With an historic/entertaining/catastrophic NBA Finals and an (eventual) AD-to-Hollywood trade barely in the rearview, the bat-shit crazy, 24/7/365 NBA calendar now shifts to the 2019 NBA Draft (Thursday, 7 PM ET, ESPN). The stage is set for a roller coaster evening in Brooklyn. The conventional wisdom has held that this draft starts (or ends, depending on your perspective) at no. 4, with New Orleans holding the pick (and most everything else) previously owned by the Lakers after the top trio of Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, and R.J. Barrett go 1-2-3 to New Orleans, Memphis, and New York, respectively. Even this is in flux, however, as there have been reports over the last couple days of a number of teams, including the Pelicans, making overtures to move up into either the no. 2 or no. 3 spot. [It’s pretty safe to say no. 1 is staying put.]
Morant has been considered the solid no. 2 pick throughout the pre-draft process, but we seem to be seeing a late surge in public support for Barrett as a bunch of NBA execs ask themselves, “Wait, a preternaturally gifted, 6’7″ wing scorer who was the no. 1 prospect in the country? Am I overthinking this?” I suspect Memphis will stay put and select Morant, in large part because they now have to address their point guard position (more on that in a moment). But here’s the thing: everything that follows could, and probably will be, completely wrong. This draft is going to be bonkers. So, taking it all with a Bol Bol-sized grain of salt, let’s talk about some story lines heading into the night, along with some things I hope to see.
A number of stars could be on the move. With Golden State’s dynasty being snapped out of existence as if by Thanos, along with the uncertainty surrounding Kawhi Leonard’s next move, the competitive landscape of the league is more wide-open than it has been in a really long time. And after watching Toronto cash in on some ultra-ballsy trade maneuvering, a number of franchises, especially out West, are probably thinking, “Why not us?” Teams like Denver, Portland, OKC, Houston, and the Clippers all have to be surveying to see if there is a splashy move or two which could vault them above all the other guys in the same tier, and there’s no time to capitalize on the opportunity like the draft. The teams at the other end of the spectrum who are in rebuilding/asset acquisition mode may be willing to pull the trigger on moving an established guy who doesn’t fit their competitive timeline in order to get extra bites at the draft apple.
The three names who immediately jump to mind are Jrue Holiday, Kevin Love, and Bradley Beal. [The Utah Jazz and Mike Conley were set to be included in this section as well until the news broke the long-rumored trade had been consummated on Wednesday. Memphis will receive Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver (and his non-guaranteed contract which I suspect they will waive or trade), Grayson Allen, the no. 23 pick on Thursday, and a future protected first-round pick. A bit of a smorgasbord of non-premium assets, but it’s unclear if there were any other offers and what they may have looked like. Love the trade for Utah, obviously; the upgrade from Rubio to Conley at the point is massive, and they didn’t give up anything they’ll truly miss. Also, I suspect they may not be done. Derrick Favors is a useful player, but he is (and has always been) redundant next to Rudy Gobert, and he’s set to make $16.9 million this season, but it is non-guaranteed until July 6th, making him a very attractive expiring asset for a team looking to shed salary and/or tank. Or just for an actual starting center, for that matter.] I wrote about it earlier in the week, but Holiday’s fate depends on whether New Orleans decides to continue amassing young assets or to accelerate the rebuild. If it’s the former, then Jrue could be on the move as early as Thursday, and there are a number of teams who could use the versatility and defensive tenacity he brings: Houston (especially if the rumors they are looking to move Chris Paul are based at all in reality), Indiana, Boston, Milwaukee (depending what happens with Malcolm Brogdon in free agency), the Clippers, or even a reunion in Philly (though they don’t have a ton of assets left to trade beyond their main guys). He probably stays put as a valuable player and mentor to all their young guys, but if the right offer came along, David Griffin would have to consider it.
There is no doubt Love is on the trading block. From the moment LeBron packed his bags for L.A., the Cavs have been looking for a taker willing to part with picks and absorb his massive contract. A healthy Love is still a valuable player, even if an overpaid one, but he needs to be placed in the proper ecosystem to thrive, which could be a challenge. I mentioned Utah perhaps still making another move, and he could be an intriguing fit beside Gobert in place of Favors. [A starting five of Conley-Mitchell-Ingles-Love-Gobert would be formidable, though making the deal work for Cleveland could be untenable after Utah just sent two picks to Memphis, along with the cap gymnastics which would be required. Utah is more likely to look for a slightly cheaper stretch-4 option in free agency; someone in the Nikola Mirotic tier might make more sense.] Worried about losing Kyrie and Horford in free agency, maybe Boston makes a play for him. They have both the cap space to absorb his deal (now, unfortunately) and the picks the Cavs would crave, even if the two long-time rival organizations might feel gross working with each other. Maybe the Pacers swap him for Domantas Sabonis in some fashion to ease their logjam at center. Love could fit well alongside Myles Turner and give them another proven scorer to go with Victor Oladipo. Portland might kick the tires on a deal, though the logistics of it would be tricky, given the uncertain status of Jusuf Nurkic and how willing they may be to part with promising young big Zach Collins. Point is, there are options out there, if anyone is willing to gamble on Love’s health for the tail end of his prime.
