2019 NBA draft tiers: Zion Williamson then Ja Morant then everyone else

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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
  • 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.

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.

Here are the 11 tiers necessary to cover the first round of the 2019 NBA draft:

Tier 1

1. Zion Williamson, PF, Duke

Williamson is the best prospect since Anthony Davis. At 6-foot-7 and 285 pounds with jaw-dropping explosiveness, Williamson has a unique physical profile. He’s an amazing finisher, especially in transition. Williamson’s ability to create – for himself and others – off the dribble is stunning for a player his size. He’s so nimble. He can also post up smaller defenders. One way or another, he’s getting to the rim. And once he arrives, his dunks are thunderous. He applies all his incredible athleticism defensively, too. Williamson has excellent timing as a rim protector. He terrorizes passing lanes. He even moves well on the perimeter. His outside shooting and passing are still developing – which makes it scary a player so productive has such clear pathways to improvement.

Tier 2

2. Ja Morant, PG, Murray State

Morant took over games at Murray State. He’s a dynamic ball-handler and passer, skills he puts to great use while shifting speeds – including into an exceptionally quick turbo gear – and showing tremendous agility. Morant’s shooting has become solid, and it appears headed toward getting even better. I have some questions about the level of competition he faced, but he thoroughly dominated it as you’d hope a high-end prospect would. Morant needs work defensively. Reduced offensive responsibility would help on the other end, but it won’t solve everything.

Tier 3

3. Darius Garland, PG, Vanderbilt

Garland played just five games as a freshman before suffering a season-ending knee injury. He’s a smooth shooter from mid-range and beyond the arc – with the ball-handling, footwork and balance to get those shots off quickly. Beyond long-term health concerns, the big drawback of his injury is losing time to develop as a distributor. Garland has shown nice flashes, but his court vision needs work. As does his finishing. He’s not much of a defender, either. Point guards often need time to develop as facilitators. Young players – Garland is 19 – often need time to get stronger. As Garland naturally develops and fills out, he could become a better passer, finisher and defender.

4. R.J. Barrett, SF, Duke

Barrett profiles as a go-to offensive player. He’s an athletic driver who’s quite comfortable amid physicality. He can run pick-and-rolls, both for himself and to set up teammates. His playmaking is strong for his size. In so many ways, he’s advanced for his age. I’m just not sold – with his subpar shooting, uneven decision-making and left-handed dominance – he’ll handle a leading role on a good team. There are too many noteworthy flaws to expose. Barrett not capitalizing on his impressive defensive tools is also concerning. Barrett is younger and better than Garland right now. But, due to the nature of their shortcomings, it’s slightly easier to see Garland progressing into a top-level NBA player.

Tier 4

5. Coby White, PG, North Carolina

White’s speed shines in transition. He pushes the pace, compromises defenses and takes advantage. He can pass on the move. He can stop on a dime. He can pull up for jumpers. In the halfcourt, he doesn’t hold up as well. He dribbles into trouble and is still learning how to be a natural point guard after spending more time as a scoring guard. He struggles to shoot off the dribble. But he’s a knockdown spot-up shooter with off-ball skills, which lends itself to creative backcourt pairings. White can attack in transition then let someone else run the offense in halfcourt sets.

Tier 5

6. Jarrett Culver, SG, Texas Tech

Culver’s teammates will love him. He flat-out competes. He’s unselfish. He has an all-around game that can bend to many settings. But is he talented and athletic enough to make a real difference in the pros? Culver is a nice scorer from multiple levels with and without the ball, nice distributor, nice defender. I’m not sure he has a standout skill. But there’s value in betting on his work ethic and attitude.

7. Sekou Doumbouya, PF/SF, Limoges (France)

At just 18, Doumbouya has already proven capable of contributing in high-level European leagues. That’s a real accomplishment. He’s physically advanced for his age. The 6-foot-9 forward covers a lot of ground quickly, and he can get off the ground, too. His shooting, ball-handling and feel are works in progress, but at least Doumbouya has shown he’s headed in the right direction. He flashes swarming defense and a soft touch. Maybe, in time, Doumbouya will round into a quality two-way player.

8. De'Andre Hunter, SF/PF, Virginia

There might not be a defensive matchup Hunter can’t handle. But he doesn’t project as shutdown defender. His strength comes from his defensive versatility. Hunter (6-foot-7, 225 pounds, 7-foot-2 wingspan, strong base) switches reasonably onto any position. The 21-year-old might have benefited from becoming more physically advanced than most of his college opponents. His offensive role projects to be a standstill 3-point shooter who can attack closeouts with either line drives to the rim or a hard dribble or two then pull-up jumper. A slow release reduces opportunities to shoot 3s. He’s not a creator.

