By: Justin Lynch
Lynch hands out awards to the best player in each draft class in the NBA this season.
This list takes the best players from each draft class. Therefore, Nikola Jokic will be grouped with his 2014 draft peers, despite 2015-16 being his rookie season. Same goes for others who missed seasons.
Playoff performance counts.
It is who I thought were the best three players in their draft class that particular season, not their entire careers to this point
Draft position in parentheses.
I only included draft classes with at least 10 active players.
2015 Draft Class: Karl Anthony-Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves (1)
No doubt here. Towns was far and away the best rookie this season, earning unanimous Rookie of the Year honors. I’m sure you’ve heard all you need about Towns’ season, but I’d rather focus on the future. Towns was a solid three point shooter this season, shooting 34% from deep. His development as a three point shooter will be interesting to watch. I’m not sure the Wolves should try to make him a huge three point threat, as we saw how that hurt Kevin Love and Anthony Davis. But the idea that Towns could be dominant from anywhere on the court at his size and with his defensive ability is scary. Ultimately, I think they should give Towns the freedom to shoot from wherever he pleases, but not design the offense around getting him looks from outside.
Runner-up: Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks (4)
Third: Justise Winslow (10)
Porzingis is the clear number two (remember Nikola Jokic was drafted in 2014, though this was his rookie year), but Winslow third was the question mark. Devin Booker and Jahlil Okafor were candidates, but Booker was on the lowly Suns where somebody had to score the points, and Okafor was just too bad defensively and on the boards. Kaminsky, Richardson, and Turner all had solid rookie seasons and were contributors in the postseason, but Winslow averaged almost 29 minutes/game compared to low-20’s seen from the others. Willie Cauley-Stein was 3rd among 2015 draftees in win shares, but only played in 66 games and did not play in the postseason. Winslow wins this year, but this class projects to be a good one, and I can’t help but think this list will look different next year.
2014 Draft Class: Andrew Wiggins (1)
This pick was one of the most difficult. Rodney Hood played second fiddle to Gordon Hayward much of the season, and Derrick Favors was around to steal the defense’s attention as well. Wiggins may have been overshadowed by Karl-Anthony Towns, but was always a primary option in the offense. The Jazz finished just a game out of the playoffs, while the Wolves finished 13th in the West.
Still, I have to give the edge to Wiggins. Hood was often the third option offensively for Utah, and every big-time West defender was thrown Hayward’s way, allowing Hood to feast on leftovers. The extra attention allowed Hood to shoot nearly half his shots either open or wide open, and 75% of his threes fit the same criteria. Less than a third of Wiggins shots were open looks. Is that a result of Hood letting the offense come to him and an exemplification of patience? Maybe, but remember, Hood was third on his own team in points per game, on a team that finished in the bottom three in points scored, while Wiggins led the 15th-ranked Timberwolves in scoring.
Despite the heavier offensive load and worse shooting ability, Wiggins still shot 46% from the floor, compared to Hood’s 42%. Wiggins also posted a plus-minus of -0.8 (per game). The Wolves as a whole were -3.5. In comparison, Hood was +1.7, while the Jazz were +1.8. Hood has the edge defensively, but Wiggins did not have the luxury of playing in one of the league’s premier defenses, headlined by perennial DPOY-candidate Rudy Gobert. The youth of the Wolves hurt the collective defensively, and shoddy coaching did not help the cause, either. Still, the importance of the 3-and-D wing is more prevalent than ever, and Hood surpassed Wiggins in both of those categories. We should see Wiggins’ defense improve with the addition of Tom Thibodeau next season.
Wiggins ability to create and score in various ways was the deciding factor for me. In just his second year, he finished 19th in scoring, just 0.1 points per game behind C.J. McCollum. And a note for the future, some recent players who averaged just under 21 points/game in their second season (Wiggins put up 20.7): Carmelo Anthony, Anthony Davis, Blake Griffin, Derrick Rose, and Damian Lillard.
Runner-up: Rodney Hood (23)
Third: Nikola Jokic (41)
The other option here was Jabari Parker, but I wound up picking advanced-stat darling Jokic instead. Jokic led all 2014 draftees in win shares (6.7), PER (21.5), BPM (4.8), RPM (6.06), and VORP (3.0). Jabari came on, especially towards the end of the season, but still struggles defensively, where Jokic has shown more promise. Parker also shot a shade below 26% from deep, compared to Jokic’s 33% clip. The potential hiding inside of Jabari has started to show, but this season Jokic won out.
