Everywhere anyone turned at the 2017 NBA Draft Combine in Chicago, there was another center with a first-round stamp of approval. That’s a bizarre twist for a league moving further and further away from needing traditional big men.
The clash between the past and future of basketball will play a huge role in this year’s draft, from top to bottom. Lonzo Ball is a central and divisive figure, with father LaVar proclaiming his eldest son to be the model for what a point guard will look like moving forward. How does he compare to a more traditional point guard, such as De’Aaron Fox? Team preference will weigh heavily, and that won’t be sorted out until Tuesday night’s 2017 NBA Draft Lottery (5 p.m. PDT, ESPN) in New York.
But the glut of solid centers will take hold of this draft after the top 10. USA TODAY Sports spoke with several NBA executives who requested anonymity in order to keep their draft leanings secret and follow league protocol, and the consensus placed big men in about half of picks 11 through 30. The combine helped sort out some of the risers and fallers, but workouts will play a huge role in which big men end up where and why.
With that said, here is a pre-lottery mock draft from USA TODAY Sports’ Adi Joseph, with contributions from Jeff Zillgitt and Michael Singer.
1. Boston Celtics (via Brooklyn Nets)
PG Markelle Fultz, Washington
Find any team that doesn’t have Fultz atop its big board. He has every skill NBA teams are looking for in a point guard, including the ability to play off the ball as needed. The biggest worry is about his motor, but it’s difficult to parse whether that was the result of a focusing issue or playing for such a mediocre college team.
2. Phoenix Suns
PG Lonzo Ball, UCLA
The Suns are in a tricky spot in their rebuilding process, still trying to figure out exactly what they have in just about all of their prospects. But Devin Booker and whomever they draft now seem to be the centerpieces. Ball and Booker might not defend well together, but they could offer a tantalizing answer to the Warriors’ Splash Brothers on offense if everything clicks.
3. Los Angeles Lakers
SF Josh Jackson, Kansas
The Lakers-Ball pairing has seemed preordained for months, but they probably would be better off with Jackson, who is second on several NBA teams’ boards, executives told USA TODAY Sports. His insane athleticism and high-end defensive potential make him a nice partner to skilled Brandon Ingram.
4. Philadelphia 76ers
PG De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky
The 76ers need a new backcourt, and they more than anyone would love to land Fultz. But Fox, who measured out to be 6-3, 170 pounds, is a freakish athlete who played smart in a system that has been incredibly successful with point guards. “I feel like I’m the best (point guard in the draft),” he said at the combine. “If they drafted above me I’d be fine with it, I’d be cool with it. You still have to play basketball at the end of the day."
5. Orlando Magic
F Jayson Tatum, Duke
Tatum has the upside to go as high as No. 2, as he’s the most polished scorer in this class. His perimeter skills often place him as a small forward, but he should fit comfortably in the mold of a modern stretch power forward with a little added bulk.
6. Minnesota Timberwolves
F Jonathan Isaac, Florida State
No player in this class has as much defensive potential as Isaac. That plus his positional versatility make him a nice fit with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, as the Timberwolves are one of the few teams in the lottery with two established building blocks.
7. New York Knicks
G Malik Monk, Kentucky
If Phil Jackson wants to remain committed to the triangle offense, Monk makes more sense than any of the traditional point guards who might be available. He’s a natural scorer with dynamic athleticism who could play on or off ball in a triangle setting. He’s also one of the least efficient players being discussed in this range.
8. Sacramento Kings
PG Dennis Smith, North Carolina State
Smith fits with the mold of a modern NBA point guard a bit more easily than Ball, Fox, Monk or Ntilikina. He’s an explosive 6-3 with great vision and scoring ability, and the Kings would be thrilled if he slipped to them here.
9. Dallas Mavericks
PF Lauri Markkanen, Arizona
Markkanen is the latest 7-foot European with a jumper to be labeled the “Next Dirk Nowitzki.” The unique thing this time is that the Finland native actually plays like the Mavericks legend. The scenario in which he could simply slide into the Dallas lineup as Nowitzki prepares to retire would be difficult to pass.
10. Sacramento Kings (via New Orleans Pelicans)
PG Frank Ntilikina, France
Drafting two point guards would simultaneously be a very Kings thing to do and a smarter-than-usual move in this case. Ntilikina plays nothing like Smith, and his 6-5 frame, defensive versatility and emerging jumper could allow him to become a shooting guard in the long term.
