While the eyes of the basketball world remain transfixed on what’s been another lopsided NBA Finals, it’s easy to forget we’re a mere two weeks away from one of the biggest nights of the offseason.
The 2018 NBA Draft, set for June 21st at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, will usher in another class of young players, several of whom project to be immediate contributors at the next level.
The 2018 class grades out as a top-heavy one. While it lacks an Anthony Davis-level lock at No. 1 and doesn’t carry the overall depth of the 2015 or 2017 classes, the lottery grouping is rich with high-upside talent.
Arizona big man Deandre Ayton appears to be nearing consensus status as the likely No. 1 pick -- he literally said “I know I’m going No. 1” earlier this week -- but beyond that it’s still anyone’s guess how the rest of the lottery will shake out.
Regardless, discerning which rookies will be productive fantasy commodities in Year 1 is a vital part of preparing for draft season. With that in mind, we’ll take a look at how the lottery would transpire in the ultimate pipe dream scenario: if each team was drafting with next season’s fantasy production as its top priority.
1. Phoenix Suns
Deandre Ayton | C | Arizona
With the top pick, the most likely scenario is also the best fantasy scenario. Phoenix has thrown away picks on Marquese Chriss and Alex Len in recent drafts -- the jury is still out on Dragan Bender -- but that can’t scare the Suns away from taking one of the most talented and physically imposing big men in recent memory.
Fresh off of a 21-win season, the Suns have needs all over the roster, and while finding a capable point guard may be the most pressing of those, securing a franchise center -- or even an above-average big man -- is a close second. Right now, the Suns’ best option at the position is an injury-prone 35-year-old whose contract is up next summer. Assuming he stays in Phoenix, Tyson Chandler will still have a role next season, but it’s hard to imagine his presence on the roster affecting the Suns’ thinking.
Developing Ayton will be priority number one, and while there will be some growing pains, Ayton has the ability to be an impact fantasy player -- particularly in the traditional big man categories -- from the jump.
2. Sacramento Kings
Jaren Jackson, Jr. | F | Michigan State
Sure, Luka Doncic would be a fit here. He’d fit almost anywhere. But the Kings brought in a pair of rookie guards last summer, and throwing Doncic into the mix with De’Aaron Fox and Bogdan Bogdanovic could end up diminishing all three players’ fantasy value.
In Jackson, the Kings get an ideal, modern big man. He protects the rim, he’s athletic and, most importantly, he’s comfortable beyond the arc. Jackson may require the biggest learning curve among the elite prospects, but Sacramento is still very much in rebuilding mode and doesn’t have the frontcourt depth -- sincere apologies to Zach Randolph, who turns 37 next month -- to keep Jackson off the floor. The organization also appears to have soured on Skal Labissiere, who at one point looked like a reasonably valuable long-term piece.
3. Atlanta Hawks
Luka Doncic | G | Real Madrid (Slovenia)
There’s some reason to believe the Hawks may pass on Doncic if he falls beyond the top two, but for our purposes this is an ideal fit. In terms of talent, the Hawks have a bottom-three roster, with John Collins and Taurean Prince as the only long-term assets you really feel good about -- and even then, would you bet on either player ever making an All-Star team?
Either way, whoever the Hawks take at three will instantly become the focal point of what could be a lengthy rebuild. More so than Marvin Bagley or Mo Bamba or Trae Young, Doncic would help accelerate that process. Doncic has a strong argument to be the No. 1 fantasy rookie no matter where he ends up, but in Atlanta he’d have more free reign to handle the ball than he would in Phoenix or Sacramento, especially if Dennis Schroder is moved this summer, which seems more likely than ever.
4. Memphis Grizzlies
Marvin Bagley | F | Duke
The Grizzlies have playoff aspirations next season, and though maybe that should be the expectation, assuming Mike Conley and Marc Gasol stay healthy, this is far from a complete roster. JaMychal Green started 54 games last season. Jarrell Martin started 36 games.
While I’m very much skeptical of how Bagley will fit in the NBA, there’s an argument to be made that if he ends up in Memphis, he’d start alongside Gasol from Day 1. Gasol’s defense is no longer All-World, but he’s a near-ideal fit next to Bagley, whose bounce and motor would bring much-needed energy to the Grizzlies’ aging core.
