Things always get clearer as the NBA draft approaches. After months of speculation, this is the time we start to better understand what will happen on draft day.
And of course, nothing could be further from the truth this year.
With the rumor mill working overtime and still no idea what to expect when the Cleveland Cavaliers are on the clock with the first pick, projecting the first round of the draft is more difficult this year than at any point in recent memory.
As is often the case, what happens at the top of the lottery will have a huge impact on what we see later in the round. Without more than a few clear-cut top prospects in this class, the lottery could very well play out like a game of Guess Who? that no one actually wins.
But one way or another, 30 players are going to be selected in the first round, and we have a pretty good idea of who many of those players will be. Let’s take a look at some projections for the first round and highlight a handful of players who will be instant starters in the NBA, regardless of which team selects them.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers: Nerlens Noel, C, Kentucky
For all the talk of the Cavaliers going in a different direction with this pick, it’s hard to envision a scenario in which Chris Grant passes on Nerlens Noel short of trading the pick.
The biggest questions concerning the Kentucky center involve the rehab of his torn ACL and concerns about his slight, though extremely athletic frame—as well as his limited offensive game.
But according to Sam Amico of Fox Sports and Michael Lee of the Washington Post, the last two issues may not be as much of a concern:
Honestly, Grant probably doesn’t even know what he plans to do with the No. 1 pick at this point. If he makes the smart decision and selects the best player in this draft, however, Noel is going to Cleveland with the first overall pick.
2. Orlando Magic: Ben McLemore, SG, Kansas
If Noel is already off the board, Orlando won’t struggle to make its selection here. Kansas shooting guard Ben McLemore is the right choice.
McLemore may have some areas that need work (namely his inability to create his own shots), but he is also the purest shooter in this draft, and his release is unbelievably quick. For a catch-and-shoot guard with an NBA frame, the Magic will not find a better option in this class.
The Kansas product won’t be a 20-plus-points-per-game scorer in his formative years, but he has plenty of offensive talent to be an immediate starter. If he can work on becoming a more active defender and learn to create his own scoring chances, McLemore will be a tremendous NBA shooting guard with a ton of potential.
3. Washington Wizards: Otto Porter, SF, Georgetown
Washington could target a big man with this pick, and based on recent hype, Alex Len could be a potential surprise pick in the top five. According to Amico, he may even be a target for the Cavs:
But the Wizards also boast a tremendous backcourt in John Wall and Bradley Beal that would only get better with the addition of an all-around great small forward with excellent defensive skills and the ability to score from almost anywhere on the floor.
Otto Porter doesn’t stand out in any one area, but he does everything well enough to garner top-three consideration. With a pro-ready skill set and as much upside as anyone outside Noel and McLemore, Porter is a safe pick at No. 3.
4. Charlotte Bobcats: Anthony Bennett, F, UNLV
Amico has been on top of nearly every NBA rumor to surface recently, and he reported on Friday that the Bobcats could be actively searching for a trade partner at No. 4:
That really should not come as any surprise given the lack of elite-level talent in this class. But if Charlotte decides to stand pat, the best-player-available option is easily its best bet.
In that particular case, UNLV forward Anthony Bennett fits the bill. He has an intriguing blend of size and athleticism to play either forward position. Given Charlotte’s general lack of talent, he won’t have a hard time finding playing time very early in his career.
5. Phoenix Suns: Victor Oladipo, SG, Indiana
Opinions on Victor Oladipo vary greatly. Some consider him a sub-10-points-per-game scorer at the NBA level, capable of only filling a backup or rotational role against the league’s top defenders.
Whether that proves to be the case or not, the Indiana product is going to get a chance to prove the doubters wrong, especially if he lands in Phoenix.
The Suns desperately need a length shooter who can knock down shots from the perimeter and play lockdown defense at the other end. Oladipo fits that description, and there really is not a better option for the Suns here at No. 5.
6. New Orleans Pelicans: Trey Burke, PG, Michigan
Trey Burke is a candidate to go much higher in this draft given his tremendous upside and pro-ready skill set, but the demand isn’t really there at this point.
Should another team move into the top five, Burke could certainly find a home at the top of the draft. As it stands, Charlotte is really the only team in enough need to acquire him ahead of the Pelicans.
7. Sacramento Kings: Shabazz Muhammad, SF, UCLA
A year ago, few expected Shabazz Muhammad to not find a home in the first three picks of the 2013 draft.
But after a sub-par freshman campaign at UCLA, Muhammad raised some questions about his ability to play man-on defense and provide a versatile scoring threat at the other end. He doesn’t lack work ethic or rebounding ability, but he’s also not the polished prospect many hoped he would be.
As a result, Muhammad’s draft stock is slipping, and it would nott be a surprise to see him fall outside the top 10 on draft day.
