One of the only bad things about the Detroit Pistons being a true playoff contender for the first time in years is that it decreases the motivation for Pistons fans obsessed with the draft (such as myself) to pay attention to the year's prospects.
Even though it looks quite unlikely the Pistons will have a top pick, I do think paying attention to the draft is quite important. Not only will it give you greater familiarity with the future stars of the NBA, I would say I have learned more about basketball from obsessively reading about the draft and trying to do my own amateur scouting than even watching NBA games.
Reading about and watching prospects forces you to look beyond traits, size, college production, mental makeup and the "consensus" of sites like ESPN and try to evaluate what truly makes someone into a successful NBA player. To guess a player's chances at succeeding at the highest level, you have to understand not just the prospects you are evaluating, but also the ever-changing NBA. It is really challenging, and I am probably not even that good at it, but I have a lot of fun, enough fun to write 5000-word articles online without getting paid.
A couple quick notes before I get to my list of prospects:
- When listing a player's position, I try and project the player's best position, not necessarily where they will start or even play the most minutes. There are cases where a player will start at power forward and be listed as a power forward, but if I believe they would provide the best matchup, play most effectively and get crunch-time minutes at center, that is where I will list them. This does not mean they cannot play the other position as well, especially as positional designations mean less and less.
- Long-term potential is the tiebreaker rather than being "ready" on my board. The odds are against any rookie being a positive contributor on a winning basketball team right away, no matter how many years they played in college. It is my personal philosophy to aim for truly special players in the draft and search for immediate contributors through free agency and trades instead.
- Heights and weights are just taken from DraftExpress. They are not always accurate since the players are sometimes still growing and bulking up, and the measurements from the combine in several months will be much more accurate.
1. Ben Simmons - PF, Freshman, LSU (6'10, 239 lbs) 19.8 PPG/12.8 RPG/4.9 APG
I am unconvinced Simmons has a total stranglehold on going first, but I am more confident in his chances of maintaining his status as the "unquestioned" #1 pick than I was with Jahlil Okafor last year.
Simmons is an awesome combination of size, speed, quickness, mobility, and basketball IQ. A point forward is a rare breed in the NBA, and Simmons' ability to handle from the perimeter, drive, kick and finish against slower or smaller players in a wide variety of ways using his outstanding size and speed is intriguing. Simmons' production should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt, given LSU is a bit of a dumpster fire, but he has been one of the more productive NCAA freshman we have seen (15 double-doubles already, 55% from the field on almost 13 attempts per game, nearly five assists per game as a 6'10 guy), and has shown to be a capable defender and good rebounder on both sides of the court.
Shooting is a fairly correctable flaw as far as flaws go, and I do not want to knock Simmons too much for it considering his age. However, it does make his future role and fit a little murkier. It is extremely difficult to succeed offensively in the NBA as a perimeter-oriented non-shooter, even with such an impressive profile and skill set as Simmons. Consider me very, very skeptical he will ever be a small forward, and power forwards that don't stretch the floor or protect the rim are not exactly in high demand in the NBA.
However, docking Simmons because he fails to fit into a certain favorable box or role could look silly in retrospect, especially considering that prospects with rare tools and traits like his tend to rewrite the book on what is possible. And if he does manage to learn to shoot, look out. I am a little wary, but he remains my #1 prospect for the time being.
2. Brandon Ingram - SF, Freshman, Duke (6'9, 196 lbs) 17.1 PPG/6.4 RPG/1.7 APG
Ingram is more than a full year younger than Simmons and has been great as an NCAA freshman. I dislike comparing college prospects to NBA players in general, especially at the top of the draft, but it is awfully difficult not to look at Ingram and see Kevin Durant.
Obviously, it would be unwise to say Ingram will be Durant, but what remains to be seen is how close he can get to the real thing. He has slowed down a tad lately in Duke's three-game losing streak, but as a whole he set the NCAA on fire the past month and a half, unleashing a 6'9 frame with a 7'3 wingspan with an excellent offensive skill set. He has also stopped taking the long twos that dragged his efficiency down early in the season and is now shooting over 40 percent on three-pointers.
