Welcome to an early edition of The Ringer’s 2018 NBA Lottery Mock Draft, as selected by our three resident NBA draftniks: Kevin O’Connor, Danny Chau, and Jonathan Tjarks. Our coverage of the 2018 draft will expand considerably later in the year (as you might have noticed last season), but for now, it’s time to get up to speed with some of the best prospects in the world. O’Connor, Tjarks, and Chau took turns selecting their favorite players eligible for next June.
(Team draft order was determined by Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook’s over/under win totals released in August. It’s included for reference but was not factored into the selections.)
1. Chicago Bulls: Luka Doncic
Small forward, Real Madrid/Slovenia (6-foot-8, 218 pounds, 18 years old)
Kevin O’Connor: Slovenia won the EuroBasket title on the backs of nine-year NBA veteran Goran Dragic, who was named MVP, and 18-year-old phenom Luka Doncic, who was named to the All-Tournament team after averaging 14.3 points with 8.2 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game (and only 1.3 turnovers). Doncic is one of the most accomplished teenage athletes in the world: a champion at nearly every level, the EuroLeague Rising Star, and the Spanish league’s Best Young Player. “He’s a born winner. I’m not kidding,” Dragic said after their tournament victory. “Mark my words: He gonna be one of the best in the whole world.”
Doncic doesn’t have a position. He’s a player who can take on different roles on his team. If a coach runs an offense with multiple ball handlers, Doncic can run point and facilitate at a high level in the same realm as 2017’s top passing wizard, Lonzo Ball. There are already six separate 10-minute YouTube videos of Doncic’s passing highlights; it’d be impossible for some NBA veterans to have a reel that long.
Doncic doesn’t need the ball in his hand, either. On 117 catch-and-shoot 3-pointers this season, he’s shot 39.3 percent, per Synergy. The odds are that early in his career he’ll be asked to play off-ball, so it’s a huge bonus that he can be relied on to space the floor. Doncic will need to answer questions about his athleticism and defense once he reaches the NBA. But at every level, he’s elevated his game to match the play of his opponents. Players with elite intangibles tend to do just that. There’s little reason to think he’ll stop. Doncic has it.
2. Atlanta Hawks: Marvin Bagley III
Power forward, Duke, freshman (6-foot-11, 220 pounds, 18 years old)
Danny Chau: Bagley’s innate gifts inspire comparisons that verge on hyperbole. After he reclassified and landed with Duke in August, ESPN’s Jeff Goodman told SportsCenter that Bagley is “the most talented guy to come out of high school since Anthony Davis.” He’s a new-age big man who can play both ends of the floor outside-inside, rather than the inverse. What you see in his game is a Rorschach test for your favorite star power forward of the early aughts. His father once took his likeness even further back in time: When his son was a high school freshman, the elder Bagley shared pictures with a reporter looking to write a story on the young phenom— a side-by-side comparison of his son and a young Lew Alcindor.
That’s an awful lot to live up to, and Bagley will have to answer some questions during his time in Durham. Can his explosiveness and tenacity overshadow his less-than-stellar length and high center of gravity? Can he consistently score from the perimeter, or are his outside skills just a collage of conveniently edited highlights? Bagley will have a high burden of proof, but he is cut from a perfect template for the modern big. NBA teams are counting down the days until he gets his first minutes of NCAA action.
3. Cleveland Cavaliers (via Nets): DeAndre Ayton
Center, Arizona, freshman (7-foot-1, 250 pounds, 19 years old)
Jonathan Tjarks: The wild card at the top of this year’s draft. Talent has never been the issue for Ayton. The Bahamian native is huge (7-foot-5 1/2 wingspan), and he leaps and bounds across the court like a gazelle. He plays a lot like Karl-Anthony Towns. He can go from the 3-point line to the rim in two steps, play above the rim, and shoot and dribble like a guard. The game comes so easy to him that he makes it look effortless, which is also the biggest question mark about him.
