2019 NBA Draft Prospect Breakdown: Frontcourt Focal Points

After kicking off my NBA Draft coverage last week with a look at the top guards in the 2019 draft class last week, we shift focus to the other end of the spectrum: Frontcourt Focal Points.

It’s important to remember our draft mission and Ten Commandments, which drive conversation and how we view prospects. A few quick points to recap: positions are different and based on defense, we hit on “improvement areas” instead of “weaknesses” and we recognize our inability to capture the entire picture on prospects based on our limited vantage point.

That won’t stop us from studying all that we have access to in order to determine the best fit and talent of these players.

Late bloomers, high-upside picks and other strange draft stocks populate this list, each with one discernible trait or characteristic that defines this year’s crop of bigs. Which prospect a team likes best can come down to personal preference, but there is one prevailing thought I’d like readers to leave this section with: The frontcourt focal points in this draft class are a lot more talented than conventional narrative dictates.

PJ Washington – F, Kentucky

On one hand, Washington is a strong and athletic forward that should fit well in the modern game. On the other, his defensive impact has not been consistent in all facets for a player whose athletic profile creates a necessity for defensive production.

Essentially, in order for Washington to reach his potential, those defensive fixes must be fairly simple ones achieved via attention to detail versus an overhaul of his playing style.

Strengths

Washington tests fantastic in the “non-learned skills” category.

He possesses traits that simply cannot be taught, such as his massive wingspan, leaping ability and the hard-working aspect to his game. These are guys that coaches love and who tend to be great role players or auxiliary pieces on great teams.

Washington can score with his back to the basket in one-on-one situations with an unstoppable jump hook from the left offensive block. His biggest upside comes with his perimeter defense. As you’ll see in the improvement areas, he has a long way to go, but the ability to combine rim protection with perimeter defensive upside makes him a super intriguing prospect.

Improvement Areas

Washington’s shooting improvements are somewhere in-between a strength and a clearly defined improvement area. His face-up offense is more than just catch-and-shoot range. He’s long and athletic, so he should be able to drive past bigger defenders, but his decision-making and finishing are not caught up to his frame.

Defensively, he still has a ton to clean up before reaching his potential. Closeouts are arguably the single most important defensive skill to have: Can a player transition from being a help defender to guarding the ball without ceding any ground?

Washington has a long way to go in that regard, but it’s that overall level of balance that must be found before he reaches defensive-stopper potential.

Draft Prediction

Perhaps I’m alone here, but Washington is currently in the number-two spot on my overall big board.

He’s got insane length and athleticism to spring him towards his defensive upside, plus an improving jump shot, the ability to mismatch post as a wing and a great work ethic. All his improvement areas are relatively easy fixes, too, which is why focusing on an “improvement area” instead of a “weakness” paints a clearer picture for a prospect’s upside. Washington likely isn’t a top-eight selection, but he should be seeing his name called in the lottery.

If it were me, I’d be taking him higher.

JAXSON HAYES – P, TEXAS

Mar 9, 2019; Austin, TX, USA; TCU Horned Frogs center Kevin Samuel (21) reaches for a rebound in front of Texas Longhorns forward Jaxson Hayes (10) and guard Courtney Ramey (3) in the first half at Frank Erwin Center. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Spillman-USA TODAY Sports

After a phenomenal Freshman season at Texas, Hayes stands atop many draft boards in the big man department. He’s got the most defensive potential of this group with his athletic profile, length and leaping ability.

A late bloomer that is still growing, Hayes is one player that can increase his draft stock further with impressive individual workouts.

STRENGTHS

Hayes has an incredibly simple offensive game, as teams rarely play through him. He’s a superb athlete that relies on that athleticism to create scoring. Throw him a lob and he gets it; let him run the floor and he’ll beat his counterpart to the other end.

While Hayes’ bread and butter lies in the pick-and-roll, it’s his ball screen defense that makes him a unique prospect. He’s a great athlete with strong instincts when switching onto guards for short stretches. He’s got great recovery skills and timing, allowing him to hard-hedge against ball screens. And he can protect the rim, making him deployable in a drop scheme.

His ability to do it all on that end has teams tantalized for his impact. He’s not perfect yet with his positioning, but the upside is undeniable.

IMPROVEMENT AREAS

The fact that Hayes was not trusted to do anything with the ball outside of five feet from the basket is very telling. He’s a sloppy ball handler with a mediocre feel for the game. The guy only attempted three jump shots on the season, and even they weren’t true jumpers.

Pushing the offense aside, it’s rebounding that worries me with Hayes.

For all his size and athleticism, he has not found a way to become a consistent defensive rebounder. He over-jumps to block shots, leaving his team susceptible, and he’s not the Robin Lopez or Marc Gasol boxout artist that only posts low metrics because he neutralizes an opponent’s best rebounder. Hayes’ struggles are legitimate concerns and ones that likely will hamper his ability to log heavy minutes right away as a rookie.