His passing is not where I would like it to be, and with his stroke he should probably be shooting better than 64 percent on free throws. This is nitpicking. Ingram is an unguardable player on paper, with his height, length and shooting ability demanding constant attention and a defender in his face at all times, and his slashing ability and quickness allowing him to blow by defenders that attempt to bother or close out on his shot.
With the value of wings in the NBA as well as the need for shooting and creation, it would be hard to see Ingram getting past the #2 pick if he keeps playing anything like he has been, and it would not be a shock to see him overtake Simmons. He is the real deal.
3. Dragan Bender - C, 18 years old, Croatia (7'1, 216 lbs) 4.0 PPG/1.9 RPG/0.7 APG in Euroleague
Considering how much rightful hype the top two freshmen are getting, it is easy for a relative mystery box getting spot minutes overseas to fly under the radar (even Simmons and Ingram would have trouble getting playing time on Maccabi Tel Aviv, Bender's club). If Bender does indeed go #3 overall, I can easily see fans of that team being disappointed.
This should not be the case. Bender may not be scouts' favorite because he does not really wow you with any one thing. But he is good at so much at such a young age with such a solid physical profile that he is my favorite player in the draft class and is much closer to being #1 on this list than #4.
Bender is a mobile, intelligent, smooth 7-footer with incredible passing vision for his size, very solid defensive instincts, and a developing slashing and shooting game. He is an absolute darling of stat models. This combination in the body of someone who could eventually play center is very rare and very exciting. He is not a Karl-Anthony Towns level of prospect where there are not really weaknesses or reasons to doubt, but he is so versatile and complete a player at such an early stage in his development (barely turned 18, one of if not the youngest player in the class) that I cannot help but fall in love.
He slashes, rotates, shoots, deflects and passes with such a grace beyond his years that he will be special unless his growth as a player somehow stunts or regresses. Bender is simply an awesome prospect whose somewhat understated game is deceptive to people watching him looking for him to jump off the tape.
Despite everything awesome about Bender, there is nothing that suggests he will be a great NBA scorer, which means he may be doomed to be underrated his whole career. Efficient, high-usage scoring is still the clearest path to being a star in the NBA, and 90 percent of why I have Simmons and Ingram higher is my greater faith in them being able to provide that. Bender will be a highly useful piece to attack mismatches, bend defenses and capitalize on when his teammates bend defenses, but he is not a player where you just throw him the ball and watch him do his thing.
The case for Bender becoming a star rather than an elite role player comes largely from his statistical profile (which grades his U-18 23 points and 10.8 rebounds per game at Adidas as on par with pre-college tournament performances from Anthony Davis, Nerlens Noel and Shaq), which is an argument I am okay with making. I would like to rank him even higher than three, but cannot find quite enough to dislike about the top two.
4. Henry Ellenson, C, Freshman, Marquette (6'10, 231 lbs) 15.5 PPG/10.2 RPG/2.0 APG
As I have mentioned, there is a sizable gap between three and four on the board from what I have seen so far (although it hardly ever turns out that way). Ellenson sure has the look of a great offensive player. He is a true center who can shoot, pass and set wide screens, which sets him up to be a pick-and-pop stud who can drag opposing slow-footed bigs out to the perimeter. He is also a good passer and has a pretty nice post game for his age, so he looks to have a chance to be a scorer from anywhere on the floor even though he is not a threat as a roll man. Having that offensive versatility from the center position (why DX and ESPN list him as a power forward is beyond me) is one of the most valuable things you can have in the modern NBA.
Defense is the question, as he lacks the explosiveness and lateral mobility to defend in the pick-and-roll and is not a rim protector. Not every team is the Warriors, but it is not hard to envision smart teams taking advantage of him rather easily. He might be better than expected on that end because he is a smart player who has a big body, so maybe he can figure out how to anticipate where plays are going ahead of time and get in the way. But there is enough risk of him sucking on defense that I believe I am taking a small leap of faith by putting him four instead of lower. Right now he looks like Enes Kanter who can also become a reliable three-point shooter.
