College hoops’ biggest stage showcased a slew of intriguing NBA prospects. The topsy-turvy 2017 NCAA Tournament shifted the draft outlook for a few key candidates and cemented the reputation of others.
While we didn’t have a storyline like Kemba Walker’s or Buddy Hield’s this season, the Big Dance unfurled a deep cast of playmaking guards and versatile forwards. A handful of fortunate players made exciting runs in the tourney and enjoyed extended NBA auditions.
Now that North Carolina closed the curtains on the 2017 campaign, it’s time for fresh draft projections. Here’s how the first round stacks up after the tournament:
*Draft order based on standings (and trades) through games played on April 2. College basketball statistics accurate as of April 4.
1. Boston Celtics (via Nets): Markelle Fultz, Washington PG (6’4”, Fr.)
The acquisition of Fultz would give Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens a bunch of flexibility entering 2017-18. Washington’s shifty slasher offers both scoring and playmaking prowess, and he should mesh well with all of Boston’s current guards.
In fact, Fultz’s arrival could give the Celtics the option to eventually part ways with Thomas. That might sound sacrilegious right now, but Thomas is a free agent in 2018. Boston may be hesitant to sign him to a colossal contract (30+ million per year); they could trade him or let him walk and find two-way players to build around Fultz, Al Horford and Jae Crowder.
The Celtics won’t have to make that decision for a while. For now, they’ll revel in landing the top all-around talent in the 2017 crop.
2. Los Angeles Lakers: Lonzo Ball, UCLA PG (6’6”, Fr.)
L.A. currently has the best odds of landing at No. 2 in the lottery, which puts them in great position to pluck Lonzo Ball. The 6’6” playmaking savant would give the rebuilding Lakers a dynamic boost in both half-court sets and transition.
The Lakers are currently bottom-five in assists and assists per 100 possessions, and they’re also 21st in field-goal percentage and 23rd in offensive rating. Ball’s anticipation, vision and passing precision would immediately change that trend and empower the Purple and Gold’s young talent. It wouldn’t take long for him and D’Angelo Russell to become one of the league’s top backcourt duos.
3. Phoenix Suns: Josh Jackson, Kansas SF (6’8”, Fr.)
The Suns will scoop up the most versatile player in the entire draft. Fultz and Ball are can’t miss guards with game-changing offense, but Jackson is the top all-around weapon and greatest multi-positional threat.
The one-and-done Jayhawk will do a little bit of everything for Earl Watson’s sons: attack the hoop, create for teammates, play off the ball, defend all sorts of wings and rebound. His length will help cover up some of the backcourt’s defensive deficiencies, and he and Devin Booker will feed off each other on offense.
Depending on how pre-draft workouts go, Jackson could put himself in the No. 1 pick conversation. The Suns should consider it a mini-steal to get someone so valuable at No. 3.
4. Orlando Magic: Jayson Tatum, Duke SF (6’8”, Fr.)
This might not be a slam-dunk, no-brainer choice for Orlando. They could look to retool their backcourt, but Tatum’s scoring polish and defensive upside are hard to resist.
Tatum would dramatically enhance the Magic’s offensive firepower because he’d skillfully attack from inside and out. However, his ceiling and chemistry with Frank Vogel’s crew is heavily dependent on his 3-point efficiency. While Tatum has a decent shooting motion, he shot just 34 percent from deep at Duke and is much more comfortable from mid-range.
The difference between 32 and 38 percent from three-land is massive, and it will dictate whether he thrives next to Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton and Evan Fournier.
5. Philadelphia 76ers: Malik Monk, Kentucky SG (6’3”, Fr.)
We’ve had Monk-to-Philly penciled in for a while now, but the potential marriage hasn’t lost any of its shine. Even if Monk isn’t the absolute best prospect at No. 5, the fit is worth it.
Both parties would benefit immensely from his arrival. Monk’s on a fast track to become an elite shot-maker in the NBA, and that would help spread the floor for the Sixers’ bigs and slashers. We saw some of that shooting precision late in the NCAA tournament when he made several huge shots against the athletic backcourts of UCLA and UNC. He made a combined seven triples in back-to-back games against those blue-blood opponents.
Throughout the season, he’d get a nice dose of spot-up looks and catch-and-shoot opportunities thanks to the passing brilliance and creativity of Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Dario Saric.
6. New York Knicks: De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky PG (6’4”, Fr.)
The Knicks should be thrilled to get the No. 6 spot with a bunch of great options on the board. There is a glaring hole at point guard in New York, and the likes of Dennis Smith Jr., De’Aaron Fox and Frank Ntilikina will be available.
