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NBA Draft Q & A w/ Cole Zwicker from The Stepien

Cole Zwicker was kind enough to answer some questions for us before the upcoming NBA Draft

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Michigan State vs Michigan Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The time has arrived Magic fans! We’ve officially entered draft week, with the NBA’s annual draft scheduled to take place this coming Thursday night.

For the time being, the Magic are slated to pick 6th, 35th, and 41st.

To get us ready for the draft, I sought out a draft expert to help our community work through some of the questions we all may have regarding who the Magic should be targeting, positional need, draft “sleepers”, etc.

Cole Zwicker is one of the lead writers over at The Stepien ( Cole and his team have been doing incredible work leading up to the NBA draft with their player profiles, composite rankings, scouting reports, and so on.

Cole was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to answer for me some Magic-specific draft questions.

1) I realize it’s difficult to predict who will still be on the board (we can safely assume Doncic/Ayton are out of reach), but who do you think the Magic should be targeting at #6 (should they be looking at BPA, fit, long-term potential, NBA readiness, etc.)?

Zwicker (@colezwicker): Unless a team has a franchise cornerstone in place I’d always recommend going best player available, especially at the top of the draft. This is almost universally true at #1 if a generational type talent is available, even if it conflicts with the position or role of an already established fixture. At #6 in this class especially BPA is still the “right” avenue of pursuit. At the Magic’s position they’ll likely have multiple prospects in the same tier of their design available (this is why tiers help suss out talent drop-offs), and with talent more so equal “fit” can enter the calculus to an extent. Jonathan Isaac (factoring in Aaron Gordon’s RFA status) is really the only young prospect the Magic should even consider drafting around, but he’s not established enough yet to where I would actually draft around him.

Thus, if Orlando has Michael Porter Jr. #1 on their board and he’s clearly available, I’d just take him and worry about fit with Isaac later. Conversely, if they have Trae Young and Porter both graded out similarly, then Young might be more appealing due to a slight fit bump. The only time prospects are overly redundant with one another is when they lack versatility, meaning mostly small point guards and center-only bigs. With how versatile the NBA has become, any player with versatility, such as Isaac, shouldn’t be a hindrance in team-building.

To answer the question succinctly (too late for that), given the Magic’s cap situation, lack of veteran talent to compete in the foreseeable future and non-star (yet) prospects, they should just take the best player available long-term with the highest upside to become a star or a championship level starter. On my board, those potential available prospects would be in order: Jaren Jackson, Trae Young and Wendell Carter.

2) There are multiple “bigs” that are likely to be selected in the early lottery (Ayton, Jackson Jr., Bagley III, Bamba, Carter). Successful NBA teams seem to value lead guards and wings as the league trends more towards position-less basketball. In your opinion, which big men in this draft class have skills (or can potentially develop them) that are adaptable and desired in the modern NBA landscape?

Zwicker: I think the foundation of abilities the modern game covets from bigs the most are 1) 3-point shooting and 2) two-level defensive versatility and awareness (perimeter and rim protection). Perimeter skill playmaking traits such as attacking a closeout in a face up setting and making a decision on the move are valuable, and bigs need to be adept enough in the post to beat switches, but the starting point for me is shooting and defensive versatility.

Jaren Jackson is the most modern big in the class, armed with 3-point shooting off the catch/pick-and-pops, the feet to guard in space with the length to contest and high-level team defense awareness reacting quickly as a rim protector. He also throws in an underrated handle to attack closeouts and has enough pop to finish in space. The only valuable trait Jackson lacks is quick decision-making, and he’s at least wired to be unselfish.

Behind Jackson, the most modern big in the class is Wendell Carter, and he’s a better offensive projection here than Jackson. Carter has the best 3-point shooting mechanics of any big in the class (Jackson has the safety statistically), can handle functionally and can really read the floor on the move. The issue is on the other side of the ball, where Carter doesn’t have the twitch or high-level feet to project him to switch with confidence. I’m of the opinion that most of his struggles this year on the perimeter (it wasn’t all bad, there was actually a lot of good) was due to technique more than feet. But it’s still a question mark. Carter does at least bring reactive instincts and the length to both challenge shots on the perimeter and protect the rim.

Mo Bamba in theory is right there with Jackson for the best modern big award in the class, a possibility that gained some optimism with Bamba working with Drew Hanlen on his shooting mechanics. But much of Bamba’s upside is tied to physical development and adding both quickness and pop. He got exposed in space defensively at Texas far more than his “switch everything” reputation suggests, and while his wingspan affords him one of the highest margins for error of all time, does he have the feet, general speed and explosiveness to be a multi-level defensive megastar? If Bamba doesn’t shoot I don’t think he’s skilled enough or imposing enough physically to warrant offensive minutes against the best teams at the highest levels, so there is serious downside here. But the upside tail is there.

The two most hyped big man prospects in the class, DeAndre Ayton and Marvin Bagley, mostly due to the intersection of high level athleticism and production (points/rebounds), might actually have the murkiest projection of any of the bigs in the modern game.

