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Tiered 2017 NBA draft board

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The 2017 NBA draft has been touted as a great one.

I’m not convinced.

Sure, there are strengths relative to average years: No. 2, middle of the lottery, middle of the second round. But I don’t rate players projected 3-7ish as the inevitable future stars they’re being made out to be, and prospects worth getting truly excited about peter out before the lottery ends.

Still, teams must draft based on who’s available. So, lets classify prospects within my tier system. As explained before:

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 the 12 tiers necessary to get through the first round. Within each tier, I rank players as if the drafting teams had empty rosters. Obviously, actual NBA teams would need to consider other information when assessing fit of players within a tier.

Tier 1

1. Markelle Fultz, PG, Washington

Fultz is SO smooth, though sometimes a little too smooth. It’s mostly an asset – especially in conjunction with his size (6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan). His moves are dazzling, using fluid ball-handling and an impressive pull-up jumper as weapons to get to his spots. He can also post-up, pass and move off the ball. It’s a lot for defenses to handle. He’s nearly a prototypical modern point guard on offense, though the inconsistency of his shooting form raises questions. As does Fultz’s propensity to get sloppy in his decision-making, forcing some bad shots and committing some head-scratching turnovers. That lax focus is amplified on defense, where his effort level was routinely lacking, save a few impressive highlight chase-down blocks that at least show his defensive potential. Was Fultz victim of a lousy defensive culture at Washington, or was he one of the causes? Fultz’s smooth athleticism might not translate cleanly from offense to defense, even with better effort, because his smooth strides don’t lend themselves to the quick changes of direction necessary to guard on the perimeter.

Tier 2

2. Lonzo Ball, PG, UCLA

Ball has elite court vision – and tools to take advantage of it. He excels in transition and getting his team into transition. His size (6-foot-6) and length allow him to generate plenty of steals and blocks, prompting fastbreaks. He pushes the ball well and will direct it to the right spot before the defense recognizes it. His passing is still a weapon in the halfcourt with his ability to see over defenses. His cutting ability, including an ability to finish lobs, is an intriguing off-ball threat against set defenses. But his lackluster ability to run a pick-and-roll or set himself apart some other way with the ball in the halfcourt is disconcerting. So is his defensive effort when he actual has to do something physical, like fight through a screen, and can’t just deflect the ball. And then there’s his funky shot, which he converted efficiently at UCLA. If I trusted those results, he might be No. 1 on my board. As is, he’s still closer to No. 1 than No. 3.

Tier 3

3. Josh Jackson, SF, Kansas

I find myself caught between Jackson’s very vocal supporters and a credible contingent of doubters. I am concerned about his age and jump shot. But his passing speaks to an ability to quickly read the floor, which could serve him very well in other facets of his game. His defensive tools are also impressive, though he – like most rookies – probably isn’t ready to step in and immediately excel on that end.

4. Dennis Smith Jr., PG, North Carolina State

Smith attacks so well as a lead ball-handler, using tremendous burst and a comfort playing through contact. He’s neither a great outside shooter nor passer, but he’s good enough considering the threat of his drive. A high-level offense could run through Smith someday. There are questions about his attitude. Is that just because North Carolina State was bad, especially defensively, and it doesn’t seem he cared enough on that end? There’s only so much a freshman, even a point guard (a natural leadership position) as talented as Smith, can do. And he wouldn’t be the first young player who needed time to lock in defensively, especially considering his heavy offensive burden. If there’s more to the attitude questions, I don’t know.

Tier 5

5. Jonathan Isaac, F, Florida State

Isaac is a high-upside prospect who’s safer than credited (which is not to say safe) – as long as he’s not pigeonholed into traditional star scoring expectations. Despite being a lanky 6-foot-11, Isaac still excelled as a defensive rebounder. That speaks to his basketball intelligence and determination. His length and fluidity give him elite defensive potential. Then there are the tantalizing flashier aspects of his game: finishing alley-oops above the rim and a smooth-looking jumper. Isaac deferred a lot at Florida State, which both protected him from exposing his flaws (especially shaky ball-handling) and prevented him from showing off and developing his strengths. There might be an adjustment period as Isaac acclimates to a bigger role in the NBA, but he’s more likely than not to reward patience.

