How this works:
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
- 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 16 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.
1. DeAndre Ayton, C, Arizona
His physical profile – 7-foot with a 7-foot-5 wingspan, muscular, smoothly fast, high jumper – is nearly mythological. He has nice touch on his shot near the basket, in mid-range (though he shoots from there too often) and maybe eventually beyond the NBA 3-point arc. The big red flags come on defense, where Ayton far too often looks lost. At least he has the tools to excel on that end if he figures it out, though I have major questions whether he will.
2. Luka Doncic, PG, Real Madrid
Just 19, Doncic is already starring in the highest levels of European basketball. Nobody has ever done that before. He flat out knows how to play. His ball-handling and passing are expert level, and he’s a good shooter, particularly off the dribble. At 6-foot-8, he’s fairly position-less on the perimeter, but I’d want the ball in his hands enough to consider him a point guard. His underwhelming athleticism is concerning. Athletic wings – far more common in the NBA than Europe – could give him trouble, especially in his ability to create separation. His defensive upside is also limited. But Doncic plays a strong all-around game, including as a rebounder, which speaks to his functional athleticism.
3. Trae Young, PG, Oklahoma
Young’s combination of scoring and shooting gives him elite potential – if he’s not too small. He can make all the standard passing reads required of a starting NBA point guard, which is no small achievement for a 19-year-old. He’s also at least a good 3-point shooter with ability to hit pull-ups and spot-ups. But he’s small, 6-foot-2 with a 6-foot-3 wingspan. Can he defend anyone? Can he finish inside? Can he make cross-court passes through defenses? Young’s diminutive frame threatens to undermine him, but he is a skilled, high-upside prospect.
4. Jaren Jackson Jr., C, Michigan State
Jackson has shown all the main skills for a modern center. He shoots 3-pointers, protects the rim as a help defender and switches onto forwards and guards. But he too often played timid, exemplified by frequently fouling rather than battling physically. Is that because he’s soft or because he was just 18 playing for a hard-driving coach who never seemed to figure out quite how to use him? Jackson’s offensive upside is limited by his lacking court vision and explosiveness. But teams shouldn’t fear drafting a player high just because he doesn’t project well as a scorer. That’s only one skill of many. Jackson would fit well with nearly any set of teammates on both ends of the court.
5. Mohamed Bamba, C, Texas
Ayton might be the only prospect who matches Bamba’s ceiling. Bamba is huge – 7-foot-1 with a 7-foot-10 wingspan. Reasonably mobile and a high leaper, he covers a lot of ground. And he often must defensively, because he’s not always in ideal position due to recognition and/or effort issues. Yet, he’s already still quite effective. Does that indicate his potential to get even better? Or does it show his intelligence doesn’t cleanly translate to visual/spatial awareness? I believe in his ability to become an elite rim protector much more than I do his switchability on the perimeter. With the athleticism necessary to do it in the modern game, Bamba fills the role of a fairly traditional center – blocking shots, rebounding, finishing inside. He’s developing his 3-pointer, though that remains largely hypothetical as an asset.
6. Mikal Bridges, SF, Villanova
Bridges projects extremely well as a 3-and-D role player. It can be tempting to reach for someone with higher upside, but there are plenty of players with high-usage starring styles. Good teams need players like Bridges, who has a good feel for how to help as a complementary player. He’s a good 3-point shooter, and he can penetrate against closeouts and in the pick-and-roll, finish well at the rim or dishing as he drives. He’s also an active cutter and capable post-up player against smaller players. At 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, Bridges has the length – though not necessarily strength – to defend several positions. He possesses plenty of functional athleticism defensively thanks to his high basketball intelligence. He just lacks the aggressiveness and off-the-dribble shooting ability to take over games.
