2018 NBA Mock Draft: Projecting the Lottery
Excitement, hope, optimism.
The NBA Draft brings all those feelings out, especially for the fans of the worst teams in the league. The enthusiasm this time of year is contagious, and we could not let this time pass up without putting together a mock draft, numberFire style.
Our mock draft has numbers making the majority of our decisions, as we use statistics and advanced analytics to decide which direction the franchises go. We get the bulk of the figures for this mock from 82games' positional production, net differences according to player efficiency rating (PER), and our very own nERD metric. nERD is a player ranking that measures a player's total contributions, based on efficiency, and provides an estimate of how many games a team would be above or below .500 with that player as one of its starters.
I know what you're thinking. Less talking, more mocking. I couldn't agree more, so let's go!
1. Phoenix Suns: Deandre Ayton, C
The Phoenix Suns soundly earned this year's top pick with their putrid performance throughout the 2017-18 season. The hapless squad not only finished with the worst record but also had the dubious distinction of ending the year last in the NBA in both offensive (100.8) and defensive rating (110.6).
The club can go in many directions, but with Deandre Ayton receiving -1500 odds to go number one, according to BetOnline, it is safe to say Phoenix has honed in on Ayton as the answer to their frontcourt woes.
You can't blame them, as the 7'1" Ayton was the PAC-12 Player of the Year and a Naismith Player of the Year Finalist with an impressive line of 20.1 points, 11.6 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per game while finishing with the second-best player efficiency rating (32.4) in all of the NCAA as a true freshman. He would join a Suns frontcourt in desperate need of a boost in production.
The team owned a deficit of 12.9 PER at the power forward and center positions combined in 2017-18. The duo of Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender, both drafted within the top eight picks two years back, struggled more than anyone as they combined for a nERD score of -14.5. The best big man on the team, Alex Len (3.0 nERD), is an unrestricted free agent and is not expected back next season, leaving Ayton a clear path to playing time from the start.
2. Sacramento Kings: Michael Porter, Jr., SF
The Sacramento Kings got lucky in the lottery this season, moving up from the seventh-best odds to capture the second overall pick and have the chance to add a high-profile talent. That's not to say that the decision will be easy.
Beyond Ayton, there is no overwhelming choice to go number two to the Kings. Luka Doncic holds the second-best odds to be picked number one overall, but if Sacramento ignores the medical concerns and trusts the numbers, they will go with the promise of the young Michael Porter.
The Kings struggled to find the right fit at small forward last season, as rookie Justin Jackson (-4.6 nERD) struggled to perform. The lack of viable options forced them to play fellow rookie and 6'6" guard Bogdan Bogdanovic (-3.6) out of position on the wing, and combined with veterans Vince Carter (-2.0) and Garrett Temple (-4.7) the Kings ended with a PER of only 11.9 -- 3.1 short of the league average (15.0) -- from the position. Overall, the Kings ranked 29th in the league in offensive rating and are in need of an impact offensive player alongside De'Aaron Fox.
Despite his virtually nonexistent college career, Porter's ceiling on the offensive end leaves him worth the risk at number two. For what it's worth, he shot over 60% from three and 80% from the line while averaging 37.1 points per game in high school. Current odds have Porter a favorite to be taken sixth or better (-150) in the draft and our projection of second overall fits the bill.
3. Atlanta Hawks: Marvin Bagley III, PF/C
The Atlanta Hawks also have a difficult decision at third overall as they could draft the uber-talented Doncic or this year's ACC Player of the Year, in Bagley, to go along with second-year big man John Collins. The betting markets have Bagley as a heavy favorite (-350) to be drafted in the top three, and we tend to agree, with the Hawks' woeful performance upfront last season making our case.
The power forward and center positions in Atlanta combined for a deficit of 4.3 PER. The Hawks' bigs were routinely beaten on the glass by their opponents, leaving the whole squad ranked in the bottom-five in rebound percentage (48.7%).
While Bagley will help on the glass (18.6 boards per 100 possessions), his most significant contributions lie on the offensive end as he led the ACC in effective field goal percentage (64.0%), offensive rating (127.7), offensive win shares (4.8), and offensive box plus-minus (7.7). The Hawks' bigs, for their part, averaged just 37.1 points per game, 6.0 points fewer than their opponents, per 82games.
4. Memphis Grizzlies: Luka Doncic, SG
Injuries to Mike Conley and a slew of others sent the Memphis Grizzlies from perennial playoff participant to top-four pick. The offense struggled with a bottom-four offensive rating (101.8) and the second-worst assist to turnover ratio (1.44) in the NBA. While the point guard position struggled, they have the luxury of getting back what should be a healthy Conley.
What's left at the two-guard spot leaves a lot to be desired. Ben McLemore registered the most minutes of anyone still under contract at the position, but he also posted a dismal 9.7 PER and -3.8 nERD rating. Enter Doncic.
