With all the talk about the draft this past week, it got me looking back at some of the more recent drafts, and an ominous sense of foreboding quickly ensued. Following in the wake of another egregious act of immaturity by Ja Morant, along with the disappointing play by many of his fellow draft alums, and the fact that only two players drafted are even on a roster for a team remaining in the playoffs, it seems time that we talk about the very real possibility that the 2019 NBA draft looks like it’s careening headlong into becoming a bust. While it may seem premature to already write-off players only four years into their careers, the average NBA tenure is only four and half seasons. So, it’s starting to get late early for many of those taken in what looks to be an ill-fated draft.
The stark reality is that in a league full of constant roster churn, patience is running out for many franchises whose very recent feelings of hope and promise have given way to bitter sentiments of frustration and disappointment. We just witnessed in this week’s lottery how much an organization’s outlook is tethered to their draft, and in the case of 2019, there are the very real implications that the bevy of misses may result in many of these teams having to already hinge their hopes on another crop of young hopefuls.
Before we get into where things have gone wrong, as a refresher, let’s take a look at the first round from that year’s draft:
1 NOP Zion Williamson Duke
2 MEM Ja Morant Murray State
3 NYK RJ Barrett Duke
4 LAL DeAndre Hunter Virginia
5 CLE Darius Garland Vanderbilt
6 PHO Jarrett Culver Texas Tech
7 CHI Coby White UNC
8 ATL Jaxson Hayes Texas
9 WAS Rui Hachimura Gonzaga
10 ATL Cameron Reddish Duke
11 MIN Cameron Johnson UNC
12 CHA PJ Washington Kentucky
13 MIA Tyler Herro Kentucky
14 BOS Romeo Langford Indiana
15 DET Sekou Doumbouya France
16 ORL Chuma Okeke Auburn
17 BRK Nickeil Alexander-Walker Virginia Tech
18 IND Goga Bitadze Rep of Georgia
19 SAS Luka Samanic Croatia
20 BOS Matisse Thybulle Washington
21 OKC Brandon Clarke Gonzaga
22 BOS Grant Williams Tennessee
23 UTA Darius Bazley High School
24 PHI Ty Jerome Virginia
25 POR Nassir Little UNC
26 CLE Dylan Windler Belmont
27 BRK Mfiondu Kabengele Florida State
28 GSW Jordan Poole Michigan
29 SAS Keldon Johnson Kentucky
30 MIL Kevin Porter Jr. USC
Zion can’t stay on the floor. Ja can’t stay off the blotter. R.J.’s been fine, but his inefficiency makes him a hard player to get excited about. On any given night, De’Andre Hunter is in pole position for the least impactful player to log thirty minutes. Darius Garland is a dude, and the one outlier in the top ten in terms of having a very optimistic outlook. Jarret Culver is hanging on for his NBA life after only playing ten games last season for Atlanta. Coby White feels like he has place in this league, but it’s hard to get excited about the seventh pick having his lowest scoring season in his fourth year, and being unanimously considered just a solid rotation player. Jaxson Hayes spent last season battling Bo Cruz’s brother for third-string center minutes for the Pelicans. Rui has impressed this postseason, but buyer beware, before getting to play alongside a basketball savant he was just another guy on a middling Wizards roster. And Cam Reddish has moved more than U-Haul. And that’s just the top ten. So, what’s gone amiss for some of these players and where do they from here?
Point of order: Outside of the top-ten, this list only includes players I believe will still be in the NBA two seasons from now. This is intended to indicate that even of the potential remaining players, there are a lot of concerns.
I’m beginning to think that Zion Williamson is the NBA’s Spruce Goose. Years from now, we will speak in wistful awe of that brief moment in time in which we saw him take flight, but most will just know him as a bold and audacious attempt that failed at defying the laws of gravity. While that may seem hyperbolic, it feels hard not to talk about Zion in terms sheathed in extremes. His potential greatness is awe-inspiring. But it is also franchise debilitating. Because for now, it feels like failed potential. Zion’s problematic work habits regarding his physique are clear and present, but so may be the fact that something of that size just may not be meant to stay in flight.
