We are just weeks away from the start of NBA training camp, and not long after, the start of the NCAA season. Considering the increasing importance put on the draft in recent years, it’s worth looking ahead to how the coming draft will shape up.
One NBA executive labeled this a “mediocre draft, as of now.” The implication there is that, though there are not a ton of one-and-done talents — Kentucky may not have a first-rounder on its entire roster! — some players could work themselves into an NBA career with a good season.
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Here’s what to look for, draft-wise, in the coming months…
The Blue Devil trio: Duke has three incoming freshmen sure to take the one-and-done path, because all three are likely top-10 picks: R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson and Cameron Reddish. All three have different styles, with Barrett more of a combo guard who can handle the ball, run the offense and find ways to score himself, Williamson an undersized power forward with tremendous athleticism and Reddish an explosive wing who creates shots with ease.
The problem? All three need the ball.
“Barrett is the best player in college this year, in terms of NBA talent,” one league executive told Sporting News. ‘He has great size (6-6) and point guard instincts, sort of like James Harden. So I think things will go through him, but what does that do to the other two guys?
“If Reddish does not get the ball, he tends to fade during games. Williamson needs to get it in transition. I don’t think any of the three fall out of the lottery just because of the talent level, but it might not be smooth there.”
We saw that, to an extent, last year as center Wendell Carter had to find ways to contribute around high-scoring forward Marvin Bagley III. Despite watered-down production, Carter still went seventh in the draft, and Bagley went No. 2.
Someone among the Duke threesome could wind up the odd man out in terms of scoring. What’s uncertain is whether, and how much, that will ding their draft stock.
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The returns: Last year’s class was good enough to spook some of the more interesting prospects in the draft crowd to return to school. The challenge now is to prove that there has been improvement. This year’s freshman class is not great, so the quality of the upperclassmen will determine how good this draft is.
One scout told me the most intriguing prospect is a guy who might have been a lottery pick had he come out this year: Gonzaga junior wing Rui Hachimura. He is, predictably, a physically gifted guy with long arms and a flowing athleticism that makes him excellent in transition and on the defensive end.
But he can’t shoot. He was a 19.2 percent 3-point shooter last year, and was not much better from midrange. He’s very raw, but if he can show some jumper development, he has the potential to be a top-10 pick.
There won’t be very many big men in the upcoming draft, so keep an eye on a trio of sophomore centers: Arkansas’ shot-blocking paint patroller Daniel Gafford (2.2 blocks in 22.6 minutes); all-around big man Jontay Porter of Missouri, who hopes to rise into the lottery as much as his brother, Michael, nearly fell out of it; and Maryland’s Bruno Fernando, who averaged 12.6 points and 8.3 rebounds in his final nine games to bring some momentum into his second season with the Terps.
A pair of UCLA sophomores, point guard Jaylen Hands (who must show his collegiate theatrics can translate into an NBA career) and wing Kris Wilkes (who needs to be a better 3-point shooter and boost his overall game) bear watching, too.
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Western Kentucky gets another try: Things did not work out for the Hilltoppers last year, when they managed to land sought-after center Mitchell Robinson, but saw Robinson bolt from the school before the year even started. Robinson worked out on his own and wound up a second-round choice by the Knicks.
Now, coach Rick Stansbury gets a lottery talent in center Charles Bassey, a Nigerian-born Texan who has become the product of the kind of recruitment that makes NCAA fans hold their collective noses — after he committed, Bassey’s legal guardian was given a $200,000-per-year job as an assistant on Stansbury’s staff.
No matter how he got to Bowling Green, Bassey will be a test case on whether Stansbury can develop a one-and-done lottery talent. He is a 7-footer and a smooth, natural athlete, but remains a raw prospect. Can WKU help him bulk up? Can he improve his perimeter game? Will the Hilltoppers play enough major opponents (Washington, Wisconsin, West Virginia) outside Conference USA for Bassey to prove himself?
The international market: Even with a relatively mediocre incoming American class, the international field should not have too much of an impact on the depth of this draft. One player — the uber-athletic and long Sekou Doumbouya — should land in the lottery, but there won’t be many other international first-rounders.
Doumbouya, a 6-9 athlete who is only 17, was a sensation two summers ago at the U-18 FIBA European Championship. He firmed up his status as a lottery guy back in the Basketball Without Borders Camp during All-Star weekend in Los Angeles.
He will go back to play professionally in France next season, moving up to the French A division with Limoges after spending last year with B division team Poiters. He needs to become a better all-around player, particularly as a passer, but scouts rave about his desire and willingness to learn the game. Keep an eye on the Limoges box scores.
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Pick watch: Because teams have been so reluctant to cough up first-rounders in recent years, there are not many outstanding swaps in the coming draft. But two teams — the Hawks and Celtics — will be watching others with keen interest.
Atlanta will get Cleveland’s first-rounder this year, if the pick is not in the top 10. Some projections for the Cavs would seem to have them landing in that range this year, but a closer look at the East shows Cleveland has a shot a playoff spot. The bet here is that Atlanta will wind up with a pick between 11-16 from the Cavs.
The Hawks also have Dallas’ pick, top-five protected. The Mavs may not make the playoffs, but unless they luck out in the lottery, they won’t have a pick in the top 10. So Atlanta could come away with another 10-14 pick.
The Celtics are probably the last team that needs more lottery picks, but they’re almost certain to have one from the Kings, a pick they got through Philly by trading down from No. 1 to No. 3 in 2017 (the Sixers took Markelle Fultz, and the Celtics took Jayson Tatum). The Kings will be bad this year, and Boston should have a top-eight pick.
They’re unlikely to get an owed pick from the Clippers, which is top-14 protected and would thus require that Los Angeles makes the playoffs. That’s a longshot.
More interesting is a pick owed to Boston from Memphis. It’s protected in the top eight, and the Grizzlies did the Celtics a favor by hanging on to veterans Mike Conley and Marc Gasol in an effort to make another run at the postseason. The Grizz might not be good enough for the playoffs, but they should be good enough for 37 wins or so, which will keep them in the 11-14 range.
So the Celtics, for all their assets, could be in line to have a top-five pick and an added lottery pick.