2016 NBA Draft Preview: Top Point Guards

Instead of dividing up my thoughts on the point guards in this year’s class into segmented posts on different guys I figured I’d just combine into one overly-long piece of writing. Every player should be evaluated independently on what their NBA future could be, but when it comes to decision making on draft day it is all about comparing that projection to the other players around him. Therefore, I will try and give both individual and comparative analysis for all the point guards I see as draft relevant. I’m going to go player by player by DraftExpress’s rankings to do my analysis before re-ordering into my rankings at the end.

#1 Kris Dunn – Junior – 22.1 years old – Providence

Dunn is the one consensus top-10 pick in this year’s draft outside the top-3 who I am confident deserves top-10 selection. Offensively, I don’t think his ceiling is that much higher than Reggie Jackson, but Reggie Jackson who defends at a high level is a pretty good high-end outcome. It’s far from a given that he reaches that Reggie Jackson level on offense. I have a lot of doubts about his NBA three-point stroke, and his problems with turning the ball over are real issues.

Dunn probably actually has an edge over someone like Jackson in terms of pure vison and creativity, but he tends to give whatever advantage he has back with his shoddy decision making. Whether or not the outside stroke translates for Dunn is a huge question. If it does it will open up a ton more flexibility in terms of playing him next to another point guard or ball-dominant player. If he never shoots well from beyond the NBA arc, he’s going to be a low-efficiency scorer, but could still be a decent offensive player due to his ability to create shots for others.

The good news for Dunn is that even if he’s not the best offensive point guard in the league, he can still be a starter quality player due to his defense. Dunn’s raw athleticism, size, and instincts on the defensive end mean he’s got a pretty healthy “floor” (more like 20th percentile outcome) as an average NBA defender. From there, depending on how much he commits to expending effort without gambling too much he could be a very good perimeter defender. He’s not a Marcus Smart level of defensive guard prospect, but I expect him to be a solid plus on the defensive end of the floor.

I believe Dunn is 100% deserving of a top-10 selection because he’s likely to be a good enough two-way player to develop into an NBA starter or high-quality sixth man. However, the reason I wouldn’t be thrilled taking Dunn as high as 4th is because I never see him being a top-3 player on a truly elite team. He can be a very good player in a lot of contexts, but he’s not quite efficient enough a creator or good enough off the ball to ever project as one of the top-3 on a championship team. Still, as long as a team isn’t drafting him with too high expectations, Dunn should provide solid value in the NBA.

#2 Wade Baldwin – Sophomore – 20.1 years old – Vanderbilt

Let’s start off by saying that I have Baldwin ahead of Dunn in my personal rankings – by the slimmest of margins. The case for Baldwin starts with the simple fact that he projects to both defend and shoot at an above-average level. For NBA perimeter players, if you can guarantee those two things, the rest is (almost) gravy.

Baldwin’s outside shot is what I have the most confidence in. His low release point is a bit worrisome, but he has shot it efficiently from all over the floor off the catch and the dribble for two straight years. His release point might prevent him from ever firing with the type of volume that would make him a real gravitational threat, but he’s a highly likely bet to space the floor well.

Defensively, things are less certain, though Baldwin’s upside is arguably higher. His incredibly strong and long frame combined with ~average NBA athleticism give him the tools to be an elite point guard defender with the strength/length to shadow bigger guys. In practice, Baldwin’s effort level on the defensive end was often lackluster, and his playmaking instincts grade at a pretty average level. I doubt he improves his natural defensive IQ, but, with solid effort, he could still be a plus defender. Even if he never commits to the defensive end of the floor, I don’t expect him to be much worse than average due to his physical tools and decent awareness.

Off that solid base of shooting and probably average-good defense I expect Baldwin to find a role in the league as a good backup or low-end starter. The biggest reason I have him above Dunn is that I see less scenario’s where he is the type of player who hurts his team. Baldwin’s turnover rate is similarly poor to Dunn’s, but Dunn has a far worse tendency to ball dominate and throw up low-efficiency shots.

