Pressing questions, hot topics, and collaboration amongst your favorite basketball minds—welcome back to Around the Rim.
Think of Around the Rim as your local politicians would like for you to think of a town hall, a safe forum for all voices in the basketball universe to be heard. A stable roundtable, fluctuating in both voices and trendy issues. We’ve had over 250 unique contributors working at any and every outlet you can think of living all across the globe!
The roundtable runs every Tuesday, with new questions and new voices each week. If you have a question you’d like answered by the panel, tweet @JoshEberley or @HOOPmag and check back each week to see who hopped in for the current edition. Last week’s edition can be found here!
This week we are fortunate to have six dedicated and knowledgeable contributors pitching in for our entirely drafted focused edition. Make sure to give them a follow and check out their great contributions to the basketball community:
Andrew Bernucca: The Step Back, contributor
Myron Medcalf: ESPN, CBB analyst
Joseph Nardone: Off The Wall Podcast, host
Jonathan Wasserman: Bleacher Report, lead NBA draft writer
Jeremy Woo: Sports Illustrated, NBA draft analyst
Cole Zwicker: The Stepien, co-founder
With so many big men clustered in the lottery of this draft, there’s been a lot of talk about fit vs. best player available (BPA). Two-part question here; Firstly, is there a correct stance on that topic and when people talk about the “best player available” how often do you think front offices are even confident they know who the BPA is at any given moment?
Bernucca: I think best player available is the option nearly every team in the lottery should be going with. I also believe fit factors into best player available. For example, the Suns with the No. 1 overall pick are hypothetically flipping a coin for Luka Doncic or Deandre Ayton. They appear to be sold on Ayton, which is fine. Both him and Doncic are really good prospects with vastly different skillsets. When two players are that talented but are completely different players the difference maker is fit. Ayton fits better with the Suns roster as currently constructed. Devin Booker, Josh Jackson, and Ayton makes more sense on paper than Booker, Jackson, and Doncic. Fit is what makes Ayton the BPA for the Suns even though Doncic is probably the more talented player right now. Then to answer your second question, we can use the Kings in the two slot as an example. Is anyone confident in their ability to assess the best player available? Because I’m not. They’ve had lottery picks en masse since last making the playoffs in 2006 and still don’t have a young piece to be excited about. I love Bogdan Bogdanovic as much as the next guy but he’s a high-level backup to mid-level starter at best. They should definitely be taking best player available, but I doubt they know who that is. Then, the Hawks at three strike me as a front office who will have definitely done their research and can confidently go with the best player available approach.
Medcalf: I think fit only applies if you’re a team with sufficient and solidified talent at multiple positions. The Pelicans don’t need a big man, right? Since most teams in the lottery are searching for those legit stars who can anchor a team, I always assume most front offices consider best available talent first, especially in a good draft. In a weaker draft with minimal separation between players, fit is a more significant consideration, I believe. But fit mattered more when teams played G-G-F-F-C basketball. In this year’s class, however, if you think Michael Porter Jr. can make a bigger impact in the next year’s on your roster than Trae Young, you take him. I think front offices think that way. I think their lists are arranged via talent far more than fit.
Nardone: How much the best player available matters is largely dependent on how awful a roster a franchise has. The worse, the more likely a general manager should look for that. The better, it might be a bit more complicated, as there’s obviously a different need on that roster than one looking to rebuild.
I do think, however, that this season’s discussion around BPA is mostly about people trying to rationalize the rash of bigs projected to go early against the NBA being a wing-driven league—which they shouldn’t. Not only might the NBA be a different league five years from now (when these guys should hit their prime), but it is forever changing. A guard here, a big over there, and/or some random 11-foot giant from Scranton can change how teams are built overnight. The NBA is largely reactionary. Teams with vision largely luck into that role first.
Not to mention that there’s usually like nine or so actually good players per draft. Teams shouldn’t be picky because small forwards are the new black or whatever.
As for front offices knowing, that’s always just educated guessing. It almost goes without saying, but if scouting draft prospects was an exact science, there’d never be any busts or guys that slip. Some teams are better at it than others, but there’s degrees to which—at least for me—I’m willing to say anyone has it down perfectly.
Wasserman: Taking the best player available is always the strategy. It wouldn’t make sense to pass on the best player available, unless you thought he couldn’t thrive on your specific roster. Scouts will tell you they always take BPA, unless they really can’t decide who that is, in which case, they use fit as a tiebreaker. This year, there happens to be a ton of parity in the 2 through 8 range or so. Teams are having trouble deciding how to rank Mo Bamba vs. Marvin Bagley vs. Jaren Jackson vs. Michael Porter vs. Wendell Carter. But at the end of the day these teams will evaluate each player in a vacuum and do their best to decide who’ll be the best player five years from now.
