NBA Draft Preview Part 2– My Top-20

Posted: 06/21/2018 by levcohen in Basketball, Draft

Here is my top-20 list of draft prospects heading into the draft tonight, sorted into tiers:

— Tier 1 —
1. Luka Doncic: A few months ago, I thought of Doncic and DeAndre Ayton as 1a and 1b. But as I’ve thought about it more — and as I’ve begun to watch more of Doncic’s Europe footage — I’ve become convinced that Luka is a cut above. He’s by no means a sure thing, as his subpar three point percentage and lack of elite athleticism are certainly concerns. But keep in mind that he just won EuroLeague MVP at 19-years-old and that he’s produced at an unheard of level in a league that normally shuns young players. I also know that a lot of his skills are going to translate, including his court vision, basketball IQ, pick-and-roll savvy, and his off-the-dribble creation. All of that is enough to convince me that Doncic is easily the best prospect in the draft.

— Tier 2 —
2. DeAndre Ayton: Everything I said about Ayton here remains true. I’m awed by his physical ability and potential. He’s big and strong, but he’s also nimble and fleet. And he’s also a solid (if not knockdown) shooter, one who can hurt you from midrange and sometimes from three. Given all of that and his unstoppable finishing at the rim, it seems likely that Ayton will be an offensive superstar. But his lack of defensive awareness, low (2.3 per 40 minutes) block rate, and questionable decision-making are all worrying. He has true superstar potential, but also maybe a little higher bust potential than we’d like to admit.

3. Jaren Jackson Jr.: The bad news is that Jackson played just 21.8 minutes per game for Michigan State last year and often disappeared even when he was on the court. The good news is that he was playing in circumstances — next to both a plodding center and another lottery prospect (Miles Bridges) who’s also probably best suited as a power forward — that won’t be replicated in the NBA. Jackson’s never going to be an offensive superstar, but his college production and measurables (6’11 with a 7’5 wingspan) suggest that he’s sure to be an excellent supporting player. He averaged 5.5 blocks per 40 minutes and shot 60% from two point range and 40% from three at Michigan State. He profiles as an excellent rim protector who can also switch onto smaller players, which is a very handy skillset indeed. He has deep three point range and DPOY potential, which is about all you can ask for. And he’d fit basically anywhere.

4. Trae Young: Look, I know Young is small, and I know he’s always going to be a defensive liability. But guess what? Most of the best point guards in the NBA are defensive liabilities for two reasons: they’re small, and they carry a huge amount of the offensive load and thus can’t be asked to expend as much energy on defense. The question, then, becomes: can Young become an offensive superstar? And I think the answer is yes. We all saw how good he could be early on in his lone season at Oklahoma. Then, defenses realized that he was the only true threat on a team without much other scoring talent, and his production suffered. Given more space at the next level, I think Young could again begin looking like the guy who took the NCAA by storm. Given the degree of difficulty on most of his threes, the fact that he shot 36% from beyond the arc is actually quite impressive. He was far better than that on catch-and-shoot threes and 86% from the line, and I think it’s pretty clear that he’s a great shooter. He’s also a fantastic passer with a great basketball IQ, at least offensively. He knows how to run an offense, and his shooting also makes him a dangerous off-ball threat. I wouldn’t sleep on Trae Young.

— Tier 3 —
5. Wendell Carter Jr.: Carter is just rock solid on both ends. He’s a smart player who’s sure to be a great complementary player. He’s a better shooter and a better shot-blocker than his Duke teammate Marvin Bagley, who got almost all the attention last season but arguably has a game that’s outdated in the NBA. No, he’s not as talented as Bagley, but I think he’s more likely to help a team win than his flasher Duke teammate is. He’s also a great rebounder and provides the passing and floor-spacing to more than make up for his relative lack of athleticism.

6. Mikal Bridges: Bridges has very little superstar potential, but he’s very likely to become a good 3-and-D role player. And in today’s NBA, that’s very valuable. At 6’7″ with a 7’2″ wingspan, he has ideal length for a small forward, and he made it count in his final season in college, when he was the best player (or at least the best pro prospect) on Villanova’s dominant team. He made steady progress throughout his college career, going from a guy who looked clueless on both ends to a player who was Villanova’s defensive stopper and also shot 44% from three. Bridges knows who he is: 31% of his shots came from spot-up opportunities, and he averaged 1.34 points per shot on those shots. That’s elite. He’s already nearly 22-years-old and is unlikely to ever be a primary creator, but he has a high floor as both a strong shooter and a good wing defender.

