Thursday night’s NBA Draft is Christmas for draftniks like me. It’s time to hang the stockings, trim the tree and set out the milk and cookies for Santa.
In this case, Santa comes in the form of 58 draft picks. I already wrote about the big names at the top of the draft, Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson. Now, let’s look a bit further down the board for some value picks.
Below are five guys I love, five more sleepers I like, and how to bet any of these profiles if you believe.
PF Jarace Walker, Houston
Walker could go near the top of the draft with a over/under at 6.5 and a chance to sneak into the top five.
Walker’s stats don’t jump off the page as he averaged around 11 points and seven rebounds a night, but this is a guy who does everything not in a box score. Walker is a big, switchy defender. He’s built like an NFL player, plays outstanding team defense and understands positioning. He has a great feel for the game, blocks shots, hits the glass and plays with high effort at all times. We’re probably not looking at a top scorer, but Walker has some nice playmaking ability with pick-and-roll pop.
Think Paul Millsap or a modern Robert Horry. Walker could become the guy everyone says “hey, you know who’s really underrated?” about for the next decade. Walker is the power forward you want next to a thin-framed (like Wembanyama or Chet Holmgren) or offense-first (like Karl-Anthony Towns or Nikola Jokic) big man to play defense and do all the dirty work.
G Anthony Black, Arkansas
Black is another guy not built to score — you’ll notice I have a type — but a winning player who makes team-first plays and elevates his teammates.
Black might have the best hoops IQ in the draft. He processes the game at lightning speed and is a terrific playmaker who moves the ball quickly and utilizes his 6-foot-6 frame to find good passing angles. Black’s also a terrific team defender and a playmaker on the opposite end of the court.
The one thing Black doesn’t do much is shoot or score. He’s a Lonzo Ball or Josh Giddey type prospect — somewhat limited athletically and less offensive engine, but more the piston that makes everything work. Black’s under 8.5 is juiced to the high heavens but looks very likely to hit. Washington is heavily linked to Black at No. 8 after the Bradley Beal trade.
G Cason Wallace, Kentucky
Wallace is similar to Black in that he makes his living defending and doing the little things. He’s not nearly the playmaker Black is, but Wallace is an elite defender and the best guard defender in the class.
He’s often compared to Jrue Holiday. Wallace is 6-foot-4 with a 6-foot-9 wingspan — two inches longer than Holiday — and has the ability to guard one to three. He also has the upside to be a lockdown point-of-attack defender. He plays low and strong and is just as valuable off the ball with his instincts and team defense.
Offensively, Wallace will need to be a complementary player, much like Holiday. He takes care of the ball and has a nice finishing touch and an improving jumper. With more NBA offenses built around a wing or center, teams without a stud point guard are often better off with a complementary point guard who can defend and hit an open jumper. That’s Wallace.
Wallace’s over/under sits at 13.5. The intel right now appears to have him falling out of the lottery, leaning over on that bet, but that could be a mistake for such a high-impact defender.
SF Dariq Whitehead, Duke
We’re dropping out of the lottery now, which — a year ago — would have been a surprise to draftniks as Dariq Whitehead was the No. 1 RSCI recruit in the country before struggling through a difficult year at Duke.
Whitehead played through a nagging injury most of the season and has some real injury question marks that could cap his draft stock. He lacked confidence at Duke and saw a big drop in free-throw rate and finishing numbers, but all of those things seem tied to injury.
The upside is clear. Whitehead is a long wing who isn’t yet 19 and hit 43% of his 3s, even in a bad year. He’s a tough shot maker, moves well off the ball and has good feel for the game. Duke has become a lot like Kentucky in that players tend to get pigeonholed into specific roles on young college teams and end up underrated before blossoming in the NBA.
I buy Whitehead’s upside, but don’t know about the injury intel. One team that does is the Brooklyn Nets as their team doctor performed Whitehead’s surgery. The Nets pick at 21 and 22 and have been a frequent mock draft landing spot, but I like sprinkling the +750 on top-20 odds at FanDuel. If everyone knows the Nets are connected at 21, they also know they need to get to 20 or above to get him.
