Various NBA people have told me, for more than a year now, that Luka Doncic could go No. 1 in the 2018 NBA Draft -- and that under no circumstances would he go outside of the top three. So I was always skeptical that the reigning MVP of the EuroLeague Final Four would actually be available for the Grizzlies at No. 4 even when reports from reputable reporters suggested otherwise
At one point, I said, "I'll believe it when I see it."
Then, late Tuesday, the type of just-before-the-draft report I suspected would emerge emerged via Adrian Wojnarowski, who reported that "Doncic has moved to the forefront of Atlanta's internal conversation on the third overall pick."
So it now appears the first three names off the board Thursday are going to be Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley and Doncic (in some order). And, I think, this is a worst-case scenario for Memphis -- which will (likely) be forced to use the fourth pick on either the question mark that is Michael Porter Jr. or a player from what I believe is a second-tier of prospects, none of whom seem interested in actually playing in Memphis. The only other option is trading down. And that's something the Western Conference franchise is probably considering, at this point. But, for now, my latest mock draft has the Grizzlies selecting Jaren Jackson Jr. It's a total upside pick that could work out well in the longterm. But, in the short-term, it's hard to imagine a teenager who only played 21 minutes per game at Michigan State having much of an impact as a rookie on a team led by veterans and planning to return to the playoffs for the eighth year in a nine-year span.
The only thing anybody seems capable of agreeing on in this draft is that Ayton will be selected first. Whether he should be is another (and reasonable) question. But I don't know anybody who genuinely believes the Suns are going to take anybody other than Ayton -- the 7-1 forward who averaged 20.1 points and 11.6 rebounds in 33.5 minutes per game as a freshman while helping Arizona win the Pac-12 regular-season title and Pac-12 Tournament championship. His physical gifts make him unique and provide a realistic opportunity for superstardom. He's not a sure thing, in my opinion. But Ayton definitely looks the part.
I've heard all of the concerns about Bagley -- that he has short arms, that he's a defensive liability, that he doesn't have a natural position. So on and so forth. But I keep coming back to this: Bagley was widely regarded as the best player at his age every year he was in high school -- and then he went to college and was a First Team All-American who averaged 21.0 points and 11.1 rebounds while shooting 39.7 percent from 3-point range for a Duke team that finished ranked third at KenPom. So I'm simply going to bet on the player who has always been awesome to continue to be awesome. Honestly, I'd probably take him first in this draft. So the Kings would be wise to snatch him up when he drops to them.
Luka Doncic | Slovenia | SG
I seem to have more questions about Doncic's ability to create space and get to the rim against NBA athletes at an elite level than most. But I don't think there's any doubt he'll be, at worst, a useful NBA player immediately and for a long time. And the potential for stardom is certainly there. Even I can admit that. So, for those reasons and more, it always made sense that Doncic, a 6-8 wing who can serve as a primary ball-handler, would go in the top three of this draft even if recent reports from reputable reporters suggested otherwise. If you're Atlanta, you either take Doncic and keep him or take Doncic and trade him to a franchise that loves him. But you don't just pass on him if he's available because there's too much value in selecting him.
Jaren Jackson Jr. | Michigan St. | Fr | PF
I'm not as high on Jackson as most, if only because he didn't produce at Michigan State the way so many other heralded freshmen produced on other campuses in their only years of college basketball. And I have a hard time getting over that. But I do understand why he projects, in the eyes of many, as a perfect modern big who can protect the rim, switch everything and stretch the floor on the offensive end of the court. I'm skeptical. But I get it. And though this is not what I'd do if I were running the Grizzlies -- for what it's worth, I'd probably look to trade down a few spots with a franchise that loves Jackson or Bamba before I took Jackson with the fourth pick -- Jackson is the player I believe Memphis will select if Memphis is selecting fourth with Ayton, Bagley and Doncic off the board.
Bamba projects as a menace on the defensive end of the court -- where his 7-9 wingspan should allow him to alter shots at an elite level and rebound well. But it's important to understand he's not just a defensive player. There's also potential on the offensive end of the court -- even if it's a work in progress, at the moment. So this 7-footer with a 7-9 wingspan who averaged 12.9 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3.7 blocks in 30.2 minutes per game at Texas absolutely has a chance to develop into an All-Star in the frontcourt. His natural gifts are undeniable and, in some ways, unprecedented. Personally, I'd take him before I took Jackson even if that doesn't appear to be a likely outcome Thursday.
