Well, that’s it for the 2019 NBA draft, which, as expected, came with no shortage of intrigue, surprises, fun moments, and Zion Williamson-related things. We’re not even 24 hours out, but after taking a beat to breathe, here are 10 things I’m thinking with regard to the big picture.
1. I guess we can kind of work backwards here and start with Bol Bol, who fell all the way to No. 44 before being scooped up by the Nuggets, who sent a future second-rounder and cash, per a league source, to the Heat in order to select him. There was a clear inkling in the lead-up to the draft that Bol could be in for a precipitous fall, but watching him slip all the way into the middle of the second round was still a bit of a shocker. Anytime the entire league passes on a talented player for that long, it tells you something. Denver had been assessing its options coming into the draft, but had no expectation that Bol would be on the board where he was. At that point, with little investment required, the Nuggets called the Heat and took the plunge.
Bol’s situation has always been an odd one, predating the foot fracture that ended his season at Oregon. His slide was an amalgamation of compounding risk factors, between the injury, trepidation over his background intel, the reduced market value of true centers, and the sheer questionmarks over whether a 7’2” shooting specialist can contribute to a winning team on a significant basis. Although he skipped medical at the combine, by the week of draft, teams were given access to his information. As I understand it, slow-playing his return to the court might make sense, but Bol’s foot wasn’t the sole determinant in what happened on Friday, but it certainly didn’t help. At the end of the day, front offices and coaching staffs have to talk themselves into the person as much as they do the player. Bol has some undeniable talent, but there’s little in his predraft ledger to truly inspire confidence that he’ll tap all the way into it. The bottom line has always been that if he doesn’t work hard, he won’t last in the NBA. That hasn’t changed, and ultimately, Bol’s case just wasn’t convincing enough as the draft rolled on. There were only six true centers selected in the draft overall: Jaxson Hayes, Goga Bitadze, Mfiondu Kabengele, Bruno Fernando, Daniel Gafford, and Bol was the sixth.
Denver is no stranger to these sorts of rehabilitation projects: they were the team that stopped Michael Porter from sliding in last year’s draft and willing to let him rehab for as long as it took to get healthy. They also picked Jarred Vanderbilt who came with injury concerns, in the second round. The reduced microscope and lessened pressure to rush back onto the court as part of an organization that doesn’t expressly need him might be the best thing for Bol in the long-term. If he pans out, his fit next to Nikola Jokic is pretty fascinating. If he doesn’t, the Nuggets won’t be pressed about it, either. He’s never been in a situation like this before. We’ll see how he responds. And whether or not it works out, this will be something worth revisiting in a few years.
2. As promised, there was a massive flurry of action in the draft, although most of it ended up taking place in the second round. The big trade at the top went as one might have expected—as we alluded to in the run-up to the draft, the Hawks ultimately found their way up to No. 4, giving the Pelicans a package centered around Nos. 8 and 17 in order to move up and nab the player they coveted, who was De’Andre Hunter. There had been some confusion over who Atlanta was targeting with their attempts to come up, but in the days prior to the draft, the situation crystalized a bit: the Hawks were convinced they had to get in front of the Cavaliers to take Hunter, who they had coveted throughout the predraft process, but weren’t going to be able to get at No. 8. The Hawks always had the most to offer the Pelicans, and sweetened the deal by taking on Solomon Hill’s contract, sending a heavily-protected 2020 first, and also swapping second-rounders, giving the Pelicans No. 35 and taking back No. 57. This always looked like a strong match on paper.
Both Atlanta and New Orleans ultimately had good drafts, too. The sense around the league going into the draft was that the Hawks had hoped to keep No. 10 in any trade-up situation, with their eye on Cam Reddish, who was indeed on the board for them. They walked out with two players they coveted, and made a nice value pick with Bruno Fernando in the second round. The Hawks are building a pretty strong engine to maximize the talents of rising star Trae Young, and deserve to be taken seriously as one of the NBA’s more promising rebuilding situations at this point.
