December is here, and after a horrendous start to their season, the Dallas Mavericks appear to have found a little life, winning 5 of their last 8, including back-to-back thumpings of two shorthanded Western Conference foes. That win “streak” now puts their record up to 7-18.
That’s still bad enough to keep them at third from the bottom in the league in terms of winning percentage, but there’s a cluster of teams not too far ahead, and if the needle is pointing up, Dallas could continue their climb up the standings. This will mean those days of pining over Luka Dončić are gone, but it’s still worthwhile to take a look at who might be available a little but later on in next summer’s draft.
With that, let’s unveil the first Mavs Moneyball Big Board for 2018. To be absolutely clear, this is not a prediction of the order players will be taken (I don’t do mock drafts). This is how I’m ranking the top 15 players for Dallas, and like last year, these rankings tank into account Dallas’ team culture, and fit, hence the absence of point guards like Collin Sexton (yes, I know he scored 40 points against Minnesota playing 3-on-5), Trevon Duvall, Trae Young, etc.
1. Luka Dončić, Real Madrid
Dončić has played in 20 games already, between ACB and EuroLeague, and overall is averaging just under 17 points, six rebounds and five assists per game in 26 minutes. Keep in mind, he isn’t facing 19 and 20 year-olds like the domestic college prospects are, but rather older, experienced professionals. Dončić’s team alone has seven former NBA players on its roster. He has shouldered a huge load for Real Madrid and at only 18, and his confidence and awareness certainly belie his age.
Watch Dončić play and you’ll see him all over the ball, at both ends. He has exceptional vision and can make spectacular passes, but he’s also a capable scorer who’s both crafty and deceptively strong. At the other end, he may never be a stopper, but his size and instincts should eventually make him a solid team defender. I think he’ll be able to play either wing spot, and possibly down the line even a little small-ball four(the kind of positional versatility Rick Carlisle would surely love). Dončić’s three-point shooting must continue to develop for him to unlock his legitimate star potential, but more than anything he looks like he’d be a sensational fit in between the guys Dallas appears to be building around: Harrison Barnes and Dennis Smith Jr.
2. Marvin Bagley III, Duke
Bagley has been the story of college basketball so far, leading Duke to an undefeated start with his dominant play. Take out the Michigan State game when he was forced to leave 10 minutes in after being poked in the eye, and Bagley has scored at least 18 points and grabbed at least eight rebounds in every game. Overall, he’s averaging 22 points and 11 rebounds per, converting well over 60 percent of his field goals. His skill set is tantalizing. He hasn’t consistently knocked the three ball yet, but I believe that’s coming. He already looks very comfortable handling the ball, and will go end to end after grabbing a rebound or blocking a shot.
It’s worth remembering, because he reclassified to be eligible to play at Duke, Bagley is almost a full year younger than the other top-tier big men prospects in this draft, and is at this early stage the most productive, as well. If you look long enough, you can find wrinkles (strength matchups can bother him, and his non-elite length will make NBA opponents tougher to have his way with than college ones, obviously), but the size, skill, and production are such that I’m very comfortable slotting him at No. 2.
3. DeAndre Ayton, Arizona
Ayton has been outstanding in the early going, as well, averaging 20 and 11 for Sean Miller and the high-octane Wildcat offense. While Bagley is a bit scrawny and wiry, with only an average length for a big, Ayton has a strong, mature body, along with a reported 7’5 wingspan. What makes Ayton special is how skilled he is with the ball at that size, as he’s been dominant in the post while also showing off the makings of a real face-up game.
Greg Oden with ball skills sounds like an impossibly good profile, yet Ayton isn’t first on this list because he developed a bit of a reputation in high school for coasting, rather than being consistently engaged. Concerns like that could be overblown, or they could not be. If Ayton continues to play this well on the court, that noise will quiet down considerably, though, as Ayton is very much a candidate to be taken first overall.
