9. Goga Bitadze
Outside of Zion Williamson, Goga Bitadze has the best chance to be a positive NBA player from this class. As a center without elite defense or high-level perimeter skills, it is hard to envision star upside for Bitadze. His all-around skill set projects well to the NBA on both sides of the ball. Very few 19-year-olds produce in Europe like Bitadze did, winning the Adriatic League MVP award and the EuroLeague Rising Star award.
Bitadze is a good athlete and should be a good defensive center, with PNR versatility to drop, hedge and even survive on switches at times. With his instincts, length and athleticism, Bitadze should be an effective rim protector at the NBA level. He has soft touch, good mechanics and looks like he will eventually be an above average three-point shooter for his position. Centers without special skills in the modern NBA are inherently devalued, which makes me skeptical of moving Bitadze much higher than this. Simply, Bitadze is good at basketball and will be a good NBA player for a long time.
8. Jaxson Hayes
Jaxson Hayes rare, elite athlete in a peculiar way. At 6’11, with a 7’3.5 wingspan, Hayes isn’t an elite vertical athlete. For a human of his proportion, Hayes possesses some of the best movement skills we have seen. He actually moves like a wing (given he was one less than two years ago), with unreal coordination and fluidity in the open court and agility in tight spaces. His chance of direction ability and length help him protect the rim at a high level, despite his jumpy tendencies and developing feel. As a passer, Hayes is still raw. He improved as the season went on and can read the game at a surprising level for a 19 year old big.
Given his elite touch around the rim (85.4 percent, granted mostly assisted) and shooting 74 percent from the line, Hayes has a good chance to shoot threes in the future. Because of Hayes’ movement skills, size and IQ, Hayes has a chance to be a special defender. We don’t have any idea what Hayes will be and he’ll struggle as a rookie, but his upside on both ends of the floor is sky high, even considering the oversaturation of bigs in the NBA.
7. RJ Barrett
In every sense, RJ Barrett is an alpha. This works for and against him. Working for Barrett, his strength (RJ Barrett is absolutely jacked and has the potential to get Jimmy Butler big), first step and scoring mentality will help him kill weaker defenders. He’s a menace in transition, blazing past defenders and plowing through them on his way to drawing fouls and scoring at the rim. From everything we know, Barrett is a fiery competitor and a hard worker. His alpha mentality works against Barrett, in more ways than it helps him. Most notably, Barrett’s poor feel for the game is a major limiting factor.
Too often, Barrett thinks he is playing one on five, taking on the teeth of defense without considering passing, leading to a myriad of tough shots and bad bricks. RJ Barrett has real vision and can pass, he just doesn’t like passing. Barrett has two modes. When he’s running a play or looking to pass, Barrett can read a defense and locate open teammates. When RJ goes into bucket mode, nobody else is sniffing the ball. Barrett lacks an advanced handle to counter after strong defenders cut off his initial penetration attempts, leading to many unneeded turnovers. Barrett is a good catch and shoot three point shooter and looks like he could hit pull-ups at a decent clip in the future.
On defense, Barrett is a solid point of attack defender with his strength and size. He’s an awful team defender, due to lackadaisical effort and his poor feel. RJ Barrett has the upside of a strong secondary creator with his vision, potential pull-up shooting and strength attacking the rim.
However, RJ’s believes he is a primary and he is not. Because of this, there’s a real worry he will never be as valuable as he should due to unforced poor decision making. I am skeptical Barrett will be willing to scale his game down and his feel for the game will never let him impact winning as much as he should, but I recognize his upside as a secondary creator and the importance of wing creation in the NBA.
6. Grant Williams
On and off of the basketball court, Grant Williams is a genius. He dominates the game of basketball with his mental acuity and could probably run for president if the NBA doesn’t work out. Williams is one of the best big passers in this draft, with a rare instinct of where his teammates are going to be and when to pass the ball to them. His vision and timing are impeccable, along with his decision making.
