Look around you. February has turned into March. The ice is gone. The birds are chirping. There's sun peeking through clouds, and it's dancing off the backs of children who can finally play outside again. Brandon Ingram started the year at 150 pounds, but now, he's up to 170! Can you hear it? Can you feel it?
IT'S MOCK DRAFT SEASON.
NBA front offices are canvassing the country scouting conference tournaments, and next week, the NCAA tournament gets under way. Is it way too early to be thinking about any of this? Sure, absolutely. But that's part of the mock tradition. With that said, a couple notes before we get started:
• The draft order here is set according to the NBA standings through March 9. An * indicates a team has inherited the pick via trade.
• This list will probably look very different when we do this again in a few weeks. Most of college basketball has been down this year, and with big boards as scrambled as they've been in years, the tournament will likely play an even bigger role than usual in determining how the draft shakes out.
• The second-half of this mock will be quick, because right now, nobody knows anything about the second half of the draft. It's important to be up front about this.
• Likewise, there will many more European names on this list when we're doing this in June, but seeing as I haven't been to Montenegro this year, you'll have to wait before we start parsing YouTube videos from the Adriatic League.
• An NBA fan can only watch so much college basketball. For each of these mocks, I'll reach out to SI.com's Luke Winn for his thoughts on a few prospects.
Let's do this.
1. BEN SIMMONS, LSU
It's so close with Brandon Ingram. Closer than anyone wants to admit. It's like there's been so much time and energy invested in hyping Ben Simmons that nobody has any energy left to hype one of the better draft debates in recent years. Here are the factors working against Simmons: He has zero jumpshot right now. ZERO. And in case you haven't been watching the NBA, shooting is the most valuable skill in the league at this point. Simmons is also not particularly long, he's struggled to engaged over the course of a disappointing season in LSU, and his position in the NBA is still a mystery. He's put up impressive numbers at LSU, yes, but Michael Beasley put up impressive numbers at Kansas State. For all his gifts as a passer, a 6'10" version of Rajon Rondo will be a tricky cornerstone to build the future around. On the other hand, any player who's that big and that skilled with the ball is worth the risk. Is all that worth a No. 1 pick? As of now, the answer is yes.
2. BRANDON INGRAM, DUKE
Ingram is younger than almost everyone in this draft—he won't turn 19 until September—and it shows. Some nights he looks like Kevin Durant, with the ability to score from anywhere on the floor and guard two or three positions on defense. Other nights, he floats out of games, hoists jumpers that don't fall, and looks lost. On all of these nights, he is listed at 195 pounds, and looks at least 20 pounds lighter. Like a 16-year-old thrown in with college kids (but a 16 year-old good enough to single-handedly win games). As the NBA learns the true value of versatile wings who can play both ways, it will eventually be reflected in the draft. Teams draft Justise Winslow because Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have shown what's possible for players like that. If you're wondering why Ingram is pushing Ben Simmons, it's not because versatile wings are more valuable now. It's because Kevin Durant, Tracy McGrady-type wings have always been the most valuable players in the sport, and that might be the ceiling with Ingram.
3. JAYLEN BROWN, CALIFORNIA
Jaylen Brown is the other kind of wing. He may not be in the mix as an All-Star starter, but given a few years, he could very well turn into a DeMar DeRozan-type weapon for a team with another superstar to lead them. For Phoenix, Devin Booker is that other superstar, and Brown has all the tools to help him on both ends. Having said that, none of this will happen next year. I asked Luke Winn for his take on the strengths and weaknesses here, and he said this: "Brown is one of the best physical specimens in the draft, but I'm not sure if his ceiling is as high as a wing like Winslow or Stanley Johnson. His efficiency level was below our projections—a tad too many turnovers, and poor FT shooting for a guy who relies on a lot of basket attacks. Obviously, this stuff can change in the right NBA development system, but I think he's a little behind his other wing comps as a freshman."
4. DRAGAN BENDER, CROATIA*
It's too early for me to pretend to have a definitive opinion on Dragan Bender. I'll just say that I was making fun of this draft class last week, when a scout reminded me that there are four players here who could be very, very good. There's Brown, Simmons, and Ingram, and then Dragan Bender, who has been firmly entrenched near the top for the past 18 months. I wouldn't expect that to change between now and June.
