NBA Draft: How Should the Top Five Guys be Ranked?

Posted: 06/14/2015 by levcohen in Basketball

With the NBA and NHL seasons drawing to an exciting close (both championship series seem likely to go seven games), it’s time to look ahead to what will happen right after it finally ends; the basketball and hockey drafts. I’ll be writing about the super top of the NHL draft soon, but today I’m going to tackle the exciting question of how the top five guys in the NBA draft, each of whom brings something different to the table, should be ranked. Most people have Karl-Anthony Towns first, but after that, I’ve seen the next four ranked in almost every possible order. The consensus seems to be that there is a big gap after #5, so the focus for the top four teams is now which player to pick. Now for the order I’d take them in, team fit aside, starting at #1..

Karl-Anthony Towns: I don’t think Towns is ever going to be a top five player in the NBA. He’s definitely a worse prospect than fellow Kentucky alum Anthony Davis. But I certainly see him turning into an All-Star player, especially on a Timberwolves offense that seems a good fit for his skill set. With all the reports saying that Towns will almost surely be taken by the T-Wolves, it’s safe to say that he’ll benefit right away from a fast paced offense with a wizard, Ricky Rubio, at point guard, some scoring playmakers (including last year’s #1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins), and a clear path to playing time at power forward and/or center. For much of the college season, the consensus #1 overall pick was Jahlil Okafor. But as the season went on, Towns gained more and more traction in the top prospect conversation. Why? Well, we always knew he had the higher upside simply because of his superior defensive play, better range, and better athleticism. But late in the season, Towns showed off a polished post move, going a long way to nullify Okafor’s only substantial advantage. Although he won’t be a dominant scorer against big time defenders, Towns is almost the full package. He can drain three pointers, and it’s likely that he’ll get more license to roam outside the paint and show off his range at the next level. He’s also a great free throw shooter, as he made 81% of his free throws last season. Add his defensive prowess (2.2 blocks in only 21.1 minutes per game), his post moves, and his overall basketball IQ, and you have a great all-around prospect and a lock to go in the top two.
Ceiling: Timberwolves, #1
Floor: Lakers, #2

D’Angelo Russell: Russell seems perfectly suited for the run-and-gun, three pointer or layup style that so many successful NBA teams are implementing. Of the three top prospects who played college basketball, Russell was by far the least known this time last year and even this time six months ago. But the combo guard turned heads with his flashy dominance of the Big 10. Until the Arizona game in the NCAA tournament, Russell never seemed to get rattled. The smooth point guard averaged 19.3 points on 45% shooting (41% from beyond the arc) despite being the focal point of Ohio State’s offense every time he took the floor. He also averaged 5.7 rebounds and five assists, leading an otherwise mediocre team to a #10 seed and the round of 32. He’s a 6’5″ guard with a 6’9″ wingspan, so length is definitely not a problem. He also made a handful of absolutely incredible passes, including this one, that showed off his terrific court vision. His decision making isn’t always sound, which is why it’s tough to classify him as a true point guard, but that will get better with time. The passing is one reason Russell has been compared (unfairly to both parties) to Stephen Curry. The main reason? He’s a tremendous, smooth shooter. Russell is a playmaker, and that’s why he’s risen so far up the list. Of course, there are still some red flags. I wouldn’t take one game too seriously, but that Arizona game did show that Russell, who isn’t all that athletic, might have some trouble running an offense and scoring against better, more physical defenders. He also took some possessions off on the defensive end and will never be a lockdown defender. But these are the same things people said about Curry, who was an amazing player at Davidson and still didn’t go in the top five. The top five teams this year won’t let the same thing happen to Russell.
Ceiling: Lakers, #2
Floor: Knicks, #4

