Zion Williamson has separated himself as the top player in the 2019 NBA Draft, plus other thoughts after the first month of college basketball.
The 2019 NBA Draft picture is starting to take shape. Six weeks into the NBA season, we know who a few of the teams who will be picking at the top of the draft are. The Cleveland Cavaliers, Phoenix Suns, Atlanta Hawks, and Chicago Bulls will be among the landing spots for the class’s top tier, and teams like the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks seem a few games from joining them. Meanwhile, we’re a month into the college basketball season, which has helped us sort out who the players are that will be headed to those destinations.
The college season has been headlined by Duke, and their trio of top-five prospects. Plenty of questions surrounded the unifying of Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, and Cameron Reddish in the preseason — could the trio coexist? Would one of the three get marginalized? So far, the team has mostly been a steamroller, and they’ve gotten along quite well — Barrett initiates the offense, Williamson terrorizes on the break, and Cameron Reddish cleans up the scraps with spot-up 3s and playmaking in garbage time. All three still look like top five picks so far.
There’s still about three weeks until conference play starts, when a majority of the meaningful game tape we will see on the top prospects takes place. But so far, we’re getting a good picture of who will fill in the rest of the lottery. We have seen some players shoot up the board with promising starts to the campaign, such as Kevin Porter of USC and Luguentz Dort of Arizona State. Now we see if those players can keep it up, and turn what was supposed to be a bad draft class into a decent one.
To get a gauge on where the 2019 NBA Draft class stands, here are our top 60 prospects, split into five tiers – with tier one being the one player who has separated himself from the pack.
Williamson has taken over the consciousness of both the college basketball and NBA Draft communities. He might be the most athletic player we’ve seen in years, and he also shows a high level of skill to go with it. Questions about his positional fit in the NBA are largely overblown. He has the size to bully college fours one-on-one in face-up situations, and he’s quick enough to defend guards on the perimeter. He does have his warts — he really struggles with pressure from long teams like Auburn, and his defensive intensity isn’t consistent. But his dominance is too difficult to ignore, and there’s a pretty clear role for him as a Blake Griffin-style initiator at the four. So far he looks far and away to be the best shot a team has at a star in this class.
Barrett’s defense has been a legitimate problem — he doesn’t seem to understand how to close out on a shooter, and he has been largely hidden in Duke’s defensive system when he shares the floor with Reddish and Jack White because his awareness has been problematic. On offense, he has been a productive isolation scorer and shows good catch-and-shoot mechanics, but his finishing troubles have been worrying even if he has shown some craft around the basket. For those reasons he remains in this tier below Williamson, along with Reddish, who has been frankly astounding with his defensive engagement and comfort with off-ball shooting, and Little, whose flashes in a variety of skill areas can’t be ignored even if he isn’t producing at a good enough level of efficiency right now.
Coming off an ACL tear, Shittu has seemed to regain his athleticism and has all of the offensive traits to make him a versatile small-ball five.
Hunter surprised by returning to school last year, and looks poised to benefit from it. He might be this draft’s best perimeter defender, and he’s developing as an off-ball scorer as well.
Yes, that’s two players who are out for the year with an injury in my top ten. ACLs and meniscus injuries always scare people, especially with college players, but the science of rehabilitation is improving every year, and we see less and less negative effects on a players’ long-term development from these types of injuries. Garland and Porter also represent two of the best offensive values in the class, with Porter’s shot creation potential and Garland’s pick-and-roll skill level looking very translatable to the NBA level. Both guys are also almost guaranteed now to slip below their actual value in terms of landing spot in the draft, meaning there’s a higher likelihood of them landing in good situations that will understand how to develop their talents into players who can contribute quickly to winning basketball.
Shittu vs. Bol is one of the more interesting questions of this update to me. On one hand, Bol has all of the physical tools that the undersized Shittu lacks, and can erase his own mistakes with ease on the defensive end due to his absurd length. On the other hand, Shittu looks like a carbon copy of Wendell Carter at times with his innate feel for pick-and-roll situations and reads on defense, while Bol seemingly forgets the goal of defense once every five possessions. I still have Bol ahead for now due to the upside, but the more I see of Shittu, the more convinced I am that if he was 7-feet tall, he would be in the same tier as Williamson.