6. Lauri Markkanen, PF, Arizona

Markkanen is a 7-footer who made 42% of his 3-pointers at Arizona. Yet, even that eye-popping combination sells him short. He can generate 3-pointers so many ways — pick-and-pops, spot-ups, off off-ball screens and even running pick-and-rolls himself. He can shoot over smaller defenders and/or free himself from them. It’s difficult to find players to defend him, even if his inside-the-arc skills leave plenty to be desired. Markkanen is mobile enough to stick decently with smaller players defensively, so don’t expect a massive mismatch on the other end.

7. Malik Monk, G, Kentucky

Monk is an elite individual scorer who works well within a team’s offensive construct. He’s decisive, not bogging down the flow. He’s a threat with or without the ball, always working to get to a spot where he can rise up and shoot. Even at 6-foot-3, he has the athleticism and form to get his shot off cleanly from mid-range and deep. His size prevents him from getting all the way to the rim often enough, but his explosiveness suggests he could leap forward as a driver if he gets stronger. Right now, Monk is a shooting guard in a point guard’s body. If he develops into a point guard – he’s a good passer for an off guard, though he needs much better feel running the pick-and-roll – he’s too low on this board.  Even as an undersized shooting guard, he can still contribute. But moving to point guard would be particularly helpful, because his feeble defense projects to become passable against only point guards.

8. De'Aaron Fox, PG, Kentucky

Is he John Wall or Ish Smith? I see more Smith in his game, but Fox is just 19 with plenty of time to develop. The possibility he becomes Wall and a reasonably high floor warrant a high selection. Fox is fast, and that serves him well on both ends. He’s dangerous in transition, with or – given his ability to finish above the rim – without the ball. He can probe defenses in the halfcourt, snaking through defenders looking for passing lanes. Using his penetration to create more passing lanes would be a good next step for him. Of course, becoming a good outside shooter is the most important step he can take. It’s a huge, career-defining unknown, and I wouldn’t be surprised either way whether he adds that skill. Defensively, Fox uses his speed well to pressure the ball – both his man and on double-teams, with an ability to go back and forth. His frailty limits his defense and his finishing at the rim (though, curiously, not his foul-drawing), as he’s limited to a lot of floaters. I’m not sure how much strength Fox can add, but if he gets stronger without losing speed, he should stick in the league a while. His 3-point shot, though, will determine whether he can become a star.

Tier 5

9. Jayson Tatum, F, Duke

Tatum was often the best athlete on the floor in college. He rarely will be in the NBA. Will his game hold up? He’s a ball-stopper, though his individual scoring skills make the tradeoff worthwhile. He’s a fine shooter, fine passer and maybe will become a fine defender. I’m just not sure he’ll justify how often he disrupts an offense’s flow – or successfully adjust his style.

10. Zach Collins, C, Gonzaga

Collins is a roll of the dice. He spent one season coming off the bench in the West Coast Conference and never played more than 23 minutes in a game. But he’s a roll of the dice I’d be thrilled to make. He showed nice touch near the basket and a solid stroke from mid-range and occasionally beyond the arc. He moved well defensively, blocking shots and still getting into rebounding position. That’s a special combination. He plays more athletically than credited, though the strength concerns are real. He regularly enough got outmuscled by players way more fatigued than him. Collins’ age is a reasonable potential excuse.

Tier 6

11. Frank Ntilikina, PG, Strasbourg

The 6-foot-5 Ntilikina projects to become a player who can defend every perimeter position while playing as a capable point guard offensively. That opens so many doors. Just 18, Ntilikina might need to lean on another playmaker in the backcourt for a while. He’s neither steady nor dangerous enough, especially as a scorer, to run the offense himself at all times. But he has solid off-ball skills, so that should work. Ntilikina doesn’t possess standout athleticism, so a lower ceiling keeps him from climbing higher on my board

12. OG Anunoby, SF, Indiana

Anunoby could be a defensive stud who guards every position. He flies above the rim and at least offers hope on his jumper – when healthy. He suffered a season-ending knee injury in the winter and could miss time in his first NBA season. The latter doesn’t worry me. Anunoby losing athleticism or facing greater risk of re-injury does. Without more medical information, I’m somewhat shooting in the dark.

