NBA Teams Already Regretting Their 2018 NBA Draft Picks
Trips down Hindsight Highway are not excursions NBA teams can afford to take on a regular basis.
Harping on what could have been is akin to playing with fire—particularly when it comes to the draft. Learning from past faults and follies is important, but prospect evaluation is largely a crapshoot. Teams select players who they deem superior in talent or fit only to see others chosen after them go on to bigger, better, brighter debuts and careers. It happens.
Plus, time is a rookie's best friend. Some players take a little longer to marinate. Most organizations won't leap to sweeping conclusions about the 2018 class for a season or four.
Arm-chair observers needn't show the same restraint. Certain rookies are clearly outperforming their peers, and a handful of squads have to at least be slightly wondering whether they should have gone in a different direction.
Not all regret grates equally, though. A few teams should obviously be lamenting their decisions. Some should merely be on alert and preparing themselves for a complete or near miss. Others are forced to confront misjudgments and what-ifs by default, even if they make no apology for their selections.
This totem pole of concern will not single out injuries—Michael Porter Jr. in Denver, Lonnie Walker IV in San Antonio—unless there were clearly better options on the table. And it is by no means irreversible. But the results so far warrant watchful eyes in the months and years to come.
Obligatory Could-Have-Had-Luka-Doncic Mentions
1. Phoenix Suns: Deandre Ayton
You better believe Luka Doncic is good enough to spark a separate discussion. He has majority control over the offense of a current playoff hopeful and has wowed with his playmaking and advanced-level shot selection. (Related: Jaren Jackson Jr. may deserve the same treatment.)
Doncic, Stephen Curry and Tim Hardaway Jr. are the only players clearing 40 percent on pull-up threes while attempting at least three per game. The rookie is also knocking down 32.7 percent of his step-back treys—not quite James Harden-esque (38.2 percent), but that shot being in his repertoire is absurd on its own.
If his performance holds, Doncic will become just the third first-year player to eclipse 20 points and 4.5 assists per 36 minutes on a true shooting percentage north of 55. His company: Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson.
The Suns have little to lament for the time being. Doncic would have been an interesting fit beside Devin Booker, given their point guard situation, but Deandre Ayton is a Rookie of the Year candidate himself.
His offensive acumen is as described. He is outstanding around the rim and sports nice footwork on his rim runs and cuts. His post-ups aren't drowning in craft, but he has great touch and makes quicks decisions off the catch. He is shooting almost 60 percent on hooks shots and has flashed some standstill face-up range from the perimeter. Also: Holy passing.
Investing in big men as cornerstones is more risky than ever. They must essentially be oversized wings. Ayton needs to improve as a half-court defender away from the basket and will eventually have to test his mettle from beyond the arc or tap into a more extensive floor game.
Whether he was worth taking over Doncic is a matter for the long term that'll ultimately depend on both stylistic preference and Phoenix's own development within the Western Conference.
2. Sacramento Kings: Marvin Bagley III
Killing the Kings for not selecting Doncic is too easy, and it has already been done ad nauseam.
When push comes to shove, yes, they should have drafted him. He is transcendence in the making. If we have to even think for a second about whether the Suns should've rolled with him instead of Ayton, no way, now how can Sacramento get a pass for choosing Marvin Bagley III.
Totally crushing that pick, though, ignores how solid Bagley has been in the early going. He doesn't have the cachet or playing time of Ayton or Doncic, but he's quietly piecing together a nice rookie season. He's a whiz at slipping through crevices off the ball and a force on the offensive glass. His post game lacks polish, but he's whipped out some from-scratch handles when facing the basket.
As ESPN.com's Zach Lowe said on The Lowe Post podcast: "Is he a 5? Well, they're playing him at the 4 and [Harry] Giles is mostly the 5, but sometimes not. And then he plays with [Willie] Cauley-Stein. But sometimes he plays with [Nemanja] Bjelica, where he is the 5. ... But his off-the-dribble game, his explosiveness from dribble to rim-finish, even though he wants to go left all the time, it's more interesting to me than I thought it would be."
This doesn't exonerate the Kings from scrutiny. Bagley is pretty good. He might be really good. Doncic is great.
5. Atlanta Hawks (via Dallas Mavericks): Trae Young
Trading out of the Luka Doncic spot helps cushion the optics for the Hawks. Young doesn't need to match his arc if Dallas' 2019 first-rounder (top-five protected) turns into a nice player for Atlanta.
Except, for the moment, the Mavericks are gate-crashing the West's playoff race. The odds of them conveying, say, the 12th pick or worse to Atlanta are pretty friggin' good. (This doubles as your yearly reminder that head coach Rick Carlisle is an actual wizard—not to be confused with an honorary member of the Washington Wizards, who could use an actual wizard like himself.)
Those immediate feel-good vibes emanating from Dallas and Doncic ascribe more importance to Young's performance. And, well, the outlook isn't peachy keen. He's shooting under 25 percent from downtown, and his efficiency on drives, initially a silver lining, has taken a nosedive over the past couple of weeks. That tilts toward damning when he offers zero value at the defensive end.
