5 Prospects Los Angeles Lakers Should Already Be Targeting in 2018 NBA Draft
The top takeaway from the Los Angeles Lakers' trade-deadline dealing was their creation of a second max contract slot and the ability to dream impossibly big for free agency.
But that's not all the Lakers accomplished in their blockbuster swap with the Cleveland Cavaliers, which saw Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson leave town in exchange for Isaiah Thomas and Channing Frye. The Lakers also found their way back into a loaded 2018 draft, a pivotal development for a franchise still in the asset-collection phase of its rebuild.
L.A's pick from Cleveland won't be nearly as good as the one it's sending to either the Philadelphia 76ers or Boston Celtics (believe it or not, an unpaid debt from the failed Steve Nash deal). But it's still a first-rounder—24th for now, per Tankathon.com—and a chance to add a rotation piece or maybe more.
The Lakers have little direction for this selection, since most of their roster has no guaranteed money remaining beyond this season. It's also unclear if they should target a ready-made contributor or a high-ceiling project, since no one knows how this club will look after free agency.
Luckily, this class offers both polished prospects and raw wild cards. L.A. must keep its options open for both, which means getting the following five players on the radar already.
Aaron Holiday, PG, UCLA
Could the Lakers double-dip in the Bruins' point-guard pool for the second straight summer? Aaron Holiday is giving them reasons to consider it.
The junior paced the 21-win team in points (20.3) and assists (5.8). His season didn't end on the highest note—10 turnovers and five fouls in UCLA's First Four loss to St. Bonaventure—but he still flashed microwave scoring ability throughout the campaign. He topped 25 points on seven different occasions and reached 31-plus points three times in 2018 alone.
He also routinely defended the opponents' top backcourt option and was awarded a spot on the Pac-12's All-Defensive Team.
"He brings a different type of toughness," Bruins guard Prince Ali said, per Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times. "He plays hard all the time. To be that leader, to play that hard, it rubs off on everybody."
Even with Lonzo Ball locked into the floor general spot on L.A.'s present and future depth charts, there's a vacancy behind him (and, at times, alongside him). Tyler Ennis has done nothing to have his non-guaranteed $1.6 million salary picked up for 2018-19, and the Lakers have lost 1.2 points off their net rating per 100 possessions when Ball has needed a breather.
Depending on how the draft board breaks, Holiday could be both a need-filler and the best player available.
Jontay Porter, C, Missouri
Brook Lopez's bloated salary might have been responsible for his arrival in L.A., but his addition spoke to the franchise's need to modernize the offense.
The former All-Star is on pace to bury triple-digit threes for the second consecutive season. The 2016-17 Lakers got just 28 triples out of their bigs—17 from Julius Randle, 10 by Larry Nance Jr. and the lone splash of Tarik Black's career.
Assuming Lopez is only a one-year rental—he's logging a career-low 22.6 minutes per contest—then there's still an itch for a floor-spacing 5. If Jontay Porter bolts after one season with the Tigers, he'd offer multiple coveted commodities for a contemporary center.
Although not an elite athlete, Porter—the younger brother of likely lottery pick Michael Jr.—can score from inside and out, find open teammates and protect the paint. His per-40-minute averages of 3.7 assists, 2.0 threes (on 36.4 percent shooting) and 2.7 blocks should all resonate with Lakers scouts.
"Most top players identify their game with scoring. He wasn't one of those guys," Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said, per Dave Matter of the St Louis Post-Dispatch. "He'd pass the ball. He'd shoot free throw. He'd flash against the zone. He's a good basketball player."
The Lakers have the option of reshaping nearly their entire frontcourt this summer. Julius Randle is heading to free agency, and he could be joined there by Ivica Zubac and Thomas Bryant if the organization doesn't pick up their non-guaranteed deals.
If L.A. is shopping for a 21st-century big man this summer, Porter should be an obvious target.
