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NBA Draft: Reviewing the pre-March Madness options for the Houston pick

With March Madness right around the corner, Ben Rosales and guest Jerry Khachoyan discuss the philosophy with which the Lakers should approach the draft and a few of their preferred options in the late first round.

NCAA Basketball: Big East Conference Tournament-Creighton vs Villanova Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

The Lakers’ current predicament is likely not what the previous front office had in mind when they looked to inaugurate a new era of Lakers basketball with Luke Walton at the helm and Kobe Bryant moving into the pages of history. The contracts currently binding the Lakers to send sizable payments to Luol Deng’s and Timofey Mozgov’s bank accounts for the next three years stand in testament to this, as does the front office’s unwillingness to trade any of the team’s veterans during the past summer for assets, likely viewing those veterans as pieces to support the framework of a team that would not necessarily be good but competitive.

With Lou Williams in Houston and Corey Brewer throwing awful behind-the-back passes in transition last night, however, we have long since been disabused of that notion and prudence dictates we look toward how the team can continue to advance what has been a slow and painful rebuilding process with the late first round pick they received in the Lou trade. Since there is a high probability that the Lakers will have a pair of picks on the first round bubble in the form of the Houston pick and their own second rounder, presuming the loss of their own first rounder, a discussion of the approach the team should take and the options in this area appears appropriate.

Taking this into account, I have decided to continue a series that I enjoyed last season (see piece one and piece two) in the form of an extended discussion concerning the draft with Jerry Khachoyan, who writes for Lakers Outsiders and is an active presence analyzing the Lakers on Twitter. The (nonexistent) possibility that we will engage in a death match over the tournament after Princeton crushes UCLA in the championship game in a far more exciting echo of 1996 notwithstanding, we wanted to get our thoughts on paper before the tournament did anything to change any preconceptions we might have concerning the prospects we are about to prognosticate on.

And on the subject of those prospects, we encourage our readers to make heavy use of Draft Express and the awesome power of Google to add context to our discussion and the teams and players that may come up. Whenever possible, we have attempted to elucidate for the benefit of our audience details that might help alleviate this context problem, but in the interests of not making this an (already) irritatingly long piece to digest, we have presumed a certain amount of literacy of the draft process, prospect evaluation (especially commonly used metrics), and so forth. Without further ado:

Ben: This was supposed to be the year in which Lakers fans could live in happy self-enforced ignorance about the top prospects of the draft, leaving the task of focusing on second round gems to more dedicated draftniks such as you and I, Jerry, but it seems that the basketball gods will again be unkind to us. And due to the team's rather convoluted draft position courtesy of the Stepien rule, we were left in the uncertain position of not knowing whether we needed to care about the top three group of prospects or those on the first round bubble, as the Lakers' own first and second round picks this year are mutually exclusive.

Lo and behold, the Lou Williams trade has granted us a small piece of certainty, as the team at the moment will have at least one pick in the 25-35 range come draft time, presuming that Magic doesn't trade the farm, the Houston pick, and everything else not nailed to the ground for one year of Paul George. For the sake of our discussion, however, we will treat this as neither here nor there.

I would also like to shelve any discussion of the top prospects, as not only has this been reviewed to death by every media outlet in existence, talking about it in-depth feels rather premature before the lottery (not that that stops us from quarreling over this on Twitter, but I digress). Moreover, where the Lakers land in the top three profoundly changes how we approach this discussion, so it only furthers the case for leaving this for another date.

What we can do though is to outline the team's general needs and apply that framework to the prospects available around the first round bubble. And here, I doubt you and I will have much disagreement that this appears to be in the form of more playmaking, spacing, and defense, all preferably rolled into a single package in the form of a wing who can best complement D'Angelo Russell, who has the unfortunate distinction of being the team's best playmaker, scorer, and floor spacer on a team that lacks all of those things.

Do you think this characterization is accurate and which of these three needs would you prioritize the most? For that matter, does this package necessarily have to be in the form of a wing or guard or does the Lakers' current roster paradigm allow us to look elsewhere? Finally, let's get the ball rolling and start throwing around a few names for who we would like to see end up in a Lakers jersey with that Houston pick on draft night.

