Tiered 2016 NBA draft board features three players in tiers of their own at top

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As I explained last year:

Draft for need or take the best player available?

It’s the question as old as drafts themselves. Personally, I favor the middle-of-the-road approach – the tier system. I judge prospects on three attributes:

  • Current ability
  • Potential
  • Likelihood of meeting that potential

Obviously, assessing those attributes is not easy. It’s really hard.

That’s why I don’t like taking the best prospect – based on all three criteria – available. It’s just too difficult to split hairs between players with so many variables.

But overly considering fit is problematic for the same reason. Rosters churn, and it’s foolish to pass on a clearly better prospect – in the cases that becomes clear – just because he doesn’t fit the current version of the team.

So how does the tier system work?

Divide players into tiers based on their value regardless of fit. Don’t worry about differentiating prospects with nearly identical values. Find natural cutoffs.

Then, within each tier, rank the players based on fit for the specific drafting team.

Theoretically, a draft could have anywhere between 1 and 60 tiers. A 1-tier draft would mean every prospect – from the top pick to Mr. Irrelevant – holds the same value. A 60-tier draft would mean every prospect is clearly distinguishable based on value. Obviously, neither is likely.

The size of tiers should be organic, and therefore, the number of tiers is also organic. Naturally, tiers tend to be smaller near the top of the draft, where lines between players are sharper.

Here are my tiers for the 2016 draft, covering the nine necessary to get through the first round. Within each tier, I rank players as if the teams drafting had empty rosters. Obviously, actual NBA teams would need to consider other information when assessing fit of players within a tier. As you can see, there isn’t much separation among many players in the second half of the first round and into the early second.

Tier 1

1. Ben Simmons, PF, LSU

Simmons oozes talent. No matter which team landed the No. 1 pick, he should be the selection. His passing and ball-handling are special for a power forward, and his athleticism creates elite upside. Questions about his shooting and attitude are fair, but his positives demand taking a swing on him.

Tier 2

2. Brandon Ingram, SF, Duke

Ingram’s length, outside shooting, athleticism and youth are tantalizing. In this draft, that’s enough to make Ingram the No. 2 pick. But I’m not as high on him as most. I would’ve liked to see a more well-rounded game at Duke, and his low free-throw percentage (68%) makes me think he’s not an absolute lock to shoot well at the next level.

Tier 3

3. Dragan Bender, C, Croatia

I’d rather have someone with a stronger track record of success when drafting this high, but this draft drops steeply after the first two picks. I wouldn’t feel good about drafting anyone here. At least Bender brings elite upside with his fluidity for his size, ball skills and youth. I’m not as quick as others to chalk up Bender’s lack of playing time to politics. That’s a big red flag for me. In an average draft, he’d be several spots lower. In this one, he’s a slight cut above the rest of the pack.

Tier 4

4. Jamal Murray, G, Kentucky

Murray is an awesome scorer with ability to shoot from outside and put the ball on the floor. Can he play point guard? His passing ability is a little behind, but his individual scoring will attract attention and make it easier to find open teammates. Skills aren’t isolated. Can he defend in the NBA? That’s a much more worrisome question.

5. Kris Dunn, PG, Providence

Dunn’s aggressiveness on both ends of the floor leads to far more positives than negatives, and that approach can be encouraging. Dunn clearly has confidence in himself. The concern is his shaky outside shooting will exasperate Dunn’s problems. If teams go over on Dunn’s pick-and-rolls, how often will he dribble himself into trouble? At least Dunn has the craftiness to still excel in those situations, and his jumper could come around.

Tier 5

6. Wade Baldwin, PG, Vanderbilt

Baldwin has an elite wingspan (6-foot-11), and he’s strong and fast. His defensive potential is excellent. A quality outside shooter and passer, he should be fine offensively. He runs into problems when probing inside the arc, limiting his ability to contribute immediately. He could always see minutes on the wing as he develops his point-guard skills. He’ll be defending shooting guards and small forwards, anyway.

7. Buddy Hield, SG, Oklahoma

Hield is the type of prospect who fools people. He established a reputation as a lights-out shooter early in the season before regressing later, and that was after three years of play that made him look like a second-rounder. It’s easy to fall for Hield’s competitiveness and work ethic, and maybe he has truly improved in ways that translate to the NBA. That especially seems like the case defensively. But the risk that Hield just outgrew his competition while going on a hot streak is great enough that I can’t rank him higher.

