Empire of the Suns NBA Draft Big Board 2.0: Zion’s separation grows

Feb 15, 2019, 8:05 AM | Updated: 2:36 pm
Duke forward Zion Williamson (1) drives to the basket past Texas Tech forward Tariq Owens (11) duri...

Duke forward Zion Williamson (1) drives to the basket past Texas Tech forward Tariq Owens (11) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

(AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

We are headed toward the end of conference play in college basketball, meaning we have certified some of our first risers and fallers of the 2019 NBA Draft process.

More to come through the NCAA Tournament, NBA Combine and so on, but for now, let’s update the board before March gets underway.

Once again, these rankings do not factor in the Phoenix Suns’ needs at this time.

Tier Zion (Tier 1)

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

I mean, it’s really just him and everyone else at this point when you talk about this class.

We will get to the Ja Morant hype. I get it. But, did you see the Notre Dame game?

This was the most “NBA optimized” we’ve seen Williamson play like at Duke.

Attacking closeouts, shooting off the dribble, scoring in the post, protecting the rim, providing off the dribble, making a guard consider quitting the sport after locking him up on the perimeter and of course the four to five “HOLY #&$^” athletic plays.

A few times a game I see him do something and I just ask, “what is this?”

What is that?

Oh yeah, and he’s shooting 68 percent, averaging over two blocks AND steals per game, plus 22 points a night! No one in Sports-Reference.com’s database has ever done that! He’s a freshman!

I see nothing else left to discuss.

Williamson is still “the guy” and I am extremely excited to watch what he does with the stage of the NCAA Tournament.

Tier 3

2. R.J. Barrett, G, Duke (18 years old) (–)

To further illustrate the gap between Williamson and the rest of this class, wave goodbye to Tier 2. Goodbye, Tier 2!

I’m not placing Barrett in his own tier anymore to split him from the rest of the rest, but I’m still feeling good about ranking him ahead of the rest.

Barrett simply has too many “really good NBA player” traits in his game. His footwork, quickness, size, finishing ability and scoring diversity are all advanced for his age.

Where some see a prospect who shoots too much and has that Kelly Oubre Jr.-in-transition tunnel vision, I see a young player who is very close to tweaking a couple things while maturing and becoming a force offensively at two-guard.

As I’m going to weigh in favor for the next two guys, the most valuable type of player in the NBA right now physically is someone who can play shooting guard or small forward, and even power forward with the right matchups. There’s a reason the Suns have three of ’em already.

Barrett checks that box and it should matter.

3. Cameron Reddish, G/F, Duke (19 years old) (▲1)

(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

We have life!

Reddish is actually doing stuff!

And by “stuff” I mean like this quick rip-through and ridiculous finish.

This is the type of “stuff” Reddish should pull off a couple of times a game. He’s that talented and is destined to provide outstanding value in that aforementioned spectrum both he and Barrett land on if he can reach his potential.

The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks wrote on why that talent and athletic profile shouldn’t make his disappointing play this year matter all that much, something I said putting him fourth in our first board.

Reddish is shooting 35 percent on 7.9 attempts a game, which isn’t actually too bad on that volume, but sometimes the way he shoots it makes you think he’s a certified sniper hiding in plain sight.

He’s still a top-five guy.

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

Uh oh! Since I placed Culver No. 3 back on Dec. 27, Culver has shot 12-of-57 from three-point land, good for 21 percent. Yikers!

Culver’s growth physically and confident-looking jumper were two of the biggest developments in this class and one of them has dropped off a cliff significantly.

With that in mind, we’re still seeing enough of his all-around package I covered on that initial big board.

Check out how his handle is coming along with that new-found strength around the rim. The stop and redirect to his left at the start of his montage against West Virginia is an NBA move, to say the least.

The Stepien’s Ben Rubin wrote a really smart piece on Culver’s lack of upside and that’s something to keep in mind with him. But I’ll still gladly put Culver top-five in this particular class.

There’s too much there when you combine his feel, skill and size.

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

By now, you are hurling projectiles at your screen in an attempt to break the universally-accepted laws of physics in hopes they travel through said screen and smack me in the face because we haven’t gotten to Morant yet.

Please remain patient.

Hunter has kept the pace on his scoring uptick, posting at least 15 points or more in more than half of his games in ACC play.

Oh, and he’s shooting 45 percent from 3-point range on 51 attempts.

