When the Dallas Mavericks traded a future first round pick with top-5 protection to the Atlanta Hawks in the Luka Doncic deal, I’m sure everyone involved expected that this would be conveyed sooner rather than later. This feeling surely intensified with Dallas acquired DeAndre Jordan an hour into free agency, going all in on a chance to send Dirk back to the playoffs one last time, and make the Mavericks relevant again in the process.
Well, a lot has changed since then. In fact, a lot has changed very quickly and fairly recently for Dallas, who executed a shocker move just before the deadline, giving up extra picks and three starters in a deal for a rehabbing Kristaps Porzingis and some extra Knicks salary. The fourth starter was then sent away as the Mavs jettisoned Harrison Barnes in a deal to the Kings to clear cap space. Suddenly, a team that had a middling roster to begin with was, for lack of a better word, bad. Really bad. Really, really bad.
With the Washington Wizards winning late Monday night, the Mavs have bottomed out in the standings, taking sole possession of the sixth worst record in the league. Yes, sixth, and yes, their pick is top FIVE protected, which with the new lottery rules means the team has a 37.2 percent chance of keeping their pick, along with a 9 percent chance of securing the top selection. Insert the “so you’re saying there’s a chance” Dumb and Dumber gif here.
Those aren’t spectacular odds. But Dallas has kept losing, and while some may call it “tanking”, the truth is they just aren’t very good, and the main takeaway there should be that they need help. Lots of help. If they finish in sixth place, they will only have a shot at picks 1-4 (they can’t get #5), which is a premium asset even in a down draft. That would almost assuredly be better than the pick they’d get next summer with Porzingis returning and the team able to use their cap space to add pieces as well. So, while our collective pride might take a hit if the Hawks end up with two top six or seven picks, taking those odds is probably the right play.
Which means – that’s right – it’s time to bring back the Big Board.
If you’ve followed any of my draft writing the last few years, you’ll know I prefer to assemble a big board that is Mavericks-centric, meaning I take the team’s general draft philosophy, as well as the makeup of the roster into consideration in my rankings. I don’t believe in skewing too heavily toward fit, but the fact of the matter is opportunity and scheme matter in how players contribute and thrive. I’ve listed ten players, covering some options in the top 4 and a couple of potential ‘trade back’ considerations.
So, without further ado, here’s the first edition of my 2019 Mavericks Big Board, presented in tiers:
TIER ONE: THE FOUNDATION PIECE
Zion Williamson, F, Duke
No surprise here. Zion Williamson is the best prospect in this draft. If you are reading the work of someone who is saying otherwise (perhaps someone who refers to themselves as a character from a popular science fiction franchise, who knows), I would encourage you to strongly consider avoiding that person’s work in the future. It can be difficult to avoid hyperbole when discussing Zion, because so much of his internet-fueled mythos feels made up or impossible, like something you’d get if George Plimpton designed a video game. But the hype is real.
At a listed 6’6 285, Zion’s physical profile is quite literally unprecedented for a top draft selection, which may be the only reason some sliver of lingering doubt exists in the minds of draft pundits. 30 plus years ago, Charles Barkley entered the league at dimensions perhaps close to that, but even a cursory examination of the two makes it clear we are dealing with very different body types. Zion’s unrivaled athletic feats get the bulk of the attention, but that’s hardly the end of the story. A few years ago there was a player from Memphis named D.J. Stephens, who was probably the best leaper I’ve ever seen in person. The only time I’ve ever lost it and yelled from the media table while covering a game was during Summer League action when Stephens tried to block a floater and he jumped so high I thought he’d leave Earth’s atmosphere and enter orbit. He was something else, but he never stuck in the NBA because he had very little in the way of actual NBA skill or feel.
That’s not the case with Zion. His awareness is sensational, and while his jump shot is still developing, he has a very high skill level for a big, and that plays up his already legendary physical talents. In short, he is arguably the best prospect since LeBron James, and pairing him with Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis would give the Dallas Mavericks not only the best young core in the league, but one of the best under-25 trios in recent memory, rivaling that OKC squad that featured three future MVP’s.
TIER TWO: THE PERENNIAL ALL-STARS
Really, I’m just trying to drive home the point that there is an unusually large gap between the top prospect and the field, not only because Zion is that good but also because the rest of the class has been extremely disappointing, especially the rest of the freshman group.