Jerry: Before we get into the discussion, can I point out how ironic it is that the Los Angeles "they never build through the draft" Lakers are FINALLY building through the draft? As self-acclaimed "draftniks", I think you would agree with me that this is awesome (to some degree).

Now back to the topic on hand. I think you nailed the characterization of our needs very well. Granted, the second-worst team in the NBA needs a lot of things, however, you can easily see when watching a Lakers game which areas we lack the most: playmaking, spacing, and defense. It's nearly impossible to win today without having a nice balance of the three. But to figure out which area of need we should prioritize, let's figure out which area is the most important.

Let's look at playmaking first. As of right now, there are five teams that rank in the bottom 10 for assists per 100 possessions. For spacing, looking at the 3-point percentage average for playoff teams, four rank in the bottom 10 league-wide. For defense, only two teams rank in the bottom 10 when it comes to defensive efficiency (as measured by ESPN).

Look, I know that's not a perfect study, but it kind of confirms what I was thinking. If you play OK defense and hit threes, you can have a decent shot at the playoffs. Playmaking still is important, but I think if we can space the floor, playmaking will come a little easier for our current and future players. Whereas it's hard to play-make if there's nobody to make shots (though we can easily go into a chicken/egg argument here too).

So with all that out of the way, let's get back to the draft talk. I do heavily think a wing that can play both the 2 and the 3 spot should be a priority. Obviously, best-player-available (BPA) caveats aside, and the fact that potentially keeping the top-3 pick will also shape my view on who we should take at the end of the first, I do think that we really, really need a wing we can throw out there. For better or worse, D'Angelo and Clarkson will eat up a lot of the minutes at the PG and SG spots. 32 minutes per game from each only leaves another 16 minutes available at each spot.

Whereas when you take a look at the wing, you come away perplexed. Even for next year, if you account for (wrongful) Luol Deng minutes at the three and Nick Young's potential return, you still have to set yourself up for the future for someone to join this core and take some minutes at the two and the three. Ingram will do a lot of heavy lifting (ironic pun not intended) at the three, but ultimately, it's my belief that his prime position will be at the PF spot in crunch-time minutes, especially if he can't shoot.

Now, let's talk about the fun part: draft picks. Unfortunately, the draft seems to be thin on quality wings, and heavy on big-men. Currently slotted at 28, the Lakers should either draft a coveted wing that slips, or more likely, will be forced to reach for one. Just to get things finally rolling, I'll go ahead and list all plausible wings that might be there at 28: Justin Jackson, Terrance Ferguson, OG Anunoby, Rodions Kurucs, Luke Kennard, Donovan Mitchell, Sindarius Thornwell, Jaron Blossomgame, Dillon Brooks, Josh Hart, Grayson Allen, Wesley Iwundu, Devin Robinson, and Dwayne Bacon.

Some of these guys are strictly more shooting-guards than pure wings (which I classify as the ability to swing between the shooting guard and small-forward positions), but for the sake of thorough debating, I listed nearly all plausible ones. So my question to you is, have I mischaracterized anything in my analysis, or have I left off something that you think should take more priority than I assign?

And finally, of the listed names, what is your top-3 in-order "no-brainer" picks, and have I omitted anybody you think that deserves to be in the consideration at 28? If your no-brainer picks are not there, which prospect do you take, or does your view change at that point and we just go with BPA?

Ben: I think your take on the importance of playmaking, spacing, and defense is about right. Too much focus on playmaking without the other two things makes us into Chicago, which has plenty of guys who can distribute and create but hardly anyone to adequately space the floor. And there's a lot of reason to think that adding shooting would significantly help out the existing playmakers on the team, whether it's Russell, Randle, or Ingram. By the same token, wing defense is increasingly indispensable in the modern NBA and the team really doesn't have anyone young who contributes positively in that respect other than Nwaba, who still needs to prove that he's not a bit player (although he's certainly doing a good job so far).

I also concur that a wing should be the target of choice, although I will mount a minor defense of a shooting big as a draft option. Russell's done a remarkable job of being effective despite having barely any bigs who can properly execute a pick-and-pop save perhaps Zubac, with whom he doesn't share the court with an awful lot. Add a big who can space the floor into the equation and Russell starts opening up even more space when he rounds the corner. A shooting big also hedges against the possibility of Randle or Nance failing to develop a serviceable outside jumper and allows the team to always field lineups that possess some form of big man spacing.

