Even though we are only a third of the way through the NCAA’s college basketball regular season, I think it’s as good of a time as any to look ahead.
With Devin Booker out for another 4-8 games, dependent upon his recovery, Phoenix could be right alongside Chicago and Sacramento in the tank standings around Christmas.
Two games into the Booker-less Suns and it’s about as ugly as you can expect. A heavy reliance on T.J. Warren alongside Mike James.
It’s early, but Josh Jackson, Marquese Chriss, and Dragan Bender will need to show flashes over these next few weeks indeed. In the case of Bender, he might have already been pushed to the side for Jared Dudley, who has proven his veteran leadership and savvy out there is much more valuable than Bender’s hesitancy.
Below, I will go through my top 14 prospects this early on in the season. I guarantee you there will be a lot of movement on this six months from now, but, for me, the first few names should be laid in cement.
Compared to the 2017 draft class, which was headlined Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Josh Jackson, and Jayson Tatum, 2018 has three prospects that could be immediate franchise stars while three others could develop into it very quickly.
This is Lottery Big Board 1.0, with 2.0 and 3.0 taking place between now and March Madness.
Note: Big Board 1.0 is based on my overall evaluations, not ranked by fit with the Suns. I will also have more in-depth breakdown pieces on these prospects as we get closer to draft season.
Tier 1: Luka Doncic
Height: 6'8" | Weight: 220 | Age: 18 | Ball Handler - Real Madrid (Spain)
Like many other draft pundits, Doncic to me is far and away the best prospect in this class currently. For Real Madrid this season, which Doncic has played for since he was 15, he has averaged 23.5 points, 7.9 rebounds, 6.7 assists, and 1.3 steals per 36 minutes.
In the mailbag feature, I’m bringing back later this week, I will answer some readers’ questions related do Doncic’s fit as a point guard in Phoenix long-term next to Booker. As a sneak peek, though, I’ll definitely say, with confidence, that a Doncic-Booker pairing would immediately become a dynamic duo for a decade.
Doncic can play any position 1-3, and for the Suns, this wing pairing, including Jackson, would be general manager Ryan McDonough’s dream scenario.
Tier 2: Marvin Bagley III and Deandre Ayton
Bagley III - Height: 6'11" | Weight: 235 | Age: 18 | Big - Duke / Ayton - Height: 7'0" | Weight: 260 pounds | Age: 19 | Big - Arizona
In Tier 2 of my initial big board, two transcendent big men talents have shown through the first third of the season that they could immediately step in and become No. 1 scoring options.
First up, Bagley has shown his quick-twitch athleticism to his advantage early and often. We have seen early that Bagley has an innate ability to quickly soar back up on rebound attempts, especially on the offensive glass for Duke to obtain extra possessions.
Bagley has struggled on post defense, but his scoring ability will translate to the next level. Whether he is a 4 or a small-ball 5, the former Tempe, Arizona resident should be like Ben Simmons, in a sense that a lot of the skills we see now should easily move over and improve against even stronger talent.
Now, lets quickly get into Ayton. I have covered the Arizona big man a ton this week. I saw him twice against Texas A&M and Alabama, which featured other top prospects like Williams and Sexton, and he dominated.
Against Alabama on Saturday, Ayton finished with 29 points and 18 rebounds in front of the likes of Celtics general manager Danny Ainge and even McDonough himself who decided to skip out to catch a better game further south.
Over his last five games, Ayton has averaged nearly 20 and 10 with ease. The numbers show that the Bahamian big is finding his stride, allotting around 21-9-2 in that span.
Also, an interesting number I wanted to bring up with Ayton revolves around his all-around prowess. Right now, he is exceeding +20 REB%, +10 AST% while carrying a true shooting percentage above 60.
How rare is that to maintain over an entire season? Well, it absolutely is, because the only other big drafted in the top 10 over the last decade to do it is Kevin Love. And in the pros, only Love and DeMarcus Cousins have done it multiple times. Right now, Andre Drummond and Nikola Jokic are in this category for this season, too.
Ayton is a prospect that could thrive on both ends if he’s given the correct coaching staff. That’s a scary thought for others because it seems a lot of the time Ayton isn’t locked in and still produces these numbers nightly.
Tier 3: Michael Porter Jr., Mohamed Bamba, Jaren Jackson Jr.
