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#pounditSaturday, October 24, 2020

The five biggest wild cards of the 2016 NBA Draft


One of the basic truths of the human experience is the charming mystique of the unknown. Sometimes, life is just more fun when we don’t quite know what to expect, what’s to come, or even what the heck is going on. It’s why we
crave travel, why we seek exposure to different cultures, why we thirst for exciting new experiences like skydiving, or horseback riding, or petty theft (OK, maybe strike that last one). It’s why the JFK assassination is so fascinating because we still don’t know what exactly transpired in Dealey Plaza that day some five-plus decades later. It’s why Keyser Söze is one of the greatest villains in the history of cinema. It’s why the anticipation of the new Frank Ocean album is still so high, even if we’re all growing increasingly worried that the dang thing might never actually come out. And it’s why social media is so much more fun when LeBron James (obligatory edit in light of recent events: three-time NBA champion and premier basketball overlord LeBron James) is subtweeting the life out of some poor unidentified soul.

The same goes for the NBA Draft. It’s especially so in a year like this one with so many supremely skilled prospects having so many unresolved issues hiding as skeletons in their closets. Sure, most of the top-tier guys seem like fairly certain commodities. We know that Ben Simmons is a potentially transcendent athlete/playmaker with a moldy jumper, while Brandon Ingram is a scarecrow who does a little bit of everything but might just blow over in a strong gust of wind. Meanwhile, Kris Dunn was probably genetically engineered in a point guard factory, whereas Jaylen Brown, Buddy Hield, and Jamal Murray have all become synonymous in the English language with the phrase “get buckets.” But for some guys, there’s a bit more nuance to it than that. I’m talking about the players who could get a GM fired for drafting them as quickly as they could get another GM fired for passing on them. These are the talents who exemplify Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. The ones who are akin to drawing a Chance card in Monopoly. The dudes who are out to singlehandedly prove (or disprove) that hopping into the high-risk, high-reward boxcar is not a zero-sum game. They may not necessarily be the players we need, but they’re definitely the players we deserve.

Without further ado, here are the five biggest wild cards of the 2016 NBA Draft.

Denzel Valentine, SG/SF, Michigan State

Ahem…[Dramatic voice] “What if I told you that Ben Simmons’ game existed in a body with Brandon Roy’s knees? A riveting tale of risk, reward, and Tom Izzo’s tears. Presenting the latest installment in ESPN’s 30 For 30 series: The Curious Case of Denzel Valentine.”

And what a curious case it is, indeed.

Denzel Valentine won almost every major accolade imaginable in his senior year at Michigan State in 2015-16 and cemented his status as a do-it-all swingman/nightly triple-double threat. But a troublesome report recently surfaced that Valentine may be suffering from cartilage damage in both of his knees. By now, NBA teams have seen enough Greg Oden and Joel Embiid-esque spook stories that they are pretty much conditioned to recoil in horror at the sheer sight of such a report. But the payoff may simply be too great to allow Valentine to slip very far.

The 2015-16 AP Player of the Year provides an unusual and unique blend of playmaking, long-range sniping, and leadership for a wing player. He also attacks the boards with purpose, often showcasing a flair for pulling down contested rebounds and has a condor-like wingspan that makes him a handful on both ends. While his athleticism relative to other Spartan products may be a tad closer to Zach Randolph than to Jason Richardson, and his underwhelming foot speed/defensive smarts undermine his value in a league that demands their wings to be of the 3-and-D variety, Valentine is simply too talented and too versatile to not go in the top-20, even despite less-than-favorable medical circumstances.

As a four-year senior, Valentine may not be the seductive reservoir of untapped potential many of these other guys are. But as a mature, NBA-ready talent with a strong work ethic and a valuable skillset, the 22-year-old has what it takes to thrive in the league for many years to come. Now the only thing left to do is take bets on which team will be the one petitioning to move Valentine’s Day from February 14 to June 23.

Thon Maker, PF/C, Australia

Sudanese-Australian big man Thon Maker certainly isn’t the first “Ball is Life Mixtape” superstar to ascend to the forefront of the public consciousness, nor will he be the last. But he may very well be amongst the most intriguing. Thanks to a bureaucratic loophole in draft eligibility regulations (in order to declare, a player is only required to be a minimum of 19 years old in the calendar year the draft is held as well as be one year removed from high school graduation), Meet-Your-Maker has proven that he is technically eligible already and thus will be available to NBA teams for the picking.

It wasn’t too long ago that this very guy had me foaming at the mouth and gushing to all of my friends about a mystical seven-foot Kobe with Kevin Garnett’s defensive upside. But since then, Maker’s hype train has derailed a bit. Going up against more formidable, pro-aspiring talent in various basketball showcases this past year (particularly getting publicly undressed by Skal Labissiere, himself a prospect with serious questions about his NBA readiness, in drills and scrimmages at Nike Hoops Summit last year), Maker’s warts became obvious: namely, a lack of muscle, virtually nonexistent intangible skills, uncertainty as to whether he projects at the 4 or the 5 in the Association, and questionable mechanics both on his jumper and in the post.

Still, those limitations don’t quite take away from the utter filth Maker brings to the table otherwise. At 7-foot-1, the smooth handle and the aptness to create his own shot off the dribble he possesses for his size should be illegal in a civilized society. Meanwhile, Maker’s prowess as a devastating rim-roller and shot-blocker is nothing short of spectacular, and his knack for playing above the rim gives him top-tier immortality potential in the Vine era. While he might have been had he elected to register in the 2017 draft class instead, Maker is not a lottery selection nor even a fringe lottery selection right now. But his ceiling, like just about all of these prospects, definitely seems silly enough to convince some GM picking in the first round to push all of his chips to the center of the war room table and say “Screw it, all in.”