Scouts are all over the place on Young -- who was the story of college basketball for much of his one season at Oklahoma. The 6-2 point guard became the first Division I player in history to lead the nation in points (27.4) and assists (8.7) per game, and his unique ability as a shot-creator and shot-maker had some comparing him to Stephen Curry. But once defenses adjusted in February and March, Young began to struggle. And his skeptics believe that's a truer version of this prospect whom literally nobody projected as a one-and-done lottery pick this time last year. For what it's worth, I think he'll be really good. Probably not good enough to be a two-time NBA MVP and three-time world champion like Curry. (Who is?) But good enough to make him worthy of a pick in the top half of the lottery.
Michael Porter Jr. | Missouri | Fr | SF
Back surgery robbed Porter of his first and only season of college basketball, which is unfortunate. But that hasn't stop franchises picking in the top five -- specifically Sacramento and Memphis -- from seriously considering the former high school All-American who is so talented that, this time last year, he projected as a serious contender to be the top pick of the 2018 NBA Draft. In other words, everybody understands there's an opportunity to get real value here the way Philadelphia got real value when it drafted an injured Joel Embiid with the third pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. But, ultimately, I think any perceived longterm risk, combined with the fact that Porter canceled a workout last week for health reasons, will cause him to slide into the middle of the lottery.
Pick acquired from Brooklyn
Wendell Carter Jr. | Duke | Fr | C
Carter was Duke's "other" frontcourt one-and-done standout -- not quite as productive as Bagley but still really good. The 6-11 forward averaged 13.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 2.1 blocks and 2.0 assists in 26.9 minutes per game while shooting 41.3 percent from 3-point range (on limited attempts) for a Duke team that advanced to the Elite Eight. His versatility on the offensive end of the court makes him an intriguing prospect. But whether he'll be able to handle pick-and-roll situations on the defensive end is a reasonable concern unless Carter improves his foot speed.
Frank Ntilikina is not a point guard. If the Knicks didn't know that a year ago, they know it now. Which is among the reasons Sexton -- the one-and-done star who averaged 19.2 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists in 29.9 minutes per game while leading Alabama to the NCAA Tournament -- makes sense in this spot. He's a 6-3 point guard who super-fast, super-quick and forever aggressive. He puts pressure on the defense basically every possession. He could be the additional star the Knicks need to return to the playoffs in, perhaps, 2020.
Pick acquired from Los Angeles Lakers
I'm not sure any non-freshman helped himself more last season with NBA people than Bridges -- who averaged 17.7 points and 5.3 rebounds while shooting a career-best 43.5 percent from 3-point range in 32.1 minutes per game for a Villanova team that won the national title. More than anything, the 6-7 wing spent the season making "pro shots" more regularly than ever and doing most of the things any franchise would want him to do at the next level. His ability to guard multiple positions makes him somebody who could theoretically contribute to basically any team on opening night. Bridges likely isn't equipped to create his own scoring opportunities, at least at this point. But he's a great catch-and-shoot prospect -- perhaps the best in this draft.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander | Kentucky | Fr | PG
Gilgeous-Alexander was only the seventh-best prospect in Kentucky's 2017 class, according to 247Sports, but he emerged as one of the Wildcats' most important players as the season progressed. The one-and-done combo guard averaged 14.4 points, 5.1 assists and 4.1 rebounds while showing a unique ability to get into the lane. At 6-6 with a 7-foot wingspan, Gilgeous-Alexander could become a great perimeter defender in time, which is obviously a terrific skill in the modern NBA where perimeter players dominate the league. Yes, his shot needs some work. But his pros far outweigh his cons. And he would also fill a position of need for Charlotte, which could be in the final year of Kemba Walker.
Pick acquired from Detroit
Anybody looking for a combo forward in the second half of the lottery would have to seriously consider Knox if he's still on the board when they're selecting. The 6-9 athlete with a strong frame averaged a team-high 15.6 points and 5.4 rebounds in 32.4 minutes while leading Kentucky to the Sweet 16. And he's still only 18 years old, which makes him younger than most freshmen and almost everybody in this draft. Knox didn't shoot it well from 3-point range at Kentucky. But there's nothing obviously wrong with his shot, which is why he could thrive as the type of stretch-4 every NBA franchise values. Reports that he's worked out well in recent weeks have bolstered his stock with franchises picking in this range.