13. Harry Giles, PF, Duke

Giles looked like a complete prospect in high school, maybe even a future No. 1 pick. But injuries have piled up. Without access to his medical records, I’m mostly guessing here. He could belong much higher or much lower.

Tier 7

14. Luke Kennard, SG, Duke

Kennard is more than just a shooter. He has developed point guard skills, and at 6-foot-5, can see over defenses. He has reportedly tested well athletically in workouts – easing the biggest concern about him. That opens the door for him to defend adequately and maybe even play some point guard, where he’d be more valuable.

15. Donovan Mitchell, SG, Louisville

I believe in Mitchell’s ability to defend point guards. Otherwise, I’m skeptical. He’s 6-foot-3 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, so defending wings is certainly within the realm of possibility. I don’t trust his ability to run an offense as a point guard. I don’t like his scoring game – to few good shots generated – as a shooting guard. But he’s athletic and has enough raw skills and areas for theoretical improvement to take chance on him.

16. Jonah Bolden, PF, FMP Beograd

Bolden is comfortable on the perimeter, where he can shoot off the dribble or spotting up, find teammates with impressive passes or drive to the hoop. Those skills aren’t completely developed yet, but its an impressive array. For a stretch four, Bolden’s athleticism takes him to the next level. Near the basket, he plays above the rim. He has all the tools to move with perimeter players on switches defensively. The big concern: Bolden shies from physicality and struggles when it finds him. Maybe that changes if he gets stronger. A point of confusion: Why was Bolden so unimpressive in his lone season at UCLA before thriving overseas?

Tier 8

17. John Collins, PF, Wake Forest

He’s a tenacious interior scorer and rebounder, always attacking his spots, through contact or otherwise. Those skills just don’t translate defensively. As much as defense is about effort, Collins just looks lost. Pedestrian athleticism and length limit him as a rim-protector. Sticking with stretch fours will require far more defensive discipline than he has shown. I’m not even sure about his role offensively, either. He has nice footwork in the post, but he’s not nearly enough of a passer for someone in that position. His jumper could come along and open things for him.

18. Isaiah Hartenstein, PF, Zalgiris

Hartenstein built a lot of his resume on outhustling less athletic players in Europe, but there are traits that will translate (size, a massive 7-foot-1), should translate (passing) and might translate (shooting). Shooting is the big one. If he develops his outside shot, that would allow him to spend more time on the perimeter and take advantage of his passing ability. While reasonably mobile, he’s too undisciplined defensively to take advantage. Just 19, he can improve considerably. A lack of explosive athleticism is concerning, though.

Tier 9

19. Ike Anigbogu, C, UCLA

Anigbogu, 18 until October, might be the youngest player drafted this year. He’s big (6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-6 wingspan, more than 250 pounds without a lot of body fat), and he throws his body around while moving well for his size. He just lacks any ball skills offensively and polish defensively. Sometimes, he’s too aggressive. Other times, he’s too passive. If he gains a better feel and/or becomes more polished, he could be a weapon. Time is on his side.

Tier 10

20. T.J. Leaf, PF, UCLA

Leaf is a pick-and-pop threat who expands into an offensive threat all over the floor. He can shoot from all levels of the floor, and his advanced court vision leads to impressive passes. But his defense poses problems. He’s subpar defending on the perimeter and even worse protecting the rim.

21. Justin Patton, C, Creighton

Patton is an excellent finisher, creating high-efficiency shots at the rim in transition, as roll man and as a cutter. He needs someone to set him up, but I hear NBA teams employ point guards. He has shown glimpses of playmaking out of the post and shooting from distance, suggesting his offensive game can expand. He doesn’t rebound well enough, but he has flashed solid rim protection. If he improves his physique, he could blossom.

Tier 11

22. Tyler Lydon, PF, Syracuse

Lydon’s strengths are 3-point shooting and shot-blocking, a dynamite combination for a modern big man. His rebounding and interior defense are lagging (and his ability to defend on the perimeter is even worse). But there’s a path to playing time for anyone who shoot 3s and block shots like Lydon projects to. If there’s a good reason Lydon has seemingly generated no momentum in the pre-draft process, I don’t know what it is.