The 19-year-old Serbian prodigy is the reigning Euroleague MVP as he averaged 16.0 points (on just 10.3 shots per game), 4.9 rebounds, and 4.5 assists in 25.9 minutes per game. His 6'8" frame coupled with his ball-handling abilities leave him as a versatile weapon that can be deployed on the wing if needed. As with many European players, questions and doubts have risen about his ability to take on NBA-level competition. These concerns have dropped Doncic from a candidate for the top selection to a favorite of oddsmakers to be drafted third or worse (-220) as opposed to second or better (-+175).
5. Dallas Mavericks: Jaren Jackson Jr, PF/C
For all his offensive excellence, Dirk Nowitzki's defensive struggles are well documented, and he's been particularly exploitable during the waning stages of his long NBA tenure. The Dallas Mavericks tried to address this weakness up front by trading for Nerlens Noel last season, but they ended 2017-18 in even worse shape, finishing with the second-lowest block total (310) in the NBA. The Mavericks were also one of the worst rebounding teams in the league, ranking dead-last with a 47.4% rebound rate.
The Noel experiment was a failure, but lucky for them a potential defensive star could -- with -150 odds to be taken fourth or worse -- fall right into their laps at number five.
As a freshman at Michigan State, Jackson led the Big 10 (and was second overall in the NCAA) with a 14% block rate while averaging 3.0 rejections in just 21.4 minutes per game. The still 18-year-old Jackson pulled down 10.6 boards per 40 minutes with his 15.0% rebound rate placing him top 10 in the conference. With the fourth-best defensive rating in all of college hoops, Jackson finished as the Big 10 freshman and defensive player of the year. And with his 39.6% shooting from three a year ago, his floor-stretching ability would go beyond filling a shot-blocking role down low.
6. Orlando Magic: Trae Young, PG
With one of the worst offenses in the NBA last season -- 27th in offensive rating and 24th in points per game -- the Orlando Magic need a spark at the point and Young, the NCAA's leading scorer (27.4 points per game) and assist man (8.7 per game) in 2017-18, would be just that. After trading Elfrid Payton, the Magic gave underwhelming vets D.J. Augustin and Shelvin Mack ball-handling duties, and while they weren't slop they couldn't ignite the offense, leaving the Magic dead-last in the NBA in points per game (99.0) and 29th in offensive rating (99.2) over the final 2 months of the season.
During his time at Oklahoma, Young showed plenty of faults but running an offense was not one of them. He finished tops in all of college with a 48.6% assist rate and 37.1% usage rate on an offense that ranked 5th in the nation in points per game with only 2 other players averaging more than 8.0 points per game. The youngster is not afraid to fire from deep (10.3 three-point attempts a game) and, despite a heavy workload, sank 36.0% of those attempts. He would be a boost for the league's third-worst long-distance shooting (35.1%) team last season.
Oddsmakers have him as a favorite to be drafted seventh or better (-140), right where we project him to go here.
7. Chicago Bulls: Mohamed Bamba, PF/C
The Chicago Bulls have an excellent young offensive core with Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, and Kris Dunn. However, their defensive prowess leaves a lot to be desired. The defense as a whole ranked 28th overall with a 109.1 defensive rating.
The small forward and center spots were outperformed by their opponents most. The two positions each ended the season with a PER deficit of 4.1 or higher. With the way our draft is falling so far, Chicago lucks out with Bamba a large favorite to be a top-five pick (-220) but falling into their laps at seven. The 6'11" freshman from Texas can bring the defensive presence down low that will pair well with Markkanen's shooting touch, creating a one-of-a-kind yet balanced frontcourt combination.
Bamba addresses some severe needs for Chicago as he led the Big 12 in rebounds (10.5), rebound percentage (20.2%), blocks (3.7), and defensive rating (89.6), while the Bulls allowed the fifth-most rebounds per game overall and blocked the least amount of shots of any team in the NBA.
8. Cleveland Cavaliers (via Nets): Collin Sexton, PG
With or without LeBron James in the fold next season, the Cleveland Cavaliers desperately need to upgrade their backcourt next season. The combination of Isaiah Thomas, Jose Calderon, and George Hill left the Cavs on the losing end of a 4.3 PER deficit at the position. While they could add a point guard through trade -- as rumored to be -- the way the roster stands at the moment a playmaker like Sexton makes the most sense.
He appears to be a favorite of James, and for good reason. The freshman floor general was a beast at Alabama, posting an SEC-high 32.6% usage rate while finishing second in points per game (19.2). When the importance of the games was magnified -- in March -- Sexton ramped up his production, dropping 24.0 points per game while shooting 51.2% from the field and 42.3% from three in the final six games of the season. He's shown the promise of being the secondary scorer LeBron and company would need to compete.
9. New York Knicks: Wendell Carter, C
In 2017-18, the New York Knicks' biggest weakness fell in the backcourt, where they operated with a deficit of 7.5 PER from both guard spots combined. But with Sexton and Young, the top point guard prospects, already off the board, New York may be in "best available" mode. That leaves Carter, a slight favorite to be taken eighth or worse (-120), the likely choice for the Knicks.
At Duke, Carter was overshadowed by Bagley but held his own, averaging 20.2 points, 13.5 rebounds, and 3.1 blocks per 40 minutes of action. The 6'10" power forward/center combo finished in the top-five in both offensive and defensive rating in the ACC while finishing second with a 28.2 PER. He was a force on both ends of the court as he flashed three-point range (41.3%) while providing above-average rim protection (7.6% block percentage).
