NBA Draft

Big Gains, Bigger Drops Highlight Early 2022 Draft Outlook


The NBA season may only be at the quarter pole, but that doesn’t mean some teams (and fans) aren’t already keeping one eye on the draft.

Detroit, Orlando, Houston, Oklahoma City, and New Orleans already seem to be on a lottery course for various reasons: chiefly, not having enough good basketball players.

Other teams may have their eye on the draft for different reasons. The Memphis Grizzlies stand to have three first-round picks this upcoming year– a big swing for a small-market team. Grizzlies executives will certainly be keeping an eye on the draft to determine their willingness to move these picks based on how many prospects they like.

Point is, the draft process always starts earlier than you’d expect. For a film nerd like me, it’s already well underway. It’s too early to make determinations for a full draft board, but names are shuffling up and down rankings already.

I’ll cover two risers and fallers apiece in this article, the first of a series.

Entering the Top Tier: Jabari Smith Jr.

  • Season Stats: (as of Dec. 3rd): 16.9/7/2.3/2.6 stonks, 1.7 TOV, 49/44/84 splits (2pt/3pt/FT)
  • Advanced Stats: 11.3 BPM, 25.2 USG, .568 eFG%, .383 FTR

You’ve no doubt heard plenty about Jabari Smith Jr. by now. The 6’10” Auburn big man has been wreaking havoc on the NCAA and crashing the No. 1 pick party. His explosion, touch and overall scoring ability are a revelation for Bruce Pearl’s squad and for NBA teams expecting to fall in the top three of the draft.

We knew before Jabari arrived he was a physical specimen with some potential for ballhandling plus touch around the rim and beyond the arc. What we didn’t know is these skills were present, not in the distant future. Now he’s hitting pull-up threes and breaking down the zone from the high post. A scary combination for a big with his physical tools.

Here’s a play that gives you a good idea of what we’re dealing with:

Usually, when a big is taking the ball up the floor, the defense is content to sag and hope he dribbles it off his foot. Why press and give him a chance to get by me? Overall it’s probably not the smartest shot Jabari has ever taken, but it’s what got him there that is raising eyebrows. Handle, burst, coordination and strength rarely come in such a large package.

Watch Jabari break apart his defender while facing up, the skill that has catapulted Paolo Banchero to 1.1:

Like most young bigs not named Evan Mobley, he needs work on his timing and verticality down low. When to attack the ball off the strong and weak sides also needs work. What I look for in a big on defense are instincts, tools, and the ability to guard in space. Most of the rest can be taught to some degree.

Check out Jabari being taken 1v1 by a guard:

Now that you’ve seen all this, you’re probably wondering why he’s not the favorite for the top pick. Auburn’s two-big lineups with Walker Kessler have hampered his freedom around the rim, but he hasn’t been at the rack as much as you’d like. Having a more convincing ability off the ball to find pockets of space and use his frame to create leverage would be nice.

But these are nitpicks for a player of his quality, and ones he can address as the young season progresses. Any time it takes you 10 games to kick down the door of a presumed No. 1 pick, it’s hard to rule out anything.

Free-Falling: Jaden Hardy, G-League Ignite

  • Season Stats: (as of Dec. 3rd): 17.5/5.3/3.3/1.8 stonks, 3.0 TOV, 33/29/100 splits (2pt/3pt/FT)
  • Advanced Stats: -31 Net RTG per 100 possessions, 30.3 USG, .361 eFG%, .122 FTR

A darling of conventional draft spheres before the season began, Hardy was expected to be the star on the second edition of the G-League Ignite. 6’5″ with a good handle, great jump shot, and finishing package, Hardy seemed like a worthy successor to Jalen Green.

Then the season started.

Plain and simple, Hardy looks overmatched from a physical standpoint. As a functional athlete, he’s still better than most. He has a great ability to jump off either foot, contort his body, and strong coordination skills. What he lacks is burst, ability to change speeds, and bounce. Having those raw skills is what makes your functional athleticism work; without the juice, you’re fighting an uphill battle.

And the hill has been steep for Hardy this season. The splits are ghastly and backed up by the film. His separation skills are seriously lacking, making almost every shot he takes a tough one. They look pretty when they go in, but the time between makes is upsetting. The time between attempts isn’t an issue, which shouldn’t be overlooked, because creating 18 shots per game is a skill in itself.

But at some point, you need them to fall.

I posted a Hardy thread a few days ago, and here are a couple of plays that stood out.

The good, bad, and ugly of Hardy are in these clips. The dribbling and finishing are good. The shot quality is bad, and the overall separation is flat-out ugly. What isn’t helping Hardy either is both possessions came against a non-NBA defender (no disrespect intended to LJ who is carving out a nice start to a G-League career).

Hardy hasn’t been pressuring the rim much, also reflected in his poor .141 free-throw rate. He just doesn’t have the requisite physical skills to get to the rim often and force defenders into tough decisions. Some good finishing skills may keep him afloat in terms of percentages around the cup, and he drills his free throws, but getting those attempts is a massive question mark.

