March Madness is here, which means the 2016 NBA draft is close. Here's a look at the top 20 NBA prospects as the NCAA tournament tips off.
Welcome to draft season. Off the court and behind the scenes, front offices are collecting information full-tilt as the focus begins to shift from this year to next. We’re here to guide you through these murky, rumor-filled waters and make as much sense of the climate as possible, no illuminati membership required.
First things first: the only actual consensus about this draft right now is that one way or the other, Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram will be the first two players drafted. From what I’ve gathered in talking to NBA personnel, Simmons is still the favorite. You try talking yourself out of a 6’10” savant of a point forward just because he sometimes pouts and lacks a little confidence in his jump shot. Go find a person on this earth who had everything completely together up there when they were a college freshman.
After those guys, there’s immense room for movement. It’s not a secret this a down year, especially in contrast to the already-bountiful 2015 class. There’s always relative value to be had, but this draft gets into probable role-player territory earlier than usual. Stocks are fluid, lots will change.
One important thing I was reminded of in conversations with sources: don’t forget about the salary-cap hike. Look at the massive contracts handed out to role-player types last off-season (think $60 million for a steady wing guy like DeMarre Carroll or $58 million for…Omer Asik). Then, trust the average free-market salary will be taking a hefty leap this summer.
How does that impact the draft? The potential value of a first-rounder has never been higher. The influx of money seems certain to inflate rookie deals under the next collective bargaining agreement, coming to an arena near you in 2017. Teams will want to maximize the incredible market inefficiency that is five cost-controlled years of a quality player on the current scale (particularly big men, who tend to command more as free agents). That might mean making a safer investment instead of taking a chance, just to make sure you don't end up with nothing.
Below, you’ll find SI.com’s first Big Board of 2016. Let the Madness begin.
Simmons tops the board amid swirling doubts about his jumper and his approach to the game—not necessarily in that order. Still, all the in-demand traits—the passing, the size, the ball skills—have ultimately maintained their allure. He instinctively does things that are hard to teach, and trust that he’ll receive better coaching and spend plenty of time shooting jumpers. “In a position–less basketball era,” one NBA scout remarked, “there’s nobody you could think of better for that than Ben Simmons right now.”
Here’s the reason Simmons isn’t a lock to go first: the lanky, sweet-shooting Ingram continues to capture scouts’ imaginations with his scoring potential. He’s a little inconsistent game to game, perhaps not ready for big minutes and yes, quite thin, but the necessary parts are all in place to cultivate a star if his body can pack on the strength. “He competes,” one scout says. “You’re going to need that kind of dog [in you] to succeed at our level.” And if Ingram does wind up going first, it’s a testament to the league’s shooting premium and the way the Warriors have shifted the paradigm. That scenario is certainly in play.
He’s huge, he’s skilled, he can shoot and and he’s far from an unknown. Bender has been a pro since age 14, and a full season with Maccabi will have him prepared for the transition. One of the youngest players in the draft, he’s an outstanding playmaker at his size with a sound all-around set of tools and a competitive streak. As do most 18 year olds, Bender needs to get physically stronger, which should help answer questions as to what position he guards. He’ll have a big adjustment ahead, but his unique set of talents keeps him near the top of this draft nonetheless.
There’s no question among scouts that Dunn is the best point guard prospect available. He’s got great size and athletic ability, excels driving to the basket and should benefit greatly from the NBA’s more spread-out style of play. Dunn’s not perfect—he’s not much of a jump shooter nor an elite ballhandler or playmaker—and he turns 22 on Friday. That said, the extremely-thin positional class gives him a bump and will prevent him from falling too far—many think he’s ready to contribute right away. Lottery teams with a need will be thinking long and hard.
Poeltl has boosted his stock with consistently terrific play, and scouts love his combination of height and nimble feet. He’s a natural around the rim with a bag full of post moves. His issues come on the other side of the ball: one scout expressed concern with his adjustment to faster tempos and pick-and-roll defense, and another was more concerned with his rim protection skills. Poeltl’s 7’1” wingspan is not especially impressive for his height. Regardless, true centers with both the physical gifts and actual skills to play at the highest level are hard to find. and without a doubt, he’s the best one here.
After scoring 20-plus points in 12 straight games, there’s little doubt about Murray’s scoring and long-distance shooting. Scouts love his confidence and maturity, and nobody has forgotten about the Pan-American Games, where he averaged 16 points for Canada against grown men. Is he a full-time point guard? He can make some plays, but that seems unlikely. His defensive understanding has to improve. But his shot-making will translate, and with the role he’s played at Kentucky, he’s proven himself as a multi-dimensional floor-spacer. He reminded one evaluator of Allan Houston.
Brown’s a physical specimen, big, long, strong and bouncy with a tantalizing ceiling. But several scouts agreed that his skill set leaves something to be desired. “He’s not the first freak athlete to come along,” one said. “If you don’t match that with understanding of how to play, you can float.” Brown’s always been able to get by as the most athletic player on the court and to reach his potential, the rest of his game must catch up—especially his jumper. But on pure upside, he’s got a case as high as third.
