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SMILODON 2.0: The Top Ten

Looking at the cream of this year’s draft crop.

Basketball: Luka Doncic Sipa USA-USA TODAY NETWORK

The 2018 NBA draft is almost upon us. For the first time in many years, the Wolves don’t have a lottery pick, but as the players taken in the top ten are often the ones who change the course of the league, I thought it would be interesting to discuss my top ten through the prism of SMILODON, my simple - yet powerful - draft system, the details of which can be found here and here.

2018 Top Ten

The first thing that stands out from this list is the quantity of blue and green boxes following the name Luka Doncic, who has the best SMILODON projection of anyone in the last seven drafts. This is despite playing over 70 games since August against the best competition in Europe. Doncic is a big wing who is one of the best 18 year old passers we have ever seen, shoots a high volume of threes off the dribble, hits his free throws, auguring future shooting success, makes plays on defense, and gets to the line almost at will. Statistically, he’s nearly a perfect prospect.

It is difficult to find comparisons for Doncic, as there are very few players who have been that statistically dominant at that young of an age. Here are the best I could find from the SMILODON era (going back to 2012).

Luka Doncic Comparisons

One of the glaring flaws in SMILODON is that it does not yet adjust for league quality. That means that Doncic, despite his gaudy projection, is still probably underrated compared to most other European prospects. For example, the Spanish ACB that Doncic played in is much tougher than the Russian leagues that Sergey Karasev played in, and the Euroleague is a higher level of competition than the Eurocup.

The only question mark around Luka, and the one likely to keep him out of a Suns uniform, is his athleticism. He’s not nearly as limited athletically as, say, Karsev or Kyle Anderson, but he’s not extremely fast or explosive and there are worries that he won’t be able to beat NBA defenders off the dribble.

These concerns are somewhat legitimate. Doncic won’t be able to explode to the basket like Russell Westbrook or John Wall. On the other hand, he’s 6’8, handles like a guard, and is really strong for his age. I think people are underrating how much that extra size will help him pick apart defenses by passing and shooting over shorter players. If you put a wing sized player on him, he can draw fouls with his already impressive array of hesitations and misdirections. In addition, the lead initiators for the two best teams in the league each faced the same athleticism based criticism leading into their drafts, and each has rendered that criticism irrelevant through his extremely high skill level. I’m not saying Luka will be as good as James Harden or Steph Curry, both of whom improved more than one can reasonably expect from a prospect. I am saying he’s more skilled and more productive at a younger age.

Players with Luka’s size and skill level come around very, very rarely. I think 2018 is a really strong draft, with multiple All-NBA caliber players, but Doncic’s skillset is so rare, so important, and so malleable that I can’t imagine taking anyone else number one. If I can’t convince you, let this video try.

In almost any other year, I would advocate taking Jaren Jackson Jr first overall. The son of former NBA wing Jaren Jackson, JJJ is extremely young for his class, but can protect the rim, switch on defense, and shoot the three.

Jaren Jackson Jr Comparables

Myles Turner, except better at everything” is a good comparison. Anthony Davis might be a bit too optimistic. Jackson’s main weaknesses are foul trouble and a lack of explosiveness around the basket. I’m not very worried about the foul trouble, as most superstar bigs had a very high foul rate as a freshman, and Jackson is a year younger than many of them were at the same point in their careers.

Jackson is more of a smooth athlete than an explosive one, accounting for his fairly low offensive rebounding rate and a lower two point field goal percentage than players like Ayton and Bagley. This shows up in his “subpar” production. I do think it’s likely that this weakness in his game will prevent him from ever becoming a leading option. However, when you put together his shooting, nascent better-than-you-think handle, higher block rate than Mo Bamba, and his ability to switch on the perimeter, you have nearly the perfect big man for a modern playoff team. His extreme youth also leaves open the possibility that he could even surpass that optimistic prediction.

I see Doncic and Jackson as the surest bets in this draft to be top 30 NBA players at some point in their careers. After them come a few players with high upside, but a lot more risk. Of these, Mohamed Bamba is the most intriguing. Bamba as an (older) freshman put together one of the most impressive defensive campaigns from a draft prospect in recent memory, averaging 5 blocks and 10 defensive rebounds per 40 with a low foul rate. His offense was less impressive.

Mo Bamba Comparables

Bamba is very skinny and can get pushed around inside, his passing wasn’t there, and he shot a low percentage from three. Initially, these weaknesses had persuaded me to push him towards the back of my top ten. A couple factors made me reconsider, prompted by a couple draft evaluation mistakes I have recently made.

The first mistake I’ve made is ignoring freakish physical measurements that came out after I’d already made up my mind on a player. This caused me to underrate Kristaps Porzingis. I had a fairly pessimistic opinion on him, and the fact that he measured nearly three inches taller than I thought, right before the draft, did not get me to reconsider that opinion. It should have. Last year, I ignored the evidence from the combine scrimmages that Kyle Kuzma had clearly improved since I had last watched him. Similarly, Bamba’s 7’10 wingspan and improved shot mechanics in draft workout videos, albeit an imperfect source, have convinced me that there is more potential there than I saw at Texas, a school notorious for putting young big men in positions to fail.

