Advocating for the Best Player Available draft strategy

There are too many potential needs to draft on need. Talent Over Everything.

Cleanthony Early. Rodney Hood. Elfrid Payton. Jusuf Nurkic. Jerami Grant. K.J. McDaniels. T.J. Warren. Kristaps Porzingis.

T.J. Warren. Clint Capela. Adreian Payne. Kristaps Porzingis. K.J. McDaniels. Kyle Anderson. P.J. Hairston. Jerami Grant.

Those, respectively, are the players currently mocked in the 18-25 range by Chad Ford and DraftExpress. That’s a lot of names that are in what could generally be considered the Toronto Raptors’ draft “wheelhouse” at this early juncture (the Raptors have the No. 20 pick, along with Nos. 37 and 59, if you were unaware).

Here’s how those names break down:

Guard – Payton
Wing – Early, Hood, Grant, McDaniels, Warren, McDaniels, Anderson, Hairston
Big – Nurkic, Porzingis, Capela, Payne

It’s pretty clear that, should the Raptors determine they’d like to draft a wing player, they’ll have ample options. Meanwhile, almost every big available is a Euro-prospect, and there’s only one game-changing guard likely to slip to the Raptors (unless you’re of the delusion that Anderson, a personal favorite, could somehow rekindle his failed freshman season and play guard, which, yeah, log off pal).

“Great!” you respond, seeing that the Raptors’ biggest immediate hole is a reserve wing to upgrade the “John Salmons position” and having heard general manager Masai Ujiri express that as a desired area of improvement. And it’s hard to blame that logic – see hole, fill hole.

Having said that, I’m hoping that the team takes the “best player available” approach regardless of what position is available at the time.

Generally speaking, I’d advocate for the “best player available” strategy for any team, save for maybe a true contender with a glaring hole and no other weaknesses. It just doesn’t make sense to take a lesser talent to fill a perceived weakness – you’re drafting with a multi-year horizon in mind, so it’s silly to then take a present-day only look at your situation when determining who to draft. Contracts don’t often last more than three years now, trades are, you know, allowed, and most players and systems are such that the “strict five” positions have become largely fluid.

Drafting for need may make the team slightly better off the bat and may make the development plan more clear, but it also runs the risk of leaving a greater talent on the table. I probably only need to mention the names Rafael Araujo, Andrew Iguodala and Andre Drummond to make this point to Raptors fans. Even in the Drummond scenario, where the Raptors couldn’t justify trying to develop he and Jonas Valanciunas simultaneously, the team passed up a far superior talent so that they wouldn’t run into a situation where they had to play one of the bigs at the four or deal one of them. That, in the words of Marlo Stanfield, “sound like one of them good problems.” (Note that I don’t know if this was the logic for passing but it sure seemed the logic.)

And that’s not to disparage Terrence Ross, who obviously seems a capable rotation player, perhaps with the potential for more. But in a vacuum, all 30 NBA teams would deal Ross for Drummond. A good number would surely do so even with Valanciunas on the roster, because talent comes at a premium. Unless you’re already an elite team, you accumulate talent and value, and shuffle the pieces later if need be.

So that’s my general take on drafting – best player available. Maximize talent, make the pieces fit via system changes or roster adjustments later. It’s the best way to ensure you eventually have the best players possible, which is more important to building a winner than the fit early(-ish) in the process.

For the Raptors this season, in specific, it goes doubly because of the question marks all around the roster. Remember that the draft is on June 26, a few days ahead of free agency opening. That means that the Raptors really only have seven players who are locks to be on the team next year at draft time:

Guard – None
Wing – DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross, Landry Fields
Big – Amir Johnson (there’s no way they don’t guarantee that deal), Jonas Valanciunas, Chuck Hayes, Steve Novak

Kyle Lowry, Greivis Vasquez, Nando De Colo and Patrick Patterson can all walk, Salmons and Tyler Hansbrough seem likely to be waived, and Julyan Stone and Dwight Buycks probably won’t be retained at first because the team will want to clear their cap holds initially.

Said differently, we don’t know what the roster may look like for 2014-15, even if we may have an idea of where they’re going. Even still, ahead of any certainty from the free agency process, you can make the case that the Raptors have a “need” at any position and a clear path to minutes to help develop any player listed in the 18-25 range off the top of the article.

PG: Payton – If only one of Vasquez or Lowry is retained (or neither), the team obviously needs a PG(2), and if Lowry walks they need to work quickly to find a “PG of the future.” Payton is thought by some to be the most undervalued asset in the first round and both Lowry and Vasquez have shown an ability to play effectively in two-point guard lineups, meaning minutes for the rookie aren’t a concern.

Smaller Wings: Hairston, Hood – Ross and DeRozan have both shown an ability to play the three for stretches and, while this isn’t ideal defensively, both of these players bring an offensive upside that may be higher than that of Ross and a higher defensive upside and DeRozan.

Bigger Wings: Warren, McDaniels, Anderson, Grant, Early – The team’s biggest weakness if the entire roster returned, adding a sizable wing who can check larger threes, especially on the block, is an obvious need, especially if the all-okay-defense-no-don’t-shoot-that-nooooo Salmons isn’t retained (please, Shamgod). Valuations on each name vary, but it’s easy to justify a player from this group.

PF: Payne – It’s a Patterson succession plan, allowing the Raptors to focus on a sign-and-trade for Patterson or letting him walk outright if he commands too large a deal as a restricted free agent. Even if the team retained Patterson, Payne could then be a succession plan for Johnson when he can walk in 2015, and Johnson has shown he can play enough five to get minutes there in the interim.

Bigs: Nurkic, Porzingis, Capela – All considered at least medium-term projects, one would think that Valanciunas is far enough along on the development path that the team can begin to develop a backup at the same time. In addition, only Nurkic projects as “center only,” with the other two projecting as enormous fours or thin fives.

So it’s pretty easy to justify taking any player type depending on what you think will happen or what you want to happen in the offseason. So just take the best damn talent available, however the team determines that ranking shakes out (and you’re welcome to your own opinion on that front, of course).

As for “tiers,” a draft strategy some teams reportedly use whereby they place players in talent tiers and draft based on need within each tier, well again, the Raptors have a handful of potential needs. They may have an idea of where and how they’ll be able to fill certain holes and where more may emerge, but the important part of the “tiers” strategy is identifying talent above all else.

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