Let’s call the cottage industry of mock drafts exactly what it is: A whole lot of educated guesswork and less-than-educated mind-reading. A bunch of rumors that take hold in the echo chamber and turn into talking points. A lot of well-researched information on future stars – or future busts – that’s intermingled with misinformation or disinformation.
Also, it’s a damn lot of fun.
The mock NBA draft that follows – the second of three I’ll post before the actual draft on June 26 – is heavy on the information but light on the mind-reading. I’ve spoken with an untold number of college coaches, assistants, NBA scouts and insiders, and coaches who’ve seen these young men develop since middle school, all to try to determine which of these college stars and international phenoms will be successes at the next level – and which will not. I’m not going to try to tell you which player an NBA general manager will draft next week. Instead, it’s more telling to look at which players they should draft next week.
I took the advice that Ryan Blake, the senior director of NBA scouting operations, gave me: Do your research, then go with your gut.
“This is a BPA draft: best player available,” Blake told me. “With the depth of this draft, you’ll have guys not get drafted and make a team, like a Wes Matthews, a Jeremy Lin, a guy who’ll make it in summer league and get an opportunity in training camp.”
“Anybody can go anywhere,” he said. “We have 60 first-round draft picks in this draft. Go with your guy.”
1. Cleveland Cavaliers: Joel Embiid, C, Kansas. The Cavaliers used the No. 1 overall pick a year ago on Anthony Bennett, a player who could be considered one of the bigger draft busts of all time. (It’s unfair and early to think that, but still.) That’s a pick that helped get a general manager fired. The Cavs can’t afford another similar bust. Given Embiid’s back problem, the sure bet here would be to take Jabari Parker, but as one NBA insider told me, “Embiid is a lock for the Cavaliers at one.” Though I don’t believe anything is a lock in this draft, it sure sounds like the winds are blowing in Embiid’s direction after he has been impressive in workouts and been given a clean bill of health. Back problems for a big man are always worrisome, though. League sources have told FOX Sports 1 that while Embiid can be a bust, he could also be a talent on the level of Hakeem Olajuwon. While Embiid could be a home run – he’s got the biggest ceiling in this draft – the back problems make you fear he could be Greg Oden 2.0. “If you’re Cleveland,” the league insider told me, “you can’t miss again.”
Andrew Wiggins is shaping up to be a boom-or-semi-bust pick for the team that grabs him in the top three.
2.Milwaukee Bucks: Andrew Wiggins, SG, Kansas. Rumors have the 76ers trading up to try and grab Wiggins, but I’m assuming no trades in this mock draft. Wiggins’ athleticism is without parallel in this draft (or nearly any draft, for that matter), but I keep hearing differing opinions on him. Said one league insider: “The higher the proclaimed upside for a guy, the more potential he is for a bust. Wiggins has the best chance to be a bust because people think he has the best chance to be franchise player. And Wiggins will never be a franchise player.” In other words, if he scores 15 points per game over a respectable 10-year career, Wiggins will be considered a bust. Wiggins is as dynamic on defense as he is in transition, but he’ll struggle at first in the NBA creating offense in the halfcourt, sources believe. Still, another international talent evaluator who has studied Wiggins for years told me this: “We haven’t seen the best of him yet. He’ll settle in once he’s finally in the league and not worried about getting there and impressing people.” That talent evaluator told me Wiggins will dig deep to find the competitiveness he lacked in college, when he sometimes drifted, other times excelled. A model for Wiggins’ development could be Anthony Davis: Hold him back a bit during his rookie year to learn the league, then cut him loose for a breakout sophomore season.
Jabari Parker may drop to No. 3 even though he’s the most sure-fire pick in the draft.
3. Philadelphia 76ers: Jabari Parker, SF, Duke. Whoever has the third pick has the easiest job in the league on draft night: The choice gets made for you. Assuming the Sixers don’t trade up to get Wiggins, they’ll get whoever is left among Embiid, Wiggins and Parker. With Parker, you know what you’re getting: an immediate contributor at the pro level, an elite scorer with suspect defense, a player whose biggest liability, scouts say, is his less-than-perfect conditioning but whose biggest strength – a high basketball IQ – isn’t something you can teach. “He’s a poor man’s Grant Hill when Grant Hill was healthy, and he’d be closer to Grant if his body was in better shape,” one talent evaluator told me.
