Who will be the best player from the 2018 NBA draft?
In many years, a clear favorite begins to stand out. But NBA teams are all over the place in how they value Deandre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Mohamed Bamba and the top tier of prospects in this class.
ESPN's draft experts Jonathan Givony and Mike Schmitz answer the big questions about the No. 1 pick.
How we got here
Givony: The best player in an NBA draft class is often not selected No. 1.
We can say that with confidence after evaluating the past 30 drafts (1998-2017), finding that the undisputed best player in the class came from the top slot only six times. In six other years, there is at least some room for debate -- (Karl-Anthony Towns vs. Kristaps Porzingis, John Wall vs. DeMarcus Cousins & Paul George, and more you can see below). Even if you give the edge to the No. 1 pick in those cases, the field usually wins out.
So it makes sense to question whether Deandre Ayton -- all but assured of being drafted No. 1 by the Phoenix Suns -- will end up being the best player picked in his class. This is an important conversation to have since we've projected multiple players in this unique class going No. 1 over the past two years.
Ayton jumped out of the gates as the front-runner in our first 2018 projections from the summer of 2016, but an uneven senior year of high school caused Luka Doncic to move to No. 1 in March 2017. After watching Doncic stumble at the Euroleague Final Four in Istanbul that May, we moved Michael Porter Jr. into the top slot following his impressive performances on the high school All-Star game circuit. Doncic's heroics in September, helping lead Slovenia to a historic EuroBasket championship, caused us to reconsider and move him back to No. 1.
Marvin Bagley III made a compelling case for himself as well, rising as high as No. 2 after an incredible start to his college career, but Doncic held firm on the No. 1 slot until Ayton's college dominance became too much to overcome in February.
Mohamed Bamba debuted at No. 2 on the first DraftExpress mock two years ago, and he has steadily hovered between No. 2 and No. 5 since. He's made a compelling case throughout the pre-draft process for why he should be considered the most talented prospect.
Jaren Jackson Jr., currently projected to be picked third by the Atlanta Hawks, is a late bloomer both physically and skill-wise. He will be the youngest player picked in the first round and many scouts consider him to be the best two-way prospect. His ability to both anchor a defense as well as switch onto guards, wings and forwards alike gives him coveted defensive versatility in today's NBA, and the fact that he scored 20 points per 40 minutes on sparkling efficiency (including 40 percent on 3s) means you certainly can't rule out him making significant improvement offensively as he enters his 20s.
Here's how our first mock draft looked in the fall of 2016. Not much has changed, beyond Bagley reclassifying from the 2019 class and Jackson's emergence.
1. Deandre Ayton
2. Mohamed Bamba
3. Luka Doncic
4. Wendell Carter Jr.
5. Michael Porter Jr.
Do these bigs have modern skills?
Givony: Mike, let's start off by looking at the ways the NBA has changed. How valuable are big men now -- and more specifically the kind of big men at the top of this class?
Schmitz: NBA draft philosophy used to preach "you can't teach height," leading teams to almost always select the best big man available at the top. Perimeter players were a dime a dozen, and finding that next franchise interior force was often priority No. 1.
But as basketball has evolved into a game predicated on speed, space, skill and defensive versatility, it may be time to rethink that outdated ideal. Two-way wings and combo forwards are king in today's game, and the big-man position has changed drastically over the past decade.
NBA teams value switching, rim protection, shooting and feel at their lone big spot. Successful centers look much more like Al Horford and Clint Capela than Al Jefferson or Jahlil Okafor. Not every team has bought into the idea of playing essentially four perimeter players with one modern big man, but the best ones have.
We saw Houston Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni play 6-foot-5 PJ Tucker at center for stretches in the playoffs. Jordan Bell (6-foot-8½, 224 pounds) and Kevon Looney (6-foot-9, 220) both logged key minutes at center for the NBA champion Golden State Warriors. Some teams like the Sixers still successfully employ jumbo lineups -- largely because their 6-foot-10, 240-pound point guard can defend five positions -- and big men such as Joel Embiid, DeMarcus Cousins and Marc Gasol remain extremely valuable. But as we approach a draft that could have five centers selected in the first six picks, we need to consider how valuable they actually are and if other contenders have stronger cases at No. 1.
In theory, Jackson and Bamba are best suited for today's game. They can switch positions 1-5, protect the rim and space the floor. Questions about toughness and feel could keep them from maximizing their potential, but Bamba (who some see as a Rudy Gobert type with added agility/skill) and Jackson (drawing comparisons to a young Serge Ibaka) have some of the qualities you see from the successful centers in today's game.
Bagley fits the modern game in some respects, as he's elite in transition, plays above the rim, makes some standstill 3-pointers and at least has the feet to switch a ball screen. Yet his lack of defensive impact and inability to make his teammates better may hinder his ability to impact winning consistently on a playoff team.
Carter has some throwback big tendencies at 251 pounds with less-than-ideal lateral agility, but the high-floor 5 is more modern than he looks as he can space the floor to 3, beat a switch on the block, facilitate, protect the rim and rebound. Although not the same caliber of perimeter defender, Carter has drawn some comparisons to Horford.
