The Big Men Are Coming! The Big Men Are Coming!
Overly dramatic? Maybe. But a revolution is on its way, NBA executives say, and the seeds of it will be planted Thursday night at the NBA draft. Which seeds ultimately blossom to lead the revolution, though, will depend on where they are planted. And by whom.
"This draft," one Western Conference assistant GM said, "is going to change the way the game is played over the next eight to 10 years, because the way to beat teams that play small and defensively switch everything is to have big skilled guys. And that's what this draft is full of."
It also could be a draft that ultimately gets a few GMs fired.
"Last year, your f--k-up level was pretty low among the first five or six picks," a lottery-team scout said. "This year it's very high."
Arizona center Deandre Ayton is the favorite to be the first big man taken when the Phoenix Suns utilize the No. 1 pick, league experts predict. But he has some league executives wondering if he'll prove to be his draft class' most impactful player down the road, largely because he's as old-school as a modern-day NBA center can be in this age of uber-athleticism and long-range shooting. One Atlantic Division GM called him the next Joel Embiid—an agile two-way big man who can create his own shot—minus both the three-point range and the checkered injury history.
But while more than a half-dozen players who fit the description of "big skilled guys" are expected to go in the first 14 picks, there isn't anyone in this draft assured of stardom, point guards and wings included.
Who ultimately succeeds and fails, executives insist, will hinge on a multitude of factors beyond sheer talent.
"Almost every draft comes down to the organization a player goes to," a Western Conference GM said. "This one is no different. Does the organization develop players? Stylistically, because of the preponderance of bigs at the top of this draft, how their team plays is important. Do they have a point guard who can get them the ball? Teams usually picking at the top of the draft aren't very good, so there's going to be a great variance in who these guys are playing with."
It doesn't take a genius to recognize what skill set and positional need a team could use, but a player might never get the chance to show he has all that thanks to less obvious factors. Who is the coach? What's his personality? Level of security? Coaching style? How does he feel about young players? What kind of pressure exists on the front office to pick the next Jayson Tatum or Donovan Mitchell (i.e., rookies who can be stars right away)? Are there veterans who can challenge the new addition without inhibiting his growth?
Conversations with five NBA executives—four current, one former who still does extensive draft analysis—and one scout identified the best and worst places for the projected top picks to land based on the aforementioned intangibles.
Deandre Ayton: Arizona, 7'1", C
Best fit: Suns, Kings
If there's a consensus that he will go first, then it's not only because his size and skill set complement wing players Devin Booker and last year's first-round pick, Josh Jackson, but also because first-year coach Igor Kokoskov's European background makes him particularly suited for developing agile big men. Ayton would also restore value to veteran big Tyson Chandler and his $13.6 million contract this season. "If Tyson is still there, he's a really good guy," said the Western GM. "He pays his freight just by mentoring."
Worst fit: None
As one Atlantic Division GM said: "I wouldn't put him with an established center, but the top three teams in the draft don't have that. Even if he fell to Memphis [at No. 4], you don't pass up on him. If he purely had to be 12 feet and in, OK, that might be reason to be cautious. But he showed he can stretch the role, run the floor, and he's healthy. You figure it out."
The only foreseeable scenario in which the Suns wouldn't take Ayton is if they wanted to reunite point guard Luka Doncic with Kokoskov; the two are close after Kokoskov coached him and the rest of the Slovenian national team to a 2017 EuroBasket gold medal. Ideally, that would mean trading the No. 1 pick for an additional asset or two plus a pick a few spots down, where they could still land Doncic, but that's inviting a lot of uncertainty into the process. "It's not just as easy as stepping back in the draft and taking your guy," one veteran Eastern Conference GM said. "You have to know how far back you can go and still get your guy; you have to worry about someone undercutting you. It's why they'll probably just stay at 1."
Marvin Bagley: Duke, 6'11", F/C
Best fit: Grizzlies, Hawks, Bulls
The five executives were mixed on what situation would serve Bagley best because there are different opinions on just how much special attention he's going to require. Playing alongside veterans Mike Conley and Marc Gasol in Memphis would allow him to flash his athleticism without having to be the go-to guy. Atlanta would pair him with a first-year coach in Lloyd Pierce who understands from his time with the 76ers how to develop a talented young big man while shielding him from unrealistic expectations on a rebuilding team.
