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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.

Marcus Morris explains his change of plans from Spurs deal to Knicks

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Marcus Morris‘ move built up some hard feelings around the NBA. Players have verbally agreed to contracts with one team only to change their mind before, but in this case the Spurs had made roster moves — including trading Davis Bertans go to the Wizards — to clear out space for Morris, leaving San Antonio in a tough spot when Morris changed his mind and signed with the Knicks. The Spurs were pissed at the Knicks about this. Executives with other teams did not like the potential precedent the move set.

Morris offered his first explanation of what happened to Shams Charania of The Athletic.

It starts here: Morris’ agent at the time Rich Paul negotiated a three-year, $41 million offer from the Clippers at the start of free agency. Morris turned it down, and he admitted that was against Paul’s advice.

“All this stuff that (Paul) didn’t want me to go to the Clippers and didn’t want me to go against LeBron (James), that’s not true,” Morris said. “He never told me not to take the deal. For as long as I’ve known Rich — and that’s still someone I have love for and that’s still my guy — he has been great in terms of advice. He told me he wanted me to take the Clippers deal. He gave me his advice. It was my decision and I had to make the best decision for me and my family.”

Things moved very fast at the start of free agency (more than 50 contracts were agreed to in the first 24 hours) and that left Morris not wanting the music to stop without him having a chair. That’s when he accepted the two-year, $20 million offer from San Antonio. Morris said he didn’t expect another offer, but when the Knicks came through with one year, $15 million he wanted it and tried to be up front about the situation.

“I have a good relationship with those guys and I have so much respect for (head coach) Pop (Gregg Popovich), (general manager) RC (Buford) and (assistant GM) Brian Wright,” Morris told The Athletic. “The first thing that I did when I knew I would be going another direction, I called and made sure they knew. There was no shade. There’s no disrespect. I had great conversations afterward, and as long as I feel that I’m clear with them and gave them my truth, I feel good about moving forward.

“I was under the impression that I didn’t have anything left. I thought at the time that the Spurs deal was all that I had. The process wasn’t what I expected and it didn’t go the right way.”

Morris has split ways with Paul as an agent, reportedly over this incident.

Morris has now essentially bet on himself. The Knicks are not going to win a lot of games, but Morris is going to have a significant role and should get a lot of touches. Have a strong season and he will enter a much weaker free agent class next summer as one of the better players in it. That could lead to a bigger payday. Plus he makes more per year now.

 

 

Karl-Anthony Towns: “I’m planning to be in Minnesota for a long time”

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A few years back, Minnesota looked like a team on a fast rise in the West, mostly because Karl-Anthony Towns looked like a young dominant force starting to come of age in the league.

It hasn’t worked out that way, even though Minnesota finally made the playoffs back in 2018. Andrew Wiggins has not developed into a No. 2 options (even though he is getting paid like a No. 1 option), Towns has not consistently owned the defensive end, and under Tom Thibodeau there were a lot of chemistry issues highlighted by Jimmy Butler blowing up last training camp and essentially torpedoing the season before it started.

In today’s NBA news cycle, driven by rumors and speculation about player movement — and the player movement itself — all those issues in Minnesota has people looking at Towns. That despite the fact his five-year max extension just kicks in this season.

Towns isn’t looking to move. There’s a new coach (Ryan Saunders) who Towns has a good bond with, there’s a new head of basketball operations (Gersson Rosas) who is aggressive and who Towns likes, and the two-time All-Star center told Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic he is happy right now in Minnesota.

“The biggest thing when you have that conversation [about a star switching teams] is you say, ‘Is he happy here?’” Towns said. “I’m tremendously happy. I love my front office. I love my coaching staff. I think we’ve made great moves and great changes. I love the culture we have here. If you want to leave, you have to be miserable somewhere. I am not there. I’m planning to be in Minnesota for a long time.”

What makes Towns happy is he can see the plan now — and it’s finally to build around him. Towns is the top dog and this summer the Timberwolves made a push to land D'Angelo Russell to be his No. 2 (since it’s not Wiggins). That, however, fell short as Russell is in Golden State. (For now at least, if the fit with Stephen Curry is not right Russell could be on the move, and Minnesota would be interested.) Still, there was an organized plan of attack and a shuffling around of players to give Minnesota more flexibility. Towns says he is comfortable this is a franchise on the right path. Even if it’s going to take some time to get there.

