Certain draft picks signify free agency priorities; other decisions can seem devoid of all meaning. Here are five organizations that revealed an aspect of its management’s direction on draft night.
Rather than prematurely crafting NBA-Draft report cards, there are hidden indicators to discover within each selection. Each choice offers a signal—a potential pivot or tweak in an organization’s preferred trajectory. Some teams draft for fit, others for talent. One organization will sell its second-round draft pick, while another is investing in its player development. A team will trade down to accumulate future assets; meanwhile, somebody else is trading its vested resources to acquire a preferred player. Certain picks signify free agency priorities. Other decisions can seem devoid of all meaning. Here are five organizations that revealed an aspect of its management’s direction on draft night.
This past February, the Sacramento Kings received Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway, the 2017 Pelicans first-round pick (top-three protected), and the 76ers 2017 second-round pick in exchange for DeMarcus Cousins and Omri Casspi. At the time, media coverage hounded Sacramento for an utter lack of competence in leveraging the trade market. In Kyle Wagner's article for FiveThirtyEight.com, “The Kings Got Fleeced in the Cousins Trade,” he wrote that how Cousins and Davis mesh in New Orleans “will determine whether this deal remains as lopsided as it appears today, or becomes a bad time for everyone.” But the draft opened a new door of optimism. It seems that regardless of how Cousins performs in New Orleans, this trade could become a rare act of aptitude for the Sacramento Kings.
The Kings entered the draft with the number five, ten, and thirty-four pick, and as mentioned, converted the tenth pick into fifteen and twenty. The result? De’Aaron Fox, Justin Jackson, Harry Giles, Frank Mason III and for the first time in recent memory, positive reviews across the board. While reviews can flip as quickly as Sacramento’s management changes its mind, the Kings are suddenly jam-packed with young and promising assets. Fox and Mason are both considered high-character leaders—a rarity in the Sacramento locker room—and Jackson will fit right into the wing rotation alongside Malachi Richardson and Buddy Hield. In the frontcourt, between Labissiere, Cauley-Stein, Papagiannis and the incoming Harry Giles, Vlade Divac has stumbled across four viable options. While Sacramento projects as a bottom-feeder for the foreseeable future, after receiving loaded criticism in its attempt to trade Boogie, it seems that there is a brighter future than expected in Sacramento.
Last week, Paul George declared his intent to join the Los Angeles Lakers following the 2017-2018 season. With the announcement preceding the draft, the Pacers were favorites entering draft day to make a move. But the rumors failed to materialize, in large part thanks to President Larry Bird’s picky nature and refusal to tank. Furthermore, other organizations feared to offer any excess value for a player seemingly committed to a future in Los Angeles—and rightfully so, as Indiana wants genuine assets in return. Meanwhile, besides George, Bird’s roster is filled by role-playing veterans, along with the emerging second-year center Myles Turner. Thus, with a lack of young talent, Bird has plenty to consider in evaluating the trade market. He can demand immediate talent, perhaps in the form of Kevin Love or a package of youthful assets (the recently rumored Denver Nuggets have plenty to offer). Regardless, the decision will prove crucial come free agency.
Moreover, the Pacer’s draft results continue to indicate a plan to remain competitive. Rather than risking a project like Harry Giles, or selecting an available wing such as Terrance Ferguson to become George’s potential replacement, Bird opted for a projected long-term complement to Myles Turner: UCLA freshman T.J Leaf. The jury is still out on Leaf (as it should be on all incoming rookies), but he depicts a quintessential stretch-four. Leaf converted 46% of his three-point attempts while managing over eight rebounds per game. But critics note that he only attempted about two three-pointers per game, shot a measly 68% from the free throw, and likely benefited from playing in a high-octane offense led by Lonzo Ball.
