There were a million different story lines to come out of a wild night at the NBA draft. Things were supposed to get wild with the Celtics pick at no. 3, but form mostly held until no. 8, when the Suns traded up to acquire the rights to Marquese Chriss, to pair with Croatian project Dragan Bender. It wasn’t until the Thunder traded Serge Ibaka to the Magic, though, that the first round descended into madness. It will take years to sort out who made the right moves and the wrong ones. For now, here’s a look at five of the most interesting teams from last night’s absurdity.
Regardless of whether it was Sam Hinkie or Bryan Colangelo making the first pick, the spearhead of the 2016 NBA draft would’ve been the same. The Sixers were always going to take Ben Simmons at no. 1. While Brandon Ingram was a better fit with the rest of their young core, Simmons’s combination of speed, size, and skill as a 6-foot-10 point forward is too tempting for any GM to pass up. That was the easy part. How Colangelo was going to be graded on his performance, especially in comparison to Hinkie’s past wheeling and dealing, was what he would do with Philadelphia’s other assets. Would he flip no. 24 and 26 for veterans in an effort to win now, reach for the biggest names left on the board, or make picks that would satisfy the draft-savvy recovering Hinkie devotees?
In a completely scattershot first round, he managed to accomplish the latter two. Colangelo went with Timothe Luwawu of France at no. 24 and Furkan Korkmaz of Turkey at no. 26, two prospects who had been pegged as late lottery picks. Luwawu is the better athlete and Korkmaz the better shooter, but both represent the type of long, athletic wings with ball skills and shooting ability you want to put around Simmons. The goal for the Sixers with their two late first-round picks was to find running buddies for their no. 1 pick that could also function in a half-court offense and complement their bevy of bigs. The Philly GM stuck the landing.
Colangelo caught an enormous amount of grief in the aftermath of selecting Andrea Bargnani no. 1 overall in 2006, but he made his reputation in the league with his ability to pinpoint draft talent. He drafted Amar’e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, and DeMar DeRozan, and none of them were consensus picks at the time. Hinkie had a true gift for acquiring draft picks, but his body of work in selecting prospects wasn’t all that inspiring. The Sixers might have stumbled into their best-case scenario: They might have found an alchemist to turn Hinkie’s pile of assets into real, live basketball players.
It was a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. The Celtics had a stupefying bounty of eight picks and were linked to almost every big name on the trading block over the last few weeks. As it turns out, there just wasn’t much demand to trade into the lottery, especially once Simmons and Ingram were predictably taken off the board. Boston ended up staying put, with the exception of consolidating two early second-round picks into a Grizzlies first-rounder in 2019, which may or may not turn into a very interesting asset down the road.
The no. 3 pick was the domino to set the rest of the draft in motion, and so it is Jaylen Brown, one of the most polarizing players in this year’s rookie class, who faces a burden of expectation that is, in a way, greater than the two players drafted in front of him.
On one hand, Brown is an electric athlete whose combination of muscle, length, and speed at 6-foot-7 should allow him to switch screens and guard every position on the floor in today’s game. On the other, he was one of the worst-rated players on many draft models, due to his combination of poor shooting, poorer decision-making, and heavy usage on a haphazardly assembled Cal team that was less than the sum of its parts. He has a pretty high floor and he should fit the Celtics ethos under Brad Stevens well, but stardom is far from a certainty.
It’s the same story with the two international picks the Celtics made at no. 16 (Guerschon Yabusele of France) and no. 23 (Ante Zizic of Croatia). As has been the case over the last few years, the Celtics zigged when the consensus zagged, as most international observers had Korkmaz and Luwawu rated as better prospects. Boston may turn out to be in the right, but its track record in recent years doesn’t offer too many glimmers of optimism. Demetrius Jackson and Ben Bentil were interesting gambles in the second round, but they will have an uphill battle to make the roster, given the number of young players on hand. The good news for the Celtics is that they can do this all again next year. With the Nets flipping Thaddeus Young for the Pacers’ no. 20 pick, they will likely reassume their position as one of the worst teams in the league. The Celtics have another pick swap with Brooklyn in 2017, which will presumably yield them another high lottery pick — this time in a draft projected to have a lot more star power at the top.
At no. 4, the Suns had the most fascinating decision in the draft. Needing a power forward of the future, they had an important decision to make between Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender, two of the youngest players in the draft, with floors and ceilings as distant as Seattle is to Tel Aviv. In the end, they couldn’t choose. So they got both. After taking Bender with the fourth pick, they flipped the no. 13 and no. 28 picks, along with Bogdan Bogdanovic (a late first-round pick from 2014), to Sacramento for the rights to Chriss, who was selected at no. 8. Ryan McDonough went straight at the fork in the road, and the Suns are suddenly one of the most fascinating young teams in the NBA.
