2018 NBA Mock Draft: Deandre Ayton goes No. 1, but is he the best player in this year's class?
Luka Doncic and Mohamed Bamba could be the brightest stars in this year's NBA Draft
There's plenty of groupthink in NBA Draft circles. I guess that's just the deal: Team executives, scouts and pundits all move in the same circles and see the same players at the same tournaments and the same workouts. It makes sense that consensuses tend to emerge by the time a draft comes around.
But a consensus is not always right.
Go no further than just one year ago, when Markelle Fultz was considered by most to be the hands-down, for-sure, no-doubt top pick in the draft. While the jury is still out on Fultz – one injury-riddled, funky-shooting rookie year does not necessarily make a bust – you'd have to think the Philadelphia 76ers aren't thrilled about passing over Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell and others for Fultz.
Drafting NBA players is far from an exact science. Remember what Sam Hinkie wrote in his epic 13-page resignation letter last season about drafting the hugely talented Joel Embiid and taking on the injury concerns that went with selecting him third overall: "You can be right for the wrong reasons. In our business, you're often lionized for it. You can be wrong for the right reasons. This may well prove to be Joel Embiid."
As silly as it looks in retrospect that the Portland Trail Blazers picked all-time bust Greg Oden over all-time great Kevin Durant in 2007, at the time that was something approaching a consensus pick.
And so just because the experts say a player is a consensus No. 1 pick, or a consensus top-10 pick, or a consensus no-way-he's-even-in-the-first-round-pick, does not make that a player's destiny. In this draft, a consensus has emerged around DeAndre Ayton as the No. 1 overall pick. But if we were betting on who'd be considered the best player from this draft 10 years from now, I'd pick the field over Ayton. Heck, I'd pick Luka Doncic over Ayton, and maybe even Mohamed Bamba over Ayton, as the guy who'll turn out to be this draft's brightest star.
Deandre Ayton | Arizona | Fr | C
Does Ayton have the highest ceiling in this draft? That's not a certainty. Another uncertainty is the value of a freakishly large and athletic big man in today's NBA. I still believe what a whole lot of scouts that I've spoken with believe about Ayton: That while other players may fit better in today's NBA (like the versatile Slovenian wing Luka Doncic), and while other players may have a higher ceiling (like the absurdly long big man Mohamed Bamba), nobody has a higher floor than Ayton. I'm not sold that Ayton is the hands-down best player in this draft like I thought about Ben Simmons in 2016 or Anthony Davis in 2012. And I'm not sold that he will turn his mediocre defense at the collegiate level into elite defense at the NBA level. But I am sold that his explosive offensive skill set – his unicorn-like offensive ceiling – makes him the safest pick in this draft.
Like Ayton, Bagley is a physical marvel with unicorn potential on the offensive end with some questions on defense. Bagley's and Ayton's collegiate stats were virtually identical: Bagley averaged 21.0 points, 11.1 rebounds and shot 39.7 percent from 3-point range, while Ayton averaged 20.1 points, 11.6 rebounds and shot 34.3 percent from 3-point range. Scouts look at Bagley's narrow frame and see someone who doesn't have nearly as much physical upside as Ayton. I look at Bagley's elite athleticism and out-of-this-world second jump and see a taller version of Andrew Wiggins – and most importantly, a taller Wiggins with a ridiculous motor. Bagley's coaches at Duke told me they'd never seen a player this talented play this hard, whether it's in preseason practices or during the pressure of March. The fact that Bagley says he's excited about Sacramento makes him even more intriguing of a pick.
Luka Doncic | Slovenia | SG
The 19-year-old Slovenian dominated this season while he played against grown men in the Spanish league. Doncic was 15th in the Spanish ACB league in points, fourth in assists, and 12th in rebounds. He's a remarkable shot creator and shot maker – a smart, shifty, versatile, confident player. Think young Manu Ginobili.
Jaren Jackson Jr. | Michigan St. | Fr | PF
Jackson is the type of player a general manager can look at as a blank canvas: Big, long, athletic and versatile, with an outrageous ceiling on both ends of the floor. He has versatility as a playmaker and as a shooter; he shot 80 percent from the free-throw line, 40 percent from 3-point range. There's some risk here; Jackson's highlight reel is incredible, but he only averaged 21.8 minutes per game at Michigan State – a very small sample size. I often worry about the "blank canvas" type of players who check all the boxes but don't necessarily have the resume.
