With just 25ish games remaining in the 2018-19 NBA season, the league’s tanking race might be as fierce as its final push into the postseason. With so many teams and fans now sitting on their hands waiting for May’s NBA draft lottery, The Ringer’s resident draftniks are finally ready to put together a Big Board—sort of. To reflect the utter lack of consensus in this year’s draft hierarchy, Kevin O’Connor, Danny Chau, and Jonathan Tjarks of the Corner 3 podcast Frankensteined a Big Board together by running a snake draft to determine their top 14 prospects. The order may shock you.
1. Zion Williamson
Forward/center, Duke, freshman (6-foot-7, 285 pounds, 18 years old)
Kevin O’Connor: I experienced the thrill of Zion Williamson among the blue-washed Cameron Crazies of Duke during Saturday’s home game against NC State, thanks to an unexpected invitation from a former Ringer intern and current Duke student. Standing on the rickety wooden bleachers among a sea of students provided the ideal up-close view of Zion. Television supposedly adds 10 pounds, but in person, Duke’s thicc star freshman looks even thiccer. He’s quicker too; the laws of physics don’t apply to Zion. There’s a rumble anytime he is on the break with open floor in front of him. Since fans are constantly standing, just the jumping of a few people can cause reverberations throughout the section; Williamson had two thunderous dunks on Saturday, so now I know what earthquakes feel like.
Up close, it’s clear that Zion is still adjusting to the mortals around him; sometimes, he moves too fast for his own good, which can lead to turnovers or rushed shots. But his passing vision suggests point-center upside, and his overall effort is admirable. Williamson hustles on defense, shows good awareness defending off the ball with only occasional lapses, and has magnetic hands that he uses to secure rebounds and loose balls. There’s little doubt Williamson will make a two-way impact as a versatile defender who can serve many roles on offense. We’ve covered Zion plenty since opening night, and hype will only grow as March Madness approaches. Nothing I saw on Saturday changed the notion that Zion is the best prospect since Anthony Davis.
2. Jarrett Culver
Guard, Texas Tech, sophomore (6-foot-5, 195 pounds, 20 years old)
Danny Chau: Culver is the tallest 6-foot-5 basketball player I’ve ever seen. Every time I watch him play, he seemingly has a new physical quirk to tout on the floor. Some weeks he looks taller, some weeks his already strong shoulders seem broader, some weeks his stride is a bit longer than it used to be. His body is transforming, and there are corners of the deep draft web intimating that Culver is not only much taller than his listed height, but also that he might not be done growing. If that’s the case—if he winds up closer to 6-foot-10 than 6-foot-5—the draft could be looking at a massive upheaval at the top (after Zion, of course).
The Texas Tech star is a lottery-caliber player no matter where he lands in the predraft measurements. Culver’s per-40 stats in Year 2 at Lubbock are impressive: 22.8 points on 50 percent from the field and 34 percent from 3, 8.1 rebounds, and 4.7 assists. These numbers reflect a year-to-year spike in production not unlike Evan Turner’s in 2007-08 to 2008-09 or Otto Porter Jr.’s from 2011-12 to 2012-13. Culver is in a similar vein as a prospect, in general: a crafty, rebounding wing comfortable making plays for others while drastically improving his own shot-creation abilities. Turner grew as a slasher, and Porter became a much more deadly 3-point shooter; Culver’s skill development sits somewhere between the two.
These aren’t entirely flattering comparisons at the surface (still, both Turner and Porter were top-three picks in their respective drafts). But Culver’s potential for literal growth turns what would normally be commonplace skills for the guards into gemlike rarities for a player 6-foot-8 or above. Culver has the do-it-all, two-way wing skill set at the top of every team’s wish list, but the first thing I’d try to find out if I were a front-office executive is whether or not his growth plates are still open. That could be the difference between a reliable 3-and-D wing and a type of big man the NBA has rarely seen.
3. Ja Morant
Guard, Murray State, sophomore (6-foot-3, 175 pounds, 19 years old)
Jonathan Tjarks: Morant has earned all of the hype with an incredible sophomore campaign, averaging 24.3 points on 49.9 percent shooting, 10.2 assists, 5.5 rebounds, and 2.0 steals per game. His selling points are obvious. He’s a hyperathletic 6-foot-3 point guard who combines jaw-dropping dunking ability with a well-rounded floor game. Morant has been the breakout star of college basketball (in the non-Zion division) this season despite playing for a school (Murray State) that few could find on a map.
