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The 2017 Draft: An Exercise In Humility

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Before listening to me this year, you should see how wrong I was last year.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Louisville vs Duke Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

As we head into offseason mode, the NBA draft is destined to become a chief topic of conversation here at Canis. It is easy to make bold predictions and concoct scorching takes before a draft; it is more difficult to reassess those takes after time has rendered them ridiculous. However, it is only through trial and error that we learn, and so before writing any more about this year’s draft, I thought it would be a good idea to look at my writing from last year.

A complicating factor is the way I’ve redesigned SMILODON, my NBA draft projection system, which has boosted some players at the expense of others since that draft. You can find my current system’s rankings here and last year’s thoughts here and here. I will also quote my most relevant thoughts about many of last year’s top sixty. Where was I right? Where was I wrong? What lessons were learned? Find a comfy chair, grab a mug of coffee, and find out, as this will be a long one.

Details of SMILODON’s redesign can be found at the bottom of this article for those who are interested.

Markelle Fultz (#1 NBA Draft, #1 My Board)

Here is what I had to say about Fultz last year.

It is very unusual to find a point guard as young and well-rounded as Markelle Fultz...My only concern is his free throw shooting...If his free throws are more indicative of his shooting potential than his numbers from the field - both from two and three - then he could struggle more than I anticipate.

Despite my wariness surrounding his shooting, I did not see the most bizarre story of the 2017-18 season coming, and kept Fultz number one, in line with consensus. Despite falling out of the playoff rotation, I think Fultz showed enough flashes down the stretch to make me believe he could be a very good player. I’m not sure what the lesson here is, other than to be very careful when taking guards who have worrisome shooting indicators.

Lonzo Ball (#2 NBA Draft, #5 My Board)

I love players who can pass like Ball, but his lack of driving ability is very concerning...Here are some other point guards from the past several years who struggled in that area...Ball is bigger than most of these players, with a better overall profile, but I don’t think any of them have lived up to their draft position.

I was really worried that Ball would not be able to score, despite loving the rest of his game. I think those concerns have been shown to be valid, despite his defense being better than I anticipated. Like Fultz, Ball’s shooting struggles have reinforced the importance of NCAA free throw percentage, and his inability to get to the rim in the half court in college portended further struggles in the NBA. However, amazing BBIQ is still really valuable, and I would not be surprised if Ball is a top five player from this draft.

Jayson Tatum (#3 NBA Draft, #2 My Board)

If I trusted SMILODON a little bit more, I might put Jayson Tatum at #1...it’s very rare to get a player with his size, scouting hype, and diverse skillset. His 85% mark from the line as a freshman is especially intriguing, as it suggests the possibility of elite shooting down the road.

Nailed it.

Josh Jackson (#4 NBA Draft, #3 My Board)

I will continue to be burned by non-shooting wings who can pass, drive, and defend, probably forever.

This was always an upside pick, based on the possibility that Jackson learned to shoot. He hasn’t, and I had him too high for that reason, but the most disappointing part of Jackson’s season has actually been his defense. Part of that could be blamed on Phoenix, but I think I overrated Jackson’s defense for a couple of other, more foreseeable reasons. Compared to OG Anunoby, the draft’s other premier wing defender, Jackson had somewhat similar defense numbers, but he was much skinnier with a much smaller wingspan, and I think I underrated the importance of length and strength when translating defense to the NBA.

De’Aaron Fox (#5 NBA Draft, #9 My Board)

I don’t think his defense and passing are good enough to make up for his lack of shooting. But if his shooting comes around - watch out.

It’s year one, and his shooting has not come around. I would have taken Isaac over him, and I stand by that for the Kings. It does take smaller/skinnier point guards longer to reach their potential, but I probably should have had him a couple spots lower.

Jonathan Isaac (#6 NBA Draft, #4 My Board)

Isaac is a Swiss Army knife defender who has the length, anticipation, and lateral quickness to shut down opposing forwards, but projects as a finisher rather than a creator on offense...May have All-Defense potential.

Isaac was injured for most of the year, but showed flashes. I’ll stand by this take for now. We’ll have to see how badly Orlando (mis)uses him over the next few years.

Lauri Markkanen (#7 NBA Draft, #11 My Board)

I don’t think he can be a primary option on offense...The Markksman is suitably agile for a seven footer, and can shoot the ball like no first round big man since Ryan Anderson, but moves around the court like he’s scared of knocking over a priceless vase.

This was a bad take. I underestimated how much Markkanen’s situation at Arizona made him look worse than he was off the dribble. I’m still not sure he’s going to return top five value. We will have to see how his defense progresses once he’s in a winning context.

