There will never be another player quite like Charles Barkley.
An 11-time All-Star who now resides in the Hall of Fame and currently an analyst on TNT’s “Inside the NBA,” Barkley and his monstrous frame were the stuff of legends. He could plow defenders over with sheer strength. With nimble feet, he could squeeze and squirm his way to the rim out of the post with moves that were indefensible. And, when he wanted, he could put the ball on the floor like a jumbo guard, barreling to the basket like a freight train. To seal his damage done, he’d let you know about it on the court with no hesitation as an all-time smack-talker. He was a mini schnauzer mixed with a pit bull: all bark and all bite.
While Barkley’s combination of talent, size, skill and personality will never be matched, there are plenty of similarities in his game to projected top pick Zion Williamson. Williamson, like Barkley, packs a physical punch at 6-foot-7 and 285 pounds. And with his athletic burst and physicality, it’s easy to consider the two like in stature and in skill.
That’s perhaps where the similarities end, though. Williamson is arguably more athletic. Barkley was inarguably more animated. Williamson has potential to be an elite, switchable defender. Barkley — at least according to the GOAT — well, let’s just defense wasn’t his strongest suit.
That’s what makes comparing draft prospects to pro players — either past or present — so difficult. There is no apples to apples comparison. Every player, in one way or another, has their own quirk, strength, weakness or character trait that makes them unique in their own way. That’s not stopping us from having a little fun, though.
With that in mind, let’s explore what this year’s lottery class looks like, what their ceilings are as pro players, and how they compare to others that came before them. (Note: the rankings are determined by the updated CBS Sports Big Board.)
- Zion Williamson, Duke
NBA comparison: Hall-of-Famer Charles Barkley
Best case scenario: Williamson’s athletic ability and defensive versatility are part of what make him the No. 1 prospect in this class, head and shoulders above everyone else. He can protect the rim, he can defend on the perimeter and switch on screens, and he can jump higher than anyone. If he puts up offensive numbers like Barkley, he can be one of the league’s elite two-way players.
Why he can reach his ceiling: The only thing missing from his arsenal is a sound jumper. He shot 33.8% from 3-point range last season and 64% from the foul line, which is fine but not precisely indicative of sound mechanics that will eventually lead to him figuring that part of his game out. The best part, though — at least at Duke — is that he can be a massive contributor with such a glaring weakness because he’s so efficient. He led the NCAA in the following categories as a freshman last season: Player Efficiency Rating, effective field goal percentage, and box plus/minus.
Why he won’t reach his ceiling: Even as athletic as Williamson is, there should be a healthy level of skepticism that a player whose best quality is athleticism isn’t enough to be a superstar. Sure, he has the power to get to the rim because of his 285-pound frame, but his collegiate dominance doesn’t necessarily translate immediately against NBA athletes more adequately built to defend him.
2. Ja Morant, Murray State
NBA comparison: More athletic version of Grizzlies PG Mike Conley
Best case scenario: Conley is regarded as one of the best decision-making point guards in the NBA. He’s crafty as a passer, finding angles to deliver passes no one else dare make in much the same way Morant can do. Morant’s vision is eye-popping, and his delivery — two-handed, one-handed, one-eyed, no-look — is as pristine as any player in this draft.
Why he can reach his ceiling: Morant has some of Conley’s best traits as a natural passer and true point guard, but with way more bounce. It’s as if Conley hit a mini-growth spurt and spring-loaded his Jordans. His playmaking ability and preternatural court vision will allow him to make an instant impact.
Why he won’t reach his ceiling: The skinny frame could hold him back, and he’s not likely to ever be the defender Conley is. On offense, Morant’s impact as a scorer could be significantly capped as a finisher because of that. Finishing around the rim, though clearly a strength because of his craftiness and because of the ambidextrous nature of his game, could be hindered if he can’t take the physical contact guaranteed to come in the NBA. If Morant is relegated more to the perimeter to get the chunk of his offense, he may have a hard time becoming an all-NBA scoring threat.
