The Step Back 2019 NBA Draft Big Board: Pre-Combine Edition

CHARLOTTE, NC - MARCH 15: Duke Blue Devils forward Zion Williamson (1) dunks during the ACC basketball tournament between the Duke Blue Devils and the North Carolina Tar Heels on March 15, 2019, at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, NC. (Photo by William Howard/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
CHARLOTTE, NC - MARCH 15: Duke Blue Devils forward Zion Williamson (1) dunks during the ACC basketball tournament between the Duke Blue Devils and the North Carolina Tar Heels on March 15, 2019, at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, NC. (Photo by William Howard/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

With the 2019 NBA Draft Combine coming up, it’s time to recalibrate our big board once again now that we know the full draft entry list.

Figuring out what to value in the 2019 NBA Draft class has been more difficult than it has been in past years. Most years follow a pretty typical pattern — one or two possible franchise-changers at the top, then a group of likely quality starters, with some players perceived as “home run swings” that have a wide range of outcomes mixed in.

This year, however, is complicated. There’s a probable franchise-changer at the top in Zion Williamson, but it can be argued that the draft is missing the “likely quality starter” tier entirely, as the next group of prospects all feature obvious flaws that could keep them from being even passable NBA starters, much less being worth selection at the top of the draft. Couple that with there being a large divide on how some prospects are perceived — some draft analysts have Darius Garland and Cam Reddish in their top five, while others don’t even have them top-20, for example — and it makes for a very risky draft that is highly likely to turn out like 2013, where the best three players were all arguably selected outside of the top eight picks.

That makes the job of projecting which players will be those that are impact players at the next level difficult. This year feels like a class where the outcomes are going to be more dependent on situational fit than they usually are. If a player like De’Andre Hunter goes to a team that is going to value him in a complementary role, he’s much more likely to succeed than if he goes to a team that is going to expect immediate growth as an on-ball scorer and impact team defender. This is always the case for draft prospects, of course. But the degree to which this matters this year is going to be severe compared to a class like 2018, which featured several players who had a high likelihood of being good in most team contexts. Outside of Zion, that doesn’t exist this year.

Essentially, that means safety is a big factor for my projections of the 2019 draft class. Now, no prospect is safe, as we’ve seen over two years of Markelle Fultz’s career. But trying to play the odds and determine who are the most likely players to give a good return on investment at the top of the draft is what seems like the best strategy this year. Every prospect has their problems, but some problems matter less than others and are more likely to be overcome by development and the rest of a player’s skill set. That means valuing decision-making and consistency; forgiving shooting issues that seem correctable, and betting on the combination of athleticism and awareness above players who are only set up well in one regard or the other.

We’re heading straight into draft workout season, where players with athleticism, competitiveness, and elite one-on-one skill play show out. This is a dangerous time for NBA teams, who may miss the forest for the trees in these settings that completely strip out team skills that are arguably more important to winning at the NBA level. A player like Grant Williams will probably look unfavorable next to a player like Nassir Little, even though Williams probably has a much higher likelihood of being a valuable NBA player because of what he does in a five-on-five setting. With that in mind, here are our updated big board rankings, which value safety and team impact over the supposed “All-Star potential” of some of the names who will probably dominate th3 next few weeks.

Tier 1 — Potential franchise-changing talent

The workout season is going to be really interesting for Williamson, who has almost been lost since Duke’s exit from the NCAA Tournament because he already comfortably has the number one crown. There have been rumors about teams potentially taking Ja Morant number one, which would be rather shocking, but if Zion participates at the Draft Combine, just getting his vertical leap numbers should be enough to remind everyone why he’s been in this spot since December.

Tier 2 — High likelihood starters

The goal posts have moved for this tier as the season has gone on, and now I’m ranking these three ahead of the pack due to my reasonable confidence that they are going to be rotation players at the next level.

Jackson Frank’s breakdown of Culver (linked above) is a strong argument for having Culver number two, but I’m still holding off due to Barrett having a much easier path to approximating a primary initiator. Culver’s defense has a chance to be special, but his offensive game is probably more scheme-dependent than it’s getting credit for. Barrett feels slightly safer at number two at this point with the expectation that he puts on more strength because there’s still a chance that Culver doesn’t produce enough offensively to earn heavy minutes.

The more I have watched White this year, the more sold I am that he’s a starter-level player. He has the best shot of being an acceptable to good scorer at all three levels, and his transition and pick-and-roll passing is very strong. He’s also by far the only good defensive prospect of the three point guards at the top of the draft. He’s not as sexy as Ja Morant or Darius Garland, but I’m far more confident in White growing into a starting guard role than I am about the other two. Even if he’s just a Darren Collison variant, that may be the best that you’re getting this year at the 1 (Get your primary initiators in 2020, because Cole Anthony, Anthony Edwards, R.J. Hampton, and Nico Mannion would all probably be the top guard in this class).

Tier 3 — High-variance prospects with upside

This is a huge tier, and it spans a lot of different definitions of the tier title — from star potential home run swings like Bol Bol and Ja Morant to guys with thin slivers of potential and large red flags like Cam Reddish and Jontay Porter. This group of prospects will define the strength of the class — how many of these poor college performers and atypical skill sets will pan out? A few will, but not all of them.

Bol has a large margin for error based on his length and shooting. At a minimum, he should be a situational big that can pick and pop, and defensively he’s going to be able to block shots, even if he’s not an impactful rim protector overall. At his best, he’s probably going to need to be played as a wing on offense and as a 4 in a drop pick-and-roll scheme or zone coverage. His ceiling is largely situation-dependent, but he’ll at least hang around the league for a long time because of the enticing skill set and size. Health is probably the most concerning thing with Bol.