Both Damian Lillard (Weber State) and CJ McCollum (Lehigh) have credited the defensive attention they saw at lower levels of college basketball with preparing them for the NBA. “[Playing at a smaller school] allows [NBA] teams to see how good you really are,” Lillard told USA Today in 2012. “It allows them to see how you react to teams putting two guards against you, having to play extra hard because everything is focused on stopping you. I think that really helps and allows (people) to evaluate what you can do with what you’re working with. They’ll see where it translates to having NBA-level guys around you.”
While he has mostly dominated his overmatched competition in the Ohio Valley Conference, he should have a dramatic finish to the season that could tell us a lot about his potential at the next level. There is no guarantee that Murray State will even make the NCAA tournament. The OVC is a one-bid league, and the Racers were beaten 79-66 by Belmont, with whom they are currently in a tie for first place, in their only regular-season matchup. Morant really struggled (by his standards) in the game, with 20 points on 5-of-19 shooting and nine assists. How Belmont defends Morant in a win-or-go-home rematch in the conference tournament—and how he responds to their strategy—will be fascinating.
4. De’Andre Hunter
Forward, Virginia, sophomore (6-foot-7, 225 pounds, 21 years old)
Tjarks: In a draft without much surefire star talent outside of Zion, Hunter has the chance to be a different kind of star. He’s a good athlete with the physical tools (a sturdy frame with a 7-foot-2 wingspan) to be a multipositional defender, and he’s far better offensively than most 3-and-D players. He can shoot from deep (45.5 percent from 3 on 2.2 attempts per game), but he’s not just a spot-up shooter. He has shown the ability to get his own shot (14.8 points per game on 53 percent shooting) and move the ball (2.1 assists and 1.2 turnovers per game) despite playing in a restrictive offensive system at Virginia that doesn’t give players much freedom.
Cavaliers head coach Tony Bennett slows the pace of the game to a crawl with an incredibly conservative scheme on both ends of the floor. His system is not designed to make his players look good, but it does make them better: Malcolm Brogdon, Joe Harris, and Mike Scott have all exceeded expectations in the NBA. The knock on Hunter is that he’s an older prospect (he’s a redshirt sophomore who is only three months younger than Brandon Ingram) with a limited ceiling. Put him in a different system in the next level and he could have more potential than we realize.
5. R.J. Barrett
Guard/forward, Duke, freshman (6-foot-7, 202 pounds, 18 years old)
Chau: Is this an overreaction? Probably. It is likely that the dust settles by predraft workouts and Barrett reemerges as a clear no. 2 to his teammate. But this draft’s no. 1 and 2 spots aren’t nearly as cemented as they were hyped to be during the preseason. Barrett has always looked the part: a strong yet sleek build, a clear alpha scoring mentality, a rumbling coast-to-coast presence that feels like something passed on from Ben Simmons as a Montverde Academy generational heirloom. But the sheen has worn away over the course of the season despite some truly eye-popping individual numbers. He looks ordinary in the half court; for all his physical gifts, he doesn’t yet possess the creativity to overcome a lack of airspace or the finishing ability to compensate for his rather rigid athleticism.
We’ve been waiting on Barrett’s purported playmaking ability—the kind of point-forward ability he flashed in the international scene. It may have finally come, after an impressive 23-point, 11-rebound, and 10-assist triple-double (with no turnovers) against NC State on Saturday. After weeks of people groaning about the ball-hogging he’s done this season, Barrett could be rounding into the form we’d all expected to begin with.
6. Cam Reddish
Guard/forward, Duke, freshman (6-foot-8, 218 pounds, 19 years old)
O’Connor: Cam Reddish entered college projected as a versatile forward with a silky stroke and playmaking skill; he looked and played similar to Paul George. But more often than not, that hasn’t been the player the Blue Devils got. So far this season, Reddish is fourth in touches behind Williamson, R.J. Barrett, and Tre Jones; it’s the first time in Reddish’s life that he’s taken a back seat, and he’s struggling with the adjustment. His shot goes cold for long stretches. Even in high school, there were questions about his passivity. He shies away from contact inside and his intensity wavers on defense. All those questions might negatively affect his draft position.
Reddish warrants a reevaluation, not a penalty for failing to meet sky-high expectations. Instead of viewing him as the next George, maybe he’s the next Gordon Hayward: a complementary scorer with versatility to also excel as an oversized distributor. He’s not a lost cause. Reddish, with his size, skill set, and 7-foot-1 wingspan, still projects as a multipositional defender who can create shots for himself and others. That’s extremely valuable. At this point in the year, I think it’s a mistake if Reddish falls to sixth.