8. Marquese Chriss, PF, Washington

Chriss’ shot-blocking and shooting potential are a rare combination. His poor rebounding is just as distressing. Chriss’ athleticism gets plenty of praise, but his shortcomings – defensive recognition, passing – should draw more attention. Still, like most, I’m drawn to his potential.

Tier 6

9. Jakob Poeltl, C, Utah

Poeltl is a traditional center with enough mobility to stick in the modern NBA. His feel for rebounding should translate, and that’s comforting. But if he doesn’t get substantially stronger, Poeltl won’t be able to bang inside against archetypal NBA centers. And if he doesn’t shoot better, he won’t create a matchup advantage. There’s at least a decent chance Poeltl develops in one, if not both, of those ways.

10. Timothe Luwawu, SG/SF, France

Luwawu is a nice big wing with elite defensive potential. He can move his feet to hound the ball-handler, and he elevates quickly – a skill that also pays off if he gets any space offensively, as he’s a frequent dunker. I’d like to see his improved shooting over a larger sample, but he could be a ready-to-contribute 3-and-D player. Taking the ball out of his hands more often should cut down on his all-too-common sloppiness and turnovers.

11. Jaylen Brown, SF, California

Brown has an elite physical profile for an NBA wing. He just put it to horrible use in his lone season at Cal. He shot poorly from outside and often dribbled himself into turnovers. He didn’t disrupt opponents nearly as much as you’d expect for someone with incredible defensive potential. Brown seems smart, but basketball intelligence can be different. He must develop his shooting and passing abilities to match his aggressiveness with the ball – or completely change his approach. Either is a tall order, but at least Brown’s upside is high if he does.

Tier 7

12. Henry Ellenson, C, Marquette

We’ve seen how important playmaking fours have become in the NBA. Ellenson could be a playmaking five. He’s a skilled ball-handler with clear potential as a shooter and passer. His soft hands will also allow him to make plays more traditionally in the pick-and-roll or on post-ups. Defense is a big issue, because Ellenson is both slow on his feet and relatively ground-bound vertically. There’s probably a better chance of him developing enough core strength to defend the paint positionally as a center rather than getting fast enough to stick with power forwards.

13. Ante Zizic, C, Croatia

Zizic flat out plays hard, and that shows up most on the glass. He’s an excellent rebounder. Zizic isn’t the most skilled offensively, but his energy provides efficient opportunities near the rim. Effort hasn’t yet turned him into an adequate perimeter defender, but maybe it eventually will.

14. Furkan Korkmaz, SG, Turkey

Korkmaz has quality size (6-foot-7) and athleticism, and those traits influence his offensive skills that complement each other – outside shooting, driving and passing. Defense is a major flaw, though. The physicality of the NBA could be a rude awakening for him. At least time is on the side of the 18-year-old.

15. Juan Hernangomez, PF, Spain

Hernangomez is a stretch four with some complementary skills – driving and passing. His rebounding ability suggests he’s not just a soft jump shooter. Yet, he hasn’t shown much defensively.

16. Deyonta Davis, C, Michigan State

Davis’ leaping ability gives him strong potential as a rim protector, but does he have the recognition and communication skills to quarterback a defense? Maybe that will develop in time for the young player. His offense isn’t refined, but again, he’s young and his hops – and hands – offer intrigue as a finisher.

17. Denzel Valentine, SG, Michigan State

It’s rare to find a wing who passes this well. Valentine adds quality outside shooting and rebounding, too. But there are concerns about him not finding his groove until his junior year and really excelling until his senior year. Plus, reported knee issues raise a red flag for someone whose athleticism is already below par.

18. Patrick McCaw, SG, UNLV

Long and athletic, McCaw is an absolute ball-hawk defensively. Transition is his main source of offense. He’s also a good passer, though subpar ball-handling will limit his ability to distribute at the next level. If his outside shooting improves just a moderate amount, he could be an ideal 3-and-D player. On the other hand, if he doesn’t get stronger, his defense might not translate.

19. Domantas Sabonis, PF, Gonzaga

Is there still room in the NBA for big men who neither protect the rim nor space the floor? If any 2016 prospect can overcome those limitations, it’s Sabonis. His aggressiveness on both ends offsets his athletic limitations, particularly as a rebounder and interior scorer. Still, those are major shortcomings.

