Two years into their NBA careers, it’s time to re-visit the 2018 NBA Draft class and figure out who the best prospects are halfway into their rookie contracts.
This is my fourth season covering the NBA Draft for The Step Back. Every year is a little bit different, but the basic goals of draft coverage remain the same: try to reasonably project who will be the most successful NBA Draft prospects in a given year, and identify what the best roles and ideal situations for a player will be once they reach the NBA.
It’s not perfect, nor will it ever be so. I don’t have the access that NBA teams do to players, and even beyond that, there are circumstances and factors we can’t know of ahead of time that impact the eventual outcomes of players. Without NBA-level access, you can’t always know ahead of time that someone like Greg Oden has been dealing with an intensive injury history, and it’s frankly impossible to predict things like “Anthony Bennett will injure his shoulder and gain 30 pounds during his rehab.”
With those factors present, the best tools in my arsenal are informed knowledge of what types of players and situations thrive at the pro level, and how college and international play projects to the NBA. Watching the NBA is obviously important for the former, because we can see what players need to be successful and how teams use certain skill-sets to their advantage to produce a winning team.
But it’s also important to reflect on how past draft outcomes have turned out. We have to accept that there are going to be mistakes in this imperfect science every year, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them. Re-analyzing what you thought of a prospect versus how things turned out can be very informative, helping to identify what you have overvalued, undervalued and properly valued.
Last year, I did a two-year re-rank of the 2017 NBA Draft class that was a good learning exercise for moving forward. With the coronavirus outbreak pushing the 2020 NBA Draft out indefinitely, it felt like prime time to look back on the 2018 NBA Draft in a similar way. The 2018 NBA Draft was widely considered one of the best drafts of the past decade at the time, and so far, it’s turned out to be that way. The 2017 draft featured a grab bag of underwhelming top prospects propped up by later picks who overachieved like Bam Adebayo and Donovan Mitchell. The 2018 draft, however, has largely stuck to the script thus far, with most of the top prospects panning out to date, while also being bolstered by several later picks panning out well.
The largest curveball thrown by the 2018 NBA Draft was that it was the initial class for two-way contracts, which have allowed teams to expand rosters and create more opportunities for prospects to break through. The results have been hit-or-miss on how teams use them, but the hits have been big ones so far. The positive of this is that it’s expanded the opportunities for fringe players who are overlooked at the draft to still make their way into the NBA, which is a fantastic thing for the league’s overall talent pool. The negative (and far, far less important thing, let’s be clear) is that it’s really mucked up the re-rank this time around, because players who never would have been considered draftable in 2018 have turned into some of the better players in the class. Without two-way deals, it’s hard to believe we’d have Duncan Robinson, Jordan McLaughlin or Theo Pinson on this list. But all three have outplayed several first-round picks to date.
Before we get into my re-rank, a refresher on the parameters:
- This is based on future projection, looking towards what the player’s peak is going to be. Marvin Bagley and Miles Bridges have disappointed so far, but they may still break out within the next 3-5 years given the flashes they’ve shown.
- The re-rank is therefore also not obviously definitive. There’s room for further reflection as we get further and further out. For instance, it looks really dumb right now to have ranked De’Aaron Fox over Bam Adebayo in last year’s re-rank, but that’s because Fox marginally improved in year three while Bam blossomed explosively. You can generally expect things to really solidify once rookie contracts are completed, and we’ll hopefully be doing a four-year re-analysis of the 2017 class next year.
- The reasoning for doing a two-year re-rank as opposed to a one-year is that rookie years are incredibly chaotic samples, and things stabilize a bit with two years of data that allow guys to break through, develop or fall off from their very situation-dependent first year.
- This is not meant to be a re-draft, litigating the decisions made at the time of the draft. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander looks really good right now. That doesn’t mean he should have been drafted in the top five at the time of the draft, and I’m not really interested in getting into what front offices should or should not have done (unless it involves Luka Doncic).
- This includes all players who were in the 2018 draft class, not the 2018 rookie class. No Harry Giles here, while players like Arnoldas Kulboka who played elsewhere in the previous two years are on the list. It also includes undrafted players, like Kendrick Nunn.
- In the interest of transparency, you’ll see the ranking for each prospect on my final 2018 Big Board, which had 60 names on it, as well as where they were drafted.