Tier 6

9. Cam Reddish, SF, Duke

Reddish sometimes makes it look easy. But he made it look darned hard at Duke last year. At 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Reddish has a smooth athleticism and shooting stroke. He could be the next Tracy McGrady. But if he were anywhere near that good, why did he struggle so much at Duke? Sure, he wasn’t placed into an ideal role. Reddish never looked comfortable as a spot-up shooter around Williamson and Barrett. Still, it seems most future NBA stars would have found a way to look better than he did. Reddish was far less productive in college/Europe than everyone ahead of him and several players behind him. But he’s too talented to slip further.

10. Brandon Clarke, PF/C, Gonzaga

Clarke is a quick leaper with soft hands and an attack mentality. That’s why he finishes so well, grabs so many offensive rebounds and blocks so many shots despite his underwhelming physical profile (6-foot-8, a 6-foot-8 wingspan, 207 pounds). With his energy and plus passing, he definitely lifts his team. But he might not shoot well enough from the perimeter to play power forward and his rebounding/ability to guard bigger players limits him at center. He’s also already 22.

Tier 7

11. Kevin Porter, SG, USC

Porter has star upside. At 6-foot-6 with a 6-foot-9 wingspan, his combination of shiftiness and power is jaw-dropping. He can attack the rim and finish above it. He can pull up for jumpers with a compact and smooth stroke. But there are also questions about his maturity and mentality. He missed games last season due to suspension. He also needs work in periphery skills – defense, passing, off-ball.

12. Jaxson Hayes, C, Texas

Hayes is an excellent rim runner. He can screen, roll hard, elevate in a hurry and finish above the rim. His hops make him a solid rim-protector, too. But how high should a player like that be drafted? The NBA is emphasizing skill at all positions, and Hayes is neither a shooter nor a passer. He’s also raw defensively. But there’s time for him to develop better awareness, and he could perform well enough in his offensive role to provide real value.

13. Nickeil Alexander-Walker, PG/SG, Virginia Tech

Alexander-Walker is a well-rounded prospect with one key flaw: He lacks burst and explosiveness. It’s tough for NBA point guards who don’t bend opposing defenses. Alexander-Walker might get by with his floor vision, crafty ball-handling and ability to pass on the move. If he winds up a combo guard, Alexander-Walker has the size (6-foot-6 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan) and standstill 3-point-shooting ability to play off the ball.

14. Bol Bol, C, Oregon

Bol has the highest spread between floor and ceiling in this draft. He comes with major red flags – foot injury, durability, intensity, work ethic, defense. But he’s so talented offensively. I’ll roll the dice on a 7-foot-2 center who can shoot and dribble like him. With a 7-foot-7 wingspan, he’ll block plenty of shots, too. It could go south at times – when the 208-pounder gets pushed around, when he gets hurt due to his thin frame, when it seems he just doesn’t care. Bol’s shortcomings are especially frustrating, which is why I think he’s undervalued. He’s competing with other flawed players in this range.

15. Nassir Little, SF, North Carolina

Little is 6-foot-6 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan and excellent athleticism. He looks like an archetypical wing in a league desperate for more players at that position. But Little needs major work as a shooter, dribbler and passer – just generally with his offensive feel. His defensive fundamentals must also improve. In the meantime, Little could still contribute by using his physicality and motor to run the floor, dive to the rim and crash the glass.

Tier 8

16. Romeo Langford, SF/SG, Indiana

Langford played through a hand injury last season, which skews evaluations. How much better would he have looked if healthy? Maybe negligibly, maybe significantly. Langford shot poorly from beyond the arc, and it’d be easy to see how that’d improve with a healthy hand. His ball-stopping offensive style is harder to justify. Still, at a certain point, it’s worth taking the wing with an NBA body and scoring skills. Maybe he’ll eventually read the game more quickly and/or shoot better.

17. Ty Jerome, SG, Virginia

Jerome has such an excellent feel for the game. He’s a good outside shooter. Not only does he pass well, he moves the ball decisively. He just boosts an offense. He’ll compete defensively, but his size (6-foot-6 with a 6-foot-4 wingspan) and athletic limitations will be difficult to overcome.