The last one is a long shot, but teams should definitely be sniffing around about the availability of Bradley Beal. The Wizards — who, by the way, still have not named a permanent replacement for former GM/slow-moving arsonist Ernie Grunfeld — would have to be bowled over to ship out Beal, as he is the only thing preventing their team from devolving into a full-fledged dumpster fire. [Some would argue, with John Wall’s injury and millstone contract hanging over their heads, the Wiz should lean into the tank and try to amass young assets to compete once they emerge from cap hell, but how does one of the league’s notoriously slap-dick organizations convince a top flight GM candidate to come in and take on that challenge? It’s a losing proposition, even if the alternative is to keep Beal around and win 35 games for each of the next three years. In short: the Wizards are screwed.] If New Orleans were interested in microwaving a contender, they could easily put together a compelling package of draft assets (along with, say, Lonzo?) and go to war with a core of Holiday-Beal-Ingram-Zion. Several teams with assets to burn (Denver, Boston, Orlando, the Clippers, etc.) would love to have Beal’s elite scoring, burgeoning playmaking, and cost certainty on their roster. The question is if the Wiz are willing to listen.
Who will consolidate their picks? Four teams — Boston, Philly, Atlanta, and San Antonio — possess fourteen of the top forty-two picks in the draft, and sixteen overall. The Hawks have the largest bounty, with picks 8, 10, 17, 35, and 41, and rumors are flying around they are looking to package some combination of the three first-rounders to move into the top-five. [They also had no. 44 until Wednesday, when they sold the pick to Miami for cash.] Assuming Kent Bazemore opts into his $19.2 million player option (and he would be insane not to), they already have at least nine players under contract for the ’19-’20 season and a bunch of cap space to either spend or take on bad contracts for future picks. So the likelihood of them using all five picks on guys they actually want to bring onto the roster — not counting this year’s limited draft-and-stash pool candidates or the “medical redshirt” types, who we’ll get to shortly — is pretty slim. They are rumored to be trying to swap nos. 8 and 10 with New Orleans for no. 4, even as a lot of draft experts say the section of the draft from four through ten is pretty flat, talent-wise. They must really like either Jarrett Culver or De’Andre Hunter in that spot because it would seem odd to give up an asset to move up and select either Darius Garland or Coby White, both of whom would be redundant with Trae Young entrenched as their point guard of the future.
With the disastrous news out of Boston that Kyrie Irving and Al Horford are both as good as gone in free agency, the Celtics have some hard choices to make on Thursday. They could shift back into asset collection mode and simply make all three of their first-round picks (nos. 14, 20, and 22). That section of the draft could feature a number of promising big man prospects, such as Goga Bitadze, Bol Bol, Brandon Clarke, Nic Claxton, P.J. Washington, Mfiondu Kabengele, and even the injured Chuma Okeke or Jontay Porter, to eventually replace Horford. Alternately, they could package some or all of the picks (plus the lightly-protected future Memphis pick, a lucrative asset) in an effort to reload rather than rebuild. Danny Ainge still has a lot of team-building flexibility at his disposal, but damn the Celtics have fallen far, and fast.
The Spurs have no. 19 and 29, though it’s not their style to make all-in moves. In any case, they have been so successful in developing lower picks into useful players over the years that those selections probably have more value to them than they would to virtually anyone else. They’ll undoubtedly draft some 6’11” foreign dude you’ve never heard of (Croatian Luka Samanic has been tossed around in many mock drafts) and then we’ll all be saying “Ahh, the fucking Spurs!” when he’s draining threes on fools in a few years.
Philly has nos. 24, 33, 34, and 42, the last vestiges of the Sam Hinkie era. [He died for our sins, and for extra second-round picks.] With uncertainty surrounding the free agent decisions of Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, and not much left in the way of additional assets after the trades which brought them said free agents, they could go the route of using all the picks in an attempt to find at least a couple useful bench pieces — that 33-34 range is often where teams find the “savvy upperclassmen who don’t fit the usual mold but are ready to contribute right away” guys — or consolidate some or all of them to get one extra veteran piece to pair with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. It wouldn’t be too surprising to see GM Elton Brand push his chips in one more time considering how close the Sixers were to knocking off the eventual champions in the playoffs way back in May. [Think how different the whole NBA conversation might be right now if Embiid made some smarter gastronomic choices and/or Kawhi’s series-winner wasn’t cosmically drawn to the bottom of the net.] In any case, be prepared for picks to be swapped around Thursday night faster than cigarettes at a prison card game.
