The NBA draft process is fluid and unpredictable. As much as we would like to know exactly what will happen on draft day, NBA general managers always find a way to surprise.
In most years, those surprises often don’t come up until the late-lottery selections. But in this draft class, elite talent is few and far between, and even the first five picks could hold some very big surprises.
And it all starts at No. 1.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are in familiar territory (picking first for the third time in 11 years), but that doesn’t mean they will find the same success with the No. 1 pick. There simply isn’t a player in this draft class who matches the pro-ready talent of a LeBron James or Kyrie Irving.
As a result, the Cavs’ selection is still very much up in the air. As noted by former Cleveland beat writer Brian Windhorst, they will even be willing to listen to trade offers for the first selection.
But in a class with very few surefire NBA stars, they may struggle to find a team willing to give up enough to make a deal worth the risk. As it stands, the uncertainty starts at the very top of the draft.
With all that in mind, let’s take a look at the latest projections for the 2013 NBA draft and highlight a few players who could surprise with an early selection on draft day.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers: Nerlens Noel, C, Kentucky
Until the Cavaliers actually announce their plans for the No. 1 selection, Nerlens Noel will continue to be the most likely candidate.
Georgetown’s Otto Porter would be an excellent choice as well, but Noel has the most upside of any player in this class, and he fills a big need for the Cavs.
With Anderson Varejao’s injury troubles, general manager Chris Grant has to enter this offseason with a plan for augmenting that production and finding a building block on which he can continue building for the future. Noel is the obvious choice, even if he does come with a level of risk coming off a devastating ACL tear last season.
2. Orlando Magic: Ben McLemore, SG, Kansas
Orlando has a classic win-win scenario here. If the Cavs hold onto their selection and draft Noel, Kansas shooting guard Ben McLemore is the obvious choice. Either player would be a huge upgrade for the Magic.
McLemore has some question marks regarding his pro readiness, but he has the purest long-range jumper of anyone in this draft—and perhaps anyone in college basketball last season. He showed a lot of inconsistency throughout the season, but McLemore has the size and shooting ability to be an immediate impact player in Orlando’s backcourt.
3. Washington Wizards: Otto Porter, SF, Georgetown
As previously mentioned, Porter could be garnering some No. 1 consideration from a Cavs squad in desperate need of an impact player at the small forward position. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the tremendously high ceiling of Noel.
Still, Porter is a highly versatile player who contributes at both ends of the floor. There isn’t anything the Georgetown product does at an elite level, but he does everything very, very well.
4. Charlotte Bobcats: Anthony Bennett, F, UNLV
Anthony Bennett is a hard prospect to project, both in the draft and as an NBA player. At 6’8” and 240 pounds, he has the size to play either forward position, but he’s slightly undersize for the power forward position and not quite quick enough to be a pure small forward in the NBA.
That versatility can be both a curse and a blessing. Bennett won’t have a hard time finding a lot of playing time in his formative years, but it may take some time for the forward to find a true position at the pro level.
5. Phoenix Suns: Victor Oladipo, SG, Indiana
Indiana’s Victor Oladipo may be the safest pick in this entire draft. While he doesn’t have the tremendous upside of Noel or McLemore, he does have a pro-ready skill set and a few added traits that will make him an immediate contributor at the next level.
Oladipo plays outstanding defense, and, paired with his high motor, won’t have a problem transitioning to the NBA level at that end of the floor. He’s also extremely athletic and has an ever-improving jump shot—two things that will make developing a stronger offensive game in his formative years a lot easier.
6. New Orleans Pelicans: Trey Burke, PG, Michigan
New Orleans has to continue adding talent at any position it can find it. Value takes precedent over positional need in this scenario, and the pelicans find a player who can be an immediate contributor and future long-term option at the point guard position.
7. Sacramento Kings: Shabazz Muhammad, SF, UCLA
Once considered a lock for a top-three selection, UCLA forward Shabazz Muhammad failed to live up to expectations during his freshman season. While he certainly has the talent to develop into a solid NBA player, there are still several areas in which he must improve.
Still, Muhammad has plenty of potential. Given a few years to develop his defensive awareness and learn to create his own shots, the UCLA product could be a key contributor at the next level.