If the draft shakes out as we project, the Knicks would be counting their blessings as Carter would pair nicely with the offensive-minded Kristaps Porzingis long-term, especially with Enes Kanter hinting he might opt out of his contract this summer.
10. Philadelphia 76ers (via Lakers): Mikal Bridges, SF
After making their first playoff appearances in six seasons, the 76ers still have the luxury of a top-10 pick thanks to trusting the process (and the Los Angeles Lakers). While the team does not have a glaring hole at any position, they could use some more production out of the small forward spot. The position netted a 13.0 PER, the lowest on the club last season. J.J. Redick is also a free agent and to prepare for his potential departure, they could be in need of a three-point threat on the wing. And Bridges checks both of those boxes.
As he gets set to celebrate his 22nd birthday in the lead-up to the season, Bridges is the most NBA ready of all the potential lottery picks, and is also coming off a breakout season for the defending National Champions Villanova Wildcats. In a versatile, leading role, he averaged 17.7 points per game while sinking 2.6 threes per game at a 43.5% clip. Bridges was a complete player as well, leading the Big East in offensive rating (132.5) while finishing third in defensive rating (98.5).
11. Charlotte Hornets: Kevin Knox, SF/PF
Small forward on the Charlotte Hornets posted a team-low 12.9 PER as former number two pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist struggled to provide any punch on offense and saw his defense decline in his sixth season. MKG owned a net rating of -1.0 and posted his lowest defensive box plus-minus (0.3) since his rookie season. Fortunately for the Hornets, there are plenty of viable options available on the wing with the freshman from Kentucky, Kevin Knox, our choice.
In addition to his potential as a lethal scorer from all over the court (15.7 points per game while shooting 34.2% from three), Knox owns the size (6'9") to play a bit of power forward. That versatility will be significant in Charlotte as the four-spot was another weakness on the Hornets as the position owned a PER deficit of 2.5 last year.
12. Los Angeles Clippers (via Pistons): Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, PG
The departure of Chris Paul and the season-ending injury to Patrick Beverley exposed a severe weakness at the point for the Los Angeles Clippers. Milos Teodosic was productive as a distributor (26.2% assist percentage) but he's 31 years old and experienced injury woes of his own. Lou Williams saw plenty of time at the point, too, but that was out of sheer necessity as he is better suited playing off the ball.
Overall, the Clippers finished with a net PER of -2.9 at the position while struggling with their shot (46.1% effective field goal percentage). The best remaining point guard left on the board, Gilgeous-Alexander, can bring the scoring punch, along with some ridiculous athleticism (at 6'6") back to the position.
The freshman from Kentucky averaged 14.4 points and 5.1 assists per game while shooting 48.5% from the floor and 40.4% from three. The lengthy guard is not limited to just making buckets as he has already shown some defensive ability, ranking in the top four of the SEC in steals per game (1.6) and defensive win shares (1.9).
13. Los Angeles Clippers: Robert Williams, PF/C
The Clippers performed well up front last season, but they could find it hard to pass up on Williams as they could be without long-time center DeAndre Jordan soon. Jordan is under contract for one more season, however, it comes in the form of a player option that the big man is reportedly considering declining. If the Clippers want to get ahead of the game and help replace the 15.2 rebounds per game Jordan pulled in last year, they are in a position to do so with their second straight pick with Texas A&M product Robert Williams.
The similarities between Jordan and Williams don't start and end with college choices. Despite being a couple of inches shorter than Jordan, Williams (6'9") posted strong rebounding numbers, including an SEC-high 18.9% rebound percentage in 2017-18. He was also a force at the rim, both offensively and defensively, with a career 10.5% block percentage and 63.2% effective field goal percentage in his sophomore season.
14. Denver Nuggets: Miles Bridges, SF
As a team on the cusp of the playoffs and boasting plenty of young talent in the backcourt and up front -- Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and their franchise superstar Nikola Jokic -- the Denver Nuggets should look to round out their starting crew by grabbing a small forward, the squad's most significant and pressing need.
Incumbent starter Wilson Chandler had his worst season in years as he posted an 11.0 PER and a -0.9 box plus-minus. The team doesn't have much depth on the wing either, making Bridges, who is expected to be drafted 12th or later (-150), a necessity more than a luxury.
In his two seasons at Michigan State, Bridges averaged a 9.5 box plus-minus rating, equally dominating on both ends of the floor. He shot 37.5% from three while averaging 17.0 points per game in his college career. And during his last season, he ranked in the top 10 of defensive rating and defensive win shares. Getting such a well-rounded talent this low could pay big dividends for Denver.
Think you can more accurately predict Thursday night's draft order? Play the NBA Draft Challenge! Fill out a draft card by predicting the Top 14 Draft picks in the 2018 NBA Draft, follow along on June 21 and you could win a VIP trip to 2018 MGM Resorts NBA Summer League in Las Vegas or tickets to a regular season NBA game next season.