Worst fit: Kings, Mavericks, Nuggets
While the Kings could certainly use Bagley's talent, several execs expressed concern about where he's getting his off-the-court advice without getting into specifics. (Think Lonzo Ball Lite.) There is also concern about Sacramento's style and veteran leadership. "You're playing for a coach who plays slow and plodding," the Western Conference GM said of Kings coach Dave Joerger. "He's still posting up Zach Randolph, but you have a point guard (De'Aaron Fox) who has to play fast. Is the coach going to change his stripes? How much do you change for Bagley? They haven't hit on a big yet."
Added an Eastern Conference GM: "He's going to be somebody who is definitely watched like a hawk. I don't want to get into dirt-throwing, but he's not the most cerebral guy, and he has a very interesting support network. Those things factor in when you have a young guy. And when you have a bunch of young guys together, everyone is looking around wondering who the second-best guy in the room is." Translation: A battle for top dog can take over your locker room.
The former exec also didn't see Bagley as ideal for any team with the pressure to produce right away, which would be the case in Denver. "He's going to need time to develop his body," he said. "I don't know if he'll have the super quick impact people would be expecting out of others."
Jaren Jackson Jr.: Michigan State, 6'11", PF
Best fit: Hawks, Grizzlies, Kings
High regard for Jackson's character is why execs were not worried about his joining teams in Sacramento or Atlanta with limited veteran leadership. "Great character, interviewed really well," the Atlantic Division GM said. "He's a bit of a deer in the headlights in a good way, but you don't want to put him in a position where he has to produce right away. He's going to have to get used to the physical nature of the game. I would bring him along slowly, a place where he doesn't have to start, doesn't have to play. The potential is there, but you're going to have to wait for it." Another Eastern Conference GM said: "I don't know why Atlanta would pass on him."
(Full disclaimer: Memphis is universally seen as a good fit for a variety of players because there won't be pressure to immediately carry a heavy load.) "The guy who ends up in the best situation is the guy who goes to Memphis," the Western Conference GM said. "Playing with two real players, not as much is asked of you. If you lose a game, it's not the end of the world. You can just be a good guy on a good team. It's what Jayson Tatum had in Boston. Would he have been as good in Sacramento? Maybe, but I doubt it."
Worst fit: Mavericks, Knicks, Nuggets
Translation: any team where there are expectations to take the team up a notch immediately.
Luka Doncic: Real Madrid, 6'7", SF/PG/SG
Best fit: Kings, Mavericks, Grizzlies
Any team that values and respects European players is a plus. Not every rookie can answer the demands of Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, but the Eastern Conference GM thought Doncic "would be good for Carlisle. Smart player, but there's also a respect level walking in the door. Because of Dirk [Nowitzki], it's, 'We know you guys can play.' Some teams can be like schoolkids: 'Oh, look, here comes the Euro.'"
The Western Conference GM agreed: "He's used to dealing with megalomaniac European coaches. If Doncic got to Rick, they'd be fine. Dallas doesn't have great players, but there are real players there, and Doncic is about winning. As far as someone you could plug in right away to be a contributing factor, it's Doncic with Memphis. I think he could do for them what Jayson Tatum did for the Celtics."
Worst fit: Magic, Knicks, Hawks
All three are suspect landing spots because they're not built to win right now, and Doncic, 19, has experienced unprecedented success in Europe. "No Euro player has come in with his accolades," the former executive said. "If things don't go well, he could probably make more than his rookie salary back in Europe. There's no other player that has that leverage in his hip pocket." The same executive pushed back on the idea of Memphis as a good fit unless it moves small forward Tyreke Evans. "If you have him and Doncic, it becomes awkward," he said.
Mohamed Bamba: Texas, 6'11", C
Best fit: Bulls, Cavaliers, Knicks
The idea of pairing him with another versatile big, particularly in a rebuilding situation, was tantalizing for every executive. (The Cavs would qualify on both fronts if Kevin Love stays and LeBron James goes.) "Playing next to [Lauri] Markkanen in Chicago would be a really nice frontcourt," the former executive said. Same goes for putting him next to Kristaps Porzingis in New York.
Worst fit: Mavericks, Grizzlies
Combining him with Nowitzki would appear to make sense on the court, but the Western Conference GM saw Bamba as oil to Mavs coach Rick Carlisle's water. Bamba is as cerebral as former Mavs center Tyson Chandler, but there are questions as to whether he has the same fieriness. "If Mo Bamba goes to Dallas, it'll be a train wreck," the Western Conference GM said. "His character is off the charts, but he's not a maniacal basketball-is-my-life guy. Rick will be comparing him to Tyson Chandler, and that's not who he is, nor who he wants to be."
