2021 Franchise Player Re-Draft, Part I
Not counting the 10,000 tweets I sent, both for work and for play, I wrote exactly three things in 2020: A piece about Kobe Bryant (my favorite thing I’ve ever written), a piece about Vince Carter, and a series on the 30 most important songs in my life. All three were, in different ways, about the past, and its connection to the present through memory.
Justin and I did not do a Franchise Player Re-Draft last winter, and I think that was for the best. However you feel about 2020 itself (I am higher on it than some), it was unquestionably, during its first phase, early on, a year of reflection and reckoning.
That has shifted. I moved into a new apartment. Donald Trump was voted out. Justin started watching basketball again, or at least consuming inordinate amounts of basketball content. Time is a’movin’ again. So we’re here. We’re back.
As always, the question: What player would you most want to build your franchise around in a world devoid of real-life contracts, ownership concerns, marketability concerns or market value? By trimming this fat, we can distill absolute franchise player value — age, proven ability, future projection, expected length of prime, expected severity of decline, roster fit, scalability and intangibles.
Speaking of trimming fat…Justin, let’s get to it.
1. Luka Doncic (Justin Savaso): The Suns and Kings aren’t participating in this draft, so Luka will not be going 3rd. It’s hard to even decide where to start with Luka. The fact he was the absolute centerpiece to the Mavs #1 ranked offense last year? His eye-popping averages of 28.8 PPG, 9.4 RPG, and 8.8 APG? Ending the season 5th in MVP voting and adding a playoff game winner to his resume?
Really, we should start here: THE DUDE IS 21 YEARS OLD. Think about it — this time last year Luka could not walk into a bar and order an adult beverage. My youngest sister is 21 years old and she is a senior at Cal Poly! Okay, I’ll stop my Luka-gasm but still, it’s completely unprecedented for what this guy has done at this age. If that doesn’t get you the #1 draft spot in this redraft, I don’t know what does.
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo (SCG): One idea for what might: how about being the two-time reigning MVP, the only player other than Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon to win MVP and DPOY in the same season, and averaging 29.5 PPG, 13.6 RPG, 5.1 APG, a steal and a block…in 30.4 MPG? On 61.3% true shooting? All before your 26th birthday?
Look, the argument for Luka is clear: He’s the best 21-year-old since LeBron James, and it’s not unreasonable to predict that in three years he’ll be the best 24-year-old since LeBron, the best 26-year-old since in five, etc.
Here’s the counter: Giannis IS the best 26-year-old since LeBron, he IS the best player in the league under 30, and he IS the single player that most tilts championship expectations in his team’s favor — by a significant margin.
Future value matters. The four-plus years Luka gives you before he reaches Giannis’ current age matter. But if Luka is a two-time MVP and the leader of a perennial championship favorite by his 26th birthday, I’ll consider that an excellent outcome. I’m taking the certainty of Giannis — mixed with the significant upside he still possesses — over any player in the league.
(JS): Wow, pretty significant disagreement right away! First, I think you are slightly underselling Luka. He’s not the best 21 year old since Lebron- he is offensively statistically superior to second year Lebron in pretty much every way. Efficiency, scoring, assists, and maybe most telling, leading the Mavs to the #1 ranked offense (the Cavs had the 12th best regular season offense in 04–05, according to Cleaning the Glass).
More to the point, everything you say holds true about Giannis in the regular season, but what about the playoffs? Giannis’s playoff resume so far:
2018 playoffs- lost in the first round to the Celtics in 7
2019 playoffs- lost in the Conference Finals to Raptors in 6
2020 playoffs- lost in the second round to Heat in 5 (injured in Game 4 with MIL down 3–0)
That’s not exactly inspiring for a two-time regular-season MVP. I hate to beat a dead horse here, but his lack of jumper consistently hurts his team’s offense. That was never more apparent than in last year’s playoffs. I can imagine an infinite amount of scenarios where Luka is the focal point of a top 5 offense that continues to hum in the playoffs. I can’t say the same for Giannis.