23. Monte Morris, PG, Iowa State

Nobody in this range of the draft is a safe bet to have a long NBA career. Morris might come closest, as he could step in as and remain a backup point guard for a while. Let him run an offense, and he’ll make the right pass while committing few turnovers. The question: Without great athleticism, can he create enough situations where the right pass leads to a bucket often enough? I think he’s savvy enough to create seams with craftiness and decent shooting ability, but it’s not a given. Morris at least controls what he can control. He puts effort into defense and rebounding, adding more value with the latter.

24. Jawun Evans, PG, Oklahoma State

Evans is a blur, a 6-foot speedster who can attack the rim with abandon. That pressures the defense, and he’s adept at kicking to teammates (though not finishing at the rim). He can also pull up for jumpers, keeping defenses honest. But he’s small, which brings into question his ability to translate to the pros, especially defensively.

25. D.J. Wilson, PF, Michigan

For better or worse, Wilson plays like  wing. He shoots 3-pointers and dribbles and moves fluidly. He also too often avoids contact from fellow bigs. But the 6-foot-11 Wilson must play power forward, because that gives him his matchup advantages. With a 7-foot-3 wingspan and bounciness, he can protect the rim at times (and finish over it on the other end). He must work on still deterring shots at the rim when also countering a bigger offensive payer inside and rebounding.

26. Terrance Ferguson, SG, Adelaide 36ers

Ferguson projects as an athletic 3-and-D guard, but he’s not nearly as ready as hoped. His shot is unreliable. His defensive awareness lags behind professional standards. But these are issues young players sometimes enter the NBA with and figure out. There’s a path forward here that leads to Ferguson becoming a contributor in the league.

27. Tony Bradley, C, North Carolina

Bradley is huge (6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan), and he offensively rebounded like a beast in college. But why didn’t that nose for the ball on the offensive glass show up in other areas, namely defensively? His athleticism is lacking, raising questions how he’ll translate. His soft touch could serve him well, though.

28. Jarrett Allen, C, Texas

Allen is long (6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-5.5 wingspan) and mobile, but he uses those traits to too often play a finesse game – reaching by opponents for rebounds or blocks rather than banging. Shying from contact holds him back. So does how long it takes him to load up to jump (though he gets nice height once he elevates). I’m obviously relatively low on Allen and, with his unrefined offense, see him as a major project. But late in the first round, he’s worth a flier. He could certainly develop.

Tier 12

29. Semi Ojeleye, F, SMU

Ojeleye was a  22-year-old dominating the American Athletic Conference last year. Will that translate to the NBA? His best path is at power forward, where he can face up and either shoot 3-pointers (though not necessarily from NBA range) or drive (though with brute force, not creatively). Even at 6-foot-7, he’s strong enough to hold his own defending and rebounding inside.

30. Bam Adebayo, C, Kentucky

Adebayo is a voracious dunker. He displays impressive motor, explosiveness, physicality on his slams. He just hasn’t seem interested in applying those traits to other areas of his game, like defense and rebounding. If Adebayo applies himself in those less-glamorous areas, he could succeed in the NBA. Powerful dunks alone won’t keep him in the league.

31. Jordan Bell, PF, Oregon

Bell can protect the rim and guard on the perimeter, a special defensive combination for the 6-foot-9 fluid athlete. But he’ll have to play elite defense to stick in the NBA, because his offense is limited to finishing at the rim. Bell does that very efficiently, but it’ll be easier to take away with no other offensive skills as threats.

Watch all of LeBron James’ 46 points in Game 6

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There is going to be a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals Sunday because of LeBron James.

George Hill had a strong game (20 points), Jeff Green and Larry Nance Jr. had their moments, but it was all about LeBron — 46 points, 11 rebounds, and 9 assists in 46 brilliant minutes.

Rather than try to describe his game to you — including the dagger threes late — just watch.

And enjoy. There are still some people out there (mostly on Twitter, it seems) who just want to tear LeBron down for some reason. I pity them. Not just because they are wrong, although they are. Rather, it’s because they are depriving themselves of enjoying one of the greatest players ever to lace them up. LeBron can bully people in the paint, hit step back threes, is as gifted a passer as the game has seen, and just plays a smart, high-IQ game we have got to watch grow over the years. If you can’t enjoy that, you don’t love basketball.

LeBron James is a force nature, scores 46, wills Cavaliers to win forcing Game 7

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What more can be said about the brilliance of LeBron James?