5. Jakob Poeltl, C, Sophomore, Utah (7'0, 235 lbs) 17.2 PPG/9.1 RPG/2.0 APG
In a draft that is weaker in this range I am fine with slotting someone I am fairly convinced will be an average starting center at five, considering a player like that will easily command over $15 million a year on the open market. Poeltl is kind of the anti-Ellenson, someone who is limited to finishing around the basket, but does so quite effectively, and has graded out as a very good defensive player.
He is not going to be able to switch out onto Stephen Curry on the perimeter, and there does not appear to be stretch-big potential here considering he shot 44 percent from the line as a freshman (although to his credit, has improved it to 68 percent as a sophomore so far, so hacking him may not be a viable strategy). Nonetheless, there is a very clear way for him to be a good NBA player considering he can rebound, block shots, play great help defense and finish quite well in pick-and-roll and via offensive rebounding.
He may not be the pick if a team is looking to swing for the fences, but like I was saying, there is only so far I can drop him when there is a dearth of prospects and I see his services commanding $15-20 million a year when he hits his second contract under the new cap. I think he is the surest thing in the draft, that thing just is not quite as good.
6. Jaylen Brown, SF, Freshman, California (6'7, 222 lbs) 15.5 PPG/5.5 RPG/1.9 APG
Toolsy, defensive wings without much shooting touch are a recurring archetype year-by-year in the draft, and Brown appears to be the latest iteration. He is an impressive combination of size, strength and quickness who appears to be pretty advanced on the defensive side of the ball from what I can tell.
Brown's averages of 15 points and six boards a game with a PER of nearly 20 are pretty nice considering his still-developing perimeter game, and he has posted nice offensive performances against good defenses like Virginia and Oregon. However, shooting 29 percent from three and 63 percent from the line are not encouraging, and even less encouraging is his 29/56 assist-to-turnover ratio. I think these numbers underrate his offensive effectiveness, however, as he consistently attacks and gets to the rim, which bends defenses and allows teammates the option to finish his "Kobe assists."
I do not think Brown is a better prospect than Justise Winslow or Stanley Johnson from last year, but in a weaker draft he is a perfectly fine selection in the same range given his age, tools, defensive ability and the fact that most of his flaws are theoretically correctable as he gains experience.
7. Kris Dunn, PG, Junior, Providence (6'4, 205 lbs) 16.9 PPG/6.3 RPG/7.1 APG
Dunn is the kind of prospect I am traditionally not as enthusiastic about, an older player that dominates the NCAA with their physical tools but is a translation risk. Like many, I am not convinced Dunn is a point guard in the NBA because he plays out of control and is turnover-prone (he is averaging 7.1 assists but 3.6 turnovers, an A:TO ratio of less than 2:1) even at the college level, as well as not being a shooter (36 percent from three, 68 percent from the line). If he cannot actually run an NBA offense despite needing the ball in his hands to be effective, I think he will be a disappointment given his lofty draft slot.
In general, the fact that he is still showing these skill-based warts as someone who will be 22 on draft day and is supposed to play the most skill-based position is a concern. Point guards do often bloom later than other players, but it is simply always a concern to draft an older player who in any way qualifies as a "project" as far as anticipating and processing what is happening on the court and making quick, correct decisions. If you already missed the chance to develop those critical skills and adjust to the speed and length of the NBA game in the crucial 19-21 age range, you better be a pretty advanced prospect in the vein of older college guards that have recently succeeded, like Damian Lillard, Ty Lawson and George Hill. I am not convinced Dunn has that kind of skill set, so I tend to believe if he is truly going to be a star, he is going to have to be an outlier in developing his PG skills later. This is certainly not impossible, however.