7. Marvin Bagley III: Bagley is going to produce big-time immediately. He’s probably the most likely Rookie of the Year winner simply because he can probably put up 20 points and 10 rebounds per game right off the bat. He’s a great athlete, a tremendous finisher, and a hard worker. But he has serious issues, and I’m not sure how easy they’ll be to correct. How does he fit in defensively? He’s neither good enough to be a rim protector (just one block per 40 minutes, thanks in part to a lackluster 7’0″ wingspan) nor quick enough laterally to guard wings. His defensive struggles were likely one of the factors that led Coach K. to switch to a zone. I’m also not convinced that he’ll be a good shooter at the next level, as he shot just 63% from the line. All of that means you have a player who looks the part but may not help a team win.

8. Kevin Knox: I know Knox didn’t always produce at Kentucky, but every time I watched the Wildcats play, I came away being impressed by Knox. First, the negatives: Knox made no defensive impact at Kentucky, he’s not a true playmaker, and he’s kind of a tweener (not quick enough to guard wings, not strong enough to guard bigs). With all of that said, he’s very young, has a beautiful stroke, and has a huge amount of offensive upside. He’s not as good right now as most of the other guys I have ranked around here, so he’s certainly a risk, but Knox has all the tools to become an impact player.

9. Mohamed Bamba: Bamba has tantalizing upside, thanks most obviously to the record-breaking 7’10” wingspan that makes him nearly impossible to score over when his positioning is good. Indeed, he averaged 4.8 blocks per 40 minutes at Texas and has the potential to be a Rudy Gobert-level rim protector on defense. But for Bamba to live up to his billing as a near-consensus top-five prospect, he’s also going to have to improve a ton on offense. You wouldn’t know it from his pre-draft workouts or the way people have been talking about him, but Bamba shot just 28% from three and 68% from the line in college. He also disappeared far too often for a guy with his physical tools and has an injury history (albeit not a particularly expansive one). Of course some team will fall in love with his physical tools, and I think his defensive ability along with his finishing at the rim and overall offensive potential makes him a worthy top-10 pick. But Bamba is far from a sure thing.

10. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: SGA was not the most highly-rated recruit on Kentucky’s team last year. He also wasn’t second, third, fourth, or fifth. He was a (gasp) four-star recruit, which would seem pretty good on both college teams but downright pitiful on John Calipari’s Wildcats. That didn’t stop him from becoming Kentucky’s bonafide leader down the stretch. Down the stretch (last 10 games), he averaged 19 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 6.7 assists for the Wildcats, which is pretty good for a guy who spent almost the entire first half of the season coming off the bench. There are a few things I really love about him. He’s a really smooth ball-handler who always seems to make the right play when he has the ball in his hands. He has a super high basketball IQ. He got to the line seemingly at will in college, and hit free throws at a strong rate (82%) when he got there. And at 6’6″ with a 6’11” wingspan, he has great size for a point guard, which makes him a pest on defense and a threat to constantly clog passing lanes. If you’re looking for a volume scorer at point guard, SGA isn’t your guy, at least not yet. While he shot 40% from three, that came on just 1.5 attempts per contest from beyond the arc. But I love his competitiveness and drive and think he’s a great creator out of the pick-and-roll.

11. Michael Porter Jr.: Were it not for his back injury, MPJ would probably be higher on my board. But guess what? Back injuries are scary, and I’m not at all convinced that he’s going to be able to instantly move past his and have a long, healthy NBA career. At the very least, Porter’s health is concerning. At most, it’s disqualifying, which I bet is the case for some NBA teams. If anything, I was tempted to move Porter further down the list. But the next tier of prospects clearly don’t have the potential Porter has to be a go-to scorer down the road. When he’s healthy, Porter’s a great scorer, with the explosiveness to dunk over people and the ability to drain threes off the dribble. But along with his health, Porter’s defense is also concerning. In the few games he played for Missouri, he looked disinterested on the defensive end and often lost his man. He’s a very confident guy, but hopefully he recognizes how far he needs to come on the defensive end.

— Tier 4 —
12. Miles Bridges: I’m relatively low on Michigan State’s Bridges, simply because I think he’s a tweener who profiles as a role-player who just doesn’t fit as seamlessly as Villanova’s Bridges. There’s something to be said for drafting a wing who can finish at the rim and shoot from beyond the arc, as Bridges can. But at 6’6″ with a 6’9″ wingspan and without much lateral quickness, how does Miles Bridges fit in defensively? As I’ve seen it described before, he has the length of a wing but the skill set and athleticism of a big. That can be a good thing, too, as it may mean that Bridges has the versatility to guard both types of players. But I fear it could mean he can guard neither. He’s also not a great creator off the dribble. The single stat that concerns me most? His free throw rate. He took just 23.8 free throws per 100 field goals, an incredibly low number for a top college prospect. That may not seem too concerning by itself, but it reinforces my belief that Bridges isn’t quite explosive enough to create for himself off the dribble, and he doesn’t create well enough for others to make up for it. That likely means he’ll be a useful role-player, and perhaps even a starter, but not more than that.

