Why RJ Barrett is the 2nd Best Prospect in the 2019 NBA Draft. And Why Ja Morant is Not. (Plus, a Top 30)

In 2029, basketball fans will look at the 2019 NBA Draft Class as one of the worst in a generation. Outside of Zion Williamson, one could make the case that none of the other 59 players have better than a puncher’s chance of playing in an All Star Game. The class is tremendously shallow, and finding solid rotation players outside of the lottery will be akin to winning $20 on a scratch-off. Conventional wisdom says that the Grizzlies will select Ja Morant at number 2, and the Knicks, or some other team, will select Barrett at number 3. It is my firm belief that RJ Barrett has the second-greatest likelihood of reaching stardom in this class, the factor that should be the primary consideration at the top of a group that lacks depth. Below, I will outline two cases — one for Barrett and another against Morant. I hesitate to compare the players’ respective games directly, and prefer to analyze them in the context of what they’ll be asked to do in the NBA. Below the piece, I will also post the top 30 players on my Draft Board, as per tradition.

For RJ Barrett

This photo should dispel any notions that RJ Barrett is a “guard”.

Since then, he’s added significant muscle and his frame looks sizably improved. Just weeks ago, the photo on the left was taken during a pre-draft workout. Look at the size of his neck. His strength is one of his most underrated attributes, and further, Barrett will be 19 for the entirety of the 2019–20 NBA season, not turning 20 until June 14 of next summer. By the time his body is fully developed, he is going to be one of the bigger wings in the NBA.

The reason that he is a unique prospect is due to a combination of several factors. First, and crucially, he is left-handed. Lefty ball handlers are rare in the NBA, and those that are often have unique craft and style to their games. The current and notable lefties that operate as a primary or secondary ball handler are as follows: James Harden, D’Angelo Russell, Ben Simmons (handedness undetermined), De’Aaron Fox, Mike Conley, Isaiah Thomas, Joe Ingles, Goran Dragic, Justise Winslow. It’s a short list, and the scarcity of lefties in that role adds to Barrett’s inherent value. Furthermore, his playing style — full of slashing and transition, is an asset for a left-handed player who thrives off unconventional angles and misdirection.

A second reason for his uniqueness as a prospect is his passing ability at 6'7". According to Sports Reference, he is the only freshman forward (per their labeling) since 1992–93 to average 20 points and 4 assists per game. Every other freshman to do so was a guard, and none were taller than 6'5". The only other freshman forward to average 15 points and 4 assists per game is Ben Simmons. As a passing wing, Barrett is nearly unprecedented as a college prospect. This is significant, because the NBA is experiencing a clear and defined trend: the growing influence of ball-handling wings.

Of the teams with the 10 best records in the NBA last season, nearly all of them saw significant passing contributions from a player that is either 1) not their nominal point guard or 2) taller than 6'5". The opposite is true for the teams at the bottom of the league. It may be anecdotal, but the league’s good and bad teams are practically delineated along this divide.

The Bucks, Raptors, Warriors, Nuggets, Rockets, 76ers, Jazz, Celtics, Thunder, Pacers and Spurs all have a major rotation piece that is not their point guard that initiates offense at a primary or secondary level. The Mavericks have one, but he was a rookie. The Pelicans are about to have one. The Lakers have one, but he was hurt.

On the contrary, the Knicks, Cavaliers, Hawks, Grizzlies, Timberwolves and Kings don’t have one of these players. The Suns, Wizards and Bulls employ the James Harden version of this roster construction, but none of them have Chris Paul. All of their nominal shooting guards are essentially their primary ball handlers, and thus would not qualify for the top group of teams. To have a successful team in the modern NBA, you need a wing (or a big) that can pass.

I know what you’re thinking: RJ Barrett got assists in college, but can he actually pass?

At the end of games, Barrett was prone to tunnel vision and haphazard decision making. He’s definitely not perfect. Many will point to the end of the Gonzaga game as an example of his inability to be a primary handler and the worst aspects of his ball-hoggery. He was awful at the end of that game — it’s undeniable. However, it was a worthwhile microcosm of the context that’s missing when classifying RJ with tunnel vision. Duke suffered all season from a lack of outside shooting. Lanes were clogged with bodies, restricting vision. Space will help him in the NBA.

