This piece will just be a quick Post-Combine Top 13
What The Combine Changed:
1) The first thing the Combine did is it completely solidified my ranking of Wade Baldwin. Measuring at 6’4″ with a 6’11.25″ wingspan is huge. Beyond that he tested well athletically as one should guess, jumping near top numbers in both the standing and max vert, while also running near top speeds in both the sprint and agility drills. (Most of the “athletic” issues with Baldwin right now aren’t actually athletic, they are technical. Having a handle that needs a little work will slow a player down when he has the ball in his hands. However, he’s already come far enough in this aspect of the game that there’s a good chance his improvement will continue.)
Clear number 3. Not as good an athlete as Westbrook or Rose, but as good as many of the guys who went on to be major league successes. Which is no guarantee. Could be a plus back-up long-term, but has some clear avenues to being a star. “But has some clear avenues to being a star”, almost no prospect can say that.
2) The second thing: I’m dropping Daniel Hamilton and Dedric Lawson. These players have some level of skill, but they are both far away from being productive. They are so far away that there’s almost no chance they’ll be on their first team when their successful, or if they are successful. And the thing with both is that their lack of athleticism very well could keep the skills they do have from showing at the next level.
Glorified All-Star Games shouldn’t influence our opinions that much. However, they are pretty good environments to gauge the future success of players who will need to Win On-the-Ball to be successful. For instance, with Kahlil Felder, we can’t be sure that he’ll continue to be successful at getting wherever he wants at the pro level, but dominating the competition in the games at the Combine allows us to leave that possibility on the table.
Conversely, the fact that Hamilton clearly couldn’t get to the spots he needed to in order to be successful should let us know it’s a very unlikely prospect in the future. Think of MCW, but with even less ability to get into the teeth of the defense and make good decisions when he’s in trouble. The only thing saving Hamilton as a prospect is that he rebounds well and that he might be able to shoot in the future. But that doesn’t make him a good bet to be anything more than a complimentary player.
Far better players with similar skills have failed at the next level, or were not nearly as successful. Think of Francisco Garcia, who in many ways was a Rich-Man’s Daniel Hamilton in college. Think of Reece Gaines. Think of Terrence Williams. (Yes, for some reason Louisville pumps out tall guys who know how to play and don’t succeed to a great degree at the NBA level.) Though Garcia has had a very long career and been a legit plus player for parts of it. He’s been a very good pro. However, he’s never remotely been the player who averaged 6 rebounds and 6 assists per 40 while being well above average on defense. Skills are important, but unless they are super elite, they often need a decent amount of athleticism to play.
3) Deyonta Davis. It may not seem like much, but growing an inch in both height and wingspan is huge. 6’10” with a 7’2.5″ wingspan are not absolutely ideal measurements for a center, but they are very good. And Davis might not be done growing. He has a long way to go in terms of his offense, but the defensive potential is there, especially if he can improve his defensive rebounding. And many guys do improve their rebounding from their Freshman to Sophomore years or their Sophomore to Junior years, or even their Junior to Senior years, as they grow stronger. Check both Chinanu Onuaku and Brice Johnson to see how players can improve as they mature.
Not all players do, but some might.
4) Brice Johnson’s weight was disappointing. By no means is it a death sentence. Not just because he can put on weight, but because Dennis Rodman and Shawn Marion both probably played at around 220. Learning to use leverage in the post was always going to be one of the most important part of Johnson’s defensive future, and his weight doesn’t change that, nor does it change the fact that he has athletic spring and movement ability that most other PF, especially PF prospects, just don’t have.
He’s not as good a prospect as Rodman, Marion or Draymond Green. But like them, most of his value will come on defense and rebounding and finding a way to be useful offense. With any luck, there will be some unpredictable late career improvement in Brice Johnson’s jumper, hopefully out to Three, as there has already been much unpredictable improvement in Johnson’s jumper and success at the Free-Throw line. But that’s not a development that’s easily projectable. Unpredictable things sometimes do happen.
5) Kris Dunn and Gary Payton II. Kris Dunn is still definitely the safer prospect from many angles. I’m still not convinced that Payton II doesn’t have more upside. Measuring with a 6’8″ Wingspan is big, as is measuring a legit 6’3″, because that kind of size with his explosion (he’s definitely more of a quick-twitch side-to-side guy than Baldwin, as well as a leaper, even if they tested the same) he could be a handful defensively.
