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Mind-Mapping, Sleepers, and Rim Protection: A 2015 NBA Draft Primer

It’s time to get up to speed with the 2015 NBA draft. It’s time to dive in and let the clichés wash over you. It’s time to watch Kristaps Porzingis highlights and pretend to have an opinion.

Most years, we have more time. The NBA Finals end, and then there’s a nice little grace period that allows everyone to get caught up with the biggest stories in the NBA draft. That didn’t happen this year. It feels like the Finals ended five minutes ago, and now the draft is just days away.

Are you feeling unprepared? A little overwhelmed? That’s why we’re here today. It’s time to get up to speed with the NBA draft. It’s time to dive in and let the clichés wash over you. It’s time to watch Kristaps Porzingis highlights and pretend to have an opinion. Here’s everything you need to know to pretend to know what you’re talking about for the next four days.

The Big Questions

Grand Canyon v KentuckyAndy Lyons/Getty Images

Why is Karl-Anthony Towns going no. 1?

For one thing, Towns might be the one player in this draft without a real weakness. He can run the floor on offense and protect the rim on defense. He can play power forward or center. He can score down low, but he also has a jumper that’ll allow him to work farther away from the rim. The only question mark is his athleticism — he’s athletic, but he’s not quite from outer space like, say, Anthony Davis. If the only bad thing you can say about a player is “he’s not from outer space,” you’re probably in pretty good shape.

There’s a decent case to be made that other players — D’Angelo Russell, Jahlil Okafor, or even Porzingis — are the top talents in the draft, but not for the Wolves. For Minnesota, this is about fit. The Wolves have Andrew Wiggins and Ricky Rubio to build an offense around. In Towns, they’ve stumbled into the perfect cornerstone to anchor the defense, with a good chance he’ll be just as good on offense down the road.

Every bone in Flip Saunders’s body is probably telling him to take Okafor — the consummate low-post workhorse backing his ass into Saunders’s 1994-fueled NBA fantasies — but the alternative makes too much sense. Slot Towns onto that roster and watch Minnesota turn into the most exciting young team in the league over the next few years. Even Saunders can’t screw this up. If we all keep repeating that over and over again, it just might be true.

Who do the Lakers want?

Los Angeles Lakers Media DayAndrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

See, this is when the draft gets fun:

Most years, the first few picks are pretty much set in stone. In 2015, the Lakers can go in some different directions.

  • They could grab Russell and bet that he can turn into a James Harden sequel. Russell isn’t as athletic as most guards who go this high, but his feel for the game is spectacular, and he wears no. 0 because that’s how many people have been able to guard him. And if the Lakers go for Russell at no. 2, that means the Sixers probably will take Porzingis and extend their rebuild to 2023.
  • They could go with Okafor, getting the most polished big man to enter the NBA in years, and also the player most likely to make the Lakers better next season. Meanwhile, the Sixers would land Russell, and suddenly that team would get interesting in the present, not just the future.
  • Or the Lakers could shock everyone and take Porzingis — who visited L.A. for a private workout last week — giving the Knicks a shot at either Okafor or Russell. Also, we get to spend the rest of the summer writing Kobe-and-Kristaps fan fiction.

Whatever happens, the pick here defines the rest of the draft.

Who is Kristaps Porzingis?

kristaps-porzingisGetty Images

The Zinger! He’s a 19-year-old Latvian who is 7 feet tall and projects as a stretch 4. He has 3-point range, the size and skills to score inside, and the athleticism to get up and down the floor. He’s too raw to contribute right away, but plenty of scouts consider him the one player in the draft with a higher ceiling than Towns. Danny Chau did a great job going in-depth on the Zinger here. Operative passage:

He’s like a young Robin trying on Batman’s utility belt — the tools are there, and they’re incredible. They just don’t fit yet, and you can’t be too sure that they ever will.

There was also this glowing piece from last week, full of anonymous scouts singing Porzingis love songs. And obviously, we all need video of him draining jumpers in an empty gym:

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It’s wonderful. You can watch the video above and see a sequel to Chairman Yi Jianlian, or you can see the next Dirk Nowitzki. Either way, nobody really knows enough to prove you wrong.