8. Detroit Pistons: C.J. McCollum, PG/SG, Lehigh
Detroit didn’t have much luck when the ping-pong balls dropped. With needs at both point guard and small forward, the Pistons might ultimately miss out on top prospects at their positions of most need.
But C.J. McCollum would be a nice consolation prize. One of the deadliest scorers in college basketball over the last four years, the Lehigh product can be an immediate contributor in the NBA—though it remains to be seen if he has the size and ability to create his own shots to play the 2-guard position at the professional level.
9. Minnesota Timberwolves: Cody Zeller, C, Indiana
Like Detroit, Minnesota could have used a little better lottery luck. Without a top-tier perimeter scorer still on the board, the Timberwolves may be forced to opt for a frontcourt contributor who can solidify an already proficient unit.
10. Portland Trail Blazers: Alex Len, C, Maryland
One way or another, Portland should be looking to augment its frontcourt in the draft. J.J. Hickson may not be back next season, and the Trail Blazers desperately need some depth at the center position.
11. Philadelphia 76ers: Kelly Olynyk, C, Gonzaga
With Andrew Bynum’s future up in the air, Philadelphia should be looking to put a contingency plan in place. Louisville’s Gorgui Dieng would be another solid option here, but Kelly Olynyk brings a little more versatility to the table.
12. Oklahoma City Thunder: Gorgui Dieng, C, Louisville
Oklahoma City needs some depth in its backcourt, but there simply isn’t a good option here for the value. With the Kendrick Perkins experiment taking an unexpectedly bad turn this season, the Thunder should be looking to add another center who can contribute early and often in his formative years.
13. Dallas Mavericks: Jamaal Franklin, SG, San Diego State
Whether a point guard or shooting guard, the Mavericks will almost certainly be looking for some added backcourt help this offseason. Michael Carter-Williams would also be a good option here, but Jamaal Franklin brings the electric perimeter scoring threat Dallas desperately needs.
14. Utah Jazz: Dennis Schroeder, PG, Germany
The Dennis Schroeder hype has been building all offseason, and there’s a good chance he’s the first foreign player off the board when all is said and done. He has the size, quickness and passing ability to be an immediate starter for several teams in the league, including a Utah squad looking for a long-term option at the position.
15. Milwaukee Bucks: Michael Carter-Williams, PG, Syracuse
It’s unclear what Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings will do this offseason. Given Ellis’ early-termination clause and the qualifying offer stipulation in Jennings’ contract, there’s a chance neither returns in 2013.
Whatever the case may be, Milwaukee doesn’t have a point guard who is a true facilitator. Of all the point guards in this class, Carter-Williams best fits that description.
16. Boston Celtics: Steven Adams, C, Pittsburgh
Boston is nearing a complete rebuild, and if Kevin Garnett doesn’t return in 2013, the center position will be part of that overhaul. Steven Adams would be a good choice for rejuvenating Boston’s frontcourt, though he may need a couple years to fully transition to the NBA game.
17. Atlanta Hawks: Mason Plumlee, PF/C, Duke
Atlanta is in an interesting situation. With Josh Smith ready to leave in free agency and the potential for superstars like Dwight Howard and Chris Paul to consider Atlanta as their next home, general manager Danny Ferry will have to take full advantage of his opportunities in the draft.
If the Hawks don’t decide to package their picks and move up in the first round, expect Ferry to key in on value here and add as much talent as possible, regardless of position.
18. Atlanta Hawks (via Houston): Archie Goodwin, SG, Kentucky
This may seem a little early to select a one-and-done prospect who failed to live up to expectations in his one college season, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which a team doesn’t gamble on Archie Goodwin’s upside prior to the latter third of the draft.
As Sam Amico of Fox Sports noted on Twitter, the Kentucky guard is on his list of sleepers to keep an eye on as the draft approaches:
The fact of the matter is this: Goodwin didn’t have the type of season that warrants an early selection. But as we’ve seen so many times in recent years, prospects with big upside often get a free pass from teams hoping to find a diamond in the rough.
Goodwin needs a lot of polish if he is to shine at the NBA level, but there’s a good chance he gets that opportunity as a mid-first round selection.
19. Cleveland Cavaliers (via Los Angeles Lakers): Rudy Gobert, C, France
Let’s forget about the Cavs doubling up on centers here and instead focus on the state of their frontcourt.