Williams did most of his passing damage out of the post, though it is easy to see it translate to the perimeter in the form of short rolls, cutting and drive and kicks. He would be most optimized in an environment where he can consistently playmaker out of the short roll, though his passing will add value anywhere he goes. An undersized post scorer, the 6’7.5 Grant Williams dominated the block with his brute strength and elite touch (50.2 percent on two-point jumpers, 72.2 percent at the rim, 81.8 percent on free throws). His elite touch allows him to hit contested shots at an elite rate, a valuable swing skill for his NBA translation.
Despite his low volume and accuracy from three, Williams’ touch and efficiency inside the arc are positive shooting indicators. Williams is a strong team defender; his elite feel for the game makes up for his lack of quickness and vertical in weak side rim protection. He’s pristine on his rotation and has elite strength to defend the interior. He does struggle on the perimeter at times, with poor foot quickness and speed to recover. Williams doesn’t have a clear NBA role and his size and college role turn many off. Players with his level of feel, strength and touch tend to figure things out in the NBA.
Williams’ skills should give him a strong avenue to providing value to winning at a high level as an ancillary offensive player and team defender, with potential to take on more scoring load if his difficult shot making translates to the next level.
5. Jontay Porter
Before diving into Porter on the court, it is important to talk about his injuries. Porter has torn the same ACL twice and his family is cursed with injuries. There’s a chance Porter never plays enough games to be worth a pick in the top five, let alone the first round. There are fewer reasons to be concerned with Porter’s injury than, say, his brother’s injuries. ACL injuries are not the career-enders they once were.
With a year of recovery, a player can be back at full strength. From the 2018 to 2019 draft combine, Porter dropped his body fat and weight from 13.85 percent and 236 pounds to 8.5 percent and 210 pounds. A massive body transformation with a torn ACL, I have confidence in Porter’s work ethic and body improvement. By losing the weight, he puts less force on his knees, lessening his chances at re-injury. Losing body fat also means potentially increasing quickness and agility, giving Porter athletic and physical upside.
On the court, Porter is an elite big shooter, with touch and versatility to shoot off of movement. He’s a basketball savant with an elite feel for the game with advanced passing and a plus handle for his size. On defense, Porter found a way to be effective in college despite his inability to jump at all or run in a straight line. Jontay’s quick feet enable him to change directions on a dime, helping him contain the ball in drop coverage and even defend guards at times.
Despite his awful vertical and short arms, Porter managed a 7.1 block rate off of his elite IQ, positioning and anticipation. If Porter is healthy, he could be an uber-valuable perimeter big man and an above average defense due to his IQ and agility. His injuries may debilitate him forever, but I’d rather swing on Jontay and miss on someone else than avoid Jontay and miss out if he ends up being healthy.
4. Ja Morant
When projecting Ja Morant as a future primary initiator (which is what we should be doing when ranking him inside the top five), there are plenty of hoops he will have to clear to reach viable initiator status. His pull-up jumper and overall self-creation outside of the rim (the most important skill for primary initiators) are major questions. At times Morant looked comfortable shooting off of the dribble, but he must address his shooting as a whole before zeroing in on the off-dribble stuff. Morant’s touch and free throw percentage (81.5) inspire confidence for future shooting development, though he’ll need to improve his poor shot mechanics to do so.
Morant is incredibly skinny, which limits his ability to finish at the rim through contact, as we saw in the Florida State game. He’s an explosive athlete off two feet with space. When his space disappears, Morant struggles to explode off of one foot and doesn’t have upper tier quickness like the often compared De’Aaron Fox. Theoretically, Morant has the athleticism and tools to be competent on defense.
As it currently stands, he is a sieve on defense, showing little effort, poor awareness and technical incompetence in areas such as closing out. It is easy to nitpick Morant to death (heck, I just did). Sometimes, it is important to zoom out and take a macro look at a prospect: Morant put up historical numbers carrying historical usage, is a great athlete, lives at the rim and is a sub-elite passer (sub-elite due to decision-making issues). That is a solid foundation for an initiator prospect.
Almost all of Morant’s issues (shooting, strength) are fixable and he has qualities we look for in primaries. As the only non-Zion prospect with a primary chance, Morant is worth any pick as high as two for the right team, given how necessary primaries are to winning titles.