Ayton has been known to drift through games and not make the impact you would expect for a player with his skill set. At the practices for the McDonald’s All American Game, he looked like a world-beater in drills, but then disappeared during the scrimmages. Playing for Sean Miller at Arizona could benefit him, since Miller is an intense, defensive-minded coach who won’t accept less than maximum effort. Ayton has been able to get by on pure talent at lower levels of the game. NBA scouts will be watching to see if he can turn it on consistently in college.
4. Phoenix Suns: Michael Porter Jr.
Forward, Missouri, freshman (6-foot-10, 215 pounds, 19 years old)
O’Connor: For a team in need of a shotmaker, Porter could be their man.
None of the other prospects in our top five possess the shooting ability that Porter does, at least at this stage of their careers. In 38 Nike Elite Youth Basketball League games, Porter drained 34.6 percent of his 3s, per DX Blue, with a large majority of his looks coming off the bounce. He has a pillow-soft touch and expertly adjusts his body midair when off-balance.
Though he’s further along than the typical 6-foot-10 forward is at only 19 years old, Porter will need to improve his ball-handling ability to take full advantage of his shot. During his freshman season at Missouri, keep tabs on how effectively he creates in half-court situations when pressured by athletic defenders. If he struggles early, don’t panic. Look for progression over the course of the season as Missouri enters its conference schedule. There will be plenty of time to dissect the rest of Porter’s diverse game, but scoring is a premium skill, so that’s where we should begin.
5. Sacramento Kings: Mohamed Bamba
Center, Texas, freshman (7-foot, 216 pounds, 19 years old)
Chau: The young Longhorn is a physical marvel. With a 7-foot-9 wingspan and a 9-foot-6 standing reach, Bamba is something like Nerlens Noel with Rudy Gobert’s frame. He is preposterously agile for his size, and a player whose sheer dimensions can alter a team’s game plan. Bamba may not have the complete skill set of a player like Kristaps Porzingis, but he also doesn’t show the same bashfulness on offense that Gobert has in Utah. There is room for him to grow as a confident midrange shooter and as a player who can create for others out of the high post (it’s tantalizing to imagine the types of passes a player with his wingspan might be able to whip once he improves his feel for the game).
NBA trends may be dictated by style of play, but there will always be room for the game to be altered by unique players who are literally too big to fit inside a box. Bamba will have to show that he can commit to playing hard every second he’s on the court, but his physical gifts are more than enough to make him a top-five talent.
6. New York Knicks: Justin Jackson
Power forward, Maryland, sophomore (6-foot-7, 225 pounds, 20 years old)
Tjarks: There’s a big talent drop-off after the consensus top five, which allows me to sneak in my favorite sleeper in this year’s draft. The other Justin Jackson will get the chance to make his own name this season, now that the UNC swingman has gone on to the NBA. After a solid freshman season at Maryland, Jackson flirted with declaring for the draft but decided to return to school. With Melo Trimble gone, Jackson will get the chance to play with the ball in his hands a lot more this season, a role he has shined in for Canada at the under-19 level.
He has everything NBA teams are looking for in a combo forward: He has a 7-foot-3 wingspan and the strength and speed to guard all five positions at the college level. Jackson can switch screens and protect the rim on defense, and he can step out and knock down 3s (43.8 percent on 3.2 attempts per game) and create shots for his teammates on offense. He has all the tools to be a special player, and now we will get the chance to see if he can put them all together.
7. Indiana Pacers: Collin Sexton
Point guard, Alabama, freshman (6-foot-3, 190 pounds, 18 years old)
O’Connor: Watching high school highlight clips can be tedious since they’re often poorly edited and rarely include mistakes, so it’s often hard to get a good idea of what exactly a prospect is like. But Sexton is always fun to watch, and he’s the most well-rounded guard in this lottery. He relentlessly attacks the defense, finishes ambidextrously at the rim, and runs a tight pick-and-roll. He also can be the team’s halftime entertainer:
He also talks major trash and has a rivalry with UCLA freshman guard Jaylen Hands.
