It’s easy at the top.
The presumptive top two picks in Thursday’s NBA draft, LSU forward Ben Simmons and Duke forward Brandon Ingram, are relatively obvious choices, and it’ll be a surprise if the 76ers and Lakers don’t select them in some order.
After that, things get interesting — including for the Pelicans, who hold the No. 6 pick in the draft.
“This draft is really going to separate teams’ scouting departments,” said Yahoo Sports’ Bobby Marks, who spent 20 seasons in the NBA, including five as assistant general manager of the Nets. “I think you can really find a good player, but a lot of these guys are just so lumped up.”
There’s at least one clear tier: Simmons and Ingram are considered a notch above the pack. This relatively weak draft has few sure things, but they’re viewed as the safest bets.
“The Celtics (who pick third) control the draft right now,” ESPN analyst Chad Ford said Friday. “I think we know that Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram are going 1 and 2. If they don’t go 1 and 2, it’ll be because Ingram went 1 and Simmons went 2.”
Boston, which has three first-round picks, would prefer to move at least the No. 3 pick, Ford said, in a package to land a more experienced player. That might prove challenging in a draft that’s considered deep with NBA contributors but short on projected starters.
“There will be rotation players there,” Ford said. “I just don’t see teams expending a lot of energy and capital in this draft of trying to move up or trying to get extra picks or a lot of stuff that we see normally. I just don’t think that the players that are in this draft are so talented that it inspires that sort of level of confidence.”
That complicates the picture for teams outside the top two.
For the Pelicans, picking sixth, the choice will depend not only on which players are available, but on whom New Orleans prefers among a list of prospects who aren’t clearly separated.
If the Pelicans opt for a shooter, what’s the difference between Kentucky’s Jamal Murray and Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield? If they’re shopping to upgrade the frontcourt, who has the higher upside between Croatian forward Dragan Bender and Washington’s Marquese Chriss?
“There’s going to be a star player that is drafted later than anyone anticipated,” New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry told Pelicans.com last month, “and he’s going to blossom into very good player, and hopefully that guy’s going to be the guy that we pick.”
But that still could be any of a number of players. The draft is “so fluid,” Ford said, that even less than a week out, “we’re still trying to figure out the order of the top 10 picks.”
It’s apparent, at least, that the Pelicans should get a crack at a player who can contribute, and who might even become a starter.
After Simmons and Ingram, most analysts say the next significant draft dropoff is somewhere after the top 10.
“So you are looking in the (Nos.) 6-9 range at some intriguing prospects,” ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said.
After that, CBS analyst Sam Vecenie said, players are “basically interchangeable from 12 to 20 and from 25 to 50.”
For the Pelicans, that puts a premium on making the right pick at six.
They could look at add a point guard if Providence’s Kris Dunn is available. Or New Orleans — known to prefer immediate contributors to developmental projects — could look to upgrade its perimeter shooting with Hield or Murray, players who Ford said can provide “instant impact without the downside of the learning curve” that comes with learning to play point guard in the NBA.
But, as is the case elsewhere in the draft, there’s not a clear separation between the two. That’s the nature of a draft that’s almost as hard to predict as it is to scout.
The depth of the draft could add value to New Orleans’ second-round picks (Nos. 39 and 40 overall) and give the Pelicans a chance to add multiple quality pieces.
But with such a thin line between picks, making the right one is crucial.
“You can probably get a guy at pick 30 that’s going to be as good as the guy at pick 15,” Marks said. “And we won’t know until years down the road.”