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Tiered board for high-variance 2020 NBA Draft

LaMelo Ball

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - OCTOBER 24: LaMelo Ball of the Hawks looks on during the round four NBL match between the New Zealand Breakers and the Illawarra Hawks at Spark Arena on October 24, 2019 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

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The 2020 NBA Draft is not as bad as many consider it. This class has a fairly normal amount of talent. That talent is just dispersed among many prospects, all of whom having glaring flaws.

So, I expect this draft to produce a typical number of good NBA players. But I have far less idea than usual which players those will be.

Of course, that’s the most important question for drafting teams. So, here’s my best attempt to rank prospects.

How this works:

Draft for need or take the best player available?

It’s the question as old as drafts themselves. Personally, I favor the middle-of-the-road approach – the tier system. I judge prospects on three attributes:

  • Current ability
  • Potential
  • Likelihood of meeting that potential

Obviously, assessing those attributes is not easy. It’s really hard.

That’s why I don’t like taking the best prospect – based on all three criteria – available. It’s just too difficult to split hairs between players with so many variables.

But overly considering fit is problematic for the same reason. Rosters churn, and it’s foolish to pass on a clearly better prospect – in the cases that becomes clear – just because he doesn’t fit the current version of the team.

So how does the tier system work?

Divide players into tiers based on their value regardless of fit. Don’t worry about differentiating prospects with nearly identical values. Find natural cutoffs.

Then, within each tier, rank the players based on fit for the specific drafting team.

Theoretically, a draft could have anywhere between 1 and 60 tiers. A 1-tier draft would mean every prospect – from the top pick to Mr. Irrelevant – holds the same value. A 60-tier draft would mean every prospect is clearly distinguishable based on value. Obviously, neither is likely.

The size of tiers should be organic, and therefore, the number of tiers is also organic. Naturally, tiers tend to be smaller near the top of the draft, where lines between players are sharper.

Within each tier, I rank players as if the drafting teams had empty rosters. Obviously, actual NBA teams would need to consider other information when assessing fit of players within a tier.

Here are the 10 tiers necessary to cover the first round of the 2020 NBA draft:

Tier 1

1. LaMelo Ball, point guard, Illawarra (Australia)

Ball possesses elite court vision. From the moment he gets the ball in the backcourt (often directly thanks to his plus rebound ability), Ball is looking to create favorable shots for his teammates – and has the tools to do so. He’s 6-foot-8 with superb passing skills and a tight, creative handle. Unlike his brother, Lonzo Ball, LaMelo has the scoring talent to run the pick-and-rolls that key halfcourt offense. But LaMelo also has horrendous shot selection. He takes an absurd proportion of his shots as floaters, including out to the perimeter. When shooting conventionally from outside, his form is funky. He must get stronger as a finisher. Will he cut out the bad shots in the NBA? Getting shuttled around the globe for publicity-seeking teams didn’t exactly nurture an unselfish attitude. Ball’s defensive effort is downright lousy. But Ball, who just turned 19 after the original draft date, is so young and already so talented. More maturity, mentally and physically, could turn him into a star.

Tier 2

2. Anthony Edwards, shooting guard, Georgia

Edwards is big (6-foot-5, 225 pounds) and explosive. His drives to the rim boom with power. He can also make difficult pull-ups on the perimeter. But he was also too inefficient as a scorer his freshman year. Was that because he’s too willing to settle for difficult shots from outside? Or did the Bulldogs just need him to do more than he was capable of handling? Edwards’ ability to create his own shot on multiple levels gives him star potential. But he must adjust to playing with better teammates at the next level. Edwards has the physical tools to defend well and showed flashes at Georgia. But that’s just not a consistent aspect of his game.

Tier 3

3. Tyrese Haliburton, shooting guard, Iowa State

Haliburton frequently gets projected as a point guard, the position he played for the Cyclones. But I wouldn’t want him at the point of attack on either end. His relatively poor ball-handling and slow first step limit his ability to initiate offense, and his thin frame can make him a liability when screened in pick-and-rolls. But he’s an excellent spot-up shooter and superb passer who makes quick, smart decisions. His basketball intelligence also shines on defense. His rotations are sharp, and he uses his length to disrupt. He doesn’t have the star potential ideal for this slot, but in this draft, I’d bet on his unique skill set.

Tier 4

4. Devin Vassell, wing, Florida State

Another player without star potential ideal for such a high pick, Vassell at least fills a highly coveted role as a 3-and-D wing. He’s a smart defender who impresses on and off the ball. As the 20-year-old gets stronger, he should get even better guarding his man. His risk-taking off the ball might not immediately pay off at the next level – or it might. Vassell shows good basketball intelligence. I’m relieved by a report that his suddenly awkward shooting form was just him goofing around.

