The tanks are still chugging along despite the league’s best efforts. But who will get the first pick in the NBA draft?
With the draft’s lottery system, it is literally, not figuratively, impossible to predict with certainty who will walk away with the No. 1 pick. What we can do, however, is predict how the NBA’s cellar dwellers will use their first-round choices.
It’s been a very interesting year in college basketball, especially for projected top-five picks. Michael Porter Jr. is finally back on the court after being sidelined since Nov. 10. Trae Young’s stock continues to fall. Deandre Ayton is still embroiled in a pay-for-play controversy.
Will that stop NBA teams from taking chances on them? Does potential outweigh other glaring issues? Or is it simply about making the easy choice, not letting them fall to competitors?
The most important month of college hoops is here, so we’ll have a clearer picture of where the top talents land very soon. But let’s take a look at potential landing spots as they stand today.
1. Memphis Grizzlies – Marvin Bagley III (PF, Duke)
Memphis has lost 17 games in a row. They sat out Marc Gasol during Saturday’s game against the Magic. They want the No. 1 pick, and they’ll probably get it.
The Grizzlies badly need some great wing players. They also need big men to protect the rim, considering Gasol might potentially be on his way out.
The latter is just a guess, but considering Memphis’ tank is in fifth gear, it wouldn’t be shocking if they decided to move on from Gasol. He’s a premiere scoring big man whose talents are being wasted on a team this bad. He could also be the missing piece for a fringe team, returning some great picks in a potential trade.
Being that they need a big and a wing, why not split the difference and go with a power forward with tremendous upside?
Bagley is averaging 21.1 points and 11.5 rebounds for the Blue Devils. Those kind of numbers are perfect for replacing Gasol, if they need to. If Gasol stays with the team and Bagley pans out, that would make for a terrifying frontcourt combination.
Guard play is not an issue for Memphis, and small forwards litter the NBA right now. Bagley is the right choice if the Grizzlies can secure a pick high enough to draft him.
2. Atlanta Hawks – Luka Dončić (PG/SG, Slovenia)
Most mock drafts have the Hawks landing the third through the fifth pick. Considering their schedule, however, they might surprise the league and land much higher. Regardless of their position, the pick should remain the same.
The Hawks’ backcourt is a mess. They somehow have too many guards and not enough at the same time.
That’s where Real Madrid’s Slovenian stud comes into play.
Dončić is a 6-foot-8 guard who can play the point or the shooting guard. He is averaging 17.0 points and 4.5 assists per game. At just 19 years old, he has plenty of room to grow into his game in the fast-paced, guard-heavy NBA.
The real draw here is the fact that he’s a combo guard. Getting two players for one pick is an underutilized strategy in the NBA draft. The height is also eye-opening. Ask Philadelphia how drafting 6-foot-10 point guard Ben Simmons is working out for them.
Spending top-five draft picks on international players isn’t the sexiest strategy, but it can pay dividends. Kristaps Porzingis is already a star. The jury is still out on Thon Maker and Dragan Bender, but they need more time to develop.
International players can often stretch the floor in a way American players cannot in their first years in the league. With the way the league uses the 3-point shot today, that’s only good news for the team who gets Dončić.
3. Phoenix Suns – Deandre Ayton (C, Arizona)
Watching Phoenix play, it’s hard to argue that they don’t want to win. The team plays hard, but the talent just isn’t there. They had a lead against the Oklahoma City Thunder on March 2, and fell only due to Russell Westbrook’s 43-point performance. Their remaining schedule is only mildly difficult, but expect them to finish second or third in the lottery standings anyway.
Cases could be made that Ayton should go No. 1. It would make sense considering his numbers. Plus, in a league so in love with the jumper, a true center can still be a game changer.
Averaging 19.9 points and 11.3 rebounds per game, the offensive production is more than solid. What should get the Suns excited, though, is his rim protection. At just under two blocks per game, the defense should translate well to the NBA game. Erasing low post shots is not something players unlearn.
Two-way potential is not undervalued, but there still is not too much of it in today’s game. On top of that, Phoenix seems intent on staying young. This is a no-brainer, to the point where if the Suns run into some bad luck in the lottery, it’s feasible that they would have another team draft Ayton for them. Ayton is worth trading for on NBA draft night.
4. Sacramento Kings – Michael Porter, Jr. (SF, Missouri)
The Kings play 10 of their remaining 16 games against potential playoff teams. The Nets also play 10 of their 16 games against these kinds of teams. Expect Sacramento to make less of an effort to pull off some upsets, considering Brooklyn traded their first-round pick away.
The Kings need help at every position on the floor. The talent is just not there for Sacramento. With this in mind, they should go for a small forward, which is arguably the most important position in the NBA right now.
Michael Porter, Jr. has played in only one game since Nov. 10 as mentioned above. In it, he scored 12 points on 5-for-17 shooting. That’s clearly not enough to help him sneak into the top three NBA draft picks just yet.
Porter is a massive question mark going into the tournament. The back injury he suffered in the season opener against Iowa State and subsequent surgery have clearly slowed his step. Don’t expect this to stop Vlade Divac, objectively one of the worst general managers in the NBA, from going after him, though.
His upside is huge, but his draft stock will ultimately depend on what he ends up doing in the NCAA tournament.
5. Cleveland Cavaliers, via Brooklyn Nets – Mohamed Bamba (PF, Texas)
We just established that Brooklyn does not get to keep their pick in the 2018 NBA draft due to playoff-or-bust trades made by the Brooklyn brass in previous years.
This means that the Nets will do everything they can to devalue the pick. They also have more talent than some of the other teams on this list, which should help, but not enough to move it out of the top five.
Cleveland’s future is entirely dependent on whether or not LeBron James decides to stay in Cleveland. Airing on the side of caution, however, it’s a smart bet for the Cavaliers to spend their pick on James’ position.
A 7-footer that doesn’t have to live underneath the basket would be a huge pickup for Cleveland. Bamba’s 12.9 points and 10.4 rebounds per game would go a long way in replacing James. Much like the Grizzlies’ Gasol situation, it would also be a fantastic addition if The King decides to stay.
Also, 3.7 blocks per game is huge, even if the offensive talent in the NCAA is much weaker than the NBA. Don’t expect him to keep that number as high as it is during his only year of college, but expect the intimidation factor to be higher than some other rookies’.
Featured image by Billy Hurst/USA Today Sports
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