Despite my skepticism, I would have Dunn much lower if I did not think there was something here. His explosiveness and amazing size and length for the position will be a handful for even NBA point guards, and like Brown his ability to get to the basket so often gives him additional value that the stats may be a bit behind on measuring. On the other side of the ball, although he is a gambler for steals, he should be able to be a terror in passing lanes very early with his long arms, quickness and anticipation, giving him the ability to be an impact defender. I think his defensive instincts are ahead of his offensive instincts.
He is also on the short list of prospects most likely to be able to make a positive impact in the NBA right away despite his relatively unpolished offensive game, and although I am skeptical of him having star potential I cannot say with certainty he will not become a great player. He could be a more explosive version of Reggie Jackson who is a better defender.
8. Ivan Rabb, C, Freshman, California (6'10, 215 lbs) 12.5 PPG/8.9 RPG/1.0 APG
He lacks the bulk to log heavy minutes at NBA center at the current moment, but Rabb has "bench advanced-stats darling" written all over him to me, especially considering how rangy, skinny centers like Brandan Wright have thrived coming off the bench.
Rabb is shooting an awesome 63.9 percent from the field and averaging a 8.6 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per contest in about 26 minutes a night while knocking down 75 percent of his free throws, which are pretty nice figures for a prospect who fell out of favor after a bad Hoop Summit performance where many deemed him a stiff. There will always be a market for guys that can rebound, block shots and be elite finishers (and Rabb's potential to switch out to the perimeter defensively makes me salivate as well). Considering there is still ample time for him to bulk up and increase his skill level to become a starter, he is easily in my top 10.
9. Skal Labissiere, PF, Freshman, Kentucky (7'0, 216 lbs) 7.7 PPG/2.9 RPG/0.3 APG
I suppose this is where Skal ends up after a bit of a disastrous first half of his freshman year. I doubt anyone who knew what they were talking about expected him to be a dominant college player right out of the gate, but he has looked bad in ways that are a lot more concerning than just being too jumpy and aggressive or his shot not falling.
He just looks like he has no basketball experience. He has three times fouled out of a game in less than 15 minutes and has only five assists and four steals (yes, those are his YEARLY totals so far), all of which points to poor feel for the game. This is a problem considering he is an older prospect who is almost 20, a year and a half older than Ingram and very nearly two years older than Bender. And while his 72 percent free-throw shooting does point to his soft touch, he has not attempted a single three-pointer, not great for someone advertised as a potential elite stretch four. There is also the factor that John Calipari clearly does not trust him and is just not playing him that much.
It would be unwise to give up on a player with Skal's size, explosiveness and shooting touch after a bad freshman season, and I would think he is still well in the conversation for a top-ten pick given he would have been an almost surefire top-five to seven selection even if he had sat out this year. But the clock is ticking, and I would not be surprised if I dropped him further as the season went on.
10. Furkan Korkmaz, SG, 18, Turkey (6'7, 185 lbs) 5.2 PPG/1.6 RPG/0.8 APG in Euroleague
The young Turk has outstanding height for his position, an awfully nice-looking shooting stroke and is a fluid athlete in transition who has also put up a good steal rate. He also was a stud at the FIBA U-19s, so postulations about him being good are not just based on vague conjecture from his height and shooting ability.
I cannot pretend I have seen him play beyond compilations on YouTube, so I am not inclined to move him too far from his consensus. If it turns out his shooting is merely above average and he struggles to defend, he will obviously be a big disappointment as a mid-lottery pick. But as I said, I have not scouted him enough and nothing in his stats or profile jumps out to me as a red flag so I am fine with putting him here.
11. Zhou Qi, C, 20, China (7'2, 209 lbs) 16.9 PPG/9.8 RPG/1.4 APG in Chinese Basketball Association
Kind of your classic swing-for-the-fences foreign big man with elite measurables, which admittedly does not have the greatest track record. But especially with the success of Kristaps Porzingis fresh in everyone's mind, I very much doubt front offices and scouts will be ignoring Qi as a potential lottery pick. Mobile, fast, smooth, intelligent seven-plus-footers with a shooting stroke will always demand attention.
