This is the third and final installment of my 2019 NBA Draft Big Board. This post includes two tiers. Tier 1 is just one player. Tier 1 is special and exceedingly strong by the standard of a normal draft. Tier 2 is very weak and interchangeable. I would not want to take any Tier 2 players in the top five picks of a normal draft but would be comfortable with all of them in the mid-to-late lottery. Tier 2 is notably light on realistic superstar outcomes. Before reading, be sure to check out Tier 3, Tier 4, and the philosophies underlying these rankings.
Tier 1: Zion
1. Zion Williamson, Forward/Wing
This is going to be a long piece, so I’m going to save words where I can. Williamson’s intersection of intelligence, coordination, touch, vertical and horizontal explosion, and motor make him an all-time-great prospect and by far the best available player in the 2019 NBA Draft.
Tier 2: High probability starters and/or conceivable star outcomes
2. Jarrett Culver, Wing
There are two major points of concern with Culver: 1) he’s a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, master of none and 2) his shot is questionable. That’s a combination that’s bred draft failure after draft failure after draft failure in the past. But, I believe the jack-of-all-trades designation undersells a few key aspects of Culver’s game.
Offensively, Culver is exceptional in two respects: playmaking and finishing. As a passer, he can operate out of the pick-and-roll at a high level, connecting with the roll man or executing skip passes to the corner. He is highly aware, fairly ambitious, and a reliable decision-maker. For a playmaking wing, he is outstanding, and while that won’t translate to primary ball-handling in the NBA, I expect him to be an optimal secondary handler.
As a slasher, he’s powerful, able to absorb and finish through contact. He doesn’t have an explosive first step, but his strides are long and smooth. He gains ground with the second, third, and fourth steps in a way few drivers do. At the rim, his touch is exceptional.
Concern over Culver’s shot is certainly warranted. It’s a hitchy and inconsistent mess that fell at just 30.4% from deep in his sophomore season at Texas Tech. On the other hand, this was Culver’s jumper a year ago:
Given how far he’s come in a year, how exceptional his touch is, how much easier his 3-point attempts will be in the NBA as he shifts to a more off-ball role, I’m optimistic Culver will be an adequate marksman.
Where Culver also shirks the jack-of-all-trades designation is on the defensive end. While shouldering a massive offensive load this year (32.2% USG), Culver was a very good defender. The smoothness of his movement is genuinely beautiful to watch and translates to plus on-ball defense. He’s long and strong and plays with great intensity both on and off the ball, and in team defense situations, his intelligence shines, allowing him to generate considerable impact. With a more reasonable offensive role in the NBA, Culver ratcheting up his defense to elite levels is well within his range of outcomes.
Throw this version of Culver into a time machine and he’d be my 6th-ranked prospect in the 2018 Draft at best. He has considerable flaws, and the track record of high-lottery jack-of-all-trades wings like Evan Turner and Josh Jackson is not encouraging, but Culver’s well-rounded game and truly exceptional abilities in a few areas make me optimistic he’ll be an ideal complementary piece on a great team.
3. Ja Morant, Lead Guard
Morant has slowly risen for me ever since I first saw him face off with Alabama in late November, and I don’t feel good about it. The popular discourse around Morant has frustrated me to no end in light of the way the mainstream treated Trae Young just last year, not because they’re similar players--they’re not, but the idea of how they succeed in the NBA is, broadly speaking, the same.
I was a huge fan of Young’s, ranking him 4th in the class (he’d rise to 3rd in a re-rank for me). I acknowledged his horrid defense, his lack of explosion, his lack of strength, but bought the threat of his pull-up as sufficient to create the dribble penetration necessary for his transcendent passing to shine. It was the synergy between skills that led me to believe Young could be a special enough offensive engine to overcome his very negative defensive impact.
At Murray State, Morant was a comparably negative defender to Young at Oklahoma. At the point of attack, he crumpled. Off-ball, he was utterly clueless. He floated around without purpose, got abused physically, and was completely devoid of technique and effort:
I have very little optimism for any of that changing in the NBA. Morant’s incredibly weak, and the idea that “athleticism” equates to defensive upside is not an accurate reflection of how defensive impact is generated (through intelligence, awareness, technique, and effort). I went back and watched a couple games from Morant’s freshman season at Murray State, and he was a better defender--it’s a low bar--in a less strenuous on-ball role, but he certainly wasn’t a revelation. More importantly, Morant’s very appeal is his ludicrous on-ball ability. If you have to sacrifice that to salvage his defense, you’re selling your car to fund its new engine.
