Reacting to the NBA draft after the longest and arguably the most fascinating draft cycle in recent memory.
The longest, weirdest, and arguably the most fascinating draft cycle in recent memory ended on a predictably chaotic note on Wednesday night. Full disclosure: I have embarked on this final piece of the journey—reminding you, the reader, what just happened—in the middle of the night. So bear with me. But here are the many feelings I currently feel about everything that happened during the draft.
1. There were fifteen, maybe 20 minutes where it felt like the draft was going as expected—Anthony Edwards, James Wiseman and LaMelo Ball were gone, and then the Bulls took Patrick Williams, which had become clear enough in the days prior. But then the Cavaliers, who had spent a good chunk of the day fielding offers for their pick, as I understand it, decided to stay put and take Isaac Okoro. That wasn’t necessarily a bad pick at all, although it had seemed in recent days like he was set to fall toward the latter half of the first round, but it did set off an interesting sequence of events that ultimately sent Deni Avdija to the Wizards at No. 9. The Hawks took Onyeka Okongwu at No. 6, sending Avdija down the board, past the Pistons (who were always intent on taking Killian Hayes) and the Knicks (who didn’t actually need to trade up to get their guy in Obi Toppin). Some of that that seemed surprising, partially because after a week of incessant Top 10 trade chatter, there were no trades. But then it got weird.
2. I don’t want to be too pessimistic about what the Suns did by taking Jalen Smith at No. 10 and leaving Devin Vassell, Tyrese Haliburton and Kira Lewis on the board, but that move was by far the most puzzling thing that took place on draft night. I am personally less excited about Smith than many teams were (he was No. 30 on my big board) and I would not have considered him in the lottery. But even taking my personal opinion out of the picture, taking a center that high when you already have a young center and can load up elsewhere and take a bigger bet on upside is a difficult thing to sell (although Deandre Ayton may beg to differ as to what his position really is).
In any case, Phoenix must think Smith can play some power forward, and/or that he’s going to be a Brook Lopez-level, or at least, like, a Kelly Olynyk-level stretch center. But Smith isn’t as big or as skilled as either of those guys. They did the same thing last year with Cam Johnson, deciding to simply take the guy they wanted in the lottery instead of moving back, and that’s worked out so far, so I’m not gonna question this any more than it deserves. If Smith can contribute to Phoenix’s playoff push next year, maybe this pick ends up justified.
3. Two players I thought might be falling went at Nos. 14 and 15, with Aaron Nesmith landing in Boston and Cole Anthony to Orlando. I was wrong on those guys in my final mock draft, dropping both into the 20s, but not without rationale—Nesmith’s foot injury was a major concern for a number of teams, and may cause him to miss time, as I understand it. Anthony was a player many teams were heavily down on after the year he had at North Carolina, and knowing that he’d begun interviewing with teams later on in the first round, I put two and two together. Now, in hindsight, these were two justifiable buy-low picks in a draft where the primary theme was that everyone in the top half of the first round just ended up picking the guy they wanted and moving on.
4. The Thunder’s trade for Aleksej Pokusevski that pretty much the entire NBA knew would eventually happen actually happened. Oklahoma City dealt newly-acquired Ricky Rubio and their two first-round picks in the 20s (25 and 28) just for the right to take him. Sam Presti has a method to his madness and you kind of just have to trust him that this is a good idea—particularly if you’re a Pokusevski optimist. I’m not even going to bother to go look up which future first-rounders the Thunder own for the 20th time, but if the strategy here is to simply take the biggest reasonable swing possible every single year and hope to turn them into starting-caliber players or better, perhaps this is a new type of process other teams, particularly in small markets, will try and follow. The catch is that you have to have stars to swing the type of deals that actually make the strategy work in the first place, and just getting one of those guys is difficult enough. But it just goes to show the way things tend to go in cycles, and simply putting yourself in the right stratosphere to get a piece of the star-flipping pie is commendable. I don’t know what the Thunder’s roster really even looks like next season, but if Pokusevski ever plays, it will be fascinating. Lu Dort’s torso is about twice as wide as his.