4. Orlando Magic: Marcus Smart, PG, Oklahoma State. It’s no secret that the Magic would have taken Smart with the second overall pick a year ago if he had chosen to enter the draft. Instead, Orlando took Victor Oladipo. So why wouldn’t the Magic take Smart a year later? Most mock drafts have Dante Exum, the hyper-athletic Australian combo guard, going to the Magic, but Smart makes more sense. With its young front office, this is an analytics-centric team, and Smart is a player analytics guys love. Sure, there are holes in Smart’s game – his shooting leaves a lot to be desired, he can be streaky, and one talent evaluator told me his ballhandling is “sloppy” – but there’s not a better perimeter defender in this draft. Also, you can’t teach hustle, and no one outhustles Marcus Smart.
5. Utah Jazz: Noah Vonleh, PF, Indiana. This will end up as a choice between Julius Randle, Aaron Gordon and Vonleh. The lingering questions about Randle’s old foot injury could give teams pause, and lingering questions about Gordon’s size and shooting ability could give teams pause as well. That leaves Vonleh, who received as much buzz as anyone at May’s NBA draft combine. A Big Ten coach told me Vonleh has an NBA body and can do all the NBA things: shot-blocking, running the floor, scoring inside, rebounding, shooting threes. He needs only to get a bit stronger.
If Aaron Gordon is a poor man’s Blake Griffin, most teams will take that.
6. Boston Celtics: Aaron Gordon, PF, Arizona. Boston coach Brad Stevens, who always valued college players who did the little things, should fall in love with two players in this draft: Gordon and Marcus Smart. Both are absolute dogs on the basketball court. Gordon is a perfect fit here, stuffing the stat sheet on both ends. Sure, his shooting touch leaves plenty to be desired, but Gordon told me the top thing he focused on his freshman year was shooting. He’s a poor man’s Blake Griffin.
7. L.A. Lakers: Dante Exum, PG, Australia. The Lakers will be thrilled if the mystery man of this draft falls to them at seven. One coach who matched up frequently against Exum in international play told me he sees Exum as an explosive, Wiggins-like player who projects more as a combo guard than a pure point guard. Here’s the problem: We’re basing this off a small sample size of international play and YouTube highlights. Teams will be spending a high draft pick based on workouts and exhibitions. “No one’s really seen him play a lot,” one international talent evaluator told me. “They’ve not seen him play against stiff competition. He’s just hidden himself the last 18 months.”
8. Sacramento Kings: Julius Randle, PF, Kentucky. Randle next to fellow former Wildcat DeMarcus Cousins? Wow. College coaches saw gaps in Randle’s game in his one-and-done year at Kentucky – too prone to turnovers, too much of a bully, too narrowly focused on the basket to pass out of double-teams – but he’s an NBA body with NBA skills. One SEC coach told me Randle’s problem is that he too often sees himself as a 3 and wants to play at 20 feet instead of in the post. “If he ever buys in – ‘Let me play 10 feet and in and knock the (feces) out of people’ – he could be Zach Randolph,” the coach said.
9. Charlotte Hornets (from Detroit): Doug McDermott, SF, Creighton. It’s no secret that Charlotte, one of the worst shooting-percentage teams in the NBA last season, is very interested in McDermott. My only worry for the Hornets is whether he lasts this long. Said one talent evaluator, “How many people in this draft do something as well anyone else that’s currently in the NBA? He shoots it as well as anyone else in league right now.” McDermott is the biggest sure thing in this draft.
Nik Stauskas will give a big boost to a team looking for a shooter.
10. Philadelphia 76ers (from New Orleans): Nik Stauskas, SG, Michigan. The Sixers were the NBA’s worst at three-point shooting last season and second-worst in overall field-goal percentage, effective field-goal percentage and free-throw percentage. How about taking the best pure shooter on the board not named McDermott?
11. Denver Nuggets: Dario Saric, PF, Croatia. International scouting expert Jonathan Givony told me Saric could fill a similar point-forward position to the one Hedo Turkoglu had on the Orlando Magic team that went to the NBA Finals several years back. If, that is, Saric stays in the draft and doesn’t decide to remain in Europe.
12. Orlando Magic (from New York via Denver): James Young, SF, Kentucky. After taking a point guard with their first pick, the Magic should draft Young, an explosive driver who can flat-out shoot. Could he become a poor man’s Ray Allen? One coach who has known Young since eighth grade made that comparison.
13. Minnesota Timberwolves: Rodney Hood, SG/SF, Duke. The Timberwolves have a gap at small forward, and Hood is a great scorer inside and out. He took his redshirt season after transferring to Duke and improved his game exponentially.
14. Phoenix Suns: Zach LaVine, PG, UCLA. Oh, boy. One of those high-potential picks in the NBA draft that you’re not sure you want but you can’t pass up. The bleachers at the NBA draft combine were abuzz with talk about LaVine, a one-and-done player who didn’t start at UCLA but flashed moments of brilliance in his 24 minutes per game. Consider him a project with huge upside. He needs both bulk and experience, and someone close to him told me he needed another year in school to improve his basic understanding of the game. Said one NBA scout, “The word ‘potential’ might have been invented for him. He’s got tremendous potential, but he’s not got a great feel, and he doesn’t understand how to play the game yet.”