3. Brandon Clarke
Brandon Clarke’s weaknesses have been excoriated to death: 23 years old, +0 wingspan at 6’8, four threes made. Clarke doesn’t fit into a particular archetype. That doesn’t matter. Clarke’s weaknesses are also way overstated and his future value as a dominating defensive prospect understated. The second best athlete in the draft, Clarke tested historically well at the combine and is a master at applying his athletic tools to an on-court setting, specifically on the defensive end.
With an elite feel for the game, Clarke combines his quick jump and vertical with elite instincts and timing to mitigate his lack of length as a rim protector. He’s incredibly smart, agile and can change directions to navigate the pick and roll and defend the perimeter. As a modern combo big, Clarke looks to return elite defensive value. Along with using his athleticism as a lob/roll threat, Clarke’s touch around the basket and in the mid-range is spectacular, allowing him to finish with elite efficiency inside the arc (79.7 percent at the rim, 51.7 percent on two-point jumpers). Because of his elite touch and massive shot-form improvement from his freshman season, Clarke has a high chance to shoot threes at a competent clip.
Unlike a Ja Morant or RJ Barrett, Clarke’s path to providing massive value on a contending team is simple: improving his jumper. His skills scale wonderfully with other elite talents, his defense and passing now, likely shooting later. Clarke will be an old rookie, but was a legitimately good player as a freshman and continues to improve, giving hope there’s more to come. Unlike Clarke’s weaknesses, the value of defense can’t be overstated, giving Clarke a path to impact winning at a high-level.
2. Jarrett Culver
If one believes in Jarrett Culver, they likely believe in his jump shot to a fair extent. Yes, Culver only shot 30.4 percent from deep this season. We cannot throw away his shot at shooting because of a college percentage; it is crucial to be conscious of context. Culver took on a 32.2 usage for Texas Tech, doing everything for the Red Raider offense. As a result, his shots came at a higher degree of difficulty. Playing off-ball as a freshman, Culver shot 38.2 percent from three. Culver’s incredibly soft touch around the rim (66.5 percent, 24.5 assisted), leaning to future shooting development. Culver’s mechanics have improved since his freshman year and his slower, high release may led him better to hitting contested jumpers.
While not an explosive athlete, Culver has excellent strength, balance and body control, helping him get to the rim and finish at a high level. Like Caris LeVert and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, he has a unique feel for positioning his body and angling himself in ways to finish without elite quickness (see his signature spin move).
Culver is also the best wing passer in this draft, facilitating at a high level for Texas Tech. He had some issues with team defense this season, though, again, Culver’s monster usage undoubtedly impacted his defensive effort. Look at Culver’s freshman season, where he excelled on defense with lower usage. With his strength and 6’7 frame, Culver should be an excellent point of attack defender and a strong team defender with his feel for the game, with the frame to put on even more muscle.
Like Clarke, Culver’s best skills scale up with other elite talents and his defense, passing, shooting and slashing should open up playing in an off-ball role. While Culver likely never reaches initiator status, he projects as a strong third option on a championship team, well worth the number two pick in this draft class.
1. Zion Williamson
Zion Williamson is the ultimate alpha. The best college player of the past two decades, Williamson towers over the rest of his draft class peers. The gap between Zion and Jarrett Culver is Grand Canyon-sized, maybe the largest gap between prospects in any draft ever. Zion is one of the greatest athletes on the planet, let alone in the NBA, being elite in every way: quickness, speed, balance, body control, strength, vertical-explosion, you name it. His feel for the game is off of the charts for an 18-year-old, along with his passing and handling ability. Given Zion’s uber-elite touch around the rim, I expect his jumper to improve in due time.
If he ever learns to shoot pull-ups, Zion is likely the best player in the NBA at that point. The moment he steps into the NBA, Zion will be one of the better players in the league. There’s never been anyone like Zion, but that is ok. To quote Red Team Scouting’s Eustacchio Raulli, “Great players create their own archetypes.”
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