Not Ranked (Final 2018 Big Board Ranking in parentheses):
- Melvin Frazier (No. 29, underappreciated offensive rawness)
- Ajdin Penava (No. 43, reserve Euroleague player)
- Trevon Duval (No. 48, overvalued tools/pedigree)
- Brandon McCoy (No. 50, somehow underestimated lack of feel)
- Rawle Alkins (No. 51, out of basketball completely)
- Vince Edwards (No. 52, G League)
- Jaylen Adams (No. 53, G League)
- Tony Carr (No. 54, G League)
- Marcus Derrickson (No. 55, G League)
- Justin Jackson (No, 59, injuries)
- Tryggvi Hlinason (No. 60, European reserve)
- Issuf Sanon, Devon Hall, Alize Johnson, Ray Spalding, Kostas Antetokounmpo, George King, Kevin Hervey and Thomas Welsh were all drafted but unranked by me, and also missed the cut.
Tier 8 – G League, European and fringe players
Khyri Thomas SG
It’s hard to be Avery Bradley without Bradley’s length and shooting touch. Khyri Thomas‘ archetype is a tough one to make work, especially without an elite playmaking guard to play off of. Detroit……has not given him that player. So while he has had his defensive flashes, the issues with his lack of creation ability have been extremely prevalent.
Yuta Watanabe SG
Chimezie Metu C
Gary Clark PF
Routinely, at least one or two players a year struggle to survive in the league despite showing flashes. Gary Clark‘s had moments of looking much better than some players ahead of him, and was a good prospect……but went undrafted and hasn’t stuck anywhere despite that.
Arnoldas Kulboka PF
Kulboka actually looked like a viable long-term European league guy this year, which is why he’s here and Issuf Sanon, the other draft-and-stash from this draft, is not.
Jarred Vanderbilt PF
In the modern NBA, it’s tough to be a player whose primary skill is rebounding and also be battling back from injury. I had some faith that Jarred Vanderbilt‘s pre-college film, which showed flashes of more concrete skill, would translate more than it has so far.
Jerome Robinson SG
Jerome Robinson was maybe the worst defensive prospect I’ve ever evaluated in college, and he has been both a bad defender and a much more limited offensive player in the NBA than anticipated. Drafting him 13th was objectively crazy, and most of the scouting sphere’s evaluation of him turned out correct.
Jacob Evans SG
However, the NBA landed much more correctly on Jacob Evans than I did. Even beyond his shot mechanics breaking upon entering the league, Evans hasn’t lived up to expectations, as his defensive decision-making hasn’t translated and his other offensive skills haven’t held up without the threat of an outside shot. We discussed this last year with regards to Markelle Fultz, but there always is the risk that tweaks to a player’s jumper can cause it to collapse completely, and that’s a confounding and frustrating development occurrence in today’s NBA. So while it’s fun to be mostly right about Robinson, one of my favorite 2018 prospects totally bombed as well.
Tier 7 – End-of-bench players
Drew Eubanks PF
One of the more shocking members of the list, Drew Eubanks was a very middling college player who was a good finisher and didn’t offer much else, but has stuck for two years in San Antonio and has mostly outplayed Chimezie Metu during that time.
Kelan Martin SF
One of those toolsy veteran wings who could do a lot of things but lacked any elite skills, Kelan Martin finally got his shot in year two with the Timberwolves and earned legitimate minutes down the stretch of their tank job. Fun with numbers — Martin shot 39.2 percent from the field this year but had a true shooting percentage over 50 percent because he only missed one free throw.
Keita Bates-Diop PF
Another toolsy veteran, Keita Bates-Diop flashed some very strong decision-making and awareness in college, which helped him earn a first-round grade from me. However his ancillary skills, particularly rebounding and defense in space, haven’t translated, and he got buried upon being traded to Denver. In truth, Bates-Diop was a good precursor to our evaluation of De’Andre Hunter — functional athleticism really matters for this archetype’s projection, and we probably should have taken Hunter’s deficiencies more seriously there.
Theo Pinson SF
Johnathan Williams SF
Brandon Goodwin PG
Three more players who worked their way into the league via two-way deals and have actually made a dent in rotations. Jonathan Williams and Brandon Goodwin have done so for mostly bad teams, but they have had better flashes than Pinson, who has made it with a better roster. None projects to be a long-term guy in the NBA, but these are still good examples of the success these deals have been over the past two years.
Dzanan Musa SG
Dzanan Musa‘s athleticism and defense haven’t actually been the issue for him so far; it’s been his shooting, which has not been an easy re-working process. Like Evans, Musa entered the league with imperfect, but not horrible mechanics, and the re-working job has been painful so far. It’s been hard to get a real read on his overall impact because he’s been spending so much time in the G League, but so far it seems the shooting is a major limiting factor to the rest of his game.
