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Grizzlies Draft Watch: Personal player rankings, new assumptions, Pera speaks

Back when I first wrote on the 2018 draft for The Commercial Appeal, I promised three iterations of a personal draft board, the final one right before the draft. At the time, I didn’t anticipate that I’d be between official writing homes when the time came.

But here we are and so I’ll fulfill that obligation in this space. But first, a couple of related items.

Assumption Adjustments: When I last weighed in, before last week’s vacation, I began with seven then-current assumptions, presented in descending order of certainty. The first five of those still apply, but the squishiest final couple of assumptions now seem to be more in question. Let’s revisit them:

  1. Trading down can’t be discounted but is still unlikely.

  2. Michael Porter is too risky.

Note this recent tweet from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski:

Maybe Jackson had a great workout in Phoenix. Who knows?  It’s smokescreen season. But what I do believe is that there’s going to be a lot of trade talk at 2-4, and the reason for that is that the draft seems to be settling into a broader second tier of players. My assumption a couple of weeks ago was that DeAndre Ayton would go #1 and the #2/#3 picks would come from a pool of Luka Doncic/Marvin Bagley/Jaren Jackson. At #4, the obvious move for the Grizzlies would be to take the player left, with secondary options taking a risk on Michael Porter or trading down/out.

That’s still the most likely scenario, but now it seems like the group of candidates at 2/3 may be a little larger, with Porter working out and sharing medicals opening the door to him reclaiming his former spot as a top-of-the-draft candidate and the enormous upside of Mo Bamba shifting into the spotlight. There are three picks ahead of the Grizzlies and it looks like there are six possible players for those picks.

The size of that presumed first/second tier (and the chance that some team may add Trae Young or Wendell Carter to it) makes it more likely that someone at 2/3/4 might be able to move down two or three spots and still get what they want. The expectation now is that there will be very little certainty, starting at pick #2, by the time draft night rolls around.

Pera Talks: Grizzlies controlling owner Robert Pera made an unexpected appearance yesterday, conducting an exclusive interview with Chris Vernon on the Grizzlies’ own communications arm. I’m going to forego an annotation here. The newsiest elements were probably Pera’s implication that he’d be a little bit more present/visible now that last season’s ownership uncertainties have been resolved and his confirmation that he has no interest in attempting to relocate a franchise. The latter is unsurprising, but he sounded entirely guileless and honest on the subject. His soundbite about the Grizzlies winning 50 games next season may prove unhelpful, but we’ll revisit that at a later date (and in a different venue).

Most of the conversation was career/personality oriented, and was a reminder that Pera is an interesting and persuasive figure when he emerges. Hopefully we’ll get more not too far down the line, perhaps once this offseason is over and all the legalities of the recent ownership transactions are finalized. And hopefully he’ll be willing to field some more Grizzlies-specific questions from some non-affiliated questioners. We’ll see.

My Draft Board

A few quick notes before the list:

I don’t claim to be a “draft expert,” but the last Grizzlies season went off the rails by January and I shifted into draft scouting mode very early, spending more time on it than I have in years.

Some players on this list — DeAndre Ayton and the Duke/Michigan State/Villanova/Kentucky guys especially — I watched play 10 or so times last season.

Most others I watched two or three times. A few I never got around to seeing (or they weren’t playing) in full game action. Everything is supplemented by stats, scouting reports, conversations with other people trying to figure all of this out, etc.

These rankings are not made with the specifics of the Grizzlies situation in mind. There may be spots where I would veer off my own rankings slightly due to fit issues or the particular place the Grizzlies are in. I made note of that in the player comments, which I tried to keep to 100 words each. I went 30 deep. I divided it into tiers to reflect that not every dip from one player to the next is equal.

The Grizzlies pick at #32, but several of these players will likely be on the board when that pick comes up, so I think a 30 player list covers that pick. 

UPDATE: A final adjustment before the draft. The only change here is moving down Michael Porter based on new information on health concerns.

TIER 1

1. DeAndre Ayton: An old-school franchise center coming into a new-school league. Could be a dominant inside-the-arc scorer and rebounder in short order, but he’s hinted at plentiful growth potential on the perimeter, on both ends of the floor. The question of whether he has the awareness/instincts to be a defensive anchor in the paint is a big one, but it’s a mystery, not a lost cause. The highest floor in the draft. Maybe the highest ceiling too.

TIER 2

2. Luka Doncic: He’s not without concerns. Doncic looks heavy-footed on film and while he may have faced good competition, he has not faced a lot of NBA-level perimeter defenders. I’d feel better if he were a knockdown three-point shooter, but he’s not … yet. How much can size, handle, vision, and court sense (all seemingly positionally elite) make up for these concerns? I think the shooting needs to come, and probably will. On the former? I think he finds a way. Add give-a-damn to his skill set. Tie goes to the perimeter in 2018.