DRAFT PREDICTION

It’s difficult to imagine a draft where a big man is not taken in the top ten, and Hayes is the most likely candidate, combining his fluid athleticism with great defensive upside. He’s the right kind of modern big with his combination of late-bloomer status and defensive aptitude. He may only be scratching the surface for his potential, so I like Hayes in the 8-to-12 range on draft night.

BOL BOL – P, OREGON

Dec 12, 2018; Eugene, OR, USA; Oregon Ducks center Bol Bol (1) shoots a basket over San Diego Toreros forward Yauhen Massalski (25) during the second half at Matthew Knight Arena. The Ducks beat the Toreros 65-55. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps the most hyped prospect of the frontcourt fellas, Bol Bol is able to combine insane size with three-point shooting. The son of former NBA legend Manute Bol, his 7’7″ wingspan is by far the highest among first-round prospects.

Players like Bol have clear areas of improvement, including strength and consistency on defense. How tantalizing is the potential for a team that needs a floor-spacing big?

STRENGTHS

Bol’s strengths are mainly built on his size and length, which is nothing new for seven-footers. The amount of potential that exists for a player of his stature is high, particularly on the defensive side.

Bol has fairly quick feet, uses his shot blocking instincts and can do things that others cannot. Yet, he’s also different from other post players.

Bol has shooting ability and potential to be a stretch big. He shot above 50 percent from three at Oregon this season and has a pure stroke on catch-and-shoots. The rest of his shot profile is underdeveloped, but there’s something clearly tantalizing about a seven-footer that shoots from deep.

IMPROVEMENT AREAS

Look at Bol and you’ll see he obviously needs to add muscle and strength. He’s fairly right-hand dominant, particularly on the interior, so strength is needed for him to get to his sweet spots and not be bothered. Long-term, he must improve both.

Beyond the physical improvements, Bol struggles with his decision-making and motor. He’s slow getting back in transition, overestimates his own abilities off the bounce and avoids contact when he can.

Of all this year’s prospects who averaged 20 points per game in college, Bol likely has the lowest offensive ceiling in the pros, at least as a focal point of an offense.

DRAFT PREDICTION

The rare combination of size and shooting will almost certainly land him in the lottery, but for Bol to reach his ceiling, he likely needs a couple of years to fully develop before being thrown in as a starter.

The upside that Bol possesses is akin to what some thought Thon Maker would turn into as a long, mobile, shot-blocking and stretch-shooting post. Personally, I would not take Bol until around the tenth pick, but there should be no way he makes it outside the lottery or top-fifteen.

RUI HACHIMURA – P, GONZAGA

March 30, 2019; Anaheim, CA, USA; Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Rui Hachimura (21) controls the ball against Texas Tech Red Raiders forward Tariq Owens (11) and guard Matt Mooney (13) during the first half in the championship game of the west regional of the 2019 NCAA Tournament at Honda Center. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Hachimura’s draft stock is anywhere from the late part of the top ten to the late teens, which is a fairly large range for a top talent. There is little doubt about what he does well, however.

He’s long, scores the ball at a high clip and is a pretty good athlete. He’s also the perfect example of trying to figure out the difference between being a “tweener” and being “positionally versatile”. Hachimura does not seem to have a true position on defense, nor has he made a strong individual impact on that end.

How a team answers the question of his defensive profile, as well as whether they project him more as a defensive 5 or a 4, could determine which end of his draft spectrum he reaches.

STRENGTHS

Hachimura has the most polished interior scoring resume of this draft class’s post prospects. He’s good on both sides, patient and versatile, featuring that savvy turnaround jumper from the mid-post, a la LaMarcus Aldridge.

The reason Hachimura enters my book as a true post and a 5 is due to his long wingspan 7’2′ wingspan. When placed at the 5, his ability to handle on the break—the most unique and discernible skill from the rest of the big men in this class—becomes even more valuable.

IMPROVEMENT AREAS

Hachimura certainly has his areas of growth, mainly on the defensive side.

He’s not great at guarding perimeter-bound bigs, which helps me envision him as a 5 instead of a more versatile forward. He never put up great numbers as a shot blocker or one-on-one interior defender, but part of his impact could be hidden by playing next to the draft’s top defensive prospect (Brandon Clarke) and in an up-tempo system at Gonzaga.

Hachimura’s rebounding impact and long-term shooting range are more immediate needs from a skill development perspective. He shot 41.7 percent from three this year on a limited sample but has been erratic through his career.

He’d greatly augment his draft stock and upside by quickly turning himself into a viable three-point threat.

DRAFT PREDICTION

I have a difficult time seeing Hachimura go in the top ten just due to the upside that some of the other bigs in this draft have on both ends. Hachimura is a unique offensive weapon that belongs in an up-tempo style where he can play the 5.

Is he a consistent starter at the next level? I’m not sold, but as a backup 5 surrounded by shooters and rebounding wings, he has a chance to be a fantastic mismatch option.

I’d expect him to go in the 13-17 range on draft night.

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