It’s less than a week until the 2018 NBA Draft and draft stocks are all over the place. No team wants to reveal their draft night strategy. We still have general managers, agents, coaches, and players working behind the scenes in order to improve their position. Players and agents attempt to move up in the draft or land in preferred destinations. The NBA team side of this equation keeps working to select the top of their draft board while also securing future assets or impact players in a trade if applicable.
That means we have to exist in a constant fog of smokescreens. Workout details leak out strategically during this pre-draft reality. Concerns over health can be landmines for other executives to trip over while they try to position themselves advantageously in the draft. All the while, maniacal maneuver after maniacal maneuver adds to the drama we need to fuel this NBA offseason hype machine. Essentially, all draft coverage ends up being the fire shooting out of that dude’s guitar as we all drive down Fury Road in this offseason wasteland.
The draft serves as the opening tip to another offseason in which every team works themselves into a frenzy over the arms race to eventually take down the Golden State Warriors. Or just keep the front office from getting fired. Either way, let’s take a look at four first-round talents and one second-round projection who could see themselves moving up considerably in the next week.
Michael Porter Jr’s body controls his future
There is an alternate universe in which Michael Porter Jr. never hurts his back. Essentially, herniated disks in his back leaked fluid and he had an operation to fix that issue. Back injuries end up scaring away lots of professional teams in a lot of sports because they can be the hardest injuries to overcome. Chances of re-injury remain pretty high, depending on the sport, and in basketball tall people with bad backs tend to suffer more. But in this alternate universe, MPJ never gets hurt, has a ridiculous freshman season in college, and we have a new debate on our hands.
The idea of DeAndre Ayton versus Luka Doncic for the top spot gets replaced by Porter versus the world. The Porter versus Ayton debate would bring up hindsight revisionism of Greg Oden versus Kevin Durant in 2007. Porter’s skill set as a scorer at 6-foot-10 doesn’t often come around. Immediately the comparisons to Durant might kick around, in a similar way we saw with Brandon Ingram when he exited Duke. But the difference between Porter and those two players as a prospect comes in the form of health and how his injury history scares away teams.
One team it may not scare away is the Sacramento Kings. For a week or two now, things have leaked out about the lack of enchantment the Kings feel when viewing Luka Doncic. People see Vlade Divac running the Kings and assume he’ll go grab the dynamic combo guard from Slovenia. However, Divac appears less enamored with him than most. That leads to the assumption that Marvin Bagley III must be next on the Kings’ radar. Or maybe Mo Bamba because of the waves his workouts are making. However, the guy the Kings seem to try to hide their excitement over is Porter.
Multiple sources have said the Kings are exploring all ways to end up with Porter. A hiccup with spasms in his hip delayed a workout in front of the Kings and several other teams. Everything appeared to check out medically for Porter and the workout eventually happened. Perhaps the hips coupled with the back injury history will be too much for the Kings to feel comfort in taking Porter second in the draft. However, the Kings appear comfortable with their assessment of Porter’s health both short-term and long-term.
The question then becomes when the Kings take Porter in the draft. Can they finagle moving down to a team desperate to end up with Doncic or Bamba or Bagley? Will that still allow the Kings the chance to grab Porter before he’s off the board? Acquiring an additional asset or a player who can help them win now while still drafting Porter would be a huge coup for Divac. Draft night has been quite the struggle for this Kings regime. However, the Boston Celtics and their insistence on Jayson Tatum being the best player in last year’s draft could buoy the Kings with their position on Porter. Grab the player you believe is best no matter the position.
Sacramento looks to believe that player is Porter. If they feel confident they can keep him healthy, then unleashing the 6-foot-10 scoring machine could be the franchise player this team has desperately sought after since the decline of the Rick Adelman coached Kings of the past.
Zhaire Smith could find himself in the top 10
One potential name that may surprise a lot of people finding his way into the top 10 on draft night? Zhaire Smith out of Texas Tech. His athleticism and springy nature have more than impressed at pre-draft workouts this month. While he’s mostly been projected to find a team in the middle of the first round on draft night, Smith could potentially go as high as 10th to the Sixers as they look to fill out their wing depth.
Smith stands 6-foot-4 with a wingspan of nearly 6-foot-10. For those hoping he might measure out closer to an NBA small forward, that predraft poking and prodding session disappointed the masses. But you forget all about that when Smith starts launching himself off the ground. Zhaire measured near the top in all of the agility tests. Only Josh Okogie ran a faster three-quarter court sprint. Only four players matched or bested his standing vertical leap. Two prospects finished with a higher vertical leap than Smith’s 41.5-inch catapult.
His numbers at Texas Tech look fine but nothing jumps off the board at most people. He put up 11.3 points and 5.0 rebounds in 28.4 minutes per game. His 45.0 percent from 3-point range looks hyper enticing until we dig a bit deeper and see he only took 40 3-pointers in his freshman season. Making a trend out of 40 attempts is pretty difficult to do. Still, he looks like he has the potential to be a shooter at the NBA level.