Johnson and Hunter continue to be the safest bets to become two-way secondary playmakers at the wing, and that’s the most valuable NBA role for my draft board.
Doumbouya is an athletic energy big who is showing development as a ball-handler for Limoges in Eurocup. He’s this year’s best international prospect if he can sort out some odd shooting mechanics.
Kevin Porter Jr
Porter is the rising star of this year’s draft class. Relatively unheralded in high school, he has surged up the board due to his finishing ability and projection as a defender.
SG, Texas Tech
Culver has some exciting playmaking skills and is having a breakout year. He isn’t elite at anything, but his shot diversity and defensive utility should earn him an easy rotation spot.
Jones is getting overshadowed at Duke, but he’s the best passer in the freshman class outside of Barrett and has similar defensive skill to his brother, current Timberwolf Tyus.
It’s not a high ceiling, but Gafford appears ready to be an NBA-level rim runner and interior defender, and fortunately for him that should go far in this class.
Grimes has athletic talent, but doesn’t appear to have the foundation to put it to use. Can he show enough skill at Kansas, or will NBA teams be drafting more for potential?
An athletic four with ball-handling skill and great footwork, Reid needs to prove defensive viability to survive at the next level.
SG, Arizona State
Dort’s torrid start to the season has been fun to watch. His fluidity around the rim and raw decision-making prowess could put him in the top 10 by the end of the season.
PF, Wake Forest
Hoard is a difficult player to evaluate. On one hand, he has some strong switching potential on defense and is a solid passer. On the other, he fails in some fundamental skill assessments, particularly finishing.
SG, Penn State
Williams has impressed this year with one of the draft’s most versatile skills sets. He’s young for a junior and looks like he will fit in a lot of different NBA systems.
SG, Murray State
Morant has an interesting profile as an offensive player, and he appears to be taking the next step as a decision-maker.
With Matthews’ evolution into a capable isolation scorer this year, he now offers a small shot at creation ability and skilled defensive play, meaning he’s probably worth a first-round pick at this point.
SF, Kansas State
Wade’s perimeter defense is a rare find in this class, and he’s a decent shooter, too. With development, he could be a solid find later in the draft.
Tillie has lottery talent, but strength has always been an issue, and now there’s the potential for his foot injury to significantly bother him. Is he durable enough to play the five in the NBA?
Clarke has proved himself early as a scorer, and is another member of what looks like an incredibly deep wing class.
A few highlights from this massive group of mid-to-late first-round prospects, the majority of whom are wings:
Tre Jones continues to be the most fundamentally sound point guard in the class and he has significant upside if he can get a functional jumper worked out. He’s forgotten at Duk, but is very much a first-round prospect.
The Langford/Grimes decision is a tough one. Both are decent players with secondary playmaker potential, but both are also very weak in important areas for that role. I trust Langford’s shot to come around more than I trust Grimes’s defense at this point.
There are so many three/four combo types who look like future NBA small-ball lineup keystones off the bench in this class. I’d take any of Grant Williams, Dean Wade, Jaylen Hoard, and Brandon Clarke to be productive bench players for good teams eventually.
Players with the best shot to move up a tier in the next month: Kevin Porter, whose athleticism and transition play is very enticing; Ja Morant, if he can demonstrate more consistent decision-making and shot selection; and Langford, who probably will go in the lottery off the back of his high school shooting reputation and college production, but really needs to get a few to fall in a row soon.
This carries us to the end of the board, so a few thoughts and defenses of rankings are provided throughout.
PF, San Diego State
McDaniels thrills with his athleticism and rebounding, and is a pretty good team defender, but he’s a work in progress on offense.
C, West Virginia
Konate isn’t tall, but he has impressive length and makes even better use of it as a rim protector. He hasn’t had the same impact he did last year, but has progressed as a shooter, making him an intriguing two-way center.
It’s hard to tell what to make of Konate this year — his production hasn’t slipped, but he doesn’t look as comfortable on film, and his team has regressed significantly. He’s up here mainly because the big man class falls off a cliff after Gafford.
Schofield’s combination of physicality and agility make him a very strong defensive prospect, and his passing improvement makes him an enticing development project.
SG, FMP Beograd
Paunovic shows some interesting playmaking talent from the two and is extremely young. How he develops as a secondary pick-and-roll threat will be interesting this season.