5. Dallas Mavericks
Mohamed Bamba | C | Texas
The Mavs played a lot of small-ball last season out of necessity. They got almost nothing out of Nerlens Noel, and Salah Mejri, the only other true center on the roster, finished 10th on the team in minutes played. Dallas got by with Dirk Nowitzki serving as the de facto five, but that won’t fly when they’re actually trying to win games, which could be as early as next season.
The addition of Bamba would give the Mavs a rim-protector on one end and an uber-athletic -- we’ve literally never seen anyone with his combination of length and speed -- rim-runner on the other.
Bamba is more advanced at his age than Rudy Gobert, and it’s not a stretch to suggest he could one day be the best defensive player in the league. Bamba’s interior game needs refinement, and his jumper looks much better than it performs, but he’s already an elite shot-blocking talent, which should be enough to keep him on the floor -- especially on this roster -- as a rookie. Fantasy-wise, Bamba’s shot-blocking potential is what will buoy his stock, initially, considering how scarce that category has become in recent years.
6. Orlando Magic
Trae Young | PG | Oklahoma
Young has the largest range of outcomes of any player in the draft. His highs at Oklahoma were almost unprecedentedly high, and his lows… well, they were low. The Magic -- they who gave up on Elfrid Payton in favor of Shelvin Mack -- are one of only a handful of teams that have managed to dodge all competent point guards in an era when the position is overflowing with talent.
Not only would Young fill a major hole, but he’d also bring star potential to a roster in desperate need of just that. Orlando does have a few appealing pieces on the wing in Evan Fournier, Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon, assuming he re-signs, but the lack of backcourt talent is appalling.
For a player like Young to succeed in the NBA, things will need to run through him, almost exclusively, when he’s on the floor. Gordon, Isaac, Fournier and Nic Vucevic will get their touches, but none have the skills to be a primary ball-handler. So in that regard, the Magic are one of the only teams in the league who may be willing to hand the reins of the offense over to Young.
History suggests Young will have an inefficient rookie season with more lows than highs, but he could still provide fantasy value as a passer and volume three-point shooter, if nothing else.
7. Chicago Bulls
Wendell Carter, Jr. | F | Duke
Despite a semi-breakout season from Kris Dunn, The Bulls are reportedly interested in Young and Collin Sexton, but that would create a rather untenable backcourt situation. The more pressing need lies up front, where the Bulls struggled to find stability for much of the year. Bobby Portis had his moments but doesn’t seem like a long-term solution, while veteran Robin Lopez’s deal is up next summer.
Enter Carter, whose inside-out game would give the Bulls two legitimate shooters at the five and four. The Bulls could add some frontcourt depth in free agency, but they’re still a year or two away from gunning for a playoff spot and would likely be willing to give Carter the long leash necessary for him to be fantasy-relevant as a rookie.
8. Cleveland Cavaliers (via BRO)
Michael Porter, Jr. | F | Missouri
For the sake of argument, we’ll assume the Cavs keep this pick, which means LeBron James is probably gone. In that scenario, the Cavs should prioritize star potential, and Porter -- despite warranted concerns about his back -- has it. Ten months ago, Porter was the favorite to go No. 1 overall, but a lost freshman season robbed him of the opportunity to prove he’s every bit as talented as Ayton and Doncic.
The Cavs would be gambling on a pick that, if it fails, could set their rebuild back even further, but Porter’s potential as a scorer is too much to pass up. If LeBron bolts, Cleveland would have to seriously consider cleaning house and selling off pieces to the highest bidder. If that transpires, Porter would suddenly be an offensive focal point. The Cavs wouldn’t be good, but Porter would be set up for Devin Booker-like opportunities as a rookie.
9. New York Knicks
Miles Bridges | F | Michigan State
With Kristaps Porzingis’ recovery from a torn ACL hanging over the franchise, the Knicks will have little choice but to play out next season as another rebuilding year. The roster remains cluttered with cast-offs and overpaid veterans, plus last year’s first-rounder, Frank Ntilikina.
Collin Sexton or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander would make sense if the Knicks believe Ntilikina is best-suited as a defense-first combo guard long term, but so far that hasn’t been the case. With Trey Burke, Ron Baker, Courtney Lee, Tim Hardaway and (probably) Emmanuel Mudiay also on the roster, the Knicks have a logjam in the backcourt. And while none of those players are good enough to reasonably justify passing on a guard, even a player like Sexton could struggle to earn fantasy-relevant minutes next season.
