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Super Sleepers: Mining for mid-first round gems

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Every year, there tends to be a prospect who slipped through the cracks. Who are some candidates this time around?

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Take a look back at how the past 7-10 drafts have gone for teams lucky enough to hit in the mid-first round. Whether it’s transcendent stars like Kawhi Leonard or Giannis Antetokounmpo, all is not lost if you land outside the lottery.

In a year where the depth from 11-40 is mimicking how 2017’s went as far as overall strength goes, Phoenix could capitalize off of another class littered with top-tier talent later.

According to a team source, Phoenix values their pick(s) in the mid-first. They believe a lot of talent will be available in this range who fit what they are looking for long-term. With the depth at positions where Phoenix is shallow at — secondary creators, shooters, and plus defenders — this could be an affirmative action where they retool on the fly with better, younger prospects to their rotation.

I was always under the impression they would package those picks for a win-now veteran, which is still on the table as has been the MO with Phoenix laying out all options, but I’m starting to believe they might consider this a deep enough draft where another lottery-like talent could slip to them.

However, as general manager Ryan McDonough mentioned on 98.7 FM earlier this week, odds are only 2-3 young players would be added to next year’s roster if the cards played out that way.

If both the Miami and Milwaukee picks convey, they are likely to end up slotted at No. 15 and No. 16 respectively.

Without further ado, I have qualified eight prospects as “super sleepers” in the 2018 Draft. There were a few others, but they slipped into the second round category.

Let's check out how these sleepers have changed my big board but I also how I view the Suns’ pick assets moving forward.

De’Andre Hunter, Wing, Virginia (No. 12)

Hunter has been a name that has been steadily on my radar since I first saw him in action about two months ago. Off first glance, he screamed 3-and-D prospect with a huge ceiling, and that was before really even doing a deep dive on his game.

With a wingspan-to-height discrepancy right alongside the likes of Draymond Green and Kawhi Leonard, Hunter could be the true diamond in the rough of this class.

He can not only finish through contact at the rim but also shoot 3s at an above-average clip (38% on 50 attempts) for other gangly wing prospects that have come through. Hunter is also the prototypical modern-day switch everything wing that teams seem to prioritize more and more. That’s why Villanova’s Mikal Bridges will likely go in the mid-lottery because he’s proficient at all areas that prospect his size usually aren’t.

I’m starting to notice many similar trends in Hunter’s game as a redshirt freshman but the raw tools might push him towards entering early. Hunter has lurked in my mid-20s but he’s surged to No. 12 on my next big board that will be released next week.

I took an advanced stats dive on Hunter and his ceiling is huge.

Comparing other prospects, specifically freshmen or sophomore forwards, who tallied up an 11REB%, 12 AST%, 2STL%, 2BLK% and a PER of at least 23 featured a list that shows Hunter’s value.

Those names are Paul George, Josh Jackson, Otto Porter, Kyle Anderson, Gordon Hayward, Ben Simmons, Draymond Green, and Kawhi Leonard. Outside of Kawhi, Anderson, and Green, all were picked in the top 10.

(Interesting note here is how two current Spurs are on that list. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if San Antonio tried to move up for Hunter like they did Jackson. If Kawhi leaves, Hunter could be the ideal replacement nobody saw coming. So, in short, don’t let that happen Phoenix.)

What’s also unique about Hunter is his role under head coach Tony Bennett after redshirting last season. He has yet to start a game for the Hoos, but Hunter has turned into a sparkplug in a way Jay Triano uses Jackson. If his team needs a jolt, sub in Hunter for immediate results.

Even though Hunter has not started a game, I went ahead and stretched out his minutes to starter quality (30 mins) and the results were intriguing, to say the least.

Per 30, Hunter averaged 13.6 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.9 steals, and 0.6 blocks. The only other player putting that up is Duke’s Marvin Bagley III this season while looking at other forward prospects touts, again, a high ceiling outcome for this 20-year-old.

Prospects who tallied up Hunter’s stretched-out line over the past decade include Jackson, Simmons, Jayson Tatum, Brandon Ingram, Stanley Johnson, Andrew Wiggins, Malik Beasley, Allen Crabbe, Alec Burks, and Ben McLemore.