TIER THREE: MIX OF ELITE ROLE PLAYERS AND LOW FLOOR/HIGH CEILING GUYS
Jarrett Culver, G, Texas Tech
Culver likely won’t be the second player taken, but after making a leap in his second season with the Red Raiders, his versatile game makes him the next safest pick in my mind. His outside shooting has cooled off a bit in conference play, but Culver is a long 6’5/6’6 playmaker who can handle the ball, defend multiple positions, and offers enough of a scoring repertoire to make him a dangerous two way player. Like Zhaire Smith, Culver arrived at Tech last season as a fairly unheralded recruit, but under head coach Chris Beard, Culver has added to his game as his college career has progressed, demonstrating a surprisingly good feel for the game, and his wide breadth of skills makes him a solid fit in a variety of schemes and play styles. This is the kind of player that succeeds at the next level, even if there are still questions about his outside shooting and ability to beat bigger, faster players off the dribble. I’m fairly optimistic about the former, and as someone who’s assumed a huge role in college, my hope is Culver will be able to improve his efficiency with more of secondary role in the NBA.
Deandre Hunter, F, Virginia
Hunter almost certainly won’t go this high, either, but again, this is where we’re at with a freshman class that has underperformed to such a degree. Hunter does not exactly look like a future superstar, as he’s older than you think and his dribbling/shot creating is a bit limited. He can be very mechanical and stiff when attacking closeouts or trying to face-up his man from the triple-threat position. In that way you see some worrisome Harrison Barnes-esque qualities. He’s also dinged in analytic circles by the same thing all Virginia players are: the “pack-line defense” used by Tony Bennett greatly reduces the opportunities to accumulate blocks and steals. Hunter would be on a list of lottery drafted players who averaged less than a block and steal per 40 that contains a couple of success stories, but a lot of really major busts.
Despite all that, I’m putting Hunter here because I think he could be a really terrific fit in Dallas, especially next to Luka Doncic. Hunter hasn’t taken a huge volume of threes this season, but his percentages are excellent and his shooting mechanics look good enough that I’m pretty optimistic about how he’ll translate as a spot up shooter at the next level. He also has prototypical dimensions for a wing/combo forward, at 6’7/6’8 with a reported 7’2 wingspan. Right now he profiles best as a wing, where his on-ball defensive technique and discipline are special, and his length and muscular frame give opposing small forwards nightmares. In time, however, with some added weight, he could possibly move up and become a full-time stretch 4, where his dribbling/attacking skillset would play much better. If he’s able to hold up there, he’s an ideal running mate for Luka, as he can guard multiple positions and play a smart, efficient off-ball game at the other end.
Brandon Clarke, F, Gonzaga
Clarke was a little-known transfer from San Jose State to begin the season, but the Canadian big man has catapulted up draft boards as one of the key cogs on one of the best teams in the country. That actually probably undersells him: Clarke might be the second best college basketball player after Zion, though for obvious reasons the two have very different draft profiles and won’t be selected in the same range. I have Clarke this high because I think he’s a great fit as a potentially elite role player, but come draft night Clarke may be looking at mid-late first, with an outside chance at cracking the lottery. Why the difference? Well, Clarke is going to be 22 and will be 23 by the start of next NBA season. He’s also basically an undersized center at 6’8 215, and right now he offers no floor spacing, though I’ll get back to that point later.
Clarke is amazingly fun to watch, though. Much like Zion, he is a superb athlete, a tremendous leaper who also moves extremely well laterally, giving him a really nice defensive profile to work with at the next level. At 6’8 he blocks over 3 shots a game, crashes the offensive glass, and finishes lob with authority. That’s not all he can do on the offensive end, though, as he’s got a nice handle for a big and his elite body control allows him to attack defenders in the post and execute a variety of spin or up and under moves. He’s just way too quick for most college big men and with his leaping ability it’s no wonder he’s shooting nearly 70 percent on 10 attempts per game. He’s only made 4 of 13 threes this season, but it’s worth noting that Gonzaga has completely re-worked his shooting mechanics to the point where it’s not at all implausible that he develops into a passible spot up shooter. I wouldn’t want to bank on that yet by any means, but if he can shoot I think Clarke is absolutely a starter at the next level and maybe even a championship level role guy.
