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SI:AM | NBA draft preview: Jabari Smith Should be No. 1

Plus, we can’t take our eyes off Oneil Cruz.

Good morning, I’m Josh Rosenblat. Somehow the NBA draft is just one day away.

In today’s SI:AM:

🏀 The case for Jabari Smith

Oneil Cruz is the truth

👋 Brooks Koepka says goodbye

What to watch for in the NBA draft

The NBA Finals ended less than a week ago. But already attention has to turn to the future of the league, with the NBA draft tomorrow at 8 p.m. on ESPN. Here are five things you should be looking out for as we get closer to that first selection.

Jabari Smith should be No. 1

Jabari Smith Jr.

The Magic hold the cards with the No. 1 pick and they haven’t really tipped their hand, SI’s Jeremy Woo writes. They don’t need to overthink it. Auburn’s Jabari Smith should be their choice, according to Woo.

But that wasn’t always the case. Woo’s scouting has seen four players separate themselves from the rest of the draft’s prospects: Smith, Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren, Duke’s Paolo Banchero and Purdue’s Jaden Ivey. When the college season began, the discussion for the top pick in this week’s draft centered around Banchero and Holmgren, but as Smith’s impressive true freshman season progressed, it became clear that he had all the makings of a No. 1 selection.

  • His shooting is elite. NBA execs marvel at his high release, making his jumper nearly impossible to block. “He seems to have a surefire NBA-level skill in his shooting,” a Western Conference scout told Woo. From there, the scout continued, he can build an all-around game.
  • He’s a legit 6’ 10”, which immediately makes him a versatile defender. Right now, he looks ready to guard either forward spot and switch onto guards. He could also develop into an impressive rim protector. “And hypothetically,” Woo writes, “deploying closing lineups around a switchable center who’s also a 40% three-point shooter and can hit shots from all over the floor sounds pretty nice.”
  • He fits with any lineup or system. The modern NBA is defined by spacing and even though his handle might not be as tight as a smaller guard such as Ivey, Smith has enough in his bag to attack off the dribble and shoot over smaller defenders. When given space, Smith has proven he can knock down shots. When that space is taken away, he can still finish through a crowd.
  • He’s so young. Smith played his entire season at Auburn at 18 years old. He’s six months younger than Banchero, a year younger than Holmgren and 15 months younger than Ivey.

Is Holmgren too tantalizing the pass up?

Chet Holmgren

The 7’ 1”, 195-pound prospect is a unicorn, an expression, according to SI’s Greg Bishop, that’s become overused in sports. Bishop profiled the 20-year-old, detailing his workouts, including one where he shot 67% from behind the arc in what was a below average display.

Will Holmgren seize on all that makes him unusual? Or will he falter, because of that bookmark-thin body, whether from injury or getting knocked around like the world’s tallest pinball?”

Woo has Holmgren ranked No. 4 on his big board, behind the other elite prospects, in part because he “may be a tad more situation-dependent than the three prospects listed ahead of him.”

Shaedon Sharpe is the draft’s biggest mystery

The guard didn’t play a minute for Kentucky this season. But he’s still likely going somewhere in the top 10. The 19-year-old’s “workouts have been a hot topic around the league over the past two weeks,” according to Woo. Some see Sharpe as a potential go-to scorer while others are influenced by a perceived lack of playmaking ability in the halfcourt. That range of assessments makes his draft slot harder to predict.

The smaller-school college prospects who could go in the first round

Patrick Baldwin Jr. and Jalen Williams are ranked No. 18 and No. 19, respectively, on Woo’s big board and they are the only college prospects in the top 25 whose programs didn’t make the NCAA tournament in 2022.

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But their pre-draft stories couldn’t be more different.

Baldwin was an elite high school prospect who chose to play for his father at Milwaukee rather than for a traditional power. A 6' 10" forward with an elite shooting stroke, he was injured for much of the year and “essentially nothing went right for him,” Woo writes.

Williams was a star at Santa Clara whose stock has only risen after the draft combine. He can do a bit of everything, Woo writes, but doesn’t have an elite offensive skill to rely on.

International prospects

Only three times in the last 10 drafts (2012 to 2021) have the top 10 picks gone by without including a non-college international prospect. French forward Ousmane Dieng, who played for the New Zealand Breakers, looks like the only non-college international prospect who could find himself in the top 10 this year. Woo has him slotted at No. 9 right now in his latest mock draft and he has been rising up the big board in recent weeks. A couple other prospects from overseas who could hear their names called in the first round: Ismael Kamagate, a French center, and Serbian forward Nikola Jovic (not to be confused with the NBA’s back-to-back MVP with a very similar name).