I encourage you to check out Hunter during March Madness as Virginia is set up for a deep run. Bennett might also give his top draft-eligible prospect more run that he has all season long.

Nobody expected Hunter to burst onto the scene like this. He caught me off guard, but the film hasn’t lied to me.

Hunter has a high-ceiling, high-floor outlook that’s backed up by multiple metrics. It’s time to start recognizing this year's breakout contender.

De’Anthony Melton, Ball Handler, USC (No. 15)

The only freshmen to average 4.5 rebounds, 3 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1 block all-time are Dwyane Wade and Markelle Fultz, according to sports-reference.

That’s a huge number to start off with when introducing Melton, because, admittedly, he fell off my radar as he’s been sitting out all year due to USC’s FBI probe. However, as I caught up on Melton and other names recently, he continued to pop on film.

When trying to conjure up a comparable prospect to Melton in the modern NBA, two guards immediately popped into my head: Delon Wright and Frank Ntilikina.

Melton, Ntilikina, and Wright are all long guards who struggled to find their shot before entering the league. And from an advanced stats point of view, go take a gander at how Melton and Wright’s defensive numbers are nearly identical.

The one area that separated Ntilikina from Wright was overall intangibles, which Melton also has in spades.

At 6’3” with a 6’8” wingspan, Melton is able to swallow up defenders if he has to make up ground off of screens. He has an innate ability of timing blocks for a guard.

From a playmaking point of view, Melton is great at keeping his eye and reading traffic in transition. A lot of what you see with Elfrid Payton is hidden in this prospect’s arsenal. And compared to Payton, Melton has a high probability of ending up better in my mind.

Outlining Melton’s outlook compared to someone like Alabama’s Collin Sexton is an interesting debate.

Melton per 36: 11.1 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 2.6 steals, and 1.4 blocks with an 18.5 TOV%

Sexton per 36: 22.7 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.2 steals, and 0.1 blocks with a 13.1 TOV%

Sexton is miles ahead as a scorer, utilizing his strength/speed combo often, but Melton is planted right alongside him in most categories. Outside of a higher turnover percentage — John Wall also had an 18+ TOV% at Kentucky — Melton has all the sneaky qualities I look for in a sleeper.

On defense, Melton is better. I have no problem saying that. He has elite length and projects as a pest like Wright to me, at worst, on the next level.

In a league where teams prioritize pick-and-roll, Melton’s instincts could serve him well to turn into a Malcolm Brogdon type of on-ball defender.

If Phoenix wants to push the pace on offense while obtaining a wildcard that has All-Defense potential, Melton fits the billing they are looking for.

In an interview with ESPN before he was ruled out, Melton spoke with Mike Schmitz about how he had smoothed over his jump shot and was excited to show how he was a three-tool prospect now.

If that’s the case, hello lottery after he blows up the combine, Mr. Melton.

Troy Brown, Wing, Oregon (No. 11)

Brown is a unique specimen in this year’s class. Any other year, I think he’s top 10 but in an absolutely loaded top portion, teams have a chance to snag him in the 11-17 range.

On Lottery Big Board 3.0, which will now expand out to my top 30, Brown sits at No. 11. Even though his consistency has waned, he was one that advanced metrics will fall for.

Not many pass-happy wings are available, especially with the defensive tools that Brown is capable of flashing.

Brown fits the criteria of where this league is heading with positionless wings who are multi-faceted. He can not only pass and disrupt passing lanes themselves, but he’s also a great rebounder for his size like Melton was for PG’s.

Advanced metrics comparables that spit out for Brown include Denzel Valentine, Josh Hart, Larry Nance Jr., Jamaal Franklin, Kyle Anderson, Otto Porter, and Chandler Hutchinson from this year’s plethora of forwards. It also flashed Simmons and Draymond due to his ability to be a playmaker on a regular basis, but I see Brown’s role being different.

