It's March. College basketball is heating up, the NBA regular season is winding down, and among other things, that means this is an excellent time to get way too invested in the NBA draft. When we did this six weeks ago, half the teams in the lottery were still angling to steal a final playoff spot. Today, eyes have shifted to the future in nearly a dozen different cities around the league. It's time to get serious about wingspans, and motors, and 6'10″ power forwards that can allegedly shoot threes.
The tournament (and conference tournaments) will help bring things into focus. That's true any year, but it might be especially true this spring. The top of the draft is full of upside, but thus far, everyone has been impressive enough to keep the hierarchy fluid. One week Lonzo Ball looks unbelievable, the next you see that Lauri Markkanen is lights out from all over the floor, and a few weeks later, Josh Jackson is exploding at Kansas. It's been tough to choose a favorite.
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Anyway, the next few weeks will be a chance for the best of this class to separate themselves for real. For now, let's take stock of the mock landscape before this draft class hits center stage. A few notes before we start:
• The draft order here is set as of Thursday.
• One March bummer: Washington's been awful this year, so we'll be robbed of Markelle Fultz in the NCAA tournament (much like Ben Simmons and LSU last year). Likewise, it's likely that NC State is one of the only ACC teams that's not going to the tournament, so we'll probably miss out on Dennis Smith, Jr. too. Michigan State and Miles Bridges are on the bubble, so we'll have to wait and see there. Most everyone else should be in the mix, though. And look on the bright side: less Fultz means more time to talk yourself into Creighton and Justin Patton.
• The lottery can't get here soon enough. Will the Lakers keep their top three pick this year and their 2019 first, or lose them both? Will the Celtics regret holding onto the Nets pick, or will their patience be rewarded (with Markelle Fultz at No. 1)? How will that affect the trade market for Jimmy Butler and Paul George? Will the Sixers send Joel Embiid as their representative? Can he help rejuvenate The Process with a top three pick? Is it possible for the Pelicans to land in the top three, making the Boogie trade look even worse? Will Vivek Ranadive be on TV as it happens? So many questions.
• Obligatory: I'm not a scouting expert, just an amateur draft nerd who keeps an eye on all this throughout the year. I couldn't do this without the scouting of Draft Express, the guys at the Ringer, and most importantly, everyone churning out highlight packages on YouTube every week.
• Our initial Mock Draft was closer to a big board, with more of my personal preferences after first impressions of the freshman after the first few months of college hoops. Today we shift to team needs, and start to project what some of these teams will be looking for in June.
Let's get into it.
1. Celtics (via Nets): Markelle Fultz, PG, Washington | Freshman
One reason I thought the Celtics should've tried to deal the Nets pick last week: it's slated at No. 1 right now and has tremendous value, but there's still only a 25% chance they actually land in the top spot. Waiting until June was a gamble. If do they land at No. 1, though, it all pays off. Fultz is far and away the best prospect in the draft, and he might be good enough to convince Boston to keep this pick regardless of who's available in the trade market. If not, he gives them tremendous leverage in any trade talks. His game is part John Wall, part James Harden, and if his jumper continues to develop from the outside, he'll be a superstar. This is the one prospect that just about everyone can agree on.
2. Suns: Josh Jackson, SF, Kansas | Freshman
Two years ago the Suns traded for Brandon Knight, gave away Isaiah Thomas, and were forced to trade an unhappy Goran Dragic. Eighteen months ago they were all set to go all in on a Tyson Chandler/LaMarcus Aldridge front line. Was this actually rebuilding, or just a series of bad ideas? It may not matter if the Suns can get lucky here. Josh Jackson's jumper is a work in progress—he's been hitting more threes recently, but still doesn't quite pass the eye test—but he does everything else well, and he'll be a handful to deal with at the next level. He's like a bigger Justise Winslow, and surrounding him with the Suns shooters could be perfect. Imagine this 2018 lineup: Eric Bledsoe, Devin Booker, Josh Jackson, Marqueese Chriss, Dragan Bender—with TJ Warren as the instant offense off the bench.
3. Lakers: Lonzo Ball, PG, UCLA | Freshman
Lonzo Ball questions: If he's playing in the halfcourt instead of UCLA's cracked–out fast break, how much offense can he create for himself? Will his passing still be as dangerous? How will he hold up on defense? Also, is his dad for real? On the court, Ball's instincts are off the charts. He's the most entertaining player in college basketball, hands down. But given some of his athletic limitations and the wonky release on his jumper, it'll interesting to see how much of his dominance translates at the next level. I change my mind every week. The only certainty is that the Lakers would make the Ball experiment twice as interesting. There will be so much hype it's almost scary to think about what happens if he struggles. Of course, if Ball delivers, Luke Walton can get them playing at 150 mph and we get the most exciting team in the league.