3. RJ Barrett, Duke
Best case scenario: You simply can’t teach Barrett’s scoring instincts. He’s gifted as a scorer and shot-creator, whether that’s driving to the basket, creating space on the perimeter or dishing to teammates. Coupled with his physical profile and competitive nature, Barrett can be a two-way star in the right system and with the right development track. He can be the premium version of Andrew Wiggins and what he is at his best.
Why he can reach his ceiling: One could argue Barrett’s accomplishments to this point are more impressive than any other one-and-done player in the modern era. He’s won at every level in large part because his strong will and work ethic. If he channels that energy into becoming a more efficient scorer (which seems likely in a more spaced out NBA), and if he limits the tunnel vision-like plays that sometimes haunted him at Duke, he can be a perennial All-Star.
Why he won’t reach his ceiling: Instincts cannot be taught, which plays into Barrett’s favor. Conversely, ball-dominance and inefficient scoring isn’t a quick fix. If he flames out in the league it won’t be because of work ethic or lack of trying, but rather the minor holes in his game in college that could be exposed in the NBA. Finding the right system and support from the franchise that drafts him will be key.
4. Darius Garland, Vanderbilt
NBA comparison: Trail Blazers PG Damian Lillard
Best case scenario: Like Lillard, Garland has limitless range, offensive firepower and enough playmaking to operate as a lead guard. As he adjusts to the NBA his offense, his game offensively should mask whatever deficiencies he brings to the table as a defender.
Why he can reach his ceiling: Garland’s pull-up game as a scorer off the dribble, his elite ball-handling skills and ability to keep the ball on a string, and his sheer playmaking ability suggest he can be an elite offensive weapon. He has the full arsenal at his disposal to be, at worst, a secondary playmaker capable of knocking down shots from anywhere.
Why he won’t reach his ceiling: Garland has already had one injury setback that ended his college career after five games. And at 6-2, 174 pounds, there’s at least a mild concern that he may have a difficult time holding up from a durability standpoint, and a major concern he’ll be a defensive liability.
5. Coby White, North Carolina
Best case scenario: White has a score-first background with a healthy dose of college experience running the point. He showed enough as a playmaker and passer to grow into a lead guard, with time, who is capable of maintaining his elite scoring instincts.
Why he can reach his ceiling: Offense, offense, offense. It’s the name of White’s game (and why the Murray comparison is a no-brainer). He can pull up from 30 feet and knock shots down, he can run the break well — 30.7% of his offensive production came in transition at North Carolina — and he’s an improving passer. With his outstanding 6-5 frame and scoring, he’ll find a fit in the NBA because perimeter scoring is at such a premium in the league.
Why he won’t reach his ceiling: Whether White can be an All-Star or just a bit player may center around just how quickly –and how well — he can run an NBA offense. His shooting off the dribble needs improvement, his decision-making some fine tuning. His best fit may be off the ball in the NBA, but a team willing to invest in him as a point guard should be thinking long-term upside.
6. Jarrett Culver, Texas Tech
Best case scenario: Culver has all the physical tools to become an upper echelon 3-and-D wing. His flashes off the ball as a cutter and on the ball as a dribbler are enough to bet on that he could become a secondary initiator.
Why he can reach his ceiling: Culver’s 3-point accuracy as a freshman in small role is reason to bet on his shooting, despite his efficiency dipping in a huge role as a sophomore. While he’s not an elite spot-up shooter, his mechanics are sound, his release smooth and his results good (but not overwhelming). His room to develop as a more reliable offensive weapon can only complement his NBA-ready defense.
Why he won’t reach his ceiling: If he can only be good at everything but not elite at one specific thing, Culver’s upside as a top-10 pick is pretty limited. He shot 30.4% from 3-point range last season and thus far has been only an average playmaker prone to turning the ball over in a bigger role.
7. De’Andre Hunter, Virginia
NBA comparison: Timberwolves SF Robert Covington
Best case scenario: Hunter’s game and productivity at Virginia screams standout role player. His defensive versatility to be able to switch onto guards and make 3-pointers on offense are a perfect fit for a team in need of someone who can make a difference but might not be a difference-maker.
