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Monday, December 28, 2015
Ranking Porzingis, Towns and the top 10 rookies by future potential
By Chad Ford and Kevin Pelton
ESPN Staff Writers
Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis
Which rookie has the brighter future, Karl-Anthony Towns or Kristaps Porzingis?
For the past several years, ESPN Insider's Chad Ford and Kevin Pelton have simulated the kind of discussions that are taking place in front offices around the NBA -- in which scouts and statistical experts break down NBA prospects using their "eyes, ears and numbers." This season, those conversations are extending beyond the NBA draft to include prospects in their rookie or sophomore seasons.
Which rookie has the most potential?
Kevin Pelton: Now that they've got two months of NBA experience under their belts, let's rank the crop of 2015 rookies in terms of their potential going forward. The top two spots seem pretty obvious, but there might be some uncertainty about the order.
At No. 1, I'm going to go with the top pick last June: Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns has been everything we expected and more as a rookie. Shaquille O'Neal is the only rookie age 20 or younger as of Feb. 1 to post a better player efficiency rating than Towns has this season (22.4), according to Basketball-Reference.com. He looks like a superstar, and sooner rather than later. Agree?
Ford: Totally agree. Towns was the No. 1 prospect on draft night and he has lived up to the hype. In fact, I think he's surpassed it.
He's a legitimate threat on both ends of the floor. I think we all thought it would take Towns a little longer than several of the other top prospects to dominate in the NBA, especially on the offensive end. As you've pointed out, he's having one of the best rookie seasons in a long, long time. He's got a chance to be the best prospect to come into the NBA since Anthony Davis.
Who's No. 2 on your list? Let me guess, he's the Mayor of New York right now.
Pelton: Not sure about mayor -- have we gotten his position on sugary beverages? No, Kristaps Porzingis is much more popular than that.
A recent Porzingis slump has made it much clearer that Towns is the favorite for rookie of the year and the more promising of the top two players in the 2015 draft, especially since he's three months younger. But Porzingis has a bright future in his own right. As we've discussed, he's producing much more quickly than expected, especially as a rebounder and defender.
Ford: I agree on Porzingis, though I think his recent slump doesn't impact what I see coming from him in the future.
As he gets stronger, I expect he'll continue to improve as a rebounder and defender. And I think he's a much better perimeter player than he has shown so far in New York. Get him with the right coach and I think he blossoms there as well. Both he and Towns, if they hit their ceilings, could be in the MVP conversation in three or four years.
Well, with Towns and Porzingis off the board, things get a lot more interesting. The other high-ceiling rookies have all had significant struggles their rookie seasons and some of the stronger performing rookies don't have particularly high ceilings.
Who's No. 3 on your list, Kevin?
Pelton: Yep, now things get interesting. I'm going with the guy I had No. 2 before the draft: D'Angelo Russell. I find the narrative that Russell is "struggling" fascinating, given that most all-in-one stats suggest he has been better than fellow top-five picks Jahlil Okafor and Mario Hezonja, as well as fellow point guard Emmanuel Mudiay.
As I've pointed out in chats, Russell is having one of the best seasons ever by a 19-year-old guard, based on PER. He's fourth among this group behind Kyrie Irving, Stephon Marbury and Bradley Beal. Mudiay is 10th, according to Basketball Reference.
Ford: Tempting. I agree that the narrative on Russell has been too hard. Factor in the weird situation in L.A. -- with Russell planted in the middle of a season entirely dedicated to Kobe -- and I think he has done well. But I actually feel that after watching both of them play in the NBA, I'd still go with the guy I had No. 3 in my Grade A mock: Emmanuel Mudiay.
I know by certain metrics Mudiay has been awful; his shooting percentage is terrible and turnover rate is enormously high. Still, I think that once he settles down a bit and his decision making improves -- both in shot selection and passing -- he's going to be a terrific power point guard in the NBA.
Russell has a chance to get there as well, but I lean Mudiay. I think his superior physical tools will eventually win out once he gets more experience.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was drafted at No. 23 but has shown more potential than plenty of other players from the 2015 draft.
Ranking the rest
Ford: Who's next for you, Kevin?
