Why do teams tank? They have no choice.
No league in pro sports makes franchise transformation as difficult as the NBA. Trade restrictions on salaries, the new sign-and-trade rules, and a flawed free-agency system are all factors in making the draft the single most important night for teams. If you want to change your team, this is how you do it.
The 2014 draft was supposed to have three or four franchise-changing players. That idea is actually pretty ridiculous when you think about it. There aren’t even 10 current players capable of turning a team into an immediate contender.
Still, this draft class was as hyped as any in a long time. But is that still the case? What do the scouts and front-office guys think?
I spoke with three of the best talent evaluators currently working in front offices about the four most heralded prospects. One is an NBA general manager, another an assistant GM, and the third source is the director of scouting for an NBA franchise. For the sake of anonymity, I’m calling them Scout 1, Scout 2, and Scout 3.
These conversations are transcribed to illustrate the raw, unfiltered dialogue I have had over the last few months with these sources, to give you an idea of how talent evaluators rate Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, and Julius Randle.
After each player I’ll provide my own summary, based on watching most of their games this season and hours glued to Synergy.
Scout 1: If healthy, I’m taking him no. 1 and it’s not even close.
This is how it works: We use tiers. There could be five guys in a tier, it doesn’t matter what order. Some would have the first five guys in a tier (Embiid, Parker, Wiggins, Randle, and Exum). Say Vonleh and Gordon are in the second tier.
My top tier is Embiid, by himself.
I think Embiid is the only difference-maker in the group. I like Parker and Wiggins, but if they are your best player, you are going to be in the lottery every year.
Embiid has natural instincts. I doubt he was coached on much of this stuff, considering how quick his stops have been, and that he just started playing basketball. When he takes the ball on the low block, he inside-pivots like Duncan, and he plays from there: Faces, rips through or passes. It’s awesome. I always want bigs that can punish the defense.
His feet are great and he can block shots. Look at his numbers and look at his minutes. He has a chance to be a terrific player.
Scout 2: If he’s healthy and I have a pair of balls I take him no. 1. He has legitimate size. Great hands and feet. He will block shots immediately. He doesn’t understand positioning yet, but he is further along offensively than Olajuwon was at the same stage, and he’s bigger than Hakeem. Hakeem was 6-foot-9. Embiid is 7 feet, maybe bigger, eventually. He has the best upside pick of anyone in the draft.
Scout 3: If the medical staff clears him, he should go no. 1, but people are still freaked out about Oden. Before the concerns about his back — which are real, by the way — I’d be very comfortable taking him one or two. Has all the ingredients: feet, hands, touch. I’ve watched him in practice, and he was automatic from 15 feet, which is something we didn’t see him use a lot at Kansas.
He played with a little chipiness. Some of it was immaturity, but some of it was good, which shows he is competitive. Depending on how it falls with the decision-makers, Milwaukee is the kind of team that will feel pressured to take Parker over Embiid, because of the health risks, but who knows now with new ownership.
At our level, there has to be some motivation to get better. Are you doing it for you, or other people? With his background, you hope he really loves the game. But he seems focused and competitive.
Russillo: Agree with Scout 1. He’s my favorite player in this class. They don’t make guys like this very often. Usually, when you see a guy at 7 feet who has barely played, he is a total project. It sounds like a simple question, but I always ask myself, “Can he play basketball?” Embiid can. His improvement from month to month is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
He catches in the post, cross-court passes to an open shooter, and is comfortable catching on the roll off a screen. His feet and timing on jumps are special; defensively he will anchor a team. In a league that is going smaller and smaller, a big that can move like he can is an advantage every night.
I realize this all changes if his back is a serious problem, but I don’t want to hear that because Greg Oden got hurt that you can’t draft Embiid. That’s like saying, “I don’t sign Japanese pitchers because Daisuke Matsuzaka was terrible.”
Scout 1: Don’t trust his shot or his ball skills. Can’t go left. There is no “fuck you” to him. Kobe’s like, “Fuck you, I’m better than you.” Where was that? I think he is a content player. That’s not Bill Self’s fault — he didn’t tell him not to shoot.
He can be your third-best player, but not your best. Say he goes to Orlando. What’s he going to do as an offensive player? Shoot them to more wins? He has one of the best second/third jumps I’ve ever seen and he’ll have some “Fuck … look at that” moments. But that’s not his personality.
He can be an elite defender. He can guard 1-3s.
Wiggins has offensive holes in his game — no dribble, no pass, streaky shooter. His sex appeal is only his athleticism. I’m not saying he’s one of these athletes that comes into the league and doesn’t know how to play basketball, but he’s behind the other three guys on my board.
