The NBA draft generally is about the poorest teams in the league. After all, the highest picks go to the teams with the worst records. But there are aberrations this season that make it difficult to determine the order of the top picks, at least after the first two choices.
There seems no doubt the Minnesota Timberwolves with the No. 1 pick will select Kentucky center Karl-Anthony Towns. General manager and coach Flip Saunders initially had a flirtation with Duke center and Chicagoan Jahlil Okafor, the best scoring big man. But the versatile Towns for a poor defensive team won over Saunders and Towns never even went to work out for the Lakers with the No. 2 pick.
So the Lakers most likely will take Okafor, though they are torn.
Adding Okafor with last year’s lottery pick Julius Randle gives the Lakers two relatively unathletic scoring postup threats. It’s not a bad thing to have, though the Lakers pride themselves on their “Showtime” uptempo, fast break tradition. Adding Okafor with Randle, the latter whom they could trade once he proves to be healthy after missing last season, is possible as there would be suitors, if not big offers. So the Lakers have paused over selecting one of the point guards, Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell or athletic prodigy Emmanuel Mudiay. After all, it has become a perimeter league that is guard oriented. And who exactly are players like Okafor and Randle going to guard? Plus, Okafor is a poor free throw shooter. Are the Lakers going to outscore uptempo Western Conference teams with post up players and the aging Kobe Bryant?
Is it worth a chance on an athletic guard who can begin to match up with the likes of Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, Tony Parker, Chris Paul and James Harden in the loaded West? And unless you get a player like that in the draft, as basically all those teams but the Clippers did, how are you going to get one? The Lakers likely will not have their No. 1 pick next season from the Steve Nash trade unless it’s top three.
The consensus around the NBA, however, is the Lakers will go the “safe” way and take the big man as they don’t come along that often. But it’s tough to make a move with a 19-year-old big man. Probably will make Kobe impatient.
But assuming it’s Towns/Okafor, then it really gets interesting.
The 76ers have the No. 3 pick and how do you predict what a team will do that has been trying to lose?
Then it’s the Knicks with Phil Jackson urging patience and experiencing disappointment as he’d hoped to land a big man from this draft. And then there’s his short sighted fan base, which basically sees this draft as the final short step toward winning a championship. Jackson spent the season deconstructing the team and now is expected to win with this draft and free agency? So the thinking goes he has to select someone “ready” to help the team now. But in this era of so called “one and done” teenagers, when was the last time anyone has been ready to help a team now?
Probably 2003 with LeBron James. And even with James, the Cavaliers missed the playoffs his first two seasons. No. 1 overall picks in this era of one year college players have little immediate impact. So then select an untested player said to have star potential, like Mudiay or Kristaps Porzingis? In New York City with a bad Knicks team and Carmelo Anthony taking all the shots?
Plus, it’s suddenly a changing financial landscape with the riches of a new, massive TV contract and expanded salary cap on the horizon and players aiming to gear their deals to that time. Thus the sudden run of opt outs on the eve of the draft from players like Kevin Love, Monta Ellis, J.R. Smith, Goran Dragic and David West. And maybe more like Dwayne Wade to come. It will turn next week’s free agency into a frenzy beyond the curiosity of the draft.
But first things first, and 6 p.m. Thursday the NBA begins counting down it’s kindergarten corps for the coming seasons. This draft is considered one of the deepest in recent years with potential rotation players basically into the late teens and almost to No. 20.
The Bulls have No. 22, but they have done well finding gems in the 20s with Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler and Nikola Mirotic. Plus, they’ll be on guard for higher rated players to slip through as the level of talent usually is similar between Nos. 15 and 30.
Here’s a mock draft in an uncertain year for most NBA executives:
- Minnesota Timberwolves: Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky center, 7-0, 250. Versatile big guy whom we really don’t know that much about given Kentucky’s two-platoon game. He’s supposed to be a good three-point shooter, but who really knows. The Timberwolves were also intrigued by his defensive ability. They’re quietly hoping next Kevin Garnett.
- Los Angeles Lakers: Jahlil Okafor, Duke center, 6-11, 270. Probably can’t go wrong with a big man with a soft touch, though the Bulls felt as much with Eddy Curry. Who is a lot like Okafor, though Okafor seems much more motivated. An enthused Curry could have been a star and Jerry Krause might still be general manager. Okafor’s not Showtime, and the problem going to the Lakers is if you become an All-Star you’re their sixth best center ever. This, of course, precludes the Lakers trading for DeMarcus Cousins, at least by Thursday. That will again be the talk all day Thursday right up to the draft, though it’s still difficult to see even with the No. 2 pick whether the Lakers have enough for a deal with an owner who wants results and you don’t get a Cousins 20/10 in the draft. But most see a deal of Cousins somewhere as inevitable now.
