These are the things we know: The Cleveland Cavaliers have the No. 1 overall pick (again). Unless they have learned zilch from the Anthony Bennett fiasco, the Cavs will select one of three players—Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid. The Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers will then happily take the remaining two in some order.
Within roughly an hour of the Cavaliers winning the lottery, there were already conflicting reports about their leanings. The Cavs love Embiid. No, no, they've had Parker atop their board all season. OK, sure, but maybe now it's Wiggins.
To recap: Cleveland seems to like Embiid, Parker and Wiggins very much. Considering variance in reports, though, it seems not even Cavaliers sources—all of whom spoke to very good reporters—can even get their facts straight.
There is zero reason for the team with the No. 1 overall pick to throw smokescreens. They're not trading out of this pick unless it involves Kevin Love, who'd have to verbally commit to a long-term extension. Not happening.
The best interpretation of these reports is that not even Cleveland brass know who they're taking at this point.
Which is just fine. The draft is still a month away, and properly ranking Parker, Embiid and Wiggins is one of the toughest jobs I've had as an evaluator. Each player has perennial All-Star potential while boasting wildly different skill sets. The pick will say a lot about how general manager David Griffin sees Cleveland's present and future.
With that in mind, let's go in depth with all three potential No. 1 picks and assess what they bring to the table.
Joel Embiid (C, Kansas)
The Case: Freakishly Long, Advanced Low-Post Footwork, Fluid Athlete, Developing Mid-Range Jumper, Potential Two-Way Menace, Very Tall Human Being
Embiid has the highest upside. Few in any NBA front office dispute that. At 7'1" with a 7'7.75" inch wingspan and a 9'5.5" inch standing reach, Embiid is the biggest player in the class. He would have measured third-tallest at the combine, while his standing reach and wingspan were significantly better than anyone else's.
What makes Embiid special isn't that he's tall. Hasheem Thabeet is tall. It's the fluidity of Embiid's movements and the rapid refinement of his game, given that he's played organized basketball for four years.
His workout in Los Angeles last week drew raves from everyone in attendance. Embiid showed no lingering effects from his season-ending back injury, banging in the paint and throwing down a series of impressive dunks off the dribble. More interestingly, Embiid broke out his emerging mid-range game—something Bill Self eliminated entirely at Kansas.
“He looks great,” an NBA scout told Adam Zagoria of SNY.tv. “Running, jumping, dunking, bent up like a pretzel in warmups and stretching exercises. Had two ex-NBA bigs [Brian Scalabrine and Will Perdue] banging on him underneath. He passed the eyeball test big time. Move him up."
It's one thing to look good in a workout. Yi Jianlian looked good in a workout. Embiid's return to the floor in front of a gaggle of NBA scouts merely allowed them to see him up close and validate all the things that show up on film.
As a freshman, Embiid shot a very solid 54.9 percent on post-up chances, per Synergy Sports. He has a slight predilection for the left block, where he likes to use a shoulder fake to get around the defender and wrap around the baseline. He can also finish with a hook shot with both hands and flashed nice touch on the occasional turnaround jumper.
The right block is a little more troublesome. Defenders were able to use their bodies better to force contested turnarounds or difficult shots going across the lane when Embiid went right-shoulder—as he was often wont to do.
Embiid also isn't an elite passer at this point, making him susceptible to double-teams. He turned the ball over more than 20 percent of the time when covered by two defenders, per Synergy. By no means is he unwilling to look for open teammates, but he's been instructed to this point to look for his whenever he touches the ball.
Once Embiid gets as comfortable using his left shoulder as his right and begins making better passing reads...yikes.
He can spin, use drop steps and has a few other pet moves that look like he practiced them from the womb. He's also a sponge of information; his basketball IQ is impressive for someone so inexperienced.
Athleticism is going to come in handy defensively, where Embiid projects as an elite rim-stopper. Roy Hibbert has proven you don't need to be an elite specimen to be a deterrent near the basket. Hibbert is as awkward as you'll ever see in a basketball at points, but he's smart, disciplined and has learned how to use his body.