Woo: I think there’s a spectrum when it comes to that conversation. The draft is an uncertain beast and all things are relative. There can be a correct stance situationally-speaking—if you’re a bad team tied down to nothing on your roster, then best player available is the logical choice—but I also think the “best” option factors in everything, including fit, which isn’t just limited to what position a player plays. The goal should always be to make the best decision possible relative to your circumstances. It’s not so much about the best player as it is the best prospect, and any GM who tells you they’re 100 percent confident in any decision they make has either not through that situation enough, or they’re lying. The draft is always steeped in the unknown, which is why these decisions are so difficult.
Zwicker: Best player available is usually relevant more at the top of the draft due to (in theory) safety to value and higher ceiling outcomes for the elite prospects. Usually transcendent talents differentiate themselves, and regardless of position (outside of maybe center only bigs or small point guards) you just take the best talent available regardless of fit. As you move down the draft and the talent (again in theory) equalizes, teams can draft more for positional/skill need, especially if prospects are ranked in the same tier.
As for the second part, with transcendent talents like LeBron James or Anthony Davis, there is typically universal confidence in identifying and selecting those types. Part of where the BPA argument goes awry in other less obvious settings is certain franchises/decision-makers will value traits differently than others and ultimately view and assess outcomes differently. But over history the best talents usually manifest on the floor regardless of situation or differing viewpoints.
Donovan Mitchell was the 13th pick in last year’s draft. Who is the prospect slotted in the middle of the first-round this year that could exceed all expectations?
Medcalf: Aaron Holiday is a 6-1 guard who probably falls closer to 20 than 15 in this year’s draft. He’s not the biggest guard in the draft, but he’s strong and a proven passer. Here’s what I like about him: he never shot under 41 percent from the three-point line, even as he doubled his attempts last season at UCLA after Lonzo Ball’s departure. I just think, with the right team, Holiday could be the player who was picked too low.
Nardone: This is tough, not because there are a lack of guys who can exceed expectations, but because the draft is so fluid that a player named might go far earlier than projected.
That—nicely timed—caveat said, I will give you two names, though the first comes with some heavy hedging.
Lonnie Walker, who will largely need a system to benefit off of, isn’t excellent in any one specific aspect of his game, but he’s above-average in nearly all of them. If he succeeds or not in the NBA will depend on if his jump shot—or, more accurately, his release point—becomes a non-issue. Otherwise, his floor feels really safe and he should at least be a solid rotational player. I know you’re likely looking for a star, so…
De’Anthony Melton will NOT be a guy who will put up any sort of gaudy numbers in the NBA. Not his rookie year. Probably never. In fact, while I have him pegged as one of my 15 best prospects of the 2018 NBA Draft, there’s a solid chance he slides to the second-round. However, and this applies to Wendell Carter (though he’s far more equipped to stuff a box score), Melton will be an elite role player in the NBA. On the right team, for the right coach, he’ll end up being that guy five or six years from now who we’ll all agree is really good, even though the data will just look really average.
Again, not a star, but this draft is so crazy that I don’t think guys who have crazy counting-stats potential will slide that far down. Like, I would have taken a flyer on Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, even though I’m tepid on his game (because volume will be there), but he’s now rumored to go within the first 10 picks.
Wasserman: Donte DiVincenzo won’t be as good as Mitchell, but I expect him to outperform his draft slot. He’s a valued NBA contributor for the next decade, even if he never makes an All-Star team. Skill and strengths wise, he checks boxes with shooting, playmaking and defense. And he’s powered by enough athleticism and intensity to execute at both ends. I think he comes in and carves out a role right away.
Woo: I think this is kind of an impossible question to answer, which kind of calls to my point above — the way players develop and where their expectations are (or should be) set is extremely based on environment. That’s why fit matters. Donovan Mitchell fell into the perfect situation. I’d wager that any prospect in the draft is capable of exceeding expectations in the right situation. I don’t really there see being any immediate-impact, playoff-caliber stars outside the top group of prospects.
Zwicker: The safe answer is no one will have anything approaching a Mitchell type impact, at least immediately. But down the road Zhaire Smith has the high-end outcome upside to exceed his current expectation level. Smith is the best functional athlete in the class and has a decent foundational skill-level as a ball-handler with shooting touch. If he improves at an enhanced rate, he is one of the few prospects with the first step and on-ball athleticism to become an impactful two-way playmaking wing. But I wouldn’t bet on it.