In regards to the rest of Baldwin’s offensive game, his handle and feel for probing the defense are currently below the NBA point guard curve, but his raw vision in conjunction with his physical tools gives him some interesting upside. George Hill isn’t a particularly great dribbler or creative finisher but has turned himself into a good offensive player by doing everything at a solid level while shooting it well from deep. In a best case scenario for Baldwin, he could be something like Hill with slightly more passing ability. In a worst case scenario, he would play something of a Matthew Dellavedova role on offense, but that is still a player archetype that can bring value.

I actually view Dunn as the higher upside guy than Baldwin. Their defensive upside is nearly identical to me, and Dunn’s superior athleticism and feel for creating give him an edge in offensive upside. However, I still rate Baldwin as the slightly better overall prospect due to my greater certainty that he will not be taking away from his team’s offense through his own ball-dominance. Like Dunn, I wouldn’t feel great taking Baldwin in the top-5, but the lack of other options makes him a palatable selection at 4 or 5.

#3 Demetrius Jackson – Junior – 21.6 years old – Notre Dame

Here is where I start diverging from consensus to a greater degree. Jackson is a consensus first rounder, and most places have him around 14-20. I do not think Jackson is deserving of a top-25 pick, and probably not a first round selection. My reasoning is relatively simple, I don’t think point guards who don’t defend well and are only decently good on offense are anything more than average backups.

My biggest reasoning for not liking Jackson is his defense. At 6’0 with a 6’5.5 wingspan Jackson isn’t tiny, but he’s also already fighting an uphill battle on the defensive end of the floor. Luckily for Jackson, he has truly elite athleticism to make up for it. Elite athleticism and a strong body give Jackson the theoretical ability to make up for his height and be a solid or even above average point guard defender. Unfortunately, Notre Dame is not a team that emphasizes defense, and Jackson has shown no signs of the instincts or effort level necessary to leverage his athleticism.

Jackson was not a good defender at the college level, by both the eye test and a more numbers-oriented approach. From there, a good rule of thumb is that guy’s who are undersized for their position and didn’t defend well in college are probably going to be pretty bad defenders in the NBA. Jackson will probably put more energy into defense in the NBA and use his athleticism to be not terrible, but his lack of natural defensive ability in college lead me to believe he will be a negative defender. His athleticism gives him some upside of proving me wrong, but it’s not something I would bet on in his projection.

Bad defenders can be good NBA point guards, they just need to be really darn good on offense to make up for it. Jackson’s combination of athleticism and good outside shooting make him a pretty good scorer, but the rest of his NBA point guard skills are decidedly below average. He is a fairly rudimentary passer, and his feel for breaking down defenses with his handle isn’t great either.

It’s easy to take a look at a guy like Jackson and say “why can’t he be Kemba Walker,” but that’s ignoring how completely outlier good small guys like Walker were in college. Comparing Jackson’s junior year numbers to Kemba’s makes things easy to see.

Player TS% FTr AST% TOV% USG%
Demetrius Jackson 56% .325 25.1% 13.3%  24.1%
Kemba Walker 54.3% .426 28.0% 9.5%  32.4%

Kemba was slightly less efficient, but got to the line more, passed better, turned it over less, and operated on a far higher usage rate – which is the key difference between the two of them. Even with all that, Kemba needed to drastically improve his off-the-bounce shooting like he did this year to become a significantly positive NBA starter.

The usage rate difference cannot be undersold. Little guys who give things up on the defensive end need to be able to make it up by single-handedly creating good offense for a team. Jackson doesn’t have the type of advanced skill set to allow him to succeed in a high usage NBA role. I expect him to improve his defense enough to be a low-end – average backup point guard, but since I only see him as that (and having an out of the league floor) he’s a late first-rounder at best.

#4 Tyler Ulis – Sophomore – 20.3 years old – Kentucky

Take everything I just said about offensive usage and defense for little guys and copy it over to this section. The specifics are very different for Ulis, but the broad strokes of bad defender who isn’t good enough on offense to make up for it apply with even more severity to Ulis.

