The 2015 NBA Draft seems pretty uncertain, which is no surprise. There's a lot of very good prospects - but that doesn't mean they'll turn into very good NBA players. It always worth reminding ourselves of that.
By this point any serious draft observer has an overload of information to sift through. With the explosion of online draft analysis, there literally is more material than ever before (it's amazing how much has changed in half a decade.) Sometimes having so much information about a prospect is helpful - but just as often it tends to mislead us. The more we think we know, the more stunned we are when a prospect totally defies expectations. That'll be the case for at least a few of these guys, just like it is every year. Here's some concise thoughts on who I think the 14 best prospects are:
1. Karl Towns
Towns' upside is higher than most scouts give him credit for. He might be closer to Tim Duncan than Al Horford. Either of those projections is worthy of the first pick. Very impressive the first half of his freshman season, Towns transformed into the clear star of his loaded Kentucky team by the end of the year. This gradual transition, which coincided with Towns taking a more focal role in the offense, was subtle. But watching Towns as the season wore on, and looking at his numbers, gives us a strong indication that Towns is a future perennial All-Star.
One of the best things about Towns is there's not much to dislike - he's big, a very good defender, and already capable of scoring effectively in the paint and from the perimeter. Supposedly he's also an excellent shooter, and highly coachable. Towns played within the system at Kentucky, and his individual exploits were often overshadowed by his team's overall dominance. None of that matters much, though, when projecting his NBA future. He's the safest pick in the draft, and could turn into one of the better players in the league.
2. D'Angelo Russell
Russell is an electric playmaking guard. He's probably my favorite player in the class. However, making a 6'5", 190 pound guard - with a two point field goal percentage under 50% - the first pick is too risky a proposition. But watching Russell, I see many traits of a future superstar. The way he handles things on the court is impressive. Russell and Towns are clearly the two best prospects in the draft, in my opinion.
Russell's feel for the game is superior to most NBA players. He's a fantastic passer, and a gifted scorer. There's a reason the Stephen Curry comparisons were floated out there - Russell has a similar flair. Ohio State wasn't good this season, and Russell often shouldered too heavy of a load for the Buckeyes. Like with Towns, his team's situation ultimately means little when projecting his future. I view Russell as more of a shooting guard than a point guard, and regardless of position, he figures to be an All-Star. He has an advanced feel for things, and it should be fun to watch Russell's innate sense for the game mature in the NBA.
3. Jahlil Okafor
Okafor is a highly advanced offensive post savant. His moves and touch around the basket are already elite. How great an offensive player he becomes in the NBA will probably depend on how the faster speed of pro players affects his arsenal of moves around the basket. Judged on size alone, Okafor should be terrific. If he can adjust to the quickness of the NBA game his team will soon be able to focus their offense around him - which can only be said for a few other centers in the league. There's no guarantee this happens, however.
Defense, we all know, is a potential problem for Okafor. For having a huge 7'5" wingspan Okafor was surprisingly ineffective blocking shots, a telltale sign he won't be that good defensively. With an offensive game this strong, Okafor doesn't need to be superb defensively to turn into an All-Star. He just needs to be adequate. With his size, I've a feeling he'll get there.
4. Myles Turner
After the first three prospects the level of uncertainty dramatically increases as to who the best prospects are in this draft. The next five players I think are all pretty close to each other. There are several big men with enormous upside, which makes this class potentially very rewarding, and also risky as hell. NCAA basketball no longer caters to showing the impact a dominant center can bring to the game. Andre Drummond, for instance, was strangely unexciting to watch during his one year at UConn, despite his enormous body and innate athleticism. As soon as Drummond got to the NBA these traits became a tremendous asset, and he rapidly became one of the better young players in the league.
Myles Turner is someone who could follow in Drummond's footsteps. Turner has superior physical tools: he's an athletic 6'11'', 240 pounds with a 7'4'' wingspan. He put up excellent per-minute numbers when framed in the historical context of freshman centers playing at a competitive school like Texas. Turner rebounded, blocked shots and scored well in limited minutes, despite playing in a system that rarely catered to his strengths. He also proved he could shoot from the perimeter.