(SCG): Also statistically superior to second-year LeBron: second-year Trae Young. I don’t think we can compare counting stats or efficiency stats across eras when 90–85 was a more common score when LeBron came into the league than 120–115.
I still stand by my claim that Luka is the best since LeBron. He’s that good. And the main area of differentiation is not offense, but defense. Whereas a young LeBron was as terrifying as an off-ball hawk as he was coming down the other way after a steal, Luka is an often apathetic, appetizing mismatch for opposing guards and wings to attack.
Giannis is better defensively than even prime Bron, and that part of his game has very much held up in the playoffs. As for the offensive struggles, they are real — but dramatically overblown.
2018 reg. season TS%: 59.8
2018 postseason TS%: 62.0
2019 reg. season TS%: 64.4
2019 postseason TS%: 57.0
2020 reg. season TS%: 61.3
2020 postseason TS%: 61.0
Giannis is not James Harden, who drops from 61.4% to 57.6% over the past five seasons. He lost a remarkably close 6-game series to Kawhi and a loaded title-bound Raptors team two years ago, and then to a Heat team that, without a healthy Bam or Goran, came within two games of a title.
His best teammates during this time have been Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe, and the pairing’s mutual inability to run a high-level pick-and-roll has had Giannis miscast as a LeBron/Luka-esque do-it-all wing creator, when he is in reality closer a hybrid of Scottie Pippen and Shaq. Give Giannis a jumper and he might go down as the greatest player of all-time, but he doesn’t need one to be the best player in the league for the next 5 years.
(JS): Here is my three-pointed response:
1) The Mavs had the number one ranked offense last year. I think that needs to be restated to put this Lebron/Trae noise into context (the Hawks had the 26th ranked offense for all you curious fans out there).
2) You say “……Giannis miscast as a LeBron/Luka-esque do-it-all wing creator”. And that is just it right there — those are the rarest and most valuable players to have come playoff time. Showing how efficient Giannis continues to be in the postseason is fine, but I think we need to do a little further investigating on how his efficiency is being generated. I find it the equivalent of saying “AD was more efficient than Lebron this past postseason and both had high usage rates, so end of story.” The role Luka took on offense last year was that of a number one in the purest sense- create from the top of the key in pick-and-roll and isolation. That was also the role Lebron filled on the Lakers. Giannis clearly did not have that responsibility on the Bucks, and as they have faltered offensively in consecutive postseasons, I think we need not blame his teammates but begin to question whether he has the ability to lead a title team in that manner.
(SCG): Point 1 is fair. As for Point 2, I agree with you that you can’t just look at efficiency and claim that Player A is better than Player B — role matters.
That said…would LeBron have won this year’s championship without AD? Beating Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets would have been much harder with even a slightly less dynamic big, and a decimated Heat team pushed the Finals to 6 as is. I don’t know if LeBron wins this year’s title with Gobert instead of AD.
Similarly, I don’t know if AD gets it done with Lillard instead of Bron.
The do-it-all player is a myth. It takes help, and complementary help at that. The help Giannis needs is in the form of a lead initiator who is enough of a pick-and-roll threat to create some easy opportunities, and enough of a shooting threat to make a packed-paint defense untenable.
Needing a high level initiator on his side doesn’t reveal some fatal flaw. Switch his point guard with Kawhi’s in 2019 (Bledsoe for Lowry), and the Bucks probably have a ring. Switch his for Butler’s this past year (Bledsoe for Dragic), and Milwaukee is likely Finals bound.
The worst #2 LeBron has ever won with was post-prime Dwyane Wade. The best #2 Giannis has ever had is Khris Middleton. He’s so good in so many areas that all he might need in addition is Kyle Lowry or Goran Dragic. Time will tell what Luka needs, but my guess is that it will be at least that much.