Kenrich Williams PF
Kenrich Williams hasn’t set the league on fire or anything, but he’s pretty much been as advertised: an older veteran forward who doesn’t really take things off the table when he’s on the floor and rarely makes mistakes. He’s been an eighth or ninth man for New Orleans, but that’s really all he ever projected to be.
Tier 7A – Mystery Box No. 1
Zhaire Smith SF
It’s a shame we’ll probably never get a chance to see how Zhaire Smith could potentially grow as a player. The foot injury he suffered and subsequent complications have caused him to lose a ton of weight, and with that, the ability for him to play any minutes at the 3. He has really struggled to get back to just being able to see the floor, and it’s doubtful that he ever will with the athleticism he showcased in college. Smith’s career false-started before it ever got off the ground, and that’s an incredible shame.
Tier 6 – Rotation players with limited roles
Omari Spellman C
Moritz Wagner C
Omari Spellman and Moritz Wagner are both late first-round bigs who have been traded once already, have mostly spent time on bad teams, and have provided moments of offensive value while being mostly bad on defense. They’ve both outperformed some of the players ahead of them on the list, but they’re both still tweeners that need to play the 5 due to athletic constraints but don’t have the size to handle starting-caliber bigs. That problem has mattered more than was expected.
Chandler Hutchison PF
Chandler Hutchison has alternated between being mediocre and injured through two years in a Bulls uniform. His shooting has not materialized in a meaningful way, and he’s been a net negative because he hasn’t shown the ability to provide any offensive value. But he has shown some flashes as a defensive prospect, and a new regime may be able to extract more from him offensively than Jim Boylen could. That is not a high bar to clear, so there’s still reason for hope here, even if he’s disappointed to date.
Allonzo Trier SG
Allonzo Trier‘s mostly just been able to eat shots on bad Knicks teams that lack acceptable offensive initiation, but he has actually earned the consistent playing time that a lot of the other guys in this tier have not. So while he is definitely not an impactful player by any means, he’s earned a role and probably will stick around for at least a few more years doing this for bad teams.
Hamidou Diallo SG
The jury is still out here. Hamidou Diallo has shown some flashes, but he came in as a total project, and has certainly looked like that so far. He’s been a pretty good finisher to date, and shows some capability as a slasher and disruptor on defense. He’ll probably never shoot, but there’s definitely a chance he can improve from here to become a legitimately good rotation player.
Jevon Carter PG
Jevon Carter hasn’t been as impactful as a defender as expected, so even though his offensive capabilities have looked better than expected, he hasn’t really become the bulldog point of attack defender he was expected to be. Carter is a good reminder that being a good defensive point guard in the NBA is so much harder than it is in college, and we’re grading on a severe curve, where being good at defense just doesn’t matter as much as we want it to for a majority of lead guards.
Grayson Allen SG
Grayson Allen‘s been slightly better than expected, mainly because his athleticism has won out in terms of him being a useful defender. He’s clearly limited, and not worth a first-round grade, but he hasn’t been terrible either.
Rodions Kurucs PF
Rodions Kurucs should probably be higher than this from a pure development perspective, but off-court domestic violence issues and injuries really bring into doubt that he’s going to be able to capitalize on his solid first 1.5 years.
Isaac Bonga SF
Isaac Bonga was bad in his starter’s minutes for Washington, but he did earn them, and there’s enough you can glean from that performance to suggest he might have further development potential. He started really behind the eight ball from a concrete skill perspective, and if he can build off this year, he may be one of the draft’s late bloomer candidates.
Elie Okobo PG
Elie Okobo‘s been fine so far. The upside he showed in the French League hasn’t materialized, but he’s been a reasonably competent backup.
Jordan McLaughlin PG
Another two-way success story, Jordan McLaughlin didn’t really get a shot in the league until halfway through this year, when he suddenly found himself as the third guard for Minnesota. He’s performed admirably for them down the stretch, and he might finally be the answer to what’s been a really tough spot in the rotation for the Timberwolves to fill. It remains to be seen whether he’s going to be able to replicate this season in the future, but right now he looks like a good bet to be in a rotation for awhile.