Ayton is very adept defending in space with the play in front of him, armed with quick feet and the strength and length to absorb contact from dribble penetrators and challenge shots on the perimeter. But he lacks the reactive instincts as a team defender and rim protector that Jackson, Carter and Bamba have. He might develop better tendencies as an overall team defender, but his clearer route to defensive value is probably taking the Clint Capela route (he’s not quite as mobile). Offensively, Ayton has a flat shot from 3, which draws into question how consistent his stroke will be from there on volume (I trust it from mid-range). He’s also not a high-level coordination ball-handler and lacks quick passing anticipation in face up settings. He might develop all of these things, but right now his best offensive skills are offensive rebounding and his touch/explosion as a finisher around the basket, two traits I devalue in the modern game as premiere skills.

Bagley is similar to Ayton in many respects, save for he lacks the physical tools and gets much better arc from 3. Bagley’s best defensive skill in theory defensively is switching due to his agility, but he lacks the length that most impact perimeter defenders have. He’s a sizable minus as both a team defender and rim protector, drawing into question whether a team will ever have the confidence to play him at the 5 consistently (probably will when downsizing in the playoffs). Offensively, if Bagley plays the 5 he might be the best projection there in the class, even ahead of Carter if you believe in the shot translating. He certainly has the speed with the ball in bigger spaces to beat less agile centers to the basket as a duel pick-and-roll threat, has flashed some quick decision-making and can even pull up off the dribble with sound footwork, a skill usually only reserved for elite offensive bigs. But if a team plays him at the 4 his impact in the modern game lessens.

Overall, I think the league is moving away from sheer athleticism and more into high-level skill and basketball intelligence. With more space than ever it requires more quick and correct decision-making, necessitating quick processing, and with more space less athletic players can win more now with their craft. But for bigs, even in the modern game, it’s starts with defensive versatility/IQ, and to better enable teams to play optimal 5-out ball offensively, shooting is paramount (as are perimeter skills).

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Oklahoma Sooners vs Rhode Island Rams Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

3) You have Trae Young ranked a bit higher on your site’s big board than many draft experts do (which I completely agree with). What specifically do you like about Trae Young’s game? What is it about Young’s film that solidifies him as a Top-5 pick in your opinion?

Zwicker: Frankly speaking, Trae is the most skilled guard I’ve seen come into the league for his age since I’ve been writing about the draft (admittedly not long). He can dribble, pass and shoot, all at an elite level, which is incredibly rare for a lead guard.

The singular skill I look for first from lead guards is that scheme-changing pull-up 3 that dictates how defenses react in pick-and-roll coverage and other sets gravity wise. Trae has 30 foot range, relying on upward momentum to create a shot area without boundary, as well as a lightning quick one-motion release. He pairs those qualities with the quickest transition from his handle to his pull-up probably since Steph. His balance on his shot is also impeccable, and the ability to decelerate and pull up on balance is something most every young guard faces for an elongated period of time once entering the league. Trae is already adept here. Mechanically, Trae’s set point is a little low, but he compensates with release speed. I’m of the opinion that Trae’s numbers in his year at Oklahoma actually undersell his shooting ability. Most every shot he took was a self-created pull-up, a lot of them far beyond NBA 3 and most contested. He’ll get to play off the ball more in the NBA with other players actually able to create a shot for him, and his open looks will increase. It’s a small sample, but he was 14-19 on unguarded catch-and-shoot 3s in the half court this year, and he was also dynamite shooting off movement coming off screens, both illustrative of higher upside here.

While his most *valuable* skill is unquestionably his shot, his *best* skill is his passing. Trae has legitimate passing anticipation to see the play open two moves ahead, is incredible making quick read hit ahead passes in transition (don’t understand why he isn’t given the same coverage here as Lonzo Ball was) and has very advanced overall passing craft. He can make one-handed passes with either hand with precision and high velocity. I don’t think there are 5 players in the NBA who can make the left-handed skip pass Trae made against Rhode Island in the first half of the tournament with their off hand. He’s also adept passing on the move with the functional craft to capitalize on tighter windows, something that is imperative for a 6-foot-2 guard who wont just be able to pass over the top. Trae definitely has the vision and craft as a passer. The gray area points moving forward will be his decision-making (hard to suss out given his insane usage and playmaking burden at Oklahoma) and how well he handles traps.

Lastly, Trae has advanced skill as a ball-handler, already possessing advanced moves like the shamgod in his arsenal. He has the ball on a string even in tight confines, imperative for a pick-and-roll guard, and has fantastic control with a low dribble to the ground (a benefit of his height). He blew by guys like Jevon Carter with an underrated first step, short area explosion and overall plus wheels far more often than he gets credit for. He’s not a high-level athlete, but he has the threat of his shot that will force defenders to play up on him, and he has enough juice off the dribble to separate, although he’ll probably most often rely on deception/changing speeds.

Overall, Trae’s blemishes consist of finishing due to his lack of size and vertical pop, and most importantly, on the defensive side. He’ll get hunted in the playoffs like most small guards do, and he’ll always be a negative on that end. The key is to what degree? Will he be Isaiah Thomas esque bad (he’s bigger) or 2017/18 Damian Lillard passable? If you watch the first Texas Tech game you can see when engaged (and when he has energy) Trae can guard respectably, and I suspect his instincts are far better than he got to show in his “no foul” Oklahoma role due given what we know about his instincts on the other end of the floor.