Secondly, Duke lacked a coherent offensive system late in games, often resorting to talent-driven isolations. There wasn’t much movement off the ball, and the rest of the roster wasn’t built to thrive in a drive-and-kick style. It’s reasonable to think that the tunnel vision was a result, not a process. The passing talent is there:

His countryman, godfather, and one of the best passers in NBA history agrees:

My bullishness on Barrett’s passing acumen at his size with his handedness is the biggest reason for my belief in his potential. However, there are several other factors. Notably, he’s a very good rebounder for his size. He loves to grab and go and thrives in transition. He’s an underrated athlete with functional explosiveness, and he’s a passionate competitor. He’s an ideal fit for positionless basketball, and in a draft bereft of star talent, he’s the next best option after Zion Williamson.

There are valid criticisms to Barrett’s game. He’s a poor team defender, played lazy on that side of the ball, and lacks the type of instincts he has offensively. When he gets into Mamba Mode (this is pejorative), he takes a number of ill-advised shots and struggles to create efficient looks for himself. He doesn’t have the kind of shake you’d like for a ball handler, and settles for straight line drives too frequently. His jumper, much maligned, isn’t particularly bad in form, but is terribly inconsistent. He shuffles his feet and tends to shoot from an unbalanced base, which hurt his percentages far more than his mechanics.

Reading the above paragraph, one may conjure images of Andrew Wiggins. It’s a fair comparison considering their statistical outputs in their freshman seasons. However, Wiggins has never posted above an 11% assist percentage in the NBA, hovering between 8.2% and 10.9% in five years. In college, he assisted at approximately the same rate (9.2%). Barrett, on the other hand, had a 23.5% assist percentage at Duke, twice anything Wiggins has produced.

Last season, Andrew Wiggins averaged 18.1 points per game and 4.8 rebounds per game on poor efficiency, and registered his standard assist rate. These are approximately his career stats: 19.1 points per game, 4.3 rebounds, and a negligible number of assists.

Now, running with the comparison, let’s presume that Barrett is able to reach Wiggins’ 2018–19 level of scoring and rebounding output. Let’s also presume, much like Wiggins, that he’s able to reach a comparable assist percentage to what he was able to achieve in college— 20%. Below is the list of players in the 2018–19 season that scored 18 points per game, grabbed 4 rebounds per game, and had an assist percentage at or above 20%.

If RJ Barrett ends up as good as any of those players, which seems to be a reasonable proposition, he will be worth the 2nd pick in the 2019 Draft.

Against Ja Morant

My relatively bearish take on Morant in comparison to the draft community begins with his size. At 6'3", 170 lbs with a 6'6" wingspan, he is in the bottom tier of NBA lead guards.

The below table represents all NBA guards in the 2018–19 season listed under 6'4" and less than or equal to 195 lbs who scored over 10 points per game.

The list of small guards above whose careers would be worthy of the number 2 overall pick in this draft are: Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, Kemba Walker, Kyrie Irving, Mike Conley, CJ McCollum, Lou Williams, Trae Young, De’Aaron Fox, Chris Paul, Goran Dragic. I’ve excluded Collin Sexton, Dennis Schroder, and all the players on the list beneath Dragic.

The majority of the 11 players listed above have an elite skill or attribute that is central to their game and thus their success in the NBA:

  • Steph Curry, Damian Lillard and Trae Young have generational range that bends defenses with shooting gravity
  • Mike Conley and De’Aaron Fox possess elite speed
  • Kyrie Irving is an all-time great finisher around the rim with the best handle in the world
  • Chris Paul is one of the best defensive point guards in basketball history

No matter which way you slice it, Ja Morant can’t touch these players in those elite skills. He’s fast, a good finisher with a superb handle, and has flashed a deep off-the-dribble three, but is surpassed in each by those who’ve come before him. If you remove or diminish those skills from any of the players listed above, they fall from the ranks of elite point guard play.