5. James Wiseman, center, Memphis

Wiseman (7-foot-1 with a 7-foot-6 wingspan with excellent speed and mobility for his size) covers so much ground – and air. He’s a heck of a leaper. His defensive potential is massive. He can enter the NBA as a highly productive rebounder and roller/alley-oop finisher. But he has a long way to go to capitalize on his defensive upside. His defensive awareness is poor. That’s understandable considering he played just three college games. But he is behind. Wiseman has shown some ball skills – shooting, dribbling – outside the paint, but not nearly enough to justify how often he turns to them. The optimistic spin: He’s developing tools that will eventually make him a far more complete and valuable player. The pessimistic spin: He’s infatuated with inefficient aspects of his game and will try to play outside himself. I lean slightly toward the pessimistic side, but who knows? Wiseman is just 19.

6. Killian Hayes, point guard, Ulm (Germany)

Hayes has the size (6-foot-5) and skill to become a quality NBA point guard. He accelerates rapidly, getting to the rim to finish with touch or – if the defense scrambles – pass to open teammates. But Hayes is more quick than fast with sustained speed. He’s not an explosive athlete who finishes above the rim, either. He’s also very left-handed dominant. All that sometimes allows defenders to catch up. He must improve as an outside shooter, though the 19-year-old appears to be on the right track.

Tier 5

7. Tyrell Terry, point guard, Stanford

Terry is an excellent 3-point shooter on and off the ball. He has deep range, including on pull-ups, and works hard off the ball to relocate, including coming off screens. He can throw special passes. The big negative: He’s small (6-foot-2). He doesn’t always put enough zip on his passes, and he can get abused defensively. But if pre-draft reports of Terry getting bigger and more athletic are accurate, that’d go a long way. Even absent outlier physical development, Terry has a chance at hte next level. Though he’s diminutive and and not the best ball-handler, he has developed his game to compensate. He finishes with craft and from odd angles at the rim, shielding the ball from bigger defenders. His basketball intelligence and competitiveness shine.

8. Onyeka Okongwu, big, USC

Okongwu is a highly productive player a young age. He defends inside and out, blocks shots, rebounds, screens, finishes well, attacks off the bounce, passes and hustles. His comfort creating contact and still elevating is particularly useful in a number of facets. But even as the NBA moves toward small ball, Okongwu (6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan) is a little small for an NBA center. Frequently compared to Bam Adebayo, Okongwu isn’t nearly as powerful as the Heat big was at the same age. Nor does Okongwu have the ball skills Adebayo (surprisingly) developed.

Tier 6

9. Aaron Nesmith, forward, Vanderbilt

Nesmith is a lights-out 3-point shooter ready to gun from beyond the arc. He sets screens, comes off screens and shoots on the move. When facing a hard closeout, Nesmith can take a dribble or two to create space from beyond the arc, step into a mid-range jumper or attack the basket in a straight line. He has the length to defend, but his footwork needs work. His most intriguing defensive skill is using his length and hops to defend the rim, but I’m not sure how much he’ll actualize that in the NBA

10. Aleksej Pokusevski, big, Olympiakos B (Greece)

Pokusevski is an absolutely ridiculous prospect, and I mean that in both the best and worst ways. His highlights are jaw-dropping. A 7-foot 18-year-old, he keeps his dribble alive while navigating screens and traffic, throws dazzling passes from all angles and drains 3-pointers. The catches? He plays weak competition in the Greek second division. He’s rail thin – to the point it could be a while until he’s not completely overwhelmed in the NBA. He can try to do too much offensively, making him too prone to turnovers. But he’s at least a thrilling roll of the dice.

11. Isaac Okoro, forward, Auburn

Okoro appears to have commendable attitude and work ethic. On the court, he impresses with his blend of size size, athleticism and motor. He’s a multi-position defender who can stifle opponents on and off the ball. Offensively, he can put the ball on the floor and pass. He also finishes well when he gets all the way to the rim, which isn’t too often. Okoro’s poor shooting significantly limits him. If he develops his jumper, he has star potential. But it’s tough to bet on that happening.

12. Obi Toppin, big, Dayton

Toppin was the best player in college basketball last year. But the big flashing neon warning sign: He’s already 22. He should have been far better than his “peers” last season. He has a nice offensive package. He’s a rim-rattling dunker and an effective spot-up shooter from beyond the arc, and he can put the ball on the floor. Toppin struggles to change direction, which obviously poses massive defensive issues. His best hope defensively comes as a rim protector who camps out under the basket and skies vertically. But if positioned there, how will he avoid getting bullied under the rim by more forceful opponents? And how much time can he spend right at the hoop, anyway?

