If you can’t win now, you might as well build for the future. Every draft class has quality players lying somewhere, and this one is no different. With a strong top 10 leading the way, this class is full of players who won’t only contribute, but will also make the league a brighter, more lively place. NBA fans will love De’Aaron Fox’s speed, Malik Monk’s flamethrower shooting ability, Lonzo Ball’s sixth sense for passing, and Markelle Fultz’s creativity off the dribble.
With the lottery complete and the Finals only a formality, it’s time to get serious about draft season. This is a fun class of players with a group of intriguing teams near the top waiting to select them. Let’s mock.
1. Boston Celtics - Markelle Fultz, G, Washington
Think of Fultz as a bigger Kyrie Irving. He’s an acrobat at the rim, he can stroke jumpers off the dribble, and has no problem splitting a trap in the pick-and-roll. He also won’t be the same defensive liability Irving often is because of his size. Fultz has two inches of height, six inches of wingspan, and probably 20 pounds in weight on Kyrie at the same age. The Celtics need to hold onto this pick, draft Fultz, and benefit from employing one of the game’s next great guards for the foreseeable future.
2. Los Angeles Lakers - Lonzo Ball, PG, UCLA
LaVar Ball spoke it into existence. Magic Johnson knew it would happen. Lonzo Ball is the heavy favorite to be drafted No. 2 overall by the Los Angeles Lakers, and it feels like destiny.
There will be plenty of speculation about the Lakers potentially picking De’Aaron Fox or Josh Jackson, but Ball has a sizable edge given his local ties, “Showtime” flair, and superior three-point shooting ability. Lonzo helped transform UCLA from a sub-.500 team to one of the country’s best in just one year. It might not happen as quickly for the Lakers, but they can expect the same result eventually so long as everyone buys into their roles.
3. Philadelphia 76ers - Josh Jackson, SG, Kansas
As I wrote last week, this is where the draft gets interesting. Philadelphia will have its choice at a ton of talented players, but no one feels like a perfect fit. The more I think about it, the more it feels like Josh Jackson has to be the pick.
Jackson’s jump shooting ability is the big question mark, but he brings so much else to the table. He’s a quick-twitch athlete who can defend multiple positions, create plays for his teammates, and score both in transition and as a slasher. Philly will need to find shooters at point guard and on the opposite wing. Until then, a core of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Jackson should do just fine.
4. Phoenix Suns - Jayson Tatum, SF, Duke
Tatum is gong to score in the NBA. The question is if he’ll be able to develop as a passer and playmaker to achieve his full potential as an offensive weapon.
Pairing Tatum with Devin Booker and Eric Bledsoe would give Phoenix a ton of offensive firepower. If last year’s lottery picks, Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss, come along, Phoenix could emerge as a force in a few years.
5. Sacramento Kings - De’Aaron Fox, PG, Kentucky
Fox to the Kings at the fifth pick is the perfect storm of value, fit, and talent. He is exactly what Sacramento needs: A lightning-quick point guard who attacks opponents on both ends and projects to be the future face of the franchise. Buddy Hield’s knockdown shooting is a perfect complement to Fox’s game at the off-guard. The Kings still have a long way to go in their rebuild post-Boogie Cousins, but taking Fox with this pick would be a great start.
6. Orlando Magic - Malik Monk, SG, Kentucky
The Magic could really do anything with this pick. They could try to upgrade at point guard with Dennis Smith Jr. They could draft the player with the highest defensive upside in Jonathan Isaac. They could add shooting in the front court with Lauri Markkanen. In the end, the Magic just need star power and Monk is the chance to offer exactly that.
When Monk gets hot, he offers deep shooting range and elite athleticism. Orlando already has Mario Hezonja and Evan Fournier as options at the two, but adding another shooter and scorer never hurts. Maybe Orlando’s rebuild will end some day.
7. Minnesota Timberwolves - Jonathan Isaac, F, Florida State
It’s easy to see Isaac as this year’s Brandon Ingram: Wing skills in a 6’10 frame complete with a developing three-point shot. That isn’t quite right. Ingram needs his jump shot to thrive, while Isaac uses it to complement his tremendous defensive ability. With quick feet and good length, Isaac looks like the rare four that can protect the rim and defend the perimeter. If he fully commits himself into being a great and valuable defender between Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, he has the physical tools to get there. Whatever he develops offensively is just gravy.
8. New York Knicks - Frank Ntilikina, G, France
Phil Jackson has been adamant about bringing back the triangle offense, which is why the Knicks’ reported interest in Ntilikina makes a lot of sense. A point guard in the triangle needs to be big and have shooting ability, and Ntilikina checks both boxes. Still only 18 years old, the Knicks would be wise to give him plenty of time to grow into the job. Surely that will go well.
9. Dallas Mavericks - Dennis Smith Jr., PG, NC State
Smith has rare explosion for a point guard. He’s at his best attacking the defense downhill where he can get to the rim and make athletic plays at the basket. He’s a little small and will face questions about his ability to be a natural distributor, but there won’t be many point guards stronger and faster. This draft must be stacked within the top 10 if Dennis Smith Jr. is slipping to No. 9.
10. Sacramento Kings - Lauri Markkanen, PF, Arizona
What a coup this would be for the Kings. First adding a brilliant lead guard in De’Aaron Fox, then adding a player who complements his skill set perfectly in 7-foot marksman Lauri Markannen. Markkanen is an elite shooter at 7 feet tall, one with a super-quick release and range beyond the three-point line. He’s an ideal pick-and-pop partner for Fox and someone who would provide critical spacing in the front court.