A lot of this comes down for me to you want offense from your guards and defense from your bigs. If Trae can become salvageable on defense he has the highest upside (along with Luka Doncic) in the class due to the nature of his position and role as an initiator of an offense. Dynamic offensive perimeter players drive the league, and that is within Trae’s outcome range. Also aiding Trae’s projection is he doesn’t need the ball to be effective, differentiating him from other small guards who can’t shoot and who teams have to marry themselves to on-ball for multiple years (Elfrid Payton).

At his apex, Trae can reign hellfire as a shooter and playmaker akin to Curry and Lillard, being the focal point of an elite offense. His ceiling is this era’s version of Steve Nash. While it’s an unlikely outcome, as most generational tail upside outcomes are, it’s one worth chasing.

4) I’m a firm believer of giving a longer look later in the draft to guys that provide fit/depth in needed areas within the organization. Orlando currently has one point guard with a guaranteed contract on their roster (D.J. Augustin). Regardless of what they do at #6, I think the Magic should take a lead guard in the Second Round (#35, #41), or even try to package their picks (and an expiring: Ross, Vucevic) to move up into the late First Round. I’ve done a few lead guard previews on Orlando Pinstriped Post the last couple weeks (Holiday, Carter, Brunson, Okobo, Milton) because I think the 25-45 range is where the point guard depth in this class is strongest. Is there a point guard likely to be selected in the late first or early second round in this class that you really like (someone you think can contribute, have a solid career, maybe someone you think makes sense for the Magic)? Can you give us a few names of guys (at any position) that you like in the Second Round (potential “steals”)?

Zwicker: I’m personally a Jalen Brunson fan. I love Jay Wright kids mostly because their fundamentals (footwork especially) are so advanced and in that 4-out-1 NBA-like motion scheme, guys just know how to play and move both on and off ball. Brunson is incredibly poised and cerebral, and behind Young might be the best off the dribble shooter in the class of point guards (Okobo has stock here as well). His post game might not translate, but he’s smart and crafty enough that I’ll think he’ll figure out a way to carve out a long-term career in the league.

The point guard debate (for non-elites like Trae) in the draft value-wise is an interesting one. Backup point guards are pretty fungible. You can sign a guy like Yogi Farrell as an undrafted free agent without investing any capital, or sign a low-end backup for the minimum in free agency. Due to positional scarcity I’d almost always hunt wings even late in the draft, but for a player like Brunson who has high-level backup and potential low end starter equity, I could make an exception in the second round.

As for the others, Elie Okobo is probably going to go top 25 now with his recent play and momentum created in workouts. Aaron Holiday is also potentially a top 25 pick due to shooting and family professional pedigree. Jevon Carter is a great player to have in the locker room and set the physical/intensity tone in practice, but he’s best utilized next to a wing initiator as he isn’t a point guard skill-set wise. I had some interest in Shamorie Ponds in the second round, but he obviously went back to school.

Three sleepers I like in the second round (if guys like Josh Okogie go late round one) are 1) Jacob Evans 2) Kenrich Williams and 3) Landry Shamet. Evans shouldn’t be there, but the 6’5” wing from Cincinnati has two-way appeal as a spot up 3-point shooter and high-level team defender. He’s tough as hell and has the ability to handle and pass in a scaled-back role. Williams is old (almost 23 and a half) but reminds of a cross between Joe Ingles and Jared Dudley potentially in the right scheme. I want as many 6’7” wings who can dribble, pass and shoot as possible, and Williams’ defensive footwork is outstanding. Lastly, Shamet is one of the five best shooters in the draft, and can do so off movement, making him a rare get in this range of his make. He has good size for a guard at 6’5” with sound ball-skills and IQ. His release is a little lower and easier to bother (we saw this at the combine) and he has a thin build that lessens his defensive impact, but his shooting is an elite skill in this range.

5) As a new draft/scouting site, what has the process this year been like leading up to the draft? How excited are you to see The Stepien become one of the premiere NBA Draft sites available?

Zwicker: It’s been a rewarding experience for sure, and one I don’t take at all for granted. The feedback has mostly been either incredibly positive or very useful constructive criticism. Couldn’t ask for more. Very proud of the guys (writers, founders, developers etc.) for carrying out the ethos of the site, which is mostly content integrity and offering perspective. We aren’t an intel-based site and don’t do mock drafts due to that. We know working with imperfect information is going to lead to being wrong a lot. It’s my hope that the analysis on the site wont be treated as truth or taken at face value without further inquiry. A bunch of us just got together and wanted to convey NBA draft information and analysis in a different, thought-provoking way that challenged more traditionalist draft coverage. If it makes you think, we are satisfied.

I would like to thank Cole Zwicker again for his time and thorough answers regarding some of the questions that face the Orlando Magic heading into this upcoming Thursday night.

You can find Cole’s work at and “Ode to Oden: the NBA Draft Podcast”.