13. Saddiq Bey, forward, Villanova

Bey’s high effort level and quality outside shooting stroke should offset his lackluster athleticism. Bey works hard to get open looks from beyond the arc – running the floor, coming off screens, repositioning as the ball moves, releasing his shot quickly. At 6-foot-8, he’s a versatile defender. He uses his length well on the perimeter to cover for his mediocre lateral quickness. He works hard inside against bigger opponents. But athletic shortcomings create downside risk – on both ends. Bey doesn’t have the first step and ball-handling ability to draw help defenders, often even while attacking a closeout. But if he ever draws help, he has the vision to find open teammates.

14. Tyrese Maxey, point guard, Kentucky

Will Maxey become the latest player to blossom in the NBA after filling a narrower role at Kentucky? He might. Maxey spent plenty of time off the ball, where he didn’t look as comfortable. But he shined more running pick-and-rolls. He’s a sound finisher amid contact and can also stops short for pullups. A developing change-of-pace/creative-ballhandling game should make him even more effective. The bet is he’ll shoot better on 3-pointers than the 29% he made at Kentucky. He has NBA range. He must improve significantly as a distributor. He’d be far less valuable if he must be a combo guard. He’s a committed defender, but he’s not as versatile and disruptive as ideal.

15. Deni Avdija, forward, Maccabi Tel Aviv (Israel)

Avdija is a plus passer for his size (6-foot-9). That’s the highlight of his all-around skill set. Avdija is a fun creator in scramble situations, but he struggles to shoot on the move. He can hit shots when stationary, but his distributing isn’t as captivating. Can he connect his skills? A bigger question: Will he develop his outside shot into enough of a weapon?

Tier 7

16. Patrick Williams, forward, Florida State

A big riser during the pre-draft process, Williams might be impressing teams in workouts. The 19-year-old who came off the bench at Florida State could have surged forward in his development in the several months since the college season ended. But I haven’t seen that progress. So, I rank him a little lower, still recognizing a projectable base of skill, length and athleticism. Williams’ standout skill is his shot blocking as a forward, a valuable tool in help defense. He has also shown flashes of more diverse offense – running pick-and-rolls and creating mid-rangers for himself off the dribble. But last I saw, he was inconsistent with the ball and lacking as a passer. Still, he found ways to score by opportunistically taking advantage of his athleticism with cuts and alley-oop finishes.

17. Cole Anthony, point guard, North Carolina

The highly touted son of former NBA player Greg Anthony, Cole underwhelmed in his lone college season. Maybe he’ll fare better in the NBA with more spacing. He has the scoring tools with the ball in his hands – a tight handle, plenty of moves, a good stroke he can get off from anywhere and strength to finish amid contact inside. But his passing ability lags behind, which significantly reduces his potential.

18. Kira Lewis, point guard, Alabama

Younger than many freshmen, Lewis looks better when judged as a 19-year-old rather than a typical sophomore. He’s very fast in the open court. He also has plenty of moves when he doesn’t have room to get up to full speed. But physicality gives Lewis (6-foot-3) trouble on both ends of the floor.

Tier 8

19. Cassius Winston, point guard, Michigan State

Winston is a poised ballhandler who can quickly launch and make shots or pass to teammates. He’s small and lacks burst and explosiveness. But he compensates with his basketball intelligence and toughness. He also has enough length to make his hardnosed defense reasonably effective.

20. Malachi Flynn, point guard, San Diego State

Flynn is a pick-and-roll master with ability to shoot, control his dribble and pass. He has to be. He’s short (6-foot-1) and relatively unathletic and weak. Despite his physical shortcomings, Flynn competes defensively.

21. Desmond Bane, shooting guard, TCU

For someone fairly unathletic, Bane has a pretty NBA-ready game. He’s a knockdown 3-point shooter who can spot up, come around screens or dribble (in any direction) to get off his looks. Bane is strong, which helps him whiz passes to open teammates across the court and boosts his defense. Defensively, plays hard and smart. However, he can get blown by. His lack of athleticism also causes him to struggle to gain separation and finish at the rim. As much as he does well, it’s just hard to succeed in the NBA without more athleticism.

22. R.J. Hampton, guard, New Zealand Breakers

Hampton just glides with the ball in his hands. He’s quick and fast. He also elevates with ease while accelerating to the rim. That athleticism is intriguing. But he must significantly improve his jump shot. Playing any defense would be welcome.