Like Young, therefore, Morant has to be a special offensive engine for the equation to work. I have serious concerns about that. The most obvious concern with Morant’s offensive repertoire is his shot: it’s low, slow, and a bit of a two-handed shot put. I think he’ll likely be fine on spot-ups-- his most common play type during his freshman year--which is nice for scalability (fitting in on a great team) purposes, but means very little for his role as an on-ball player. On pull-ups, which is what Morant really needs to punish the drop pick-and-roll coverages he’ll face in the NBA, I’m skeptical due to the aforementioned speed and release point.
The much less obvious offensive hole for Morant is his vertical leaping. If you know anything at all about Morant, this is likely a confusing assertion. It’s essential here to draw the distinction between two-foot and one-foot leaping (and the broader distinction between functional and non-functional athleticism).
Given space to jump off two feet, Morant is a special leaper. Opportunities to jump off two with ample space come about rarely in the NBA, and when they do (in the open court or in the half court with an open runway to the rim) there’s much more flash value added by prodigious leaping than impact on basketball games. Far more important is the ability to get up off one foot in tight windows.
In this area, Morant is seriously lacking. His lack of strength limits his explosion, and when he’s confronted with contact, he wilts. This is basically where the outlandish Russell Westbrook comparison dies a fiery death. Westbrook is a freak who explodes off one foot while surrounded by masses of limbs and muscles and yams anyway because his muscles are bigger. This is Morant trying to explode off one:
Add to all that a seriously limited in-between game and the viability of Ja Morant, offensive engine, seems dubious. Nonetheless, Morant is a pretty good prospect.
To be an offensive engine, a player must satisfy two basic criteria: 1) ability to compromise a defense 2) ability to capitalize on that weak point. Morant unquestionably checks these boxes.
In ball screen situations, Morant sets the defense up beautifully. He is a siren, making subtle movements, hesitations, and dribble moves to entice his defender when he’s really setting up the on-ball defender for death by screening. Once he’s into the defense, Morant is a sub-elite passer:
Some of these look more impressive than they are because he's just executing sets, but this is a pretty nice assortment of skips, lobs, wraparounds, dump-offs, outlets pic.twitter.com/R0crei314t— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) June 6, 2019
In his bag resides just about every pass in the book, and with both hands thanks to Morant’s natural left-handedness and adopted righty tendencies. He’s not quite the defense-manipulator Luka Doncic and Young were as prospects--you won’t see him wreak havoc with nothing but his eyes--and Morant’s decision-making can be really rough at times, but he’s so good in every other aspect of passing, he still qualifies as sub-elite.
To delve a little deeper into the decision-making, I do find it to be a serious issue, but I also think it’s somewhat a reflection of admirable boldness and creativity as a passer. Morant will get locked in on a read and commit to throwing a pass before evaluating whether the window is actually open, but he’s willing to try passes most passers--even very good ones--won’t. In time, there’s hope Morant will learn which windows are actionable, in which case he’ll know how to weaponize the outlier vision and creativity he possesses.
It’s hard for me to be too low on a player who so fully checks the boxes for an offensive engine, but I harbor serious reservations as to Morant’s ability to satisfy the demands of the role on a great team against a great defense (and that’s what we’re all building toward). I highly recommend this piece on Morant’s final college game by the incomparable Cole Zwicker. It’s an incredibly thorough look at perhaps the most important single game played by a prospect this year, and it’s concerning. When confronted with the length, discipline, and athleticism he’ll see nightly in the NBA, Morant was utterly defanged. It’s just one data point, but it’s not an encouraging one, and highlights well my various “translation” concerns with Morant.
Ultimately, though, Morant seems like a good bet to be solid. At worst, he should be an offensive engine on a bad team. At best, he could be a borderline elite offensive engine, and there are a handful of reasonable ways for him to get there (develops in-between game, adds strength, high-end shooting outcome). I don’t love him. I don’t feel great about it. But in this draft, everyone else is too hard a sell.