Is the likelihood of Payton II developing a shot high? Perhaps not. But in speaking about his upside, we have to consider his game as if he can at least develop some consistency off the catch. Let’s forget that Payton II without a jumper is still probably a useful player. That’s important, but not as important as the point made a little bit above, that average players are mostly career journeymen. They don’t help the team that drafted them unless that team is very high on the Win Curve (think Golden State or Cleveland). Unless helping the team win a handful more games before they depart is what the team is after.
Very possible still that both players are much better in a combo role than as true Point Guards, which is also true of Wade Baldwin. That might limit these players overall upside on that side of the ball, but it might also raise their offensive floor. (And if they are good enough to play themselves up to a more important role in the offense, they will.) Yes, their might not be a True PG in this class (with both passing and scoring skills) until we get to Kahlil Felder. And he might be too small. These are questions that won’t be answered for a few years.
6) For those reading between the lines, this shouldn’t be a surprise, but there were 12 or 13 prospects I really liked before the combine. And there are 13 I like after it, though they have changed very slightly. These 13 are: Simmons, Ingram, Baldwin, Dunn, Payton II, Ellenson, Onuaku, D. Jones, Br. Johnson, D. Davis, D. Bembry, P. McCaw and D. Valentine.
7) After these prospects is where I’d put the high risk, high reward young players. I have four I like somewhat better than the others in M. Chriss, J. Brown, D. Murray and S. Zimmerman. I don’t particularly love any of these guys as players, but each has his own avenue to big success.
After them, that’s where we find the role players and other long-shots of sorts. You could probably make a legitimate argument for 30-50 college players at this point. Really, the players are very close together and there’s a lot of good ones. This is where there’s an absolutely legitimate argument for Murray (my favorite of this group of four), Hield, Poeltl, Sabonis. There’s a legitimate argument for Malik Beasley. There’s a legitimate argument for guys like Taurean Prince. There’s a legitimate argument for guys like Kahlil Felder, Demetrius Jackson and Josh Adams. There’s a legitimate argument for Ron Baker, Caris LeVert and Kyle Collinsworth. And you could go on. Dorian Finney-Smith, Jarrod Uthoff. AJ Hammons, Daniel Ochefu. Nigel Hayes. Daniel Hamilton. Jameel Warney. If you want me to list names, I can list names.
OF this group, the guys I like best as of now are Robert Carter Jr., James Webb III, Pascal Siakam, Malcolm Brogdon, Kay Felder, Josh Adams, Demetrius Jackson (in the right situation, with the right coach), Kyle Collinsworth, Shaq Harrison and John Brown. But that’s as much intuition as anything. On a different day we could find a different group of names here.
It shouldn’t matter much. If you notice, you should be able to target players from my Top 13 at any level of the draft. Simmons, Ingram early. Ellenson, Dunn, D. Davis in the mid-lottery. Baldwin, Valentine in the mid first or late lotto. Gary Payton II, Bembry, McCaw, Br. Johnson, D. Jones, and C. Onuaku in the late 1st or even into the mid to late 2nd round area. This is not by design, but it is convenient, especially if you’re one of the teams with 4 to 8 picks in the draft (Philly, Denver, Boston) and you have evaluations that diverge similarly from the consensus.
8) Although, some of these players could jump with the players I have at the top if I were convinced on certain questions I have. Do I believe Siakam can develop a jumper? Just how impactful is Brogdon’s defense? Questions like those. (In his best seasons, Brogdon could end up being a plus two or plus three offensive guy if everything breaks right.)
9) Robert Carter Jr. He has almost everything a PF or C needs to be successful on offense. But his head just isn’t all there on defense. This is not because he lacks athleticism. Carter Jr.’s not super athletic, but he’s athletic enough with his frame to do much better in contesting jump shots. He should also be much more physical. It’s almost as if he doesn’t realize that he can use the lower part of his body to get into the offensive player without drawing a foul. (This is one of the keys to defense. The refs just don’t call lower body contact all that often. They call hand contact and arm contact a lot.) He also lacks attention-to-detail, and doesn’t play with extreme amounts of effort on that end. (You could really see this when Niang was abusing him. Now imagine Niang is Draymond Green or Lebron. If Carter Jr. doesn’t improve a good deal in these scenarios, the results won’t be pretty.)
