Top Shelf: Our Rankings of the Top-Three in Each Draft since 2018
Over the last five years, we've seen a lot of top-end talent enter the draft. How do our pre-draft evaluations compare to each other?
The NBA is a superstar-driven league.
Scouts cut their teeth looking for diamonds in the rough, in correctly guessing and developing rotation players who exceed their draft position year after year. The importance of those deep dives and outsmarting the competition cannot be understated. But it is also not typically the driving force of a team’s ascent to championship status.
Most, if not all, basketball pundits will agree that some form of a superstar is necessary to make it to a championship. The most likely place to find those guys remains at the top of the draft. Franchises take swings on guys they believe they can tether their franchise to, and most stars in the league are former top-ten selections.
Over the decade from 2010-2019, there have been 30 players taken in the top-three (10 drafts, 3 per draft). Of them, 16 have become All-Stars. That level of success is so much higher than at any other point in the draft, still proving that the best place to find a tentpole star is at the top of the draft.
In order to encapsulate that, we decided to look back at every draft since 2018 — the last five years of prospects — that we have covered in-depth. We’ll look at our pre-draft rankings of each of the 15 players who have gone in that top-three to see if any trends stand out, how they stacked up against each other as prospects, and what lessons we can learn moving forward to help us evaluate the top tiers of talent in future classes.
15. LaMelo Ball, Illawarra Hawks
Draft Year: 2020
Our Rank: 18th
Rather infamously now, we were pretty down on LaMelo Ball. Being so ball-dominant (pun intended) and needing an entire offense catered to him to succeed were not traits we were really drawn to, the lack of defensive effort he displayed throughout his time in the NBL really bothered us, and we thought his lack of 3-point shooting consistency, especially off the bounce, could cause teams to simply go under his high ball screens and therefore take away his elite passing.
Just 18 months later, we’re proven pretty wrong on LaMelo already. There are zero personality red flags that prevent him from reaching stardom, and his father has been less of an inhibiting outside factor than we anticipated — both contributed to a drop for LaMelo on our rankings.
We’ve learned a lot from our evaluation of Ball. Lesson #1 to take away: great passers and high-feel prospects who lack shooting can more easily gain the three-point stroke. Holding a prospect down due to those shooting or mechanical inefficiencies was us overlooking how rare the high-feel piece is, and then punishing a guy for shooting splits as a teenager. We’ve certainly learned to be less harsh on guys with shooting inconsistencies pre-draft — especially if they’re this special with the ball in their hands.
Lesson #2 was also pretty important: for elite offensive prospects, the defensive clips really aren’t a dealbreaker. When scouting LaMelo, we knew he had the potential (if he could score it consistently enough) to be an offensive engine. He was that special of a passer. We dropped him multiple tiers alone based on his defensive effort. As we’ve gotten more mature at making our evaluations and had years go by, we’ve realized just how hard it is to be that engine on a team pre-NBA and still give maximum defensive effort. LaMelo’s still not a good defender — and of the scoring engines we’ve given this designation to, he’s likely the worst pro defender. But like James Harden or Damian Lillard before him, that just changes the way the roster has to be built around him, it doesn’t make him any less of a star.
The final lesson, and perhaps the most important lesson to learn, is to not put too much stock in personality red flags. The 2020 NBA Draft class was the one that dragged on an extra five months through COVID, which opened everyone up to overanalyze. It is, in retrospect, the one board we feel the worst about that we’ve done. Every little piece of intel or personality seeped into our minds as we made these boards. Worries about his defensive engagement, the desire to go play in the NBL and the roundabout path LaMelo was taking to the NBA stood out to us as personality flags where he was just looking for any place to be the center of attention. But without direct access to questioning of him or league-vetted intel from multiple sources, that was mainly conjecture based on the path he walked.
Two years later, the NBL is a much more accepted pre-draft pathway that stands up fairly well in terms of talent evaluation. LaMelo has had very few personality issues or off-court red flags (we can’t say zero, but very few issues as he is a pretty quiet burgeoning star). While it may sound like a cop-out to say now, we saw the high-level talent with Ball and talked ourselves out of him due to factors that showed our inexperience as a strong-minded scout.
14. Marvin Bagley, Duke
Draft Year: 2018
Our Rank: 11th
2018 was the last year we covered the draft before making the jump to YouTube for our scouting reports. It was the draft that propelled us into doing this coverage more full-time, and still the year we look back on as one of our most successful in terms of talent evaluation. We had one wild miss, a lesson we’ve learned about plenty and is probably our biggest whiff we’ve ever made: we had Mo Bamba #1 overall on our board.
With the Bamba exception, that 2018 year was pretty accurate. Involved in that pre-draft coverage was our placement of Bagley outside our top ten. We saw him more as a tweener who lacked the shooting volume to be a stretch big, was incredibly left-hand-dominant and struggled to guard the perimeter thanks to his awful closeouts. There were issues with Bagley’s game in this capacity — especially his creation for others — that prevented us from seeing him as a foundational piece for a team and more of a toolsy play finisher.
In a stacked 2018 class, we couldn’t find ourselves enamored with Bagley’s game more than so many of the talented guards on the board. That seems, in retrospect, like a decent call.
13. DeAndre Ayton, Arizona
Draft Year: 2018
Our Rank: 5th
As we mentioned, we did have Mo Bamba first on our board in 2018, a mistake of epic proportions. That’s the type of decision that should get someone fired. Luka Doncic came in second (we’ll get to him later), Trae Young third, and Michael Porter Jr. fourth (injury be damned, we thought he was an elite scoring talent). Right behind those guys was DeAndre Ayton out of Arizona, the next-best big man in the class and a more mobile play-finisher than most bigs.