Why he can reach his ceiling: Hunter is perhaps the most ready of any other first-round prospect to make an impact right away. He can shoot the 3-pointer, he can put the ball on the floor, and his built-out, broad shoulders will allow him to be a strong defender early. Becoming an elite 3-and-D wing isn’t at all farfetched, and if he reaches that he’ll be a successful pro for a decade-plus.
Why he won’t reach his ceiling: The right fit for Hunter is critical; if he’s too stretched offensively, his weaknesses will show. He’ll need to be in the right situation and given an opportunity to shine primarily as a defender with no burden — other than as a spot-up 3-point shooter — to operate as a primary playmaker.
8. Cameron Reddish, Duke
NBA comparison:Wizards PF Jeff Green
Best case scenario: Reddish’s upside is all about untapped potential. If he can become as productive as he is talented, he can develop into a stellar two-way player. Like Jeff Green, Reddish is insanely gifted, showing flashes of developing into a star with physical gifts that are among the most impressive in this draft class.
Why he can reach his ceiling: Duke’s system should have fit for Reddish, who was billed as a sharpshooter. But the fit was odd, and he played timid, furthering his case as the draft’s biggest enigma. With the ball in his hands and with more opportunity to show his talents as a playmaker and scorer, Reddish is a buy-low candidate with major upside.
Why he won’t reach his ceiling: Reddish’s statistical profile doesn’t scream future All-Star. Considering his pedigree, it actually screams red flags. He’s not a great finisher, he too often blends in, and he doesn’t have a killer mindset that you’ll notice instantly with his former Duke teammates like Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett. Shedding that stigma and that track record won’t be easy, especially if he goes high to a team that may have more down years than good on the horizon.
9. Sekou Doumbouya, Limoges (France)
Best case scenario: Defensive versatility and Doumbouya’s ability to guard not one, not two, not three but four positions is what piques the interest for teams picking just outside the top five. That type of switchability is also a massive reason why Kyle Milling, his former coach with Limoges CSP, recruited him.
“Does he really have a position?”in a profile of Doumbouya last season. “These days, a lot of guys can play multiple positions. Sekou is very raw, but he can defend 1, 2, 3 and 4, he can play the 3, play the 4. He can do a lot of different things.”
Why he can reach his ceiling: Doumbouya’s raw talent is undeniable and his potential as a two-way player capable of knocking down 3-pointers and defending the post and perimeter is intoxicating. Because of how well he projects physically, he can at worse be a versatile defender and at best reach his long-term ceiling as an off-the-bounce scorer if his handles improve.
Why he won’t reach his ceiling: There are concerns about where Doumbouya is at in his development; he’s yet to show a steady jumper and his feel for the game overall is still just in its infancy. He may not quite be ready to make an impact in the NBA yet. Because the physical tools are there, I’d bet on him putting it together down the road because of the upside. But players that have all the physical tools don’t always figure it out in time. He just turned 18-years-old in late December so he could be a player who doesn’t become a solid starter until the end of his rookie deal. Whoever’s gambling here is gambling on the five-year outlook for him and not the two-year.
10. Jaxson Hayes, Texas
Best case scenario: Like Nerlens Noel out of Kentucky, Hayes is a pogostick leaper who can swat any shot and finish any lob with ferocity. He doesn’t need to be a juggernaut offensive player because what he does, he does at such a high level that the value a team derives from him will be pleased.
Why he can reach his ceiling: Hayes is already pretty close. He needs to add a few things to his game, but his instincts as a defender and his leaping ability are both things he was gifted with. He doesn’t even need the ball to be the best version of himself.
Why he won’t reach his ceiling: Hayes is raw — like, really raw. He grew 10 inches from his freshman to senior year in high school, and didn’t make a start in basketball until his senior season. His lack of feel is obviously a byproduct of his lack of experience, and him reaching his ceiling is predicated on him adding weight, becoming a better rebounder and learning the game at warp speed.
