The 2018 draft-class may well end up being one of the greatest in history. But they risk being eclipsed by the Slovenian teenager
Poor Marvin Bagley. The bouncy one-and-done Duke big man went second overall in the 2018 NBA draft and so far he is having what is, by any reasonable standard, an excellent rookie season, even though he plays for the Sacramento Kings, which is hardly his fault. Bagley is not an excellent NBA player right now; in fact, by most metrics, he’s kind of a bad NBA player. But most rookies, even the really good ones, are bad players. And just 20 games into his career, Bagley is pouring in points and grabbing rebounds at the same ferocious clip he did at Duke – 12.9 and 6.2 in just under 24 minutes per game – and he’s doing it despite taking several thousand fewer shots than Trae Young.
In almost any other season, Bagley’s nifty stats plus his arrival coinciding with the Kings’ revival would be enough to anoint him an early rookie of the year candidate. If he’d come out of college two years ago, when Malcolm Brogdon won the award because Ben Simmons was injured and the rest of the 2016 draft class was trash, it would be Bagley’s name on that trophy and not Brogdon’s.
This year, though, Bagley has no chance. In fact, there’s a very good chance he will not sniff the top five. His only mistake was being born into a draft class so good he doesn’t stand out. It is too early to declare the 2018 draft class the best ever, or one of the best ever, but it’s time to start the conversation because, hot damn, what a group.
By this point last year, at least five top-picks – Markelle Fultz, Josh Jackson, Jonathan Isaac, Malik Monk and Luke Kennard – were already looking like wobbly selections, especially considering that the Utah Jazz took Donovan Mitchell after all of them. Drafts like that aren’t unusual. Every year, a handful of guys bust fast. Even the legendary 2003 class – featuring LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade in the top five – had Darko Milicic jammed in there like a splinter. This year, though, all of the top 12 picks – all of them – look like legit NBA players, and several have star potential. Not one of them is anywhere close to a bust. That’s never happened before. From top to bottom, it’s the most flawless lottery class in NBA history.
That’s been great for NBA fans, but it’s bad news for a guy like Bagley. Here he is having a perfectly successful rookie season, but because he went second overall in this draft, because so many other guys picked after him are playing so well, and most especially because one of them is Luka Doncic, the 19-year-old Slovenian wunderkind and mortal lock for rookie of the year, Bagley almost seems like a letdown. He is not. And yet, because of Doncic, he was definitely a mistake.
Everything about Doncic is singular, from his 6ft 7in point forward skills to his EuroLeague dominance as a teenager to his goofy electric-blue YMCA thigh-to-ankle knee sleeves to the fact that he is, despite playing elite-level basketball every day for months on end, still kind of fat.
Bagley isn’t the only one getting hosed this year, he’s just the only one whose reputation is taking a hit because of it. DeAndre Ayton, who is averaging a double-double, has been way too good to nitpick Phoenix’s decision to select him No1 overall. Unlike Bagley, none of the shine is off of him, and in the same way that the Houston Rockets did not regret taking Hakeem Olajuwon over Michael Jordan, the Suns seem unlikely to regret taking Ayton (even though they should). But the confluence of Doncic’s genius, the glut of rookies putting up near double-doubles, and the dwindling value of traditional big men has conspired to turn Ayton’s impressive start into a big so what.
In terms of actual NBA wins and losses, and the near-future destiny of his franchise, Memphis’s Jaren Jackson Jr may be the most important rookie of this draft class, even if he’s not its best player. He’s an instant starter on a very good Memphis team, and a high-IQ player alongside a superstar (Marc Gasol) who does not suffer fools – but he’s also much more than that: he’s the glue holding this aging team together. If the Grizzlies had missed on Jackson, this roster very likely would’ve been blown up at the trade deadline, or this coming summer. Now, because Jackson seems like a stud, they’re all in.
Then there’s Trae Young, who’s been an alarmingly bad shooter so far (37% from the field and a yikes-y 24% from three) but a superb playmaker, which shouldn’t actually come as a surprise. The Steph Curry comparisons for Young were always off the mark; his best skill has always been his court vision, not his shooting, making him much more Steve Nash-y than Steph Curry-y. In that regard, he’s having the season Atlanta hoped he would: almost good enough for them to talk themselves into the idea that it wasn’t a catastrophic mistake to pass on Doncic (it was).
Where the draft really gets deep and special is at the tail end of the lottery and beyond, thanks to picks like octopus-armed Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, whose name is mellifluous and really fun to say out loud, and who has already knocked Patrick Beverley out of the Clippers’ starting lineup; Villanova’s national title game hero Donte DiVincenzo, who is already a rotation player for a very good, very deep Milwaukee Bucks team; and the Sixers’ Landry Shamet, the 26th pick out of Wichita State, who has emerged as the shooter Philadelphia desperately need now that they’ve either traded or emotionally devastated the only ones they had besides JJ Redick.
In a decade or two, we’ll have a much clearer sense of where this draft class ranks on the list of history’s best, whether it can match the 2003 crop. And by then maybe a guy like Bagley will be a big part of the case for 2018. Right now, though, he’s just another rookie.