The 2015 NBA Draft is squarely in the rearview and a number of draftees have already provided a taste of what is to come with their summer league play. I held off on my grades until now because I wanted a better context in which to evaluate each team’s selections, with free agency and summer league providing greater perspective. Sometimes, selecting the best available player isn’t the best course of action and it is wiser to nab a player who fits a clear need, which should always be considered when rating how each front office fared in the draft. I’ve already run down my thoughts on the Atlantic, Central, Southeast, and Pacific divisions, and next up is a look at the Northwest Division:
Team Needs: Point guard. Talent and depth.
The Nuggets entered the 2015 draft with a number of glaring holes, which isn’t a surprise for a team coming off a 30-win campaign. Denver’s primary need was a point guard to replace Ty Lawson, whose tenure with the team came to an end when he was unceremoniously dealt to the Rockets this summer. Denver certainly addressed that need when it nabbed Emmanuel Mudiay, the second-ranked point guard in this year’s draft, with the No. 7 overall pick.
Landing a player of Mudiay’s potential outside of the top five picks has to be considered a win for the Nuggets, though he doesn’t arrive without some question marks attached. Having bypassed playing college ball at SMU in order to head overseas to China, the young guard is a bit of a wild card, which is likely why he was still on the board when it was Denver’s turn on the clock. Mudiay has an NBA-ready frame, an abundance of athleticism, as well as a lofty ceiling as far as his NBA potential goes, but like any young guard, he still has a lot to learn about being an NBA playmaker. There are also concerns about Mudiay’s jump shot and if he’ll be able to keep defenses honest by draining his outside shots consistently.
Mudiay is likely to have a rough first season, not only because of his expected rookie growing pains, but also due to the lack of talent surrounding him. But regardless of how his initial campaign in the NBA goes, Denver made the right call by selecting Mudiay, and not just because he fills an obvious need. He may also emerge as one of the top talents in the entire draft. He’ll certainly take his lumps this season, but Mudiay could end up being an All-Star by his third or fourth year in the league.
Overall Draft Grade: A. While Mudiay is a bit of a wild card, he has a wealth of talent and potential, and should give Nuggets fans reason to hope for a better tomorrow. An excellent pick by GM Tim Connelly.
Team Needs: Depth in the frontcourt and point guard, outside shooting.
It’s natural to think that possessing the top selection in the draft and having the pick of the litter of the player pool should ensure that a team gets it right. But looking back over past drafts, that’s not always the case, with the most recent example being Anthony Bennett, who reached a buyout arrangement with Minnesota this week after two unspectacular seasons in the NBA. Time will tell if Flip Saunders made the right call by nabbing Towns over D’Angelo Russell and Jahlil Okafor, but I’m a big believer that Minnesota absolutely nailed it with this pick.
Towns didn’t have eye-popping stats during his lone season at Kentucky, but that was a result of the Wildcats’ ridiculous depth and effective platoon system. He would have been a shoo-in for NCAA Player of the Year honors on almost any other college squad. Few players come along who possess Towns’ brilliant combination of size, speed, skill, and athleticism, and Timberwolves fans should be truly excited about the possibilities heading forward, not only for Towns, but the franchise as a whole.
But despite all my gushing over Towns, I do need to dial down fans’ expectations a bit for the coming season. He is still very much a work in progress, and though he should be a solid contributor from the outset, I don’t expect his rookie season to be an easy ride. Towns still needs work on his post moves and outside shot, and he’ll need time to adjust to the bigger, stronger players at the professional level. Keep in mind that Anthony Davis, who is well on his way to becoming the best player in the NBA, notched averages of “only” 13.5 points and 8.2 rebounds per contest his rookie year.
I would have raved about Minnesota’s draft if it ended with Towns, but acquiring the No. 24 pick from Cleveland to nab Duke point guard Tyus Jones was an excellent follow-up move. Jones has the potential to develop into an absolute steal for Minnesota, and he also fills the Wolves’ need for depth at the point. Given the unknowns regarding the health and future of incumbent starter Ricky Rubio with the franchise, and Zach LaVine not being a true point guard, adding Jones was a wise move. Jones lacks elite athleticism and speed, but he has virtually every other skill and intangible that one would desire from a point guard. I don’t expect much from Jones this coming season, but he could become a big part of Minnesota’s future if the team develops him properly.
Overall Draft Grade: A+. It’s hard to find any fault with Minnesota landing the most talented player in the draft in Towns, who has the potential to become a superstar. I also love the addition of the underrated Jones late in the first round.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Team Needs: Backcourt depth.