Svi Mykhailiuk SG
Not keeping Svi Mykhailiuk at the bottom of my rankings, where he spent much of the year in 2018, was a mistake. While he was very underwhelming throughout his college career, he was extremely young, and hasn’t even turned 23 years old yet. There was more room for growth here than for your typical senior, and if he found a spot that would allow him to function as an off-movement shooter purely, he was probably going to get to grow. That’s happened so far in Detroit, and Mykhailiuk looks like one of the few players that the Pistons should be keeping around long-term. Not ranking Svi in favor of some of the other players that did end up in the 50s on my board was a major mistake.
Kevin Knox SF
I was not a Kevin Knox believer coming into the draft, but even his biggest doubters didn’t expect this. He has been one of the worst players in the league by most advanced metrics over the past two years, and this year couldn’t even hold down a consistent rotation spot for the Knicks despite their usual level of roster turnover and turmoil. I projected Knox as a mismatch-beating on-ball scorer, but he’s had little to no ability to win one-on-one battles, and his defense has been incredibly bad. A fresh start might allow him to turn things around, and as a top-10 pick, he will probably get more chances to prove himself than someone like Jerome Robinson. That’s why I have him ranked this high, even though you could argue he’s been in the 50s among this class in terms of actual value.
Tier 5 – Rotation players with long-term staying power
Now we’re getting into the guys who appear to have actual futures in the league. This group has earned real rotation minutes for average-to-good teams, and projects to include at least 1-2 breakout candidates as we head into the Year 3 season.
Gary Trent Jr. SG
Troy Brown SF
Shake Milton SG
Lonnie Walker SG
Here’s a quartet of wings who didn’t look like rotation players a year ago but blossomed to a certain degree in year two. Shake Milton was buried in the G League; Lonnie Walker got injured; and Gary Trent and Troy Brown were just mostly bad in their rookie years. But all four have looked solid this season, with Trent becoming an effective off-movement shooter, Brown taking strides as a defender and ball-handler, Walker being the one jumper fix in the class that actually took, and Milton filling in for Josh Richardson to provide several games of fun bench scoring down the stretch for Philadelphia. All four look like useful long-term options, even if Brown and Walker don’t appear to be the elite 3-and-D types some projected them as. Walker gets the nod among these four at the top because he’s the furthest along defensively.
Robert Williams C
I had no idea what to do with Robert Williams in this re-rank. On one hand, he can’t stay on the floor, losing minutes in a crowded rotation first to Al Horford, Aron Baynes and Daniel Theis, then to Theis and Enes Kanter. He’s averaged just 14.0 minutes per game this year, which isn’t great. But on the other hand, he’s been an advanced metrics hero in those minutes, posting a top-five Box Plus/Minus mark in the class and averaging 12 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per 36 minutes. With Kanter probably leaving Boston this summer, we will probably get a good look at what Williams is in year three. But right now, he’s incredibly difficult to evaluate as either a success or failure.
Aaron Holiday PG
I thought Aaron Holiday‘s size was going to be an issue for his ability to get to the rim translating from college; he’s only slightly bigger than Trae Young, and doesn’t have the ball skills or shooting threat to open up lanes for him. But that ended up being a misevaluation of Holiday’s body control, a trait his older brothers have as well, and so far Holiday’s actually been a very effective driver at the NBA level. That, coupled with a growing pull-up threat, has meant that Holiday actually might be able to command starter’s minutes eventually. Holiday helps show that there’s a certain threshold of frequency and accuracy you need to meet for finishing, and at that point, touch has taken over any physical deficits and you’ll be able to do it effectively at the next level.
Bruce Brown SG
A complete offensive mess who looks like a very impactful defender in a couple of years. That was both my analysis of Bruce Brown coming into the year and how he’s turned out. Enough players have struggled early on that it’s meant that Brown can move up, and he looks like a keeper as a second-round pick for the Pistons who should play better if and when they are able to assemble more talent.
Mohamed Bamba C
The first member of my board’s top 10 on the list. The issue for Mohamed Bamba has simply been that his athleticism hasn’t been able to keep up with NBA speed, and he hasn’t been able to cover the ground necessary to make the same types of two-way plays that made him look like a top-10 guy in college. He doesn’t have the straight-line speed or explosiveness to be an effective roller, and his lack of flexibility is a huge detriment to his ability to defend in space and absorb contact under the rim. The truth is that his floor as a rim protector was a lot lower than anticipated, and while he’s still blocked a good number of shots in the pros, it’s unlikely that he’ll be able to anchor a defense in the way we imagined. If that’s not the case, it’s really not important if he shoots effectively or improves his handle or even gets better as a defender in space. The reason you take Bamba is that he should be a defensive anchor. So far, he’s not.