For as deep -- in numbers only -- as the Knicks are in the backcourt, they’re relatively shallow up front. Enes Kanter and Kyle O’Quinn each hold player options, meaning Joakim Noah, Lance Thomas and the injured Porzingis are the only big men already locked in for next season. Certainly, the Knicks will adjust if one or both of Kanter and O’Quinn head elsewhere, but grabbing Bridges at No. 9 would bring immediate help to the wing. Long-term Bridges probably tops out as a Rudy Gay type, but that’s still a pretty good player, especially this late in the lottery.
As a rookie on a team that could actively be trying to lose games by mid-January, Bridges have a decent chance to fill the Michael Beasley role, which last season meant 30 starts and more than 22 minutes per game.
10. Philadelphia 76ers (via LAL)
Mikal Bridges | G/F | Villanova
This feels like such a good and obvious fit that I can’t get myself to believe it will actually happen. Even if they don’t land LeBron or Kawhi, the Sixers are on the short list of teams that could conceivably make the Finals next season, and Bridges is the rare rookie who could step in and positively contribute to that cause.
The Sixers will probably lose J.J. Redick, and buyout addition Marco Belinelli will also be tough to retain. Jerryd Bayless is still under contract at $8.5 million next season, but he was out of the rotation by mid-season and will be very available this summer. Even if all of that is true, the Sixers still keep their core intact, and Bridges would be a seamless fit at Philly’s one glaring position of need.
A two-time national champion, Bridges is as NBA-ready as they come, and while his upside may be lower than other lottery prospects, his floor is incredibly high. At 6’7” with rangy arms and above-average athleticism, Bridges projects to defend three positions, and he’s coming off of a junior season in which he hit nearly 44% of his 6.0 three-point attempts per game.
11. Charlotte Hornets
Collin Sexton | G | Alabama
Whether they choose to believe it or not, the Hornets have been on a slow march toward a rebuild for a couple years now. With Kemba Walker’s contract set to expire next summer, Mitch Kupchak will have to listen to offers this summer, and a trade at some point -- whether it’s around the draft or sometime next season -- seems inevitable.
Unless Charlotte returns a young point guard in a hypothetical Walker deal, drafting his replacement would make sense. On a team with poor depth, particularly in the backcourt, Sexton would have an opportunity to play big minutes and work through his struggles on a team geared toward securing a high-lottery pick in 2019.
12. Los Angeles Clippers (via DET)
Robert Williams | F | Texas A&M
The only team with multiple lottery picks, the Clippers have the draft capital to move up a few spots if a player they like is available near the end of the top-10. That’ll be something to watch on draft night, but let’s assume they stay put at 12 and 13. Williams is far from polished enough to replicate what DeAndre Jordan brought to the table, but his upside as a rim-runner and versatile defender is worth the gamble.
No matter where he lands, Williams could have a tough time finding enough minutes to be fantasy-relevant as a rookie, but depending on how things shake out in free agency, the Clippers could find themselves without much frontcourt depth. DeAndre Jordan is set to hit the open market, and Montrezl Harrell will be a restricted free agent, leaving Boban Marjanovic as the only true big man locked in for 2018-19 heading into the summer.
13. Los Angeles Clippers
Lonnie Walker | G | Miami (FL)
The Clippers do have a fair amount of guard depth in Lou Williams, Milos Teodosic and Patrick Beverley -- not to mention a handful of rookies and two-ways who fared suspiciously well last season -- but Austin Rivers can opt out this summer, and Avery Bradley will be an unrestricted free agent. Walker would provide some insurance on that front, while offering big-time athleticism and upside as a score-first combo guard.
14. Denver Nuggets
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander | G | Kentucky
Adding wing depth could be a priority with Will Barton set to cash in as an unrestricted free agent and Wilson Chandler holding a player option, but the Nuggets also have a glaring need at point guard. The Emmanuel Mudiay experiment is officially over, and they could use an upgrade over serviceable-but-35-year-old Devin Harris.
Gilgeous-Alexander would slide into the backup role behind Jamal Murray and could even play alongside Murray in certain lineups. He’d be an instant upgrade on the defensive end for a team that finished 25th in defensive rating last season.