Teams Emerging from the NBA Draft with the Best Competitive Edge

Fred KatzFeatured ColumnistJune 30, 2014

Teams Emerging from the NBA Draft with the Best Competitive Edge

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    Jason DeCrow/Associated Press

    Rapid reaction to the NBA draft, which took place June 26, is a very unhealthy thing. 

    Readers absorb information only to find out over time that what they learned was merely an inaccurate prediction instead of a forecast. Writers stress over being wrong, which happens far too often and will never end.

    So really, there's only one way to judge the draft immediately: By evaluating a team's philosophy instead of the players it ends up taking.

    Of course, the players matter. Joe Schmo wouldn't exactly garner high draft-day grades (though I hear he's an excellent pick-and-roll defender). But it's more about how players fit into a particular organization than it is about the players themselves. 

    The Phoenix Suns will find themselves on this list because of how their draft shows consistency with their overall thought process. Another team will see its name here thanks to how its draftees complement the rest of the roster. One more is present because of its dedication to finding a star and its depth in the second round.

    It's nearly impossible to look at a prospect and guarantee exactly what he is going to become. We can, however, evaluate team philosophy, and there are five teams in particular whose mentalities stood out from the rest.

5. Brooklyn Nets

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    Denis Poroy/Associated Press

    Round 2, pick No. 44: Markel Brown, Oklahoma State

    Round 2, pick No. 59: Xavier Thames, San Diego State

    The Brooklyn Nets didn't have a first-round pick and ended up buying two seemingly inconsequential second-rounders during Thursday night's festivities, but they got crafty with their selections. Either Brown or Thames could end up sticking in the pros.

    Brown is one of the best athletes in this entire draft. His jumper improved during each season at Oklahoma State to the point where he became a consistent, knock-down shooter by his senior season, sinking 37.9 percent of his threes. His 6'4" height and 6'9" wingspan give him a Russell Westbrook-type body, and his 43.5" vertical helps show why he's one of the most powerful athletes in this draft.

    When Brown first showed up at OSU, he was incredibly raw and wasn't a particularly skilled offensive player or decision-maker. He was a pure athlete, capable of making plays that could destroy the eyes of everyone in Columbia, Missouri (seriously, click on that link if you want to jump out of your seat from watching the dunk of the 2011-12 college basketball season), but that was it.

    Now, as a 22-year-old, Brown has changed.

    He will be an undersized shooting guard, but he has a chance to stick with his jumper and athleticism.

    Thames, meanwhile, has a shot because of his smarts. 

    Go through every guard in the nation from this past season and you won't find one who had a lower turnover rate out of the pick-and-roll than the former San Diego State floor general, per Synergy Sports. In his final season in college, he finally started to put it all together.

    His efficiency, always a weakness for him, spiked. He posted a 55.7 true shooting percentage and started to look like a real NBA player. Meanwhile, at 6'3" he can see over a defense and truly command an attack.

    Because he's also an older senior who doesn't have that sexy ceiling, Thames went No. 59. Most mocks didn't even have him getting drafted before Thursday evening, but he's a deserving pick and someone for whom we could look back and wonder how he ever fell so far.

4. Phoenix Suns

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Round 1, pick No. 14: T.J. Warren, North Carolina State

    Round 1, pick No. 18: Tyler Ennis, Syracuse University

    Round 1, pick No. 27: Bogdan Bogdanovic, Serbia

    Round 2, pick No. 50: Alec Brown, Green Bay

    It's hard to lose in the draft when you have three first-round picks. But the Phoenix Suns, like they always seem to do now, picked the right type of talent.

    Phoenix was the NBA's surprise team this past season, winning 48 games and narrowly missing the playoffs in the almost unfairly competitive Western Conference. A reasonable person could pretty easily argue this team was in the top 10 in the league, with the Miami Heat acting as the Eastern Conference's sole representative in those rankings.

    Now, a team that is already loaded with athletes adds to its talent pool. 

    Warren is the reigning ACC Player of the Year, someone who isn't much of a shooter but who can use his athleticism to get to the rim at all costs. That's how you end up leading the conference averaging 24.9 points per game.

    Ennis is a point guard with wisdom beyond his years. He may never become an All-Star, but as a freshman he already understood how to run an offense. There isn't a more mature floor-director in this year's draft, and his presence offers flexibility to a roster that has Goran Dragic under contract and sees Eric Bledsoe enter restricted free agency this summer (Kevin Love trade, anyone?).

    Bogdanovic, meanwhile, may be an unknown, but he's actually pretty polished. He's the typical analytics player.

    This past year, 45.7 percent of his shot attempts came from three when he was playing in the Euroleague, and he knocked down 37.0 percent of those long-range attempts. Meanwhile, he's already a capable ball-handler who, like Ennis, can command the pick-and-roll. 

    The Suns loved running the screen-and-roll with Dragic this year. Now they add more threats from that set. Phoenix is developing a particular offensive style with its personnel and is looking like a group that will be able to play together fluidly and efficiently.

3. Denver Nuggets

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    Round 1, No. 16: Jusuf Nurkic, Croatia

    Round 1, No. 19: Gary Harris, Michigan State

    Round 2, No. 41: Nikola Jokic, Serbia

    Do you hear that? Somewhere, Jusuf Nurkic just took a step.

    This guy is big. We're talking Nikola Pekovic big: 6'11", 280 pounds with the coordination and quickness to look light on his feet around the hoop. He's a total bully in the paint; Denver Nuggets fans are going to learn that sooner rather than later.

