With All-Star Weekend come and gone, the Dallas Mavericks get back to playing games that count on Friday against the Lakers. Their record stands at 18-40. This technically slots them just behind the Suns and Hawks at third from the bottom, but the worst kept secret around the NBA is that this is shaping up to be an epic tanking showdown. Dallas is one of six teams with a league-low 18 wins, but there are as many as nine teams who it seems fair to say will be losing as often as possible over the final months of the season.
Even if Dallas isn’t mathematically eliminated, they have almost no realistic hope of making the playoffs at this point, and a potentially enormous amount to gain by staying with the pack at the bottom of the league. The 2018 Draft class is very strong at the top, and offers a chance(note usage of the word “chance)” to add a key foundational piece of the next Dallas contender. For your reading pleasure I’ve ranked the top 15 players, and for those unfamiliar with my big boards, my ranking takes into account what I perceive to be the prevailing organizational philosophy, as well as some small consideration toward positional fit.
First, however, some points of emphasis:
Doncic is still first
It would seem that there is a bit of a close race between Luka Doncic and DeAndre Ayton for the title of presumptive number one pick. Many describe it as a “1A and 1B” type situation. On my board, Doncic is the clear top player, and to understand why, it’s important to clarify something I suspect readers do not fully appreciate. Doncic is almost unprecedented as a prospect, because he is as accomplished an 18-year-old as the draft has ever seen. He is dominating a league far superior to any NCAA conference, facing older and much more experienced players while carrying the load for one of the best teams in the Euroleage.
Dallas really needs to stay in the top six
There will be plenty of time going forward to discuss the possible merits of tanking, but putting that aside, I think Dallas would do well to remain in the top six, where the potential cornerstone talents dwell. There are plenty of nice players outside that top six, but I would feel considerably less certain about hitting on the pick if the team ended up selecting beyond that range.
If you’re a mock draft junkie you will notice immediately the absence of the top point guards, Trae Young and Collin Sexton. I’ve left them off because I simply can’t see an argument for pairing one of them with Dennis Smith, Jr. I also have questions about Young on a general level, as although he is tremendously fun to watch and certainly a prospect worth following, I wonder how well his decision making and shot selection will play at the next level with longer and more athletic opponents.
Now, the players:
1. Luka Doncic, Real Madrid (previous ranking: 1)
I’ve already said a lot about Doncic, but it’s worth repeating that he seems like the perfect guy to play in between Dennis Smith, Jr. and Harrison Barnes. It is a fair argument to make that other players might have a higher upside, given Doncic’s modest athletic traits, but don’t underestimate Doncic’s upside — or his athleticism for that matter. His combination of size, playmaking skill, and general basketball intelligence are what’s made him so precociously productive overseas, and that’s what also makes him exactly the type of prospect Dallas and head coach Rick Carlisle tend to value most. He may not go first in the real draft, but if the Mavs win the lottery I think this is thier guy.
2. DeAndre Ayton, Arizona (prev: 3)
Ayton was behind guys like Marvin Bagley III and Michael Porter Jr. when the college season started, and stubbornly I was reluctant to move him above Bagley, but it’s become difficult to deny that Ayton has the clearer path to NBA stardom. Ayton is Bagley’s equal in terms of production, athleticism, and skill level, but with a better physical profile that gives him a more obvious position to play at the next level. He has a complete offensive repertoire already, and his physical tools give him no excuse to not eventually become an above average defender. The only knock is that he isn’t an above average defender yet (though his recent play has been better), speaking to possible concerns over effort at that end. I would hope it goes without saying that if Dallas takes this guy they should make sure Rick Carlisle has signed off.
3. Michael Porter Jr., Missouri (prev: 4)
Porter Jr. has hinted at possibly returning before the end of the season (contrary to initial reports that he would miss the entire college season recovering after a microdiscectomy), though how likely that might be is anyone’s guess. Most seem to think the injury won’t cause Porter Jr. to fall out of the top five, so I’m keeping him here still, but back injuries can be tricky. In the past Dallas has tended to shy away from prospects with medical issues, but a hyper-athletic combo forward who can shoot and make plays at both ends would have to be difficult to pass up.
4. Jaren Jackson Jr., Michigan State (prev: 6)
Jackson hasn’t put up quite the kind of numbers Ayton and Bagley have, but his skill set is perfect for the modern NBA. He’s an elite rim protector and floor spacer, blocking nearly six shots per 40 minutes and connecting on over 43 percent from behind the college three-point line. Jackson may never develop into a first or second option on offense at the next level, but as ex-MMB scribe Jonathan Tjarks wrote recently, he may not need to be one to be a championship-level contributor. In any event, as one of the youngest draft eligible players, he’ll have plenty of time to try.
5. Marvin Bagley III, Duke (prev: 2)
I admit I have a soft spot for Bagley, whose stock has fallen in the eyes of many draft pundits recently over concerns about where he fits positionally in the “new” NBA. It’s true, he doesn’t have the kind of reported length or the block rate to make him a top-tier defensive center, and his perimeter skills are still more theoretical than actual. However, I remain bullish on him because I see a player who looks surprisingly comfortable with the ball at his size, and who plays with a high effort level. He has a nose for scooping up garbage baskets around the paint, and if John Collins can be a productive player right out of the gate, I don’t see why a bigger, more skilled, more athletic version can’t.
