The NBA Finals gave us some of the most dramatic basketball we've seen in years, but now it's time to enjoy the other side of the NBA. This will get weird.
LeBron had his moment. It's Furkan Korkmaz season now. Deyonta Davis is ready for his close-up, and Ivica Zubac and Timothe Luwawu are here to make you fall in love with the Mega Leks. Fans all over America are about to become way too invested in whether their team lands Patrick McCaw or Brice Johnson. Danny Ainge came here to chew bubblegum and try to trade six first–round picks, and he's all out of bubblegum. THE DRAFT IS HERE.
Half the teams in the lottery have spent the past few weeks trying to flip their pick for a veteran. Everyone has too many assets, and meanwhile, nobody in the league knows quite what to expect from free agency when the salary cap jumps to $94 million this summer. Also, Derrick Rose is on the Knicks now? Are the Hawks tanking? All of this feeds into the festivities tonight.
As for the draft itself, the first two picks are set, and the Celtics are the wild card now. Ainge has spent the past month trying to parlay assets into a star, and at the same time, Boston has feigned interest in no less than five players (Jamal Murray, Dragan Bender, MarqueseChriss, Jaylen Brown, and most recently Kris Dunn) in an attempt to gin up interest for the No. 3 pick. Whether they succeed remains to be seen, but whoever goes at No. 3 will have a ripple effect throughout the top eight, and we have no idea who the Celtics want.
A few notes before we jump in:
• This mock draft is based on team needs, consensus among other experts, and my own stubborn biases as a longtime draft nerd. It's not rooted in any scoops, and fans can take this seriously at their own peril.
• The toughest first–round omissions: Damian Jones, Brice Johnson, Guerschon Yabusele, A.J. Hammons and Petr Cornelie.
• Best second round steals: Malcolm Brogdon, Robert Carter, Chinanu Onuaku, Isaia Cordinier, Gary Payton II, Isaiah Cousins and Kay Felder.
• Big picture: Last year spoiled everyone with a draft full of future All-Stars, and this year appears to be a case of the market correcting. The more I've studied this draft, the less excited I am about the star potential of the top–15 picks.
• On the other hand, if 1-15 is weaker this year, 15-45 is full of potential rotation players and possible starters. That's where this draft will get fun (and completely unpredictable).
Likewise, even the worst drafts—looking at you, 2011—can still feature guys like Klay Thompson (No. 11), Kawhi Leonard (No. 15), and Jimmy Butler (No. 30) hiding in plain sight. So, you never know.
And on that note... Here we go.
1. Ben Simmons, LSU
RECORD: F | 6'10", 240 | FR.
2. Brandon Ingram, Duke
RECORD: F | 6'9", 195 | FR.
Ingram's my favorite player in the draft. He looks like he weighs 150 pounds, but he plays bigger, and he was fearless for Duke last year. All the typical draft buzzwords apply to his place in the top two—he's got a freakish wingspan (7'3), three-point range, the ability to play multiple positions and tons of upside—but I like Ingram for his intangibles as much as anything. He played his tail off against bigger players all year long, he got better as the season unfolded, and by the end he was clearly the best player on Duke's team at 18 years old. The Lakers are apparently settled on Ingram, and L.A. fans should be thrilled.
3. Jaylen brown, Cal
RECORD: G/F | 6'7", 225 | FR.
The hype comes full circle! After half the NBA decided Brown was overrated over the past few months, he's now right back in the mix near the top of this draft, and he could surprise everyone Thursday. Boston has liked Brown since the regular season, and if the Celtics keep this pick, here's to betting that Ainge goes for upside on the wing. This is the same GM who was ready to trade four first–round picks for Justise Winslow last year, and Brown does a lot of the same things. With a reliable jumper, he could turn into a terror on both ends of the floor. Or, to think of this a different way: If the Celtics can't trade for Jimmy Butler, maybe they can draft him.
4. Marquese Chriss, Washington
RECORD: F | 6'9", 225 | FR.
Speaking of hype... Chriss came out of nowhere—he's only played basketball for five years, he wasn't ranked in the top 50 out of high school and he only played about 25 minutes per game for Washington (thanks in large part to foul trouble)—but over the past month he's exploded up draft boards. He's got the highest ceiling of anyone beyond the top two. That's partly an indictment of his lottery peers, yes, and he's also got a much lower floor than someone like Jaylen Brown, sure. But all of that is what makes this fun. Will Marquese Chriss turn into a full-on pick-and-roll nightmare next to Devin Booker, or will he be 2016's Tyrus Thomas? Let's find out!
5. Kris Dunn, Providence
RECORD: G | 6'4", 220 | SR.
