I’m typically Mr. Glass Half Full, so you can probably take this with a grain of salt, but this year’s draft class has the potential to be one of the deepest ones we’ve had in quite some time.
This year’s #1 overall pick, Karl-Anthony Towns, is the epitome of a modern 5 — a guy who can protect the rim, guard in space, finish at the basket in P&R, sprinkle in jump hooks when posted up and knock down jumpers with relative ease. Jahlil Okafor is the best back-to-the-basket center prospect to enter the league in quite some time. The defensive versatility of Willie Cauley-Stein certainly can’t be ignored either.
D’Angelo Russell has almost unfair court vision to go along with a gorgeous shooting stroke in a 6’5 frame. Emmanuel Mudiay doesn’t have the shooting stroke or the overall natural feel that Russell does, but his near-elite athleticism (as well as being 6’5 himself), ability to run the P&R and defensive upside (he’s not there yet at all, but the instincts are there) more than make up for it.
Both Stanley Johnson and Justise Winslow project to be two-way studs. And we can’t forget the international flavor of Kristaps Porzingis and Mario Hezonja, who both possess superb shooting strokes, immense upside and a swagger that should make them fan favorites almost immediately.
The best part? That’s just most of the top-tier talent. In the second tier, guys like sharpshooting Devin Booker, Cameron Payne, Frank Kaminsky and Myles Turner will all likely be good NBA contributors — maybe even great if Turner turns into the two-way force he has the potential to become.
So yeah, I like this class. But just like all rookies aren’t created equal, neither are their situations; that matters when it comes to the Rookie of the Year race.
TIER #3: GOOD PLAYER, BAD SITUATION
JUSTISE WINSLOW (MIA)
Justise was served (I had to) in Miami after an outright painful season — literally. Miami used the most starting lineup combinations in the NBA last year because of all the injuries they suffered. Winslow somehow slid to 10 despite being projected as a top five pick for a good portion of the year.
Winslow has all the tools to be one heck of a slasher offensively — he has a Harden/Butler flavor to his drives in terms of his pace, upper-body strength and footwork (check out the sequence at the 1:12 mark) — and a very good defender:
Sadly for him and his ROY candidacy, he’s behind Luol Deng on the small-forward depth chart, and Dwyane Wade at SG.
KRISTAPS PORZINGIS (NYK)
I absolutely love Kristaps Porzingis. A man that tall shouldn’t have the skill set or nimbleness that he does, but Porzingis can block a shot on one end and drain a 25-footer off the bounce on the other:
He obviously needs to put on weight, as well as get acquainted with the physicality of the NBA (stop laughing, Shaq!) which is probably why the Knicks initially plan on bringing Porzingis along slowly. With Kevin Seraphin, Derrick Williams and Kyle O’Quinn on the roster, each of them could get some playing time at the 4 alongside Robin Lopez while Porzingis comes off the bench, at least in the first part of the year.
BOBBY PORTIS (CHI)
It’s still a little surprising that he slid like he did in the draft, but Chicago has to be glad they got him. For Portis, this is a great situation for him long term. He’ll be playing for Fred Hoiberg, whose pace and overall scheme is a lot different than what Bulls players (and fans) got used to under Tom Thibodeau. Portis has ability on the low block, but his game is stretch-y and he’s pretty athletic, making him perfect for the high P&R sets that’ll be employed in Hoiball:
However, there’s a reason why this is a great long-term situation for Portis, and why he’s in this section. The Bulls’ frontcourt features Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah, Nikola Mirotic and Taj Gibson. As good as Portis is already, and how much he has absolutely lit it up in Summer League and in preseason play so far (for what it’s worth), there’s just no way he’ll be getting enough playing time to be productive barring a barrage of injuries.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Cameron Payne (OKC), Devin Booker (PHX)
TIER #2: SLEEPERS
FRANK KAMINSKY (CHA)
I didn’t think Charlotte was going to be that good, even with the additions of Jeremy Lamb, Jeremy Lin and Nicolas Batum. Now with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist expected to miss most or all of the season, I definitely don’t expect them to go anywhere. However, playing time at the 4 could be there for the taking.
What Kaminsky lacks in the athleticism department, he more than makes up for with his pure jumper and efficient post game:
His jumper and ability to operate from the high post makes him an ideal fit next to Al Jefferson as opposed to Cody Zeller or Marvin Williams, although the Kaminsky-Jefferson pairing would be death defensively. As of now, Charlotte looks to be going with Williams at the 4 spot for more of a small-ball feel, but if that doesn’t work out, Kaminsky could end up posting some solid rookie numbers for a bad Charlotte team.
JERIAN GRANT (NYK)
Jerian Grant is a big, smart and unselfish point guard who thrives off P&R possessions:
That isn’t a spectacular description on face value, but when you consider the only thing that’s really stopping him from logging 28-30 minutes a night is the turnstile we call Jose Calderon, well…let’s just say he should be starting by December at the latest.