Another member of the deep role-playing wing class, McLemore has bounced back from a gruesome injury to even take a leap forward as a defender.
Martin is a skilled shooter despite a funky release, and he projects to be a strong slasher as well.
PF, Olimpija Ljubljana
A skilled passer, interesting ballhandler, and engaging defender, Samanic’s potential as a stretch four should put him in the conversation for the first round.
Dotson’s playmaking in the open court is excellent, and he has potential as a defender despite his size.
Hachimura is a skilled rebounder and wows with his athleticism, and is getting lottery hype. But he’s also perhaps the worst positional defender among this year’s upperclassmen prospects, which significantly hinders his upside.
The narrative is that Hachimura is a likely lottery pick because of his offensive development and positional size. However, he’s also given development potential by some, but is 21-years old and is a complete project on defense at this point in terms of recognizing actions and necessary rotations. If I’m taking a four because of his thick, jacked frame and potential versatility, I’d much rather have Schofield even though he’s nearly three inches shorter.
SG, Virginia Tech
Alexander-Walker’s scoring explosion in his sophomore year has put him back on draft radars. He’s still probably too thin to translate, but his off-movement shooting is promising.
SG, Lietuvos Rytas
He might weigh 170 pounds soaking wet, but his skill set is very advanced for being 18 years old. The Lithuanian shooter will definitely be in the sights of NBA teams wanting to draft-and-stash.
Roby projects as a weakside rim protector and pick-and-pop big with some handling ability. He’s one of the few second round prospects with star upside this year if he can refine his game further.
SG, Georgia State
Simonds is one of the better athletes in college basketball, and shows some potential as a secondary creator. He’s a dark horse lottery pick if he improves as a shooter.
Norvell doesn’t overwhelm you with his play but quietly churns out numbers as a secondary playmaker for one of the best teams in the country.
C, Mega Bemax
A massive Georgian center, Bitadze has shown flashes as a shooter and is one of Europe’s better young defensive bigs.
C, Western Kentucky
Bassey is essentially mini-Bol: He wows with his rim protection and efficiency at times, but most of the time looks extremely raw.
SF, New Balance
Bazley wasn’t super promising before he decided to forego college and train for the draft. Now, he’s the draft’s biggest mystery, both in terms of development and how teams rate him.
I’m forced to keep Bazley on here until given reason otherwise.
Roach has taken over number one scoring duties for Texas, and is a good enough finisher and point of attack defender to warrant a second-round flier.
SF, Maccabi Tel Aviv
Zoosman thrilled at the U20 European Championships, and has been strong for Maccabi Tel Aviv early on. He’s older, but could some day be an NBA level defender at the three.
PG, St. Johns
Ponds has established himself as an elite shooter, but questions about his finishing ability linger over his draft stock.
Rackocevic is a good finisher and rebounder, and probably has some value as a bench big if there’s a spot for him in the league.
Like Dort, Brazdeikis is a freshman from Canada who came out of nowhere to have a strong start to the season. He’s a little less translatable to the NBA level, but still deserves a hard look if he keeps looking this strong.
Wilkes is interesting due to his scoring potential at the three, but needs significant athletic development to make the NBA.
Unsustainable three point shooting aside, Washington’s profile hasn’t changed much from last year – a playmaking four who struggles with decision making and isn’t a quality defender.
Dosunmo has been promising on defense, but his raw offensive performance likely indicates he’s not ready yet.
Jerome has proven to be a great off-ball shooter and defender, but he needs more on ball skill to survive at his size in the NBA.
Lawson’s scoring and rebounding production is hard to ignore, but he lacks in real contributions to winning basketball.
Just like Ponds, Edwards is a solid college scorer who doesn’t really feel like he will translate well to the NBA level without significant strength addition.
Including Ponds, 54-56 is the “Would be a first-rounder if you were three inches taller” tier.
A decent finisher, Paschall clearly has talent, but it’s hard to project what his NBA role will be.
The best off-movement shooter in college basketball, Magee has flashed enough skill to make you believe that he can survive as an NBA rotation player.
Let’s take a second to just marvel at the fact that Magee is taking 11 threes per game and hitting 38 percent of them.
A versatile three at the low major level, Windler could be a productive role player with some defensive development.
White has thrived as the fifth man at Duke, and takes primary defensive assignments away from R.J. Barrett. He might have an NBA future doing the same.