(JS): Yes, I see what you are saying. I just put more value on a player who can initiate at the highest level. You are certainly right in the fact that it is not like Lebron just carried his team to a ring this year. At the same time, much of my criticism of Giannis’s playoff performance is the fact he has never been close to a ring. I think the whole ring or bust argument is oversimplified at best, but when you talk about a guy who has never been to a Finals, despite playing in an inferior conference and having the #1 seed over the past two years, it raises questions.
This should be an especially interesting year to watch as the Bucks moved heaven and earth to acquire Jrue Holiday, a player I would put in the same tier as a Lowry or Dragic. As always, time shall tell.
(SCG): I do just want to make one thing clear: I am NOT excusing Giannis’ playoff losses, nor am I saying that he “should” have rings he doesn’t have. He’s not a victim here. The all-time great ones make it happen, whether it be through improving their games, playing at an elite level long enough to have the proper team fall into place, or realizing that won’t happen and re-locating in free agency. If Giannis retires ringless, it will be on him.
But this exercise is not about doling out credit or creating an historical pantheon. It’s about predicting the future. Giannis deserves blame for his losses, but I see the fixes as much simpler and more achievable than I do for, say, James Harden.
3. Jayson Tatum (JS): I remember getting a certain amount of shit for taking Tatum 13th in the 2018 Franchise Player Re-Draft and I wonder if the same thing will happen here. I’ll prematurely defend my case with a simple argument — the guy was clearly the best player on a Conference Finalist last year. At age 22. He was awesome in the bubble and statistically better in the playoffs than the regular season. This doesn’t surprise me as players who struggle in the playoffs often tend to lack either physical tools or shooting (see player above). Tatum easily checks both of these boxes and I think we can continue to expect excellence from him in the postseason.
If you are going to nitpick, the case against Tatum this high probably centers around creating for his teammates. I think a reasonable comparison here is young Kevin Durant. In Durant’s third season, he led OKC to the Finals and put up playoff averages of 28.5 PPG, 7.4 RPG and 3.7 APG on 57 eFG%. Tatum’s last year was his third in the league and he went to the Eastern Conference Finals putting up playoff averages of 25.7 PPG, 10.0 RPG and 5.0 APG on 50.4 eFG%. Durant’s playmaking got better as his career progressed, and Tatum is already trending in the right direction there. If the 22-year-old ends up playing at 92% of peak KD for the rest of his career, I’ll have no regrets about this pick.
(SCG): Tatum was ninth on my board, which was probably too low. As you said, he was the unambiguous lead dog on a final four team last year. I do think the efficiency gap between he and Durant matters since he will likely never be an elite playmaker, and six more efficient players (including one younger than Tatum that we’ll certainly discuss…) were the difference between Tatum’s ranking on my board and on yours.
4. Anthony Davis (SCG): Entering the Western Conference Finals in Orlando, I began to overthink the “best big man in basketball” question. How could it not be Jokic, who had just been unequivocally the best player on the floor in a series featuring Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and a holy spirit-infested Jamal Murray? Davis, meanwhile, had LeBron on his side, and had never led a team to the heights Jokic had.
I picked the Nuggets to win the series. The Lakers won in 5. And they won because Anthony Davis was more equipped to guard Jokic than either of the 2x DPOYs Jokic defeated in the first two rounds, and because Jokic had absolutely zero chance of doing anything to slow down AD.
Now that he’s won a ring…what questions are left? Where’s the hole in his resume? What’s there to say, other than that this dude is 7 feet tall, can guard every position on the court, is the greatest pick-and-roll finisher of all-time, and can come off a screen and bury a buzzer-beating 3 in a WCF game?
5. Kawhi Leonard (JS): I know Kawhi definitely reads these annual re-drafts and I am sure he is miffed that we skipped last year. I wonder if he would have gone first in 2019, a year younger and fresh off carrying the Raptors to a ring.
But as we know all too well, this is 2020 and the past is the past. It’s fair to acknowledge what happened in last year’s NBA bubble, but also important to contextualize it. Are the Suns actually like good good? Are Mitchell and Murray two great offensive talents? Would the Heat have made their run if it was a normal postseason? And of course, how do we make sense of the Clippers epic collapse against the Nuggets?
