The Cleveland Cavaliers thought they found a gold mine when they picked up the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 first-rounder in last summer’s Kyrie Irving trade with the Boston Celtics.
It might not be quite as high as Cleveland hoped—Brooklyn is closer to bad than brutal—but it should still fall near the middle of the lottery.
That’s good enough to potentially snag a star from what looks like a premier class. It also gives the Cavs options to address one of their primary needs.
From defensive anchors to high-level scorers, the following five prospects all offer the elite potential Cleveland envisioned when it snagged this selection. And each has a reasonable chance of being available when Cleveland makes its pick without requiring the type of draft-lottery jackpot needed for a shot at Deandre Ayton or Luka Doncic.
Marvin Bagley III, PF/C, Duke
Marvin Bagley III’s production during his one-and-done season at Duke says he deserves consideration for the No. 1 spot.
He averaged 21.0 points on 61.4 percent shooting—both marks slightly superior to Ayton’s—and 11.1 rebounds per game. What’s more impressive is that he tallied those numbers on a team that NBADraft.net thinks had four other 2018 first-rounders on it. What’s most impressive is the statistics came in what was going to be his high school senior season before he reclassified.
“The 6’11” freshman has proven to be both a great prospect and terrific player—and the fact that he plays with great energy, almost always, is another positive sign,” CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish wrote. “… There’s just no way, barring injuries, that he’s not a high-level NBA player for a long time because of his physical gifts, unique skill set and better-than-good motor.”
As attractive as Bagley’s athleticism, activity and age all look, he carries enough question marks to slip outside of the top two. He hasn’t shown the instincts or reach to be a premier rim protector. He’s also a work-in-progress shooter (62.7 free-throw percentage) and a limited shot-creator.
Still, he offers a tremendous combination of polish and potential. It’s easy to envision him either sliding into the third-scorer spot behind LeBron James and Kevin Love, or eventually anchoring Cleveland’s post-LeBron attack.d itself needing a top option in the near future. Or he can play more of a secondary role, a job left unfilled after Irving’s departure and the failed Isaiah Thomas experiment.
Mohamed Bamba, C, Texas
The Cavs are so dreadful defensively that LeBron James pushing himself to new heights might no longer be enough to cover their shortcomings.
This is the team tied as the Association’s second-worst team at that end. Just two clubs average fewer blocks than the Cavs’ 3.9—the 33-year-old James leads them with 0.9 per game—and only three allow a higher shooting percentage at the rim (66.8).
Such is the problem, it will require more than a one-player fix, but adding Mohamed Bamba to be the defensive backbone would be a tremendous start.
As soon as the Harlem native officially has an NBA spot, he’ll also have the league’s longest wingspan (7’9.5″) and fifth-highest standing reach (9’6″), per ESPN.com’s Mike Schmitz. Bamba has quickness for the perimeter to go with debilitating length around the basket. He averaged 4.8 blocks per 40 minutes as a Longhorn and tallied five-plus rejections in eight different outings.
“The guy could block the sun,” Kansas coach Bill Self said earlier this season, per Tom Keegan of the Lawrence Journal-World.
Bamba has Defensive Player of the Year upside. But he sees himself as more than a stopper. He studies the modern unicorn bigs, and he looked comfortable—although not quite capable yet—launching from long distance. A lot must go right to reach his potential, but his upside includes elite rim protection and rebounding, defensive switching, above-the-rim finishing and floor spacing.
Jaren Jackson Jr., C, Michigan State
Jaren Jackson Jr.’s stat sheet doesn’t read like that of a top-10 pick—unless you know where to look.
His traditional counting categories are admittedly underwhelming with 10.9 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. But scouts are drooling over other numbers. His per-40-minute marks include 5.5 blocks and 2.0 threes on 39.6 percent shooting. That’s a better block rate than Joel Embiid had at Kansas (4.5), more triples than Love splashed at UCLA (1.0) and a higher accuracy rate than Stephen Curry’s last year at Davidson (38.7).
Jackson isn’t much of a shot-creator, and he needs more strength to survive inside. But he looks like he’ll be capable of blocking shots, defending the perimeter and burying long bombs, which might be the most coveted three skills for a contemporary center.
“His defensive potential is as enticing as anyone’s in the draft, while his ability to just stretch the floor holds value in itself,” Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman wrote. “Being the youngest prospect in the field should ease concerns over his scoring ability.”
If someone else is responsible for supplying Cleveland’s points, Jackson becomes the missing center who doesn’t require a sacrifice. Right now, the Cavs are missing rim protection no matter whom they go with, but they’re also forced to give up either athleticism (Love) or spacing (Tristan Thompson, Larry Nance Jr.). Add Jackson, and this position becomes more about contributions than limitations.
Michael Porter Jr., SF/PF, Missouri
Michael Porter Jr.’s collegiate career included three games, 30 points over 53 minutes and one back surgery.
He might be the steal of the draft.
Most mocks place him somewhere in the top 10, but he’s typically near the back half. Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman put Porter sixth in his latest simulated selections. That would not have seemed possible last summer, when multiple mocks—including Wasserman’s from August—pegged Porter atop this entire class.
His prolonged absence meant his biggest question marks went unanswered, leaving unchecked boxes for defensive consistency and an ability to elevate players around him. What can’t be denied, though, is that he’s a 6’10”, three-level scorer with tons of potential.
“He reminds me of a combination of—when they were at the high school stage—of Kevin Durant and Kevin Garnett,” Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said in May, per Ben Frederickson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Those comparisons are best digested with serious servings of salt, but they also point to the fact Porter has a chance to be special. He has perimeter skills with size for the post. Given the minuscule sample size and surrounding circumstances, his forgettable college marks—10.0 points on 33.3 percent shooting—should not be construed as a lowering of his scoring ceiling.
He could be a top option, should Cleveland find itself needing a top option in the near future. Or he can play more of a secondary role, a job left unfilled after Irving’s departure and the failed Isaiah Thomas experiment.
Collin Sexton, PG, Alabama
Last season, Jose Calderon couldn’t get minutes on a bad Los Angeles Lakers team, then saw modest action as a low-end reserve for an Atlanta Hawks club that was bounced in the opening round.
Now, the 36-year-old is becoming a nightly regular—and sometimes starter—on a Cleveland club with championship aspirations. The drop-off from Irving, to the idea of Thomas and the reality of Calderon—dubbed the “worst free-agency signing” of last summer by Sports Illustrated—and the often-solid-but-never-spectacular George Hill is glaring.
Depending on how the draft board breaks, it might be worth addressing the issue with this pick.
Enter Collin Sexton.
The Alabama product took a blowtorch to the SEC tournament, averaging 26.3 points on 54.3 percent shooting (58.8 percent outside) over the three contests. He topped 20 points in 16 of his 33 collegiate outings. He was a highlight-reel regular with clutch buckets, delicious dimes and thunderous throwdowns.
“This kid can score,” The Ringer’s Shaker Samman wrote. “If defenders sag off of him, he’s more than capable of draining shots from deep. If they pay him tight, he’s strong enough to blow by them and crafty enough to finish at the rim. And if they make a mistake? He’ll be ready to turn it into a did-you-see-that highlight.”
Sexton isn’t the most reliable shooter or a top-flight playmaker, although it’s not like he had much scoring help with the Crimson Tide. He is, however, an explosive athlete who could be Cleveland’s lead guard for the next decade-plus.