Jalen Brunson PG
Jalen Brunson has maybe had the best possible outcome of the “veteran game-manager point guard” archetype. Landing on a team with a great combination of athletic bigs, smart wings and enough scoring punch around him on bench units has let Brunson’s best skills shine, and he’s been a huge boon to the Mavericks’ surge this year by keeping them upright when Luka Doncic sits. Like Monte Morris in 2017, Brunson landed exactly in the right spot for his game to flourish, which will probably ultimately decide who of Cassius Winston, Malachi Flynn, Grant Riller, Tre Jones and Myles Powell sticks around from the 2020 NBA Draft.
Anfernee Simons PG
The year-to-year growth of Anfernee Simons has been impressive. He got somewhat unfairly pegged as a scoring-only prospect coming out of prep school, but it was somewhat of a given that his learning curve towards being a role player would be steep. He’s started to make that transition this season, getting better at making simple reads quickly, working harder off ball and taking a nice step forward as an off-movement shooter. He’s still not to the point where he can reliably be counted on as a role player on a good team, but he seems to be on that path, and he has continued to get better incrementally throughout the past three years. That trend should continue, and if it does, Simons probably becomes a top-15 or so player in this class.
Tier 4 – Potential high-level rotation players
This group has separated itself by showcasing elite skills that may allow them to be a little more valuable in a playoff setting. It’s not certain whether their other skills will develop enough for them to actually get there, but these are the players where the path to contributing at the highest levels of basketball is a little more clear.
Josh Okogie SG
De’Anthony Melton SG
Josh Okogie and De’Anthony Melton are not the names you think of when you suggest “impact playoff players,” but both have shown significant defensive potential in their two years in the league. Okogie doesn’t always make the right plays, but his anticipation and instincts are incredible skills that help him be a great team defender hidden on a team with terrible team defense.
Meanwhile, Melton found a real home in Memphis, which allowed him to flourish as more of an off-ball wing than a primary ball-handler like he was in Phoenix. That allowed his defense to really shine through, where he could still carry point-of-attack duty for stretches without having to be his team’s initiator. Both players need to shoot to be truly viable, and only Melton has shown a semblance of viability there. But both seem well on their way to being All-Defense caliber defenders, if they can end up in better situations over the next 2-3 years. And while they may not be putting up the numbers of some of the players behind them, this is why I valued Melton in particular so highly coming into the draft.
Duncan Robinson SG
Similarly, Duncan Robinson joins this tier after becoming the single most unlikely result from this draft. Like the 1985 NBA Draft, a deep draft headlined by Patrick Ewing and Karl Malone that also featured Arvydas Sabonis, Spud Webb and Michael Adams in the later rounds, it’s incredibly unfair that the seemingly stellar 2018 draft also features an undrafted former Division III wing best known for appearing on a popular college basketball podcast that suddenly became a rotation wing for a top-10 NBA team. Absolutely no one saw Robinson translating athletically or blossoming as a ball-mover at the NBA level. There’s probably a hard cap on Robinson’s ceiling — guys like him are probably pinned in to “fourth-best player on a good team” by virtue of their athletic and self-creation limitations — but Robinson should be a top-three off-movement shooter in the league for a while.
Miles Bridges SF
Miles Bridges is a player that I still have hope for, even though he’s been somewhat disappointing through two years in Charlotte. His defense has been the biggest issue, although below-average 3-point shooting has also been problematic. Those were his two biggest draws, after all, so why rate him this high? Mostly, because I believe he can still grow into the type of player he was billed as coming out of the draft. Offensively, he’s continued to be able to get open and get good looks from 3 at a high clip, something that should create exponential growth for him if he is able to start hitting at a higher rate. And defensively, while his numbers haven’t been great, he still has had flashes of good play in one-on-one settings, and may be able to still have utility if he’s able to become even passable at preventing backdoor cuts and recognizing when he needs to help. It’s likely that Bridges will be the player from this tier who drops the furthest in two years, but he still has one of the more valuable archetypes in the group if things start to click. The highs have been pretty high for him, so there’s a shot for some further growth beyond just his role player archetype if he blooms late.