Fox would be an electrifying addition who brings two-way speed and playmaking. He delivered a dynamic postseason for Kentucky, including unleashing all of his slashing prowess against UCLA in the Sweet 16. Fox also sprinkled in a few outside jumpers throughout the SEC and NCAA tourneys, which is encouraging for his overall versatility.
If the Knicks truly want to rebuild, they’ll tab Fox and give him the keys to the backcourt’s offense and defense. He’d grow alongside Kristaps Porzingis to form a lethal duo.
7. Sacramento Kings: Frank Ntilikina, France PG (6’6”, 18 years old)
Another team looking for long-term talent at point guard could find its answer. Sac-town hasn’t had a promising young playmaker since Isaiah Thomas, and Ntilikina is a refreshing symbol of hope for the future.
At just 18 years old, he’s already shown impressive command in several key areas for Strasbourg. Ntilkina is a skillful playmaker in the pick-and-roll and transition, and he’s also an agile, smart defender. Mike Schmitz of DraftExpress.com noted the French prodigy’s interchangeability and multidimensional impact:
Ntilikina is one of the more steady guard prospects in this draft class as he defends multiple positions, can play on or off the ball, has a strong feel for the game and a mature professional approach, and has greatly improved as a shooter.
8. Minnesota Timberwolves: Jonathan Isaac, Florida State PF (6’10”, Fr.)
With a towering 6’10” frame, bouncy athleticism and good perimeter skills, Isaac would superbly complement Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. He could grow into a stretch-4 who guards multiple positions and presents matchup problems on offense.
Isaac’s game is not as refined or expanded as forwards like Jackson and Tatum. But his long-term ceiling is pretty much just as lofty. In some facets of the game, his length could make him even more dangerous.
He had an up-and-down postseason as a scorer, but it was easy to notice how his size and instincts make a positive influence. Isaac ripped down double-digit rebounds in every ACC and NCAA tourney contest, and he also dished five assists against Florida Gulf Coast.
9. Dallas Mavericks: Dennis Smith Jr., N.C. State PG (6’2”, Jr.)
Dallas won’t think twice about selecting Smith at No. 9. His scoring creativity (18.1 points per game), playmaking potential (6.2 assists) and end-to-end speed offer fantastic value this late in the lottery. He’ll become one of the Mavs’ crucial building blocks for the post-Dirk Nowitzki era.
Although he’s undersized at 6’2”, Smith is an upper-echelon athlete who routinely outplays bigger opponents with shiftiness and acceleration. Coach Rick Carlisle has a knack for maximizing the efforts of shorter guards, and Smith is the most athletic one he’ll have.
That’s not to say Smith won’t experience early-career struggles. He still needs to learn the advanced nuances of running an offense, and his size will present some challenges defensively. Count on Carlisle to gradually unlock Smith’s strengths on both ends.
10. Sacramento Kings (via Pelicans): Lauri Markkanen, Arizona PF (7’0”, Fr.)
After picking up a guard with their first lottery pick, Sac-Town will look to enhance the shooting range of its promising young frontcourt.
Even if Markkanen’s not the next European superstar, he brings loads of skill to the table. His 3-point steadiness (42 percent in 2016-17) is supplemented by budding off-the-dribble fluidity and mid-post scoring touch.
The downside to drafting Markkanen is on the defensive end. The effort and footwork aren’t bad, but he’ll likely struggle against quick power forwards. And he’ll definitely struggle to contain wings and guards when he switches onto them in pick-and-rolls.
11. Detroit Pistons: Jarrett Allen, Texas C (6’11”, Fr.)
Allen’s freshman campaign at Texas was underwhelming for the first couple of months, and he wasn’t on most mainstream draft projections. But he finished the season strong and decided to test the draft waters without an agent. He could return to Austin before the entry deadline.
Detroit will strongly consider the 6’11” center in the 10-12 range. The Pistons are clearly a flawed group, and they need to shuffle the roster and invest in the future. Adding Allen would give them depth in the post and provide insurance if they trade away the plateauing Andre Drummond.
Allen’s interior skills are a bit raw, but he has tangible potential as a scorer and rim protector. He can make plays way above the rim, run the floor like a deer and also mix in some mid-range touch. According to Hoop-math, he shot 71 percent at the rim and 48 percent on two-point jumpers last year.
12. Charlotte Hornets: Miles Bridges, Michigan State PF (6’7”, Fr.)
Aside from Nicolas Batum, Charlotte has mediocre or lower-tier wings. The Hornets need a boost from someone who can help them on both ends. Bridges would be a potent answer.