I am sure some of what happened was real and some of it was noise. Based on Kawhi’s proven playoff resume, I lean more towards the latter with him. Let me just highlight that one more time, BASED ON KAWHI’S PROVEN PLAYOFF RESUME. Really, that is what this pick comes down to.
(SCG): People are drama queens and kings. They need to performatively react when a player falls short of their unrealistic expectations.
No one likes to admit it, but Stephen Curry was the consensus best player in the world entering the 2016 Finals. Then 3–1 happened, which should have rightly returned LeBron to the throne. Instead, it threw Curry out of the castle completely — somehow by losing to LeBron, he had also become worse than Kevin Durant (who had just blown a 3–1 lead to Curry one series prior), and for many, worse than James Harden and Anthony Davis (combined 0–6 vs. Curry in playoff series),
The same thing is happening with Kawhi now. He had been given the throne, and like Curry, he relinquished it in dramatic fashion. LeBron again reclaimed it (more on him in a second), but somehow Giannis (who has never made a Finals and lost to Kawhi in 2019), AD (who literally plays with LeBron) and Luka (who lost to Kawhi in the only playoff series he’s ever been in) all vaulted Kawhi, according to ESPNRank.
(JS): These are all great points and I think this type of reactive culture is largely the product of the way NBA fans receive their news nowadays. When you have a never-ending stream of updates, highlights, and takes via Twitter, it seems near impossible to keep any type of balance when digesting information about the league. Do you remember 10 years ago where if you didn’t watch the game, you would have to tune into ESPN to catch the highlights? Or, God forbid you missed both of those…. Read about it the newspaper the next morning. Alright I’ll stop here before I date myself too much. But it’s a good point to examine as we do this exercise- the way we take in information regarding the NBA, and pretty much everything else in society, has changed drastically in this past decade. Trying to look at last year’s bubble in context rather than just react to it was something I was trying to keep in mind.
6. LeBron James (SCG): LeBron James turns 36 today. I wrote the following shortly after his 34th birthday:
“James has beaten father time up to this point, but every year, it becomes less and less likely that he will continue to do so. It would not shock me if James was still “best-player-on-a-title-team” caliber in two years, but it also wouldn’t shock me if a dude who has played more minutes than Michael Jordan, Shaq, Oscar Robertson and perhaps most tellingly Vince Carter starts to break down.”
Welp. Those two years have passed, and LeBron is not only “best-player-on-a-title-team” caliber, but literally is the best player on a title team. Father time might be undefeated, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t anomalous figures that defy our expectations in the aging battle so drastically that we might as well chalk it up as an L for papa clock. Think Tom Brady, who at age 37 had won exactly half of the super bowls he has now won, and who at 43 is playing QB at a top-10 level.
Brady is the undeniable GOAT, as Bron might be in a few years. The rules just apply differently here. When you have the body of Karl Malone, the skill of Larry Bird, the IQ of Tim Duncan and the durability of Kareem, you don’t need the explosiveness of Julius Erving to be the best player in the world. Of course, Bron still has that, but when he doesn’t in a year, or two, or three…he’ll still be “best-player-on-a-title-team” caliber.
Betting on his demise has proven to be a losing proposition.
(JS): Betting on his demise has proven to be a losing proposition…… and yet here I go! No, look I don’t have any real problems with this pick. I like the Tom Brady comparison and in this day and age, with technology and recovery being what it is, who says Lebron can’t have another 4 awesome seasons?
To get a comprehensive picture of what has happened with Lebron in these past two years, I do think the 18–19 season needs to be mentioned. Yes, Lebron missed time that season, but in the 55 games he played the Lakers were 28–27. I think everything went wrong for Lebron that year, and everything went right for Lebron during the 19–20 season. Playoff Lebron is still the best in the league, but in this format does Age 36 Lebron have enough in the tank to play a full season on an AD-less team and get you the 6th seed? I think the answer is probably yes, but I personally wouldn’t want to take that risk with the talent and youth still on the board. Somewhat strangely, I see this as a high-upside, high-risk pick.