R.J. Barrett, G/F, Duke
You may have been wondering when you’d see Barrett’s name on this list, as most mock drafts have Barrett firmly in the top 3. Barrett has had a fine season for Duke, averaging 23-7-4 as a 19 year old. Barrett has been on the prospect radar for years, with his prospect status cemented after he helped Canada pull off a shocking defeat of the USA in the FIBA U-19 World Cup in 2017. Barrett dominated the American team, pouring in 38 points thanks to a relentless attacking style, and at that point his future as a top 5 pick was essentially all but assured. At 6’7 with a solidly built frame, the lefty Barrett is certainly a bucket-getter, and for a bad team hungry for a #1 option, his appeal is clear.
Looking beneath the surface, though, some issues arise. Barrett’s talent is not in dispute, but his approach and technique can leave a lot to be desired, especially on the defensive end. It is no small surprise that with Zion out, Duke has slipped (and let’s be frank; without him they still have a stacked roster), getting crushed by UNC twice and suffering a loss at Virginia Tech in just six games. Barrett is not especially engaged on defense, with a low steal rate and a highlight reel of ball-watching and standing. Meanwhile, though the raw counting stats look nice on paper, he’s not especially efficient, shooting just 31 percent on threes and posting a pedestrian 53.5 true shooting percentage. Stop me if this doesn’t sound like Jabari Parker with a better body.
R.J. is young enough to improve, of course, and with his production at such a young age he will rightly be picked high, but I don’t see Dallas as an ideal fit and count me as among those who would rather see the Mavs take a lower ceiling guy who can defend and play efficiently than the upside play.
Darius Garland, PG, Vanderbilt
Garland’s season was cut short minutes into his fifth college game, which is a real shame because it looked like the 6’2 scoring guard was going to have a sensational season with the Commodores. Garland’s game is built around one of the purest looking jump shots in the draft, and he’s especially adept at shooting off the dribble, which tends to separate the good standstill spot up guys from true marksmen. While he’s not as big as Kyrie or the athlete Lillard is, Garland is able to generate space to get off his shot much like those two because he has an excellent handle and a lightning quick release. This kind of skillset could mix really well with Luka, as Garland has the playmaking chops to generate his own offense and spell the Slovenian wunderkind, and Garland’s shooting prowess makes him a strong off-ball compliment to Doncic as well. If the team’s play down the stretch has shown anything, it’s that getting as many shooters around Luka as possible is essential to the team taking the next step and climbing out of the bottom of the league.
Now, Garland does come with some question marks. As I said, he’s not especially big or an elite athlete, and while I’m not too worried about how that will impact his offensive game, it does create issues at the other end. We unfortunately didn’t get a chance to see how Garland fared defending some of he conference’s better perimeter players, but if Garland is a liability on defense, the fit with Luka looks significantly less appealing. Then there’s the injury question: most players do recover fine from a torn meniscus, but does that mean there’s some other issue physically with Garland? The combine will be important to sort out the details there.
Ja Morant, G, Murray State
Morant is a likely top 5 pick despite playing at Murray State, and after Zion probably the most highlight-quality player in the draft. The 6’3 point guard is dynamic off the dribble and is spectacular when he gets to the rim, capable of thunderous dunks or contorted layups either around or through defenders. As you might expect playing for a mid-major school, Morant’s putting up gaudy numbers: nearly 25 points and 10 assists per. After taking over in his last game against Belmont to secure the conference championship, the casual fans will get a chance to see him in the NCAA tourney, so prepare for a lot more Morant fans to come out of the woodwork.
Those superlatives aside, I would caution against getting too carried away in anointing him the next point star. Morant’s slight frame and tendency to save himself for the other end have put a lot of pretty bad defensive tape out there. Please, if you can find them, try and track down some full game videos of Murray State, because it’s important to get a full perspective on him and not just focus on the highlights and counting stats. Morant is a bad defender, and while this could be blamed partly on coaching and his enormous offensive load, it doesn’t automatically make the problems fixable. Morant’s play style also leads to a lot of turnovers and bad shots, which will need to be corrected at the pro level. At the end of the day, Morant is a tantalizing talent, but perhaps not the right fit for Dallas, especially in light of how the Dennis Smith Jr. era ended(as a huge DSJ stan, I will accept some egg there).
Coby White, G, UNC
White, Morant and Garland is a fascinating discussion, as I’m sure there will be lots of differing opinions about who is best, even though at this point it seems likely Morant will go first. White is an interesting combination of extremes, as he’s tall for a point guard, with a very nice looking jump shot, and plenty of functional athleticism. He’s a bit new to the position, so within that context he’s acquitted himself fairly well as a decision maker, even though he’ll make plenty of head-scratching mistakes. Defensively, his size and speed should give him a nice base to work with, but he can be sloppy at that end, as well, getting hung on screens or taking bad angles thinking he can recover.
