Let’s be honest, it’s been a longgggggggggg few weeks for those of us who love college basketball.
Sure, the spring was filled with all sorts of excitement – the NBA Draft deadline, the transfer portal turning into a wilder scene than Cancun during spring break, and a bunch of elite high school players making their college decisions. Yet since that draft deadline back in late May, it’s been slim pickings for us college hoops fans, just a couple of meager Kerry Blackshear visits, and that’s really about it.
Thankfully, the NBA Draft will give us something to talk about this week.
Sure, the NBA Draft isn’t technically college basketball content, but at the same time, it isn’t not college basketball content either (how did you like me dropping a triple negative there?). Instead it’s kind of the gap that bridges the two sports, the chance for those of us who’ve followed these kids from their high school days to the college level to see them make the final leap in their basketball journey. To quote John Calipari, it really is their graduation day, a moment where we hand our beloved Zion Williamson’s, PJ Washington’s and Ja Morant’s to Adrian Wojnarowski for safekeeping.
So with the draft now just a few days away, what do you need to know? What are the big storylines and question marks, both for college basketball and NBA fans?
Here are the biggest questions, my favorite players and a few other things to keep your eyes on.
The Debate About the “Best” Player in This Draft Isn’t Really A Debate at All
There are some things in life worth arguing over. Does the Loch Ness Monster really exist? Do you prefer Cheers or Seinfeld? How do all those Kansas players keep getting in trouble with the NCAA, yet the school never seems to get punished. That last one really is confusing.
But one thing that really isn’t worth arguing about is what’s about to happen at the top of this draft: Zion Williamson is going to be the No. 1 pick. It isn’t an argument. It isn’t a debate. We don’t need Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe to settle this one. It’s been so obvious for so long that Zion was going No. 1, that, until the Pelicans acquired the No. 4 pick in the draft this weekend, they couldn’t even get any other players in for workouts. All those players and their agents knew Zion was going No. 1. It’s been a foregone conclusion since about three games into the college season.
Now we know Zion’s final destination is New Orleans, and again, it’s no surprise as to why he will go No. 1. Zion is a total freak, one who not only statistically dominated college basketball last season (averaging 22 points, nine rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocks per game) but whose mere presence completely altered the sport. With Zion playing for Duke they seemed nearly invincible for most of the season. Without him, the Blue Devils – even with two other lottery picks on the team – went 3-3, before again, rallying after he returned to the court.
So yeah, Zion is the truth, and the most hyped player to enter the league since LeBron James in 2003.
Which leads to the next important question:
Will Zion live up to that hype?
And to me, this is where it gets interesting. That’s because, while it’s one thing to say that Zion is the definitive No. 1 pick (which he is) the question of whether he can reach expectations is another story altogether. Again, he’s the most hyped player to enter the league since LeBron James in 2003. He is a guy who many believe will put the New Orleans Pelicans organization on his back and lead them to unprecedented heights.
And that’s where I do wonder if he’ll be able to live up to that hype.
Now look, I’m not saying that it can’t happen. Zion has been given maybe the most unique set of physical gifts I’ve ever seen. He also seems to be the ultimate team player and plays as hard as anyone on the court, which is no small feat when you know you’re going to be the No. 1 pick in the draft. It would have been easy for Zion to take the Ben Simmons route, coast through his final few games in college and move on to the next level (or in his case, not even bother to return from injury). But he refused to coast. And the instant he did return, he was again the best player in college basketball.
At the same time, let’s not forget that when it comes to the NBA, there’s a difference between being a “star” and a true superstar, the three, four or five players in a given year that can lead a team to a title. Ben Simmons, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard are stars. But they’re not in the same stratosphere as Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Durant or even LeBron James (when he’s engaged and not drinking wine on the sidelines), guys who can put a team on their backs in the playoffs.
Can Zion be one of those guys? Maybe, but who will really know until a couple years down the road?
Plus, it’s not like there aren’t concerns with Zion entering his NBA career. We know he weighed in around 285 lbs. during the college season. And while it’s easy to say “Well, he will trim down once he gets into an NBA strength and conditioning program,” are we sure? It’s not like Duke doesn’t have an elite strength program. And even if he does get down to 260 or 265, that’s still a lot of weight. And it remains to be seen how it all holds up over an 82-game schedule.