Collin Sexton PG
I am still a Collin Sexton believer, based on two main factors: his defense, which has been encouraging enough to become at least a net neutral if he actually has some stability, and his work ethic, which has allowed him to gradually improve by a good margin throughout his first two years. He’s improved his shot selection, become a better passer and worked to become a lot stronger than expected, and much of that has come from his reported gym rat status. His player archetype isn’t an inherently valuable one, as he’s probably best served playing as a sixth man on a good team. But this is not the player who was arguably one of the worst in the league through the first half of 2018-19. If the Cavs can create some, just any stability over the next two years with their regime, Sexton should be able to get pretty close to whatever his ceiling is, based on the improvements he’s made through two years.
Donte DiVincenzo SG
A major miss from the pre-draft process for me, although he’s ended up in about the best possible situation for him. My major hang-up with Donte DiVincenzo in college was his decision-making, which I felt prevented him from being any sort of meaningful ball-handler at the NBA level. But that hasn’t ended up mattering, as the Bucks have done well to put him in situations where he needs to make simple reads and is primarily attacking as a secondary playmaker. With that caveat, his athletic ability, defensive instincts and shooting have been able to translate more effectively, and he’s been one of the better 3-and-D players in the class so far — when healthy.
Devonte’ Graham PG
Devonte’ Graham was yet another second-year breakout guy for this class, and has well exceeded most people’s expectations for him after mostly meeting them in year one. The read on Graham was that he was a very good and diverse shooter who would be able to come off the bench and provide some scoring punch, but he might struggle with a real initiation load. This evaluation, however, discounted his intermediate game, which is perhaps his best skill; he’s able to pull up from NBA range, but his ability to hit a variety of floaters, up-and-unders and scoop shots from 5-15 feet out is incredible, and helps him overcome a slight frame that doesn’t always allow him to finish well at the rim. Essentially, Graham has shown the game that we hope Darius Garland will be able to master as he develops, and that’s allowed him to become a surprisingly competent initiator. He probably can’t do this on a playoff team given his limitations, but the Hornets were pegged to win somewhere between 15-20 games before the season, and he is the main reason they overperformed.
Tier 4A – Mystery Box No. 2
Michael Porter, Jr. SF
It’s really, really hard to decide what to make of Michael Porter Jr.’s rookie year. He looked healthy, except for the stretches of games where his back flared up and he suffered an ankle injury. He took a surprising amount of creation load, but barely got to the free-throw line and had just 35 assists in 48 games. He averaged 19 and 11 per 36 minutes, but played just 14 minutes per game. None of that is conclusive. What we do know is that his off-the-dribble shooting is real, and that was his singular skill that projected potential NBA stardom. We also know that his defense and lack of feel as a passer are probably big impediments to him ever being built around as a No. 1 option. My one-sentence synopsis for his most likely outcome at the time of the draft — “High-usage shooter who thrives in a specific role but struggles to generate team offense as a primary creator and is a neutral defender” — seems like it’s his likely outcome, but he could easily blow the doors off that expectation with natural development in his first real offseason. Add in his back being a potential long-term issue, and Porter might be the single hardest player to rank in the class — one thing that hasn’t changed since 2018.
Tier 3 – Long-term quality starters
Pretty simple tier: These players are good, many have been impactful for good teams, and they figure to continue to be good players who elevate the team they’re on.
Landry Shamet SG
Had things flipped — the Clippers take Landry Shamet at No. 13 instead of trading for him — the team might have been in a more interesting spot last season. Regardless, Shamet has proven to be a smart bet for me, as I had more faith in his playmaking ability than most of the scouting apparatus did. Shamet was one of the most diverse shot-making prospects in the draft class, and his impact for the Clippers has been pretty obvious, as he provides much-needed spacing for the Paul George/Kawhi Leonard-led starters and helps the Lou Williams/Montrezl Harrell-led bench units with creation. It helps that he’s also been much better defensively than projected, mostly because he’s not handling primary initiation like he was in college. Shamet’s projection was pretty simple — high-level complementary shot-maker — and he’s landed in a pretty good situation to use that skill-set for the positive on a good team.
Kendrick Nunn SG
Missing on both Heat players that came out of this draft class was very understandable — everyone missed on Robinson because he was an off-the-bench grad transfer, and everyone missed on Kendrick Nunn because he was covered in red flags. Nunn’s legal issues — a domestic violence case that was heavy on the violence that got him dismissed from Illinois — were a huge character red flag and essentially precluded him from being drafted.
