This Thursday’s NBA Draft may be the most exciting and have the strongest long-term impact for any draft on the league since 2003, when the Cleveland Cavaliers decided to take some guy named LeBron James over superstar center Darko Milicic. Unlike that draft, there is no clear-cut number one pick; however the talent in this draft is the highest in years.
To put it in perspective, the top picks of last year’s draft, Anthony Bennett and Victor Oladipo, would have struggled to crack the top 7 in this year’s draft. Injuries and rumors have complicated things, so I decided to rank the players, rather than do a mock draft, since I have a feeling there will be a lot of trades in the next few days, especially with the Cavs looking to trade down after the Joel Embiid injury.
Check out rankings 30-16 if you missed them, and read on for 15-1.
15. Kyle Anderson, Guard/Forward, UCLA (6’9, 230)
It’s not often that someone 6’9 comes into the league after playing point guard in college, but some are comparing Anderson to another 6’9 point guard that won a few championships with the Lakers in the 1980s. I doubt he will play much of the 1 in the NBA, but that size and court vision is unique in a prospect. He is almost comically slow, but his long first step and height allow him to work around smaller players. His ideal role might be as a Boris Diaw-type facilitator from the foul line. He would make the ideal complimentary role player for the right team and should stay in the top 20 as a result.
14. Dario Saric, Power Forward, Croatia (6’10, 225)
Like many international players, there are questions about how well his game translates to the NBA, however his skill set and basketball IQ are hard to ignore. Early on, some were comparing him to Dirk Nowitzki, but I think he projects more like the slow, versatile forwards that have found a place in this league with their collection of skills, like a non-pregnant Boris Diaw. He will never be the best at anything, but big men with those skills still do not come along that often, so as long as you have some more athletic front-court players to surround him with, it is worth taking a shot. He should not drop lower than 20, even though he could spend the next two years in Europe before coming over.
13. Shabazz Napier, Guard, UConn (6’0, 175)
This is higher than most experts have him, but he is a guy with whom I would love to go into battle. Napier is undersized, but has that next gear with the ball in his hands that few players possess. He is undersized against most NBA guards, but he is constantly moving and fighting making up for the height difference. If he can play a little more off the ball, he can be a starter, but right now he would make the perfect top scorer on the 2nd unit of a team. He has matured a lot in the last two years, which projects well for his development in the NBA. He could go anywhere from late lottery to the end of the first round.
12. Gary Harris, Guard, Michigan State (6’4, 205)
Gary Harris does nothing exceptional to overwhelm you, but he is a smart, reliable guard who can help a team sooner rather than later. At only 6’4, he projects to be kind of a combo guard, which is aided by his ability to avoid turnovers. He is a solid shooter, although he probably took too many contested shots for Michigan State last year which lowered his averages. He is a very good defender, which makes him less of a risk despite his size and lack of athleticism compared to players like LaVine. He has stayed steady in the 9-14 range while everyone else has moved around him the last couple months.
11. Elfrid Payton, Point Guard, Louisana-Lafayette (6’4, 185)
Admittedly, I did not watch many Louisiana-Lafayette games this season, but from what I have seen of him throughout the season and through workout clips, I feel he is the top pure point guard in the draft with Exum, Smart, and LaVine dealing with questions about their positions in the NBA. He is a great defender at the 1, averaging almost 2.5 steals a game over the past two seasons. He also does all the other things you need from an NBA point guard: he is athletic, he gets to the rim, and he can distribute. He did have fairly high turnover numbers (6.0 apg/3.8 tpg), but just playing with better talent and having to do less should lower that ratio. He is also very good at rebounding from his position and all the things he has to do to improve, specifically put on muscle and improve free throw shooting, will not keep him out of an NBA line up when he enters the league next year. I would love to see him play backup for a year behind a veteran before starting so he can work on the little things he was not able to work on versus inferior competition at Lafayette. He could go anywhere from 8-20.
10. Doug McDermott, Small Forward, Creighton (6’7, 220)
I would take McDermott over the other small forward prospects in the draft just because the worst case for him seems to be a role as a long-distance shooter like Kyle Korver. One of the greatest offensive players in NCAA history, McDermott is entering the league with a much more versatile offensive repertoire than Korver has ever had, but his lack of size and athleticism do limit his chances of becoming the star he was at Creighton, especially since most doubt he can play the 4 at 6’7. The team that gets him will add a mature, smart player who can contribute right away as a scorer. He will be picked by one of the lottery teams most likely between 9-14.
9. Joel Embiid, Center, Kansas (7’0, 250)
I am hesitant to put him even this high, since he seems to have all the characteristics of a bust, but this is where the draft gets a little muddled, and if he can get healthy, he does have the skills to be a big impact in the league. During flashes, he looked like the prototypical NBA center with an extremely versatile skill set for a big man with his size and experience. Can play both under the rim and can step out a little to hit shots outside the paint. He is strong inside and already has the defensive maturity to know where to be and how to disrupt shots on defense. The biggest question is his durability, considering he played in more than 20 minutes in a game less than half the times he played at Kansas. He had a knee injury and a stress fracture in his back that ended his season at Kansas before breaking his foot at the NBA combine. Also, apparently there are other red flags in his medical reports. It would be fitting for someone to take Embiid high 30 years after Sam Bowie was picked over Jordan since I see them having very similar careers. Anyone from 3 to 10 could draft Embiid.
