As I dive deeper into the NBA draft world and gain years of experience in seeing outcomes from the talent I evaluate, I've shifted perspectives on many of the hard-line philosophical guidelines I created for myself. Chief among those is the notion that, unless a five-tool multi-use alpha center, a big man shouldn't be drafted inside the top-15 or top-20.
âSuch a theory was rooted in good faith. The league was trending smaller and more skilled at the 4. Over the last 15 years, the amount of interior players has been cut in half as the 4 moves to a fully perimeter-oriented spot. Replacement value at the 5 has risen as a result, to the point where overpaying for non-elite big men can saddle a team's cap situation when the same level of production might be available near the minimum. The Indiana Pacers hamstring themselves with the Myles Turner deal, the Memphis Grizzlies with Jonas Valanciunas do the same, and the Cleveland Cavaliers are about to tether themselves to Jarrett Allen. Are those guys for $15 million a year that much better than taking a Richaun Holmes for $7 million, or Daniel Gafford on a rookie deal?
I do still firmly believe that a franchise tying themselves down to a league-average big for multiple years can be the death knell for their roster flexibility. What I'm starting to change my tune on is how that relates to the draft. Now, I don't necessarily think the fear of getting stuck with a mid-tier big is an excuse not to swing on one who has the potential to be better.
Part of that is looking at the top bigs in the NBA right now. By my measure, the top five are a clear tier of their own: Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert, Bam Adebayo, Karl-Anthony Towns. No two are the same in their playing style, which has fueled my belief that there isn't one pathway to being an All-Star big. Four of them are on playoff teams and legitimate title contenders. If you re-draft any of their years in hindsight, every single guy goes in the top-five of their class.
That leads us to Alperen Sengun, the 18-year-old MVP of the Turkish League who has an interesting case for sliding up draft boards. No, he's not the hyperathletic big man like James Wiseman, Evan Mobley or DeAndre Ayton of the last few years. But let's not focus on who or what he is not. Sengun is wildly productive, shows flashes in so many different areas and is already productive at a professional level. Our goal here isn't to compare him within the positional confines of what it means to be a center. It's to figure out how good of a basketball player he is and can be.
If we truly believe that any type of player can become an All-NBA performer at the center position, then let's only focus on the type of impact Sengun could have.
The way Moses Moody was used at Arkansas was a pretty big warning for me. In an offense without an elite creator or ball-dominant player, the school's only one-and-done prospect in history couldn't become a high-usage PNR or isolation player. A year after watching Isaiah Joe get a solid run with the ball in his hands (even while teaming with ball-dominant Mason Jones), Moody was used in a very different way.
PNR ball handler possessions - 87
Percentage of team's usage - 16%
PNR ball handler possessions - 46
Percentage of team's usage - 10.2%
Barely used in an accidental one screen per game, there's serious limitations to the type of scorer Moody will be outside the role he excels at. Luckily for him, he's already fantastic at his role and should make some sort of positive impact at the next level as a 3-and-D wing. But how high that impact goes, and how high he gets drafted, depends on adding layers to his game that will raise his ceiling.
Every year, there are one or two guys who I just can't seem to grasp. Sometimes it's due to fit: I see a player with clear skills or upside, but don't know how it translates to the next level. Other times it's effectiveness issues, where they have flashes but don't seem to put it together in functional ways.
Tennessee freshman guard Jaden Springer might be this year's recipient of "Coach Spins' Most Confusing Prospect." Springer won't turn 19 until September. He's incredibly young, has a massively strong frame for his age, is a tremendous on-ball defender and has a good deal of athletic upside. He also shot over 43% from 3 as a freshman in the SEC, was a top-20 recruit coming out of IMG Academy and played for Rick Barnes with the Volunteers: those guys always pass the character test.
But there's something... off about Springer. While he's usually the type of young, strong prospect I like because he plays the right way and defends, I still don't see where the upside pops and can't nail down what type of role he'll have at his ceiling. Perhaps I'm alone in how befuddled I am by his season at Tennessee, but I do feel it worth bringing up the traits that really confuse me.
In my recent Davion Mitchell scouting breakdown, I wrote about being cognizant of late-risers through March Madness. Johnny Juzang is the perfect example this year. Sure, he had some big moments in the NCAA Tournament and helped carry the offense for an underdog UCLA team that advanced to the Final Four. But nothing about Juzang's time in March was incredibly efficient, nor stood out in a more impactful way than his regular season: he just took more shots.
The bar might have been low for those on a national level who had last seen Juzang play at Kentucky, where he underwhelmed, leading to his transfer. Expectations were quite high in Lexington, and this version of Juzang still might not have lived up to all that hype.
With strong athletic questions about who and how he guards, if he can ever beat an NBA defender off the bounce and the need to still add consistency as a help defender, Juzang isn't climbing up my draft boards. He's been in the mid-70s or 80s on my spots, a number that may increase solely because guys above him elect to return to school. He has two-way potential, but wouldn't be worth drafting unless a team is in dire need of investment in a shooting specialist and believes that he'll increase his efficiency in that role at the next level.
March Madness can be the greatest optical illusion out there. I'm a big proponent on winning, on seeing how guys perform in the biggest moments, as being a data point that matters when seeing if a player is the type of person to have in your organization. What it is, though, is just a data point. When taken in the context of a full season, the games of a couple weekends shouldn't be enough to completely shift the perception of a prospect. If it was, either we weren't paying attention before or we did a horrible job of evaluating initially.
I'm really worried when I see how quickly Davion Mitchell is moving up draft boards that the perception after his National Championship victory is overshadowing a fairly large body of prior work that has established who he is as a prospect. I've also been skeptical of Mitchell all season long, and I'll get into why here. But the biggest thing to fight right now is recency bias, a dangerous trap for all of us to be weary of.
Inherent in any discussion about Mitchell is the defensive toughness and sheer aggression he plays with. He's a fantastic lateral athlete, a relentless competitor and a hard worker. Watch him dominate games on defense and in straight lines, then see his shooting numbers, and it's hard not to view him as a great pro.
There are warning signs I just cannot separate myself from, though, which move Mitchell closer to being a second-round pick than being deserving of lottery or top-ten consideration. So... let's talk about those warning signs. Let's talk about the overall value of being a premier defender based on effort, and just how far that should carry a prospect. And let's talk about recency bias, it's dangers and why the post-tourney whiplash is hitting us hard this year.
At Iowa, Luka Garza re-wrote the record books. He'll go down as one of the most prolific offensive threats of all-time in the college game, deservingly winning TWO National POY awards and having his jersey raised to the rafters during his Senior season.
The game just doesn't translate to the modern NBA. At Iowa, he could impose his will on the game by playing at his pace, getting the ball on the block and out-muscling guys on a nightly basis. Even if the strength and low post acumen translates to the next level against bigger, stronger, faster defenders, it isn't a sought-after trait. NBA teams don't play through the post-up anymore, a shot that has lost ground to the 3-pointer and spread-the-floor concepts that encourage higher-efficiency shots.
As a result, Garza is in a tough spot as a prospect. He's too old, towards his max potential and poor on defense to completely morph his game into something different. But he's also too skilled and impactful to be written off completely.