There are concerns, as Qi is rail-thin, does not have a reputation as a tough or particularly competitive player, and cannot nearly match Porzingis' explosiveness (although he could theoretically make up for some of this with his mobility and top-end speed which appear to be ahead of Porzingis'). I do not think Qi will be nearly as good as Porzingis (I would be ranking him #1 if I did), but I do think he shares a lot of the same type of upside and I think ESPN and DraftExpress are both quite underrating him by having him as a late-1st/early-2nd rounder.
Qi could very easily disappoint, but if the reports of his basketball IQ are true, I do not believe his downside is all that much lower than the players ranked via consensus in the late lottery. And even if he is a bust, drafting him hurts you less than passing on him in the 15-20 range in favor of a "ready" prospect and then watching him turn into a star. It would be very shortsighted to dismiss him as Yi Jianlin 2.0 because they are both perimeter-suited Chinese big men.
12. Diamond Stone, C, Freshman, Maryland (6'10, 250 lbs) 13.2 PPG/5.6 RPG/0.2 APG
I would think Stone would be in the conversation to go 8-10 picks higher if it was 1992 instead of 2016. He has the combination of massive size, soft hands and skill level to be a good post-up scorer, a rare breed in the NBA. This combination of traits is very rare in a young player and has allowed him to be a PER monster as a freshman.
The concern for me is whether Stone does enough else to merit being taken in the lottery. He is not a good defender in pick-and-roll or protecting the rim, he is not a threat as a roll man, and although his free-throw percentage suggests potential as an outside shooter, we have not seen it yet so you cannot simply assume he can do it, and I would think he would take at least a couple outside shots if he fashioned himself a decent outside shooter. Even in the college game you see him becoming irrelevant in many games where teams that know what they are doing can seal off the post, quickly turning him into an offensive zero. I may be biased, but I believe the league is running in the opposite direction from one-trick-pony centers, which is why I cannot in good conscious rank him over even a mystery box like Zhou Qi.
Stone is young, big and skilled enough to take this high, but unless some shocking development happens in his game I think he would have to be an incredible scorer in the post to offset his weaknesses and be an NBA positive, and since I do not believe he is a Jahlil Okafor-level post guy, I would prefer a different team take him in the lottery if I was a GM.
13. Buddy Hield, SG, Senior, Oklahoma (6'4, 214 lbs) 25.9 PPG/5.8 RPG/2.5 APG
Hating on older prospects is one of my favorite things to do in the draft, but Hield's stock still being as low as it is confuses me. It does not make sense how Doug McDermott is considered an acceptable selection at #11 overall in a stronger draft but Hield is seen as a middle-late first-rounder, even with McDermott's longer track record of NCAA domination. Averaging 26.5 points on 18 shooting possessions a game while shooting over 51 percent from deep on eight attempts a game is the kind of thing that should get you some draft attention, no?
That being said, I doubt Hield will step in and start raining threes at an elite level since he is not a great catch-and-shoot guy. In some ways this makes his college efficiency even more impressive, and even though you would expect his insane percentages to regress, they would be very good even factoring in said regression.
There are many reasons to be skeptical of a massive senior-year breakout in general, (SHABAAZZZ) but even more so one that relies on shots that are closely contested even in the college ranks. Hield is not an outstanding athlete or big for the position, so he cannot consistently shake defenders or blow by them to get to the rim. And while his efficiency on contested looks has been amazing, it is still a concern because things will only get tougher for him (SHABAZZZZZZ). Contested shots will become blocked shots, open looks will become contested looks, passing lanes that were open will become closed. You also have to be a little concerned about him having more turnovers than assists on the season (48 to 56), although it is hard not to be turnover-prone having the ball in your hands as much as Hield does.