Bernucca: As a euro hoops guy I don’t know the college players all that well so I can’t speak too much to which of those guys will be a steal as a late lottery pick. French point guard Ellie Okobo is the second best international prospect in this draft and he looks destined to slip into the late lottery picks or beyond. Whoever drafts him could end up with a steal, he might have better potential than Frank Ntilikina and that’s a testament to Okobo, not a knock on Ntilikina. Okobo can run the pick-and-roll, knock down threes from NBA range, and has an impressive top speed and acceleration. A lot of how he turns out in the NBA will depend on him landing in the right environment. The Spurs have pick no. 18, if he ends up there I’ll have really high hopes for his NBA career.
There’s always a tone of overconfidence from people around draft time. Fans and analysts alike get cocky and start declaring winner and losers, busts and stars. What’s something you’ve heard going around about one of the lottery prospects you just downright disagree with?
Nardone: You’re basically asking me to be overconfident in telling someone else with confidence that they are dead wrong…and I bleeping love it.
I won’t single anyone’s name out, but people who have been discussing Jaren Jackson Jr., Mo Bamba and Marvin Bagley have no idea how to discuss floors/ceilings.
Let’s just be blunt about this: Age does not equate potential. In fact, for those saying Bamba’s ceiling is “a ton higher” than JJJ’s—ugh. Not only is JJJ already better in every area people say Bamba could become great in, he’s also over a year younger. Why want the idea of JJJ in Bamba when you can literally just have JJJ?
Let’s keep going.
When talking about ceilings, it is almost like we punish someone like JJJ for already being more polished than Bamba, mostly because the latter has raw measurables people love (wingspan, height, vertical), all while we ignore the actual basketball skills the former is far superior in. That’s not to say Bamba can never be better than JJJ or anything. It’s just that there’s actually no proof of that and, if you actually look, Jackson’s ceiling is as equally as high as Bamba’s. He just so happens to be closer to reaching his because he’s already far better.
A similar thing can be applied to Bagley on defense. Is he flawed? Of course he is. At the same time, because he is already skilled on offense, people write off his chances to become a competent defender, as if ho-hum college defenders who are excellent on offense can only improve in the area of his game he’s already great at.
As a disclosure, yes, I do worry about Bagley at the next level, but not out of fear of development. It is because he had such a high-usage rate in college that, given the offense needing to run through him no matter at Duke, can he be that impacting of a player in the NBA to be worthy of having such high-usage rates? If not, can he still be a player of impact if his usage rates are lower?
Also, Wendell Carter > Marvin Bagley not only immediately, but in terms of both guys’ careers.
Wasserman: Just don’t see it with Collin Sexton, at least in terms of being a top-10 pick and valued NBA starting point guard. He’s a scorer, but his jump shot is flat and he isn’t a facilitator. It easy to see why teams may fall in love with his competitiveness and ability to take over. But Sexton isn’t a guy I’d want running my offense. He’s an NBA player no doubt, but I don’t see him being a top-15 starter at the position which is what you’d want him to be if you took him top 10 or even lottery.
Woo: I try really hard not to get caught up in anything people are arguing about on Twitter. I think feeling like you have a personal stake in the success or failure of a player, or any facet of the draft is just a form of bias that makes life harder. I really try not to get attached to anything, even my own opinions. I would say I disagree with people who are concluding Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley are doomed to be defensive sieves for the rest of their careers, because they’re extremely talented 19-year-olds who had barely been coached in their lives before this season. You can acknowledge a player’s weaknesses without turning them into a take.
Zwicker: Luka Doncic isn’t athletic enough to thrive in the NBA is probably my least favorite take on multiple fronts. First, people assume that hyper athletic prospects can just acquire skill level and basketball instincts, which is why you see some prospects in this class being sold as “high ceiling” prospects. Yet, there isn’t nearly the same momentum for someone like Doncic becoming more athletic via an NBA strength and conditioning program, working at P3 etc. Prospects can improve their athleticism as well, and that’s too often overlooked. Second, there are many different kinds of athleticism, not just vertical pop or burst. How does a player decelerate? How is his balance? How fast does a prospect react to compensate for potential average lateral quickness or general speed? Athleticism is far more nuanced than how it’s traditionally presented, and Doncic is case-in-point here.
