Tiered 2022 NBA Draft board tight at the top

NBA draft prospects Jabari Smith and Chet Holmgren
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For just the first time in the nine years I’ve been ranking NBA draft prospects by tiers, I gave strong consideration to putting three players in the top tier. As is, two players comprised the top tier for just the third time.

Which says something about the 2022 NBA Draft.

This draft doesn’t look particularly strong at the top. (Caveat: Draft-quality assessments at the time are often incorrect. Won’t stop me from making one, though.) Generally, the better the prospects, the more delineation.

It takes a while until there are prospects I feel good about in their draft slot compared to an average draft. This first-round draft board won’t show it, but this draft includes better prospects for the top half of the second round than usual. That group includes numerous wings/versatile forwards who are young and projectable or capable college veterans whose production might hold up at the next level. I obviously wouldn’t bet on them in the first round, or else they would’ve made by first-round board. But among the abnormally high number of viable second-round prospects at those always-in-demand positions, some are bound to pan out.

As for the players I did rank, here’s the methodology for my tier system:

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 covering the first round of the 2022 NBA Draft:

Tier 1

1. Jabari Smith, forward, Auburn

Smith has a perfectly smooth shooting stroke and, at 6-foot-10, can get his shot off over anyone. He’s a fierce perimeter defender, and with his size and strength, he holds up more than fine inside. A top pick would ideally bring more offensive creation. But Smith profiles as an elite supporting player offensively with his shooting and a good one defensively with his switchability. Plus, Smith – who turned 19 just last month and is the youngest top-three prospect – could develop more pathways for impacting games.

2. Chet Holmgren, center/power forward, Gonzaga

Holmgren has a unique profile – which is both exciting and nerve-wracking. He’s 7-foot and 195 pounds with a thin frame that doesn’t suggest he’ll add great strength. But he compensates with toughness and basketball intelligence. Holmgren uses his 7-foot-6 wingspan to block a ton of shots, both near the rim and in space. He’s an elite finisher with both hands – especially after offensive rebounds – and can dribble, pass and shoot from perimeter like few players his height.

Tier 2

3. Paolo Banchero, power forward, Duke

Banchero is an amazing ball-handler for his size (6-foot-10, 250 pounds). Using his power and control with the ball, he creates scoring for himself and others. To reach his potential, Banchero must iron out his inconsistent shooting. His passing is further along. Banchero was such a passive defender at Duke. His chemistry with limited and large center Mark Williams is encouraging, because Banchero’s defense will likely mean he must play next to a center in the NBA (another reason there’s so much riding on his 3-pointer improving).

Tier 3

4. Shaedon Sharpe, wing, Kentucky

Sharpe chose to sit out last season, which might be the only reason he doesn’t rank No. 1. Or be the reason he ranks this high! Sharpe has an insane vertical. He’s a good shooter and has moves to get his shot off on the perimeter. Especially for such a leaper, his first step isn’t so quick, limiting his ability to get to the rim in the halfcourt. I don’t feel good about his shot selection, court vision and defensive habits – especially with his development interrupted over the last year. But Sharpe’s frame (6-foot-5 with a 7-foot wingspan), athleticism and talent give him a tantalizing upside.

5. Jaden Ivey, guard, Purdue

Ivey possesses tremendous explosion in attacking the basket. He has a great first step, great speed and great ability to elevate quickly and finish above the rim. With all the attention he’ll draw as a driver, he won’t need to be a great passer to be an effective passer, but his court vision is still too lacking. His jump-shooting has encouragingly improved, but there’s still a lot of room to grow. Ivey is inconsistent defensively, making some encouraging highlight plays but not executing his assignment play-to-play.

Tier 4

6. Bennedict Mathurin, wing, Arizona

Mathurin’s appeal begins with his versatile 3-point shooting. He moves into his shot then gets on balance so quickly. He’s an excellent athlete – both fast and a leaper, though he doesn’t get same elevation off one foot as two (an issue on his frequent cutting). His defensive fundamentals are quite disappointing, but his physical tools at 6-foot-7 present a clear upside. He has improved as a passer.

7. Keegan Murray, forward, Iowa

Murray, who turns 22 this summer, should be more polished than his peers in the lottery – and is. Some of his junk scoring might not translate. But he’s a knockdown 3-point shooter with a clean stroke. His offensive rebounding shows an ability to see the floor and a knack for the ball. Murray competes defensively, using his strength and physicality well, though speed can be a shortcoming. He’s neither a standout passer nor multi-position defender – two skills a player often uses to help his team become more than the sum of its parts. I see a fairly big drop in prospect quality after him.

Tier 5

8. A.J. Griffin, wing, Duke

In today’s NBA, 3-point shooting is such an important skill, and Griffin is a heck of a 3-point shooter. Nitpicking his specialty, his wide shooting stance creates questions about his ability to shoot on the move. He has good size (6-foot-7 with a 7-foot wingspan) and strength. Griffin is comfortable driving amid physicality. But he has poor lateral mobility defensively. He suffered knee and ankle injuries as a high school upperclassman. A key question: Did those rob him of agility long-term, or do those explain a temporary problem that’ll get solved as he recovers?

