Every year, the upcoming NBA draft class gets hyped like it’s a new season of The Bachelor. The taglines are more or less the same; just replace the words “shocking,” “intense,” and “drama” with “loaded,” “deeper,” and “upside.” Sometimes the hype is real. It’s usually not. It’s too early at this point to make strong declarations when prospects haven’t logged a single second in college basketball.
However, as we look ahead to the 2018 draft, we do know one thing: Its allure is completely different than that of the draft we witnessed in June. The class won’t have the same depth featured in the 2017 draft, which had a loaded lottery and mid-to-late first-round talent deep into the middle of the second round. Right now, 2018 is looking relatively shallow. But it’s also looking enormous. Whereas the 2017 draft was flooded with guards in the lottery, 2018 will feature a glut of bigs—Deandre Ayton and Mohamed Bamba headline the more traditional bigs, while Michael Porter Jr. brings a 6-foot-10 size at forward. If the NCAA lets 6-foot-11 high school star Marvin Bagley reclassify and play college ball this year (which would make him draft eligible in 2018), the hype will reach a boiling point.
We’ve had only one draft so far this decade that was defined by its size—2015, which included Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis, and Myles Turner. In a league that’s getting smaller and faster, bigs have been forced to diversify their games or perish. Ayton, Bamba, Bagley, and Porter are all extensions of the futuristic archetypes set by that Class of 2015; they are the embodiment of the league’s natural progression. Toss in Slovenian prospect Luka Doncic, a 6-foot-8 multipurpose playmaker, and it’s clear the future has been absorbed and adapted. Over the past three years, the NBA has made it clear that players need versatile traits to thrive in the future. The next generation has clearly been paying attention.
“This class you should get acquainted with early on in the process,” an NBA executive texted me earlier this month. “There’s question marks for each player because there’s no LeBron, but there’s a few possible franchise players.”
Porter, Ayton, and Bamba are ranked as the consensus top-three high school prospects this year, respectively, according to the Recruiting Services Consensus Index (RSCI). Bagley is presently ranked first by virtually every outlet in 2018, and Doncic has been widely considered the best European prospect in years. Since 2006, when the league eliminated the prep-to-pros path, 32 of the 33 top-three RSCI-ranked prospects have been drafted in the first round, 26 of 33 have gone in the top 10, 18 of 33 in the top five, and 13 of 33 went in the top three. Unless the player has major injury concerns (like Harry Giles or Jared Sullinger) or severely underperforms (like Skal Labissiere or Cliff Alexander), odds are the top-three ranked players still get drafted extremely high, and a lot of them end up being damn good (like John Wall, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love).
It’s the league’s job to find out whether the top of the 2018 crop is good or great, and it’s the players’ jobs to prove it. Like basketball, evaluation never sleeps, whether it’s occurring at the practices of high school All-Star competitions or the Drew League exhibitions, where Bagley had some run alongside NBA players earlier this summer.
“If Bagley is in, then there are five guys that have a case to go first,” said the same NBA executive. “There’s talent after that but it drops off.” Though new names could arise by next June, here are the top five prospects to watch for next season, in no order, with some of my own early analysis and feedback from NBA scouts.
Michael Porter Jr., Missouri
Porter is currently the no. 1 ranked prospect by most outlets, and the eye test certainly confirms why: He’s an athletic 6-foot-10 forward who can drain shots off the dribble. Scoring is a premium skill and Porter can create for himself. In 38 Nike Elite Youth Basketball League games, the 19-year-old from Missouri shot 34.6 percent from 3 and 86.5 percent from the line, per DX Blue. There is a star quality in his ability to create his own shots: Not only does he have a stop-and-pop game from behind the arc, word to Kevin Durant, he also has a hesi pull-up jimbo:
As an effective rebounder and open-floor ball handler, Porter should have no trouble scoring in the NBA. Though he’s merely a decent passer with average floor vision, it’s easy to envision a coach enabling Porter to take the ball up the floor, especially if he develops the ability to initiate offensive sets in the half court. However, the question at this stage is whether Porter can be depended on to be the man on offense, or if he’s more of a Harrison Barnes–level scorer. It’s easy for a physically mature player to stand out above the high school competition—which is basically what happened to Barnes, Labissiere, and Shabazz Muhammad—but going against college players on a bigger stage is a much better barometer for any evaluation and future projection for a player. “Scoring and character are must-haves for stars, and he has both,” a scout texted me. “[Porter] maybe ends up a star but it’s unobvious now. Last player everyone knew [would shine] out of high school was [Anthony Davis].”
It’s encouraging that Porter showcases the body control and balance to score off the dribble, and he’s quite smooth finishing around the rim. But his handle needs to come a long way if he wants to translate those abilities to the next level. His first step is good, not great, so he won’t always be able to blow by defenders. His ballhandling is fine in transition, but when pressured by defenders, he lacks advanced moves to turn the corner. You’ll instead find situations in which he forces the issue or the ball gets stripped:
After turning the ball over, Porter makes up for his error by racing down the floor for a chase-down block. Having a next-play mentality is always a bonus, and no scout I’ve chatted with questions Porter’s mind-set. He’s considered a cerebral player who wants to get better, and it shows on the floor. But he’s still unrefined. Off-ball defense is a chore for him. He’s tall, but not so bulky that he projects as a rim protector. With a clunky handle, non-elite athleticism, and only complementary defense, Porter needs to prove his scoring will translate and his weaknesses will dissipate to solidify himself as 2018’s no. 1 prospect.
