Today, we wanted to take a look into who the Cavs should take #1 overall in the draft. Chris and I have some vastly different opinions on who the pick should be, for a variety of reasons. We were hoping that through this back-and-forth conversation, we may be able to hash through some of the differences of opinion we have so that we can come to a consensus on who the pick should be.
So let's get into this. We have effectively three options for the top pick in the draft, between Embiid, Wiggins, and Parker. Each has incredible potential, and each has downfalls. While this might not be the '84 or '03 draft, it certainly has the potential to be if players develop the way that they could. I want to go through some of the prospects a little more in depth than what we've previously discussed, looking at what their college games were and how they may project into the NBA.
Each prospect (Embiid, Wiggins and Parker) brings their own set of upsides and downsides. In terms of pure potential it's hard to argue that Embiid is the best in class. He's a 7-footer who has somehow drawn serious comparisons to Hakeem the Dream. Potential doesn't get more pure than that. From there, for most folks and me included, Wiggins ranks slightly in front of Parker---purely in terms of potential. Wiggins is bouncy in a way that is rarely seen and a photo of his vertical leap briefly went viral. His athleticism is off the charts and he has shown sustained flashes of defensive brilliance. Parker's potential somehow ranks below those two but only because of their freakish abilities. Parker is the most NBA-ready player in the draft, by my estimation.
But let's start at the top of the potential board. Joel Embiid, the 7-foot Center from Kansas via Cameroon.
First things first, he is not Olajuwon. He will probably never be Olajuwon and people need to come to grips with that. Yes, Embiid is a Center from Africa. Yes, he has only been playing basketball for a few years. Yes, the growth of his game has been exponential. But Olajuwon was a once-in-a-lifetime talent. People desperately want to understand players (and most anything else) within a certain narrative context. We want all of our heroes and villains to fit tidily into a familiar trope. But things don't always work that way. From a collegiate perspective, Embiid was better than Olajuwon. But Embiid's game, while similar in some regards to Olajuwon's, is not a perfect translation. Embiid is not nearly as strong as Hakeem. He struggles with NBA-caliber big men, particularly those who are thicker than him (see: Young, Patric, University of Florida). And he struggles with turning the ball over. We don't yet know if Embiid will beef up and be able to take on the Al Jeffersons, Zach Randolphs and Paul Milsaps of the NBA world.
But just for comparison's sake:
Hakeem's freshman year saw him average a little over 8 points a game, 2.5 blocks, 6.2 rebounds, 2.9 personal fouls, and 1.4 turnovers. Embiid's freshman year at Kansas looked like this: 11.2 points a game, 2.6 blocks, 8.1 rebounds, 3.4 personal fouls, 2.4 turnovers. Embiid's shooting percentage was higher than Olajuwon's. One important difference: Embiid played more minutes per game than Olajuwon did (roughly five minutes more).
None of that means Embiid will be better than Olajuwon. An untold number of players have had better freshman campaigns than the Dream. Here's the important thing to remember about Hakeem: every single season he played saw him improve drastically. His sophomore season looked like this: 13.9 points, 11.4 rebounds, 5.1 blocks, 3.3 personal fouls, 2.2 turnovers. His shooting percentage also went up (as did his minutes). His junior year was another step forward.
And right now Embiid is recovering from a season-ending back injury. We don't know what he might look like upon his return.
I think that my biggest concern in regards to Embiid really lies in his injury. A 7-footer with that much agility and raw ability can do wonders in the NBA, but only if he's healthy. If you go to just about any site, they all say more or less the same thing: "He should absolutely go number one, if he's healthy". The fact that this qualifier needs mentioning scares me half to death. Sure, some of this is paranoia in the wake of Sam Bowie over MJ and Oden over KD, but there is legitimate cause for concern.
Let's look at the situation that Embiid is in right now. He's currently 20 years old and has played basketball for a grand total of about 4 years. He has a frame that frequently causes issues for other players of his size at the NBA level, whether they be back, foot, or leg injuries. Embiid only played 23 minutes per game in college, which is somewhat low for a player of his caliber (71st in the nation of MP/G as a center). The injury that he sustained that kept him out of the NCAA tournament was a stress fracture, which is caused by repetitive action that actually causes the bone to break, even though the individual actions may not be enough to cause injury themselves. This means one of two things: either Embiid was being put under tremendous stress through practices and during the season, or his body was unable to withstand the general play that he was being asked of at the NCAA level. Not being able to play 23 MP/G for more than 28 games at the NCAA level scares me, especially when he was not forced to play against other 7-footers night in and night out like he will at the NBA level. Furthermore, he played about the equivalent of 1/3 of the amount of games (which are 8 minutes shorter mind you) that he will play in a single season in the NBA.
