The 2021 NBA Draft Decoded

Hours before the grand event, confessions of an addict.

I’ve written in the past about my obsession with the NFL draft, which was similar to porn addiction in that it involved stacks of dog-earned magazines hidden under the bed. In recent years much of that sickness has moved over to a more digitized version of the NBA ritual, an event taking place tonight. It’s a year-round fixation. As surely as a smoker knows “Just this last pack” is a lie, I know as early as tomorrow night I’ll be surfing mock drafts for next year’s event.

I spent years developing a Unified Field Theory of NFL drafting that I remain convinced works, and would still give almost anything to be hired, even by the Jacksonville Jaguars, to test out. Principles include: always draft the “weed guy” (the talent who falls in the draft because of a positive marijuana test, like Warren Sapp or Randy Moss), don’t sleep on Samoans (perennially under-drafted for some reason), grab undersized running backs with great 40 times in the middle rounds (NFL scouts convinced such players “can’t take the pounding” annually pass on the likes of Darren Sproles and Maurice Jones-Drew), and most especially, observe the Justin Miller rule, i.e. steer clear of the player who gets arrested just before the draft, especially if it’s for something bizarre like driving a truck into a retirement home.

I have similar theories about the NBA draft, all based on the idea that professional teams can radically improve their hit rate (and, more to the point, decrease their bust rate) without ever scouting the players in person, or really doing anything at all beyond doing what I do, with the shame of a self-abusing hunchback, late every night: obsessively read draft previews by people like Kevin O’Connor and Adam Spinella, and watch grainy highlight videos on YouTube.

Three years ago I published the first draft of these rules. They included, never draft the “next Larry Bird,” pick whichever player Skip Bayless thinks is a bust, and flee the annual International Man of Mystery, i.e. the previously-unknown European with middling amateur stats who races up the draft boards in the last month as scouts fall in love with his weird name and “unique skillset.” That last one could have been called “The Darko Milicic Rule” or the “Dragan Bender Rule” or even the “Pavel Podkolzin Rule,” but it’s a near-constant in the draft ritual.

I know readers of this site come for more serious topics. I promise to make such outbursts rare, but I’d be useless on any other topic today anyway. It’s so bad my family knows not to approach me after sundown on draft night — not because I’ll lash out, but because I’m no longer there, my brain having already melted physically into the ESPN broadcast, like the poster shot in David Cronenberg’s underrated Videodrome.

Since 2017, there’s an exponentially larger amount of analysis, video, and data which have produced an almost entirely new set of insane scouting cliches, all of which I love. Having studied them, I’ve come up with new guidelines to add to my last list. In no particular order:

No Dogs Allowed: If a player makes it all the way through AAU ball and high school and his first year in college or the G-league and is still content to jack up shots, lose, and spend the rest of his time watching his awesome BallisLife mixtapes, that player is not going to suddenly become more motivated to play defense once he gets his first paycheck in the league. That player is a dog. Beware of that player.

Finding NBA stars outside the top 3 picks is a lot like finding quarterbacks in the NFL: the most dependable way is by accident. Just as NFL teams should just draft quarterbacks every year until they find one (because the flighty animals are impossible to scout), NBA GMs should just keep drafting physically capable players with long track records of playing hard on defense, and pray that some of them turn into Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Kyle Lowry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, etc. If the player is too small or too slow to guard anyone, or is Marvin Bagley, just move on to the next player who isn’t too small or too slow, or Marvin Bagley, and you might have something.

This is why I like players this year like Miles “Deuce” McBride of West Virginia, Herb Jones of Alabama, David Johnson of Louisville, and Usman Garuba of Real Madrid. Maybe none of them turn into stars, but players who try hard on defense usually at least reach their second contracts. Your job as an NBA GM is to not get fired, and it’s the guys who don’t finish their first deals with their original team who’ll send you back into broadcasting or some worse version of a real job. Have your radar up for the player with such evil intentions and cross him off your board.

Second-Tier Freaks: Much has been made of the fact that current NBA champion Giannis Antetokounmpo was drafted 15th, behind the likes of Anthony Bennett, Ben McLemore, Trey Burke, Alex Len, and Kelly Olynyk. That made more sense than it seems now in hindsight: Giannis wasn’t as tall in 2013, nor as ripped, and apart from his insane Martian hands, his physical profile wasn’t so incredible that you could overlook how raw his game was.

However, almost every year, there’s a player who’s physically monstrous who lasts way past the lottery or even into the second round. Often the player doesn’t know how to actually play basketball yet, but past a certain point in the draft, who cares?