Yet, if Leaf can pan out as Indiana hopes, Bird is par for the course. First, he provides an immediate replacement to Thad Young’s expiring contract, which Bird can leverage in trade discussion. Furthermore, George has previously aired his disinterest in becoming a permanent stretch-four. There is a small camp that believes Indiana management will wait for the February trade deadline, and an even smaller camp that wonders if they will work to convince George to re-sign in the future. Either way, Indiana has prepared a frontcourt that allows George to continue work as a three. As Indiana enters the free agency period, expect Bird to re-sign point guard Jeff Teague (or a veteran of similar skill), pursue a trade package that offers an impactful return, or abstain altogether and task Coach Nate McMillan with converting T.J Leaf into his power forward of the future, while managing a discontent Paul George.
After the departure of Orlando-bound General Manager John Hammond, it was left up in part to the discretion of new Milwaukee General Manager Jon Horst to determine if he would follow suit in Hammond’s roster construction. Hammond focused his efforts on acquiring length and athleticism—he scoured the NCAA and NBA for versatile players who can interchange seamlessly on offense while wreaking havoc in a trap-and-switch style defense. Hammond followed pattern with Orlando’s sixth pick, Jonathan Isaac, leaving many curious what Horst would do later in the night.
With the seventeenth pick, the Milwaukee Bucks selected DJ Wilson, a junior forward out of Michigan. At 6’10 with a 7’3 wingspan, Wilson can play the three or four position, while managing to disrupt two-guards on switches. His length should allow Coach Jason Kidd to continue his aggressive defensive schemes, and if his shooting translates into the NBA, he fits perfectly into the Bucks four-corner attack. Hammond set the Bucks on route towards a modernized, wing-heavy, versatile roster and it seems that Horst intends to follow in his path.
Portland Trail Blazers
The Trail Blazers find themselves in a book-keeping conundrum. Their cap is essentially maxed due to six contracts that can extend into 2020, including Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard’s rather unfathomable deals. Moreover, General Manager Neil Olshey previously admitted to the near impossibility of attracting marquee free agents to Portland. Thus, to remain competitive, Olshey must balance a volatile trade market with effective drafting—whether this entails moving under-valued players for a disgruntled superstar or instead for future picks remains to be seen.
Entering the draft, the Blazers frontcourt was already overcrowded. Between Vonleh, Aminu, Nurkic, Leonard, and yes, even Ed Davis, something had to give. So how does Olshey respond? By drafting two two more big men: Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan. To select Collins, Olshey flipped the 15th and 20th pick for the 10th pick—a savvy use of accumulated assets, assuming Collins develops into the potential two-way threat that scouts imagine. Furthermore, Swanigan is a lengthy, but undersized center who was recognized as this year Big Ten Player of the Year. With these two joining, expect Portland to actively search for bargain deals. Noah Vonleh is an intriguing young asset, Ed Davis will be on an expiring contract, and Al-Farouq Aminu is on a team-friendly contract. While due to fiscal reasons, Portland must remain quiet during free agency expect the organization to utilize the trade market. Fans may require patience—Olshey could wait to see how things play out until the February trade deadline—but expect Portland to leverage these market-friendly assets. This could be a waiver on someone like a Paul George, another round of future draft picks, or an opportunity to drop a contract like Evan Turner on a team willing to accept a bad contract if worthwhile assets come attached.
Oklahoma City Thunder
With the twenty-first selection, the Oklahoma City Thunder selected 19-year old swingman, Terrance Ferguson. He is an elite athlete who holds promise as a three-point shooter—Ferguson broke a record in the 2016 Nike Hoop Summit Championship by canning seven three-pointers—and scouts are higher on his defensive potential than offensive. General manager Sam Presti dreams that he has finally discovered a two-way wing that can survive on both ends of the court.
And after two years of playoff frustration highlighted by a lack of depth, Presti, and the Thunder will be an active member of the free-agency frenzy. The roster is littered with players that can be played off the court—Kanter, Singler, Abrines, and McDermott struggle defensively, while Andre Roberson became a ‘hack-a’ victim these past playoffs. Between Roberson entering restricted free agency, the incoming Ferguson, and the star-chasing Presti, look for another organization to snag Roberson early in free agency before Presti is willing to match a salary tag.