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Is the NBA Draft Looking at a Talent Drought in 2019? The Early Returns Aren’t Good

Despite the hype of viral sensation Zion Williamson and Duke’s incoming recruiting class, the depth and quality of the 2019 NBA draft looks disappointing at this stage.

We know by now that labeling a draft as arbitrarily ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is often premature. Prospects need time to breathe and evolve. But there’s certainly something to be said about projecting talent when it becomes tough to find optimists in the room. The 2018 draft hasn’t even happened yet, but the NBA’s scouting cycle is never-ending, and experienced eyes, as always, are looking ahead. For what it’s worth, the early returns aren’t great.

While the overall hype levels surrounding each subsequent high school class have only grown in perception, given the growth of social media and the evolution of teenage players into quasi-public figures, a realist would tell you there may not be a single surefire All-Star waiting in the wings going into 2019. The top prep prospects in this year’s group gathered in Atlanta this week for the McDonald’s All-American game, practicing three times and scrimmaging once in front of a host of high-ranking personnel from around the league. The vibe around the league, and high school recruiting experts as well, is that the talent level, at least in terms of the volume of standout prospects, is significantly down from an NBA perspective looking forward to the next couple of drafts.

National All-Star events like this always miss kids who go on to NBA success, but they do offer a reasonable glimpse at the new pool of players, and who teams should be considering in the near future as potential one-and-done candidates. As one Western Conference executive wondered, “This is the cream of the crop?” Based on my conversations, many scouts and decision-makers were underwhelmed with the talent level amid a week that left something to be desired in general.

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Some blame was placed on the overall structure of practice, which lent itself on some level to low-energy play and offered minimal time to watch players run five-on-five. There were also complaints about the scrimmage being televised, which turned into more of a glorified simulacrum of the game itself, containing a lack of defense and at times, effort. “Guys used to just go at each other, and it was great,” said another exec.

Of course, there’s more than a year until the draft, and plenty of time for players to improve and mature. It’s not an end-all be-all decree. But it’s bad enough that next year’s class could impact this one, incentivizing some players to return to college and find their draft chances on safer footing in 2019. DraftExpress reported earlier this week that Arkansas freshman center Daniel Gafford is returning to school, despite being a near-lock to receive guaranteed money in this year’s draft. A host of guys will test the waters as always, but the stay-or-go decisions will be of added interest when it comes to next year’s distribution of talent.

None of this is to say there will be fewer one-and-done players in a year’s time: as long as there’s an opportunity, kids will take it. Players who look like two or three-year college guys might actually find increased opportunity to spring for greener pastures with a good freshman year. “The drafts could be so bad the next couple years that you just don’t know,” one Eastern Conference scout said of the guessing game. It seems clear at this point that the early-season fervor over potential changes to the one-and-done rule was hasty. Based on what I’ve been told, it’s probably not happening any time soon, meaning at the very least that the 2019 draft can be considered safe from change, and that the hand of eligible players has by and large been dealt.

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One storyline to follow—and soon enough you won’t be able to avoid it—is the prospect of Duke producing three of draft’s top picks in some sequence, with the three top-rated high school seniors, R.J. Barrett, Cameron Reddish and Zion Williamson, in the fold. None of them are without flaw, but Barrett seems to have separated himself a bit with his well-rounded, slashing style of play on the wing. Reddish is right behind him, boasting serious athletic potential and nice playmaking ability, but a reputation for occasional disinterest. Williamson is an athletic marvel who seems destined to win dunk contests and has worked himself into better shape but there are positional concerns with him as a 6’6” forward, and his heavy frame coupled with great explosiveness could come with injury concerns. 

There are reasons to worry about all three as perimeter shooters long-term as Barrett shoots a bit of a knuckleball, Reddish’s mechanics are a bit of a mess, and Williamson is viewed as almost a non-threat from outside. To the chagrin of scouts in attendance, none of them really made a statement at All-American week. There are certainly questions, but expect all three to have NBA futures, and at this point all can be projected into the high lottery, with Barrett and Reddish likely having the best shot at going first. Of course, clumping them together on the same team with one basketball between them might make things that much more complicated, particularly from an evaluation standpoint. “Everyone’s going to have to sacrifice something,” Barrett admitted.

“NBA teams are gonna pick who they want to pick,” Williamson told the Front Office, insisting that he and his future teammates aren’t concerned with it yet. “The best thing we can do is just go to college, get our bodies right, improve as much as we can in those eight months, and hopefully we can go top three. But at the end of the day, NBA teams are gonna pick who they want.”

It’s early, but all three appear convinced they’ll be able to make it work. Reddish prefers to play on the ball, with Barrett more of a traditional wing player and Williamson functioning as something of a hybrid forward (“a LeBron-type role,” as he put it.) They’ll be joined at Duke by Tre Jones, the younger brother of former Blue Devils and current Timberwolves guard Tyus Jones. “I’m going to have to figure out how to get them in the right positions to be successful,” Jones told the Front Office.

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“We all can pass, we all can shoot, we all can dunk, we’re all naturally unselfish players,” Reddish added. “We’re not worried about who’s going to score the most and all that stuff. We’re not really into that.”

In non-Duke news, a handful of prospects did themselves some favors this week: North Carolina-bound Nassir Little was mostly aggressive and showcased his athleticism, perimeter skills and a degree of versatility that will enable him to make a case for next year’s lottery. Kentucky commit Keldon Johnson was an eye-opener, with sneaky bounce, ability to score at all three levels and finish with both hands, and also standing out as a competitor and vocal presence at practice. Devon Dotson, who will replace Devonte Graham at Kansas next season, had a nice showing with his precise play off the dribble and ability to score and find teammates.

Scouts will congregate at the NCAA’s Next Generation Sunday this weekend at the Final Four in San Antonio, where 24 top 2019 prospects will have an opportunity to make extremely early impressions. Teams will continue to obtain a feel for the current high school class with the Hoop Summit and Jordan Brand Classic taking place in the weeks that follow, completing the circuit of showcase opportunities for the 2018 high school class. There are always surprises, and there’s plenty of time for players to surprise. But when the lack of excitement is this palpable, take note.