4. Michael Porter Jr., Missouri
Porter was ahead of Ayton for me at the start of the college season, but as you might have heard, the Missouri Freshman had back surgery before Thanksgiving and is expected to miss the entire season. What exactly this means for his prospect status is unclear. He could still easily be a top five pick, provided teams get positive feedback during medical checkups. He could also decide to return to Columbia, where the hometown product had vowed to make the Tigers basketball program relevant again.
My guess would be he won’t pass up the chance to sign a multi-million dollar contract and start his pro career. He was absolutely in the mix to go No. 1 based on his scoring talent and I’ve yet to hear anything that suggests the injury will present longterm issues.
5. Mohamed Bamba, Texas
Bamba’s insane wingspan (supposedly 7’9) and agility at his size make him another potential franchise center, though he’s slightly behind on the development curve right now compared to the above. Bamba impressed me in exhibition play with how far along his jumpshot looked, though there obviously hasn’t been much of a sample size there yet. My expectation was that he would be very raw on that end, still.
Offense will likely be gravy for Bamba, who has the tools to be a Rudy Gobert-level defensive disrupter. He currently is second in the nation in blocks, averaging four a game. Bagley-Ayton-Bamba might as well be like picking your favorite ice cream flavor. If Dallas somehow manages to stay bad enough to keep a top five pick, my guess is that they’ll have a hard time screwing up that selection.
6. Jaren Jackson Jr., Michigan State
Yes, it’s another big man. The son of former NBA journeyman Jaren Jackson (best known for his time with the Spurs, who he helped win their first NBA title) is 6’11 with a reported 7’4 wingspan and is yet another 2018 big prospect who brings a combination of shot blocking and a developing outside shot to the table. This is the direction basketball has been going in for a few years now, and Jackson, Jr. fits that new era to a tee.
He’ll probably need some time to grow, both figuratively and literally. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect he’ll be a major contributor next year for an NBA team. With Nerlens Noel looking very much like he’s halfway out the door, though, Jackson represents the last true blue-chipper for a team like Dallas to snag as their next franchise big man.
7. Miles Bridges, Michigan State
Bridges is the first returning college player on this list. He almost certainly would have been a lottery pick had he stayed in the draft last summer, but moves up to a possible top-10 position as a sophomore. Bridges hasn’t quite had the campaign I think he expected thus far, as a sprained ankle kept him out a game and slowed his progress thereafter, though he still has plenty of time to turn things around.
When he’s on, Bridges can make jaw-dropping plays, but almost every time I watched him play I get the feeling Bridges is somehow less than the sum of his parts. He’s not very creative or deceptive with the ball, as he plays more like a football player, attacking straight on and trying to overpower and out leap players at the rim. He can knock down outside shots if he has time, but he’s not a shooting threat off the dribble at all. Given all that, one wonders if his average length makes him more tweener than true combo forward?
8. Robert Williams, Texas A&M
Williams was suspended for the first two games of the college season for undisclosed reasons, but the sophomore has come on strong as a part-time player for the Aggies recently. Nearly averaging a double-double in under 22 minutes, while converting nearly 70 percent of his shots is pretty efficient, no? What’s more, Williams has even displayed some surprising competence as a passer, though it seems likely his (best) role at the next level will be as a pick-and-roll lob finisher and rebounder.
Williams is on the shorter side if his final landing spot is at center, but he makes up for that with long arms and explosive, nuclear-level springiness. He seems to dunk on the way up more than any player I can remember. The suspension, along with my concerns he’s not really a center, represent some possible flags, but he’s moving up for me.
9. Mikal Bridges, Villanova
This Bridges had a ho-hum start to his college season, going 2-of-8 and 0-of-5 from three against Columbia. Since then he has been torching the nets, going 26-of-46 (56 percent) from behind the college three-point line, and averaging over 20 points per game over that span, culminating in a 28-point performance in a trouncing of highly ranked Gonzaga on Tuesday. If that wasn’t enough, thanks to his freakishly long arms, Bridges is also a dynamic playmaker on defense, averaging over two steals and a block and a half per game.
