NBA Mock Draft 2.0: No wrong answers at the top
I guess I’m stubborn.
Earlier this week I explained why, even though the media echo chamber seems to have shifted its consensus No. 1 pick in this month’s NBA Draft from Duke’s Jahlil Okafor to Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns, I’m still on board with Team Okafor.
After that story posted, I spoke with Dave Heeren, a former New York Knicks statistician who essentially was the godfather of the NBA statistical revolution. The first time he ran his TENDEX player rating system for draft-eligible college players was before the 1984 NBA Draft. Heeren and his numbers put the players in this order: Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, then a virtual tie between Charles Barkley and John Stockton. NBA general managers’ order in that draft? Olajuwon, Sam Bowie, Jordan, Sam Perkins.
Needless to say, when a guy like Heeren points to a player as a can’t-miss prospect, it’s smart to listen.
And yet, even though Heeren’s numbers have Towns as a player whose college numbers indicate he could become an Anthony Davis-type impact player in the NBA, I still believe the Minnesota Timberwolves ought to take Okafor first and that he’s more the can’t-miss guy than Towns.
Maybe it’s a mistake. As I’ve written, it’s hard to poke holes in Towns’ game, but easier to do that with Okafor’s. Maybe you think Okafor’s 51.0 percent free-throw shooting is a giant red flag and that it shows he’ll never be a competent-shooting big man. Maybe you look at his sometimes struggling defense at Duke, ignore the fact he was the offensive centerpiece and therefore was discouraged from getting in foul trouble and think that problem will be magnified against NBA bigs. Or maybe you just look at his body and wonder whether he has the sort of athletic gifts to be a star in the NBA.
And maybe you decide to do what I am doing, and you go with your gut.
“Nobody is going to be wrong in this draft, because nobody knows,” Ryan Blake, the NBA director of scouting operations, told me. “You gotta go with your instinct.”
And that’s how you should look at this mock draft. These aren’t predictors of how NBA teams will draft. Instead, these are my instincts – after seeing and getting to know most of these players through their college years, and talking with untold numbers of coaches and talent evaluators and scouts about them – on where they should be drafted. This mock draft comes from my gut, but trust me – it’s an educated gut.
1. Minnesota: Jahlil Okafor, C, Duke (6-11, 270). A college coach who recruited Okafor agreed with my view that he ought to be the first pick, and he summed it up more succinctly than I ever could. “It’s easy,” the coach told me. “Don’t try to over-figure out this thing. Okafor is why you pick No. 1.” Yes, he could take a while to develop on defense. Yes, he had nearly double the amount of turnovers as he had assists in his one season at Duke. And yes, there’s that free-throw percentage. But have you seen what he can do around the rim? The guy is a magician. He’s able to operate completely on feel with his back to the basket. He grew up studying tape with his father of the great modern big men: Tim Duncan, Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal. You can see all their influences on this 19-year-old’s game, and yet you see his own imprint as well. Don’t get cute here. Don’t worry about how he’ll fit on your team. Just take the best player on the board and figure out how he’ll fit in later. That player, I believe, is Okafor.
2. L.A. Lakers: Karl-Anthony Towns, C, Kentucky (7-0, 250). If Towns goes first overall, I would neither be surprised nor think it’s a mistake. Pick Okafor, pick Towns: There’s no wrong choice at No. 1. There’s not a hole in Towns’ game. He’s an athletic, able defender, aggressive post player, an excellent shooter (peep at that 81.3 percent free-throw percentage) and an above-average rebounder. Here’s what Heeren told me about looking into Towns’ advanced statistics: “Sometimes you just run along and do the numbers, you look at them and you say, ‘That can’t be right, nobody can be that good.’ Then you do the numbers again and, lo and behold, he is.” That’s Towns, who under Kentucky coach John Calipari sharpened a style of play that was too passive and perimeter-oriented for such a big guy and turned into a dominant, aggressive post player.
