Draft season is officially here. The order at the top of the 2016 NBA Draft will be determined on Tuesday night with the annual draft lottery. There are some huge stakes heading into the drawing.
The Los Angeles Lakers enter the lottery with the second-best odds, but have a 44.2 percent chance of losing the pick because of their 2012 trade for Steve Nash. If the Lakers land outside the top three, the selection will go to the 76ers. Philadelphia's own selection enters the lottery with the best odds of landing the top pick. With a little luck, the Sixers could supercharge their rebuild in new GM Bryan Colangelo's first season.
The Celtics also have a lot on the line. Boston will have three first-round picks (as well as the first selection in the second round), none more appealing than the one that originally belonged to the Brooklyn Nets. Brooklyn's pick enters the lottery with the third-best odds, and gives the Celtics an avenue to land the franchise player GM Danny Ainge has long been coveting.
If you've been too busy watching the playoffs to pay attention to the draft, we have your back. Here are seven storylines to know for the 2016 NBA Draft:
1. Ben Simmons vs. Brandon Ingram is the closest race for No. 1 since Greg Oden vs. Kevin Durant
Simmons is stronger, more athletic and blessed with special vision and passing ability. Ingram is longer and used his one season at Duke to show he's a lights-out shooter at 6'10. Simmons' complete inability to shoot from the perimeter (he finished his college career 1-of-3 from three-point range) stands in opposition with the way the NBA is trending. Ingram is so young (born 13 months before Simmons) and skinny that NBA teams might need to give him a year or two to grow into his body.
Ingram looks like a player who can fit in anywhere as a 41 percent three-point shooter with a 7'3 wingspan. The team that drafts Simmons will need to surround him with shooters to leverage his talents. But if he's that good, who cares? The diverging strengths and weaknesses of the two top prospects means whichever team lucky enough to pick No. 1 will not have an easy choice on their hands.
2. There's not a lot separating prospects 4-14
Last year's draft stood out in part because there were great prospects available through the end of the lottery. Stanley Johnson (No. 8), Justise Winslow (No. 10), Myles Turner (No. 11), Trey Lyles (No. 12) and Devin Booker (No. 13) helped make the 2015 class one of the strongest in recent memory.
The teams picking after the top three this year won't be so lucky. Kentucky's Jamal Murray is a great shooter, but he's limited athletically. Cal's Jaylen Brown is a great athlete but has a ways to go skill-wise. Providence's Kris Dunn measures out well for an NBA point guard but he's a shaky shooter and decision-maker. Oklahoma's Buddy Hield shoots the hell out of the ball, but what else will he be able to contribute? Marquette's Henry Ellenson is gifted offensively, but can he defend?
Each of those players is a fine prospect in their own way, but it might be difficult to live up to expectations given where some of them will be selected. There simply aren't a lot of players pegged for the lottery who project to excel on both ends of the floor.
3. There will be a strong international flavor again
Sixteen years after Dirk Nowitzki and 13 years after Pau Gasol, it still feels like international players are the great market inefficiency of the NBA draft. The last purportedly "weak" draft happened in 2013, and saw Giannis Antepokmpo go No. 15, Dennis Schroder go No. 17 and Rudy Gobert go No. 27. Kristaps Porzingis was even undervalued at No. 4 last year.
Croatian 7-footer Dragan Bender will be the first international player off the board this year, and he could go as high as No. 3 overall. French wing Timothe Luwawu and Turkish shooting guard Furkan Korkmaz could also be lottery picks. Draft Express' most recent mock draft has eight international players projected to go in the first round.
When you factor in the backgrounds of some of the top college players, the international vibe becomes even more distinct. Simmons is Australian, Murray is from Canada, Jakob Poeltl is from Austria, Skal Labissiere is from Haiti, Buddy Hield is from the Bahamas and Domantas Sabonis is from Lithuania. This really is a global game.
4. Good luck sorting out the freshman bigs
Need a young big man? Great, this draft has plenty of intriguing choices. The problem is none of them have separated themselves from the pack. The hierarchy here could be different for all 30 teams.
Ellenson has an enticing offensive skill set, but there are major questions about his defense. Kentucky's Skal Labissiere has a promising shooting stroke, but badly needs to add strength to compete inside. Washington's Marquese Chriss is the best athlete of the bunch, but his feel for the game has been questioned. Michigan State's Deyonta Davis could be the best rim protector, but he doesn't have the shooting range the others do.
There's a lot of good players in this group, but teams will need to strongly consider fit before making a selection.
5. Staying in school can be wise
Buddy Hield thought long and hard about entering the draft last year as a projected second-round pick. Instead, he came back to Oklahoma, shot the ball better than any volume scorer in the college ranks since Steph Curry and led the Sooners to the Final Four. Now he's expected to be a top-10 pick.
Michigan State's Denzel Valentine enjoyed a similar rise. No one projected Valentine as a first-round pick entering his senior season, but he blossomed into an offensive supernova in his final year of college basketball and now might be a lottery pick. Even Dunn, considered a possible lottery pick and safe first round last season, is now in the mix for the top five after returning to school.
It's hard to pass up NBA money, but going back to school really is the best option for some players.
6. This draft is weak on star power but strong on role players
The strength of last year's draft was the worst thing to ever happen to the perception of this year's class. The 2015 draft had so much star power and starter-quality depth that any group that followed it was likely to be considered weak. That's exactly what has happened this year.
This has been considered a down year for the draft from the very start. The important thing to remember is that there are good players buried throughout every draft. That will again be the case in June.
The last few years have shown there's a lot of talent waiting to be found in the second round. Josh Richardson and Norman Powell worked themselves into rookie contributors for playoff teams as second-round picks. Allen Crabbe developed into a key part of the Blazers in his third season as a former second rounder. Draymond Green might be the best second-round pick ever.
From Khris Middleton to Isaiah Thomas to Chandler Parsons, there's plenty of recent evidence to suggest good players can be found late. It will happen again this year, too.
7. The 2017 and 2018 drafts will be better than this one
NBA teams get their first sense of how strong a given draft will be by following the top talent in the high school ranks. Since the players picked at the top of the draft are typically freshmen, NBA teams often know the elite talent coming through the pipeline two years in advance.
The 2016 draft largely consists of players from the national high school class of 2015, which was considered a down year for talent by college recruiting scouts. The good news? The next two years look like there could be a lot more star power.
The 2017 draft should have a ton of great point guards, with UCLA's Lonzo Ball, NC State's Dennis Smith, Washington's Markelle Fultz and Kentucky's De'Aaron Fox waiting to make their college debuts. Athletic Kansas wing Josh Jackson should be in the mix to go No. 1 overall. Duke wing Jayson Tatum looks like a lottery pick. Future teammate Harry Giles was widely considered the top high school player in the country before tearing his ACL for the second time in his high school career. The 2017 draft will also have at least one great sophomore in Ivan Rabb, the Cal big man who might have been a lottery pick this year, but decided to return to school.
The 2018 draft -- consisting of players currently entering their senior season of high school -- will be strong at the top, too. DeAndre Ayton has the physical tools to be a franchise center, Mohamed Bamba has a 7'8 wingspan and a developing skill set and Wendell Carter is already more polished than any big man his age has any right to be. Throw in wings like Kevin Knox and Michael Porter and a super athletic point guard in Trevon Duval, and there's plenty of high-level talent NBA teams already have their eye on.
* * *