Imagine him as this draft’s version of Patrick Patterson. He could be a good deal better than that, but I’d guess that’s probably around where he ends up. Even if that’s so, he’s exactly the kind of player most teams are looking for, and it’s very surprising it seems he’s might not be chosen before the 2nd round.
10) Nigel Hayes. We all know Nigel Hayes had a bad year. We all know Nigel Hayes is a system offensive player. We all know Nigel Hayes is at least two or three years away from shooting consistently. Seeing a predictably poor outing for a system offensive player in an all-star game environment shouldn’t affect our thinking at all. If he was a late first rounder before, he should be a late first rounder after. If he was not draftable before, he should be not draftable after.
The reason why you are drafting Hayes in the first place is not because you think he’s going to have an easy time fitting into an offensive system in his first year or two in the league. It’s because of his sophomore year, his decent athleticism, his ability to understand and make decisions within a system, his ability to switch positions and his excellent frame, where he stands at 6’7″, 245, with a 7’3″ wingspan. None of these things changed between now and the end of the combine.
Josh Hart is in the same boat. We already knew he was a system offensive guy. Just as we know Buddy Hield is likely to become one. I’m not going to expect an obvious system guy to play well in an all-star game. Ever. If he does, kudos.
11) Kyle Collinsworth. Not a combine player, but I’m going to talk about him again. There’s a decent chance he’s a slightly smaller, somewhat more athletic Luke Walton. Perhaps even a better rebounder and passer. Though it’s hard to tell, given situation and how stacked those Arizona teams were. Don’t gum up the works by trying to imagine how he’ll defend on-ball. He’s an 0ff-ball defender at wing, who should defend on the ball when he needs to. The important thing is that Collinsworth has some real skills that few 6’6″ players have and is a decent athlete.
If there’s any chance of consolidating an off-the-catch jumper, this is not a player defenses will want to see attacking closeouts. A little like Shaun Livingston, his mid-range game is already solid. Unlike Shaun Livingston, Collinsworth probably needs a three-point jumper to be a really meaningful player in the league. Though who knows. There are teams, like OKC, whose stars have shown they can thrive even without ideal spacing. These teams are, however, rare.
12) Caris LeVert measured relatively poorly. The difference between a 7’1″ and 6’10” Wingspan is only three inches, but it can be pretty big for a player who lacks burst and hasn’t shown that much aptitude for defense. There however is still a lot more offensive upside here than with most of the guys who play primarily off-the-ball because LeVert can really pass the ball for such a player. Plus LeVert is tall enough and with smooth enough a release that he might be able to get off a good number of 3PA per game.
If we look at the last two NBA seasons, there are 27 players who were able to get off 10.5 or more 3PA per 100 possessions (an arbitrary cut-off but if we made the cut-off even as low as 9 3PA we’d have much the same conclusions, albeit with a couple more of the shorter off-the-ball guys present, namely JJ Redick, Wesley Matthews and Anthony Morrow, but I’d also have to list 60 names), we find 27 such seasons.
We find Stephen Curry twice, Damian Lillard once, Isaiah Canaan, Kobe Bryant, Lou Williams and Jamal Crawford. All on-the-ball players.
We find J.R. Smith twice and Marcus Thornton, off-the-ball players who are decent at getting their shots off the dribble.
We find these off-the-ball players taller than 6’6″: Klay Thompson twice, Robert Covington twice, CJ Miles twice, Charlie Villanueva twice, Gerald Green, Tim Hardaway Jr., Mirza Teletovic, Nikola Mirotic, Danilo Gallinari (he has some on the ball skills like Thompson, but like Thompson is probably better as a finisher) and Ryan Anderson.
We find these players 6’5″ or shorter: Wesley Matthews once and Anthony Morrow once. That’s it.
It’s really difficult to be a true off-the-ball Wing and get a lot of 3PA off, especially if you are shorter than 6’6″. Again, right below our arbitrary threshold, we find another Matthews season, another Morrow season, a couple of JJ Redick seasons, but mainly we’re adding guys like Kevin Durant, Kyle Lowry, Kyle Korver (above 6’6″), Danny Green (above 6’6″), Jason Terry, Trevor Ariza, James Harden, Rodney Hood, Patty Mills.