3. Jaren Jackson Jr.: The best defensive prospect in the draft, and that end of the floor still exists. Jackson has the length and instincts to be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate down the road, a big man who can blow up pick-and-rolls, switch onto guards and wings, and swat shots at the rim. Offensively, he’s a work in progress, but 40/80 three-point/free-throw shooting is a nice start. There were flashes in college of long off-the-bounce strides from the three-point line to (above) the rim. Here’s betting there’s a lot more of that to come. I think he’s ultimately a center, but foot speed and shooting range give him versatility. I think he can play with Marc Gasol in the short term.

4. Marvin Bagley Jr.: A board-and-bucket-getter whose offensive game as a shooter/driver/passer should expand. I believe in him on that end of the floor. On defense? To quote President Bartlet quoting Governor Ritchie: Boy … I don’t know. Despite his size in a game growing smaller, I think he’s primarily a 4 in the NBA, not a 5. That means he needs a frontcourt partner that can give him space offensively and protect the paint defensively. The Grizzlies have one, at least for now. For reasons of fit and, even more so, fear of risk, I might move him up one for the Grizzlies. In a vacuum, though, I give Jackson the nod.

TIER 3

5. Wendell Carter Jr.: Sue me, I love skilled bigs. Carter is a basketball player: Long, strong, fundamentally sound on both ends of the floor. He’ll shoot from distance, work on the block, make the right pass, hit the boards, and react well to everything happening around him. I love him. But I also think his middling foot speed and average lift limits his upside. The best player on the board who has no chance of being the best player in the draft. From a Grizzlies perspective, I don’t really think he can play with Marc Gasol.

6. Trae Young: The most important qualities in a point guard today are passing/vision and deep shooting off the dribble. He’s potentially elite on both counts, so I think his massive college numbers are a hint of major NBA upside, not necessarily an NCAA mirage. That said, he’ll likely be a deplorable defender, may struggle to score inside the arc, and I’d worry about this durability at the next level. Probably a non-starter for the Grizzlies given the years left on Mike Conley’s deal.

7. Mohamed Bamba: The Thabeet comps are unfair. He’s a more nimble athlete, has more scoring upside, and seems to have a better head on his shoulders. That said, he’s pretty raw in both skill and body and is locked into one position. He might make a team very happy, but I’d be reluctant to roll the dice higher than this. The lowest ranked player on the list who could be the best player in the draft.

8. Mikal Bridges: Players who took three years to become lottery prospects have a spotty track record. The risk is that Bridges has already topped out, but I believe in him as a high-level three-and-D pro. Think Danny Green but with above-the-rim finishing ability. Those players don’t make All-Star games but they help you rack up wins.

TIER 4

9. Michael Porter Jr.: He pops off the screen in highlight clips in a way that Doncic doesn’t. Nix the Durant comps, but a bigger, better rebounding Jayson Tatum? That’s the upside and it’s #1 pick worthy. But the questions start rather than end with (gulp) back surgery. It’s hard to develop much of a sense of defense and overall feel for a guy who’s never played a healthy game above high school level. Still, health reports seem to be trending in the right direction and his Tremendous Upside Potential (Hubie Brown voice) is such that I’ll put him at the top of this tier. Update: Sketchy new information on health moves him back down.

10. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: I started watching Kentucky for Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo, but the eyes always shifted to the long, slinky kid making things happen with the ball, and he proved to have staying power. As previous Grizzlies draft endorsements of Delon Wright (good call!) and Wade Baldwin (um …) attest, I’ve got a weakness for big point guards once the potential stars are off the board, and so it goes. A plus defender across the backcourt, a potential spot-up threat, and someone who can handle/initiate offense. Profiles as a useful rotation player for anyone and a potential starter with the right (superior) perimeter partners.

11. Kevin Knox: The poor man’s version of Michael Porter, but without the back injury. Could never settle into his NBA role on a mismatched Kentucky squad and was an inconsistent contributor. Only an average freshman three-point shooter (34 percent), but with his form and age, I think he’ll end up a plus shooter relative to his position, which will mostly be a 4. Athletically, I think he’s more of a Morris Twin than the Next Paul George, but those guys are NBA starter level, and I think he will be too.

12. Collin Sexton: A fierce competitor with the ball in his hands, so if he pans out this could undersell him significantly. But where Trae Young excels in the pass/shoot department, Sexton seems more ordinary: Worse than 34 percent from downtown, fewer than 4 assists per game. Is he good enough to be a ball-dominant starter on a decent team? If not, you’re consigning yourself to mediocrity on the ball (which probably means mediocrity in the standings) or you’re consigning him to the bench. He’d probably be pretty good coming off the bench, and at 12 you can draft him for that.

13. Miles Bridges: His bouncy athleticism, defensive willingness, and positional versatility put him in the mix here, but I watched Michigan State a bunch and have some doubts. He was a decent college three-point shooter (36 percent) and his 85 percent free throw shooting is encouraging, but I didn’t see a lot of NBA range in those attempts. More at issue is that his handle looked very shaky. I think he’s more of a small-ball four. He’s physical enough for it, but at not-quite 6’7” that makes him a bench player.

