By: Scott Levine
I make a lot of snap judgments on draft night. I loved when the Sixers picked Jonah Bolden at 36, I hated the TJ Leaf pick at 18 for the Pacers, and so forth. However, there are always a few picks where I kind of just sit there, confused, directionless. I wouldn’t have made the pick, but it also isn’t bad. If I was Chad Ford and did draft grades, I’d give all these picks a B, or a B-, or a B/B- like a total cop out.
Josh Jackson, #4, Phoenix Suns
Phoenix was second in both fast break points per game and pace last season. Jackson is best in transition, where he simply outran and outmuscled guys down the court in college, often getting to the rim with ease. He won’t be able to do that in the NBA, but he’s comfortable leading the break, attacking the rim, and finding open teammates. Having another player alongside Eric Bledsoe who can push the ball will create more open transition threes for Devin Booker. We might actually see Booker shoot over 37% from three for the first time in his career.
The problem arises when the Suns are not in transition. Jackson projects to be a poor shooter due to his abysmal free throw percentage. Suns didn’t have the best spacing this past season. They gave out major minutes to below average shooters in TJ Warren and Marquese Chriss, and are adding another player that defenses will feel comfortable ignoring in the corner.
Jackson is not effective enough to play on-ball in the half court. He is a good passer but will struggle to find opportunities to create for his teammates. He won’t have many opportunities to attack closeouts, as his shot won’t require defenses to close out hard on him. He won’t be able to beat guys off the dribble with his rudimentary handle and shake.
If he can develop at least a respectable jump shot, he is more than worth the pick here. He is the surest thing in the draft defensively. While his good not great wingspan will probably hold him back from becoming an All-Defense caliber player, he has the athleticism, smarts, and motor to become a very good defender.
His 6’10” wingspan could prevent him from being a good defender at the four. I don’t think it will matter that much on-ball as the league continues to downsize. However, Jackson will not give you the added bonus of having a weakside shot blocker the way Jonathan Isaac would. Jackson will not have to play much four on defense, though, if Dragan Bender lives up to expectations.
I would have considered Isaac here. While his role would be duplicative of Bender’s, he seems like a surer bet than Bender. Isaac is more likely to provide spacing in the half court than Jackson, something the team needs more than Jackson’s offensive skill set. I would have also considered Dennis Smith, but I’ll mention him enough going forward, so I’ll spare you here. However, Jackson’s effectiveness in transition and defense, along with Isaac’s overlap with Bender, make me okay enough with this pick.
I am optimistic about Jackson’s fit in Phoenix. He is a player who needs a specific system to succeed, and Phoenix is the best situation for him in the top six outside of maybe Boston.
Jonathan Isaac, #6, Orlando Magic
I actually like this pick for the Magic, but I don’t love it. This is in no way an indictment on Isaac, who I had fourth overall on my general board. My concern is the Orlando Magic. I don’t trust them to use Isaac correctly after enduring the Aaron Gordon small forward experiment last year. Gordon is their best prospect, and his natural position is the power forward. So is Isaac’s.
They can make it work on offense. Isaac and Gordon’s offensive roles are very different. Gordon is best suited as a playmaking four who catches the ball on a short roll Draymond style, finds an open teammate, or explodes to the rim. Isaac projects to be a spot up shooter with the potential to attack closeouts.
They can also make it work defensively. Isaac will likely be able to guard threes. However, if they play Isaac at the three, they will be squandering his defensive potential. Isaac could be a rare power forward defender who is able to both defend the perimeter and offer weakside rim protection at a high level. Gordon is kind of the same in that regard. Frank Vogel is a good defensive coach, and might be able to harness both of their defense upsides regardless, but I don’t know how that happens if Isaac is guarding threes.
It’s possible that either of them could play the five in spurts, but I don’t foresee that happening soon. Orlando has 60 million tied up to Nikola Vucevic and Bismack Biyombo for the next two years, and will be darned if those two aren’t getting significant minutes at center. Frank Vogel also hasn’t necessarily been on the cutting edge of the small ball revolution. Furthermore, Isaac is not strong enough to play five, and may never be. Gordon is not likely to protect the rim well with a wingspan just under seven feet, and his 220 pound frame suggests he would have trouble on the glass.
I would have picked Dennis Smith.The first place Orlando should look to improve is at point guard. Smith has great athleticism and strength, and can shoot from anywhere on the court. He is a score first one who needs to work on his vision and defense, but looks to be able to at least make the easy reads necessary to keep an offense afloat. Defenses have been able to go under against Elfrid Payton, which has limited both Payton and Gordon’s opportunities in the pick and roll.
Right now, Smith is a rough sketch of an high-level NBA starting point guard, and how good he becomes is just a matter of how much he refines each skill. For this reason, he has the second highest upside in the draft behind Fultz. I see Isaac and Smith as having similar value, so when it’s close to a wash between the two prospects, give me the one that fits better.
That being said, if Isaac and Gordon can eventually play the four and the five together, holy shit. I’ll take back everything I said.
