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June 20, 2018

Ranking the realistic player options for Sixers in the 2018 NBA Draft

The day of reckoning is almost upon us. For the Sixers, that means they have to make decisions that will impact their franchise for potentially the next decade-plus. For the rest of us schlubs on the outside looking in, it means taking educated guesses on who will work out best, who would be a selection worthy of scorn, and exactly how to balance what we know publicly from whispers behind the scenes.

Heading into the 2018 NBA Draft, there are seemingly a ton of possibilities the Sixers could be headed in. A trade up from No. 10 is on the table, a package of picks could be put together for a big-name star, or they could ultimately stand pat and make smart, sensible picks in the spots they currently sit in. That makes for a lot of interesting conversation, even if it also adds uncertainty.

Those of you who read this space regularly will have figured out by now that I'm not a huge fan of going overboard with predictions or projections, precisely because the future is always less certain than we believe it can be. It's why I would never be able to hack it as a front office guy — I would talk myself in circles until ultimately settling on an answer that would haunt me almost immediately.

But that's no excuse to skip out on the fun of draft season. I've spent a good amount of time watching film, consulting people I trust, and using the ol' gut to run through a lot of the prospects in this year's class. Some of those have manifested in player profiles you've (hopefully) read by now, some have been stowed away for potential future thoughts.

And now, we will dive into the players I feel are at least semi-realistic candidates to be taken by the Sixers, at No. 10 or in the even of a trade up, and rank them according to where I think they should slot in the Sixers' draft hierarchy. It's meaningless, it's arbitrary, but it will prompt some discussion and reflection, so I'm all for it.

(Additional note: this is not a true big board or even a full Sixers big board. For that reason, I am excluding guys that are either unlikely to be options, a la Marvin Bagley III, or positional misfits like the various big men scattered throughout the top 10. For the record: I am a big fan of Jaren Jackson Jr., and also believe some people are unfairly criticizing DeAndre Ayton as a means to prop up the No. 1 guy on my list.)

1. Luka Doncic — Real Madrid

Relevant reading: 2018 NBA Draft: Should Sixers consider trading up for Euro phenom Luka Doncic?

Relative to the rest of this group, Doncic is the home-run scenario. The Sixers would need to make a fairly major trade to get into the range he'll be drafted in, and following reports that the Atlanta Hawks are interested in him, a move to get him seems less likely than ever.

But let's dream a bit, for the sake of the exercise. Doncic projects to be just about everything the Sixers need from a perimeter player next to Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. He's an insanely gifted playmaker, intelligent and accomplished beyond his years on the court, and has the makings of a shot that should allow him to punish teams at multiple levels in the NBA. His presence would unlock and untangle so many different things for the surefire core pieces.

Because of his size and his overall feel for the game, I have zero concern about his ability to play alongside the likes of Simmons and Markelle Fultz moving forward. He is nominally a point guard, but modern basketball is about having as many players on the floor who can pass, shoot, and dribble at the same time. Doncic has dominated a high level of competition overseas because he can do all three, even with some athleticism concerns that come attached.

Knowing that he'll only ever have to take the third-toughest assignment on defense also eases concerns about what he'll do on that end. His lacking athleticism will limit him there, but he's smart and tough enough to make it work.

Whether as an insurance policy for Fultz or a complementary piece around the rest of this talented group, this is pretty straightforward to me.

2. Trae Young — Oklahoma University

To get this part out of the way up front — I believe it would be foolish for the Sixers to move up in the draft to take Young. Having him at No. 2 on this list is a reflection of his draft stock, which appears to be volatile enough that he could slide to No. 10.

In the scenario where the Sixers would not need to move anything in order to draft him, I believe the offensive upside with Young is high enough that he becomes worth the risk there over slottable wing players. I can completely understand people who don't, as I am usually the first person to prioritize defensive flexibility and aptitude when putting together lists like these.

However, watching Simmons play for a year and viewing Fultz as a massive question mark, I believe the Sixers need to search far and wide for surplus shooting wherever they can find it. If there's anywhere you're going to find it in this draft, it's through Young, who was one of the most prolific freshman guards we've seen in recent memory.

Once you get past the more "surefire" players in any draft, it's my belief that you search for players who have outlier qualities that can help them outshoot their draft slot. Young's combination of ballhandling, shooting variety, and passing qualifies as that exact sort of outlier, and in an edge-case outcome I think he can be one of the most impactful offensive players in the league.

Even if he fails to hit that lofty ceiling — and he has a lower floor than many in this class — Young's gravity and utility would benefit the Sixers in almost every possible scenario. One stat that should illustrate this: on "unguarded" catch-and-shoot threes this past season, Young shot 14/21 from three, for an insane 2.0 points per possession. That's a very limited sample size, but in other words, the value of an open catch-and-shoot three for Young last season was as good or better than a wide-open layup for anyone else.

Putting someone like that on the floor as an outlet for Simmons and Embiid would be unfair, before you even get to the part where putting him in pick-and-rolls with either player would force defenses into brutal decisions.

The defensive red flags are what they are. But those could be suppressed in a Sixers context, and with less offensive responsibility, there's a possibility he can get to at least passable on that end in Philadelphia. So I'd be willing to take the risk, even if I understand why other people wouldn't.

3. Kevin Knox — University of Kentucky

Relevant reading: Sixers prospect preview: Does Kevin Knox have the most upside of wings in 2018 draft class?

Here's where priorities begin to merge a little bit. I'm of the firm belief that you roll with the best player available in most draft contexts. However, reaching your upside is also a product of your fit within a system, and has to be something you take into consideration when bringing in a young player.

