Empire of the Suns NBA Draft Big Board 1.0: Zion Williamson is the prize

Dec 27, 2018, 9:01 AM | Updated: 5:08 pm
(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)...
(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Welcome back to another year of the NBA Draft being relevant to Phoenix Suns fans in late December.

As always, we start Empire of the Suns’ big board with 10 guys and will expand on it as we go, factoring in team need and more prospects later in the process.

Let’s dive in.

Tier 1

1. Zion Williamson, ?, Duke (18 years old)

After arguably one game, it was crystal clear that Williamson’s athleticism and skill combination is the top dog of this class. We say once-in-a-generation far too often and should save it for athletes like Williamson.

My guy Zion does jump cuts on drives like he’s a 2008 version of Adrian Peterson.

On those quick-twitch drives, don’t get blown away by the speed enough to ignore how high he can get to finish.

A straight-line dribble attack with a simple layup finish is a jaw-dropping clip for him. Did I mention yet that he weighs 285 pounds?

Put him on the other side of the field and he’s a 2004 ball-hawking Ed Reed or Sean Taylor.

Have you ever seen anything like those clips? Unless you spent some time in another galaxy 1) we have more to discuss and 2) no, you have never seen anything like that.

His handle is solid, his vision is strong and as every head on your television will tell you, too, Williamson’s competitive drive and intensity are unmatched. It’s not 100 percent clear what he is or where he plays, but his skill shown in a dozen games was reassuring for some of the doubters.

He’s the prize. There aren’t many years when we see such an undisputed split between the top guy and everybody else.

With that in mind, he is slightly flawed.

Williamson could absolutely live up to the expectation of a No. 1 pick without a jumper, but his jump shot is an undeniable negative of his game we have to mention. Conditioning and engagement defensively are minor concerns too. Still, that shouldn’t detract you from the level of prospect we are dealing with here.

He’s some mold of Charles Barkley, Ben Simmons and Bo Jackson. The fact that we have to use three players, two different sports and three talents of that high of a caliber to kind of, sort of but not really find a comparison for Williamson speaks to how special of a basketball prospect he is.

Tier 2

2. RJ Barrett, G, Duke (18 years old)

(AP Photo/Marco Garcia)

Barrett’s volume-scoring “Mamba Mentality” doesn’t get a fair shake.

His skill with the ball and physical profile mesh beautifully into a dynamite attacker of the rim. Fluidity and explosiveness of his level at his age as a 6-foot-7 two-guard? Sign me up.

What must be said, however, is that he’s got terrible chucker habits and when other guys fade out of a game and go invisible, Barrett becomes even more present with bad shots and inefficiency.

If this class were stronger, Barrett’s lack of a functional jumper and defensive pedigree could have him slide.

But this class lacks any real depth beyond these two on the All-Star potential level a top-five should have and Barrett’s NBA-defined ability/athleticism one-two punch is enough to separate.

Tier 3

3. Jarrett Culver, G/F, Texas Tech (19 years old)

This is an important part of the board to be distinct about the drop-off. A few different freshmen might be ranked here for some, but given their bouts with consistency in non-conference play, I’ll take the given skill of a guy like Culver. He’s good to great at just about everything.

Culver can handle the ball, make plays off the dribble, set up his teammates, score for himself and shoot after growing in that department over the offseason.

He makes plays defensively, has passable quickness and explosion with a frame that is encouraging. As The Stepien’s Ben Rubin has investigated, Culver looks to be the type growing into the likes of a bulky 6-foot-8 wing.

That’s relevant in Culver’s outlook when you consider the all-around aspects of his game to make plays like this and fit into multiple roles on both ends of the floor.

Through 11 games this year, Culver’s rapid improvement had him averaging 19.6 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game on a 64.1 true shooting percentage. The first-round NBA prospects to post at least 18-5-4 on 60 TS% or higher since 1993 are James Harden, George Hill, Luke Jackson, Damian Lillard, Brandon Roy, Denzel Valentine, Delonte West and this year’s Ja Morant.

If you’ve seen a majority of those players at their best, you understand the archetype of offense we are talking about: playing at their own speed, controlling the flow and having the ability to make multiple plays and decisions out of any situation.

Culver had doubts about the strength of schedule with his statistical uptick as a sophomore but then responded against Duke with 25 points, six rebounds, four assists, a block and two steals on 9-of-21 shooting.

Culver’s chances of being a first banana are slim, but imagining him as a secondary ball-handler next to another young stud like Devin Booker, Luka Doncic or De’Aaron Fox feels like where he could really explode and be a tremendous player.

4. Cameron Reddish, G/F, Duke (19 years old)

I can’t tell if Reddish playing with Barrett and Williamson is the best or worst thing for his draft stock. As “the guy” on Connecticut or UCLA, would he have been even worse or would more control of the offense keep him more aggressive?

