In the NBA Draft, teams are generally looking for two things: a piece that fits, or a lottery ticket that can pay off in a big way.
What follows are the lottery tickets. These are the players in this draft who might not be guarantees but who, if the circumstances are right — if the fit works and if the player matures and if the hard work is put in — can become stars.
I’m not going to include players like Washington’s Markelle Fultz, UCLA’s Lonzo Ball or Duke’s Jayson Tatum. We already know who those players can become. We saw it in college.
Instead, this is about the players whose potential is exponentially greater than what we saw in college.
1. Jonathan Isaac, SF, Florida State: Isaac’s numbers weren’t eye-popping for a deep and talented Florida State team. He averaged 12 points and 7.8 rebounds, made 3-pointers at a 34.8 percent rate and blocked a 1.5 shots per game. Pretty good! But not nearly as good as he can be. Isaac might have the highest ceiling in this entire draft. The reason is because his development as a young basketball player resembles Anthony Davis’ development. Like Davis, Isaac grew up as a normal-sized wing until his height shot up late in high school. He’s 6-foot-11 now, but his college coach told me he believes Isaac could still be growing. He has guard skills in a center’s body. That plays perfectly in today’s NBA, which values versatility on both ends of the floor. Offensively, is he the next Kevin Durant? Of course not, but his game bears some similarities to the reigning Finals MVP. Coaches rave about him as a humble and hard-working player who will happily defer to teammates when that is better for the team. He needs to add muscle, certainly, but what near-7-foot, 19-year-old doesn’t need to bulk up? Isaac is an athletic phenom who matches that with an extraordinary basketball IQ.
2. De’Aaron Fox, PG, Kentucky: Why put Fox, whom mock drafts generally place around fourth or fifth, on a list that is intended for undervalued players? Because five years from now, we might wonder why the speedy, athletic Fox wasn’t the clear-cut No. 1 pick in this draft. In one of the most loaded point-guard drafts in recent memory, Fox is hands down the best two-way player of the group. His lockdown defense sets him apart from players like Lonzo Ball and Markelle Fultz. The one knock on Fox — the one thing I believe is keeping him from being in the discussion as the No. 1 overall pick — is his 3-point shooting. He shot 24 percent in his one-and-done season at Kentucky. I asked Fox about this. He told me it was simply a lack of confidence early in the season that snowballed, and that his true shooting abilities are much better than that ugly number. By the end of the season, he had gained confidence, hitting 3s at a 47 percent rate the final 10 games. If that’s the De’Aaron Fox we’ll see in the NBA, that’s a player with an enormous upside — as in, John Wall-like, All Star-like, No. 1 pick-like upside.
3. Harry Giles, PF/C, Duke: The biggest risk-reward pick since Joel Embiid. The risk on Giles is undeniable. He tore an ACL two times during his high school career. When he was at Duke, he looked like a shell of the player who was absolutely the best on the floor for the Team USA Under-19 FIBA World Championships team the summer after his junior year in high school. That team included Jayson Tatum and Josh Jackson, by the way. At Duke, Giles was a tentative player who looked lost on the court, like he was worried about another injury. (He also had missed all of the preseason, which made him out of rhythm with his team.) There was a time when Giles was one of the top three or so talents in this stacked draft. Giles is a gifted athlete whom talent evaluators would mention in the same breath as Chris Webber and Kevin Garnett. He was once that good. The risk here is huge; so is the reward. He could become an All-Star, or he could never see a minute of NBA playing time.
4. O.G. Anunoby, SF, Indiana: Anunoby is risky in two ways. One is that he’s coming off a major knee injury. The other is that he doesn’t have a natural position in the NBA. But there’s another way to spin the lack of a natural position: Anunoby is a great athlete who can guard multiple positions — the Draymond Green of this draft. Yes, he is a bit of a tweener, but that’s not nearly as much of a negative in the NBA as it was even five years ago. He plays bigger than his height (6-7 with a 7-2 1/2 wingspan). His offensive skills are very much a work in progress. But his defense is lockdown.
5. Terrance Ferguson, SG, INTL: Ferguson fell off the radar of college basketball fans when he opted to play a season in the Australian professional league instead of playing a one-and-done season for Sean Miller at Arizona. But he never fell off NBA scouts’ radars. Ferguson has the prettiest shooting stroke in this draft (sorry, Luke Kennard), and he’s also got the height and athleticism for an NBA wing. What’s the floor on Ferguson? At worst, he can be a serviceable 3-and-D wing. At best, he can be an impactful starting wing who can shoot the lights out, make huge athletic plays and play great defense (if he adds muscle to his spindly frame). I’m curious how playing in Australia will affect him on draft night. I do know that one scout told me his season playing against grown men in Australia will help make his NBA transition much more smooth.
Bonus second-round high-upside pick — Jordan Bell, PF, Oregon: Cheating a bit here, because Bell could easily sneak into the first round. But I just love this young man’s game. As much as his boneheaded not-boxing-out moments cost Oregon a shot at making the national title game, his NCAA Tournament play up to then is what brought the Ducks to the Final Four. I love his athletic play, but more than that, I love the energy he brings to the court day in and day out. Bell is a fantastic shot blocker, a big reason why Oregon was No. 1 in the nation in block percentage last season. (He had eight blocks against Kansas in the Elite Eight and four against North Carolina in the Final Four.) Do I think Bell will be a star? No. But the slightly undersized post player could be an absolute steal if he slips into the second round.