We can point to his 46 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists Friday night in a win-or-go-fishing elimination game. We can point to how he lifted the team up when Kevin Love went down after a blow to the head (more on that later). We could talk about how this is his seventh 40+ point game of the playoffs, the last guy to do that since Michael Jordan in 1989 (when Jordan was 25 and had yet to win a title).

Or, we can just show you his back-to-back dagger threes in the fourth quarter over Jayson Tatum.

That is art on a basketball court.

LeBron got a little help Friday night at home, and with that the Cavaliers won Game 6 109-99, forcing a Game 7 back in Boston on Sunday night.

“It feels good just to play for another game, and like I’ve always said ‘Game 7’ is the best two words in sports,” LeBron said. “And for us to be on the road in a hostile environment where we have had no success up to this point, we should relish the opportunity and have fun with it.”

LeBron was nothing short of brilliant (remember 10-12 years ago people were trying to say he was afraid of the big moment, damn that sounds silly now). He is historically brilliant in Game 7s, but he can’t do it alone.

George Hill, the second best shot creator on the team, had 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting. Jeff Green had 14 off the bench, and Larry Nance Jr. had a timely 10 points and 7 rebounds.

Nance’s play was crucial because Kevin Love went down 5 minutes into the game after banging heads with Jayson Tatum while setting a screen.

Love’s was being checked for a concussion and his status for Game 7 is not known. (If he does have a concussion, it’s unlikely he clears the league protocol in time to play in two days.)

Despite LeBron and all of it, the Celtics had their chances in this one.

Boston got off to a fast start because Jaylen Brown had 15 first-quarter points and the Celtics shot 61 percent as a team, none of which seemed sustainable but it got them out to a 25-20 lead after one. Then the Cavaliers came on in the second with a 20-4 run behind LeBron, and once they had the lead the Cavaliers never let it go.

Boston will look back on not grabbing rebounds — Cleveland grabbed the offensive rebound on 36.6 percent of their missed shots, a very high percentage — and the fact the Celtics missed nine free throws and think things could have been different.

Boston is going home, where they are 10-0 these playoffs and for some reason inexplicable even to Brad Stevens, they play much better. The Celtics have a great defense, smart players, and a real chance.

The Cleveland Cavaliers have LeBron James. That may be enough.

“We have one more game to be able to compete for a championship, what more can you ask for?” LeBron said.

Kevin Love being evaluated for concussion, out for second half

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It happened just five minutes into the game — Cleveland’s Kevin Love and Boston’s Jayson Tatum banged heads.

Love was in the midpost and part of his job was to set a screen for George Hill, who was racing out to the arc. In doing so, Love and Tatum banged heads and it wasn’t pretty.

Love spent a few minutes on the ground, went straight to the locker room, and has not returned to the game.

Tatum did not leave the game.

There still is no official word on if Love has a concussion. If he does, he will go into the league’s mandated concussion protocol — which means to be cleared he has to be symptom free through a series of physical tests — and it would be a challenge for him to be back for a Game 7, if there is one.

And their likely will be one. After struggling in the rest of the first quarter without Love, the Cavaliers have gotten solid performances out of Hill, Jeff Green, and of course, LeBron James has been brilliant. The Cavaliers have a comfortable 15-point lead late in the third quarter.

NBA Finals schedule drops, Game 1 Thursday, May 31

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We don’t know where the NBA Finals will be played, but we know when.

Next Thursday the eyes of the NBA world could be focused on Oakland or Houston, and the following Wednesday that may shift to Boston or Cleveland. All four of those teams still have a chance to make the NBA Finals.

What we know is the dates for the games. Here is the schedule:

Game 1, Thursday, May 31, at 9 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 2, Sunday, June 3, at 8 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 3, Wednesday, June 6, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 4, Friday, June 8, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 5, Monday, June 11, at 9 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 6, Thursday, June 14, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 7, Sunday, June 17, at 8 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Games 5, 6, and 7 are if necessary. All games will be broadcast on ABC.

There were no surprises here. The date of the start of the NBA Finals has been set since before the season started (it always is, to help broadcast partners and international media plan). The game pattern follows the same as last year, when the NBA changed it to make sure there was at least one day off in addition to travel days when the venue switches cities.