For a team that seems to be wanting to get ahead of the curve in terms of modern roster construction, McDonough might have his eyes on Brown. I know McDonough saw Brown up-close in Tempe when Oregon traveled there earlier this season.

Brown fits what criteria Phoenix wants to meet as far as versatility, especially on the perimeter. If he’s able to consistently shoot 3s, Brown could turn into a steal down the line.

During his high school and EYBL days, Brown was a 6’7” point guard who displayed above-average fluidity. That’s in his bag of tricks too if Phoenix wants to develop it further.

The real question for me is whether Brown falls out of the lottery to where Phoenix could be slotted. He has fans in the front office.

If Brown turns into a super role player who fills in the gaps, much like an Evan Turner archetype out of Ohio State, he will exceed his value of where he’s ultimately selected.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Ball Handler, Kentucky (No. 16)

Compared to others, I’ve stayed high on Gilgeous-Alexander throughout this season. He has a clear sense of how to work the floor at his own pace. Gilgeous-Alexander also has a knack to utilize his measurables (6’6” with a 7’ wingspan) against smaller guards. He has the deceptive quickness for a lankier guard as well.

His advanced percentages — 6 REB%, 27 AST%, 2 STL%, and 2 BLK % — place him alongside other notable tall point guards to declare recently. The two most obvious ones are Michael Carter-Williams and Derrick White.

When mentioning a guard like MCW, Shai actually knows how to function an offense to its full potential, I believe. The erratic play at Syracuse from Carter-Williams is similar to how Gilgeous-Alexander is for Kentucky, but he still ranks top 20 in assist percentage anyways.

Gilgeous-Alexander won’t blow you away with De’Aaron Fox type of quickness, but he knows how to maneuver himself around thanks to his length.

Where he has hidden value is in his offense. As a finisher, Gilgeous-Alexander could be a prototypical fit for Phoenix next to Booker as he knows how to knife through defenders to draw contact or drive-and-kick.

On McDonough’s board, I wouldn’t be surprised if SGA was ranked higher.

A lot like Melton, Gilgeous-Alexander could be the perfect prospect to mold for a season or two behind either Brandon Knight or Elfrid Payton. When the rest of the roster is ready to compete, that’s when Melton or Gilgeous-Alexander would be unleashed. That would be fun at least.

Jontay Porter, Big, Missouri (No. 20)

Porter is going to turn into an advanced stats darling. I can already tell it’s in process. And when seeing how he performs on-court, those eye-popping numbers back it up.

For a big, Porter’s assist percentage above 18%, is gigantic. The only other one doing so is Duke’s Wendell Carter Jr. He is a top 10 prospect, No. 8 on my board to be exact, but Porter has quickly gained ground over the past few months compared to others.

Not only can the youngest Porter brother space the floor and pass as well as any other big but also makes the smart play time after time. Remember, Jontay should be a high school senior after reclassifying to play with Michael Porter Jr.

He has outstanding shooting mechanics. Like Carter, his shot should easily translate to the NBA. He’s able to get his shot up from all three levels, which is a surprising development I didn’t pick up on before diving into Jontay’s film the past month or so.

Jontay also has shown enough post play to the point where I feel comfortable further projecting him out as a 5. He has the on-court awareness to either attack the matchup or make the best read passing out if a double comes at him.

While he lacks explosiveness, Porter’s body is well armed to add lean muscle as he fills out under a pro regimen. He definitely qualifies as one of my super sleepers in 2018.

Killian Tillie, Big, Gonzaga (No. 26)

Last season, I wasn’t impressed with Tillie. He played behind Zach Collins at Gonzaga but didn’t show much for me to project him towards a first-round possibility this time around. However, Tillie has definitely re-worked his image to where he could end up top 20 on draft night.

Whether it’s Kelly Olynyk, Domantas Sabonis or Collins, head coach Mark Few knows how to develop these plus-shooting bigs with regularity. Tillie is next up now.

Bigs who have not only averaged 1.5 assists per game but compiled a 55eFG%, 13 REB%, and 11 AST% shows the archetype Tillie seems destined towards.

