Before I dive into writing more player specific breakdowns for this year’s draft it is important to classify what exactly an NBA team should want out of a player they’re drafting. The positional foundation of the NBA has been shaken these past few years, and the movement to smaller 4’s and 5’s seems to be coming to a head. When evaluating players for the draft it is crucial to understand the current makeup of the NBA, and what value each player brings within that context.
Take Henry Ellenson and Jakob Poeltl, two likely lottery picks in this year’s draft. Poeltl and Ellenson check a lot of the boxes you want in a prospect. They both have adequate NBA athleticism combined with high skill level and feel for their positions that have allowed them to accumulate very impressive NCAA statistical profiles. Poeltl is a traditional center and has the requisite size, mobility, and skill to where I’m confident in saying he could produce at the NBA level. Assuming he continues to add strength to his frame there seems to be a high likelihood that he could be a similarly good player to Marcin Gortat or Robin Lopez, and might be able to provide even a little more low-post scoring.
From that perspective, Poeltl seems like one of the safest bets in this year’s draft, and in a generally weak lottery might be deserving of the #4 overall pick. However, it is fair to wonder if players like Gortat and Lopez are simply being marginalized in the modern NBA. Maybe it’s unfair to judge every player against the Warriors gold standard, but if an opponent downsizes with a player like Draymond Green at the 5 a Gortat-esque player becomes almost unplayable. It is unlikely that the NBA makes a 100% shift to the small 5 even by the end of Poeltl’s career, but he might be the type of player who is only valuable to team’s in certain matchups. Understanding what type of value a player in his role can bring to a modern NBA team is almost as important as scouting Poeltl to judge if he would be successful under traditional archetypes.
Henry Ellenson faces a similar challenge to Poeltl, but instead at the power forward slot. Ellenson is big enough to rebound his position while possessing the handles and shooting ability to create looks on the offensive end against classical NBA 4-men. Matched up against a player like Harrison Barnes, or even a lesser athlete like Jared Dudley, Ellenson is going to have a tough time keeping up in space and isn’t dominant enough in the post to get it back on the other end. I am pretty confident Ellenson would be a very good player against most traditional power forwards, but I’m unsure if he wins the battle when a team matches him up against a wing. If Ellenson could shift and play as a small-ball 5 that would be one thing, but he still will struggle to guard in space and isn’t a good enough rim protector to make up for it.
It is overly binary to suggest that players need to be able to guard in space to succeed in the modern NBA, but it is also silly to think that more traditional bigs won’t get played off the floor in certain matchups. Being a situational player obviously makes a player less valuable, and for players like Ellenson and Poeltl determining just how situational they will be is the key to figuring out their appropriate draft value.
That doesn’t mean being a “tweener” or small for your position is automatically a good thing either. Ivan Rabb and Domantas Sabonis are both 4/5’s who have the mobility to guard in space and a lot of skill and quickness on the offensive end, but neither have proven the ability to protect the rim or stretch the floor. They have the ability to match up with a Draymond Green at the 5 and have a matchup advantage against average 5’s like Poeltl, but are at a disadvantage against behemoths like Demarcus Cousins and Andre Drummond. The two extremes are someone like Draymond and someone like Drummond. You want a quicker player like Rabb against Draymond and you want a bigger player like Poeltl against Drummond, but the question is which type of player do you want the most of the time.
It is essentially the debate between the Cavs playing Tristan Thompson or Timofey Mozgov for the majority of the minutes at the 5. In certain matchups, it is obvious which one to play, but in the average matchup I tend to think Thompson’s advantage in guarding the perimeter outweighs Mozgov’s advantage in rim protection. That battle is a very close one, though, and a lot of times it comes down to little things about each individual player.
Outside of the frontcourt positions, the smallball trend still has its ramifications for other NBA players. On the wings, versatility is key. Ideally, you want a guy who can play 2-4, but being able to play 3/4 or 2/3 is still much more valuable than just being slotted at one position. Taurean Prince is an example of a player who derives extra value from the fact that a team could comfortably play him as small forward in a standard lineup or at the 4 in a more spread attack. Conversely, someone like Jamal Murray who is almost exclusively a 2-guard provides a team with a lot less lineup flexibility.
Getting past positions the obvious most important skills for a wing player are shooting and defense. Unless you are a truly special player who the offense can be run through it’s almost impossible to be a helpful wing player without the ability to at least marginally space the floor. Additional playmaking ability is useful, but a team is usually going to function better with someone who can space the floor and defend their position then someone who just creates for themselves inside the arc. What makes the wings interesting is that they’re the only position in basketball where there are no diminishing returns. It’s not helpful for a team to have too many bigs or too many point guards, but there is essentially no such thing as too many wings, assuming those wings have some positional flexibility. Every team in the NBA would be better off with another good 3-and-D wing, so the draft value of all potential rotation wings should be raised accordingly.
The point guard position is in some ways the most fascinating of all. There are two clear types of point guards at this point, those who are a primary creator on offense and those who are better off playing next to a ball dominant wing or interior player. Like on the wings, the threshold for just how good you have to be is much higher for a ball dominant guard. Kris Dunn is someone that absolutely could put up very good numbers as the dominant ball-handler on a middling NBA team, but I doubt he’s ever the starter on one of the best team’s in the league. All the best teams in the league either have point guards who are better off the ball than they’re on the ball or guys who are some of the best playmakers in the whole NBA. Kris Dunn might be able to provide more value to a bad team than Wade Baldwin, but Wade Baldwin’s superior spot-up shooting and similarly high-level defense would probably provide more value to a top-tier team.
Championship or bust mantras are proliferated a little too much in the current media landscape. If a team wants to draft Kris Dunn and have him be their central offensive playmaker they can contend for a playoff spot and be an interesting team, much like Detroit with Reggie Jackson. However, if a team is drafting with real aspirations of contending they’d be better off drafting a more off-ball focused point guard or relegating Dunn to more of a bench playmaker role.
None of this should be treated as a yes or no question where certain player types are helpful and others simply aren’t. Every player’s value is based on a sliding scale, and slight differences in defensive IQ or comfort shooting off the dribble can make the difference. Still, keeping in mind a general framework for what an NBA team would most like to have out of each position is important. I’ll be discussing these ideas in greater depth for the players of this draft in future articles, but decided it was important to establish the structure within I’m judging players.