Mohamed Bamba | Texas | Fr | PF
"Potential" is the key word with Bamba; he already is seen as an elite, Rudy Gobert-like rim protector, but the incredibly long 7-footer (he'll have the longest wingspan in the NBA at 7-10) will have to add weight and improve his offensive arsenal. Joel Embiid told me of a conversation he had with Bamba during the collegiate season when Embiid told Bamba that the better spacing in the NBA will prove a boon to Bamba's offensive game – just like it did for Embiid's. Bamba often played on a clogged court at Texas, like Embiid did at Kansas. His shot is more than adequate for a big man, though he certainly has room for improvement; he shot a promising 68.1 percent from the free-throw line and 27.5 percent from 3-point range. Bamba's college coaches raved to me about his basketball IQ, specifically his ability to see plays before they develop and to pass out of double-teams. There's certainly some risk to this pick: Will Bamba's body fill out? Will he show the burning desire to become great? But the reward is that the Mavericks could get the best player in this draft.
A dream fit for the team and a dream fit for the player, should Young last this long. The Magic need a point guard, badly. They also need some excitement surrounding a franchise that's been stuck in neutral, and utterly identity-less, since Stan Van Gundy was fired. Young is a potential star. Sure, the Steph Curry comparisons put way too much pressure on the young man's shoulders, but his playing style as well as his collegiate stats back it up. Scouts question whether he can bulk up. His size is the biggest question mark – but he's the roughly the same size as Chris Paul and Kemba Walker, so size doesn't have to kill his game. Pressure seemed to get to him last season as he became the face of college basketball. Playing in a relatively pressure-free environment in Orlando could be perfect for him.
Michael Porter Jr. | Missouri | Fr | SF
A huge risk, given the health concerns. But at some point the reward outweighs the risk. Going into the season Porter was considered in the running for the No. 1 overall pick. Then the hip problem and microdiscectomy surgery on his back sidelined him for the bulk of his one-and-done season. It's around this point where the draft begins to thin out, and Porter's enormous ceiling begins to outweigh his risk. He's a natural scorer. The Kevin Durant comparison some have made is going too far, but I see where the thought comes from. I see Porter as a Jayson Tatum-type player, but just a tick better in almost every way (and a tick taller, too). It's a dream for the Bulls if Porter falls this low, because he could end up as the best player in this draft. But if his health concerns continue, the dream could turn into a nightmare.
Pick acquired from Brooklyn
Maybe LeBron stays. If he does, a win-now pick – perhaps Villanova's Mikal Bridges, an experienced two-way wing – would make more sense. But the Cavs won't know if LeBron is staying until well after draft night, so this pick needs to plan for a LeBron-less future. The younger Sexton's ceiling is higher than Bridges', and therefore a better building block for an uncertain future. Sexton is streaky, and his confidence can border on an off-putting arrogance, but the exciting score-first point guard is the closest there is to a Russell Westbrook in this draft. I don't think it would be crazy in the least if the Cavs took Shai Gilgeous-Alexander here, who could well end up as the top guard from this draft.
Wendell Carter Jr. | Duke | Fr | C
The Knicks are in a difficult position. They're just at the end of the space of this draft that finds potential franchise-changers. They have to wait and see who falls to them. I believe there are as many as nine potential franchise-changers in this draft. If Sexton falls to nine, he could be a nice fit with Frank Ntilikina in the backcourt. If Carter falls to nine, he could be a nice fit alongside Kristaps Porzingis in the frontcourt. If Porter's injury concerns drop him to nine, he'd be a risky home-run swing for the Knicks in trying to get a potential superstar. Carter has a fundamentally solid, versatile game – as a post scorer and a perimeter shooter, as a rebounder and a shot-blocker. He has a pretty high floor.