Robert Williams | Texas A&M | Soph | C
DeAndre Jordan's future with the Clippers remains uncertain -- and Williams is the prospect available at this point in this mock draft who is best equipped to eventually do similar things at the NBA level. The 6-10 athlete averaged 10.4 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in 25.6 minutes per game while leading Texas A&M to the Sweet 16. Williams projects as a strong finisher, rebounder and shot-blocker who could be a 10-year starting center in the NBA if his motor and focus improve and get consistent.
Miles Bridges | Michigan St. | Soph | SF
Bridges is a better small-ball power forward than he is a full-time wing. But stressing too much about that is probably overthinking it because the 6-6 sophomore is an explosive athlete who can pass and shoot and guard multiple positions. He averaged 17.1 points and 7.0 rebounds in 31.3 minutes per game while leading Michigan State to the Big Ten regular-season title. In a mostly position-less NBA, I'm comfortable trusting the former Big Ten star will figure things out and be impactful quickly.
Lonnie Walker IV | Miami | Fr | SG
Walker's freshman season didn't get off to a great start -- evidence being how he only averaged 8.1 points in 20.9 minutes per game through Miami's first 15 contests. But the 6-4 freshman averaged 14.0 points in Miami's final five regular-season games to remind NBA scouts why they view him as a strong-framed shooting guard with a future. Yes, he only shot 34.6 percent from 3-point range this season. But, remember, Walker shot 40 percent from beyond the arc two summers ago on the Nike EYBL circuit. So his lower percentage at Miami isn't too concerning and probably has more to do with his teammates than him.
Pick acquired from Miami
Thomas is a two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year -- one who used a 6-11 wingspan on a 6-3 frame to get into passing lanes and, in other ways, just make things difficult on opposing guards. He averaged 15.5 points and shot 41.1 percent from 3-point range as a junior. So anybody picking outside of the lottery, and in need of a 3-and-D wing, should give the Omaha native a serious look. Because I think he has a chance to be one of the better non-lottery picks to emerge from this draft.
Brown developed a reputation in high school as somebody who values defense and could reasonably play at least three positions at the collegiate level, and he showed flashes of that at Oregon while averaging 11.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists in 31.5 minutes per game. If he can develop a consistent 3-point shot -- Brown only shot 29.1 percent from beyond the arc this season -- he'll be capable of providing the versatility NBA franchises crave while flourishing at both forward positions.
Elie Okobo | France | PG
Okobo is a 6-2 point guard with a 6-8 wingspan who has been on NBA radars for years but made a big jump playing in France this season. He got 44 points in one playoff game and now looks like a lock first-round pick. With Tony Parker all but done being a meaningful player, it seems wise for San Antonio to use its first-round pick on an interesting primary ball-handler with a reliable jumper.
Pick acquired from Minnesota
Dzanan Musa | Bosnia | SF
Musa is a 19-year-old Bosnian who averaged 20.2 minutes this season for Cedevita in the Adriatic League. The 6-8 wing has long had a reputation with scouts as a potential quality scorer in the NBA. The only concern is whether he's a good-enough athlete, and mature enough, to guard his position and flourish in general when he moves to the United States. But that concern shouldn't keep somebody -- especially a franchise with three first-round picks like Atlanta -- from selecting Musa in the first round.
Pick acquired from Oklahoma City
Donte DiVincenzo | Villanova | Soph | SG
DiVincenzo was barely on anybody's immediate NBA radar before he made five 3-pointers and scored 31 points in the national title game against Michigan. But thanks to that effort, and a tremendous week at the combine, the 6-5 guard is now considered a likely first-round pick. On the season, DiVincenzo averaged 5.3 3-point attempts per game and made 40.1 percent of them. That's great and something that suggests he can be a bouncy two-way player and weapon on the perimeter. And the fact that he comes from the winning culture Villanova provides can't possibly hurt.