Marvin Bagley III, Undecided
[Update: On August 15, Bagley announced his intention to play for Duke this college basketball season. Click the link below for more details and analysis.]
Bagley could end up being the top-ranked player by most outlets entering the college season if the NCAA allows him to reclassify. He’s a lean, toned 6-foot-11 freak whose best traits are rebounding and interior scoring. The foundation is there for the 18-year-old to have a long, fruitful career filled with many highlight-reel dunks:
Bagley embodies qualities found in evolutionary big men with excellent athleticism, speed, and flashes of ballhandling and shooting. After watching those Bagley dunks, take a look at him draining this pull-up 3-pointer and try to contain your drooling:
The potential is intoxicating; the problem is these are just highlights. The numbers suggest something else. Bagley has hit only 14 of his 80 total 3-pointers and only 65.1 percent of his 229 free throws, per DX Blue. Though he’s a vicious dunker, his touch around the rim is only average and he rarely uses his off hand. Like most versatile bigs at the high school level, Bagley’s handle looks good in the open floor, but dig deeper into the video and you’ll find his handle with his right hand is loose. Perhaps that wouldn’t be as big of a deal if he didn’t also commit sloppy passes, apparent in his assist-to-turnover ratio (39-to-97, per DX Blue). “Plenty of big men around the league can dribble well but not many can pass well,” said a Western Conference scout. “Last thing a coach will want is Bagley making decisions as a passer for your team.”
Speaking of decision-making, here’s Bagley making a Shaqtin’ a Fool–level play as he attempts (and misses) a fast-break 360 dunk instead of simply laying the ball up before time expired:
You might chalk that up as one simple mistake by a teenager, but it is somewhat representative of existing fundamental issues with his game. He has untrained footwork defending on the perimeter and screen actions, and his post and wing footwork is rather mechanical. Still, Bagley is going to make an impact—players of his size and raw skill are undeniable.
Deandre Ayton, Arizona
Ayton is an enthralling prospect at 7 feet, with a near 7-foot-6 wingspan and a thick, muscular frame. He’s agile. He’s long. He’s a quick leaper. He’s demonstrated 3-point shooting upside, too. Take three minutes to watch his top plays from his senior season, and you’ll see him flash elite athleticism in rebounding, dunks, blocks, and shooting ability.
The funny thing is that most conversations with scouts about Ayton often start with something like this: “Ayton’s great, but ...” Oh, there’s always the but. All the flaws that apply to Bagley also are true for Ayton. His footwork is raw. His shooting might not be real. Those are the basics, except they come with a more troubling twist. While Bagley has a feel for defending, Ayton often looks lost. While Bagley plays with reckless abandon and power, Ayton has already developed a reputation as lazy. “He plays defense like Harden and the effort isn’t always there on offense,” said a Western Conference scout. “His success will depend on his situation. The best draft picks succeed no matter the team they land with.”
Despite Ayton’s outstanding measurables and flashes of greatness, the commitment is rarely at a level you’d like to see, never mind his underdeveloped basketball IQ. He’s often slow to react to plays at the high school level; the game will be at warp speed in the NBA. Not all scouts are that concerned, though. “You can pick at Ayton's flaws, his immaturity, but there’s no denying his basketball skills,” said an Eastern Conference scout. “He's a Towns-level prospect in my book at this stage.”
Mohamed Bamba, Texas
Scroll down Mo Bamba’s YouTube videos and you’ll find comments that point out how his arms look like something out of Space Jam. It’s true. Bamba has a 7-foot-9 wingspan, which makes him even longer than Rudy Gobert, who currently has the longest recorded wingspan in the NBA today.
Finishing alley-oops will not be a problem for Bamba, whether he’s rumbling down the lane in the pick-and-roll or sprinting in transition:
He’s extremely nimble for his size, covers a lot of ground diving to the rim, and is explosive in space. These traits translate to defense and rebounding, too. Bamba’s greatest strength is perhaps his defensive versatility since he’s agile enough to switch screens. Though his fundamentals must improve to contain go-go guards, the upside is clearly there. Bamba is still super thin, especially in the lower body, so he gets pushed around by larger bigs, but he’s already shown excellent anticipation skills patrolling the interior as a shot blocker. One scout I talked to likened Bamba to Nerlens Noel, which is both a good and bad thing.
Noel remains unsigned this offseason after not receiving the big payday he was probably expecting. Non-shooting bigs simply don’t have the same value they did before unless they’re a truly dominant force defensively. Bamba will need to either improve his shot or become a Rudy Gobert–level defender. Neither goal will be easy to achieve.