(SCG): It’s a great point. This is not the LeBron of old, the ultimate floor raiser who can will a mediocre roster to 55 wins and a deep playoff run. As you know, I’m much more interested in ceiling than floor, so even if Bron needs star help to win titles (which he did even in his prime), I’m comfortable taking him here.
7. Nikola Jokic (JS): I want to continue the discussion you started with AD here. The difference between AD and Jokic’s game is about as stark as they come. I had AD one slot ahead of Jokic on my board, but let me make the case for why Jokic deserves to be drafted ahead of AD in this specific format.
At age 25, Jokic was unequivocally the best player on a team that made the Western Conference Finals last season. When Davis was cast in the role of being the best player on those Pelican teams, the furthest they ever made it was the second round in 17–18. Also, don’t lose sight of the fact that Jokic is two years younger than AD, and is just now entering his prime.
As a follow-up to the last paragraph, I think we need to take a serious look at how you fill out the rest of your roster in this hypothetical scenario. If you draft AD as the centerpiece of your franchise, you are probably going to end up with something in the Kemba Walker range as your second guy. Is that team a championship contender in a balanced league? Absolutely. Now with Jokic, you may end with a Khris Middleton guy as your #2. To me, I think the AD/Walker pairing has more upside, but the Jokic/Middleton pairing has a higher medium outcome. That probably answers the question right there- you play for championships right? Sure. I just want to acknowledge we have evidence that a Jokic led team can make the Conference Finals, and AD as your best player is more…… murky.
(SCG): I’ve thought about Nikola Jokic more than any player over the last few months. It’s weird, because his success in the bubble validated so much of my basketball ethos, and yet I can’t help feel that I am lower on his bubble performance than some.
To frame it one way: Nikola Jokic was the best player on the floor in back-to-back Game 7s, the best player on the floor in a series against Kawhi Leonard and the best player on a Conference Finalist. He is a big-time playoff performer due to his unparalleled clutch-ness and the play style he allows his team to employ — egalitarian, improvisational, versatile, fast, movement-heavy.
To frame it another way: Jokic was a Mike Conley jumper away from losing in Round 1 to a Jazz team without its second-leading scorer. Rudy Gobert had a dominant offensive series against him, and AD dominated him on both ends. In the two series that have really given him his amazing playoff reputation, the centers he’s faced have been Montrezl Harrell/Ivica Zubac and Enes Kanter/Zach Collins.
Frankly, I’m not ready to say Jokic is a better #1 than AD. The jury is still out; I need to see another postseason before I form a full opinion. I am, however, ready to say that AD is a better #2 than anyone in the league.
8. Stephen Curry (SCG): I know Curry was far lower on your board, so I’ll save most of my breath here for once I know what aspect of this pick I need to defend. I’ll just open with this: the last time we saw Steph play with actual other NBA players, he was setting the all-time record for points in a series sweep (36.5 PPG in the WCF), and hero-balling a decimated Warriors team to within a bucket of forcing Game 7 against peak Kawhi Leonard and a terrifying Raptors team.
No one who is left on the board has ever done anything like that. Only two people who have already been drafted (Leonard and James) have done similar things. All-time greats are built different; I’m willing to pass on youth for these historical outliers.
(JS): You may have been expecting fireworks here and sorry to disappoint, but I do not think this conversation is headed there (see Luka vs. Giannis for that!). It is more that I had players of similar age and level, such as Lebron, Harden, and Steph, lower on my board.
Your point is well taken — Steph was the #1 option on a recent Finals team and was up for the task. That really is no small feat. In fact, there is so much value in that, I think it justifies putting aside the aging and durability questions to make this pick. Also, it goes without saying that his game should age awesome, which I am sure you considered when taking Steph here.
