Tuesday night at approximately 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN, the NBA draft lottery results could add a level of intrigue to the race for the No. 1 pick.
“If it’s a team like Philly, how could they draft [Karl-Anthony] Towns or [Jahlil] Okafor if they have the first pick, when they already have Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid? And they traded Michael Carter-Williams [this season],” one Eastern Conference general manager said. “Maybe they move down and pick two or three, but [Emmanuel] Mudiay or [D’Angelo] Russell could go No. 1. Sam Hinkie is a wild card. He was the only GM to see Mudiay in person in China.”
“I think it’s open at the top,” another East general manager said. “I think there’s a lot of talent up there, and it’s fairly deep. It wouldn’t shock me if one of the guards went No. 1.”
Leading up to and during the NBA Draft Combine, Bleacher Report gathered inside perspective on the top six prospects—Mudiay, Okafor, Russell, Towns, Kristaps Porzingis and Justise Winslow—from several NBA executives, scouts and trainers who are directly tied to the players. Below are highlights gleaned from the conversations.
Emmanuel Mudiay- DR Congo
Offense: Mudiay is a versatile point guard who excels in the pick-and-roll and the post. “He’s a big, strong guy that can take advantage of mismatches,” said his trainer, Joe Abunassar, who’s been working with him for the past two months in Los Angeles. “What makes him so good is that the stuff he does translates very well to the NBA. I think he probably will be a better NBA player than he would’ve been in college.”
Whereas many young point guards tend to play too fast, Abunassar said Mudiay has a knack for timing and creativity off the dribble with his crossover, pull-up jumpers and hesitation moves to get to the basket. Those traits, along with his speed, enable him to be effective in transition and the half court. “His high basketball IQ has always been really impressive to me,” said a scout with the Chinese Basketball Association, where Mudiay played this season. “He has a very good vision that’s more mature than his age.”
Defense: It’s a work in progress, with signs of upside. “We’ve been working on defending pick-and-rolls and pressing up on guys,” Abunassar said. “I think his lateral speed is outstanding, and has ability to change directions.”
Improvements: For one, Mudiay’s jump shot. “A Spurs scout thought that he had a very good form, but he just needed to work on being more consistent,” the CBA scout said. “Everyone says it’s lack of practice.” Abunassar said that’s been a key focus in training, and Mudiay has improved. “He has elite range and mechanics,” he said. In addition, Mudiay needs to be a bit more efficient with his mid-range game. “He likes to attack the basket every time, and he can probably stand to pull up more,” the CBA scout said. “If he wants to have longevity in his career, he has to choose when to attack wisely.”
Intangibles: Mudiay, who can speak French, understands how to adjust to new cultures. He went from being born in the Congo to living in the states for high school and then heading to China to play professionally. Even though he sprained his ankle there and missed most of the season—he’s been healed for a few months—he stuck out his contract and put in the rehab and shooting work. “One of my clients is Yi Jianlian, and he played with Emmanuel in China,” Abunassar said. “The first thing he said to me about Emmanuel was, ‘He’s a good kid and a hard worker and a really good player.'”
Questions: Due to the injury, Mudiay only played about 10 games. “It’s sort of like a Kyrie Irving [when he was at Duke], who played a few number of games,” said longtime NBA scout and consultant Chris Ekstrand. “He has a very small sample size of high-level basketball.” Only the Lakers, Pelicans, Sixers, Spurs and Timberwolves saw Mudiay play briefly in person in China.
Comparisons: Mudiay has been likened to John Wall. Abunassar had a more specific comparison: the size and point guard skills similar to Chauncey Billups, with the athleticism and scoring mentality of Baron Davis. “He’s a big guard, great vision, athletic,” an East general manager said. “I think he’s going to be a really special player.”
Jahlil Okafor- Duke
Offense: Okafor is the best low-post player in the draft—NBA-ready to be a starting center and get plenty of touches on the block. “He’s going to have more of those opportunities the first month he plays in the NBA than he had in a year at Duke,” Ekstrand said. “If he’s shooting 60 percent from the field, believe me, there’s not going to be one-on-one coverage for very long. But at least initially in the NBA, they’re going to make him prove that. If he can consistently draw double-teams, that is huge to create space in today’s NBA.”