While Ja Morant’s issue is clearly maturity over ability, even when he can play, the injury concerns are only continuing to mount. If he doesn’t personally implode, his style of play may still prove too self-destructive for prolonged success. If he can get his head right, and keep his body on the floor, we all know that he’s an elite athlete with an interminable will. Nonetheless, the accumulation of off-court transgressions and on-court injuries feels too ominous not to bake into any conversation about what his future may hold.
RJ Barrett cares, and has improved, but the questions about his shooting limitations don’t seem to feel any less significant. He’s probably never more than the third best player on a winning team. Which makes for a fine career, just not the career a team projects for a player that is drafted third overall.
It’s not that DeAndre Hunter has been bad, it’s just that there are too many games where you don’t feel his impact. His numbers last year were good: 15 points per game, on 46% from the field, and 36% from the three. Yet it just seems that he floats in and out of games and never quite puts it all together for any significant stretches. Hunter’s career trajectory feels a lot like Harrison Barnes. A player anyone is happy to have, until the biggest moments arrive and he’s nowhere to be found.
There are not many questions where Darius Garland is concerned, though I might ask if he in fact is Cleveland’s best guard? It’s hard to out-perform expectations when you’re the fifth pick, but Garland felt like a bit of a reach at the time. Well, now he may very well end up being the best player selected in this draft. Garland’s combination of pace, intelligence, three-level scoring, and playmaking ability have him positioned atop an NBA endangered species list; he is the rare remaining true point guard. Injury concerns (he hasn’t played more than 70 games in a season) may be the only thing that up-ends what has been a very impressive start to his career. Otherwise, Garland is everything Cleveland could have expected and more.
Jarrett Culver just doesn’t have it. It’s no knock on the young man, but his primary skills are below average across the board. And though his body looks the part, even his athleticism has been nothing to get too excited about. He may continue to hang around on the fringes, but there is no path for this to not feel like a failed pick.
Coby White is stuck as a combo guard that doesn’t have an elite skill to rely upon. He’s a good shooter on the catch, and can be a serviceable playmaker on-ball, which should continue to make him a valuable reserve. But much like Barrett, that’s just not the career trajectory the Bulls were hoping for for a player taken that high in the lottery.
Jaxson Hayes has proven that great athleticism just isn’t enough in a league full of elite athletes. If the Pelicans center is on a rim run, excitement abounds. But shortly after he takes flight, the fleeting excitement ends upon landing. Hayes hasn’t really developed much from the raw athlete that was drafted four seasons ago, and now will enter free agency this off-season probably as a low-cost flyer for someone looking to bolster their end-of-the-bench frontline depth.
Rui Hachimura is a player that for much of his career has seemed to struggle to settle into what his skillset best allows for him to do positionally. If he can shoot the way he has this postseason – really in the postseason in general, as Hachimura has shot a blistering 56% from the three-point line over 19 games played in postseason trips with both Washington in 2021 and the Lakers thus far these playoffs – he becomes a far more intriguing player as someone who can be utilized to punish matchups; either in the post against smaller players as a small forward, or on the perimeter as a stretch four. But playoffs notwithstanding, Hachimura’s play over his career has left far more questions than answers. As indicated by the fact that Washington jettisoned their former lottery pick for Kendrick Nunn and what amounts to future trade flotsam. Rui’s performance in these playoffs is going to precipitate someone overpaying for a player that will probably underperform his next contract.
It’s time we bury the “just give Cam a chance” narrative. That conversation died at the intersection of over-inflated expectations and immaturity. There is a reason Cameron Reddish has played for almost as many teams as he has seasons in the league. And it can be found at that same convergence. The problem for Reddish is that the physical tools are there – they are the reason he’s occupied so many zip codes – but the mental component of the game seems to evade him. Reddish is a player who takes ill-advised shots, finds himself continuously out of position, and then chafes when told that these issues are why he isn’t seeing the playing time his disposition clearly indicates he thinks he deserves. Look, maturity doesn’t come in ages, and Reddish seemed to be on good behavior in Portland. But with his impending free agency this offseason, it’s very possible that the tenth pick in the draft will be on his fourth team by the start of his fifth season.