Bamba’s shot is shaky. It looks like he’s unfolding his entire body as he shoots; because of his size, it’s conceivable that he’ll never become a high-level shooter. More importantly, however, Bamba will need to play with more intensity. Scouts I’ve chatted with remark on his inconsistent effort defending. He’ll go through spurts where he’s aggressive, then he’ll drift away, never to return. “Stud if he’s engaged on defense. Mo is better than Gobert at the same age,” a Western Conference scout told me. “All comes down to his willingness to learn and play hard. League is so small now [that] he could provide a real advantage if he commits himself.”
Luka Doncic, Real Madrid
Luka Doncic has been in the NBA’s sights since 2012 when, at just 13 years old, he signed a five-year contract with Real Madrid, a powerhouse team in the Liga ACB, the best basketball league in the world outside of the NBA. He is an international basketball phenomenon. The Slovenian is now 18 years old and is one of the leading contributors on his team. “We’ve seen enough Doncic already to know he’s a special offensive player,” an Eastern Conference scout told me last week.
At 6-foot-8, Doncic is a big playmaker, which suits the NBA’s trend of positionless basketball. If he played college basketball for a big school and had an outspoken father, he’d probably receive the same hype as Lonzo Ball—maybe even more. Doncic is magic with the ball in his hands and has an uncommon knack for creatively using the basketball to pass or score.
It’d take a lot of brainpower for us laymen to dribble behind the back, between the legs, and transition the ball straight into a layup high off the glass. But for Doncic, it’s natural—like virtually every motion he makes on the floor. You’ll notice in the video that Doncic doesn’t move particularly quickly, which is one of his flaws. But not every top NBA player leaps like they’re going into orbit. Ambidextrous craftiness can make up for any flaw, especially when a player can finish plays with passes like these:
Doncic does it all as a passer. He’ll pass his teammates open. He’s unselfish, always pushing the ball ahead in transition. He’s a marksman. He throws bullets and bounce passes. And he does it from every angle, in every play, in every situation. Most young playmakers need to learn about pick-and-roll since so few college teams run it at a high frequency, but Doncic has effectively run it for years. It’s a cliché, but it’s true: Doncic is one of those players who simply makes his teammates better.
The bonus is that Doncic isn’t a player who needs the ball in his hands to succeed. Though he’s shot only 33.3 percent from 3 this season, it’s his percentage off the dribble that knocks his percentage down, at just 24.8 percent on 105 triples off the dribble, per data derived from Synergy Sports. The flashes are intriguing, though:
Regardless, on 117 catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, he’s shot 39.3 percent, per Synergy. Earlier in his career, it’s more important for any young player to have the aptitude to space the floor. With a clean shooting release, the ability to hit off screens, and the patience to relocate to open spaces, with Doncic it’s like you’re watching an 18-year NBA veteran rather than an 18-year-old. There's typically a steep learning curve expected of a player entering the league in his teens—the practice, the travel, and the extra effort you need to survive in the league can all be a bit daunting. But Doncic is an outlier. “Dealing with the limelight for years helps since the pressure of being a top pick shouldn’t affect him. He’s played on big stages in a great league which should help him transition easier for him to play right away,” said the Eastern Conference scout. “He has the right mind-set too. He’s a worker.”
It doesn’t mean Doncic is flawless, though: He’s not quick enough to zoom by his defender one-on-one, he still needs to add more advanced dribble moves, and his shooting accuracy must expand to the 3-point line off the bounce. It’s his defense, though, that could limit his upside unless his offense can totally eclipse his struggles on the other end of the floor. Until then, he will likely be a liability against stronger and bigger players, not to mention quicker ones:
The defensive positive for Doncic is simple: He tries. He’s usually in the right position when it comes to off-ball rotations or when trying to hold a big man from sealing the block. He chases rebounds, loose balls, and blocks shots from the weakside. These are all redeeming qualities, but his hallmark traits will need to translate for him to be more than a high-end complementary player. With that said, I’d bet on Doncic to reach his upside—whatever it is.
If the 2018 draft ends up deserving its hype, you should expect teams like the Hawks and Bulls to tank this coming year. (At the very least, you’ll see me clamoring about teams puttering around in the middle that should just blow it up—I’m looking at you, Pacers.) As LeBron James ages and the juggernaut Warriors enter their early 30s, new championship windows will open for the rest of the league. The teams with MVP-caliber talents like Towns and Davis are the teams that will compete yearly for titles. Through every decade in league history, it’s hard to spot a champion that lacks a top-50 all-time player or an MVP candidate (other than the 2003–04 Pistons, which had an all-time great team defense).
You’ll occasionally find cornerstones like Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo outside the draft lottery, but historically, the best way to find studs is through the top of the draft. Would the Spurs be the Spurs if they didn’t bottom out in 1997? What if the Cavaliers decided to make a playoff push instead of tanking for LeBron James in 2003? How much less optimistic would the Sixers’ future be if it weren’t for their extreme tanking? Teams don’t need to have a top pick to add championship-caliber players, but it certainly can help.
If the early college season reveals one or multiple prospective gems, then I wouldn’t want to miss that chance on a championship cornerstone. While it’s too soon to say if any of them are transcendent prospects, it’s nice to be able to say there are about five players who at least have a chance to be special enough to help define the next decade of basketball.