The 2018 NBA Draft Lottery came and went without the Denver Nuggets moving up into the top-three selections. Instead, Denver will select 14th in the 2018 NBA Draft — the final pick of the lottery.
While Denver could trade up, back, or even out of the draft entirely, there could be prospects who fall to the 14th pick that could be incredibly talented players. Here are five names to watch for around the 14th pick that make sense for the Nuggets.
Zhaire Smith is as enticing of a prospect as there is for the Nuggets. His draft stock is highly volatile and so much of his evaluation will be from workouts with individual teams, but he also could be one of the top-five most talented players from the 2018 NBA draft. Because so much of his draft stock relies on his interviews and workouts, Smith could either jump up into the top-ten, or he could fall down around the 14th pick, where the Nuggets are selecting.
The first thing to know about Smith is that he doesn’t just get up and float. Watching Smith jump for the first time almost feels like discovering teleportation. You see his body coil as he prepares to explode into the air and once he does, in seemingly an instant, his head is above the rim for either a momentum-swinging power dunk or a massive block after rotating over from the weak side. He is undoubtedly a special physical talent from an athleticism perspective, but what makes him potentially great is that Smith has the intelligence, work ethic, on-court awareness, big-time motor, and tenacity to be the type of player to improve rapidly at the NBA level.
Smith’s offensive game should flourish at the NBA level. He played in what is known as a box offense that originated from the Bob Knight school of thought, which is predicated on tons of interior passing. Because of that offensive system, Smith played more as a dunking power forward than as a wing, like he would play in the NBA. Because of how he played throughout college, imagining him with NBA spacing, NBA coaching, and NBA playmakers on the floor with him, it is hard to imagine his athleticism, shooting touch, and offensive rebounding ability not shining brightly.
Smith still has to get stronger to unlock his positional versatility on both ends of the floor and needs a lot more polish as a playmaker and a shooter, but it is hard not to salivate thinking about Smith cutting back door and Nikola Jokic putting up lobs for him. There is still so much untapped potential with Smith that if he falls to Denver, it is hard to see the Nuggets passing.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander blew up on the scene after he was thrust into the starting lineup for the second half of the year as a 6’6 point guard. In the March Madness Tournament, Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 20.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, and six assists while playing top-notch defense. He was putting all of his skills on display, and his draft stock rose like a rocket ship.
Now, Gilgeous-Alexander is looking more like a top-ten pick than a late-lottery selection. His combination of pick and roll playmaking, defensive versatility, rapidly-improving jump shot off of the bounce, and physical gifts have him as one of the top-three point guards in the draft depending on who you ask.
Gilgeous-Alexander is mostly a slashing point guard with wonderful vision thanks to his ability to see over defenses by being 6’6 and able to get passes around defenders on the move thanks to his 6’11 wingspan. Those dimensions allow Gilgeous-Alexander to play either guard position or even some small forward while still adding additional playmaking, shooting, and defensive versatility on the floor.
Gilgeous-Alexander is not an elite athletic specimen, but he uses his length well and can get to the rim seemingly whenever he feels like it. While being more laterally and vertically athletic would help, he has already found ways around those deficiencies. Gilgeous-Alexander would open up the position-less version of the Nuggets while also helping them where Denver needs the most improvement — defensively.
Before we get into Miles Bridges, it needs to be known that the odds are that he is much closer to a top-ten pick, but because of his more acute measurables and depending on how his workouts go, he could fall into the early teens in the 2018 NBA Draft. Bridges, while being a stocky 6’7, only has a 6’9 wingspan which makes him likely too small to consistently defend bigs.
Bridges is a golem with elite-level athletic ability. Being a freakishly strong 230 pounds with some of the greatest leaping ability in college basketball makes him an intriguing archetype of a modern day wing. Every team in the NBA is looking for super-sized wings that can defend five positions that still have a serviceable offensive toolbox. Bridges is the embodiment of that type of player.
Bridges hit 37.5 percent of his 339 career three-pointers at Michigan State University, showed that his playmaking is improving, is learning to use his strength better when driving to the rim, and his handles are slowly improving. He has a versatile offensive skill set that serves him well — as long as his three-pointer keeps falling. Much like Aaron Gordon on the Orlando Magic, he needs the space that his jump shot provides to be the best version of himself on offense. He needs the space.
The one thing that Bridges desperately needs to learn is how to throw around off of his strength and weight in a more efficient way. He has not learned how to optimize his incredible strength, but NBA coaching should be able to help him unlock that skill and make his strength more useful.
Troy Brown is the sleeper pick for Denver at 14. After attempting to trade back for OG Anunoby and failing to do so during the 2017 NBA Draft, there are many similarities between the two players giving Denver second chance of sorts
Brown may not be the same terrific athlete that Anunoby is, but he is a defender that has the five-position defensive versatility to impact the game in a very similar way. He also is able to blow up opponents offensive sets and can be highly-disruptive on defense. He is a monster when containing players on the perimeter and is able to hound pick and roll initiators like his life depends on it. According to Synergy, Brown is in the 87th percentile defending isolations and in the 78th percentile defending pick and roll ballhandlers.
He is no slouch offensively either. Brown is essentially a point guard in a small forward body. He is able to make plays in the pick and roll as a scorer, but is really much better as a facilitator. Same goes for his play in isolation. The biggest question for him going forward is if his three-point jump shot can continue to grow. He absolutely needs that jump shot to become the best version of himself and if he is able to cultivate and grow as a shooter, he could be one of the biggest steals of the 2018 NBA Draft.
If Denver looks to trade back or stands pat with the 14th pick, Brown will likely be available for Denver to select.
Kevin Knox is an interesting case study. On one hand, he is one of the youngest players in the 2018 NBA Draft while also having the mobility, size, and fluid shooting stroke as a 6’9 big that makes scouts salivate. When looking at the skills that Knox has, its hard to not get excited. He has the mobility to move fluidly on the perimeter on both ends of the floor, is a mismatch nightmare as an offensive scorer, and has a growing post game as well.
The issue is that Knox is more of an idea than an actual productive player at this point in his career. He is looked at as a stretch-four, but he only hit 34.1 percent of his collegiate three-pointers. His athleticism was also much less explosive than advertised as he struggled vertically and horizontally. Defensively, Knox was light years away from where many hoped he would be.
There is no denying that Knox has an unbelievable amount of upside, but with massive defensive issues, inefficient scoring, lack of athletic ability, and effort that can waver from time to time it is hard to get too excited about him as a late-lottery pick.
There are many routes the Nuggets can take with the 14th pick — as I outlined in the most recent Denver Nuggets Daily Podcast here — but if Denver stays strong at 14, they can still improve the roster and find plenty of long-term upside.