It's Rook Week at SB Nation NBA, and so in this week's FLANNS & ZILLZ, our protagonists debate where the 2015 NBA Draft class ranks among the best of the 21st century. Enjoy!
ZILLER: We're celebrating the NBA's excellent rookie class at SB Nation this week. It strikes me that no one really made a mistake within the top eight picks, which is incredibly rare. To me, part of this fits with the theme that teams are making better decisions as information becomes more free and robust. We've seen this over the course of time both in the draft and in free agency. GMs see players more clearly as what they are. But they still make mistakes.
Not so this year. I think each of the top eight picks are fully justifiable and maybe even correct. You can quibble on Jahlil Okafor over Kristaps Porzingis or Willie Cauley-Stein over Emmanuel Mudiay, I suppose. But by and large, the teams did a great job in the lottery.
FLANNERY: I won't just quibble on Okafor over Kristaps. That has the look of a franchise-defining moment for two organizations. I have no feel on WCS over Mudiay because I have no feel for Mudiay yet. Or Mario Hezonja, for that matter.
I know we're supposed to be talking about how great this class is, but is it okay if I reserve judgment for a bit? I see two potentially great players: Towns and Porzingis. After that I see a lot of hopeful optimism (Mudiay, D'Angelo Russell, Stanley Johnson, Justise Winslow, etc.)
Let's establish a baseline for this conversation. The best draft class of the last 15 years was 2003 with LeBron, Melo, D-Wade and Chris Bosh. What was the next best one? I think people are getting a little ahead of themselves.
ZILLER: You'll get no argument from me on 2003 as the gold standard. I think 2009 needs to be next in line this millennia, with Blake Griffin, Stephen Curry, James Harden at the top end and a long list of solid pros (Jrue Holiday, DeMarre Carroll, Tyreke Evans, Ricky Rubio) in there, as well. 2010 is solid at the top (John Wall, Derrick Favors, DeMarcus Cousins, Gordon Hayward and Paul George). The 2011 season is too recent to really grade (still), but Jimmy Butler, Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie, Klay and Kawhi are a real good base.
I think 2010 is in play here between Towns, Porzingis and the promising second-tier prospects. You can get All-Star/fringe All-NBA players out of that group of Russell, Okafor, Hezonja and Mudiay, and you might get Cauley-Stein on an All-Defense team down the line. Justise Winslow and Myles Turner were a bit deeper in the lottery, but we agree that those two are potential stars.
I agree with you that Towns and Porzingis are the two players head and shoulders above the rest right now. But I think Russell could also be a transformative player for a franchise in desperate need of one. If that happens and Winslow and Turner develop, this is a potential all-time draft. Lots of "ifs" but lots of hope here.
FLANNERY: I'm already sold on Winslow and have been since the first month of the season. We'd all like to see his offensive game develop in due course, but he knows how to play. Turner is the X factor in this draft class for me. I was wary of him coming out of Texas, but he's got a lot of things going for him and the evaluators I talk to rave about his potential. That Rick Barnes sure can develop pro prospects! (That's a joke. So is Barnes.)
The thing that stands out to me is the depth. Out of all those players you mentioned -- and we still haven't mentioned Trey Lyles in Utah -- at least two or three of those guys could develop into perennial All-Stars down the line. There's an awful lot of raw material here. Each one of those classes that you mentioned have a couple of franchise players and that's where I want to pump the brakes juuuust a bit.
Towns is the goods. No one disputes that. I like Porzingis' chances to get there. That's where I draw the line. You're more into Russell than I am but that may be a function of time zones. Make the case for D'Angelo.
ZILLER: There's a verve with Russell that I adore, and in that way he's come out of his shell much more so recently. I don't know if that's necessarily Byron Scott loosening the reins or Russell yanking them out of the coach's damn hands, but it's been nice. He reminds me of Kyrie Irving more than any other modern point guard: prototype size, great handling, a scorer's mentality, supreme belief in self.
Also, with every shimmy I become more convinced he'll be a marketing superstar in L.A. We like to think that won't matter on how we judge players, but it absolutely does. He just turned 20 and he's turned a corner to escape the early "bust" murmurs. I think with the right coach and smart roster decisions, he can thrive through the rest of his rookie deal and become something special.
Looking back through comparable draft classes, I come across names we don't necessarily herald any longer. Josh Howard's an example. Or even David Lee, Danny Granger and Chris Kaman. These are players that were good pros for a number of years, made one or two All-Star teams and faded away.
It makes me wonder if our assessments of draft classes follow a natural pattern: we get more excited by them as the prospects come into their own in the NBA, then we become less impressed as the players begin to fade away and we realize how little impact most of them had on the league. In other words, at one point Josh Howard was another arrow in the Class of 2003's quiver. Now? Eh.
I wonder which 2015 draftees we'll look back on in similar ways in the future. Recency bias is so real, even when we try to guard against it.
FLANNERY: There's just no way of knowing, which I realize is an unsatisfying answer. But tell me: who gets hurt, who winds up in a lackluster situation, who plays for the wrong coach or GM? There are so many variables, which is why the true stars stand out and shine so brightly years removed from their draft day. People were still arguing the merits of O.J. Mayo over Kevin Love for a brief time in history.
For the sake of argument, we should probably start with the players whose games are the most well-rounded upon entry into the league. I've already raved about Winslow, but if he never finds his jump shot, he'll have to live with being a terrific role player. For that reason, I understand why some folks are more invested in Stanley Johnson's future. Same thing with Mudiay and Russell to some extent. Devin Booker will have a role forever because he can shoot, but will Lyles be a more interesting prospect?
One other issue with prematurely hailing this draft. There may be a number of lottery gems here, but the second half of the first round has been a lump of coal. I think there are a couple of interesting players there, however. Bobby Portis and Larry Nance come to mind, but I loved Justin Anderson in summer league and maintain that he can become an solid pro in time. Who looks good from your perspective?
ZILLER: Like seemingly ever other basketball writer on Earth, I too enjoy some Bobby Portis. I think Delon Wright has a ton of potential and he's in a good, burgeoning franchise. I'm eager to see more Montrezl Harrell.
But the two mid-first or later guys I'm most interested in are Cameron Payne and Kelly Oubre. The former I like because OKC drafts real well and any friend of Westbrook is a friend of mine. Oubre's on my watch list because he's a prominent member of the Stymied By Bill Self Club, of whom Andrew Wiggins is the president. From what I've seen, Oubre has been a rare bright spot in D.C. despite having a huge learning curve.
FLANNERY: Sergeant-at-Arms Cliff Alexander will call the roll.
A smart person once told me that it takes at least three years to begin judging a draft. What will this one look like in 2018? My guess is it will look a lot like the 2010 and 2011 variety. Stronger than most, in other words, but not as transformative as 1984 or 1996 or 2003. Maybe I'm wrong. I tend to underrate things before they become big. I'm cynical that way.
ZILLER: I think you're probably right about the prognosis for the 2015 draft class, but then I think back to what 2003's class looked like in 2006, and man that was good. Melo had revitalized the Nuggets, LeBron was maybe the best player in the world, Bosh was rising and Wade already had a title.
Come to think of it, so did Darko.
FLANNERY: I was going to make a Jahlil Okafor joke, but I'm going to stop now.
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2015 Class: The rookies imitate Kobe, LeBron and more stars
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