With the NBA Draft order officially set and the Combine in the rear-view, we're approaching the zenith of mock draft season.
While mock drafts are
almost always sometimes a futile exercise, the draft is less than a month away, and with potentially almost a full week between the Conference Finals and the start of the Warriors' quest for a three-peat, we have to talk about something. Basically, that's the best way I can rationalize this.
Most mock drafts aim to predict where the top prospects will land, but for this exercise we'll take fantasy value into account. Rather than simply laying out the most likely landing spot, we'll instead attempt to find the best fantasy fit. In other words: Where would a player be able to provide the most fantasy value in the immediate future?
In an effort to keep things realistic, we'll stick to the general range in which most prospects are currently projected to land. Zion Williamson would be a wrecking ball on any team in the league, but he's not going to be available to the Hornets at No. 12 or the Suns at No. 6, let alone the Grizzlies at No. 2. Beyond Williamson, however, there's a bit more wiggle room, and everything from roster composition to NBA-readiness to positional scarcity will be taken into account.
Let's get to it.
1. New Orleans Pelicans
Zion Williamson, F, Duke
Williamson lands in New Orleans by default as the biggest runaway No. 1 prospect since his soon-to-be (possibly) teammate, Anthony Davis. Regardless of which team won the lottery, Williamson was going to step in and start from Day 1, but he'll enter a particularly interesting situation in New Orleans. If David Griffin is able to convince Davis to stay, he and Williamson instantly become one of the best young duos in the NBA. If Davis is ultimately traded, the Pelicans will presumably bring back a treasure trove of picks and young players, shifting toward a mini-rebuild around Williamson. Either way, he'll enter the season as the No. 1 fantasy rookie.
2. Memphis Grizzlies
Ja Morant, G, Murray State
We'll stick with chalk at No. 2 and send Morant to Memphis, where he'll presumably step in as the second long-term cornerstone alongside Jaren Jackson, Jr. Of course, this assumes the Grizzlies find a home for Mike Conley, who will certainly have a market, but perhaps not a massive one given the $67 million remaining on his contract. Given their pick obligations to Boston, the Grizzlies should be motivated to struggle again next season, which bodes well for Morant, who will likely go through growing pains as he adjusts from low-level college basketball to the NBA.
The only player on the Grizzlies' current roster standing in Morant's way is Delon Wright. The 6-5 Wright looked good in extended minutes after coming over from Toronto in the Marc Gasol trade, and before the lottery he may have been in line to be Memphis' point guard of at least the short-term future. But Wright is already 27 and obviously won't be prioritized over Morant. With his size, though, Wright could slide in at the off-guard spot next to the rookie.
Fantasy-wise, Morant projects as a strong source of scoring and assists, with some steals sprinkled in, but he'll still face questions about his three-point shot until he proves capable of hitting consistently from NBA range. The good news is Morant hit better than 56 percent of his two-point attempts as a sophomore, and he's an 80-plus percent free throw shooter. If there's a guard in this draft capable of Trae Young numbers as a rookie, it's Morant.
3. New York Knicks
Jarrett Culver, G, Texas Tech
Here's where we start making some assumptions. The Knicks are probably signing Kevin Durant, and there's a good chance they make a move -- perhaps involving this very pick -- to acquire at least one other star. For the sake of argument, though, let's say they keep the pick. RJ Barrett will probably be the best player available, but sending the do-it-all playmaker to a team already stocked with superstar talent wouldn't maximize his fantasy value.
Asking any rookie to step into that situation would be difficult, but Culver has the skill set to immediately be a two-way contributor for a playoff team. Culver was clearly Texas Tech's best player as a sophomore, but he doesn't necessarily project as a ball-dominant scorer at the next level. In New York, he'd have an opportunity to develop on as a super-role-player on what would likely be a top-three team in the East.
4. Los Angeles Lakers
De'Andre Hunter, F, Virginia
The case against Barrett to the Lakers is virtually the same as the Knicks' above. Whether you believe it'll happen or not, the Lakers are dead set on pairing another superstar with LeBron James and building a short-term title contender around the best player of his generation. Given that mandate -- and the possibility that the roster could be gutted following a blockbuster deal -- the Lakers will be in search of a player who's ready to contribute from Day 1. Enter Hunter, who, regardless of where he ends up, projects to be a better real-life player than fantasy commodity.
It was tough to fully gauge Hunter's offensive potential in Virginia's methodical system, but he was a very good three-point shooter as a freshman (38.2%), who developed into a great three-point shooter as a sophomore, hitting nearly 44 percent of his 2.8 attempts per game. The Lakers erred in not loading up on perimeter marksmen last offseason, so adding catch-and-shoot threats around James should be a major priority this time around. Hunter would be a sound fit working the wings and short-corners, but his primary value lies in his defensive versatility.