5. KRIS DUNN, PROVIDENCE
This is the only way the Wolves' future could get more fun. Earlier this year, a scout described Dunn to me as "Westbrook-ish—not quite Westbrook, but that's the ceiling." Even if he doesn't get there, he's been as much fun to watch as any player in college basketball. This is Draft Season, though. That means we're obligated to apply all the strange logic of this process and dock him for his age (he turns 22 in a week). Likewise, his jumper can be streaky, and while Westbrook comparisons do a nice job to capture what he's been doing to college defenses all year, that's probably not going to come so easily in the NBA. In general, comparing any player's athleticism to Russell Westbrook is like comparing an airplane to the Space Shuttle. Still, Dunn will be very good, possibly very soon. He's 6'4" with a 6'9" wingspan and NBA explosion. He'd be a perfect insurance policy for a Minnesota nucleus that still can't figure out what they have with Zach LaVine and Ricky Rubio in the backcourt.
6. WADE BALDWIN IV, VANDERBILT
This is the first true wildcard of this mock draft, and it's possibly reckless. Probably reckless. But consider Baldwin's tools—6'3" with a 6'10" wingspan—and it's easy to see him rocketing up draft boards by June. Don't look at the Kentucky game—7 points, 1-of-9 shooting—look at the Florida game—24 points, 7-of-13 shooting. And then look back at his size. He's an excellent defender who could give all kinds of trouble to a league that's full of dominant point guards, and his offense can be developed over time into something nearly as dangerous. In a draft with only four truly great prospects, I'd rather bet big than talk myself into Buddy Hield as a top-10 pick.
7. JAMAL MURRAY, KENTUCKY
There's a real question as to whether Murray will be quick enough for the NBA. He's got good size, but if he looks slow getting around defenders in college, the next level could be tricky. On the other hand... he's as skilled as anyone on the board, and watching him weave through defenses in slow motion will never get old. He's also well-versed in zen and the art of meditation, two things the Sacramento Kings could desperately use right now.
8. BUDDY HIELD, OKLAHOMA
Buddy Hield has been fun as hell at Oklahoma this year. But how much of it will translate to the NBA? Acie Law was fun as hell, too. Why is Buddy Hield different than Acie Law? I asked Luke, and he said this: "One reason to believe that Buddy isn't just having a fluke senior season is that he's worked his ass off to develop a repeatable, ideal shooting form. It took him three years to get there, and I think what you see now will be what you'll get in the NBA: someone who can reliably hit 3s from the wings and corners and give you instant offense off the bench. He's also a relentlessly positive dude who has zero red flags in terms of character or work ethic." So there you go. For most teams, that still isn't worth a top-10 pick. For a Nuggets team that has all kinds of exotic weapons like Nikola Jokic, Jusuf Nurkic, and Emmanuel Mudiay, it may make sense to keep this simple. Take the shooter.
9. SKAL LABISSIERE, KENTUCKY*
You're damn right we're ignoring one of the most disappointing freshman seasons in recent memory! Anyone who watched LSU-Kentucky saw enough to understand why Labissiere was at the top of his high school class with Ben Simmons. He's got very good range on his jumper with a soft touch around the rim, and while he's still not strong enough to bang with big guys, that's one of the few common prospect weaknesses that really can be fixed over time. The struggles at Kentucky have been at least partly mental. And no, crumbling underneath the weight of great expectations is not particularly promising, but it's forgivable for an 18-year-old. Skal will be worth a gamble come June, especially for a team like that can afford to wait a few years for a gamble to pay dividends.
10. JAKOB POELTL, UTAH
If versatile wings are the hottest commodity in the NBA, athletic rim protectors are the rarest. That's Poeltl. He could've gone pro last year—go back and watch what he did to Jahlil Okafor in the NCAA tournament—and it would've made perfect sense. He can move well for his size, he's stronger than anyone on this board, and he's averaging 24 and 12 per 40 minutes, on 66% shooting. For a Bucks team that will eventually need an anchor down low once they figure out that Greg Monroe's not the answer, getting Poeltl here would be a steal.
11. DEYONTA DAVIS, MICHIGAN STATE
I won't pretend to know much about Deyonta Davis at this point in the draft process. He seems Dwayne Dedmon-adjacent, but maybe he's Myles Turner-adjacent. Whatever happens, the Magic desperately need a rim protector. Whether it's Poeltl, Davis, or a few of the centers available later, hopefully they go that direction with this pick.
12. FURKAN KORKMAZ, TURKEY
Sounds like a made-up prospect? Definitely! But take five minutes to watch him dunk over this couple's romantic dinner. After that first dunk, he emerges with a lightsaber, catches a pass off the side of the backboard, and does a reverse dunk as Darth Vader. The Furkan Show is so real. When I asked a scout about him last week, he compared Korkmaz to Rudy Fernandez, only less soft, and less cocky. And that... that actually sounds like a perfect option for any team looking for scoring off the bench.