8. Noah Vonleh, Power Forward, Indiana (6’9, 247)
Vonleh admittedly has more potential than Gordon below since he showed flashes of a versatile offensive post game at Indiana, however his rawness and his defensive issues do worry me some about whether he will be able to fulfill that potential. He is apparently a smart, hard-working kid who does not turn 19 until August, so as long as the team that drafts him can coach him and give him some time to develop, he could become a player similar to a young Chris Bosh before he learned about three point shots. Teams seem to like his potential, so I see him staying in the top 10.
7. Aaron Gordon, Forward, Arizona (6’9, 220)
This is where the search for a superstar ends and the search for reliable starters and rotation players begins. Gordon has the athleticism and defensive skill set to contribute to an NBA team right now, as long as they can avoid passing to him on offense unless it is an alley-oop or a run out. I think his offensive game will catch up some and become serviceable, especially since he is a solid ball handler for his size, but I doubt he becomes a player you can rely on to score. Teams can always use athletic defenders with high basketball IQs, so it would be hard to pass Gordon up if the others below him here are off the board. I think he ends up in the 8-12 range.
6. Zach LaVine, Guard, UCLA (6’6, 180)
There are questions about his control and the development of his basketball skills, but his athleticism is undeniable. I usually like players with longer track records, but I got to watch him a lot in Pac-12 play and, although he is raw, he is explosive as demonstrated by his 46-inch vertical. He reminds me of another former UCLA guard who is currently playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder. He played off the bench at UCLA, so sixth man may a good a place for him during his first year. The team that drafts him will need some patience, but in the right situation, we could be looking at the steal of the draft even if he goes in the top 10, which looks more and more likely.
5. Julius Randle, Power Forward, Kentucky (6’9, 250)
The team who drafts Randle will know what they are getting, a big strong fairly versatile power forward. His rebounding and offensive ability will keep in the rotation through his NBA career, as long as he stays in shape, but to become a star he needs to improve his shooting and his moves on the offensive end and in the post. He has good shooting form he just needs someone help him put it all together. On the right team he could be a Zach Randolph type player. There are rumors of a foot issue, but as of now the worst case scenario would have him missing summer league games. He will end up between 5 and 10.
4. Dante Exum, Guard, Australia (6’6, 196)
Questions about the competition he faced in Australia have followed Exum throughout this process, but it is hard to ignore a 6’6 point guard coming into the league. He is extremely versatile playing the 1, 2, and 3 throughout his career, but he’ll most likely be used just at the guard spots in the NBA. He is eager to learn and is willing to do anything to help his team win. He needs to be a little better at ballhandling and distributing to play point guard, and needs to work on ability to finish at the rim and clean up his shot. He should be fine on the defensive end with his size and intelligence. The team who drafts him will need a little patience to allow him to catch up to the NBA competition, but if developed correctly, he could be one of the best point guards in the league by the end of his rookie contract. He will not fall past 7, but the Sixers at 3, with former Australian coach Brett Brown, along with Orlando at 4 will give him a long look.
3. Marcus Smart, Guard, Oklahoma State (6’3, 227)
This is where things get interesting. I’ll explain why I don’t have some players as high as other prognosticators later, but I personally like guys I have been hearing about for a few years rather than a few months. Many thought Smart would come out last year after a great Freshman year, but he decided to come back, and for much of the year, many thought Smart had negatively effected his stock by doing so. But as the draft combines began at the end of the college basketball season, people began to remember why he was in the conversation for number-one pick before coming back for a second year at Oklahoma State. Physically, he is a beast at 6-4 and 220, and he has a strong motor allowing him to compete for the whole game, but he still has an ability to stay in control in pressure situations. He did have a few frustrating incidents last year, including the shove at Texas Tech, but teammates seem to like him, which is usually the biggest test when it comes to a player with a temper. There is some concern about his shot, but he can improve that while using his size to get to the basket and create for his teammates. Orlando at 4 and the Lakers at 7 are probably the most likely landing spots for him.
2. Jabari Parker, Forward, Duke (6’9, 240)
A player that has been under the microscope since high school, Parker is the most refined player coming out of college this year. His offensive game will put him in the starting lineup of any team that drafts him. There have been a lot of comparisons to Carmelo Anthony, but I think Paul Pierce is a better example of the game he has. He is not super quick, but he is crafty, strong, and is able to get his points efficiently. He is also a good rebounder, although his ball distribution could use a little work. His biggest issues are his size and his defense. There are questions regarding whether he is big enough to guard 4’s or quick enough to guard 3’s, placing him in the dreaded tweeners category. He played a lot of 4 in college, so it may take some work to get him up to speed on guarding NBA 3s. He is one of the most intelligent offensive players in years, but he seems to lose half of his basketball IQ when the other team gets the ball. He needs to work on positioning and defensive intensity if he wants to make the jump from scorer to superstar. With the Cavs and Bucks both interested, he will probably go top 2.
1. Andrew Wiggins, Small Forward, Kansas (6’8, 200)
This is a guy we have been talking about since he was a sophomore in high school. Offensively, he still has some work to do, especially with his better long-distance shooting, but you cannot teach athleticism and his defense and rebounding alone allows him to enter an NBA starting lineup right now. Similar to another super athletic wing drafted third 30 years ago, Wiggins went to a program that focuses on the team concept rather than maximizing the talent of individuals, but he still averaged 17 and 6 throughout the season. At another school, the 41 he put up against West Virginia in March would have been a regular occurrence. He also had 17 and 19 over Iowa State, showing his versatility as a player and his ability on the glass from the wing. His superstardom is not guaranteed, but he definitely will help the team that drafts him. The question is whether the Cavaliers draft him now that Embiid is injured. It’s no secret the Sixers have wanted him since the beginning of this process, so he definitely will not fall past 3.