Tier 9

18. Tyler Herro, SG, Kentucky

Herro is a shooter. He moves without the ball, pulls up off the dribble, shoots under duress, contorts to different angles to get his shot off. He’s going to get up his 3-pointers. Whether he does much else is questionable. At 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-3 wingspan and limited lateral quickness, he could be a defensive liability.

19. Grant Williams, PF, Tennessee

Williams possesses great basketball intelligence and feel. He won’t play in the NBA the same way he did at Tennessee, overpowering players in the post. His screening and passing should translate. For all his awareness and hustle, will Williams (6-foot-8, 6-foot-10 wingspan, 240 pounds, mediocre athleticism) have enough length, mobility and explosion to defend at the next level? His lackluster defensive rebounding provides reason for concern.

Tier 10

20. Darius Bazley, PF/SF

Bazley is a fluid athlete who shows plenty of skills as a scorer and distributor. He has the versatility to defend multiple positions. But his feel for the game is questionable, especially after sitting out last season.

21. P.J. Washington, PF, Kentucky

Washington improved impressively into his sophomore season, but he’ll also turn 21 before his rookie year. That raises questions about the tough, undersized power forward without ideal athleticism. Did he just become more physically advanced than his college peers, or did he actually improve in ways that will translate? Similarly, his improved outside shooting came on a small sample.

22. Goga Bitadze, C, Budocnost (Montenegro)

The 7-footer will be a threat in the pick-and-deep roll/short roll/pop. He combines his size and touch inside, shoots comfortably from mid-range and is developing a 3-pointer. He tries to block everything and often succeeds – but also fouls too much and stays near the basket rather than close out. He’s a massive defensive liability when forced onto the perimeter

23. Luka Samanic, PF, Union Olimpija (Slovenia)

The 6-foot-11 Samanic moves well, and that help him score in a variety of ways inside the arc. He’s skilled with a nice touch. His defense has improved, but not enough yet.

24. Luguentz Dort, SG, Arizona State

Dort plays aggressively, offensively and defensively. He’s inefficient, forcing too many bad shots. But I respect his effort and physicality.

Tier 11

25. Rui Hachimura, PF/SF, Gonzaga

Hachimura roasts bigger players on the perimeter and outmuscles smaller players inside. The solution: Send help. He doesn’t read the floor well, and he can be a ball hog. He also too rarely puts his quality defensive tools to good use.

26. Dylan Windler, SF, Belmont

Windler shoots well and has excellent spatial awareness. But questions about his size and quickness are punctuated by a significant drop in production against better competition.

27. Cameron Johnson, PF/SF, North Carolina

Johnson is a lights-out shooter with a quick release. His size (6-foot-9) allows him to shoot and pass over opponents. He lacks the athleticism and physicality to do much more. There are also questions about the 23-year-old’s long-term health after hip surgery.

28. Talen Horton-Tucker, ?, Iowa State

Horton-Tucker is such an unconventional prospect. He has a guard’s height (6-foot-4), power forward’s width (235 pounds) and a game with elements of both. Maybe his 7-foot-1 wingspan will allow him to bridge the gap. He’s a heck of a ball-handler who throws passes all over the court and scores craftily. But he’s an unreliable shooter and slow defensively. At just 18, he has time to develop his shortcomings. There’s also a chance he just never translates well to the NBA.

29. Nicolas Claxton, C, Georgia

Another weird player, Claxton is a 7-footer who sometimes looks like a point guard. He can put the ball on the floor and initiate the offense. His length (7-foot-2.5 wingspan) makes him a good shot-blocker, but he must get much stronger. He’s raw as a rebounder, interior defender, paint scorer. Maybe those traditional big-man responsibilities will come as Claxton develops his body.

30. Chuma Okeke, PF, Auburn

Okeke tore his ACL in the NCAA tournament, but prior to that, he showed a knack for making winning plays. He’s a hustle player who shoots reasonably well from outside and can also make plays with the ball. There were athleticism concerns even before the injury.

31. Shamorie Ponds, PG, St. John’s

Ponds can control an offense with his scoring and passing. He’s a good shooter and has plenty of moves and craft off the dribble. The big drawback: He’s 6-foot-1. His lack of size could undermine his whole game, especially defensively.

32. KZ Okpala, PF/SF, Stanford

Okpala (6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-2 wingspan and good mobility) looks like a modern NBA combo forward. He even sometimes shows the requisite skills as a shooter, ball-handler, passer and defender. But he’s still quite inconsistent.