2013 Draft Class: Giannis Antetokounmpo (15)
The 2013 draft actually had a pretty good showing this season. Giannis wins this class after cementing himself as one of the most versatile players in the league. At 6’11”, Giannis played the 2, 3, and 4 for much of the first half of the season before Jason Kidd decided to throw him at the point and see what happens. Giannis revitalized the Bucks’ offensive attack. Giannis’ inability to shoot clogged up driving lanes for other players on the court. However, the best way to make someone guard you is to have the ball, so that’s what the Bucks decided to do. Giannis passing skills are still improving, but his splits suggest he was just hiding his passing this whole time. Giannis’ 16 points, 7 boards, and 3 assists before the all-star break grew to 19-9-7 after it. Compared to the rest of his class, Giannis was first in win shares, PER, and VORP, as well as finishing in the top five in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. He’s also still only 21. If you’re starting a franchise from scratch and you need one player to start with, I think Giannis is picked in the top 10? Top 7? Top 5?!?!?! Okay, fine, not the top five. Either way, he’s a star in the making, a triple double machine, and, along with Ben Simmons, potentially the start of a positional revolution at point guard.
Runner-up: C.J. McCollum (10)
Third: Rudy Gobert (27)
The NBA’s Most Improved Player went to McCollum, whose 14 points per game increase from last season vaulted him and teammate Damian Lillard into the upper echelon of backcourt tandems. McCollum is one of the best tough-shot makers in the NBA, and helped lead the Trail Blazers to the playoffs, after many expected them to be in contention for Ben Simmons. He beats out the bronze medalist, Rudy Gobert, mainly due to his team’s success and Gobert’s lack of durability. Gobert again was the best rim protector in the NBA, and anchored one of the league’s best defenses.
The only options to challenge Gobert were Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Steven Adams. Both defensive specialists on playoff teams, neither stand much of an argument against Gobert. Though Adams was a key cog in OKC’s defeat of the Spurs, Adams allowed the Spurs to shoot nearly 60% at the rim against him, and was not near as effective as Kanter on the offensive end. KCP went toe-to-toe with LeBron, but a quick sweep does not garner moving past the league’s best rim protector. Though these top three seem like locks for years to come, Adams and KCP were nipping at the heels this year. Maybe next year they will bite.
2012 Draft Class: Draymond Green (35)
Draymond may not be more skilled than Lillard or Davis, but his crucial role in the Warriors historic season vaulted him to the top of the class. It also doesn’t hurt that he led his class in win shares, defensive box plus-minus, box plus-minus, and value over replacement player. But Draymond’s true value is in his versatility and playmaking. He averaged just 14 points per game, but posted 9.5 boards and 7.4 assists per night. His ability to grab rebounds and start the “Draymond express” fastbreak, as play-by-play Bob Fitzgerald calls it, is an underappreciated aspect of his game. Draymond epitomizes the new-age NBA. He does a little bit of everything, plays with tremendous energy and emotion, and has the malleability to work with any group of players around him.
Runner-up: Damian Lillard (6)
Third: Anthony Davis (1)
The Trail Blazers success along with Lillard’s individual campaign placed him over Davis for the two-spot in this class. Lillard averaged 25/7/4 and helped lead his team to the second round. Davis, meanwhile, toiled away on a injury-ridden Pelicans team that landed square in the lottery. Davis’ 24-10-2 were by no means a catastrophe, though some may make it out to be that way, and with a better shooting, healthier squad for 2016-17 look for the Pelicans to gain some ground on the field.
2011 Draft Class: Kawhi Leonard (15)
This selection became more difficult when the playoffs rolled around. Kawhi, dubbed as the league’s newest superstar, couldn’t get the Spurs out of the second round and took a back seat to LaMarcus Aldridge in crunch time. Still, Kawhi posted incredible numbers (21/7 on 44% from deep in the regular season) and defended his crown as the league’s best defender. If the Warriors had repeated as champions and Klay was hitting everything in the Finals, I may have picked him. But they did not, and Kawhi deservedly wins his class.
Runner-up: Klay Thompson (11)
Third: Isaiah Thomas (60)
Though Klay is the clear number two, the third pick is where things get interesting. It came down to Isaiah Thomas and Kemba Walker. Kemba eked out advantages in many advanced stats, including win shares, box plus-minus, real plus-minus, and VORP. Their counting stats were also similar. Isaiah’s 22-6-3 on 36% from deep is mirrors Kemba’s 21-5-4 on 37% from deep, and they were nearly identical shooting from the field. Both teams finished the season 48-34 and got bounced in the first round of the playoffs.
