With the NBA Finals having concluded last night and King James’ Cleveland coronation completed, it’s time for hoop heads to turn their focus to the next big calendar date: the NBA Draft. This year’s crop of prospects is not as stacked or deep as last year’s or next year’s, but for the teams that sat out the playoffs or took an early exit, it will still be a welcome sight when their first round pick walks across the stage.
Headlining this class are two standout athletes who have been gifted with the “superstar” label, though, as is always the case, forecasting the next transcendent player is a fool’s errand. That said, this fool has decided to undertake that errand! It will almost certainly bear little resemblance to the actual results Thursday night, but hopefully this thought exercise will get you excited for this year’s draft and inform you about it’s players…
#1) Philadelphia 76ers: Ben Simmons – 6’10”, 240 lbs, 19 y.o, LSU
I’ve been waffling back and forth between Simmons and Ingram for quite awhile now. The Sixers and new front-office executives Jerry and Brian Colangelo (nepotism continues to pervade sports) can’t really go wrong with either, but it seems as though Simmons could be slightly better. Simmons may never shoot like Ingram (if he does, he might be the best player in NBA history…), but he won’t need to in order to be a superstar in the pros.
He enters the league as a playmaking point-forward who can rebound, pass, and score at the rim and in the paint. It may be difficult to envision Philly grabbing another player north of 6’10”, and the sharpshooting Ingram would be an excellent floor-spacer, but something in my gut says they stick to the mindset that the best teams are built with point guards (even of the 6’10” variety), and bigs. They certainly have enough of the latter…
#2) Los Angeles Lakers: Brandon Ingram – 6’9″, 190 lbs, 19 y.o, Duke
As much as the spiteful Celtics fan in me doesn’t want to see the Lakers bring Simmons to LaLa Land, the fact remains that Ingram could very well be the better player. He does the one thing in the NBA more valuable than any other skill (get buckets) better than not only his entire draft class, but also the entire 2016 Lakers (with apologies to the ageless Kobe). New head coach Luke Walton will gladly accept the floor-spacer unto next year’s iteration.
Playing alongside D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and Julius Randle, the Lakers will have four exciting young talents to watch on offense and probably the league’s worst defense. But like Russell, Ingram has the length to be a great defender, and has better mental make-up than his predecessor at last year’s #2 pick. Lakers fans also come as close as they can expect to seeing Kevin Durant in a Lakers uni here.
#3) Boston Celtics: Dragan Bender – 7’0″, 220 lbs, 18 y.o, International
Ah, the first real prediction. This one could go a number of ways with Jamal Murray, Jaylen Brown, and Buddy Hield (I guess… bleh), also serving as viable options. But given the Celtics’ surplus of guards, and lockdown defenders, Bender represents a player who can fill a much larger void in the current roster make-up. Bender, though still a huge question mark, looks like a player with inside-out offensive potential and shot-blocking instincts.
His potential far exceeds what Kelly Olynyk currently offers as a floor-spacing big, and his post and paint offensive skills already seem to be established. At just 18 years old, though, he may not be as ready to step into a big role on a playoff team. This pick is hard to mock, but as of now, he seems to fit Danny Ainge’s stated intentions of drafting the best player available.
#4) Phoenix Suns: Jaylen Brown – 6’7″, 225 lbs, 19 y.o, California
Another somewhat difficult pick. Brandon Knight and Devin Booker seem to be the only players with starting jobs next season, plus probably Alex Len, and – unfortunately for Suns fans – Tyson Chandler. Aside them will likely be PJ Tucker, who has become a fan favorite for his hard-nosed defense, but here the Suns have the opportunity to groom a replacement who can far exceed his offensive capabilities.
Brown is unpolished on offense right now, and may struggle to score initially. He relied on his strength to overpower smaller college competition, a tactic that won’t work in the NBA, but at just 19 he has plenty of time to round out his firepower. In the meantime, he steps in as a stout player who can defend 2’s, 3’s, and 4’s – an invaluable ability in the modern NBA. Plus, with Knight and Booker, he won’t need to score yet.