11. Charlotte Hornets - Justin Jackson, SF, North Carolina
Michael Jordan must know all about Justin Jackson after he led North Carolina to back-to-back Final Four appearances, including a national title this past season. Jackson made major strides as a three-point shooter this season, but he does his best work around the basket with his floater. This would give the Hornets more lineup flexibility and a player with local connections.
12. Detroit Pistons - Donovan Mitchell, G, Louisville
The Pistons seriously considered moving Reggie Jackson last season. Mitchell isn’t a natural replacement, but he has some of the same qualities Stan Van Gundy looks for a guard. Namely: length and athleticism. Mitchell should be able to carve out a role defensively while his shooting and secondary creation ability continues to develop. Think of him as Victor Oladipo with a better handle.
13. Denver Nuggets - OG Anunoby, F, Indiana
The Nuggets’ No. 1 objective this offseason should be finding a strong defensive presence next to Nikola Jokic. That requires a power forward with great foot speed, long arms, and the ability to both defend the perimeter and protect the rim. If the Nuggets could trade up for Isaac, that would be ideal. Anunoby is the next-best thing. He has the ability to defend potentially every position on the floor if he can get healthy after tearing his ACL in January. His offense remains a work in progress.
14. Miami Heat - Zach Collins, C, Gonzaga
It’s going to be fascinating to see where all of the big men in this draft land. There appears to be more supply than demand at the position in this first round. Regardless, Collins will be safe as a skilled five man who flashed some shot-blocking ability as a freshman at Gonzaga. If the refs would have let him play in the national title game, the Zags may have been champs.
15. Portland Trail Blazers - Jarrett Allen, C, Texas
The Blazers found a major upgrade at center when they acquired Jusuf Nurkic at mid-season. Allen would offer them a different dimension up front: faster, longer, and more projectable defensively. He didn’t make a huge impression for an 11-win Texas team as a freshman, but his physical tools are undeniable.
16. Chicago Bulls - Terrance Ferguson, SG, Adelaide (NBL)
The Bulls need athletes and shooters around Jimmy Butler. Ferguson counts as both. He reminds me of Magic guard Terrence Ross: great positional size, a smooth shooting stroke, and explosive leaping ability, only it hasn’t all clicked yet. Ferguson would be wise to focus his gifts on the defensive end of the floor early in his career.
17. Milwaukee Bucks - Hamidou Diallo, SG, Kentucky
The Bucks like swinging for the fences in the first round and Diallo is this year’s lottery ticket. He posted the second-best vertical leap ever (44.5 inches) and has great length for a shooting guard. He essentially jumped from high school to the NBA, so he needs skill refinement, but that bet appears to have worked out OK for the Bucks with Thon Maker. Why not try it again?
18. Indiana Pacers - D.J. Wilson, F, Michigan
Wilson could be a diamond in the rough in this draft. He always had an intriguing combination of length, shooting touch, and shot blocking, but he finally put it all together during the last month of the season. He has all the tools to be the modern four the Pacers have been looking for.
19. Atlanta Hawks - Justin Patton, C, Creighton
Patton was a late bloomer who is still only scratching the surface of his potential. He has quick hands and fast feet, with a nice touch around the basket. He even drained eight of the 15 three-pointers he took this year. The Hawks are in position to groom a young big man behind Dwight Howard, and Patton would be a tremendous value here.
20. Portland Trail Blazers - Harry Giles, C, Duke
The most likely landing spots for Giles are the teams with multiple first-round picks. No one is better equipped to take a gamble on him than the Blazers, a team that enters draft night with three selections in round one. Giles was once the top recruit in the country before multiple knee injuries took a toll on his production at Duke. If he can regain his old form, this could be a home run pick for Portland.
21. Oklahoma City Thunder - Luke Kennard, SG, Duke
Kennard is a cold-blooded scorer who fills it up from three-point range and finds ways to finish around the basket. He would give OKC some spacing for Russell Westbrook, another scoring option when Westrook is out, and some potential to grow into a pick-and-roll ball handler.
22. Brooklyn Nets - T.J. Leaf, PF, UCLA
The Nets could use another shooter after trading Bojan Bogdanović at the deadline. Leaf answers the call there. Brooklyn would afford him plenty of time to get stronger and gain his bearings as a scorer by the time they’re ready to win.
23. Toronto Raptors - Rodions Kurucs, F, Latvia
A potential draft-and-stash pick on the wing, Kurucs is a 6’8 forward with some perimeter skills.
24. Utah Jazz - Semi Ojeleye, F, SMU
Ojeleye committed to Duke out of high school, but didn’t become a star until he transferred to SMU. A supremely jacked three-level scorer, Ojeleye would give the Jazz another bucket-getter on the wing and additional lineup flexibility.
25. Orlando Magic - Ike Anigbogu, C, UCLA
He’s like Bismack Biyombo, only a lot cheaper.
26. Portland Trail Blazers - Wesley Iwundu, SF, Kansas State
Iwundu is a big wing who can handle, pass, and defend, but needs to grow as a shooter. If his jump shot fully comes around, he’s going to be a good player.
27. Brooklyn Nets - Derrick White, SG, Colorado
White is the surprise story of draft season after a breakout D1 debut season at Colorado. The former D-II guard can shoot, pass, and handle the ball, and also tested well athletically. He’s a great story and a good player.
28. Los Angeles Lakers - Jonathan Jeanne, C, France
A 7’2 French center who could develop into a rim protector down the low. The Lakers need to find interior defense with this pick.
29. San Antonio Spurs - John Collins, PF, Wake Forest
Good scorer and rebounder who struggles defensively and doesn’t have much shooting range. He’s essentially a bigger, younger David Lee, which is a great value at this spot.
30. Utah Jazz - Isaiah Hartenstein, PF, Germany
A massive big man who does a little bit of everything and is working to develop his face-up jumper. He could be an eventual replacement for Derrick Favors.