4. Grant Williams, Forward
If you follow me on Twitter, you’re familiar with my affinity for Grant Williams. Williams is the strongest player in the Draft, arguably the smartest, and undoubtedly my favorite. While skeptics have often pointed to Williams’ size as detrimental to his NBA translation, he quieted those concerns at the combine, measuring in at 6’7.5” with a 6’9.75”. Williams has NBA forward height and length, but his outlier physical tool is his strength.
On the glass, defending larger players, impacting shots at the rim, finishing through contact, carving out space to get his shot off, Williams applies his strength at an utterly elite level. And that’s not going to change in the NBA:
Everyone knows Grant Williams is a strong dude. But at P3, they tested that strength. On his first day there, at only 20 years old, Williams came in the 96th percentile among their database of hundreds of current/past NBA players regardless of position. https://t.co/iHeemAF2Zw pic.twitter.com/pfi01jymK0— Sam Vecenie (@Sam_Vecenie) June 14, 2019
Williams’ strength needs to be discussed more as a game-changing athletic trait. Strength, when applied to all the aspects of the game Williams applies it to, is as valuable as any athletic ability. Watch players lacking positional size like Marcus Smart or PJ Tucker dominate defensively through strength. Tune into the highest levels of play to see Kawhi Leonard ride strength to a Finals MVP. Physically, Williams has the tools to exert his will on NBA basketball games.
Where some worry about Williams’ physical abilities is on the perimeter with respect to his movement skills:
I find this to be a legitimate, though overblown, concern. Williams moves well laterally, but has two somewhat significant issues: 1) he’s jumpy on the perimeter 2) he has a very wide turning radius when forced to change direction, which allows for offensive players to create a fair amount of space with east-west movement. I don’t think these are damning flaws. They put a cap on Williams’ perimeter defense, but only to the degree that he should be solid and unremarkable as opposed to a difference-maker.
Williams is a difference-maker on the interior:
Gets dunked on in the end but Grant Williams pic.twitter.com/f0hlJmYfit— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) January 13, 2019
Strength is key to Williams’ defensive brilliance, but intelligence is as integral. He’s a genius with elite awareness and recognition. He routinely makes point-saving out-of-area plays and consistently imprints himself on the game possession after possession. Williams is a defensive playmaker:
He’s an offensive playmaker, too:
The screen. The pass. The board. GRANT in 10 seconds. pic.twitter.com/020WBwEjwo— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) May 26, 2019
Williams is a passing savant. He not only has elite vision and court awareness, but he’s an anticipatory passer, capable of leading teammates like a quarterback and seeing defensive weak points before they exist. In the NBA, he should dominate as a short roll playmaker and post facilitator.
He’s no slouch as a scorer, either. Williams was a high-volume, elite-efficiency (97th percentile) post scorer in college. While I doubt he’ll be that prolific in the NBA, Williams should continue to be successful using strength to generate space for his jumper, which has a high release point that Williams easily gets off over contests from longer players.
While he’s an elite mid-range shooter, Williams has yet to consistently extend his range to 3 (he attempted 46 3-pointers this year), but elite touch and mid-range shooting, projectable mechanics, and strong free-throw percentage (81.9% on 7 attempts per contest this year) have me optimistic range is a matter of when not if for Williams.
The best indicator of whether a prospect will be a good basketball player in the future is whether he was a good basketball player in the past. There are no more than three players in this class who have been better at basketball than Williams in the past. And Williams has achieved that level of goodness despite being a very young junior, still just 20 years old through late November.
I expect Williams to step in immediately as a versatile defensive wrecking ball, potent short roll playmaker, exceptional mid-range finisher, and pick-and-pop threat. It won’t be conventional stardom, and there are certainly outcomes where Williams is too vulnerable defending the perimeter and hesitant shooting the 3, but he should be incredibly valuable and irreplaceable complementary player on good teams for a long time.
5. Brandon Clarke, Forward
Brandon Clarke is 23 years old. He’s 6’8.25” with a 6’8.25” wingspan and weighs 207.2 pounds. He made four 3-pointers this year and six throughout three seasons of college basketball. But he’s hilariously good at basketball.
Clarke’s value rests upon a foundation of defense. He’s an absolute genius with not just elite recognition but anticipation that allows him to blow up actions before they unfold. He capitalizes on that intelligence with elite athleticism in every sense of the word.