Pick acquired from Los Angeles Lakers
Mikal Bridges | Villanova | Jr | SF
A win-now pick for a team that's looking to win now. Plus the Villanova star gets to stay in the city where he won two titles in three seasons at Villanova. The 21-year-old Bridges is an excellent athlete, a two-way player who can make 3-pointers and make plays. I'm not sure if the ceiling is much higher than NBA starter level for Bridges. But he could have an immediate impact on a winning team.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander | Kentucky | Fr | PG
Think Kemba Walker will be around after next season? I don't, so it's time for the Hornets to start planning for a Kemba-less future that might have a couple more lottery picks, since this team needs to go down before it can go up. If Gilgeous-Alexander were to stick around for a sophomore season at Kentucky, add some muscle and some leadership experience, I believe he could be in the running for a top-five or perhaps top-three pick in the lackluster 2019 draft. He was the main reason why Kentucky morphed from an incoherent team in January to a team that was rolling in March. He's tall and long, a good athlete, and a very good shooter. He'll need some time to develop. But if the Hornets have anything, it's time.
Pick acquired from Detroit
Kevin Knox | Kentucky | Fr | SF
Knox won't become an NBA star. But he can become a solid starter – a nice third option – for a winning team. He can get to the rim, he can shoot it well enough from deep, he can defend multiple positions. Knox is a valuable and versatile prospect at a position that this draft is short on.
Lonnie Walker IV | Miami | Fr | SG
Walker is an explosive athlete with beautiful shooting form, shooting 34.6 percent from 3-point range and 73.8 percent from the line this season. His stats were hampered because he took a while to get up to speed to the college game after an offseason injury. He's a long, lean athlete with quite a ceiling.
Miles Bridges | Michigan St. | Soph | SF
Bridges could be the most explosive athlete in this draft. He's a tweener, though I'm not sure if tweener status matters as much in today's NBA as it used to. The dude is exciting, has incredible raw natural abilities, and is a capable shooter and rebounder. The Nuggets have some special pieces, and Bridges would fit in with them nicely.
Robert Williams | Texas A&M | Soph | C
A total athletic freak for a team that desperately needs more big men. Williams can jump out of the gym, blocking shots and grabbing rebounds others can't get. He averaged close to a double-double, yet his sophomore season felt somewhat disappointing because the expectations were so high (and because the Aggies' roster just didn't fit together well). Williams offensive game is somewhat limited and didn't show growth during his sophomore year. Perhaps he could develop into a Clint Capela-like character in Washington.
Pick acquired from Miami
Smith is long and athletic, a player who somehow went from unheralded college recruit to one-and-done potential lottery pick. The Suns can take a bit of a risk on a bit of a project – albeit a project with excellent athleticism, great defense and the ability to become a shooter. Very high upside pick for a team that has three first-rounders.
Aaron Holiday | UCLA | Jr | PG
Holiday is an explosive scorer. He's only 6-1, but his long wingspan makes him an excellent perimeter defender. And I don't need to tell you about his NBA pedigree with his brothers Jrue and Justin. Holiday had a variety of college experiences, from backing up Lonzo Ball to becoming The Guy last year, and that should help him accept whatever role an NBA team asks of him. He's a great fit for a Bucks team that could be looking to move on from Eric Bledsoe.
Donte DiVincenzo | Villanova | Soph | SG | 6-5
DiVincenzo is one of the best raw athletes in this draft, plays with incredible intensity on offense and defense, and can flat-out score. DiVincenzo shot 40 percent from 3-point range for a Villanova team that was one of the most efficient offenses of all time. It's amazing to think that DiVincenzo, Nova's sixth man, almost certainly would have returned for one more season if he hadn't went off for 31 points in the national title game. There's no obvious weakness in his arsenal.
Pick acquired from Minnesota
A tall and versatile shooter and playmaker, Huerter and his 41.4 3-point percentage are an ideal fit for today's NBA. If he'd stayed in school one more year like he was considering, Huerter would have become a surefire lottery pick in 2019.
Pick acquired from Oklahoma City
Thomas may be the best two-way guard available in this draft. He can shoot it – something the Timberwolves need – and he can defend multiple positions – something the Timberwolves need. Tom Thibodeau will love the way he competes.
Keita Bates-Diop | Ohio St. | Jr | PF
Bates-Diop projects as an athletic three-and-D player who will be ready to contribute on day one. He can do a bit of everything on the court and ought to make a nice role player – and can succeed immediately. He measured with an incredibly long wingspan (7-3 ¼) at the combine, which will only help his draft stock.
