By: Adam Rich
To the casual fan, the NBA has become too predictable. Seems inevitable when the same two teams meet in the finals for four consecutive years. But despite this stigma, the NBA has had an incredible past few years. Between budding young stars, Lebron James’ individual dominance, and the high scoring affairs that have come hand-in-hand with the pace and space era, the league has broadened its footprint overseas and domestically, as evidenced by the expanding revenue the league collects. However, the excitement that is the regular season pales in comparison to the NBA’s silly season, as Doc Rivers once dubbed it: the period between the conclusion of the finals and the start of training camp in the fall. But before the summer of The Decision Part III kicks into hyperspeed, teams must look to the future (and/or the present) in Brooklyn this year, at the 2018 NBA Draft. To prep followers for the draft, several draft-based questions are poised and answered below, in addition to a top-sixty big board and links to recent WCBN mock drafts.
Before jumping all the way in, I'll begin with a disclaimer on the incoming rookies: while some of these prospects won't pan out, it is important before analyzing them to recognize how immensely talented they all are. However, as noted, the unfortunate reality is that not all draft picks provide the expected value of their draft slot. Often, prospects are failed by their environment and those around them. Subsequently, for the majority of these young men, their careers will be dependent on the instruction they receive, the roles they are thrust into, and the organizations they play for. And with that, let's get underway with the questions
Personally, this one is a no-brainer. Luka Doncic is the top prospect in this draft by a landslide. At 6’8 and 220 pounds, Doncic has the size of a wing paired with the ball handling, shooting, passing, and decision-making skills of a guard. On top of the guard skills he possesses, which teams crave in the modern NBA, Doncic has an excellent basketball IQ, and has been playing professionally in Spain since the age of 16 for Real Madrid. This year, at age 19, all he has done is win Euroleague MVP, lead Real Madrid to the Euroleague title, and is in the process of commanding his squad en route to the Spanish league title. Concerns exist regarding his athleticism, individual defense, and shooting form, but in my opinion these are overblown. While his shooting form does leave a little to be desired, Doncic displays excellent touch around the rim, and will be capable of reworking his shot under the tutelage of NBA coaching.
Athletically, Doncic still has baby fat to shed, and compensates for his relative lack of athleticism with excellent instincts and usage of angles on both ends of the floor. Defensively, this high IQ works in his favor as well, as he proved mostly capable of holding his own against the best competition in Europe. And while it is easy to discount the overseas competition Doncic faced night in and night out, it still puts collegiate talent to shame, as most in Europe were formerly high level division one basketball players, many of whom had stints in the NBA. If the club season wasn’t enough to convince you, Doncic led Slovenia to the Eurobasket Championship last summer. On his way to the championship, Doncic squared off against proven NBA players Evan Fournier (Magic, France) and Ricky Rubio (Jazz, Spain), while also sharing a court with Kristaps Porzingis (Knicks, Latvia) from whom he drew high praise. Based on his success and skill level, Doncic is arguably the most accomplished prospect since Anthony Davis in 2012, and is in my opinion the clear cut top prospect in this year’s draft.
Full Doncic Scouting Report: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vUF-kH7CvWQ
Despite my adoration for the Slovenian star, NBA teams seem to disagree. In all likelihood, the Phoenix Suns will select Arizona’s Deandre Ayton first overall. Why? Well Ayton had a monster year at Arizona, averaging 20 points and ten rebounds per game amidst the chaos of the FBI’s pay-for-play investigation.
A physical freak at 7’1, 260 pounds, Ayton checks the majority the boxes of modern NBA center. An agile and fluid athlete, polished in the post, and with terminator-like size, all Ayton lacks are instincts on the defensive end, but at merely 19 years old the Suns are betting he will learn quickly and alongside Devin Booker, become as Ayton declared following his Suns workout, “the next Kobe and Shaq.” Additionally, the Suns have a glaring roster hole at center they’d like to fill with youth rather than the myriad of older options in free agency.