Mitchell Robinson, C, USA
How many 19-year-olds measure at 7'1" tall with a 7'4" wingspan? The answer is microscopic enough to put Mitchell Robinson in the first-round discussion even though he sat out his would-be college freshman season to focus on draft preparation.
He might be the biggest wild card in the field, both in literal and figurative senses.
"Physically, Robinson is one of the most gifted prospects…but he is a long way from contributing," ESPN.com's Jonathan Givony wrote. "The fact he elected not to play college basketball this season won't help his NBA readiness, but at some point in the draft, he's worth taking a gamble on as a developmental project."
This is where the Lakers' draft-night intentions matter.
If they're focused on finding an instant-impact piece for 2017-18, Robinson won't be discussed in their war room. If they're looking longer term and willing to wager on upside, he'll be a popular talking point.
His ceiling reaches into the pogo-stick, rim-running range of players like DeAndre Jordan and Clint Capela. The Lakers don't have an explosive big like that on their roster. They're a bottom-half team in defending the rim (64.9 percent shooting allowed, 16th) and a middling performer in plays finished by pick-and-roll screeners (1.08 points per possession, 52nd percentile).
Adding Robinson could be a cheap way to boost those numbers, provided the Purple and Gold are willing to wait on his development.
Anfernee Simons, PG/SG, IMG Academy
If the Lakers are willing to go the unconventional, long-term route with Robinson, they'd also have to consider doing the same with fifth-year high school combo guard Anfernee Simons.
The 6'4", 18-year-old is as raw as draft prospects come. Givony described Simons as "one of the least NBA-ready players in the draft," as his body and game both need ample amounts of maturation.
But he already tantalizes with skills and explosiveness.
There's an almost effortless smooth nature to his game. He can play on or off the ball—a clear selling point to a team with a fixture at the position but also a need for depth—creating shots for himself and his teammates. He's a three-level scorer and capable three-point bomber off the dribble and the catch.
"He's got an easy, free-flowing game, a scorer's mentality," IMG coach John Mahoney told Sports Illustrated's Jeremy Woo. "His strength is his weakness right now—he needs to get [physically] stronger, which will come in time."
Ball and Josh Hart aren't natural scorers. The Lakers could help their backcourt's point-production by keeping Isaiah Thomas and/or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope around, but their volume and efficiency have proved unpredictable.
If Simons approaches his peak—an admittedly massive if—he could be Ball's backcourt mate or L.A.'s spark-plug sixth man for the next decade. It's hard to pull that type of potential from this point in the draft.
Khyri Thomas, SG, Creighton
This might be the anti-boom-or-bust pick of the late first-round. Khryi Thomas' complementary style probably lowers his ceiling well short of stardom, but it puts his floor high enough to envision a long career ahead as a rotation-caliber role player.
If the Lakers' approach to the draft involves loading up for next season, Thomas would be a prime candidate.
He has funhouse-mirror length with a 6'10" wingspan jutting out from his 6'3" height. Combine that with lateral quickness, agility, strength and expert instincts, and it isn't hard to tell why he's won or had a share of the last two Big East defensive player of the year awards.
Butler coach LaVall Jordan said, "you have to game-plan around [Thomas] and his defense," per Jon Nyatawa of the Omaha World-Herald. In the same article, Villanova skipper Jay Wright said Thomas "can guard anybody."
Even though Thomas is undersized, his length, physicality and anticipation should allow him to defend three NBA positions. That's a similar skill to the one that attracted L.A. to Caldwell-Pope.
And, like KCP, Thomas is beaming with three-and-D potential. In his worst shooting campaign at Creighton, he hit 39.3 percent of his triples. For his three-year career, he cashed in 51.1 percent of his field goals and 40.6 percent of his long-range looks.
He won't dribble circles around defenders. He's not going to provide many bail-out buckets late in the shot clock. He's better when other players are creating his looks.
But if he's being penciled into a supporting role, his weaknesses are less important than his strengths. He can give the Lakers steady doses of intense, versatile defense and sure-shooting offense already next season.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.