Teams are conducting pre-draft workouts, but no visit was more important than Joel Embiid’s to Cleveland on Wednesday. While the Cavs have had Embiid on top of their board, their were concerns over his back, and Cleveland insisted they would conduct their own medical exams to ensure Embiid is worthy of being the top choice.
According to my sources, the Cavs came away comfortable with Embiid’s back and have not see any red flags as it relates to that issue shortening his career. It is a consensus from talking to those around the NBA that the Cavs should select Embiid, if healthy, because finding a center of his caliber with so much untapped potential could be franchise altering when paired with Kyrie Irving and the young nucleus they have assembled.
Now is the time when we see players secure their draft status with impressive workouts and interviews. Elfrid Payton, Clint Capela, and Zach LaVine are among those players. Payton has gone from a bubble first-rounder to cracking the lottery in this version.
Trade rumors are also swirling, and the Cavs and 76ers are heavily involved in many. Cleveland would ideally like to add a young veteran or All-Star to pair with Irving as they march towards the playoffs but have largely been rebuffed. Kevin Love, long a target of the Cavs, came out and fueled speculation that the Cavs should be considered a contender to trade for him.
The 76ers, according to sources, covet Andrew Wiggins and are engaging the Cavs in talks and have the ammunition to make something potentially work with two top-10 picks. Two marquee franchises not accustomed to drafting in the lottery are the Celtics and Lakers, and both are making it known they would love to work out a deal but are struggling to find takers.
Here is how I see the draft going:
1. Joel Embiid, C, Kansas, 7’0″, 250 lbs Embiid made his long anticipated visit to Cleveland on Wednesday and was checked out medically by the Cavs team doctors. Word is there is nothing that would prevent the Cavs from selecting him first overall. Cleveland is still searching for a coach and seemingly conducting two searches, GM David Griffin’s and Cavs owner Dan Gilbert’s. Gilbert wants to make a splash, as evidenced by his pursuit of Tom Izzo and John Calipari, but it looks like the biggest name on the Cavs radar is Mark Jackson. Regardless of who is coaching, the Cavs have Embiid at the top of their draft board. And while there is concern that drafting Embiid will require more patience, the consensus around the league is you can’t pass on this talented 7-footer. It is rare to find a player with Embiid’s length, size, athleticism, and upside, and the work he put in and development he showed as a freshman to leapfrog his teammate, Andrew Wiggins, demonstrates why he is the top prospect in this draft. Watching San Antonio and their success is another example of why finding an All-Star caliber big man and pairing him with an All-Star point guard is the model Cleveland should follow to return to the playoffs. The Cavs are still open to trading this pick but I don’t see them getting an All-Star in return. Philadelphia has shown interest in moving up to take Wiggins.
2. Jabari Parker, SF, Duke, 6’8″, 235 lbs When Wes Edens took control of the Bucks, speculation began about the job security of John Hammond. With Hammond seemingly being given a year to prove himself, there is pressure to win quickly and show drastic improvement next season. While Wiggins has the higher upside, Parker is more NBA-ready and is a legitimate threat to average 20 a night. While Parker is not the athlete that Wiggins or Embiid are, playing alongside Larry Sanders and Giannis Antetokounmpo will protect him defensively. One scout I spoke to calls Parker one of the most polished elite prospects to enter the draft in years. No chance Parker falls outside of the top three. The Bucks need a player like Parker who can step in and play right away and help shoulder the burden on offense with Brandon Knight. The selection of Parker should pay immediate dividends on the court — unless Hammond can get a nice package from the Jazz and slide down to No. 5
3. Andrew Wiggins, SF, Kansas, 6’8″, 200 lbs Wiggins might be a safer pick than Embiid, but if he falls to the Sixers then Philly will be ecstatic. While he is still improving as a shooter and might not be the dominant force some thought he would be a freshman, he is a great defender that will be very good in transition and finishing at the rim. Wiggins is an explosive athlete and could be the second consecutive Canadian drafted first overall. The Sixers already have Nerlens Noel, Michael Carter-Williams, and also pick at 10, so Sam Hinkie can be active on draft night in exploring trades to move up, down, or acquire a veteran. Philadelphia just began its rebuild and can afford to let Wiggins develop on the court. There are reports the 76ers are willing to offer this pick and Thaddeus Young to Cleveland to move up, but I get the sense that if the draft were held today Wiggins would fall to 3.
