Grading the first round of the NBA draft

·18 min read

With Thursday’s NBA draft in the books, it’s time to take a look and grade how each team did in the first round.

1. New Orleans Pelicans

Zion Williamson, F, Duke

It’s fitting that Williamson will replace Anthony Davis as the face of the Pelicans. Not only is the former Duke standout the best prospect in this draft, he’s also the most promising player to come out of college basketball since Davis left Kentucky in 2012. Williamson frequently left mouths agape this past season with his soaring dunks, deft passes and dazzling body control. He’s also a potential elite defender who can guard multiple positions and cover teammates’ mistakes. Throw in Williamson’s unprecedented marketability, and he’s pretty much the ideal No. 1 pick for a franchise poised for success in the 2020s after landing nearly all of the Lakers’ long-term assets.

Grade: A

Zion Williamson, derecha, proveniente de la Universidad Duke, posa con el comisionado de la NBA Adam Silver tras ser elegido por los Pelicans de Nueva Orleáns en la primera ronda del draft de la liga, el jueves 20 de junio de 2019, en Nueva York. (AP Foto/Julio Cortez)
Zion Williamson shakes hands with NBA commissioner Adam Silver. (AP/Julio Cortez)

2. Memphis Grizzlies

Ja Morant, G, Murray State

Only a few years ago, Morant was an unranked, lightly recruited Class of 2017 guard headed to an Ohio Valley Conference school. Now he has a chance to follow in the footsteps of the likes of former small-conference stars Damian Lillard and Stephen Curry. The pairing of Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. gives Memphis two impressive young building blocks. Morant is a dynamic playmaker with blow-by speed and the improvisational ability to create separation against any defender. Comparisons to Russell Westbrook may be overly optimistic, but their college highlight reels do have some similarities.

Grade: A-

3. New York Knicks

R.J. Barrett, G, Duke

Excitement over Barrett reached its apex in 2017 when the 17-year-old led Canada to its first global men’s basketball title at the U-19 World Championships. Barrett’s signature performance was a 38-point, 13-rebound, five-assist tour de force in a semifinal victory over a talent-laden U.S team coached by John Calipari. While Williamson surpassed Barrett during their lone year together at Duke, the 6-7 wing still could emerge as a key piece for the Knicks. Barrett is hard-wired as a scorer and perhaps he evolves into a more willing passer and consistent outside shooter with time and maturity.

Grade: B+

4. Atlanta Hawks

De’Andre Hunter, F, Virginia

Atlanta general manager Travis Schlenk continues to be unafraid to trade up in the lottery in pursuit of a player he really covets. Last year, it was Trae Young. This year, it’s Hunter. Schlenk surrendered a lot of draft capital to add a player who doesn’t really have star potential, but Hunter is also a low-risk pick who should fit in well with the Hawks’ young core. The versatile combo forward is a potential 3-and-D specialist who can defend multiple positions and score efficiently from behind the arc or facing up from the elbow. Hunter no doubt boosted his stock in the national title game last April. He scored 27 points in Virginia’s overtime victory and held fellow lottery pick Jarrett Culver to 5-of-22 shooting.

Grade: B+

5. Cleveland Cavaliers

Darius Garland, G, Vanderbilt

The Cavs appear determined to pair Garland with last year’s first-round pick Collin Sexton despite glaring overlap between the two. Sexton is a 6-2 combo guard whose scoring is ahead of his passing and whose defensive ability is a concern. Garland is … a 6-2 combo guard whose scoring is ahead of his passing and whose defensive ability is a concern. While someone like Jarrett Culver might have been a better roster fit for the Cavs, Garland does at least have real potential. Before suffering a season-ending knee injury five games into his freshman season at Vanderbilt, the dynamic guard teased scouts with his polished footwork, tight handle and elite range and shot-making ability off the dribble.

Grade: C-

6. Minnesota Timberwolves

Jarrett Culver, G, Texas Tech

A promising role player on an Elite Eight team as a freshman, Culver made a massive leap as a sophomore. The 6-6 shooting guard led Texas Tech to within one victory of a national title even though he was the only one of the Red Raiders’ top six players who returned from the previous season. Culver lacks the explosive athleticism or shiftiness off the dribble to emerge as a star in the NBA, but the hard worker is a good bet to become a solid two-way starter. The key will be if he can become a more consistent outside shooter.

Grade: B

7. Chicago Bulls

Coby White, G, North Carolina

Step-back threes. Elegant spin moves. Breakneck speed. Boundless enthusiasm. White may yet emerge as a top-five player in this draft class if he improves his decision-making and becomes a more consistent perimeter shooter, but the ex-North Carolina point guard is already one of its must-see attractions. White plays at a relentless pace, fills it up in a hurry and puts pressure on a defense in transition. He’ll fill a massive need at point guard for the Bulls, who appear to have soured on incumbent Kris Dunn.

