Be forewarned: lots of metaphors are on their way.
Each year, folks ask to see two different items from draft pundits: their mock draft and their "big board". By asking for a mock draft, they're asking to see how the pundit projects the draft will go, taking a stab at the order and using their combination of analysis and intel to anticipate what will happen. Mocks are not, in my estimation, about what the pundit would do if in charge, but about guessing what those who are in charge will decide.
By asking for a big board, folks want to see the pundit's opinions stated more clearly and numerically. But these get tricky: there's a difference between which player will have a better career and which should get drafted earlier.
The NBA is tiered with how it treats incoming players, with the first round, second round and undrafted status. Each has different contractual obligations that go hand-in-hand with a selection or agreement for their rookies. First-round deals are collectively bargained, minimum two-year commitments where the pay is scaled and locked in based on the draft position. As I've argued multiple times, the picks should be used with the maximum four-year window in mind, as teams seek to add a prospect who they'll want to re-sign with the all-important Bird rights they'll have over that player once the contract expires. A certain level of upside is required.
Second-round deals have more flexibility to their duration and structure, but prospects drafted from 31-60 have their rights bound to that team, even if the contract isn't immediately signed, giving teams the chance to skirt the salary cap and make a long-term investment if desired. Second-round picks are a fair balance between those picks expected to wield zero short-term gain and those who are cheap options that may come in and be impactful members of the roster without financial consequence.
Once the 60th pick is taken, teams are free to negotiate without the collectively bargained terms around how to use their prospects. They can add different incentives into contracts, change their length, duration or security level for the prospect, and have added flexibility to utilize their G-League system through the process.
Truthfully, some players fit into different camps better than others simply due to the contractural differences. For example, both Devonte Graham and Mitchell Robinson went in the second round in 2018, and are now strong rotation pieces for their franchises. Why did they go there? Both had some risks associated with them that made spending an automatic four-year contract somewhat unpalatable. The same situation can be said of Malcolm Brogdon, who was deemed too old to be a first-round pick by many. Age and upside, as well as risk, factor into the decision to make a four-year or two-year investment.
On my Big Board, that doesn't mean that the 30 best players on my board should be the 30 first-round picks. There are a few this year, like 22-year-old Killian Tillie, who might be ill-fitting for a first round selection. Tillie has had multiple injuries, doesn't scream starter or superstar upside, plays a position that is easily replaceable on the free agent market and would be 26 when he hits free agency at the end of a four-year deal. To extend or retain him for four seasons afterwards would bring him into his 30s. The same can be said of guys like Cassius Winston or Grant Riller: multi-year college scorers whose timetable doesn't mesh with signing a third professional deal.
Then take a guy like Reggie Perry from Mississippi State. Perry is 19, meaning his second contract would be inked at 23, roughly the same age Tillie will be after his rookie season. Perry is a more appropriate first-round selection for a team that ranks them in a similar tier, like I do, because the team gets to reap the harvest of what they invest for a longer period of time.
On most big boards, Perry isn't likely to crack the top-40. But I certainly understand, when putting together my mock draft, that if a team puts the two of them in the same tier or close to each other with production, Perry wins out. He's not necessarily a better prospect, but he's a better fit for my draft position.
It's a long-term equation that causes me to lean with younger or higher-upside guys when splitting hairs.
The Big Board is about impact: who is, in my opinion, going to have the best or clearest paths to success in the pros. It is not tiered based off who should be drafted in what spot. There are several players just behind Tillie on my board who I would select above him in certain situations. If I'm the Boston Celtics or Los Angeles Lakers at 26 and 28, I'm taking the better player since I'm in win-now mode and just need someone who fits and helps me win. A first-round pick becomes less about hitting a home run and more about making sure at least someone gets on base.
But if I'm the New York Knicks at 27, I don't need to be as concerned with a ready-to-play, win-now prospect, even if they currently project to me as the better player. If I take Tillie, it's 2-3 years earliest before I'm a playoff contender. Tillie will be 25-26 and ready to contribute by then, but I'll simultaneously have to decide if I want to invest in him until he's 30. That investment is much easier to make if the player is 23 and there's a reasonable belief the ceiling can raise.
The same conversation can be had at the end of the second round. There are a few players who I firmly believe will be NBA-caliber rotation pieces. Jalen Harris from Nevada is a valued bench scorers who I'm high on. Malik Fitts is the prototypical NBA 4-man and does a lot of things I really like while fitting what I look for at the position.
All three might go undrafted. While they have the upside to improve and fit desired NBA roles, their ceilings are relatively low, they're already older and frankly provide more value to a franchise who can be flexible with their contract. In a year where the upcoming G-League season is threatened, spending a second-round pick on a player who is ready to be part of a roster but perhaps needs more reps and seasoning below is a strange proposition. I'm expecting to see a run on international prospects, or guys who are willing/ already have inked international deals for the upcoming year.
If I'm a team that late, I'm taking Fitts or Harris since I believe so strongly in their skill, but there's a deep tier of players who are widely evaluated during this draft stage. Sometimes it's more beneficial for the player to choose their situation than to have the financial security of the selection. Other times the franchise thinks they can have their cake and eat it too: can draft a more high-profile name with the selection and still get the player they like with an unsigned free agent spot.
This year's draft will provide unique challenges unforeseen and that are still too difficult to project. Will there be a huge run on international guys? Will teams seek to draft by positional need if the G-League isn't an option and they have to keep players they sign on their teams? What option will be the Two-Way Contract be in the event of no or a shortened G-League season? How many prospects will opt to sign for international money before the draft, and how will that make them more or less attractive?
Pushing this year aside, Big Boards and Mock Drafts are different tools. I feel it incumbent upon me to explain why the selections in my mocks are far different than the rankings on my big boards and why, even if I were the one making the selections, I'd look at prospects through different lenses based on the contract I'd be inking them to.