As the Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors duke it out in the NBA Finals, the other 28 clubs are searching for the next superstar or hidden gem in the second round. For the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks, free agency will play a big part in how successful their summer will be, but first comes the draft.
The Knicks were hoping for the No. 1 pick when they entered the lottery with the worst record in the NBA. Their dreams of getting the unquestioned best player in the draft, Zion Williamson, were for naught—after dropping to the third pick.
It’s a three-player draft this year and the Knicks still have an opportunity to get a potential All-Star. The Memphis Grizzlies have made pretty good indications that they are locked onto Murray State’s point guard Ja Morant at No. 2 to replace veteran Mike Conley as they completely move away from the grit-and-grind era. Duke forward R.J. Barrett declined to work out for the Grizzlies, almost making it a guarantee that he drops to the Knicks at three.
Besides Williamson, his college teammate Barrett shows the most potential of becoming a multi-year all-star and a leading scorer on an NBA team. The 6’7″ Canadian is a slashing scoring wing that has the body and rebounding ability to play the small-ball four spot in the modern NBA. Barrett is a really good ball handler that can create his own shot using hesitations and Euro-steps to get to the basket.
However, Barrett refuses to use his right hand when dribbling and he becomes very predictable against a good defender. At Duke, we saw time and time again Barrett go to the hole and be met by two defenders and instead of deferring to his open NBA-caliber teammates, he would force up an awkward shot hoping to get fouled. Barrett needs to become a better playmaker in order to reach his full potential. If he does, it will make his teammates better by getting them open shots and also free up his own game when helping defenders stay at home on the shooters as he drives to the basket.
Barrett will be a competent defender in the NBA, his size and wingspan will make him a switchable asset on any team. He has good, smooth shooting mechanics, but only shot 30.8 percent from three and 66.5 percent from the charity stripe. Look for that to improve when he gets to the next level, he probably will not have to handle the ball as much as he did at Duke and that will only lead to easier threes from the corner.
For the Knicks, Barrett is a great pick at three—in most mock drafts a year ago he was the de facto No. 1 pick. He would fit in seamlessly with their current young core of Dennis Smith Jr., Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson. He is also a valuable trade asset for Anthony Davis.
If the Knicks are able to sign Kevin Durant over the summer, it would make sense for them to make a run at Davis. Recent reports say New Orleans Pelicans General Manager David Griffin is fielding calls from other teams about Davis and the Knicks have a good, young-player-centric package to offer if Barrett is involved, which he almost certainly will be if they are serious about Davis.
Brooklyn Nets General Manager Sean Mark has done an incredible job of rebuilding the team into a playoff team last year without any draft capital to work with after the disastrous Boston Celtics trade that saw the last four first-round picks shipped off. Marks recently traded away the 17th pick, next year’s lottery-protected first round pick and Allen Crabbe to Atlanta for Taurean Prince and a 2021 second round pick. Getting off of Crabbe’s contract will allow the Nets to offer two max contracts in free agency as they look to be a player for Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. They still have the 27th pick in the first round and Knicks’ second round pick at 31.
The Nets may feel they filled a hole at their small-ball four spot by grabbing Prince from Atlanta, but look for them to continue to put resources into it—specifically in the draft.
Marks is not afraid of drafting European players, he drafted two of them last year—Rodions Kurucs and Dzanan Musa. Do not be surprised if he goes in a similar direction this year with one of his picks and tries to stash them in Europe.
North Carolina’s Cameron Johnson might not be there at 27, but if he is, the Nets would be getting a player that can already shoot at the NBA level and play a position of need. The 6’9” forward has some injury concerns and will struggle with the physicality of the game when he first gets into the league. He shot 45.7 percent this past season from three and that will get him on the floor with any NBA team. Johnson is also one of the oldest players in the draft at 23, which may lead to some teams being wary of how much he can improve in the future, but he projects as floor-spacing forward that can provide instant shooting off the bench.
Gonzaga forward Rui Hachimura would be a perfect fit for what Atkinson wants to do on offense. The 6’8″ Japanese-born forward did not start playing basketball until he was 14 so he is raw, but has a ton of potential to improve his three-point shooting and defense. He did shoot 41.7 percent from three, but only took 36 the whole season—he will almost certainly be shooting at a higher volume once he gets to the NBA. An athletic specimen that can grab a rebound and go coast-to-coast on his own.
Free agency will be important for both of these clubs as they enter the Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler and Kemba Walker sweepstakes. They are going to need players to complement their stars and it starts here in the draft.