7. Jaxson Hayes
Center, Texas, freshman (6-foot-11, 220 pounds, 18 years old)
O’Connor: Hayes fits the mold of a Clint Capela–style center prospect in more ways than one. Their games are similar: Hayes has springs in his legs, which he uses to abuse the rim with dunks or alter shots on defense. This season, he’s flushing over 80 percent of his shots around the rim, per Synergy. Capela took years to become a contributor, though: He had to improve his body, develop a softer touch, and learn how to read the floor. Upside can be deceiving since raw talent can sour once it’s exposed to the NBA, but in a fairly uninspiring draft, Hayes is worth a gamble.
8. Romeo Langford
Guard, Indiana, freshman (6-foot-6, 215 pounds, 19 years old)
Chau: Aesthetically, there is not a player in college basketball outside of Zion I enjoy watching more than Langford. He has a confident, unrushed floor game, with all the crossover stepbacks and pull-up ability required to be a high-level scoring guard these days. He might have the best glasswork of any athlete in the country—a skill that certainly translated with talents like Dwyane Wade, Brandon Roy, and early-career Derrick Rose. Langford has a remarkable feel for angles, touch, and body control required to get the ball softly through the cylinder by any means possible—likely something honed as a complement to his flowing style of play.
With long arms and a compact frame, he has the tools to be both a volume scorer in the league and a solid two-way player. If he can improve his shooting consistency, he might wind up being the Markelle Fultz we never received. But if he can’t reliably extend his range, much of what makes him special in college could make him a majorly inefficient player in the NBA.
9. Grant Williams
Forward, Tennessee, junior (6-foot-7, 236 pounds, 20 years old)
Tjarks: Williams would have been considered a tweener a decade ago. At 6-foot-7 and 236 pounds, he would have been an undersized power forward without a clear position in the NBA. That isn’t an issue anymore. Williams has been one of the best players in college basketball this season, averaging 19.1 points on 57.9 percent shooting, 7.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.2 steals, and 1.5 blocks per game while leading Tennessee to a 24-2 record, and everything that he is doing should translate immediately to a more positionless NBA game. Think P.J. Tucker with a more well-rounded offensive game.
One of the main concerns with Williams is that he’s not shooting enough 3s (34.4 percent on 1.2 attempts per game) for a player who won’t be a primary option at the next level. However, that might be more a function of how he’s used in the Tennessee offense, which runs almost everything through him in the high post. He’s an elite 2-point shooter (60.9 percent on 9.7 attempts) and free throw shooter (83.1 percent on 7.3 attempts) who should be able to extend his range in a different role. Williams is a two-way player with a high basketball IQ who has added something to his game every season, and he’s already stronger and more physical than most NBA players at the age of 20. I’m betting he figures it out.
10. Nickeil Alexander-Walker
Guard, Virginia Tech, sophomore (6-foot-5, 205 pounds, 20 years old)
Tjarks: Alexander-Walker is one of the safer players at this point in the draft. He will be able to shoot in the NBA: He’s shooting 39.5 percent from 3 on 4.8 attempts per game, 56.7 percent from 2 on 7.1 attempts, and 74 percent from the free throw line on 4.0 attempts this season. He has made a huge leap from his freshman season at Virginia Tech, where he was primarily used as a spot-up shooter. Alexander-Walker has become a primary option who shoots off movement and creates shots for his teammates (3.8 assists and 2.8 turnovers per game). And while he’s not a great athlete, his long frame (6-foot-9 wingspan) and solid defensive instincts (2.1 steals per game) allow him to hold his own on defense.
Hokies head coach Buzz Williams knows how to turn relatively unheralded recruits into NBA players. He churned out a line of tough-minded wings who outperformed their draft stock (Jae Crowder, Jimmy Butler, Wesley Matthews) at Marquette. While Alexander-Walker will be more of an offensive-minded player in the NBA than his predecessors, he has that style of play in his DNA. His combination of size, shooting ability, basketball IQ, and defensive pedigree should be enough to take him off the board relatively quickly in this draft.
