It is often easier for me to imagine a center succeeding in the NBA than a perimeter player succeeding. If a player is big and can move well, it doesn't take a leap of the imagination to picture him grabbing rebounds, dunking the ball, and blocking a few shots at the next level. Now, the value of the center is sometimes hotly contested, with the death or revival of the big man sometimes happening multiple times during the same playoff series, but except for rare instances against ~65 win teams, a talented center is an important part of any team's arsenal.
Poeltl feels like the safest pick in this draft. He's the best bet of any of these centers to become an above average player on both sides of the ball, though he's far from a sure thing on either offense or defense. On the basis of the time I spent watching Utah this season, the team's strategy seemed to be for Poeltl to stay home on defense and focus on rebounding instead of challenging as many shots as possible at the rim. I am unsure whether this was deemed to be the best thing for Utah's defense or due to the desire to keep the team's best player on the court for as many minutes as possible. Poeltl's increased minutes, and decreased blocks and fouls, certainly point to the latter explanation.
When evaluating a big man's defensive potential, I try to focus on his ability to protect the rim and his ability to move his feet, ideally looking for a player who can do both. Poeltl can sort of do both. I don't think he'll excel at either skill, but it's possible he could eventually do both at a B+ level. He can block a shot when a guard drives right at him. I saw him make a few blocks when the guard drove past him, but he recovered quickly enough to block the shot. He is more agile than, say, Henry Ellenson, but perimeter players can still burn him on switches. Sometimes he is able to recover, and sometimes he is not. It usually works against NCAA guards, but if the increase in athleticism at the next level is greater than his ability to improve, I could see him becoming a liability when forced to switch or corral the pick and roll in certain circumstances. Likewise, I don't think he will be a great shotblocker in the NBA, but I think he'll at least be a semi-effective obstacle.
Poeltl's offense is understated but excellent. He dramatically improved as a free throw shooter, and shows both good touch and an excellent awareness of space in creating open looks for himself around the basket. He's a good passer, able to find open shooters from the low post, make interior passes and execute high-low reads. He has also shown a good first step and the ability to finish off one dribble from the free throw line. The key question is how much these skills matter without a jumper or the ability to finish dynamically at the rim. Poeltl is not a DeAndre Jordan or Andre Drummond type finisher. His defender won't need to be glued to his hip to prevent an alley oop, and Poeltl is not yet a threat from outside. His offensive profile actually reminds me of Cody Zeller, who has some skills and the ability to pass, but whose offensive game is fairly limited in the NBA due to the difficulty of creating quality looks near the basket without excellent athleticism.
Poeltl has sometimes been described as a low upside player, but I don't think that is true. If his defense translates and he adds a consistent jumper, he could become an Al Horford type player, where his well rounded skills make him one of the better big men in the league. On the other hand, if he stagnates, it's easy to see him topping out at Tyler Zeller. I think he's exclusively a center, not a power forward, which raises the question, how much should we value versatility in the draft? If a center or point guard cannot coexist with other players of the same position, should they be placed lower on a draft board? I tend to think that they should, but only as a tie-breaker between players. If a player has a high upside, they probably should be drafted regardless of versatility, but if the players are close, that versatility does have tangible benefits when constructing a team.
Davis is your stereotypical "didn't do much in college, but projected as a lottery pick" type of player. I am often bearish about the future of these players, but in this case, I think Davis has a good chance to be a solid NBA contributor. Davis played less than 20 minutes a game this year, which is far from ideal, but at least his per minute numbers were pretty decent. Davis averaged nearly 12 boards and 4 blocks per 40 minutes with good efficiency and a good assist to turnover rate, at least by the standards of freshmen centers.
My main issue with Davis is that it didn't seem like he was doing all that much to influence the game while he was in there, despite his good statistics. He's slightly undersized for a center, though there have been reports he could still be growing, and he sometimes looked overmatched against bigger centers, like Purdue's A.J. Hammons. He made an excellent lob target for Denzel Valentine, and demonstrated an ability to leap in traffic, a skill that many "freak athletes" do not possess, but even that strength demonstrates his reliance on other players to create offense for him. This makes me wonder how much of his offensive success this year came from playing with Denzel Valentine on a talented team. If he had played for UNLV, how many of those opportunities would still have been there for him? His only other real offensive skill is crashing the offensive glass, where he made a few impressive plays, but I wouldn't say he's an elite rebounding prospect.