Clarke is a freakshow leaper. His maximum vertical leap (40.5 inches) was fourth among all players at the combine, but that elite mark somehow understates Clarke’s vertical leaping. He gets to those 40.5 inches so easily and so regularly in game action, and that’s simply not a level of in-game levitation you really ever see. That elite, elite leaping translates to elite weakside rim protection and extreme defensive impact.
He’s also freakishly mobile, posting the seventh-fastest lane agility time at the combine. Clarke’s a standout perimeter defender capable of blanketing opponents across multiple positions.
In an interview at the combine, Clarke matter-of-factly stated that he’ll make every single shot he takes in the paint. He’s not wrong. Clarke has stupid elite touch, which manifested itself in 98th percentile efficiency in the halfcourt at the rim and 92nd percentile efficiency on runners. Not only does Clarke have supernatural touch, but his coordination and ability to contort and extend his body to finish around the rim is special.
On top of all that, Clarke is a very plus ball-handler and passer:
Here’s exactly why Brandon Clarke is a top-10 draft pick: pic.twitter.com/fHB9GWiFwd— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) May 23, 2019
Beyond the obvious measurable and age concerns, Clarke draws criticism for his status as non-shooting 4-man, an extinct species in the NBA in 2019. Between his touch and the headway he’s already made as a shooter, though, there’s reason to believe Clarke will grow into a serviceable catch-and-shoot option:
2 year change. Footwork noticeably better. Form noticeably better. Still not great, but you see the major, major improvement and good natural touch. (2nd video taken by @rodboone) pic.twitter.com/5xsOg3FFCf— Ross Homan (@Ross_homan1) May 22, 2019
It’s certainly possible that insufficient strength and length limit Clarke’s defensive impact, that he never comes along as a catch-and-shoot option, that he’s stifled by length and is not the dominant in-between finisher he was in college. Clarke needs to land in the right situation, but the outcome I expect is high-level defensive impact with some strong slashing and short-roll playmaking, mild self-creation, and proficiency on easy catch-and-shoot looks. That player’s a piece the right great team will treasure.
6. Jaxson Hayes, Big
My relationship with Jaxson Hayes has been anything but stable. When I first watched him in November, I couldn’t believe a guy his size with his movement skills wasn’t a consensus top-100 prospect. When I first started putting together a board mid-season and Hayes’ stock seemed to be reaching an all-time high, I couldn’t overlook his underwhelming instincts and barely had him in the lottery. Yet, here we are.
Hayes is a special, special physical freak. He’s 6’11.5” with a 7’3.5” wingspan, and that’s the least impressive aspect of his physical profile. Hayes is a very good vertical leaper, but definitely not elite in raw elevation. Where he is elite is in the speed with which he elevates and his second jump ability:
Called for a foul but goodness Jaxson Hayes pic.twitter.com/zxKuQvJeFB— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) March 16, 2019
This might be the quintessential Jaxson Hayes clip. He completely unnecessarily chases a block, and it should cost his team points, but his recovery ability is all-time level due to the quickness with which he covers ground and elevates.
It’s nowhere near the extent of Zion, but descriptions of Hayes don’t sound real at times. Unlike Zion, that fact is a product of the way in which Hayes is physically dominant. It’s difficult to communicate hyper-elite coordination and fluidity without giving up and just telling your audience to watch a guy play:
I am not going to be able to get over this play. I don't care that Jaxson Hayes misses this layup, this is absolutely freakish for a guy who's 6'11"/7'0" to be moving like that pic.twitter.com/3DcBEnmwQQ— Jackson Hoy (@jacksonghoy) December 31, 2018
How do you explain the impact of the greatest hands hands you’ll ever see on a prospect?
Hayes does all of these things with his body that simply shouldn’t be possible, and these things have positive impact on basketball games; it’s wild to watch. Wilder still is that he’s very much in the process of accustoming himself to his body following a cartoonish growth spurt over the last year or so.
Then there’s the touch. Hayes shot 76.9% at the rim in the half court, and that wasn’t just because of dunks. He has some of the most freakish touch as a finisher you’ll ever see. He has so much elbow flare on his free throws, his arm is virtually parallel to the court, but his touch is so outrageously special, he drained 74% of his free throws this year. Elite touch will not just translate to high-level finishing and free-throw shooting for Hayes, but props open the door for him to one day add range as a jump-shooter.