#5) Minnesota Timberwolves: Jamal Murray – 6’5″, 200 lbs, 19 y.o, Kentucky
Murray isn’t a dominant athlete, but he’s quick and moves quite well without the ball. Coming off of screens, he has profiled as a knockdown shooter all over the court, but whether he becomes an offensive spark plug or a well-rounded star will come down to his work on defense (particularly adding strength) and more offensive balance. Kris Dunn also makes sense, if Minnesota decides Ricky Rubio is not the answer at point guard.
#6) New Orleans Pelicans: Buddy Hield – 6’4″, 215 lbs, 22 y.o, Oklahoma
I’ve always been a cautious fan of Buddy Hield. He was certainly an amazing player this season, but the way Villanova dismantled him and the Sooners in the Final Four emphasized all of the reasons his pro-potential is so heavily scrutinized. Put most basically, Hield is a scorer, but most specifically he is a shooter. And if his shot is not falling or he is shut down by a good defender, he doesn’t have much else to offer.
Like Murray, Hield isn’t a strong defender, and he doesn’t pass or rebound particularly well either. He has adequate ball-handling skills, but only to the point where he can set up a shot off the bounce. I would have him lower, but there’s not really another good option for New Orleans, with Jrue Holiday presumably returning as the point guard, and Hield can step in as a floor-spacer alongside Anthony Davis if (or when) Ryan Anderson signs elsewhere.
#7) Denver Nuggets: Timothe Luwawu – 6’7″, 190 lbs, 20 y.o, International
One of my favorite prospects (love a good risk/reward) comes off the board early, just before Milwaukee can draft him and form their own death squad notably. The Nuggets have no use for Jakob Poeltl or Henry Ellenson in their crowded front court, nor do they need Kris Dunn alongside Emmanuel Mudiay. Luwawu only caught the attention of scouts as a top prospect mid-winter, but his skill and athleticism give him special 3-and-D potential.
This year, with a very weak draft, we can expect to see lottery ticket prospects and international players go earlier than they would otherwise. Luwawu adds another athlete to a Denver team with some nice pieces already in play. Slotted next to the Twin Towers Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic, as well as Danilo Gallinari, the Nuggets may be able to expedite their rebuild if Luwawu and Mudiay capitalize on their potential in the backcourt.
#8) Sacramento Kings: Kris Dunn – 6’4″, 220 lbs, 22 y.o, Providence
Kris Dunn, a perimeter bulldog in the vein of Kyle Lowry, is probably a top-5 player in terms of talent, but may fall anywhere in the top-10 given his advanced age compared to his peers at the top. Dunn has good ball-handling ability, particularly on the fast break; he may need to work to become a penetrator, but he dribbles well enough to run an offense at the next level. Dave Joerger will also appreciate an intelligent playmaker after leaving Mike Conley.
Dunn also has good passing vision, but whether he is able to take advantage of playing with better athletes as a facilitator may come down to whether he lands with a team that needs him to be a score-first point guard. Amazingly, the best situation may be in Sacramento (Like with Cauley-Stein last year), where Dunn can come in and refine his all-around game and let Boogie Cousins bear the scoring load. Don’t sleep on Joerger’s #KANGZ.
#9) Toronto Raptors: Henry Ellenson – 6’10”, 240 lbs, 19 y.o, Marquette
The Raptors have to be pretty ecstatic. Besides being the only playoff team besides Boston with a top 10 pick, one they earned from an equally lopsided trade (with the Knicks for Andrea Bargnani), they ought to see most of the prospects they will want by the time their turn to draft rolls around. Far and away the biggest need for the Raptors is power forward, and here they will have their choice of Ellenson, Ivan Rabb, and Deyonta Davis.
The latter two are much more defensively-oriented than the Raptors will presumably be looking for, so the skillful Ellenson seems to be the likely pick. He can pass and shoot as well as most in the class, and if he can extend his range to the 3-point arc – which most expect him to, given his talent as a shooter – he will fit the mold of the prototypical NBA power forward.
#10) Milwaukee Bucks: Deyonta Davis – 6’10”, 240 lbs, 19 y.o, Michigan State
The Bucks are the victims of Ivan Rabb’s decision to return to school here, as the freshman from Cal looked to be the better of these two inside out defensive-minded 4’s. The Bucks do nab a good player here, though, in the long and bouncy Davis. Davis, too, has better defensive instincts as a weak-side shot blocker, but those skills will be put to the test playing in a Milwaukee front court that was a sieve defensively anytime Greg Monroe was on the floor.
