We’ve all heard the prevailing narrative surrounding the 2019 NBA Draft: Zion Williamson is the big fish, and there are perhaps a couple other potential stars in the group. The remaining prospects don’t really capture our imagination, and some have more question marks than elite skills.
While the 2019 contingent doesn’t have as much star talent as previous years, several valuable role players will inevitably emerge. Those who are competent in key areas—and land in the right situation—could have long, productive careers and make crucial contributions to eventual contenders.
We highlighted earlier how valuable unheralded draft picks can be, even in a “down” year. Let’s look at exactly which draftees in this year’s class are strong candidates to carve out substantial roles. The 2019 crop may not feature many big shots, but a bunch of prospects have the chops to become vital assets.
De’Andre Hunter, Virginia SF: The 3-and-D star-stopper
Draft range: Early lottery, 4-8
De’Andre Hunter’s ball-handling skills aren’t particularly advanced or fluid, and he doesn’t project to be a creative scorer who could carry a team unless he improves drastically in those areas. Defense will be his most valuable contribution.
Equipped with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, impeccable timing and footwork, the 2019 ACC Defensive Player of the Year has the right blend of tools to cover 2’s, 3’s and 4’s. He’s just as comfortable mirroring guards and swiveling his hips on the perimeter as he is tangling with bigger forwards near the hoop.
He has sharp instincts when it comes to changing direction, slicing past screens, recovering and contesting shots. Hunter will quickly become the kind of stopper who can regularly compete with the opposing team’s best player, whether he’s a shifty guard like James Harden or a rangy forward like Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Hunter’s NBA team won’t fully capitalize on his defensive gifts unless he’s a worthwhile offensive piece. Luckily, his jumper will keep him on the floor. He shot 67-of-160 (42 percent) from downtown over two seasons at Virginia, and he’ll make defenders pay for straying from him.
Another star-stopper to track: Matisse Thybulle, Washington SG
PJ Washington, Kentucky PF: The do-it-all big man
Draft range: Mid-first round, 14-22
Kentucky’s sophomore standout isn’t a flashy scorer or a towering rim protector, yet he could be an invaluable, multidimensional frontcourt piece. PJ Washington’s skill development in 2018-19 suggests he’ll be a dependable supplementary scorer as a pro.
The 6-foot-8 forward fights through contact and converts around the rim with either hand. He’s adept at finishing off cuts, post-ups and catch-and-go drives. He should be up to the task when he needing to stretch the defense from outside, as Washington is rapidly improving from distance, hitting 33 triples last season after just five makes as a freshman.
He still has some polishing to do in order to be consistently efficient. He must learn to pivot a little more and use the glass from the mid-post. However, he checks all the important boxes to become a useful component in a winning machine.
Another do-it-all big to track: Rui Hachimura, Gonzaga F
Grant Williams, Tennessee F: Secondary facilitating
Draft Range: Late-first or early-second round, 17-35
There are several reasons Grant Williams will be an impactful asset, including rebounding talent, defensive strength, interior scoring and shooting potential. But let’s focus on is his passing talent.
Williams reads the floor exceptionally well for a big man. He dished the rock from all angles for Tennessee en route to 5.7 assists per 100 possessions in 2018-19. Oftentimes, he distributed from the elbows or high post, but he also hit cutters from the wing and short corner, as well as in transition off the bounce.
He has a great sense of angles for skip passes and bounce passes that set up teammates on cuts, duck-ins and catch-and-shoot triples.
Provided the rest of his game is viable, including outside shooting, Williams’ passing proficiency will give his NBA club a nice boost.
Another secondary facilitator to track: Luka Samanic, Olimpija Ljubljana F
Cameron Johnson, North Carolina F: The off-ball marksman
Draft Range: Late-first round, 15-25
Johnson’s shot-making mastery and size offers immediate offensive value to any team. His production and impact could vary depending on what ecosystem he ends up in, but the talent is there.
Why exactly is he an effective off-ball weapon? He moves shrewdly on the weak side, capitalizes on screens seamlessly and keeps opponents honest with sporadic cuts to the hoop. Johnson’s shot preparation is also fundamentally sharp, from his footwork to his streamlined, smooth delivery. He hoisted a truckload of treys in four-plus seasons at Pittsburgh and North Carolina (259 makes on 639 attempts), and the stat test matches the eye test.
Johnson is competent inside the arc as well, especially in early offense and via mid-range curl cuts. The Tar Heel vet splashed a smattering of one-dribble pull-up jumpers from 15-18 feet throughout the season, and he scores smoothly on layups and runners when seams open up.
Another off-ball marksman to track: Tyler Herro, Kentucky SG
Jaxson Hayes, Texas C: Rim-runner and rim protector
Draft Range: Late lottery, 8-12
When the floor is spread properly, rim-runners and pick-and-roll finishers remain potent weapons in the NBA. Big men with good coordination and interior scoring skills can collapse defenses and serve as secondary catalysts for the offense.
Texas’ Jaxson Hayes has the length, nimbleness and hands to be a multi-functional interior cog. The near 7-footer displayed promising instincts and fluidity as a freshman.
Although he doesn’t have rocket-like explosiveness, he lopes down the court and gets off the ground easily. Hayes pairs that mobility with good body control and spatial perception around the bucket. His timing, hands and concentration on alley-oops beg for a competent NBA pick-and-roll initiator.
Hayes also brings role-player potential as a rim protector.
He won’t switch a ton of screens, but he will blanket 5’s with his length (7’3.5” wingspan) and bounciness. He’ll fare well in space and exhibited a good sense of timing as an on-ball and help defender at Texas, rejecting a boatload of shots (3.8 per 40 minutes) and altering a bunch more.
Hayes finished third in the Big 12 in block percentage (10.6), and had the best defensive rating (95.6) in the Longhorns’ rotation.
Another rim-runner to track: Goga Bitadze, Buducnost C
Dan is a TBW staff writer. After playing college ball at Franciscan University, he covered the NBA and NBA Draft for Bleacher Report for four years and the FRS Network for three years. He now co-hosts the Unlimited Range podcast and continues to campaign for Doris Burke’s promotion to lead analyst at ESPN. Follow him on Twitter: @DanO_Bball