Because of Okafor’s huge hand size and court vision, he has total control and mastery of the ball. He can hold the ball out well with one hand and make over-the-shoulder passes to cutters or zip passes to teammates in the baseline corner. “He’s a perfect fit for the Knicks and their triangle offense,” a league executive said. A former general manager added: “His ability and willingness to pass the ball are some of his strengths right now.” Once Okafor makes a move, he has various fakes and counters, and he can finish equally with either hand. He can also face up and knock down the 10-foot bank shot, Tim Duncan-esque.
Defense: Ekstrand argues that Okafor’s defensive grade is still incomplete because the potential No. 1 pick was coached to lay back on that end. “People say he didn’t play great defense, he didn’t defend the pick-and-roll,” Ekstrand said. “But at Duke, they didn’t want him committing aggressive fouls on defense. If he’s going to have two to three on the offensive end, you don’t want him to have any on the defensive end because you want him to be in the game.”
The league executive agreed to a certain extent but still foresees issues for Okafor defensively. “Let’s assume that argument is right with Duke—that he was saved, he was never coached and he wants to play D,” he said. “He’s still not going to block shots. He’s also going to have a hard time chasing around perimeter 4’s. He’s an offensive-minded 5. I think with Okafor, you need a guy like [Serge] Ibaka next to him—a guy that cleans up the glass and blocks shots.”
Improvements: No matter the debate on his overall defense, most agree Okafor needs to get better laterally on defense. At this point, he has a tendency to let perimeter opponents drive by him. “The thing that people are concerned about is the way he looked against a guy like [Frank] Kaminsky in the national championship,” Ekstrand said. “Kaminsky is a new age-type center where he’s a perimeter player, and he weighed in at like 232 [at the combine], and he measured at 7’0″. How well is [Okafor] going to adapt defensively to playing against guys like that?”
Intangibles: Okafor headlined the 2014 high school class, led Duke to a national championship—while only missing one game—and now is the potential No. 1 pick. He’s got success and durability on his side. “He’s a guy that you can build an offense around,” the league executive said. Adam Hewitt, the assistant general manager at P3 Peak Performance Project, where Okafor is training, added: “He’s humble, hard-working and far from reaching his athletic potential.”
Questions: “I think diet and whether or not he’s got the true desire to be one of the best would be the areas where I’d kind of focus in,” the former general manager said. “He’s got all the talent in the world, and he could arguably be not only the No. 1 pick, but the No. 1 player 10 years from now out of this draft group. But he’s going to have to want it and put it into practice if he’s going to get there.”
Comparisons: Al Jefferson. “Hopefully he’s not that bad as a defender and he’s got two good knees,” the league executive said.
D’Angelo Russell- Ohio State
Offense: While Mudiay is seen as more of a fundamental yet athletic attacking point guard, Russell is viewed as a flashier and more skilled passing point guard, with a better three-point shot. But the dishing is really what may elevate Russell slightly ahead of Mudiay in the draft. “The art of passing—that’s what it comes down to,” the East general manager said. “He has great vision with the ball. He throws sidewinder bounce passes, Bob Cousy-ish.”
Ekstrand said a unique attribute about Russell is his clutch gene. “Simply put, he was able to make shots when the offense [at Ohio State] didn’t work,” Ekstrand said. “Russell was able to make a shot on ball reversals or create a shot for himself in the last few seconds of the shot clock. That’s hard to do.”
Defense: “I just think he’s got great hands defensively, great anticipation defensively, a guy with good strength,” the East general manager said.
Improvements: Pick-and-roll defense. While Russell matches up well with players his own size, there’s some question about how well he’ll guard shorter, quicker point guards. “His size is such a plus when he has the ball being guarded by a smaller guy,” Ekstrand said, “but it’s somewhat of a detriment if you’re asking him to guard guys like Chris Paul.”
