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The Three Most Interesting Teams of the 2018 NBA Draft

The Mavericks rightfully stole the night after trading up for the rights to Luka Doncic, but Dallas wasn’t the only team that clarified its future

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With the 2018 NBA draft officially behind us, here’s a look at three young teams that took advantage of their opportunities and clarified their futures on Thursday night. And if you’re looking for elated Dallas Mavericks analysis, please turn to one of our resident Mavs fans, Jonathan Tjarks, for that here.

Atlanta Hawks

After spending 12 seasons with the Warriors, Hawks GM Travis Schlenk is clearly replicating the Golden State mold with his choices in the 2018 draft. Judging from the first-rounders they had by the end of the night, the Hawks seem to be producing a B-movie version of the Warriors’ dynasty with Oklahoma guard Trae Young starring as Steph Curry, Maryland wing Kevin Huerter playing the role of Klay Thompson, and Villanova big Omari Spellman channeling Draymond Green. “When you look at the league today, you need guys who can shoot, dribble, and pass. All three of these guys can,” Schlenk said at the end of the night. “We’re looking for multidimensional players that can play the way we want to play: up and down, an exciting brand of basketball.”

But how close can a knockoff come to the genuine item? Curry and Thompson are all-time-great shooters, while Young and Huerter are just great. Huerter is a better ball handler and passer than Thompson was at the same stage of their careers, however. Thompson isn’t used as an initiator in Golden State’s offense, but Huerter certainly will be for new Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce. There will be less pressure on Young to do everything on the ball like he had to do with the Sooners, which should lead him to running around more screens and blasting away with 3s from deep.

A Hall of Fame case can be made for Green because of his defense, and Spellman certainly won’t reach that level. But Spellman is a smart defender who plays with energy and enthusiasm. With a 7-foot-2 wingspan, he’s a capable shot blocker and a competitive rebounder who does all the little things on offense as a passer, screener, and floor spacer. Spellman lost almost 50 pounds during his redshirt season at Villanova, which improved his mobility defending the perimeter, but he was still sluggish moving his feet on switches against guards. Even if he isn’t an anchor like Green, he’s at least a far superior shooter. Spellman shot 43.3 percent on nearly four attempts per game at Villanova. Schlenk is credited for Golden State’s selection of Green. It’s unlikely Spellman will be a grand slam like Green, but even a single or double would suffice.

The best young player on the Hawks’ roster is forward Taurean Prince, who slides in as their Harrison Barnes: a hard-nosed defender with untapped offensive potential. The Hawks have amassed an intriguing blend of talent, and they’re not done building. There were trade talks heading into the draft involving guards Dennis Schröder and Kent Bazemore, per league sources. Schröder was on the block all season, as we reported in January, while the team at least discussed Bazemore with Dallas and Orlando in possible trade-downs. Not a single player was traded on draft night, which is weird.

The Hawks also selected Kansas guard Devonte’ Graham at no. 34, but shipped him to the Hornets for two future seconds, in 2019 and 2023. The Magic had promised Graham with the no. 35 pick, per a source, so Charlotte had to find a way to jump ahead, which allowed the Hawks to continue stockpiling future assets from a Hornets team that won’t be good for years. That’s the logic Schlenk used in the biggest trade of the night: trading the no. 3 pick (Slovenian point forward Luka Doncic) to the Dallas Mavericks for no. 5 (Young) and a top-five-protected 2019 first-rounder that will become fully unprotected in 2023. However, based on Dallas’s desire to pursue free agents like DeMarcus Cousins or Clint Capela this summer, per sources, there’s a chance that protected pick conveys next year. The Hawks will likely have three firsts and three seconds in the 2019 draft, which will give them immense flexibility.

But trading Doncic was a monumental risk for Schlenk. Doncic also fits the Warriors mold: He’s a transcendent passer who can comfortably play with and without the ball, and at only 19, has excelled at the highest possible level a non-NBA player can. My boss Bill Simmons always asks this question about draft prospects: “Could he play in the NBA Finals?” Doncic could. If there’s such a thing as an it factor, Doncic has it. It takes much more bargaining to get there with Young. The Oklahoma star is tiny (178 pounds, with a 6-foot-3 wingspan and a skinny frame) and gets bulldozed on defense. As covered last week: There’s a lot of pressure on Young’s offense; he’ll have to become a truly great offensive player — think Damian Lillard–level — to overcome his defensive limitations.

Kings fans loudly clamored to select Doncic, but so too did Hawks fans. They weren’t happy when rumors broke that Atlanta might trade down from no. 3 to select Young, and they were furious last night when it became a reality. But I appreciate Schlenk’s spunk in doing what he felt was right instead of succumbing to the critique of fans and pundits. I wouldn’t have done the Doncic-for-Young trade, but in broad strokes, it makes sense: Young is a far better shooter than Doncic and has underrated playmaking skills that should blossom in the NBA’s open space. And while I’m not quite as high on Huerter or Spellman as Schlenk is, they’re both very good. The Hawks came away with three talented prospects who fit the type of team they want to build, with some extra assets to help them in the future, and through it all they showed they won’t let public opinion dictate their choices.

Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers don’t appear to be worried about what fans think, either, as evidenced by their drafting then dealing guard Mikal Bridges, a beloved hometown kid who just helped Villanova win its second national title in three years. Bridges wore a Sixers hat while handling his media responsibilities, and discussed how excited he was to stay in Philadelphia, unaware of the trade that had just happened: Bridges to the Suns for Texas Tech wing Zhaire Smith and Miami’s unprotected 2021 first-rounder.

Sixers head coach Brett Brown said Bridges was their “1A,” while Smith was their “1B,” at the 10th pick, so the trade was too hard to pass up, considering the potential value of the 2021 first. That could be the first year high-schoolers are allowed to enter the draft again, the league told teams in a memo earlier this month. “[The pick] could be the thing that flips it with us having more assets to enhance a realistic trade for a star,” Brown said, after the draft. Smith is the draft’s best athlete, nearly three years younger than Bridges, and already in the same ballpark as a defender. I view Smith as a superior prospect. The difference is Bridges is more ready to help the Sixers win games next season, while Smith might require a stint in the G League to hone his shot and ballhandling. But long term, Smith projects as a more talented player. And that makes him a better trade asset.

“We are star hunting,” Brown said on Thursday night. They are indeed. The Sixers are one team that will pursue a trade for Kawhi Leonard, as I reported before. They’ll also chase LeBron James in free agency. The shift from the no. 10 pick to the no. 16 pick saved Philadelphia roughly $1 million in cap space, and every cent counts in its star pursuit, especially if the Sixers were to attempt to add both Leonard and James. It’s a pure fantasy, but they could pull it off. Here’s how:

If the Sixers were to deal Markelle Fultz, Robert Covington, Justin Anderson, Furkan Korkmaz, Jerryd Bayless’s contract, and the rights to Zhaire Smith to the Spurs for Leonard, and then rescind the free-agent rights to J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson, they would have more than enough cap space to outright sign LeBron to his max contract, worth over $35 million (the 2018–19 salary cap is projected at roughly $101 million). This plan would leave the bench depleted. Redick would either have to take a massive discount to chase a championship (not a bad deal after making $23 million last season) before his rights were rescinded, or their draft-and-stashes (center Anzejs Pasecniks and power forward Jonah Bolden) would have to come over and perform immediately. Free agents would likely flock to Philadelphia, however, so they could use exceptions to build their bench.

It’s more realistic for the Sixers to acquire just one star, not two, but it’s fun to think about the possibilities. Few teams share Philadelphia’s immense young talent on the floor, or their flexibility in the front office. They have the assets to acquire a star in a trade, or the cap space to sign one in free agency. Sam Hinkie positioned the Sixers for a bright future, and now it’s on their front office (in whatever form it takes) to finish the job.

Phoenix Suns

The Suns were on the flip side of the Sixers deal. I’ve found the discussion about the trade interesting: On Twitter, there’s a sense that Phoenix foolishly gave up a good asset with a significant amount of intrigue in Miami’s unprotected 2021 first-rounder. The intrigue largely stems from a Zach Lowe report last week of a leaguewide memo that any changes in the NBA’s eligibility requirements would be done in 2021 at the earliest. But that’s not necessarily when high-schoolers would be once again allowed to declare for the draft. And even if it is, a widened talent pool doesn’t necessarily guarantee that 2021 will be a great class. We’re a long way from 2021. A lot can change. Maybe the Heat — always a popular destination for free agents — will be a contender and the pick will be in the high 20s. Maybe it’ll be the no. 1 pick and the Suns will look like fools, as Ryan McDonough joins his brother doing television. Who knows?

The only certainty is uncertainty. Regardless of all other factors, the 2021 pick isn’t a guarantee to be a golden ticket to a superstar. It’s just a piece the Suns were willing to give up for a prospect that many draft analysts considered the top 3-and-D wing in the draft. I like the trade better for the Sixers because of the added asset in their possession and I consider Smith a better prospect than Bridges, but it’s still a quality deal for the Suns. Bridges has a reported 7-foot-2 wingspan and plays an unselfish brand of basketball: He’ll run off screens, cut, and play hard on defense just like he did at Villanova. The Suns will need guys like that alongside Devin Booker, who is already one of the game’s best scoring guards, and forward Josh Jackson, a playmaking athlete who shares Bridges’s defensive versatility.

Oh, and let’s not bury the lead: They chose their franchise center with the no. 1 pick: Arizona’s Deandre Ayton. Passing on Doncic could end up being a mistake, but Ayton gives them a potentially dominant big man to guide them into the 2020s, when the league’s current crop of young, freakish bigs, including Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, are entering their primes.