The biggest match is Sabonis, a former Gonzaga Bulldog, but it also names other recent picks such as T.J. Leaf, Jakob Poeltl, and Caleb Swanigan. From this year’s class, only Ethan Happ (2nd round projection) and Carter Jr. join him.

One area to watch in Tillie’s game is his shooting improvement. He’s averaging one 3 made per game but also he hit 15 in a row at one point. On the season, he is 50% (!!) on attempts outside the arc.

If Tillie continues to flash as a stretch playmaking big, those archetypes are becoming more and more valuable. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Tillie end up top 20 by draft night if he shows the improvements needed on his defense to be a consistent rotation piece.

Zhaire Smith, Wing, Texas Tech (No. 19)

Much like Hunter, Smith sort of came out of nowhere. He wasn’t a highly-ranked recruit but he had higher offers than Texas Tech. Luckily for Smith, his fit in Lubbock has turned him into a no-doubt first round prospect.

This short list of wings over the past decade who have carried a 4.5 DBPM (defensive box plus-minus), 4.5 OBPM (offensive box plus-minus), 2 STL%, and 4 BLK% shows a projection that could lead Smith into my lottery if he continues his strong play on both ends.

The only ones to pull that list of advanced metrics off in a row are Smith, OG Anunoby, and Andre Roberson. Compare Smith to those two and he can actually shoot 3s, albeit not many attempts.

That alone turns into a valuable on-court asset, as many contenders have tried to add multiple players in this mold.

Per 36 minutes, Smith is averaging 14.6 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 2.1 assists on 56.6/41.9/71.8 shooting splits.

If you have gotten the hint in what I look for in wing/secondary creator prospects, it’s definitely versatility first and foremost. Smith definitely meets that criteria and exceeds it with explosive athleticism on both ends, having above-average shot-blocking instincts.

Smith is also a plus rebounder for his size and position. He grades out as an excellent offensive rebounder, as he puts his vertical bounce to good use on plenty of put-back occasions.

He has the size, feel, and quick-twitch burst that makes you ponder about his ceiling for a few moments.

If McDonough wants to expand on his vision of optimum versatility, especially from both ends on the perimeter, Smith would fit like a glove.

Smith still has areas he needs to iron out like his overall ability to set his teammates up, but there’s definitely enough there where he could turn into a re-drafted lottery pick a few years from now.

Daniel Gafford, Big, Arkansas (No. 14)

The list of freshman big men to ever average 12 points, 6 rebounds, 2 blocks and tally an eFG% above 60 is short: Andrew Nicholson, Derrick Favors, Tony Mitchell, Anthony Davis, Wendell Carter Jr., and Daniel Gafford.

Arkansas’ speedy rim-running big has flashed a lot of tools that make him an intriguing two-way prospect on the next level.

Even though he draws fouls at a similar rate to Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson Jr., Gafford has displayed plenty of times how unique of a commodity he could turn into if his offense blossoms further.

Not only can Gafford attack you off one or two dribbles, but he can simply jump through you as he possesses guard-like fluidity for a near seven-footer.

From an NBA point of view, Gafford could slide right into a role we see the likes of DeAndre Jordan and Clint Capela do nowadays. If you surround him with perimeter shooting, Gafford could become a force in transition, leaking out in front of slow-footed centers.

If he can put it together on both ends and flash regular consistency, Gafford’s intangibles make him a lottery pick. However, will he end there?

The momentum right now seems to say yes, as he’s firmly moved in front of Texas A&M’s Robert Williams on my big board, but as we all know these evaluation processes stay fluid.

At the moment, Gafford cracks my lottery as the No. 14 overall prospect and could continue to climb as we get closer to June.

All eight of these prospects have caught my eye so far this season. If they have stood out to me, I imagine NBA front offices have already debated back-and-forth plenty on these names.

As Phoenix sees this draft as another deep class — one of the best they have looked at in a decade — Phoenix could double or triple-dip with three high-quality selections in the top 20.

If the picks from both Miami and Milwaukee end up conveying, which has strong odds at this moment, the Suns controlling the draft to their liking is not out of the question. It seems like one of the options being explored more internally.