Scout 2: I think in the draft, if Embiid is healthy, Wiggins goes no. 3. He will be lost in an NBA half-court offense. He is great in transition, but he has no ball skills. All right hand, no idea what to do without the ball. He struggles with confidence. He actually reminds me more of Gerald Green than any of these studs he’s compared to.
He’s an erratic shooter and has no plan when attacking the rim. He will be easy to coach against with his limited game right now. Needs to find out what playing hard is. He tries hard, but I don’t see that second gear. He would scare me as your franchise’s no. 1 pick, with all the stuff that will go along with being no. 1 in this class. Is he really a face of the franchise?
Defensively he can be a stopper right away. A lot of these coaches want to break down these young guys and limit their minutes because they don’t trust them defensively. With him you can play him the minutes you need to develop him because, defensively, he’s already there.
Scout 3: In general, interesting kid. In fairness to him he played in a very restricted system at Kansas. All interchangeable parts with designated spots, a lot of structure. When he got the ball, there wasn’t a lot of room to create. He didn’t force things, dealt with it well, but sometimes it hurt his rep. Not anywhere near ready, mentally, to take things over, which is unfair to say at this stage. Game isn’t to the level of his athleticism. Humble, coachable, a positive kid, all good things.
Needs go-to moves. He doesn’t have them yet. He has a high dribble. This is normal for a kid his age. Even Kobe and T-Mac struggled out of high school with go-to moves.
He needs to add a whole bunch of other stuff to be the scorer people think he can be. He needs to forget shooting 3s. His shot isn’t great, but it isn’t broken. It’s not as bad as Kidd-Gilchrist where you say, “Where do we start?”
Great natural movement. An NBA coach can still play him right away because he can defend. He defends the wings in isolation, which is extremely valuable. Physically he can do this right away.
Russillo: Agree with Scout 3.
This one is tough. I’ve changed my mind about him versus Parker a few times this season. He isn’t close to being as polished as Parker is on offense. So, the simple solution is to take Parker, right? Nope, it doesn’t work that way.
Athletically, he is off the charts, but it doesn’t do much for you if you can’t dribble. Right now, he can’t. The times he does get free on a drive, he doesn’t finish nearly as much as he should. It’s baffling; he gets by his man, beats the help, and then screws up the layup.
His personality comes off as timid. It’s not what you want from a guy that is supposed to be your leading scorer in a few years. It is worth mentioning that he played on a team that had two other scorers in Wayne Selden and Perry Ellis, plus the emergence of Embiid and Naadir Tharpe, who was supposed to be a point guard. There weren’t many shots to go around and he still dropped 17 ppg.
When LaMarcus Aldridge was coming out of Texas, I heard a lot of the same stuff: “timid” “doesn’t want it,” etc. I’d go back and look at the tape, and it was obvious Aldridge was playing with selfish guards who didn’t get him the ball, so it’s something to think about. I honestly have no idea if Wiggins is just a great athlete with a passive personality, or the next Tracy McGrady.
The thing about the draft that drives fans crazy is when a GM takes someone based on potential, but think about it this way: Sure, you could take a guy who just finished his junior year and put up big numbers. But the reason teams reach is because they need a star in this league. It’s why the Parker-Wiggins debate is frustrating for people. “If Parker is better, why take Wiggins?” It’s easy. Every front office will ask themselves the same question on draft night: “Can this guy grow, become an All-Star in our league?” If the answer is even close to a yes, the team will go for it. Role players aren’t winning you anything.
Scout 1: He’s not an athlete, but he’s not a stiff. He wants to go left, and like a lot of lefties he’s a right-shoulder turn guy. He always comes back to the strong side on post, or on his drive. Guys in our league will sit on that and he won’t score with that shit.
Decent free throw shooter, and that’s my thing. If you can shoot free throws, you can learn to shoot. Maybe get him in the short corner, run him from the elbow, iso, give him space and let him go one-on-one. But he has to develop that shot. He can’t pass. Not sure if it’s because he can’t or won’t. Selfish, but that’s probably because he was so hyped coming out of high school, so I don’t really blame him.
The comparisons to Zach Randolph have to stop. I’ve watched Zach since he was 12. Zach had it; he has great feet and can shoot. He’s not Zach.
He’s a good kid, bright, got a good personality. Don’t love his body — a little doughy. Will he work? These guys want to get paid, so they start hitting the gym.
The rebounding will translate, no concerns with that. He can be a starter on a good team, he’s in that 4-7 range. I wouldn’t take Gordon or Vonleh over him.
Scout 2: He’s one guy in college you couldn’t guard. Deadly from 15 feet off the dribble, powerful once he gets to the rim. There really wasn’t much you could do with him. Needs to develop a 15-footer. He’s bouncier than Zach [Randolph]. Zach developed as a shooter. Can pass and rebound. Knows how to use his body.