WILLIE CAULEY-STEIN (SAC)
If I was asked about Cauley-Stein’s potential ROY case two weeks ago, I probably would’ve been worried about Sacramento’s logjam up front. DeMarcus Cousins is obviously starting, but with George Karl there, it wouldn’t have surprised me if he started Omri Casspi (for shooting purposes), Rudy Gay (to play small), or even slid Cousins to the 4 in order to start free-agent acquisition Kosta Koufos at the 5.
But then I saw these:
He has to get in better shape, but Cauley-Stein already looks like a good defender instead of just a good shot blocker like most defensively talented rookies. He’s athletic, has great instincts and is extremely versatile:
If Cauley-Stein does indeed start, it’s not inconceivable that he averages something along the lines of 10 points, 8 boards, a steal and a block and a half.
MYLES TURNER (IND)
Turner is one of the biggest wild cards of this year’s draft. From a pure talent level, he’s one of the four or five best prospects in the class. He’s an incredible shot blocker, a good athlete, good finisher and has a very reliable touch from mid-range — basically another, slightly less talented Karl-Anthony Towns:
There were and are questions about his effort, conditioning, consistency and aggressiveness.
But, I mean, he’s under Frank Vogel and we all saw Vogel help turn Roy Hibbert from a plodding, uncoordinated project into an elite rim protector with a surprisingly reliable jumper. The center spot is practically up for grabs, and with Vogel wanting to play smaller and faster this year, Turner is a better fit at the 5 on both ends than Ian Mahinmi or Jordan Hill.
DEANGELO RUSSELL (LAL)
He’ll start from Day 1, but sharing the ball with Kobe Bryant and Jordan Clarkson isn’t necessarily ideal. Regardless, Russell and the Lakers overall just scream “League Pass,” especially in transition.
KARL-ANTHONY TOWNS (MIN)
Splitting time with Gorgui Dieng and Nikola Pekovic (who shouldn’t be there, but I don’t see how he has much trade value at this point) will likely hinder his stats, but he’s expected to start. He’ll likely make the All-Rookie First Team but miss out on winning the actual award.
3. STANLEY JOHNSON (DET)
Typically, you should always take Summer League and preseason performances with enough grains of salt to raise your blood pressure. But every year, there’s always an exception or two when you watch a guy play during the summer and you just think, “Man, he’s confident, aggressive…he’s ready to put this together.” My favorite example of this was Reggie Jackson a couple of years ago. He absolutely dominated for OKC during the summer, then followed it up with a 6MOY-worthy campaign. Fast forward to now, and he’s an 80 Million Dollar Man for the Pistons, ironically.
We all know Stanley Johnson has an NBA body, listed at 6’7 240. He attacks the basket and finishes through contact extremely well, and can defend his butt off on the other end. All summer, his jumper — his biggest question mark — has basically been flames. His ball-handling ability has been a pleasant surprise, not only showing competency, but real ability to run the pick-and-roll:
And the man just oozes confidence on top of a stellar work ethic and overall positive attitude. Johnson has quickly reached Victor Oladipo status for me — the guy in the draft who I can pretty much guarantee will become a star barring injury. I don’t see any reason why Johnson can’t start from Day 1 and put up big (in a rookie-year sense) numbers.
2. EMMANUEL MUDIAY (DEN)
This is essentially the Michael Carter-Williams case all over again. Don’t get me wrong, I think Mudiay is good, and will be very good in the future. My point in comparing him and Carter-Williams are their situations. Mudiay will be given the keys from Day 1 like Carter-Williams was in Philly, play in a fast (but structured) offense under Mike Malone, and will probably put up some very good basic stats on a Denver team that’ll be lucky to win 30 games.
What Mudiay has working for him is a wily veteran in Jameer Nelson who’s more than willing to help show him the ropes both on and off the court. In addition to that, he has the pair of Kenneth Faried and a seemingly rejuvenated and healthy Danilo Gallinari.
Mudiay is a good passer and loves dropping dimes in P&R much like a young(er) John Wall, so having Faried to thread pocket passes or throw lobs to certainly will help. And if Mudiay, as explosive as he is, draws attention on his drives, he’ll be able to kick it out to Gallo for some easy dimes. You can see a good bit of that here:
The team itself won’t be that good, but there are pieces there, and they’ll be fun to watch.
MY PREDICTION: JAHLIL OKAFOR
Jahlil Okafor is going to get all of the touches he wants down low, and he’s good enough to feast on them. So far this summer, he’s showcased flashes of a mid-range jumper to complement his insanely good post game, but only time will tell if that’ll hold up.
But man, his offensive repertoire is so impressive for somebody not old enough to legally drink yet. His footwork is superb, IQ is high and his touch in the paint (not just around the basket) is baby-soft:
There will be a bit of an adjustment period since he won’t be able to overpower 98 percent of the players he faces like he could in college. His conditioning will need to improve, although he’s made major strides already, and he’ll have to crash the boards harder than he did this summer. But the sky is the absolute limit for him this year and moving forward.