13. Robert Williams: We’ve seen Robert Williams before. To me, he’s the easiest player in the draft to compare to current NBA players. He’s a physically imposing, rim-running center who gobbles down rebounds and is an elite finisher of lobs and putbacks. Sound familiar? I’m thinking of DeAndre Jordan and of Clint Capela. Give him the ball in transition and on cuts, and let him find it after missed shots. Other than that, he doesn’t have much offensively utility. He averaged just 2.2 assists per 40 minutes this season and shot an abysmal 47% from the line. He has no potential as a three point shooter (well, I guess everyone has some potential to learn how to shoot, but he’s at the bottom end of that range). Defensively, I think he has the potential to be not just a great rim protector (7’4″ wingspan, 3.9 blocks per 40 minutes in college) but also a good (for a big) switcher onto guards thanks to his athleticism and length. Williams is a projectable big man without any real offensive upside, so this feels like the perfect place to put him.

14. Zhaire Smith: Is the shot real? Smith shot 45% from three in his single year in college, but on just 1.1 attempts. He also shot just 72% from the line, indicating that he’s more likely to be a low-mid-30s three point shooter than a high-30s one. And if that’s the case, it’s unclear exactly how he’ll fit in. In college, the 6’5″ Smith primarily played power forward for Texas. That’s surely not going to be the case in the NBA (he’ll be a wing), and I’ve reflected that in ranking Smith 14th. Smith is obviously extraordinarily athletic, as evidenced by gravity-defying dunks like this one. He’s a great finisher at the rim, and a great all-around defender. If I were more confident in his shot, I’d move him into the top-10. But I do still worry about where he’ll fit offensively.

— Tier 5 —
15. Keita Bates-Diop: KBD is another long wing (7’2″ wingspan) who’s as likely as anyone in this draft to be a lockdown defender. That’s why I have him ranked higher than most. He’s lower than Mikal Bridges, though, because his shot is significantly shakier and it remains to be seen how he’ll fit in an offense in which he’s not the focal point (as he was at Ohio State). Still, KBD was extremely impressive for a surprisingly good OSU team last year and did nothing but help his draft stock.

16. Lonnie Walker IV: Walker is a long, supremely athletic guard with the potential to be a go-to scorer. His ceiling is very high for a guy who’s likely to go in the middle of the first round. But he’s likely to be available at the end of the lottery for a reason: he didn’t impress at all at Miami and is a very raw player who’ll probably never figure things out. I hate to put it that way, but it’s a fact. I think Walker could definitely have used another year in college. If I were a team picking in the middle of the first round, though, I’d still be happy to draft Walker simply because he does have the tools to be an elite two-way player.

17. Kevin Huerter: The appeal to Huerter is blatantly obvious: he’s a knockdown shooter. He shot 42% last season at Maryland, and many of those shots came from way beyond the arc and/or were off-balance efforts. He’s also a 6’7″ guard who has good instincts, so I think he has hidden defensive potential too. For now, though, he’s pretty much a one-trick pony. It just so happens that said trick is a rather important skill to have in basketball.

18. Donte DiVincenzo: DiVincenzo’s draft stock has risen meteorically over the last three months, starting with his exceptional all-around NCAA Tournament performance (and especially in the Championship Game against Michigan, when he scored 31 points on 15 shots) and continuing with his combine performance and apparently great workouts in front of teams. I don’t think he’ll be a deadeye shooter (he shot 40% from three but just 71% from the line this season), and his lack of size will keep him from being super versatile defensively, but he’s one of the most athletic players in the draft and has proven that he can create for himself and his teammates. He always rose to the occasion at the biggest moments in college, and I see no reason to believe he won’t become a solid NBA role player with the intense personality and competitiveness to be a great glue guy too.

19. Jacob Evans III: Another 3-and-D player. Evans was one of the keys to Mick Cronin’s best Cincinnati teams. He has the defensive versatility and toughness to be a true Cronin player, and he projects as a reliable mid-30s shooter from beyond in the NBA. Like Miles Bridges, he struggled to get to the line in college, and he shouldn’t be expected to create much in the NBA. But when you’re picking in the back half of the first round, you should be thrilled to get a guy like Evans.

20. Collin Sexton: As you can see, I’m lower on Sexton than most, simply because to me he just looks like another point guard who lacks size (6’1″) and is a shaky long-range shooter. Now, like a lot of those point guards, he has the competitiveness, length, and athleticism to largely make up for those major deficiencies. Sexton is a fearless player and was the linchpin (scoring 40 points) of the most exceptional performance of the year in college basketball, which was Alabama’s near-comeback against Minnesota despite playing 3-on-5 for 10 minutes. He’s definitely going to be a great teammate and has a future in the NBA, but I don’t think it’s very likely that he’ll be a starting point guard, which is why I have him down at 20th. I still like him a lot, but in a deep draft some guys have to drop, right?

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