Skill. Age. Versatility. A proven track record. What’s the criteria to be a top-level NBA player? What’s the most important quality if you were going to build a team around a superstar?
The Hoop Collective crew debated the topic and re-drafted the league’s best players from 1 to 21. If they could select any player on a four-year max contract, elite-level skill and the length of the star’s prime window were high on the list.
Here is the discussion from Brian Windhorst, Tim MacMahon and Royce Young. You can watch the full re-draft on ESPN’s YouTube page.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Windhorst: This is re-draft the NBA. And not for tomorrow’s game. Like, if you’re starting a franchise, then that’s the guy that I want.
MacMahon: And we’re doing this like fantasy? As a snake draft?
Windhorst: Right. Royce, you can go first.
Young: Well, I called dibs. I think it’s a pretty easy pick. I think it’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, right?
Windhorst: I don’t think anybody’s going to argue with that.
MacMahon: No, I mean when you’re talking about age, talent —
Young: And upside, too. I mean, he’s only going to get better. He’s an MVP and he’s going to get better.
MacMahon: Second pick. I would take Luka Doncic.
Windhorst: Talk about living in Dallas.
MacMahon: Well look, obviously I’m looking for a guy who I think has about a 15-year window as an All Star, superstar and I believe in short order will be — two or three years from now — I think we’re talking about an MVP candidate.
Windhorst: I agree with that. And in fact, the list that I have, I have nobody under the age of 20. So I’m pretty much knocking out a lot of the rookies. And I have nobody over 30.
Young: You have nobody over the age of 30?
Windhorst: Nobody over 30. If you’re 29 today, you could be on my team. If you’re 30, I don’t want you. That’s the way I’m going.
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MacMahon: Yeah, I’m definitely erring on the side of youth and upside.
Windhorst: All right, so I’m going with Kawhi Leonard.
Young: He’s about to turn 30.
Windhorst: Is he 30 right now?
Young: OK. Fits your criteria.
Windhorst: Next pick, I’ll take James Harden.
MacMahon: So you were pushing up against your age limit on both these. And just to be clear, we’re just kind of ranking the players in terms of who you’d want to build around.
Windhorst: Harden and Kawhi are kind of perfect because they’re in their prime right now and then they’ve got some more time.
Young: Also players that should age well too, I would think. Especially Harden. I think he’ll age well in the NBA.
MacMahon: I would go Anthony Davis. This is the guy where obviously the talent speaks for itself. And although he’s been in the league for awhile, you look at the age, he is just starting his prime. So I would get the entire prime of a perennial All-NBA player.
Windhorst: You’re going to sign him to a long-term contract? You’re going to lock him down?
MacMahon: I’m like the Lakers: That would definitely be the preference.
Young: For my pick, he may not be popular with current players and popular with the rookie class, but he’s popular with me because I’m taking Steph Curry. I know this violates the 30-year-old philosophy —
MacMahon: How much prime is left there?
Young: I think he’s a player that will age very well. What do we always say ages well in the NBA? Shooting. And has he ever been a supreme athlete? He’s somebody that you may have to hide a little bit more on the defensive end, but I actually had him No. 2 on my list.
Young: And for my next pick, another good guard that I think will age well: Damian Lillard. Shooting again. I’ve got a bias for shooting.
MacMahon: Yeah. You like the guys who pull up from 30.
Young: And a bias for Dame because he’s one of my favorite players.
Windhorst: You were there when he waved away the Thunder.
Young: I saw it firsthand. I think he was actually waving at me and saying, ‘I’ll see you personally next round, Royce.’
MacMahon: And the rest of y’all go home.
MacMahon: I’m taking Nikola Jokic with Pick 8. A legitimate MVP candidate. Hasn’t even hit his prime yet. I think there’s still upside there.
Windhorst: You don’t think he’ll break down at all?
MacMahon: I’m gonna hire a good strength and conditioning director and we’re going to get him in the best shape of his life. Which shouldn’t be too difficult.
Windhorst: I’m taking Paul George at nine. In his prime, plays both ends of the court.
Young: Some injury concerns there.
Windhorst: There’s a lot of guys who have injury concerns. Anthony Davis has injury concerns. I like guys who can play at both ends. That’s why I took Kawhi. Maybe not so much with Harden.
Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving are perennial All-Stars. But would you start a franchise with them today? Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Young: This is a case where everybody’s got a different philosophy. You can look at it as ‘am I trying to build a 10-year team, a 15-year team?’ You can look at it as a three- or four- or five-year team. But this is why I’m not scared of 30-year-olds. Because in today’s NBA, you’re not going to have a guy for 10 years.
Windhorst: I know, but you might have a guy for five.
Young: Right. So if you get a guy from 30 to 35?
