This is the time of the year for the earliest Mock Drafts, and I am subbing myself in for our regular guru, Joe Kotoch, who has been writing Mocks for this site for four years. Kotoch will be back … I am a one-and-done guy in this particular category.
As I sat down to write this column, I was consumed with one thought: If you are in the business of finding great players and you want to stay employed, you better remember that it is not an exact science and you better be more right than you are wrong.
With that, I’m reminded of a story about the 1998 draft when the Milwaukee Bucks called the Dallas Mavs on draft night to ask them to flip picks. Dallas took the late Robert “Tractor” Traylor for the Bucks and the Mavs got Dirk Nowitzki a few picks later.
A few picks after that, Boston took a small forward out of Kansas by the name of Paul Pierce, who surprisingly had dropped to 10th. (Michael Olowokandi, you may remember, was the No. 1 pick).
That about sums it up. One guy went on to play in the Puerto Rican pro league before dying tragically, and two guys picked after him are on their way to Springfield.
On to the picks.
Naturally, we won’t know the exact draft order until the lottery is held during the conference finals. So we are listing the draft order of teams based upon their records through Saturday night. This is one of the occupational hazards of publishing a Mock Draft in late February, but so be it.
Forget whether or not LSU makes the Big Dance, this guy has generational size and skill that does not come along very often. If you are the GM who decides not to select Simmons with the first pick, you are a more courageous gambler than me and you had better be right. I’m fairly certain Jerry Colangelo/Sam Hinkie feel this is a can’t-miss pro. Yes, the Sixers need a point guard more than they need another big guy, but they could have the Lakers’ pick to use on Kris Dunn. We’ll find out on lottery night. L.A.’s pick is Top 3 protected.
Love his length, size and shooting ability. Ingram is the closest thing I’ve seen to Kevin Durant so far. He has future star written all over him. I think the Lakers, currently second-worst in the NBA, will actually finish with a better record than Phoenix when the regular season is said and done, and that might not be a bad thing when it comes to Ingram. Of course, the big question for the Suns (no matter if they rise and fall in the lottery) is who will be making the pick — and who will eventually be coaching him. Reporters all over the NBA are saying that Ryan McDonough and Earl Watson are merely keeping the seats warm before a major housecleaning. Remember, Phoenix also has the rights to Washington’s pick (protected 1-9) and Cleveland’s pick.
3. Kris Dunn, 6-3, Point Guard, Providence
Some may say this is a little high for Dunn, and I realize that whoever takes the first point guard will likely do so because of need. But in my humble opinion, this is the can’t-miss future star in this draft. I’ll admit some bias because my former player God Shammgod is his mentor and I’ve seen Dunn the most out of any of the lottery guys. Dunn has Russell Westbrook’s explosiveness, John Wall’s quickness and can defend like Gary Payton with his long arms and quick hands. He may be better defensively than offensively right now. When he learns to cut down on his turnovers and his outside shot improves, he’ll be one of the premier PGs in the NBA. Danny Ainge has seen him play in person a whole bunch of times.
4. Jaylen Brown, 6-7, Small Forward, Cal
The top wing in this draft, I love this guy’s power and explosiveness, especially in the open floor. Brown has huge upside and can only get better, reminding me of a young Dwyane Wade. Is he a fit for the Celtics, who already have Jae Crowder on the wing? Hey, in the modern NBA, it never hurts to have players who can play multiple positions. He is shooting 30 percent (25-for-83) on 3-pointers for the Golden Bears, and a summer of hoisting 1,000 NBA 3-pointers each and every day can help his develop the range to be a dominant two-guard. Boston gets this pick from Brooklyn as a result of the Pierce-Garnett trade.
This year’s version of another highly skilled foreign face-up big man like Kristaps Porzingis. I got to watch this Croatian transplant up close this summer when Maccabi Tel Aviv played in New York, and the hype on this guy is real. Bender, like Porzingis, needs to get stronger. “Closest thing to Pau (Gasol) I’ve seen,” one Eastern Conference general manager told our Mike Scotto, one of he best young sportswriters in the industry. “He plays hard and has great anticipation defensively. The play when he caught a bad pass just inside the 3-point line and with one dribble did an up-and-under layup was incredible.”
