2020 Draft Re-Grade: East

2020 Draft grades, one year later, for every team in the Eastern Conference

Almost every year I have given draft grades for every team as a sort of instant reaction to the NBA Draft.

Giving draft grades on the day after the draft is a bit like giving grades after the first day of class. You can have some general sense about how prospects will project in the NBA, and knowing the team that drafts them helps, but there is so much we don’t know.

This is especially true because free agency follows the draft. Free agency and trades can dramatically shift rosters and trajectories of teams. Furthermore, Summer League games, pre-COVID, often exposed more about players and how they fit. And all of that comes months before rookies play their first NBA games.

In November, LockedOn Hawks’ host Brad Rowland and I recorded a podcast where we each gave out 2020 draft grades to every team in the Eastern Conference.

Now that the 2020-21 NBA regular season is winding down, I thought it was worth going back and looking at those grades -- and giving each team a new grade.

Even giving grades the year after the draft is potentially dangerous. Lottery prospects that struggled in their rookie years -- like RJ Barrett of the New York Knicks, De’Andre Hunter of the Atlanta Hawks and Darius Garland of the Cleveland Cavaliers -- showed significant improvement in Year 2. You can’t write off prospects after a rocky first year. 

It’s also rare for young draft prospects to make a positive impact in Year 1, despite the amount of playing time they get. This season, only three rookies who got regular minutes as rookies -- LaMelo Ball, Tyrese Haliburton and Immanuel Quickley -- have posted a positive plus/minus.

It typically takes three full seasons to have a good handle on what a prospect will do in the NBA. Sometimes it takes even longer. 

Nevertheless, it’s worth checking in on the draft class of 2020. Here are my old and new draft grades for every team in the Eastern Conference.

Also, listen to Chad and LockedOn Hawks host Brad Rowland break down their Eastern Conference draft grades one year later on the latest NBA Big Board podcast.

Charlotte Hornets

2020 Grade: A
2021 Grade: A

Draft class:

LaMelo Ball (3)
Vernon Carey Jr. (32)
Nick Richards (42)
Grant Riller (56)

The Hornets got an “A” on draft night based primarily on the fact that I had Ball ranked No. 1 on my final 2020 Big Board. Charlotte getting him at No. 3 felt like a steal.

Like most scouts, I had plenty of concerns about Ball. Would his jumper translate? Who will he guard? How will he handle the transition from Australia to the pros? When the Hornets signed Gordon Hayward in the offseason, I wondered whether Ball could get significant minutes on a team clearly aiming for the playoffs.

It didn’t take long for the Hornets and everyone else to see why he was ranked No. 1. His ability to see the floor and make virtually impossible passes stood out from Day 1, as did his poise and work ethic. 

What surprised me was that his two biggest perceived weaknesses (shooting and defense) really weren’t problems this season. He shot the ball from deep at a decent clip (35.5%) and had a positive box plus/minus (BPM) on the defensive end. 

If Ball continues to improve his shot and defense, he has the chance to be an All-NBA first-teamer and an MVP candidate someday. He’s that good. He’s got a ways to go, but clearly, judging after one season, the Hornets got the best player in the draft.

The rest of the Hornets’ rookies have been more disappointing. None have had a significant impact. But, especially given the roster crunch in Charlotte this season, I’m not ready to write any of them off yet.

Chicago Bulls

2020 Grade: B+ 
2021 Grade: B+

Draft class:

Patrick Williams (4)
Marko Simonović (44)

Williams' late rise up draft boards raised some eyebrows among NBA scouts. It wasn’t until the night before the draft, however, that we really knew just how far he had risen. That was when strong signals started coming out of Chicago that they were taking Williams, a player who didn’t start a game for Florida State, at No. 4.

I really liked Williams and had him ranked No. 5 on my final Big Board, but thought Iowa State’s Tyrese Haliburton was an even better fit in Chicago given the desire of management to get out of the lottery and into the playoffs.

