By Chad Ford
Updated Nov 16, 2020
For the last few decades I produced roughly eight to 10 Big Boards and Mock Draft per year for ESPN. And I hated all of them.
Ranking players either way is problematic and most NBA teams have, for the last decade, gotten away from the practice.
Why? There are no real 1-to-1 comparisons in the draft — especially between guards, wings and bigs.
Second, Mocks and Big Boards give the illusion of consensus when the reality is, in every draft, scouts and execs vary significantly from one another on a prospects value.
Two scouts on the same team can watch the same player in the same game and come to wildly different evaluations about a player’s NBA prospects.
Two GMs can sit with the same player in an interview and walk away with different impressions about who the player really is.
Two analytical models, both purporting to offer a more objective look at player through their statistics can spit out radically different conclusions.
Now factor in team needs, the coaching philosophy of different teams, team psychologist, doctors and owners who are casual observers and claiming consensus just feels like a farce.
Each team may have 10 to 15 voices in the room all advocating for different things. It’s no wonder that most teams don’t decide until draft day who they’ll take.
This year is no exception. LaMelo Ball, James Wiseman and Anthony Edwards all have advocates in respective front offices for the No. 1 pick. And there are a handful of people in front offices that believe that Ball, Wiseman and/or Edwards will be busts in the league. After those three, few teams agree what order then next six to eight players should go. Get even further down in the draft and the disparity between how teams rank players grows.
There is no omnipotent God Board.
Too often I think the way we talk about the draft pretends that there is.
To make sense of all this, the past decade I’ve chronicled a draft ranking system employed by a growing number of teams called the tier system.
In the tier system, teams group players, based on overall talent, into tiers. Then, the teams rank the players in each tier based on team need. This system allows teams to draft not only the best player available, but also the player who best fits a team’s individual needs.
In this system, a team wouldn’t reach down from Tier Two to Tier Three, for example, if the player left in Tier Two didn’t fit a team need. But when only Tier Three players are left on the board, an individual team may rank them based on need.
What are the tiers?
Tier 1 players are potential NBA superstars. Players with the potential to be franchise type prospects and make multiple All-NBA teams in their career.
Tier 2 players are potential NBA All-Stars. Players with the potential to be the best player on their team and to make at least one All-Star team in their career.
Tier 3 players project as high level NBA starters. Players with the potential to spend most of their career as a starter on a playoff caliber team.
Tier 4 players are potential NBA starters and rotation players. They may start at some point in their careers, but the most likely role for them is as an impact player coming off the bench.
Tier 5 players are deep rotation players. They are players eight through 10 in a NBA depth chart.
Tier 6 players are bench players. They are 11 and 12th men on a NBA roster who may spend significant time in the G league.
So what do the tiers look like this year? After talking to several GMs and scouts whose teams employ this system, here is how the tiers look this year.
Typically in a draft there are one to two Tier 1s (in 2013 there were zero), one to three (Tier 2s) and three to five (Tier 3s).
The strength of a draft can be measured in a lot of different ways. But this year? We lack a Tier 1 player for the first time since 2013 and have limited Tier 2 players as well.
To get this year’s Tiers, I spoke to a number of NBA scouts and execs about how they ranked the 2020 prospects. This is a consensus of their rankings. To make a Tier, you needed at least 50 percent of the execs and scouts I spoke to voting you into that tier (with the exception of Tier 6). You can also listen to our Draft Tiers pod to hear how the Athletic’s Tony Jones rankings compare to the ones I’ve compiled from teams.
Players are listed alphabetically in each tier.
The only other draft where there were zero Tier 1 players was the 2013 NBA Draft. Much like 2020, there was no consensus No. 1 pick in 2013 because while all the players had upside, none of them looked like a potential franchise prospect. Ironically, there was a future MVP in that draft, Giannis Antetokoumpo, but at the time, he wasn’t in serious consideration for the top pick and went 15 to the Milwaukee Bucks.
This year LaMelo Ball, Anthony Edwards and James Wiseman all received a limited number of Tier 1 votes each — but not enough to make the Tier 1 cut.
Tier 2 is reserved for players with All-Star potential. However, each player in Tier 2 has a weakness that some teams feel will keep them from being a superstar. In Ball’s case it’s the lack of a consistent jumper and questions about his defense. Edwards is an elite athlete, but his basketball IQ and commitment to defense are major questions. Wiseman’s lack of experience and questions about his motor and development give teams pause.
Ball is by far the most polarizing prospect here. He received the most Tier 1 votes of the group but also the most Tier 3 votes and one Tier 4 vote (!!!). He’s definitely an eye-of-the beholder prospect.
Wiseman and Edwards also received a small number of Tier 1 votes and a significant number of Tier 3 votes, but not enough to move them out of Tier 2.
Note: This is a strong Tier 3, and for a number of teams, there wasn’t a huge drop off from Tier 2 to Tier 3. Having eight players in the Tier 3 makes for a very strong tier.
This tier is usually reserved for players who are projected as NBA starters in their career. And there seems to be some strong consensus among NBA teams here.
Toppin and Williams were the only players in this group to get a Tier 2 vote. All of the rest of their votes were Tier 3.
Haliburton and Okongwu both received unanimous votes as Tier 3 prospects.
Hayes, Okoro and Vassell all received a small number of Tier 4 votes.
Note: This is fairly large Tier 4 group but with a lot of variability in it.
Players in this tier that project to be starters or high level rotation players.
In Tier 4 the consensus starts to break down and teams were all over the place here.
Nesmith, Bey, Lewis, McDaniels and Pokusevski were the only five players to receive a limited number of Tier 3 votes and four of these five players did not receive any Tier 5 votes.
Achiuwa, Bolomaro, Hampton, McDaniels, Smith and Terry all received a significant number of Tier 5 votes, but not enough to drop them into that tier.
Note: This is a really strong group and shows that there is value here that extends into the first 10 picks of the second round.
This area of the draft is typically reserved for deeper rotation players — players 8 through 10 off the bench. Players who are unlikely to start for good teams, but could be solid role players off the bench. In this draft, that’s roughly picks 25-40.
A few players in this Tier received Tier 4 votes. They included Anthony, Bane, Carey Jr., Flynn, Green, Maledon and Woodward III. Of that group Anthony, Bane, Green and Maledon were right on the cusp of making Tier 4. Their votes were pretty evenly split.
And a couple of players on this list received Tier 6 votes including Azubuike, Jones, Otoro, Pritchard, Reed and Woodward.
Note: This tier consists of players that at least one team told me they had ranked in their Top 30. A few, Mannion, Alexander and Winston, got some Tier 5 votes. All of them are likely second round picks however.
Scrubb, the JUCO Player of the Year, was the biggest surprise on the list. He had previously not shown up in our Big Board Top 60 rankings. But two teams mentioned him as a potential first round pick, and one team had him in Tier 4 and another in Tier 5.
Like every draft system, the tier system isn’t perfect. But the teams that run it have found success with it. It has allowed them to get help through the draft without overreaching. Compared to traditional top-30 lists or mock drafts, it seems like a much more precise tool of gauging which players a team should draft.