The NBA draft is great because when you dig down past a hundred scouting reports and highlight videos, we’re all pretty much guessing. Porzingis is great because he makes this obvious.

Will the Knicks screw this up?

Jackson_Phil_SL_Video

Relatively speaking — relative to the fiery hell this team inherits every summer — the Knicks are actually in a nice spot.

They could draft Okafor as a long-term building block; at the fourth pick, his size and skills are worth the gamble. They could select Russell as New York’s first potential backcourt star since … Allan Houston? Or, Phil Jackson could take Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein, a Tyson Chandler–in-training who could probably help next year’s team more than anyone.

One of those three players will definitely be available when the Knicks pick. Just as importantly, there won’t be any big decision we can all second-guess, because the teams above them will probably take the top options off the board. It’s rare for the Knicks to make a decision that’s impossible to criticize, but they might just do that on Thursday.

Of course, this is the Knicks we’re talking about. Maybe they’ll reach for Emmanuel Mudiay, throwing him into a nightmare situation that guarantees he’ll never reach his potential. Maybe they’ll draft Mario Hezonja just to screw with Carmelo Anthony. Or there’s at least a 30 percent chance they trade out of no. 4, draft Frank Kaminsky, and inch their fans a little closer to full-scale rioting.

Why should anyone care about this draft?

winslow-justiseRonald Martinez/Getty Images

Because Justise Winslow isn’t going until the second half of the top 10. Most years, once you get past the top few picks, it’s tough to get too excited about the rest of the lottery. There’s a drop-off in talent as well as potential. We can talk ourselves into everyone, but for most of the guys past the top five, draft-night hyperbole ends up being the highlight of their careers. (The Stauskas handshake is gone but not forgotten.)

Here’s the difference this year: The second-tier lottery players have the potential to be just as outrageous as the guys projected at the top of the draft. Cauley-Stein could be the best defensive weapon in the league a few years from now. Hezonja could be the most explosive guard to enter the league in the past three years.

And what if Stanley Johnson were stuck playing out of position in Arizona’s miserable offense? What if he were to grow into a two-way bully who looks something like a new-age Glenn Robinson? What if Mudiay ended up closer to John Wall than Brandon Jennings? What if Cam Payne were more Damian Lillard than C.J. McCollum?

Then there’s Winslow, the answer to the question “Who from the 2015 NBA draft plays most like Alvin Mack from The Program?” Three months ago, he was in the mix as a top-three pick. There are question marks that caused him to slide down the board, but the potential reward is still insane. He has Russell Westbrook’s athleticism in Jimmy Butler’s body. If he can learn to score in the half court, he’s Kawhi Leonard. But first he has to learn how to dribble.

Players like Winslow are why this draft will be fun. Once you get past the top three in 2015, the upside doesn’t disappear. It only gets weirder.

With that said, let’s size up the rest of the draft …

What’s the Buzzword to Know for Thursday?

Rim protection. I wrote about this in March, because the value of rim-protecting defense has never been higher. It’s what separates Towns and Okafor. Of course, one byproduct of this new shift in values is that every underwhelming player above 6-foot-10 will be sold as a potentially dominant rim protector. Myles Turner? Tremendous rim-protection upside. Bobby Portis? His game won’t wow anyone, but he’s definitely someone who could rebound and protect the rim. If Hasheem Thabeet were eligible to be drafted again this year, we’d all be losing our minds over his rim-protecting future.

The other contender for the buzzword crown is the New NBA. We just watched the Warriors win the NBA Finals without a real center, and if you think that’s not getting brought up 25 times on draft night, I have some bad news. This year’s broadcast might cut away to live shots of David Lee in the gutter, and it’ll change how we talk about everyone. Trey Lyles, for instance, may not be good enough to start at either forward position, but in the New NBA, maybe that makes him even more valuable.

Are We Mind-Mapping Now?