Frank Ntilikina (#8 NBA Draft, #12 My Board)

Ntilikina was a big mystery box to me. His Euro stats didn’t look great, so I put him last among the consensus lottery guys. Surprisingly, that looks like a reasonable call so far. When I applied SMILODON to his international numbers, he didn’t look like a draftable player. That would have been too harsh.

Dennis Smith (#9 NBA Draft, #7 My Board)

Driving ability combined with the possibility that he will show more athleticism as he continues to recover from his ACL injury makes him an intriguing gamble..[despite] his shaky jumper.

I think my take here was essentially correct. Smith’s shooting was more of an issue than a lot of the draft commentary assumed, but by the end of the top ten, he was pretty attractive as a high risk/high reward gamble.

Zach Collins (#10 NBA Draft, #6 My Board)

What makes Collins an interesting prospect is his potential to develop into a “unicorn big”, that is, a big who can both protect the rim and make shots from the perimeter. These types of two way centers are one of the most valuable player types in the NBA, making Collins an excellent prospect despite his bench role this year.

Collins was initially very obviously physically unready for the NBA, but worked his way into the Blazers’ rotation down the stretch. I should have discounted his production a little more based on his role and strength of competition, but I’m still optimistic about his future as a stretch big who can defend in space and at the rim. That’s actually not too bad of an outcome at #10. For context, the last five #10 picks before Collins had been Thon Maker, Justise Winslow, Elfrid Payton, C.J. McCollum, and Austin Rivers.

Malik Monk (#11 NBA Draft, #8 My Board)

C.J. McCollum seems like a reasonable best case scenario, though there is certainly a possibility Monk’s defense fails to improve and he is best as a microwave scorer off the bench on a good team. (Or he could become a guy who puts up good scoring numbers on bad teams.) I will be most interested to see if Monk can eventually thrive as the nominal point guard next to a point forward, like the role Kyrie Irving sometimes fills next to LeBron. That may be the best way to play to his strengths on a championship contender.

This ranking was dumb. Putting him over Mitchell and Markkanen was dumb, even at the time. I am still confident Monk will be able to score a lot, but I think I was too influenced by the success of Jamal Murray and Devin Booker to fully account for the negatives in Monk’s game. I just assumed, “all the UK shooting guards who don’t play defense will look much better in the NBA for some reason I don’t understand.” And that was wrong.

Luke Kennard (#12 NBA Draft, Not in top 20 on my board)

Luke Kennard has the same flags as Nik Stauskas and Rodney Hood, with a physical profile closer to the former than the latter.

He’s been a little better than I expected. I’m not sure he can do much other than shoot, but he’s more athletic than I thought he was, which means he should stick as a rotation player.

Donovan Mitchell (#13 NBA Draft, #10 My Board)

Really good defensive profile with good enough offense to start at the two.

I expected Mitchell to be an excellent 3&D player, a shorter Danny Green with an average handle, not a primary creator. In retrospect, if I just followed the system, instead of scouting hype, I should have had him 6th or 7th, but that would still undersell him. I don’t know if anyone could have seen this type of improvement coming, but it’s a reminder that it is a good idea to bet on players with good defensive indicators.

Bam Adebayo (#14 NBA Draft, Not in top 20 on my board)

I wouldn’t be surprised to see [him] as [a] competent rotation big, but those players are nearly free on the NBA market.

I also wrote this about John Collins, Jarrett Allen, Justin Patton, and Harry Giles. Bam’s been a much better passer than I anticipated, but I’m not sure what eventually makes him more than a 20-25 minutes a night guy for a good team. I underrated the value of his speed and athleticism, which made him a solid pick at #14, but I think this may look like a better pick now than int five years.

Justin Jackson (#15 NBA Draft, Not in the top 20 on my board)

Justin Jackson has a profile that suggests he does not have the physical tools to succeed in the NBA.

I wrote this about Jackson’s inability to get to the rim or post defensive numbers in college. He had a fairly uninspiring rookie year.

Justin Patton, D.J. Wilson, T.J. Leaf, John Collins, Harry Giles (#16-20 NBA Draft; NR, 20, 17, NR, NR My Board)

I was very concerned by John Collins’ lack of passing and defense at Wake Forest. He played for a very bad team this year, but put up impressive, efficient scoring with better passing and outside shooting than most people expected. The lesson seems to be to trust eye-popping scoring and rebounding to somewhat translate, at least from an athletic teenager. I am a bit worried that Collins is what he is at this point - athletic, unskilled bigs seem to have an easier initial transition - but we’ll see if he can add more skill or defense to his game over the next few years. As it is, I should have had him first out of this group.

Patton and Giles are still question marks. I overrated D.J. Wilson, who came out of a program that makes players look better than they are. T.J. Leaf has some interesting skills, but his defense might be too bad for it to matter.