I would be lower on White for a team that needed more of a facilitator, but next to Luka, White’s skillset could shine. As a shooter and secondary playmaker, he could be a real asset, and if his defense comes along (there’s dissent on this, but I keep coming back to the size/quicks thing), he could be pretty close to perfect.
P.J. Washington, F, Kentucky
It has been a crazy ride for P.J. to get to this point, going from highly touted recruit to disappointing freshman prospect to resurgent future lottery selection. Entering college, I thought P.J. was going to be a really productive college player who probably wouldn’t be a great NBA guy because he fell into the dreaded “tweener” category as an undersized 4. However, thanks to improved conditioning, a major leaps as a shooter and continued development as a dribbler/passer, Washington has completely overhauled his prospect status, and now legitimately looks like a playable combo forward, perhaps down the line in the mold of a Tobias Harris. He has nice touch in the post, and makes good decisions with the ball either passing out when doubled or attacking closeouts. The outside shooting has really opened up his game, and if it’s not a mirage, makes him a multi-faceted offensive threat.
Defensively, Washington’s transition to the perimeter was unthinkable for me six months ago, but after slimming down he’s been able to hold up OK when asked to venture out. He has excellent length that makes up for his lack of height inside and average lateral quickness compared to wings. There are some who think he should play at the wing full time at the next level and I don’t know if I’m all the way there yet, but it is no longer a non-starter. This may be a little high for him at the moment, but for now I’m sticking with Washington as a top 10 prospect.
Jontay Porter, C/F, Missouri
Continuing the theme that this draft is broken we have the second(!) guy who is out for the year, and it’s a player who’s best position is the same as one of Dallas’ best players. But, at a certain point Jontay’s really unique skillset and precocious feel for the game make it impossible to pass over him. Keep in mind, because he reclassified last season, Jontay is the same age as most college freshman in this class, with even more practice/game experience. I’m not sure how much burn you could give a Porzingis-Jontay pairing, but with his passing/shooting skillset there are a lot of lineup variations he Porter can fit into.
Jontay Porter won’t wow anyone athletically, but given his body fat percentage recorded at last year’s combine, I wonder if a professional quality strength and conditioning program couldn’t untap a little extra burst and explosion from him, which could really make him special. Big men his age almost never have his level of awareness or skill level, and while he won’t be a heavy minutes guy right away, it’s difficult to imagine how he won’t improve going forward, offering real upside as a center with wing-like skill. If Nikola Jokic can succeed with a YMCA body, Jontay can, too, and Jontay offers more shot-blocking can Jokic. Even if he’s mostly a backup for his rookie contract, there’s too much value there to pass up.
THE GUYS NOT ON THIS LIST
There are some notable names who didn’t make list – two “name” wings and two centers – that I won’t devote full paragraphs to individually but I’ll touch on quickly.
Romeo Langford and Cam Reddish
Someone is going to take these guys high – Reddish especially – and boy do I hope it isn’t Dallas. Langford’s lack of shooting/playmaking makes him a bad fit with the Mavs but in truth I could see him succeeding in the right situation. Reddish meanwhile in theory seems like an OK fit in Dallas, as a long defender who offers secondary playmaking and spot up shooting, but his season in Duke has been pretty disastrous, if not apparently enough so to tank his draft stock. If you’re taking Reddish top 10 you are doing so on the back of his HS tape, where had had more opportunities to facilitate than he’s had on a stacked Duke team. I’m not sure there’s ever been a top 5 selection who’s played as many minutes as Reddish has and been this inefficient.
Bol Bol and Jaxson Hayes
Hayes and Bol in a vacuum would perhaps both make my top 10 (or at least Bol would, and Hayes would be close), but given the draft philosophy in Dallas and the current roster makeup the case to pick either becomes pretty difficult. Hayes is a super-raw big who has shot up draft boards as a late-bloomer physically, and his movement traits are such that you could potentially get away with playing him next to a traditional center for stretches, but he looks years away from being a contributor, and I don’t think a Kristaps-Hayes duo is ideal, even if you do like Hayes’ rim running potential. Bol, meanwhile, is a very intriguing player, offering a truly rare package of size, length, and shooting touch. But can Dallas really afford to use a premium asset on *another* 7’3 guy with injury questions? Bol also just may never be able to play more than spot time, given his body, and I mean that taking the injury part out of the equation.