Grade: A-

8. New Orleans Pelicans

Jaxson Hayes, C, Texas

As a high school freshman, he was a backup on the freshman “B” team at Archbishop Moeller in Cincinnati. As a high school junior, he struggled to crack the varsity rotation and still assumed he’d have a brighter future in football. Now, after an unexpected growth spurt, the late-blooming Hayes is one of the best stories in the first round. He’s still raw and foul-prone and needs to add strength, but the bouncy 7-footer could have a future as a Clint Capela-type thanks to his 7-foot-3 wingspan, soft hands and excellent speed for his position.

Grade: B-

9. Washington Wizards

Rui Hachimura, F, Gonzaga

The son of a Beninese father and a Japanese mother, Hachimura arrived at Gonzaga in 2016 speaking little English. Once he familiarized himself with a new language and culture, he began to steadily improve, emerging as a multifaceted go-to scorer capable of taking smaller wings into the post and beating bigger players off the dribble. Hachimura will be the third Japanese native to play in the NBA — and he has a chance to be the first to make a major impact — but this was a little earlier than most expected him to come off the board. Whether Washington looks prescient or foolish for drafting Hachimura earlier than expected will likely depend on two things: his ability to consistently knock down 3-pointers and fulfill his potential defensively.

Grade: C

10. Atlanta Hawks

Cam Reddish, F, Duke

How you view Reddish as a prospect probably depends on where you place the blame for his enigmatic freshman season at Duke. Did the onetime No. 1 player in his class fail to make an impact consistently because he was miscast as a floor-spacing catch-and-shoot specialist on a team with so many other scoring options? Or was it symptomatic of his uneven effort and inability to finish through contact that he was unable to fully utilize his 6-8 frame, fluid athleticism and smooth shooting stroke? Just on talent alone, Reddish is a tantalizing prospect, but he’s not a player you can count on yet, nor is he a sure bet to ever fulfill his potential.

Grade: B-

11. Phoenix Suns

Cameron Johnson, F, North Carolina

Twenty-four players were invited to the NBA draft green room. Somehow the Suns took one who wasn’t there at No. 11 overall. On the bright side, Johnson is an elite shooter — maybe the best in the entire draft. As a senior at North Carolina, the 6-foot-9 combo forward shot 45.7 percent from behind the arc, excelling as a catch-and-shoot threat but also showing an ability to hit a pull-up jumper if a defender runs him off his spot. The problem is Johnson doesn’t do much else at an above-average NBA level. Nobody will mistake Johnson for a playmaker, rugged rebounder, slasher or defensive stopper. He can be a marksman off the bench, but as one of the oldest, most mature players in this draft, he doesn’t have much more upside than that. When you’re drafting in the lottery, you’d like to have higher expectations.

Grade: D

12. Charlotte Hornets

P.J. Washington, F, Kentucky

When he announced that he was returning to Kentucky for his sophomore season in May 2018, Washington’s goal was to solidify himself as a first-round pick. Mission accomplished, thanks to an impressive sophomore leap that culminated with him leading the Wildcats to a 30-win season and a trip to the Elite Eight. Washington doesn’t have the upside of some of the other prospects in this range, but he’s ready to fit into a rotation right away. He’s a capable rebounder and finisher at the rim and his jump shot is also improving.

Grade: B

13. Miami Heat

Tyler Herro, G, Kentucky

The Wisconsin fans who told Herro he’d never see the court at Kentucky probably feel pretty dumb now. Not only did Herro make an impact for the Wildcats after reneging on a previous commitment to the Badgers, he also impressed NBA scouts enough to ascend all the way into the lottery of the 2019 draft. While Herro is a high-level shooter who can hurt defenses running off screens or with the ball in his hands, he has offensive upside beyond that. He can attack a close-out or use a ball screen, and his ability to finish around the rim is continuing to improve.
Grade: C+

14. Boston Celtics

Romeo Langford, G, Indiana

Hailed as an early lottery pick entering his freshman season at Indiana, Langford fell well short of expectations during an injury-plagued campaign. He averaged 16.5 points per game but shot just 27 percent from behind the arc and tallied almost as many turnovers as assists as the Hoosiers careened to a 19-16 record. Langford has ideal size, physical tools and body control for an NBA wing, but he’ll have to demonstrate to opposing defenders that he’s a consistent threat as a perimeter shooter. He says a lingering hand injury hampered his shooting, but he was not a particularly convincing jump shooter before that.