Davis is a work-in-progress as a shooter, but the technique is there for him to knock down mid-range jump-shots. Most of his offensive output as a rookie will likely need to come through second-chance opportunities and plays designed to create an open look for him. He isn’t Myles Turner, but he may be the closest thing in this draft and has value long term in pick & roll situations, put-backs, and spot-up jumpshots, and immediate defensive value.
#11) Orlando Magic: Domantas Sabonis – 6’10”, 240 lbs, 20 y.o, Gonzaga
Like the Bucks before them, Orlando is a young team that was expected to take a leap forward this year… but didn’t. It’s put up or shut up time for the Magic, as their young core is starting to look more like Frankenstein’s monster than the promising combination we saw in 2015. The team could conceivably decide to replace anyone in its starting lineup (except perhaps Mario Hezonja, who flashed glimpses of superstar scoring ability).
The team finished outside the top 15 in both scoring and defensive efficiency, but assuming they like their backcourt of Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo, the team should look for offensive help up front, where the team struggled to score when Nik Vucevic left the floor. The skilled Sabonis is a perfect complement to the tenacious Aaron Gordon, and improves an inept Orlando offense that declined after trading away Tobias Harris, and could lose Evan Fournier.
#12) Utah Jazz: Marquese Chriss – 6’9″, 230 lbs, 18 y.o, Washington
This is the type of draft where lottery teams need to be swinging for the fences with lottery ticket prospects, given the dearth of elite talent. International players ought to be heavily featured, as should high-ceiling prospects like Chriss, a bouncy small forward who showed a pension for putting up terrific offensive numbers in over a small sample. Chriss is athletic, a decent ball-handler, and has a great shooting stroke (however, he was only 35% from deep).
Offensively, the way he scores and rebounds makes one wonder whether he can’t tap into a Blake Griffin or Jabari Parker-like skillset. Defensively, he has the length and quickness to defend at least 2 positions, with the potential to defend 4 (SG, SF, PF, C) on a case-by-case basis. It would behoove the Jazz to gamble on Chriss, knowing their team will improve with the return of Alec Burks and Dante Exum regardless.
#13) Phoenix Suns: Furkan Korkmaz – 6’7″, 175 lbs, 18 y.o, International
Phoenix takes one of the aforementioned imports, electing to add Furkan Korkmaz as another young wing that can develop alongside Jaylen Brown. Korkmaz, though, is much more offensively polished and looks to be one of the better 3-point marksmen in the class. Korkmaz will probably need refining in Europe for a few more years, where he can add weight and develop his defensive ability.
Like Utah, Phoenix gambles on a big-ticket prospect, though for very different reasons. The Suns are better off taking a long-term approach given how far from competing they appeared to be this season, and with still one more pick in the first round (and a slew of 2nds), they can address more immediate needs later. Korkmaz is the best prospect left on the board.
#14) Chicago Bulls: Jakob Poeltl – 7’0″, 240 lbs, 20 y.o, Utah
The Bulls benefit greatly from the reduced emphasis on traditional centers, nabbing arguably the best in the draft (depending on what position you see Bender playing). Poeltl is certainly the most ready center in the draft, with offensive skills that call to mind Greg Monroe but accompanied by far better defense. Poeltl isn’t a shot blocker, but as a defender he consistently graded out above average and impacted the game beyond the box score.
Chicago is a mess at the moment; questions linger about whether the team needs to rebuild or retool, and whether they ought to trade budding star Jimmy Butler to compensate for a rapidly aging core and lack of young talent around him. Here, the team selects a player who can contribute no matter which course the team follows, and Poeltl is an ideal pair for Nikola Mirotic in the post-Gasol/Noah Bulls frontcourt.
#15) Denver Nuggets: Malik Beasley – 6’4″, 190 lbs, 19 y.o, Florida State
The Nuggets continue the “BPA” run, selecting an athletic shooting guard with a smooth stroke from long-range. Gary Harris took a big step forward this year for the Nuggets, but given the surplus of wings (Gallinari, Chandler, and – in this mock – Timothe Luwawu) and bigs (Jokic, Nurkic, Faried, Lauvergne), plus a surefire starter at point guard in last year’s #6 overall pick (Mudiay), and it becomes clear that off-guard is the best bet.