Porter Jr. - Height: 6'10" | Weight: 215 | Age: 19 | Wing - Missouri / Bamba - Height: 7'0" | Weight: 225 | Age: 19 | Big - Texas / Jackson Jr. - Height: 6'11" | Weight: 240 | Age: 18 | Big - Michigan State
The final elite level of prospects around 10 games, Tier 3, features three more that I am completely in on already. Missouri’s Porter Jr. injured his back in his first game against Iowa State, which forced him into likely season-ending back fusion surgery. However, once he’s cleared during the pre-draft process, there’s a good shot Porter Jr. could vault into Tier 2.
Porter Jr. is the most gifted natural scorer in this class. At 6-10, he’s scheme versatile to play either the 3 or 4 long-term. With the way the league is going, valuing spacing this much, he could be ahead of Bagley and Ayton on some boards.
Honestly, drafting Porter Jr. to play alongside Booker and Jackson might be one of the better ideas if last year’s No. 4 pick can’t develop a consistent jumper.
Meanwhile, Bamba is a mountain of a man. Even though he’s packed into a thin frame, he also possesses a 7-9 wingspan which immediately becomes the largest in the NBA. Bamba really does remind me a more nimble and more refined prospect than Rudy Gobert when he was coming out of Nancy, a club in France.
I have high confidence in Bamba to step in and become an impact rim protector, which is what Phoenix desperately needs. Where Bamba is raw on offense — a nice form from the perimeter plus a rim-runner on lobs — he makes up for with his defense.
Unlike Bagley and Ayton, Bamba has the longest way to go to hit his potential but if it happens, oh, man, watch out. That alone will keep the Texas Longhorn in my top five all season unless the next prospect continues to be a swiss army knife defender himself.
Jackson Jr. alongside another Jackson on the Suns’ roster? Sign me up if their pick conveys outside the top five in June, because the Carmel, Indiana native has been awesome to watch recently.
Against Rutgers alone, JJJ finished with 8 blocks. The issue with him, though, is foul trouble. Much like Marquese Chriss when he declared out of Washington, JJJ has to learn how to go vertically instead of horizontally. Once he figures it out, he could really be a better all-around prospect than a Bamba-type. No joke, I’m that much of a fan.
In the last five games where he has played above 20 minutes, also known as avoiding foul issues, he’s averaging 13.6 points, 9.2 rebounds, 3.6 blocks, and a steal. On top of that, Jackson Jr. is the youngest prospect out of all that are mentioned throughout my big board.
There’s a lot to like with Jackson Jr., and capping it off with him as the final can’t miss prospect seems right indeed.
The Rest (No. 7 - 14)
Height: 6'2" | Weight: 190 | Age: 18 | Ball Handler - Alabama
I saw Sexton in action for the first time in-person Saturday and he was oh so impressive. After a first half that saw him score 6 points, Sexton set it off with a buzzer-beater at halftime and dropped 21 points in 17 minutes to finish with 30 total. It didn’t matter if Sexton was matched against Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Allonzo Trier or Rawle Alkins, he was slicing through them to the rim at will.
It’s obviously early, but Sexton has the best free throw rate per 40 minutes over the last decade compared to other top point guards. His absurd 13.6 free throw attempts per 40 are almost two extra trips ahead of the likes of Stephen Curry (Davidson) and Kyrie Irving (Duke - yes, he only played a few games but was tearing it up before injury).
His energy is also infectious, too. If McDonough decides to place Sexton alongside Booker, Jackson, and Chriss, that’s a quartet sure to cause a lot of enemies with their intensity.
It will be interesting to see how Sexton’s shot holds because it has an odd release to it but he’s also finishing those over 40% of the time. If it does maintain until March, there’s a good shot Sexton won’t last anywhere past the top five.
Height: 6'7" | Weight: 225 | Age: 19 | Wing - Michigan State
Even though many pundits are starting to fall for college’s other Bridges, I’m still on the Miles Bridges train for the time being. He’s still averaging 16 and 6 thus far, but it’s painfully obvious that JJJ is the Spartan with the most NBA upside.
Bridges’ “tweener” qualities are an actual concern, surrounding only average measurables. However, if he is able to find the right fit, there’s no reason why we couldn’t see freshman version of Bridges in the pros.
Sure, he’s likely only a third or fourth option, but the rest of his tangibles make him a valuable commodity and it should show where he’s selected come draft night.
Height: 6'9" | Weight: 240 | Age: 20 | Big - Texas A&M
When Williams was matched up against Ayton on Tuesday in Phoenix, I was so excited to see how he would handle it. Well, Williams seemed to sleepwalk through it to me so he drops below Sexton and Bridges on 1.0.