15. Atlanta Hawks: Adreian Payne, PF, Michigan State. A 6’10” guy who can shoot the three? There’s a place on any NBA team for that. Payne has garnered some comparisons to Robert Horry, and a Big Ten coach told me Payne could be a version of LaMarcus Aldridge. But one talent evaluator told me he wonders about Payne’s toughness.
16. Chicago Bulls (from Charlotte): Gary Harris, SG, Michigan State. You can always use a wing like Harris, even if some consider him a tweener in the NBA. He often underwhelmed in college games, but one Big Ten coach told me he can flat-out defend the perimeter. Having a stopper like Harris – especially one who is dynamic on offense as well – is always useful in the NBA. And especially useful on a team coached by Tom Thibodeau.
Shabazz Napier is a proven winner, and that will help him rise in the draft.
17. Boston Celtics (from Brooklyn): Shabazz Napier, PG, UConn. This is the highest you’ll see Napier in any mock draft – and five years from now, we’ll be saying he should have been drafted even sooner. Said one college source whose team played UConn this season, “Someone will draft him and look like a genius.” He’s small but strong, and he can shoot, pass and rebound. One NBA insider told me he believes Napier will be a star NBA point guard despite barely scraping six feet because of his ability to play in space. “His ability to change direction and to step off his guy – in the space he creates, he’s allowing himself some comfort to survey the court. … He has an unbelievable ability to deliver the ball to the right guy at the right time.” He’s never rushed, always playing at his own pace, a la Chris Paul.
18. Phoenix Suns (from Washington): T. J. Warren, SF, North Carolina State. Who needs defense? The Suns like to score. So does Warren. A match made in heaven.
19. Chicago Bulls: Cleanthony Early, SF, Wichita State. An ex-NBA scout told me he was as impressed by Early’s performance at the NBA combine as nearly anyone’s. I’ve watched Early closely for the past two years at Wichita State, and I believe him to be one of this draft’s biggest sleepers and someone who can fill a need for the Bulls as an NBA-ready, versatile, both-ends small forward. The only flaw scouts see in his game is a subpar lateral quickness. His out-of-this-world performance against Kentucky in the NCAA tournament was not an anomaly. The 23-year-old has that NBA look.
20. Toronto Raptors: Tyler Ennis, PG, Syracuse. Two general managers told FOX Sports 1 that a team would reach too high for the young point guard. He could go higher, but even here could be too early. With Kyle Lowry possibly leaving as a free agent, the unflappable Ennis – the best game manager in this draft – would make sense. In his one season at Syracuse, Ennis played with the maturity of a senior (see: 3.2 assist-to-turnover ratio.) Another year at Syracuse would have helped his development.
21. Oklahoma City Thunder (from Dallas via Houston and L.A. Lakers): Elfrid Payton, PG, Louisiana Lafayette. He’s a guy who could step in as a backup point guard right away and perhaps play alongside Russell Westbrook so Westbrook could play off the ball. Payton is one of the best perimeter defenders in this draft. He’s a leader. He’s athletic but needs to add strength. Ryan Blake, the senior director of NBA scouting operations, compared him to Rajon Rondo and said he could be the mid-major player to really make his mark on this draft, as Damian Lillard did a couple years ago. Payton is trending upward.
22. Memphis Grizzlies:P.J. Hairston, SG, North Carolina. I loved what I saw from Hairston at the draft combine. He looked the part. He shoots the lights out and can defend.
23. Utah Jazz (from Golden State): C.J. Wilcox, SG, Washington. TheJazz were one of the NBA’s worst three-point shooting teams last year. Wilcox, one of the best distance shooters in this draft, would help with that.
24. Charlotte Hornets (from Portland): Dwight Powell, PF, Stanford. Such a versatile big guy. Here’s what one college coach with NBA experience told me: “He’s one of those guys who’ll be around the league for 10 years. Good size and skill. Maybe he’ll never be a starter, but a 6-10 guy with skill is hard to find.”
25. Houston Rockets:K.J. McDaniels, SF, Clemson. Not many college players play the type of lockdown defense that the long, athletic McDaniels does. Said one NBA scout: “He didn’t test off the charts, but he has basketball athleticism. He moves to the ball quickly. He’s just a humble, hard-nosed guy.”