4. Magic: Dennis Smith Jr., PG, NC State | Freshman
Two things should be banned from all draft conversations. First, we have to stop comparing every perimeter-challenged small forward to Kawhi Leonard. Second, never invoke Russell Westbrook for an athletic guard. Both their skillsets and development trajectories are Jordan-level rare, and it's not fair to put some 19-year-old on that curve. Having said that: there are nights when Dennis Smith, Jr. makes it tempting to break that second rule. His athleticism is a straight up nightmare, and when he gets rolling, it gets scary. So if we can't invoke Russ, then maybe peak Steve Francis? Smith's perimeter shooting is a question mark, and that's one reason I'm skeptical. Still, he would inject all kinds of life into an Orlando team that badly needs … something. Anything. The Magic need a star, and Smith has as high of a ceiling as anyone.
5. Sixers: Malik Monk, SG, Kentucky | Freshman
Some people watch Malik Monk and see Lou Williams 2.0, others see Steph Curry. Even if he's in the middle of that spectrum, that's an All-Star. He can shoot out to 25 feet while spotting up, and he's just as deadly off the dribble, a skill that's even rarer. In general, his offensive game is shockingly refined for someone who's 19 years old—look at this jumpstop through traffic. Meanwhile: if the Sixers are committed to Embiid and Simmons, the frontcourt is already set. If they see Saric as the small forward of the future, that probably eliminates some of the giant wings, as well. So let's give them Monk. His shooting would be perfect next to Simmons, and he can play either guard spot. Defense will be an issue, but consider most of the best guards in today's league—Steph, Kyrie, Isaiah, Harden, Westbrook. Maybe defense is overrated.
6. Kings (via Pelicans): Jayson Tatum, SF, Duke | Freshman
For a Kings team that needs literally everything in a post-Boogie world, Jayson Tatum would be a great building block. He may not have the ceiling of some of the guys above him, but he's got the highest floor. Like Monk, his offense game is already super polished, and with a 7'0 wingspan, he's got size that'll allow him to hang with anyone in the league, and he could slide to the four in certain lineups. He's less creative than someone like Monk and not as explosive as guys like Fultz, but if the floor is someone like Harrison Barnes, that's a pretty solid place to start. Final note: he's younger than most of the players in the lottery, and he turns 19 years on old March 3rd, which is… today! Happy birthday, Jayson Tatum.
7. Mavericks: Jonathan Isaac, PF, Florida State | Freshman
Jonathan Isaac is one of my favorite players in the draft. He's 6'11″, shooting 37% from three, and averaging 12 points and 7.5 rebounds in just 25 minutes per game. He'll need to add weight if the plan is to throw him at the four full-time, but for now he's a hybrid forward that fits perfectly with where basketball is headed. For the Mavs, there are needs in the backcourt as well, but Isaac has a higher two-way ceiling than anyone on the board at this point.
8. Blazers: Lauri Markkanen, PF, Arizona | Freshman
Markkanen is another favorite of mine. He will struggle on defense early on—a scarier red flag for big men than for the point guards above him—but if he can just manage to be decent on that end, he could be a star. While his shooting's tailed off over the past few weeks, he's still at 44% from deep on the year, and his jumper will be as reliable as anyone in the draft. At 7'0″, there's too much skill for him not to be an awesome weapon on offense. For Portland, he could be lethal running pick-and-pop plays with Lillard and McCollum every night.
9. Kings: De'Aaron Fox, PG, Kentucky | Freshman
The Kings lose this pick if it's outside the top 10, so they really need to focus on tanking over the next few weeks. Meanwhile, if the Pelicans and Boogie don't start winning soon in New Orleans, there's a 21% chance that the Pelicans could sneak into the top three, and the Kings could lose that pick. The Boogie trade is already incredible, but that would make it truly historic. So, this mock's version of the draft—with Fox and Tatum heading to Sacramento—would be a huge win for the Kings. But it's important to note that there's an alternate timeline that gets extremely dark, and also important to note that every Kings fan in the world has been conditioned to be expect that exact scenario.