5. Cleveland Cavaliers
RJ Barrett, G/F, Duke
Each year, only a handful of rookies end up being valuable fantasy commodities, and the ones who reach that level typically step into high-usage roles on rebuilding teams. The Cavs handed the keys to Collin Sexton for much of last season, and it led to averages of 16.7 points, 3.0 assists, 2.9 rebounds and 1.5 made threes per game.
Even with his flaws, Barrett is a markedly better prospect in almost every way than Sexton, and the Cavs would happily shift some possessions out of Sexton's hands -- something they've already discussed -- to enable Barrett to function as the primary playmaker. Outside of Sexton, it's tough to point to any other true building blocks on the Cavs' roster. Larry Nance and Tristan Thompson are productive players, but they're 26 and 28, respectively, and as low-usage bigs, wouldn't stand in Barrett's way. Of course, the Cavs do still have Kevin Love, but he's missed 115 games over the last three seasons, and it wouldn't be a surprise if the Cavs explore a trade to get out of the $120 million he's owed over the next four seasons.
Long story short: Cleveland is the best place for a high-usage, no-conscience playmaker like Barrett to maximize his counting stats.
6. Phoenix Suns
Coby White, G, North Carolina
These next two are virtually interchangeable, with both Phoenix and Chicago in need of upgrades at point guard. Despite missing nearly all of his freshman season with a torn meniscus, Darius Garland appears to be the general preference of the two, but White would be an intriguing fit as a big guard who thrives in transition and shoots the three at a reliable clip (35.3%, 6.6 3PA/G). The Suns are desperately in need of shooting after ranking 28th in made threes and dead-last in three-point percentage last season. Phoenix's top-five leaders in total three-point attempts each shot below 34 percent.
White's decision-making is still a work in progress, but with Devin Booker already in place, Phoenix isn't necessarily looking for someone to come in and handle the ball on every possession. At 6-5, White can seamlessly shift off the ball at times, and while he's not a great defender, his size should allow him to, at the very least, match up physically with most NBA two-guards.
Whichever point guard the Suns take -- assuming they don't deal for someone like Conley -- figures to step in as an immediate starter for a team that rolled out De'Anthony Melton, Elie Okobo, Isaiah Canaan and Tyler Johnson last season. Johnson will likely opt into his nearly $20 million player option for 2019-20, but Phoenix shouldn't let that impact its decision-making process.
7. Chicago Bulls
Darius Garland, G, Vanderbilt
Like Phoenix, Chicago has a lame-duck point guard on the roster in Kris Dunn, and there's little reason to believe the Bulls view Dunn -- a former top-five pick -- as part of the long-term core. While the Bulls have missed the playoffs in three of the last four years, it's enabled them to assemble a fairly intriguing group of young pieces, headlined by Lauri Markkanen and, to a lesser degree, Wendell Carter.
With Zach LaVine in place at one guard spot and Otto Porter on the wing, point guard is Chicago's clear area of need. The Dunn dynamic still needs to be sorted out, but Garland would likely emerge as the starter, bringing much-needed shooting and playmaking ability to what was the league's second-worst offense in 2018-19.
8. Atlanta Hawks
Cam Reddish, G/F, Duke
Looking at the numbers, it's tough to make a case for why Reddish is valued so highly. But even after a disappointing freshman season, there's plenty of optimism that his length and freaky athleticism will be able to carry him at the next level. Obviously, Reddish has the shoot the ball better than he did at Duke -- especially from three -- but he was thrust into a difficult situation as the Kevin Love to Zion's LeBron and Barrett's Kyrie. In a more spaced-out NBA, Reddish should see more clean looks, but he remains the biggest boom-or-bust prospect in the draft.
In terms of fit, it would make sense for Atlanta to pull the trigger on a risky prospect with one of their two picks in the top-10. One of last year's first-rounders, Kevin Huerter, looks like a long-term keeper, but other than that, the Hawks don't have a ton of talent on the wing. Taurean Prince was quietly shopped last season, while Kent Bazemore and his $19.2 million cap hit for 2019-20 are very much available.
Reddish will probably take a few years to round out, but the Hawks are still at least a year away from playoff contention and could offer Reddish the best environment to develop. No matter where he lands, though, Reddish doesn't project as much of an immediate fantasy commodity.
9. Washington Wizards
Bol Bol, C, Oregon
Wherever he ends up, Bol is going to be a lot of fun -- as long as he can stay healthy. Bol missed most of his freshman season with a fractured foot, and while he's believed to be healing well, it was somewhat alarming when he weighed in at just 208 pounds at the Combine -- more than 20 pounds lighter than when he last took the court for the Ducks.