Ja Morant’s best path to NBA success is to reach the level of one of the four remaining “small guards” in the league — Kemba Walker, CJ McCollum, Lou Williams, or Goran Dragic. These players are all excellent offensively, but none are at the pinnacle of the league in any particular attribute. One may notice that none of those players have ever reached the NBA Finals, and collectively have made two conference finals between the four of them (McCollum this season and Goran Dragic off the bench for the 2009–10 Suns). In a league trending towards bigger, more punishing wings that can handle the ball as effectively as guards, having the smallest player on the court is often a liability unless they can truly differentiate themselves.

Lou Williams did not play in college, and Dragic played in Europe, but here is Morant’s statistical profile in comparison to Walker and McCollum:

Looking at their careers as well as their most effective individual seasons, all three players shot similar numbers of threes and got to the line at a similarly effective rate. They were all poor defenders and decent rebounders for their size. They all grabbed a negligible amount of steals and were efficient scorers.

The biggest discrepancies among Morant, Walker and McCollum in the table above are in assist rates and turnover percentages. It’s clear from the data that Morant was more of a floor general than Walker or McCollum in college. He nearly doubled their assist rates despite comparable usage. However, he also nearly doubled how often he turned the ball over. Because of how frequently he coughed up possessions, his offensive box plus-minus in the 2018–19 season was lower than (or the same as) the best marks that either McCollum or Walker produced in their most effective college seasons, despite his superior scoring efficiency, which was mostly borne out of his points at the free throw line.

Of active NBA guards, Morant’s closest statistical college comparison point is probably John Wall. As a passer, Morant is more like Wall than every other guard on the under 6'4" list, but Wall was faster, stronger and bigger than Morant. Trae Young and Chris Paul are also in that discussion, but stylistically and qualitatively, neither of them are fair comparisons to Ja.

John Wall’s college statistics his freshman year at Kentucky

So where are we with Morant? He can’t shoot like Curry or Lillard. He isn’t a speed demon like Fox or Conley. He isn’t big like Harden, and he isn’t poised like Kemba. I struggle to identify a path that exists in the modern NBA where his current skillset develops into that of a star.

Physically, he lacks the strength of guards his size and won’t be able to leverage a lower position to create space on drives. He’s a two-footed jumper, and while he has an affinity for highlight dunks, his explosiveness in traffic is diminished when leaping off one foot. He has a low release point on his jumper and undeveloped footwork on the perimeter, and it’s unclear if he’ll be able to consistently get jumpers off in isolation against tight contests. As a ball handler, while his handle is tight, there are myriad questions about his decision making ability as well as his propensity for turnovers. Defensively, he’s been a sieve throughout his career and doesn’t seem to have the size, frame, instincts, or desire to make a marked improvement on that end.

Frankly, there are too many questions with Morant to justify him as the 2nd overall prospect in this class. He’s an intriguing player, and I would wager on him being a starting point guard in the NBA due to his passing talent and athleticism, but there is too much variance at play to consider him at number 2. To thrive as a small guard in today’s NBA requires skills that Morant does not possess, and Barrett’s path to stardom is simply more attainable.

DRAFT BOARD

Zion Williamson

Tier 2

RJ Barrett

De’Andre Hunter

Jarrett Culver

Ja Morant

Brandon Clarke

Tier 3

Bol Bol

Jontay Porter

Sekou Doumbouya

Jaxson Hayes

Darius Garland

Coby White

Grant Williams

Tier 4

Goga Bitadze

Romeo Langford

Kevin Porter Jr.

Tyler Herro

Matisse Thybulle

Chuma Okeke

PJ Washington

Nassir Little

Tier 5

Talen Horton-Tucker

Nickiel Alexander-Walker

Cam Reddish

Bruno Fernando

Tier 6

Cam Johnson

Ignas Brazdeikis

Luguentz Dort

Shamorie Ponds

Keldon Johnson

Basketball, culture, politics, associated musings. Email me: mikehmargolis@gmail.com