There were no blockbuster trades involving superstars, but Thursday’s NBA draft saw plenty of action: A well-known prospect took a precipitous fall, multiple franchises maneuvered to acquire fresh-faced potential stars, and Phoenix landed its long-coveted big man at the top.
Without further ado, let’s dig into the biggest winners and losers from the 2018 NBA Draft.
Winner: Deandre Ayton
It was no surprise that Ayton went first overall to the Suns: the Arizona center was mocked as the top pick virtually everywhere for weeks in the run-up to the draft. Even so, his selection was noteworthy because it came at a time when traditional centers are being pressured off the court by smaller lineups in the playoffs, and because it stood in contrast to other recent top picks. The last comparable player to Ayton taken first overall was Greg Oden, who infamously beat out Kevin Durant in 2007. Since then, the only centers taken first have been Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns, two players with significantly deeper offensive packages than Ayton.
Combine the league’s predominant stylistic trend with that recent draft history and Ayton becomes a fascinating test case to track in the years to come. Can he develop into an All-NBA caliber force capable of delivering enough value to justify the top selection? Can he find enough success that his presence forces opponents to stay big to combat him?
There are real challenges facing Ayton. Phoenix has been mired in a losing culture for years, and the pressure to transform that climate always falls on a No. 1 pick. He’ll be expected to produce right away, even though the Suns currently lack a credible point guard. And he’ll need to assume leadership duties sooner rather than later, even though he’s still just 19 years old.
The good news, though, is that the Suns have had a gaping hole at the five, Ayton won’t face the intense scrutiny that exists in other markets, and he’ll have a few years to grow before the playoff expectations start to mount. Given that he landed in familiar surroundings and managed to headline his class after becoming embroiled in an FBI investigation back in February, Ayton deserves to be viewed as Thursday’s biggest winner.
Losers: The viewing public
Some drafts are explosive. Others are not. Thursday’s was… NOT. The biggest trade of the night—Dallas and Atlanta flipping picks in the top five—was telegraphed in advance. The most noteworthy disgruntled superstar—Kawhi Leonard—didn’t find a way to force his way out of San Antonio. The major players for LeBron James—the Cavaliers, Lakers and others—didn’t make any moves that shed major light on their plans for courting No. 23. And even the rumored salary dumps didn’t really come to fruition.
How to explain such a dud? Well, James probably deserves the bulk of the credit (or blame). In July 2014, NBA business slowed to a standstill as James contemplated his options. Once he chose Cleveland, the floodgates opened. A similar phenomenon may be developing now. For teams interested in trading for Leonard and/or signing Paul George, it’s difficult to pony up major packages without knowing whether James is changing conferences or forming a superteam. For the Cavaliers, hedging is the only possible play until James indicates his intensions.
In other words, don’t sweat the uneventful draft night. Huge fireworks are coming in a few short weeks.
Winners: Mavericks and Luka Doncic
Dallas entered the night with the fifth pick and left with the best overall prospect in Doncic. That’s a straightforward and clean win, given that the Mavericks only needed to part with a protected first-round pick to get it done.
But it’s not just how the Mavericks got Doncic, it’s what the Slovenian “Wonder Boy” represents to a franchise that has been among the league’s most irrelevant for the past five years. Doncic provides a reason to watch, hope for the future, and a dynamic all-around offensive game to a Mavericks team that hasn’t won a playoff series since 2011 and ranked No. 23 in offensive efficiency last year.
This was a win/win for player and team. Given that Doncic has played professionally for years and has won at a high level in Spain, he is entering the NBA with eyes wide open. While the Mavericks have made their fair share of mistakes in recent years, Mark Cuban is a committed owner, Rick Carlisle is one of the league’s top coaches, and Dallas is a large-market with a history of winning and plenty of experience cultivating international talent. The Mavericks are more functional than the Suns and Kings, more stable and clear-eyed than the Grizzlies, and more likely to provide a winning environment in the short-term than the Hawks. Among the possible top-five destinations, Doncic landed at the best one.
Loser: Michael Porter Jr.
As harsh as it sounds, Porter falling to the final spot of the lottery was probably Thursday night’s top story. Rewind just 12 months, and the scoring forward was firmly in the mix as a possible candidate at No. 1. While most observers could reasonably project Porter sliding out of the top five following an injury-plagued freshman season at Missouri and a mysterious pre-draft process, his freefall to Denver was stunning as it unfolded.
To make matters worse, Porter, who has a star’s charisma and self-confidence, was passed over by high-profile teams like the Bulls, Knicks and Sixers in favor of players with lower ceilings. He had a chance to land on his feet at a major platform numerous times, but it just didn’t happen. One must assume that his back and hip issues could linger and limit his productivity as a rookie.
On the flip side, Porter’s stock loss is Denver’s gain. The Nuggets missed out on the playoffs by losing to the Timberwolves on the last day of the season. Under normal circumstances, a team in that position would have no shot at landing a talent like Porter unless they beat the odds and jumped up into the top three during the lottery drawing.