I think we were both right. Given Haliburton’s play this year for the Kings, it’s hard to argue that the Bulls shouldn’t have drafted him. This year, at least, he was better than Williams in virtually every way and would’ve provided more help for the Bulls in the win column.

But Williams was a long-term play, and he showed enough flashes of talent that I think the Bulls can feel confident that he has a good shot at being the versatile star they thought he could become. Everyone knew that you’d have to be patient drafting Williams. One season later, it looks like that patience may pay off -- if not in the 2021-22 season, then in 2022-23.

Cleveland Cavaliers

2020 Grade: C+
2021 Grade: B-

Draft class:

Isaac Okoro (5)

The C+ reflected Okoro’s No. 11 position on my Big Board. He was ranked that low primarily because of significant concerns about his ability to generate efficient offense in the NBA. 

The Cavs loved his defensive ability, athleticism and reputation as a hard worker and excellent teammate.

We both were right. Okoro's defensive abilities have allowed him to play the second-most minutes of any rookie in the draft. His athleticism and overall work ethic have shone. He’s also been pretty bad offensively, shooting just 30% from 3 and averaging just nine points per game despite heavy minutes. He ended up second to last in the entire rookie class for VORP.

He’s had some strong games later in the season that suggest that his offense is coming around, including a monster 32-point, six-assist outing against Phoenix in May. If Okoro continues to improve his jump shot, the Cavs’ grade will end up better than B-. 

Atlanta Hawks

2020 Grade: B-
2021 Grade: B-

Draft class:

Oneyka Okongwu (6)
Skylar Mays (50)

Okongwu was ranked No. 6 on my final Big Board, so why the relatively low grade for the Hawks? The team was putting out signals that they were going to try to make the playoffs this season, and Okongwu was a developmental prospect.

Meanwhile, Haliburton was on the board and looked to be the perfect backcourt mate to Trae Young. I still regard it as the biggest missed opportunity of the draft. Haliburton went on to have the second-best season of any rookie, and Okongwu could barely crack the rotation. Haliburton would have made the Hawks more dangerous than they already are.

That’s not a knock on Okongwu, who has shown real promise in limited minutes, especially lately. His win shares per 48 minutes number is tops in the draft class. Okongwu may very well live up to being the sixth pick in the draft over the long term -- but I’m skeptical he ever catches Haliburton.

Mays ended up getting more than 200 minutes this year and played well in his limited role -- looking like he might be a keeper -- a real achievement for a pick in the 50s.

Detroit Pistons

2020 Grade: B-
2021 Grade: B

Draft class:

Killian Hayes (7)
Isaiah Stewart (16)
Saddiq Bey (19)
Saban Lee (38)

GM Troy Weaver’s first draft for the Pistons was an odd one. The best player he drafted, at least in Year 1, was the third one he selected.

In a surprise, Villanova’s Saddiq Bey slid to No. 19 on draft night. Even the Pistons passed on him with the 16th pick. This season, he’s looked like a top-5 player in the draft class, living up to his reputation as a prototypical 3-and-D player.

That No. 16 pick, Isaiah Stewart, went six picks higher than where he was on my Big Board. So far, he has looked worthy of the pick. His lack of size and old-school game had scouts questioning how he’d fit in the modern NBA, but his elite wingspan, motor and grit seem to be making up for it. 

Even second-round pick Saben Lee has gotten minutes and played well.

The player I was most bullish about, Killian Hayes, has been a bigger question mark. He got off to a horrendous start in Detroit and then missed three months to a hip injury. His jumper is still a work in progress (his form looks fine; the ball just doesn’t go in), and he looks overmatched at times.

But Hayes has started to show some of his promise. A 21-point, 7-rebound, 8-assist (and 7-turnover) game recently against the Bulls gave us a glimpse. If Hayes figures things out, perhaps passing on Haliburton won’t sting quite as much.

