Here is the premise. In between the tail end of the playoffs and the draft cycle leading into Summer League exists a noticeably short period of time to hastily construct a big board. As a relatively novice at draft scouting, I had previously only truly watched a few players in college with the thoroughness required for this process. For this draft, galvanized by tracking the growth of prospects from the prior 3 drafts and by the influences of my work on my Midseason Rookie Reports, All-Defense Teams, and All-Rookie Teams (links to the latter two: https://notradeclause.com/2021-22-all-nba-defense-teams/, https://notradeclause.com/all-rookie-teams-full-season-rookie-report/), I constructed a big board. I have historically tended to devalue centers, but I am hoping that working on the aforementioned pieces have helped positively counteract those instincts. Additionally, I went digging through the data for college prospects and current NBA centers to try to differentiate between their skillsets to better identify truly elite prospects in the draft. A heads up: I went swinging for upside to a greater level than most others would comfortably do. This piece examines why I set up my big board as I did with little blurbs for each prospect to show how I would consider them now based on their early season performance.
1. Paolo Banchero
My Original view: I really like his smooth, polished footwork. The shot looks a little strange on his jumpers (due to a slightly elongated pullback) and I’m still a little hesitant on his defense, specifically his movement. With that said, most NBA teams do manage to implement conditioning programs to highlight the skills they value the most. It would not shock me if a slimmer Paolo emerged on the NBA hardwood floors, trading in the muscle used to shoulder through college big men for improved cardio and light feet to better hold up on switches. The value as a 3-level shot creator and an excellent secondary passer is just too potent for me to pass up at 1.
Early Season Review: He’s somehow more polished than I thought as an offensive player and his passing has translated immediately. At the moment, Paolo has an ironclad grip on retaining his first spot. Let’s start with the defense. As a second-side shot blocker and an occasional perimeter defender, he’s been downright adequate. His lateral agility does not look at all compromised at the NBA level. He might not fly around like Mobley but he does not appear to present a consistent footspeed weakness either, which bodes well considering his offensive repertoire. He looks slimmer and his driving ability pops even on a team with limited guard play at times. NBA spacing is still unlike any environment in the college game. Since 2010, here is the list of rookies to average more than 6 free throws per game over the course of a season: Blake Griffin (8.5), Joel Embiid (7.9), Luka Doncic (6.7), Zion Williamson (7.4), and now Paolo at 8.0 free throws per game and another rookie whom we will discuss later. These are some of the best paint presences of the last decade and that’s the esteemed company Paolo has rightfully earned. Within that list, only Luka had a more polished shooting and handle combination than Paolo already does. It’s early and the jumper might still take some time but he has superstar written all over him. Great job Orlando!
2. Jabari Smith Jr.
My Original View: I’m not sure he profiles as a perimeter shot creator, but it would be quite a sight to behold if that somehow developed. His comfort at center will ultimately determine his potency. I anticipate Jabari to be an excellent switching big, capable of playing the 4 or 5 as his body matures. That pull-up is beautiful. He’s one of the most difficult prospects to parse. It’s hard to find a comparable counterpart within the NBA. I realize that prospect comparisons can often produce an anchoring bias that wildly impacts the effectiveness of prospect evaluations, but it’s hard to see Jabari and not envision a cross between Lauri Markkanen and Bam Adebayo. Lauri was the most recent college prospect with a similar shot profile and Bam is the preeminent example of a modern day switch big. The comparisons obviously aren’t flawless; Bam was a more effective paint presence and solo post presence than Jabari and Lauri attempted more shots in rhythm, off movement at Arizona than Jabari did at Auburn. Nonetheless, the fact that Jabari could vaguely mirror both of those disparate paradigms as a freshman and one of the youngest prospects in the class is incredibly encouraging.
Early Season Review: I’m not completely reconsidering anything yet. He’s playing at about the level I expected. His offensive game is in its incipient stages when compared with many of his peers and his defense can only solve so many problems on a leaky Rockets roster. It will take time. The fouls are aplenty, the easy 2-point duck-ins are not. I’d still move him down a few spots simply due to how raw the overall offensive package has been thus far, but it’s a more of a testament to the spectacular play of his peers. Lauri’s All-Star play might be the best indicator of the need for patience when evaluating Jabari.
3. Ben Mathurin
My Original View: Were you expecting someone different? You probably were. This is where I likely break the mold. I love Mathurin’s upside. His defense is immensely flawed. Mathurin frequently gets lost when chasing his target through screens. There are times his defensive motor is not up to the standard it should be for someone of his potential caliber. A locked-in Mathurin is capable of functioning as a plus defender. Let us get to the fun stuff now. I love his offensive game. The off ball 3s, the audacious and effective pull-up 3s, the closeout attacks, the personal vendetta he has against the rim. It’s all spectacular. His passing is sneaky effective for a wing. Offensively, the one noticeable flaw is his inability to string together dribble combinations for isolation self-creation attacks. Good news: He’s a rookie! That’s OK! No one is asking him to utilize Steph Curry’s dribble bag on his first day. So long as the team lets him catch the ball off screens and in movement, he will be dynamite immediately. Ben follows the “If we’re even, I’m leavin” principle. His north-south speed as a dribbler is special. Bonus: Ben’s an incredibly cutter and a free throw producing maven. The way he voraciously attacks the hoop to draw contact and produce tough finishes is Ja-esque. Speaking of Ja, for those not familiar with Ben’s dunking exploits, do yourself a favor and go find them. Here’s a trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PiEgsG4XeSg&ab_channel=BasketballBuzz. Enjoy!