Pick acquired from New Orleans
One of the best shooters and playmakers in this draft. Robinson tore it up as the featured player on a Boston College team that had one of its best ACC seasons in a long time. The Bulls could use an elite shooter or two, and Robinson could become that in the NBA.
Chandler Hutchison | Boise St. | Sr | SF
An older, versatile wing who showed steady improvement in each of his four years in college. He's an ideal size (6-7 with a wingspan of 7-1) for today's switchy NBA.
Omari Spellman | Villanova | Fr | C | 6-10
If there's one thing that might convince NBA general managers that Spellman is ready for the NBA, it's Spellman's answer to which NBA player he most models his game after: Draymond Green. At the combine Spellman cited Green's versatility and unselfishness as why he admires him. Spellman can stuff the stat sheet as a nimble, intuitive big man who can hit the 3-pointer.
Pick acquired from Cleveland
It's a shame we didn't get to see more of Melton during his sophomore season at USC, which was cut short by his involvement in the FBI investigation into college basketball. I saw Melton at a USC practice in winter; he was the best player on the court, and he knew it. He has a certain swagger to his game, on offense and defense, though shooting from deep is not his forte. At the combine, when he was asked about being taken by a team in his hometown, Melton's eyes lit up with excitement.
Jalen Brunson | Villanova | Jr | PG
What I'm saying here is that the 76ers scouts basically didn't have to leave the Wells Fargo Center during the past season, as I have the 76ers taking two Villanova products – Bridges and Brunson, who played college games at the 76ers' arena – in the first round. I've been in love with Brunson since seeing him in high school. There wasn't a smarter player in college basketball than Brunson, nor was there a more consistently efficient scorer. TJ McConnell has one year left on his contract; Brunson could immediately be slotted in as the perfect point guard to throw teams off their rhythm when Ben Simmons is catching a breather. He'll be a winning NBA player for 12 to 15 years.
Mitchell Robinson | N/A | Fr | C
A home-run swing no matter where he's taken. And when you take a big swing, you can often strike out. Robinson is a helluva physical specimen, a hugely athletic 7-footer who is one of the best shot-blockers in a draft that has a few stellar ones. Robinson is a liability on the offensive end for now, but with some time in the G-League, this project could become a late-first-round gem. Or he could become absolutely nothing. There are so many red flags here: The disastrous collegiate situation where he committed to and then pulled out of Western Kentucky; the dumb decision of pulling out of the NBA combine at the last minute. But there's no question about his momentous physical abilities; he's right up there with the elite big men of this draft. Here's to the possibility of the Brad Stevens culture reaching Robinson and helping him mature as a player and a person.
Gary Trent Jr. | Duke | Fr | SG
I was torn between two beautiful Duke shooters to add even more shooting depth to a team that already has plenty. This was a toss-up between Trent and Grayson Allen, both of whom I think would fit in here perfectly from day one. With Nick Young's one-year deal up, the Warriors could use another shooter off the bench. I can see the argument for Allen here; he's older and with more experience than Trent, so theoretically he'd be more able to help the Warriors in their quest for a fourth title in five years. But I like Trent's athletic gifts, and his ceiling, slightly more than Allen's. He's an absolute pit bull on the court. (Though the idea of the hated Warriors adding the hated Allen would be an excellent troll move.)
Pick acquired from Toronto
Okogie killed it at May's combine as one of the best athletes in the draft, tying Donte DiVincenzo for the highest vertical leap at 42 inches and getting the top time in the three-quarters sprint. At 6-4 with a 7-0 wingspan, Okogie projects to become a versatile wing player in today's switchy NBA. Okogie can create shots and make 3-pointers (18.2 points per game his sophomore season, shooting 38 percent from 3-point range and 82.1 percent from the free-throw line). He can rebound the ball, too. There's so much to like here. In another world, Okogie could have been a lottery pick; getting him late in the first or early in the second could be a steal.
Pick acquired from Houston
Elie Okobo | France | PG
A long lefty point guard with a solid all-around game, Okobo is a very good athlete who has NBA range on his shot. Watching tape from him, you'll notice his unorthodox shooting form – but it's a quick release, and it goes in. He has excellent defensive potential as well.
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