Luke Kennard, #12, Detroit Pistons
You’re Stan Van Gundy. You reach the 2009 NBA Finals as the head coach of the Orlando Magic. Dwight Howard is a monster in the post. Courtney Lee, Hedo Turkoglu, and Rashard Lewis space the floor like nobody’s business.
Fast forward to 2017. You are the Head Coach and President of Basketball Operations of the Detroit Pistons. Andre Drummond is good, but clearly not 2009 Dwight Howard. Reggie Jackson is coming off a down year at point guard. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Tobias Harris, the two guys you were banking on to improve from three kind of did, but are still pretty average shooters.
At some point you get frustrated at your team’s shooting development and just draft a good shooter to maximize floor spacing. Kennard is probably going to be a good shooter. On top of that, he can play some point guard when necessary. If this year’s Pistons team is like last year’s, it will often be necessary.
However, I am unsure how Kennard will defend anybody in the NBA, and do not think he has the athleticism to use his offensive craft to the same degree he did in college. Donovan Mitchell went 13, and I prefer him to Kennard on the Pistons, as he is more of an NBA-level athlete. Mitchell is less of a sure thing from behind the arc, though, and I don’t blame Stan Van for passing on another athletic wing who could be disappointing from three.
Justin Jackson, #15, Sacramento Kings
I think Jackson is a reasonable pick here, but I will probably continue to wonder what they could have done instead. Jackson is the classic case of a guy seeming like a sure thing because he’s 22, shot the ball well his junior season, is a smart player, tries hard on defense, and won an NCAA Championship.
I think he’s less of a sure thing than his credentials might suggest. While his stroke looks solid now, Jackson shot around 30% from three in his first two seasons at UNC. It is also concerning that he is 6’8″, and at 22, is only 200 pounds. He will likely be unable to guard most NBA threes due to his lack of core strength. He will be able to stay in front of twos because of his 6’11″ wingspan, but his lateral quickness is not elite.
The Kings are likely getting a nice rotation shooting guard who probably shouldn’t start, which is fine, except for that they already have two nice rotation shooting guards who probably shouldn’t start in Buddy Hield and Ben McLemore.
I would have preferred a combo forward such as OG Anunoby or Jonah Bolden, or power forward John Collins over Jackson for the Kings. That would help me use Skal more as a small ball five at times. I am not bullish on Willie Cauley-Stein or Georgios Papagiannis, and don’t know what to expect from Harry Giles.
While Jackson is far from a sure thing, he has a higher floor than most picked in this range because of his feel for the game and work ethic. If Jackson does not gain enough weight to eventually play small forward consistently, I will still trust that he tried everything he possibly could to gain weight outside of steroids. He is unanimously considered a hard worker and a high character guy. If bulks up, the Kings finally have a prospect who can play the three. If he doesn’t, well, they have a nice rotation quality shooting guard, for what it’s worth.
Justin Patton, #16, Minnesota Timberwolves
It’s hard to overstate how much the Timberwolves knocked the Jimmy Butler trade out of the park. They moved back nine spots for Butler and only had to give up Kris Dunn, who isn’t good, and Zach LaVine, who made Minnesota’s defense a lot better when he tore his ACL.
Picking Justin Patton at #16 was like putting a piece of zucchini on top of the Butler trade sundae: Kinda weird, but it didn’t spoil the whole thing for me.
The Timberwolves already have Karl-Anthony Towns, Gorgui Dieng, and Cole Aldrich, so why did they insist on adding another center? They had an opportunity to draft a power forward to play alongside Towns. While none these guys are likely to become starters, Anunoby, DJ Wilson, Bolden, and Collins are all more interesting for me on the Timberwolves than Patton. Sure, Patton might be able to play some four. He has a workable shooting stroke and is decent at defending in space. However his ideal role is as a center, rolling to and protecting the rim.
The optimist in me says this pick means that they plan to move on from Gorgui Dieng. If Towns is a unicorn, Dieng is just a regular horse. He is a strong finisher as a roll man, but can’t shoot beyond fifteen feet and doesn’t protect the rim. The whole idea of having Towns is that you have a center who can shoot threes and make plays for others, which is great, so why did they play Towns at power forward last season?
They’ve put a lot of resources into Dieng, so it will be difficult to find a four to play alongside Towns at this point. They had a chance this draft and did not take it. However, Patton could easily be a nice backup center within a year or two, and is currently on a rookie scale salary. Patton is also eight years younger than Dieng, and could outgrow his backup role eventually. That would put Minnesota in a tricky spot when he hits restricted free agency, but they have time to figure it out.
Despite Dieng’s salary, there could be a modest interest in him from a team over the cap looking to dump salary. Dieng could be a useful backup big for a team like the Clippers if they remain intact and want to get off Jamal Crawford’s contract. While Dieng is not Brook Lopez, Timberwolves could pull off a deal similar to what the Nets did with the Lopez trade, in which they flipped a veteran for a young asset and took on salary. If this happens, I like this pick.
The pessimist in me says that this pick means Tom Thibodeau will play Towns at power forward. Forever. There is no god.