Turner is not likely to be picked in the Top-5, and maybe not even the Top-10, which surprises me. He has been scrutinized over his running style, but that seems unimportant if Turner's long-term health prognosis projects to be fine (and for this analysis I'm assuming it does.) His numbers, skills and measurements are too good to be dismissed. I expect Turner to end up being one of the best players from this draft, health permitting.
5. Willie Cauley-Stein
Cauley-Stein measured slightly larger than Turner at the draft combine, and is widely regarded as the best defensive prospect in this draft. Possessing terrific agility and speed for a seven footer, Cauley-Stein's defensive skills obviously translate to the next level. He has the real potential to become one of the league's best defenders.
However, Cauley-Stein's strength lies so much on the defensive end that it's a bit difficult to project his role in the NBA. Ideally, he becomes a Tyson Chandler type of player, but in order for Cauley-Stein to do that, he'll have to play with much more consistency than he displayed at Kentucky. The good news, as we mentioned, is the NBA game allows skilled seven footers the ability to showcase their superior skills on a regular basis. I like Cauley-Stein, and think he can reach that Chandler level if his medical outlook appears alright - but otherwise he doesn't deserve to be ranked this high, with so many other excellent prospects still on the board.
6. Kristaps Porzingis
I have a very hard time knowing where to rank Porzingis. No player has received more positive buzz the last few weeks, and the praise makes sense. Porzingis legitimately has more in common with Dirk Nowitzki than probably any prospect since Kevin Durant. It's unlikely he comes close to approaching that echelon of NBA player - but the potential certainly is there.
Porzingis is 7'2" with a 7'6" wingspan, and surprisingly explosive. He has that high, smooth release that only a few seven footers have ever possessed. And, by all accounts I've read, he's a gym rat. Nowitzki was not Nowitzki when he entered the NBA in 1999. He had a weird, awkward transition as he got acclimated to the physicality of the NBA. Even Durant, in 2007, had a relatively rough transition into the league. Their unique bodies and skill sets had to adjust.
Porzingis, too, is likely to have a rough transition. He has greatly benefited from playing at the highest level of European basketball for a few years, and he put up very decent numbers there this season. I don't think he'll be a bust in the NBA - although I wouldn't be surprised if he was. I think Porzingis will constantly work on refining his game, and become a very good NBA player. He could be great. There's undoubtedly a ton of risk selecting him very early with other safer prospects available, but I understand why a team might take the gamble.
7. Emmanuel Mudiay
Mudiay is almost as tough to rank as Porzingis. The fact he played in China, and was hurt for most of the year, makes Mudiay difficult to judge. I might have him ranked too low. This is different than the Dante Exum scenario last year; Mudiay should be a much better NBA player. He's skilled, put up good numbers overseas, and is actually probably a safer pick than the three big men listed before him.
My main question with Mudiay is this: how athletic is he, really? He's obviously an excellent athlete, but is he a great one? If Mudiay is athletic like John Wall is athletic, then he'll be one of the best players in this draft. Some reports say Mudiay possesses that level of superior athleticism. But I kind of doubt it. When you watched John Wall at Kentucky it was obvious he was on another level physically than everyone else. When you watched Mudiay in China, he simply looked strong and fast. That leads me to believe that Mudiay will follow a career path more similar to another player he's often been compared to, Jrue Holiday. Holiday is a solid starting NBA point guard. That's good - but the thing is there's a lot of solid starting point guards in the NBA. So while Mudiay projects to be a fine player, I think it's unlikely he'll turn into a great one.