Despite all three first-round picks showing promise, it’s clear the Pistons really need a star. Given their likely draft position, the 2021 draft could finally land them that guy.

New York Knicks

2020 Grade: C
2021 Grade: C+

Draft class:

Obi Toppin (8)
Immanuel Quickley (25)

The Knicks are another team that had a backwards draft. The guy they got in the late first round has consistently outplayed the guy they took in the lottery.

Quickley going in the first round was one of the biggest draft-night surprises for me. I had him ranked 54th!! (Gulp.) 

Clearly the Knicks knew something I didn’t, as he’s consistently been a top-5 rookie this season, despite seeing his role change significantly when the Knicks brought in Derrick Rose midseason. Quickley’s shooting ability, especially a great floater, has made him an important part of a surprise Knicks team this season.

As for Toppin? I thought he was going to be Rookie of the Year on the Knicks. While I would’ve preferred for them to have taken Haliburton (and they should’ve), I thought the selection of Toppin was defensible.

So far, it hasn’t been. His offensive game hasn’t lived up to his great play at Dayton. He’s shooting just 30% from 3. If you would’ve told me that the best offensive player in college basketball would have only three games all season in which he scored more than 10 points and zero in which he scored 20, I would’ve laughed at you.

Washington Wizards

2020 Grade: B-
2021 Grade: C+

Draft class:

Deni Avdija (9)
Cassius Winston (53)

The Wizards were another team that I thought should’ve opted for Haliburton. At the time it was unclear what was going to happen with John Wall or Bradley Beal. (Wall was ultimately traded for Russell Westbrook.) Regardless, Haliburton looked clearly like the best option for Washington.

Instead the Wizards opted for Avdija, an international prodigy playing in Tel Aviv who played a coveted NBA position but appeared to lack the skill set to play that position in the NBA. 

An injury shortened Avdija’s season prematurely, but what we saw should give a little more ammunition to his detractors. Avdija’s shooting was as streaky as advertised, and he struggled to get going offensively, posting just a 7.6 PER.

The jury is still out on Avdija. He’s young and it’s clear that he can improve, but passing on Haliburton and Devin Vassell for Avdija doesn't look great right now.

Boston Celtics

2020 Grade: B
2021 Grade: B-

Draft class:

Aaron Nesmith (14)
Payton Pritchard (26)
Yam Madar (47)

I thought Aaron Nesmith was a good choice for the Celtics on draft night given their need for perimeter shooting. He was arguably the best 3-point shooter in the draft class and seemed like a perfect fit. While I thought Pritchard went a little high, I also thought he was a Danny Ainge-type player whose toughness, experience and shooting ability would make him a nice reserve in the Celtics’ backcourt.

Nesmith was a major disappointment early in the season. He’s seen an increased role in April and has played much better, upping his 3-point percentage to 39.4% -- a strong number for a rookie. Pritchard looks like he has a long future in the NBA as a pesky backup point guard who can shoot 3s. Finding someone like that in the late 20s is actually pretty rare.

I’m dinging the Celtics just a bit on their final grade because Saddiq Bey was on the board at No. 14, and given what we’ve seen from his rookie season in Detroit, it’s hard to argue he wouldn’t have been an even better fit in Boston. 

Orlando Magic

2020 Grade: C+
2021 Grade: B-

Draft class:

Cole Anthony (15)

I had cooled considerably on Anthony by the time of the draft -- he ended up ranked No. 27 on my final Big Board. After a terrific high school career, he appeared to have peaked a bit during his rough freshman season at North Carolina. I thought the Magic were reaching at No. 15.

A year later, the Magic have to feel somewhat justified. With the roster’s myriad of injury issues, the Magic ended up giving Anthony a lot of playing time, including 31 starts so far, and he’s been solid.

His shooting percentages and overall efficiency have been low, but, as in his year at UNC, he’s been asked to carry a very heavy load for such a young player. Playing him in a more complementary role could free Anthony to take better shots and improve his efficiency.