Dragan Bender, PF/C, Croatia

In hindsight, the lightning-in-a-bottle success of Latvian Jedi Kristaps Porzingis in his rookie season with the Knicks last year was probably the worst possible thing that could have happened to Dragan Bender. Because low hanging fruit or not, Porzingis will always be the comparison for Bender, the standard to which he is held.

The two are certainly cut from a similar cloth: the mysterious European athletic specimen that emerged from the dimly-lit orifice of grainy YouTube rubble. Like King Kristaps, Bender is a physics-defying seven-plus-foot stalwart with excellent mobility and a strong foundation as a future defensive anchor. The two also share the same sneaky tenacity on the glass combined with the general need to put on more muscle and finish better through contact.

But what separates Bender from the holy Porzingod is a lot more than just a couple of bad “Dragan Ball Z” jokes.

While Porzingis’ calling card on defense is his rim protection, Bender’s, interestingly enough, is more for his widely-lauded ability to shut down the perimeter. Additionally, Bender isn’t nearly the shooter Porzingis is yet, but what he gives up in that regard, he more than makes up for with his superior passing/floor vision. The Croatian may ultimately be an even riskier pick than Porzingis was at the time, having played in a lower level of professional European basketball and received substantially fewer minutes. But as a fundamentally-sound modern marvel of life science who won’t even turn 19 until next November, the case for Bender in the lottery is definitely mighty convincing for that bold NBA team (and yes, there’s at least one every single year) willing to look overseas for the fulfillment of the prophecy foretold by the elder basketball scribes. Let’s just hope that the poltergeist apparition of a Primo-Pasta-stuck-in-teeth Andrea Bargnani stays far, far away from Bender on draft night.

Domantas Sabonis, PF/C, Gonzaga

Winter Quarter, 2015, Finals Week of my junior year at UCLA. I was embroiled in academic hell brought about by taking one too many Political Science classes. As I desperately searched for a reprieve from a seemingly interminable study cycle, I realized that the Bruins were playing the Gonzaga Bulldogs at Pauley Pavillion that night. Now, I had little incentive to make the 15-minute walk down to the arena to watch a Bruins team (headlined that year by hoops icon Kevon Looney) that I had already seen a dozen or so times already by then to meet certain doom and gloom at the hands of the far-superior Zags. But I needed the break and I remembered that Gonzaga boasted Little Arvydas Sabonis on their roster. So I made the trek and within minutes of tip-off, it became abundantly clear: this kid was no legacy — this kid could ball.

Every finish at the rim was breathtaking, every post move felt like it deserved the accompaniment of an angelic choir, every pocket pass nearly made me faint in my seat. I left the arena that night a new believer, my friends. A convert to the Church of Domantas. Then, in the Sweet Sixteen when the two teams improbably met again and Sabonis and Przemek Karnowski carved up the UCLA frontline on a slew of magnificent head fakes and no-look finds on the interior as I watched helplessly on TV from a Buffalo Wild Wings booth, I knew this kid had a serious future in the NBA.

Is he anything like his dad pre-injuries: a Molotov cocktail of size, power, range, grace, and agility (not to mention a head bigger than the TV camera shot, as my cousin would say)? Not quite. But Domantas’ game is certainly not to be trifled with. He may not possess great defensive tools yet; he lacks awareness/quickness and a dominating paint presence on that end. Sabonis may also struggle with fouling problems against NBA-level length, all deficiencies that could render him borderline unplayable in certain situations. But with his strength and touch in the post as well as his impressive feel for the game and competitive fire, Little Domas (who’s not quite so little anymore) is on a mission to ensure that the Noble Kingdom of Sabonis rules preeminent over the hardwood once more.

Marquese Chriss, PF, Washington

If Marquese Chriss were a Kanye West song, he would most definitely be “Famous.” Yeezy’s track off The Life of Pablo starts off pretty flat. It stumbles through some cheap Taylor Swift digs and a woefully uninspiring Rihanna feature. But then, about halfway through the song, the Sister Nancy sample drops. And once that heavenly “bam bam, bam bam, bam bam dilla” groove hits your ears, you can’t help but think to yourself, “I am at peace with the world and life is beautiful.” That’s essentially the Marquese Chriss experience in a nutshell.

The 18-year-old will frustrate the bajeezus out of you at times. He has a tendency to drive aimlessly into traffic and cough up cringeworthy shots; he is almost a non-factor on the glass; and at times on defense, he runs around like a seal that’s been swimming in sizzurp instead of freshwater.

But by golly, when Chriss is on top of his game, it’s just absolute bliss.

Chriss’ athleticism and explosiveness are elite, his wingspan sits north of seven feet (the combination of which gives him a high ceiling as a shot-blocker), and he looked great with the Huskies as both a catch-and-shoot guy with range out to the three-point line and a back-to-the-basket brute. Extremely mobile as well, Chriss has two-way superstar potential written all over him. He may be severely lacking in polish and fundamentals, but Chriss’ blend of physical gifts and talent is rare, even in an era of basketball that seems to have become dominated by social Darwinism of the gene pool.

Right now, Chriss has proven to be a raw slate of marble, but one made from the finest material. We’ll see which NBA team wants to try their hand at being Michelangelo.

Image Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

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