Look, Hield is an awesome college player and shooter, and if reports about his work ethic are true, he is the kind of guy who will be good in the NBA or die trying in the gym. I am scared of this slot looking like a horrible overestimation of his pro potential in retrospect, but that is partially just because I hate overrating college studs and being wrong. If the shooting alone is real, he will be worth a pick in this range, especially since teams in the late lottery are likely searching for immediate contributors.
14. Gary Payton II, PG, Senior, Oregon State (6'3, 175 lbs) 17.6 PPG/8.5 RPG/5.3 APG
This may well be too high for a 23-year-old point guard without true point guard skills, but his astronomically high rebound and steal rates (and a higher block rate than Jahlil Okafor at Duke) are just too intriguing and freaky and outlier-ish for me not to buy in. I have a soft spot for statistical weirdos, due to their stats pointing to them excelling at something that is not commonplace in the NBA (in Payton's case, a ferocious attack on the glass and rare defensive tenacity by a point guard, similar to his old man), which is a fast way to earn yourself a niche or role.
Additionally, I hold Payton's advanced age against him less than I would another prospect because he was a junior college transfer, which may allow for some sneaky upside in the vein of Jimmy Butler. Payton is just a fascinating prospect on multiple levels, and while I may be confusing an interesting prospect for a good one, I am fairly convinced he has a funky kind of upside and would feel more comfortable gambling on him in the lottery than some of the more "established" big-program seniors. I think he could be a destitute man's version of Russell Westbrook with his ferocious play on both ends.
15. Denzel Valentine, SG, Senior, Michigan State (6'6, 223 lbs) 18.4 PPG/7.9 RPG/6.6 APG
I am surprised three seniors round out my top 15, which I guess is what happens when there are not as many incredible freshmen as in previous years.
Valentine is so versatile on offense that I would be surprised if he fails to find at least some way to be useful. He is a legitimate shooter, passer and ball handler with good size at the shooting guard position, and given my affinity to have as many shooters who can move the ball on the floor as defensively possible, I value that in and of itself.
From what I can tell, Valentine does not have the lateral mobility to be a true lead (or maybe even above-average) wing defender. So if he wants to be more than a role player, he has to translate his slashing game to the NBA as well, and that is where I am skeptical. Like Hield, Valentine lacks an explosive first step or the moves to get to the rim consistently, and even against college competition he has to rely on tough, contested midrange looks.
He has converted these midrangers at an impressive rate, but (again, like Hield) I am skeptical that he will be able to keep this up in the stronger, quicker, lengthier NBA. And even in the unlikely case he does, those types of looks are being phased out of NBA offensive schemes as much as possible.
Valentine is good at so much that I am cautiously optimistic a good role as a pro awaits him, and his production and the scarcity at his position will likely lead to him being on the fringe of the lottery. I could also see him being a big riser thanks to an awesome tournament performance, but whether that will be merited is another question.
Just missing the cut:
-Jamal Murray, PG, Freshman, Kentucky
I will expand a little on Murray because I think he is the most notable exclusion from my top 15. The big Kentucky guard does not scream "Top-10 pick" to me but is definitely in that conversation thanks to his good numbers, size, pedigree and visibility playing at Kentucky.
He is a non-shooting, non-passing guard without elite athleticism, so it is beyond me what his NBA role is supposed to be. His assist-to-turnover ratio (48 assists against 53 turnovers on the year) suggests someone without much of a feel for the game, so while he is young and talented enough to become a good scorer and improve his IQ, there is not anything here that really gets me excited. He has "high-volume, low-efficiency chucker" written all over him to me and while there is still time for me to change that, I would not be particularly excited if the Pistons drafted him even outside the lottery.
And the others....
-Melo Trimble, PG, Sophomore, Maryland
-Caris LeVert, SG, Senior, Michigan
-Stephen Zimmerman, C, Freshman, UNLV
-Timothe Luwawu, SF, 20, France
-Domantas Sabonis, C, Sophomore, Villanova
-Demetrius Jackson, PG, Junior, Notre Dame
-Wade Baldwin, PG, Sophomore, Vanderbilt
-Damian Jones, C, Junior, Vanderbilt