Ultimately, I think the answer to all this is “Yes.” Yes, Zion can become a franchise-altering superstar. But it’s not nearly the lock that everyone is making it out to be.
Is RJ Barrett overhyped, underhyped or properly hyped?
Behind Zion Williamson, Ja Morant is set to go No. 2, and like Zion at No. 1, there really isn’t all that much to talk about here. Morant is the real deal, a guy with prototypical size for an NBA point guard, with elite speed and athleticism. Just as importantly, he is able to get his own offense while getting others involved. Serious question, if he averaged 10 assists per game at Murray Freakin’ State, what do you think he can do with real NBA talent around him?
So with Ja off the board at No. 2, it brings us to No. 3 and R.J. Barrett. And to quote DJ Pauly D from Jersey Shore, “Woaaaaaaaaaaah buddy,” do a lot of people, have a lot of opinions on that guy.
And to be honest, I understand the questions that many have about Barrett. Despite playing with the best player in college basketball, Barrett was incredibly iso-heavy and way too often looked for his own shot. In an incredible statistic that sociologists will be studying for centuries to come, Barrett took close to 300 more shots this season than Zion did. Even if you factor in that Zion missed six games, Barrett still averaged over 18 shots per game. Zion, just 13.
Still, while it’s easy to pile on Barrett, I’m going to scissor-kick you with a lukewarm take: I actually think he’ll be pretty good at the NBA level. He is a guy who can instantly come in and create his own offense, and the hope is that with NBA-quality players around him (assuming you believe the Knicks have NBA-quality players) the hope is that he is a more willing passer. It didn’t help Barrett that he wasn’t really surrounded with players who fit his skill-set at Duke. When Barrett would get in the lane and look to kick it out, he was relying on Tre Jones and Jack White to make open three-point shots. Not ideal.
Give Barrett time to adjust to the NBA game, and my hunch is that he turns out pretty good. I don’t know if he’ll ever be in the Kawhi//LeBron/Kevin Durant/Giannis “Franchise changer” mode. But it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he ended up as a perennial All-Star.
Who’s No. 4?
With the first three picks set in stone, No. 4 is obviously the inflection point in the draft, the moment where all hell can and will break loose. Put simply, we have absolutely no idea what will happen at No. 4, for a few different reasons. One, because the Pelicans just acquired the pick a few days ago from the Lakers. Two, because – as mentioned above – the Pelicans haven’t been able to get any of the elite players in this draft in for a workout because everyone knows they’re taking Zion at No. 1. And three, because they might end up trading this pick.
Seriously. We’ve already had multiple reports throughout the day that the Pelicans are looking to move this pick. As the old saying goes, there are two types of people in life: Those who willingly admit they have no idea what the Pelicans will do with this pick. And liars. However, regardless of who makes the pick, there does seem to be a consensus that it will come down to three players at this spot: Vanderbilt’s Darius Garland, Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver or Virginia’s DeAndre Hunter.
Source: The Atlanta Hawks have been aggressive exploring trades packaging the No. 8 and 10 picks to move up in the draft. Their offer to the Knicks for the No. 3 pick was apparently rebuffed. The Pelicans are considering the possibility of trading the No. 4 pick for 8+10.
— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) June 18, 2019
— DMV Sports Network (@DMV_SN) June 17, 2019
I’ll skip who I believe the Pelicans should take at No. 4, since I have no idea whether they’ll keep the pick or not. Instead, I’ll simply frame it in this perspective: If you’re asking who I believe the fourth best player in this draft is, my answer is Culver.
Now look, I know a lot of folks out there probably didn’t pay attention to Texas Tech until late in their NCAA Tournament run, and when they did, Culver struggled in the Final Four. But don’t let one or two bad games fool you, this guy is the real deal. He is a really creative player offensively who I believe will only get better (he did struggle a bit from three-point range this season). He can defend multiple positions and is a dude who just might be the hardest worker in the entire draft. I know that every player claims that their best attribute is their work ethic, but ask anyone who has been around Culver (and believe me, I have) and they’ll tell you that they’ve never seen a kid who works so hard. Seriously, read this article when you can. There just aren’t very many guys like him in this draft.
