The Step Back 2019 NBA Draft Big Board: Updated rankings to kick off conference play

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 20: Jarrett Culver #23 of the Texas Tech Red Raiders moves the ball against Zion Williamson #1 of the Duke Blue Devils in the first half at Madison Square Garden on December 20, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 20: Jarrett Culver #23 of the Texas Tech Red Raiders moves the ball against Zion Williamson #1 of the Duke Blue Devils in the first half at Madison Square Garden on December 20, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images) /

An update of our 2019 NBA Draft prospect rankings breaks down all of the movement from the month of December, including the rise of Jarrett Culver and the question of Nassir Little.

The 2019 NBA Draft was billed as terrible heading into the season, and two months into the season, it’s been difficult to shake that idea from some people. The struggles of perceived top picks like Nassir Little, Romeo Langford, and Quentin Grimes paint a bad situation because that means a good number of the few recognizable names from the preseason aren’t actually as good as we thought. Meanwhile, two possible top-ten picks, Darius Garland and Jontay Porter, are out for the year with significant knee injuries, and two others, Kevin Porter Jr. and Sekou Doumbouya, are currently out with injuries too. Throw in that the probable top pick, Zion Williamson, might have longevity issues due to his weight, and that paints a pretty bleak outlook.

However, that picture relies far too much on the preseason outlook for the draft class. While yes, several players have disappointed relative to expectations, several more have developed in ways we didn’t expect, and that group arguably outweighs the disappointments when you consider the class as a whole. Yes, Little probably isn’t a top-three prospect, but Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver has positioned himself to step into that void. Guys like Porter and Luguentz Dort have risen up the board from lowly recruiting rankings. Williamson has solidified himself as the top prospect by posting numbers that are an outlier in recent college basketball history. And the class has shown to have great depth in terms of the most coveted position in the league — big, skilled, two-way wings — with a pool of players like Porter, Culver, Reddish, Grant Williams, and Ignas Brazdeikis.

This class doesn’t have a deep pool of top-ten prospects like 2018, but we’ve seen this year that 2018 is probably an outlier in draft history. We have a potential franchise-changer at the top of the board; we have a big tier of possible-to-probable rotation players in the middle of the first-round; and yeah, the draft falls off a cliff in the early second round in terms of value, but that’s not that unique of a proposition, either. It’s also still early — players are still likely to show their worth as we head into conference play, and there’s plenty of time for some of those disappointing players to rebound, like Kevin Knox did in 2018 after a poor early start. The 2019 NBA Draft class isn’t like the last two, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad.

With that in  mind, let’s crack into an updated ranking of 2019’s top 60 prospects, featuring some new faces in the lottery, and some very tough decisions between similar players that teams will be faced with navigating in June.

Tier 1

It’s still just Zion at the top, as he’s established an awesome statistical battery not just compared to his peers, but compared to all prospects of the last decade. He’s nearly two-points ahead of Anthony Davis as the all-time Box Plus-Minus leader. He’s one of two players since 2010 to post over a 15 percent assist rate, a 7.0 percent block rate, a 28 percent usage rate, and a true shooting percentage over 67 percent. His net rating is in the same tier of Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns. He shoots 75.5 percent at the rim, per The Stepien shot chart data, while actively avoiding scoring with his right hand. He’s not perfect; few prospects are. But there really isn’t a question of who is the best prospect in this draft right now.

Tier 2

Barrett has staked a firm claim to the number two pick on most boards, and is so here as well, but I differ in that he doesn’t get his own tier yet. While Barrett’s scoring has continued to be excellent, and he has shown the potential to be a two-way playmaking wing, there are too many long-term potential pitfalls to really feel confident about him being the number two player in the class. Given how he often looks off teammates, struggles to finish at the rim, and has frame and discipline concerns on defense, he seems like he could be the “wrong” type of star, a guy who can be a number one scorer on a good team, but has fundamental flaws that will keep him from effectiveness in playoff basketball (Think DeMar DeRozan or Carmelo Anthony).

That brings up the question of value in the draft. Do you value Barrett’s scoring more? or do you value a guy who will probably have to be a second or third option at best, but probably contributes more to playoff success? That’s why, for me, the gap is closer between Barrett and the pack than most people have it. The three players below him — Culver, Reddish, and Bol — all look like they have skill sets that could translate into highly effective complimentary players.