While the lottery is the space reserved for the highest of expectations, it’s the top-ten that is most scrutinized. Yet, from picks 11-30, the bleak trend continues as only eight players feel like they have a legitimate shot at being on a roster within two seasons: Cameron Johnson, Tyler Herro, P.J. Washington, Brandon Clarke, Grant Williams, Jordan Poole, Keldon Johnson, and Kevin Porter Jr. We can quibble about Chuma Okeke, Nassir Little, and Matisse Thybulle. But I’m taking the under at one of them being around by the beginning of the 2025-26 season. Of those eight players, only Cameron Johnson, Tyler Herro, and Keldon Johnson had seasons that felt like there was something really positive to build upon.
Cameron Johnson’s nagging injuries aside, he has proven that he can be an effective scorer, and at times, an elite shooter. Someone is going to open their checkbooks this offseason in hopes he can be a difference maker for their team. If he can stay relatively healthy, which is a big if, Johnson is a very good third option for a team that needs shooting and perimeter scoring.
Tyler Herro has his deficiencies, but he’s proven that he can be a high-level scorer with a penchant for making tough shots in big moments. The Heat guard is probably already close to hitting the peak of his powers, but the former sixth man of the year has far more than validated Miami selecting him.
PJ Washington Jr. started every game he played this season and has shown that offensively he can produce as a stretch four/five. Yet it’s hard to get excited about a bigman that shoots 45% from the field and averages less than 6 rebounds per game for his career. At best, Washington seems like he’ll settle into a Sam Perkins role with someone, providing occasional offensive pop off the bench or as a low-level starter. But he will probably never be a high-impact player for a contending franchise.
Brandon Clarke is an awesome role player who provides great energy off the bench. He also hasn’t played more than 65 games in a season and recently suffered an achilles tear. An injury that not only can require up to a year and a half to fully recover from, but also has been known to permanently inhibit the athleticism from some who have suffered it. The unfortunate reality is that for a player who relies on his quickness and leaping ability, the accumulation of injuries feels like it will eventually rob the Grizzlies versatile bigman of what has made him such an effective player thus far.
I’m not even sure that I’m totally sold on the idea that Grant Williams will be in the league in two seasons. While Williams’ defensive versatility and toughness make him an asset in the right system, his inconsistency as a shooter seems to be predicated on his need to get enough minutes to feel comfortable. Yet Williams is not a starter in this league as currently constituted in large part because he is such a liability on the offensive end. The hope continues to be that he can be another PJ Tucker, but the fact that Williams seems to rankle his teammates as much as his opponents and lacks the elite motor that makes Tucker an asset in spite of his offensive inabilities makes me concerned that team’s may sour on Williams soon.
Jordan Poole took so many steps back in his development this year that I half expect him to be starting for Santa Cruz at the beginning of next season. After showing a tantalizing skillset that made him look like baby Steph in the second-half of last season, this year, Poole’s game and demeanor just looked immature and underdeveloped. In particular, Poole’s decision-making was about as fun to deal with as a dirty diaper. Is this a by-product of a season that began with such tumult? Or did anyone else get the sense that perhaps Draymond wasn’t the only one who wanted to knock some sense into the precocious youngster? The Warriors invested heavily in Poole as one of the key players for their future, but unless he establishes a healthy sense of the moment, tightens his handle, and stops trying to hunt fouls with flailing flings twenty-eight feet from the basket, I’m not sure the Warriors can expect the return of their investment that they so recently had hoped for.
It’s not that Keldon Johnson hasn’t shown a lot to be excited about if you’re in the Spurs organization. He’s a physical force that gets downhill in a hurry, who has shown flashes as a perimeter scorer, and is coming off a season where he averaged 22 points per game. I’m just not sure that he isn’t a looter in a riot, grabbing what’s available amidst the anarchy of a tanking season. As evidenced by the fact that as his counting stats increased, all his efficiency numbers decreased. Of course that happens when guys get over-extended and take on roles a bit too big for them. With the emergence of Devon Vassell, and the future of the franchise coming in gigantic French form, Johnson is probably slated to be the Spurs third option going forward. Considering he was the second to last pick in the first round, that’s still another feather in the Spurs’ draft cap.
