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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.

Luka Doncic on Kings: “I honestly thought they were going to pick me”

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Luka Doncic, in just his second season and at age 20, is an MVP candidate who is showing himself to be an elite, franchise-changing player.

Which lead fans in Phoenix and Sacramento to ask, “How did we pass on this guy in the draft?” He was the MVP of the second-best league on the planet at age 18, what led two teams to pass on him and a third — the Atlanta Hawks — to trade him on draft night in June 2018.

Doncic himself thought he was going to the Kings’ at No. 2, he told Sam Amick of The Athletic.

“They came to Madrid (to see him play for Real Madrid and to share a dinner on June 5, 2018),” the 20-year-old Doncic told The Athletic about the Kings’ contingent’s visit during the draft process. “They came with the owner. Everybody came, so I honestly thought they were going to pick me.”

So, I asked, was it ever made clear to him why they didn’t?

“I mean, I think it’s because of Euroleague; it’s different basketball,” Doncic said.

Kings GM Vlade Divac instead drafted Marvin Bagley III, believing the Duke big man would be a better fit next to emerging point guard De'Aaron Fox. Bagley has put up nice numbers this season, 14.2 points and 6.8 rebounds a game, but missed 30 games with a foot injury. He has not looked like a franchise-changing player.

Sacramento isn’t the only team where fans have questions about the top of the 2018 draft. In the Suns case, they drafted Deandre Ayton out of in-state Arizona, a move that it is rumored to have been pushed by owner Robert Sarver (and a number of teams had Ayton and Doncic rated close to equal, which is a misread of the increasingly positionless direction of the NBA, but that’s another topic). Atlanta drafted Doncic third and traded him to Dallas, but got back Trae Younghimself on an All-Star trajectory in his second season — and another first-round pick. Young says it is still too early to judge that trade.

Meanwhile, the Kings appear on track to miss the playoffs for a 14th straight season. The luster of the beautiful new Golden 1 Center arena is starting to wear off, and fans in the California capital want some wins. Hard to blame them, but they may need to be patient. Again.

Royce O’Neale agrees to four-year, $36 million contract extension to stay in Utah

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Royce O'Neale is a name casual NBA fans may not recognize.

However, GMs around the league recognize him is the kind of role player teams need to win. O’Neale is asked to guard the opposing team’s best wing player nightly, while on the other end of the court he’s shooting 44.3 percent from three. He’s become a critical part of Utah’s rotation.

So the Jazz have locked him up with a contract extension, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

The Jazz — who have won 16-of-18 — just got Mike Conley back in the rotation, and have jumped up to a top-four seed in the West (as of this writing). Things are looking up, and also they have set themselves up well financially for the future.

Bigger bills are coming in Utah, in the summer of 2021 the Jazz will need to max out Donovan Mitchell with an extension plus re-sign Rudy Gobert. Which is why locking in a quality role player like O’Neale at a fair price now is a smart move.

Marcus Smart’s Celtics record 11 threes still not enough to beat Suns

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BOSTON — Devin Booker had 39 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists and the Phoenix Suns overcame a franchise-record 11 3-pointers by Boston’s Marcus Smart and beat the Celtics 123-119 on Saturday night.

Smart shot 11 for 22 from 3-point range and finished with a career-best 37 points. His performance marked the first time in NBA history that a player made 11 or more 3-points in a losing effort, according to Stats.

Deandre Ayton had 26 points and 15 rebounds and Mikal Bridges added a career-best 26 points for the Suns, who have won four of their last five games.

Jayson Tatum scored 26 points and Gordon Hayward added 22 for Boston, which has lost three straight and six of eight.

Three years ago, Booker scored 70 points in a loss to the Celtics in TD Garden. He finished an assist shy of his first career triple-double.

The Celtics were missing two of their top three leading scorers – Kemba Walker (team-best 22.1 per game), out with left knee soreness, and Jaylen Brown (20.0), sidelined for the second straight game with a sprained right thumb.

Boston cut its deficit to 90-85 early in the fourth, but Dario Saric and Bridges answered with consecutive 3s. The Celtics had it down to 114-111 on Daniel Theis‘ breakaway dunk with about a minute left, but Bridges hit a jumper in the lane with 37 seconds to play.

Booker’s two free throws sealed it with 4.8 seconds left.

The Suns led 60-51 at halftime and answered – mainly behind Booker and Ayton – any surge by Boston. The lead never fell below seven in the quarter, with Booker scoring nine points and Ayton getting eight.

The loss of two key players showed for the Celtics in the first quarter when the Suns broke in front 26-10 before Boston’s bench helped spark a 15-0 run.

LeBron James gets ‘M-V-P’ chants in Houston

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Laker fans are everywhere.

Decades of stars and success — from Magic Johnson through Kobe Bryant — turned the Lakers into the biggest franchise brand in the NBA, the only thing that might rival it is LeBron James‘ brand. Combine those two and there seem to be loud, at points obnoxious, Lakers fans in every arena.

Case in point: LeBron James got “M-V-P” chants in Houston while the Lakers beat the Rockets.

LeBron called it humbling.

LeBron’s play this season — 25.5 points and a career-high 10.9 assists a game, playing his best defense in years and leading the Lakers to a West best 34-8 record — has him in the hunt for a fifth MVP award (although he’s not who we would vote for right now).

Expect to hear these chants in a lot more buildings this season.