Important context here is that before Williamson won this draft by TKO 14 seconds into the first round, there was a case that Barrett, Bol Bol, Nassir Little, Reddish or Williamson could be the No. 1 pick this year.

Reddish is the most well-rounded of the five. At his apex, he’s a 6-foot-9 point forward who can score from all three levels and defensively switch on four positions. What he’s turned into at Duke, though, is a reluctantly accepting third wheel who takes over 60 percent of his shots from 3-point range.

As it was crucial to consider when Deandre Ayton had similar concerns before he arrived at Arizona, Reddish entered his time with the Blue Devils having concerns around floating and failing to consistently impact games. All he is doing at Duke is proving that right.

He should be right alongside Barrett in the debate for No. 2 and solidly in that tier, but for the time being, he’s down here and could slide even further.

5. De’Andre Hunter, F, Virginia (21 years old)

(AP Photo/Andrew Shurtleff)

You’ll remember Hunter from last year, firmly in the conversation for a lottery spot if he had declared for the draft.

Instead, he came back to school, and it was a terrific choice.

Hunter’s sky-high defensive prospects still stand, and he’s had the necessary improvements as an offensive player by scoring with efficiency.

What’s unclear is if he’s more of a super glue guy in a different mold of Mikal Bridges or has more untapped offensive potential.

That mattered when ranking him last year with the depth of that class, but not so much this year. He’s reliable and solid, which means if some of these younger guys start to figure some things out that he will slide down.

6. Ja Morant, PG, Murray State (19 years old)

Cool name, even cooler player to watch.

Morant is the Ohio Valley Conference’s Russell Westbrook.

Major explosion, major decision-making concerns, we’re not sure if he can shoot, we are sure he has an outstanding handle and a nonstop thrill of a viewing experience. If he was playing at Texas or Maryland we’d be talking about him all the time.

But because he’s at Murray State, you don’t hear much about him and he’s also not going to play against that strong of competition.

That’s why his game against a top-10 team in the country in Auburn on Dec. 22 was ginormous for him and he essentially confirmed everything that’s good and bad about him.

I know you might scroll past some videos, but seriously, watch what this kid can do.

Before you hop on the train, the highlights don’t show the bad, which included at one point getting caught in the air and trying to lob it to himself off the backboard from the 3-point line.

I’m buying because the passes Morant sees and executes are encouraging with his athleticism and scoring instincts.

If Murray State makes the NCAA Tournament and they can win at least two games behind Morant’s level of play, I think he’s gonna go in the top-five.

Can’t put him any higher because he’s a potential disaster with the turnovers and questionable jumper, but keep an eye out for those rare nights this year he’s actually on TV.

7. Nassir Little, F, North Carolina (18 years old)

(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Little needs time.

He possesses the physical gifts and mindset to be a lockdown guy of four different positions. The bonus is his jumper, a silky-looking release he’s improved on greatly and should continue to see growth.

He’s become comfortable enough with it off the dribble, where he can also go the rim, and that’s where you see the complete two-way potential of him as a modern NBA wing.

When you actually watch Little, though, you’ll see a player that is still finding himself. His vision and decision-making is a wreck, the jumper’s form and flight path drastically change at times and the overall instincts on both ends need to be groomed.

Complaints aside, his energy is a game-changer, as is his overall upside we just discussed.

If there’s one player we talk about in this space that can vault all the way to No. 2 over the next three months, it’s Little.

8. Kevin Porter Jr., G, USC (18 years old)

(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Porter is the best three-level scorer in the class and has moves on moves on moves to do so.

Add in his pop athletically with the usual crafty nonsense lefties have and you’ve got a potential dynamite two-guard.

Despite his flash, Porter needs to be more productive, posting 11.7 points per game in six appearances. Part of that is his role on USC, where they don’t seem to realize he’s their best player yet, and he’s also working his way back from a quad contusion.

If he can get a big rise in volume, some big-time performances from Porter in Pac-12 play could vault him squarely in the top-five while also giving us a more concrete stance on his overall upside.

9. Bol Bol, C, Oregon (18 years old)

We are going to keep it short on Bol. I’ll be seeing him in Tempe mid-January so I’ll have more on him at that time.

All you need to know at this juncture is dude is 7-foot-2 and can do this:

But he also lacks several fundamentals and basics as a basketball player.

But he launches NBA threes and has a two-dribble floater.

He’s the most volatile draft prospect in some time and I can’t wait to see how this turns out.

Tier 4

10. Jontay Porter, C, Missouri (18 years old)

Porter finished at No. 12 on last year’s rankings before coming back to school and he slides into the top-10 for our debut board this year.

Unfortunately, Porter tore his ACL and MCL in October, ruling him out for the rest of the year.

As a playmaking stretch five with room to grow athletically, Porter’s role in a modern NBA offense is as evident as his overall limitations. Like a few more prospects we will cover in this top-10, Porter’s certainty of skills makes him safe in this spot.

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