Anderson Varejao continuously struggles to stay on the court. Tristan Thompson has started to come into his own, but his defense remains a huge question mark. Tyler Zeller looks to be a role player with limited upside.
As a healthy unit, Cleveland’s frontcourt is respectable, but there are far too many question marks that still need to be addressed. Even adding Noel (who might miss part of the season as he recovers from his ACL tear) won’t fix many of those issues.
With two picks in the first round, Cleveland can shore up its entire frontcourt for the foreseeable future. Without a must-have backcourt prospect still available, this is as smart a selection as any.
20. Chicago Bulls: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, SG, Georgia
Backcourt depth needs to be Chicago’s focus in the draft. The Bulls aren’t likely to find an immediate starter at No. 20, but Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has the potential to develop into one in the very near future. He’s still raw, but the Georgia product has plenty of potential.
21. Utah Jazz: Tim Hardaway Jr., SG, Michigan
There’s a good chance Tim Hardaway Jr. doesn’t make it to pick No. 21, but it’s hard to find a good slot for him with more high-upside shooting guards still on the board.
That said, Hardaway has the size (6’6”) and developing long-range shooting ability to mature into a solid NBA 2-guard. Given Utah’s backcourt situation, the Jazz can afford to gamble a little with this pick.
22. Brooklyn Nets: Shane Larkin, PG, Miami
It’s hard to project Shane Larkin’s value at this point. He turned in several strong pre-draft workouts, but questions remain about his size and versatility. But at this point in the first round, Brooklyn can take a best-player-available approach for a prospect with enough upside to warrant the selection.
23. Indiana Pacers: Tony Mitchell, PF, North Texas
Tony Mitchell has power and athleticism that draws comparisons to Denver’s Kenneth Faried, but he had an underwhelming career at North Texas and likely won’t find a home in the first 20 selections. Without a standout guard option here, however, Indiana can take advantage of that upside and hope to cash in on Mitchell’s raw athleticism.
24. New York Knicks: Dario Saric, F, Croatia
Without any glaring positional needs, the Knicks can gamble on a foreign swingman with a ton of upside.
Some believe Dario Saric can sneak into the late lottery given his size and athleticism, but his defensive prowess leaves a lot to be desired. More likely, the Croatian will drop into the 20s to a team willing to take some time to develop him.
25. Los Angeles Clippers: Tony Snell, SG, New Mexico
While Tony Snell is still incredibly raw, he has the shooting ability and solid defensive skills to give the Clippers another good option at the shooting guard position. As long as he continues to develop after a three-year career at New Mexico, Los Angeles could do a lot worse with this selection.
26. Minnesota Timberwolves (via Memphis): Deshaun Thomas, SF, Ohio State
Minnesota needs a perimeter scorer who can take advantage of Ricky Rubio’s ability to open up the floor for his shooters. Deshaun Thomas may not be a light-out shooter, but he has some touch from behind the arc and can give the Timberwolves another sorely needed scoring option from the wing.
27. Denver Nuggets: Giannis Adetokoubo, SF, Greece
With Danilo Gallinari likely out for part of the 2013 season, Denver needs to find a player here who can augment some of that production. Giannis Adetokoubo is the closest thing the Nuggets will find to a high-upside perimeter scorer, though he’s still pretty raw at this point in his career.
28. San Antonio Spurs: Jeff Withey, C, Kansas
The Spurs are never in need of an immediate starter, and this year will be no different. Still, Tim Duncan is in the twilight of his career and won’t be around forever. It’s time for San Antonio to start hedging its bets and start looking for his future successor.
Jeff Withey is far from a finished product, especially at the offensive end. But he does play terrific defense and brings a shot-blocking element that will make him an intriguing option for teams without any major needs at either end of the floor.
29. Oklahoma City Thunder: Sergey Karasev, SG/SF, Russia
It’s unlikely Oklahoma City finds an immediate starter at the shooting guard position, but Sergey Karasev is an extremely intriguing option. At 6’7”, the Russian has terrific size and athleticism, and he’s shown NBA general managers enough versatility to warrant a first-round selection.
30. Phoenix Suns (via Miami): C.J. Leslie, PF, N.C. State
Phoenix has to continue getting tougher at the defensive end. With a talented shooter already locked up with their first pick, the Suns can turn their attention to finding a player who can eat up minutes and contribute in the paint at the defensive end.