7. Michael Porter, SF/PF, Missouri
Porter’s back injury scares me so, so, so much. He’d rank much higher with more dependable health. Porter is a good shooter from deep and mid-range. With a smooth stride, ball-handling ability in the open court, ability to shoot on the move and a 6-foot-10 frame, he can get his shot off at will. Relatedly, he too often settles for bad shots once he gets the ball. On the flip side, he works hard off the ball to get in good scoring position. His defensive indifference puts his length to waste. Likewise, he doesn’t make enough effort offensively to do more than just get his points.
8. Miles Bridges, PF/SF, Michigan State
Bridges should be more effective as a small-ball power forward in the NBA. Though his length – 6-foot-7 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan – isn’t ideal, he has the strength and competitiveness to hold up inside. He could guard bigger, more athletic small forwards, too. At power forward, his speed and shooting become weapons. Bridges already does a fine job creating shots for himself, and he’d fare even better if his ball-handling improves.
9. Marvin Bagley, PF/C, Duke
Bagley is an elite above-the-rim finisher, and he does plenty to generate those efficient shots. He’s extremely quick for 6-foot-11, and he runs the floor hard, often beating his man to the rim. He’s also an excellent rebounder, taking advantage of his quick multi-jump ability. Until he becomes a better screener, he’ll be limited in base halfcourt offenses. More troublingly, he provides so little as a rim protector due to poor defensive awareness, a relatively short 7-foot-1 wingspan and middling core strength. He might have to play power forward defensively, but I don’t trust his outside shot enough for him to be anything but a center offensively, which creates complications.
10. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, PG, Kentucky
A 6-foot-6 point guard with a 7-foot wingspan, Gilgeous-Alexander always looks in control by the way he smoothly changes speed and direction. He uses his length to finish, with both hands, from many angles and evade defenders. But when he can’t get going downhill against defenses going under on pick-and-rolls, his pull-up jumper becomes a liability. He’s developing as a distributor, and playing in an offense with more spacing than Kentucky’s last year should help. His defense is already solid and could get even better if he gets significantly stronger/more physical – natural for a 19-year-old but questionable for someone with his narrow frame.
11. Collin Sexton, PG, Alabama
Sexton relentlessly and ferociously attacks the rim with the ball in his hands – sometimes when lesser players couldn’t, sometimes when he shouldn’t. He must play a little more under control in the NBA, which should be easier with more spacing. Along with that, he must develop as a passer. But those are steps many point guards must make at his age, and few match his athleticism. Sexton – 6-foot-2 with a 6-foot-7 wingspan – has the length to defend well, but he’s probably a little overrated on that end. Perhaps, with a more reasonable offensive load, his overall defensive output will catch up to the flashes he showed.
12. Kevin Huerter, SG, Maryland
The 6-foot-7 Huerter is an excellent 3-point shooter. He can also score inside the arc with plenty of lift and, importantly, keeps his head up looking for passes as he drives. He takes too many risks on those passes, though. He’s neither fast nor strong enough to project as a good defender, though effort helps.
13. Lonnie Walker, SG, Miami
Walker – 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan and explosive athleticism – looks the part of an NBA player. He just didn’t put those physical traits to good use at Miami. He settled for too many bad shots, showed little court vision as a passer and locked in too rarely defensively. Still, it’s hard to turn down someone with so much potential at a scarce position. Maybe he’ll eventually translate his impressive tools into better production.
14. De'Anthony Melton, PG/SG, USC
Melton plays hard and smart, a combination that goes a long way. At 6-foot-3 with a 6-foot-9 wingspan and an aggressive physicality, he defends well on and off the ball. He rebounds at an elite rate for his position, and his court vision as a passer is tremendous. He doesn’t shoot well. He doesn’t have many moves with the ball. He doesn’t finish well in traffic. So, he won’t be an easy fit. But smart teams will figure out how to utilize him, and he’ll contribute to winning.
15. Wendell Carter, C, Duke
Carter can do a lot of things offensively, and because one of them is pass, it’s fine to give him the ball a lot. He’s not great at anything, but that’s OK. His ability to play inside and out will serve him well as he faces different defenders in a switch-heavy NBA. Carter has a long way to go defending in space, which is a major red flag. That deficiency can simply make bigs unplayable in the modern game.
