The time is nearly upon us. In just over two days, one of the more intriguing and fluid draft classes in recent years will finally be determined on a stage in New York City.
We’ve had months of opining, hypothesizing, and analyzing. The time has come to lay the final cards on the table. What follows is my Jazz-specific draft board, from 1-12 – at least one of these players will remain on the board for Utah’s selection, provided it remains in its current place, and this is simply the order in which I’d select them Thursday night. 1-6 will be posted today, 7-12 posted Wednesday.
Please, please remember that this is one man’s subjective list. It does not necessarily conform perfectly with the desires of any other individual or, more importantly, the people in the Jazz front office actually making these decisions.
Not much in the way of surprises here. Towns separated himself all year and has continued to in the pre-draft process, and I’d be shocked if he went anywhere but first overall.
As some of the smartest draft folks out there have pointed out, what’s so intriguing about Towns is that he’s the clear-cut top overall pick based mostly on what he did last year at Kentucky… but the fact is, this performance barely showcased what could be his most valuable NBA skills. Towns mostly stayed away from the perimeter offensively in favor of Kentucky’s well-reasoned game plan that saw him and Willie Cauley-Stein crush overmatched opposition down low – his ability to take and make the three, one many scouts are saying might even be more NBA-ready right now than the public is aware of, is scary on top of all his other elite skills.
As far as big men go, Towns represents the future of the league. A guy who can protect the rim, guard pick-and-roll, and operate offensively both inside and outside at an elite level is truly the complete package. If he checks every box, he’ll spend a decade as one of the best players in the NBA.
In a league where “combo guard” has turned from a bad term to a highly coveted one, Russell could be the next big thing. He’s the new breed of point guard personified, one with some of the best handles and vision in recent memory backed up by high-level shot-making and an ability to punish defenders for playing him to pass.
Feel for the game can truly be impossible to teach, particularly at the level Russell possesses it. For such a young player to already be capable of seeing the game the way he does is remarkable, and makes his ceiling offensively nearly limitless if other, more improvable skills come to fruition.
Whoever drafts him takes some risks on the defensive end, especially compared with his peers on the perimeter in the high lottery – each of Justise Winslow, Mario Hezonja, and Stanley Johnson shows more potential defensively, perhaps significantly more so in each case. But there’s simply too much talent here to pass up with a top-four pick or better.
Porzingis’s height (7’1.25 without shoes) and wingspan (7’6) were officially announced Monday, making him both the tallest and the longest player in the 2015 draft class. He also might be one of a handful of its best shooters. In related news, he’s 19 years old.
There are valid questions elsewhere, but those three sentences alone should get anyone’s attention. All the talk with Porzingis surrounds his ceiling, with the implication being a wide range of possibilities… but how low could his floor truly be? Even if all he’s capable of at the NBA level is dragging big men away from the hoop, canning 3s, and providing adequate or better defense with his ridiculous lateral mobility and length1, how much of a “bust” can he truly be?
Concerns with his feel for the game, and particularly his ability to adapt to the much quicker NBA, are legitimate and probably determine whether he can truly become a superstar. But to me, worries about him being a true bust in today’s league seem misplaced. I’d snap him up in the top three, and should he somehow fall out of the top five, I’d consider sending real assets to try and move up from 12 to grab him.
Hezonja is my draft board’s token “fast riser.” He was behind both Johnson and Winslow a few weeks back, only for a few trusted friends familiar with his international play to get in my ear.
There’s so little Hezonja does badly on a basketball court, and conversely so much he does at high or borderline elite levels. He’s a knockdown shooter who can also put the ball on the floor and create his own shot. He’s great as a cutter off the ball, with excellent awareness and instincts. His physical profile gets discussed, but not nearly enough – guest and draft expert Layne Vashro posited on SCH Radio last week that he’s athletically similar to LeBron James at this age2, and that were he to be working out on American soil rather than completing his season at Barcelona, all the hype for Porzingis would be flowing in Hezonja’s direction instead.
Nearly every question with Hezonja is regarding what’s between his ears, often the toughest factor to suss out for a given prospect, particularly a foreign one. He’s confident to the point of being egotistical, something that can spill over into elements like his shot selection and, at times, his interactions with teammates. He’ll go stretches where he seems disinterested, especially on the defensive end.
But like Stanley Johnson, and to an even higher degree, Hezonja is a superstar in the making if he matures like many 20-year-olds tend to. He has the athleticism to be a dominant wing defender if he can stay engaged, and his offensive ceiling is almost impossible to see if he connects the right dots and optimizes his skill set.
With his hype train at full speed in the last couple weeks, it seems nearly impossible Hezonja is available at 12. Were it not for issues with his demeanor and a potentially thorny buyout situation, and were he to have played with a Division I school prior to entering the draft, I’ve spoken to some who think he’d be in the legitimate discussion for the top overall pick.
Frequent readers, listeners to SCH Radio or followers on Twitter need no introduction to my favorite draft subject. I’ve written at length about Kaminsky, both as a prospect and as a conceptual exercise, and he remains easily my highest-rated player among moderately realistic Jazz targets with the 12th pick. A final few words, though, because I can’t help myself.
The Jazz are huge underdogs to land a true star player with this selection – which is okay, because they don’t need one. The product we watched in the latter half of the 2014-15 season, with a group still developing skills and chemistry together and in their first year with a brand new scheme, put an end to the idea that this team lacks the talent to compete in the near future.
What the team does need, beyond some hasty development from their young point guards, is some improvement on the margins. They need some depth on the bench, particularly at backup center behind Rudy Gobert – all the better if that backup can provide a change-of-pace from Rudy’s limited offensive game. They need perimeter shooting, badly. They need guys capable of operating in Quin Snyder’s offensive scheme3 without sacrificing the team’s defensive identity.
Wouldn’t it be great if there were a single guy in the draft class who checked all those boxes reasonably firmly, one who’s proven he has those skills already developed rather than as part of his non-guaranteed ceiling? Wouldn’t it be even better if that same guy was right on schedule with the rest of the team’s core as far as his developmental trajectory, and was spoken of as a winner and a hard worker by everyone close to him for the last several years? Boy, it’d sure be swell if a guy like that was available at 12 in this draft.
There’s a school of thought that places less emphasis than most on mental acuity, with the assumption that reading such things in guys who are still teenagers is untenable. Those in this camp could place Johnson ahead of Winslow here, and would hear few arguments from me.
Really, the gap between these two is thin to nonexistent outside their intangibles. Both have the size and strength to play 4, both have had questions with their shooting but answered last year with excellent numbers, and both project as second or third options on good offensive teams.
Winslow gets the nod in part because I think his defensive ceiling is just a hair higher, and in part for intangibles. He’s described by everyone close to him as a ridiculously hard worker and dedicated kid, and the rate at which he’s improved several skills over the last year is astonishing. His motor is excellent, as is his feel for the game on both ends.
He’ll never be a primary offensive creator, but easily has the skills to be a secondary option who can punish teams for cheating away from him. He can run the pick-and-roll at times and has underrated passing out of such sets. He can get to the rim, and has good touch once there. His free-throw shooting suggests that a 40-plus percent showing from 3 last season was a bit lucky, a valid concern, but there’s just too much here to like to place him any lower. His floor seems as high as anyone in the class outside perhaps Towns and Russell.
Check back tomorrow for Part II of my Big Board.