I’ve also come around on the mental side of Hayes’ game since mid-season. Right now, Hayes is a jumpy, block-happy defender with inconsistent recognition and poor decision-making, but he does flash recognition skills. Normally, that wouldn’t be enough for me in a big man prospect, but Hayes has compelling mitigating factors.
Most obvious is the recovery ability demonstrated in the first clip in this section--Hayes’ recovery tools are all-time level and compensate for sub-par intellect. The other requires some more background. Hayes was a football player until the aforementioned cartoonish growth spurt near the end of his high school career. He is very new to the game of basketball. He’s behind the curve intellectually, but the flashes of intelligence he demonstrates are highly impressive for a player of his experience level. And those flashes of awareness and decision-making show up on both ends:
Hayes’ assist total at Texas (9 all year) is admittedly abysmal, but qualitatively he shows genuinely positive flashes of passing vision and creativity, and that number was depressed by a rigid role in which he was only asked to dive to the rim. In time, Hayes should be a fairly competent passer with an outside shot at plus ability.
I expect Hayes to struggle in the short term as he grows into his body, packs on mass, and continues to learn the game of basketball. There’s certainly a chance he never catches up on the intelligence curve and fails to meet that baseline for an impact big man. But freakish physical tools that should render Hayes a potent interior and legitimate switch defender combined with special touch make me confident in an elite rim-runner outcome on the low end of realistic. On the high end, Hayes continues on sharp intelligence and skill curves, developing into a lethal face-up scorer, catch-and-shoot shooter, defensive wrecking ball, and capable facilitator.
7. Darius Garland, Lead Guard/Combo
I shouldn’t like Darius Garland. He’s a one-position guard defender with electric shooting and handling and virtually no idea how to play the point guard position. But I can’t help myself.
It’s not reasonable to extrapolate special shooting from Garland’s four-game (and two minute) Vanderbilt career, but he flashed as many encouraging signs as possible during that interlude between his high school and NBA careers. Garland was supremely confident off-the-dribble, off-the-catch, off-movement, from well, well into NBA range. Garland’s not the 47.8% 3-point shooter he was for four games in college, because he’s not the greatest shooter ever, but I’m confident he’s very good, and there are outcomes where he’s elite.
I do, however, feel comfortable calling Garland’s handle elite. He has incredible ball control and a host of advanced dribble moves. He’s very good at leveraging his handle to create efficient looks for himself:
Hesitation to encourage the big to recover opening the scoop for Garland pic.twitter.com/aJm4YtGAHC— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) May 10, 2019
Garland even gets a bit of a raw deal defensively. He’s small and definitely susceptible to dying on screens, but I think he both cares and is aware and engaged. He’ll likely never be a positive on that end, but I expect him to be more than survivable and worlds better than someone like Morant.
For an initiator, though, Garland’s about as bad a pick-and-roll passer as you’ll find:
Nearly two full games in and I think this is the first skip pass Garland's attempted... pic.twitter.com/4PoneyvngU— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) May 10, 2019
He really doesn’t have any reads down beyond the roll man, and even that’s iffy. While the threat of his pull-up will often force a defense to throw something other than a traditional drop at him, Garland fails to move the ball quickly and is easily stifled by tactics like hedges.
It’s a bit far-fetched, but I have a bit of very cautious optimism on Garland’s passing:
Garland's pick-and-roll passing is pretty awful, but he looks way better when he's just surveying the floor in unstructured situations pic.twitter.com/yuob3lS1Bp— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) May 11, 2019
Consistently, Garland’s passing was better in unstructured settings like transition, which leads me to believe he has the baseline vision needed to be an offensive engine. Right now, the bigger issue for Garland is probably basketball IQ. He doesn’t understand defensive coverages and how his pressure as a scorer creates weak points. There are some signs he has the capacity to learn them, though:
Garland came out of half in this game moving the ball vs. hedges a lot more quickly and it instantly created advantages pic.twitter.com/FpT0mfqMrh— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) May 11, 2019
Returning from half and figuring out the defensive scheme that gave you trouble in the first half demonstrates both a capacity and willingness to learn. Garland will never be a high-feel player, but if his vision does hit the baseline I think it might, and he can be told what to look for and learn to respond correctly as he did in that Winthrop game, he can get to be good enough as a facilitator to be a legitimate offensive initiator.