His string-pull phrase is: “That’s what I do, man! Straight up!”
These qualities are a sign of immaturity, but swagger can be a nice to quality to have. Sexton plays with attitude and fire that are contagious to his teammates, and he works hard off the court. He’ll need to cut down on turnovers and make better decisions with the ball, but for as long as he maintains his merciless mentality, Sexton will be a threat to maximize his potential through sheer hard work.
8. Philadelphia 76ers (via Lakers): Robert Williams
Forward, Texas A&M, sophomore (6-foot-9, 237 pounds, 19 years old)
Chau: In many ways, Williams represents the road not taken for Tony Bradley, the no. 28 overall pick in June’s draft, and vice versa. Both are modern-day NBA bigs with mammoth wingspans and shockingly deft touches from the perimeter despite not always having the outlets to showcase those abilities. Bradley left North Carolina after coming off the bench for limited minutes his freshman year, betting on his abilities to spread his wings in workouts. His gamble paid off. Williams has similar aspirations, but elected to return to A&M despite his lottery projections throughout the season.
“Rebounding, jumping, dunking. That’s been my game. That gets you paid well,” he told NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster regarding his decision to stay in college. “But I know I have more. I want to be able to knock down a corner 3. I’m not saying that I need to be coming off of screens and pulling, but I want to be able to knock down that shot and prove I’m able to get a rebound and start a fast break.” He was already an ideal rim-running prospect after his freshman year; if he can flash all of the skills he withheld last season, we’re looking at a possible top-five talent hidden in plain sight.
9. Orlando Magic: Troy Brown Jr.
Shooting guard, Oregon, freshman (6-foot-7, 215 pounds, 18 years old)
Tjarks: Brown hasn’t gotten as much attention as some of the other elite freshmen in this class, but that could change at Oregon, where he will fill in for Dillon Brooks in Dana Altman’s wide-open spread offense. Brown has prototype size for a wing (6-foot-11 wingspan), and he played some point guard at the high school level. He’s an intelligent player with a high basketball IQ who can threaten a defense as a shooter, passer, and driver.
He’s also young: He just turned 18 in July, which means he is almost a full year younger than the players he has been competing against during his high school career. That age gap, and the difference in physical development that comes with it, could mean Brown has more upside than you would normally expect for a guy who isn’t an elite athlete.
10. Dallas Mavericks: Miles Bridges
Power forward, Michigan State, sophomore (6-foot-7, 225 pounds, 19 years old)
O’Connor: It came as a surprise when Miles Bridges returned to Michigan State for his sophomore season. The 6-foot-7 forward has the body of an NFL tight end and the athleticism of a springy guard. Bridge isn’t particularly long, but he plays a smart, hard-nosed style of defense that enhances his natural athletic gifts. When you factor in that Bridges shot 38.9 percent from 3, he could sustain a successful NBA career with his 3-and-D style alone. Bridges will need to prove his shooting prowess is sustainable considering his low release, but his versatility bodes well for him: He can hit 3s via the pick-and-pop, as a trailer, and after relocating off-ball.
Bridges isn’t particularly quick with the ball and might lack go-to shotmaking ability. But he fills his role. He’s a timely cutter who always makes himself available for lob dunks. He’s a good passer, screener, and rebounder. He’s a player with few weaknesses. At this stage of evaluation, there’s no reason for him to fall to 10th in the draft. He checks far too many boxes after his freshman season and could only get better with an increased role. “He might not average as many points, but I don’t think he gives a shit. We’re going to use him more. We want him to handle the ball more. We want the ball in his hands at winning time more often,” Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo told The Athletic. “And him? He just wants to win.”
