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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.

Rumor: Indiana coach Nate McMillan is on hot seat

Indiana coach hot seat
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Last season, Indiana’s Nate McMillan finished fourth in Coach of the Year voting, taking a team that lost star Victor Oladipo after just 36 games and still got them into the playoffs. McMillan is going to get COY votes again this year for much the same reason — his teams play good defense and overachieve.

Indiana coach Nate McMillan is also on the hot seat.

It’s surprising, and it’s just a rumor, but ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy and Zach Lowe had this conversation on a recent episode of The Lowe Post podcast (hat tip PacersTalk.net).

Van Gundy: “I had two people come up to me since I’ve been here [in the NBA restart bubble] and say, ‘Nate McMillan’s in trouble.’”

Lowe: “It’s been the hottest rumor all season… What you’ve heard in Orlando’s been going around all season…

“Let me be clear: It’s just a rumor. I don’t know if it’s true. When you talk to people around the Pacers, they say, ‘It’s not true’ or ‘Where you’d hear that from?’”

Maybe management wants a more modern offense, the Pacers are bottom eight in both three pointers attempted and pace. Overall, Indiana’s offense is middle of the pack (18th in the league), which is not bad considering it was without Oladipo for most of the season (and he was playing his way into shape when he returned and was not at an All-NBA level).

It’s hard to imagine that the Pacers would make a change this offseason, which will be short and give a new coach less time to ramp up a program. Plus, does owner Herb Simon want to pay two coaches? The finances of the league are helping other coaches keep their jobs.

More than all that, McMillan doesn’t deserve to be fired.

Not that “deserved” has had much to do with NBA coaches keeping their jobs in the past.

 

Phoenix Suns, a perfect 4-0 in the bubble, are growing and thinking playoffs

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The last time Devin Booker walked off the court as a winner in four consecutive games, these were the opponents: Hampton, Cincinnati, West Virginia and Notre Dame.

That is, until now.

Booker and the Phoenix Suns – the team that came to the NBA restart at Walt Disney World with the worst record in the Western Conference and the second-worst record of the 22 teams in the field – are perhaps the best story of the bubble.

They’re 4-0 at Disney, breathing real life into playoff hopes that basically were nonexistent when the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic on March 11. It’s the team’s first four-game winning streak since December 2018; Booker missed one of those games, so it’s his first run of four wins in a row since helping Kentucky make its Final Four run in 2015.

“It definitely feels like a tournament, a big AAU tournament, the March Madness tournament,” Phoenix’s Cameron Payne said Friday. “That’s something I never even got a chance to be in, but hey, I’ll take this.”

The Suns started their bubble run with a win over Washington and followed that with victories against three playoff-bound teams – first Dallas, then the Los Angeles Clippers (both of those games being 117-115 finals, the win over the Clippers sealed by a Booker buzzer-beater) and next a 114-99 victory Thursday over Indiana.

A team that had a stretch of four wins in 20 games during November and December, then a run of four wins in 15 games during January and February, got to the bubble and are now 4-for-4.

The Suns are riding a 10-year playoff drought, the second-longest current one in the NBA, but now they’re thinking big and for good reason.

“Well, you know, this is in the fledgling stages, for sure,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “We’ve got a lot more work to do. And there’s a process that we’ve kind of gotten ourselves involved in and we’re going to stick to that. So, fun? I don’t have time to have fun right now. It’s always good to win, but I’m working right now. And I want guys to understand, it’s fun when you win – but then you’ve got to turn the page and get right back to work.”

Williams understands the reality for the Suns right now. They entered Friday 1-1/2 games out of ninth place and the play-in series that will decide the last postseason berth in the West. And while the 4-0 start has been noteworthy, even an 8-0 mark in the seeding games wouldn’t guarantee the Suns a trip to that play-in round.

The Suns play Miami on Saturday, then finish the regular season against Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Dallas.

“I’ve been in five years now and haven’t had that much success,” Booker said. “But, you know, I’m working hard every day to turn that narrative and change that narrative. We have a good bunch in here to do it. A lot of young players mixed with some veteran presence and it’s a good look for us. So, we’re going to keep our head down, keep working.

“I don’t think anybody here is worried about 4-0. We still have plans and goals for this team to reach and 4-0 wasn’t it.”

Booker is averaging 28 points in the four games. Deandre Ayton, another big piece of the young Suns’ core, is averaging 18.3 points and 9.3 rebounds. There are six players averaging double figures in all, including Payne, who is shooting 53% from 3-point range in his first four games with the Suns.

“We definitely feel good,” Payne said. “We’re not here for no reason.”

Report: NBA players bypassing ‘snitch’ hotline to call Adam Silver directly

NBA commissioner Adam Silver
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No NBA players have been diagnosed with coronavirus in the bubble. And they want to keep it that way. A championship and a lot of money are on the line.

That means preventing players from having close contact with anyone outside the bubble. And, in case someone contracts coronavirus, wearing masks (intact masks) to prevent a wider outbreak.

The NBA set up a hotline – quickly dubbed the “snitch” hotline – for players to report violations.

Chris Haynes of TNT:

Players have been circumventing that process. Sources informed me that multiple players are personally calling commissioner Adam Silver to issue their complaints with things they’re seeing in the bubble.

Adam Silver is accessible to players – particularly the president of the union.

I’m not sure about tattling straight to the top boss when there are other protocols in place. Are hotline calls not resulting in changed behavior?

Either way, it’s important for the NBA to keep players safe – both for their health and the league’s revenue (about half of which goes to players in salary). So, cut Chris Paul anyone calling Silver a break. They’re at least trying to help. And so far, violations inside the bubble have led to reminders, not harsher discipline.

Zion Williamson sitting out Pelicans-Wizards (rest)

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The Pelicans have been one of the NBA’s most disappointing teams in the bubble. New Orleans has gone 1-3 at Disney World and fallen to 13th in the Western Conference.

Still (barely) hanging in the race to make the play-in, the Pelicans must face the Wizards without Zion Williamson.

Pelicans:

The Pelicans are treating Williamson carefully – and they should. He’s their 20-year-old franchise player with major health concerns.

But New Orleans still has its highest ceiling now with Williamson on the floor. He’s an offensive force. His interior scoring and gravity create efficient looks for himself and teammates.

Williamson has been woeful defensively, and the Pelicans have bigs – Derrick Favors and Jaxson Hayes – to take Williamson’s minutes. New Orleans can go small, too.

The Pelicans should still beat Washington, even without Williamson. Ideally, this will have Williamson ready for a closing stretch against the Spurs, Kings and Magic without sacrificing today’s game.

Yet, this is really just proof New Orleans isn’t as ready to launch as it appears during Williamson’s most exciting moments. His availability remains murky. His team has run hot and cold. I wouldn’t assume a win over the Wizards – though it’s a game the Pelicans need to preserve their fading playoff hopes.