16. Robert Williams, C, Texas A&M
Modern NBA offenses, with all the spacing they create, set the stage for bigs like Williams – 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan and impressive leaping ability – to roll to the rim and finish lobs against minimal defensive pressure. On the other end, he’s an impressive shot blocker. His motor, while improved, remains questionable. That particularly shows in his rebounding. Perhaps, he’ll look more motivated while playing his optimal position after getting jammed into big frontcourt at Texas A&M.
17. Donte DiVincenzo, SG, Villanova
DiVincenzo is a dangerous 3-point shooter with a high release point on and off the ball. He can wiggle his way to the rim and, with major hops, he finishes well. He’s a fine passer, though I consider him far more of a shooting guard than point guard. He just lacks the playmaking ability to run an offense, and he’s a little too slow to defend many point guards. His lackluster length – 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-6 wingspan – doesn’t help against shooting guards, either.
18. Kevin Knox, SF/PF, Kentucky
Still just 18, Knox is one of the youngest players in this draft. That’s important to remember, because he’s more of a project than many realize. He has a nice shooting stroke and the size (6-foot-9 with a 7-foot wingspan) to become a versatile defender. But he’s too limited as a ball-handler and distributor to trust with a major offensive role. And he’s not physical enough defensively or as a rebounder. Knox is a fine athlete, though hardly an eye-popping one, which raises questions about how high in the draft a team should bet on him.
19. Zhaire Smith, SF, Texas Tech
Smith played like a big man in college – defending, rebounding and using his elite hops to finish above the rim. He found many ways to help. At 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, that won’t fly in the NBA. He’ll have to develop more of a perimeter game. Smith’s star potential is limited. He performs poorly off the dribble – whether it’s driving to the rim, pulling up for a shot or drawing attention to kick to teammates. A player – especially someone guard-sized – can influence the game only so much if he’s not a threat with the ball in his hands. But Smith, who just turned 19, is young enough and has a strong enough work ethic to develop ball skills.
20. Dzanan Musa, SF, KK Cedevita
Musa is a gunner. The 6-foot-9 wing relentlessly hunts his own shots using advanced ball-handling in isolation and running the pick-and-roll. He can shoot from deep, in mid-range and on floaters. For someone with such a high usage, he’s quite efficient. But he’s probably not a good enough scorer to stick with this style in the NBA. How will he adjust? His all-around game is also lacking. At just 19, he already excels at the facet of play he has clearly committed to developing. Could he build a wider skill set if he so chooses? Would he expend energy on areas less flashy than scoring?
21. Troy Brown, SG, Oregon
Brown plays physically on both ends of the floor. He’s comfortable amid contact while driving to the basket, still finding the right blend of hunting his own shot and using his impressive court vision to find teammates. That playmaking is also helpful in creating transition opportunities, as Brown is comfortable grabbing rebounds and pushing the ball up court. He’s a good rebounder for his position. At 6-foot-7 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, he has the strength to defend multiple positions. Speed is an issue in some perimeter matchups. The big catch: Brown is a poor 3-point shooter, though he could develop there.
22. Jacob Evans, SG/SF, Cincinnati
Evans – 6-foot-6 with a 6-foot-9 wingspan – does a great job anticipating and moving his feet to stay in front of his man defensively. But his so-so athleticism will limit him in some matchups. His basketball intelligence also extends to passing, but the usefulness of that skill is limited by lackluster ball-handling and burst. Though he won’t tilt defenses, he is a reliable spot-up 3-point shooter, giving him a true 3-and-D skill set.
23. Josh Okogie, SG, Georgia Tech
Quick and long (6-foot-5 with a 7-foot wingspan), Okogie covers a lot of ground defensively. He has the strength to defend three, maybe even four, positions. He was miscast as a go-to offensive player at Georgia Tech. Limit him mostly to spot-up 3-pointers, and he’ll look better, though not necessarily great. How well he hits those 3s from NBA distance will go a long way in determining his value.