Tier 8

20. Tyler Ulis, PG, Kentucky

I love Ulis’ feel for the game, but I fell for Tyler Ennis and Tyus Jones for similar reasons, and neither have made a dent in the NBA yet. Maybe Ulis should just stand on his own, but I can’t escape those comparisons. Health questions also give me concern about the tiny guard, but that’s tough to read without seeing his medical info. If I knew more about his hip, he might fall further.

21. Skal Labissiere, C, Kentucky

College basketball overwhelmed Labissiere. I don’t think he’ll pan out in the NBA. But if he does, watch out. Labissiere could be a 7-footer who protects the rim and makes 3-pointers, a lethal skill set. It’s that potential that has him so high despite being a major, major project.

22. DeAndre Bembry, SF, St. Joseph’s

Bembry is an excellent all-around player with one notable exception – shooting – and that threatens to unravel his entire game. How many opportunities will he get to drive to score or kick if defenses never respect his outside jumper? Bembry’s age – he turns 22 on July 4 – is also a negative.

23. Zhou Qi, C, China

The 7-foot-2 Zhou has excellent feel for blocking shots, combining his elite size and timing. His shooting touch will allow him to contribute on the other end. He just has to get much stronger before he can really take off. If I had more confidence in his listed age, he’d be a tier or two higher.

24. Malik Beasley, SG, Florida State

Beasley played with plenty of energy, and that’s encouraging. His outside shooting stroke looks good, though it’d be more comforting if he had a longer history of shooting well. His defensive potential is high enough, but for someone who gambled so frequently for steals, he got few. At least his ability to finish inside offers hope Beasley can be more than a 3-and-D player, which is especially important because he’s not a lock to excel at eithers 3s or defense.

Tier 9

25. Diamond Stone, C, Maryland

Stone was productive at Maryland despite not being in the best shape. Improving his conditioning is a clear and traversable route to improving. He scored well inside, showing solid touch, and crashed the glass hard. Defensive rebounding is a concern.

26. Chinanu Onuaku, C, Louisville

Onuaku defended well despite not being in great shape or having an ideal motor at Louisville. If his conditioning and effort – two related traits – improve, he could be even better at the next level. His strong rebounding ability and rim protection should translate. He’s a willing passer, but he’s too sloppy with the ball and takes too many jumpers outside his range.

27. Taurean Prince, SF, Baylor

Prince used his strength impressively at Baylor to dictate play on both ends of the court. A capable, though slow-releasing, 3-point shot, kept defenders on their toes. I’m just not sure that type of bully ball translates for someone who was older than most of his college opponents.

28. Caris LeVert, SG, Michigan

Injuries have derailed LeVert, but maybe the worst is behind him. When healthy, he’s a tall guard who can shoot, put the ball on the floor and pass. His defense is still a work in progress, but he has shown enough flashes to believe it could become a strength.

29. Kay Felder, PG, Oakland

Felder has an excellent feel for offense as a scorer (shooting and driving) and passer. Put the ball in his hands, and good things happen. But he’s 5-foot-9, so there’s significant risk about his game translating. Still, Felder has the traits – hops, speed, confidence – important for an undersized guard. Maybe he’ll even become a defensive pest instead of a liability if he has to shoulder less offensive burden.

30. Gary Payton II, PG, Oregon State

Payton has awesome defensive ability, much like his father. However, it’s difficult for even good defensive point guards to impact the game as much as bigs. Payton is also a long way from capably running an NBA offense, but he has the tools to suggest he could get there.

31. Guerschon Yabusele, PF, France

A powerful but undersized big man, Yabusele carries a big frame in an explosive way. He scores inside and out, and there’s a funkiness to his game that just might work. He’s not good enough as a rebounder and even worse as a defender, though.

32. Ivica Zubac, C, Bosnia

The 7-foot-1 Zubac is big and uses his size pretty well. But when faster or bouncier opponents challenge him, the results aren’t encouraging. He’s fairly skilled offensively, and he’s a willing passer – an important trait for old-school centers trying to find a place in the new NBA. He’s also young with room to develop, which he’ll need to do.

33. Dejounte Murray, PG, Washington

Murray is tall and fast, and his athleticism gives him potential. But he has so far to go as a decision-maker and a scorer from all areas of the court. If you want to swing for the fences, Murray is a decent pick. But he’s a real project.

34. Petr Cornelie, PF, France

Cornelie is a stretch four who can play above the rim. That’s a special combination. But he needs to get a lot stronger. A lot stronger. His weakness threatens to undermine the rest of his game. Maybe he will, but he turns 21 next month.