Ayton’s body looks like it was meticulously designed in a basketball lab. He is a leaper who can hammer down lobs, and that explosiveness is matched with the hand-eye coordination to finish with either hand at the rim, attack off the dribble from the perimeter, and make plays for others off the pass. There’s little doubt he’ll be a good offensive player, and has the ceiling to be great. The question is defense. Ayton was inconsistent and often lackadaisical as a freshman. But the flashes of brilliance he’s shown are worth salivating over. He must learn fundamentals and absorb the intricacies of defending the pick-and-roll. On draft night Joel Embiid scoffed on Twitter when he was compared to Ayton; his main point: He actually plays defense. And he’s right: At this stage, there isn’t much of a comparison. Ayton needs to prove Embiid wrong for the Suns to reach their potential.

Phoenix’s core is suddenly even more intriguing than it already was with Ayton and Dragan Bender in the frontcourt. (I’m so sick of people calling Bender a bust. He’s only 20 — younger than 11 players drafted in the first round. Stay patient.) Then there’s Jackson, Bridges, T.J. Warren, and Marquese Chriss at forward. Booker leads the backcourt, with Tyler Ulis as a serviceable backup point guard. And with the no. 31 pick, they added French point guard Elie Okobo, the 18th-ranked player on my personal big board, and the player I considered to be the sleeper of the draft.

Of the point guards in the draft, Young is the best shooter, Collin Sexton is the best attacker, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the best defender. Okobo isn’t the best in any one category, but takes a little bit from all of them. He’s an all-around 20-year-old guard who can score off the dribble and finish with skill and athleticism inside, has long arms and a strong frame to defend, and shows playmaking potential. Okobo played the 2 growing up and is still learning how to run point, but the Suns have a plethora of players who will handle the ball, so Okobo will need to play both on and off the ball anyway. He’s a perfect fit, with the upside to be their point guard of the future. The Suns took risks in selecting Ayton over Doncic, then dealing a 2021 first to move up for Bridges. No team in league history became a contender by being conservative. The Suns took necessary gambles.

Quick Thoughts

Did the Bulls make a mistake? Duke big Wendell Carter Jr. is one of my favorite players in the draft. He’s going to have a good, long career and is a perfect fit next to Lauri Markkanen. Chandler Hutchison could turn out to be a good player for the Bulls, who selected the Boise State forward with the no. 22 pick — but they promised him the week of the NBA combine last month, and I wonder whether that long-term promise will backfire in the future. They were one of the teams trying to move to the no. 3 or 4 pick, as reported, but I was told by multiple league executives that the promise restricted them from including the no. 22 pick in any trade discussions. When a promise is made, the player must be chosen with that pick, or the team must acquire a higher selection. It wasn’t possible. And while it’s unclear whether Atlanta (or Memphis) would have even wanted the no. 22 pick, the fact it was off the table should serve as a warning that making early promises comes with heavy risk. An opportunity to trade up for Luka Doncic was on the table, but because of previous negotiations the Bulls were restricted from having total freedom.

Lighten up, Knicks fans! Haven’t Knicks fans learned, or is it just a gimmick to boo every draft choice? Kevin Knox is a strong pick, and a better prospect than Michael Porter Jr. Knicks fans will learn once they see the skilled teenager playing at Madison Square Garden.

The Nuggets are gambling. Speaking of Porter, it says a lot that the Clippers passed on him. Team owner Steve Ballmer loves Porter, and so did Jerry West. I thought he’d still be worth the risk for them, so what a gift he must be for the Nuggets with the no. 14 pick. Denver also took a risk on an injury-prone player in the second round by trading the rights to Justin Jackson (the no. 43 pick) and a future second-rounder for Kentucky big Jarred Vanderbilt, who rebounds like he’s Dennis Rodman, but also can handle the ball. Vanderbilt can’t shoot and has suffered a long list of foot injuries, but he’s a major steal if he stays healthy.

Play the rook, Thibs! Georgia Tech wing Josh Okogie is an excellent pick for the Wolves. I had heard they promised Villanova’s Donte DiVincenzo, but he was picked no. 17 by the Bucks. Okogie could end up better: He’s a strong, multipositional defender who can hit spot-up 3s, and flashes off-the-dribble shooting. I hope Tom Thibodeau gives him minutes.

The Celtics got a steal. Texas A&M center Robert Williams falling to the no. 27 pick could end up being a blessing in disguise for him. Williams is the type of player who needs a bucket of water to be splashed in his face to get him going. He’ll get that with Celtics coach Brad Stevens and the culture they’ve formed in Boston. If Williams’s defensive discipline improves, he could turn into a dominant defender who’s a lob monster in the mold of Clint Capela. Just don’t call him Bob.

Wishful thinking? The Mavericks started the night with a bang by trading up for Doncic. They ended it by trading for the no. 60 pick: Kostas Antetokounmpo. Giannis’s brother is raw both physically and as a player, but the tools are there for him to be an impact defender who can space the floor. Maybe if Kostas develops into a player for the Mavs, Giannis will have eyes for Dallas during his free agency in 2021. You never know.