3. Philadelphia: Emmanuel Mudiay, PG, Guangdong, China (6-5, 190). Take D’Angelo Russell; take Mudiay. Whatever. The point-guard-hungry Sixers can’t lose. It’s similar to the Towns/Okafor argument. My money is on the high-ceiling Mudiay, who comes into this draft as a bit of a mystery to the public – the one-time SMU commit played last season in a Chinese pro league – but he’s been on the NBA radar for years. He has all the tools of a big, physical point guard except a reliable jump shot. One talent evaluator emphasized to me it’s not a broken jumper – it just needs work. He could be a Russell Westbrook, or a John Wall, or a Jason Kidd. A college coach who knows Mudiay well told me he ought to be the No. 1 pick in the draft, a player who’ll develop into an elite point guard and an All-Star for years to come. “He plays the game slow, like a player six years older than he is,” the coach said.
4. New York: D’Angelo Russell, PG, Ohio State (6-4, 195). Assuming the Knicks don’t trade down, taking the other of the two elite point guards here is a no-brainer. All four of the top picks in this draft have a great chance to develop into a franchise cornerstone. No player shot up draft boards as quickly as Russell this past college season. The original plan at Ohio State was for him to be a combo guard his freshman season and transition into a full-time point guard as a sophomore, but that plan was done before Big Ten play even started as Russell’s mind-boggling bounce passes and touch from 3-point range made him a certain lottery pick. He’s a slasher and a shooter, a scorer and a distributor. Unselfish, too.
5. Orlando: Justise Winslow, SF, Duke (6-6, 222). And here’s where things get interesting. The top four picks are no-brainers in some order, but question marks begin at five. Some wonder whether Winslow’s tweener size fits well in the NBA. One college coach who recruited him told me he doesn’t see that one thing that Winslow does at an elite level. I’d counter that he does a whole lot of things pretty damn well. He can get to the rim and shoot the three, but his best attribute might be his defensive versatility. Orlando could go about a half-dozen different ways here.
6. Sacramento: Kristaps Porzingis, PF, Latvia (7-1, 220). Porzingis is a 19-year-old 7-foot-1 athlete with a great shooting touch. Feels like a dream for today’s NBA. Porzingis pulled out of last year’s draft to spend one more season playing in Spain, and the gamble appeared to have paid off as he seems likely to be the first international player drafted. Porzingis needs to fill out his extremely thin body, but his skill set is tantalizing.
7. Denver: Frank Kaminsky, PF, Wisconsin (7-1, 230). The Nuggets were one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the NBA last season. How about a versatile 7-footer who DraftExpress’ Jonathan Givony ranks as the third-best shooter in the draft? No, his measurables at the NBA combine weren’t impressive, but what more does Frank the Tank need to show us at this point? Kaminsky was the best player in college basketball last season, and in an NBA that values floor spacing, there’s not a player in this draft who helps with that more than Kaminsky. Maybe he’s not an All-Star, but he’s a long-time NBA starter.
8. Detroit: Stanley Johnson, SF, Arizona (6-6, 242). Who is the best small forward in this draft? You could slide a piece of paper between Winslow and Johnson, they are so close. Johnson can do pretty much everything, but his best attribute in his physical strength. He’s improving as a shooter, too. This would fill a Pistons need and be a high-ceiling pick.
9. Charlotte: Mario Hezonja, SG, Croatia (6-8, 215). The Hornets had the league’s worst effective field-goal percentage last season, and the Croatian wing can really shoot the ball. DraftExpress ranked him as the top shooter in this draft, and he’s a phenomenal athlete to boot. Hezonja will make some NBA teams drool, especially a team like the Hornets.
10. Miami: Willie Cauley-Stein, C, Kentucky (7-0, 242). This was the best defensive player in college basketball last season. But there are question marks. Aside from his dunking, Cauley-Stein’s offensive game is nothing to write home about, but it’s on defense where Cauley-Stein will matter most. He’s that rare 7-footer who can guard all five positions and could develop into a Joakim Noah-esque defensive presence.
11. Indiana: Jerian Grant, PG/SG, Notre Dame (6-4, 200). If Larry Bird is serious about the Pacers playing a faster tempo, the frenetic Grant could help. The son of Harvey Grant, he is an athletic dynamo, usually the most exciting player on the floor when he was in college. For a team that needs a versatile playmaker who can play point, Grant could be the perfect fit.
