- The 2018 NBA draft class might not be as deep as the current crop of rookies, but there's a real race at the top for the No. 1 pick. Plus: What to watch this month, five sleepers and more.
There are two ways to view the early stages of the college basketball season. If the cup’s half-empty, you could argue that a lot of lopsided games involving elite prospects are boring—and you wouldn’t be completely wrong. But the NBA is always watching, and if you’re trying to keep up with prospects from your couch and need an antidote for all those nationally-televised Lakers games, then college basketball is here for you.
With that said, The Crossover’s Front Office is here to focus on prospects and the draft inside and out all season long. If you’ve been following our coverage here at SI for the past few years, we think you’ll like our new initiative even more. If you’re new, we hope you’ll stick around. And nobody likes long introductions (this writer included), so here are your early draft storylines.
And don’t forget to check out our first mock draft here.
THE RACE FOR NUMBER ONE
Just to get this out of the way, we’re being spoiled right now. The current NBA rookie class, from top to bottom (with or without redshirt Ben Simmons) looks like one of the deepest in recent memory. It’s not an overreaction to simply notice how many ’17 draftees already look like they belong in the league. Appreciate the breadth and depth of talent, because in that regard the ’18 draft up and down doesn’t look like it’s going to come close.
Where the 2018 draft does get fun: we have a real, wide race for the No. 1 pick, and five prospects that stand pretty clearly above the rest. Any one of Marvin Bagley, DeAndre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Michael Porter and Mohamed Bamba would have had a chance to go No. 1 in last year’s very-good draft. That alone should tell you something, and yes, tanking teams are set to reap the rewards. Opinions are mixed when it comes to ranking those five players, but the field alone will make this entertaining.
The trio of Bagley, Ayton and Bamba makes for an interesting referendum on how the center position has changed in the modern NBA. There are no lumbering giants here. Bagley’s more of a natural four, but his aggressive rebounding, transition play and fluid athleticism suggest he might legitimately center small-ball lineups on the defensive end and let you play fast going the other way. Ten years ago, Ayton would be permanently parked on the block with his physical gifts and soft touch, but today his ability to step out for jumpers and provide vital spacing for his teammates is arguably just as crucial. Bamba is behind the other two offensively, but his freakish length and ability to defend around the basket in space make him a special kind of outlier.
Meanwhile, Doncic is probably the most accomplished European draft prospect ever, and in his third season in the Euroleague, the Real Madrid star has developed into its top performer. He’s still only 18. Porter Jr. has a chance to lead a deep SEC in scoring, and his polish as a shooter and scorer at his size are unmatched in this class. How teams differentiate between these five players will dominate much of the draft conversation from here on out. Don’t expect a consensus any time soon.
Here are the best games on the November docket.
Blue Bloods for Everybody: The Champions Classic (Nov. 14)
Along with every NBA team, the Front Office will be in Chicago this week for college hoops’ biggest annual early-season showcase, featuring Duke, Michigan State, Kansas and Kentucky. The event has become a staple of the schedule, with a good dozen critical 2018 prospects on display in a high-energy and high-profile environment. It’s a great stage for a player to make a statement.
Duke vs. Michigan State
Key players: Marvin Bagley III, Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson Jr., Grayson Allen, Wendell Carter Jr., Trevon Duval, Gary Trent Jr.
This is a meeting of two consensus top-five teams and the glitzier of the two games, with both teams fielding a lot of size up front. Bagley and Bridges are the two biggest names, and though they presumably won’t match up directly, both will have excellent opportunities here. Bagley’s hard work on the glass should be easier to appreciate against Michigan State’s athletic front line, and Bridges’s defensive versatility will be put to the test against Duke’s variety of scorers. It’s also a nice opportunity for Jaren Jackson Jr. to prove he belongs.
Kentucky vs. Kansas
Key players: Kevin Knox, Hamidou Diallo, Devonte Graham, Nick Richards, Billy Preston, LaGerald Vick
We’ve grown accustomed to these two teams fielding surefire top–10 picks on an annual basis, but neither Kentucky nor Kansas will roll out a single player guaranteed to make a leap into the top of the draft. That said, this matchup is rife with depth. Kansas’s more experienced backcourt—particularly senior point Devonte Graham—will have a real chance to shine against Kentucky’s long, athletic defense. Bouncy wing Hamidou Diallo could be a lottery-level talent and has been the early standout for Kentucky, but essentially everyone on the Cats’ roster needs to show they can make a jump shot.
Corny Name, Fun Basketball: The Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 22–24)
Arizona, Villanova and Purdue are among the teams headed to the Bahamas this year, and all eyes will be on potential top pick DeAndre Ayton as he returns to his native country. Villanova’s Jalen Brunson is among the most consistent point guards in college hoops, and the lanky Mikal Bridges has potential as a defensive stopper on the wing. The Boilermakers are without Caleb Swanigan, but have an experienced roster led by versatile forward Vince Edwards. Also present: SMU’s impressive backcourt pairing of Shake Milton and Jarrey Foster.
Nike’s Great Big Pat on the Back: The PK80 (Nov. 23–26)
Nike founder Phil Knight turns 80 in February, and so the sneaker giant got a bunch of its premier college basketball brands together for a giant tournament in Portland. There are two separate eight-team brackets so that conference rivals can hide from one another, and more importantly, there’s a ton of talent on hand. North Carolina, Michigan State and Oregon headline one of the brackets, and Duke, Texas, Gonzaga and Florida the other. It’ll be a significant opportunity for NBA personnel to see a lot of prospects in one swoop.