SF Jordan Walsh, Arkansas
Outside of the centers, Jordan Walsh is the nastiest defender in the draft.
Walsh stands 6-foot-7 with a huge 7-foot-2 wingspan and nearly a 9-foot standing reach. That gives him immense defensive upside since he uses his length to cover so much of the court and cut off angles. Walsh has elite defensive instincts and profiles as a guy who could potentially switch everything and guard one-to-five at the next level. He has great positioning and could be a true lockdown point-of-attack defender.
Imagine someone like Robert Covington or OG Anunoby. Like those two, Walsh won’t enter the NBA with much offense. He’s a good cutter and moves well off the ball, but the shot needs a lot of work and he’ll need to find enough of a role on that end to keep his defense on the court.
Walsh is a first-round long shot right now at +3000 at DraftKings, but he’s my favorite long shot on the board. We’ve seen him connected in the draft process to Denver, who just traded for a late first and may add another, and I have him in the lottery on my board. I’ll bet on the talent at the long number and hope someone falls in love with the defense.
5 More Names to Watch on Draft Night
F Leonard Miller, G League Ignite
Miller got way better this year. He led his team in rebounds per game and was close to also doing so in scoring. He’s a hard worker who improved a ton this season and is still on his way up as a raw prospect out of Canada who can do a lot of things.
When a guy looks that good in a pro setting, he’s worth betting on. Miller is +100 (FanDuel) to go in the top 20.
SG Andre Jackson Jr., UConn
Jackson is a wing Draymond Green. He has an incredible feel for the game and makes winning plays on both ends. He has a knack for being in the right place at the right time and plays with a high motor and good athleticism. Jackson is a great team defender and was the glue guy and, I think, the most important player for the national champion Huskies.
Jackson’s not a scorer and will need to remake his shot, but we’re seeing guys like Bruce Brown and Gary Payton II find roles on title teams. For a team with enough offense — such as Denver or Golden State — he slots in immediately as a winning player. I’ll sprinkle him at +500 (DraftKings) to sneak into the first round.
PG Marcus Sasser, Houston
Seemingly every year we get an older point guard who drops to the top of the second round before immediately claiming an important role in the NBA. Andrew Nembhard went 31st last year, then finished top-three among rookies in assists and steals. In 2018 Jevon Carter, Jalen Brunson and Devonte’ Graham went 32-33-34 and all found key roles on winning teams.
Sasser will be 23 when the season starts, but that just means he’s ready now. He’s on the small side, but will be a great point guard defender and hit 38% of his 3s with a shot that improved each year. He was also up to 46% on catch-and-shoot 3s this season. Sasser was as much a reason as any for Houston’s success over the past few years and I expect him to have a winning impact in the NBA too.
PG Amari Bailey, UCLA
Amari Bailey is on the other end of the spectrum. He was a highly recruited freshman who got buried early in UCLA’s rotation before emerging late in the season to help the Bruins make a push.
We saw this exact scenario play out a year ago with Peyton Watson at UCLA before he snuck into the first round with the final pick. Bailey is a three-level scorer, plays hard defense, and showed great work ethic and improvement. He’s a bet on pedigree at +500 (DraftKings) to get into the first round.
SG Ricky Council IV, Arkansas
I watched a lot of Razorbacks basketball this year, mostly to scout potential lottery pick Nick Smith (who you’ll note is absent from my list of beloved prospects). Every time I tuned in to watch Smith or Black or Walsh, I couldn’t help but notice Ricky Council IV.
He’s a nuclear athlete with an outrageous first step and a walking human highlight with at least one jaw-dropping play per game. He gets to the line well and scored 16 points per game. I’m willing to bet on a guy with this much athleticism. I don’t see Council getting into the first and won’t be shocked if he goes undrafted, but I’ve got my eye on him long term.