Grade: B

15. Detroit Pistons

Sekou Doumbouya, F, Limoges France

The youngest player (18 years, 6 months old) in this year’s draft class is still learning the game, but scouts familiar with him say he has a prototypical power forward’s body, imposing physical tools and some legitimate shooting touch. Doumbouya averaged 7.8 points and 3.2 rebounds while displaying some real improvement during his first season in France’s top league. The 6-9 forward is a long-term project who offers intriguing upside in the middle of the first round. Good value for Detroit.

Grade: A-

16. Orlando Magic

Chuma Okeke, SF, Auburn

His torn ACL robbed him of the chance to play for Auburn in the Final Four, but Okeke’s ill-timed injury apparently did nothing to mar his draft stock. The Magic drafted him 16th overall, at least 10-15 picks higher than most mock drafts had him going. Okeke was a first-round talent before his injury thanks in large part to his defensive prowess. The 6-7 combo forward is a versatile defender, a ball hawk and an elite shot blocker. He also can run the court in transition and space the floor offensively with his ability to knock down perimeter jumpers.

Grade: B-

17. New Orleans Pelicans

Nickeil Alexander-Walker, G, Virginia Tech

Chances are you didn’t watch Virginia Tech much this past season, but Alexander-Walker has sleeper potential. He can carve out a role as a versatile shooting guard who can add outside shooting and perimeter defense while also serving as a secondary ball-handler. The 6-6 combo guard averaged 16.2 points and four assists last season for a Hokies team that reached the Sweet 16. He also shot over 37 percent from behind the arc despite enduring a late-season perimeter slump when he switched onto the ball in PG Justin Robinson’s absence.

Grade: B

18. Indiana Pacers

Goga Bitadze, C, KK Buducnost VOLI (EuroLeague)

For a 19-year-old playing in the EuroLeague this past season, Bitadze looked surprisingly comfortable. He averaged 12.1 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.3 blocks, becoming the first center to win the league’s rising star award since Andrea Bargnani 13 years ago. Those who are familiar with Bitadze describe the skilled 6-11, 250-pound big man as a high-floor player with soft touch at the rim and range out to the 3-point arc. His defense when he gets switched onto a guard on the perimeter is a weakness, but his other skills make up for that.

Grade: B+

19. San Antonio Spurs

Luka Samanic, F, Croatia

Of course, the Spurs would draft an international big man. And of course, the Spurs would take him about 10 picks higher than conventional wisdom suggested he’d be selected. Samanic is a 6-11 Croatian forward who does a little bit of everything offensively — shoot from the perimeter, attack the rim off the dribble or score with his back to the basket. He showed well at the NBA draft combine and then opted not to hold anymore workouts thereafter, apparently confident he had solidified himself as a first-round pick. Samanic goes to a team with a long history of success developing international prospects. Chances are he’ll be the next.

Grade: B

20. Philadelphia 76ers

Matisse Thybulle, G, Washington

If Thybulle wasn’t college basketball’s most disruptive defender last season, he was near the top of the list. The 6-6 senior showcased quick hands and elite instincts playing the passing lanes in Washington’s zone, becoming the only player in the past 20 years to average at least three steals and two blocks per game. Whether Thybulle can stick in the NBA will likely depend on two things: Can he contribute anything offensively? And can he defend as well in man-to-man as in zone? Thybulle had at least been a capable spot-up shooter prior to his senior season at Washington, but he sank only 30.5 percent of his threes last year. That has to be a one-year blip for him to carve out a role in the NBA as a 3-and-D specialist.

Grade: C-

21. Memphis Grizzlies

Brandon Clarke, F, Gonzaga

One of college basketball’s best players last season only had a scholarship offer from lowly San Jose State out of high school. Clarke overcame early concerns about his shooting, emerging as an elite defender and rebounder while also making great strides as an offensive weapon. At Gonzaga, Clarke was the perfect small-ball five, a bouncy athlete who scored efficiently around the rim, blocked shots and defended effectively in space. He can be an effective NBA rotation player if those skills translate to the professional level, no sure bet since he only stands 6-8.

Grade: B

22. Boston Celtics

Grant Williams, F, Tennessee

It’s an understatement to say the two-time SEC Player of the Year didn’t arrive at Tennessee with much fanfare. He likely would have enrolled at Wofford or an Ivy League school had Rick Barnes not watched the chunky forward play and recognized his potential if he got into shape. Williams is hard-nosed defender, deft passer and physical scorer who excels at getting to the free-throw line. For him to succeed in the NBA, he’ll have to prove he can score over taller, longer big men and extend his shooting range to beyond the 3-point arc.