To get jumpers off at decent rates, height usually matters. To get jumpers off at decent rates, on-the-ball skills often matter too. To a decent degree, LeVert has both. The injuries are scary, but after you get to around the 18th player in the draft we’re looking at role players and rotation players, real longshots, or players who are both. If a team believes in LeVert as a player, the injury risk shouldn’t scare the team that much. Only so many players out of any draft will be truly significant players. And guys do overcome injury.
13) Just a note on Demetrius Jackson. We knew he was going to test well athletically. He did that. I didn’t have to see the numbers to know that he was explosive. That’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about the possibility of Demetrius Jackson going to Detroit. I love this fit for Jackson, and would expect much better results there in many other situations.
Demetrius Jackson is really a poor man’s Reggie Jackson. (We could also think of this kind of player as a version of Aaron Brooks. Same continuum.) Smaller, not quite as good anywhere in college, but with all the same strengths. And Detroit has this fantastic defender in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope that could allow Jackson to play off-the-ball on defense, greatly diminishing his potential weakness in that area.
Stan Van Gundy really knows how to play to the strengths of Point Guards who can shoot. Reggie Jackson, Jameer Nelson as examples. Demetrius Jackson could be the next one in that line.
This is the problem with rankings. Some guys actually are better fits for certain coaches and certain schemes. Buddy Hield in Minnesota, with a coach who might put a Wesley Matthews-like career on the table as a career path, (though I’d still doubt it.) Demetrius Jackson in Detroit. If I could predict where the player was going to go, it would greatly impact how I rated them. These guys don’t exist in a vacuum. Context matters. Context matters a lot.
14) As always I’m just ranking the NCAA guys. Now onto the list.
Post-Combine Top 13
1. Ben Simmons
2. Brandon Ingram
3. Wade Baldwin
4a. Kris Dunn
4b. Gary payton II
Tier 5 (Players Who Will Possibly Have Massive Trade Value)
6. Henry Ellenson
A note on Ellenson: Henry Ellenson’s measurement matters. The first thing is that it puts Center on the table. 7’0″ with a 7’2″ wingspan is decent size for an NBA Center. He definitely has the athleticism to play the position. I think he probably has the athleticism to play defense at Power Forward if he commits to it, though his semi-delusional combine answer about how he doesn’t care where he plays because he’s a mismatch at any position, tells a lot.
It’s true, Ellenson is a mismatch at any positions. But it goes both ways. If he doesn’t greatly improve his effort and attention to detail on the defensive side of the ball, he’ll be a mismatch there too, and it won’t be in a positive way. Which is to say, any supremely positive projection of Ellenson needs some wishful thinking and should rely heavily on the interview process.
Still, Ellenson is pretty unique as an offensive and rebounding prospect goes. The kind of guy, were he to play a sophomore year in college, who would probably win the Naismith Award or come close.
Here’s the Top 22 players in the Sports-Reference database who averaged 9 rebounds per game as Freshman, .7 steals or more, .8 blocks or more, and 14 points per game, sorted by assists.
A) The first thing we notice is that Ben Simmons is unique.
B) The second thing we notice is that this is a good list to be on. These are mostly NBA guys, from first class stars like Anthony Davis to bench guys like Lorenzen Wright. What’s more hardly any of them have the passing skills that Ellenson has displayed at a young age. (If Ellenson has deficiencies passing, compare him to most young Bigs. Bigs generally are not good at seeing the floor. Look for instance at Millsap. He’s become quite a good passer. Young players tend to improve, especially if they start out with some element of skill.)
C) The third is the two players grouped with Ellenson. Blake Griffin and Kevin Love. Griffin obviously the best athlete. Love obviously the most skilled. Ellenson somewhere in between.
I find this to be an interesting group. Ellenson wasn’t quite as good as either player as a Freshman, mainly because he shot a lot of Threes without making them, but that’s also a place I’d bet that Ellenson will improve. He’s very comfortable on the perimeter and that’s rare for a Big Man.
The reason I find the grouping appropriate is because these are all B&O Railroad guys. Boards and Offense and nothing else. They were that way in college as Freshman and they continued to be so as Pro players. The thing that separates Ellenson from Love and Griffin though is his body. Love was 6’9″ with a 6’11” wingspan. Blake Griffin was 6’10” with a 6’11” wingspan. Ellenson however is nearly 7’0″ tall with a 7’2″ wingspan.