Early Season Review: 😊. I love the way the Pacers are using him and Hali. What a fun team! His defense is an absolute mess right now and is very much responsible for relegating him to a bench role. A mix of inattentiveness, confusion, and a lack of consistent on-ball defensive pressure ensures the need to consistent substitute him. I’d still definitively place him 2nd in this class and suggest that he could become the number 1 prospect from this draft at some point. His offensive repertoire is dynamite. Even without being able to break down defenders with his dribble and despite sometimes getting stonewalled at the rim due to the audaciousness of his attack and the fact that he has the strength and frame befitting of a rookie, he’s been able to attack almost every part of the court. The Pacers do a wonderful job of running ball screen actions to give him the space to attack defenders with his burst, powerful north-south dribbles, and a clear runway. Iverson sets, front cuts, and Chicago actions (as examples) all optimize his abilities to explode to the rim on the catch. Designated Veer sets also allow Mathurin to showcase his burgeoning capabilities to flow from off-ball action into quick catch and shoot 3s or instant advantages that he can maximize to generate a clean pullup attempt. The synergy between the coaching staff’s idea and Mathurin’s role feels like a perfect match. Over time, as his handle grows more secure, it would be great to see him create more opportunities to be a passer. It also goes without saying that his defense must improve. I don’t want to get carried away, but he’s the other player in this class (aside from Paolo) who I regard as having true superstar potential. Going back to that statistic about Paolo Banchero and free throw rates, Mathurin is the other rookie, averaging 6.0 free throws per game. That’s despite playing 5th starter minutes off the bench. This awe-invoking rim pressure alongside the excellent shooting potential might hint at the next great 2-guard.
4. Chet Holmgren
My Original View: I don’t think he profiles to be the same level of shot creator or NBA defender as Mobley or some comparable peers. Large guards and wings may be more capable of switching onto him for spurts without conceding a mismatch. His handle is nice for a step-back, but I’m not sure he can dig deeper into the paint with the requisite alacrity and shiftiness. I think Chet is significantly more ground-bound and attackable by guards near the perimeter than many of his comparable peers. The airspace cushion used to protect himself against WAC guards dissipates against NBA competition. With all critiques aside, I’m still discussing a possible league-leading shot blocker who can self-create in transition. He recognizes backline threats quickly and can often split the middle between two oncoming threats. He will still be an imposing rim deterrent in the NBA.
Early Season Review: Get healthy Chet! Can’t wait to see you back on the floor!
5. Keegan Murray
My Original View: The ultimate play finisher; when Keegan feels comfortable taking a shot, it’s probably resulting in points. I don’t anticipate Keegan being a prominent self-creator at the NBA level. He has a nice pullup to provide a counter and he can attack closeouts. He just doesn’t profile as a particularly dynamic dribbler or athlete who can sustain heavy usage as an on-ball creator. The passing is adequate, but not noteworthy. Some of the slower developing post-ups from the leisurely college environment will not function at the NBA level, but timely cuts will likely result in crafty layups and dunks to further boost his efficacy. He profiles as an uber-efficient, tertiary play finisher who can add secondary rim protection as a nominal power forward.
Early Season Review: He’s more efficient than I could have reasonably expected. In Summer League, the preseason, or real NBA games, the finishing ability as a spacing threat has persisted. The defense is as expected. His game as a potential 5th starter type with limited self-creation or passing responsibilities, quality second-side defensive awareness has translated immediately. He is a building block and immediate starter for the Kings as they march onwards towards finally attaining a playoff berth.
6. Shaedon Sharpe
My Original View: If I am totally off on him, I understand. It is probably unrealistic for any team in the top four to actually consider him. I would love to take him 4th overall if I had access to more tape of similar performances. Full disclosure: I’ve seen like two-three games of him in total maybe? It’s really not much of a sample, and it’s hard to find more tape on him. What I have seen is wonderful. Ditto a lot of what I said about Mathurin, but with a few slight tweaks. He can already implement dribble moves and is likely more experienced as an on-ball passer because of it. As a dribbler though, I just don’t see the same ability to scorch driving lanes in the way Ben does. Totally understandable; very few can. He’s very athletic as a leaper, but his north-south speed with the ball is not quite the same. Accordingly, he also might not generate easy self-generated rim attempts and free throws. Even so, Shaedon can likely create some lateral separation with his pull-up and his shot looks majestic. I realize it’s a stretch, but the expansive upside play here of an athletic shot-creating wing is captivating. The defense will probably take a while, and it will be interesting to see if a full season with no real games will make it even more challenging to get that back.
Early Season Review: He has fit in as a bench shot creator for Portland after missing Summer League. I have some mixed reactions on what I have seen. The shot-making is very solid for a rookie. Everything else is kind of a mess right now. He looks like a prospect who didn’t play high-level competitive basketball for a year and has tried to jump two levels at once on defense. It feels comparable to James Wiseman in that respect. He’s not generating many rim attempts and he’s barely approaching the line at all. Most of the opportunities where he has been given the keys to self-create have been focused primarily on shooting, with very little passing or distribution for others to speak of. The shot making, despite the difficulties with physicality, is still promising. He needs a lot of reps and many more coaching sessions on defense.