Unlikely as that may be (I think it’s unlikely but within his realistic range of outcomes), Garland can provide value even if he doesn’t pan out as an initiator. If he has to play alongside another creator, his value will be greatly diminished, but Garland’s shot-making and ability to survive defensively offer him the opportunity to succeed in a variety of roles.
8. RJ Barrett, Wing/Initiator
Last summer, after the 2018 Draft, as I waited for Summer League, I had a hankering for basketball and queued up some RJ Barrett film. I wanted to see the consensus #1 pick in the 2019 Draft. I was confused:
Watching some high school ball (yes, that's what it's come to). Not sure I understand the appeal of RJ Barrett. Great frame, crafty finisher, good vision. But he's a sub-elite athlete who can't shoot and isn't a dynamic ball-handler. What am I missing?— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) June 29, 2018
I was sure I was missing something. Turns out, that’s just RJ Barrett.
I’ll start with some positives because Barrett does have some and I don’t want my overall skepticism to be misinterpreted as a complete condemnation of Barrett as a prospect--after all, I do still have him in my Tier 2, which means I believe there’s a legitimate argument for him as high as #2 in this class.
Barrett is big and strong. He didn’t measure at the combine, but he’s about 6’7” with a 6’10” wingspan and well over 200 pounds at his disposal. That’s good size for a wing or guard, but when you consider that his offensive role really has always been initiator, it’s elite size. And Barrett leans on that size often to power through defenders and finish at the rim.
I’m generally critical of Barrett’s one-track, over-aggressive mindset, but that approach in conjunction with his size resulted in 37.7% of his half court shot attempts coming at the rim, which is wildly impressive for a primary ball-handler, especially in spite of Duke’s spacing.
Barrett’s capable of high-level passing for a wing, or really any young initiator. He has every pick-and-roll read in his bag, which is not something that should be minimized for a 19-year-old 6’7” initiator.
He’s a dominant transition player, too, thanks to his plus handling, size, strength, vision, and attacking mindset.
Barrett is capable of a great deal, but it’s what he chooses to do instead that horrifies me. He’s one of the most stubborn, low-feel players I’ve ever seen:
I have so, so many of these. Barrett will put his head down and drive into an entire team, ignore open shooters all around him and either toss up junk that never has a chance or get blocked into oblivion. He’s capable of making the reads discussed above, but he chooses not to. In every sense, he has the “Mamba Mentality” he says he does, and it’s absolutely terrible to watch.
There’s no subtlety to Barrett’s game either:
So much of his success at Duke was Barrett saying, “I have a plus first step and can finish through you, so I’m going to straight-line drive and do that to you every single time.” Barrett’s a good athlete with good strength and good size, but he’s not a freak. In the NBA, wing defenders who can slide with and absorb contact from Barrett exist in abundance. To succeed as the slasher he’s always been, he’ll need much more deception with his dribble and flexibility as a driver, looking to pass when the window for his own shot isn’t there.
Then there’s defense:
Made an RJ highlight reel, too. Forgot to post it! pic.twitter.com/CfaJ1bRQPE— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) May 29, 2019
Barrett’s as low-effort a defender as you’ll ever see. He can be passable at the point-of-attack on a first effort, but ask him to recover or provide the second, third, and fourth efforts necessary for a good team defense, and he cowers. I don’t know if Barrett’s able on-ball. He probably should be. He’s big and strong and a good athlete and lateral mover, but he doesn’t do, and ultimately, that’s all that really matters. Off-ball, he’s a serial ball-watcher with very poor awareness and fails to impact the game at all.
Shortly before writing this blurb, I was talking with my friend, the brilliant Ben Pfeifer of USA Today’s Rookie Wire. He asked me if I thought it’s easier to develop ability or mentality. My first instinct was mentality. When you have something, learning to use it should be easier than acquiring it in the first place. But I’m really not sure. How often does a player truly overhaul his entire approach to the game?
It’s a process that requires a player to be challenged and receptive and exceptionally self-aware. I don’t mean this to be insulting to Barrett. You don’t get to the level he’s reached as a basketball player without supreme confidence in yourself. But when you’re in need of a comprehensive approach overhaul, is that confidence going to preclude the necessary changes?