11. Memphis Grizzlies: Jaren Jackson Jr.
Center, Michigan St., freshman (6-foot-10, 227 pounds, 18 years old)
Chau: The first thing that will catch your eye with Jackson isn’t his incredible frame that will be able to hold however much weight he hopes to put on in the future. It isn’t his excellent agility in the open court despite showing Myles Turner–esque flashes of being an awkward teen giant still learning his body. The most noticeable feature of Jackson’s game is his soft, soft touch. Jackson shoots an unconventional ball—in addition to a flat arc, the ball rotates in slow motion—but it’s quick and accurate. Not many young big men have his physical and athletic profile while also boasting legitimate perimeter-scoring credentials.
In any other draft class, Jackson might stand out with his physique. But compared with players like Ayton and Bamba, whose monstrous bodies will more or less define their roles at the next level, Jackson’s appeal is as a blank slate. If his 3-point touch is to be believed, teams can begin to mold him into the rim protector his frame suggests he’s capable of becoming. Jackson has the potential to be a sweet-shooting shot blocker. The league could use more of those.
12. Detroit Pistons: Kevin Knox
Power forward, Kentucky, freshman (6-foot-9, 205 pounds, 18 years old)
Tjarks: Kentucky’s season will depend on Knox, one of its only incoming players with the ability to play on the perimeter and threaten a defense from behind the 3-point line. This season’s team is peak Calipari: It has a million highly touted big men and ball-dominant guards, but not a lot of guys who can space the floor. Knox, one of the last of the five-stars in this year’s class to make a commitment, was being chased by every big school in the country because he has the size of a forward (7-foot wingspan) and the game of a guard.
The problem for Knox has been consistency, as his 3-point shot and decision making have come and gone at the high school level. He would have been dominant at a school that surrounded him with shooters and allowed him to play as a small-ball 4, but he will have to refine his game at Kentucky, where he will be playing in tighter spaces in the half court as a 3 and possibly even a 2 at times.
13. New Orleans Pelicans: Trevon Duval
Point guard, Duke, freshman (6-foot-3, 190 pounds, 19 years old)
O’Connor: Duval going no. 13 in our mock could end up looking silly once the college season gets rolling. The Duke freshman has nearly all the ingredients found in many of the NBA’s elite guards. He’s a bouncy athlete who can outmuscle lean opponents or use his Teslalike acceleration and agility to zoom by slower-footed defenders. The basketball doesn’t slow down Duval; he consistently shows the ability to create any shot he wants.
The problem is that scouting Duval feels like déjà vu. He joins the seemingly endless list of prospects in the If Only He Had a Jumper Club. Duval shoots like he’s heaving a 50-pound medicine ball; he’s made only 17.4 percent of his 3s and 54.2 percent of his free throws, per Draft Express. It’s OK that he’s not the most instinctual passer, because any team that drafts him will want him to be a score-first lead guard in the Russell Westbrook or John Wall mold. But Westbrook and Wall had to develop competent jumpers to reach the All-NBA level. For Duval to take full advantage of his athletic gifts, he’ll have to do the same sooner rather than later.
14. Utah Jazz: Lonnie Walker
Shooting guard, Miami, freshman (6-foot-4, 206 pounds, 18 years old)
Chau: Walker projects to be the kind of wing the NBA can never have enough of: an explosive, multifaceted offensive threat with serious defensive potential. The Miami-bound prospect spent much of high school exploiting his powerful first step to get into the lane for midrange floaters and layups around the rim, but by his senior year had become a capable off-ball player with a confident 3-point jumper. His versatility on offense will only expand as his ball-handling catches up to his considerable physical gifts.
It’s Walker’s defensive potential that might be the crown jewel of the package, however. Sporting a wingspan close to 6-foot-11, Walker will have the length to be a nuisance at three different positions. He’ll have a good mentor in Bruce Brown, a burly, defensive-minded athlete who will likely be a first-round pick after returning for his sophomore season at Miami. The framework of Jim Larranaga’s pressure defense should help round out what, to this point, is still a theoretical aspect of Walker’s skill set. He’ll give college basketball fans yet another reason to tune into the ACC this season. And chances are good that he’ll have the same kind of draw at the highest level. He has all the tools to be the all-around wing teams are bending over backward to find.