11. Goga Bitadze, Georgia
Best case scenario: Bitadze is what you’d come up with if you went in a lab bent on trying to formulate an ideal modern day big man with strengths primarily as an offensive assassin. He may never be the defensive stopper Marc Gasol has been during his career, but he’s a good shot blocker and makes up for any defensive limitations with a versatile offensive game.
Why he can reach his ceiling: Bitadze’s scoring is great, but it’s the little things — like his ball-handling, his cutting, his rebounding — that really elevate his potential. He’s way more than a one-trick pony on offense, and his steady improvement defensively over the last year is a testament to his vast improvement.
Why he won’t reach his ceiling: There is slow … and then there is Goga Bitadze. He makes people who are not fast look really fast. Defending on the perimeter is going to be a real challenge for him in the NBA. Being regularly targeted in pick-and-rolls is something he’ll have to be able to defend at least at an average level to avoid being run off the court and out of the NBA.
12. Nassir Little, North Carolina
Best case scenario: Before he arrived at UNC, Little was a McDonald’s All-American Game MVP, a projected top-5 pick, and a 3-and-D prospect for the NBA. Then with the Tar Heels, he shot 26.9% from 3-point range and was all over the place defensively (not the good all over the place). That he’s here speaks to his potential to fulfill that projection.
Why he can reach his ceiling: Little’s production was stifled in a deep forward rotation at UNC in which he played a bit role. But the flashes … oh, the flashes. They are there. And they are magnificent. His athletic pop, 7-1 wingspan and ball-handling skills are all too good to not find a niche with an NBA team.
Why he won’t reach his ceiling: Scoring for Little could be a problem in the NBA. He’s thus far a below average scorer in spot-up situations and peeling off screens, minimizing chances of him becoming an archetypal defensive wing with sharpshooting. To this point his playmaking and offensive upside is mostly based on potential and what he could theoretically be.
13. Brandon Clarke, Gonzaga
Best case scenario: Clarke can be an extravagant Jordan Bell. He does everything Bell does — blocking shots, finishing lobs, generally being an athletic wonder — but better.
Why he can reach his ceiling: Clarke’s efficiency is otherworldly: he blocked as many shots on defense as he missed on offense last season at Gonzaga while leading Division I in field-goal percentage. He’s a low usage, high efficiency player with athletic leaping abilities.
Why he won’t reach his ceiling: A lot can be made — sometimes to the point of being overblown — about combine measurements. But Clarke’s 6-8 wingspan, which puts him in the same category as some shooting guards and small forwards, is at least something to file away if he struggles. NBA length may not matter since most of his makes are lob finishes or dunks out of the post, but longer and more athletic bigs could give him fits.
14. Cameron Johnson, North Carolina
NBA comparison: A more athletic version of Pacers SF Doug McDermott
Best case scenario: From shot mechanics to results, Johnson is inarguably the best pure shooter in this draft class — exactly what McDermott was drafted on. In five collegiate seasons, Johnson shot 40.5% from 3-point range. In seven NBA seasons, McDermott has shot …. 40.4%. Johnson moves a bit better laterally and has an inch on McDermott, so there’s a chance he’ll be less of a defensive albatross than his comparison.
Why he can reach his ceiling: Johnson is in the 97th percentile as a spot-up shooter, and the 97th percentile as a shooter off screens … he can shoot the ball quite well. But he can also do the less-heralded chores needed to be a quality role player, like cutting without the ball, sliding into open space, and being a willing passer by playing well within the system.
Why he won’t reach his ceiling: I’m higher on Johnson than most because I believe what he does well will mask any deficiencies. But if he doesn’t become a great NBA role player, it could come down to durability. He’s often injured, and has missed all or part of a number of games throughout his career. He also had a surgery in 2018 to repair a torn labrum and a bone impingement in his left hip. Because he’s 6-9 and just over 205 pounds, flying around screens and getting roughed up could hinder him from being one of the draft’s big steals.