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2021 NBA Draft Mailbag

In the final piece of pre-draft coverage on ‘P.I. Pulse,’ basketball analyst Henry Ward wraps up a fun and exciting cycle with the platform’s first ever mailbag, answering questions submitted by readers across Twitter and Instagram. From some philosophical questions to player specific inquiries, Henry has it covered.

In the latest edition of ‘P.I. Pulse,’ we present our 2021 NBA Draft Mailbag:

Q: Best upside bet that is projected to get drafted after pick 45? (@abovethebreak3, Twitter)

This is a difficult but fun question for a number of reasons, and I wouldn’t expect anything less from our friend PD. Finding an NBA player of any kind beyond pick 45 is often a challenge, and looking for one with legitimate upside that’s greater than that of a role player only makes that more difficult. Using Rookie Scale’s consensus big board as a proxy for projected pick range, there’s a handful of guys I like in this arena that I’d be comfortable investing in much earlier — David Johnson, Kessler Edwards, and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl are all at least fringe first round picks to me — but they’re also all just above the 45th overall threshold on that board. I think it’s also worth noting that it feels the typical avenue to such value is through unique prospects with unfamiliar skillsets, with the hopes that this odd mold allows the player to find an unforeseen pathway to value, and those guys don’t necessarily fit that bill, either. To not cheat and to stay weird, I’ll go with a name a bit further down: Sandro Mamukelashvili. Perhaps no player in the draft had a weirder usage breakdown than “Mamu,” who, as a 6’11, 240-pound center, spent time handling in pick-and-rolls, pushing in transition, posting up, and hitting off movement threes. There is no blueprint for what someone with this sort of year will do at the next level, and I think that just investing in him as a big with ball skills may be doing him a disservice. Unlocking him fully will require some creativity and he still needs to add some movement skills to be worthwhile, but it’s fun to imagine a world in which he’s operating in a truly positionless lineup and literally doing some of everything. That’s some interesting upside, even though it likely never gets reached.

Q: Favorite under-the-radar big man this year? (@CoachMoyer3, Twitter)

Day’Ron Sharpe didn’t have a great year at UNC for “stock” purposes, but he still showed what makes him a worthwhile investment and I’m somewhat confused about why Alperen Sengun is regarded in such high favor while Sharpe doesn’t seem to be considered more than a mid-second round pick. Sharpe doesn’t have the post scoring that Sengun does, and probably in a vacuum isn’t as skilled in general, but he’s probably the best big man passer in the draft that won’t go in the top 7 and showed some tremendous rebounding skills as well, meaning he’ll be able to stay on the floor against bigger lineups despite his lack of physical tools. With more and more big men being tasked with greater decision making responsibilities, Sharpe makes sense as a late first round investment who can fit that perimeter big role better than most.

Day'Ron Sharpe. Credit: UNC Basketball

Q: What is the range of peak performance you see for the five players you consider the best prospects? (Role Player - Starter, Starter - All-Star, All-Star - All-NBA, All-NBA - MVP, etc.) (@GabeLeftBrain, Twitter)

This is hard, and I may not answer it exactly how you want, but I’ll try my best. I’ll start by saying that my top five prospects are Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley, Jalen Suggs, Jalen Green, and Scottie Barnes (with Josh Giddey flipping into that spot every other day due to my indecision/overthought). In that top five, it’s hard to peg exact ranges without sounding overzealous, but for the sake of answering the question directly, I’ll give Cade and Mobley both the All Star - MVP range, Suggs and Green the Starter - All-NBA range, and Scottie the Role Player - All Star range with the chance of gracing some All-NBA teams, as well.