Whereas most freshmen forwards are mostly all-brawn and no-skill or vice-versa, Bridges is an awesome combination of both. His strength and verticality jump off the screen, and his shooting and passing outclass most young forwards. Bridges had 17 different games with multiple triples at Michigan State, along with 2.1 assists per contest.
Bridges would complement Kemba Walker, Cody Zeller and Frank Kaminsky and splendidly. He’s still developing and learning, but he’s one of the most NBA-ready freshmen in the 2017 class.
13. Denver Nuggets: Justin Jackson, North Carolina SF (6’8”, Jr.)
The goal here is to find someone who pairs well with rising star Nikola Jokic. The Nuggets could use an infusion of depth and youth on the wing, and Jackson is an attractive option. His basketball IQ would mesh well with Jokic and Denver’s young guards.
A cold-shooting championship game (0-of-9 from three) doesn’t affect Jackson’s draft value. We’ve seen enough production, versatility and improvement during the past three years at UNC to know how much he impacts the game.
Jackson won’t be a shot-creator at the NBA level. Instead, he’ll thrive by collaborating with teammates as a cutter and passer, and he’ll supply rangy defense.
14. Indiana Pacers: Zach Collins, Gonzaga C (7’0”, Fr.)
Collins couldn’t impose his will throughout the NCAA title game, playing just 14 minutes before fouling out. He was stymied by North Carolina’s bigs in the post on a few occasions.
But he also flashed some of his low-post skill and disruptive length. In those 14 minutes, he notched nine points, seven rebounds and three blocks to help keep Gonzaga in the game. Collins’ towering scoring touch and sharp instincts are driving his draft stock.
The Pacers will take a flyer on him and bolster their future frontcourt. Collins could play the 5 off the bench early in his career and even spend some time alongside inside-out stud Myles Turner.
15. Miami Heat: Isaiah Hartenstein, Germany PF/C (6’11”, 18 years old)
As with most international prospects, there’s a bit of uncertainty surrounding Hartenstein. He’s a worthwhile risk in the mid-first round because his long-term potential is explosive and multidimensional.
The 6’11” power forward has stood out athletically against his Lithuanian-league competitors, and he also has encouraging jump-shooting skills. He’s had a small role for Zalgiris, yet his movements and end-to-end agility are alluring.
He’ll join the Heat frontcourt and give Erik Spoelstra some schematic flexibility. Hartenstein can stretch the floor, roll to the rim or operate from the high post. And given his strength and size, he’ll eventually defend both 4’s and 5’s.
16. Chicago Bulls: Justin Patton, Creighton C (7’0”, Fr.)
The Bulls’ recent surge put them in the playoff picture, but lower on the draft board. Considering the lack of electrifying guard options at this juncture of the draft, the Bulls will likely tab a forward or center at the No. 16 slot. Enter Patton, who brings short-term usefulness and long-term growth.
The final game of Patton’s freshman year (and perhaps his Creighton career) showed how much he needs to develop. He went just 3-of-12 from the field and was mostly outplayed by Rhode Island’s Hassan Martin. Patton needs to get stronger and leverage his size for better low-post and mid-range opportunities.
Nevertheless, his inside-out potential is intriguing and well worth the pick this late. He has great court awareness as a pick-and-roll diver, low-post scorer and passer. Patton is arguably the best frontcourt asset on the board at No. 16.
17. Portland Trail Blazers: T.J. Leaf, UCLA PF (6’10”, Fr.)
T.J. Leaf’s scoring and passing skills would greatly enhance Portland’s frontcourt corps. While he doesn’t have advanced ball-handling skills or turbo-charged springs, he makes his mark by winning positional battles.
Most of the Blazers’ bigs don’t have command of both outside shooting and interior talent. Leaf offers that combination, giving Terry Stotts a new type of asset in the rotation. He won’t call Leaf’s number as a primary scoring threat, but use him as an off-ball weapon and secondary passer.
Leaf unleashed smarts, aggression and skill throughout this season, including the NCAA tourney. What we didn’t see, however, was agile defense. Don’t expect him to solve Portland’s problems on that end.
18. Atlanta Hawks: John Collins, Wake Forest PF (6’10”, So.)
The Hawks should be thankful there are so many big-man options this late in the draft. Several of their forwards and centers could leave in free agency this summer, so the Hawks will look to retool their frontcourt via a variety of avenues.
