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VOL. 133 | NO. 55 | Friday, March 16, 2018

The 2018 NBA Draft Might be Deep, But It’s Not Mistake-Proof for Grizzlies

By Don Wade

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In one analysis before the 2009 NBA Draft, nbadraftnet.com decided the pro player most comparable to Connecticut big man Hasheem Thabeet was Dikembe Mutombo. Each of them was at least 7-foot-2. Each played basketball. That’s where the similarities ended.

Mutombo went from Georgetown pro prospect to 10-time NBA All-Star and Hall-of-Famer. He grabbed 12,359 rebounds, scored 11,729 points, and blocked 3,289 shots. Only Hakeem Olajuwon blocked more shots in NBA history.

Thabeet, the Memphis Grizzlies’ pick at No. 2 overall in the 2009 NBA Draft, has been out of the league for four years. He played all of 224 games in his career, 113 with the Grizzlies. He finished his journey with 595 rebounds, 483 points scored, and 184 blocks. Interesting aside: He amassed 453 fouls in this time and his second game in his rookie season fouled out in exactly 11 minutes and 51 seconds of playing time.

So the Grizzlies did not, to employ the baseball term oft-used for draft failures, merely swing and miss on Thabeet. They swung, fell down, their spikes got stuck in the ground, and the ball bounced about 20 feet in front of home plate.

Arizona forward Deandre Ayton (13) looks on during the semifinal game of the men’s Pac-12 Tournament between the UCLA Bruins and the Arizona Wildcats on March 9  in Las Vegas.  (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

This was so no usual swing-and-miss. All teams swing and miss on draft picks. This one? Epic.

And that’s what scares the hell out of Grizzlies fans now.

The payoff to all this misery, all this losing, is the chance to grab a Top-5 player in June – maybe even get lucky and hold the No. 1 pick – and reboot the franchise before Mike Conley and Marc Gasol pass on to the NBA afterlife.

A few months ago, it was pretty much taken as gospel that this year’s draft was strong and deep – maybe even seven or eight players deep. But as the college basketball season bounced along and the draft grew nearer, perceptions began to change a little and questions about the top players began to emerge.

If the Grizzlies can manage to finish with the worst record in the NBA – and God bless them, they’re so awful they really deserve this dishonor – then under this year’s lottery system the worst pick they could have would be fourth overall.

So for our purposes at this writing – the Grizzlies carried an 18-game losing streak into their Thursday, March 15, home gave vs. the Chicago Bulls – let’s examine this question:

Is this draft good enough and deep enough that general manager Chris Wallace and the rest of the front office can’t possibly swing and miss this time? That’s assuming, of course, that as the Grizzlies’ ownership remains in limbo that this front office is even in place at the time of the draft.

The Presumptive No. 1 Overall Pick: Freshman Arizona Center Deandre Ayton

After Ayton’s sensational performance in the PAC-12 Tournament, any doubts about the 7-footer seemed to melt away. Averaging better than 20 points and 11 rebounds in college and possessing a nice-looking jump shot and generally playing with energy, Ayton seems like the safest bet to be no less than really good even if he doesn’t turn into a 10-time All-Star. Not picking Ayton at No. 1 is the risk here.

The Second-Safest Pick: Duke Freshman F/C Marvin Bagley

Some mock drafts have him No. 1. He’s also slipped to as low as five or six in others. His offensive numbers are right there with Ayton. He’s also one reason Duke had to shift to playing zone defense. He’s 6-10 and 235 and once that would have meant living in the post. But in today’s NBA, he will have to be respected from 3-point range, too. He’s making 37 percent of this threes, but it’s not much of a sample (20-of-54).

Key question: If it doesn’t say “Duke” on his jersey, is he judged to be more of a player or less?

The Big Health Risk: Missouri Freshman F Michael Porter Jr.

Maybe for a different franchise, Porter is a risk that makes more sense. But for all his potential upside – and you can talk yourself into this guy making a lot of All-Star teams – he is coming off back surgery. After the free agent bust signing of Chandler Parsons – The Saga of Wounded Knee – Porter is simply a chance the Grizzlies can’t take in the top five picks of this draft.

The International Guy: Real Madrid G Luka Doncic

While it’s safe to say Grizzlies fans would not easily forgive any mistake in this draft, there are three types that they would never forgive: Taking a big guy who seems at all like Thabeet (that would be 7-foot Texas freshman C Mohamed Bamba, whose best ability is blocking shots because of huge wingspan), selecting a guy with a major injury concern (Porter) or choosing an international player most fans don’t know.

Is this fair? Of course not. Doncic’s numbers are less than eye-popping in a league that is not NBA. But he is hailed for having great vision. That said, his athleticism may put him at a disadvantage on defense. He feels more like a nice complementary piece than a cornerstone. Decent pick at 7 or 8, but not 1 through 4.

The Headline-Grabber

Let’s not kid ourselves, any NBA team that picks freshman Oklahoma guard Trae Young in the top five will be considered to have overreached. Which doesn’t automatically make it the wrong move, but Young is the poster boy for wildly changing draft stock. He looks like the next Steph Curry one moment and in the next looks like a guy that will be mentioned in a story like this several years from now, held up as some team’s unbelievable swing-and-miss.

If the Grizzlies fall outside the top four, he merits consideration. But in the top four Young feels like a pick that might burn them.

The Others

This draft has lots of other big guys getting some buzz and freshman Michigan State center Jaren Jackson Jr. has been moving up, but his stats are nothing special and he’s generally regarded as a project. The same was true of Thabeet.

Junior Villanova F Mikal Bridges may have as much opportunity as anyone to improve his draft stock. Plenty of players (Conley at Ohio State was one) have vaulted up the rankings by leading their team on a deep run. Duke junior C Wendell Carter feels like a solid, safe, pick if the Grizzlies wind up in the 8-10 range – not unlike Shane Battier was at No. 6 many years ago.

Freshman Alabama guard Collin Sexton represents an alternative choice to Young and bested him head-to-head this season. Michigan State sophomore forward Miles Bridges rates as solid, but not spectacular, after failing to clearly enhance his game from his freshman season.

At least that’s how things appear to look today. Give it a week, and then a month, and perceptions about the top-tier players will have undergone more change. There are also a couple of Kentucky freshmen – guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and forward Kevin Knox – that have worked into the mix, too.

So take a deep breath and wait for June 21. And tell yourself that no franchise can make a Hasheem Thabeet-level mistake more than once in a lifetime.

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