Terrance Ferguson, Jarrett Allen, OG Anunoby, Tyler Lydon, Anzejs Pasceniks (#21-25 NBA Draft; NR w/extreme prejudice, NR, 14, NR, NR My Board)

O.G. Anunoby has a similar, but slightly superior, profile to Andre Roberson...D.J. Wilson and Tyler Lydon both project as solid stretch bigs. I am a bit concerned about each. Both prospects carried very low usages in college, possibly indicating that they will be better suited to roles off the bench in the NBA. Each player also played in a very favorable school context. Michigan plays a spread offense, while the Syracuse zone probably inflated Lydon’s defensive stats.

I am surprised OG shot as well as he did this year, but I am not at all surprised that he’s better than all of the players in this group, and I would have taken him in front of all of the players in the last group as well. He should be a top ten player from this class when we look back on it in ten or twenty years, mostly because switchable wing defenders are so valuable.

Ferguson is, optimistically, a few years away, but put up only 8.9 points, 2.2 rebounds, and 0.9 assists per 36 this year. That’s a little worrying. Even Anunoby, who was on the court almost exclusively for his defense, on a better team, beat him in all three categories.

Jarrett Allen looked bad at Texas, but was young, long-armed, athletic, and out of position. He has better rim protection potential, but worse passing than Bam. I think both players have similar long term potential as solid rotation bigs. That’s an even better outcome at #22 than at #14.

Caleb Swanigan, Kyle Kuzma, Tony Bradley, Derrick White, Josh Hart (#26-30 NBA Draft; NR, NR, NR, 15, NR My Board)

Hart’s shooting profile is nothing special after accounting for his free throw percentage and his other skills look solid, but unspectacular. That’s not especially encouraging for a prospect who turned 22 at the end of the season.

I was wrong here, and Hart’s profile looks better, comparatively, in the updated version of SMILODON. Adding a rebounding component to the “defense” stat helped him quite a bit. He’s no star, but is a tough, solid role player who should have been drafted in the late teens. The lesson here is that a wing who is “decent” at everything is actually very valuable.

I underrated Kuzma through laziness; I relied on my memory of his poor play when I watched Poeltl the year before. His athleticism and play had improved a lot, and I realized that mistake as soon as I saw him play three minutes in Summer League. I do think he may be limited to a bench role because of his defensive limitations, but he should have gone ten spots higher.

I was very low on Tony Bradley, who was fine in the G-League, but doesn’t have a clear path to playing time in Utah.

Derrick White was as good as one could ask in the G-League, but is also older than Bradley. If Manu and Parker retire, he’ll get more of a chance to play next year.

Frank Jackson, Davon Reed, Wesley Iwundu, Frank Mason, Ivan Rabb (#31-35 NBA Draft; NR, NR, NR, NR, NR My Board)

SMILODON liked Wes Iwundu, but I was skeptical that his shooting would translate, and, so far, that has turned out to be correct. (The revised SMILODON is far less sanguine about his chances than version 1.0.) Frank Mason and Ivan Rabb might be fine 9th men, but no one here has yet shown that you would regret passing on them.

Jonah Bolden, Semi Ojeleye, Jordan Bell, Jawun Evans, Dwayne Bacon (#36-40 NBA Draft; NR, NR, NR, 16, NR My Board)

Jawun Evans is an example of a player type I am growing to distrust - small point guards - but his driving ability is very impressive, and makes me think he could contribute to a team...[Jordan] Bell has unique skills, but old and undersized is a bad combination. Still, he may find a way to be useful on defense.

SMILODON saw Evans as a top ten talent, but I was subjectively mistrustful of his projection as a small point guard without elite shooting ability. I thought that much of the offense he created in college could be smothered in the NBA, and that happened in his first season. That being said, small, skilled players like Evans often take longer to adjust to the speed and length of the NBA, and I could see him improving more than is usual for a prospect and becoming a valuable sixth man several years down the line.

I was too pessimistic on Jordan Bell’s athleticism and passing ability. He went to the perfect situation, on a team that knows how to use his talents, but I’ve been surprised by how well his rim protection has translated.

I was pessimistic on Semi Ojeleye before the draft, and I’m sticking with that opinion. I don’t think people understand how unproductive he has been as a 23 year old rookie. Among players with regular rotation minutes, his PER (4.6) is one of the lowest ever. His plus/minus might be even more unimpressive. Among the 11 Celtics who have played at least 20% of the team’s minutes, Ojeleye (29% of their minutes) has by far the worst net rating. The Celtics have a net rating of -5.3 when he’s on the court (+7.3 off). Their next worst among that group is Marcus Morris (36% of their minutes): Boston’s net rating is -0.1 when he plays. Everyone else, including Daniel Theis, Shane Larkin, and Aron Baynes, is in the black.