Are guys with medical red flags the new market inefficiency, or just a bad investment? We saw this question play out last year to some degree when no. 1 high school prospect Michael Porter, Jr. fell all the way to the Nuggets at no. 14, after his freshman season at Missouri was derailed by troubling back injuries. [I find it interesting how when media types discuss Denver, they talk about them as if Porter doesn’t even exist. If he ever gets and stays healthy, the Nuggets will have conjured up the exact scorer they need to go to the next level out of thin air. Not saying it’s likely, but it’s odd how everyone dismisses it out of hand as a possibility.] In a cruel twist of fate, Michael’s brother, Jontay Porter, finds himself in a similar scenario this season. He is a talented, multi-skilled modern big man who would be a surefire lottery pick if not for the fact he tore his ACL twice in the span of six months last year. [Ready for the crazy part? BOTH of their older sisters were forced to medically retire from playing college ball after multiple ACL tears. Whether the Porter family has some genetic predisposition to producing electric-but-brittle athletes, or their parents made some sort of accursed wish on a monkey’s paw, is a topic for another time.]
Auburn combo forward Chuma Okeke also finds himself a victim of bad injury timing, along with Oregon mega-center Bol Bol. [The 7’2″ Bol is the son of Manute Bol, the tallest player to ever play in the NBA.] Okeke tore his ACL during Auburn’s magical run to the Final Four last season, right as his draft stock was beginning to soar. He could return at some point next year, but chances are he’s essentially going to be a medical redshirt. Bol’s case is perhaps the most complicated, as he suffered a stress fracture in his foot in his lone season at Oregon, which is basically the canary in the coal mine for “seven-foot-plus guy whose career is going to be plagued by lower body injuries.” If not for his tantalizing mix of skills — elite shot-blocking combined with good lateral quickness and outside touch for such a giant — he would be borderline undraftable. Instead, someone will take a flier on him in the mid-to-late first round and hope to get at least a few productive seasons out of him before the near-inevitable physical breakdown. [We could also include Darius Garland in this group, who missed all but five games at Vanderbilt with a meniscus tear. However, all indications are he’s good to go, and he’s still likely to be selected in the top-5 on Thursday, so if anything, all the missed games created a mystique around him which has actually helped his draft stock. This league is fucking weird.]
If it were me picking, the safest bet feels like Okeke. His injury seemed to be a fluke (unlike those of Bol and Porter, which have a chronic whiff to them), and so long as he fully recovers — as most young guys suffering a lone ACL tear do these days — he should have a long, productive career in front of him. He’s strong, athletic, versatile, and skilled — all the things teams are looking for in a solid combo forward in today’s league. If that guy can be had late in the first round (or even early in the second), he could be the steal of the draft. Sure, the downsides of selecting Okeke or Porter are fairly obvious: they’ll take up a roster spot next year while not playing, which mitigates some of the value of their cheap, rookie scale contracts, and it’s uncertain what their condition will be once they come back. But at a certain point in the draft, the upside becomes too much to ignore, even with the potential drawbacks. Especially if I were running a team with an already-deep roster picking in the mid/late first (say, someone in the Indy-San Antonio-Boston-OKC nexus from 18-21), I would have Okeke’s name circled on my big board.
Shooters shoot (up the draft board). Every year, we hear the breathless recounting from some league insider of the dead-eye shooting specialist who nailed like 84 out of 100 threes in a private team workout in an empty gym, and invariably that dude goes five spots higher on draft night than he was projected in every mock draft. There is no single skill — yes, including iso scoring ability — which raises a player’s draft stock as much as elite shooting, especially in the pace-and-space era. The big risers to watch for this year? Kentucky’s Tyler Herro, UNC’s Cam Johnson, Virginia’s Ty Jerome, and Belmont’s Dylan Windler. Teams will gladly overlook their perceived flaws (wingspan, age, quickness, and overall athleticism, respectively) for a chance at those sweet, sweet shooting percentages. Teams aren’t wrong to place this premium on outside shooting — I think Johnson and Jerome in particular are going to have long, fruitful careers as ace role players — but it’s interesting how teams always put on the head fake with these guys in the pre-draft process, poo-pooing them for their weaknesses, then jump at the chance to snag them when the rubber meets the road.
Which late fliers could return value? We already talked about Jontay Porter, whose draft position could vary wildly depending on how teams feel about his medicals. Beyond him, there are a number of other projected second-rounders, most of whom fall into one of two camps. First, there are the high-upside guys who are either raw or it’s unclear how they will fit in the NBA game; guys like Darius Bazley, KZ Okpala, Talen Horton-Tucker, Jalen Lecque, Daniel Gafford, and Louis King all fit the bill here. Second, there are the upperclassmen who we know “too much” about. They clearly know what they’re doing on a basketball court, but scouts have had a long time to pick at their flaws and question their upside. Cam Johnson, Carsen Edwards, Terance Mann, Grant Williams, Shamorie Ponds, and DaQuan Jeffries are all names to watch among this group. These types tend to return value when picked in the early-to-mid second round because they’re skilled and mature enough to make rosters, and they soak up early minutes by having a defined skill set and not making a ton of rookie mistakes. Do they develop into stars? Usually not. [As with most things, the exception to the rule is Draymond Green.] But at this stage of the draft, finding a guy who can stick in the league and be part of the rotation for a winning team is a home run.
Remember: all predictions wrong or your money back. Enjoy the insane trade bonanza, everybody!
Top Photo Credit: Joe Murphy/2017 NBAE