So yeah, I’ll go ahead and bet on a guy with all the skills and an insane work ethic and willingness to get better. I’m not betting against this guy.
What about the draft’s mystery man, Darius Garland?
I’ve got to admit, that in all my years following the draft, I can’t ever say I remember a player with a trajectory quite like Darius Garland. He was projected by most entering the season as a late lottery pick, then proceeded to get hurt five games into his college career, sit out the rest of the season to rehab (as he should have)…and has since skyrocketed up draft boards.
Wait, WHAT?!?!? I can’t ever remember a season-ending injury helping a player’s draft stock. But that seems to be the case with Garland.
Now to the question that so many are asking: “Considering that none of us have ever really seen him play, what should we expect from him?” It’s a great question, and luckily, I’m the right guy to ask. I got to see Garland up close and in person both at last year’s Nike Hoops Summit, as well as when he played in person at USC last season.
What can I tell you? I like Garland’s game. But I can’t say I see the hype as the No. 4 pick in the NBA Draft.
On the plus side with Garland, he is pretty much a do-it all guard. He can create offense off the dribble, hit a step back and deep three, and is a good finisher when he gets into the lane. He definitely has NBA level quickness and above-average athleticism for the position.
Now, to the downside. And that downside is, “I worry about his size.” Garland is listed at 6’3, but when you watch him play, he looks smaller. He isn’t a physically imposing guard either in terms of stature. He’s not rail-thin. But isn’t solidly built either.
Which leads me to the broader analysis: I’m just not sure I can justify seeing someone take him with the No. 4 overall pick. After all, how many guys at 6’3 and under are really dominant at the NBA-level, or even serve as really good complimentary second or third players on a team’s roster? The comparison that I’ve seen the most with Garland is Damian Lillard which I think is totally fair. But at the same time, turning into “The Next Lillard” is a totally, best-case, pie-in-the-sky scenario. How often does a guy live up to the absolute best comparison that he’s capable of being? And oh by the way, even if he does turn into Lillard 2.0, we saw how Lillard eventually wore down in the playoffs. It’s just tough going through life as a 6’3 NBA player.
Add it up and it brings it back to the point that I made off the top: I just don’t see a Top 4 pick in Garland. I understand that this is increasingly a guard-driven league, and if you’re arguing that he should come off the board later in the lottery, I can get behind that. Phoenix – which has a need for a point guard at No. 6 – makes total sense.
But No. 4 overall. I just don’t see it, unless a guard-hungry team trades up. And even then it feels like a reach.
Alright, this article is starting to go long. Here is a quick list of guys I like and guys I don’t like heading into Thursday. Then I wrap with my biggest miss in the NBA Draft process.
Guys I like:
PJ Washington: If you listen to my podcast (and if you don’t, you can subscribe here) you know I’ve been saying for months that Washington is just a prospect that I really believe in. After testing the waters last year, Washington basically took every ounce of NBA feedback and turned himself into a lottery pick. He got in better shape, can now guard multiple positions both on the perimeter and down low, and added a 15-18 foot jumper to go along with all his low post moves. He’ll never be a star, but with his skill-set, he will carve out a nice little career for himself. I’m not surprised to see that he has moved into lottery range on most mock draft boards.
Brandon Clarke: Prior to the season starting, I had someone at Gonzaga tell me this on Brandon Clarke: “He is the most athletic kid we’ve had since I got here. I swear, the dude is part kangaroo.” Weird commentary aside, Clarke proved to be exactly that, averaging 17 points, eight rebounds and three blocks per game. To prove that point, he remains the only player I saw at the college level successfully challenge Zion Williamson at the rim, and throw Zion’s s**t back at him. Looking ahead, Clarke will never be a 20-point a game scorer. But I like guys who know exactly who they are, know what their specific strengths are, and don’t try to do too much more. Clarke has an elite skill – protecting the rim. And it will pay dividends big-time for whoever drafts him.