The problem here is that that type of player isn't well-represented late in the first round, and moreover, only really makes sense if you draft a five due to the glut at the four, giving us Purdue's Caleb Swanigan, Indiana's Thomas Bryant, and Latvian prospect Anzejs Pasecniks, each of whom aren't ideal options for LA late in the first round. Swanigan is the best of the bunch, offering a combination of good shooting chops (44.9 3P% on 2.2 attempts per game), monstrous rebounding ability (23.1 TRB%), and solid interior scoring. Offensively, he's a rock solid option but lacks rim protection bona fides (2.3 BLK%), especially damning as a relatively floor bound undersized center who lacks great lateral quickness. Bryant's much more of a factor defensively here but has been plagued by inconsistency at Indiana and is a significantly less polished offensive option. Pasecniks, Porzingis' former frontcourt counterpart in Spain, is much less of a proven shooter than both Swanigan and Bryant and right now lacks the strength to adequately defend the interior.

This group is largely underwhelming, as is the point guard selection although let's hold off on that for a moment. The group of wings you've brought up looks fairly comprehensive, the notion that this selection might change dramatically depending on the tournament, who declares, combine results, and so forth. And these caveats notwithstanding, I think Anunoby, Kurucs, and Ferguson seem virtually certain to be off the board before the Lakers pick based on what I've seen so far, and I'll go ahead and eliminate for various reasons Blossomgame (old, underwhelming production), Brooks (more of a three/four tweener), Allen (awful defense, regressed on offense), Iwundu (good playmaking chops but overall tepid production), Robinson (no ball skills), and Bacon (mediocre efficiency) all from consideration in the first round, albeit not necessarily with the Lakers' own second rounder should they have it available.

Of the remaining pool, I'll go with a top-three of Mitchell, Kennard, and a name you didn't mention in Miami's Bruce Brown in that order. Mitchell is the most explosive of the three, capable of rounding the corner in the pick-and-roll and blasting to the rim while still remaining capable of making good reads. He also leverages this athleticism defensively in the form of a solid STL% (3.7). Kennard is one of the best shooters in college basketball, but in addition to running off screens and curls, he can handle the ball ably in the pick-and-roll using the threat of his shot to pressure the defense and is an adequate passer. Of this bunch, he is easily the weakest defender, however, and will have to figure out ways to overcome his lack of length and quickness in the pros. Finally, Brown is by far the best pick-and-roll operator among this group, acting as a de facto point guard a lot for Miami, and while not to the levels of Mitchell or Kennard, possesses solid athleticism and shooting respectively.

I would think that all of these three are off the board by the time the Houston pick rolls around but it's not improbable that they drop for whatever idiosyncratic reason someone falls from their expected perch in every draft (see Zubac, Ivica). Should they be gone, I would still hew toward a wing preference, in this case Sindarius Thornwell. Thornwell is currently breaking Sports-Reference's box plus/minus metric since he quite literally stuffs the box score in every category in spectacular fashion, but even if we moved beyond that, he looks like a contributor in every respect. High steal and block rates are often correlated with good defensive ability in the pros and Thornwell accomplishes the double-whammy for a perimeter player in having both awesome steal (3.7) and block (3.2) rates. Lest this seem like a senior taking advantage of his younger competition, Thornwell has maintained good marks in these metrics for every year of his career.

What has changed for Thornwell is that he's managed to finally become a solid shooter in his senior season, hitting 39.1 percent of his threes (on 4.4 attempts per game) after a previous lack of success here in his career. Combined with always decent distributing chops and what has grown into truly outrageous rebounding production for a guard (12.2 TRB%), Thornwell is a contributor across the board and looks like a solid selection as a playmaking, sweet shooting, and defense contributing wing. The biggest knock against him is how much of this senior production can really be translated to the NBA, especially when a fair chunk of it is incongruent with the rest of his career, but he seems to check every box we're looking for.

And now that I've babbled on for far too long, your thoughts on my top-3 and on Thornwell? I suspect a certain Villanova guard is more toward your liking and look forward to your spirited defense of him. Moreover, I would be curious to also hear your take not only on the selection of stretch bigs, but also on whether you think the few point guards hanging around the first round bubble should merit our consideration and how you think that fit would work on the team (independent of the possibility they draft Fultz or Ball).