Rushing to a final judgment still feels too harsh. Over 40 percent of Young's attempts are coming as pull-up jumpers, and more than 70 percent of his made buckets are going unassisted. His is a trial by fire, and lifelines demand patience. Not everyone can be Curry, who, true story, dropped in 76.6 percent of his pull-up threes as a rookie.
Young is an inventive passer and has shown he can be a creative finisher. The enormity of his role—he has the same usage rate as Anthony Davis (28.1)—and degree of difficulty on his shots have to count for something.
Once more: He's not Doncic. And the Hawks could have snagged Doncic. Maybe they deserve to be ripped apart for dealing the No. 3 pick. But the context of Young's role, coupled with the unknown incumbent of Dallas' pick, earns Atlanta some leeway.
8. Cleveland Cavaliers: Collin Sexton
In most ways, Collin Sexton is exactly who the Cavaliers knew they were drafting: an offensive lightning rod who fires questionable shots and doesn't visibly elevate the play of those around him relative to what's expected from point guards, be they rookies or veterans.
In other ways, the 19-year-old is a pleasant surprise. He's shooting 40 percent from three, albeit on scarce volume, and canning over 45 percent of his pull-up two-pointers.
On the flip side, more of Sexton's looks are coming on long twos (38.2 percent) than inside of three feet (27.6 percent). His 48.9 percent clip in the restricted area is fourth-worst among 94 players who've racked up at least 70 attempts.
As a counterpoint, Sexton isn't especially turnover prone, and he's turned in a few "Hey! Maybe we have something here!" defensive performances.
Then again, he doesn't have the look or feel of a cornerstone. The absence of creation for others is a red flag. He's averaging 2.8 assists per 36 minutes since entering the starting lineup on Nov. 7. Out of 86 guards clearing 25 minutes, his 5.5 potential assists per game rank 58th.
It's all unnecessarily confusing. The Cavaliers' draft-day logic portended LeBron James' free-agency decision. They needed another self-sustaining scorer as they initiated a rebuild. But they never triggered that teardown. They have steered into a youth movement, but Sexton is still surrounded by other ball-dominant guards.
Someone like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (No. 11) offered more plug-and-play potential and better possession management. Multiposition players such as Mikal Bridges (No. 10) or Miles Bridges (No. 11) would have been in lockstep with the NBA's overall direction. Ditto on Kevin Knox (No. 9).
9. New York Knicks: Kevin Knox
We need to talk more about how neither of the Knicks' top picks from the past two years, Knox and Frank Ntilikina, are in their starting lineup. A sprained left ankle derailed the beginning of Knox's season, but he was yanked from the opening five beforehand.
It would be unfair to call his selection a fundamental failure. He hasn't done anything yet, because he hasn't been overwhelmed with the chance to do anything. His 26-point explosion in New York's thrilling Dec. 1 victory against the Milwaukee Bucks could be a harbinger of what's to come, and head coach David Fizdale is adamant that his kid(s) will be just fine.
"I think I've got a 19-year-old [Knox] and a 20-year-old [Ntilikina] trying to figure out the NBA, the league that's full of the absolute best players in the world, the best coaches in the world, doing it in the absolute toughest market in America," he said, per Newsday's Steve Popper. "Give them a break. These guys are learning on the fly."
Duly noted. But this isn't so much about Knox as the options the Knicks passed up. Gilgeous-Alexander's smooth game would have been a particularly tantalizing fit. He doesn't have the defensive range of Ntilikina, but he's a lanky nuisance, and he's easier to slide between the floor-general and off-guard spots on offense.
This matters. The Knicks have been on the hunt for a permanent backcourt solution since, approximately, the dawn of time. They're getting better point guard play from Emmanuel Mudiay, but he's a restricted free agent after this season. Doubling down on a career wild card is dangerous for rebuilding squads.
Ntilikina never profiled as the absolute answer. The Knicks started grooming him as more of a hybrid guard-wing last season. But teams are calling about his availability, and he's received DNP-coach's decisions in two consecutive games. If New York is the least bit out on him, it would have made sense to roll the dice on Gilgeous-Alexander.
Disregard the point guard issues, and Miles Bridges looms here. Knox has a much higher offensive ceiling, but Bridges is the more portable defender. The Knicks have their share of shot-takers with Tim Hardaway Jr. and, eventually, Kristaps Porzingis. They've potentially discovered more in Mudiay and Allonzo Trier. Taking someone who can guard all three frontcourt positions rather than another shoot-first weapon might come back to bite them unless they win the Zion Williamson sweepstakes.
13. Los Angeles Clippers: Jerome Robinson
Jerome Robinson hasn't done anything to torpedo his stock. That's kind of the problem.
Most recently, he's been dealing with a right foot injury. Before that, the Clippers had him shuttling between them and their G League affiliate. He has played all of 40 minutes across eight appearances at the NBA level.
