As I wrote about in last week's column titled "The Nuggets fan's dilemma", our Denver Nuggets have won just enough games to be a middling lottery team while not winning nearly enough games to compete for a 2016 playoff spot. And while I won't advocate tanking for the Nuggets this season, it's certainly unfortunate that the New Orleans Pelicans will (by sitting superstar Anthony Davis for the remainder of the season) as will the Sacramento Kings any day now. This means that based on record, the Nuggets will likely draft around eight - one spot down from their 2015 selection and three spots up from their 2014 selection. Of course, the Nuggets have the added advantage of swapping selections with the New York Knicks IF the Knicks have a better pick ... meaning, the Nuggets have essentially two chances of cracking the NBA Draft's top-three picks and that amounts to an approximately 9% chance assuming the Nuggets and Knicks are in the eight-to-10 range in the lottery.
(It should also be noted that the Nuggets will likely end up with two additional first round picks somewhere between 15 and 18 thanks to picks owed to Denver by the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers, respectively.)
For the purposes of this exercise, I wanted to look at the players the Nuggets might draft with their lottery selection. So while I couldn't fathom our Nuggets ever getting the first overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft and landing LSU's Ben Simmons, perhaps they could luck out and get the second or third pick. And if not one of those two, they'll land somewhere between eight and 10. Therefore, I paid a visit to several of the NBA Draft sites on Sunday night to see the latest projections for the players that could be drafted between two and 10 and asked my good friend and college basketball expert Chris Tierney to give me some commentary on each (adding to the excellent pre-draft analysis already being done here by our colleague Daniel Lewis). I also looked at how those players performed through the first weekend of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament.
Here's the rundown ...
6'9" Freshman, Duke
(Projected 2 through 3)
Through two games in the NCAA Tournament, the rangy / lanky Brandon Ingram has shown why so many pundits are projecting him to be the second overall pick. Against Duke's in-state competitor UNC-Wilmington in the first round, Ingram had 20 points (on 7-12 shooting), nine rebounds and two blocks and Ingram followed that up with 25 points (on 7-19 shooting) in a tough second round victory versus Yale. Says Tierney:
Shooting up draft boards recently, Ingram continued his scoring over the first weekend going for a combined 45 points and five assists in two Duke wins. Ingram is a bona fide scorer and offensive player and a likely top five selection. Due to his wiry frame, he'll take some patience but has a huge ceiling on the offensive end.
Could the Nuggets use Ingram? I say yes. As much as I love what Danilo Gallinari has done in Denver at the small forward position, at some point we cannot ignore his propensity to get injured down the stretch of virtually every season.
6'7" Freshman, California
(Projected 3 through 8)
The highly touted Jaylen Brown couldn't have played worse in his lone NCAA Tournament game, scoring a mere four points on 1-7 shooting and turning the ball over seven times in foul-plagued 77-66 loss to 13th-seeded Hawaii. Brown's foul out meant he only played 17 minutes. Says Tierney:
After a terrific freshman season, Brown had the opportunity he had been waiting for. Cal point guard Tyrone Wallace and senior leader Jabari Bird were out for the first round game against Hawaii. This meant that Brown's usage rate would be through the roof. In short, it was his time to demonstrate to NBA GMs that he was fully capable of being the guy in a big time atmosphere ... THUD! JBrown played his worst game of the season, playing just 17 minutes before fouling out. Worse, he had more turnovers (seven) than points and rebounds combined (six). Brown likely played his way out of the top three with this performance which will leave a lasting memory with NBA GMs.
Could the Nuggets use Brown? I say maybe. Lest we forget that a Kansas freshman named Andrew Wiggins had a similarly awful 1-6 shooting game in his final NCAA game and he went on to be the NBA's Rookie of the Year and will probably play in several All-Star Games. Moreover, if Brown is indeed 6'7" (a lot of these college player lie about their height, see: Winslow, Justise) and depending on how sold you are on Gary Harris as the Nuggets starting two-guard, Brown will certainly get a hard look by the Nuggets.
6'4" Senior, Providence
(Projected 4 through 6)
Being a four-year player for Providence showed in the 2016 NCAA Tournament for point guard Kris Dunn. Despite foul trouble, Dunn played solidly in the Friars opening round game versus USC, nailing a three-pointer with 90 seconds left to tie the game at 68 which helped set his team up for a thrilling 70-69 victory. And in the following round against mighty UNC, even though his Friars were blown out Dunn put up 29 points on 10-16 shooting. Says Tierney:
Dunn went for 45 points with 29 in his last tourney game. He was considered arguably the top point guard in the country coming to the season but disappointed. Providence was expected to compete for the Big East title and needed to rally simply to make the tournament. This with potential first rounders in Dunn and Ben Bentil. Dunn is a very good guard who will likely play the point. He's a lottery pick but not an all around guard.
Could the Nuggets use Dunn? No. The Nuggets have their starting point guard set for the next 10-plus years and his name is Emmanuel Mudiay.
6'4" Senior, Oklahoma
(Projected 6 through 10)
After scoring 36 points in a tough game against in VCU in the NCAA Tournament's second round on Sunday evening, which followed a 27-point outburst against CSU Bakersfield in the first round on Friday, Buddy Hield's stock might have jumped to be a top-five lottery pick. Says Tierney:
Hield's game is steady and he turned in another rock solid performance for the Sooners in round one going for 27 and five. His quick release and athleticism will translate quickly to the NBA. While he's projected as high as five and as low as 13, he's the most NBA ready player in this draft and whomever gets him gets a player ready for 20-25 minutes on opening night.
