The NCAA tournament is here, and for NBA fans, the opening weekend of March Madness is the best opportunity yet to get a look at the players who will be dominating draft arguments for the next three months. As someone who enjoys nerding out over this stuff every spring, I was assigned to write on the draft prospects in this year's field. But I have to be honest this year. The 2019 draft just isn't quite doing it for me.
I'm all-in on every game Zion Williamson plays and I am ready to watch every Ja Morant possession when Murray State plays Marquette on Thursday afternoon, but beyond those two, the rest of the field is looking a little thin. I feel guilty about this, I've wondered whether maybe I'm missing something, but I can't fight my intuition anymore: this looks like a bad draft. There are eight or nine players from the 2018 class who would have a good argument for going No. 2 this June.
Now, with that disclaimer out of the way, and because looking toward the NBA draft is an important tradition at the beginning of every NCAA tournament, here are three big–picture thoughts on the 2019 draft class.
1. Appreciate Zion in college. As the best player in this year's draft, I'll probably write more about Zion's NBA future later in March, so I'll keep this point brief:
Whatever you think of where Zion will go in the NBA or what position he should play, everyone should appreciate the college games he plays for the next few weeks. Put the age limit debates aside and don't worry about the next level. Zion can be a star in the NBA, but he's just so much bigger and faster than everyone in college. He makes entire teams look helpless. It's unfortunate that all of this is happening at Duke, but we can't let Coach K's presence ruin this experience.
This is like Bo Jackson at Auburn or Herschel Walker at Georgia. Or, more recently, Leonard Fournette at LSU.
The past four months of Duke basketball have looked like that LSU-Auburn game. Zion is going wherever he wants, whenever he wants, and I don't know if I've ever seen anything like it in college basketball. We're watching the NBA's No. 1 pick play against a field of challengers who are a) talented and accomplished enough to make this reasonably dramatic and b) still completely helpless to stop him. It's wonderful.
I'm really not sure how Duke ever lost a game when Zion was playing this season. He's shooting 76% on two-pointers! He was 26-of-32 against Syracuse and North Carolina on Thursday and Friday during the ACC Tournament. Dunks are obviously what made him famous, but that’s only half the appeal. Watch him pinball through an entire defense, jump 40 inches in the air, and then loft baby hooks over three helpless teenagers. It’s like bully–ball ASMR.
NBA fans will argue about his ceiling, there will be debates about whether he's the best draft prospect since LeBron James, and there are reasonable questions to ask about his health, his height, and how much of this dominance will actually translate against NBA athletes. Personally, I imagine he'll be switchable on defense and a killer playmaking four on offense. If he stays healthy, he projects as something like Draymond Green with better offense and at least three viral dunks per game. But whatever happens in the NBA, I have a feeling he'll never be more fun, and more shocking, than he has been in college.
2. This year's draft class is a reminder to appreciate last year's draft class. On the one hand, sure, it's disappointing that R.J. Barrett arrived at Duke drawing comparisons to James Harden and he's spent most of this season looking like Tyreke Evans. NBA spacing should help his game, but Barrett is a high volume guard who doesn't necessarily have the skill or efficiency to reward the investment. His teammate, Cam Reddish, was also in the conversation as a potential No. 1 pick. He checks every box imaginable for a modern wing—the problem is that half the time you're watching Duke games, you'll forget Reddish is on the floor. Blue–chip prospects like Indiana's Romeo Langford and North Carolina's Nas Little have seen their draft stock go sideways just the same. All of these players can still hit the NBA and blossom into superstars, but at least for the moment, the future of this class looks half as exciting as we thought it would be.
More than anything, I think this year's draft will underscore how remarkable last year's draft class was. As the current crop of prospects struggles, this year's NBA rookies continue to shine across the board. Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Marvin Bagley, Jaren Jackson Jr., DeAndre Ayton, Wendell Carter Jr., Shai Gilgeous-Alexander—all of them have looked like future stars at various points this season. Couple that group with a second tier of intriguing players that includes Collin Sexton, Kevin Knox, Kevin Huerter, Landry Shamet, and Josh Okogie, and there were hits up and down the first round. Altogether, and particularly at the top, the 2018 draft looks historically loaded.
Most classes are more like this year. As advanced as player development has become and as expansive as the scouting industry and attendant media coverage is, it's easy to forget how the past few years have spoiled us. Not every draft comes with a Tatum, Fox, Mitchell, and Markkanen, and this year there won't be Luka, Trae, Bagley, and Jaren Jackson Jr.
Most years there are somewhere between 1–3 future superstars. This year there's only one. And while that is a little bit anticlimactic, it's also an important reminder to be shocked at everything last year's draft has brought to the NBA. Marvin Bagley is averaging 19.9 PPG and 8.5 RPG on 55% shooting in 26.1 MPG since the All-Star Break. And he's like the fifth–best rookie!
3. If there were ever a year for the draft to be an afterthought, this is it. After several years of deep drafts that were preceded by month-long debates—remember Lonzo vs. Fox? Or Luka vs. Trae? Or when Michael Porter Jr. announced he was a vegan and then compared himself to Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, and Tracy McGrady?—maybe it's appropriate that this year's draft will be a little bit subdued. The entire league could be turned upside down beginning on July 1. Whatever intrigue or chaotic upside we're losing with this year's draft, we'll gain in free agency.
Until then, let's all go watch Zion.