While drafting two young players at the same position can often lead to disaster, the versatility of Chriss and Bender means the Suns’ gamble has a real chance at working out. At 7-foot-1, Bender has a legitimate 3-point stroke, the passing ability of a guard, and the athleticism to slide among three positions on both sides of the ball. Chriss, meanwhile, is the best athlete in the draft, and he should thrive catching alley-oops from Eric Bledsoe and playing high-low with Bender. At this stage in their careers, the formula for both young men is to get out and run, and they are in a perfect place to do that in Phoenix.
While both prospects will need time to develop, the Suns’ front line is clearly in flux, and it’s unclear what this means for the long-term future of Tyson Chandler and Alex Len. Chandler was an expensive bust in his first year after signing a $52 million contract, and there doesn’t appear to be much of a place for him on a rebuilding team, although his locker-room leadership could benefit the Suns’ cadre of young men. Len, meanwhile, has shown flashes of greatness but never put it all together in the three seasons since the Suns selected him at no. 5. Either way, there’s enough young talent in Phoenix for the team to be considered an NBA League Pass favorite. Draft hipsters have a new favorite team.
At the very least, the Kings always manage to keep things interesting. They were backed into a corner when none of this year’s projected lottery picks worked out for them, and if we’ve learned anything over the last few years, it’s that you never want to put Vivek Ranadivé in a corner. The Kings’ front office is liable to do anything, though I’m not sure if anyone was prepared for what they did last night. Moving down five spots to take the late-rising Greek center Georgios Papagiannis prompted DeMarcus Cousins to turn to Twitter and ask the Lord to give him strength. That actually happened.
The charitable interpretation of the Kings’ move is that they picked up an interesting young player (the sweet-shooting, crazy-faced Bogdanovic) to slide down five spots in a draft where the difference between no. 8 and no. 13 was almost negligible. At 7-foot-2, 240 pounds, Papagiannis is a massive human being with an interesting combination of athleticism and skill, and he could potentially be a part of one of the biggest and most talented front lines in the league — with most of that talent coming from Cousins. The Kings appear to be doubling down on their decision to play Cousins at the 4, where he is completely unguardable in the modern NBA, regardless of the spacing around him.
Papagiannis is still 18 and probably won’t be thrown into the fire immediately, though he certainly has the physique to withstand it. New Kings coach Dave Joerger has a lot of experience making Twin Tower–lineups work, following a successful three-year stint with the Grit ’n’ Grind Grizzlies. Or maybe they’re ready to triple up. Willie Cauley-Stein, the no. 6 overall pick last year, came off a promising but injury-plagued rookie season. Will the Kings try to play three centers at the same damn time? Who knows? Seriously, is there anyone in Sacramento who knows what’s going on?
On any other team, taking Skal Labissiere, the talented but inconsistent center once projected to be the no. 1 overall pick, in the late first round would have been the story. In Sacramento, Labissiere will fade behind the team’s perpetual drama, which could be the best thing for a 20-year-old who is a long way away from being ready to help an NBA team. Don’t sleep on no. 59 pick Isaiah Cousins, Buddy Hield’s running buddy at Oklahoma, who has a chance to stick in the league as a Patrick Beverley type. [Update: Malachi Richardson is an interesting gamble who could have gone higher if he had stayed in school another season, and the Kings only had to give up Marco Belinelli to acquire his draft rights. Like Scal, it’s easy for him to get lost in the shuffle amid the madness in Sacramento. I completely forgot they acquired him when I wrote this article this morning.]
The Kings also acquired the services of Georgios Papagiannis’s father, who happens to be the world’s foremost Dragan Bender truther.
A 73-win team with the last pick in the first round would normally not make a lot of waves on draft night, but the Warriors have been a progressive franchise that understands the importance of acquiring youth since the beginning of the Joe Lacob era. Betting on young players to find a spot in a rotation on a title contender is always risky business, but there are scenarios in which Damian Jones, Patrick McCaw, and Robert Carter Jr. all find their way into minutes quickly, especially given Steve Kerr’s penchant for playing deep rotation players at the most inopportune times.
The comparisons between Jones and Festus Ezeli, another Vanderbilt center whom the Warriors took at no. 30 in 2012, are obvious. I asked then–Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings about his two big men after their game at Baylor this season, and he dismissed the comparison out of hand, saying that Festus is bigger and stronger while Jones is faster and more skilled. Given the increased emphasis on big men playing in the two-man game and less in the post, the advantage in that comparison has to go to Jones, who could end up being a cheap replacement for Ezeli, who is entering restricted free agency this offseason.
The more interesting comparison, though, is with the Warriors’ 2012 draft as a whole. The Warriors wound up with a huge steal in the second round after Ezeli, when they found Draymond Green at no. 35. McCaw isn’t Draymond, because no one is, but I had him as one of my draft sleepers, and he’s entering the perfect situation for his skill set. At 6-foot-7, 180 pounds, with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, he’s a long athlete capable of guarding multiple positions while also being able to spread the floor and make plays for others off the bounce. Carter, whom they signed as an undrafted free agent, was another one of my sleepers, and his inside-outside game at 6-foot-9 fits the mold of players that can thrive in Kerr’s system.