OKC filled its biggest need with the selection of Cameron Payne, who, hopefully for the Thunder, won’t become the next talented guard the team will deal away rather than sign to an extension. Following in the footsteps of James Harden and Reggie Jackson, Payne, who shot up draft boards late in the process, will be asked to provide scoring off the bench and be an insurance policy in the event that Russell Westbrook suffers another injury.
Payne is a versatile guard who is a tantalizing blend of scorer and playmaker. He has excellent fundamentals and a high basketball IQ, and while he doesn’t possess blazing speed, Payne is deceptively quick. He is an excellent mid-range shooter, a skill that seems to be quickly becoming a lost art around the league, and he’ll also keep defenses honest from beyond the arc. There is quite a bit to like about Payne as a player, and while he’ll need some time to acclimate to the speed of the NBA game, he has the potential to become a special player in the league.
I also like the team nabbing Kentucky center Dakari Johnson late in the second round. He was buried on Kentucky’s depth chart and his stats suffered as a result. Johnson is not likely to be a starter in the league anytime soon, but the team can certainly develop him into a solid rotation big. He will sign with the team’s D-League affiliate this season, which is great for the Thunder, as they will still retain his NBA rights, and the young big will get some time to develop away from the bright lights of the NBA.
Overall Draft Grade: A. A very solid draft for the Thunder who landed a talented guard in Payne, as well as an intriguing prospect in Johnson.
Team Needs: Talent. Depth in the frontcourt and at the wing.
- No. 41 Overall — Pat Connaughton, SG, Notre Dame*
- No. 54 Overall — Daniel Diez, SF, Spain**
**Acquired from Jazz for cash.
Portland traded away its 2015 first-rounder along with Blake for Plumlee, who was the No. 22 overall pick back in 2013, and a second round pick, which they used to select Connaughton. The Blazers decided to go with a more known quantity in Plumlee, whom they will task with helping to replace LaMarcus Aldridge, rather than trying to strike gold with a rookie via the draft.
Plumlee, 25, has shown promise, though he wasn’t necessarily utilized well during his time in Brooklyn, and a change of scenery, coaches, and systems should benefit the third-year player. The only negatives regarding this deal that I see are that Plumlee, whose contract includes a team option for the 2016/17 season, can hit restricted free agency in two years, whereas a player selected in this year’s draft would come with up to four years of complete team control, and that Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, whom the Nets grabbed with Portland’s pick, would have been a nice replacement for Wesley Matthews, who signed with Dallas this offseason.
The addition of Connaughton in the second round is an intriguing pick for the team. The 22-year-old out of Notre Dame is a freak athletically, and his predraft workouts were rather impressive in that regard. Connaughton is a project who will take some time to develop, but he was a good gamble for a team that could use some luck for a change. He’s not likely to become a starter in the NBA, but he has the potential to be an impact player off the bench at some point.
Overall Draft Grade: B. I like Portland adding a more established player in Plumlee, who should benefit by the change of scenery, via trade, though Hollis-Jefferson would have been a nice fit in Rip City as well.
Team Needs: Backcourt depth, stretch four, scoring.
Utah has quietly accumulated a very solid collection of talent over the past couple of seasons, and the team entered the draft without any glaring holes to fill. This allowed GM Dennis Lindsey to focus on fine-tuning his rotation and looking for specific skillsets to complement his existing roster. One need that the Jazz do possess is a stretch four to replace Enes Kanter, whom they dealt to Oklahoma City last season, and Lyles is the man they are counting on to fill that void.
Lyles is a solid and athletic forward whose game is quite versatile, and he should fit Utah’s system perfectly. As was the case with Towns, Lyles’ college numbers weren’t all that impressive, thanks to Kentucky’s depth, but he showed more than enough promise to justify having been a lottery pick. He will also benefit greatly from playing behind Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward, which should give Lyles ample time to ease into the league without receiving undue pressure to perform immediately. I’m a big fan of this pick, and a number of front office types whose teams selected ahead of Utah may end up kicking themselves over allowing Lyles to slip past them.
The Jazz didn’t fare as well as in the second round, selecting Boston College point guard Olivier Hanlan at No. 42 overall. Hanlan has some potential, thanks to his size and scoring ability, but I’m not sold on him being an NBA point guard. He has the look of a player who is ticketed for overseas play or the D-League, and I think Utah would have been better served to instead take Oregon’s Joseph Young, who went to the Pacers with the very next pick. Young isn’t a pure point guard either, but he is a more explosive scorer than Hanlan is, and I believe he’ll have a more successful NBA career than the BC playmaker.
Overall Draft Grade: B+. Utah adds another solid young piece to its roster in Lyles, but the team could have done better in the second round than it did with Hanlan.