Minnesota could really use Dragan Bender in this spot, and a future built around him and Karl–Anthony Towns would be terrifying. On the other hand, Kris Dunn may be the safest bet in the draft outside of Brandon Ingram, and between injuries and Ricky Rubio rumors, the Wolves point guard situation isn't quite as solid as you might think. Dunn was one of the most productive players in the country at Providence, and he's the closest of any lottery pick to helping a team from Day One next year. He's built like a tank and plays like it—there's no way Thibs will be able pass on that, right?
6. Jamal Murray, Kentucky
RECORD: G | 6'4", 205 | FR.
Anyone who watched him in the NCAA tournament against Indiana saw him struggle against NBA length and quickness, and his lack of athleticism will make playing defense a struggle. But look at some of the best combo-guards in the NBA—Curry, Harden, McCollum, even Devin Booker and D'Angelo Russell last year—and there are plenty of examples of talented guards who faced a lot of the same skepticism at draft time. The Pelicans should grab him hoping that he can get to that C.J. McCollum level next in a few years, and knowing that his three-point shooting could help them regardless next season.
7. Dragan Bender, Croatia
RECORD: F | 7'0", 220 | Age 18
• Will Bender be NBA's next Croatian star?
8. Buddy Hield, Oklahoma
RECORD: G | 6'4", 215 | SR.
According to ESPN's Chad Ford, the Kings have been shunned by almost every prospect in the first round. Players have refused to work out, and many have refused to even provide medical records. Apparently nobody wants to be the next Nik Stauskas? In any case, Sacramento is opening a new arena this season, Boogie is in the final two years of his contract and still hasn't made the playoffs, and the Ben McLemore Experiment has been on life support for a good 24 months now. Hield's best case scenario is the Bahamian J.J. Redick, which would be great in this draft. Even in the worst–case scenario—Jodie Meeks?—his shooting should help off the bench.
9. Jakob Poeltl, Utah
RECORD: C | 7'1", 240 | SO.
10. Deyonta Davis, Michigan State
RECORD: F/C | 6'10", 240 | FR.
The Bucks could go in a couple different directions—Wade Baldwin, Timothe Luwawu, and Henry Ellenson are all options—but after talking it through on this Bucks podcast with friends at Brew Hoop, I'm pretty sure drafting Davis is the best option. He's raw and probably a few years away from helping as a starter, but this would be a smart long-term play. He can protect the rim, rebound, and best–case scenario, he can knock down jumpers and spread the floor. Davis can definitely do the first two, and maybe even the third. Do it, Bucks Mafia.
11. Skal Labissiere, Kentucky
RECORD: F/C | 6'11", 220 | FR.
General question: Does anyone know what the Magic are doing? The pieces in Orlando don't necessarily fit, but they've got so many young players from the past few years that there aren't any obvious holes to fill, either. For now, let's assume they go for upside here. Skal is a few years and a few thousand Chipotle burritos away from banging with NBA big men, but if he can put on enough weight to hold his own, he's got all the tools to be an excellent rim-protecting stretch five (think Channing Frye).
12. Domantas Sabonis, Gonzaga
RECORD: F | 6'10", 240 | SO.
Let's see... Undersized, underrated, high motor, high IQ, star of everyone's favorite Cinderella team... He's basically already a Hawk, right? And this is definitely the best–case scenario for Domantas Sabonis. He's good and productive now, but if the Hawks can help him add a perimeter jumper, he could be excellent for the next 10 years.
13. TIMOTHE LUWAWU, FRANCE
RECORD: G/F | 6'7", 205 | AGE 20
Luwawu's highlights a) lead this draft class in dunks-per-minute and b) make me want a Mega Leks jersey. At worst, he can be a helpful energy role player off the bench. At best, he can hone his three-point shooting and grow into a long (6'11 wingspan), athletic monster on the wing playing next to Devin Booker in Phoenix. The Suns could also take Henry Ellenson here, but I hope they roll the dice on Luwawu.
14. Wade Baldwin IV, Vanderbilt
RECORD: G | 6'3", 195 | SO.
• Position rankings: Best guards, wings, bigs
15. FURKAN KORKMAZ, TURKEY
RECORD: G | 6'5", 175 | Age 18
I lied when I said Brandon Ingram was my favorite player in the draft. Furkan Korkmaz is my favorite player in the draft. Wherever he lands tonight, I hope ESPN shows his full, six-minute dunk contest—dunking over that couple's romantic dinner, and then putting on the Darth Vader outfit for the finale—and gives the people what they need. He's also only 18 years old, and probably the best draft-and-stash prospect in this draft. Assuming the Nuggets won't add three rookies this season, Furkan at 15 is a smart play.
16. Taurean Prince, Baylor
RECORD: F | 6'7", 220 | Sr.