Embiid is on the opposite spectrum. He blocked 2.6 shots per game as a freshman, in large part because he couldn't help himself. His length and athleticism intimidated ball-handlers, and college basketball's defensive rules allowed him to set up a shot-blocking boutique in the paint.
The ins and outs of NBA defense are miserable for every rookie. You have to keep your head on a swivel, understand intricate rotations and be able to assess threats as they happen. Embiid is quick enough and long enough to defend pick-and-rolls and be a solid post defender when the game starts slowing down.
Now? Not there yet.
Emiid has a tendency of being overaggressive in his help recovery, getting off-balance and allowing for easy blow-bys. He can also be a step or two slow in rotations, and you can see him going through the beats in his head figuring out where to be.
This is natural; Anthony Davis was a borderline dreadful defender as an NBA rookie. The good ones get there.
The key here for Cleveland is patience. Embiid isn't going to be a superstar right away. His rookie season isn't going to trigger memories of LeBron James' campaign, in which everyone knew instantly we were looking at something special. Embiid is far from totally unpolished, but he'll have his growing pains and may not swing the needle from a wins perspective.
If the Cavs want an instant-impact star, Embiid isn't their man. If they want the guy with the highest upside and monstrous potential at an endangered position, run, don't walk up to the podium.
Jabari Parker (SF, Duke)
The Case: NBA-Ready Right Now, Rookie of the Year Favorite, Elite Offensive Ceiling, Can Play 4 in Small-Ball Lineups, Off-the-Charts Basketball IQ
Take everything we just said about Embiid. Roll it into a ball. Put it in your mouth, chew it real nice and throw it right at the teacher's chalkboard.
Parker in many ways is the Bizarro Embiid. He was NBA-ready coming out of high school. No matter where he's drafted, he'll be the Rookie of the Year favorite. If you are near an establishment that procures sports wagers, take the opening line and send me a thank-you on Twitter later. That's how good I feel about that prediction.
The myriad reasons I feel that way essentially boil down to this: Award voters love scorers. Jabari Parker is going to score points from the moment he steps on an NBA floor.
The comparisons thrown around most often when discussing Parker are Paul Pierce and Carmelo Anthony. While current NBA comparisons are inherently weird by nature and I cringe at Hall of Fame names being thrown around, they're apt here.
Parker is a natural scorer who does so in a variety of ways. Per Synergy, he did not use more than 18 percent of his possessions in any one of their 11 different play categories. Parker showed particular aptitude working in the mid-post, where he's excellent at taking his defender from either side of the basket. He has a nifty spin move with his left shoulder, slightly hesitating with his right before putting down a power dribble to create separation. It's impressive how well he finishes through contact.
When the defender starts cheating and playing off his body, Parker has a reliable step-back jumper.
His ability to recognize how a defender is reacting speaks to his on-court intelligence. Parker wasn't shy about shooting the basketball, but rarely did he do so to the detriment of his team. Mike Krzyzewski foisted more responsibility on Parker's shoulders than any freshman in Duke history. Any time the Blue Devils needed a basket, opponents knew for whom the play was being called.
The worst thing to ever happen to Parker was his initial hot streak on jumpers. For as much polish as any evaluator acknowledges he has, Parker was barely a better shooter than Wiggins from a numbers standpoint. Parker has a smoother and more consistent release, though, so his shot is more projectable. It'll be a disappointment if Parker isn't a nearly 40 percent shooter from three at some point.
The Pierce-Anthony comparisons come into play most when noting Parker's creativity. He can score through anything or anyone, using hesitations and fakes to create space when his (very above-average) athleticism can't do the trick.
You can already see the beginnings of an "old man" game.
Parker is a borderline lock to start in this league for a decade. Defense is an issue, and I'm not going to add anything to the conversation that hasn't already been said. His commitment last season was inconsistent, and lateral quickness isn't his strong suit. Too often Parker would relax his body off the ball, hanging deep in the paint with a dangerous three-point shooter in the corner.
Parker will have to model his defense after Pierce, playing physical with quicker ball-handlers to knock them out of rhythm. At the very least, given his basketball IQ, Parker needs to grasp team defense concepts quickly.
