A Statistically Influenced Top Forty as we prepare for the 2021 NBA Draft.
It’s a new year, new me, new draft class, and that means time for a series of revisions to SMILODON and a new draft board! For those new to the space, this is a simple statistical system that attempts to grade prospects on a series of important skills by the standards of a typical first round pick.
For perimeter prospects, the categories are “shooting,” “driving,” “point potential,” and “do shit.” Each category takes the following variables into account (all stats pace adjusted per 40). All play by play stats are taken from Hoop-Math.
- Shooting: Three Pointers Made, Free Throw %, Jump Shot %, Height
- Driving: Unassisted makes at the rim in the halfcourt, Free Throws Made, Two Point Misses, Physical Measurements (No-Step Vertical, Lane Agility, Wingspan, Weight)
- Point Potential: Assists, Turnovers, Usage, Age, Height
- Do Shit: Steals, Blocks, Offensive Rebounds, Defensive Rebounds
Big prospects are graded on:
- Shooting: Three Pointers Made, Free Throw %, Jump Shot %, Height, Age
- Awareness: Assists, Turnovers, Steals, Age
- Finishing: Makes & misses at the rim in the halfcourt, Free Throws Made (as a ratio with Field Goals Attempted), No-Step Vertical
- Rim Protection: Blocks, Personal Fouls, Height to Weight Ratio, Wingspan
We start things off with my top tier of prospects: those who have a reasonable chance to become All-Star players. This class does not contain an obviously transcendent prospect with a high probability of becoming a top ten player, such as Luka Doncic or Anthony Davis, but the top players in this draft are comparable to most of those of the past few years. To provide some context, my lottery picks will be shown with three comparable players.
(Red ink indicates a small sample size; brown indicates a non-NCAA league.)
Tier One: A Reasonable Chance at Perennial All-Stardom
- Cade Cunningham
I’m not completely impressed by Cunningham’s athleticism and first step, and I am unconvinced he’ll get to the rim enough to be a true superstar. That said, a big wing who can really shoot and doesn’t have any obvious holes in his game is incredibly valuable. I think a Khris Middleton type of impact is a reasonable optimistic expectation, with peak upside looking like Jayson Tatum with better passing.
2. Evan Mobley
I’d feel more confident in this prediction if I knew whether Mobley could put on enough strength to be a full-time center. Alas, I am not a biomedical savant, neither do I have access to that information even if I was. Even so, he’s an athletic seven foot prospect who has shown the ability to protect the rim, pass, and finish. His stats don’t leap off the page, but the passing numbers are sneakily impressive for a 19 year old and he was able to post a solid block rate while fouling even less than big man prospects infamous for not trying on defense. Both numbers may be indicative of a high level of feel and craft that will lead to rapid improvements at the next level. I ranked him second because multidimensional wings are so valuable, but I would not be surprised if he ends up as the best player in this class.
3. Jalen Green
There are a number of reasons to distrust this projection. I’m not sure that weight is accurate, I don’t have a good feel for the translatability of G-League stats yet (the careers of Green, Kuminga, Todd, and Nix will help in that respect), these stats are from only 15 games, and SMILODON has previously underrated athletic combo guards who haven’t figured out how to get to the rim at a very young age (Booker, Zach LaVine, Jamal Murray). Green has better “do shit” numbers than any of these players, so I’m confident that he’ll outplay some of the more pessimistic comps (Monk, White, Tyler Herro). If he develops his strength and ability to get to the line, I think he has enough skill and burst to become a multiple time All-Star.
Tier Two: High End Role Players w/ Good Upside
4. Franz Wagner
His comparable list does not suggest that Wagner is a future star, but two of the three players listed have provided quite a bit of value (at least until Porter was hit by an avalanche of injuries). Wagner has the best SMILODON projection of this group, as combo forward sized players who can credibly shoot, pass, and defend always hold significant value. He moves his feet really well, indicating switchability, and has enough ball skills as a 6’9 forward* younger than several of the highly touted freshmen that there may be some hidden upside as a secondary creator.
*This is the Pascal Siakam rule of skill development. The bigger you are, the lower the threshold your skills have to hit to become functional.
5. Jalen Suggs
SMILODON loves young point guards who rebound, steal, block, pass, and aren’t great shooters. (Also see: Tony Wroten, Elfrid Payton, Tyler Ennis, Killian Hayes if he doesn’t live up to his FT%, and LaMelo Ball. I guess it works out sometimes.) That comp list is why I’m a bit pessimistic on Suggs’ potential. There were other factors dragging down Fultz and DSJ, but if Suggs doesn’t make unusual improvements in his shooting, I don’t think he can be a primary creator. He doesn’t have the speed off the dribble to make a De’Aaron Fox type career work either. Still, smart players who can handle, pass, defend, and shoot a few spot-ups can fill a role on any team, and his all-around game should keep him on the floor during the playoffs. And if the shot does improve, then he could be a very good starting point guard.