The lack of an ability to create easy shots for himself and make them at a high clip is concerning, though he may become an adequate tough-shot maker. That and the absence of passing skill hampers his overall offensive upside. His offensive ceiling in the league looks something like Gary Trent Jr., who takes a paltry 10% of his shots at the rim.

That doesn’t scream lottery-type upside for an offense-first player.

Hardy has mediocre defensive instincts but doesn’t have the skills to consistently guard bigger players or the speed to stick with guards. He’s also gamble-prone, which can be made up for with physical tools, but as I’ve mentioned before, they aren’t there.

Maybe, MAYBE, Jaden Hardy can develop some confidence and hit more tough shots than before, but I’m not waiting around for it. He’s not a player teams should be clamoring to get their hands on, and he’s probably going to end up closer to the second round than the lottery.

Creeping Into the Top 20: Julian Strawther, Gonzaga

  • Season Stats: (as of Dec. 3rd): 14/7/0.9/0.6 stonks, 1 TOV, 61/43/77 splits (2pt/3pt/FT)
  • Advanced Stats: 8.0 BPM, 19.8 USG, .625 eFG%, .289 FTR

Gonzaga is loaded with talent, but the majority of the attention goes to Chet Holmgren. It seems likely that multiple other Zags will be competing for first-round status, and I’m planting my flag on Julian Strawther being the second-best Zag of the class.

Strawther might have a case for the prettiest stroke in the class. A strong base and quick release combined with his 6’7″ frame and solid wingspan make him deadly off the catch. He has the requisite movement and relocation skills to be more than a set shooter, who can make shots going right or left. When it’s all said and done he should contend with Patrick Baldwin Jr. for best wing shooter in the class.

There’s not much to speak of regarding Strawther’s on-ball creation, but there are signs of development as a quick decision-maker, which is key for an off-ball wing. He’s gone from one assist and 11 turnovers in 186 freshman minutes to seven and eight in 218 minutes so far. Granted, both are bad totals, but the first is putrid while the second is digestible. Don’t expect Strawther to provide creative juice for others, but he may be a good enough ball-mover and quick passer to not kill possessions.

Strawther has a pretty good frame to throw around and touch around the rim that contributes to a pretty solid floater game and ability to draw contact at the rim. He’s a solid board crasher from the wing with an 11.6 offensive rebound percentage, up from 7% his freshman season. The shooting alone makes Strawther a quality offensive player, but it’s good to know there is a baseline for him creating easy buckets attacking closeouts, and hitting the boards.

On the defensive end, Julian holds his own as a help defender and on the ball. His long arms and instincts combined with pretty fluid athleticism make him good at recovering on the perimeter. It’ll certainly take some further improvement on that end for it to become a strength, but there is certainly some interesting potential there as an off-ball forward with length.

Top Five No Longer: Peyton Watson, UCLA

  • Season Stats: (as of Dec. 3rd): 4.4/4.3/1/1.4 stonks, 1.3 TOV, 38/11/75 splits (2pt/3pt/FT)
  • Advanced Stats: -3.4 Net RTG per 100 possessions, 23.8 USG, .337 eFG%, .186 FTR

I first fell for Peyton’s game when he played at the FIBA U19s, flat-out dominating as a perimeter defender. Around 6’8″ and 200 pounds, Watson is a remarkably quick and fluid athlete with tons of strength and length to boot. An absurd shot-blocking wing with quick hands, what struck me the most was how he navigated screens.

People that large shouldn’t be able to make themselves that skinny and recover on the ball.

It’s not a hot take to say Watson is the most polished and highest upside perimeter defender in the class. He could guard 1-4 on switches with the strength to bang with the big boys. It’s been much of the same on that end of the floor with UCLA, racking up 17 boards and 5.5 stocks per 100 possessions.

Expect him to have no trouble translating those skills to the league immediately.

What scares me is what’s going on with his offense. It’s been a major question surrounding his game since FIBA, but not many could have predicted it would be this bad early. He can’t create on the ball or finish off it. Unless given a clear lane to use his explosive athleticism, he really can’t get anything going for himself. The shooting is bad as expected, but all this put together makes him an extreme one-way player at the moment.

He still crushes in transition and above the rim, but that can only get you so far.

A player that comes to mind as a production/development comparison is Matisse Thybulle: an elite on and off-ball defender fighting an uphill battle offensively to warrant minutes. Thybulle was a competent scorer in his time in the Pac-12, however, and regressed offensively in the NBA. Watson can’t afford to regress any more than he already has.

The defense alone and pure physical potential should keep you relatively high on Watson. but he goes from a top-five caliber prospect with scoring improvement to a mid-teens player without it. If the offensive struggles continue and he can’t garner minutes for Mick Cronin’s squad, it’s going to be harder and harder to justify Watson as a lottery-level prospect, or even near it.

Part Two Soon Come…

Next week I’ll go through another round of two risers and two fallers. It may or may not include an unheralded SEC prospect, more Ignite player(s), and perhaps someone across an ocean or two. Stay tuned as we build closer to the draft season!

Follow us on Twitter @Draft_Lead for the latest NBA rookie, prospect, and draft insight. 

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About Charlie Cummings

Warriors writer born and raised in the Bay Area. University of Denver graduate currently living in Denver

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