If big men count for less in the modern NBA, you sure won’t detect that from the top of the 2018 draft.
That is ESPN analyst Jay Bilas’ over-arching thought on this draft class - that it’s full of centers and forwards, and many of them will be chosen quickly when the draft convenes June 21 regardless of the perception the NBA is evolving toward more perimeter play.
Bilas, a longtime Charlotte resident, has been part of ESPN’s draft coverage since 2003. He says in that span, this is the best group of lottery-quality big men that he can recall.
“I like it,” Bilas said of the 2018 draft pool. “It’s got more big guys at a time when the league is supposedly going away from traditional bigs.”
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Bilas isn’t around the NBA on a regular basis, but his ties to college basketball mean he’s interacted with many of the top players in the draft since they were sophomores or juniors in high school. Specific to the Charlotte Hornets’ situation, I asked Bilas Monday which players he couldn’t imagine lasting to the local team’s No. 11 overall pick.
Bilas said he believes DeAndre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Marvin Bagley, Jaren Jackson, Mo Bamba, Wendell Carter, Trae Young and Collin Sexton will all be gone, in some order, before the 11th pick. I was mildly surprised Bilas sees Alabama point guard Sexton as out of reach, but not Villanova guard-forward Mikal Bridges.
But I also see Bilas’ point: Point guards are always in demand, particularly those with the sort of pick-and-roll explosiveness Sexton demonstrated in his one college season.
“He’s already an NBA transition point guard: everything you want full court. And he’s as competitive as anyone in this draft,” Bilas said. “He doesn’t shoot it (from range) and he’s not big (at 6-foot-2), but you have to like the things he can do.”
Note that Bilas didn’t include Missouri forward Michael Porter among players who couldn’t last to the Hornets’ No. 11 pick. Like a lot of others analyzing this draft, Bilas sees Porter as the wild card, both because of the back surgery he had and because that injury limited Porter to just three college games.
That Porter might not be a top-5 pick has nothing to do with his talent, which Bilas describes as All-Star level in a prototype NBA body.
“The super talent who could get to that point (No. 11): No. 1-pick talented,” Bilas described of Porter, a 6-11, 215-pound forward. “He’s Johnny Bravo, both in skill and talent level. But he hasn’t played (regularly) in over a year.”
I asked Bilas about the risk-reward dynamic if Porter starts drifting on draft night, and how the Hornets might respond. Bilas mentioned new Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak’s long experience running the Los Angeles Lakers' front office.
“He doesn’t have the baggage of past (Hornets) decisions, but when you’re a team like Charlotte, you can’t afford to miss,” Bilas said. “So do you take the safer thing, or go for a No. 1 pick (talent) at 11? If the doctor red-flags (Porter’s medical report), it can come back at you like a bag of hammers.”
I asked Bilas for his assessment of players in the vicinity where the Hornets will select:
“He is the most mature, the oldest (21) of the players who could be there. He’s solid in every area. An athletic defender and an excellent spot-up shooter. He’s not the sort of guy who is going to create his own shot. He’ll be drafted about the same spot as (Golden State Warriors guard) Klay Thompson was (11th in 2011), but I don’t know if he’ll be quite as good a shooter. He should end up a starter and a really good piece.”
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kentucky point guard
“A long-armed point guard whose best attribute will be as a defender. He came off the bench early (in his one college season) and he’s now their best player. Kevin Knox is their most talented player, but he’s their best player. He’s athletic and big, and that can play a big part” in what the NBA desires.
Miles Bridges, Michigan State forward
“He’s a spectacular athlete who played (power forward) his freshman year (then was asked to guard more perimeter scorers as a sophomore). The only thing that stretches me about Miles is how few free throws he shoots (3.2 per games over two college seasons). Michigan State’s offense isn’t really set up that way, but he doesn’t have the mindset to catch, and go straight-line to the basket.”
Kevin Knox, Kentucky forward
“He’s a good shooter, has a good skill level and a good frame. ...You could have (draft evaluators) say he’s the sixth-best player or the 20th-best, and not have a big argument (over who is right). He wasn’t as consistently excellent as you might expect him to be. Expectations were high and the opportunity (at Kentucky) was there.”
Lonnie Walker. Miami guard
“He was injured early in the season. A very good shooter and a super athlete. He really gets off the floor. And he’s a very interesting kid.”
Zhaire Smith, Texas Tech guard
“His athleticism is tantalizingly good. But his skill level doesn’t match it. No one said, ‘Give that kid a year and he’ll be a lottery pick’” coming out of high school.