8. Justise Winslow
It's a positive reflection of this draft class that Winslow is ranked as low as this. A risk-adverse team would certainly have him ranked much higher. Winslow had a great freshman year at Duke, and looks to be one of the safer picks in the draft. In the very least, he should be a solid pro for a long time. Winslow plays with frenetic energy and fills up the box score in a multitude of ways - he appears to be a "winner," for what it's worth. His upside is quite high, although I have some doubts he'll get there because of his average size, and think he's more likely to be sort of like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
Winslow plays with such energy that most college players just couldn't compete with him physically. But that's not going to be the case in the NBA. Winslow is 6'6", 225 pounds, and he'll be a wing player professionally. Even in today's "smaller" league, Winslow is not exceptional from a physical standpoint when compared to his fellow NBA wings. Winslow's good at many things, but it's unclear if he's great at anything. He can defend, score, shoot and pass at a high level - but can he do any of these things on a superior level in the pros? If he can figure that out, Winslow could end up being an All-Star. He's certainly young enough to think such progression is possible.
9. Stanley Johnson
Johnson just turned 19 years old, is already a physical powerhouse - he's a muscular 6'7", 240 pounds - and was a major contributor to an excellent Arizona team. Like Winslow, Johnson put up solid numbers across the board. So the upside is obviously there, although I have no idea if he'll come close to reaching it.
Johnson is just beginning to understand how to use his body on both sides of the ball. It's feasible to think he could develop into a Ron Artest type of player (albeit probably never with the defensive chops of Artest at his peak.) But Johnson is so young...and I just don't know. He could be an excellent pro, or turn into nothing more than a solid bench player. Neither scenario would surprise me. Regardless, Johnson has too much talent and size to be picked much later than here.
10. Delon Wright
Wright is maybe the most underrated player in the draft, and a prospect I really like. He's a potential steal later in the first round or early in the second round. A 6'5" point guard, the younger brother of Dorell Wright, Delon put up fantastic numbers the last two seasons. Frankly, his whole time at Utah, Wright never looked that much like a college player. He has a maturity and feel for the game that always seemed professional; in college he was a man among boys.
There are a few criticisms of Wright that will probably keep him out of the lottery, but none are warranted. Wright is a poor outside shooter - but his three point shot has improved, and he's always had a very high two point field goal percentage. The other big knock against Wright is he's already 23 years old - but so what? Ever since he came to Utah, at age 21, he's been kicking everyone's ass. Now he's just a bit older, and that might be a good thing. I think Wright is going to have a long and solid NBA career, and there's a chance he could turn into a star. In a draft without a lot of "sleepers," this is the most probable candidate.
11. Mario Hezonja
My enthusiasm for this draft class starts to wane here. Many people love Hezonja as a prospect, and the reason why is he's an extremely athletic 6'8" wing who can shoot. What gives me pause is the numbers don't back this up all that much. Hezonja is indeed a terrific shooter, but his field goal percentage is the only noticeably above average statistic I see. Hezonja plays in a very tough professional league, so I can understand he's not going to be putting up huge per-minute statistics - but at the same time his lack of any noticeable output makes me believe he'll never become a star in the NBA. It's not easy to take so much responsibility on the court, even with superior athleticism. I expect Hezonja to be a lot more like Gerald Green than Paul George.
12. Frank Kaminsky
Kaminsky is kind of like Porzingis without the perceived upside. He's 7'1" and can legitimately shoot. Wouldn't it be ironic if Kaminsky ends up the All-Star, and Porzingis the bench player? I doubt that happens, though. I question Kaminsky's fluidity and ability to defend in the pros, and see him more as a nice complementary piece for a team, as opposed to a star.
13. Robert Upshaw
Upshaw has two strikes against him: character issues and a potential heart ailment. He also averaged 18 points, 13 rebounds and 7 blocks per 40 minutes in 19 games for Washington. Those are eye-popping numbers, and why Upside deserves to be selected rather early, reported problems notwithstanding.
14. Kelly Oubre
Oubre was highly touted coming out of high school, and never put it all together in his one year at Kansas. But his numbers were decent enough, and Oubre's the kind of player that's fluidly athletic, so it's easy to imagine he'll be able to turn into something down the road. Or not. He probably deserves to be taken at the tail end of the lottery.
After these 14 guys I view the 2015 draft as basically a crapshoot. I usually don't feel such lack of clarity after only 14 players. But that's okay. Even though I think it's a crapshoot doesn't mean there won't be several excellent future NBA players picked later in the first round and second round. There might even be a star or two. As always, uncertainty is king.