Q: Kai Jones, JT Thor, Franz, Jalen Johnson, Trey Murphy — over/under 0.5 total all-star appearances? (@michaelcparisi, Twitter)

Gambling! Fun. I’ll go with the under here just based on everyone’s archetypes. Making an all-star team is really hard, and while I see three of these guys as lottery prospects (Kai, Franz, Jalen), I would not bet on an all-star appearance from any. I think Franz in particular will be an awesome starter for years to come, but I don’t know that he ever adds the requisite scoring to be voted in like that. He’ll probably need to be on a very good team, which is definitely possible with his skillset, but not something I can confidently say for sure. Jalen is probably my favorite bet out of anyone here to do so, but I also am more comfortable betting on his median outcome than his higher-end ones.

Jalen Johnson. Credit: Duke Basketball

Q: How do you stratify draft prospects? Do you rank them on a 50th percentile outcome? 80th percentile? Do you believe even “tiers” do enough to stratify players effectively? And how much do you weigh likely NBA contexts + expectations based on draft range, into all this? I guess to sum it all up: are you making a board trying to predict NBA success, or a board based on who’s you draft with your own heuristics? (@FreeMalikMonk, Twitter)

I could write 10,000 words on this topic, so I’ll inherently provide an unsatisfactory answer here. I think I can answer the last question directly — my board is a representation of who I would take in a vacuum if I were starting a team tomorrow, in order. I hold my team-building/schematic philosophy close when evaluating players, and it’s very much at the core of how I believe a board should be built, anyway. I personally find it way too difficult and fruitless to try and guess player outcomes, and I also think that misses a major point of what draft strategy is all about. Teams aren’t trying to find just “an NBA player,” they’re trying to find uniquely helpful ones that can help move the needle. Therefore, players with higher variance will often go earlier despite some of them likely flaring out, but that makes sense! That sentence requires more nuance than I can provide here, but essentially, my point is that methodical risk-taking in the draft is how you end up contending in the playoffs without major max free agent signings, and for most teams, that’s the only avenue. So, in conclusion, yes, my board is simply a way of displaying how I would do things in the driver’s seat.

Q: Another tier-related question: should big board tiers reflect the talent distribution in the NBA, à la Seth Partnow's tiers? If I recall correctly, tier 1 was like 6 players and then it expanded greatly by tier 4 to 40 players, etc… (@michaelcparisi, Twitter)

Yes, I think if you are someone who subscribes heavily to tiers (I think we all do subconsciously), then it makes sense to have the tiers grow as the talent diminishes. You’re never going to have a draft with 15 all-stars, or 55 role players, etc., and tiers should reflect that. It also should reflect the diminishing returns of less valuable players as the projected impact goes down. In other words, the difference in value between an MVP-type player and a fringe all-star is greater than that of a fringe all-star and a top-tier role player.

Q: Will (Moses) Moody shoot the 3 well in the league? Best fit for the Kings at #9? Thoughts on Jeremiah Robinson-Earl? (@joedoespaz, IG)

Lots of variety here in one question. Yes, Moody will shoot the three well. He was thrust into a very unfortunate offensive context this year that asked a lot of him, but when his diet is reduced to more comfortable scenarios, his touch, shot preparation and repeatable stroke will shine through.

My favorite fit for the Kings as of now is Franz Wagner. My friend and co-worker Drake U’u may have some other ideas more based in what he thinks they need internally, which I understand, but from an outsider’s perspective, Franz fits the bill as the positionally versatile, high feel, multi-faceted wing that every playoff team has, but the Kings still lack. His fit next to Fox and Haliburton is really fun to think about.

I like JRE as early as the mid-late 30’s. I think he’s a solid bet to stick in the league with his feel, touch, and defensive awareness and technique at his size. He’ll find easy ways to contribute and make a coach happy pretty early. Finding a player like that in that range is a win.

Moses Moody. Credit: Arkansas Basketball

Q: Who’s the player with the highest floor and who has the highest ceiling? (@robbieellis, IG)

This answer is easy and it’s also the same player — Cade Cunningham. Maybe not what you were looking for, Robbie, but I think it’s the truth. There are very few things Cade is actually lacking in from a prospect perspective, and very few ways he totally fails. Of course, his ceiling is an MVP candidate, as well. Ultimately, he’s just too good at too many things for me to be able to answer with another name in good faith. A consolation answer I’ll give, though, is that I do think Evan Mobley’s ultimate ceiling is a bit underrated at this point, and that I’m pretty damn certain Josh Giddey finds a way to stick one way or another, in ways that some people may not be giving him credit for.