Pelton: Now I'm throwing my hands up. You phrased it well as a choice between potential and current production. And I'm not sure there's a good compromise.
If anything, the first two months of the season have only exacerbated my concerns about Okafor's ability to anchor a quality NBA defense, while raising some new ones about how he fits offensively and off the court. I think Mudiay will eventually be a productive player, but it could take years. So I'm going to go with the only top-seven pick we haven't mentioned: Willie Cauley-Stein.
I wasn't a fan before the draft because of his poor rebounding and limited offensive production, but Cauley-Stein has been better than expected on the glass (the Sacramento Kings have missed him there since his injury) and shown good touch around the basket. His upside isn't enormous but given Cauley-Stein's defensive ability he's relatively certain to be a useful starter in the league. I'm not sure how many other rookies can say that.
Ford: I agree at this point, it's hard to find someone to really gush about. I think Cauley-Stein is a defensible pick, but I'm looking at a pool of five players and he's not even in that.
Justise Winslow (if he ever figures things out offensively) and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (ditto) have both had a huge impact on the defensive end. I think Nikola Jokic and Hezonja have intriguing offensive upsides. But my fourth choice is Russell.
I have reservations because of his lack of elite athleticism and he hasn't proven to be the shooter many scouts thought he'd be coming out of college. That's the biggest concern. He's a very good player if he shoots 40 percent or better from 3-point range. If he stays at 33 percent, his value goes way down -- and I'm talking myself out of the pick as I write this. Gah!
Pelton: I'm going to go with one of the players you mentioned, Hollis-Jefferson. At this stage in their careers, Hollis-Jefferson and Winslow have fairly similar skill sets. You can certainly favor Winslow based on his age and ability to play power forward, but I prefer Hollis-Jefferson at this point because he has been a better rebounder and is racking up more blocks and steals.
Hollis-Jefferson is rebounding like a power forward and his steal rate this season is the same as Kawhi Leonard's. I'll take that. Can you find a fifth rookie in whom you're confident?
Ford: Before the draft, everyone was talking about Winslow versus Stanley Johnson. Now I think the Winslow versus Hollis-Jefferson debate is the fascinating one, and I'm torn between the two. But for the reasons you mentioned -- Winslow's age and ability to play power forward, and I think his shot is less broken than Hollis-Jefferson's -- I give Winslow the edge.
Over time I think he'll play a bigger and bigger role for the Heat and can even envision him turning into a Kawhi Leonard type with his work ethic. But Hollis-Jefferson was definitely one of the steals of the draft.
I've been expecting you to pull a real sleeper based on the analytics. Who do you have in the rest of your top 10?
Pelton: Here's my list:
6. Justise Winslow
7. Emmanuel Mudiay
8. Jahlil Okafor
9. Myles Turner
10. Frank Kaminsky
Not a real sleeper in the group. One challenge is the difficulty in evaluating pre-draft favorites such as R.J. Hunter and Delon Wright who have barely played on deep teams. I did consider Jokic, but his ability to defend an NBA position is an issue. Devin Booker and Kelly Oubre also got strong consideration.
Ford: Fair enough. Since this ranking is based on potential, I think we are still too early enough in the season to be totally swayed by the numbers.
Here's the rest of my group:
6. Myles Turner
7. Kelly Oubre
8. Mario Hezonja
9. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
10. Jahlil Okafor
The Okafor ranking is low, but I just worry about everything from the way the game has changed to the culture he has been thrown into. Turner looked promising before he went down with an injury. I think he could be good down the road.
I have two guys on my list that you don't. I think Oubre just oozes potential and all the recent injuries in Washington are giving him a chance to be a really effective two-way player, especially if he keeps shooting the ball that well.
Hezonja hasn't been great yet, but when he's been given minutes, he's proven to be an effective shooter and scorer. I think it's coming. With the league's emphasis on shooting, his skills will be valuable. Cauley-Stein, Jokic and Booker were my next three in.
After Wiggins slow star and D'angelo slow start, do you think we are going to stop judging rookies after 10 games?
Because Dangelo is pretty clearly the thirds best rookie and is playing great when you consider the circumstances.