Jonah Bolden is intriguing, but his shooting has regressed. Dwayne Bacon got minutes, but his -5.7 BPM suggests that wasn’t a good thing for the Hornets.

Tyler Dorsey, Thomas Bryant, Isaiah Hartenstein, Damyean Dotson, Dillon Brooks (#41-45 NBA Draft; NR, NR, 19, NR, 13 My Board)

Brooks has alligator arms, but should be tall and strong enough to stick at small forward, where he provides plus shooting, driving, and passing, with enough defensive numbers that I buy his athleticism. My only concern is that the Oregon team context inflated his numbers... [On Brooks] Skilled, versatile wings are my thing...[On Hartenstein] Very uncertain he can actually play, but he projects as a big who might be able to shoot, handle, and force turnovers.

Isaiah Hartenstein was an upside play that seems unlikely to pay off, though it’s too early to really say, as there weren’t many developmental minutes available on the Rockets & he was ok in the G-League.

Dillon Brooks had the opposite situation, in which he was forced into a bigger role than expected for a tanking team. He struggled for much of the year - though it’s impressive for a mid 2nd rounder to play more than 2000 minutes regardless of the context - but started to put things together late in the season. Over his last 20 games, Brooks averaged, per 36, 20.9 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.8 assists on .449/.354/.776 shooting splits. Yes, it was down the stretch for a team that wasn’t trying to win, but those are still impressive numbers for a rookie. If he can continue to be an effective scorer who can switch between the two and the three on defense, I will feel justified for ranking him in the top 15.

Sterling Brown, Ike Anigbogu, Sindarius Thornwell, Vlatko Cancar, Matthias Lessort (#46-50 NBA Draft; NR, 18, NR, NR, NR My Board)

He’s [Ike Anigbogu] probably Biyombo, but by this point, it’s not such a bad outcome.

Anigbogu was very young and very athletic, but didn’t really know how to play basketball and fell on draft night. I probably ranked him a little too high. We’ll see what he becomes. Sterling Brown and Sindarius Thornwell both look like solid bench wings - Brown’s a better shooter, Thornwell a better defender - which means they were taken 15-20 picks too late. None of these players are yet someone a team would really regret passing on.

Monte Morris, Edmond Sumner, Kadeem Allen, Alec Peters, Nigel Williams-Goss, Jabari Bird, Alexander Vezenkov, Ognjen Jaramaz, Jaron Blossomgame, Alpha Kaba (#51-60 NBA Draft; All NR My Board)

Monte Morris has the only ELITE skill of the group, but ELITE passing from an unathletic point guard with problems getting to the rim may be the ELITE skill least likely to translate to the NBA...Nigel Williams-Goss might be a solid undrafted free agent target, as a bigger point guard with a chance to shoot and drive... [He is] the most promising guard at the bottom of the draft.

Williams-Goss is enjoying a spectacular season in the Adriatic League. I expect him to be a solid NBA player at some point. Monte Morris has been fine in the G-League, albeit for Rio Grande Valley, which inflates stats at a rate not seen since the heyday of Coors Field. As they often have more difficult paths to playing time, we’ll give the players at the bottom of the draft, along with those who went undrafted, another season or two to break into the league before we start to evaluate them.

How would I rank the players now, pretending I now know what I knew before the draft? It’s impossible to do so, of course, but a better board, that jibes with the updated SMILODON might look like this.

(“Draft” column refers to the updated projection; “Previous” refers to last year’s ranking.)

2017 Revised SMILODON 1-15
2017 Revised SMILODON 16-30

This is, of course, with the benefit of hindsight, probably a better board than anyone was able to put together before the draft, and I am not saying that I could have done this well last year. And there are still players on here who are too high or too low. That being said, I will be trying to apply the lessons learned from this board to this year’s draft. We will see next year if the right lessons were learned.

Technical Details

Most of the changes to SMILODON were discussed in this article; however, there were a few changes I made after that point.

  • For forwards, I replaced team performance with DBPM in the “defense” formula.
  • For forwards, I changed the “passing” formula to penalize turnovers less, include a steals component as a secondary measure of awareness, and raise the statistical thresholds for each tier.
  • For bigs, I changed the “shot creation” category to a “production” category, in which OBPM serves as the base of the formula. Three pointers made are then de-emphasized so that one-dimensional shooters are not unduly rewarded in a category other than shooting, and assists are treated as a multiplier of OBPM.
  • For bigs, I also changed the “defensive awareness” category to “defensive impact”, using DBPM, which I adjusted to de-emphasize blocks, again so I wouldn’t “double count” them, and then give extra weight to steals and defensive rebounds.

For those of you who are still reading after almost four thousand words, you deserve something special. Treat yourself to some Doncic.