Rumor has it that Ellenson isn’t set on coming out this year, but as of right now, he’s in the lottery if he wants to be. He can run, he can shoot from range and rebound, and with strong workouts has a chance to go higher than this. Multiple scouts expressed concern with his lateral quickness, and as we’ve seen recently with Kevin Love, defensive limitations can hamper even the most skilled, talented bigs in this mold. There remains a whole lot to like here.
Hield is at the tail end of an incredible college season, and his stunning three-point shooting improvement—from 23% as a freshman to 46% today while increasing his volume each season—hasn’t gone unnoticed among NBA types. Now, that stroke will have to be his calling card, as his the rest of his game is solid but not high-end anywhere else. His ballhandling and decision-making aren’t yet at NBA level, and career variance is high for prolific college guards in his mold (think about J.J. Redick, then think about Jimmer Fredette). Hield is generally outside the top eight in most mock drafts, but he’s viewed as a mid-to-late lottery pick.
Chriss began the season under the radar, but generated buzz around the league with improved second-half play. He’s highlight-reel bouncy, active on the offensive glass and already a comfortable face-up shooter, all factors that mitigate the fact he’s slightly undersized. Chriss could become a pick-and-pop weapon with a chance to extend his range beyond the arc, and as he goes through the draft process and teams get more familiar, it should help solidify his stock. He’s a work in progress—foul trouble has been an issue—but in a shallow draft class, he’s worth a look in the mid-to-late lottery.
Evaluations on Rabb differ—to some he’s fringe top-10 prospects, to others he’s in the late teens. He rarely gets featured on a guard-dominant Cal team, but he did enough with those touches to bolster his stock. Rabb’s rebounding (“an innate ability to find the ball,” as one scout put it) and defense profile well, and he’s talented enough for his offensive game to expand. He’s got a better chance to outperform his eventual draft slot than most guys in this range.
Boasting perhaps the top defensive profile among bigs in this class, Davis’s length, quick feet and great shot-blocking instincts continue to stand out. He’s a bit ahead of Rabb on that end, but far less polished offensively. His appeal is clear as an energy guy who runs the floor, rebounds and can switch pick and rolls, and there’s some safety to be had in that. Not many freshmen carve out serious roles in Tom Izzo’s rotation.
Here’s the biggest wild card of the draft. On his one season at Kentucky, Labissiere’s not worth a first–round pick. With his frame, shot-contesting and touch, someone will draft him based on the possibilities. It’s glaringly obvious he needs to play and drill more, and to his credit, he improved after a horrendous start to the season. “It seemed like he stayed focused, kept working and didn’t let stuff bother him,” one SEC assistant coach says. “A lot of kids would have hung their heads.” At this stage, he could wind up essentially anywhere in the first round.
Thanks to a superb senior year (19.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 7.6 assists), Valentine locked himself in as a first-round pick. Beyond that, some things are a bit unclear. He won’t play the same ball-dominant role as a pro, and the degree to which he ran the offense made him a little tricky to evaluate. The physical side of Valentine’s game has long been in question, but there are few doubts about his makeup and savvy. As a versatile three-and-D player in the right system, he could excel.
A tall, athletic shooter and intelligent offensive player, Korkmaz has people intrigued. He’s got strong scoring potential and has shown flashes playing with Efes’s senior team in addition to starring for Turkey’s youth teams. There’s some doubt about whether he stays in the draft—he’s quite skinny, a ways from being physically there and would be one of the youngest players in this year’s class. Defensively there are question marks too. He may have something to gain by waiting.
Zimmerman had been turning in double doubles regularly for nearly a month before a minor knee injury sidelined him for most of February. He’s mobile, athletic (one scout mentioned a 40" vertical) and a lefty with shooting touch from mid-to-long range. One possible red flag is his right elbow, which doesn’t bend all the way after an injury he suffered when he was younger. Zimmerman’s stock has some variance right now, but with his distinct strengths, he could climb into the lottery once the evaluation process ramps up.
At this point, you know what you’re getting in Sabonis: a mobile rotational big who will finish inside, grab rebounds and hold his own game to game. He had an excellent season (17.4 points, 11.6 rebounds) and proved he could handle a heavier workload. Obviously there’s the NBA pedigree, too. “The lack of lift is a major concern,” one scout says, and ultimately that will limit him, but there’s enough to like here. He’s a safer bet to give you something than many of his peers in the back half of the first round.
Call this one a hunch, but at this point it’s hard to ever feel good betting against Tyler Ulis. Were he two or three inches taller, scouts think he’d have a case as the best pure point in this class. After proving himself (again) as a starting point guard and elevating an iffy Kentucky team into a very good one, his stock can’t really get much higher if he stays. Ulis’s playmaking, elite intangibles and ability to adjust and figure things out will get him picked. He’s an NBA player, and scouts love him: “He’s been really, really, really good.”