11. Nassir Little
Forward, North Carolina, freshman (6-foot-6, 220 pounds, 19 years old)
Chau: We’re still waiting on Little. After a 23-point, six-rebound, and three-assist statement game against Virginia Tech in late January, one of the most hyped freshmen in the nation has largely crawled back into obscurity for the Tar Heels. Few prospects in the draft can boast a more impressive, NBA-ready frame than Little, who has the length, bulk, and explosive athleticism to theoretically match up with just about anyone across positions. Despite Little being only 6-foot-6, his few glimmers of NBA potential during his time in Chapel Hill have been unlocked at the 4, where his versatility is truly highlighted. But there just haven’t been many opportunities. He hasn’t shown scouts that his jumper has improved much from high school, and he hasn’t been as strong a defensive presence as his frame would suggest he could be.
Drafting purely off physical potential can easily backfire, the way it did when Marvin Williams was selected in 2005 in a clear overreaction to LeBron James’s early-career dominance. But Williams was drafted no. 2; at no. 11, especially in a draft as scattershot as this one, Little might be worth a gamble.
12. KZ Okpala
Forward, Stanford, sophomore (6-foot-9, 215 pounds, 19 years old)
O’Connor: From John Elway to Christian McCaffrey, Stanford is a bona fide NFL factory. The same can’t be said for its basketball program: George Yardley (1950), Rich Kelley (1975), Adam Keefe (1992), Josh Childress (2004), and Brook Lopez (2008) are the only Stanford prospects ever picked in the NBA draft lottery. KZ Okpala, a sophomore forward, could become the sixth. Okpala’s first love was football, but he might become Stanford’s best basketball product drafted in the past 69 years.
Okpala grew up playing guard until a late growth spurt stretched him to 6-foot-9; he’s still filling in his slender frame and learning how to use it. After struggling his freshman season, he tightened his handle, which has activated his scoring on drives. His length, long strides, and fluid body control might remind you of Brandon Ingram. Much like Ingram, his shot needs to improve, but his progress from his freshman to sophomore season is encouraging thanks to some minor mechanical changes. In time, there’s a chance that Okpala blossoms into a versatile half-court scorer.
Okpala lacks fundamentals on defense, especially when navigating screens off the ball and closing out on shooters, but his rapid advances on offense suggest that he’s adaptable. He has plenty of lockdown defensive moments anyway; with a long 7-foot-2 wingspan and excellent agility, there’s a lane for him to someday defend like Trevor Ariza. He’s a late-lottery prospect now, but by June’s draft, don’t be surprised if Okpala rises even higher.
13. Darius Garland
Guard, Vanderbilt, freshman (6-foot-3, 173 pounds, 19 years old)
O’Connor: Darius Garland’s season was lost to a meniscus injury in his left knee after only five games, but the Vanderbilt freshman point guard should still be a lottery pick if there are no long-term medical concerns. Garland is a score-first point guard, but like Trae Young the year before, he uses his threat to pull up from anywhere to generate open looks for his teammates. Garland excels at creating space by using a plethora of dribble moves, and he delivers accurate passes. I watched him in person against USC earlier this season and was especially impressed by his knack for dissecting defenses, changing speeds, and then attacking. If healthy, it wouldn’t be surprising if he makes a positive impact on offense, even as a rookie. He’s undersized, at 6-foot-3 with a slim frame, making him something of a defensive liability, but he’s skilled enough to find success.
14. Brandon Clarke
Forward/center, Gonzaga, redshirt junior (6-foot-8, 215 pounds, 22 years old)
Chau: Clarke will turn 23 before the start of next season, making him one of the oldest lottery-caliber prospects in recent memory. He’ll be drafted for his defense, which might be elite, even by NBA standards. Like Williams, Clarke would have been a hopeless 3/4/5 tweener in a past life—think Dominic McGuire: a similarly built, similarly athletic center in an athletic wing’s body who languished on the fringes of the league a decade ago. Today, Clarke could easily serve as an omnipositional defender; a player equally adept at protecting the rim, blowing up pick-and-rolls, and roaming away from the ball as a weakside threat. Clarke, in theory, is a high-floor play. You know exactly what you’re getting.
Yet I can’t help but think about what upside might still be untapped. He might be relatively old compared to his peers, but players with his speed and explosiveness afford themselves a wider margin for error. Pascal Siakam was one of the oldest players in the 2016 draft yet managed to completely redirect his career trajectory in two short years. Clarke, who possesses many of Siakam’s strengths, could see more growth than expected in a system that allows him to grow organically. The next time Clarke makes a nifty pass in the half court, or the next time he takes the ball from the top of the key down to the teeth of the defense with a vigorous spin move, know that there is certainly a precedent for him to exceed a mere defensive specialist role.