Unlike Jackson, Ulis tries hard and possesses good instincts on the defensive end of the floor. Sadly, he’s 5’9 149 lbs and has a high level of quickness, but not Jackson’s super elite athleticism either. I’m just not sure it is possible for someone with Ulis’s frame and athleticism to be a decent NBA defender. Chris Paul is the famous example of a small guy who was nonetheless a great defender, but CP3 is significantly taller, stronger, and was a better athlete coming out of college than Ulis is now.

Ulis did a good job pressuring up on NCAA guards, but was still able to be shot over and bullied into screens to some degree. In the NBA, his instincts/effort are better than someone like J.J. Barea’s, but Barea is stronger and a better athlete and still pretty much sucks on defense. For Ulis, the question is just how bad he will be on defense, and while I do think he has some chance of “acceptably bad” he also might be really terrible on that end of the floor.

I can’t get excited about Ulis as a prospect because even if you believe in his defense being only a slight negative, he’s not that dynamic of an offensive force either. He’s a truly great floor general and leader, and his decision making is absolutely elite, but his actual raw shooting/passing/dribble moves aren’t at the level you would expect from someone his size. He’s certainly good in all those areas, but his relatively low 23.2% usage rate speaks to his inability to just free himself for looks at will like many small point guards can. He offers almost no ability to score in the lane whatsoever and doesn’t have the necessarily elite off-the-dribble shooting game to offset that.

Ulis can be a decent NBA offensive player just because he’s such a good decision maker and will at least allow an offense to flow really well. But like I said with Jackson, guys who don’t defend need to be able to make it up with usage on the offensive end, and Ulis doesn’t project to do that. I would say his most likely outcome is a third string guard on the fringes of the league, and his upside isn’t much more than a solid backup if everything broke right for him. I would not touch him in the first round – he’s more of a mid-late 2nd rounder to me.

#5 Dejounte Murray – Freshman – 19.6 years old – Washington

I could be similarly harsh on Murray as I was on Jackson – seeing as I rate Jackson as the slightly better prospect, but since Murray is actually mocked in the late first/early second range I view him in a less harsh light. Murray is one of those weird prospects who wasn’t even that good a college player last year but has enough room for improvement in his game that he deserves an NBA shot.

The number that sticks out with Murray is his 48.5% true shooting rate. He wasn’t remotely efficient at the college level, shooting a lot of jumpers he wasn’t very good at, forcing up tough floaters, and struggling to finish through contact. The interesting thing with Murray is that he was able to create so many looks for himself, even if he shouldn’t have necessarily taken them all. He’s a fairly good athlete and he has some real slipperiness and shake to his handle, allowing him to create space frequently. He’s not a very good shooter at this stage and his weak frame prevents him from finishing much, but he’s got the length and athleticism to one day be a decent interior scorer.

His issues with shot selection bleed over into poor decision making with the ball and lots of turnovers, but his raw vision for someone who isn’t a “true point” is actually pretty good. If Murray never improves his outside shot he could still be a decent offensive player as a backup with lots of improvement in terms of decision making. His stroke isn’t broken though and if he does improve his outside shot he would still need to shore up his offensive IQ, but would have an easier time reaching adequate levels. Of course, this does give him some slight extra upside of improving across the board – while it is very unlikely, it’s also a degree of upside many of his fellow point guards don’t have.

The reason Murray can be a prospect with such an unrefined skill set is due to his raw frame at 6’5 with a 6’10 wingspan and decent athleticism. Murray wasn’t always engaged or aware of what he was supposed to be doing on the defensive end of the floor, but nonetheless made some nice plays in the passing lanes disrupting opponents due to his natural length and reasonable instincts. Murray will need to get stronger and develop his understanding of positioning on defense, but his tools give him both a higher baseline to work with and higher upside than guys like Jackson or Ulis.

Murray has upside as a very solid two-way guard that someone like Jackson lacks, but his chances of hitting that upside are so slim they only minorly weight into my evaluation. More realistically, I see Murray marginally improving across the board to where he could be a decent-ish backup point, similarly to what I expect of Jackson. Murray has a much higher chance of flaming out of the league than Jackson, which is why I still rate Jackson the slightly better prospect. Murray’s higher upside might be reasoning enough to put him over Jackson, but it would really require so much across the board improvement that I think it’s fair to give Jackson the overall edge.