6. Ivan Rabb, 6-11, Power Forward, Cal
Rabb is a very good athlete, but a better basketball player. He has a great IQ for the game and a nice maturity and steadiness that reminds you more of a seasoned veteran than a freshman. Like a lot of young big guys, Rabb needs to continue to get stronger for the next level. He is shooting 63 percent for an absolutely stacked Golden Bears team that should be a Final Four contender this season based on talent alone. Averages 12 points, 8.3 rebounds and more than one block per game. Just wait til his body fills out.
7. Buddy Hield, Shooting Guard, 6-4, Oklahoma
Hield is a rarity in that he’s a senior, but he’s really had a great year and helped his stock as much as anyone in the country. Some say he’s a little undersized for a two-guard, but he can really score the ball in a variety of ways and has a workmanlike attitude with a polished skill set. The kid from the Bahamas was the Big 12 Player of the Year as a junior. He’s averaging 25.4 ppg this season and shooting a high-volume .498.
8. Damian Jones, Power Forward/Center, 7-0, Vanderbilt
Some may say this is a little high for him, but as the saying goes … size seems to rise the night of the draft. Jones may be the most physically gifted big man in the draft. He has elite level athleticism with a soft touch on his shot, both inside and out. Jones sometimes loses focus and doesn’t dominate or play with the urgency he’ll need in order to reach his potential. But Myles Turner had the same knocks on him prior to last year’s draft and he’s doing very well in his rookie season with the Pacers. I wouldn’t want to pass on the chance to grab such a talented big.
9. Brice Johnson, Power Forward, 6-9, North Carolina
Another senior who’s had an outstanding season, this bouncy, athletic, jumping jack plays with great energy and versatility. Johnson’s probably had the best individual performance of the year with 39 points and 23 rebounds against Florida State. He’s another in a long line of Tar Heel greats.
A big point guard who has played more off the ball with Tyler Ulis in same backcourt, this Canadian came on strong with the national team and showed his maturity and leadership. Murray has terrific range on his shot and is a very crafty scorer. The only question is, can he be a full-time point guard? Because Murray may still lack some explosiveness as a two-guard.
Poeltl has been the best all-around true post player in the country this year. He has really improved his post skills, he runs the floor well and has very good feet. I like that Poeltl is fluid in the open court and is an underrated rim protector. As his offense gets more polished, he has a chance to have a very solid NBA career. Born in Vienna, Both his parents were members of the Austrian national volleyball teams.
12. Diamond Stone, Center, 6-11, Maryland
One of my favorite guys in the draft is definitely on the all-name team. Not an explosive athlete, Stone does have great length and is a very clever offensive player around the basket like a righty Zach Randolph. He’s got very good upside and a nice pedigree, as his father was a good Division II player at Wisconsin-Whitewater. The dad said his son chose Maryland over Wisconsin (Stone is from Whitefish Bay, Wisc.) because of the way the Terps developed Alex Len.
If you’re going to pick a guy on pure upside, this is the guy. I’m not sure how good or effective of a college player he is, but because of his size, length and skill level, Skal will be taken most likely somewhere in the lottery for fear that no one wants to miss out on the immense potential of this young man from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. He has a great wingspan and a soft touch on his shot, but he clearly needs to get stronger and continue to develop his game.
Ellenson has had a great freshman year and even though he is not a great run-and-jump athlete, he has a 7-foot-2 wingspan, which helps him with defense and rebounding. He’s an extremely versatile forward who can really handle and pass the ball for a big man. Ellenson’s shooting needs to continue to improve, but again his strength and toughness and basketball IQ make him a very interesting prospect who’s a power forward with small forward skills.
Bonus Pick: Zhou Qi, Center, 7-2, China
I’m going to be doing some things with China basketball, and my contact from over there started showing me footage of this 7’2 young, thin player who’s extremely skilled in the Kristaps Porzingis mode. Qi is a toothpick right now, but a very intriguing prospect. Is he the next Yao Ming or just a Yi Jianlian? Check out what colleague Marco Cantazaro, who covers the CBA, had to say about him.
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Bobby Gonzalez, former head coach at Manhattan and Seton Hall, is a part-time commentator and columnist for SheridanHoops.com. Follow him on Twitter.