At the least, Beasley can push the inconsistent Harris for playing time, or Nuggets coach Mike Malone can play around with 3-guard lineups. Beasley looks like the best 3-and-D player available outside of the top-10 (and behind only Luwawu), and would be a great addition to a lackluster Nuggets offense.
#16) Boston Celtics: Denzel Valentine – 6’5″, 210 lbs, 22 y.o, Michigan State
The way I see it, after grabbing a high-upside project with their first pick, the Celtics should be looking for more immediate contributions here. They have their choice of several players who can come in and contribute immediately, but the one that makes the most sense is a wing who can knock down 3’s. The Celtics find that in a player who also fills another desperate need: shot creation.
The choice here is Valentine, with Evan Turner potentially leaving (despite murmurs of a hometown discount), and the younger doppelganger may be better. Valentine was a dead-ringer for Turner this year, playing all-around basketball en route to an AP National Player of the Year selection, but his efficiency from deep gives him a trait Turner never offered. If the Celtics forgo Hield at 3, they have another low-floor option available at 16.
#17) Memphis Grizzlies: Wade Baldwin IV – 6’3″, 200 lbs, 20 y.o, Vanderbilt
The Grizzlies will gladly accept one of the better point guards in a weak crop, with the potential departure of Mike Conley looming large. The Grizzlies seem slated for a rebuild, with a championship window that has been pretty much slammed shut. The team has a promising young wing/forward in JaMychal Green, but not a lot else to build around.
If the team elects to keep star center Marc Gasol, he can teach Baldwin how to work the pick and roll like he and Conley did, and if not, the team turns over the reins to another promising young point guard. Baldwin has all the physical tools to be a star at the position, but will need to overcome scoring inefficiency and turnovers to achieve that.
#18) Detroit Pistons: Malachi Richardson – 6’5″, 200 lbs, 20 y.o, Syracuse
Most NBA drafts are good for at least one player who flew under the radar, and in this case it’s Richardson from Syracuse, a player many expected would forgo the draft and return to school. But with a huge tourney performance and a weak class, some team will gamble on Richardson’s upside. I like the Pistons as that team.
With a promising (if confusing) conglomeration of young talent, the Pistons add another shooting-guard who can play behind Kentavious Caldwell-Pope while he develops. Richardson has better shot creating ability than KCP, and his offensive game is not limited to spot-up chances, assuming he continues to drive to the rim with authority.
#19) Denver Nuggets: Skal Labissiere – 7’0″, 215 lbs, 20 y.o, Kentucky
The Nuggets use their third and final pick on yet another mystery lottery ticket (sense a trend?). Labissiere was a consensus top-3 pick entering the season, the next great Kentucky center who could play inside-out. And then he completely failed to meet any of those expectations in an incredibly disappointing 2016 campaign.
And yet, the potential is still there, and with all the other unknowns in this draft, Labissiere will almost certainly find his way into the middle of the first round. Here the Nuggets grab a center with better defensive potential than any of their current options after coming away with two good (and much less risky) players already in hand.
#20) Indiana Pacers: Dejounte Murray – 6’4″, 170 lbs, 19 y.o, Washington
With a thin field growing thinner, a Pacers team sitting in a precarious position drafts for upside. With new head coach Nate McMillan replacing Frank Vogel, and trade rumors swirling around Paul George, it makes sense for the team to look into drafting a potential future starter rather than a role player who can contribute next season.
The team grabs Murray here, who can be groomed behind George Hill (who was traded for Kawhi Leonard, in case you forgot). Murray is a raw prospect, with ball-handling already established but a need to work on creating for himself and his teammates. Similarly, he is athletic, but his shot needs work… but if he puts it together, look out.
#21) Atlanta Hawks: Taurean Prince – 6’6″, 200 lbs, 21 y.o, Baylor
Prince comes well prepared to help the Hawks in his rookie season, with an NBA body that ought to translate to defensive contributions and an impact playing in transition – both of which Atlanta has targeted in the past. The team never really replaced DeMarre Carroll, and Prince has the potential to do so adequately.
Facing the loss of Kent Bazemore to free agency, the Hawks would be smart to target defensive specialists like Prince or Malcolm Brogdon (another player who makes sense here). He won’t take the team over the top, but has just the right combo of upside and safety.