2018 was right around the time mainstream analysts and at-home junkies were starting to notice the trend away from drafting more rim-bound bigs. Ayton going first overall in this draft shows that it was not a complete takeover of the league in that line of thinking, but it is when we first remember having big debates over positional scarcity. Guys like Roy Hibbert were played out of the league, Brook Lopez needed to become a 3-point shooter to stay relevant, and draft picks like Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel were not delivering on their top-ten selections.
Ayton was an incredibly good prospect, but the lack of proven shooting range and true switchability on ball screens dropped him into the second-tier. While 2018 saw us give out three “Tier One” grades, which is equivalent to guys we think are surefire superstars, Ayton and Porter were at the top of Tier Two — just outside the elite talent.
Ayton has not developed the mid-range jumper into 3-point range in ways we thought he might. He took a high volume of jumpers at Arizona for his position, a number that has decreased in the league. His touch is great and as advertised, he’s grown into a really good rim protector and PNR defender, and hangs his hat on his energy to make an impact. A solid return here on Ayton.
12. Jabari Smith, Auburn
Draft Year: 2022
Our Rank: 4th
As we layer multiple years of prospect evaluations on top of each other, we try our best to be very stringent on sticking to the rules: compare the prospect version of these players, not the outcome versions.
Once we got past our evals of LaMelo and Bagley, this becomes more important: everyone from here up received a grade in our top two tiers: surefire superstar or just outside that recognition. Essentially, we’ve graded the top-13 as first or second pillars to be built around by their franchise.
Ayton was lowest on here by virtue of his lack of self-creation scoring or positional/ defensive versatility. Smith is next lowest due to our concerns about self-creation in the half-court. He’s an elite shooter and play finisher, and that typically carries a lot of weight as a prospect. But Smith does have a tendency to disappear from some games, and without a quick first step or polished ball handling, we find his success somewhat dependent on guard play to set him up for plays he can finish.
Smith’s defensive ceiling is pretty high, and a few developments to his handling ability can make him more competent at attacking closeouts. But our evaluation based on his college tape is pretty secure in projecting some form of limitation to his ability to put pressure on the rim from a movement/ mechanical perspective.
As the years go by and we will be able to look back on our evaluation of Jabari, that will be one of the major lessons we’re constantly looking at: the evaluation of him more as a play finisher than a creator and the physical profile that can be so appealing but does have its limitations. He could be more like a Rashard Lewis, an incredibly high-end two-way role player, or more like a LaMarcus Aldridge with 3-point range, who is just so good at making tough shots that the lack of athleticism really doesn’t matter.
11. Ja Morant, Murray State
Draft Year: 2019
Our Rank: 4th
The 2019 draft was the first year where we had full access to Synergy Sports (shoutout to the great Matt Curley) and could do full video scouting reports as a result. As we dove into the film and checked out the fast-rising mid-major prospect out of Murray State, we noticed a great deal of athleticism in a small package. The playmaking was really sturdy, and the potential for shot-making that existed was high-caliber.
Still, Morant was an engine to an offense with one question we struggled to answer: how would he hold up against NBA-caliber competition and defensive physicality?
Morant has since answered those doubts by being one of the best young guards in the game — and one of the most explosive. Our ranking of Morant as fourth that year spoke to two factors: the underrating of just how NBA-ready he was from a skill standpoint and a slight difference in preference to two other prospects. That 2019 class had one star at the top in Zion Williamson, and three prospects in Tier Two: Morant, RJ Barrett and Darius Garland.
We still think it’s a tad too soon to close the book on the evaluations and proclaim Morant the only guy worthy of being second on 2019 boards, but he sat fourth (and lowest in this tier) due to the risk we associated with his skill profile. Being a smaller guard has its challenges in the modern NBA, and our eye (at least at the time) was drawn to guys who could be sufficient floor-spacers with really deep range. That was the tantalizing part of Garland’s game, which we theorized would help save his body and make a consistent impact against any type of defense.
Those smaller guards have to be either elite players to warrant such an offensive role or they plummet down our rankings into the late first-round range. It’s too difficult of a position to survive in on the defensive end in the postseason. Putting Morant fourth overall — and in that Tier Two of All-Star talents — speaks to our faith in him as a prospect.
10. RJ Barrett, Duke
Draft Year: 2019
Our Rank: 3rd
That year, our preference was to take RJ Barrett over Morant. A large part of Barrett’s positioning on our board was due to the sacrifices he made to fit in at Duke on that incredibly talented team. Both Barrett (third) and Cam Reddish (sixth) saw increases in our eyes at the next level when they wouldn’t be playing next to such an unorthodox prospect like Zion Williamson.
Barrett always impressed us with his positional strength, shooting ability and craftiness to create his own shot. While not an elite athlete, he was so skilled at getting to shots and showed legitimate isolation upside. Three years into his career, he’s averaging 20 PPG and showing that the scoring does indeed translate.
However, it may not translate in the ways we fully anticipated. His 3-point shot has been far less consistent than we had hoped, his assist numbers haven’t taken a major step forward, and he’s a tad more left-hand dominant than we thought. He is still incredibly skilled and shows All-Star upside, but the return on a bigger, scoring wing being positioned over a guard like Morant hasn’t delivered due to some limitations with Barrett’s own arsenal.
This isn’t or hasn’t been a gross misjudgment or major error. He’s still a top-five guy in his draft class without much doubt and has the upside to keep climbing closer to where guys like Morant and Garland are. But we’d be lying if we said we didn’t expect more. Perhaps some of the first step limitations are providing lingering effects, part of the reason why we’re a half-tier lower on a guy like Jabari Smith than other analysts who saw him as the top prospect in 2022.