Bernucca: One of the craziest things I’ve heard floated around is that Doncic doesn’t have the best attitude. It’s a load of b*lls**t. We’re talking about a player who moved from Slovenia to Spain at the age of 13 to join Real Madrid’s basketball academy. He had to leave behind his entire life in Slovenia including family, friends and his native language. He had to put up with levels of homesickness for a kid his age that I can’t even imagine all while being told that the only thing that matters is getting better at basketball. So that’s what he did, and now at 19 years old he’s killing it in the second and third best basketball leagues in the world. His surreal levels of success have brought on an unthinkable amount of pressure, so every now and then he gets emotional on the court because he still has bad games and like every athlete he gets frustrated. This doesn’t mean he has a bad attitude though, it just means he has lofty expectations for himself and he’s still learning how to deal with failing to meet those expectations every now and then.
Medcalf: I’ve heard that Trae Young is too small to compete at the next level. Makes me wonder if people believe most players in the League are built like LeBron. I think Young will add good weight over time. But he has the skill and poise to make an immediate impact. We’re talking about a freshman who did something no player in the history of the game had ever done. His stature won’t be a problem.
As guys who cover the NCAA and draft all year long, how do you both cope with and coexist amongst the legions of NBA-focused people who step in at this time of the year and put in their 10 cents despite possibly being ill-prepared to do so?
Wasserman: I can only worry about my work. Having tracked these prospects since high school, interviewed them coming through the ranks, watched practically every shot they’ve taken since arriving at college, I’m confident in my own scouting and the connections I’ve made around the NBA, who I use to bounce ideas off and listen to. It is silly sometimes for NBA writers to suddenly become experts or YouTube scouts one month before the draft, but I understand the dead period after the Finals and really I’m just rooting for the the NBA journalism industry in general.
Woo: It’s just how the business works—there’s no use being mad about it. People are entitled to their opinions, I think all you can do is aim to be as informed as you can and try to tune out the other noise.
Zwicker: It’s just part of the process that I’ve grown accustomed to. It’s not something I get worked up about or lash out at. It’s understandable that a NBA only guy would find Mo Bamba tantalizing based on his expertly-run predraft workouts in conjunction with his physical tools, and as a result a lot of the NBA only community would view his upside over someone like Jaren Jackson, the latter who is out of the limelight and doesn’t have a 7-10 wingspan. But when you actually watch the tape back and consider Jackson is over a year younger, it’s not close. I just try to convey and articulate points like that with evidence.
Bernucca: It’s to be expected. As long as they don’t try to jump in my mentions and tell me that Dzanan Musa is going to score 20 PPG in the NBA, I don’t care.
Medcalf: I’m more of a college basketball guy, than a draft guy. I just rely on experience. I’ve watched these guys on film and live for months and months. I just rely on what I’ve seen and watched. That doesn’t mean I know more than any other expert, though. Let’s be real: Front office execs who are paid millions fail every year at this. I don’t discredit anyone with an opinion on the draft. They’re watching, too. And with today’s technology, Average Joe has access to some of the same tools we do. That’s what makes this fun. It’s a crapshoot.
Nardone: Most NBA guys are respectful and shine the spotlight on others who cover these guys yearlong. Not to mention, for a lot of college basketball writers, they need NBA guys as much as the NBA guys need the college basketball folk. After all, especially for a doofus like me, if I’m watching 30 hours of Tacko Fall a month, I might need someone who watches a ton more of the Orlando Magic to tell me how/why/if a 7-6 Nemean lion can still be a thing near Disney World—you know, by playing basketball and not being some sort of attraction.
There are obviously people who cross the line, but I’ve been getting better at this over the years. I have realized there needs to be a separate line between NBA and college basketball media from those who operate in #NBATwitter. While the former connects to the latter, they are still completely different things.
Also, and this isn’t meant to drop shade on other guys (because I will certainly just forget some), but there’s really no reason to trust people outside the Draft Express humans for intel, then you’ve got people like Cole Zwicker, Chris Stone and Sam Vecenie for evaluations. Hell, I take pride in how much time I spend scouting and evaluating prospects—even think I’m pretty good at it—but I’d defer to all of those guys in an instant. We don’t need @RandomNBABloggerBoy’s thoughts on a dude we all know he only saw YouTube clips on.
As for dealing with them, I do so politely, because my Twitter brand is basically “I just want everyone to be happy” and I hate confrontation. If I’m being honest, I do my strongest draft talks/takes in direct messages with guys like Stone out of fear of random Twitter people. There we can have a normal disagreement on a prospect without being yelled at by a dude who watched nine minutes of Jevon Carter last season.