The second mistake I made was completely dissociating basketball IQ from actual intelligence, particularly with Jaylen Brown. At Cal, Brown showed poor BBIQ even though he was obviously a very intelligent person. I assumed that his real world intelligence didn’t matter that much. I was wrong, as Brown has improved faster than most of the rookies from his class. Bamba appears to be much smarter than your average teenager, which appears to be paying off in his pre-draft preparation. Obviously, one can take this mode of analysis much too far, and I am trying to limit its application to obvious physical outliers.

I still don’t believe in Bamba’s interior offensive game, and the fact that he’s old for his class makes me pause, but it’s extremely hard to pass up an extremely long, athletic, intelligent big man with a promising three point shot. There is enough evidence that he is special that passing on him could look foolish very quickly.

One of the more divisive players in the class is Trae Young, who started off the season on fire, but finished it in the fridge. Fittingly, he finished near the cutoff line between tiers in nearly every SMILODON category, meaning that his SMILODON projection looks very impressive, but was only one or two bad games away from “pretty good.” Like many elite prospects, Young has few comparables, so I also ran Steph Curry and Jimmer Fredette through the simplified version of SMILODON (no PBP stats) I use for international players.

(For those wondering, at the same age, Young was far better than Jimmer Fredette and maybe a little better than Steph Curry, or not, depending how you value passing against defense.)

Trae Young Comparables

There is one quirk of SMILODON that may end up depressing Young’s production in future iterations of the system. The “driving” score does not penalize players for missing halfcourt attempts at the rim. Young made a lot of shots at the rim, but he also missed a lot. It’s possible that his green flag for driving is purely the result of a permanent green light, and floaters scored as layups, but, pending further evidence, I prefer to credit players for aggression, which Young has in spades.

His production is unprecedented for a freshman point guard, albeit in a spread pick and roll system that is more conducive to putting up big numbers than most of the unwatchable dreck run by college coaches. Young is a phenomenal shooter, a great passer, and is able to break down the defense with an advanced handle and enough shiftiness. He’s big enough to survive at point guard and young enough that I think he can get strong enough to be more than bench player.

The only flag in Young’s statistical profile is his lack of production on the defensive end. In this draft, I think a point guard taken in the top three would need to be a Hall of Famer to make one regret taking Luka and the unicorn bigs. Nearly all of the truly elite point guards of the past couple generations - Steph Curry, Chris Paul, James Harden, John Stockton, Jason Kidd, Gary Payton, Chauncey Billups - posted much higher steal rates than Young. The exceptions tend to be the nuclear athletes who blossom once they leave school, like Russell Westbrook, and Steve Nash.

My point is that if you take Young at the top of this draft, with the other talent available, you are betting he’s Steve Nash. Normally this would be a laughable statement, but we are in uncharted territory with a player of Young’s production. My biggest cause for concern is that players with a high skill level but questionable NBA athleticism often take longer to adjust to the league, meaning that the team that drafts Young will have to be patient and not jettison him if he struggles his first couple seasons. If Young becomes a good player for his second team, it doesn’t help the team that drafted him.

With that caveat in mind, this is the point on my big board where I think the gamble that Young has a Nash-like ability to stretch the floor and see the game is defensible.

By this time, you may be wondering, “Where is DeAndre Ayton?” I have the presumptive number one pick at number five, in part, because I think this draft is so good. Ayton is huge, fast, athletic, and an elite scorer and rebounder. He was obviously too big and too skilled for most college bigs.

DeAndre Ayton Comparables

In an empty gym, Ayton looks like the best player in this class. But despite his historic productivity, he struggled on defense. Arizona was worse on defense when Ayton played, his steals and blocks were much lower than just about every great big man who has come through the NCAA, and the concept of help defense often appeared foreign to him. I don’t want to completely write him off at that end because of his elite athleticism and the fact that the Arizona program has made many players look worse than they actually were.

That being said, I really, really, really wouldn’t want to use a top five pick on a big man with so many questions on defense. Even if Ayton gives you 25 & 12 - hardly guaranteed as his shooting touch and passing ability are far from sure bets to develop - I don’t know how far that takes you if his defense isn’t good. That’s the risk with him. If the defense dramatically improves, maybe he’s Patrick Ewing. If not, he could be the Joe Barry Carroll of the 21st century. And it’s nearly guaranteed that one of the previous two sentences will look absolutely moronic in a few years.

Of course, many, seemingly including the Suns, will look at his size, strength, speed, and offensive potential, and will conclude those factors trump every weakness in his game. I’m not sure they are wrong, which is why I have him as high as I do, but I don’t think it is probable, which is why I have him as low as I do.

I think there’s a small drop-off after Young and Ayton to the rest of the top ten. The most promising of these is another freshman big, Wendell Carter, who has a high BBIQ, good length, promising shooting fundamentals, and was very productive at Duke.