Also, a big aside, but this is the second time you have mentioned the Raptors being a “loaded” and “terrifying” 2019 title team. Am I crazy to think they were no better than your average title team?
(SCG): You’re not crazy — ”loaded” and “terrifying” sound like words to describe Superteams, not teams with Kyle Lowry as their second-best player. That said…there has not been a 2-through-9 in recent memory better than Lowry, Siakam, Danny Green, VanVleet, Gasol, Ibaka, Anunoby and Powell. Add the best player in the league at the time as your #1…let’s not pretend these were the 2011 Mavs.
9: Karl-Anthony Towns (JS): When it came to making my big board, I prioritized two things over all else: youth and ability to function as a #1 on a top offense. The value in youth is obvious: the younger the player is, the more room for growth and the longer you have him in his prime on your team. I arrived at my second criteria through how modern offenses have shifted strategies. At the crux of it, it seems now that the best offenses space the floor around great creators. The Mavs with the #1 ranked offense in 19–20 around Luka. Steph’s Warriors in 15–16. Lebron’s Cavs, etc. If you can grab yourself an elite #1 creator, your team is going to be damn good.
Now to be clear, I am not putting Towns in that category. But it is easy to forget that Towns was statistically awesome in the 35 games he played last season. Career highs in points (26.5), assists (4.4), FTA (6.5), 3PA (7.9), and 3P% (41.2). Consider that for a moment- a 6’11 dude who takes 7.9 3PA and hits them at a 41.2% clip. And can also do stuff off the dribble.
He is the not the perfect draft pick by any measure. His defensive woes are magnified by the fact he is a big man, and he hasn’t driven any real winning in the 4 full seasons he has played in the league. But hey, the guy is young and an absolute talent on the offensive side of the court. Sticking to my guns, that fits my criteria for him squeaking into Part 1 of this draft.
(SCG): I’m going to save half of my response here for my write-up on the guy I took at #14 (teaser for Part II!), but I will just say that for all of KAT’s shiny offensive numbers, the Wolves’ defense has been worse with him on the court throughout most of his career. Jokic isn’t Bill Russell, but the Nuggets’ defense has actually been better with him on the court every year he’s played.
The Wolves also went 1–18 in the final 19 games KAT played last season. The blame goes beyond him of course, but it should be noted that the team went 5–10 during the time KAT missed in the middle of that stretch.
I’m not saying the Wolves are better without KAT, but showing a lack of any ability to drive winning by age 25 is troubling. I had him much lower.
(JS): I think you bring up a lot of good points and everything you say is true. I am also troubled by the fact he has not driven any real winning in the four full seasons he has played in the NBA.
The only thing I would push back against is any type of implication that Towns is an empty numbers guy. The best offensive player he has ever played next to is Jimmy Butler…. and the Wolves finished 4th that year in offense. In every full season he has played, the Wolves have finished with an offense ranked in the top half of the league. And that is nothing to sneeze at — in multiple seasons, his second best offensive teammate has been Andrew Wiggins. And this is not just a numbers driven point — his game is perfect in the modern NBA.
Essentially, I am gambling that I can get a 4 or a tweener 5 to play next to Towns who can help hide his defensive woes (imagine a frontcourt of Towns and Draymond….). Is that maybe a stretch? Sure. But I am betting Towns is such an offensive talent and young enough to warrant that gamble.
(SCG): Empty numbers is a stretch to be sure. I think he can be part of a winning team. There are just several players I’d rather take that offense/defense gamble on…we’ll probably revisit this several times in Part II (another tease!)
10. Zion Williamson (SCG): The case for Zion’s game is straightforward. Figuring out where to draft him is anything but.
First, the simple part. Zion played his rookie season out of shape in every sense of the word — he was overweight, coming off knee surgery and jumping into the middle of a season after missing three months. Any one of those factors could lead to a lost season for a veteran…but all three? For a rookie?