Denver is fairly well-positioned to take a patient approach with Porter, given that their core group of Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris should return intact. They don’t need Porter on the court until he’s healthy, and they can afford to slow-play his return to form thanks to a decently deep supporting cast.
Loser: Mo Bamba
Even Bamba’s most ardent supporters would acknowledge that he needs time, space and structure to reach his immense potential. Unfortunately, Orlando hasn’t exactly shown much recent success when it comes to player development: They gave up too early on Victor Oladipo, they never fixed Elfrid Payton’s glaring weaknesses, they played Aaron Gordon out of position for years, and they have gotten virtually nothing from Mario Hezonja.
In fairness to the Magic, their current front office only arrived last summer, and their coach, Steve Clifford, is also new on the scene. They can’t be held entirely responsible for mistakes made under previous GM Rob Hennigan, even if those mistakes complicate Bamba’s fits.
Bamba could well become a defensive anchor for Clifford, who worked for years with Dwight Howard. To get there, though, he must surf through a frontcourt logjam that includes Gordon, 2017 lottery pick Jonathan Isaac, Bismack Biyombo and Nikola Vucevic. It’s hard not to feel like Bamba would have been better off in almost any other situation in the top eight or nine.
Winners: Hawks fans
The Hawks had no identity last season other than that they were terrible, and former coach Mike Budenholzer smartly flew the coop for Milwaukee this summer. When former Warriors executive Travis Schlenk took over last summer, his first step was a full-scale teardown. Thursday marked the first major step in his rebuild, as he landed Oklahoma guard Trae Young, Maryland guard Kevin Huerter and a protected 2019 first-round pick in a trade with the Mavericks.
Schlenk might not be able to replicate the Splash Brothers, but he landed two of this year’s top shooting prospects in Young and Huerter. Although size and defensive ability are major questions that will dog Young until he establishes himself as an NBA player, he’s an exciting, fearless playmaker with a magnetic and crowd-pleasing style. Atlanta’s roster is so young and thin that losing in volume is inevitable next season, but Young should make a nice pick-and-roll pairing with John Collins, while the extra pick from Dallas should help Schlenk add to his young core. Hawks fans are wins both now and later: They can enjoy adopting Young as the new face of their franchise comfortable in the knowledge that more help is on the way.
Losers: Kings fans
There are reasons to be excited about Marvin Bagley III, Sacramento’s pick at No. 2: He’s a natural scorer with a great motor and a high ceiling. Most importantly, he actually seems excited to play for the Kings, unlike some prospects in recent years.
Nevertheless, Kings fans must be feeling déjà vu in the worst way. Bagley joins a long line of big men selected by Sacramento in the lottery over the past eight years, including DeMarcus Cousins, Thomas Robinson, Willie Cauley-Stein and Georgios Papagiannis. Robinson and Papagiannis were busts, Cauley-Stein has merely been serviceable and Cousins, a multi-time All-Star, was traded after years of losing seasons. Now, Sacramento has turned again to a frontcourt hope in Bagley, whose lack of shooting range and shaky defensive presence combine to make him a poor fit with the Kings’ existing personnel and raises questions about his place in the modern NBA.
Although it’s possible that Bagley’s talent will rise above his challenging circumstances, Sacramento’s fan base will be forced to endure second-guessing should Doncic develop into an elite playmaking talent. Passing on an exciting playmaking wing to draft yet another big man in need of serious development amounts to another twist of a familiar knife. It’s not entirely clear whether Sacramento over-thought or under-thought this decision, but Doncic would have been a more inspiring selection.
Winner: Lonnie Walker IV
Two days before the draft, a source close to Walker pegged the Spurs as the University of Miami guard’s dream home. The reasoning was straightforward: San Antonio has the structure and patience to develop him, enough talent that the 19-year-old won’t be asked to do too much as a rookie, and a need for explosive scoring.
Despite Walker’s affinity for outlandish conspiracy theories, the Spurs clear saw him as a match for their needs. San Antonio’s offense fell from No. 7 in 2017 to No. 17 in 2018 without Kawhi Leonard, and the 2018 postseason made it clear that Gregg Popovich’s roster needs infusions of youth and athleticism. Walker fits those bills.
Portland president Neil Olshey has tried to pan for gold with long-term draft projects during his tenure, and he went down that path again by selecting Anfernee Simons, a 19-year-old guard who didn’t play college ball. Simons doesn’t address a positional need, he will likely struggle to find rotation minutes in the next year or two, and his slight frame needs serious work.
While fellow West playoff teams like the Warriors and Timberwolves logically added three-and-d wings who will likely be able to contribute immediately, the Blazers will have to upgrade one of the league’s worst wing rotations via trade or free agency, where Olshey has largely fizzled. Portland pledged to upgrade its personnel following an embarrassing playoff sweep against New Orleans but made zero progress on Thursday.