Collins is an exciting option who brings verticality, muscle and a budding low-post repertoire. After a quiet freshman year, he tore up the ACC as a sophomore in a bigger role for the Demon Deacons. Collins crashed the glass and attacked the bucket en route to some gaudy per-40 minute stats: 28.8 points, 14.8 rebounds, 2.4 blocks and 10.0 free-throw attempts.
He has phenomenal body control around the rim, but he’ll only find high production in the NBA if he continues to cultivate his jumper. Right now, he’s only consistent from 10-12 feet out.
19. Milwaukee Bucks: Luke Kennard, Duke SG (6’5”, So.)
Milwaukee can’t draft a 6’10” forward with a 7’5” wingspan every time. Jason Kidd’s crew could use some shooting depth in the backcourt, and Kennard is the solution. He shot 44 percent from three-land this season despite attempting a green-light volume of 200-plus attempts.
Duke’s early exit shouldn’t affect Kennard’s draft stock. His skill level and sharp feel for the game will yield consistent off-ball production. When defenders close out aggressively, he’ll burn them with shot-fakes and elite footwork.
Kennard will slide into Milwaukee’s rotation as a valuable secondary scorer. His passing finesse will also keep the offense humming. He dished 2.5 assists at Duke to supplement his shot-making role.
20. Portland Trail Blazers (from Grizzlies via Cavaliers and Nuggets): OG Anunoby, Indiana SF (6’8”, So.)
T.J. Leaf was Portland’s offensive pickup at No. 17. With its second first-round pick, the Blazers will turn to defense.
There’s risk attached to Anunoby because of his knee injury, and Portland could choose a safer forward at No. 20. However, if he fares well during pre-draft medical scrutiny, he’s a late-lottery value. Anunoby’s not just the kind of defender who can hold his own guarding three or four positions; he has a chance to be a Draymond Green-esque stopper who can shut down three or four spots in the NBA.
While his offense isn’t as enticing, it still offers positionally interchangeability. He shot 36 percent from three at Indiana, so he could play the wing or be a small-ball four.
21. Oklahoma City Thunder: Donovan Mitchell, Louisville SG (6’3”, So.)
Oklahoma City would love to add a shooter to the rotation. They’re a bottom-shelf team in both 3-point makers per game (8.4) and 3-point percentage (33 percent). Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell could be plugged in pretty quickly as a catch-and-shoot threat off the bench.
Not only can he fill it up from deep (2.4 triples per game), Mitchell also drives on closeouts and makes plays for teammates. He won’t consistently shake NBA defenders in isolation, but he’ll drive athletically in space and hit the open man. Mitchell’s defensive quickness will also translate to the Association.
22. Brooklyn Nets (via Wizards): Rodions Kurucs, Latvia SF (6’9”, 19 years old)
Sean Marks’ Brooklyn Nets are light years away from playoff contention, so Kurucs is a great target to acquire and groom. He looks comfortable playing with or without the ball, and he has noticeable potential as a slash-and-shoot wing.
The Latvian teenager is unproven against tough competition, however, because he’s playing in Spain’s B level. But the Nets can afford to gamble on his upside and develop him into a key cog. Brooklyn also has the flexibility to draft and stash Kurucs or bring him over and slowly work him into the mix. In two or three years, he’ll be in his prime right when the Nets are finally equipped to make a postseason run.
23. Toronto Raptors (from Clippers via Bucks): Tyler Lydon, Syracuse PF (6’10”, So.)
Earlier in the year, we projected Lydon to land north of the border. He could also end up somewhere like Brooklyn or Orlando, but in this mock, he’s back in Toronto.
The Raptors will likely need to replenish the small and power forward spots if there’s a free agency exodus. Lydon is armed with silky-smooth 3-point skills and athleticism to amplify their two-way attack.
During his up-and-down sophomore year, Lydon’s aggressiveness wavered, and he left Syracuse fans wanting more. But Toronto doesn’t need him to carry the offense as a shot-creator or high-volume shooter. Dwayne Casey just needs him to knock down open shots and keep the ball moving.
24. Utah Jazz: Johnathan Motley, Baylor PF/C (6’9″, Jr.)
With the top crop of playmakers and shooting guards off the board, Utah will aim to bolster its bigs. Motley is the best unpicked power forward at No. 24, and he’d excel in Quin Snyder’s second unit.
Baylor’s bruiser is a rebounding machine (12.9 boards per 40 minutes) who scores from all angles. I wouldn’t classify him as a refined scorer because he gets most of his buckets on one dribble or less. Nevertheless, he drives from the pinch-post, hits mid-post turnarounds, finishes strong above the rim and shows flashes of outside shooting. The Jazz will maximize his energy and blossoming skills for brief stretches when he fills in for Derrick Favors and Trey Lyles.