But as the Kings’ Twitter account announced last week, the team brought in Muhammad for a predraft workout. While every team works out as many players as possible leading up to the draft, it would not be a stretch to envision the Kings pulling the trigger on the forward at No. 7, especially with the class’ top talent already off the board.
8. Detroit Pistons: C.J. McCollum, PG/SG, Lehigh
Simply put Detroit needs perimeter scorers. With McLemore, Oladipo, Burke and Muhammad already off the board, C.J. McCollum is the Pistons’ best bet.
The Lehigh product is a combo guard who struggles as a point guard and may be too short (6’3”) to excel as a shooting guard at the NBA level. However, his versatility and long-range shooting ability are too good to pass on at this point. There simply is not a better option available short of trading up.
9. Minnesota Timberwolves: Alex Len, C, Maryland
With the talk of Len potentially not making it out of the top five, this is the best-case scenario for the Timberwolves. Minnesota would probably love for a shooter like McCollum to still be available, but there simply is not enough value to reach for a perimeter scorer here.
10. Portland Trail Blazers: Cody Zeller, C, Indiana
Regardless of who Portland selects here, he’s probably going to see starting action from day one.
With J.J. Hickson’s future up in the air and little depth to speak of, the Trail Blazers have to take advantage of value and select the best big man on the board. If Len is already gone, Cody Zeller becomes the next best option.
The Indiana product would have benefited from staying in school another year to further develop his game, but if Portland cashes in on him at No. 10, his choice to declare for the draft will have been the right decision.
11. Philadelphia 76ers: Kelly Olynyk, C, Gonzaga
And so continues the run on centers.
With Noel, Len and Zeller already off the board, Philadelphia will be faced with a difficult decision. The 76ers are in desperate need of depth in their frontcourt (especially if they let Andrew Bynum walk in free agency), but options are a little thin at No. 11.
Still, Kelly Olynyk is not a bad option. He has more athleticism and touch on his jump shot than he’s given credit for, and with the top three centers already gone, he’s also the best player available at a position of major need.
12. Oklahoma City Thunder: Gorgui Dieng, C, Louisville
Kendrick Perkins has not panned out in Oklahoma City. At all.
With a glaring hole at center and the need for a dominant defensive presence in the paint, the Thunder can’t afford to pass on Gorgui Dieng here.
The Louisville product is a long, agile defender and shot-blocker who can clog up the lane and make things a lot easier at the defensive end. In addition, he’s also a tremendous pick-and-roll player who Russell Westbrook would substantially benefit from playing alongside.
13. Dallas Mavericks: Jamaal Franklin, SG, San Diego State
Dallas has to improve its backcourt in this draft. At No. 13, this pick becomes all about value and upside.
Dennis Schroeder could be an option here—and as a pro-ready point guard, he would also make a ton of sense—but Jamaal Franklin has a little more upside and stands to be a better scorer from day one. Either way, the Mavericks can’t really go wrong in selecting either player at this point in the lottery.
14. Utah Jazz: Dennis Schroeder, PG, Germany
Refer to pick No. 13.
Like Dallas, Utah needs to bolster its frontcourt with some additional youth and upside. Schroeder is a late-riser with the size, athleticism and passing ability to be an immediate starter in Utah. He’s the best fit of any player still on the board.
15. Milwaukee Bucks: Michael Carter-Williams, PG, Syracuse
It remains unclear what Milwaukee plans to do with Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis this offseason. If either player decides to leave in free agency, it is not hard to imagine the Bucks selecting his replacement with the 15th pick.
And that might not be a bad scenario, both from a financial and schematic standpoint. Michael Carter-Williams is a terrific facilitator and true leader at both ends of the floor, and he would give the Bucks a new element that neither Jennings nor Ellis has provided.
16. Boston Celtics: Steven Adams, C, Pittsburgh
With Boston potentially entering rebuilding mode, now is the time to abandon looking for immediate impact players in favor of upside.
In that particular scenario, Pittsburgh center Steven Adams is a tremendous option. He’ll need a little polish at the NBA level, but there are few big men with as much potential as Adams.
With a sound defensive game and surprising touch on his mid-range jump shot, Adams can fill the role of Kevin Garnett and give the Celtics some youth at the position in the process. Apart from Mason Plumlee, there isn’t another big man worth considering here.
17. Atlanta Hawks: Mason Plumlee, PF/C, Duke
18. Atlanta Hawks (via Houston): Archie Goodwin, SG, Kentucky
With two mid-round picks, general manager Danny Ferry has a ton of options, the most intriguing of which involving packaging No. 17 and No. 18 for a higher first-round selection.
But if Ferry decides to keep his picks in favor of making a splash on the free-agent market, he won’t be short on talent from which to choose.
The middle of the first round is an excellent point to key in on value and potential rather than players capable of starting immediately. The Hawks can find a bit of each in Plumlee and Archie Goodwin.
Plumlee is the most pro-ready of the two, but he still is not a sure-fire starter from day one. Likewise, Goodwin is a pure upside pick at No. 18 based on his sub-par freshman campaign at Kentucky.