14. Khyri Thomas: The guy I’m highest on relative to all the mocks/rankings out there. Right, he’s already 22 and is only 6’4”. But he’s got length (6’11” wingspan), above-the-rim hops, defensive want-to (two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year), and a jumper (41 percent from three, nearly 78 percent from the line). Not much of a handle, but in the right setting (say, between Mike Conley and Luka Doncic), I could see him being an NBA starter.

15. Robert Williams: Clint Capela is the right comp, but it’s best case scenario and few players reach their peak outcome. Only 6’9”, but long, strong, and quick off the floor. He’s a center, and while he won’t stretch, he’s not unskilled with the ball. He could be a starter. Docked a little because tie goes to the perimeter.

TIER 5

16. De’Anthony Melton: Rangy, sound, physical backcourt defender who handles/passes well enough to initiate offense. Did the copious skill-development time that came from a year off result in an improved shooting stroke? If so — apparently so? — he could be a Pat Beverly type. If the jumper looked wonky in workouts, I’d move him down several spots. 

17. Lonnie Walker Jr.: At a glance, he looks like a prototype NBA two guard. Big wingspan, glides across the floor, finishes above the rim, and has nice shooting form, including off the dribble and from deep range. Look more closely and it’s more fuzzy. The pretty three-point shot hit net less than 35 percent of the time and maybe he’s a little stiff laterally, maybe a little slow to react off the ball. I’d worry that he looks the part more than he plays it, but there’s NBA starter upside here.

18. Melvin Frazier: Disconcertingly raw for a soon-to-be-22-year-old with three years of college under his belt, but he’s an especially toolsy late-bloomer. At 6’6” with a 7’2” wingspan and twitchy quickness, Frasier is a steal/deflection machine who took a step forward as a shooter last season (39 percent from three). He’s otherwise an adventure with the ball, but there’s considerable 3-and-D potential here.

19. Kevin Huerter: A 6’7” guard who shot better than 40 percent from three and seems to have enough in the skill/athleticism department to not be just a specialist is worth a close look. At this stage, it’s probably worth a pick.

20. Donte Divincenzo: His role at Villanova is probably his role in the NBA if he pans out: Irrational confidence shotmaker off the bench. It wasn’t just the title game; he was dynamite in that role all year. Probably as much tweener as a combo guard, but such a gamer that I believe in him as a second-unit spark plug.

21. Jalen Brunson: He has very little chance of being an NBA starter, but I’m pretty sold on him as a quality backup, where strength and savvy can compensate for limited size and athleticism. He’s an NBA deep shooter off the dribble, puts passes in the right place, and has great presence.

22. Landry Shamet: Not sure why he’s gotten so low on mocks, but he’s one of the best shooters in the draft (44 percent last season, and can shoot NBA range off the dribble) and is a good passer with good size (over 6’5”).

TIER 6

23. Elie Okobo: Late-breaking International Man of Mystery. This is the point in the draft where I’m skeptical enough about what I know of the remaining prospects to take a chance on the mostly unknown and he seems the most promising of that category. All indications suggest a dynamic scorer/shooter in a sturdy 6’3” frame. He might be a tier (or more?) too low here, but I just don’t know enough.

24. Mitchell Robinson: The Hassan Whiteside trajectory reminds us that sometimes a big, long thumper is worth taking a shot on even when surrounded by questions. (Though I’d be reluctant to take a big at #32 for the Grizzlies.)

TIER 7

25. Josh Okogie: Production (18 points per game as an ACC sophomore), length (6’5” with a 7’0” wingspan), shooting (38 percent from three, 82 percent from the line), and athleticism that shows up in the box score (1.8 steals, 1 block) suggest a player worth a shot in the late first.

26. Keita Bates-Diop: Productive as an older college vet but with tweener size/athleticism. For Bates-Diop, though, I think small-ball will be his friend. He’s 6’8” with a 7’3” wingspan, had decent rebounding/block production, and was a gamer. If his 36 percent three-point shooting portends a decent three-point threat at the NBA level, he could be a solid back-up four.

27. Zhaire Smith: He’s got lift, but I wasn’t blown away by his athleticism when I watched him. One of his comps via The Ringer is “Shorter Andre Roberson” and I’m just not that excited by a 6’4” guy with big questions about both his ball handling and shooting, especially when Thomas and Melton offer similarly sized athletic defenders with a little more offensive oomph. There aren’t many Tony Allens in the world.

28. Aaron Holiday: A small guard, but length (6’8” wingspan), production (20 points a game at UCLA), shooting (43 percent from 3 on more than 200 attempts), and pedigree (both older brothers are good pros) suggest he’s a good backup point guard bet.

29. Jacob Evans: Jack-of-all-trades wing. Decent size, decent defender, decent shooter, can handle a little bit for a wing. It seemed like whenever I watched him play my eyes tended to wander more to Landry Shamet or Melvin Frazier, but a solid basketball player, and I’ll trust his nice statistical profile over my eyes a little bit at this stage of the list.

30. Jerome Robinson: Not a point guard, but a shooter (41 percent from three, 200 attempts) with size (6’5”) who can handle a little bit.

 

 

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