These Stars Are Making Us Rethink the 2016 NBA Draft Class
The 2016 NBA draft has a weird reputation. It isn't necessarily bad, per se, but it's remembered equally for its hits and misses.
Landmines at the tippy top of the board and reaches are most to blame. Dragan Bender (No. 4), Kris Dunn (No. 5), Marquese Chriss (No. 8), Thon Maker (No. 10), Georgios Papagiannis (No. 13), Guerschon Yabusele (No. 16), Wade Baldwin (No. 17) and Henry Ellenson (No. 18), among others, all helped give the class an underwhelming feel. A late-bloomer in Brandon Ingram (No. 2) and a functionally capped superstar in Ben Simmons (No. 1) only help complicate the memory.
Years later, though, this draft class does not want for its share of stars and fringe stars.
The givens are carrying a lot of weight on their own—namely Simmons, Ingram, Jaylen Brown (No. 3) and Jamal Murray (No. 7). But a handful of unexpected standouts have emerged on the margins, and nearly all of them were taken outside the lottery.
Perhaps you aren't down on the 2016 draft. Great! For those who still are, it's time to rethink how this class is remembered.
Non-Star Honorable Mentions
Malik Beasley (19th overall)
Malik Beasley may always be someone who underachieves on defense. He has the physical tools to be so much better yet is mostly hair-pullingly frustrating. He's also a confident and talented three-point shooter who can do just enough with the ball in his hands to diversify an offensive attack.
Dejounte Murray (29th overall)
Fringe stardom is still within Dejounte Murray's grasp. He's already a fast-twitch, ultra-disruptive, All-Defensive pest. His next steps are the same as ever: continuing to improve and extend both his range and comfort level running an offense.
Ivica Zubac (32nd overall)
A stout rim protector with quick feet who can knife and barrel through defenses on rolls to the basket? Now that's great value at No. 32. Kudos to the Los Angeles Lakers for finding him. Even more kudos to the Los Angeles Clippers for landing him at the unfathomably low cost of "basically free."
Malcolm Brogdon (36th Overall)
Biggest Surprise: Depth of his shot-making
Malcolm Brogdon is in so many ways a supercharged version of what he projected to be: someone who knocks down open shots, keeps the ball moving and has defensive range spanning both backcourt slots and some wings.
Optimizing his predraft profile beyond expectations can technically be his biggest surprise. His defensive bandwidth, in particular, has only increased over time. He's seen extensive reps against Brandon Ingram, Kawhi Leonard and Jayson Tatum, among other bigger covers, this year.
Still, he is more than just the peak of what he was supposed to be.
His finishing around the rim is a coin toss, but he gets there more often than someone who doesn't wield traditional on-ball explosion should. He's not going to throw highlight-factory passes, but he is a steady creator out of the pick-and-roll and off his dribble penetration. He is deadly burying spot-up jumpers, and he's also an actual threat to drain looks off the bounce.
Last year proved Brogdon is overextended as the driving force of an offense. That he's even good enough for the Indiana Pacers to have tried treating him as such is sort of the point.
He's settled into a more natural role this season, but it's one that still noticeably outstrips expectations. He's averaging 22.2 points and 7.5 assists while notching an effective field-goal percentage of 61.5 on his pull-up jumpers—second-best in the league among 78 players who've taken at least 40 such shots.
Caris LeVert (20th Overall)
Biggest Surprise: Pull-up three/Passing ability
Caris LeVert's stock was all over the place entering the 2016 draft. His four seasons at Michigan were peppered with both promise and problems. He showcased a blitzing first step and viable outside shot, but left foot issues were painted as potentially chronic and torpedoed his standing. Some mocks didn't have him coming off the board until the second round.
Fast-forward to 2021 and LeVert has dealt with an array of injuries but still developed into the type of fringe-star who can help headline a James Harden trade package. (Note: He is out indefinitely for Indiana after an MRI revealed a small mass on his left kidney.)
Sticklers will harp on his efficiency. LeVert can be wild-cardy around the rim, and he's shooting a higher percentage on pull-up threes (35.7 percent) than catch-and-fire treys (33.3). He still doesn't get to the foul line enough.
Downing off-the-dribble threes is huge on its own, though. Last year, LeVert hit those at a 38.7 percent clip—the fourth-highest mark among everyone to attempt at least three pull-up triples per game. This isn't the exact kind of shot-making he flashed during his time at Michigan. Nearly two-thirds of his threes came off assists in his final season, per Hoop-Math.
The same goes for his playmaking. He doesn't throw the most glamorous-looking passes, but he varies between making quick decisions and non-obvious tosses when going downhill. His patience in the lane continues to get better, too, and all of that gives him the tools to be the foundation of an offense.
Domantas Sabonis (11th Overall)
Biggest Surprise: Passing ability
Domantas Sabonis hinted at the depth of his offensive bag during his first few seasons—the physicality mixed with balletics, the range outside 15 feet, the vision, the friendly-fire rebounding, everything.
He did not—repeat: did not—appear to be someone who would capably serve as the anchor for an entire offense.
Sure, running the ball through Sabonis has its limitations. He's taking more threes but not a ton, and the space he likes to occupy renders him an awkward fit beside just about any big, including a floor-spacer like Myles Turner. But he's so crafty with the ball it almost doesn't matter.
Defenses remain inclined to collapse when he's backing down; his shoulders are so powerful that help is sent or half-sent automatically. He needs only that split-second opening to find a shooter. His standstill passing from the elbows is borderline peerless.
Indiana has improved the floor balance in most lineups, and it's enabled Sabonis to do even more damage while leading fast breaks and catching the ball above the break. He has license to bring the ball up the floor independent of transition, too. His screens—both traditional and of the flip-to-the-other-side variety—are their own form of playmaking.
Peak Sabonis may have arrived this season. He might also still get better. Both scenarios are terrifying, caveats and all. He's averaging 21.7 points and 5.8 assists, and despite rotation shakeups galore, the Pacers offense verges on elite when he plays without Myles Turner.
Pascal Siakam (27th Overall)
Biggest Surprise: On-Ball Offense
Doubting Pascal Siakam has become trendy, and his skeptics are not without ammo. His efficiency started to wane last season amid higher usage, and the Toronto Raptors' second-round playoff series with the Boston Celtics appeared to break him.
Defenses have zero qualms about switching smaller players onto him, and his game can stall out long before he gets to the rim if his initial spin or head-of-steam drive doesn't culminate in a breakthrough. Decision-making in traffic remains an Achilles heel, and to run the offense through him is to accept the bad passes that come with it.
Something important is getting lost amid all of Siakam's struggles, though: that the Raptors are attempting to make him this type of player at all.
He did not forecast as an offensive fulcrum entering the NBA. He was strictly viewed as a floor-runner and play-finisher, someone who would forever rely on others to set the table for him. Toronto gave him a four-year max because he's shown the bandwidth to do more, even if imperfectly.
What's happening now isn't too much of a setback. Growth isn't linear. Siakam is in his second year of assuming an entirely different identity. He's using as many isolation possessions than DeMar DeRozan. He's attempting more pull-up threes than Tyler Herro (which he's hitting a respectable 34 percent clip). He's finishing more drives than Brandon Ingram. And he's averaging as many assists as Victor Oladipo.
In time, it may turn out that Siakam is being miscast and overextended. That time isn't now. And until—or rather, unless—it is, he remains the biggest surprise from the 2016 draft class.