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Explaining the Biggest Surprises of the 2018 NBA Draft

With the 2018 NBA draft behind us, The Crossover’s Front Office provides an inside look at the night's major storylines and biggest surprises.

Thursday night’s draft wasn’t quite as crazy as advertised, but it certainly wasn’t devoid of intrigue or drama. From Atlanta and Dallas cutting a deal at the top involving high-profile young players Luka Doncic and Trae Young, to lottery talents Lonnie Walker and Robert Williams slipping lower in the first round, plus the fact that a majority of teams stayed put despite a flurry of trade calls across the league, there’s quite a bit to unpack. Before we start worrying about the 2019 draft—and it’s never too early—let’s take one last look inside last night’s major storylines.

For more 2018 NBA draft coverage, check out our pick-by-pick grades of the first round and our behind-the-scenes lookfrom the Barclays Center.

1. As soon as the rest of the league began to realize the Kings were taking Marvin Bagley, it became clear that the Mavericks and Hawks were destined to be trade partners. Picking at No. 3, the Hawks came to understand they ran the market for Doncic, a player Dallas has openly had the hots for within league circles for some time. As we alluded to in recent weeks, there was a push for Trae Young within the Atlanta organization, but the Hawks felt it was a move they could only make with proper value if they were able to trade down in a desirable way. The Hawks’ preference in any trade for their pick was to move the hefty contract of Dennis Schröder or Kent Bazemore, but the Mavericks understandably balked at ruining their cap situation for this summer by taking on either player.

Given both sides’ ultimate desire to draft the respective players they wound up with, it was clear early on that there was enough incentive for the trade to get done, whether or not Dallas was willing to take on Bazemore and the remaining two years and $37 million on his deal. The Hawks still had enough leverage to land a lightly-protected first-rounder from the Mavericks that should convey next season—a pick that will prove valuable as Atlanta tries to rebuild. Doncic came at a cost for Dallas, but given the internal urgency to compete next season, it was a worthwhile investment, particularly given that he’s the most NBA-ready prospect in the draft. Although they’ll likely lose next year’s first-round pick, if you’re a believer in Doncic, then the Mavericks managed to eliminate risk with their decision. The Hawks inherit it while betting big on Young, but prop themselves up regardless with a potential second lottery pick in 2019. I like the deal for both sides.

2. In related news, the Kings may have hurt their own chances at shopping their pick with the way their situation was telegraphed to the rest of the league. The first telltale sign was that Bagley was the only lottery-level prospect to work out for the Kings, and as ESPN’s Jonathan Givony reported, other prospects avoided sending Sacramento their medical information. Meanwhile it became little secret that there was internal division in Sacramento’s front office with regard to Luka Doncic. Michael Porter Jr. had fans in their braintrust, but ultimately was far too heavy a risk for any team to draft that high given the breadth of talent available atop this class.

Though there is some difference of opinion around the league as to how he stacks up with the other big men at the top, Bagley is very much a quality prospect, had an impressive year at Duke, and shouldn’t be unfairly counted out as a potential anchor for the Kings (though it appears a large portion of the fan base clamored for Doncic until the end). Sacramento has three promising-to-workable perimeter players in De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic, and will hope for Harry Giles and Willie Cauley-Stein to form an interior trio with Bagley. Fox is a big-time talent, and having Bagley around should make his life a lot easier. The Kings need to invest heavily in his defensive development, as Bagley can be porous on that end of the floor,  but if his jumper starts to fall, he might be able to play as a sort of hybrid inside-out four-man, which seems to be the goal.

Kings VP of Basketball Operations Vlade Divac did his due diligence on Doncic—and there was some level of suspicion around the league that Sacramento could still change their mind at the last second—but ultimately Bagley was the choice. While he should be a productive contributor for Sacramento, I do wonder if we’ll look back in 10 years and wonder how the Kings opted out of Doncic and Jaren Jackson Jr., who landed in Memphis at No. 4 (which was a strong move by the Grizzlies, I’d add).


3.It was good to see the draft’s three major fallers, Michael Porter, Lonnie Walker and Robert Williams, all end up in situations that bode positively for their success. It wasn’t a massive surprise to see Porter fall all the way to 14 given the obvious concerns over his long-term health. Porter’s potential top-seven landing spots were the Mavericks and Bulls, and Dallas clearly had other plans. Chicago was the first team able to obtain medical information on him and was thought by many to be a potential landing spot given the Bulls’ relationship with his agent, Mark Bartelstein. What I gathered from conversations in the days prior to the draft was that if Chicago passed, Porter was due for a slide into the late lottery. Some teams had concerns about his maturity and readiness to adapt to life in the NBA, and according to league sources, the Clippers were never particularly high on him, contrary to what some reports had speculated dating back to the combine. 

Don’t expect the Nuggets to rush Porter into basketball activity—speculatively, I won’t be surprised if he rests during summer league—but if he pans out toward the higher end of his talent and can stay healthy, he might help elevate Denver into a consistent playoff participant. It’s definitely an if, though. The Nuggets have plenty of talent already in place that relieves some of the pressure on him to be a star anytime soon. His career will be fascinating to monitor from here.