    Throwing the Nuggets on this list isn't just about how they drafted but how they actually got their picks. Doug McDermott could (should?) end up becoming a solid NBA player, but the haul they got for him seemed to be as big as anyone could imagine. 

    After drafting Dougie No. 11 overall, the Nugs immediately turned around and swapped him along with Anthony Randolph to the Chicago Bulls for the Nos. 16 and 19 picks (you know what they say: It's not draft night until Anthony Randolph gets traded). Denver got a future second-rounder out of the deal as well.

    There was also the Arron Afflalo deal. You know it: the one where the Nuggets completely steal an almost-All-Star from this past season for a guard who didn't play 25 minutes a night this past season and the 56th overall pick in the 2014 draft. 

    At No. 19, Denver ended up with Harris, who had to shake Adam Silver's hand while awkwardly donning a Bulls cap. (Can't we just change this, already? Once everyone knows the trade is made, do draftees really need to wear the hat of the team we know they're never going to play for?)

    Coming out of a Tom Izzo program, you know Harris is going to have an intuitive understanding for defensive rotations, but standing at 6'4" with a 6'7" wingspan, it's easy to see why he fell so far in the draft. Still, picking a shooting wing at 19th who was supposed to hear his name called in the lottery seemed like a perfectly solid selection.

2. Charlotte Hornets

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Round 1, pick No. 9: Noah Vonleh, Indiana

    Round 1, pick No. 26: P.J. Hairston, D-League

    Round 2, pick No. 45: Dwight Powell, Stanford

    Vonleh was not supposed to fall to ninth. But he did.

    Hairston probably shouldn't have fallen to 26th. But he did. 

    The Charlotte Hornets' luck is sweeter than their new honeycomb court.

    Both of the Hornets' first-round picks fit their defensive-minded identity. Let's not ignore that—back when this team was the Bobcats—it boasted the No. 6-ranked defense in the NBA during 2013-14. Both of these guys have defensive potential but also fit the need the Hornets desperately have: offense.

    Vonleh is a pick-and-pop threat who could actually complement Al Jefferson perfectly on both sides of the ball.

    Offensively, his outside game should fit in nicely with Jefferson's interior preferences (the 18-year-old hit 46.3 percent of his jumpers as a freshman at Indiana, per Synergy). Defensively, he has shot-blocking potential with a stretchy 7'4" wingspan and hands that at the combine actually measured bigger than Kawhi Leonard's famous paws.

    If Jefferson, who is hardly a rim protector, is going to be your center, you need to find a 4 who can defend the paint for you. The Hornets may have that guy in Vonleh.

    Hairston, meanwhile, is a wing scorer who averaged 21.8 points per game in 32.3 minutes a night in the D-League this past season. At 6'5", 229 pounds, he has the body to guard NBA shooting guards, while his offensive game is refined enough that he could make an impact right away. 

    After an unexpected 43-win season during Steve Clifford's first season as coach in Charlotte, it seems like the young Hornets are getting even better. This organization is continuing to move in the right direction.

1. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Round 1, No. 3: Joel Embiid, Kansas

    Round 1, No. 12: Dario Saric, Croatia

    Round 2, No. 32: K.J. McDaniels, Clemson

    Round 2, No. 39: Jerami Grant, Syracuse

    Round 2, No. 52: Vasilije Micic, Serbia

    Round 2, No. 58: Jordan McRae, Tennessee

    I hope you held your breath before reading that list out loud. And keep in mind the Philadelphia 76ers could've had even more second-round picks if they hadn't traded some away.

    As Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote after the draft, the 76ers couldn't care less about losing in the present. All they want to do is find a star, and in drafting Embiid third overall, they may have taken the guy with the highest "superstar potential" of anyone in the draft (health pending, of course). 

    Embiid and Saric, the latter of whom likely won't come over to the NBA for at least two years after signing with a team in Turkey before the draft, may not even see the court for Philly this season, but again, that's not a concern for 76ers management or coaching. This strategy goes far beyond immediate help. It's purely about the future.

    The real reasons that the 76ers find themselves first on this list are their second-round picks. 

    McDaniels averaged 3.3 blocks per 40 minutes at Clemson, has a 6'11" wingspan, moves his feet quickly and has the potential to become a defensive stopper on the wings. Offensive players who isolated against him this past season shot just 20.0 percent from the field, per Synergy

    Grant is another guy with high defensive potential. A 7'3" wingspan and superior athleticism give him that sort of ceiling, but coming out of the Syracuse 2-3 zone, the question will always be whether he has the awareness to learn how to play in an NBA-style defense (and rightfully so).

    Micic, meanwhile, is actually one of the best pick-and-roll point guards in this year's draft. At 6'6", he and the similarly sized Michael Carter-Williams can team up to become one of the biggest point-guard duos in the league. Learning how to run the pick-and-roll is one of the most essential traits an NBA floor general can possess as he enters the pros. Micic already knows how to do that comfortably. 

    The 76ers are going to be dreadful this season. They probably won't be any better than their 19 wins from last year. Actually, they could be worse, but if we're talking about building for the future, and if we're speaking in definitive absolutes—because,you know, everyone knows exactly how every draft is going to work out—no one won on draft night more than Philly.

     

    Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com, WashingtonPost.com or on ESPN's TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

    *Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are current as of June 30 and courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com, Sports-Reference.comDraftExpress.com and NBA.com