#6 Gary Payton II – Senior – 23.4 years old – Oregon State

Since I’m a narcissist, I recommend you read my recent scouting report on Payton for a fuller breakdown of his game. As a result, I will try to keep this section a little shorter. Essentially, I like Payton a lot as a prospect, and he is my third-ranked point guard behind Baldwin and Dunn.

He’s an elite athlete with a good frame and good instincts on defense and has a combination of decent vision and okay enough ball handling to do some playmaking on offense. His effort level on defense is what prevents him from being a top-tier prospect on that end, but I still rate him as a slightly better defensive prospect than either Baldwin or Dunn. On offense, he has Baldwin’s bad feel for the position and handle, with an even worse outside shot than Dunn. Still, he’s such a dynamic athlete that he could provide adequate offense for an NBA backup even without an outside shot.

While someone like Jackson I project to be a bad-decent backup, Payton I project to be an above-average backup point, with some possibility of turning into a starter level player if his shot improves. Good defense plus slightly bad offense is a more enticing combo than bad defense with only slightly good offense. That difference is enough to justify a significant gap in their rankings, and I believe Payton is deserving of selection in the ~14-20 range Jackson is currently being talked about in.

 

From here, consensus on point guard rankings falls off a lot, and there are about 15 names that are frequently mentioned in the back end of the second round-undrafted range. I’m not going to expand on all of them, but there are a couple I believe are definitely worth a mention.

Kay Felder – Junior – 21.1 years old – Oakland

Felder wowed at the combine with his 44″ inch vertical (EDIT: his vertical may be inflated due to faulty standing reach measurements, but either way he’s clearly a very high caliber athlete) and play in the 5-on-5 games, which only further confirmed my optimism on him as a prospect. Felder is roughly the same size as Ulis, but unlike Ulis: a) is an elite athlete with a strong frame and b) can carry a super high usage on the offensive end. Felder showed very little commitment to the defensive end in college, but given his athleticism and strength could at least be similarly “acceptably bad” as Isaiah Thomas.

Comparing someone to an outlier like Thomas is usually foolish, but Felder’s aesthetic is eerily similar, and even has some indicators in his favor. Felder will not be the type of interior finisher Thomas is, he’s bouncy and crafty, but no one has Isaiah’s level of game when it comes to finishing inside. Where Felder can be very similar is his ability to create off the bounce shots due to his great handle and quickness. The area where Felder looks even better is as a passer, he will remain a score first player at the NBA level, but Felder has a lot of vision and creativity as a passer – as evidenced by his ridiculous 50.0% usage rate.

Again, I’m not saying Felder will be as good as Thomas, and I’m especially not saying he will be able to find as perfect an NBA situation as the one Thomas has in Boston. What I do think is that he has exactly the type of profile you want from someone his size, and has a real chance of being a good enough offensive player to offset his defense and play a valuable off the bench role for an NBA team.

Felder is my fourth-ranked point guard, about evenly between Payton II and Jackson. Felder’s defense gives him more of a chance of busting out of the league than Payton, but he’s such a better offensive prospect than Jackson to where he could be a very good backup point guard. I would draft him somewhere in the mid-late 20’s or early second round.

Fred VanVleet – Senior – 22.2 years old – Wichita State

Another small point guard! VanVleet is a little taller at over 6’0 in shoes, but his size still dominates conversations about his NBA future. You could easily say I’m a hypocrite for liking VanVleet. He’s small, not particularly athletic, and only sported a 24% usage rate despite playing for a small school. I would respond that I’m only optimistically projecting him as a second rounder and that his usage rate was artificially depressed by the presence of another potential NBA guard in Ron Baker.

I understand the case against FVV; I’ve made it myself in many of the above paragraphs. However, I rate him as the better prospect than Ulis, behind Dejounte Murray on my point guard rankings. He’s bigger and stronger than Ulis, and his college production as a defender was truly elite while Ulis just had a strong reputation. VanVleet has great instincts and plays hard on defense, and is about as good a defender as one can be with his combination of length and athleticism. I don’t expect him to be a good defender at the NBA level, but I think he will be surprisingly not terrible, and even has some slight upside of ~average.