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Walker’s fall to No. 18 wound up benefitting him in a big way, as the Spurs are a perfect situation for his development and should give him a chance to become a starting-caliber player in due time. He’s a tremendous slasher and athlete who had a case in the mid-to-late lottery. The Spurs may have to rebuild if Kawhi Leonard is on the move, and Walker and Dejounte Murray are a promising backcourt tandem. According to multiple league sources, a wide range of teams flagged his medical, which contributed on some level to his fall out of the lottery—there’s no immediate injury that will cause him problems, but some were fearful of his long-term durability. That situation is far from damning, and in the end, he should end up perfectly pleased with the way it shook out.

The situation with Williams was a bit different, although his fit in Boston is similarly strong and will give him a terrific opportunity to tap into his full potential. He has the physical ability and basketball talent to become a highly valuable player, and while he’s frequently been compared to Clint Capela, Williams may actually be more athletic and has a stronger feel for the game at the same age. That’s not to say that means anything, of course, but the profile is there. The biggest knock on him has been his consistency, which he has publicly acknowledged as an area of improvement. You’ll find few NBA coaches who have the patience for young bigs that don’t play hard on a consistent basis, and Williams hasn’t done enough yet to earn the benefit of the doubt in that regard. 

According to league sources, Williams’s fall in the draft didn’t stem as much from his recurring knee soreness and lower back stiffness as it did from background work. Some teams were not impressed with Williams in interviews, and a string of questionable decisions raised further concerns based on the intel they had. Williams served a suspension for violating team policy at Texas A&M to open this season, chose to skip this year’s draft combine entirely, decided to fire agent Mike Silverman in favor of BDA Sports Management with a month to go until the draft, and did little to assuage concerns in the minds of many front offices. The Celtics, to their credit, have the ideal infrastructure in place to bring Williams along and help him adjust to life as a professional. His selection at No. 27 may prove a coup for player and team alike.

2018 NBA Draft: Biggest Winners and Losers

4. Despite a strong sense of anticipation with regard to a flurry of pending trades, the draft was a lot less nutty after the big deal at the top. Based on conversations I’ve had with teams, you can attribute a large part of that to a leaguewide, general hesitance to absorb bad salary—and after all the money that got thrown at mediocre players during the 2016 off-season, there’s a whole lot of it to go around. Given that at least half the league is in essence committed financially to going over the soft cap next season, it makes sense that the teams that actually do have serious salary room would want to see what they can get on the market before taking on anyone’s garbage and damaging their own flexibility. Particularly given that potential superstar movement could lead to a domino effect of transactions this summer, it’s likely there are better deals to be had once teams get more desperate to get off of hefty contracts.

While there was trepidation from a financial standpoint, it was also highly unusual to note that not a single current roster player under contract was dealt on draft night. The Raptors and Heat didn’t have picks and pursued trade options to get into this year’s draft but ended up sitting out entirely. The only other major first-round deal was a swap between the Sixers and Suns that sent Mikal Bridges (No. 10) to Phoenix for Zhaire Smith (No. 16) and Miami’s unprotected 2021 first—a pick that has a chance to end up being the most consequential part of this trade in the end. 

Keep in mind that the one-and-done rule could be eliminated going into that draft, which could mean the influx of an entire high school class’s worth of elite talent ends up being available. That was a high price to pay for Phoenix to land Bridges, a solid, NBA-ready wing player who’s older than their core guys (welcome, Deandre Ayton) they didn’t expressly need for any on-court reason. Have they forgotten about Josh Jackson? The Clippers did come up a spot to nab Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a player they loved and who should stabilize their backcourt long-term, but otherwise there was a whole lot of standing pat. I’ve written this a billion times, but the draft is a wholly uncertain entity—even when that uncertainty leads to nothing in particular.

5. A number of teams drafted particularly well, the way I see it. Jaren Jackson was a coup for Memphis at No. 4, and Jevon Carter (No. 32) is one of my favorite players in the entire draft. Wendell Carter is a perfect fit in Chicago. The Magic stayed true to form, going for length, athleticism and upside with Mo Bamba (No. 6) Melvin Frazier (No. 35) and Justin Jackson (No. 43), who could conceivably also share the floor with Jonathan Isaac at some point down the line and absolutely terrorize opponents defensively. 

After grabbing Doncic at No. 3, Dallas was able to add Jalen Brunson at No. 33 and took late fliers on Ray Spalding and Kostas Antetokounmpo (which, yes, is probably a recruiting ploy). Picking exclusively in the second, the Pistons managed to acquire two players, Khyri Thomas (No. 38 via swap with the Sixers) and Bruce Brown (No. 42), that had cases to be drafted in the late first round—Brown is one of my personal favorites who may end up being a total steal.

All in all, a lot of teams got better on Thursday night, and the upcoming summer league play in Las Vegas and elsewhere will offer a better sense of who made out the best.