4. Noah Vonleh, PF, Indiana, 6’10”, 240 lbs Only 19 and blessed with excellent size, length, and good athleticism, Vonleh is a prospect who is moving up boards after an impressive NBA combine in which he showcased special skills as a big that can play inside or out and handle the ball. Still raw offensively, Vonleh has the physical measurables that teams salivate over. While Vonleh is still raw, he has flashed enough potential that it will be hard to pass for many teams. I am hearing that Philadelphia is intrigued by the chance of pairing Vonleh and Nerlens Noel. The Jazz also would jump at the chance to take him. While I have previously slotted Dante Exum in to Orlando, there is buzz that the Magic are looking at other options now. While Marcus Smart is a possibility, I think Vonleh is the choice. Pairing him alongside Nikola Vucevic would be wise as they could play well off of one another.
5.Dante Exum, PG, Australia, 6’6″, 185 lbs Exum is the top international prospect in the draft. Any team looking for help at point guard surely will be intrigued by his size, athleticism and basketball IQ. While he has not played against top competition, the predraft workouts could help push Exum even higher. Currently Exum is the top point guard in the draft, and at 18 has plenty of upside. Exum has the length and athleticism to also slide over to shooting guard, which should add to his value. Exum was the top prospect to appear at the combine and has shown the athleticism and polish necessary to secure his position as the top prospect of the second tier. While I don’t buy that Exum is a true point, he can definitely play alongside Trey Burke to provide the Jazz with one of the most talented, young backcourts in the NBA.
6. Aaron Gordon, PF, Arizona, 6’8″, 215 lbs Looking at Gordon, it’s hard not to get excited about his potential as he is an athletic and explosive forward. From a size standpoint, he is an undersized 4, but as teams start to open up offensively they can create mismatches with Gordon’s athleticism. Gordon reminds me a lot of Blake Griffin, and I can see some team in the high to mid-lottery falling in love with his highlight reel dunks. Others see a Shawn Marion type of super-athletic forward that can be a matchup nightmare. Coming from a family of athletes, Gordon has an impressive basketball IQ and is savvy beyond his years. The Celtics would be getting the best available player in Gordon, who can arguably defend three positions as a rookie. While he is raw offensively, the Celtics are no strangers to offensively raw players as evidenced by Rajon Rondo. Marcus Smart and Exum, if he slips, are also possibilities here.
7. Marcus Smart, PG, Oklahoma State, 6’4″, 220 lbs One year ago, Smart might have been the top pick in the draft but opted to return for a disappointing sophomore season, highlighted by an embarrassing on-court incident when he shoved a fan in the middle of the game. While most scouts I have spoken to said it’s a teachable moment for a young man, there will be some who might have reservations about Smart’s maturity. As a basketball player, Smart is physical, athletic and a competitor. The Lakers could really use a PG that can help Kobe Bryant get easier and better looks, which Smart has shown at Oklahoma State. Smart is a special talent at point guard and will give the Lakers a physical mismatch that they can exploit. The Lakers are looking into trades, but if they stick here Smart makes sense.
8. Julius Randle, PF, Kentucky, 6’9″, 250 lbs Before Embiid supplanted Randle as the top big in the draft, scouts and executives around the league raved about Randle’s combination of size and athleticism. After an impressive freshman campaign highlighted by the Wildcats’ run in March, Randle is right on the cusp of the top five. Executives around the league continue to ask about Randle’s shot selection, as he tended to make questionable decisions at times as a freshman. Randle still needs to be coached up, but if he is, he could reach his potential, comparing favorably to Zach Randolph. While Randle’s biggest wart is ball security, that can be easily fixed, and it’s hard to imagine a team passing on him. With the Kings in a position to grab a prospect of Randle’s caliber, it’s hard to see them passing on the opportunity to pair him with their core. According to reports Randle may require foot surgery and could miss up to two months, if that’s the case he will slip, but I see the Kings as his floor.