Windhorst: All right. My next pick is Klay Thompson. Again, I want guys who can play both ends of the court. I actually thought Klay was playing the best basketball of his career when he got hurt. And I expect him to have a full recovery. So I’m not taking old guys. I’m not taking rookies who I don’t know yet. I don’t think we’ve taken any rookies so far.
MacMahon: Oh, actually I’m going to take one now. I’m taking Zion Williamson.
Young: He’s the one rookie you can justify, right?
MacMahon: I think what Zion has the potential to be is a hyper-athletic version of Draymond Green. I really see a guy who plays a lot of power forward, but some of his best minutes are going to be as a small-ball center. I mean, he is a dude who looks like a defensive end and is one of the most explosive athletes that we’ve ever seen.
Young: Breaking news: “Tim MacMahon says Zion Williamson has NBA potential.”
MacMahon: And NFL potential. He looked like a left tackle at summer league.
Young: So I had this guy in front of Zion and I hesitated about it, but I’ve got Kevin Durant next. I understand the injury issue. Achilles is a scary thing.
Windhorst: It’s awfully early in this draft to take a guy with a torn Achilles.
MacMahon: You just took a guy with a torn ACL!
Windhorst: Well, it’s not the same thing, is it?
Young: I think there’s an exception to the rule when it comes to Kevin Durant. He already battled against one career-threatening injury — the Jones fracture that he experienced. That threatened his career. He came back better than he’s ever been. Look, the Nets are clearly willing to take this gamble.
Windhorst: I understand why they’re taking it. I wouldn’t take it because he’s over 30.
Young: If Kevin Durant can give me three years at his peak, I would be willing to risk it.
MacMahon: Well even if he’s not at peak, 80% of Kevin Durant is still an All-NBA player.
Young: I hate who’s next on my list. I’ve got LeBron James next. Again, I think that you’re going to get three good years of LeBron left. And maybe I’m taking the wrong perspective in this draft, but if you give me three great years of LeBron … is LeBron even on your lists?
Windhorst: No, he’s over 30.
MacMahon: LeBron was on my list of the others getting consideration.
Windhorst: OK, that was the 13th pick. This’ll be the 14th pick. So it’s kind of the end of “the lottery.” MacMahon?
MacMahon: Trust the process, baby.
Windhorst: Damn, I was going to take Joel Embiid. I’m a little bit surprised he goes in the lottery because of his injury history.
MacMahon: Again: young, already dominant, hasn’t even hit his prime yet. Can he stay healthy during his prime? We’ll see.
Windhorst: All right, so in that first 14, we only had one rookie in Zion.
Young: Aside from Luka, were there any second-year guys?
MacMahon: No, I’m surprised you didn’t go Boomer Sooner. Trae Young. You guys went old.
Windhorst: Everyone I took was under 30!
MacMahon: You took guys who’ve been in the league a decade.
Windhorst: Yeah, well you win with men in this league, says Phil Jackson, and I agree with that.
MacMahon: Yeah? Well I’m trying to win for a decade and a half.
Windhorst: I’m trying to win today. I’m trying to win for the next four or five years and I went with men.
Young: Probably all those players you just drafted are going to demand a trade in two seasons and want to leave, so you aren’t going to have them anyway.
Windhorst: All right, so 15th pick, I’m going Kyrie Irving.
Young: That feels a little high to me.
MacMahon: That feels ridiculously high to me based on talent, age and building a franchise around Kyrie. There’s some risks there.
Windhorst: Well, I still think he’s really valuable in the playoffs. I know that he didn’t show that in last year’s playoffs, but his resume in the playoffs is really good. Now, you’re going to have to put a team around him to get him there. But, I mean, the list kind of gets a little tough from here. There’s some hard calls from here going forward, especially if I’m sticking to guys in their 20s. I also think even though he’s had injury issues, his prime years are ahead.
Windhorst: And then the next guy, Donovan Mitchell. Again, I’m focusing on going younger. He’s going into his third year.
Young: This is a big year, though, for him because last year was a little down.
MacMahon: Right. And the foot injury lingered into the summer. He didn’t get to work on his game all last summer.
Windhorst: He looks so much like Dwyane Wade to me. I know it’s a cliche thing to say, but he’s like Dwyane — he’s got a very big, strong lower body, so he moves side to side really, really well.
Young: He was so good in that playoff series against the Thunder (in 2018) and it was like we had anointed him the next star of the NBA. And so it was one of those things where he didn’t really live up to it. He was good last season, but he didn’t ascend into superstardom.
MacMahon: You know, honestly, he wouldn’t be the first guy on the Jazz that I’d take. I’d take [Rudy] Gobert simply because you know you will be dominant on one end of the floor.