So, why does Isaiah get the nod? Because of the players around him. Kemba won 48 games with a supporting cast that featured a resurrected Marvin Williams and a resurgent Nic Batum. A midseason trade that landed the Hornets Courtney Lee opened the floor for Kemba’s driving lines even more. Isaiah won 48 games with no big men and virtually no spacing. Outside of Isaiah, only Avery Bradley and Kelly Olynyk topped 34% from deep, and both dealt with injuries that mostly kept them out of the postseason. Still, Isaiah found driving lanes and ways to score, even when they moved Marcus Smart to the primary ball handler, so Isaiah could help space the floor. This could have gone either way, but Isaiah did more with less, and for that he gets the nod.
2010 Draft Class: Paul George (10)
George may have lost in the first round of the playoffs, but this can be his consolation prize. George, in his first full season back from his leg injury, reclaimed his position among the NBA elite. Despite supposedly moving to the power forward, George played 61% of his minutes at the three, leaving his remaining minutes at the four in the minority.
George had another all-NBA caliber season, averaging 23 points and seven boards on 37% from three. Among players in his draft class, he was second in win shares and BPM, and the leader in VORP and RPM. George beats out Boogie and Whiteside for his reliability as much as his performance. George started 81 games this season, playing 35 minutes per night, and brought it every night. Boogie again took plays off defensively and had an outrageous usage rate (league-high 35.4%). Whiteside got moved to sixth man duties for the last part of the season before getting injured in the postseason leading to an early exit for his Heat. George’s spot atop this draft class is his to lose.
Runner-up: Demarcus Cousins (5)
Third: Hassan Whiteside (33)
Though I penalized Cousins and Whiteside for their minor issues earlier, both still had outstanding seasons and beat out all other contenders (most notably Gordon Hayward and John Wall). Cousins casually averaged 27-11.5, both top-5 marks, and even shot 33% from deep. Whiteside lead the league in blocks and was among the league’s top rim protectors, despite allowing higher offensive rebounding rates due to his excessive jumpiness.
2009 Draft Class: Stephen Curry (7)
Runner-up: James Harden (3)
Third: DeMar DeRozan (9)
The 2009 draft class with a pretty weak showing this season. No one other than these three even deserved consideration, and even the order within these three was straightforward. Harden may have showed up to camp out of shape, but he still averaged 29 points, 7.5 assists, and six rebounds per game. DeRozan’s team was better, but he couldn’t touch Harden in any of those categories. DeRozan also played in the lowly East, and had plenty of help from all-NBA third-teamer Kyle Lowry. It’s tough to play the “if the situations were reversed game”, but let’s do it anyway. If Harden is on Toronto that team goes toe-to-toe with Cleveland and maybe pulls it out, while the Rockets probably win 30-35 games and steer clear of the postseason with DeRozan leading the charge. I’ve been putting a big emphasis on team success throughout these rankings, but Harden’s performance couldn’t make me drop him down.
2008 Draft Class: Russell Westbrook (4)
Runner-up: DeAndre Jordan (35)
Third: Kevin Love (5)
Jordan, despite his faults, was the clear second choice. This left a handful of players in contention for the bronze. Arguments can be made for Nic Batum, Brook Lopez, and Serge Ibaka, but the choice is Kevin Love. Through a tumultuous Cavs season, Love stayed the course and quietly averaged nearly double-double, despite constant chatter of trade rumors and discontent in the locker room. When the Cavs backs were against the wall in the Finals, it would have been easy for Love to leak any unhappiness to the media and continue the conversation on where he would be traded in July. Instead, Love played some of his more inspired, energetic minutes of the season following his absence in game three due to a concussion. He crashed the boards, worked defensively to try to combat his athletic deficiencies, and never said a word about wanting the ball.
In a class that saw Serge Ibaka complain about his lack of touches offensively and Brook Lopez stuff his stat sheet on a 21-win team, that kind of team-first attitude was refreshing. A case could be made for Batum, who nearly helped lift the Hornets into the second round. And maybe Batum did have the better season. But I have to reward the man who stopped the two-time MVP on one of the five most crucial possessions of the season, even if it’s not Batum’s fault he doesn’t play with LeBron James.