Well, Zion came in and averaged 22.5 points with a 61.6 true-shooting %. In 27.8 minutes per game. It was the highest scoring average for a rookie since Allen Iverson in 1996–97. AI played 40.1 minutes and had a TS% of 51.3.
The fewest minutes played by a rookie with Zion’s scoring numbers or better? Walter Davis’ 32.0 MPG in 1977–78. The highest scoring rookie season ever on efficiency as good as Zion’s? Arvydas Sabonis’ 14.5 PPG on 61.7% TS in 1995. Sabonis was 31.
Zion was 19…the youngest player ever to average 22+ PPG.
In other words…Zion had arguably the greatest scoring season for a rookie in NBA history, and did so as just about the most limited version of himself imaginable. He could remain the relatively-diminished athlete he was last season and still become the scariest scoring force in the league within 3 years. If he gets in some semblance of shape?
Now, the tricky part. Health concerns aside, Zion would have been the third member of our Luka/Giannis debate. But these concerns do exist, and they are terrifying. Knee surgery at 19 is always scary. Playing the game at 30–40 pounds heavier than is ideal is also a medical red flag. Having both on the docket, plus an unnatural gait to begin with, is a recipe for absolute panic.
On the court, Zion is as unambiguously a hall of fame talent as we’ve ever seen enter the league. But the operative words there are On The Court — can he stay there? That’s where things instantly flip to endlessly ambiguous, and why ranking him was both the easiest and most difficult task in this exercise.
(JS): My knowledge of Zion’s game is basically Youtube highlights and what I listen to from Zach Lowe and Nate Duncan.
So help me out here. You say his game is straightforward, but I can’t say I really understand it. He does not space the floor, create for his teammates, or project as any type of great defender. This is not an attack on his game — in the 24 games he played last year, the Pelicans were 6.5 points better per 100 possessions with Zion on the court. I am struggling here because there is no comp for a guy like this…which I guess is why he is so special? But I am rambling now--tell me more about how he averages those 22.5 points per game and why his game can evolve to be the centerpiece of a championship franchise.
(SCG): Well, I’ll start by confusing you even more: An in-shape Zion should actually be an elite playmaking big and highly disruptive defender. Draymond Green and Ben Simmons were frequent comps for him entering the league, and while I don’t think he’ll ever be on Green’s level as a defender or Simmons’ as a passer, he could become a Green-level passer and a Simmons-lite level defender. These, however, are the parts of his game that will simply disintegrate if he doesn’t get his body right.
Now, to explain the scoring — which I am THRILLED to do, because I love Zion’s game so damn much. There are certain players that have historical outlier skills. Think Klay’s catch-and-shoot ability, or Kyrie’s handle, or a young Derrick Rose’s first step.
Then, there are the super-rare players with MULTIPLE historical outlier skills working in conjunction to make them unstoppable — LeBron’s strength + balance + mental processing speed. Steph’s speed of release + high trajectory of shot + accuracy + range + off-the-dribble shot mechanics (he’s the best of all-time at all those things. Think about it).
Well, Zion is one of those guys. He is, if not the strongest player ever, then certainly the strongest ever under 6’9. He’s also (when healthy) the most vertically explosive human to ever exist at his weight. That combo of mass + explosiveness (aka force) makes Zion the most physically challenging player to defend coming downhill in the history of the sport. He simply generates more force than any athlete ever has.
But that’s not the end of Zion’s outlier skills. He’s also the most gifted high degree-of-difficulty finesse lob/putback finisher of all-time; no matter where he catches the ball or from what angle, he can get it up on the glass and into the bucket in one remarkably quick and fluid motion. It doesn’t make sense how these shots go in, but they just…do. And when they don’t, Zion’s FOURTH outlier skill comes into play: he has the quickest second and third jump I’ve ever seen. He’ll extend up, contort his body to evade the D and try to finish, and on the rare occasion that it doesn’t go in, he’s already corralling the offensive rebound (second jump) and going back up (third jump) before the defense has even recovered from defending the initial shot.