13. DENZEL VALENTINE, MICHIGAN STATE*
Draymond Green comparisons will follow him... and so will the analysts telling you not to make too many Draymond comparisons. So let's discuss this. Their games really aren't similar. Valentine is a wing in the NBA, not a forward or center. Likewise, there's no scenario in which he evolves into a top-10 player who accidentally changes the way the entire league plays basketball. When you think about it that way, the comparison's pretty unfair. But if you're losing sleep over Valentine's unfair expectations, just remember that five years ago, he'd probably be closer to the second round than the lottery. He's averaging 19.6 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 7.5 assists (with 45% from three), and he can clearly help any team who lands him in June, but teams in the past would have convinced themselves he didn't have a position at the next level.
14. DEMETRIUS JACKSON, NOTRE DAME
The Pistons could use another guard to help ease Reggie Jackson's responsibilities, and Demetrius Jackson is the best guard on the board. He's also one guy who could really benefit from a strong run in March. It's entirely possible that the next time we do this he'll be in the top 10.
15. HENRY ELLENSON, MARQUETTE*
In Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic, the Nuggets have two centers that most rebuilding teams would be glad to build around for the next two years. But assuming Kenneth Faried isn't part of the long-term plan, it would be a good idea to take a chance on a skilled (if raw, and Brandon Ingram-skinny) power forward who can play next to either center they put on the court.
16. DAMIAN JONES, VANDERBILT*
Boston's in a fantastic position with these later picks in the first round. The roster is already full of talent, and the Nets picks will give them shots at superstars for the next few years. In the middle of the first round, they might as well just take a chance on the guys with the highest ceiling. At this point, that may be Damian Jones, a sophomore who began the year as a lottery pick before an underwhelming season tempered everyone's enthusiasm.
17. STEPHEN ZIMMERMAN, UNLV
The Bulls need a center, right? They can't keep running it back with Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah forever. Please. Don't let them do this.
18. TAUREAN PRINCE, BAYLOR*
I'd be surprised if Denver uses all three first rounders on players who will matriculate next season. This team clearly scouts Europe well, and you can only have so many young players on the team at one time. That said, I love Prince. You see what Kent Bazemore has turned into for the Hawks this year? There's no reason Prince can't turn into a similar player a few years down the road, particularly if his three-point shooting (39% last year, 36% this year) improves with a few years of development.
19. MALCOLM BROGDON, VIRGINIA
Another player who could rise or fall depending on what happens in March. For now, at 6'5" he's averaging 18 points-a-game and shooting 41% from three, with four years of experience at UVA, and excellent defense. He has all the tools to be a solid role player. With Myles Turner and Paul George and a roster full of question marks, Indiana could use a few of those.
20. MELO TRIMBLE, MARYLAND
Kemba Walker needs an understudy. And with that, we'll keep this quick for the final 10 picks.
21. IVAN RABB, CALIFORNIA
Rabb should probably stay in school another year or two, but if he leaves, a chance to learn from Paul Millsap would be a solid alternative.
22. BRICE JOHNSON, NORTH CAROLINA*
There's no way Jerry Colangelo doesn't take a four-year senior with at least one Sixers pick.
23. JUAN HERNANGOMEZ, SPAIN
All in on Big Spain and Little Spain. Sing it with me.
24. DWYANE BACON, FLORIDA STATE
Bacon would be a perfect project as a two-way wing for a team that can afford to wait.
25. DIAMOND STONE, MARYLAND
When we do this after a few weeks of tournament play, Stone will either be 10 spots higher, or 10 spots lower.
26. DOMATAS SABONIS, GONZAGA*
The Sixers have the same issues as the Nuggets, and will likely add a European here who won't come over for a few years. If not, though, Sabonis seems like a fun project as a skilled four.
27. CHIECK DIALLO, KANSAS
Bruno & Skal & Chieck in 2023.
28. GRAYSON ALLEN, DUKE*
Yeah, we are absolutely using this mock draft to sentence Grayson Allen to a lifetime in the desert.
29. TYLER ULIS, KENTUCKY
I'm not saying this will happen, but it should. Everyone should want good things to happen to Tyler Ulis.
30. CARIS LeVERT, MICHIGAN
There may be good reasons Caris LeVert won't go to Golden State, overcome his injuries from the past two years, and be the new Shaun Livingston, but I don't want to hear them. Besides, it's March. Mock Draft One. This is the time to dream.