Miami Heat

2020 Grade: B
2021 Grade: B-

Draft class:

Precious Achiuwa (20)

I thought Miami was a great landing spot for Achiuwa. He could defend all five positions, and the Heat needed his defensive versatility. The big question on Achiuwa was whether his offense would come around.

He’s played a limited role in Miami this year, and the results have been mixed. He still shows significant potential on the defensive end, and he still looks miles away on the offensive end. 

In one bit of good news, he hasn’t taken a 3 all year. While that may seem like odd praise for a forward, in Achiuwa’s case I think it was a good thing. At Memphis he overrated his offensive ability, which led to a lot of bad shots. It’s clear Miami has carved out a narrow role for him, and I think it will help him develop offensive discipline. If he embraces who he can be in the NBA, there’s still a bright future for Achiuwa.

Philadelphia 76ers

2020 Grade: N/A
2021 Grade: B+

Draft class:

Tyrese Maxey (21)
Isaiah Joe (49)
Paul Reed (58)

On draft night my co-host Brad Rowland gave the Sixers an A. I responded with a rambling answer about why I liked the Sixers draft but didn’t like it enough to give an A. As my primary point, I questioned Maxey’s shooting ability and fit on a team with a GM that values 3-point shooting. 

Alas, I’ve listened to the podcast, and apparently I forgot to grade Philly’s draft.

A season later, Maxey has shown real promise, although he’s only shooting 29 percent from 3. His assist numbers, for those who thought he could play more on the ball, are encouraging. 

Beyond Maxey, the big news is that Paul Reed, who was ranked No. 32 on my final Big Board but slid to 58th on draft night, was named G League MVP as a rookie. He’s struggled to get significant minutes on the 76ers, but when he does, he produces. His 18.2 PER, albeit with a limited sample size, is tops in his class. Reed has significant upside, and it looks like Daryl Morey got a steal late in the draft.

Toronto Raptors

2020 Grade: B+
2021 Grade: B

Draft class:

Malachi Flynn (29)
Jalen Harris (59)

I was pretty bullish on Flynn as a late first-round prospect and thought he was one of the most fun players in the draft to watch.

After a rocky start, Flynn has earned significant minutes in the second half of the season and played well enough to justify this pick for the Raptors. His shooting, on both 2s and 3s, needs work, but he’s avoided turnovers and proven to be a legit backup point guard in the NBA. That’s a great get at No. 29.

Harris, a super-athletic guard out of Nevada, has played in just 11 games so far, but he’s played quite well in his limited minutes.

Milwaukee Bucks

2020 Grade: A-
2021 Grade: B+

Draft class:

Jordan Nwora (45)
Sam Merrill (60)

This initial draft grade for the Bucks may seem odd. But context is everything. Going into draft night the Bucks had major salary cap issues, and it looked like they would need to sign and play both of their second-round picks. The team needed shooters, didn’t have the money to go get them in free agency, and drafted the two best shooters left on the board.

While Nwora and Merrill didn’t play as much as I initially thought they would, when they did play, they both played well and shot the ball well. Nwora especially looks like he might have a future. 

Indiana Pacers

2020 Grade: B
2021 Grade: C+

Draft class:

Cassius Stanley (54)

The Pacers swung for the fences, taking one of the most explosive athletes in the draft. 

His rookie season is likely to be remembered mostly for his runner-up finish in the 2021 NBA dunk contest. The Pacers have played him very sparingly, and he didn’t do anything in those minutes to suggest he’s much more than a great dunker. Given his age (he was 21 on draft night), he might not have a lot of upside left.

Note: The Brooklyn Nets traded their only draft pick to the LA Clippers on draft night.

What grade would you give your favorite team? Click the Leave a comment button below to tell us!

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Also read: Re-grading the Western Conference’s 2020 NBA Draft