Q: If you’re a GM, are you scared to take Mobley over the “Jalens” (Green and Suggs) given the success of guys like Luka, Trae, and LaMelo vs. Ayton, Bagley, and Wiseman? If not, why? (@strigggy, IG)

Good question Adam, but my answer is, in so many words, absolutely not. As I alluded to in the last question, I think Evan Mobley is being taken somewhat for granted. He’s a true seven-footer who moves in space better than most wings in the league, is insanely smart on both ends, displays worthwhile ball skills and touch offensively, and is immediately one of the better rim protectors in the league defensively with more versatility than his counterparts. I have some irresponsible takes on what his ceiling is that I’ll keep private, but I do want to make clear that Mobley is truly a number one prospect in 85% of drafts and should be treated as such. He’s incredibly unique and built for the modern NBA, cliches aside. The Jalens are excellent prospects as well — but neither are as rare or have as high a ceiling as Mobley.

Q: What do you think Josh Christopher’s realistic ceiling is, and how likely is he to reach it? What will it take for him to reach it? How’s Josh Giddey’s fit with the Warriors? (@nbacircles, Twitter)

Christopher’s most optimal NBA situation is likely one where he isn’t tasked with high-leverage decisions or to make his own space. Instead, I think he’s most useful in a role similar to what we saw from Tyler Herro’s rookie year with the Heat, where he’s creatively placed in scenarios where there’s a relatively binary decision to be made and where his downhill explosion is put on full display, unhindered by his lack of space creation methods. In this scenario, I think he could be a nice bench piece for a team that needs some scoring pop alongside more high-feel, less technically adept players.

I like Giddey’s fit with the Warriors, but not for reasons Warrior fans may want to hear. I think Giddey fits extremely well with a coach like Steve Kerr who empowers his players to play with pace and rapid decision making, where creativity and quick-thinking is put on full display in an effort to outpower competing defenses. However, I do worry a bit about what his first year or two will look like. He’s exceptionally talented and an investment worth making in the Warriors’ range, but if they really want someone who can come in and take borderline starter minutes immediately next to Steph, Klay, and Draymond, I’m not sure it’s him. But man, would I love to see him be given a shot there.

Josh Christopher. Credit: Arizona State Basketball

Q: Draft night trade you most want to see? And favorite landing spot for a fringe lottery guy? (@martin_had_a_dream, IG)

We’re getting some buzz here leading up to the draft, so I’ll stick with some ideas that seem semi-plausible as opposed to pulling one out of thin air. I would love to see the Thunder build a package out of their armory of picks to move up and grab Evan Mobley. I think pairing such a special prospect with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who’s coming off a tremendously encouraging year from a self-creation standpoint, would be awesome. Giving Shai a wildly versatile screening partner would be excellent for his development, and pairing Mobley with such a dynamic and creative problem solver would likely ease his transition quite a bit. Plus, that would just be amazing television. I’m picturing the Shai funky-footed lobs that Mobley catches well above the square, already.

As for my favorite fringe lottery pairing, I’ll go with Ziaire Williams in Memphis. The Grizzlies have done an amazing job so far amassing needle-moving talent, but still remain one shot-maker away from having a truly viable playoff offense. In a draft devoid of creation bets, Williams stands out as a player who would benefit greatly from Memphis’ patience and diligent coaching while also being able to fit in immediately in spurts with his defensive impact, shooting, and passing proactivity, while being brought along patiently as the self-creation tools continue to develop. Once he’s a more fully realized version of himself, Memphis has exactly the type of player they need — an oversized shooter who can find his own shot and impact the game on both ends when off the ball.