Knox is not a perfect fit for this Sixers team, as I think he might be best in a setup where he's able to play the four full-time. However, I think he slots in easy enough and has a high enough ceiling via scoring and shot-making that I would be willing to gamble on him vs. safer options, because you don't find many guys with his scoring diversity at 6'9".

He has a lot to prove on defense, though I think he was better at Kentucky in that department than he has been given credit for nationally. 

4. Mikal Bridges — Villanova University

Relevant reading: Sixers Prospect Preview: Does Mikal Bridges do enough to justify top-10 selection?

I desperately wanted to put Lonnie Walker in this slot, as I think he represents a higher upside choice than Bridges. But his play at Miami was too uneven, and ultimately I couldn't bring myself to slot him in here as a result.

The Villanova Bridges represents a safer and sensible option, and there's something to be said for drafting the guy who slots right into your lineup rather than chasing high-end results that don't feel super likely to come through. Bridges is going to shoot and he's going to play defense, and for the Sixers that would likely be enough.

I think his defense is a bit overrated — he's more like Robert Covington on that end than people around Philadelphia seem to realize — and he shouldn't be expected to be a lockdown defender. But throw him into the mix with several very good to elite pieces already in place, and his defensive intelligence will help the Sixers continue to build on a strong core. Maybe not the sexy pick, but one that makes plenty of sense.

5. Lonnie Walker — University of Miami

Relevant reading: Sixers prospect preview: Can Lonnie Walker refine his handle enough to be a star?

Talking to scouts, there are a lot of big fans of Walker's around the league. If there was a player people are betting on to outperform his draft slot, Walker would rank right near the top of the list.

Walker brings an intriguing mix of skills to the table, and his future at the next level will hinge on his ability to tighten up his handle. He's a comfortable shooter off-the-catch or off-the-dribble, and he's been a prolific scorer dating back to his time in Reading. Though he's not necessarily going to be a stopper at the next level, he has the tools and engagement level (on the ball) to be part of a good defense.

However, his IQ indicators on both sides of the ball (lack of playmaking, off-ball awareness) are a bit concerning, and his productivity at Miami lagged a bit. You can chalk some of it up to team context and his return from a knee injury, but the flashes were a little too inconsistent for my liking.

6. Miles Bridges — Michigan State University

Relevant reading: Sixers prospect preview: Where does Miles Bridges fit in Philadelphia's lineup?

I am not the biggest fan of the MSU Bridges, and I think there's a realistic outcome where his defensive versatility is nullified and he has to make up all that value on the offensive end. It's a dicey proposition, even if he added some shot diversity to his game during his second season in college.

That said, there is some sneaky star upside in there, between his crazy athleticism, shotmaking package, and all-around game that fits well into the way the league is going. He's a better playmaker than numbers suggest, and he found a way to thrive as an off-ball three this year playing next to two big men. Not the best situation to bust out in.

Without any sort of pull-up shooting to fall back on, this feels like the right place for him. Not the greatest pick in the world, and not the worst either.

7. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — University of Kentucky

Relevant reading: Sixers Prospect Preview: Is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's shot trustworthy enough to draft at No. 10?

I started out this process a bigger fan of Gilgeous-Alexander on the Sixers than I probably ended up being. In the event Fultz is a complete non-entity, I think he'd be an interesting piece to plug in, and believe in the right context he can be a very good player.

But his question marks are concerning from a Sixers-specific perspective, and without the jumper translating things would get a bit messy next to Simmons and Embiid. His archetype is one that has a low hit rate over the years in the NBA, and though I think he brings a combination of pace-changing and craft to help offset that, it's still a tough bet to make given the broader team considerations.

8. Zhaire Smith — Texas Tech University

Relevant reading: Sixers prospect preview: Does Zhaire Smith have enough skills to compliment his raw ability?

Let's revisit my conclusion on Smith from the individual write-up done last week:

If the Sixers were in a position where they didn't have their tentpole players and were looking for a home-run swing, I think Smith would be an excellent candidate at No. 10. His progression suggests it's not out of the question for him to continue adding elements to his game, and if he ever rounds the jumper and handle into shape, there's a potential star within him.

But that doesn't seem like an especially likely outcome, and there's a much more likely outcome where Smith never shoots well or handles well and you're left with a bench player/energy guy you can find much deeper in the draft. In a scenario where the Sixers trade back and pick up extra assets, it'd be a more palatable gamble, but still come with significant downside.

Love Smith as an upside candidate, don't like him on this team.

9. Collin Sexton — University of Alabama

I love guys with competitive fire as much as anybody, but when that's listed as your defining characteristic by scouts who are paid to look for nuance, it tends to suggest to me that there's a lack of polish elsewhere.

Maybe that competitiveness is enough to take him to the next level over time, and maybe on a team with more shooting on it Sexton can thrive. But it's not on this Sixers team, and after measuring shorter than Young did with shoes on, it's hard to be super bullish on him on the defensive end of the court, either.

10. Michael Porter Jr. — University of Missouri

I understand the fascination with him because of his ability to shoot/score at his size, but he has black-hole tendencies, awful defensive effort and awareness, and major injury red flags to account for. I wouldn't go so far as to say he's undraftable, he's just not an archetype I particularly like anyway and it's easier to write him off given the medical stuff.

If he ends up having a long and productive career, so be it. I wouldn't be the one to take the risk, and lean toward skepticism that he can contribute to winning basketball games in the NBA.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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