On the offensive end, he faces the same issue as Ulis as someone who really struggles to finish inside, and doesn’t have the athleticism to just create space at will. It’s a matter of nitpicking at this stage, but I give FVV a slight edge in off-the-dribble shooting and ball handling, and his edge in strength/height obviously helps. I give Ulis a slight edge in decision making and raw quickness, but FVV the edge in essentially every other area. Put him in the right spread pick-and-roll system and I think his incredible feel for the game and instincts will allow him to play a role. I’d take him in the early-mid second round, and really hopes he gets an NBA shot through some outlet.

Josh Adams – Senior – 22.6 years old – Wyoming

Who? Adams isn’t ranked in the top-100 prospects by DraftExpress or ESPN, but the artist formerly known as Larry Nance Jr.’s point guard is deserving of draft consideration. After being intrigued by him when watching Nance games last year, he exploded onto the scene (statistically) this year.

The basic case for Adams revolves around a few things. He sported a freaky huge 36.2% usage rate, still scored at the incredible efficiency of 60.4% true shooting and has the athleticism to do this. Adams scoring mostly comes from two areas, a crazy high volume of off-the-dribble threes on which he shot 37.8%, and 257(!) free throw attempts on which he shot 82.1%. Freak athletes who get in the lane and draw fouls who also shoot the ball super well should almost always be on NBA radars.

Adams size of 6’1 with a 6’3.5 wingspan is less than ideal, but also not a death knell for his NBA future. Adams is not a good passer for an NBA point guard, but he’s also not a complete ball hog either, and throws some impressive dimes in traffic. The concerning areas of Adams game are mostly his decision making – he’s turnover prone with shaky shot selection – and his defense, where he never showed much in the way of effort or instincts. He almost certainly won’t defend very well in the NBA, but he’s got enough size and athleticism to realistically survive on that end of the floor.

I’m honestly not sure if I’m way too high or should be even higher on Adams. Compared to Demetrius; he’s a similarly elite athlete with a slightly less appealing frame (less strength and length), similarly poor as a passer, much more out of control with the ball, slightly more shifty and creative with his handle, and more effective at creating space to shoot off the dribble in high volume.

If you were to slot him slightly ahead of Jackson in my current rankings I wouldn’t have a big problem with it. I do think Jackson’s strength gives him an edge in defense and headiness on offense makes him less likely to flame out of the league. After that, Murray is similarly risky to me with a little more upside, and FVV strikes me as a little more likely to carve out a backup role for himself. I do, however, rate him above Ulis – his advantage in usage is enough here since Ulis’s profile isn’t as well-rounded as VanVleet’s. He looks like a mid-second round pick to me.

Isaiah Cousins – Senior – 22.1 years old – Oklahoma

Here is where the players I think I would spend a draft pick on come to a halt. Cousins slots behind Ulis in my point guard rankings, and while I definitely think Ulis deserves to get drafted, with Cousins I don’t have a problem with him slipping into undrafted territory. His combination of size (6’3 with a 6’6 wingspan), good athleticism, and outside shooting ability give him an appealing baseline of skills to work with.

He’s pretty lackluster in the way of “point guard” skills – his handle and vision aren’t great and he’s pretty poor in terms of decision making. Still, shooting and defense alone are often enough to find a role in the NBA. Cousins wasn’t always the most committed defender at the college level, but he wasn’t awful, and he certainly has the physical tools to compete. I’m not in love with his game (he really takes some mind-numbingly stupid shots), but he’s the type of guy who looks like he belongs on an NBA floor and has an easy to envision NBA role.