Scouts are wildly inconsistent when it comes to falling in love with players based on physical potential. They will go bananas watching Yi Jianlian working out by himself (the chair story isn’t real!) but be unanimous in deciding Pascal Siakam won’t make it because he only annihilated human beings at New Mexico State. They’ll stake their jobs on the “explosive athleticism” of Anthony Bennett or Marquese Chriss in the lottery, but use secret insider scout math to put Rudy Gobert’s 7’9” wingspan as a “mid-20s value.” It never makes sense.

The case study this year is another Nigerian player from a small school, Western Kentucky’s Charles Bassey. Bassey had an injury, and supposedly has a reputation for being contact-averse, but this is a 6’11”, 230-pound behemoth who blocks shots, shoots threes, throws down earthquake jams off lobs, and looks like he could eat higher-rated players like Kai Jones and Josh Giddey. Maybe he doesn’t pan out, but clearly worth a dice roll after round 1.

Honorable mention: Yves Pons of Tennessee. He probably won’t get drafted, but athletically he’s a Ben10 alien and could be a small-ball center. He could also just be small. I’d take him late anyway, though.

Draft Villanova forwards: Villanova fours are the new Marquette wings. Coach Jay Wright keeps cranking out guys with Barkley-esque physiques who can at least contribute, but they keep getting under-drafted, from Omari Spellman to Eric Paschall to Saddiq Bey to, this year, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, who scouts say has short arms and inspires “questions about his upside.” Robinson-Earl is already a pro-level defender though, and will go late and outlast at least five of the GMs who pass him over.

Acquire unheralded Euros: I almost called this the “draft sucky Euros” rule, but that’s not quite it. However, it’s close. If you draft a foreign player who’s too good at 18 or 19, that player is going to want to come to the NBA as soon as possible, and will force the drafting team to either sign him or renounce his rights.

What you want is a player who is five or six years away from being good. Draft the player late, forget about him, let him get half a decade of professional coaching on someone else’s dime, then bring him back when he’s physically matured and just about to hit his prime at 27 or 28. This is the age when players like Nemanja Bjelica (who was drafted) and Daniel Theis (who was not) come back and have careers. Similarly, prioritize trading for the rights to any such late-drafted foreign player, even if you’ve never seen him play — maybe especially in that case. Look at the Oklahoma City Thunder, who now have the rights to reigning 27 year-old Euroleague MVP Vasilije Micić after acquiring him as an afterthought.

The Thunder not only followed the “acquire random Euros” rule, they applied the important corollary, “Always acquire the rights to foreign players in deals with the Philadelphia 76ers,” who seem to have a passion for giving away useful foreigners. Players who are candidates for the draft-and-forget strategy this year include Juhann Begarin, Belgium’s Vrenz Bleijenbergh (who may want to come over too soon, and also violates the next rule), and Amar Sylla.

Fat, not skinny: A heavy player can lose weight, but there’s nothing you can do to Shawn Bradley to keep his matchups with Shaquille O’Neal from turning into nature show videos. In fairness that was true of a lot of players, but the current rules, which don’t allow pushback from defenders, really hurt the kind of player who flies backward when hit with driving Harden-ass in the lane. Within a month last year poor 7’0”, 190-pound Aleksej Pokusevski was stopping when he got to the hoop to see if anyone maybe wanted to sock him before he took a layup. He shot 34% from the field. Maybe he’ll come around, but mostly those players don’t last. Meanwhile, fat skilled guys not infrequently become less fat, and good, like under-drafted players Marc Gasol, Big Baby Davis, Boris Diaw, etc.

This year’s obvious candidate is 6’8,” 270-pound Raiquan Gray, a sloppy-physiqued forward from Florida State with point guard skills. Alaskan point guard phenom Daishen Nix also will probably look much better once NBA trainers get a whack at de-cheeseburgering him. On the other hand, Ziaire Williams of Stanford looks like he will get the Dragan Bender treatment — elbows in the sternum every game, all game — for a couple of years anyway, and his brain may be broken by the time he can put the weight on. He’s a big talent, but no wraiths in the first round is a good rule.

This column is a cry for help. The way I remember it, I predicted that Gasol, Butler, Nikola Jokic, John Collins, Kyle Kuzma, Jusuf Nurkic, Gary Harris, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and Slo-Mo Anderson would be good picks. However, in darker moments, I suspect I may also have thought Justin Anderson, Melvin Frazier, Kyrylo Fesenko, Nathan Jawai, and Mfiondo Kabengele would be hits. It’s possible I even thought Stanko Barac would be good. I really can’t be sure. If I write down my thoughts, like Guy Pearce’s Memento character, I may later be able to piece together a real picture of how far gone things are. Again, I apologize if this is not what you signed up for. If you are a draft fan, however, enjoy tonight, and for the rest of the year — hide it from your family!