Rating top NBA draft prospects, from Tier 1 to Tier 6
Chad Ford ESPN Senior Writer
Is this the best NBA draft in a decade or more? Our tier system is loaded with prospects in the top two tiers, challenging some of the best drafts in recent memory.
Big Boards, top 100s and mock drafts are the most efficient way to communicate what I'm hearing from NBA scouts, general managers and the like. Those formats have their place, but there is another format I prefer -- draft tiers.
Ranking players in a single-file sequence is problematic, and for the past decade, most NBA teams have gotten away from the practice. That's also what makes mock drafts so challenging.
In many cases, there is not a consensus on a draft prospect. Two scouts can watch the same player in the same game and come to wildly different evaluations about a player. Two GMs can sit with the same player in an interview and walk away with different impressions about who the player really is. Two analytical models, both purporting to offer a more objective look at a player through his statistics, can spit out radically different conclusions.
Each team may have 10 to 15 voices in the room advocating for different things. Many teams don't decide until draft day who they'll take.
This year is no exception. While Markelle Fultz has been No. 1 on our Big Board most of the year, Josh Jackson, Lonzo Ball, De'Aaron Fox and Jayson Tatum have strong advocates. Few teams agree what order the next five or six players should go. Get even further down in the draft and the disparity between how teams rank players grows.
To make sense of all this, I've chronicled a draft ranking -- employed by a number of teams -- called the tier system.
In the tier system, teams group players based on overall talent. Then the teams rank the players in each tier based on team need. This system allows teams to draft not only the best player available, but also the player who best fits a team's individual needs.
A more detailed explanation of how the tier system works can be found here.
Note: Players in each tier are listed alphabetically.
Tier 1 (Potential superstars)
Lonzo Ball, PG, UCLA
Markelle Fultz, PG, Washington
Last draft we had just one player in this category: Ben Simmons. The year before that, Karl-Anthony Towns was the only player here.
This category is usually reserved for guys who are surefire All-Stars or franchise players. Only six other players since we started this column in 2009 -- Blake Griffin, John Wall, Anthony Davis, Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and Jabari Parker -- have been ranked in this slot.
Fultz was unanimously nominated for Tier 1 by the NBA scouts and executives I polled for this piece. Ball was more polarizing for sure, but he still got a majority of the votes for Tier 1.
Three other players -- Josh Jackson, De'Aaron Fox and Jayson Tatum -- received votes for Tier 1.
Tier 2 (All-Star potential)
De'Aaron Fox, PG, Fr., Kentucky
Jonathan Isaac, F, Fr., Florida State
Josh Jackson, G/F, Fr., Kansas
Lauri Markkanen, PF, Fr., Arizona
Malik Monk, G, Fr., Kentucky
Frank Ntilikina, PG, France
Dennis Smith, PG, Fr., North Carolina State
Jayson Tatum, F, Fr., Duke
This is the largest Tier 2 we've ever had. This tier is reserved for players with All-Star potential. However, each player in Tier 2 has a weakness that some teams believe will keep him from being a superstar.
In Fox and Jackson's case, it's the lack of a consistent jumper. Isaac needs to add strength and find a position. Markkanen and Monk are too one-dimensional right now. Smith and Tatum might be too selfish with the ball. Ntilikina isn't an elite athlete.
Fox, Jackson and Tatum all received only Tier 1 and Tier 2 votes. Isaac, Monk and Smith all were unanimous in Tier 2. Markkanen and Ntilikina had some Tier 3 votes, but the majority were Tier 2. Zach Collins received a lot of votes in Tier 2, but just barely missed the cut.
Having 10 players in the first two tiers is extraordinary for a draft class.
Tier 3 (NBA starters)
OG Anunoby, F, So., Indiana
Zach Collins, F/C, Fr., Gonzaga
Harry Giles, PF, Fr., Duke
Luke Kennard, G, So., Duke
Donovan Mitchell, G, So., Louisville
This is a solid Tier 3, but with the exception of Collins, most teams see a significant drop-off here. This tier is usually reserved for players who are projected as NBA starters in their careers.
Having 15 players in the first three tiers makes for a very strong draft. The closest we got was in 2014 when we had 12 players in the top three tiers. Of this group, Collins was the only player not to receive Tier 4 votes, so the consensus breaks down at this point.
The biggest issue for scouts was ranking Anunoby and Giles. Both have had significant knee injuries. Giles is actually healed and ready to play, but teams are worried because he has had two major knee surgeries and didn't look nearly as explosive at Duke last season. Anunoby hurt his knee in January and could miss his rookie season.
Based on sheer talent, virtually every scout and front office executive had Giles as either a Tier 1 or Tier 2 prospect. And all but one had Anunoby as a Tier 2 guy. If they get healthy, they're steals in Tier 3. But their previous injuries put a cloud over their draft stock.
Tier 4 (Starters, high-level rotation players)
Jarrett Allen, C, Fr., Texas
Ike Anigbogu, C, Fr., UCLA
John Collins, PF, So., Wake Forest
Justin Patton, C, Fr., Creighton
This is a smaller Tier 4 group than usual.
Teams are really all over the place on these guys. John Collins received a lot of votes for Tier 3 (and none in Tier 5), but the majority of teams had these players ranked in Tier 4.
All three of the others -- Allen, Anigbogu and Patton -- barely made the cut into Tier 4, with just over 50 percent voting them in Tier 4 and the rest in Tier 5. None of them received Tier 3 votes.
Tier 5 (Rotation players)
Edrice Adebayo, PF, Fr., Kentucky
Tony Bradley, C, Fr., North Carolina
Terrance Ferguson, SG, Australia
Frank Jackson, G, Fr., Duke
Justin Jackson, SF, Jr., North Carolina
TJ Leaf, PF, Fr., UCLA
Anzejs Pasecniks, C, Latvia
Ivan Rabb, PF, So., Cal
Caleb Swanigan, PF, So., Purdue
D.J. Wilson, PF, Jr., Michigan
This next group is a bit small for a Tier 5, but it's small in part because of how big the top three tiers are. This area of the draft is typically reserved for rotation players who are unlikely to start for good teams but could become solid role players off the bench.
In this draft, that's roughly picks Nos. 20-30. A few players in this tier received Tier 4 votes. They included Jackson, Leaf and Pasecniks. And a couple of players on this list received Tier 6 votes, including Rabb and Swanigan.
Tier 6 (potential first-rounders)
Jordan Bell, PF, Jr., Oregon
Jonah Bolden, SF, Australia
Thomas Bryant, F/C, So. Indiana
Jawun Evans, PG, So., Oklahoma State
Josh Hart, SG, Sr., Villanova
Isaiah Hartenstein, PF, Germany
Tyler Lydon, SF, So., Syracuse
Semi Ojeleye, F, Jr., SMU
Alec Peters, F, Sr., Valpariso
Monte Morris, PG, Sr., Iowa State
Devin Robinson, SF, Jr., Florida
Derrick White, PG, Jr., Colorao
This tier has the players that at least one team told me they had ranked in their top 30. A few -- Bell, Evans, Hartenstein, Lydon and Ojeleye -- got Tier 5 votes. The rest are likely second-round picks.
Like every draft system, the tier system isn't perfect, but the teams that run it have found that it improves their performance. It has allowed them to get help through the draft without overreaching. Compared to traditional top-30 lists or mock drafts, it seems like a much more precise tool of gauging which players a team should draft.