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Which Teams Made The Biggest Gambles On NBA Draft Night?

The NBA draft is a time for optimism, the launching pad for 60 pro careers full of aspirations of championships and star-making moments. In reality, though, only a couple will likely become stars; many more will become key role players, while others will barely sniff the league. Here are the biggest questions about those future careers — and the teams investing in them — that arose out of Thursday night’s proceedings:

Who’s the best prospect — Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III … or somebody else?

The Phoenix Suns didn’t surprise many fans and observers when they took Arizona’s Deandre Ayton with the No. 1 overall pick. Ayton had been at the top of the mock drafts for a long time, and he ranked as the best prospect in the draft according to ESPN’s resident scouting guru, Jonathan Givony. But Ayton doesn’t arrive in Phoenix without risk; his college defensive numbers in particular have drawn questions about whether he can have the kind of two-way impact today’s star big men are expected to provide.

That’s one reason why, according to the draft projection model developed by ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, Ayton wasn’t the best — or even the second-best — young player available Thursday night. The model, which accounts for scouting assessments but also statistics (including at the international and AAU levels) and combine measurements, thought both Marvin Bagley III (who went second overall to the Sacramento Kings) and Luka Doncic (who was picked third and traded to the Dallas Mavericks) had better NBA potential.

In the case of Bagley, the difference largely came down to AAU numbers, where Ayton wasn’t nearly as impressive as his future Duke rival. Time will tell whether those numbers prove prescient — and all three could end up being stars. But the Suns are banking the franchise’s future on Ayton’s edge in the eye test, rather than Bagley’s superior track record in high school.

Will Luka Doncic defy European worries?

Despite being traded on draft night, Doncic is a rare talent, a young 6-foot-8 point guard prospect who averaged plenty of assists and shot better than 80 percent from the free throw line while playing against much older competition in Spain. Fairly or not, though, his selection at No. 3 overall comes with the baggage of European picks from years gone by. Since 2001, 10 European players1 were taken with top-5 picks, and only two of them — Pau Gasol and Kristaps Porzingis — ended up becoming All-Stars. But with the third-highest All-Star probability (according to the ESPN Stats & Info projection model) of anyone in this class, Doncic is poised to break that trend.

Can Jaren Jackson Jr. overcome his lack of star potential in Memphis?

No. 4 overall pick Jaren Jackson Jr. wasn’t a major scorer in college — he averaged only 10.9 points per game during his lone season at Michigan State — but he made up for it with amazing efficiency and tremendous defensive numbers. So it makes sense that the 6-foot-11 Jackson’s calling card in the pros projects to be his solid all-around game and versatility on defense. According to the ESPN Stats & Info model, Jackson has a 42 percent chance of being a starter-level player in the NBA and only a 10 percent chance of turning into a bust — both of which rank best among this entire class of prospects. The downside, though, is that Jackson has just an 8 percent probability of becoming an All-Star, lower than 16 of his peers. Is a low-risk, low-upside player a good choice at fourth in the draft? The Grizzlies will find out.

Do the Hawks have a star — or a bust — in Trae Young?

Newly minted Hawks guard Trae Young drew his share of Stephen Curry comparisons as a freshman at Oklahoma, thanks to a gaudy 27.4 points-per-game average and plenty of deep 3-point range. Certainly that parallel must be on the mind of Atlanta general manager Travis Schlenk, who worked in Golden State’s front office while the team was building to historic levels of greatness with Curry leading the way, and on Thursday Atlanta traded Doncic to the Mavericks for Young and a future first-round pick. Young is one of the highest-upside players in the draft: He has roughly the same All-Star probability — 12 percent — as Ayton, according to the Stats & Info model, but he also comes with significant risk. If we isolate every player’s All-Star and bust probabilities and take the harmonic mean of the two numbers, Young carries the highest combination of those opposing possibilities:

Trae Young could be the next Curry … or the next washout

Biggest risk-reward picks of 2018′s draft class, according to a combination of predicted All-Star and bust probabilities

Probability of being …
Player Pos. Age Ht. College All-Star Bust Boom-Bust Index*
Trae Young PG 20 6’2” Oklahoma 11.9% 23.1% 15.7
De’Anthony Melton G 20 6’4” USC 10.0 24.8 14.3
Collin Sexton PG 20 6’2” Alabama 10.5 21.1 14.0
DeAndre Ayton C 20 7’0” Arizona 12.0 15.1 13.4
Mitchell Robinson C 20 7’1” 9.4 23.0 13.3
Goga Bitadze C 19 6’11” Georgia 8.2 33.6 13.2
Marvin Bagley III F/C 19 6’11” Duke 16.4 11.0 13.1
Jalen Brunson PG 22 6’2” Villanova 8.0 36.8 13.1
Omari Spellman PF 21 6’9” Villanova 7.9 36.9 13.1
Mikal Bridges SF 22 6’7” Villanova 15.0 11.5 13.0

* Boom-Bust Index is the harmonic mean of a player’s probabilities of becoming an All-Star or a bust, according to the ESPN Stats & Information Group NBA draft projection model.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

For a team that hasn’t had an All-NBA first team selection since Dominique Wilkins in 1986, the Hawks may have reeled in a rare superstar. But by giving up Doncic — another potential star — in the process, they’ve set themselves up for plenty of second-guessing if Young doesn’t pan out the way Atlanta hopes.

Odds and Ends

The best value pick near the top of the draft was probably 6-foot-7 swingman Mikal Bridges (who was eventually traded to the Phoenix Suns) at No. 10. Bridges ranked fifth overall in the Stats & Info model, thanks to his combination of highly efficient offense and strong defensive indicators. … Falling to the No. 14 pick, Denver’s Michael Porter Jr. is one of the most intriguing potential steals in this draft as well. Before an injury plagued freshman season at Missouri, Porter was the No. 2 high school prospect in the country according to the Recruiting Services Consensus Index. Although Porter comes with durability concerns, former top prepsters do become NBA stars at a disproportionate rate. … As for first-round reaches, it’s hard to find one more glaring than the L.A. Clippers’ selection of Boston College guard Jerome Robinson at No. 13. Robinson ranked 59th overall in the Stats & Info model, with a 44 percent chance of being a bust. … The Cavaliers’ Collin Sexton had a great freshman season at Alabama, averaging 19.2 PPG, but the eighth overall pick was even better in AAU ball, grading out as the top prospect at that level in the Stats & Info model. … “Wingspan” is one of those tired draft buzzwords, but it has to be mentioned in the case of Mohamed Bamba, who was picked sixth by the Orlando Magic. Bamba’s 7-foot-10 wingspan was the longest of any player in NBA.com’s archive of draft-combine measurements (since 2001). … Some Knicks fans booed Kevin Knox after he was picked at No. 9 overall, particularly with the more exciting Porter still available, but Knox is far from a bad prospect. He had solid college and AAU stats, plus very impressive measurements at the NBA draft combine — with under 5 percent body fat and a 9-foot standing reach. … Looking for second-round sleepers? According to the Stats & Info model, USC guard De’Anthony Melton — who left the Trojans in February amid the school’s bribery scandal — could be a great upside pick by the Houston Rockets at No. 46, with a 10 percent chance of becoming an All-Star someday (which ranks seventh-best in this prospect class).

Footnotes

  1. Meaning players who were born in Europe and didn’t play for an American college. This includes Enes Kanter, who signed with Kentucky but never played for them, though he did play a year of high school in the U.S.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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