The 19-year-old is going to be a project player, but his skill set is already advanced for a player of his size. Bol moves extremely well at 7-2, more than comfortable handling the ball and pulling up from beyond the arc. It's tough to say whether his three-point shot, which looked good in a small sample at Oregon, will translate right away, but Bol's upside is tantalizing.
The Wizards are in a bit of a holding pattern with a huge chunk of their cap tied up in a point guard who may not play a single minute next season. With Bradley Beal on the roster, it'll be difficult to bottom-out, but Washington is functionally a rebuilding team that can offer Bol the most important component of any player's fantasy value: consistent minutes. Thomas Bryant was a pleasant surprise last season, and 33-year-old Dwight Howard should be able to offer more, but the Wizards don't have much else up front -- especially if they don't re-sign restricted free agent Bobby Portis.
10. Atlanta Hawks (via DAL)
Jaxson Hayes, C, Texas
This is not a great big man draft, but the Hawks are in need of a center with Dewayne Dedmon heading into unrestricted free agency. Alex Len is still on the books next season, but he's the only other true five on the roster, and the Hawks aren't in a position to prioritize his minutes over developing a younger, higher-upside prospect.
Hayes was a late-riser as a freshman at Texas, finishing the season with averages of 10.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.2 blocks in 23.3 minutes per game. He may never be much of an outside threat (no three-point attempts last season), but Hayes would give the Hawks a second athletic rim-runner to pair with John Collins.
11. Minnesota Timberwolves
Nassir Little, F, North Carolina
Little's freshman season was similarly disappointing to that of Reddish, yet both players are likely to hear their names called in the lottery. For Little, it was more about struggling to fit in off the bench for a deep Tar Heels team, but he showed some flashes late in the season -- and tested well enough at the Combine -- to maintain plenty of intrigue. While Little may never be a great creator off the dribble, he's a freak athlete with a chiseled frame that should allow him to switch onto smaller guards on the perimeter and handle bigger wings in the paint.
The return of a healthy Robert Covington will provide a major boost to Minnesota's wing rotation, but the Wolves are set to part ways with Taj Gibson, Luol Deng and Anthony Tolliver this offseason. That would pave a relatively clear path to minutes for Little, so long as Minnesota doesn't add significant depth in free agency.
12. Charlotte Hornets
Rui Hachimura, F, Gonzaga
Few teams need as much help from top to bottom as the Hornets, whether Kemba Walker is still on the team next season or not. Charlotte has a ton of money committed to several average-at-best big men, with Bismack Biyombo, Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist all on the books for at least $13 million in 2019-20. And that's without even counting the $25.6 million owned to Nic Batum, which escalates to more than $27 million in 2020-21.
Charlotte has struggled to find talent in this range in recent years, whiffing on Noah Vonleh, Frank Kaminsky, and (at least so far) Malik Monk before trading out of the Shai Gilgeous-Alexander pick to take Miles Bridges a year ago. Not ideal.
Hachimura isn't going to be an instant-impact player capable of wiping away those past failures, but he's a high-energy, high-floor guy who could swing between power forward in traditional lineups and center in smaller looks. It remains to be seen if the Hornets will do anything to attempt to clear the clutter, but even if they don't, it's tough to imagine Hachimura riding the bench behind the aforementioned bigs on what could be a bottom-five team.
13. Miami Heat
Kevin Porter, Jr., G, USC
With virtually every key piece other than Dwyane Wade under contract next season, the Heat are currently among the least-viable landing spots for fantasy purposes. But they have to take someone, and Porter would be an interesting gamble for an organization that prides itself on its work-ethic and culture. Talent-wise, Porter measures up with any guard in the draft, but he has a host of off-court concerns, and it was difficult to draw conclusions from his one abbreviated year at USC. If there's an organization that can keep Porter in line and maximize his physical gifts, it's Miami.
14. Boston Celtics (via SAC)
Brandon Clarke, F, Gonzaga
Like Miami, Boston has a ton of depth all over the roster, but that could change by the time we get to October. Al Horford and Kyrie Irving can both opt out, while any number of the Celtics' young players could be involved in a potential Anthony Davis trade. It's difficult to pinpoint exactly where Boston's holes may be in a few months, but Clarke would bring some versatility up front -- potentially filling the void left by unrestricted-free-agent-to-be, Marcus Morris.
Clarke's production at Gonzaga -- 16.9 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 3.2 BPG, 1.2 SPG, 69% FG -- is hard to ignore, and he's an elite athlete for his position, but he has short arms for his size, as well as a concerningly low release point on his jumper. Regardless, as an older prospect who will be 23 by the time next season begins, the hope is that he'll be ready to contribute right away for a playoff team.