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The New Draymonds

There’s only one Dray, but that won’t stop teams from looking for another

AP Images/Ringer illustration
AP Images/Ringer illustration

Draymond Green’s unbelievable near triple-double in Game 7 of the NBA Finals was seen by more than 30 million people. And perhaps the eyes watching most intently belonged to the general managers who will be bunkered down in their draft war rooms mere hours from now. There are 29 teams lusting for their own Draymond Green. They just have no idea what that looks like yet.

The new Draymonds of the league won’t necessarily have the original’s less-than-ideal dimensions. They might have frames straight out of Greek mythology, like Giannis Antetokounmpo, or they could resemble one Degrassi extra stacked on top of another, like Dragan Bender. They might not play in the frontcourt at all. And like Draymond himself, a team might not uncover the next Dray until the second round. That’s the beauty of Green: His impact stretches beyond physical characteristics or position. He represents the idea that embracing a player’s unorthodoxy can alchemize an entire team’s quirks. Draymond’s emergence was a perfect storm of positional flexibility, bargain-bin contract value, and overriding emotional leadership; front offices can’t expect to pin down his complete doppelgänger, but they can isolate the variables that would go into one. Here are three prospects who reflect some of the many shades of Green.

Positionality: Ben Simmons

Insofar as there is a traditional understanding of Draymond’s game-changing value, it is this: He is able to make plays from the 4 and 5 positions that only a handful of players at that position can make consistently. At his best, it’s easy to envision Simmons as one of them. He could be the primary facilitator for the Sixers, who have reportedly made their bed and are just waiting until Thursday to sleep in it. It’s easy to fawn over his ability. His ceiling? How about Blake Griffin, but with Antetokounmpo’s freedom of exploration; the 2008 NBA draft, but redone in a bad movie where a lightning storm syncs Derrick Rose’s talent with Michael Beasley’s body; Uber, but for transporting Philadelphia far away from the Process and closer to Sexy Results.

But to unlock that achievement, Simmons will have to put in as much time as it takes to turn his woeful jumper into a threat. Green’s staggering improvement from shooting 21 percent from behind the arc his rookie season to nearly 39 percent last season didn’t open windows so much as tear interdimensional portals into the court. There was no safe zone for Draymond’s defender, and, at full strength, there was no way to defend the Warriors’ Big Three without making a critical error on the possession.

Simmons has athletic gifts that Draymond couldn’t dream of, and everything Green has been able to do in the league, Simmons can more than replicate. But those skills will suffocate if defenders can ignore him beyond 15 feet. At LSU, Simmons opted to pass when left wide open on the perimeter too, sometimes looking completely unwilling to take jump shots when his team needed him to. He won’t have such an easy time pretending his struggles don’t exist in the NBA. Shooting is his biggest weakness, but it says something about Simmons’s skill level that it hasn’t hurt his stock one bit.

(For more on multi-positionality, please refer to our stories on Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss, and the future, as dictated by the 2015–16 Warriors. What can we say? This is more than just a trend, it’s the NBA’s new reality.)

Second-Round Value: Stephen Zimmerman

Almost as important as Draymond’s emergence as the perfect small-ball 5 was his rookie salary that paid him less than $900,000 his first two seasons. If we want to talk about Warriors ripple effects, had Green been paid at first-round scale, the $48 million contract given to Andre Iguodala in 2013 would not have materialized. As we’ve seen with Green, Chandler Parsons, Manu Ginobili, and others in the past, nothing can change a team’s fortune like finding a second-round gem. Will there be one this year? I’ll throw out a prediction: UNLV’s Stephen Zimmerman.

There is a test that talent evaluators like to put top-flight high school recruits through. Sitting in the stands, they’ll bring along a companion with no prior knowledge of anyone on the court to watch the game with them. If that friend can’t easily identify the recruit in the first 10 minutes of the game, then there is a problem.