On the optimistic side, there is a way that you can allow Embiid to remain healthy and able to play deep into NBA-lifespan The unfortunate thing is that it would mean limiting him to 15-20 minutes a night very early on in his career. This means that you either need to have another starting caliber center on your roster to play the other half of the game, or that you relegate Embiid to playing more than he should. I fear that a team as playoff-hungry as the Cavaliers will want to play him 25+ minutes a night. This does not bode well for a player whose body will need time to strengthen and has a history of repetition-related injuries (the most recent stress fracture was not his only injury in the short history of his basketball career).
Embiid could end up being the next Hakeem, though I think that the risk is far too high, especially when you consider there are two other franchise level players available at this spot. Partner that with the fact that his post game is still somewhat raw and he has a lot to learn as far as fundamentals go (he has great instincts, but that only goes so far), and I think you are much better off passing on him. This leaves the two wings, Wiggins and Parker, as the options that I feel most comfortable about at this point, though there is quite a bit to discuss about them as well.
There is a lot discuss about those two. Let's start with Embiid's Kansas teammate Andrew Wiggins, a SG from Canada.
Wiggins was heralded as the next LBJ and had the nickname "Maple Jordan" bestowed upon him before he had even played a single collegiate minute. The guy suffered through an insane amount of scrutiny and his game lived under a microscope in Lawrence. During his first major televised performance (against his soon-to-be rival Jabari Parker and Duke), Wiggins got into foul trouble and spent most of the first half on the bench. Parker, meanwhile, lit up the Jayhawks. The Twitterverse became a schaudenfreude jizzfest, replete with anonymous posters tearing the Canadian wunder-kid to shreds while anointing Parker the future King.
And then the second half. Wiggins looked dominant. He played (mostly) stellar defense, put a clamp on Parker and the Jayhawks ran away with the game. Wiggins finished with 22 points, 8 rebounds and a block. Parker finished with 27 points, 9 boards, 2 steals and a block. But Parker played 33 minutes, Wiggins played 25. (As an aside, Embiid had 2 points in that game, 7 rebounds, 5 assists and a block---he played 20 minutes.)
And that Duke game sort-of encapsulates the pendulum of Wiggin's early career. He shows flashes of sustained brilliance (his performance against WVU for example), freakish athleticism, and the ability to dominate defensively. But he also makes boneheaded plays, lingers on the perimeter passively, and generally looks disinterested. He hasn't shown great handle (or even good handle), doesn't have many moves (besides the quick spin towards the rim, usually executed a few feet north of the baseline or to the right of the elbow), and struggles to hold onto the ball. His jumper is decent but lags behind Parker's (and isn't as proficient as Embiid's---probably because the Center is 7-foot and damn difficult to block).
In a tight Kansas system that doesn't always allow for much iso-play, Wiggins still managed to score 17.1 ppg and grab 5.9 rebounds. He averaged 1.2 steals and 1.0 blocks. His fg% hovered around .450 (solid for a wing player without a consistent jumper). But he also averaged 2.7 turnovers a game.
He has a lot to work on but some of the criticism he's still receiving is unfair. If you look at some of Kansas' marquee match-ups (that's games against Duke, Florida, and various Big 12 opponents) Wiggins almost always outperformed Embiid. Now, Kansas played the most brutal schedule in the nation, bar none. Their early season match-ups were preposterous and they needed Wiggins to perform and Embiid was not the player he would become by the end of the season. But still, examine the games against Texas and Florida and Iowa State. Embiid got bullied during his minutes. Wiggins stepped up. The idea that this guy doesn't have a sense of the moment is bogus. He may not have a killer instinct yet, but to suggest he's totally wishy-washy about the game is absurd.