The season's lost, everyone's miserable, and this is one of the deeper lotteries in recent memory. Why are the Knicks making this complicated? They've won three of six, including two wins in tank-offs against the Sixers and Magic. The draft gets thinner after the top 8 or 9, so this is actually a fairly serious plea. Kristaps Porzingis deserves help. Ntilikina would be an OK start—he's got science–fiction length for a point guard and should be able to envelop people on defense—but he's probably a few years from seriously contributing. It's time to tank harder, Knicks. Let Ron Baker and Kyle O'Quinn cook.
11. Wolves: Miles Bridge, SF, Michigan State | Freshman
The Wolves are at the opposite end of the spectrum. Could they benefit by bottoming out down the stretch and landing themselves one more top–five pick? Sure. But it might be just as important that Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns are going nuts down the stretch of this season and possibly turning the corner under Tom Thibodeau. If it costs them a few spots in the draft, so be it. Miles Bridges would be a fun, extremely explosive combo forward to throw next to Towns. (Just imagine this exact hug/profanity exchange with Thibs next year.) If Bridges's newfound perimeter shooting continues at the next level, he's yet another player in this draft with real star potential. Most importantly: In this version of the future, we're sending Miles Bridges to play with Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins. It would be the greatest dunking team of all time.
Patton has come out of nowhere as a redshirt freshman at Creighton this year, and the buzz has been building all year. Did you know he grew 10 inches in high school? He's still adjusting to his body, and he's only been in shape for a year or so, but the upside is impressive. If this is where the Hornets land in June, it'll make sense to go after upside here. For a team that spent significant chunks of this season playing Roy Hibbert and a team that's currently counting on Mason Plumlee as the center of the future, betting on Patton would be a smart move.
13. Bucks: Terrence Ferguson, SG, Australia | Age: 18
Speaking of upside… Terrence Ferguson has spent most of the year hovering somewhere around 20 in most mock drafts, and it doesn't make a ton of sense. He's a 6'7″ shooting guard who spent the year playing pro basketball in Australia, and past Malik Monk and Lauri Markkanen, he's probably the best shooter left on the board. He hit seven threes at the USA Basketball Hoop Summit game last spring, and he's a terrific athlete. For a league that thrives on shooting—and a Bucks team that needs help on the perimeter—it's hard to imagine Ferguson slips much further than this.
14. Heat: Robert Williams, PF/C, Texas A&M | Freshman
Williams checks all the boxes for draft nerds. Player that almost no one has heard of? Yep. Came out of nowhere? Out of Louisiana, he did not crack the top 50 in USA Today's composite high school rankings. Wingspan number that can't possibly be real? 7'44! He's been fairly productive all year for Texas A&M, he's one of the best shot blockers in the country, and he could play either frontcourt spot. Altogether, this seems like a player who could turn into a wildly unfair weapon off the bench for Erik Spoelstra.
15. Nuggets: John Collins, PF, Wake Forest | Sophomore
Collins is another player who's exploded onto draft boards over the past few months. He's a 6'10″ sophomore who has put Wake on his back all year. In the past two weeks he's had 25 and 11 vs. Louisville, 22 and 13 vs. Pitt, 31 and 15 at Duke, and 29 and 10 at Clemson. He's super efficient, and maybe the most skilled big man scorer in the draft. The 15th pick might be too low for John Collins. And with that, since the draft is still four months away, we'll speed through the final picks with one sentence each.
16. Pistons: Harry Giles, PF/C, Duke | Freshman
I really wish Giles had sat out the entire year rather than try to rebuild his game on national TV, but if he decides to enter the draft, someone will take a chance based on these highlights.
17. Bulls: Bam Adebayo, C, Kentucky | Freshman
All rim-running centers should be named Bam, and if we can't agree on this, we can't agree on anything.
18. Pacers: Ivan Rabb, PF, California | Sophomore
Rabb could still go as high as the lottery, but his game hasn't progressed as much as people expected this year. He's like the Thad Young of draft picks.
This is the pick that Orlando got for Serge Ibaka. TJ Leaf isn't Ibaka, but investing in TJ Leaf is much better than potentially spending 150 million trying to re-sign Ibaka.
25. Jazz: Tyler Lydon, F, Syracuse | Sophomore
He's a good shooter at 6'10″, and for a good team, he's worth an investment as a stretch–four project to help off the bench.
26. Nets: Alec Peters, F, Valparaiso | Senior
Peters's out for the season as of this week, but hopefully the injury won't hurt his draft stock too much. He's been extremely productive for the past few years, and he could be an interesting role player down the line.