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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.