I don't think he has as much bust potential as others do. I've seen some (anonymous) scouts compare Wiggins to Gerald Green. That's bullshit. Maybe they did it as a smokescreen to lower his value, maybe they really believe that but either way: bullshit. Wiggins has elite athleticism and has shown the ability to score the ball. If he gets the minutes, this guy is going to score 10-15 ppg as a rookie. He's good for at least 2-3 fast break buckets a game and the open floor of the NBA will favor his up and down game more than the rigors of the NCAA. Where he goes from there is unclear, as it is for any rookie. Wiggins' production as a pro will be dependent on the guys around him and the system he's in but I believe he will be a success.
Defense alone makes Wiggins a worthwhile pick. In an era in the NBA that the elite teams are separated by having a dominant wing player (LBJ, George, Durant, even Ginobli), you also need to have a player that can match up with them on the defensive end of the floor. His athleticism is what makes Wiggins an intriguing player at the top spot. Wiggins has an estimated 44" vertical leap, which officially puts him in the "freak" category of players. For comparison sake, Parker has about a 34-35" vertical, which is considered good for players entering the NBA. Furthermore, Wiggins played on an absolutely stacked Kansas team, even though they failed to live up to their expectations in the tournament.
While there is a legitimate case for Wiggins lack of dominance being linked to the Kansas system that he played in, there are serious concerns about his ability to play at a high level consistently in the NBA. For a player that has as much talent and athleticism as Wiggins does, it was very odd to see him shrink into the background at times when he was facing lesser competition at both ends of the floor. There's no doubt that he could be one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA if he continues to work at it, but to see a distinct difference when he's "trying" makes you wonder if he has the killer instinct that everyone wants in their superstar. This is the same concern that many have with Kyrie and it's generally what most people believe the leader of a team needs to have.
The other shortcomings are well documented among analysts, including lack of ball-handling ability, especially with his left hand, lower than average passing ability, and an inconsistent jumper. While he most certainly can overcome all of these, it's going to take time and effort on his part, which will require constant dedication to improvement. This is one area that might make Cleveland an ideal landing spot for Wiggins. Without having to have the immediate burden of carrying the franchise, Wiggins could be brought in to be a prolific slasher and recipient of alley-oops all game, while shoring up the defensive side of the ball until he can work on the rest of his game. This might not be ideal, but it could pay off in later in his career if he can evolve his game fully. It will take a coach that can be patient with him while teaching him as much as he can though, which is a big task to take on.
Griffin has a difficult decision to make when it comes to Wiggins. Do you bank on him developing both on the court and mentally so that he can live up to his potential, which could easily be to the level of a Paul George? Or do you accept that he may never improve drastically and you are comfortable knowing that he could only be a slasher and defender in the NBA (probably similar game to Andre Igoudala)?
When it comes down to choosing between the two wings though, I believe that Parker is the Anti-Wiggins, which is why this pick can be so intriguing. Parker represents everything Wiggins does not: a very high floor, sophisticated offensive game, only above average athleticism, physically developed, lackluster defense (if even that), and a killer mentality. Does that make him a better pick though?
The short answer is no.
The long answer starts like this: There are a ton of question marks around Parker too.
He does APPEAR to have a higher floor than either Embiid or Wiggins. But you never know how a guy will translate to the NBA-game and no one wins championships by being safe (think Emeka Okafor vs Dwight Howard). Parker has a slightly more consistent jumper than Wiggins, a more polished post-game, and a visible on-court desire to win. But he's also a worse athlete, an inferior defender, and a more selfish player. The Duke team around Parker mostly sucked, sans Rodney Hood, so he can use that as cannon fodder should the greedy question arise. But at some point we need to acknowledge that Parker was hoisting a ton of shots and sometimes they were really, really bad. His basketball IQ may be higher than Wiggins (I'm not sure that it is) but the idea that he will definitely be the best player in his rookie season (of the Big Three Prospects) is probably premature and based off the narrative around him, rather than his actual play.
If Parker goes to a competent team that surrounds him with other guys that can play basketball, he will not have the same spotlight and ability to iso that he did at Duke. Hurling shots through tight, hand-in-the-face defense will not be excused by a lack of quality pieces around him. Parker's usage rate in college was in the low 30s (31.7, I believe) and Wiggins was in the mid-20s (24.6, I think). For comparison's sake, LBJ's usage rate is 29.1, Kevin Love's 27.7, Chris Paul's an even 25.0. The only players with comparative usage rates were Durant (31.2) and Westbrook (a boggling 33.5).