- Philadelphia 76ers: Kristaps Porzingis, Latvia power forward, 7-1, 230. It makes no sense unless you are the 76ers. Give them this - assuming this is what they do - they do not vary from their plan. It’s to draft only star potential players. They should take D’Angelo Russell, and maybe they will having traded Michael Carter-Williams. But all the talent guys rave about Porzingis’ potential. And perhaps from the 76ers perspective they aren’t making the playoffs the next two years anyway. So go for the potential superstar. It’s a plan.
- New York Knicks: D’Angelo Russell, Ohio State point guard, 6-5, 193. What, cheers for Phil in New York? They’ll love this pick even if Jackson probably will shrug as he’s wanted a big man. Probably better to get him (Greg Monroe?) in free agency, perhaps. And Phil has done pretty well in his career with guards. Russell is cocky, confident and while not the athlete Phil has had, still pretty darned good and a nice distributor.
- Orlando Magic: Mario Hezonja, Croatia swingman, 6-8, 200. They’re another team that supposedly has to do something now after multiple 20-some wins seasons. Thus the notion of getting someone ready with their surfeit of young players. But they most need a star and the buzz is this guy can be with great shooting range and a tough attitude. But we have to take everyone’s word for it. His games weren’t on cable.
- Sacramento Kings: Emmanuel Mudiay, Congo and China point guard, 6-5, 200. They do need a point guard and coach George Karl, as long as he’ll be there now given the issues with DeMarcus Cousins, prefers an athletic style. Some scouts see Mudiay with the greatest upside talent for the position, if less experienced.
- Denver Nuggets: Justise Winslow, Duke small forward, 6-7, 220. Solid and safe guy for a team in transition, meaning less running than retooling. Athletic guy who is skilled and will become a very good NBA player.
- Detroit Pistons: Stanley Johnson, Arizona small forward, 6-7, 242. Good position to fill for them as they’ll lose Monroe in free agency and traded for Ersan Ilyasova. They were trying Caron Butler last season and Johnson is an upgrade, a two-way small forward who can defend and make a three. Good addition for a developing team.
- Charlotte Hornets: Devin Booker, Kentucky shooting guard, 6-6, 205. Called the best shooting guard in a weak shooting guard draft, though you only need one. They’re desperate for outside shooting, but he is the youngest in the draft. They did add Nicolas Batum in trade Wednesday, who makes threes, so they are addressing their needs. And Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s shot isn’t being repaired.
- Miami Heat: Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin center, 7-1, 230. The local big man is the sort of ready to play guy you’d think Pat Riley will want. He also addresses a shooting need as one of the best shooters in the draft and insurance given Chris Bosh’s illness from last season. What a rise for a kid Northwestern didn’t even want to look at a few years back.
- Indiana Pacers: Cameron Payne, Murray State point guard, 6-2, 183. Terrific competitor and a natural point guard, which has been a glaring hole they’ve been unable to fill with George Hill. Clever change of speed player who can probably step in.
- Utah Jazz: Jerian Grant, Notre Dame point guard, 6-4, 198. They’re not going to pick him. But they should. I usually try to do these mock drafts by whom I believe the teams will select. They’ll probably take one of the big guys after dealing Enes Kanter, like Trey Lyles, Myles Turner or Bobby Portis. But they most need a point guard who can pass. They may not want to take the ball out of the hands of Gordon Hayward, but they should as he turns it over too much and makes plays for himself. Grant is mature, ready to step in and can run a team. Dante Exum is not that guy.
- Phoenix Suns: Myles Turner, Texas center, 7-0, 238. Face up big man who can shoot. Young and will take some developing, though they appear in a transition phase as well in falling back in the West with the community cheering for them to trade their best player, Eric Bledsoe. Better athletic prospect than Channing Frye, whom they missed for his shooting.
- Oklahoma City Thunder: Tyus Jones, Duke point guard, 6-2, 185. They’d been linked to Payne throughout the process and if he were to fall they’d presumably take him. They need Russell Westbrook off the ball at least some of the time so Kevin Durant can get some shots. This is higher than Jones is projected, but the Thunder has long ignored these sorts of rankings and basically out drafted much of the NBA.
- Atlanta Hawks: Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky center, 7-1, 242. If he drops this far it’s because of recent injury concerns and he being “different,” as gms say. The Hawks need to get bigger and not play Al Horford at center so much. Cauley-Stein is as versatile a big man defender as there is in the draft, so valuable in this new supposed positionless game.
- Boston Celtics: Trey Lyles, Kentucky power forward, 6-10, 242. Exceptionally skilled big man in the best player available category if he were to get down this far. Basically no one expects the Celtics to be making this pick as they’ve for weeks been the most active trying to package picks and players to get up or make a move. That will go right to Thursday afternoon’s deadline.