In an opportunity to let you all brag and laugh simultaneously, what’s the most right and the most wrong you’ve ever been on a prospect headed into the draft?
Woo: I was very wrong about Jahlil Okafor and Karl Towns, which stemmed from a level of bias I had about both players dating back to watching them play live multiple times in high school. I was a lot less experienced in a lot of ways at the time. I don’t know how “right” I can claim to be about anything, but I did like Dejounte Murray a lot.
Zwicker: The most wrong I’ve ever been on a prospect is definitely Jaylen Brown. A lot of people point to situation with the Celtics as the driver of his success at the pro level, and that may be true to an extent, but I completely underrated his self awareness and off court intelligence to be able to pick up on concepts quickly. Also being a 95th percentile NBA athlete helps. But having him outside the top 10 in 2016 was a bad look. Conversely, I think my best call is probably OG Anunoby. It’s still early of course and he dropped some on draft night likely due to medical issues, but his archetype is just so valuable. Think he’s going to crush his value being selected 23rd.
Bernucca: Dragan Bender I’ve been spot on about so far. I always thought he should’ve been a late lottery pick at best and then stashed overseas. His game was so raw coming into the League and it was blatantly evident he needed more time to develop in an environment that didn’t contain the pressures of being the fourth overall pick in the draft. Timothe Luwawu is a guy who I put way too high of a ceiling on. I fell in love with watching him thrive in the Adriatic League without realizing he looked so good because he was one of the best athlete’s there and that no one played defense. He still looks like he could be a back-up two one day but I really thought he was going to the next Klay Thompson or something.
Medcalf: I told anyone who would listen that Dan Gadzuric (2002) would be a perennial All-Star. He averaged 4.7 PPG. I just thought he was an explosive athlete with physical gifts that would help him excel. I knew Anthony Davis would evolve into a top-five talent in the NBA. You could see that early.
Nardone: Most right? All of them. I kid. Anyway, probably Malachi Richardson being awful. Richardson’s hype was largely built around the NCAA Tournament as some sort of shot creator, which he wasn’t. In fact, he was just making tough shots, without any separation. Furthermore, he had some of the worst efficiency numbers of any player his size ever projected to be drafted in the first round in NBA history. I still don’t fully get why people fell for his game, because he wasn’t even all sizzle and no steak. He was no sizzle, no steak and didn’t even bother to have a decent condiment around. He was essentially expired ham (can ham expire?). And, you know, he played for Syracuse, which means his defense was suspect. I can go on and on, but whatever.
I can also go on and on about being right, as I like to flex on the kids when I can, but let’s digress to when I was wrong.
Bradley Beal. While he’s not a superstar—at least I don’t think he is—I projected him to be a rotational player because I never bought into the idea of him being this great shooter. When he was coming out of Florida, he had suspect efficiency numbers, but people were screaming about his high school days to talk about him being some sort of marksman. My counter to that was always; “Well, friends, they will play tough defense on him in the pros. It isn’t like this will get easier for him and NBA > college > high school.”
I discounted him getting better in an area people said he already had all the mechanics to be great in. If I could go back in time, I would have been a lot softer in my take on him—which is why I’m far more open to admitting I’m educated guessing at this point.
There are others, I am sure. This one stings, though. Not because I was wrong, but due to me being unwilling to allow grassroots-related samples and scouting reports to be a part of the evaluation process. While I sincerely believe some data is superior than others, with some of it being fully corrupt depending on certain situations, ignoring any for of data just because is silly. Consume it. Take it in. Figure out IF it fits. It did for Beal, and shame on me for not even giving it a chance.
Wasserman: Always felt good about pegging Damian Lillard early. You could just see it with him despite the fact his production came against weak competition. He had that killer instinct I really bought into. The 2013 draft was not my finest scouting work. I believe I had Ben McLemore No. 2 and Trey Burke top 5. I thought McLemore was the real deal, he reminded me of Ray Allen. Burke, I thought would overcome his physical limitations. Maybe he makes me feel better this season with the Knicks.
Fill in this sentence: If ____________ is still on the board when ___________ is on the clock and they pass, they’re absolutely crazy!
Zwicker: Doncic. Phoenix.
Bernucca: Doncic. Memphis.
Medcalf: Porter. Cleveland.
Nardone: Young. New York.
Wasserman: Young. Orlando.
Woo: Jackson. Atlanta.