Rui Hachimura: Hachimura is the exact opposite of Clarke – he isn’t an elite athlete, and doesn’t do one thing exceedingly well. But he does do everything pretty well, and has no super-obvious deficiency. He can score basically on all three levels, is an active defender and a better-than-you-realize playmaker for a guy his size. I don’t think he’ll go Top 10. But he has value on the back-end of the lottery.
Cam Reddish: I know it’s easy to bash Reddish – trust me, I did it at times throughout the college season. But like Clarke, he has a skill that you simply can’t teach, and it just so happens to be the skill that is more important than any other at the NBA level right now: He can shoot the hell out of the ball. And because of it, Reddish has the chance to evolve into a really elite role player in the league, a guy who can get you 15-18 points without being a star. Which leads me to this: As long as a team isn’t drafting Reddish to be the face of their organization (like say, the Cleveland Cavaliers with the No. 5 pick) Reddish will have a really productive career.
Admiral Schofield: Schofield isn’t like most of the guys on this list – he doesn’t have one thing that he does insanely well. at the same time, there is true value into knowing what you’re not – and Schofield knows he isn’t a star. He started his career at Tennessee as a role player and is seemingly comfortable starting his career in the NBA like that as well. Instead, he strikes me as a guy who will be willing to do all the dirty work for his team to be successful. Like so many others here, he will never be a star, certainly not to the caliber he was at Tennessee. But if you just need a guy to give you defense, energy and toughness, Schofield is your guy.
Guys I Don’t Like:
Romeo Langford: One of my favorite narratives in college basketball this past season was that “Indiana was wasting Romeo Langford’s one year on campus.” That was cute, it really was. But how could anyone say that Indiana was “wasting” Langford’s one year on campus when he was part of the problem. Yes, the guy can score at the rim, but will he really be able to get to the rim at will in the NBA like he did in college? I doubt it. And if he can’t do that, what does he do at an elite level? He can’t defend, doesn’t get teammates involved, is turnover prone and shot 27 percent from three-point land this season (I know he was injured, but still). To which I ask, what am I missing? I just don’t see it with this guy.
Bol Bol: Bol should serve as an important example for young players: What you do as a 16 and 17-year-old high school player can have long-lasting impact on your reputation, good and bad. Why do I say that? Well, throughout his high school career Bol earned a reputation as a guy who didn’t really “like” basketball, after dogging it at a number of big AAU events, Team USA combines and All-Star games. Trust me, I was there for many of them. And now that reputation is following him, as he’s tumbling down draft boards. Add in the fact that he’s coming off a foot injury (never a good sign for a player his size) and to me, he’s a stay-away. I don’t care how far he falls on draft night. I simply wouldn’t use a draft pick on him.
The Guy I Missed On the Most
Let me wrap this article by giving a quick shout out to the guy that I maybe missed out on the most throughout this draft process. Many of you might be familiar with him. His name is Tyler Herro.
Someone in the know just told me Tyler Herro "blew away" the Celtics in his workout this morning. Finished the workout having made 80 of 100 three point attempts. From all accounts, Herro seems to be picking up a LOT of positive buzz throughout the draft process
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) June 4, 2019
The bottom-line is that when Herro declared, I looked at him and had some questions. The biggest one being, for a guy who called himself “A Bucket” throughout the season, he had moments during the college season where he disappeared. Like Romeo Langford above, if your one innate skill is to be able to put the ball in the basket, you better be able to do it regularly. If not, then you can get lost fast in the NBA.
So yeah, that was my stance on Herro going into the draft process. And I was completely wrong.
The bottom-line is that when it comes to Herro, the one thing I probably didn’t realize at the time is just how important shooting has become in the NBA. Even if you’re not totally ready to contribute today or tomorrow, if you can shoot the ball – which Herro can – there is a place for you in the NBA.
Which is exactly what Herro has proven in this process.
I was the first one to report on Herro’s killer workout with the Celtics a few weeks ago, and admittedly, Herro hasn’t really slowed down since. He seems to be getting praise in one big workout after another, to the point that he is now trending as a lottery pick.
I don’t like to admit I’m wrong often. But I whiffed on this one. Good on Tyler Herro for proving me wrong.
(For more on the NBA Draft, make sure to download Monday’s Aaron Torres Sports Podcast. And there will be a new episode up immediately after the draft on Thursday night).