Holiday averaged 20.3 points and 5.8 assists in 37.7 minutes per game this season while shooting 42.9 percent from 3-point range for a UCLA team that made the NCAA Tournament. His 6-6 wingspan should prove beneficial while guarding opposing point guards. His ability to consistently make perimeter jumpers means he projects as a capable passer and shooter at the NBA level.
Pick acquired from New Orleans
Chandler Hutchison | Boise St. | Sr | SF
Hutchison had the best season of his four-year college career this season while establishing himself as a first-round talent. The 6-7 Mountain West Conference star has all the tools necessary to be a quality NBA wing. He averaged 20.0 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists in 31 minutes for a Boise State team that won 23 times.
Okogie really helped himself at the combine -- where he measured 6-4 with a 7-foot wingspan. And when you consider the sophomore guard shot 38.0 percent from 3-point range this season at Georgia Tech while averaging 18.2 points in 36.4 minutes per game, you can understand why NBA executives are becoming more interested in Okogie as a real first-round possibility even though he was just a three-star recruit in the Class of 2016.
Huerter, who was good at the combine, has reportedly also been really good in private workouts -- all of which made it sensible for the 6-6 shooter to leave Maryland after two seasons. He averaged 14.8 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.4 assists in 34.4 minutes a game for a Maryland team that finished 39th at KenPom. But the key stat is that Huerter made 41.7 percent of the 5.5 3-pointers he took per contest. So he projects as a wing with size who can be a reliable threat from the perimeter. No, the hand injury he just suffered isn't ideal. But there's no real reason to think it'll cost him much, if it all, on draft night.
Pick acquired from Cleveland
Smith is the rare one-and-done player who was a sub-100 prospect coming out of high school. It's a remarkable story -- one that features the 6-4 wing putting himself in this position by displaying top-shelf athleticism while averaging 11.3 points and 5.0 rebounds for a Texas Tech team that advanced to the Elite Eight. Smith is bouncy and a capable shooter from beyond the arc -- evidence being how he shot 45.0 percent from 3-point range (on, admittedly, limited attempts). The fact that he didn't measure great at the combine didn't help things. But, still, I think he's a likely first-round pick.
Grayson Allen | Duke | Sr | SG
J.J. Redick is an unrestricted free agent who might not return to the Sixers. So drafting another off-guard who can shoot would make some sense. Allen is a good athlete with good size who made 273 3-pointers in his final three years of college while shooting 38.2 percent from beyond the arc. The Duke graduate should be equipped to play meaningful minutes as a rookie, even for a playoff team like Philadelphia.
Mitchell Robinson | N/A | Fr | C
Robinson made a mess of his college situation by enrolling at Western Kentucky before, just two weeks later, leaving campus and asking for a release. Then the 7-foot center never actually enrolled in another school -- meaning he did not play competitive basketball anywhere this past season. That's neither ideal nor smart. And it's possibly a red flag. But Robinson remains a lottery talent. And it would be just like Celtics general manager Danny Ainge to land a prospect of this caliber late in the first round and then turn him over to Brad Stevens, who might be exactly the type of coach Robinson requires to reach his potential.
Evans is a do-everything wing who guards multiple positions, plays tough and consistently makes outside jumpers -- evidence being how he shot 39.4 percent from 3-point range in his final two years at Cincinnati while helping the Bearcats earn a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. He didn't take over games often, it's fair to note. But it's not hard to imagine him flourishing with the Warriors and becoming a useful piece for a championship organization.
Pick acquired from Toronto
Keita Bates-Diop | Ohio St. | Jr | PF
Bates-Diop went from averaging 9.7 points in an injury-shortened 2016-17 season to 19.8 points in the 2017-18 season and improved in basically every way, which is why Ohio State spent much of this season nationally ranked and finished tied for second in the Big Ten regular-season standings. Not every player who returns to school to "improve his NBA stock" actually does. In fact, most don't. But Bates-Diop clearly did. And draft night will prove it.
Pick acquired from Houston
Melton is a nice combo-guard prospect who was sidelined in the preseason by an ongoing FBI investigation. So that's not ideal. But the 6-3 sophomore still has a chance to go in the first 30 picks. And if he slips into the second round, for whatever reason, multiple franchises will be trying to move up to grab him considering he's an unselfish ball-handler who is comfortable in pick-and-roll situations. The only real concern with Melton is his jumper. He only shot 28.4 percent from beyond the arc in his one season at USC.