Our predictions for the weird and wonderful draft.
The Toronto Raptors are nicely stocked for this year’s annual NBA draft, only four days after one of the most memorable conclusions to an NBA finals in basketball history. The team has both its own number 27 pick as well as the New York Knicks’ pick at number nine (the last benefit from trading away Andrea Bargnani in 2013), giving them an unusually high pick after coming in second in the Eastern Conference Finals.
In an average draft year, teams are salivating for picks. Every young player eligible for the draft is hyped up as a potential superstar, and there is intrigue-a-plenty as to who will draft whom, and plenty of debate as to who’s actually the best pick.
And if you have spare picks, you might trade them for established players or just trade for the sake of trading, as the NBA draft generally marks the true start of the league’s offseason. (Indeed, in the past 24 hours, the Chicago Bulls traded Derrick Rose to the Knicks in a massive pre-draft trade, while the Atlanta Hawks moved former All-Star guard Jeff Teague to Indiana.) Last year, the Raps did a little of everything, trading Greivis Vasquez to Milwaukee for two draft picks (one of which became our rookie sensation Norman Powell), and drafting Delon Wright with their own pick for what was widely considered to be a very solid performance on draft night.
So what’s going to happen this year? Nobody knows. Because this year is…kind of weird.
There are several reasons large numbers of teams are shopping their picks. First, as a result of previous trades, three teams control almost one-third of the picks in the first round of the draft: Philadelphia (controlling numbers one, 24, and 26), Boston (numbers three, 16, and 23) and Denver (numbers seven, 15, and 19). What’s more, if you count the second round, Boston and Denver between them control almost a quarter of all the picks in the entire draft.
Several other teams (Atlanta, Phoenix, and Milwaukee) have four picks in the draft apiece. These teams accumulated picks because they wanted to trade a large package of picks for a star player; unfortunately, no star player trade has emerged that they’re willing to take. What this means is a lot of teams are in the very, very rare situation of having too many picks. NBA rosters can only have fifteen active players, and every rookie they’re (hopefully) developing into a star player is one slot they don’t have for experienced players who can help win more games.
The second reason: the NBA’s salary cap is exploding this year, and teams want to concentrate their money on experienced players, not rookies. (The reason Atlanta traded away Jeff Teague for an additional pick: with Teague’s salary gone, they have more money to throw at Al Horford and Kent Bazemore and another free agent.) There is going to be a lot of money spent this summer, and although rookies are cheap, every dollar (or, well, every million dollars) will matter.
The final reason so many picks are available for trade is because this year’s draft is, in terms of available talent, weirdly stratified. There are only two players in the entire draft who are consensus future star players: Ben Simmons of LSU and Brandon Ingram from Duke. After Simmons and Ingram, there is a general agreement that there are at least six other players considered to become starting-caliber players with a decent chance of being All-Stars; this group includes Kitchener’s Jamal Murray, the hero for Team Canada at the Pan Am Games last year.
And then there’s a third tier, which, depending on who you ask, is about 20 or 30 players deep, full of players who probably top out at “solid starter, or maybe a decent rotation guy.” To be clear, this isn’t a bad thing per se: if you play at such a level in the NBA you’ll have a long career. But most general managers don’t get excited about the opportunity to draft the solid journeymen of the future. They want stars, because basketball is a star-driven sport.
So, with numbers nine and 27 in hand, what should the Raptors do? Who can they reasonably get, considering that the eight players in the draft most likely to be stars could all be gone by the time they get to pick?
It’s important to remember that those tiers we just discussed are not a sure bet. There’s certainly general agreement about Simmons and Ingram, but then nobody is quite sure how to rank the next six guys, and most teams have a theory about maybe two or three other players they might want instead—especially the teams drafting later in the first eight picks.
For example, a lot of teams like Wade Baldwin IV from Vanderbilt: he’s a talented young guard, can shoot and defend nicely. It is more than likely that at least one of the teams picking before Toronto has seriously considered drafting Baldwin, or maybe Jakob Poeltl of Utah or Skal Labissiere of Kentucky; if they do, then one of those top-eight guys will fall into Masai Ujiri’s lap.
And to be clear: something like this happens every year. A GM decides This Guy Is The Guy and picks him earlier than he would otherwise go, and the result is a talented player drops below where he’s projected to be selected in the draft. It can happen a lot. Last year, for example, most experts predicted that Justise Winslow would go between numbers four and six; instead, as team after team picked the guy they really wanted most, Winslow slid all the way down to number 10 where the Miami Heat snagged him—and he turned out to be one of the best players in the draft.
If one or more of the “top” guys falls, does Masai draft him? Maybe. (If Murray falls, it’s honestly hard to imagine the Raptors not drafting him.) Or maybe Masai has his own preferences. There has been a lot of talk, for example, that the Raptors really like Domantas Sabonis of Gonzaga. Sabonis is the son of legendary Soviet center Arvydas Sabonis, who spent most of his prime years not playing in the NBA (because of the Cold War) and is widely considered to be one of the best big men to ever play the game. The younger Sabonis isn’t quite the ridiculous physical specimen his father was (measuring in at a “mere” 6’10”), but he has a reputation as an elite rebounder, skilled passer, and overall smart and rugged player. Using the number nine pick on Sabonis would be perfectly reasonable.
The Raptors, with their strong international scouting, have also been tied to Timothy Luwawu, a young French player currently playing for the outstandingly named Serbian club Mega Leks, and Furkan Korkmaz, a young Turkish guard with a lot of promise as a shooter. For the 27th pick, they might well go for Juan Hernangomez from Spain, or take on a serious project in Thon Maker, a Sudanese-Australian kid who graduated from Orangeville Prep. There are numerous other options at both picks, ranging from reliable college seniors to almost completely unproven enigmas who have the right measurements. (There is, also, the wonderfully named Diamond Stone, a center from Maryland.)
Masai could also try to trade the number nine pick. Such a trade would probably involve sending out the pick along with a player or two (Terrence Ross is widely considered, among Raptors fans, to be the most likely candidate for such a deal) in order to upgrade the roster. The Raps would love a starting-quality power forward; one potential trade could be for Thaddeus Young from Brooklyn. Of course, such a trade would mean Brooklyn would be interested in that pick or in Ross.
All of that having been said, this writer kind of hopes, given how low many teams are valuing their first-round picks and how many teams want to sell them, that Masai acquires one or two more first-rounders. If Masai Ujiri’s plan this summer is to re-sign DeMar DeRozan, there will be little money left over once he does so—but rookies are cheap contracts. There are many players in the class project thought to be reliable rotation players, and getting some cheap rotation players (with the potential to maybe be more) seems like a bargain—and it’s often a good idea to zig when everybody else zags.