In the middle of January, Evan ran his last big board, and a lot has changed since then. We’re in the middle of conference tournaments now, with Selection Sunday this weekend and the NCAA tournament four days later. It’s the most exciting part of the season for college basketball fans (unless indictment is your thing).
I wanted to get a board out into the world before March really wound up, so that I could do one or two more throughout the next month monitoring the developments that each prospect shows at this highest level of competition.
A few details about what I prefer in a prospect: fit in the modern game is really important to me, as is having one or two dominant skills. It’s hard for me to project a wing who can’t shoot or a big who doesn’t have the ability to defend becoming a valuable NBA player in 2018.
As far as the Suns are concerned, versatility is obviously important, and NBA readiness is quietly lingering for me as this team sizes up this draft class. If they’re going to try and compete next season (ready or not), they’re probably going to get a guy who is less of a project. The team’s needs factored very little into my board, but nevertheless it is the team I follow most, and the one whose needs impact my thoughts on the draft more than others.
1. Deandre Ayton, Big, Arizona: He entered the college season at No. 2 for me, and perhaps fell even lower when I saw him in person on Dec. 6 against Texas A&M. Ayton had a bad habit early in the season on defense of neither contesting a shot or boxing out on a miss. He simply wandered a lot of the time. Since then, he’s shown better defensive instincts, with nearly three blocks per game in February. His offense will translate -- he can shoot, pass and post up too well to not be a well-above-average offensive player in the NBA.
2. Luka Doncic, Ball-Handler, Real Madrid: I haven’t seen many young guards play with as much control, skill and beat-ahead intelligence as Doncic. He is going to come in and pick defenses apart, threading the needle as a passer and pulling up to shoot from any distance. There are questions about his defense and athleticism, but I think we should give him time in America before we judge him as an athlete, and his versatility will serve him well as a defender. He can play the point on offense and guard wings.
3. Jaren Jackson Jr., Big, Michigan State: This is Jackson’s age-18 season and he will be 19 for all of his rookie season next year, assuming he enters the draft. His age is important when considering all he’s shown, albeit in smaller flashes, throughout this season. Jackson is a quintessential modern NBA big man, someone who can space the floor and protect the rim -- a new unicorn. Add that to the games he’s had as a passer and finisher, and you’re looking at a really tantalizing player. As we’ve seen with Dragan Bender, situation is very important for young, versatile players, but Jackson has so many skills that I think he’s OK regardless of where he goes.
4. Trae Young, Ball-Handler, Oklahoma: There may be no one to whom March matters more than Young. That is completely unexpected compared to where we were in November. Yet Young’s teammates got cold, defenses keyed in on him from the half court line, and the hype was flushed away. Young remains the second-best passer in this draft, the best pull-up shooter, and one of the guys with the highest ceiling. He is similar to Jackson in that his fit in the modern game jumps him up a couple of spots, and like I mentioned in the intro, being elite at one or two things goes a long way.
5. Michael Porter Jr., Wing, Missouri: Porter has the potential to be one of the better scorers in the draft. He can get a shot off from all three levels of the court, finishes at the rim with length, and uses his athleticism as an advantage running the floor. We’ll see how he looks in the SEC tournament.
6. Mohamed Bamba, Big, Texas: The freshman was second only to Jackson in terms of Defensive Box Plus-Minus this year out of the guys likely to be drafted, and No. 6 overall. It isn’t just a matter of putting his arms up and getting blocks -- Bamba can switch across all positions and hold his ground, and he quietly shot 41 percent from distance in January. There’s elite rim protector potential here, and if his feel for the game on offense comes along, he could finally start to reach the Rudy Gobert potential that looked unreasonable early in the season.
7. Marvin Bagley III, Big, Duke: We’ve all seen Marquese Chriss a fair bit around here, and Bagley has some similar concerns (outside the incessant fouling). Watch him man the low corner in Duke’s zone, and how often he gets lost following the ball. At this point, he would be best defensively switching and protecting the rim at the center spot. That said, his offense is incredible, buoyed by elite athleticism and a solid jumper.
8. Mikal Bridges, Wing, Villanova: Safe is not a derogatory word for draft prospects. As a junior, Bridges has flashed incredible shooting versatility, with the ability to take and make contested shots on the move and off the catch. For someone who rarely handles the ball, he is a key cog in Villanova’s offense, which is the best in the country. Defensively, it’s all about length and versatility, two traits which make him an interesting option for the Suns. He could make a difference as a rookie.
9. Wendell Carter Jr., Big, Duke: Shouts to former Bright Sider Kellan Olson (and many other nerdy members of NBA Draft Twitter) for the Al Horford comparison, as it really highlights what makes Carter special. Carter impacts every play for Duke, either initiating offense from the post or anchoring the defense around the rim. He can step out and space the floor when needed, as well as switch on defense. Like Bridges, he could be called safe, but all that really means is he has a projectable modern skill set and a solid feel for the game.
10. Troy Brown, Ball-Handler, Oregon: It’s impossible to get a great feel for Oregon watching them night to night, as coach Dana Altman doesn’t have enough talent to run a NBA-type offense. Instead, the ball pops around until it finds space, turning Brown into a cog rather than the engine itself for this offense. The Ducks are on the tournament bubble, meaning we may not see Brown much longer. Appreciate him while you can: a silky, smart secondary ball-handler with the potential to wreak havoc on defense.
11. Miles Bridges, Wing, Michigan State: Bridges’ shooting efficiency has skyrocketed in his second season as a Spartan, raising the ceiling on his offense quite a bit. It was already remarkable to watch Bridges handle the ball like a point guard at 6-8, but this year he is doing more. It may take time for him to adjust guarding bigger players at the NBA level, but he is strong enough to make it work.
12. Collin Sexton, Ball-Handler, Alabama: Avery Johnson is one of the worst things to ever happen to Sexton’s lottery prospects. It’s not that Alabama doesn’t run an offense that highlights the skills of its best player, it’s that they really don’t run an offense at all. That said, Sexton’s flippy jumper goes in a third of the time, his finishing ability is strong, and he makes next-level passes when there’s an opportunity for him to do so within the Tide’s sketchy system.
13. Lonnie Walker IV, Ball-Handler, Miami: The freshman is another guy for whom a lot of the value derives from his ability to shoot pull-up jump shots as a ball-handler. It unlocks so much for a modern NBA pick-and-roll offense, as we see with nearly every scoring point guard dominating the league. He also has the length to defend multiple positions at the next level, but has been taken advantage of too often in college. A late bloomer, Walker could continue rising through March.
Altogether, this lottery class is incredible. There are guys like Mitchell Robinson, Daniel Gafford and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander knocking on the door who could also be NBA starters. The back half of the draft has a half-dozen secondary ball-handling prospects that are exciting as well. I can’t wait to see how the next month unfolds.