I can look at Davis' game, squint, and see a player like Clint Capela. There is a role for players who block a lot of shots and are always threats to finish lobs, even if they are not the biggest or most skilled of players. I don't know if that's enough to give Davis a high upside, unless he keeps growing, but he should be a quality backup center at the least, and a solid starter in much of the multiverse. Interestingly, because of the greater predictability of the way blocks and rebounds translate to the NBA, I think that the athletic, inexperienced, low usage Davis might have a higher floor and lower ceiling than the less athletic, experienced, high usage Poeltl, as the latter is more dependent skills that are harder to project to the next level.
Onuaku is my best bet for an elite defensive big in this year's draft class. A sophomore younger than some freshmen, he showed the ability to both move his feet and protect the rim as the anchor for the 2nd best defense in the country (Poeltl's Utes were 69th and Davis' Spartans were 52nd). Onuaku does have some obvious weaknesses, but almost every issue I noticed with his game is one that seems correctable for a 19 year old prospect.
Onuaku's biggest weakness is his conditioning. He appears to get tired easily, and will often be the last one up the court. This leads to him getting beaten down the floor for an inexcusably easy layup or two a game, undoubtedly frustrating his coach to no end. If his team has any transition advantage at all, he'll make the outlet pass, showing good court vision, but then slowly saunter towards the halfcourt line instead of running toward the rim and drawing defensive attention to create a better shot. He is also one of the worst screeners I have ever seen, committing countless offensive fouls setting moving picks, and has a bad habit of jumping against pump fakes when guarding on the perimeter.
While those flaws are real, Onuaku is a very good shot blocker, able to protect the rim both against slashing guards and posting bigs. He does a very good job in the pick and roll, being quick enough to show and recover, and moving efficiently and intelligently in space. He is very agile for his size, able to stay in front of smaller players on the perimeter when not leaping to block a non-existent shot. He is also an excellent post defender, with the strength and anticipation to deter most attempts and he is excellent at both boxing out and pursuing rebounds. A big man who can protect the rim, defend the post, rebound, defend the pick and roll, and switch on to smaller players is a very valuable thing, and I'm not sure why the player with the best chance at being able to do all of those things is not getting more attention.
Onuaku is also infamous for shooting free throws underhanded, which helped him increase his free throw percentage this year, and is not a very skilled scorer. He's mostly good for putbacks and dunks off rolls, despite flashing decent touch in the post. Like Davis, he'll hit a jumper every once in a while, but I'll be surprised if it becomes part of his usual repertoire. Onuaku is an interesting passer. He has excellent vision for a big, and though he turned the ball over more than you'd like, many of those came from the aforementioned illegal screens and similar mistakes that he should be able to eventually excise from his game. And a big man who plays great defense and can pass is a very valuable player, even if he only scores 10-12 points a game.
I mostly observed Damian Jones while watching Vanderbilt for Wade Baldwin, and he looked like a generic backup center. His hands aren't very good, which is a problem for someone who is mostly a roll man. He'll block some shots, but he didn't show the same mobility, awareness in space, and rebounding as Onuaku, which will probably prevent him from becoming a quality starter.
Diamond Stone is a more skilled offensive player, scoring at a very efficient rate for a team loaded with offensive talent while also blocking a respectable number of shots. I'm not a big fan of his defensive potential, however, as he lacks agility and good instincts in space. If he becomes a good NBA defender, it will have to be on the merits of his strength and positioning, and those guys rarely work out on their first teams.