That legitimately puts Center on the table. It also puts the potential for more defense on the table. It would make Ellenson a huge Power Forward, a position he still has the movement skills to play if he he decides to put the work in to improving. Ellenson would be a potential match-up nightmare at either Big position, but it’s definitely worse for Teams if he’s a Center than a PF. (Yes, I’d be quite high on Poeltl too if he had some legit perimeter skills.)
D) The other name I like on the list is Troy Murphy. I could easily see Ellenson having that kind of career or slightly better. As he’s already more comfortable on the perimeter, and he might not take as long to get good. The potential to function as a passer in the offense is what separates Ellenson from a guy like Kris Humphries, though that type of career is also on the table.
E) The thing I’d like to talk about most is the highly possible situation that Henry Ellenson is successful offensively and on the boards, but that he doesn’t play plus on-ball and help defense. Size does not remotely guarantee defensive success. However, that doesn’t mean that the player will not still be very valuable, if not for the team, in a trade.
What we’ve seen with these types of players in Kevin Love, in the rumors about Blake Griffin, heck, even in the Rajon Rondo deal, is that these types of players, the kind that are hugely successful at putting up numbers on the offensive side of the ball, still carry loads of trade value. We’re talking about two first round picks and significant young player with potential in both the cases of Love and Rondo.
Ellenson is the one player in the draft who could turn out reasonably well and yet still have have absolutely massive trade value. If there was no possibility of a trade, I’d probably rather have Onuaku on my team, unless Ellenson interviewed really well and convinced me he put more effort in on the defensive end. But this isn’t like picking Okafor over Porzingis because Okafor is likely to carry more future trade value. It’s more like picking Okafor over a guy like Stanley Johnson. (Who knows who will end up better in that pairing? That’s to the side of the argument I’m making. And yes, it’s still also possible Okafor ends up better than Porzingis, when everything is said and done. Just wouldn’t be what one would predict.) Which is to say, I don’t think you are passing up a possible Top Order Star in this scenario. You are passing up a potentially very good player. There’s a difference.
Tier 6 (The Young Center With Big-Time Defensive Talent and Passing Skills)
7. Chinanu Onuaku
Tier 7 (The Next 6 Guys)
8. Brice Johnson
9. Derrick Jones
10. Deyonta Davis
11a. DeAndre Bembry
A note on Bembry: Knows how to play basketball. I think he’s one of the best on-ball defenders at the Wing position, one of the best rebounders, is a good enough athlete that his passing ability will matter at the next level, and for some reason I’m guessing his J will improve. If there’s a Wesley Matthews type player in this draft, I’m betting it’s him. His J has a long ways to go, but he was a legit on-ball guy with excellent decision-making in college, which very few 6’6″ players can claim to be.
11b. Patrick McCaw
A note on McCaw: Excellent defensive potential. I’m not remotely sold on the offense. But potential is there too. Kind of like a poor man’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, with better hands on D and more length. Don’t see how he’s not considered a 1st rounder. Young players get better.
11c. Denzel Valentine
A note on Valentine: I’ve already detailed how Valentine could be a 6th man extraordinaire. The problem with Valentine is that there might be certain Playoff Series which he becomes virtually unplayable. I’d love to see him get better on defense. But consider the teams that have been in the Finals the last 25 years.
We have the Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen’ Bulls six times. We have the Lebron James-Dwayne Wade’ Heat four times. We have the Chauncey Billups-Rip Hamilton-Tayshaun Prince Pistons twice. We have the Parker-Kawhi-Ginobili-Danny Green’ Spurs twice. We have the Curry-Thompson-Iguodola-Barnes-Livingston-Barbosa’ Warriors. This year we’ll have the Kyrie-Lebron-JR Smith’ Cavs. We have the Westbrook-Harden-Durant’ Thunder. We have the Rondo-Pierce-Allen’ Celtics twice.
Most teams do have a player to stash a heady player like Valentine on off-ball, without much detriment. Not every year, but often enough that it matters, there’ll be a team in Conference Finals or in the Finals whose strength is in their Wing players. And these series will have certain line-up combinations where Valentine is definitely playable. And other line-up combinations against which, it’s possible that Valentine, at least on the defensive side of the ball, will be difficult to play at all. That’s just one scenario. It’s possible he’s just good enough on D and excellent enough on offense that it doesn’t matter. But we just saw the Spurs get beat by the Thunder again in the playoffs, mostly because they can’t deal with the Thunder’s athleticism.