12. Utah: Myles Turner, C, Texas (6-11, 240). Here’s what a college coach who recruited Turner told me: “Someone’s going to get a steal.” Turner wasn’t The Guy on a Texas team that underachieved big-time last season, but despite some inconsistency, he has all the tools to be the dark horse of the lottery. He was one of the nation’s top shot blockers and rebounders, he has a great touch from outside, and he shot 83.9 percent from the free-throw line, excellent for a 7-footer. Could he develop into a Chris Bosh-type player? He shouldn’t last this late, but if he does, it’ll be a great pick.
13. Phoenix: Sam Dekker, SF, Wisconsin (6-9, 220). No, Dekker is not always the 3-point shooter we saw during the NCAA Tournament. But his penchant for hitting clutch 3s in March only helped his NBA draft stock, since his shot from deep was one of the questions about his game. Although Dekker tended to occasionally drift at times in college, his athleticism and size ought to make him a solid NBA player.
14. Oklahoma City: Devin Booker, SG, Kentucky (6-6, 205). In an NBA Draft lacking in shooting guards, Booker might be the best of the bunch. As we saw at Kentucky, Booker is a stellar shooter. And as we saw at the NBA combine, he’s a stellar athlete, too, netting some quickness measurements that surprised some. On top of that, Booker is a high-character kid who works his tail off. Can’t speak more highly about his character and background.
15. Atlanta: Trey Lyles, PF, Kentucky (6-10, 240). With Demarre Carroll an unrestricted free agent, Atlanta could use some frontcourt help. Lyles played out of position as a small forward at Kentucky, but that might be something that could show his versatility and help his NBA stock. Of the big men in this draft, Lyles might be the most versatile. I don’t see him as a star. Nothing spectacular; lots of solid.
16. Boston: Bobby Portis, PF, Arkansas (6-11, 245). Even this could end up too low for Portis. He was the SEC player of the year (though that award was skewed by Kentucky’s minutes-limiting platoon system). He’s versatile, with a high basketball IQ, a high-running motor and the ability to score inside and out. He almost averaged a double-double last season. My hang-up on Portis is his weird jump shot – I swear he doesn’t even jump when he shoots – but he is an impressive physical specimen on offense and defense.
17. Milwaukee: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, SF, Arizona (6-7, 210). This kid is a jump shot away from being a top-five-level pick. Hollis-Jefferson may be the best and most versatile defender in this draft. He’s a standout athlete who models his game after that of Kawhi Leonard. At last month’s NBA combine, he spoke of his greatest attribute being lockdown defense, which ought to impress general managers. Given his ceiling, Hollis-Jefferson could end up as one of the steals of this draft if his offensive game develops.
18. Houston: Kelly Oubre, SF, Kansas (6-7, 205). This could be way too low for Oubre. He entered the season with the potential to become a top-five pick. But the thing with Oubre was we always seemed to talk about his potential instead of his performance. At times – especially early in the season with Kansas, especially in the halfcourt – he looked lost. But in the open court … watch out. It’s hard to think of a better basketball body than Oubre’s, and by the end of the season, he seemed to get it. There’s a confidence there that can bleed into cockiness.
19. Washington: Robert Upshaw, C, Washington (7-0, 260). Crazy to take this sort of gamble this high in the draft? Certainly! But I’ve gotten to know Upshaw a bit and have spoken to several people close to him, and there’s a belief the substance-abuse problems that got him kicked out of two college basketball programs (Fresno State and Washington) are on the path to being corrected. That’s why this feels like the right place in the draft to take a flier on a lottery-pick talent whom anonymous scouts have told reporters is “undraftable.” Upshaw was the best shot blocker in college basketball last season until he was kicked off his team. His Washington coach, Lorenzo Romar, told me he’s the type of talent who could lead the NBA in blocked shots, too – if he keeps his life on track. At NBA combine interviews, Upshaw put all the blame on himself and said he has been getting help with some of the nation’s best drug and alcohol counselors. If you buy his redemption story – and I think I do – he could be a steal.
20. Toronto: Kevon Looney, PF, UCLA (6-9, 222). Looney’s length and rebounding and defensive prowess indicate he could be a great NBA role player. But that projection discounts his touch from 3-point range. Looney shot 41.5 percent from there his one season at UCLA, which is the X-factor in his game that could vault him into the lottery.