Windhorst: You’ve taken all centers.
Young: He has a bias for size.
MacMahon: We’re not building a team here.
Windhorst: I know, but —
MacMahon: I’m taking centers in a league that’s going away from centers, right?
Young: But they say that’s a position that’s dead in the NBA and here you’re taking centers.
Windhorst: You took Embiid. You took Jokic — I thought Jokic was a little high. And you just took Gobert.
MacMahon: And Zion’s the small-ball center.
Windhorst: I don’t know if he can play center.
MacMahon: I’ve got a love for big men.
Windhorst: Are we surprised we still haven’t heard Russ’ name?
Young: I’ve got him next on my list. I’ve got him in the 14, 15 range and that’s where I’d go. But he’s a complicated pick for a lot of different reasons. Obviously there’s a health and injury issue and I talked about Steph Curry and Damian Lillard aging well in the NBA. Russell Westbrook is the flip side of this.
Windhorst: Like, to me, if you’re asking me who I would rather take a guy to build a team for, I would rather take Kyrie even though Kyrie and Russell have both had a number of injuries. I think Kyrie’s game will age better.
Young: What do you value if you’re an NBA owner, or an executive? Russell Westbrook is going to field a competitive, exciting team. You’re going to win 45 games with whomever you put around him. But can he be your best player on an NBA title team? I don’t know about that. And honestly, we’ll probably find that out this upcoming season.
MacMahon: But he won’t be their best player.
Young: Right, exactly. Look, and if Russell Westbrook is your second-best player? We saw that with Kevin Durant and we saw it at points last year, too. When the Thunder were really good last year, Russell Westbrook was their second-best player.
Windhorst: All right, you’re up again, Royce.
Young: I’m going to go Ben Simmons. He’s a little bit of a complicated pick because of where the modern-day NBA sits. But this was a young player with upside.
Windhorst: This was what the Sixers had to be like, you know. They had to make a decision this year on an extension and they were like, ‘Listen, we’re going all-in on this guy.’
MacMahon: Well, another thing is Ben Simmons is also a potential trade asset. But despite the fact the guy can’t shoot, there’s not a whole lot of 6-10 guys with that physique, that athleticism and that vision. Like, zero.
Young: And to me, he has a significant flaw in his game that we all recognize. And he’s still a dominant player. And so that speaks to how good he is at those other things. And yes, if he can round out the shooting, then we’re talking about one of the top four or five players in the NBA, most likely.
Windhorst: All right, MacMahon.
MacMahon: Bradley Beal. For how good he is, I feel like he’s an under-the-radar guy. To me, he’s right there — Beal, Donovan Mitchell, it’s kind of neck and neck. Still young and a guy who is productive across the board. He’s just on an irrelevant franchise right now. But, I mean, look at his numbers last year after John Wall went out. He was unbelievable.
Windhorst: All right, so I’m going to make the last pick. I’ve got a couple of different guys here.
If you could have three good years of LeBron James, how high would you pick him in a draft of franchise cornerstones? Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Young: There’s a lot of players on the board here still.
Windhorst: I’m not picking him, but we haven’t heard Jimmy Butler‘s name. He just got a max contract.
Young: Blake Griffin, I assume you’re not taking him?
Windhorst: Blake Griffin. Sorry, OU. If you had the last pick right now, who would you take?
Young: I think I have Karl Towns.
MacMahon: That’s who I have, too, and I don’t like it. I don’t love him. Talent’s obvious. But in terms of building a franchise around him …
Young: It feels like at about 15, 17 — once you get into that range — the pool gets very muddy.
Windhorst: So, I like Pascal Siakam here. I know their team’s not going to be as good, but I think he’s going to blossom even more. I like De’Aaron Fox here a lot because I think De’Aaron Fox has the makeup of a guy who could be a star point guard in the league. I like Victor Oladipo here. Obviously, it’s a major injury but again, two-way player in his prime. But I’m going to go with Jayson Tatum. I had been on Tatum after his rookie year and I was one of the people that got burned being a real big believer in him last year. And I potentially could be wrong about this. I think he just made a misstep last year. I think this guy is an absolute stud. I think his makeup is great.
Young: And judging a player after Year 2 is never a great idea.
MacMahon: And it’s not like he fell off a cliff. You’re just thinking that after that rookie year he’s taking off and he just fell flat.
Young: And I don’t know if you can really judge anybody based on last year’s Celtics team.
MacMahon: Especially the young guys in such a chaotic situation.
Young: There’s a lot of guys that you can look at their Year 2 and now we look at them differently. Victor Oladipo, for example.
Windhorst: All right. I’m done with this.
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Read this article from its source at http://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/27480112/the-nba-superstars-pick-start-franchise