26. Miami Heat: Jerami Grant, SF, Syracuse. One talent evaluator told me the hyper-athletic Grant could have been a top-10 pick if he’d stayed in college one more year and improved his game. It’s no secret that the Heat are in dire need of a point guard, and I would absolutely love inserting Shabazz Napier here, but I can’t see the Heat getting a competent NBA point guard at this draft position unless they trade up. A point guard here (i.e., Semaj Christon of Xavier) wouldn’t be an upgrade from Mario Chalmers. As for Grant, he is all potential. He doesn’t have a reliable jumper, though, and might be a tweener in the NBA.
Kyle Anderson will need the right coach to be a success in the NBA.
27. Phoenix Suns (from Indiana): Kyle Anderson, SF, UCLA. Let’s see whether the Suns try to package their three first-round picks to acquire a game-changer higher up in the draft. This is about the point where the draft starts to thin out to a series of question marks. Anderson might be the biggest question mark of them all, but he’s a tough one to pass up. He’s a hugely talented, unique player whose nickname is “Slo Mo” – not exactly a nickname that aspires to NBA stardom. A coach who watched Anderson’s development through high school and college told me he will need a creative coach to succeed in the NBA. “He’d be a great Don Nelson player,” the coach said. “He’d play him at point, wing, on the baseline. He’s not a point guard. He can’t guard a point guard. He’s not a 2 or a 3 because he’d have trouble defending that position in the pros. But that’s what they said about Larry Bird, too.”
28. L.A. Clippers: Mitch McGary, PF, Michigan. McGary would have been a lottery pick if he’d come out a year ago. Then he had an injury-riddled sophomore season. At this point in the draft, he’d be a solid gamble for anyone. And he’s definitely a gamble: A Big Ten coach raved to me about his size, motor and work ethic but worried about that troublesome back.
29. Oklahoma City Thunder: Patric Young, PF, Florida. Could he play a Udonis Haslem role in the NBA? That’s what one college coach suggested, though he’d need to develop a reliable jump shot first. Young is built like a tight end, rebounds well, and brings energy, defense, toughness and smarts. He’ll hand out some hard fouls.
30. San Antonio Spurs: Jusuf Nurkic, C, Bosnia. Why not add one more country to the NBA’s United Nations of Basketball? Nurkic is a big – some would say too big – center with a skilled touch from the field. One international scouting expert told me his potential is Nikola Pekovic – and that he’s much more versatile than Pek was at age 19.
DeAndre Kane, PG, Iowa State. A Big 12 coach who has worked with plenty of NBA players told me Kane, despite his advanced age, is a definite pro – someone ready to contribute right away. He’s a perfect backup point guard from Day 1 who’d be ready to fill in as a starter. He has the size and the all-around skills to succeed at the next level.
Jordan McRae, SG, Tennessee. Said an SEC coach, who called McRae his conference’s best defender: “If I were an NBA guy, I’d be foaming at the mouth to get a guy like that. He can shoot it from deep. He can run. He’s athletic in transition. He can guard. He’s got long arms. That’s an NBA nightmare.” Could be a Bruce Bowen type.
Cory Jefferson, PF, Baylor. A Big 12 coach called him a poor man’s Horace Grant. He’s athletic, has an incredible motor and can shoot from the outside.
Devyn Marble, SG, Iowa. NBA guys love his versatility. Marble could play three positions in the NBA. He can shoot the three, but more than that, he’s a guy who did whatever he was asked at Iowa without complaint. This is a high-character player who would be fine with coming off the bench in the NBA.
Devyn Marble has a professional attitude — and he’s not even a pro yet.
Bryce Cotton, PG, Providence. Betraying a bit of my FOX Sports 1/Big East bias here. But what isn’t to love about a tough kid who was recruited by exactly one Division 1 school out of high school and who by his senior year was a McDermott away from winning Big East player of the year? No player in college hoops played a higher percentage of his team’s minutes than Cotton.
James Michael McAdoo, PF, North Carolina. There’s a split on McAdoo. Will he be an NBA bust or a solid NBA contributor? One coach told me he has no motor at all. Another disagreed and said his problem in Chapel Hill was that he never had his role identified. McAdoo is a hell of an athlete, but he always was underwhelming at North Carolina.
Melvin Ejim, SF, Iowa State. Does he have the height to play in the NBA? One Big 12 coach told me he sure has the smarts and the down-and-dirty mentality. He can do it all: shoot, rebound, defend, do all the little things well. One Big 12 source told me he feels certain a player like Ejim can find his niche as an NBA role player.
Jordan Bachynski, C, Arizona State. He’s 7-2 and was one of college basketball’s best shot blockers. That’s gotta be worth something. A college coach told me he looked as good as any of the centers who participated in the combine. (Embiid, of course, wasn’t there.)