It’s also worth noting that Nunn’s development has been substantial since he came into the league; always a very good athlete who had some playmaking ability in college, Nunn has really developed as a ball-handler, breaking through with hang dribbles and crossovers that allow him to overcome his lack of off-the-dribble burst and still get into the lane. Watch college film of Nunn, and you see an undersized 2-guard who just cannot create separation against Horizon League competition. That’s not a draftable guy. But his ball-handling and footwork improvements have really opened the door for him as a secondary creator. And with that in the bag, he’s a very high-level two-way role player. Regardless of how you feel about him off the court, he’s a clear success story from this class.
Mikal Bridges SG
Mikal Bridges hasn’t been an obvious success like Nunn has, but he fits the same mold as a solid 3-and-D wing who should be a very useful player on good teams in his prime. While Bridges’ jumper hasn’t translated, due to shot doctor fixes that have had a negative effect, his finishing at the NBA level has been even better than advertised. He’s been an elite off-ball cutter and slasher, and he’s shown some limited creation ability as well. That keeps him on the floor so that his defense, which has been as good as advertised, can shine through. Bridges looked very switchable at the college level, able to defend bigger guys and keep up with wings on the perimeter, with elite positional awareness and havoc creation ability in the form of steals and blocks. Even if he’s not a true shooting threat from deep, Bridges has been pretty much as advertised so far, and will be a big reason for if and when the Suns return to the playoffs.
Mitchell Robinson C
Like Melton, Mitchell Robinson was a first-round rated prospect who went deep into the second. And it’s been him, not Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr. or Wendell Carter Jr., who has translated best into being an NBA rim protector. Robinson outpaces most of his cohort in win shares and box plus/minus thanks to his efficient two-way play, as he’s played the part of the classic 60-plus percent finishing rim-runner on offense and the back-line anchor/rim protection specialist on defense. The Knicks ranked 23rd in defensive rating this past year, but played like the 14th-best defense in the league with Robinson on the floor, and his impact should only continue to improve as his discipline improves and his team situation continues to get better. Robinson was a tough evaluation because he didn’t play organized ball in his pre-draft year, but most of his high school tape suggested he’d be a pretty good player in one of the league’s least sexy archetypes. But through two years, he looks poised to become one of the best in that role.
Kevin Huerter SF
Kevin Huerter checks a lot of the same boxes as Mikal Bridges, but has shown some higher skill level that could indicate a more valuable ceiling. I had a very poor read on the diversity of Huerter’s offensive game at Maryland — he looked like a one-dimensional shooter, but he’s proven to be able to use his athleticism more effectively than anticipated, allowing him to turn his passing ability into a legitimate weapon. He’s been a very easy fit with the Hawks’ system, and probably has a baseline of being an effective, complementary offensive weapon. But with how his ball-handling, decision-making, and defensive ability have improved in his second season, there’s potential that he has latent upside that can turn him into a Khris Middleton or Tobias Harris type as a second or third option offensively. While Bridges is probably better now, Huerter feels like a better bet to continue to grow at his current pace offensively, and that probably makes him the answer to the question “Which guy can make an average team good?” rather than being a good complement on a team surrounding him with elite talent.
Marvin Bagley PF
Bagley missed most of this season with a foot injury, and that, combined with the Kings’ major step back this season after a surprising surge in his rookie year, has many down on Bagley’s ultimate outcome. But make no mistake: Bagley has been a legitimately good player through two years in Sacramento, and while he hasn’t been able to improve much as a shooter or defender, he’s been a strong finisher in the pick-and-roll and in face-up opportunities, shooting 69 percent inside three feet in his career, and he’s shown the ability to be an impressive rebounder so far. The Kings aren’t really giving him optimal development, it appears, but he’s been a very high-level play finisher, and it’s likely that another offseason of strengthening and entering full strength next season allows Bagley to showcase continued development. There’s always the chance that things truly have stalled out for him, but it’s unlikely given the situation of injury and toxic coaching that it appears he received this year. Bagley’s still a very good prospect, and giving up on him after this season seems premature.