Zhaire makes most of his money on the court playing off the ball. He’s constantly moving from side-to-side as he makes help defenders feel uneasy. Synergy Sports says 22.0 percent of Smith’s offense came from cutting possessions. That’s the highest percentage of any type of scoring opportunity for Smith. He generated 125.6 points per 100 possessions. Smith orbits the paint perfectly and knows when to counter his defender overplaying one direction. Then he gets to unleash his athleticism around the rim.
While scoring off cutting is nice, any team drafting him needs him to shoot the ball well from 3-point range at the NBA level. His jump shot form is a little funky with the ball awkwardly over the middle of his forehead. His legs kick out in a seemingly unnatural motion. Yet, the majority of his jumpers look to be the same consistent motion and at a certain point that consistency of release point and mechanics become the only currency in accuracy.
Smith needs to work on the base of his jumper with his feet and balance to keep from leaning one side or the other. Making shots at the NBA level will force defenders to close out hard on him. When that happens, he can blow by them and show off that athleticism. If all of these physical attributes also translate to the defensive end of the floor, Smith becomes a pretty ideal 3-and-D option.
Aaron Holiday making noise
Maybe you consider Luka Doncic a point guard at the NBA level. Perhaps you’re enamored with either Trae Young or Collin Sexton as the best point guard in this draft. While Aaron Holiday out of UCLA doesn’t come with the same hype as those other guys, he may actually be the safest play at point guard in the draft. His three years at UCLA showed tremendous growth for his game, including becoming a high volume, high efficiency scorer in his junior season. All three seasons of his college career saw him shoot well over 40 percent from deep. In fact, he knocked down 42.2 percent of his 427 3-point attempts over his three seasons.
Not only does he shoot the ball that well, but he also defends at a high level. Holiday barely clears 6 feet tall but his 6-foot-7 wingspan helps make up for his lack of height. He’s also an extremely competitive and intelligent defender. He has impressed every team he’s seen in a pre-draft workout this month. Originally projected to fall somewhere in the late teens in the first round, Holiday may find himself at the end of the lottery on draft night. The Los Angeles Clippers have back-to-back picks at 12 and 13. They also desperately need a point guard of the future to start grooming.
Sexton could fall to them there. Maybe even they go with the bigger combo guard option with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to create some real size advantages at the point position. However, Holiday could end up as the safest and best option of those three, even if he doesn’t have the highest upside. Sexton and Holiday are roughly the same size, but Holiday’s skill set already plays far more advanced than the Alabama point guard. Holiday isn’t the athlete that Sexton is but his control over the floor has already received the grooming Sexton’s game seeks.
Comparing Holiday to SGA is a bit tougher. Gilgeous-Alexander might end up being a very good shooter at the NBA level. Throw in that he’s six inches taller and possesses a 6-foot-11 wingspan. Gilgeous-Alexander could easily end up grabbing the attention of the Clippers more as they look to remake their backcourt around Lou Williams. But Holiday has played so well, developed perfectly, and proven himself to be a commodity worth seeking out at the next level. That may be enough to end up home in Los Angeles on draft night.
Kevin is the one who Knox on the door to the top 10
Speaking of workout monsters, let’s talk about Kevin Knox. The Kentucky forward measures out at 6-foot-9 with a wingspan around 7 feet. However, when he walks into these multi-player workouts, he appears to be much bigger. The allure of Knox comes from the forward being able to stretch the floor. He only shot 34.1 percent from deep as a freshman, taking 4.5 attempts from 3-point range per game. Dig into those numbers and we can find plenty of positives with how he shot the ball.
He was a disaster shooting in transition. Knox made just 7-of-27 from deep in transition. We’re also only talking about 27 attempts so it isn’t even scratching the surface of a sample size. Most of his attempts came from spotting up, where he made 36.4 percent of his attempts. If he took a contested 3-pointer off the catch, Knox made just 30.6 percent of his attempts. When the defense failed and left him open, he hit 38.0 percent of them.
Knox played at Kentucky, which likely means John Calipari kept him from utilizing some of his skills. Karl-Anthony Towns wasn’t allowed to take jumpers in college. Devin Booker was discouraged from showing combo guard skills. Trey Lyles was played at small forward because they had too many big men. Knox didn’t put the ball on the floor a lot, maybe out of necessity or maybe out of direction. Knox does do a pretty good job of taking jumpers off the dribble when run off the 3-point line. It alludes to a potential skill set of him being able to attack off the bounce.
If that’s the case at the NBA level, someone with his size at the 4 position becomes an extreme weapon. Pairing him next to someone like Kristaps Porzingis becomes intriguing. The Sixers grabbing him at 10 and throwing out entire lineups of 6-foot-8 or taller becomes a shrinking court for their opponents. A team like the Clippers would love to groom him at the NBA level but getting him to fall to 12 seems less and less like a possibility.
While someone like Miles Bridges has a better résumé than Knox, the sheer size and physical stature of the Kentucky forward has him climbing while the Michigan State forward may stand on shaky draft ground.
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