Could the Nuggets use Hield? I say hell yes to this one. I love Hield. And having played high school basketball in nearby Kansas and college basketball at nearby Oklahoma, Hield could be a great fit in Denver if Nuggets coach Michael Malone is interested in a three-guard lineup featuring Mudiay, Harris and Hield. In fact, if the Nuggets don't believe Hield is available when they draft at eight or nine perhaps they should package two of their first round picks to move up and get him. And it should be noted that 52% of Nuggets fans voted in favor of Hield in Daniel's recent breakdown.
6'5" Freshman, Kentucky
(Projected 6 through 8)
Kentucky freshman Jamal Murray had mixed results in his two NCAA Tournament games. Against Stony Brook (who?) in Round One, Murray totaled 19 points (on 7-16 shooting) and seven rebounds. But in Round Two against Indiana, Murray connected on just one of his nine three-pointers in a tough loss against the Hoosiers. Says Tierney:
Tyler Ulis was the man yesterday for the 'Cats and Murray was 1-9 from three which really hurt their chance of winning. Neither of these players is a lottery choice in a deep draft but both are strong offensive players and could be chosen high.
Could the Nuggets use Murray? Despite Chris's criticism, I say yes. It's hard to ignore Murray's 40% regular season three-point shooting and he, too, could be plugged into a three-guard lineup with Mudiay and Harris. Interestingly, in Daniel's recent column on Murrary an overwhelming 77% of Nuggets fans said they'd like to have Murrary on the team.
7'1" Sophomore, Utah
(Projected 5 through 8)
I was able to watch Jakob Poeltl play in person as his Utah Utes laid an egg against Gonzaga in Round Two at Pepsi Center on Saturday evening. After grabbing an impressive 18 rebounds against Fresno State in Round One, Poeltl was eaten alive by Domantas Sabonis in the second round and scored a mere five points and grabbed just four rebounds in a blowout loss. Says Tierney:
Poeltl dominated the Pac-12 but it is not a physical conference and his offensive game at the college level revolves around layups and free throws. Due to his size, he's a likely lottery pick but this guy is a Stiff which means Denver likely takes him!
Could the Nuggets use Poeltl? I say no. With Nikola Jokic, Jusuf Nurkic and Joffrey Lauvergne already on the roster, the Nuggets have successfully checked the "Big Euro Stiff with Talent" box several times over. The Nuggets need to move forward with superior athletes to take advantage of their home town altitude and start running opponents out of the building.
6'10" Freshman, California
(Projected 9 through 12)
Ivan Rabb had a solid freshman season for Cal which, like Brown's, ended in disappointment against Hawaii in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Says Tierney:
Brown's teammate Raab played 38 minutes and had a double-double but struggled to slow down Hawaii's Stefan Jankovic. Raab is a nice player who would benefit from another year in the college game. He is not a threat to take a game over on the interior yet and would likely fall down the board if he does declare. Currently, Raab would be a project for an NBA team.
Could the Nuggets use Raab? Maybe. For as long as the Nuggets have the undersized-but-gutty and energetic Kenneth Faried manning the power forward position, the Nuggets will be debating what to do at the four spot. And were the Nuggets to have the opportunity to draft Raab later in the draft, that debate would begin anew.
6'10" Sophomore, Gonzaga
(Projected 10 through 20)
The son of international basketball legend Arvydas Sabonis, the younger Sabonis has certainly inherited many of his father's exceptional basketball genes. Not only did Sabonis thoroughly outplay Poeltl here in Denver in Round Two, but in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Sabonis delivered 21 points, 16 rebounds and two blocks in a devastating performance over sixth-seeded Seton Hall. Says Tierney:
Sabonis has simply dominated his competition through two games in the tournament and has potentially made the biggest statement of any projected first round pick thus far. The anticipated matchup with Jakob Poeltl of Utah was expected to be a great one, but Poeltl was manhandled and too slow to defend Sabonis. Poeltl also had no answer for the quickness and length combo that Sabonis brought on the defensive end either. Through two games, Sabonis has scored 40 points to go with 26 rebounds and seven assists. Considering his lineage, this performance likely vaults him into the top ten of the draft.
Could the Nuggets use Sabonis? As I wrote above, the Nuggets have thoroughly checked the "Big Euro Stiff with Talent" box BUT it would be hard to pass on Sabonis, especially considering that the Nuggets assistant GM Arturas Karnisovas played with Sabonis' father on "The Other Dream Team", the 1992 Lithuanian Basketball Team.
6'9" Senior, North Carolina
(Projected 14 through 20)
Consider Brice Johnson a late bloomer. The UNC senior averaged an impressive 16.8 ppg, 10.5 rpg and 1.5 bpg in his senior season and connected on 62% of his field goal attempts. His terrific play has continued in the NCAA Tournament, putting up 18 points, seven rebounds and eight blocks against Florida Gulf Coast (who?) in Round One and 21 points (on 7-9 shooting), 10 rebounds and two blocks against Providence in Round Two. Both games were won handily by UNC. Says Tierney:
Not being mock-drafted high enough. All Johnson does is net double doubles and that should continue. While wiry, he's very bouncy for a four with his length. He's a late riser and likely top ten pick before all said and done.
Could the Nuggets use Johnson? Again, as stated above the Nuggets need great athletes to round out their roster and Johnson definitely fits that bill. Could the Nuggets steal Johnson when the second of their three first round picks comes along in the 2016 NBA Draft?
So that's the rundown. Based on the first week of NCAA March Madness, my vote for the player I'd most like to see the Nuggets get / the Nuggets could realistically get goes to Oklahoma's Buddy Hield!