23. Xavier Tillman, power forward, Michigan State

Tillman doesn’t look like a typical first-round pick. He’s an upperclassman, 6-foot-8 and 245 pounds and not an elite athlete. He lacks star upside. But he just knows how to play. Tillman is a physical interior defender who’s mobile enough on the perimeter. His basketball intelligence typically outshines his physical limitations. That also goes for offense, where Tillman is also hamstrung by lackluster outside shooting. But Tillman can screen and finish or pass – a useful combination for a roller in the NBA.

Tier 9

24. Leandro Bolmaro, guard, FC Barcelona (Spain)

The Manu Ginobili influence is obvious in the Argentine native. Bolmaro is a creative ball-handler and finisher whose moves feel off-rhythm. That sets up his passing. He’s a tenacious defender – sometimes too much so. He must improve his 3-pointer, but getting stronger should help the 20-year-old’s push shot.

25. Isaiah Joe, shooting guard, Arkansas

Joe is a lights-out long-range shooter with a quick and high release. He must improve sprinting around screens and into shots, but has the tools to do that well. Despite his lankiness, Joe shows flashes driving and passing and defending. Getting stronger will be essential to having an even somewhat well-rounded game

26. Jahmi’us Ramsey, shooting guard, Texas Tech

Ramsey is a gunner, but that works when he makes 43% of his 3-pointers, like he did as a freshman. Though his 64% shooting on free throws is concerning, it doesn’t necessarily reveal too much about his outside shot. Ramsey attempted nearly twice as many 3-pointers as free throws, creating a far larger sample of actual 3s on which to judge his jumper. That Ramsey attempted so few free throws is the real concern. He has impressive hops off two feet, but that doesn’t materially add to his game aside from some fastbreaks. Still, it shows at least some potential explosiveness. His defensive fundamentals are a mess

27. Theo Maledon, point guard, ASVEL (France)

Mentored by Tony Parker, Maledon is an advanced passer – including in pick-and-roll – and crafty finisher. With his pedestrian burst and handle, can’t always get where he wants on the floor. He shows defensive flashes, but his effort effort is unsustained on that end.

28. Jaden McDaniels, forward, Washington

A highly touted recruit, McDaniels struggled as a freshman. He way too frequently drove haphazardly into traffic and turned the ball over. Forcing bad shots from the perimeter was another staple. His effort waxed and waned. I have major questions about his ability to read the floor, play committed and intelligent defense and even shoot from outside (one of his theoretical skills). But he still a 6-foot-10 wing who moves fluidly, elevates (at least in space) and can handle the ball.

Tier 10

29. Paul Reed, big, DePaul

Reed creates havoc defensively. He’s active, agile and elevates quickly. Reed can both protect the rim and switch onto smaller players. He sometimes tries to do too much offensively (though I like his developing jumper more than his forays into shot creation). At his best offensively, he’s screening, rolling and finishing.

30. Precious Achiuwa, big, Memphis

Achiuwa has the size, strength and mobility to defend both interior and perimeter players. He must refine his defensive attentiveness, but the potential is there. Offensively, he can finish above the rim. He also brings intrigue with his open-court ball-handling, pushing ahead after grabbing rebounds. The rest of his offense, I could leave.

31. Robert Woodard, small forward, Mississippi State

At 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan and good athleticism/strength, Woodard has the ideal profile of an NBA small forward. He can defend multiple positions, though his defensive value presently comes more in versatility than effectiveness. He has potential as a 3-point shooter but needs development. A 3-and-D skill set would be a nice outcome. Anything more would require major advances as a ball-handler and distributor.

32. Jalen Smith, center, Maryland

Smith has strong building blocks both offensively and defensively. He’s an active screener who can both roll and pop. He has even shown an ability to shoot 3-pointers on the move. On the other end, he blocks shots and rebounds well thanks to his hops. But he struggles to defend in space, which can be a fatal flaw for modern bigs.

33. Payton Pritchard, point guard, Oregon

Pritchard (6-foot-2) might just be too small and unathletic for the next level. But he’s a good shooter with deep range who can handle the ball. He attacks the rim with changes of pace and finishes with craft. He’ll at least give himself a fighting chance to succeed in the NBA.

34. Killian Tillie, big, Gonzaga

Tillie is big (6-foot-10 with a wide frame) and a confident 3-point shooter. In addition to pick-and-popping, Tillie can roll and finish with touch. He also shows passing potential. But Tillie’s history of lower-body injuries is distressing. Already slow, he has lost mobility as a defender. And that’s when he’s on the floor. Tillie could miss too much time to be productive.