Kevin Porter Jr. has all the skill and athleticism to be a very good NBA player. It’s rare for a guy to produce a season in which they average 19.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 5.7 assists. Of course, plenty of that is due to the Rockets being the most riotous of NBA environments. Houston was a mess. The Rockets this past season had less structure than a kindergarten finger painting class. With about as much maturity in the room. That wasn’t purely Porter Jr.’s fault, but the continuance of his bad habits — dribbling the air out of the ball, taking ill-advised step backs, and lacking a general feel for the game — get both excused by the mess or buried below his numbers. Despite the impressive stats, Porter Jr. is absolutely a starter on the Empty Calorie All-Stars. If he can finally figure out a way to leverage his athleticism with more off-ball activity, and accept that though it does not look as pretty, a catch-and-shoot three is worth just as much as a forced step-back, Porter can still be a productive player for someone. If not, he could be out of the league sooner rather than later.
In terms of second-rounders, I’ll let you look them up, but as far as I’m concerned the only players of note are: Nicolas Claxton, Bol Bol, Jalen McDaniels, Daniel Gafford, and Terrance Mann. All five have been surprises at different moments in the last few seasons, but only Claxton has been an impact starter thus far in his career.
31st pick- Nic Claxton was a fringe All-Defensive selection who really blossomed this year as a springy and rangy defensive player with a knack for challenging shots at the rim – Claxton was second in the league in contested shots, and seventh in blocks per game this season. Claxton was at his best defensively when KD’s additional rim protection allowed him to roam, but even after Durant was traded, Claxton continued to show that he had really come into his own as a defensive player. Offensively he knows who he is, as only 13 of his 587 field goals attempted this year were outside of the paint. The Nets center may never be a star, but he will be a force defensively and on the glass for years to come. Think of him as junior Dwight Howard with more range and less muscle. And sadly, the same free throw failings and flashes of immaturity.
38th Pick- Daniel Gafford is the type of player Jaxson Hayes should aspire to be. Gafford’s game is clearly more will than skill, but the former Arkansas Razorback has a motor and effort level that is infectious. He’s a bit overmatched as a starting center – as he has been for about two-thirds of his games in Washington – but as a high-energy sub who can completely shift the pace of a five-minute segment, Gafford is your guy.
44th Pick- Bol Bol is the reason I don’t gamble; I can’t feel comfortable risking something in a process where my knowledge and experience may have no bearing on what the eventual outcome is. If you told me the Magic back-up bigman would be wreaking havoc through the league in two years, a freakish combination of never-ending limbs unfurling into gangly and beautiful flashes of superlative skill, I would believe you. If you told me Bol is really only a per-36 minute darling who can’t physically withstand the rigors of an increased workload, I would also believe you. I’m personally inclined to hedge my bets on the latter, but I’m not placing any chips on the table. Bol impressed early last year, averaging 12.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks per game in the first 35 games he played. But from there, with the return of Mo Wagner from an early ankle injury, and the Magic abandoning their all-length starting lineup, Bol’s number were nearly cut in half – Bol’s averages dropped to 6.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, .08 blocks per game over his last 35 games. Ultimately, I think Bol is more novelty than substance, but if he can prove that he can withstand the physical toll it takes to play meaningful minutes in a full NBA season, that novelty could still have plenty of value.
48th Pick- It’s hard not to like Terance Mann. He’s a player that plays with great energy and determination and seems to be a good team guy. At a pick this low in the draft, he’s a steal. I also think there’s several guys every year that come out of the draft that the same could be said about. That’s not a knock on him at all, I just think four years in we can temper the excitement about who he is and where he was taken. He’ll be a guy in the league as long as his athleticism holds, but I don’t think he’s ever anything more than a team’s fifth or sixth best player.
52nd Pick- Jalen McDaniels is the type of player you’ll gladly have as a rotation guy who can give you good minutes defensively and may get a little extra burn if he has it going that night. And at 6’9” he brings impressive size at the small forward position. He’ll hang around the league because of those qualities, but that’s about where his game tops out.
If you think me too harsh in declaring disaster for this draft, go ahead and take a peak back at the drafts surrounding 2019 and you’ll quickly notice, that even if Ja and Zion do somehow fulfill their promise, this draft lacks both the star power and the depth of drafts both before and after. Look, NBA drafts are like fine wine, some vintages are fantastic, some fall flat and age terribly. Perhaps there is impudence in me uncorking my opinion prematurely on this draft. Maybe after a few more years of developing, something magically unexpected will happen to the class of 2019. But I’ve consumed a lot of wine and basketball in my lifetime, and my taste tells me this vintage might be already be past its prime.