The best of Sports Illustrated

Albert Breer looks at what a possible punishment could be for Deshaun Watson. … Nick Selbe writes about rookie sensation Oneil Cruz, who is giving the Pirates hope. … Brooks Koepka went from saying there was “no other option” than the PGA Tour to joining LIV Golf, Stephanie Apstein writes. … These nine leaders are carrying the torch for Title IX fifty years after the statute was enacted. … Chris Herring is already looking ahead to next season’s NBA title chase in The Playmaker newsletter. He also looked back at LeBron James’s first NBA championship, which happened 10 years ago. … The latest episode of SI Weekly revisited the 1985 NBA draft to determine whether the lottery was rigged, featuring SI’s Chris Herring and Howard Beck, along with Knicks super fan Jason Concepcion of Crooked Media.

Around the sports world

Rob Gronkowski announced his retirement yesterday. But his agent left the door open for a return. … Auston Matthews has won both the NHL’s Hart Memorial Trophy for MVP and the Ted Lindsay Award for most outstanding player of the season. … Caleb Swanigan, the former Purdue basketball star and three-year NBA veteran, died Monday. He was 25. … The Browns could be looking to make another quarterback trade, according to an ESPN report. … Jimmy Traina examines ESPN anchor Sage Steele’s lawsuit against ESPN while still working at ESPN.

SIQ

In honor of Rob Gronkowski’s retirement, let’s focus today’s SIQ on some of the greatest tight ends in NFL history. Gronkowski is second all-time among tight ends in receiving yards per game. Who is the all-time leader in the category?

Check tomorrow’s newsletter for the answer.

Yesterday’s SIQ: Who was the first pick in the NHL draft on June 21, 1997?

Answer: Joe Thornton. He skipped the minor leagues and made the Bruins’ roster as an 18-year-old rookie, thus beginning one of the longest careers in NHL history.

Thornton, who turns 43 on July 2, has played 24 seasons in the NHL with the Bruins, Sharks, Maple Leafs and Panthers, tied for the fourth-longest career in NHL history behind Mark Messier (25 seasons), Gordie Howe and Chris Chelios (26 seasons each).

Thornton said after Florida was eliminated from the playoffs last month that he was unsure if he would return for a 25th season next year.

“My wife was kind of asking me last night,” Thornton said. “And really, I have no plans. It’s kind of exciting that way. I came here to win a championship and we fell short of that. But I think the Florida Panthers are going to be good for a long time. It’s exciting around here now.”

Thornton played a limited role for the Panthers this season, appearing in 34 games and averaging just over 11 minutes of ice time per game. He recorded five goals and five assists, his fewest since his rookie year. With numbers like that, maybe it’s best for him to hang it up and get into the Hall of Fame a year sooner. —Dan Gartland

From the Vault: June 22, 1998

Michael Jordan cover

Nearly everyone knows “the shot”: Michael Jordan driving hard to his right before pulling up near the free-throw line, helping Jazz defender Byron Russell keep moving as he crossed the ball over to his left hand to create the space to effortlessly hit the game-winning shot in the NBA Finals with just over five second left.

In the final 40 seconds of that Game 6 on June 14, 1998, Jordan scored a layup that pulled the Bulls to within one, stripped Karl Malone of the ball with about 20 seconds left and then hit that iconic jumper to seal his sixth title.

So, what was he to do now?

That’s what Phil Taylor asked in the June 22 issue of SI.

“Do not hold them to anything they said on this night, not when so many emotions were crashing around inside them, not when they were elated and relieved and giddy and sad all at once. The Chicago Bulls were all misty-eyed, the way champions get, and through that haze the past is always so much clearer than the future. Yes, the Bulls spoke with an air of finality on Sunday night, after they won their sixth NBA title in eight seasons. They talked about packing up their belongings and about the way they wanted to be remembered. Even as the championship celebration was beginning, they seemed to be saying that the party was over. But save your goodbyes. The Bulls as we know them may not be finished yet.”

Taylor’s story details the key part of the impending Bulls’ breakup: “The situation is not totally in anyone's control, which is what makes it so hard to read.” Would these Bulls give the NBA one more chance to beat them?

Jazz guard John Stockton certainly thought so in the aftermath of Game 6.

“I don't think it will be [Jordan’s] last one,” Stockton said. “It's been a nice story for everybody here, but he's not quitting. He'll be back, and Scottie [Pippen] will be back and Phil Jackson will be back. I'm tired of hearing all of that.”

In hindsight, it’s particularly interesting to read Taylor’s take on the Bulls’ rebuild plans. With so many expiring contracts after the 1998 season, he writes, management was prepared to add an elite free-agent forward. The names: Kevin Garnett, Antonio McDyess and Joe Smith.

But after Game 3 of the NBA Finals, Taylor wrote that Pippen was at least giving the appearance of starting to change his mind about coming back to the Bulls. If Pippen was back, then Jordan could follow, Taylor added later in the piece.

Ultimately, Taylor agreed with Stockton. We’d get to see another year of these Bulls.

“Despite Sunday night’s nostalgic mood, there is still a strong possibility that these Bulls have a future together. As they celebrated on the bus after the game, with Jordan and Pippen sitting side by side, laughing and smoking stogies, it didn’t feel as if the last dance was over. If you listened closely, you could still hear music playing.”

Check out more of SI’s archives and historic images at vault.si.com.

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