While Ayton’s tools and upside scream star, the NBA is moving rapidly away from big men, and Ayton (through no fault of his own) was born ten years too late. In the switch-happy postseason, centers, aside from Anthony Davis, played around twenty minutes per game. Assuming this trend continues and intensifies in an exponential manner as it has in recent years, teams should stop fawning over big men and shift their focus and draft board rankings towards strong-shooting and versatile wings and guards. The best example in the league is the Houston Rockets, who have been at the forefront of analytical thinking behind general manager Daryl Morey. The Rockets stocked their roster with combo guards and versatile wings, opting to maximize their three point attempts and all but cut out mid range shots from their diets (save for mid-range maestro Chris Paul). While the Warriors swept the Cavs, the Rockets were a Chris Paul hamstring injury and/or a few made three pointers in game seven away from reaching The Finals. And while their roster does boast likely max-player Clint Capela, an athletic and smart center who has added incredible amounts of skill to his game, he found himself on the bench behind 6’8 shooting wings for key stretches against the Warriors.
Despite the increasing analytics presence, many teams still have ‘old-timers’ running the show who appear resistant to the simple math that shooting 35 percent from three is more valuable than shooting as high as 50 percent from inside the arc based on recent mock drafts. While the top bigs do have the capability and potential to become plus shooters from long range, they will all likely struggle some playing perimeter defense and preventing other teams from launching those valuable threes. In my opinion, non-Doncic teams would be better served trading down into the draft to select equally high-upside players such as Kevin Knox (ideal stretch four) and Lonnie Walker (freakishly athletic combo guard with a high degree of off-guard skills) in addition to nabbing future picks. But despite the aforementioned logic, Ayton to the Suns is all but a lock, as they are the only team he has worked out for and practically pre-anointed himself the top pick following his pre-draft workout.
Here, I opted to check out the top guys I considered to be the most boom or bust.
Jaren Jackson Jr/Mo Bamba/Marvin Bagley
Since these are the names you have likely heard, I’ll keep things relatively brief. All three, like Ayton, are freaks of nature on the basketball court. Uber athletic with decent to above-average shooting strokes and oozing with upside, all three will likely go in the top five. Jackson and Bamba are the rawest of the three, with no true signature skill being possessed to ease their transition to the league. For Bagley, he can come in instantly and be a force on the offensive glass, as he possesses the best second jump of any prospect in recent memory. Jackson and Bamba’s learning curves will be steep, but both have the physical tools and intelligence to succeed at the next level, along with developing shots and toughness. Of the three, I have Bagley ranked the highest on my board. While teams may worry about him being a tweener on defense, Bagley has the highest motor of the three, although he tended to relax on defense sometimes. At the next level, where he will likely carry less of a load on offense and not have to play every minute, As a result, Bagley will have more energy to expend on defense, optimally at the center position. There, he will flash his energy and athleticism, assuming he rapidly improves his instincts under NBA coaching. Keep in mind, teams should be incredibly patient with these three, as they are 18, 20, and 19 respectively.
I’ll begin by saying Kevin Knox did not have a very good year at Kentucky. However, at 18 years old, standing 6’9 with a 7-foot wingspan, Kevin Knox could became a steal of the late lottery if he lands in the right situation. Albeit only a 34% shooter from deep in college, Knox was Kentucky’s top shooter from long range and their go-to scorer late in game (see: dropping 34 points in Morgantown of all places). On a team lacking guard and wing depth, Knox was forced into playing strictly the 3, a spot at which he struggled as a result of his below average foot speed and first step for the position. To make matters worse, Knox could not easily go to work inside and utilize his old school game because Kentucky clogged the lane with two non-shooting seven-footers. While the year was up-and-down for Knox, he did develop some guard skills such as running around screens and attacking off the catch, which will prove valuable at the next level where his new team will likely slot him at the 4. Knox has been mocked to New York, and would be an excellent long term fit beside Kristaps Porzingis as the prototypical stretch four.
‘The young-bull,’ like Knox, also had an up-and-down year as the lead guard for Avery Johnson’s Alabama Crimson Tide. Surrounded by poor shooters and operating on a cramped court, Sexton often found himself playing in close quarters, unable to get to the rim despite blowing by his primary defender. At the next level, and assuming he finds himself in strong situation, sexton won’t run into help defenders as frequently, and will be able to utilize his enormous bag of tricks around the rim. Sexton is also a decent passer, but his ceiling is dependent on his ability to improve shooting the basketball. By upping his percentages from long range and honing his off-the dribble pull-up moves, Sexton will prevent defenders from sagging off and daring him to shoot, which will open up a world off possibilities for him to attack downhill. Despite the tools he already possesses, the best reasons to bet on Sexton are his world-class work ethic and his passion for the game. That, and remember that time he nearly beat Minnesota 5-on-3.