Bamba isn't ready to defend NBA 4s, which would mean playing him behind Gasol in Memphis. "I wouldn't want to see him sit," the former executive said.
Trae Young: Oklahoma, 6'2", PG
Best fit: Magic
There might be others, but it's hard to picture one better. In Orlando, he'd have the chance to lead a team that needs scoring, is built to play uptempo and has a coach (Steve Clifford) who turned equally undersized point guard Kemba Walker into an All-Star in Charlotte. "They need a point guard in the worst way," the former executive said. "Great fit."
The Western Conference GM saw Young as the biggest risk-reward pick at the top of the draft. "There isn't an owner in the league who isn't saying, 'Who is the next Donovan Mitchell?'" he said. "Trae isn't the same player at all as far as build or style, but as far as freakish upside with enough warts that you're scared, that's Trae Young. If you get it right, he could put up huge numbers. If you get it wrong, you're looking at a bust. Really low floor, really high ceiling."
Worst fit: Hornets, Knicks, Mavericks
All already have young PGs.
Michael Porter Jr.: Missouri, 6'10", SF/PF
Best fit: Mavericks
There is greatness in Porter, but it needs to be extracted both by a coach and a locker room that will demand it. The Mavs are ideal because he'd have to earn his minutes but stylistically would work next to small forward Harrison Barnes and point guard Dennis Smith Jr. Both Barnes and Wes Matthews, consummate pros, could push him on and off the court. "Dallas gives him a chance to flourish," the scout said.
The bigger issue is Porter's health after back surgery last November and a hip issue that forced him to postpone a predraft workout. Get past that, and you could be looking at another long, lean, impossible-to-contain scorer. Having an uptempo point guard is also a key ingredient. "I put Porter more in the [Kevin] Durant camp than those other guys," the Western Conference assistant GM said. The scout didn't rate him quite that high. His comparison: two-time All-Star Rashard Lewis.
Worst fit: Kings, Hawks, Bulls
He has genuine confidence as a scorer and makes difficult shots, but the Western Conference scout said putting him on a team where that alone earns him minutes could keep him from developing. "He has the charisma to be an All-Star," the scout said. "He can make hard shots, contested shots, but he doesn't play D, and he doesn't pass the ball." Don't be surprised if one of these three teams bites anyway; if there's a player who could leapfrog one of the top five (Ayton, Bagley, Jackson, Bamba, Doncic), the Eastern Conference GM said it's Porter. "There are enough guys in this draft that are physically jacked up, it forces you to be a little different than normal," said the Eastern Conference executive. "If Porter is deemed healthy, it's a six-player first tier."
Wendell Carter: Duke, 6'10", PF
Best fit: Grizzlies, Mavericks, Hornets
The scout rated Carter's ability to adapt to any role as highly as anyone in this draft class. "He's as solid a player as there is in the top 15," the scout said. Not one exec had a negative word about him. Performing in Bagley's shadow without complaint may have been the best preparation he could have had. "He's ready to help a team right away," said the former executive.
Worst fit: Cavaliers
Only because the roster is already loaded at 4 between Love, Larry Nance Jr. and Tristan Thompson. Still, the scout said, "He'll start and play for 10 years. Bad team he'll be fine, good team he'll fit in."
Mikal Bridges: Villanova, 6'7", SG
Best fit: 76ers, Cavaliers, Bulls
Bridges is the wing version of Carter as far as ability to mesh with little maintenance—a load-bearing brick, but not a cornerstone; capable of being a solid player on a good team, but not quite talented enough to be a go-to guy on a bad one. The size, character and competitive level would be welcome in Cleveland after what Rodney Hood and JR Smith showed during the playoffs, said the former executive, and he has the self-motivation to push the Bulls' up-and-coming collection of wings.
Worst fit: Knicks, Clippers
"He can't go where too much is asked of him," the Western Conference GM said. "He's not Paul George. He's not a rookie who is going to get you 28. That's not who he is. But he can plug in positionally."
Kevin Knox: Kentucky, 6'9", SF
Best fit: Knicks
What they extracted from Michael Beasley last season and coach David Fizdale's ability to connect with young talent are considered a combination that could unlock Knox's potential. Executives say he's a better scorer than the collegiate analytics give him credit for, something take-that-for-data Fizdale should appreciate. Knox's athleticism makes him an ideal switching defender on everything but point guards and the biggest of centers, and he has the potential to be a 20-point scorer as well. But his inconsistency would be disastrous for anyone needing him to score every night. "Everybody always wants more out of him because of his talent," the Western Conference assistant GM said.