Stephen Zimmerman is more of a mystery to me because he played for the disorganized mess that was UNLV. He didn't look great around the rim on offense, especially when I watched him get dominated by fellow freshman Thomas Bryant. His defense also looked pretty poor when I watched, though his numbers indicate he can block shots. He's one of those players who had a reputation for being able to shoot based on his high school accomplishments, even if his freshman numbers did not support that narrative. There might be something there, based on residual high school hype and a few interesting statistical indicators, but I'd let somebody else take that spin on the roulette wheel.
A.J. Hammons, on the other hand, is a four year senior who is massive and skilled, but also ancient and difficult to keep on the court. He was kind of like the Treebeard of the Big Ten; extremely efficient while stomping lesser beings, but easily tired and distracted. Still, a second round pick on a shockingly agile 280 pound man who can finish, pass, block shots, and rebound would be a wise investment. It's very plausible he will work his way into better shape and follow the Mason Plumlee career arc, surprising many as a player who was undervalued because of his age, before proving that size & athleticism matter more.
Final Draft Board
After so much time spent watching, thinking, and writing, here is my chance to put out rankings that will look silly in just a few months. Links to all previous articles are at the bottom of the page. I have Euro opinions, but unfortunately did not have time to write them up this year. So without further ado, here is the final result of this exercise, a top 25 board replete with caveats and two bonus UDFA candidates at the end.
Tier One - Likely fringe All-Stars with significant star potential.
1. Ben Simmons - I would be very nervous about drafting him, but he is extremely talented.
2. Brandon Ingram - All limbs & potential. Reminds me of Giannis a little.
3. Dragan Bender - Even more potential & less certainty. Basing a lot of faith on youth tournament domination here.
Tier Two - Likely above average with some star potential.
4. Furkan Korkmaz - He's a pure shooter, a good passer, tall, athletic, and super young. Every other shooting prospect is missing at least one of those qualities.
5. Wade Baldwin - I'm confident he'll be able to pass, shoot, and defend. He probably tops out around George Hill, which is a good outcome, and he could be better if his handle improves.
6. Ivica Zubac - He plays like a graceful bear. I think he's quick enough to defend adequately in space.
7. Chinanu Onuaku
8. Jakob Poeltl
Tier Three - Likely average with small chance of stardom.
9. Patrick McCaw - I love his defensive potential and his passing is sneakily good.
10. Kris Dunn - I think it's likelier he doesn't work out, but his ceiling is very high.
11. Deyonta Davis
12. Zhou Qi - Somewhere on the Nogueira-Henson-Gobert spectrum. Crazy upside, very real concerns.
13. Rade Zagorac - He's tall, can handle, pass, shoot, and has good instincts on defense. He's relatively young and is decently athletic. I don't know why he's not rated higher.
Tier Four - High end bench player or low end starter.
14. Gary Payton II - Probably best as a multi-positional defensive dervish off the bench with enough passing, cutting, and catch & shoot threes to be valuable.
15. DeAndre Bembry - Love his game, not sure how good he can be if his shooting doesn't improve.
16. Jamal Murray - I guess. He is good at scoring and he is young.
17. Jaylen Brown - Sigh.
18. Robert Carter - Skilled big who has...potential...on defense.
19. Guerschon Yabusele - Looks better by the eye test than the numbers.
20. Brice Johnson - Looks better by the numbers than the eye test.
21. A.J. Hammons
22. Timothe Luwawu - Made some big improvements this year, and could be a solid 3&D wing off the bench.
Tier Four and a Half - Would be in tier four, but have reported injury concerns.
Obviously, I am neither a doctor, nor in contact with one, but each of these players has been reported as having major injury concerns. Ulis reportedly has a hip problem, which brings up painful memories for Wolves fans, Valentine has a knee problem with could rob him of already limited athleticism, and LeVert has a history of leg problems. If my doctors gave a green light on any of these prospects, they would fit in the 14-18 range on my board. If the doctors were less optimistic, I would pass on them.
23. Tyler Ulis
24. Denzel Valentine
25. Caris LeVert
Deep Sleepers - UDFA targets (players rated #50 or lower by DX)
1. Isaiah Taylor - Extremely quick, athletic point guard who gets to the rim at will.
2. Dorian Finney-Smith - combo forward who can handle, pass, shoot, and defend a little.
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