To recap: Zion is the strongest ever at his height, most explosive ever at his weight, has all-time touch on lobs and putbacks and all-time second jump and third jump quickness.
The explosiveness is the only one of those skills that was compromised by his health and weight last year, and if he gets right, not only will it return, but his playmaking and defense will emerge as well.
A healthy Zion will win scoring titles. A healthy and in-shape Zion will win MVPs and championships. I’m certain.
(JS): So essentially, you’re saying Zion is a physical specimen who combines aspects of explosiveness and athleticism in ways we may have never seen before.
That leads me to my next question: How much of being a great NBA player is physical dominance and how much is having a feel for the game. I know you are going to absolutely hate this, but I can’t help but thinking of Russell Westbrook as a comp to Zion in terms of athleticism/numbers/position questions. Similar to Zion, Westbrook was an absolute world-class athlete when he came into the league and didn’t have any type of clear position. Obviously, he figured things out and the guy has won an MVP, been to the Finals, and is a 9 time all-star. With all of that being said, I wouldn’t exactly say he ever learned the whole feel for the game thing. His freakish athleticism and drive made him a monster to play against in the regular season and had him post eye-popping stats, but it never really equated to an elite level of team success.
And I guess that’s where my questions remain with Zion. As you say, if he remains at least somewhat healthy, he is going to post eye-popping stats and highlights. But will it equate to winning at the highest level? We need much more time before answering that question. The all-timers figure it out and the fact Zion has a chance to fall into that category shows you the talent we are about talking about here.
(SCG): Imagine if Russell Westbrook had the touch around the rim of Stephen Curry. Then your comparison would start to make sense.
Russell Westbrook’s true-shooting % as a rookie was 48.9. That would have been 6th to last among 195 qualified NBA players this past season, ahead of only RJ Barrett, Elfrid Payton, Kevin Knox (lol Knicks), Jarrett Culver and Jordan Poole.
In his most efficient season ever — that MVP year — he posted 55.4% true-shooting, still below the league average.
Zion’s TS% was 61.6 last year. That was 4th among players with 30% usage, trailing Dame, Harden and Booker (61.8), and right above Giannis (61.6), the MVP.
Points per game lie. Efficiency lies. Points per game plus efficiency really doesn’t lie…which I know you know, considering who your next pick is.
(JS): That’s interesting. I’d question that last statement about points plus efficiency not lying. Think of a guys like Sabonis or Siakam. Both players put up healthy points per game averages on at or above league efficiency throughout their careers. And yet would you want to build around either?
To be clear, Zion averaged more points that Sabonis and the same as Siakam, while posting much higher efficiency numbers than both. Which is a major point for why Zion is such a tantalizing prospect. But if Zion can’t space the floor and never develops into a guy who can initiate at the highest level for himself and his teammates, what exactly does your team have? The lobs are awesome, the putbacks are energizing, and he is great at using his weight and body to feast on mismatches in transition. Now, I wouldn’t necessarily describe those types of skills as gimmicks, but when you make it deeper into the playoffs, it seems like those types of opportunities tend to dry up. I’d like to see Zion take steps forward in becoming a playmaker for himself and others this season, and then I will feel much better regarding his path to being the best player on a contender.
(SCG): It’s a very fair point you make. There is a difference between elite scoring on elite efficiency as a halfcourt offensive hub vs. as a guy who never needs a play drawn up for him. This was my concern with AD for years, and still is, to an extent.
Zion is somewhere between AD and Shaq. Like AD, he can get you 25 without having a single play run for him. This makes him an efficiency monster, but leaves questions about his viability as a №1 on a title team. Like Shaq, he’s such an outlier in terms of his strength/athleticism/skill package that even with no jumper and middling playmaking, he may just be impossible to neutralize.
So again, I 100% see your concerns and you’ve swayed me a little, but I do think it matters that this dude is much closer to AD and Shaq when discussing basketball attributes than he is Sabonis and Siakam.
Check back for Part II soon!