21. Dallas: Cameron Payne, PG, Murray State (6-2, 185). That Rajon Rondo experiment sure didn’t work out. Will the Mavericks take a young point guard here? There are plenty of options available in this draft. Payne could go as high as the lottery, though I won’t be sold on him until he fills out his too-skinny body. Still, he can score, pass and run a team.
22. Chicago: Tyus Jones, PG, Duke (6-1,185). I called him “Stones” Jones last season because he always seemed to take – and make – the biggest of shots at Duke. The dude is afraid of nothing. But clutch shooting isn’t even his calling card. He’s usually the smartest player on the floor, one with Chris Paul-like instincts. Jones faces questions about his size and defensive prowess, but plenty of great point guards have overcome the size issue. The mind is there, and so is the confidence.
23. Portland: Montrezl Harrell, PF, Louisville (6-8, 255). Is he undersized for his position? Yes. Will he ever become a star? No. But anyone who watched what Harrell did in his three years playing for Rick Pitino can’t deny his motor, his work ethic or his ability to take coaching. Harrell will be a solid contributor for someone.
24. Cleveland: J.P. Tokoto, SG, North Carolina (6-6, 195). Is this too high for Tokoto? Not if you’re aiming for upside. He may be the best athlete in this draft. Even though Tokoto’s basketball skills need help, he has shown improvement. He played in a limiting role at UNC, which seems to have contributed to his leaving school a year early. At the NBA combine, he raised eyebrows with an improved jumper. Add in steady defense and explosive hops and Tokoto screams potential.
25. Memphis: R.J. Hunter, SG, Georgia State (6-6, 185). For a team in dire need of a shooter, there’s no better option in this draft than the kid who brought us the most exciting Cinderella moment in the most recent NCAA Tournament. The Grizzlies can only hope he lasts this long. Yes, Hunter made only 30.5 percent of his 3s last season – but that’s because teams frequently double-teamed him. Being a coach’s kid and having a personality that pops ought to only help Hunter’s draft prospects.
26. San Antonio: Justin Anderson, SF, Virginia (6-6, 230). Anderson was the anchor for one of the nation’s best defensive teams, and his defensive versatility will be the reason he gets drafted in the first round. But the fact he can really make 3-pointers – 45.2 percent last season – could help him become a coveted 3-and-D player at the next level. He has the feel of a Spurs-type player.
27. L.A. Lakers: Tyler Harvey, SG, Eastern Washington (6-4, 180). One scout told me comparing Harvey, a hot-shooting mid-major guard, to Steph Curry is not absurd. I agree. He shoots a lot, sometimes from bad spots, but he was one of the best shooters in all of college basketball, and he’s able to create his own looks – a true diamond in the rough. Sources say Harvey has killed it during the interview process. No surprise from this confident but mild-mannered kid.
28. Boston: Rakeem Christmas, F/C Syracuse (6-10, 243). Sure, Christmas is old for a first-rounder at 23. But for a team in need of a rim protector, he has enormous length – his wingspan is the second-highest of any draft-eligible player. During his dominant senior season, Christmas expanded his reputation as a shot-blocker/rebounder, then he had an excellent NBA combine where he showed more versatile offensive skills than ever before. He’s a strong, dynamic athlete who has the feel of a solid NBA rotation player.
29. Brooklyn: Delon Wright, PG, Utah (6-5, 180). He’s a reliable jumper away from being a top-10 pick. Wright was the best two-way player in college basketball last season, a lockdown perimeter defender and a Rajon Rondo-like point guard on offense. An advanced stats web site I love, ValueAddBasketball.com, said Wright had more impact on his team than any player in college basketball last season.
30. Golden State: Terry Rozier, PG, Louisville (6-2, 190). Rozier was one of the players who most helped his stock during the 5-on-5 portion of the NBA combine. With good size, a good shot and great athleticism, Rozier could become a starting NBA point guard at some point.
Nine second-round sleepers
Christian Wood, PF, UNLV
Richaun Holmes, PF, Bowling Green
Norman Powell, SG, UCLA
Jarell Martin, PF, LSU
Pat Connaughton, SG, Notre Dame
Chris Walker, PF, Florida
T.J. McConnell, PG, Arizona
Jonathan Holmes, SF/PF, Texas
Andrew Harrison, PG, Kentucky