as a defender with intelligent team defense).

To fully extract Valentine’s talents, the team that selects him should be a motion style uptempo pace team and be able to kick him over to the primary lead guard against second units to maximize his passing ability in PNR, where he’ll likely need a screen to create separation. The Bulls have needed a backup lead guard for some time, and every team needs more shooting. Valentine’s success in the league, the same for most players, is destination dependent, and this is certainly a good landing spot to extract his rare skill-level.

5. DeAndre Bembry: Atlanta Hawks (Pick No. 21)

Coach Budenholzer runs a read and react type offensive system that necessitates smart and laser quick in the moment decision-making/passing to keep the defense in rotation, as outside of Millsap the Hawks don’t really have any isolation scorers. Atlanta’s system is predicated on a holistic construct, and Bembry projects to be outstanding in that capacity. He’s a fantastic decision-maker and passer with underrated athleticism. He’s also completely selfless, and that kind of team-first sacrificial mentality usually works well in the system read and react offenses in the league.

There’s a considerable chance Bembry is the best player on the board at No. 21, which renders him a defensible choice regardless of fit. But with Bazemore set to become an early qualifying free agent (meaning the Hawks have to use cap room to re-sign him) at the same time as Horford’s free agency, it is unlikely Bazemore returns, leaving a void on the wing. The Hawks really need a bigger wing who can defend LeBron in the East, but those players are few and far between. Bembry is adept at everything except shooting, and I feel confident that the Hawks can develop his shooting ability off the catch enough to really exploit the playmaking aspect of his game.

6. Cheick Diallo: Boston Celtics (Pick No. 23)

Diallo is a difficult prospect to analyze because there isn’t really any precedent for a 6-9 center (albeit one with outlier length with a 7-4 wingspan) thriving in the league. When fit questions like these emerge I usually look to what coaches are best at extracting the fullest amount from a player’s strength. That is obviously Stevens’ forte.

Boston also plays at a supremely high pace (3rd in the league last year) and have a glaring need for a rim-protecting center. Diallo is the best center in the draft at changing ends of the floor with the speed and fluidity of a guard, and has the highest “Stocks” at 5.5 Per 40 Pace Adjusted of any 5 in the draft. When in doubt, trust the smart people, and that’s what I’m doing here.

7. Taurean Prince: LA Clippers (Pick No. 25)

The Clippers have long needed a 3-and-D archetype who can defend bigger wings with four potential and really just space the floor on offense with two high usage top 10 NBA players, a top 5 shooter in the league and the best lob catcher in basketball already forming an elite offense.

Prince had a much better Junior season than Senior season, mostly because he saw less usage as a primary creator in the latter. Shot creation and heavy offensive creation burden is not Prince’s game. He’s a plus athlete with a fantastic frame who can shoot respectably off the catch on threes with fluid mechanics.

Baylor‘s zone makes Prince’s individual and team defense hard to project for a man-based scheme, but at No. 25 it is worth the flier for the Clippers to find out. Jeff Green is not the answer to LA’s “wing-stopper” question with his frustrating inefficiency. Maybe Prince could be. 

8. Gary Payton II: San Antonio Spurs (Pick No. 29)

The Spurs need an influx of perimeter athleticism and some creation to keep pace with the Warriors. Last year they were a wing short, playing slow-footed Kyle Anderson and the ghost of Kevin Martin too many minutes against the Thunder, which they paid dearly for (“Where was Jonathon Simmons” will be imprinted on my tombstone).

Payton II is a smart decision-maker with some juice off the bounce, and projects to be an elite defender with his combination of athleticism, frame and instincts. The red flags are shooting and age. The latter shouldn’t really concern the Spurs who are in win now mode and at No. 29 you’re definitely looking BPA (you really should always be). The former is interesting for the Spurs specifically with shooting coach dynamo Chip Engelland on board. If Payton II develops a respectable spot-up 3, he might be the steal of the draft at this juncture. And who is better at re-crafting jump shots than Engelland?

I have GPII rated higher than this, but there is a high likelihood he is available at this selection. A core defensive group of Green, Kawhi and GPII against the Warriors’ wings is very intriguing defensively. Whether they can score efficiently is another issue entirely.

9. Caris LeVert: Golden State Warriors (Pick No. 30)

The Warriors took an injury risk in Kevon Looney last year at the 30th pick, largely because he was BPA on the board. LeVert is a lottery talent in this draft. He’s as elite shooting 3s off the catch as anyone in the class, is a smart passer, can run a pick and role and has good size for a wing. He might not ever defend at an above average rate, but he’s a huge plus in a modern NBA offense with shooting + ball-skills.

LeVert might just draw a medical red flag in round one with no team wanting to spend two years of guaranteed money on him. But for a team like the Warriors who wins in part by putting as many smart skilled decision-makers on the court at once, LeVert fits the bill. This feels like a very Warriors selection that will ultimately piss everyone off.

10. Chinanu Onuaku: LA Lakers (Pick No. 32)

Onuaku should not fall to 32nd overall in a just world, but the night is dark and full of terrors (and likely regret for the teams who selected other players outside the top 10). Onuaku has no clear avenue to scoring in the NBA outside of put-backs, which is definitely concerning. The idea that centers can just be defensive players without any offensive scoring avenue has gone a bit too far (athletic PNR dive lob catching IS a dynamic scoring skill). But I’m bullish on Onuaku’s passing, as he displayed passing tendencies, especially on the move, rarely found in a 6-10, 19 year-old center.

Onuaku is still two inches shorter than what you’d ideally want at center, and only has above average lift/burst from a stand-still as a leaper protecting the rim, but I’m buying the aforementioned passing acumen and high defensive floor. He’s an expert communicator on the backend, which is something often overlooked in the evaluation process. He’s smart defending in the team construct, with an elite frame, plus length and is light-on-his-feet in an athletic stance defending in space. He can also rebound the hell out of the ball, which again gives him some avenue to at least be a respectable offensive scorer with his ability to move bodies.

A smaller, far more mobile current version of Bogut might be the best way to view Onuaku’s passing + defensive skill-set, and few have more experience with how to incorporate that archetype than Walton. The Lakers have the perimeter shooting personnel with Russell and Clarkson (and likely Ingram) to make Onuaku a threat as a screener and pull a big out so those two guards (plus Ingram) don’t just walk into open jump shots. That’s really the only reason Bogut is salvageable on offense, and he often gets played off the court with his inability to guard the perimeter. Onuaku can do the latter, and the Lakers could really use a semblance of big man defense and passing ability (really just a breathing organism) at the 5 spot.