Accordingly, there are some juicy potential matchups to look forward to. In one bracket, Duke and Texas could give us a fast-paced Bagley vs. Bamba duel and Florida and Gonzaga would come with a lot of sleeper-y intrigue. On the other side, Michigan State may draw Oregon while North Carolina presumably looms to face the victor. Keep an eye on Gonzaga’s international duo of Killian Tillie and Rui Hachimura and Oregon’s Troy Brown.
FIVE PROSPECTS TO WATCH
A handful of prospects you may not be thinking about yet, but should be.
1. Jaylen Hands, UCLA
Alright, so Hands isn’t an unknown quantity at all: he’s the All-American freshman helping replace Lonzo Ball in Westwood. But as a potential part of a class that skews thinner on high-end guard talent, the hyper-quick, explosive ball-handler will have an opportunity to play his way into the one-and-done conversation. He’s not especially big or strong, but Hands can elevate with the best of them and has a solid handle that allows him to attack the basket in isolation and transition situations. Simply watching him glide around the court can be a treat.
Hands has solid vision and instincts but at times appears to be playing the game faster than he can think it. He habitually throws jump passes and can force things in the halfcourt. He’ll benefit from splitting time on the ball with sophomore Aaron Holiday on a UCLA team that will still run plenty and play to his strengths. It’s not far fetched to think he could play himself into the first–round conversation, whether it’s in 2018 or 2019. The Bruins are fun to watch again, and Hands’ highlight-reel ability is a large reason why.
2. John Petty, Alabama
Much attention has already centered on Alabama’s star freshman Collin Sexton, but Petty, Avery Johnson’s other top recruit, is a promising prospect in his own right. A big-bodied shooting guard who can fill up a stat sheet, Petty can play above the rim, rebound well and make plays off the dribble. A torn meniscus for sophomore Braxton Key will mean more shots to go around, and Petty will need to adjust to playing away from the ball and stretch defenses. In high school, he appeared willing to do the dirty work for his team, which will serve him well.
You can never have enough 3–and–D wings at the NBA level, and Petty’s combination of versatility and feel is appealing. He’s a capable scorer with the body control to hit tough shots, but is also a willing passer and doesn’t need to shoot the ball to impact the game. He should be able to defend multiple positions and contribute on both ends. How efficient Petty can be with added shot volume will be worth tracking, but having Sexton dodge a long-term suspension should make life much easier. Don’t forget about him.
3. Omari Spellman, Villanova
After sitting out his freshman season due to academic ineligibility, Spellman will finally suit up for the Wildcats and should be a major presence in the frontcourt. A skilled big man who can step out and shoot or score with his back to the basket, Spellman profiles as a potential small-ball center at the next level. He stands 6’9” with a wingspan measured at 7’1" and can rebound and play through contact. He’s positioned to be a key piece of a team with Final Four aspirations.
The biggest question surrounding Spellman dating back to high school has been his conditioning: as a prep player he was built husky and his energy came and went. Even then, he was an impressive leaper for his size. The hope is that his redshirt year bought ample time to work on his body and get in top shape. According to reports, he’s dropped 30+ pounds and Villanova lists him at 245. He should produce just fine offensively, and if he displays improved lateral quickness and defensive competence, Spellman will be a person of interest.
4. Tyler Hall, Montana State
In two seasons playing in obscurity at Montana State, Hall has proven he can downright fill it up from deep, shooting 43% as a freshman and 42.9% as a sophomore. Last year, he slightly increased his shot volume, got to the foul line more often, and averaged a highly-efficient 23.1 points per game (sixth in the entire NCAA) and 1.141 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports. No matter what level you play at, that type of production will put you on the map, and he’s firmly on the NBA radar entering what should be another prolific campaign.
A big part of Hall’s appeal is his ability to create his shot in a multitude of ways, particularly catching on the move. He’s also more than just a perimeter threat, with outstanding efficiency marks as a pick and roll ball-handler and in isolation last year. He’s not really a point guard, but there is a place for scoring specialists of Hall’s quality in the NBA. The bigger issues are on the defensive end, where Hall isn’t asked to do a ton. But expect him to keep scoring, and the NBA to keep watching closely.
5. Chandler Hutchison, Boise State
Hutchison was one of the top scorers in the Mountain West last season, averaging 17.4 points per game, and is a no-nonsense wing with the ability to be a factor on both sides of the ball. He’s a sound spot-up shooter who needs to show improvement as a scorer off the dribble and on the move as a senior. He’s also a highly intelligent off-ball cutter who can get himself open around the basket. Hutchison has good size to play the two and averaged nearly eight rebounds per game last year.
After testing the draft waters, Hutchison returned to Boise State and should be poised to improve across the board. To sneak into the second round, Hutchison will need to convince scouts of his two-way potential, as well as become more of a threat from outside. He shot 37% from deep last season, but only attempted two threes per game and made more than two just once. The scoring totals should be there, but if Hutchison can establish himself as a real 3-and-D player, he’ll have a chance to stick around.
Impressive Highlight Tape of the Week: Kris Wilkes, UCLA
The other UCLA standout freshman is Wilkes, who was impressive against Georgia Tech on Friday night, draining four threes and making a number of athletic plays in transition. There are shades of Tim Hardaway Jr. in the 6’7” wing, who has a smooth-looking three-point stroke and potential to be a defensive standout, as well. His quick release looks tailored for the NBA. It’s all about three-and-D wings, baby.
For more NBA draft coverage, check out Jeremy Woo's first Mock Draft of the 2018 season.