33. Carsen Edwards, SG, Purdue

Edwards is a classic undersized shooter without the facilitating ability to play point guard. He hoists 3s from deep range, on and off the ball. He should attract plenty of defensive attention, even without ability to score inside. Opposing offenses will notice him, too, as they can pick on the 6-footer.

34. Matisse Thybulle, SF, Washington

Thybulle is a standout defender. He possesses plenty of length, quickness, hops and maximizes those physical skills with activity and anticipation. His 3-point shooting has been up-and-down, and that skill could determine whether he stays on the floor in the NBA.

Correction: I mistakenly initially omitted Cameron Johnson. He has been added.

Report: Udoka used ‘crude language’ with female subordinate prior to improper relationship

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The Boston Celtics handled the Ime Udoka investigation and suspension by the corporate handbook: They kept the woman’s name out of the news, kept details confidential (not even telling the players much for legal reasons), and acted swiftly and decisively.

But as the team on the court starts defending its Eastern Conference title, there has been a concern that details leaking out about the investigations — and responses to those leaks — could turn this into a season-long drama and distraction for the team. That first started on Friday when Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported this:

The independent law firm probe into Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka found that he used crude language in his dialogue with a female subordinate prior to the start of an improper workplace relationship with the woman, an element that significantly factored into the severity of his one-year suspension, sources told ESPN.

Those investigative findings — which described verbiage on Udoka’s part that was deemed especially concerning coming from a workplace superior — contribute to what is likely a difficult pathway back to his reinstatement as Celtics coach in 2023, sources told ESPN.

A few thoughts here.

• “Crude language” is just part of a more detailed and damning report, league sources have told NBC Sports. There is much more uncovered by the independent investigation, including about the power dynamic in play. It was enough that the Celtics thought the best move was to suspend for an entire season a coach loved by players who led the team to the NBA Finals (it’s not something the Celtics organization did lightly).

• As Wojnarowski and others have noted, it’s increasingly unlikely Udoka returns to coach the Celtics next season, even if that is not yet official.

• While some pundits and people around the league have said Udoka is “done,” the NBA has seen unexpected turnarounds before. Never say never in this league.

• About the only sure thing is that this story is not over.

Lillard poised to pass Drexler as Trail Blazers all-time leading scorer

2022-23 Portland Trail Blazers Media Day
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Damian Lillard could have done what a lot of NBA stars have done — what a lot of them told him to do while recruiting him — and has chosen to stay in Portland. He wants to be remembered as the greatest Trail Blazer ever.

One good way to do that: Become the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. Sometime around Thanksgiving or a little after, Lillard will do just that, passing Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler and his 18,040 points (Lillard is 531 back).

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports spoke to Lillard about when he knew the record was within reach, during Trail Blazers training camp in Santa Barbara, California (go Gauchos!). It was when Lillard got to 10,000 points.

“I was like, ‘Damn, I got 10,000 already?’ ” Lillard told Yahoo Sports he recalled at the time. “It was my sixth season in the league. That’s when I started thinking, if I could be consistent, I could score into the high 20,000-point range. As a scorer, 20,000 points is always looked at as a special mark. From that moment, I knew it was possible, but it’s also when I first researched Clyde Drexler’s [scoring] record with the team.”

Drexler is good with being passed by Lillard.

“You and I know records are made to be broken, but I can’t think of a better player or person to break the record than Dame,” Drexler told Yahoo Sports. “He exemplifies being a team player and going about his business in a professional way. I have nothing but admiration and respect for him. When he comes close to getting the record, and if our schedules align, I would love to be there to help out in any way I can. That’s a nice milestone to achieve. I am looking forward to him accomplishing that.”

Lillard is on a lot of front office people’s watch list this season, as in “how long before he is unhappy and asks for a trade?” The thing is, Lillard has been on that list for years and he keeps choosing Portland — he isn’t looking to leave. Of course, the $120 million extension and a retooling of the roster around him helped with that decision, but Lillard always had other options if he wanted them (and at times it felt like he would take them).

The Trail Blazers brought in Jerami Grant, re-signed Anfrenee Simons, and will put them with a solid core of others such as (a finally healthy) Jusuf Nurkic, Josh Hart, Gary Payton II and others. It’s a good roster, the question is how good in a deep West?

There are a lot of questions about how this season shakes out in Portland, but the one seeming sure thing is Lillard becoming the Trail Blazers’ all-time leading scorer. And that seems fitting.