Tier 2 – Core pieces
Wendell Carter C
Wendell Carter doesn’t need a fresh start so much as he needs an environment that can actually recognize how talented he is. It’s felt at times through two years like the Bulls have ignored how good Carter is at some of the things more modern NBA bigs need to be good at, instead penalizing him for not being a high-level rim-roller or rim protector. Under a new regime, it’s very likely he is a year-three breakout candidate as his raw numbers and reputation start to match his advanced numbers. Carter’s never going to be a stretchy, bouncy rim-runner like Robinson, but he’s a good defender in space, a strong playmaker on the short roll and a good finisher in no man’s land in the middle of the paint. He should be considered the centerpiece of the Bulls’ defensive rebuild moving forward, and the hope is that if the Bulls make a move away from Jim Boylen to a coach who will not try to force him into a more traditional role, Carter’s reputation will start to match his performance.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander SG
If the 2018 NBA Draft had gotten the coronavirus delays that have allowed for excess scouting time, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander might have worked his way into the top five of this class. SGA was a constant riser for me and many others who recognized that the gaps in his scouting profile (pull-up shooting, dribble-drive potential) where more a factor of his role in Kentucky’s offense than actual limitations. Gilgeous-Alexander has thrived as a high-level secondary initiator so far, first next to Lou Williams, then next to Chris Paul in Oklahoma City. He’s shown the capability to handle primary initiation for chunks of a game, and he’s also a very versatile defender — perhaps the best primary ball-handler prospect defensively in the last three drafts. If SGA didn’t get much better from here, he’d already be a very useful NBA player who probably doesn’t dip below the eighth or ninth-best prospect in the class. But factor in his age and the continued development of his off-the-dribble game, and SGA is probably a future All-Star who will continue to blow through all expectations people had for him prior to the draft.
Jaren Jackson Jr. PF
6-foot-11 bigs aren’t supposed to be able to hit 39 percent from 3 on over six attempts per game. That’s where Jaren Jackson is at, in addition to being a very good pick-and-roll finisher and developing off-the-dribble threat out of pick-and-pops. Jackson was forgotten about in the mania around Ja Morant‘s sudden emergence in his rookie season, but Jackson was just as vital to the Grizzlies’ surprising viability, shouldering a surprising creation load and fitting in well defensively next to Brandon Clarke and Jonas Valanciunas. Jackson hasn’t proven he can rebound at the level that would allow him to be effective in single-big lineups, but the Grizzlies’ roster is well set to help him there, and with JV handling most of the more rugged matchups at the 5-spot, it’s freed up Jackson to primarily defend pick-and-rolls and help from the weak side. He has his clear limitations defensively at this point, which is why he dropped below the top-three spot I had him in prior to the draft. But Jackson is still damn good and should be an All-Star for a long time in the coming years.
Deandre Ayton C
Deandre Ayton’s sudden switch flip to becoming an impactful defensive player in year two was shocking, and completely reconfigures the thought process on his outlook. If he’s going to be providing good value as a top-six or seven defensive center in the league in addition to his efficiency on offense, thinking of him in a franchise player context is suddenly much more palatable. Now, he’s not there yet defensively, primarily because he has not mastered the consistency needed to bring that level of impact. But he’s well outplayed his projection on defense already, which goes to show the unpredictability of projecting development. If you had told me two years ago that Jaren Jackson would be the generational offensive prospect and Ayton would be better than him defensively, I would have thought you were insane. But that appears to be where we are currently, and Ayton’s future looks pretty bright in terms of his final outcome. He still probably shouldn’t have gone No. 1, but Ayton is certainly worthy of being in the conversation of the best players in this class.
Tier 1 – Franchise-defining stars
Trae Young PG
The win column doesn’t show it yet, but Trae Young is a franchise centerpiece in Atlanta. He’s one of the best young offensive initiators in the league, and his ceiling still feels pretty far off, given how he can still work to add strength, discipline and any defensive value. The limitless shooting range he offers opens up his dribble-drive game to give him finishing opportunities he wouldn’t have otherwise, and his passing continues to be the most underrated elite skill in the league. Looking back, Young was one of the easier evaluations in the draft class, at least for getting to this point; his passing was diverse enough to translate, the shooting would probably work out, and that combination was going to be enough to allow him to finish at an okay rate and be a primary creator, even if his defense stunk. Looking forward, it’s only a question now of what level he can reach. Is he a Kyrie Irving-level initiator, who raises the floor of a team but struggles to be a consistent impact player at the upper ends of team building? Or is he on the Steve Nash/Stephen Curry spectrum of elite shooter/passers who you can win a title with? His defense is probably what unlocks that answer.
Luka Doncic SG
“Most likely outcome: Secondary ball-handler and capable team defender. A top-15 player in the league and/or second-best player on a title team.”
Or, in year two, he’ll average 29-9-9 on 58 percent true shooting, be a net positive on defense, and lead a team whose third-best player is either Tim Hardaway Jr. or Maxi Kleber to a 49-win pace in the West. Somehow, despite being one of Luka Doncic’s most vocal supporters and having absolutely no doubt that he was the best player in the 2018 NBA Draft class, even I underestimated how good he could be.