Wendell Carter Comparables

Carter doesn’t have the crazy athleticism or mobility of the bigs ranked ahead of him. This is the only thing keeping him out of my top three and is the factor that may drop him towards the bottom of the lottery. He’s not a stiff - he can move a bit in space - but it’s easy to imagine him getting roasted on switches, especially against high level opponents in the playoffs. That being said, the list of bigs with his production at his age is very short, and I would bet that he improves enough athletically to become a plus defensive big. His defensive awareness is certainly much better than Ayton’s, which really helps him.

Carter’s production also may have been suppressed by playing next to another big in Marvin Bagley. Bagley missed four games in the middle of the year, which happened to be four of Carter’s best games and four of Duke’s best defensive performances, suggesting that if Carter had been playing as a team’s lone big, his impressive statistics would look even better, implying that he should be drafted higher. Even accounting for those hidden abilities, this is about the highest I can justify ranking a big man who doesn’t have obvious DPOY or 25 PPG potential.

The next player on our list is our first upperclassman. Mikal Bridges started out the year as a darling of the analytics community, but has recently fallen on many boards for a variety of reasons, many of which read to me like analysts outsmarting themselves.

Mikal Bridges Career

Bridges showed potential as a defensive specialist as a freshman, added a promising shot as a sophomore, then added considerably more shooting and scoring volume to his game as a junior, propelling him into the lottery discussion. I’ve seen people doubt him because of his age and his low usage in previous seasons, but he has perfect height and length for a NBA wing, I’m nearly 100% sure he will be a good shooter, and he has posted excellent defensive numbers, starting as a 19 year old. He’s a little skinny to reliably guard fours, but he has the quickness, length, and technique to switch at least 1-3.

Before Mikal, there have been older 3&D wing prospects who have failed (Wes Johnson!), but none of them had nearly the volume and percentages from three that Bridges showed this year. Nothing is sure in the draft, but Mikal very neatly fits the 3&D wing archetype that is so valuable in the league right now - more valuable than a 20 & 10 big who doesn’t defend. If he can take another step or two forward as a dribbler, he could be even better than that. I would be happy to take him near the end of the top ten, and if my team already had a good young big, I might even take him ahead of Wendell Carter.

The other 3&D wing prospect that should be taken in the top ten is Miles Bridges. I have Mikal & Miles close enough together on my board that, were I a GM, their individual workouts could be enough to sway me from one to the other.

Miles Bridges Career

Bridges was a potential top ten pick last year, but returned to work on his shooting, and definitely succeeded. The only flags in his profile are his relatively short wingspan for a 3/4 and his low steal rates, suggesting he wasn’t completely out-thinking and overpowering his fellow collegians on defense as you’d expect a future star to do. Otherwise, he’s a wing who can shoot, handle a little, pass a little, and is strong and athletic enough to survive on defense. Those players are incredibly valuable in the modern NBA. Don’t overthink it.

Miles Bridges Comparables

Of his comparables, Bridges compares favorably to everyone on this list except Tatum. He probably doesn’t have the athleticism of pre-injuries Jabari, and is a year older at the time of the draft, but makes up for it with his shooting. I’m not completely confident his shooting is as good as his SMILODON projection, as it is reliant on a very high free throw percentage in a pretty small sample, but I’m comfortable thinking he will at least be a solid shooter.

The next player is one I have no idea how to evaluate. Michael Porter missed nearly the entire season with a back injury, so people are evaluating him based on high school hype and mixtapes. I trust neither. Porter is probably a very good shooter who will mostly play power forward. That is promising. He is old for his class, which typically results in high school scouts overrating players, might not pass the ball very well, and has a history of back injuries. That’s scary. If I was making decisions for a team, his performance in workout and his medical records could push him anywhere from 4 to completely off my board.

The last player in my top ten is responsible for perhaps the hottest take in this article. I should emphasize again that I think this is an unusually strong draft, and that this is a player who would normally be in my 3-7 range. With that caveat, let me explain why I have rated Marvin Bagley III 10th.

Marvin Bagley Comparables

One of the good things about looking for comparable players is that you often find entire classes of players a system like SMILODON can systemically overrate or underrate. In this case, it appears that “super athletic garbage men” can have a greater impact than SMILODON anticipates. That’s a point in Bagley’s favor. I don’t think he’s Blake Griffin, but if he can be a better version of Montrezl Harrell or Julius Randle, that’s a very useful player.

It’s just that...I’ve seen the highlights, the athleticism, the rebounds... but looking at the modern NBA, if that guy is one of the three best players on your team, what is your upside? Bagley hit a few threes this year, but teams will sag off him. He’ll get to the line, but doesn’t hit a high enough percentage yet to make that matter. He can pass a little, but not enough to make doubling a serious risk. He has the mobility to defend, but possesses subpar length and worse instincts. Bagley needs to dramatically improve one of these aspects of his game to be a centerpiece of a winning team. Like Ayton, I’m lower on him than consensus because I think defense is really important for big men, and I think it’s more likely that a good college defender will be a bad professional defender than vice versa.

I could be talked into having Bagley as high as maybe 7 because of his raw talent, but the experience of the Canis Mock Draft really hammered home the point that good wings make team building so much easier. The replacement level for big men is so much higher than that for perimeter players that I think they should only be taken at the top of the draft if they have a legitimate chance of being a transcendent player.