The Cavaliers' gravitational pull toward Parker is simple: He's the best prospect right now. Drafting him and plugging him in for 18-20 points per night as a rookie might make everyone forget about the inexplicable Luol Deng trade. Maybe even the Spencer Hawes one too. Dan Gilbert wants to win now, and Parker is the most instantly projectable player—though he doesn't solve the team's apparent defensive issues.
If I were Cleveland, Parker would be third on my list. But rational team-building has never been this franchise's strong suit.
Andrew Wiggins (SF, Kansas)
The Case: Unbelievable Athlete, Great Defender, OK Jump Shooter, Perennial All-Star Ceiling, Two-Way Player, Completes the Drake "Draft Day" Corollary
Wiggins is cutting the difference down the middle between Parker and Embiid. Viewed by most as a borderline lock for the No. 1 overall pick since his junior year in high school, Wiggins came into Kansas with unrealistic and unfair expectations—ones he obviously failed to meet. The reality of Wiggins, promising but still growing basketball player, did not live up to the YouTube highlight clips.
Setting aside the disappointment that has clouded all judgment of Wiggins throughout the process, he had a pretty good freshman season. Averaging 17.1 points per game does not an unpolished offensive player make. I'm unsure why everyone decided to totally omit Wiggins' 41-point explosion against West Virginia. Or the fact that he followed that game up with 30 in a win over Oklahoma State.
Some see the six-point disappearance against Stanford in the NCAA tournament and write off another "overhyped" highlight star. Sure, the lows are lower with Wiggins than they are with Parker. But the highs are better than anyone in this class, and it's very possible he begins reaching those more consistently soon.
Wiggins is a menace to society in transition. He's one of the best athletes to enter the league in the last decade and is almost impossible to stop when he gets a full head of steam in the open court. Those who spent the last 11 years besmirching LeBron James' name for never gracing us with his presence in the dunk contest will soon be doing so regarding Wiggins. Transition chances saw the Kansas star shoot 62 percent and rank in the 85th percentile nationally, per Synergy.
As we noted with Parker, the shooting woes are a little overblown with Wiggins. Parker hit 34.7 percent of his jump shots at Duke. Wiggins hit 34.2 percent. Their adjusted field-goal percentages were separated by a single percentage point. Once Wiggins finds a better set balance with his shot, he should be an above-average shooter from deep.
Parker was more responsible for creating his own jumpers, but it wasn't as if Wiggins was stationary in Lawrence. He handled the ball more often in pick-and-roll situations and was isolated a similar amount on a per-possession basis.
Neither area was the most successful aspect of Wiggins' game, highlighting his shortcomings as a ball-handler and passer. It's well-demonstrated on film and statistically that Wiggins does not and can not go left. His confidence is so low with his left that he took just 10 shots driving left in isolation all season, per Synergy.
Even when driving with his right, Wiggins has a tendency to get upright and allow defenders an easy avenue to poke the ball away:
Wiggins should hope his rookie-season game resembles Kawhi Leonard's. He'll be fine offensively relying on transition opportunities, corner threes and taking defenders off the dribble only against mismatches. His next coach should also encourage him to crash the offensive boards for putbacks like Gregg Popovich does Leonard; Wiggins' athleticism is a serious weapon.
We throw Leonard's name out because Wiggins will mostly make his money as a perimeter defender. He's already among the handful or so best defenders in this class. He uses his athleticism and quickness exceedingly well, slithering under or outmaneuvering picks to stay next to his man.
Opponents shot 27 percent against Wiggins in isolations last season, per Synergy. Isolations are typically the best indicator of a player's individual defensive skills at this level. Opponents made a third of their shots overall against Wiggins in all 11 Synergy categories.
Keeping Wiggins mentally sharp defensively will be key. As with all rookies, NBA team defense concepts are a foreign language to him. Basketball is basketball—right up until the point it becomes an on-a-string quintet that falls apart with one sign of weakness. Regardless, Wiggins is already a very good defender and will only get better with age.
The Cavaliers could solve their Deng conundrum, help fix a leaky defensive perimeter and get a player with nearly as much upside as Embiid. The temptation to draft a big man is palpable, and Embiid barely edged Wiggins out on my latest big board. I'll be the first to admit Wiggins' combination of relative safety and high upside would give me long pause if I were running the Cavs.
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