Intangibles: Russell’s height. At 6’5″, he’s able to see over the defense more and beyond the typical congestion in the lane to make trickier passes faster and look easy at times. “There are things that are more open to you,” Ekstrand said. “You don’t have to be at the perfect angle to make the pass every time.”
Russell can also play some 2-guard. “People say is he a 1 or is he a 2, and I think he can play multiple positions,” the East general manager said. “At Ohio State, they didn’t want to wear him out because they needed him to do so much, so sometimes they had other people bring the ball up the floor instead of him. But when they had to make the right kinds of plays, they put the ball in his hands.”
Questions: “Does he play with passion? That’s part of what makes him not so good at times,” the East general manager said.
Comparisons: “D’Angelo is more of a flashy make-shots-create-offense-type guy, almost like a [James] Harden or [Russell] Westbrook-type guy,” an NBA scout said, “but Emmanuel is the stronger, steady-type guy.”
Karl-Anthony Towns- Kentucky
Offense: While Towns is not as polished as Okafor down low—he mostly uses right-handed jump hooks—he improved later in the season with getting deeper positioning and finishing around the basket with his athleticism. Towns is also a more skilled outside shooter.
“Not only does he make a lot of free throws, but he also goes through a shooting regimen each and every day that expands his range,” the former general manager said. “I saw him in a shooting contest with a guard out beyond the three-point line, and he’s got a very concise, tight stroke.”
Defense: Towns is better laterally in pick-and-rolls than Okafor. “[Towns] is going to have an easier time guarding perimeter 4’s,” the league executive said. “And I think you could also play him at the 4 offensively.”
Improvements: In addition to fine-tuning his all-around offense, Towns needs to learn to play defense more with his body than his hands. “Towns has the rep of being the better defender (over Okafor), but look at the minutes played and how many fouls he committed,” Ekstrand said. “If you’re only playing 20 minutes and you’re in foul trouble, that’s a red flag. What’s not different from college to the NBA is you still have to use your body more and your hands less.”
Intangibles: Potential. Most insiders said they would choose Towns over Okafor, and likely No. 1 overall. “If I was starting a team and this was the first pick and my first player, I don’t think you can go wrong with either [Okafor or Towns],” the former general manager said, “but I think Karl Towns has more upside eventually.”
Questions: Consistency. “There was a knock on Karl early that he would tend to disappear in games,” the former general manager said. “He would have a great half, and then he would have a non-half. And hoping he can put 36 minutes, 40 minutes together in an NBA game is really what you want to try to get.”
Comparisons: A bigger Al Horford. “He’s a guy who can rebound, defend, score—just a good all-around big man,” the former general manager said. “Now you couple that with the ability to step out on the perimeter and shoot the ball, it makes him very effective. So he’s a very intriguing prospect.”
Kristaps Porzingis- Latvia
Offense: “Zinger,” as he’s called overseas, is a stretch 4 who possesses athletic talents that few his size have: long arms, quick feet and explosive lift. “With our league obsessed so much with potential, his combination of age, upside and athletic abilities alone makes him a lottery candidate,” a Western Conference international scout said. “But he’s very hard to project and will not help you win games for at least a couple years.”
Porzingis excels in catch-and-shoots, pick-and-pops and the high to mid-post, mostly with a turnaround jumper. “He learned the game from the outside in, so he’s a face-up player at this moment,” said longtime international scout Tim Shea. He noted that Porzingis is working on his low-post game with Audie Norris, the assistant and big man coach for the CB Sevilla basketball club in Spain. “Audie was an interior player in the states,” Shea said, “so Zinger has gained a little bit of dimension with his back to the basket. He’s learning how to use his body and feet to gain a low center of gravity and more favorable position inside.”
Defense: Porzingis is offensive-minded and not a “human eraser,” Shea’s term for a dominant defensive player in the paint. But the Latvian did average just over one block per game this season, while only having his own shot swatted six times in 32 games, according to Shea. In addition, his defensive presence was felt.
