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What makes an NBA Draft prospect high ceiling or high floor?

It’s clear we need to understand what this means and doesn’t mean

SPORTS-BKC-OVERTIMEELITE-RECRUITS-FL Michael Laughlin/South Florida Sun Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Recently I wrote an article on Taylor Hendricks and I tweeted the article asking if the Utah Jazz would make a pick at #9 that was more of a “high floor” pick or a “high ceiling” pick and it got some interaction. During that discussion I saw some things that made me think that some people might not know what that means, maybe I don’t know what that even means. It’s bugged me for a few days, and I can’t stop thinking about it so I wrote it down. Here you go. I even decided to go through the standard lottery picks and rate them as high floor or high ceiling, or maybe even both.

What is a “high floor” player?

I think there’s two elements to consider with this. Basically, a player with a high floor is a player that you know exactly what you’re going to get from them, but because of some limitations either with skillset or a physical limitation, you’re not expecting them to really improve beyond what you’re getting.

A perfect example of a high floor player would be Rudy Gobert. You know exactly what you’re getting with Rudy Gobert with his cornerstone defensive ability combined with his screening and rolling to the rim on offense. But because Rudy Gobert is limited offensively, it puts a ceiling on him ever being more than what he is. For example, you can’t throw the ball to Gobert in the post and score on a mismatch, you can’t pass the ball to Gobert in the corner to get a three, nor can you give the ball to Rudy at the top of the key and he can beat his man to the basket and score. This is an example of a skill set limitation that puts a ceiling on how much a player can be.

The other thing to consider is size. Basically, is a player being too small going to limit them on what they can be? I remember liking Davion Mitchell before he came into the league because of his defensive ability. But because he’s 6’, it puts a limit on what he can become, especially since he’s also not a player with an elite offensive skill set. Those two things combined make him a high floor player, but with a limited ceiling. It’s not a bad thing, you just know exactly what you’re getting, and sometimes that’s the best thing when you’re filling your roster around your stars. Role players like Davion Mitchell are invaluable when you know exactly what they’re going to bring.

The other thing to consider with high floor players is if they are typically an on-ball or off-ball player. A lot of players become a high-floor player when they are strictly playing off the ball. If you’re entire offensive game is predicated on someone throwing you a lob at the rim or passing to you in the corner for a three, that typically makes you a high floor/limited ceiling player. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be dominant in that role, and there are players like Gobert who are defensive superstars on one end then limited on the offensive side of the ball, but there is a limit to what you can be if everything is predicated on another player.

2023 NBA Playoffs - Minnesota Timberwolves v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

What is a “high ceiling” player?

A high ceiling player is someone who you can see a pathway to them developing beyond what they currently are. This is almost always a player with impressive physical and athletic ability that, if their skillset improves, could become a much better player.

A perfect example of a player in the draft who was a high ceiling player that developed into something much more was Kawhi Leonard. In college Leonard was physically impressive. With his physical prowess, his long arms, size, and enormous hands, you could see that if he could just improve his shooting, he could become something incredible. In college, Leonard played two seasons. He shot 20% from three and 53% from the field his freshman season, then 29% from three and 47% from the field his sophomore year. It was far from a sure thing that Leonard’s scoring skillset could catch up to what he was physically, and on the defensive end. What made him a high ceiling player? If his skill set could just match the impressive physical talent, he could become something more. And oh man did he ever.

Like I mentioned before, the other thing that makes a player high ceiling is if they are, or could become, an on-ball player. If a player can impose his will on the offensive end with the ball in his hands, that can skyrocket their ceiling. Look at all the biggest stars of the league, the ones that are in the MVP conversation, are any of them mostly off ball players on offense?

So, when you look at a player in the draft, if you want to describe them as either high ceiling or high floor, it can often be as simple as are they an off-ball or on-ball player. Then you have to ask do they have physical measurements and talent that could dominate if their skill set reaches elite levels.

2023 NBA Playoffs - LA Clippers v Phoenix Suns Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

Just for fun, I thought I’d do a quick list of the players I consider the top 15 in this draft and if they could be considered high floor/high ceiling, and I’ll give variations. For example: low floor, medium floor, high floor and low ceiling, medium ceiling, high ceiling.