5. I think for all our sake it’s probably good to write down the names of everyone who is now a member of the Philadelphia 76ers—who made one of my favorite picks of the night when Tyrese Maxey fell to 21, but also pulled off several different trades under Daryl Morey’s watch and repositioned themselves to contend. Out is Josh Richardson, in is Seth Curry. Al Horford was traded with a future pick and other stuff for Danny Green and Terrance Ferguson. They also drafted a player they’d long coveted in Isaiah Joe at No. 49. These guys are never done dealing, but the roster is already in better shape heading into free agency (which, somehow, is officially tomorrow).
6. Speaking of Morey, it was a good night for his former understudy Monte McNair, who pulled off the first non-confusing Sacramento draft in some time in his first year at the helm. Tyrese Haliburton fell to No. 12, The Kings took him. Jahmi’us Ramsey fell to No. 43. The Kings also took him! They also ended up with Robert Woodard (in a trade-back with Memphis). These picks all make sense. That’s nice to be able to say on behalf of the Kings. It was actually a pretty solid first draft for most of the new lead executives, between McNair, Arturas Karnisovas in Chicago, Troy Weaver in Detroit and Leon Rose in New York.
7. While we’re here, for Knicks fans trying to figure out how Immanuel Quickley ended up being the pick at No. 25 (after they made multiple trades moving around in the 20s), look no further than the presence of former Kentucky assistant Kenny Payne and known Kentucky associate William Wesley in New York. Payne watched Quickley’s growth over the course of a challenging freshman season and how hard he worked to become the SEC Player of the Year one year later. I can attest that Quickley put on a number of wildly impressive shooting workouts over the course of the process, and while the Kentucky connection matters, he earned the first-round status.
8. First-round picks I liked the most: Killian Hayes (7 to Detroit), Haliburton (12 to Sacramento), Kira Lewis (13 to New Orleans), Isaiah Stewart (16 to Detroit), Precious Achiuwa (who is an especially promising match with Miami at 20), and the aforementioned Maxey (who could be a legit piece in short order for the 76ers coming off the bench). All of these fits made almost too much sense situationally. Also, Malachi Flynn to Toronto at 29 gave me deja vu.
9. Second-round picks I truly loved: Tyrell Terry (31 to Dallas), Theo Maledon (34 to Oklahoma City), Xavier Tillman (35 to Memphis) and Tyler Bey (36 and also to Dallas). I also give the Bucks credit for ending up with two potential back-end rotation guys in Jordan Nwora (45) and Sam Merrill (60) after gutting their roster in trades for Jrue Holiday and (allegedly but now unclear) Bogdan Bogdanovic. Maybe that’s a testament to the shape of this year’s class, with solid role players and nice upside plays all still on the board in the 30s as guys like Payton Pritchard and Azubuike snuck their way into the first round. Teams seemed to have figured out that there were a lot of solid players in the middle of the draft, although there was certainly a lack of star power this year.
10. Lastly, draft history was made in the 50s, when the first two Cassiuses (Cassii?) in NBA history, Winston and Stanley, were selected back to back by the Thunder and Pacers, respectively. I don’t really have anything else to add there.
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Prospect close-up: Aleksej Pokusevski
In honor of Sam Presti, his many, many future first-round picks, and his unyielding desire to acquire Aleksej Pokusevski, we revisit the Big Board one last time.
Oftentimes the “mystery man” designation feels cliché and unhelpful; Pokusevski wears it particularly well. He’s the youngest player in the draft and has unusual ball skills and shooting proficiency for someone his size, but he spent the past season in Greece’s second division, which is not a particularly challenging level. His upside is tied more to the impressive splash plays he makes than his actual productivity, and his physical frailty is a stumbling block for some scouts, as he’ll likely be ill-suited to playing on the interior. Pokusevski has a clear knack for passing the ball, and there’s potential for his shot-blocking to translate if he adds enough strength, but he also takes a lot of bad shots and will need time to adjust from both physical and competitive standpoints.
Seeing as how the draft is over, this is (at least, I assume) the final edition of the newsletter. If you’ve been following along or are just ducking in, thanks for reading. Until next time. Also, I hear college basketball season may start next week.