9. Dyson Daniels, wing, G League Ignite

At 6-foot-7 with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, Daniels is a quality multi-position defender. In addition to impressing on the ball, he makes his presence felt as a help defender and in passing lanes. Daniels keeps the ball moving with decisive, well-directed passes. Sometimes, it seems, before even receiving a pass, he gets into position for the best angle to make the next pass. He also helps by pushing the ball ahead in transition. His jumper is a work-in-progress.

Tier 6

10. Jeremy Sochan, forward, Baylor

Sochan is a menace defensively. He’s aggressive on and off the ball and can switch onto any position (though if the nominal center, isn’t an ideal rim protector). He’s 6-foot-9 with 7-foot wingspan and physical. However, he’s not an explosive athlete and faces an adjustment after playing just 25 minutes per game coming off Baylor’s bench. Sochan might be a better shooter than he showed at Baylor (30% on 3-pointers, 59% on free throws), but even if he is, he has a long way to go with that near-critical skill. He showed some ability as a ball-handler and passer.

Tier 7

11. Malaki Branham, shooting guard, Ohio State

Branham provides valuable shot creation with the ball in his hands. He’s best getting defenders off rhythm then elevating for high-releasing mid-range jumpers. He can get all the way to the rim off the bounce. He can also dribble into 3s or release quickly on catch-and-shoots from beyond the arc. At 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, Branham has a nice frame for the position. But he must clean up his poor defense, or his NBA coach won’t play him.

12. Tari Eason, forward, LSU

Eason is an overly aggressive whirlwind of high-upside tools. He’s 6-foot-8, strong and physical. He can defend multiple positions and disrupt off the ball, but he fouls too much. He’s a good dribbler for his position/style, but he lacks the court vision to take advantage of his ball-handling. As much as he improved overall from his freshman year at Cincinnati to last season at LSU, he must continue to make gains in his 3-point shot to near his potential.

Tier 8

13. Blake Wesley, shooting guard, Notre Dame

Wesley is quick on his feet, gliding with the ball all the way to the rim or sticking with his man/using his 6-foot-9 wingspan to disrupt passing lanes. Offensively, he shines with great burst and a quick release on his jumper both on and off the ball – but turns neither skill into consistent scoring. Wesley’s streaky jump-shooting yielded poor results, and his finishing at the rim was surprisingly woeful for someone who elevated so well. Wesley is closer to meeting his high defensive upside, but his offensive upside is just as high – even if the 19-year-old has a long way to go.

14. Daley Terry, wing/point guard, Arizona

Terry is an extremely low-usage player for someone ranked this high. But he juiced Arizona’s offense with good court vision and pinpoint passing. He also gets team into nice pace by pushing the ball ahead. At 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan and high motor, Terry defends aggressively both on and off the ball. His energy is contagious. He could become an alright 3-point shooter, which would go a long way.

15. TyTy Washington, point guard, Kentucky

Washington has more relevant context surrounding his game than nearly anyone. He’s exceptionally old for a freshman, turning 21 this year, and his production fell off while playing through an ankle injury. But Kentucky guards tend to play better in the NBA, and Washington should benefit from better spacing and not having to play next to another point guard (Sahvir Wheeler). As for his actual game, Washington operates well in pick-and-rolls, both getting downhill as scorer and passing. His lack of burst getting to the rim could portend athleticism issues throughout his game, but he at least compensates with a nice floater. Whether Washington’s 3-point shooting lands just below passable or good will go a long way. Washington is unselfish and holds his own defensively.

16. Jalen Williams, wing, Santa Clara

Williams has good size – a sturdy 6-foot-6 with 7-foot wingspan – for a player so skilled. He’s a good passer. He drives with plenty of crafty moves – necessary because he doesn’t have a great first step to create separation. He looks like an improved 3-point shooter, but his junior season was not a large enough sample to totally trust it. He’s generally a below-the-rim finisher, though he occasionally skies.

17. Johnny Davis, shooting guard, Wisconsin

The biggest question Davis must answer: Did he take so many bad shots at Wisconsin because the Badgers asked him to or because he has poor shot selection? Discouragingly, Davis didn’t connect on his 3-pointers and didn’t show the athleticism to create separation or finish well at the rim. He looked like his skill set leant itself to a steady diet of mid-rangers – a tough way to be efficient, a bar Davis didn’t clear. Encouragingly, Davis showed great competitiveness defending, hitting the glass and hustling while shouldering such a heavy offensive burden.

18. Ochai Agbaji, shooting guard, Kansas

A rare senior this high in the draft, Agbaji plays to his strengths. He’s a very good spot-up 3-point shooter and increases his volume from beyond the arc by coming off screens and handoffs. He has a knack for cutting and dunking, which is a really nice weapon because of how much teams must pay attention to him as a shooter. He stays in front of his man defensively but is not disruptive. He brings absolutely no creation offensively, struggling as a ballhandler and distributor. He could fit nicely starting on a team with a high-volume scoring guard off the bench.