“He literally unfolds out on the court. He’s just got incredible length,” the former general manager said. “He definitely changed a lot of shots just by coming over and making sure that he chased the shot, and he didn’t do it flat-footed. He got off the ground to do it.”
Improvements: In addition to his low-post game, rebounding is a point of emphasis. “He should get about five rebounds per game just because of his height, but will he get another three or four out of skill and effort?” the former general manager said. There’s also the issue of passing. According to the West international scout, he only had 26 assists in 1,000-plus minutes.
Intangibles: Shea brought up two things: his passion for the game and his humble approach. “A lot of times the difference between the Europeans and the Americans is the Europeans really like playing basketball, and the Americans love playing basketball,” Shea said. “There’s a difference in philosophy, where sometimes Europeans aren’t accustomed to the American competitive spirit. Like with Jan Vesely, he didn’t love basketball. With Zinger, he loves being out on the court, and he wants to go to the states to play in the NBA.”
Regarding Porzingis’ sense of humility, Shea said, “He doesn’t try to be the focal point. His attitude is very positive, and when you go to the states and you’re a foreigner, that’s very important. He plays within himself. He doesn’t go off and dribble all over the place and try to score. He’s going to try to fit in and do the things necessary to fit in, and the American guys are going to appreciate that and they’re going to come to depend on it.”
Questions: The biggest one is: Will Porzingis’ body fill out? “The skills are all there, but how soon can his body strength get up to where these things will work in the NBA? He’s weak physically,” Ekstrand said. The West international scout also raised this: “He seems like a very quiet, passive personality. Is he too nice of a kid?”
Comparisons: A more athletic Dirk Nowitzki. “Dirk’s never been a great athlete,” Shea said. “He’s just a smart positional player knowing how to use space, and that’s what this kid is also going to learn how to do for him to be successful.”
Justise Winslow- Duke
Offense: Ekstrand recalls earlier in the season when Winslow would lower his head and simply attack the basket in one direction without much thinking, resulting in some charges. That changed as time went on.
“He made the adjustment,” Ekstrand said. “He started driving with a little bit more circumspection, with his head up more. He started developing more of a crossover. His handle got a lot better. He didn’t just go one way all the time to the basket; he would go right and left to the rim.”
Ekstrand also noticed his jump shot improved.
“It just smoothed out through repetition,” he said. “Part of that is confidence, but part of that is technique, too. His shot was a little bit flat at the beginning of the year, and as the year went on you could noticeably see that he had a little higher release point, a little better trajectory and, as a result, a little better rotation on his shot. So he was taking and making more threes.”
Defense: Versatility. “Not only did he step up physically at his position,” Ekstrand said, “but he was very strong as a help defender. I think he has almost as much potential defensively as he does offensively.”
Improvements: In addition to continuing to work on his jump shot, there are questions about how Winslow would adjust to a new role in the NBA where his number will be called more often in the offense. In college, he got a good chunk of his points off of the ball. “I think he played a little bit out of position at school, but that’s understandable because they needed him to do different things,” his trainer Idan Ravin said. “But I think in the NBA, he’ll be a 2-guard. He has size, strength and a long wingspan.”
Intangibles: For starters, Winslow’s effort plays, especially evident in January when he was playing through several minor injuries and still contributing. “He would only take four or five shots a game,” Ekstrand said, “but he still had rebounds, passes, steals.”
In Chicago at the predraft combine over the weekend, Winslow really impressed during team interviews. “He’s very polished,” the league executive said. “He’s very well-spoken, very thoughtful. Every team that interviews him is going to like him.” He also likes Winslow’s toughness and leadership. “He was sort of the glue that held [Duke] together,” he said. “He’s got a winning mentality.”
Questions: While some see the improvement, others are still worried about Winslow’s jump shot. “I like him a lot, but he’s not in the top grouping [of the draft] because I don’t think he shoots it well enough,” the East general manager said.
Comparisons: The attacking version of Harden. “He’s more slashes, pull-ups, mid-range, and he has good range,” Ravin said.