I watched Zimmerman in 2013 with a friend at the Adidas Nations tournament in Long Beach, California. After only a few possessions, my friend nudged me and said, “I don’t know who that skinny white guy is, but he is balling.”

Playing on a team with future draft classmates Jaylen Brown and Henry Ellenson (both projected to be lottery picks tomorrow), Zimmerman looked like the best player on the court. His extremely thin, 7-foot frame belied a mature all-around skill set. He entered his junior year the no. 1 ranked high school player in his class, and that was after a freshman season in which he played for a month with a torn meniscus that had gone undiagnosed.

Surefire recruits stall out; others, like Brandon Ingram, explode out of nowhere. It’s all a part of the fickle nature of evaluating players as they physically develop. But Zimmerman hasn’t lost his ability to create, both for himself and for others, from the top of the key and down low. He’s still a threat in the pick-and-roll, whether diving down in the paint or popping out on the perimeter. There are still questions about his strength, but he’s 19 and has progressively put on muscle in the past two years. With a frame reminiscent of Tiago Splitter, it shouldn’t be much of a problem once he’s given access to NBA-caliber conditioning programs.

Zimmerman entered his freshman campaign at UNLV as a top-10 recruit, according to the Recruiting Services Consensus Index, and a potential lottery selection, but an uneven season and a February knee sprain sent his stock plummeting. I’m definitely in the minority here, but I consider him as skilled as any center prospect in the draft. Currently, neither Chad Ford nor DraftExpress has Zimmerman projected in the first round.

Emotional Leadership: Denzel Valentine

In a way, Draymond has become a strange mutation of Rasheed Wallace at his peak, a player who holds a team’s offense and defense together despite the ever-looming threat of spontaneous combustion. But are the Warriors still the Warriors without Green’s reckless stewardship? Emotional leaders all have their methods. LeBron James’s layers upon layers of subliminal, passive-aggressive critiques add up to a coherent rallying cry; Green’s constant chatter and on-court instigation created chaos all season, whipping opponents into a frenzy, while the Warriors stayed even-keeled, accustomed to the imbalance that had been established. Draymond’s antics were a catalyst in the team’s 73-win regular season, but his feckless acts in the postseason added up to a Game 5 suspension in the NBA Finals and galvanized the wrong team.

But emotional leadership isn’t always about disruption. Sometimes it’s just about doing whatever it is your team needs, because you can, and because it is your wont.

According to the Spartans coaching staff, Michigan State’s overtime victory over Louisville in the 2015 Elite Eight happened because of Denzel Valentine. When asked about that game, Valentine said: “I put it in my mind that I wasn’t going to let us lose. My role is tricky, because it’s not really one thing Coach (Izzo) can say to do, because I’ve got to do a lot of things. My main thing is just do whatever it takes to win, whether that’s get a big rebound, bring the ball up the court, make shots, make passes. Whatever it takes to win, that’s what I want to do.’’

It’s one thing to say it, but it’s another to do it. Draftniks might consider the Draymond Green–Denzel Valentine comparison lazy, but it’s apt on levels beyond alma mater and the fact they’ve both thrived without having ideal athleticism. In a season that landed him several national player of the year nods, Valentine set such a high standard for his teammates that they couldn’t help but vocally express their indebtedness to him. “I have to be more of a voice for [Valentine], in practice and in the games, because he has so many different things on his plate,” teammate Lourawls Nairn told Sports Illustrated. “Sometimes he may not want to say something because he’s too tired. I just try to help him out in any way possible, understanding that he has so much to do for us. Our job is to take as much pressure off him as we can.”

Valentine might end up checking all three boxes. Concerns over potential medical red flags may drop him further than expected tomorrow, but it’s hard to imagine a more NBA-ready player in this draft. He’s an outstanding shooter comfortable playing with or without the ball who might also be the best distributor in the draft, with the physical dimensions to play three positions. Valentine would have a clear role on every single team in the NBA right now. If that doesn’t reflect what Draymond means to the league, I don’t know what does.