24. Grayson Allen, SG, Duke
Allen is an elite shooter who plays passionately, for better or worse. Sometimes, that means winning hustle plays. Sometimes, that means tripping opponents. But get past the name, and don’t overlook his ability to play. Shooting is an ultra-important skill, and Allen has it. He fortifies it with enough athleticism to attack closeouts and improved point-guard skills. Defense, particularly lateral quickness, remains a big concern.
25. Shake Milton, SG/PG, Southern Methodist
Milton is a smooth shooter on 3-pointers and in the mid-range. His ball-handling and burst are too lacking for him to be a point guard full-time. He doesn’t get to the rim enough, and when he does, he finishes poorly. But playing on the ball in college should serve him well at the next level. He has developed nicely as a passer. Though he’s 6-foot-6 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, his slender frame will narrow the defensive matchups he can handle.
26. Jerome Robinson, PG/SG, Boston College
Robinson didn’t become good until his junior year. Don’t trust players who became good only as upperclassmen. Many of them just figure out how to produce at a lower level against younger competition. But some develop in ways to translate to the NBA, and Robinson looks good enough to fool me. He has a lightning-quick release on his jumper, which extended efficiently to 3-point range this season. He plays with patience, allowed by a tight handle. He might be more of a combo guard, but at least he’s 6-foot-5. Athleticism is a major concern, which could affect him as a finisher and defender.
27. Aaron Holiday, PG, UCLA
Holiday is tough to contain when he has the ball. Play too far off him, and he’ll splash 3-pointers. He’s unselfish, but a bit too sloppy as a distributor. He lacks the athleticism of his brothers, Jrue Holiday and Justin Holiday. That holds back Aaron as a finisher and defender and raises overall questions about his ability to translate to the next level.
28. Mitchell Robinson, C, Western Kentucky
Western Kentucky was an odd choice for a five-star recruit like Robinson, and he apparently agreed. He enrolled and left. Twice. College isn’t for everyone, but that odd saga raises red flags about Robinson’s life-management abilities. On the plus side: He’s 7-foot-1 with a 7-foot-4 wingspan and bouncy, and his hands are big and soft. He finishes well inside, hits the glass hard and blocks shots. He even flashes jump-shooting ability. But he’s unrefined and a major project in every way.
29. Elie Okobo, PG, Pau-Orthez
The 20-year-old looks ready to graduate from France’s top league. Is he ready for the NBA? Probably not. He’s a good shooter, but his release is low. His court vision has gotten pretty good, but he doesn’t always put enough on his passes when identifying skip and cross-court targets. There’s time for him to develop.
30. Jevon Carter, PG, West Virginia
Carter is a tenacious defender at the point of attack, and he has the strength and competitiveness to defend bigger players on switches. But at 6-foot-2 with a 6-foot-4 wingspan and subpar athleticism, it’s far from guaranteed his defensive attitude will actually yield positive results at the next level. He lacks the explosiveness and moves to really lead an offense, but at least he looks good as a spot-up 3-point shooter.
31. Anfernee Simons, SG, IMG Academy
Simons, who comes as close as possible nowadays to jumping to the NBA straight from high school, is a major project. A 6-foot-4 scoring guard, Simons has a tight handle and quick feet that he uses primarily to generate jumpers. He shoots with a quick release and has range beyond the NBA 3-point arc. He’s reliant on floaters inside, as he’s not nearly strong enough for the pros. He must also develop as a passer. Nobody drafting the 19-year-old should depend on him anytime soon.
32. Melvin Frazier, SF, Tulane
The 6-foot-6 Frazier brings a lot to defense – a 7-foot-2 wingspan, hyperactivity and supreme hops. He has made strides as a 3-point shooter, and his development there will be instrumental. He also works well as a cutter and can finish above the rim. Subpar ball-handling caps his ceiling and usefulness of this next skill, but he seems to possess good court vision.