Of the four guys at the top, he is the most known. If he was on a good team, early in his career, he’d be great off the bench, destroying second units that are smaller. But that isn’t going to happen in this draft.
He’s developed from the bully ball, he’s learned to adjust, understands angles. He’s not exploding over guys like Blake [Griffin].
Who is he guarding? Small power forwards? Maybe.
Scout 3: I’ll admit, in high school, he made a bad first impression to me. It looked like he wanted to be Antoine Walker, selfish, almost greedy. But I’ll give him credit, he adjusted at Kentucky. Now he plays with a hard motor, competes, almost plays angry.
Awful passer, but he doesn’t want to pass anyway. He goes one way, tries to knock everyone over. He’s so left-hand dominant it was comical. If you put him in a gym by himself, could he make a right-handed layup? He’s a good athlete but didn’t always use it. A lot of his stuff, offensively, won’t work in the NBA. It’s going to be a huge adjustment for him. A lot of his shit is going to get sent back. His shot from 15-17 feet needs a ton of work. Good luck with that! He’ll be a worker but not a big-time scorer.
He’ll never be Zach Randolph.
Russillo: Agree with Scout 1. I still like him. I know he isn’t really athletic, but the boards and clean-up points are going to be there early. I just don’t worry about young guys not being able to defend, because in today’s NBA there is so much help on the ball side that it’s more about being able to buy into a team’s defensive principles than isolation defense.
He has the least momentum of any of the four after the combine, and it seems like Noah Vonleh and Aaron Gordon have passed him. But if you are getting Randle at pick no. 7 or no. 8, you should be thrilled.
Scout 1: I like him a lot. A giant Paul Pierce. Don’t completely trust his shot. I think he’s really selfish, took some really tough contested shots, but probably because he looked at the [Duke] team around him and just said, “Fuck it.”
He can score in different ways, rebounds, pass. I worry about him as a small forward. If he was an elite athlete you could get by with him being a below-average shooter. If he was an elite shooter you could get by with him being a below-average athlete. Unfortunately, he’s below average in both. I’m a fan, but he can’t be your best player.
I do think he’s smart enough to be coached up. He’s always been a post defender, but in the NBA, around the basket, if he’s a 4, he’s too small. He is going to get abused in iso by small forwards, but if you try to move him to the 4 he’s going up against Kevin Love, Aldridge, Blake … forget it. I don’t know if he could guard [Jared] Sullinger. He can figure it out. He’s a prideful guy, so it could work out.
Scout 2: He’s the best basketball player in the draft. IQ, passing ability, a fadeaway, post-up, step back, and ballhandling skills. As the no. 1 pick, he’s safe, meaning: I’ll know I’m getting something from him. Doubt he’ll do anything to hurt your organization. I’d shocked if he isn’t a 12-15-year pro. Worst case, he’s Shane Battier. But he’s better.
He has really improved his workout habits. Length and body type remind me of Pierce. More skilled with ball than Pierce at the same age, but he might not be as good as Paul’s career.
He can take over games, he’ll fit any system. Defensively he’s a problem, but in a team concept he can figure it out.
Scout 3: I’d take him no. 1. Physically, ready to go. Offensively, great feel. He’s a version of Paul Pierce. He’s not Paul further out yet, not as clever. But his size adds another dimension. Creates space for himself, finishes with either hand and like Pierce, he’s deceivingly athletic. Parker will contribute Game 1. He’s the safest pick.
Defense … now that’s a problem. It’s like Coach K kept it a secret. Did not apply man-you-ball principles and at times he looked unconcerned. You can hide guys in a team defense, but does he care? He’s not laterally quick enough to guard today’s better small forwards. With his body type you wonder where it is going.
Russillo: Agree with Scout 2.
He is the best basketball player right now. He has so much more in his offensive game than any of the other guys. The most important thing in the NBA is, do you have a scorer who can get his own shot when things break down? I call them “shot clock scorers,” and he might be one of them. He was playing out of position all year; the guy was a center at times for Duke. The Pierce comps make sense, but I think people forget what a great athlete Pierce was out of Kansas. He shows up in crunch time, he’ll put that big ass on you and get to the hoop, he’s strong in transition and grabbed about nine boards per game in 30 minutes. I have zero questions about his competitiveness. I know he is bad on defense, but so is Kyrie Irving; should the Cavs have taken someone else?
Ryen Russillo has hosted ESPN’s NBA combine coverage for the past four years and is part of ESPN Radio’s NBA draft-night team. He is the cohost of “SVP & Russillo.”