Parker attempted 14.3 shots a game. Wiggins took 12.1. Their point contributions per game were spaced out by about one bucket (Parker averaged about 19 points a game, Wiggins 17). Parker had a slightly higher field goal percentage than Wiggins (.473 vs. .448) and a marginally better 3-point percentage (.358 vs .341). On first blush, there doesn't appear to be much difference between the two men offensively.
So here's the problem. If we're arguing that Parker's floor is higher than Wiggin's, but the Kansas product has a higher ceiling---than how much better can Parker get?
He's a tweener that doesn't have the size to play a four and doesn't have the speed to play the three. His defense is miserable, and against superior athletes (like Wiggins) he will likely have to be hidden, if possible. Parker will have to get significantly stronger to play in the post, a spot that saw him produce a hefty chunk of points. His ideal operating space at the next level is the free-throw line, which would allow him to face-up for a jumper or attack the hoop. He scored most of his second-half points against Syracuse (a team with NBA size) from that spot. (It took Coach K an entire half to realize Jabari would excel from that spot---not his best moment.)
I'm not sure if this is a faux pax or not but I'm going to mention another sportswriter. Bill Simmons once said that NBA prospects without a single-discernible skill, a skill they can fall back on, are worrisome. Parker fits that bill. He's a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. If we're already under the belief that Parker won't defend well at the next level, he doesn't have a clear position on the floor, his jump shot is erratic and he wont' be able to beat many people off the dribble....then what is his floor? Can we say for sure?
I will argue that, for the Cavs specifically, Parker may be the best fit of the three in the near future, and possibly out of all candidates in the long run. While it is true we can't be certain that Parker will have the highest floor, he certainly looks like that's the case. Parker was able to make NBA caliber moves constantly, both in the post and in transition, throughout his time at Duke. He showed he had handle, a jumper, post game, and passing ability more or less at all times. The only inconsistencies you saw with Parker were in shot selection, which could adequately be described as "sketchy". Could this be a result of a terrible team around him though (i.e. trust issues)? Certainly.
The biggest issue that I take with the argument against Parker is calling him a tweener. Do you know what that says? It tells me that he doesn't fit the "ideal" height and weight combination that people like to see in a position. What really matters though is that he can score on the offensive end and stop on the defensive end against someone from either position. If he can do that, there's no reason to use that against him. The issue with that argument inherently lies in his ability to defend though, which was more or less void during his time at Duke. Does this mean he will never be a good defender? Possibly, but effort and mismatches were often reasons for his lack of defensive presence as well. Especially if you look back at the Kansas games, Parker was asked to defend centers (Embiid in this case) since he was one of the best players on the floor. Obviously trying to match up against a 7'1" freak as a 6'8" player is lunacy, though Duke, who had one 7-footer on the roster who barely played, didn't have a choice.
This really just leaves the determination of his defensive potential up to effort and athleticism, which simply don't match up as well when compared to Wiggins. The shocking thing though is that from an analytical perspective, Parker was better on the defensive side of the ball. Parker had a 99.3 defensive rating to Wiggins' 102.8, and 1.9 defensive win shares to Wiggins' 1.7. Does this mean he was a better defender? No, though it may mean that he had more consistent effort.
I do believe that there should be some healthy fear of Parker wanting to be ball dominant, though, which should not be overlooked. Having a usage rate of 32.7 (I checked) means that he was used to being the primary scoring threat. Will he be able to adjust to being the second or third fiddle on an incredibly talented roster? Maybe, but it could go down in burning flames as well (as we've seen with Kyrie and Waiters at times). Furthermore, you may worry about Parker's ability to play with the former #1 overall pick, Bennett. I personally believe that Parker plays a more traditional 3 role and Bennett plays more of a stretch 4, but there is some overlap in skillset.
The aspect of Parker that I want so direly on the Cavs though is the killer instinct. I want someone who will take the game on their back if necessary to win a game. We've seen glimpses of it in Kyrie and Dion, but Parker has done it in every game he played in, and I believe that this continues off the court. A winning mentality can be infectious, and I want to bring in someone that will be able to push himself every night and day until he's the best. Bring in Parker and I think not only does your team get better immediately, but they all want to buy in to compete for a championship and put aside anything that detracts from that. Parker can be the leader of this team and I don't know if Wiggins, who has some major effort questions, and Embiid, who may not be able to play much, can come anywhere close to that right away.