And you know what? We can't blame the Clippers. They're throwing a wrench in the Western Conference pecking order. Developmental minutes are hard to find when teams are competing against actual stakes.
Los Angeles' backcourt depth isn't doing Robinson any favors, either. Playing Avery Bradley, Patrick Beverley, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lou Williams doesn't leave much wiggle room. Both of Milos Teodosic and Tyrone Wallace are rotation afterthoughts and would curry favor over Robinson in the event of an injury.
Here's the thing: This backcourt traffic jam isn't news. Beverley and Williams predate Robinson's arrival. So does Bradley, and the Clippers had to at least have an inkling they'd re-sign him over the summer. Adding Gilgeous-Alexander just two spots earlier, via a trade with the Charlotte Hornets, rendered the Robinson selection curious right away.
"Robinson's meteoric rise to the lottery is a bit of a head-scratcher," The Ringer's Jonathan Tjarks wrote while giving the Clippers a "C" for the pick. "The positive is he's a great three-point shooter who proved he could run the pick-and-roll at Boston College. The negative is he's an average athlete at best who may not be able to defend either backcourt position and won't offer much value without the ball in his hands."
Nobody saw the Clippers hovering around the West's No. 1 seed more than a quarter of the way through the season. Never in a million-zillion-trillion years could they have made the 13th-overall selection with this scorching-hot start in mind. But the well-stocked backcourt allowed more flexibility.
Even if they weren't sure whether they'd finish this season with the nucleus intact, this pick was begging to be burned on a higher-end project or risk. Think: The injured Michael Porter Jr. (No. 14) or Zhaire Smith (No. 16).
16. Philadelphia 76ers (via Phoenix Suns): Zhaire Smith
Although the reactions to the Philadelphia 76ers trading for Zhaire Smith were mixed, many respected the gall of the move.
Brett Brown was the team's interim general manager at the time. Handing head coaches that brand of decision-making clout often gives way to shortsighted moves. They are conditioned to chase wins. For anyone without job security or a distinct ownership mandate, the big picture is a secondary priority.
And yet, there was Brown on draft night, in charge of a team with real expectations following a 52-win coming-out party, making a long-term play. He flipped Mikal Bridges, a Philadelphia native and no-brainer roster fit, for Smith and the Miami Heat's 2021 first-rounder. It was bold, refreshing and maybe a stroke of genius.
Smith's fractured left foot doesn't invalidate the Sixers' thinking. He needed surgery again in September after suffering an "allergic reaction to a food product" and, per The Ringer's John Gonzalez, he could miss the entire season. So yeah, Philadelphia's weird rookie rite of passage marches on, but Smith was never the instant-gratification play.
Trading for Jimmy Butler was.
Taking on a project like Smith looks bizarre after consolidating Jerryd Bayless, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and a 2022 second-round pick into a superstar. Smith could be fully healthy, and it still wouldn't sit right.
Playing the "We thought we'd land a marquee name in free agency" card doesn't fly. The superstar market wasn't all that deep last summer. Leaning on the "We thought Markelle Fultz would be ready" excuse also doesn't work. Counting on him after a disastrous rookie season was a risk, never a viable crutch.
Bridges would have looked that much better on the Sixers following the Butler trade. Rookie Landry Shamet (No. 26) has been a serviceable surprise, but Philly remains thin at the wing slots.
Which, again, wouldn't matter if the Sixers were straddling the line between now and later. The Butler deal put an end to that balancing act, and it didn't come out of nowhere. Brown said they were going star-hunting after last season. They needed both their picks for immediate depth. Healthy or not, Smith wouldn't be it. Bridges could have been.
25. Los Angeles Lakers: Moritz Wagner
Congratulations to Moritz Wagner for inciting the most over-the-top bench celebration in the history of trips to the free-throw line. He'll never forget his first-ever makes from the charity stripe.
Still, despite him being on pace to shoot 100 percent from the foul line for his career, the Lakers should have a tinge of draft-day remorse.
Let's say they didn't know whether LeBron James was coming to town. (Debatable.) They needed a big, sure, but the plan was always to sign impact players in free agency. Sweet-shooting swingmen and wings are always the way to go when pursuing A-list talent.
Spread-option bigs are dandy as well, but only if the perimeter tools are in place. They weren't. A lion's share of the Lakers roster was on its way out the door, and they finished 27th last season in efficiency on catch-and-shoot threes.
This season has offered more of the same. The Lakers rank 23rd in spot-up accuracy from behind the rainbow—27th over their last 10 games—and they're 24th in treys attempted per 100 possessions. Neither mark is acceptable for a team assembled around Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, let alone LeBron.
Finding value this late in the first round is hard. But jeez, imagine how much more three-point friendly the Lakers would be with Landry Shamet, drafted one pick later, in the rotation. He's drilling nearly 40 percent of his triples off the catch and is willing to dart around in the half-court to get his shots. LeBron would have a field day with him.