In a deep West, Minnesota looks to be a team on the outside of the playoff chase that needs a lot of things to go right to get in it. They have some good players, but also a lot of youth and questions.

“We all can’t rush in and think we’re going to win 75 games right now,” he said. “We have to take it day by day. We have to be patient with the process and accept the process and go through the cycles. I think we’re going to have a really good team and we have to go out there every single night and try to accomplish it. My job as a leader, I’ve got to get the best out of every single player.”

Marcus Smart, Thaddeus Young reportedly added to USA Basketball training camp roster

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Elite NBA players have not dropped out of playing for Team USA like this since 2004, when nobody wanted to play for Larry Brown and rumors of potential terrorism in Athens had the NBA’s best backing out.

For the 2019 World Cup in China, USA Basketball has watched James Harden, Anthony Davis, Tobias Harris, Bradley Beal, Eric Gordon, and CJ McCollum all back out, robbing the American team of a lot of star power. Zion Williamson, who was projected to be part of the “select team” of young stars Team USA goes against also dropped out.

The Americans were down to 14 players heading into training camp (12 will be chosen to travel to China), and they needed more players. Enter Boston’s Marcus Smart and Thaddeus Young, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Don’t be surprised if another veteran name or two is added before training camp opens.

Smart and Young are a couple of smart selections, elite defenders who can shut down the best wing players on other teams (and in FIBA competition only a couple of teams have more than one top-flight wing player to handle).

So who is on the USA roster now? Let’s break it out by position:

GUARDS:
Damian Lillard
Kemba Walker
Kyle Lowry (questionable coming off thumb surgery)
Marcus Smart

WINGS:
Khris Middleton
Donovan Mitchell
Jayson Tatum
Harrison Barnes
Kyle Kuzma
PJ Tucker
Thaddeus Young

BIGS:
Andre Drummond
Myles Turner
Brook Lopez
Kevin Love
Paul Millsap

(We could argue about whether Mitchell is a guard or a wing, if Tucker is a big or a wing, but you get the basic picture.)

After Lillard, that roster does lack star power.

But the USA talent pool is so deep that it will overwhelm all but a couple of teams in the tournament. Serbia — led by Nikola Jokic and Bogan Bogdanovic — is the biggest threat to the USA and has good depth. Spain is impressive as well, but older.

The USA is and should be the World Cup favorite, but an improved rest of the world and a depleted USA roster is going to make things a lot more interesting in China.

USA Basketball is scheduled to begin its pre-World Cup camp in Las Vegas Aug. 5, with an intrasquad exhibition game at the T-Mobile Arena on Aug. 9. Then the team heads to Southern California for more training followed by an exhibition against Spain on Aug. 16 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. Then the team heads overseas for the World Cup, which begins in China on Aug. 31.

Tim Duncan joins Gregg Popovich’s coaching staff with Spurs

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The Tim Duncan era in San Antonio is over quite yet.

The future Hall of Famer has been added full time to Gregg Popovich’s coaching staff with the Spurs, the team announced Monday.

“It is only fitting, that after I served loyally for 19 years as Tim Duncan’s assistant, that he returns the favor,” Popovich said.

Duncan was around the Spurs practice facility a lot last season, helping out informally. Now it is formal.

Expect more bank shots from the Spurs big men next season.

Duncan was at the heart of the Spurs historic NBA dynasty the past couple of decades. The future Hall of Famer is a five-time NBA champion and three-time Finals MVP, 15 time All-NBA teams, 15 times NBA All-Defensive teams, 15-time All-Star, and way back when the Rookie of the Year. However, his impact was greater than just that insane resume, he was the guy who set the tone and the work ethic for those Spurs teams. Duncan worked as hard as anyone, won as much as anyone, but did it without trying to draw attention to himself. If fact, he wanted to deflect it.

The Spurs will be competitive for a playoff spot in the deep West this season — they still have LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, plus Dejonte Murray gets healthy and returns — but are poised to start a rebuilding process in the coming years.

We will see if Duncan wants to be part of that, or if he is only around while Popovich remains the coach (somebody has to go to dinner with Pop). But he has earned the right to pretty much any role he wants.

The Spurs also announced that Will Hardy will be added to the bench as an assistant coach.

“Will Hardy is a talented, young basketball mind who has earned a great deal of respect from everyone in the organization thanks to his knowledge, spirit and personality,” Popovich said.