- Milwaukee Bucks: Sam Dekker, Wisconsin small forward, 6-9, 220. Perhaps a home town pick, though this new Bucks management doesn’t seem that sentimental. They do need size, so maybe Arkansas’ Bobby Portis. But Dekker is a good athlete who can fit into their switching game on defense with their stable of 6-8 players.
- Houston Rockets: Bobby Portis, Arkansas power forward, 6-11, 245. Supposedly going to Denver for Ty Lawson. They’re desperate for a point guard and prefer a veteran. They’ll have to lose some salary as well, but the talk has been they are fighting the Kings to get to Lawson.
- Washington Wizards: Kelly Oubre, Kansas small forward, 6-7, 203. The conventional wisdom is they were playing Drew Gooden, so they badly need a power forward and many have suggested Kevin Looney. At this point it’s more the eye of the beholder as everyone has flaws. Or more than the guys already taken. But Paul Pierce may not return, and if he does not for long. Oubre is a terrific athlete with good size and a hustling defender who could be a good fit.
- Toronto Raptors: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona small forward, 6-7, 210. Sort of what James Johnson is supposed to be but hasn’t been. So maybe they try someone else. They need size, though their guards never pass to them, anyway. And the bigs left are a bit undersized, like Kevon Looney and Montrezl Harrell. Shooting is an issue for Hollis-Jefferson, but he’s an explosive player.
- Dallas Mavericks: Delon Wright, point guard Utah, 6-6, 182. This is the guy I’ve had targeted for the Bulls, though mostly for the point guard need. But point guards in the 20s aren’t insurance for Derrick Rose. They are career reserves, basically. Which is good as well. But with the gamble for Rajon Rondo going bust and Ray Felton unfortunately opting in, the Mavs could start their latest rebuild with backcourt help.
- Bulls: R.J. Hunter, Georgia State shooting guard, 6-6, 185. UNLV’s Rashad Vaughn and Virginia’s Justin Anderson are generally ranked higher among shooters, but I like Hunter’s confidence and aggression. I certainly could go with Anderson as well without much prompting. He shot much better last season at small forward. The Bulls hope Tony Snell can become a competent backup shooting guard, but who knows. Though Hunter’s percentages were down last season, he’s shown he can make big shots and plays with confidence. This far down in the first round he would be someone you could be excited about as the Bulls still need shooting as much as they need a backup point guard.
- Portland Trailblazers: Justin Anderson, Virginia small forward, 6-6, 230. Not that he’s going to replace traded Nicholas Batum, but he is regarded as a high level shooter. There were rumors they wanted out of their first round pick into the second, which made no sense unless Paul Allen lost a zillion dollars. They’ve got a lot going on with LaMarcus Aldridge’s free agency and Wesley Matthews looking for $15 million annually off Achilles surgery. Rip off city?
- Cleveland Cavaliers: Montrezl Harrell, Louisville power forward, 6-8, 253. A bit undersized but long and athletic with the sort of Kenneth Faried type of hustling and dunking game. Kevin Love did opt out, and most still expect him to resign. But he may not. The Cavs need to start upgrading their bench and as the joke goes has LeBron had enough time to scout as well?
- Memphis Grizzlies: Kevon Looney, UCLA power forward, 6-9, 222. If he’s here something again of best talent available. Marc Gasol likely will return, but Zach Randolph is getting up there and they could use size and his versatility as a big man.
- San Antonio Spurs: Terry Rozier, Louisville point guard, 6-2, 190. They’re also among the best drafting and while they have Tony Parker and Patty Mills, Rozier is an aggressive athlete, long and a competitor and they like those kinds of people even if his shot needs fixing.
- Los Angeles Lakers: Jarell Martin, LSU small forward, 6-9, 240. They need just about everything, though maybe he’s on the way to the Kings with everything but Jim Buss. OK, Buss, too. He’s one of these “sleeper” guys NBA executives like for possibly being a value pick with defensive and athletic abilities.
- Boston Celtics: Tyler Harvey, Eastern Washington shooting guard, 6-4, 182. Smallish for the position, but led the nation in scoring. That means something even though most evaluators have him as a mid-second round pick.
- Brooklyn Nets: Rakeem Christmas, Syracuse center, 6-10, 242. They say they’ll retain Brook Lopez, but who knows anything about the Nets and their plans. He’s been mostly considered a second round pick, though has showed well in workouts and the combine. Long and athletic, which is something.
- Golden State Warriors: Norman Powell, UCLA shooting guard, 6-4, 215. Well, they shoot. Defending champions don’t usually need that much, especially a team with depth. They’ve supposedly been trying to lure someone into taking David Lee’s contract by throwing in this pick. But it may take more. He’s actually a better athlete than shooter, so maybe being around Curry and Thompson something will click.