Hunter would rank fifth if I wasn’t concerned that a team might overdraft him and pin outlandish offensive expectations on him. He’s a player where I’m almost more comfortable ranking him higher on my board if he gets picked later in the draft.

Clarke is the more likely player to have an impact right away thanks to his rim protection and finishing, but Hayes is one of the youngest players in the class and can already approximate much of what Clarke is good at. While Clarke himself does have some latent upside because of his shooting rebuild, it’s reasonable to assume that Hayes is going to be the better prospect in the long term.

Watching more Garland lately, it’s striking how little impact his scoring had on Vanderbilt’s overall performance. An undersized scoring guard who isn’t an elite passer like Morant is a tough proposition, and Garland is probably going to need to be a good defender to survive. We just don’t know if his positive splashes were real and can be consistent at the next level.

Even though Reddish looks like a complete offensive zero if he can’t dribble, his defensive potential is much better than he gets credit for. I’m not completely giving up on him because he could reinvent himself into a hard-nosed defensive wing if he buys in at the NBA level.

Washington and Little look like they’ll be most successful if they swap their college positions in the NBA. Put Little at the 4 and Washington at the 3 and their skill sets might fit better. Again, team development fit is going to be huge for these two.

Healthy Jontay is a Tier 2 player. If he can get back, he’s going to make someone very happy. But that’s a big if.

Tier 4 — Low-ceiling prospects with projectable skill sets

This group is probably headed for bench roles or part-time starting jobs, but it’s easy to see how they could translate into those positions.

Alexander-Walker should reliably become a secondary pick-and-roll scorer that can run bench unit offense. That’s a valuable position to be able to play.

A pick-and-pop big who can defend in space and pass. He’s probably too slow to ever get starter-level minutes on a good team, but he’s probably the best center option in the class outside of Clarke and Hayes.

I have no concerns about Thybulle’s man-to-man defense, mostly because expected growth is a thing and assessing where a player was as a sophomore versus where they are as a senior is pretty unhelpful. Thybulle may thrive best in a zone, but his skills certainly lend to being a good help defender at the NBA level. If he can do anything on offense, he’s a lock to be a rotation player that helps a team’s defense.

Doumbouya may look out of place in this group, but I’m reasonably confident he’s going to be a useful defender and cutter, and if his shot mechanics can become at least passable, he’s a 3-and-D wing in a few years.

Tier 5 — Complete wild cards

Tier 3 will make this draft. How many of those players with question marks but a lot of talent end up hitting will be the difference between this being the 2016 draft, and the 2013 draft. Tier 5, however, will be the one that breaks the draft. Every player in this tier has major question marks that could knock them out of the league before their rookie contracts are up, and certain members here might be in the conversation for lottery picks. While there are players who figure to be valuable role players based on their archetype — Cam Johnson and Yovel Zoosman, for instance – it’s hard to really feel confident in how any of these players will project to the next level.

Porter Jr. and Johnson are two of the three biggest red flag players in this draft for me. I have them up here because they do have talent, and there’s a chance that their situations were bad fits in college like appears to be the case with Nassir Little. But Porter showed minimal value outside of a good step back jumper and transition offense at USC, and Johnson arguably showed even less. It’s likely going to take time and a very good culture fit to get value out of either of these guys.

Davis looked like the best player at the Portsmouth Invitational, and is the right mix of skilled, athletic, and intensely competitive to bet on at the next level. The question for him is if that competitiveness will help him or limit his chances to fit into a cohesive team construct at the NBA level.

One of the biggest risers on this update thanks to a realization that I shouldn’t penalize Horton-Tucker for having a high ceiling but low likelihood of reaching it when players like Porter and Reddish are around my top 20. I’m still not buying Horton-Tucker offensively despite his flashes of playmaking brilliance, but I think that with time he looks like he will be a very good NBA defender in the right situation.

Zoosman has the more practical NBA skill set, but Brazdeikis is slightly more fluid and has better touch. Neither player has much upside beyond being a situational wing, but both players should be among the safer options at this point in the draft.

Would be in Tier 4 if he hadn’t spent most of the year on autopilot. The pre-draft process will likely be massive for him to recuperate some stock.

Johnson’s shooting gets a lot of credit for his late-first round stock, but he’s still not a very impressive athlete, and that may limit him from a defensive perspective. The combine is going to be big for him.

Tier 6 — Everyone else

Names are mostly interchangeable here after about 35 or so.

Okpala will benefit from being 6-foot-9 and moving like a perimeter player, but he probably will not end up being worth the first-round pick he’s probably going to get because he doesn’t exactly have a functional skill set.

The second round is full of big men who have theoretically good skill sets or athleticism but are missing the other part of the equation. Reid can’t really move, Paschall doesn’t have any ball skills, Hachimura ia a sieve on defense, and Roby is plagued with inconsistency. Give me Reid of this crop because he has the best offensive skill set and anticipation, but no one here is particularly enticing.

Tillie got hurt in his first workout of the year with Atlanta. His medical file comes with its own alarm bells, which is sad because he’s a first-round level prospect.

Powell gives you everything Carsen Edwards does — off-the-dribble shooting, solid to good creation, and he’s a better finisher and on-ball defender than Edwards — but Edwards is probably going in the first round while Powell might go undrafted. Powell is a great potential positive value late in the draft.

I’m not as high on Jeffries as many are after his Portsmouth break out, but he’s definitely worth a draft pick, even if that just gets him into the 2020 NBA Dunk Contest. Which he should enter, and will probably win.

I’m in on Hinton being worth a draft pick, even if he just ends up being a high-level G-League scorer. He has real NBA finishing skill and is worth a deeper look as he transitions into being a bit player.

Herro’s inability to get to the rim is a massive problem, and he’s not the level of shooter that guys like Kevin Huerter and even Cam Johnson this year are. I do not understand the love for him in the slightest.