Suns update: Ayton blames Sarver for contract, Crowder conflict, Johnson to start

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Phoenix went to the NBA Finals two seasons ago and had the most wins in the NBA last season, yet dark clouds seem to be blocking out the Suns heading into this NBA season.

Here’s the latest on three situations with the Suns: Deandre Ayton‘s contract frustration, why Jae Crowder is asking out, and who starts at the four now.

• Ayton ended up signing a four-year, $132.9 max contract and will be back with the Suns to start this season, but the road to get there was rocky. The Suns would not offer Ayton a max five-year contract extension, his name kept coming up in Kevin Durant trade rumors, so Ayton went out and got a four-year max offer from the Pacers — which the Suns instantly matched. Phoenix saved $40 million and a guaranteed year, but the process left Ayton a little bitter.

Ayton blames outgoing owner Robert Sarver — a notorious penny pincher as an owner (among other, much worse things) — Marc Spears and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN discussed on NBA Today (hat tip Real GM).

“That is certainly something that caused the ire of him,” said Marc J. Spears. “I was told that it was Robert Sarver who didn’t want to give him that fifth year, who wanted to save the money.”

“My understanding from talking to people close to Deandre is that he thinks this was Robert Sarver’s decision as well. And Robert Sarver’s not going to be the owner anymore. So there is some healing that can happen there. But I know there were some hurt feelings over that contract and how that played out.

“If they were going to instantly match an offer sheet that he signed, why not just give him the max contract? Yes, it saved them a year and $40 million but as somebody close to Deandre told me ‘There’s a karma to this. Why do that to your No. 1 overall pick?'”

Shelburne hit the nail on the head — the NBA is a business, but it’s a business of relationships. Not only did the Suns sour theirs with Ayton, but you can also be sure every other agent around the league noticed how that was handled. It doesn’t help when recruiting players. The eventual new owner, whoever it ends up being, has a lot of work to change the franchise’s perception.

• Jae Crowder remains away from the Suns during training camp awaiting a trade (which reportedly will not be to Dallas). Crowder started 109 games for the Suns during the past two seasons and was a key part of their run to the NBA Finals, so how did things deteriorate so quickly? Marc Stein lays it out in his latest Substack newsletter.

Entering the final season of his current contract at $10.2 million, Jae Crowder let the Suns know that he was seeking a contract extension. League sources say that the Suns’ messaging, in response, was to let Crowder know that, at 32, he was no longer assured of starting or finishing games ahead of Cam Johnson. That gulf between the parties led Crowder to seek an exit from the desert that has landed him on indefinite mutual leave from the team until Phoenix can find a trade for him.

While Miami gets mentioned as a suitor a lot, it’s next to impossible to put together a trade that works for both sides right now (at the trade deadline, maybe, but Crowder isn’t going to be with the Suns that long). Cleveland is currently the hot name in league circles when talking Crowder trades, and Stein also mentions the Milwaukee Bucks, who have been looking for a P.J. Tucker-like replacement for P.J Tucker. But, do any of these teams want to extend Crowder at age 32?

• Suns coach Monty Williams confirmed what Crowder heard — Cameron Johnson will start at the four for the Suns this season.

Johnson brings better shooting to the table — 42.5% last season on 3-pointers — and is more athletic at this point, but Crowder brings better defense, toughness, and veteran savvy that can be trusted in the playoffs. The Suns may miss that when it matters, but Johnson will get the chance to prove us all wrong.

Blake Griffin agrees to join Boston Celtics on one-year deal

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According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Blake Griffin has agreed to join the Boston Celtics on a one-year contract which will be fully guaranteed.

The Celtics were desperate for frontcourt depth following injuries to Danilo Gallinari and Robert Williams, as Luke Kornet was even getting some run with the starting group at training camp.

You do have to wonder just how much the 33-year-old Griffin has left in the tank though. Last season with the Brooklyn Nets, Griffin only managed to play 17.1 minutes per game and his 3-point percentage dropped like a stone to 26%. He was also a major liability on defense, and the Celtics surely know that after Jaylen Brown drove by him with ease time and time again during the postseason.

Griffin was still an effective playmaker and that may make him a good fit with the second unit alongside the likes of Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick White and Grant Williams with all of these capable of handling the ball. Injuries and Father Time have zapped Griffin’s athleticism, but if anyone can squeeze the last bit of value out of him, I’d bet on Brad Stevens and the Celtics.