Jerry: I do think a stretch-big, especially one that can slide up to the five spot, would help this team a lot. But I do not think it should be a priority to find one with the Houston pick. Right now there isn't a lot of evidence to point that any of our current bigs will be stretch bigs. However, the main core of Randle, Nance, and Zubac are all fairly young and/or inexperienced enough to not totally discount the idea. I mean, look at the recent trends of big men (Gasol, Lopez) who previously didn't or couldn't shoot threes, all of a sudden becoming snipers from out there. I think Nance and Zubac have shown decent amount of competency from mid-range that you can picture them stretching themselves out in a couple of years. Randle's still the biggest question mark, but he's improved on his mid-range game as well, and he's still 22, so it's not impossible for him to add a three-point shot to his arsenal. So while I like the idea of adding an immediate stretch-big to this roster, I just don't like the idea of using one of our assets to do so, while the avenue of improvement might still be there with the current crop.

Lastly, I really do not like the idea of using this pick for a backup point guard. D'Angelo will eat up a lot of those minutes already, and while adding another ball-handler/playmaker is nice (especially one that can play with DAR), we might still have that in Clarkson. But even ignoring that, adding a backup PG is very easy in free-agency. There's no need to "waste" a pick finding one, especially since I don't like the crop of PGs that will be available there.

Now, going back to the wings, looking over the crop you eliminated based on likely availability or unattractiveness, I don't really have many complaints. Though I would add that OG Anunoby falling because of injury concerns is a real thing.

Now, as for your top-three, I really like each prospect. Donovan Mitchell would be my first option as well. He is a strong defender and will bring athleticism this team severely needs on the perimeter. He is more strictly a 2 who can probably check some ones more than threes, a la Norman Powell, but he would certainly be a worthy pick. However, I do think some smart team will snatch him up in the teens.

I like Luke Kennard and Bruce Brown too, and if Mitchell were off the board, I would not be displeased at all if we picked either. But Kennard is more of a combo guard with defensive limitations while Brown is an older freshman, so I am a bit skeptical on his upside based on his production (and he might not even enter this draft).

Lastly, Sindarius Thornwell is certainly an interesting candidate. He fits what we need. His stats are good, and he helped lead his team as the SEC player of the year to the NCAA tournament. So the red flags are certainly minimal with him. However, it is fair to remain a bit skeptical with regards to his shooting, and he's not on many draft boards, so that makes me question if we are missing something here. I'd be much more comfortable taking him with our second rounder should we regretfully retain that (or buy a later pick).

So, having said all this, there is one guy that stands out for me who I've championed for over the past year: Villanova's Josh Hart. In some fashion, he is a lot like Thornwell. He has solid stats, is player of the year in his own conference, measures very similarly tools-wise to Thornwell, and is a winner. But the thing that differentiates the two, in my opinion, is that Hart is likely to be a better shooter, having a career 39 percent three-point percentage compared to Thornwell's 33.5 percent. Thornwell does have the edge at the free-throw line (77% compared to Hart's 72%), however, Hart's last 2 years of averaging 75 percent subdues my qualms a bit about his 3 point shot translating.

So what makes Hart my pick?

Josh Hart is averaging 19/6.5/3.1 on great efficiency at a 62 TS%. And to top it all off, he is one of seven players in NCAA history to maintain a BPM of over 10.00 in at least three seasons. Granted, BPM has only been around since 2011, and a lot of good players don't stay in college for three or four years, but still, it's not a bad sign that an advanced stat likes your production a lot. For comparison’s sake, 5 of the 7 players here have already graduated and all of them are in the NBA: Ron Baker, Gorgui Dieng, Frank Kaminsky, Briante Weber, and Jeff Withey. Now, these don't sound like sexy names, but what it does tell me is at the least you'll be drafting a bit player. Given that this is the 28th pick in the draft, and that you only have a one-in-three chance of picking up a rotation player or better, you need to maximize the pick by making sure that not only does the player pass the "eye test" (and trust me, Josh Hart does) but also that he has great box-score and advanced stats.

Hart is a lot like the Bucks' Malcolm Brogdon (who just barely missed out on the 3 seasons of +10.00 BPM milestone). If you've been following the NBA, you know that Brogdon has been killing it, relatively speaking. Hart may or may not be the next Brogdon, but what we do know is that he is younger and doing similar things (seriously, look at Brogdon's college career stats and accomplishments and compare them to Hart's).