  1. Victor Wembanyama - High floor, high ceiling. His ceiling is outer space level and his defense will be DPOY level every season.
  2. Scoot Henderson - High floor, high ceiling. He will be awesome the question is just how awesome because he has a real shot at being one of the best guards in the league.
  3. Brandon Miller - High floor, high ceiling. There’s a world where his shooting isn’t as good as expected like when he disappeared in the NCAA tournament, but he’s got such good size that it makes it hard not to see him succeed regardless.
  4. Amen Thompson - Low floor with an insane ceiling. His physical gifts, and I mean GIFTS, along with his vision makes him very tantalizing. But will he be able to shoot the ball?
  5. Cam Whitmore - Low/medium floor, high ceiling. Great physical tools but is he just small enough to make you wonder if he can dominate the game? Also, can he pass or does he not have the basketball IQ and vision to become a playmaker? He plays so low to the ground I wonder if he sometimes isn’t able to see the floor as well. Especially since it’s clear that vision is something he’ll have to develop.... and is that even something you can develop? It’ll be fascinating to watch what Whitmore becomes.
  6. Ausar Thompson - low floor with a huge ceiling. Just like his brother, can he become a better shooter? If so, things get crazy.
  7. Jarace Walker - Medium floor, medium/high ceiling. Walker has a chance to be a defensive monster and has shown enough ability to pass that he could possibly fit the mold of a Draymond Green who sets up other shooters. Also, he still has something to prove with his outside shooting.
  8. Taylor Hendricks - Really high Floor, low/medium ceiling - Hendricks was the reason for this article. He’s going to defend at a high level, he’s also going to hit threes at a great rate. He’s even shown flashes of shot creation in the post. That said, his finishing numbers aren’t great and he doesn’t appear to have an elite handle or feel as a playmaker. When he plays, he’ll be perfect playing off of another star. You know exactly what you’ll get, but if you expect him to be more, you might be disappointed.
  9. Anthony Black - Medium floor, high ceiling - Black’s size and defensive ability, combined with his passing, make him an intriguing prospect. It all comes down to his shooting. If that comes around, he becomes something special.
  10. Cason Wallace - High floor, medium ceiling- Wallace is going to defend and he can shoot the ball. The only issue is his size. There’s only so much he can do on the next level when he’s 6’4” but there’s a world he becomes a high impact player like Jrue Holiday.
  11. Kobe Bufkin - Medium/high floor, medium ceiling - Bufkin finished at an incredible rate at Michigan, and he’s shown other flashes that suggest he has a really high ceiling. Can he improve on what he was? He’s just big enough to suggest he can, but he’s also not quite big enough to completely dominate in a playoff setting offensively. But because he’s a solid defender, he also comes with a medium/high floor.
  12. Gradey Dick - High floor, low ceiling - Dick will shoot the ball well, but he’ll struggle to defend. He shows an ability to pass the ball within an offense but when you draft Gradey Dick you know exactly what you’re getting.
  13. Bilal Coulibaly - low/medium floor, highhhhhh ceiling - Coulibaly is improving at a rapid rate and when you consider his physical gifts such as his height and length, combined with his impressive first step and explosion, he’s the definition of a high ceiling player. If his shooting, handle and passing can all improve to match what he brings with his physical talent, you have a special player on your hands. But he also comes with a low floor. What if he doesn’t develop more? The one thing he has on his side is he brings impressive defense.
  14. Jalen Hood-Schifino - Low/medium floor, medium ceiling. JHS is very likely going to be a very good, starting NBA guard. He has nice positional size at 6’6” and already plays with a pro style in the pick and roll with his passing and an an impressive mid range jumper. He also cares on defense and is crafty with his size. There’s just two things limiting him and it’s his consistency shooting the three and overall explosiveness.
  15. Dereck Lively - High floor, low/medium ceiling. Lively will most likely be a starting center for whoever drafts him. He’ll rebound and defend at a high level with his size and athleticism. It will be tough for him to do a lot more since he likely won’t have the ball in his hands a lot, which limits what he can do long term. That said, he has shown an ability to shoot the three which earns him a medium ceiling.