25. Orlando Magic (via Raptors): Terrance Ferguson, U.S.A. SG/SF (6’7″, 18 years old)
Ferguson saw just 15 minutes per game for the Adelaide 36ers of the Australian National Basketball League. That’s probably part of the reason he couldn’t find a rhythm from 3-point range and averaged just 31 percent from beyond the arc.
He’s young and unpolished in most areas, which means he’s somewhat of a risk. Fortunately, he’s blessed with outstanding athleticism and a good-looking jump shot. The Magic need more outside shooting from the wing, and Ferguson has the physical tools to warrant a late-first round investment. Ferguson’s springs and shooting might earn him a higher selection, so the Magic should pounce on him if he falls this far.
26. Portland Trail Blazers (via Cavaliers): Ivan Rabb, California PF (6’11”, So.)
California was disappointing the past couple of seasons, and that somewhat clouds our view of Rabb. The Bears didn’t offer an optimal environment, but we can’t let him off the hook. Rabb’s not as spring-loaded or shifty as we’d like, so that limits his NBA functionality. He won’t spend much time on the perimeter, yet he also doesn’t have above-the-rim bounciness.
At No. 26, however, he’s the most skilled forward and productive rebounder on the board. If the Blazers keep this pick, they’ll acquire Rabb’s value and worry about his fit/placement later. He’s a solid insurance piece if they trade or stash one of their first two picks.
27. Brooklyn Nets (via Celtics): Harry Giles, Duke PF (6’11”, Fr.)
It’s hard to imagine Harry Giles tumbling any further than this. Brooklyn could even roll the dice on him with their No. 22 pick.
Due to his knee injuries and late start to the season, Giles had a small role on the 2016-17 Blue Devils. He played 20-plus minutes in just one game and never really found a rhythm or comfort zone. Consequently, we didn’t get a huge sampling size of his skills or offensive development. It’s hard to gauge how effective Giles will be if his knees hold up.
We do know that he has the beginnings of inside and outside scoring moves. He has good-but-not-great touch on hook shots, along with a decent mid-range jumper and great body control around the bucket. At the very least, Giles has the length and agility to snag rebounds outside his area and convert close-range opportunities.
28. Los Angeles Lakers (via Rockets): Semi Ojeleye, Southern Methodist SF/PF (6’7″, Jr.)
After transferring from Duke in 2015, Ojeleye catapulted his NBA draft value at SMU this season. He displayed an upgraded slashing attack, smoother shooting and promising defense during the Mustang’s run to the AAC title.
Ojeleye’s face-up game is hard to contain because he’s speedy and strong. He also shot 73-172 (42 percent) from distance, which dramatically improved his resume as a potential NBA wing. And despite his 6’7″ height, Ojeleye’s footwork and sturdiness will effectively check most 3’s and 4’s.
If he’s so dynamic, why is he at No. 28? Because there’s probably not a ton of upside left. He’s already nearly 23 years old, which means he’s much closer to his peak and doesn’t have many developing years left. Ojeleye could still be a steal, though.
29. San Antonio Spurs: Jordan Bell, Oregon PF/C (6’9″, Sr.)
This partnership is tailor-made. It’s easy to envision Bell thriving as a Spurs reserve because they’ll maximize his rebounding tenacity and defensive explosiveness.
The missed box-out against North Carolina was a sour final image from Bell’s season. But it’s a misrepresentation of his season-long workmanship. Bell averaging 12.2 boards per 40 minutes, including 16 in the Final Four against the Tar Heels.
He also put an electric fence around the rim: In five NCAA tournament games, Bell rejected 16 shots and altered a host of others. His alertness, timing and athleticism will fuel San Antonio’s defensive depth.
30. Utah Jazz (via Warriors): Bam Adebayo, Kentucky PF/C (6’10”, Fr.)
This is purely a best-prospect-available type of pick. Adebayo has the best combination of dependable tools and untapped upside of anyone left on the board. The Jazz are the type of organization that will make the most of the acquisition, whether it’s development or a trade.
Kentucky’s low-post enforcer had an inconsistent offensive role during the postseason, which isn’t surprising considering how much De’Aaron Fox handled the rock. We already knew Adebayo’s mostly a pick-and-roll finisher and powerful rebounder for the next level. What impressed me the most in March was his passing dexterity. Adebayo made some nice kick-out passes and high-low tosses, and he dished five assists against UCLA. His improvement in this area only boosts his role-player potential.