You’re goddamned right we’re mind-mapping.

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WELCOME TO DRAFT WEEK.

Let’s All Take a Second to Imagine Adrian Wojnarowski’s BlackBerry for the Next 96 Hours

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Some Sleepers to Dream About

Justin Anderson — He is great on defense, and during his junior year at Virginia, his jumper improved enough to make you think he could carry that to the next level. At 6-foot-6, 228 pounds, he could conceivably guard three different positions while spacing the floor on offense. Once you get to the second half of the first round, the goal is to find someone exactly like Anderson.

Myles Turner — On the one hand, Turner had a pretty quiet year at Texas, and aside from his size and decent shooting touch, he seems a long way off from scaring anyone in the NBA. On the other hand, maybe never being good in college is why he’ll fall to the end of the lottery, spend a year or two getting stronger, and grow into a shot-blocking, floor-spacing monster. (God, the draft is great.)

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson — He’s probably one of the three best athletes in the first round, and possibly the best perimeter defender in the class. Imagine Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, but without the expectations (and salary) of a top-five pick. Not a bad deal.

Sam Dekker — The best comparison I’ve seen for Dekker was when SB Nation’s Kevin O’Connor compared him to Jeff Green. He’s streaky and he’s frustrating, but then he’ll look dominant for a stretch and you’ll forget why you were upset. For a while, it looked like the NCAA tournament would inflate Dekker’s stock into the top 10. That was a little excessive. But if he slips past the lottery, getting another Green is a pretty great deal.

Tyus Jones — He is small and he is not crazy athletic, but if you’re betting against him, you’ll probably lose. He’s a good enough scorer to be a perfect jolt of energy off the bench over the next few years.

Kelly Oubre Jr. — He’s probably Jeremy Lamb, but maybe he’s the player everyone hoped Jeremy Lamb would be. Let’s find out together!

Five More Subplots to Watch

The Jazz. What’s the plan? They have Rudy Gobert and Gordon Hayward. Quin Snyder turned this year’s team into one of the surprises of the NBA’s second half. Now the Jazz are sitting at no. 12.

Maybe they’ll take Payne and hope he’s the guard Trey Burke never quite turned into. Or they could try to package this year’s pick to move up and grab someone like Hezonja. Or maybe they move down and look to add a veteran guard. How much better would the Jazz be with Ty Lawson next year? What would it take to get him to Utah? Could two first-round picks and Rodney Hood be enough? At some point, Utah probably needs to gamble to win big. Maybe that will start this week.

The Magic and Nuggets. It’s amazing how quickly the Magic could go from “unwatchable team full of players who don’t fit together” to “League Pass heroin” simply by drafting Hezonja and throwing him out there with Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo. The same goes for the Nuggets adding Winslow to play with Jusuf Nurkic. I don’t know if they would win together, but people would die.

Willie Cauley-Stein. Let’s say he doesn’t end up in New York. In that scenario, Chad Ford’s latest mock draft has him slipping out of the top 10 entirely.

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That is amazing. Cauley-Stein has limits, but he’s the one player in this draft who could have been a difference-maker in the NBA playoffs this year. His range on defense is a weapon that translates right now.

If New York goes with Okafor or Russell, there’s a decent chance Cauley-Stein could fall all the way to Miami or Indiana. And we should all be rooting for this. Cauley-Stein in the Eastern Conference playoffs would be so much more fun than Cauley-Stein in Sacramento.

Jahlil Okafor’s Dad. All year long, watching Okafor’s dad in the stands of Duke games was every bit as entertaining as watching actual Duke games. He’s going to make a fantastic addition to the greenroom on Thursday. We also need him to start selling this shirt immediately if Okafor ends up on the Knicks:

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The Sixers. No matter what happens, Sam Hinkie will probably do something that (a) polarizes everyone, (b) tests his fans’ loyalty, and (c) somehow insulates his team from any real expectations. The Sixers could keep this simple and end up with Russell, but I think what I’m saying is … IS THAT KRISTAPS’S MUSIC?