6. Mohamed Bamba, Texas (prev: 5)
Bamba has been a double-double machine and prolific shotblocker, all thanks to his otherworldly physical profile that includes a reported 7’9 wingspan. That will likely be the selling point for the team that drafts him, as it’s not hard to imagine Bamba developing into a defensive anchor like Rudy Gobert. Where he ends up may come down to what that particular organization wants from their five man, a job seemingly more specialized and more team-specific than ever. How exactly Dallas sees that position is a bit of an open question, as for years Rick Carlisle has usually opted for a rotation at center, using several different players in matchup-dependent situations.
7. Mikal Bridges, Villanova (prev: 9)
He’s cooled off somewhat from his torrid stretch earlier, but Mikal Bridges still looks like an elite 3-and-D prospect, with long arms that help him rack up steals and blocks on defense, and an improved shooting stroke that has turned him into one of college basketball’s best two-way players. How diverse he can be as an offensive player is the question that will probably keep him from being taken this high in the actual draft, but if Dallas misses out on the blue chippers at the top of the draft, they might decide to go the safer route of selecting a ready-made contributor over a higher upside but riskier project.
8. Wendell Carter Jr., Duke (prev: 13)
He isn’t getting anywhere near the attention the other big men above are, but Carter Jr. has been quietly productive in his own right, featuring a strong assortment of skills and a high basketball IQ. Carter has been the defensive anchor for Duke, while also spacing the floor a bit more than expected to help Bagley III get as much space as possible to operate. Carter has looked comfortable as a high post passer and also rebounds well. Big men who can do that many different things tend to have long careers, even if they don’t necessarily have one elite trait.
9. Miles Bridges, Michigan State (prev: 7)
Miles Bridges stuck around Michigan State presumably thinking he could improve his draft stock following a nice freshman season. That may not have exactly worked out, though Bridges still looks like a lottery selection. Bridges is fun to watch at times because he’s an explosive leaper and powerful dunker, but his realistic upside can be a bit hard to pin down. The glass-half-full version is that his free-throw shooting and assist-to-turnover ratio have gone up, suggesting he’s still getting better. The glass-half-empty version is that he’s still inconsistent overall as a shooter, and he’s a bit stiff and mechanical with the ball.
10. Robert Williams, Texas A&M (prev: 8)
Like Bridges, Williams withdrew his name from last year’s draft hoping to build up his prospect resume and move up a few spots next time around, and like Bridges, it’s been essentially more of the same. That being said, Williams brings a lot to the table as a potential high-level role player with elite traits. When Williams is on, he looks the part of the Clint Capela super-specialist who can rebound, finish in pick and roll and rim protect, but the problem quite frankly is that he doesn’t appear to have Capela’s motor. That gives me some pause, especially considering Rick Carlisle’s use of a certain other athletic big man — one who perhaps also has a tendency to lose focus. However, just because Nerlens Noel never turned into another Tyson Chandler in Dallas, doesn’t mean Robert Williams couldn’t, or wouldn’t.
11. Kevin Knox, Kentucky (prev: 11)
Kevin Knox has also struggled some with consistency, like earlier this month when he followed up his highest scoring game (34 points) with his second-lowest scoring one (five). Knox has been one of the bright spots in a bizarre, underachieving season for Kentucky. His points come in two ways: three pointers and dunks. As exciting as that is, it gives an idea of how developed his game is at the moment. In the right system — one that plays up-tempo and will let him loose to get out in transition, where he’s at his best — he could clearly flourish, but it’s worth noting that Dallas has been one of the slowest-paced teams in the league for years. Even if they do pick up the pace once Dirk retires and Dennis gains experience, Knox would need to prove he can be a consistent contributor in the half-court offense.
12. Lonnie Walker IV, Miami (prev: 15)
Walker has come alive since returning from injury less than a month ago. With Bruce Brown struggling, Walker has assumed a larger role in the offense and finally demonstrated he can handle it. Walker’s scouting report had always been ahead of his stats: he’s long, athletic, has great shooting form and will flash advanced court vision from time to time. If his production is finally starting to match that, by the combine Walker might have pushed himself into top-10 consideration.
13. Daniel Gafford, Arkansas (prev: N/A)
Gafford wasn’t nearly as highly touted coming out of high school as the other big men in this class, but he’s been extremely efficient and productive in a smaller role for Arkansas, who have racked up several high profile wins recently. Gafford checks plenty of boxes, with good size and plenty of bounce, allowing him to block shots and finish dunks. He is exclusively a play finisher at this point, but that’s hardly going out of style. There were a pair of other big men just outside my top 15, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is the best draft for bigs in some time.
14. Troy Brown, Oregon (prev: 14)
Brown is another wing with good size and playmaking skills, who uses length and timing to play up his athleticism. Brown does a little bit of everything on offense: he handles the ball some, spots up, and turns steals and rebounds into quick points in transition. He appears to have a bit of a slow release that may need some fine-tuning at the next level, but if his shooting does get unlocked, he could be a steal in the middle of the first round.
15. Shake Milton, SMU (prev: N/A)
I’m partial to Shake Milton, the local product who has built a very strong resume in three seasons with the Mustangs. Milton has missed the last few games to injury, but he’s enjoying his third straight season shooting over 42 percent from three (on a high volume of attempts), and his second straight season averaging over four assists and four rebounds a game. In other words, he’s exactly what the Mavericks desperately need: a playmaking wing who can shoot, pass, and defend. He may not crack the top-15 in the actual draft, but look for him as a sleeper should Dallas end up making some deals on draft night.