The 2019 NBA Draft class is not particularly well-stocked with big men. This is in sharp contrast to the 2018 draft, which saw three big men go in the top four, and five in the top seven, and all of whom were well deserved in getting selected that high. The best prospect in the 2019 draft, Zion Williamson, will be a big man at the next level, but it’s possible no other big man will be taken in the top 10. With so many bigs falling, it’s likely that teams could get good value on big men later in the draft. To determine which prospects might be “steals” or not, I did my usual statistical analysis of the big men of the 2019 class.
Last year, in my article on which college stats are important for determining success in the NBA for big men, I found a few interesting things. First, points scored are actually a negative coefficient in a regression model, meaning that prospects who scored more points per game generally did worse in the NBA. This can be explained away by the idea that big men in college generally have an even more significant size advantage than they do in the NBA, so pure scoring production is easier for them, and that it therefore also comes in different ways than it would in the NBA. Second, rebounds and blocks, the traditional big man stats, are, unsurprisingly, positive correlators for success: not many big men are positive impact basketball players without being good at one of those things. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, assists per game are key.
In the modern NBA, every single player on the court needs to be able to make quick reads on both sides of the ball. On offense, getting good looks against set defenses with modern schemes and the incredible amount of length present is dependent on moving the ball without hesitation and looking for open teammates all over the court. Assists aren’t a direct translation to court vision or quick thinking, but they’re as close as “basic” stats can get. Big men who can’t pass the ball or lack the ability to read the court simply won’t be as useful in a modern NBA offense. The one exception is for rim-runners, guys like DeAndre Jordan and Clint Capela whose only job is to set picks and run to the rim for dunks and putbacks. And for that reason, true shooting is also important: if you’re not going to help an offense through passing and ball movement, you’d better be a great finisher.
As always, my analysis is based on averaging the last two years of college production together (for freshmen, this means just their single season), and using actual production, not per 40 minutes or 100 possessions. To my way of thinking, if players can’t get large number of minutes in college basketball, it’s less likely they will receive them in the NBA either. This methodology rewards players who actually produced at the college level, and gives some leeway to upperclassmen who improved significant towards the end of their college careers. Without further ado, here are the stats of the college big men class of the 2019 NBA Draft (from ESPN’s top 100 prospects).
2019 NBA Draft Big Man Prospects
The first thing that jumps off the page is that Zion Williamson is a stud of the highest order. He’s the youngest player on this list, yet absolutely crushes everyone statistically – it’s easy to see why he’s the best college prospect since Anthony Davis in 2012. Secondly, it quickly becomes clear that the second-best big man prospect (by the numbers) is Brandon Clarke from Gonzaga. Clarke is old for a prospect, and somewhat undersized, but there’s no denying how great a player he was in college. The question is whether that production will translate to the NBA (I think it will). Finally, Jaxson Hayes’ numbers are somewhat lower than most of his peers, as he played fewer minutes due to youth, rawness, and foul-prone tendencies. Extrapolated to higher minutes per game, his production looks quite good. Now, let’s dive into a handful of players who I think will provide great, good, or poor value at their current mock draft positions.
Jontay Porter: I talked about Jontay being a steal in my article on this subject last year. Jontay ended up returning to college, not liking where he was projected to be drafted. Unfortunately, he tore his ACL before the season started, his second torn ACL in as many years, a very worrying sign. Jontay certainly has medical red flags, and it’s possible he never plays an NBA game, or only a handful because his body can’t hold up. However, he’s being projected to fall to the late 2nd round, and at that area, his talents are impossible to ignore. He’s a great passer, a solid defensive player, and he can shoot from deep. More importantly, he’s capable of making swift reads on both sides of the ball, which, as mentioned above, is crucial in today’s NBA. He doesn’t have the defensive upside of a Draymond Green or Al Horford, but shares their intellect and decision-making. If Jontay is ever healthy in the NBA, I think he’s a lock to be at the least a highly competent backup, and more likely a starting level player. I will be upset if he’s available at 48 and the Clippers pass on him.
Brandon Clarke: Sorry, I lied. I had to mention Brandon Clarke here. He was probably the second-best player in college basketball behind Zion last year, and is both very smart and incredibly athletic. Undersized and with a small wingspan, Clarke doesn’t have the “dimensions” for NBA success. But sometimes, skill, intelligence, and sheer athleticism are more important. Clarke should be one of the better big man defenders in the NBA, and will also be useful on offense due to his finishing ability and soft touch. While it seems likely he gets selected somewhere in the lottery, I think he’s a top 5 prospect statistically, and would provide incredible value for a team picking in the late lottery or mid-teens.
Bol Bol: Bol is a fascinating prospect. He has the shooting touch and ball-handling ability of a guard, yet is 7’2 with a 7’8 wingspan. Unfortunately, he also has the frame of a person around a foot shorter as well, combining a laughably skinny body with an alarming lack of muscle. At the same time, Bol doesn’t move well at all laterally, and has poor defensive instincts, making him a likely below-average defender at the NBA level despite his size and rim-protecting ability. I think there’s a very good chance he doesn’t play more than 100 games in the NBA due to the defensive weaknesses and poor frame/size. However, the upside for him is extraordinary. If he’s able to pack on a lot of weight/muscle (a la Giannis) and stay healthy, he could be one of the better offensive big men in the NBA, a dynamic scorer, shooter, and creator who can do damage all over the court. This draft lacks high-end upside, making Bol a good play for any team after the lottery, and perhaps even towards the tail end of it.
Mfiondu Kabengele: Kabengele has a nice shooting touch, and that has propelled him up draft boards to the late 1st round. Unfortunately, he has awful passing, court vision, and feel for the game. He makes reads far too slow, or not at all, which undermines his shooting ability, as he can’t optimize it to make plays for others. He’s a fine prospect later in the draft, but his combination of “meh” efficiency and extremely low assist rate makes me wary of selecting him higher. If he falls to the Clippers, he’d be a decent pick. But if they trade up, I’d prefer they avoid him.
Tacko Fall: Tacko Fall is a massive, massive man. He’s 7’6 if he’s an inch, meaning that he positively dwarfs even Boban Marjanovic. The problem is that he shares all of Boban’s weaknesses (easily fatigued, extremely slow on the perimeter, not suited for up-tempo play), and none of his strengths (soft touch, excellent passing). Clippers fans know first-hand that while Boban is fun, he’s not really capable of getting consistent minutes in the NBA, being suited more for very specific occasions (defending inbounds, for example) and highly situational two-three minute runs where he can swing a game with his uniqueness. Fall will be like that, but even more so, and I have doubts that without Boban’s passing or touch, he’s really much of an NBA player at all. He should be extremely fun, but I would pass on using even a late 2nd on him. He could maybe be an interesting flier in training camp, but some team will likely use a pick on him.
Do any of these big men stand out to you? Would you want the Clippers to take any of them with one of their second round picks? Discuss in the comments below!