For the Pelicans, perhaps the best way to rationalize trading down from No. 4 was to take a big swing on upside, which became Jaxson Hayes at No. 8. While he’s unlikely to be a center who spaces the floor, he could be a high-end defensive presence and rim-runner, and in theory the long-term backbone for a potentially terrifying defensive unit that will include Zion Williamson, Jrue Holiday and Lonzo Ball. They grabbed Nickeil Alexander-Walker after he slipped a little bit to No. 17, who fits their intended style nicely. At No. 35, Marcos Louzada Silva (better known as “Didi”) was perhaps the best international prospect in the second round. They also flipped Warriors target Alen Smailagic to…the Warriors at No. 39 for two future second-rounders, which appeared to be pretty shrewd.
3. The other high-profile and slightly more puzzling trade came at No. 6, with the Timberwolves coming up to get Jarrett Culver and Phoenix moving down to No. 11, acquiring Dario Saric, and in a puzzling turn, drafting Cam Johnson. The thought around the league this week had been that Minnesota wanted Darius Garland, hence their attempts to get up to No. 4, and it was little secret that the Suns were extremely high on Jarrett Culver coming into the draft. So to see Phoenix move off of a guy they liked to try and extract extra value—and in the same move, Minnesota coming up to get someone who hadn’t been linked to them much—was a bit puzzling on the surface.
4. The Suns continue to be one of the more puzzling teams in the league, with the Johnson pick standing out as perhaps the biggest surprise on draft night. Per league sources, there were many teams who red-flagged Johnson’s hips as a long-term medical concern, and at age 23, he’s not exactly the type of player who typically goes in the lottery.
Stories circulated all week about Johnson’s almost-mythically strong shooting performances at various stops on the workout circuit, and there’s little arguing that he was the best pure perimeter shooter in this draft class. But most teams viewed him as a player they could draft in the 20–35 range. It’s unclear whether the Suns could have moved down again off of No. 11 and gotten their guy, but this was still a head-scratcher.
They also came back in to get Ty Jerome at No. 24, another terrific college player who had some medical concerns over his hips (he had a double-hip surgery at the end of high school that’s led to some lingering issues). None of this is to say the Suns won’t be happy with their two guys, and Saric is a solid player, but it certainly wasn’t what anyone was expecting out of Phoenix.
5. Speaking of Cam Johnson—and the surprise factor—his North Carolina teammate Coby White gave us one of the best moments of the night when he found out Johnson ended up in the lottery. It’s nice remembering that these guys are people and not just names on the lists we have to stare at all year.
6. Some of the better value picks in this draft: Jarrett Culver at No. 6 to Minnesota, Goga Bitadze at No. 18 to Indiana, Keldon Johnson at No. 29 to San Antonio, Kevin Porter at No. 30 to Cleveland, and Nic Claxton to Brooklyn at No. 31.
7. Some of picks I didn’t really like: the aforementioned Johnson to Phoenix (too high in the draft), Romeo Langford to Boston at No. 14 (don’t love the fit or the player), and Dylan Windler to the Cavs at No. 26 (I would have just drafted Kevin Porter there, then saved myself all the stuff they to give up to get him at No. 30).
8. There was a notable flood of talented undrafted players who were quickly snapped up by teams after the draft ended—don’t expect this to change anytime soon. A ton underclassmen stayed in the draft this year and didn’t get picked, but this is less a cautionary tale and more a sign of where things might be headed. From talking to teams and agents, the market for two-way contracts and undrafted deals has been even more competitive over the past day or so. Many people think the NBA may eventually end up giving teams a third two-way roster slot at some point down the road, to create more job opportunities, strengthen the G League, and allow for more creativity in talent development on whole. It seems prudent.
9. It’s way too soon, at least for me, to go back and revisit the results of mock drafts—from the writer’s perspective, it sometimes feels like picking at scabs—but safe to say, the draft is tricky as ever to predict. Teams were truly all over the place in their respective evaluations of the class, and it showed with how wide some of the range variance was.
10. I hope you’re not wondering, but in case you’re wondering, we’ll have our first official (still too early) 2020 Big Board coming next week. And if you really have a big-time draft itch, I recommend tuning in for USA Basketball’s games in the U19 World Cup, which begins June 29 in Greece. You’ll catch extended glimpses of the potential top two picks in the 2021 draft, Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. In my opinion, Cunningham is the best prospect anywhere in high school basketball. If either Cunningham or Mobley were eligible for the 2020 draft, I’d project them ahead of current presumptive No. 1 pick James Wiseman. There’s not a ton of 2020 optimism among teams at the moment, but 2021 and 2022 appear to be much, much more intriguing. I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence, but here we go again.