Then there's Ayton, who has new-age qualities with his shooting, passing potential, ability to score against a switch and agility for his size as a perimeter defender. Yet his mediocre defensive instincts and lack of a clear elite skill -- outside of rebounding -- are reasons for concern. Embiid, Gobert and Anthony Davis all helped their teams advance in playoffs by being among the most impactful defensive players in the league. If Ayton can't match that, how high is his ceiling?
With that in mind, Doncic likely deserves more consideration at the top of the draft given his pass-dribble-shoot skill set and position-less style of play. It was much easier to envision Doncic having an impact in these NBA playoffs than some of the big men projected to go in the top five. Teams will nitpick his lack of traditional upside, but this is a skill-based game where shooting and instincts are king -- and Doncic is elite in both aspects. If there's no clear star at the top, why not take the best pure basketball player who has a proven floor and ideal fit?
But outside of Doncic, the wing/forwards projected in the lottery either have bigger question marks -- Michael Porter Jr.'s durability, Kevin Knox's toughness -- or aren't loaded with upside (Mikal and Miles Bridges). The guard crop isn't exactly stellar either, with most projecting as NBA starters but not quite bona fide All-Stars. That reality, and the fact that these centers do have some modern skills, is why we're slotting five big men in the top six -- any of whom could turn into the best player long-term.
Givony: So how exactly did Ayton separate himself from this talented group of prospects, to the point that he now appears to be a lock to be drafted No. 1 by Phoenix?
Schmitz: Even with Doncic's unprecedented EuroLeague production at age 19, Ayton feels like the safest pick at the top. He's a physical freak with an NBA-ready body and production to match, having averaged 20.1 PPG and 11.6 RPG at Arizona with a 65.8 true shooting percentage. He moves well with a 7-foot-5 wingspan, can shoot 3s and score on the block, shows flashes as a passer, rebounds the ball at a high level and was a walking double-double in Tucson during what was really his first season ever receiving legitimate coaching. Recognized as a high-level prospect as a young teenager, Ayton did an admirable job of answering most of the questions surrounding him in college.
Because of his sheer physicality and continually improving skill level, Ayton is going to be a 20-and-10 threat early on in his career. He has arguably the best combination of floor and ceiling in the draft, and even if his work ethic doesn't evolve and his struggles with feel and decision-making on defense persist, it seems unlikely that he completely busts at the NBA level given his physical gifts and talent. There's comfort in knowing that he'll be productive while providing fans enough highlights to keep them coming to games. Ayton's development situation will play a big role in how he pans out, as he still has a handful of bad habits to cut.
Besides maybe Doncic given his production and modern fit, Ayton has the fewest question marks among prospects with legitimate star potential. As much as we want to think that every front office is out to swing for the fences and take risks at No. 1, general managers often operate with a level of caution at the top. Even as the game moves away from jumbo centers like Ayton, there's enough modern skill and agility there to go along with his physical tools and production for any team at the top to feel comfortable selecting him.
Is there a top tier?
Schmitz: Jonathan, you've been covering the draft for a long time. Have we seen this kind of No. 1 pick debate before?
Givony: The star power is unique. I can't remember another year that had such a big cluster at the top. Usually there's one, two, maybe three players that make up an elite tier, and there's a drop-off after that.
This year, there's really no consensus at all about how the top six picks break down. You can even throw Wendell Carter Jr. or Trae Young into that mix, because some teams I talk to consider them to be top-three caliber prospects.
Some teams love Doncic, saying he's the best prospect in the draft, while others tell me they have him ranked sixth or seventh on their board. You hear similar things about Bamba, Jackson, Bagley, Porter and even Ayton at times. That's why I think a single trade near the top of the draft could really throw things for a loop. Porter and Doncic in particular have huge variances in where they might be picked.
Mike, if you had to pick the three best players from this class in five years, who are you taking?
Schmitz: I'll go with Ayton, Doncic and Bamba, with Jackson right on the fringe. As we often harp on, so much of what a player does or does not become is a product of situation. It's not out of the question that, in the right situation, Jackson could very well be the best player from this group long-term. It's just as likely that Bamba could end up with a less than desirable franchise and fail to maximize his potential, never improving the motor that's in question. Even Ayton could struggle to improve his work habits and discipline if mired in a losing environment, failing to ever impact winning like some had hoped. And it might be most likely that at least one player selected outside the top five or 10 becomes one of the top three players to come out of this draft (see Donovan Mitchell).
The term "best" could also be interpreted in different ways. Guys like Bamba and Jackson may never be 20 point per game scorers in the NBA, but their switching, rim protection and timely 3s could impact winning more than Ayton's 25-and-15 games with sub-par defense and contested midrange jumpers.
Scouting is such an inexact science with so many different variables, but I'll bet on Ayton's physicality and natural talent, Doncic's pass-dribble-shoot skill set and productivity, and Bamba's freakish tools, defensive instincts and touch over the course of the next five years.