Jae Crowder gets an understudy! Prince can play either forward spot, he's built like a linebacker, he dunks like a linebacker, and his three-point shooting is solid. The Celtics don't have many glaring needs (beyond star power that this draft won't provide), and as a role player who will win over Boston fans within his first month, Prince could be great.
17. Malachi Richardson, Syracuse
RECORD: G | 6'6", 195 | fR.
There was talk over the weekend that Memphis encouraged Richardson to shut down his workouts, because if he slides to 17, the Grizzlies plan to take him. That's a little bit puzzling considering some of the struggles he had during the regular season at Syracuse, but he's a good shooter with tools that could turn him into a starter down the road.
18. Henry Ellenson, MArquette
RECORD: F/C | 6'10", 245 | Fr.
19. Malik Beasley, Florida State
RECORD: G | 6'5", 190 | Fr.
This could be a chance to steal a long-term sidekick for Emannuel Mudiay. Beasley's a little bit like Marquese Chriss. He wasn't on anyone's draft radar coming out of high school, and even now, he's something of a mystery. He can shoot, he's explosive, and while a little undersized, he's got all the tools to grow into a solid defender. Most importantly, my favorite fact of the draft is that both his parents are actors, and his dad is currently working on Bloodline, trying to get paid by Kevin, unaware that Kevin did a bad thing—I'm so in on Malik Beasley.
20. Denzel Valentine, Michigan State
RECORD: G/F | 6'6", 220 | SR.
• NBA draft needs for all 30 teams
21. Dejounte Murray, Washington
RECORD: G | 6'5", 170 | Fr.
Now that Schroeder is the new Teague, maybe Atlanta needs a new Schroeder? Murray is giving off strong Tony Wroten vibes—great physical tools, can get to the rim at will, can't shoot, probably should've stayed in school—and maybe that scares some teams. It should scare some teams. But the Hawks' staff has been consistently excellent at developing young players, and Murray has more to work with than almost anyone.
22. Juan Hernangomez, Spain
RECORD: F | 6'9", 225 | AGE 20
23. Ante Zizic, Croatia
RECORD: C | 6'11", 240 | Age 19
If the Celtics can't swing a trade, they'll likely look to draft–and–stash at least one of these picks. They could go with Zizic here, or Ivica Zubac, another 7–footer from the Adriatic League. Zizic is the more active and athletic of the two and figures to fit better with the direction of the league, but the Zizic-Zubac debate will (hopefully?) come down to the wire.
24. Demetrius Jackson, Notre Dame
RECORD: G | 6'1", 220 | Jr.
Jackson's long-term future probably makes the most sense as a high–energy third guard, but given how barren the backcourt in Philadelphia has been, he could make sense as a starter in the immediate future. Most importantly, he's got good length (6'5 wingspan) to help himself defensively, and he can hit spot-up jumpers, a prerequisite for any guard playing next to Ben Simmons.
25. Cheick Diallo, KAnsas
RECORD: F | 6'9", 218 | FR.
Diallo was basically invisible at Kansas this past season—3.0 ppg, 7.5 mpg—but a great combine and crazy physical tools—7'4.5" wingspan—has helped boost his stock into the first round. He has Biyombo potential off the bench, and the Clippers could draft him here and pay him roughly $70 million less over the next few years. Not a bad deal.
26. Patrick McCaw, UNLV
RECORD: G | 6'7", 181 | So.
27. DeAndre Bembry, St. Joe's
RECORD: G | 6'6", 220 | JR.
• Bembry carries brother's memory to draft
28. Ivica Zubac, Croatia
RECORD: C | 7'1", 265 | Age 19
Zubac could go much higher, and at 19 years old, there's plenty of room to grow after another year or two overseas. The recent track record of the Adriatic League big men (Nikola Jokic, Jusuf Nurkic) is certainly encouraging. In any case, the Suns are unlikely to bring all three picks to the NBA next, so this would be a nice longterm investment if he's available.t
29. Tyler Ulis, Kentucky
RECORD: G | 5'9", 149 | SO.
Ulis is dealing with some of the same injury concerns facing Denzel Valentine, and for a point guard who's already 150 pounds and 5'9", giving teams more room for skepticism is not ideal. But look: People around Kentucky basketball have been effusive in their Tyler Ulis praise for two years, and I will bet anything he'll be productive wherever he goes. If injury questions lead him to San Antonio and a bench mob with Kyle Anderson and Boban, this slide will be 100% worth it.
30. Caris LeVert, Michigan
RECORD: G | 6'7", 205 | SR.
In real life, given the uncertainty surrounding both Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli, Damian Jones or A.J. Hammons make more sense for the Warriors. In this mock reality, all that has ever mattered—in March, April, May, and June—is setting Caris Levert free in Golden State. Don't talk to me about a Jones fracture. We're here now. The draft is in 12 hours. Can't quit before the miracle happens.