#22) Charlotte Hornets: Demetrius Jackson – 6’2″, 200 lbs, 21 y.o, Notre Dame
This feels a bit low for Jackson, who put on a clinic in the NCAA tournament before running into a baby blue brick wall in the Elite Eight. Jackson plays a twitchy, explosive point guard that inspires optimism for his ability to play off-ball despite being just 6’2″.
He scored at will in college, but he doesn’t have a jump-shot, so it’s hard to see him being an elite scorer in the Association. But Charlotte would do well to draft Jackson, as his versatility will allow him to play either behind or alongside Kemba Walker as Jeremy Lin did so well last year. (Lin has just one year left on his current deal).
#23) Boston Celtics: Deandre Bembry – 6’6″, 200 lbs, 21 y.o, St. Joseph’s
In a thin draft, the back half of the first round becomes increasingly difficult to mock. Here, Danny Ainge rolls the dice on a player who provides much needed small forward depth in the athletic point-forward Bembry. He may ultimately be too similar to Valentine to actually draft both, but Boston desperately needs wings who can create.
Brad Stevens loves versatility, and while Bembry needs to work on his shot, his athleticism will allow him to succeed in transition. Other options that make sense for Boston here include Cheick Diallo, Thon Maker, Damian Jones, and Diamond Stone.
#24) Philadelphia 76ers: Tyler Ulis – 5’9″, 150 lbs, 20 y.o, Kentucky
Philly fans embraced the scrappy play of Ish Smith this year, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to double dip on point guards (plus, Simmons is technically still a forward). Ulis is similarly crafty, but with better upside – and his creativity and swagger is reminiscent of Isaiah Thomas.
The Sixers certainly shouldn’t draft another big here, and with Dario Saric and Simmons both able to play on the wing, point guard is truly the position that makes the most sense.
#25) Los Angeles Clippers: Malcolm Brogdon – 6’4″, 220 lbs, 23 y.o, Virginia
The Lance Stephenson experiment was a disaster, and Jamal Crawford is not the ageless wonder he used to be. Brogdon isn’t going to give much on offense, but can compensate for JJ Redick’s defensive inefficiency or knock down jumpers playing beside Chris Paul. A smart player and a leader for a team in desperate need of character.
#26) Philadelphia 76ers: Juan Hernangomez – 6’8″, 220 lbs, 20 y.o, International
Here, Philly adds the wing they passed up on with the 24th pick and nab a player they can stash overseas to develop. Hernangomez is among the most talented international players not named Bender, Luwawu, or Korkmaz, but often gets lost in an international class filled with big men.
#27) Toronto Raptors: Cheick Diallo – 6’9″, 220 lbs, 19 y.o, Kansas
In a draft that will be filled with boom-or-bust players, the savvy Raptors add one of the bigger “boom” players available. Diallo put on a show at the McDonald’s HS All-American game before riding the bench for Bill Self at Kansas. He has impressed in his pre-draft workouts, but remains incredibly raw.
#28) Phoenix Suns: Thon Maker – 6’11”, 210 lbs, 19 y.o, International
Similarly, the Suns take a gamble on an athletic power forward of their own. Maker had even more buzz as a prospect than Diallo, but it has died as questions about his offensive impact have persisted. At 28, he is more than worth a gamble, and (as a similarly raw import) Bismack Biyombo is probably helping his cause in the playoffs.
#29) San Antonio Spurs: Ante Zizic – 6’11”, 240 lbs, 19 y.o, International
Just as the Warriors did slightly in the WCF, the Spurs proved to be no match for the depth of the Thunder up front. As they so often do, the Spurs turn overseas for reinforcements, grabbing a skilled big with a huge frame. Whether or not the Spurs retain Boban Marjanovic, finding a center will be tantamount to the success of their offseason.
#30) Golden State Warriors: Brice Johnson – 6’9″, 210 lbs, 21 y.o, North Carolina
The Warriors went to UNC to grab James Michael McAdoo, and turn to that same pool here. Johnson plays similarly to Mo Speights, with an inside-out offensive game that supersedes his defensive ability. Additionally, he rebounds well for a team that was surprisingly mediocre in that regard.
Honorable Mentions / Just Missed
Gary Payton Jr.