Melo Trimble – Sophomore – 21.2 years old – Maryland

I only mention Trimble because he used to be projected as a first rounder at some outlets. He is now dropping on boards after his poor combine performance, but I was going to knock him before the combine as well. Trimble’s a below-average athlete by NBA standards with short arms and subpar passing ability for a guard. He’s strong and does a good job shooting off the dribble, but unless he turns himself into an elite shooter I see a guy who won’t defend well at the NBA level and doesn’t create all that much offensively. He should go back to school and really work on his off-the-bounce shooting because as he stands now I don’t see a draftable profile.

Anthony “Cat” Barber – Junior – 21.8 years old – N.C. State

Cat Barber is probably the highest ranked point guard prospect among those I haven’t mentioned and also slots into the next spot in my rankings. Barber’s NBA appeal centers around two things – he’s crazy batshit fast with the ball in his hands, and a capable shooter off the bounce. He’s not much of a passer for a point guard, not a very creative ball handler, doesn’t have great size for the position, and has shown no advanced defensive ability in college. Still, his degree of speed can’t be overstated, he looks like the fastest guy on the floor no matter the athletes he’s up against, and when you add in some shooting you get an interesting prospect profile. I probably wouldn’t draft him, but I don’t have a huge problem with him in the late second round.

Malik Newman – Freshman – 19.2 years old – Mississippi State

Like Trimble, I mention Newman more due to his reputation than anything I find worth mentioning about his prospect profile. He’s a scoring combo guard with quickness and shooting ability, but much worse as a passer/decision maker than even someone like Barber, and lacks much in the way of appealing defensive flags. Some places have him projected as an early second rounder, I would fairly confidently not draft him at all.

A.J. English – Senior – 23.8 years old – Iona

I didn’t watch English at all at Iona this season, and at his advanced age he really needs to do a lot to impress, but he measured with a 6’10 wingspan at the combine and I was impressed watching him in the 5-on-5 setting. He’s not a great athlete by NBA standards, but he’s not awful, and his frame in addition to good outside shooting are appealing similarly to Cousins. Cousins is a much better athlete and less old, but English is a little more advanced as a ball handler and a little longer. English comes next after Barber in my point guard rankings.

I could go on and on, but this about ends the list of point guards where I think I have something to add to the discussion surrounding them. Tim Quarterman, Marcus Paige, Yogi Ferrell, Isaiah Whitehead, Alex Caruso, Isaiah Taylor, Isaiah Briscoe, and Tyrone Wallace are some of the other point guards worth mentioning that I won’t expand any further on.

In sum, here are my rankings for the point guard position. My draft range for each guy is in parentheses.

Tier 1 – Surefire First Rounders

1. Wade Baldwin (4-10)

2. Kris Dunn (4-10)

3. Gary Payton II (13-25)

Tier 2 – Definitely Draftable

4. Kahlil Felder (25-35)

5. Demetrius Jackson (28-40)

6. Dejounte Murray (30-45)

7. Fred VanVleet (35-50)

8. Josh Adams (35-50)

9. Tyler Ulis (45-60)

Tier 3 – Probably Not Worth Drafting

10. Isaiah Cousins (55-Undrafted)

11. Cat Barber (55-Undrafted)

12. A.J. English (55-Undrafted)

The big theme when it comes to this point guard class is probably that defensive ability continues to be overlooked on most major draft boards. Defense isn’t as important for point guards as it is for bigs, but when someone like Tyler Ulis is consensus ranked above Gary Payton II it is obvious that defense is being undervalued. Ulis might be a slightly better offensive prospect than Payton, though Payton’s offensive game will be much easier to translate to the next level than Ulis’s, but I’m pretty positive the gap in their defense far exceeds the gap in their offensive games.

Valuing defense at the guard position is what leads to Baldwin and Dunn both being top-10 on my board. They aren’t exceptional offensive prospects, but guys who can play both ends of the floor at an above average level are a lot more valuable than a good offensive player who can’t play D.

My other big takeaway is that the small school point guards (Felder, VanVleet, and Adams) are underrated. If you’re going to be a bad defender you better be able to earn it back on the offensive end, and super high usage guys like those three seem to have a better shot than someone like Melo Trimble. Yes, playing for a smaller school leads to a higher usage burden, but the type of playmaking skills those guys have shown are a cut above many of the more well-known power conference prospects.

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