The 6-9 big has a 7-5 wingspan and put it to good use plenty against Arizona. His stat line was something he was only able to put up twice all of his freshman campaign, where he was projected as a top pick previously.
Overall, Williams has a good chance of becoming another rim protector but he needs to be surrounded by perimeter threats for his potential to blossom. His talent is too hard to deny to fall that far because if he rebounds over the next month he could make some movement on here.
Height: 6'9" | Weight: 215 | Age: 18 | Wing - Kentucky
Knox has been one of my biggest risers, alongside who ranks as my No. 11 prospect next. Far and away, this Kentucky team has the least pro talent on it in awhile under John Calipari, who told me on a podcast during preseason preparation that Quade Green and Jarred Vanderbilt were two he expected to pop.
Well, turns out, Knox was the one.
His speed and instincts for a wing, including plus rebounding ability should keep him hovering around this area all season. If he is placed as a small-ball 4 and builds more muscle onto his frame, he could be a dangerous weapon on offense for whichever NBA team is able to deploy it.
Height: 6'7" | Weight: 210 | Age: 21 | Wing - Villanova
Alongside Knox, who would have guessed the early ascension of Villanova junior Mikal Bridges? His wingspan is absurd for a wing, nearly eclipsing 7-foot, and he has shown early on his two-way potential he has tirelessly worked at under head coach Jay Wright.
Bridges has been gaining some buzz over the past few seasons for the Wildcats, but nothing more than possibly top 25 hype. Now, all of the sudden, Bridges has taken on the extra usage and thrived.
For a team like Phoenix, Bridges would be the perfect fit if Miami’s first rounder falls somewhere between 10-16. Even though they already have Davon Reed and Jackson, Bridges to me is a glue guy who could provide the Suns a scary wing matchup when all three are out there together (which is certainly possible as both Reed and Jackson can handle spot ball handler duties).
Wendell Carter Jr.
Height: 6'10" | Weight: 260 | Age: 18 | Big - Duke
The reason why I have Carter ranked this high is due to me totally buying in on his jump shot translating smoothly into the NBA. He is able to stretch the floor well for a 5-type, which should get many pace-and-space type teams excited.
An underrated aspect of Carter Jr.’s game is also his passing, which has been a mute point due to the gargantuan hype around Bagley. If he didn’t reclassify, it’s fair to ask what this prospects role would look like if he wasn’t around. In a bigger usage rate, Carter could be producing some intriguing numbers.
His defense is subpar, but Carter Jr.’s jumper is almost David West-esque. Silky smooth for a big man.
Lonnie Walker IV
Height: 6'4" | Weight: 190 | Age: 18 | Wing - Miami
Walker IV to me is a prospect who has fallen prey to how loaded the 2018 draft class truly is. If it was any other year, he would firmly be in the top eight.
Like Mikal Bridges, Walker has 3-and-D potential seeping out of him, but he’s only 18 at this stage. There’s definitely a lot to work with if a team is patient with the Miami (FL) two-guard.
Walker himself is coming off a torn meniscus this summer, so if he’s able to produce consistently he could be another mover to watch out. Prospects like him usually make a late rise around combine time anyways.
Height: 6'2" | Weight: 180 | Age: 19 | Ball Handler - Oklahoma
Wrapping up Big Board 1.0 with my final spot, which is occupied by Oklahoma’s Trae Young, who has set the NCAA world ablaze since November.
Over his last five games, Young is averaging a line of 33-8-3-2 with 51-36-88 splits for the Sooners. Also, Young is averaging over 11 free throws per 40, which is second behind Sexton since 2008.
Young has been a scoring dynamo, bursting onto the scene and making big jumps on many boards. I had him ranked as a late first-rounder in the preseason, so I’m among them.
With that being said, Young would be a perfect selection if the Miami pick conveys in the late lottery. Adding a rim protector like Bamba alongside a score-first guard like Young would cover up that backcourt’s defensive holes.
I’ll say this: If Young continues his offensive barrage, then he could make a case to supplant Sexton in 2018. Ironically, they square off in late January, which should be must-watch if you want to catch some possible Suns prospects.
What’s your thoughts on Lottery Big Board 1.0? Have any questions?
Ask and I’ll answer them below in the comments section, but, reminder, a mailbag with even more Suns plus draft questions from our readers is coming later this week as well!