As for the defense, this supercut from ESPN’s Mike Schmitz has you covered.

Wings, wings, wings. You need ’em and each of these five guys in the top-five are special in their own way.

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

(AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

By virtue of SportsCenter, social media and other factors, Morant has exploded onto the national scene much sooner than this writer expected.

He’s all over the place and nearly just as many people know his name as they do Williamson’s.

Morant’s production in the Ohio Valley Conference is absurd. A line of 23.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 10.2 assists per game (prior to Thursday’s action) is ridiculous, no matter where you are playing in the country.

With that being said, as someone who joined in on the fun of ranking him high early, I can’t get past the flaws.

No idea if he can defend, play in a non-reckless style or shoot.

The Stepien’s Jackson Hoy put together a package from Morant against Missouri State that shows all the warning signs of a guy who will be worrisome as a defender.

With the decision-making, I reference Ricky Scricca’s video thread below on the volatile range of Morant’s play when you really sit down and watch him. The feel is very questionable.

For the shooting, he was at 32.7 percent on 4.9 three-point attempts a night prior to Thursday’s game after 30.7 percent on 2.8 deep shots a game last year. He’s better off the dribble than off the catch, which is not a good sign.

Those are three big red flags he’s not going to be able to pull down throughout the draft process.

We’ll have much more on Morant and the Suns leading up to June, but since we’re on the topic, I’ll say I don’t understand the appeal in nearly any 19-year-old point guard for them, let alone one like Morant.

I understand he’s thrilling to watch and the Suns need a point guard. I don’t understand why he makes sense for them.

There’s a very small chance he clicks right away and a much larger chance it’s going to take him a few years to figure it all out, if he does at all. I don’t think that’s the right guy for the Suns, and a ball-dominant point at that for Ayton and Booker? No thank you.

As for my own personal rankings, I love his game, but can’t put him any higher for now.

7. Jaxson Hayes, C, Texas (18 years old) (NR)

(Nick Wagner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

New blood!

Every year there’s some center in this range that falls somewhere between Steven Adams, Jarrett Allen and Zach Collins.

Hayes is a terrific athlete and finisher for a big man.

This is FAST for a guy with a 7-foot-3 wingspan you project as the anchor defensively.

As The Stepien’s Cole Zwicker notes in the video below, rim protectors do not normally operate like this.

The negative twisted into a positive is that Hayes is incredibly raw. He didn’t play much high school ball, wasn’t this big until recently and you can really, really see it when you watch him play.

But his motor and athleticism package is special, and taking time developing him could pay off big-time for a team.

8. Nassir Little, F, North Carolina (19 years old) (▼1)

(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

I wrote on our inaugural edition that Little needs time.

He needs more, but he just left Monday’s game with an ankle injury, so it’s unclear if he’s going to get it.

He hasn’t been able to find a consistent role on the Tar Heels yet, nor has he had a breakout game or stretch outside of a 23-point night against Virginia Tech.

Little is the one to watch in March if he’s healthy.

9. Jontay Porter, C, Missouri (19 years old) (▲1)

Nothing new on Porter, who has been injured all year and will continue to be.

As someone who loves a good clip or two in a piece, check out Ben Pfeifer’s extensive breakdown of Porter’s tape from last season.

Tier 4

10. Kevin Porter Jr., SG, USC (18 years old) (▼2)

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Oh boy.

Porter’s return from injury in January had loads of excitement behind it, deservedly so for the hype his performances earlier in the season brought on.

In his return against Arizona, Porter once again showed all those wonderful flashes of scoring upside and energetic movement as a ball-handler. But including a two-game suspension for a conduct issue (alarming!), Porter’s point totals have been 14, 0, 6, 8, 7 and 5. In those six games, he played between 10-23 minutes.

Sounds like his ankle still isn’t where it needs to be, via the Los Angeles Times.

“I feel like I’m high 80s,” Porter said when asked if he’s 100 percent, “but there’s some days that I can’t practice. It gets irritated. When I was out, I had to put pressure on everything else, so a lot of my body is breaking down right now.

“It just took a toll on my explosiveness and athleticism. I’m not able to jump as fast or as high as I used to right now. I’ve just got to adjust, be more crafty and be a playmaker.”

Situation can dictate a whole lot for a one-and-done guy, and it appears that and some poor injury luck has bit Porter.

Hopefully, he settles into an important role by the start of the Pac-12 Tournament and can use that platform to regain some momentum.

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