Emmanuel Mudiay: Disclaimer: I’ve never watched either of the next two guys on this list play in a real, live game. But boy do I like what I see from Mudiay and Kristaps Porzingis. Mudiay played in China last season, but it’s not as if he’s come out of nowhere. Last season, he was a top recruit along with Towns and Okafor, and his skills are apparent. Unlike with Russell, there’s no doubt over whether Mudiay is a pure point guard. He’s fast, strong, and a terrific point guard, and in a bigger, more physical Chinese league, he averaged 18 points, six rebounds, and six assists per game. If he hadn’t gone down with an ankle injury early in the season, he might be in the running for the #1. pick. As it is, he’s almost certainly going to go in the top five. If Russell is Curry, Mudiay is John Wall, a more explosive, better defending point guard who has struggled with his shot. In fact, Mudiay and Russell are almost opposites, with Mudiay serving as the better defender and pure point guard and Russell being the better shooter and playmaker. To me, it’s really a matter of choice. Do you take the guy with the more projectable NBA career (Russell) or the more mysterious one with the higher upside and a lower floor (Mudiay)? I think that is over simplifying things, because Russell has upside and Mudiay will be a productive player even if he can’t develop a better offensive game, but you get the point.
Ceiling: Lakers, #2
Floor: Magic, #6

Kristaps Porzingis: If you were to ask me which of these five studs has the highest ceiling, I might go Porzingis. I’m really tempted to make the lazy comparisons to fellow non-American big men shooters Dirk Nowitzki (the upside) and Andrea Bargnani (the downside), but I’ll stay away from those comparisons. I’m not going to lie; putting Porzingis ahead of Okafor makes me nervous. I’ve seen Okafor a ton of times, and I know that he’s going to be a productive offensive player in the NBA. I can’t say the same thing about Porzingis. The biggest negative is the lack of strength that I can see from watching just 10 minutes of highlights. Porzingis is going to need to add a lot of muscle if he wants to battle down low with NBA big men, and more importantly, he can’t lose much mobility in the process of adding that weight. He also isn’t yet a great finisher at the rim and also pulls down a disappointingly few number of rebounds. Not good, right? Well, 10 years ago, most teams wouldn’t consider taking a player with such a high bust potential over a sure thing like Jahlil Okafor. Even today, most teams would take Okafor. I wouldn’t. Why? Because Porzingis not only has upside but also has bankable skills that will translate over to the NBA. Remember, he succeeded last season in the second best league in the world, averaging 11 points in 21 minutes per game as a 19 year old for Sevilla. He’s also 7’1″, a good (albeit not Russell-esque) three point shooter, and a good free throw shooter. But the real reason I rate Porzingis higher than Okafor is again because of the way the league is trending. If he can add a few pounds, Porzingis will be the perfect stretch four, a power forward who can defend his position, draw opposing big men out to the three point line, knock down shots, and contribute on the glass. The power forward is so important for spacing; a less mobile PF will clog the paint, while a more mobile one will open the game up. Porzingis is just better suited to play in today’s NBA than Okafor is, especially after he makes some initial adjustments to the NBA game.
Ceiling: Sixers, #3
Floor: Bobcats, #9

Jahlil Okafor: No, I don’t hate Jahlil Okafor. If I hated him, I’d put Justice Winslow, Willie Cauley-Stein, Mario Hezonja, and others ahead of him. I have no doubt that he’ll be a 20 points per game player in the NBA, and soon. He was incredible at Duke, a matchup nightmare and impossible to guard on the block one on one. He’s a tremendous post-up player and made 79% of his shots near the rim (66.4% total). Aside from his scoring, Okafor is also a pretty decent passer for his age and size, and he’s pretty nimble for a 270-pound guy with a 7’5″ wingspan. In post-up situations, he’s as good as it gets. The problem is that big men are posting less and less in the NBA, and it’s everything else that makes me nervous. Okafor has no shot outside the paint area, and shot just 51% on free throws. He won’t stretch the court and really needs to be next to a power forward who can shoot. The bigger problem? Okafor’s defense. Jahlil actually isn’t that bad at guarding guys in the post, but he’s a poor rim protector (thanks to lackluster lateral quickness), a bad defensive rebounder (6.5 DREB per 40 minutes, one of the worst rates among top college big men), and has some big lapses in which his man scores easy baskets. So Okafor needs to play next to a power forward who can stretch the floor and protect the rim. How many of those are there? They exist (Serge Ibaka), but there aren’t many of them. I just worry that picking Okafor will hamstring whomever picks him. That team will have to run its offense around the big man and find a suitable way to hide him defensively. He’s still a top guy because he contributes so much on the offensive end, but he’s really a liability in a lot of areas. Okafor will have some huge offensive games, but I don’t think his overall game is good enough to warrant taking him over any of the top four. Again, most of the top teams will probably disagree with me, which is why this is my personal opinion and not a mock draft.
Ceiling: Timberwolves, #1
Floor: Knicks, #4

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