Grade: B-

23. Oklahoma City Thunder

Darius Bazley, G, Princeton HS

Instead of playing for a marquee college like most of his fellow 2018 McDonald’s All-Americans, Bazley chose a more unconventional route to the NBA. He first announced he was backing out of his commitment to Syracuse to go straight to the NBA G League. He then changed his mind again and spurned the G League in favor of a incentive-laden shoe deal with New Balance. Credit Bazley for putting in the time to work on his body during his year away from basketball. He’s a project who will need some time in the G League, but teams like his long-term upside.

Grade: B

24. Phoenix Suns

Ty Jerome, G, Virginia

He won’t dazzle you with his explosiveness or his shiftiness. He doesn’t have a prototypical NBA body or wingspan. Nothing about Jerome’s physical tools screams first-round pick, but you can bet he’ll figure out a way to become a useful NBA role player anyway. One of the primary catalysts for Virginia’s national title run, Jerome averaged 13.6 points and 5.5 assists for the nation’s slowest-paced team. He showcased elite catch-and-shoot skills and the ability to pick opposing defenses apart out of the pick-and-roll. The quickness of NBA guards may pose a challenge for him initially defensively, but the 6-6 combo guard more than held his own against the ACC’s top perimeter scorers.

Grade: A-

25. Portland Trail Blazers

Nassir Little, F, North Carolina

The lottery seemed like a reach for a player who logged only 18 minutes per game last season at North Carolina and was mistake-prone at both ends of the floor. The late first round also seems like a steal for an explosive physical specimen rated as the No. 2 player in his class only a year ago. Little was a poor fit for a Tar Heels system that calls for two post players, but the long-armed, 6-6 combo forward also didn’t earn a bigger role. While he has elite defensive potential, he looked lost at times and struggled to make the right reads off-ball. He’s a menace on the offensive glass, but all other facets of his offensive repertoire need work. In short, there’s upside here but Little needs help unlocking it.

Grade: A-

26. Cleveland Cavaliers

Dylan Windler, F, Belmont

As Ja Morant soaked up the majority of the Ohio Valley Conference’s national media coverage, Windler quietly posted a season that was almost as impressive. The 6-8 forward flashed NBA potential by averaging 21.4 points while shooting 67 percent inside the arc and 43 percent behind it. Windler was outstanding in a 35-point performance against Maryland in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, but that was his only strong game against top non-conference competition. He averaged just eight points in games against UCLA, Purdue and Temple last season.

Grade: A-

27. Los Angeles Clippers

Mfiondu Kabengele, F, Florida State

The nephew of Dikembe Mutumbo doesn’t play anything like his uncle. Kabengele is only an adequate shot blocker, but the 6-10 big man compensates with his energy, athleticism, shooting touch and ability to finish around the rim. Kabengele was extremely productive on a per-minute basis this past season at Florida State, posting per-40 stats of 24 points and 11 rebounds per game. Leonard Hamilton’s unusual 11-man rotation limited his upside in college, but there’s no reason Kabengele can’t carve out a niche for himself in the NBA.

Grade: A-

28. Golden State Warriors

Jordan Poole, G, Michigan

With Klay Thompson likely to miss most of next season while recovering from his torn ACL, the Warriors targeted another shooting guard. They selected Poole, who left Michigan after a breakout sophomore season in which he averaged 12.8 points per game and shot 37.8 percent from behind the arc. The 6-foot-5 Poole is a good shooter, smooth ball-handler and a capable passer, but he has a long way to go on the defensive end. While Poole can help the Warriors if given time, you can’t help but wonder if someone like Kevin Porter Jr. might have been a better option at this spot.

Grade: C+

29. San Antonio Spurs

Keldon Johnson, G, Kentucky

Tough, competitive and aggressive, Johnson appears to be a good bet to carve out some sort of role off the bench in the NBA. He doesn’t do anything well enough to have star potential, but he’s solid in a number of different areas. He’s a powerful straight-ahead driver, a threat from behind the arc and a willing defender. Playmaking was the only facet of his game he didn’t showcase at Kentucky, where he averaged just as many turnovers as assists.

Grade: B-

30. Cleveland Cavaliers

Kevin Porter Jr., G, USC

Porter is a gifted scorer who can create his own shot, but his lone season at USC was tumultuous to say the least. Injuries and suspensions sidelined him for 12 games and hindered his ability to develop a rhythm during the rest of the season. As a result, he averaged a modest 9.5 points per game, struggled from the foul line and tallied more turnovers (39) than assists (30). Porter is a lottery-level talent who can do some things with the ball in his hands that few other players in this draft can do. There’s bust potential if his new team doesn’t surround him with role models and develop him, but this is great value with the last pick in the first round.

Grade: B-

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