19. Jalen Duren, center, Memphis

Duren is big (6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan, 250 pounds), strong and athletic – especially for an 18-year-old. He primarily puts his large frame to use as a rim protector/shot blocker and offensive rebounder. But he’s not yet trustworthy as a defender, and he lacks offensive skill. At least he has good hands and has flashed some passing ability, so maybe he can figure more out. But my bar for centers is higher than other positions, which is why I rate Duren lower than most do.

20. Ousmane Dieng, forward, New Zealand Breakers

Dieng ranks this high on the basis of upside rather than expected outcome (and is still lower than most have him). He’s fluid and has a nice handle for a 6-foot-10 wing. His length (7-foot wingspan), mobility and anticipation make him an intriguing perimeter defender. But his jumper is poor, and he plays with too much finesse to the point he might be soft.  Maybe he’ll add strength or his shot will come along. He turned 19 just last month.

Tier 9

21. Walker Kessler, center, Auburn

Kessler is an elite shot-blocker. On the plus side, he covers a lot of ground to be where he needs to reject a shot with his 7-foot height, 7-foot-4 wingspan and timing. On the downside, he bites on too many shot fakes and fouls too often chasing blocks. He moves his feet quickly enough on the perimeter – in one direction. Shiftier ballhandlers give him trouble. He’s a great finisher and works well in the pick-and-roll. With his size, he can “finish at the rim” while still starting a decent distance from the rim. He shot some 3-pointers, but I don’t buy that facet of his game.

22. Christian Braun, shooting guard, Kansas

He won’t be a primary, secondary or likely even tertiary option. But aside from creating his own shots, Braun does plenty to like. He puts his impressive athleticism to good use as a defender, rebounder and high-energy floor-runner. He can attack the rim and pass well while doing so. He looks like a capable spot-up 3-point shooter, though whether he’s a little better or little worse in that facet could go a long way.

23. E.J. Liddell, forward, Ohio State

At 21, Liddell outsmarted and out-skilled his foes in college basketball. But at 6-foot-5.5 with subpar athleticism, he won’t create as many mismatches in the NBA. He seems too small to play small-ball center, too slow to defend some wings. That said, his physicality and intelligence should help him battle bigger forwards. His shot blocking makes him a decent secondary rim protector. If his improved shooting extends to the NBA 3-point arc, that’d go a long way, though I’m not counting on it.

24. Kennedy Chandler, point guard, Tennessee

It’s tough for a 6-footer. Chandler has quick burst to basket or can use creative moves if not beating his man. His passing is good but limited by size/strength. He doesn’t see over defenders and make crosscourt passes. He’s a pesky defender. But, again, smaller guards can get picked on.

25. Trevor Keels, guard, Duke

Still just 18, Keels played well at Duke. The burly guard shields the ball well and embraces physicality on drives – necessary because he lacks a quick first step and explosion near the basket. He has good court vision and keeps ball moving as passer. Jump-shooting will be a swing skill. He got blown by too often defensively and, at 6-foot-3, would be undersized against most players his own speed. Maybe he could get quicker by getting into better shape.

Tier 10

26. Jaden Hardy, shooting guard, G League Ignite

Hardy is a ball hog who did little but score inefficiently last season. His inability to finish at the rim was particularly troubling, as it indicates athletic limitations. While more predictable, Hardy’s defensive disinterest is also concerning. But self-created scoring/3-point shooting are the premium NBA skills. So, Hardy’s focus on those areas and upside mean it’s worth rolling the dice on the soon-to-be 20-year-old at this point.

27. Mark Williams, center, Duke

The NBA is oversaturated with limited centers who are solid in what they do, so Williams’ draft stock falls accordingly. He’s huge (7-foot-2 with a 7-foot-7 wingspan) and puts his size to good use. He blocks shots and dunks, especially finishing lobs. But he can’t defend in space and lacks other offensive skill.

28. Gabriele Procida, wing, Fortitudo Bologna (Italy)

Procida is a good 3-point shooter with size (6-foot-7). He’s a high leaper who unleashes some dazzlingly forceful dunks, too. The just-turned-20-year-old needs work both offensively and defensively to fit into an NBA team construct. But the building blocks are there.

Tier 11

29. Jake LaRavia, forward, Wake Forest

LaRavia is a solid shooter, passer and defender at 6-foot-8. His athletic limitations might catch up to him in the NBA. But they didn’t at Wake Forest, where the 20-year-old made strong offensive and defensive impacts with his all-around game.

30. Nikola Jovic, forward, Mega Basket (Serbia)

The 19-year-old is a project. He’s skilled for his size (6-foot-11) as a ballhandler and passer, and he’s ideally coming along as shooter. But he must improve his athleticism, defense and finishing.