If we're making our picks for who we would take between Parker and Wiggins (which assumes Embiid isn't healthy) then I'm going with Wiggins.
Look: Parker is a tweener. There are reasons to fear his ability to defend 3s and 4s (and probably most of the other positions on the floor). His numbers look prettier on a collegiate level in part because the talent and athleticism is more diluted. But each step up (high school to college, college to NBA) will see the riff-raff siphoned off and the cream rise. Parker's an average NBA athlete and a polished prospect. But there are reasons to be scared of that. If we're saying he's the best----right now----but is not the best long-term prospect, then what's the point? One or two years of looking clever before you eat crow on the number one overall pick (again)?
Parker's ceiling is a 20+ ppg game scorer, an average (at best) defender and rebounder and a tenacious team leader. That's definitely nothing to balk at and most teams would be lucky to have such a player on their squad. His floor is a 10-15 ppg scorer who hoists too many shots, is fiery without much to back it up and is a major defensive liability. That player already exists on many teams.
Wiggins' floor is a 10 ppg scorer who is a solid defender that suffers lapses in focus. He'll still show flashes of scoring brilliance but will otherwise disappear on the wing. His ceiling? A 20-25 ppg scorer, and good rebounder that's also your best defender. Only a few teams have such a player on their roster: LBJ and Paul George are the first ones that come to mind.
And here's the thing, Wiggins will never be LBJ. But could he be Paul George? Absolutely.
Now, look at the Cavs' roster. What do they need? A lockdown defender, someone who doesn't need the ball in their hands to score, someone who can run the break. Wiggins fits that bill. He could blossom into an All-Star on the Cavs roster. Sure, there are question marks about his development. If he goes to Cleveland and not, say, Milwaukee----will he ever be the uber-competitive superstar that we want him to be? Maybe not. But does he become a dynamic player capable of changing the landscape of a game in two or three series? You're goddamn right.
And given the choice between Paul George-lite and whatever Parker may be, I'm taking Paul George-lite.
Parker is scary to me for his inability to defend. He doesn't defend the post well. He doesn't defend pick and rolls well. He doesn't defend the perimeter well. Yeah, you could hide him on defense in a proper system but you may never have to do that with Wiggins.
Wiggins headspace has been picked apart for months and months. I feel like the zeitgeist has taken over the role of NBA psychiatrist, which is maddening. He's a teenager. He's a teenager that has lived with the burden and treasure of fame for a couple of years now. He may never live up to his hype but freak athleticism and a potent well of talent are rarely squandered with the right coach and the right system. The important thing in this process, even more so than drafting the right player, is hiring the right coach and molding the right system.
All of which is moot because if Embiid is healthy, I think you have to take Embiid.
Listen, as long as they do the smart thing and pick one of these three guys (or trade back with Philly and take whoever drops), I'll be happy. I am scared of Embiid because of the injury history, but I see him as the long term best player in the draft (if handled correctly). I think that Wiggins will get it, but it will take him a few years to become truly elite. Parker is still my choice at number 1 though, given the need to win now and having a player that can impact the game in such a meaningful way. Imagine what Parker could open up from his repertoire if he wasn't always the center of focus of the entire defense.
This team, more than anything else, needs consistency. I believe that adding a player that will be able to give you the same thing night in and night out is the most important thing at this point, and I don't know if you will get that with Wiggins. I'm fairly sure with Embiid and Parker you get the same thing every night, a strong defensive presence for Embiid or a polished offensive game for Parker. Wiggins may give you something different each night to various degrees, and I don't know if there's a strong enough leader on this team right now to knock him upside the head and make sure he's always "on". There is one case in which I think that Wiggins works well though, and that's if LeBron does come back (not getting my hopes up).
Furthermore, I think that the right coach being brought in that gets all of his guys to buy in will change the defense more-so than a single player. Sure, a strong post presence would be fantastic for this team, but I would honestly rather go buy one in free-agency than risk the #1 pick on a player that might never play more than 20 minutes a game. Team defense wins games. If solo defense won, Andre Igoudala, Dwight Howard, and Tony Allen would all have rings by now. I'll take my gamble that Parker can develop a good team defensive presence over Wiggins ever putting everything fully together.