Q: If Chris Duarte, Kessler Edwards, and Jared Butler are all there at 28 for the Sixers — what do you like about each of their fits there, and who would be your pick? (@dan_olinger, Twitter)

My pick would be Butler. Assuming Ben Simmons remains with the team, I think he addresses the team’s desperate need for half-court creation and off-ball shooting extremely well. It’s hard to predict what Simmons would return in a trade, so for now, I’ll operate under the premise that he stays and say with confidence that Butler is my preferred choice. That being said, I do have Edwards higher on my board and am a big fan of his as well. Teams simply cannot have enough shooting from guys who also have positional size, and Kessler adds to that with some of the most comprehensive defensive impact there is in this draft. He covers massive ground and is versatile at the point of attack, making him an interesting partner with Simmons, as well. I just worry a bit more about his inability to attack closeouts at this stage and think things may get clogged there if he can’t exploit advantages. Duarte is talented in his own right, but definitely my least favorite of the three here. He’s a terrific all-around wing who can shoot off movement, attack the rim with athleticism, and defend at the point of attack well enough. My main issue with him is his age and how much that caps the potential for hitting big with him, and I also have some concerns about what he’s doing in a tightened half-court setting. In short, my problems with him are similar to the ones I have with Kessler, with Kessler being the far better defender and probably the better shooter.

Jared Butler. Credit: Baylor Basketball

Q: Jalen Green or Jalen Suggs? (@aaronfalzon/@chrisamoah, IG)

This is very close for me, but I lean towards Suggs. I’ve explained why on many podcasts and in other articles, but in brief, I think his impossible-to-teach level of processing as a ball-handler and scorer gives him a higher ceiling, and I also think there’s a level of untapped creation potential that’s there, as well. For as effective as he was in his lone college season, albeit in an optimal context, he still has so much to improve on. That’s a pretty mighty proposition to take a flier on. Green is extremely talented and excels in some of the areas Suggs lacks, most notably the shot creation and handle creativity departments, but Suggs’ unmatched feel is what has excited about his final form in a way that I can’t quite bite on with Green.

Q: Most underrated prospect? (@prestons_11, IG)

Before these past couple of weeks I would’ve said Jaden Springer, and while that’s still probably my preferred answer, the steam he’s gained has me wanting to give a more off-the-wall response. Give me David Johnson, a guy who may not get picked in the top 45, who I view as a fringe lottery talent. I feel like a broken record saying this, but multi-positional players with good size who think the game quickly and creatively, are able to create out of closeouts, and defend on and off the ball are requisite pieces for championship teams. Having a stable of these types of players who each add their own flavor to surround more prolific scoring talents is a great way to vault a team into contention, and Johnson is someone whose feel, passing, shooting, and length make him an awesome choice in this year’s draft to fill this exact niche. He doesn’t have the star upside of some players mocked ahead of him, but I absolutely love the skillset he brings to the table in his frame, and think he’d be an exceptionally useful player for a team looking to build towards the playoffs.

David Johnson. Credit: Louisville Basketball

Q: Who’s your most underrated potential lottery pick? (@with_a_hint_of_lime, IG)

Slightly different question from the last one, as I’ll stick more to the guys who are actually projected to get picked in this range here. I’ll just continue to sing Josh Giddey’s praises, here. The 18-year-old is possibly the best passer in the draft at 6’8”, with a rapidly improving creation skillset and growing defensive aptitude. Teammates say they’ve never seen a player this young with such a feel for the game, and Giddey shows it every time he steps on the floor, finding new ways to contribute as the season went along with the Adelaide 36ers of the NBL. His shot is coming around quickly, which would add a whole new dimension to his game, and once he unlocks a bit more self-creation nuance, he could be a seriously prolific pick-and-roll threat. What also makes him interesting is that even if that doesn’t come around, his feel and size alone give him a baseline to work off of to fulfill a high leverage off-ball role, too. There’s a ton of ways for him to succeed, and given how good he is already in such a unique archetype, I think he’s worth a look as early as 5.


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