Simply put, this is the Rolls Royce of 3-and-D prospects, and while I’m normally wary of taking a player with that profile in the top 10, Bridges looks good enough to make me rethink that position. I’ll admit I was a little late to the station on Bridges, but for now I’m definitely all aboard the hype train.
10. Bruce Brown, Miami
I expect Brown will be the guy I continually have ranked higher than most others, but I’m okay with that. The 6’4 sophomore guard is a personal favorite of mine, as he does just about everything well and receives raves for being a quality teammate and hard worker. Brown uses smarts, toughness, and long arms to play much bigger than his size should allow, and he fills out the stat sheet, currently averaging 12 points, eight rebounds and five assists per game.
His outside shooting was a pleasant surprise as a freshman, and he has continued to hit his spot-up attempts in his second year (40 percent from college three). If that holds, I think he’s a great potential running mate for Dennis Smith Jr., as Brown can guard multiple positions, be a secondary ball handler, and also be a threat off-ball when needed. The rub is that he’s “old” for a sophomore at 21, so like Mikal Bridges he may not have true star upside.
11. Kevin Knox, Kentucky
John Calipari has had at least one top-10 pick in every draft since arriving at Lexington, but that streak may come to an end. Barely. Knox could definitely sneak in there, as he’s become the leading scorer for the Wildcats (something I don’t know if I would have predicted prior to exhibition play). Knox is impressive in that he gets his baskets without having a lot of plays called for him. He is a terror in transition, finishing highlight-reel plays off misses and turnovers. He also has been a pleasant surprise spotting up, with a high-arching shot that he’s converted close to 35 percent on from three.
Knox’s size, athleticism, and skill could make him a steal for a team in need of a combo forward, though he’ll need to continue to work on creating more looks off the dribble. At the very least he’ll be fun to watch at the next level.
12. Džanan Musa, Cedevita
A few months ago, Musa was one of a couple of guys battling to be the second international player taken after Dončić, and Musa’s emergence in the Adriatic League may have cemented that status for him. The 18-year-old Bosnian is 6’9 and skilled, with shooting range that’s developed at a rapid pace given his experience level. He doesn’t quite have Dončić’s pedigree, but his shoot-pass profile as a big wing is very promising.
The major question mark seems to be how effective a defender he can be in the NBA, as he has the familiar white Euro profile as being rail thin and not especially quick laterally. If you’re buying in on this prospect you’re doing so for his offense, in other words.
13. Wendell Carter, Jr., Duke
Carter, Jr. has clearly been overshadowed by Marvin Bagley III, but the other mega-recruit freshman big man for the Blue Devils has been quietly productive in his own right. His rebound rate is a tick higher than Bagley’s, and he’s shooting slightly better from the field, as well. Carter has also connected on 3-of-6 three-point attempts in 11 games; a small sample for sure that nonetheless hints at a possible pick-and-pop game down the line.
Carter isn’t as flashy as the other big men projected to go in the lottery, but young bigs who can do a little bit of everything don’t grow on trees. If Dallas makes the playoff chase interesting down the stretch and still wants to draft a big man they can groom, this guy makes a lot of sense.
14. Troy Brown, Oregon
Brown got off to a nice start for the Ducks, but has slowed down a bit before missing a game against Boise State with a concussion. Brown still has a really nice tool set: he’s 6’7 with point skills, a bit like a young Evan Turner, though to this point Brown projects as the better defender.
Like Turner, Brown is not a knockdown three-point shooter, though his free throw percentage is strong enough to leave room for encouragement on that front. A versatile two-way wing is exactly what Dallas could use to add to their young core, and Brown represents a nice gamble in the middle of the first round.
15. Lonnie Walker IV, Miami
Walker has been bothered by injuries as well to start his amateur career, but with Bruce Brown out, he demonstrated why he was such a highly touted recruit, pouring in 26 points against Boston University Tuesday night. Walker flashes a broad skill base, with a nice shooting stroke, and the ability to drive and either finish or find open teammates. I’d like to see more performances like that one before I consider that something greater than “flash,” but it’s early.