Putting two and two together, that makes the gamble at #28 with Josh Hart a very worthwhile one. Lakers would add a 2/3 wing who can play defense, hit some open shots, and even be a secondary playmaker. That hits all the three needs we were looking for earlier. So why not take Hart and add him to this exciting Lakers young core?

So to wrap up, have I won you over with my awesome Josh Hart defense? Do you see any holes in my reasoning for taking him? Have I maybe brushed over someone who deserves more merit?

Ben: I concur that Hart is a worthwhile option and the case you’ve laid out is a pretty solid one for taking him. I should note that I occasionally feel slightly underwhelmed when watching him, as he doesn’t have a superlative first step and he will float from time to time through games while letting Bridges and Brunson assume a larger role. The biggest feather in his cap throughout his career, moreover, has always been his rebounding, a bit of an idiosyncratic elite skill for a guard to have.

That noted, Hart’s ability to maintain above average marks across the board nearly every year at Villanova is meritorious in its own way and while he is a beneficiary of a big senior year bump to his numbers, it isn’t as drastic as Thornwell’s is, as your note on Hart’s career BPM attests to. Brogdon is a fairly good touchstone to use here, speaking to Hart being a fairly safe pick and he nails all of the Lakers’ needs in one package.

I still prefer Thornwell since I think he offers more upside defensively: the one constant throughout his career has been solid STL% and BLK% and his measurements from two years ago indicate that he has Hart beat out in the wingspan department (and likely standing reach as well). In addition, while Thornwell has had excellence in basically every respect this season, he has made his bones every year in college in getting to the line at a high rate with a career .479 free throw rate (Hart’s is .373), a disparity that is especially huge this season with Thornwell’s .585 rate (Hart: .355).

This mark can be deceiving because of the prevalence of senior guards taking advantage of younger and less physically mature opponents, but Thornwell’s consistency here points to his possible superiority as a creator over Hart, especially if Thornwell’s senior season shooting pans out. Altogether, this may be a classic floor vs. ceiling discussion in which case I’m more inclined to lean toward the latter end here with Thornwell.

As for your stance on the point guard crop, I agree insomuch that the current field is lackluster, but I disagree on such a pick being a “waste.” The most direct route toward getting additional playmaking into the mix is a point guard and while Tyler Ennis is forever tarnishing future Syracuse prospects right now, the general idea in getting someone who can initiate the offense and get Russell off ball opportunities is a worthwhile endeavor, especially since that guard can start with Russell if we find the right fit.

On top of this, two options that might be available in this range if they declare are USC’s De’Anthony Melton and Texas’ Andrew Jones, both of whom are long, athletic, and defense-minded, hitting essentially all our necessary parameters except for shooting. Their defense in particular deserves note, as the Lakers’ ability to check the point of attack is putrid, Russell the best of the current bunch despite being largely average here, and Melton and Jones have the size to cross match with Russell if necessary. Both Melton and Jones also have the feather in their caps of being 18- and 19-year-old freshmen respectively, offering a rare example of upside in this range.

Should neither Melton nor Jones be available, this likely excludes a point guard possibility with the Houston pick, but that’s more to do with there being no prospect in this range who constitutes good value. Oklahoma State’s Jawun Evans is probably the closest we get as a solid distributor and shooter but he looks more like a bench spark plug option. Iowa State’s Monte Morris and Kansas’ Devonte’ Graham seem a healthy distance away from our range here.

But overall, I think we’ve hashed out a fair number of the prospects in this range to look at and ironed out how we want to approach this pick as a baseline for our overarching evaluation process. We certainly should be open to being surprised on draft day, as the team has managed to do so in every draft in the past three years (2014: Clarkson, 2015: Nance, 2016: Zubac), but insofar as we can get within the scope of this discussion, I believe we were fairly comprehensive. An awful lot will happen to shake up boards between now and draft day, the tournament being the immediate thing, but getting down our thoughts now will only help our evaluation process moving forward.

Thanks for doing this dance with me, Jerry, and will love to pick this up in the near-future.

Follow Ben on Twitter @brosales12 and Jerry @TheArmoTrader.

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