2007 Draft Class: Kevin Durant (2)
It’s great to finally have Durant back and healthy. And as long as he can stay on the court, no one will be taking this title from his anytime soon.
Runner-up: Al Horford (3)
Third: Mike Conley (4) and Marc Gasol (48)
This draft was pretty slim in terms of top-tier talent beyond the aforementioned four, which is what allowed Mike Conley and Marc Gasol on the podium despite playing just 56 and 52 games, respectively. Horford nabbed the runner-up by posting 15 point and seven rebounds this season, but his playoff performance was uninspiring. He looked old and run-down, and his decline now seems imminent. Still, he beats out the pair of Grizzlies due to their lack of availability.
2006 Draft Class: Kyle Lowry (24)
Lowry just barely edges out Millsap for the top of the 2006 draft class. Lowry’s 21-6-5 this season solidified the Raptors as a bona fide 2-seed in an Eastern Conference begging for some team to separate themselves from the middle tier. Lowry’s Raptors took the reigns from Millsap’s Hawks, whose 60 wins in 2014-15 became 48 wins this past season. Still, Millsap continued to be the star that he is, averaging 17 points and nine rebounds while being named to the all-defensive second team.
Lowry was also steady on the defensive end, and good enough to earn the fifth most votes among players left off both all-defensive teams. He led his draft class in win shares, box plus-minus, VORP, and usage rate, though Millsap was not far behind in any of those categories. This was one of the toughest calls of the list, but the Raptors success combined with the numbers pointing to Lowry, gives the Toronto point guard the edge.
Runner-up: Paul Millsap (47)
Third: LaMarcus Aldridge (2)
Aldridge’s addition, as well as Kawhi’s leap, rejuvenated the Spurs and thrusted them into their franchise’s best regular season win total. Yet, Aldridge was the second best player on his team, a team that also failed to reach the Conference Finals. Millsap’s defensive advantage and his leading role on the Hawks puts him ahead of Aldridge for this season.
2005 Draft Class: Chris Paul (4)
Runner-up: Marvin Williams (2)
Third: Andrew Bogut (1)
The top two in this class were easy to pick. Bogut’s selection at third drew a little more thought, but he still gets the nod over challengers including Ian Mahinmi and Amir Johnson. Both Johnson and Mahinmi provided good minutes on playoff teams, but neither had the impact Bogut had on the Warriors. Bogut’s rim protection and ability to pass from the high post (as well as set illegal screens) allowed the Warriors to show a more traditional lineup, setting their opponent up for the Death Lineup. When Bogut went down in the Finals, the Death lineup became the default lineup, and it became easier to prepare for and wear down. Bogut’s best days are behind him, but his role on the 73-win Warriors makes his inclusion on this list necessary.
2004 Draft Class: Andre Iguodala (9)
Iguodala’s back injury derailed any hopes of slowing down LeBron in the Finals, and it proved how valuable Iguodala has been. In a dwindling draft class, he was the best.
Runner-up: Luol Deng (7)
Third: Dwight Howard (1)
Counting stats would point to Howard being the choice at number two, but I’m giving Luol Deng the nod. Deng has similar advanced stats and played an important role on a playoff team, especially after Bosh went down. Deng also didn’t cause the locker room issues that caused last year’s Western Finals loser’s to nearly drop completely out of the playoffs. Deng may have played a smaller role, but there is value in not causing trouble, and Howard gets dinged for the issues he caused.
2003 Draft Class: LeBron James (1)
Runner-up: Dwyane Wade (5)
Third: Chris Bosh (4)
Wade’s playoff performance solidified himself as the second-best in this draft class for 2015-16. He averaged over 21 points per game on 47% shooting, and even shot 52% (!!) from three after shooting just 16% over the course of the regular season from deep. But his regular season was surprisingly effective as well. He played 74 games and 19-4-4 on 46% shooting. Bosh likely would have been number two if not for his health issues, which stunted his season to just 53 games. Still, I have Bosh ahead of Carmelo Anthony, the other contender for this class. Bosh and Anthony both posted exactly 6.4 win shares, only Bosh did it in 20 less games. Bosh also was likely on his way to another All-NBA season, while the Knicks were secretly hoping Melo would waive his no trade clause so they could send him off.
#1 Picks: 6 total (3 class winners)
Top-5 Picks: 19 Total (47.5% of entire list) (6 class winners)
Second-round picks: 7 (1 class winner)