6. Jaden Springer
I think these comparables underrate Springer. He’s, by my eye, the best shooter and most skilled driver on this list. He’s also one of the youngest players in the draft: an athletic shooting guard who projects as a plus defender, passer, and ballhandler. Springer has two primary weaknesses as a prospect. The first is a low volume of three pointers attempted. He shot over 43% on threes and 81% from the line, but only made 1.2 threes per 40 minutes. The second weakness is his ability to finish off one foot. Despite a 34.5” no-step vertical at the combine and 65% shooting at the rim, he was often unable to get all the way to the basket since he often jumped off two feet.* If he can fix either of these issues, he has sneaky upside, but I think he should be a very useful role player regardless.
*This was the issue fixed by Donovan Mitchell between his final NCAA and first NBA seasons. In Springer’s case, it may have been aggravated by an ankle injury during the season.
Tier Two and a Half: High Upside, High Downside
7. Alperen Sengun
Let me caveat the hell out of these results.
1.) I was unable to revise the SMILODON stats for international bigs to my satisfaction, so this is still using the old formulas.
2.) SMILODON has historically had some issues with weird international bigs, overestimating players like Zhou Qi, Georgios Papagiannis, and possibly Aleksej Pokusevski (TBD).
3.) The international model does not have access to play by play stats or athletic testing, critical elements of the more reliable NCAA projections.
4.) Can he play NBA defense? Who the hell knows?
At some point, though, you have to take a chance on the 18 year old who averaged 28/13/4/2/2 per 40 in one of the better international leagues. The downside is…Enes Kanter? The upside is the best offensive big in the league who can survive on defense. If forced to make a prediction, I think he will provide similar value to Domantas Sabonis through his low post game, rebounding, and passing.
8. Scottie Barnes
Barnes is a familiar archetype: the athletic wing who will be a great player if he can shoot, but probably won’t. He’s a bit bigger than many similar players, leading to optimism that he could be a small ball center, although that isn’t likely to happen until after his rookie deal expires. He didn’t have a especially high usage or free throw rate (the Driving score is enhanced by some ridiculous athletic testing results at the combine), casting doubt on his ability to score without being able to knock down shots. Still, if he does learn to shoot, he could be one of the best players in the class.
9. Jalen Johnson
Johnson is another combo forward who could be a great player if the shot comes around. The defensive indicators are extremely promising, he had a high number of assists, and his physical profile is very good for a large initiator. On the other hand, the shooting is questionable, the turnovers were out of control, and it might even be likely that those skills never reach the levels necessary for Johnson to become a quality starter, let alone an All-Star.
Tier Three: Good Role Players, Possible Starters
10. Trey Murphy III
Murphy is 6’9, can really shoot, has long arms, possesses good athleticism, and there’s a good chance his defensive output was suppressed by Virginia’s system. There’s not much of a chance he becomes a shot creator, but he can be a productive 5th starter in just about any context. Murphy especially makes sense for a team like the Warriors or Hawks in the middle of the first round, as they already have shot creation and need 3&D wings.
11. Jared Butler
Butler probably doesn’t have the burst or size to be a lead scorer, but he’s an excellent all-around player who can shoot, handle, pass, and defend. I think Gary Harris, at least before the constant injuries sapped his ability to shoot, is probably a good point of reference. At this point in the draft, that’s a good outcome, especially for a team with hopes of contending.
12. Moses Moody
Moody is a very young 3&D prospect. He’s a better defender than anyone on his comps list, so I think he has a better chance of sticking as a rotation player. However, his lack of point skills or great athleticism make it unlikely that he’ll be more than a lower end starter or good bench player on a contender.
13. Isaiah Jackson
There isn’t a good comp for Jackson over the past decade given his unusual combination of low weight, mix of skills, and athleticism. His numbers weren’t great this season, but they were decent, and Kentucky players tend to underperform in college. If I was more confident he’d have the strength to hold up on defense and on the glass, I’d have him rated several spots higher. Even so, he has the tools to be an excellent pick and roll option and a dynamic rotational big.
14. Usman Garuba
This is more of a scouting and reputation pick than a stats one. Usman Garuba might be the best positional defender in the draft and was good enough on that end to play big minutes for Real Madrid as a teenager. On the other hand, his offensive game is pretty limited unless the shooting dramatically improves and he’s probably not big enough to anchor a defense as a traditional shotblocker. I think he’ll be someone who usually looks good by defensive plus/minus, but his high leverage minutes will be constrained by his lack of offense.