I genuinely don’t know.
With the emphasis my evaluation process puts on approach, intelligence, role, and feel, Barrett was somewhat doomed from the start. I feel comfortable overlooking things like his remarkable freshman-year production and harp on agonizing decision after agonizing decision. I prioritize what a player does over what he can do. My worry is that Barrett remains a massive negative on defense, that he can score, but is such an untrustworthy decision-maker, he fails to drive efficient team offense.
Maybe he’ll start using the skills and physical tools at his disposal and further develop the others he needs to be great. The players above Barrett, however, have just as valuable tools with much less of themselves obstructing their paths.
9. Goga Bitadze, Big
It’s easy to dismiss Goga Bitadze. His per game averages of 14 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks (in ABA play alone) look impressive absent context, but far less so than they really are. He’s noticeable physically, thanks to 6’11.5”, 250-pound frame, but doesn’t wow as vertical leaper or movement freak.
Add context, and Bitadze’s intrigue increases several fold. Despite logging just 22.8 minutes per game, Bitadze ranked 8th in points, 7th in rebounds, and 3rd in blocks among the entire Adriatic League. At just 19-years-old, those numbers earned Bitadze the ABA’s MVP and top prospect awards, making him just the third player since the top prospect award was introduced in 2014 to win both. The other two are Nikola Jokic and Dario Saric.
Bitadze’s not the lumbering non-athlete you might think at first glance either:
Goga Bitadze is not a switch big, but he's quite mobile and seriously capable of covering ground pic.twitter.com/u69JLjD2Ou— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) June 1, 2019
A few nice Goga recognition clips. I like the last sequence where he gets off the ground pretty quickly for the block. Not a lot of vertical but gets there quickly pic.twitter.com/nzSZQmdeDk— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) June 4, 2019
He can be exposed when forced to change direction on the perimeter and has basically zero NBA switch equity, but Bitadze can cover ground and should be an excellent drop pick-and-roll defender. While I worry a bit about Bitadze’s lack of overall vertical, he gets off the ground quickly and reaches his maximum vertical easily, making his vertical pop highly functional. He also owns a speedy second jump, which allows him to make multiple contests, corral rebounds, and score on put backs.
Bitadze was a pretty dominant ABA defender. His recognition is outstanding for a player his age, his movement skills are solid, body imposing, and strength overpowering. He exhibits some poor technique staying vertical and contesting at the rim, which contributed to his 3.9 fouls per game (again, in just 22.8 minutes per contest). I don’t view Bitadze’s foul rate as a negative, though. He’s almost always in position with plenty of time, but needs to better understand how to use his body. In the short term, I do think his foul rate will be problematically high and limit his minutes, but fellow intelligent ABA bigs with similar issues, like Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic, have gotten the issue under control with time.
Like any ideal center, defense drives Bitadze’s impact, but he’s a very good offensive prospect, too. He has great touch around the rim, and while the ABA is a physical league, he was such an overwhelming force, he compiled a 0.801 free-throw rate (a tad higher than Nurkic’s 0.793 mark in ABA play). Bitdaze’s most enticing offensive skill is likely his shooting, though:
He has clean mechanics, shot 40.9% on 1.5 3-point attempts per game in ABA play, and 65.1% from the free throw line. He should be a very reliable pick-and-pop threat to complement his already-potent roll game.
As a passer, I have concerns about Bitadze. He’s not terrible or unwilling, and he does flash at times on the roll and out of the post, but he misses a ton of open windows. To be fair to Bitadze, he is very young and was playing a much higher level of competition than any other member of Tier 2, but his inability to consistently make the passes he should have tempers my optimism on his offensive upside (or even ability to play the role he’ll need to fill adequately).
Overall, Bitadze’s a really good prospect. Celtics fans might have nightmares of another Ante Zizic, but Bitadze is in another class in terms of feel, recognition, functional leaping (Zizic had no lift and long load time), and passing (Zizic was that bad). I’d be quite surprised if Bitadze is not a good NBA player, and an impact starter outcome is well within his realistic range.
Well, that’s that. Thank you so much to everyone who followed along with these posts. I know they dragged on at times, but I hope they presented somewhat convincing viewpoints and better prepared you for Thursday’s festivities. It should be a fun night.