I considered France’s Elie Okobo or Bosnia’s Dzanan Musa, but my choice for the best, unheralded player is Boston College’s Jerome Robinson. A pure combo guard, the 6’5 Robinson excels at getting buckets, and put up a whopping thirty points against Virginia’s top ranked defense. While defense is a bit of a concern for teams selecting Robinson, he was invited to the draft’s green room, a sign he will go at around the 20th pick or earlier. Whoever gets Robinson will acquire a plug-and-play scorer who has a nifty arsenal of scoring moves and a 41 percent shot from deep.
Why yes, Grayson Allen (Ted Cruz? If you don’t know, google the two of them) did finally graduate from Duke and could go anywhere from around 25-40 in this years draft. While Allen has a poor reputation among casual and Carolina fans for his sophomore and junior year antics, he is an excellent player and leader. In fact, he is actually considered by Coach K and teammates as very humble and generally reserved. Allen wowed teams in interviews with his poise and intelligence, while quieting concerns regarding his demeanor. In terms of playing ability, I think Grayson Allen will be a late round steal. While it makes sense that a 19 year old is further from their ceiling that a 22 year old, a 22 year old with Allen’s athletic, shooting, and leadership abilities has the capability to enter the league, contribute immediately, and in my opinion become a league average starter at the two guard position.
Well, he cooled off in the second half of the season, but much of that can be attributed to the ineptitude of his teammates. Luckily for Young, the surrounding talent will be more serviceable at the next level, and should make him shine even more. A pick-and-roll maestro, Young mixes every dribble move in the book with crafty drives and an incredible finishing array even without considering his lack of size at the NBA level. From deep, Young shoots and frequently makes rainbow threes reminiscent of Steph Curry’s, which has led to more frequent comparisons between the two. Young’s ceiling in the league will depend on his improvement on defense, where at times he showed no effort this season. Young, however, is an incredibly smart player, exhibited by his fast-break reads and half-court dimes, and should be able to translate his high iQ to the defensive end of the floor to compensate for his limitations in stature.
Porter, who spent almost his entire season with an injured back barely played for Missouri this year. However, Porter spent the most time of any prospects the past few summers on the AAU circuit and at respective top prospect camps. In his brief time playing for Missouri, Porter looked out of rhythm and stiff, however this was to be expected coming off the injury and rushing the rehab process to help his team in March. In evaluating Porter, teams will have to judge his performances (which were excellent) against the top high school competition in addition to his medical reports, which he and his agent have gladly given out to prove his health. Porter could go anywhere from 2nd to 7th, and whoever rolls the dice on the dynamic combo forward will be betting on his back not deterring his career.
The first of two high schoolers to be discussed, Simmons was a consensus top-ten recruit for the high school class of 2019. So why isn’t he getting any high level looks? Well, for starters, next year’s likely draft crop is much worse than this years. Secondly, Simmons has not faced the competition others in the draft class have, and has as a result not had equal opportunity to prove himself. A talented scorer, scouts will have to determine how much his scoring will translate to the next level. Additionally, Simmons will have a steep learning curve, as despite being older than several college and international prospects, he is very raw both athletically and skill-wise. To excel at the next level, and I believe he can, Simmons will need a patient situation. Assuming they don’t trade down to select Trae Young, Simmons would be an excellent fit for the Hawks at 30.
The second ‘high-schooler’ technically, Robinson dropped out of Western Kentucky after about a day-and-a-half without announcing the reasoning behind his decision. At 7-feet tall, Robinson has immense potential as a rim-running, shot-blocking big. In workouts, he also displayed a developed shooting touch, which would only add to his skillset. Executives and scouts will evaluate Robinson similar to the ways they analyze Michael Porter. However, Porter was a more highly touted recruit out of high school and possesses skills more desirable in the modern NBA. Mitchell could be an incredible steal in the late-first round, however between his lack of high level experience and the league shying away from big-men, Robinson is the largest wildcard in this draft.
Whether Lebron James stays or goes, Cleveland should take either Trae Young or Michael Porter Jr., whichever is left on the board. Odds are one of them is, however assuming they go beforehand to the Magic and Bulls respectively, I think Cleveland should take Collin Sexton, the player left on the board with the greatest star potential who also fills a need for the team with or without Lebron in town.