Tier Four: Mid Upside, High Downside
These are players with weaknesses that will likely prevent them from providing above average value in the league, but each has enough upside that there is a reasonable chance they could be a long term starter. I’d expect 2-3 members of this group to outperform my pessimism.
A number of these players played a smaller number of games than normal, casting doubt on the validity of their statistical profiles. Most have questions around shooting. James Bouknight is the best bet to shoot, but older guards with bad passing indicators don’t have a great track record, especially without an elite skill somewhere.
Josh Giddey and Jonathan Kuminga have very different skillsets, but both are young, have a good upside, and need to get much better at shooting to reach it. Both players also have a secondary weakness that I think will prevent them from attaining stardom: for Giddey, it’s getting to the rim and the line, while Kuminga’s overall efficiency and shot selection were rough this year.
Josh Christopher is more skilled, while Keon Johnson is more athletic. If Christopher shows that his shot selection and decision-making issues were a product of his context at Arizona State or Johnson is able to harness his athleticism into more offensive production, either could have a productive career.
J.T. Thor could be a 3&D power forward. He’s very young and has great length, but moves slowly and doesn’t make good, quick decisions on offense. He’s a player who might figure it out with his second or third team if he doesn’t land with a patient organization.
Sharife Cooper measured several inches taller than he likely is at the combine. I calculated his SMILODON based on his combine measurements, but his Shooting and Point Potential would each be lower if he measured at 6’0 or 6’1. He has fantastic explosiveness and vision, but is old for a freshman, can’t really shoot, doesn’t finish efficiently at the rim, and has horrible defensive indicators.
Finally, Deuce McBride has all the makings of a good caretaker point guard in the mold of Tyus Jones or T.J. McConnell. He had a good three point percentage on a limited number of attempts, so that continued development will be key to finding a consistent role in the league. If the shooting and handle improve, he has an outside chance of a Fred VanVleet type trajectory.
Tier Five: Bench Shooters
Shooters are always useful. None of these players have a profile that suggests they’ll be much more than that, though Quentin Grimes has probably the most defensive potential. The main reason I didn’t rate him a few slots higher is that his first two NCAA years were so disappointing, the reliability of this season’s statistics are slightly suspect.
Corey Kispert could probably survive on defense in most lineups and has the best shooting projection of the group. Subjectively, I don’t like his shot motion nearly as much as that of, say, Trey Murphy III, but I’m trying not to underrate him too much because of that.
Bones Hyland and Cam Thomas can both really shoot. I don’t think either can defend or pass. In addition, Bones’ lack of strength may be an issue, while Cam Thomas had really bad “do shit” numbers, which is always a red flag. Chris Duarte may be the best all around player in this group, but he is already 24 and has less time to add strength.
Boston and Williams have the most variability in their projections. Either could bounce back from a disappointing NCAA season or not even turn into a consistent shooter. The latter is more likely, but you never know!
Tier Six: Intriguing Bench Players
By this point in the draft, the distinctions between prospects are pretty slim. This group of prospects is made up of players I expect to have fairly marginal careers. but there is some reason for optimism in each of their profiles.
Matt Mitchell is a strong wing who has had decent shooting indicators every year of his college career. He’s the best bet for a playable wing the Timberwolves could actually access in the late second or undrafted market. Davion Mitchell has been ranked much higher by consensus, but that appears to be dependent on an outlier shooting season at the age of 22. Still, he’s athletic enough that he could be a good player if that shooting does turn out to be real.
Kai Jones had inadequate stats this year, but is athletic, has some shooting potential, and was better his freshman year.
Juhann Begarin is a promising point guard with a questionable shot. Tre Mann bounced back from a disappointing freshman season, but still faces questions around his ability to get to the rim. Kessler Edwards and Joe Wieskamp are second round wing shooters with shot creation and athleticism concerns.
Charles Bassey could be a good backup center. His microscopic assist and steal rates probably preclude anything further, but he can rim run, block shots, and maybe eventually hit threes.
Vrenz Bleijenbergh attempts to answer the question, “what if Aleksej Pokusevski was two years older, not much better, and didn’t post ridiculous steal and block rates.” Still, the combination of height, potential shooting, and passing is worth a flier in the late second. Justin Champagnie was very productive, but it’s difficult to see if he’ll be more than a rebounder. Still, he’s young enough that the shooting could come around. Finally, Santi Aldama is a big man in the mold of Frank Kaminsky, but the shooting indicators haven’t been quite as good as you might hope.