Worst fit: Hornets
It might not be an accident that the two decision-makers—Detroit's Stan Van Gundy and Charlotte's Rich Cho — who picked directly ahead of the Jazz in last year's draft are no longer employed. Such is the searing wattage of Donovan Mitchell's unexpected stardom, and be assured GM Mitch Kupchak is aware he has to find someone who can contribute more than 2017 first-round shooting guard Malik Monk (6.7 points in 13.6 minutes per game) did last year. Knox could, but then again…
"They're really pissed about not taking Donovan," the Western Conference assistant GM said. "This guy is going to need to be productive."
Miles Bridges: Michigan State, 6'7", PF
Best fit: Knicks
Bridges could provide a physical and defensive-minded presence next to Porzingis and a toughness that GM Scott Perry has admired since working under Joe Dumars with the Pistons.
Worst fit: 76ers
They have all the physical toughness they need, and his uncertain scoring ability at the NBA level would shrink the floor for both Simmons and Embiid.
Collin Sexton: Alabama, 6'2", PG
Best fit: Nuggets, Clippers
Denver has enough scoring and general playmaking from Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap and Jamal Murray that it can live with a defense-oriented point guard who isn't mistake-prone. Denver could use an infusion of go-hard-every-night effort on the perimeter, and Sexton can provide that. The prolific scoring of Lou Williams makes Sexton an affordable luxury for the Clippers. "High-character guy, and if he has the ball in his hands, he'll produce enough," the Western Conference GM said.
Worst fit: Magic
Orlando just moved on from a defensive-minded point guard who couldn't shoot in Elfrid Payton; drafting another one wouldn't make much sense. "Scoring point guards in the lottery are a lot easier to sell," the scout said.
Robert Williams: Texas A&M, 6'9", PF/C
Best fit: Clippers
Williams' intrigue can be credited to the emergence of Clint Capela in Houston as a dynamic rim-protecting, lob-catching center, but tapping into it is expected to require a coach with a deft touch. Paging Doc Rivers. "I don't give Doc a ton of credit, but he took DeAndre [Jordan] to a level no one else had. Robert Williams is a better basketball player, while DeAndre is a better kid," the Western Conference GM said. "But if anyone can get the best out of Williams, I'm betting on Doc."
Worst fit: Nuggets
Much like Capela, having a point guard who can demand attention and find Williams rolling to the rim would be critical. Denver doesn't have one. Getting buried on the bench behind Jokic and Millsap with a tough-minded coach in Michael Malone wouldn't be ideal either. "He can be a low-motor kid at times," the scout said. "He's a small-town kid, and he didn't really improve from a year ago. Some people think he regressed. I just don't know how badly he wants to be great."
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: Kentucky, 6'6", PG
Best fit: Hornets, Sixers
While Gilgeous-Alexander has a chance to be the best point guard from this draft class eventually, the Western Conference assistant GM wouldn't put the ball in his hands from the start. Playing him alongside another ball-handler such as Kemba Walker or Ben Simmons is preferable. "I don't think he's a primary ball-handler," the assistant GM said. "Not yet. He can be. He reminds me of Brian Shaw. When people figured out he was a complementary guard, that's when his career took off."
Worst fit: Nuggets
Remember that point about Malone not being wild about mistake-prone PGs? No one took the motto of Kentucky coach John Calipari, "Fail fast," to heart more than Gilgeous-Alexander, who packed 100 turnovers into 37 appearances as a freshman, many of the why-did-he-even-try-that variety.
Lonnie Walker: Miami, 6'4", SG
Best fit: Nuggets, Clippers
The perfect cocoon, several executives said, is one with an opportunity to play but not a guarantee. His size, strength and defensive tenacity would be welcomed by both Malone and Rivers, but he'd have to elbow his way past proven vets into both rotations. "If he goes to a team with vets and has stability and you don't have to play him and he has to earn his spot, that's your best chance at getting the most out of him," the scout said.
Worst fit: Hornets
The competition on the wings for minutes is limited. Again, from the scout: "He's got great size and he looks the part. But if you throw him out there on a bad team, I don't know if he's the type of kid who would get the most out of it."
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @RicBucher.