Culver has the skill set of a true two-way wing, with the upside provided by growing two inches over the summer and the progression of his shot mechanics. He is still under the radar in the mainstream, but he’s an easy bet to be at least a player who complimentary piece on a contender. Reddish has the upside to become a Klay Thompson type volume three-point shooter, and his handle and defense do still have room to improve enough for him to become more as well. And Bol, for all of his defensive inconsistencies, is still a 7-foot-3 pull-up shooter, which has at least a shot to be a valuable playoff contender given that Playoff Thon Maker is sort of a thing.

I’m not comfortable taking any of those three over Barrett yet, especially when considering the stage of rebuild that the teams at the top will be in (Atlanta needs Barrett more to get to the next stage of rebuilding; Washington would probably be better off with Culver if picking second, hypothetically).

Tier 3

A defense of Nassir Little, who has fallen off a cliff on many draft boards in the last month after being a darling in the summer: He still shows incredible shot diversity for a 6-foot-7 wing, and while it’s not falling for him at an acceptable rate, guys who can get off quality shots off the bounce in close quarters with consistent technique usually project well; He probably will benefit from the increased space of the NBA, given that it will open up wider passing lanes and allow him to use his particular brand of mid-level strength and coordination athleticism more effectively; His defense hasn’t been good, but many of the freshman wings have struggled, he shows flashes of good activity, and is 6-foot-7, sculpted, and has a good wingspan. I’d bet on him getting it eventually.

If anything, this year has done more to establish that Little’s floor is lower than initially thought. But his flashes that made everyone buy in are still there, and he should be considered more of a boom or bust prospect at this point. More tape will tell us a little more about where he’ll settle, but I still bank on that shot-making ending up being valuable.

White vs Garland continues to be a difficult battle for me. White’s recent improvement as a passer has been promising, and that adds an interesting dynamic. Even though Garland has a better skill set at this point, I would bank more on White’s NBA potential due to his size and quickness, which create a margin for error that Garland doesn’t have.

Porter’s been another high riser, going as a firm top ten pick in a lot of boards. I am not sold because while his scoring is interesting in isolation, there haven’t been many wow moments in terms of court vision and feel for the game that have to accompany transition and isolation scoring for them to be meaningful. Whenever Porter finally gets back from his injury, that’s perhaps the biggest skill I’ll be looking for in the next phase of scouting this tier.

Tier 4

Three 2018 NBA Draft prospects who returned to school and have clear, but unspectacular roles in the league: Gafford as an average-to-good rim protector and dive man, Alexander-Walker as a secondary playmaker and spot-up shooter, and Reaves as a true 3-and-D combo guard.

I’ve said it before, but the number of really strong hybrid fours in this class is part of what makes it potentially special. Reid, Williams, Doumbouya, and Clarke all can provide value as fours or small-ball fives, with Reid’s post play, Williams’s passing, Doumbouya’s cutting and Clarke’s rim protection all providing good value off the bench or as complimentary starters. Reid has the most upside with his vision and the potential of tightening his shot mechanics, so he leads the pack, even though Williams is by far the best college player currently.

Two of the smartest team defenders in the class are here, but Brazdeikis and Dotson are this low because of real frame concerns and the potential that neither comes out in 2019.

It’s looking very likely that Hayes has the same meteoric rise up the board that Zach Collins had in 2017, even though neither played huge minutes. Their per-minute production and continual game-to-game improvement is too much to ignore.

Bitadze left Mega Bemax to move to Buducnost since our last update and has been solidly productive in two Euroleague games. He rises 14 spots because of the value that productive Euroleague minutes have in my eyes, and his rim protection looks to be rapidly improving too.

Tier 5

Matthews fell quite a few spots from the last board as his offensive efficiency cooled off. Hopefully conference play is a different story, because he seems like a plug-and-play bench wing.

Queta probably won’t even think about coming out, but he should test the waters because he has the foundation of a very valuable NBA skill set.

Two players where reputation is preceding actual results in terms of defensive play. Hachimura and Roby don’t inspire a lot of confidence on that end, which is why they continue to be much lower on this board than on many others.

Recruiting rankings aren’t always reliable. Both of Hoard and Grimes will likely declare, but it’s questionable whether either should.

Who knows?