NBA

NBA draft has plenty of intrigue with no clear-cut No. 1

By Sports Desk June 24, 2024

One year after one of the most predictable No. 1 picks in the history of the NBA, this year’s draft has plenty of intrigue at the top – and throughout the first round, for that matter.

And one year after Victor Wembanyama was the clear-cut top pick by the San Antonio Spurs, another Frenchman could go first overall with two of Wemby’s fellow countrymen routinely slotted into the top spot by many prognosticators.

But while Alex Sarr and Zaccharie Risacher have both been projected to be drafted at No. 1, it’s uncertain who will hear their name called first by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver on Wednesday.

Or if it will even be one of those French prospects with a number of Americans expected to be selected early.

One thing is for certain, though, and that's the most well-known American in this draft class – Bronny James – will not be the top pick.

The Atlanta Hawks will be picking first after surprisingly winning the draft lottery on May 12, despite having just a three per cent chance of securing the top pick after going 36-46 this past season and finishing in 10th place in the Eastern Conference.

Picking first for the first time since 1975, their decision at No. 1 will set in motion how the rest of the evening will transpire.

That is, if they keep the pick.

Atlanta general manager Landry Fields said last week that he isn’t planning on trading the top pick, but he’s listening to offers.

Risacher has recently been linked to the Hawks after excelling for his team in France’s top league and also in the EuroCup. The 6-foot-8 wing appears to have a high ceiling as both a catch-and-shoot 3-point specialist and is an exceptional defender. An excellent dribbler and ball-handler for someone of his size, the 19-year-old plays as a point forward, as he reads the floor well and is able to deliver crisp passes.

Atlanta could also choose to follow in the footsteps as San Antonio from a year ago and go with the elite rim protector in Sarr. With a 7-foot-4 wingspan, the versatile19-year-old brings not only length, but also athleticism, and has displayed marked improvements with his mid-range and 3-point shooting. He has the size of a centre at 6-foot-11, but shows the agility and ball-handling of a wing and can pull up from deep just as easily as he can drive to the hoop.

If the Hawks pass on Sarr, he would seemingly be a good fit for the owners of the second pick, the Washington Wizards.

Washington allowed a league-worst 123 points per game last season, and Sarr would provide an immediate upgrade on defense.

While either Risacher or Sarr are the overwhelming favourite to go first by most pundits, an American from the college ranks could end up being the second pick.

Reed Sheppard from Kentucky, Donovan Clingan and teammate Stephon Castle from national champion Connecticut all potentially could go to the Wizards at No. 2.

The 20-year-old Sheppard is a deadly shooter from 3-point range, and should make an easy transition to the NBA as he possess a high basketball IQ. Not only did the Big East freshman of the year lead all Division I American college players in 3-point shooting at 52.1 per cent, but he also displayed his athleticism at the NBA draft combine with a 42-inch vertical jump – the best among all participants. He’s only 6-foot-1, but he’s hard-nosed and tough and plays with an edge defensively, as he averaged 2.48 steals in 2023-24.

Castle will never be confused with Sheppard for his 3-point shooting – as he shot a mere 26.7 per cent from outside the perimeter on 75 attempts – but he is terrific at creating a shot off the dribble inside the arc – as he shot 54.4 per cent on all 2-point attempts as a freshman with the Huskies last season. Explosive with the ball in his hands, he also brings size and tenacity to the defensive end, and has the capability to guard just about anyone.

Clingan, however, may be the best defensive prospect in this draft class. The linchpin of the defense for the back-to-back national champions, the 7-foot-2, 280-pounder averaged 13 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.46 blocks per game and is an ultimate rim protector with his nearly 7-foot-7 wingspan. He’s physical near the basket, but is also quite agile for someone of his size.

Two of the more recognizable American collegiate players – notable for vastly different reasons – are nowhere to be found near the top of the draft boards.

The back-to-back American collegiate AP national player of the year, Zach Edey, dominated against the young men in college but is viewed as being a tad slow to do the same against grown men in the NBA. With a nearly 8-foot wingspan, the 7-foot-3 Canadian will likely still be tough to defend near the basket and if he can develop a long-range shot, he could one day become a serviceable player in the pros.

Possibly the biggest name in the draft class – and easily the biggest question mark – is the son of the one and only LeBron James.

Rarely do 6-foot-1 guards who averaged 4.8 points in 25 games in their one collegiate season as a freshman garner this much attention, but never before has the son of the NBA’s all-time leading scorer been in this position. The younger James performed well at the NBA’s draft combine – his 40 ½-inch vertical jump was the third best among all guards – and obviously has strong basketball bloodlines, but his game is a work-in-progress.

The elder James had previously said it would be a dream to play with his son, so do the Los Angeles Lakers pull the trigger at 17 to select the 19-year-old?

Well before the younger James joins his dad in the NBA, prospects Matas Buzelis, Dalton Knecht, Cody Williams and Devin Carter are all expected to be drafted.

Buzelis is a Lithuanian-American who opted to play for the G League Ignite in 2023-24 instead of continuing his career at the college level. Once considered the early favourite to go first overall in this draft, the 19-year-old is an excellent two-way player with good length and a strong motor. So why is he no longer the projected No. 1? He somehow forgot how to shoot from long range. After connecting on better than 40 per cent of his 3-pointers as a senior in high school, he made just 27.3 per cent of his 3-point attempts in his one season in the G League. The hope is he’ll be able to regain his shooting touch.

Knecht didn’t have the same issue as Buzelis last season. Knecht lit it up from deep in 2023-24, shooting 39.7 per cent from 3-point range as a transfer at Tennessee. With good size and the ability to create shots from just about anywhere on the court, the 6-foot-5 wing may have the highest upside as anyone in this draft class. His one drawback? His defense leaves something to be desired. If teams are willing to overlook his defensive shortcomings, he should excel in the NBA as an offensive playmaker.

Williams, meanwhile, brings it on the defensive end and can also shoot. Though he’s most dangerous with the ball in his hand by driving to the rim, he also proved last season as a freshman at Colorado that he can’t be given too much space on the outside, as he connected on 41.5 per cent of his 41 3-point attempts. The brother of 2022 lottery pick Jalen Williams by the Oklahoma City Thunder, the 6-foot-6 Williams is also an excellent ball-handler and adept passer.

Carter is another projected lottery pick after earning Big East Player of the Year honours in 2023-24 at Providence. He averaged 19.7 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.6 assists and is able to score in a variety of ways. His defence may be his best attribute, however, as he is able to defend just about anyone on an opposing team.

It’s been suggested that this particular draft is one of the least compelling in several years, with no “can’t-miss superstar” and lacks overall talent depth.

Yet those factors also make this draft a bit more interesting, with so many unknowns and a plethora of potential selection scenarios

Despite all the uncertainties, however, one thing can't be argued, and that is it’s anyone’s guess how this draft will unfold.

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