Given a couple years to develop, however, both can be solid NBA players with enough upside to warrant these picks.
19. Cleveland Cavaliers (via Los Angeles Lakers): Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, SG, Georgia
With Noel already locked up, Grant can focus on adding depth to the team’s backcourt. There simply are not any options at the small forward position worth pursuing at No. 19.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope can add some depth behind Dion Waiters, though, shoring up a unit that was banged up for much of the 2012-13 season. Apart from Caldwell-Pope, only Tim Hardaway Jr. and Allen Crabbe should be considered similar options here.
20. Chicago Bulls: Rudy Gobert, C, France
Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah comprise an excellent frontcourt in Chicago, but neither is capable of staying healthy for an entire 82-game slate. In adding Rudy Gobert, the Bulls can augment that issue with a dominant defender with intriguing upside.
21. Utah Jazz: Tim Hardaway Jr., SG, Michigan
Don’t be surprised to see Utah double up on backcourt scorers in the first round. With Hardaway Jr. still on the board, this pick presents both big upside and a ton of value.
The Michigan product isn’t the most consistent shooting guard in this draft, but he does have the frame and long-range jumper to develop into a 15-plus-points-per-game scorer. Don’t expect him to fall much further in the first round.
22. Brooklyn Nets: Shane Larkin, PG, Miami
One of the biggest knocks on Shane Larker is his small frame (5’11”, 171 pounds) and questionable ability to defend NBA point guards.
But at No. 22, the Nets won’t have to worry about putting Larkin in a situation to fail in his formative years. Consider this a terrific value-based depth selection with enough upside to make it well worth the risk.
23. Indiana Pacers: Tony Mitchell, PF, North Texas
Indiana needs to continue getting more physical at every position. Tony Mitchell may be the most physical player still on the board.
The North Texas product did not have a strong 2012-13 campaign, but he does have a playing style some liken to Denver Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried. If Mitchell comes anywhere close to that talent level, the Pacers will have gotten a steal this late in the first round.
24. New York Knicks: Allen Crabbe, SG, California
Allen Crabbe has everything NBA teams look for in a late-round scorer. He still needs some polish, but the California product is already a terrific spot-up shooter who moves well without the ball and adds a new element at the offensive end of the floor.
New York doesn’t need to find an immediate starter here, and giving Crabbe time to develop should not be an issue. But given time, the shooting guard has the potential to be an NBA starter at the position—something difficult to find in the mid-20s.
25. Los Angeles Clippers: Tony Snell, SG, New Mexico
Tony Snell probably does not have the upside to warrant a selection much earlier than this, but he does have many of the traits teams look for in a rotational shooting guard and potential starter at the 2-guard position.
Snell gets it done at both ends of the floor, and if he can develop a more consistent long-range jump shot, he’ll prove to be a steal at this point in the draft.
26. Minnesota Timberwolves (via Memphis): Deshaun Thomas, SF, Ohio State
Provided Minnesota does not use this pick to move up to the top of the first round, the options will be limited at No. 26. But one way or another, expect the Timberwolves to key in on a perimeter scorer who can spread the floor for Ricky Rubio and the rest of the team’s crowded backcourt.
27. Denver Nuggets: Giannis Adetokoubo, SF, Greece
While Giannis Adetokoubo probably does not have the experience to hang with NBA players in his formative years, he does have as much potential as anyone still on the board. With a ton of athleticism and an ever-developing three-point shot, Denver could do a lot worse at No. 27, especially if it does not hope to play him right away.
28. San Antonio Spurs: Jeff Withey, C, Kansas
With Tim Duncan in the twilight of his career, the Spurs have to start seriously considering replacement options for the future. Jeff Withey is not anywhere close to that level yet, but with a couple years playing behind one of the best, he has the potential to develop into a solid NBA center.
Withey already contributes at the defensive end, especially as a shot-blocker. As long as he can add a few moves to his offensive repertoire, he’ll make a smooth transition to the next level.
29. Oklahoma City Thunder: Sergey Karasev, SG, Russia
With Gorgui Dieng already in the fold, Oklahoma City can look to add some depth to its backcourt, namely at the shooting guard position.
Russian guard Sergey Karasev is not a particularly stout defender and looks a little awkward with the basketball in his hands, but he’s a tall, athletic wing with a terrific jump shot. He’s polished enough to contribute some minutes early in his career.
30. Phoenix Suns (via Miami): Reggie Bullock, SF, North Carolina
Reggie Bullock is the kind of player who could climb the draft board prior to the draft based on his work ethic and mentality alone.
The North Carolina forward plays hard and rebounds well, and while he does not have a ton of upside, he’s the best option for the Suns here at the end of the first round.
Best Available: Glen Rice Jr. (SF, Georgia Tech); Lorenzo Brown (PG, NC State); Ricky Ledo (SG, Providence)