11. Charlotte Hornets
SG Luke Kennard, Duke
Other than All-Star point guard Kemba Walker and 31-year-old Marco Belinelli, the Hornets regressed big time on 3-pointers last season. Kennard would fit with team philosophy and need and should be able to play as a rookie, which coach Steve Clifford tends to value.
12. Detroit Pistons
G Donovan Mitchell, Louisville
With Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s restricted free agency and Reggie Jackson’s health situation, the Pistons know they need a guard. Mitchell showed out at the combine, with the best numbers in the sprint and no-step vertical leap as well as a 6-10 wingspan. He’s also a tenacious competitor at either guard spot who has worked hard to improve his shooting and playmaking.
13. Denver Nuggets
C Zach Collins, Gonzaga
Collins, talking with reporters at the combine, admitted he was surprised to see his name on draft boards after just one year at Gonzaga. But he took over the NCAA tournament with his blocked shots and rebounds, and his efficiency statistics are eye-popping. There’s little doubt Collins can be a rim-protector at the next level, but he has the potential to be even more.
14. Miami Heat
F OG Anunoby, Indiana
One game into the college basketball season, Anunoby’s stock was soaring. He’d defensively dominated Jackson and Kansas and shown a 3-point stroke in the process. Were it not for a knee injury that kept him out the second half of this season, he'd be a top-10 pick.
15. Portland Trail Blazers
C Jarrett Allen, Texas
Allen was the fastest and the best jumper of anyone who measured 6-10 or taller at the combine, and his 7-5¼ wingspan was 1¼ inches off the best in Chicago while his hands were second-biggest to Harry Giles. None of that would matter if he didn’t so perfectly project as a rim-protecting, rim-running modern center, a la Tyson Chandler.
16. Chicago Bulls
SF Justin Jackson, North Carolina
A series of trades left the Bulls a bit depleted on the wings, and Jackson fits the profile of what they like to draft: He’s a proven college player with a versatile skill set.
17. Milwaukee Bucks
C Harry Giles, Duke
The Bucks savor high-end potential picks in the middle of the first round. Giles may be the ultimate in that regard. It’s exceptionally rare for a player to be ranked first in his recruiting class and not end up a lottery pick, but a series of knee injuries led to some big questions about Giles. Still, he tested well in the combine, notably handling the agility course faster than any other big man.
18. Indiana Pacers
PF John Collins, Wake Forest
The Pacers want to win now to keep Paul George happy. Collins was an emergent star as a sophomore, and he showed the combination of skill, size and know-how to be a contributor quickly. One question: Will newly empowered personnel head Kevin Pritchard want to swing for the fences now that he’s replaced Larry Bird?
19. Atlanta Hawks
C Justin Patton, Creighton
Patton fits the modern game with his combination of defense, athleticism, handle and shot. Just ask him. “I’m a real versatile five,” he said at the combine. “I can dribble, I can shoot. I’m quicker than most guys. (The game is) changing in my favor, so I’m happy about that.” Give the late-bloomer a couple years behind Dwight Howard, and he might turn into something.
20. Portland Trail Blazers (via Memphis Grizzlies)
PF T.J. Leaf, UCLA
Everyone on UCLA put up gaudy offensive numbers last season, but Leaf's were insane by any measure: He made 61.7% of his field goals and 46.6% of his 3s. At the combine, he compared his basketball IQ to a point guard's and noted, "I can score on three levels, which a lot of bigs are not able to do."
21. Oklahoma City Thunder
SF Terrance Ferguson, Australia
Ferguson brings to mind Terrence Ross in that he could win a dunk contest or 3-point contest but has major holes in his game otherwise. Which contest would he try first? “That's tough,” he said at the combine. “I feel like I can with both. That's how my head is right now. I feel like I can win both. But, I'm going to take the three-point contest first.”
22. Brooklyn Nets (via Washington Wizards)
PF Jordan Bell, Oregon
No one improved his stock at the combine more than Bell, who was amazing in scrimmages and tested out as quick and athletic. He has the potential to defend at least three and possibly all five positions, an asset in an NBA that hinges more and more on switching pick-and-roll coverage.
23. Toronto Raptors (via Los Angeles Clippers)
C Ike Anigbogu, UCLA
None of the college players to enter this draft early were as underwhelming as Anigbogu last season. He averaged 13 minutes and 4.7 points a game thanks to injuries and a deep Bruins team. But the combine validated that his frame is outstanding — at 252 pounds, he had half the body fat of most of the players in his weight class, and his 7-6¼ wingspan was second.
24. Utah Jazz
SF Rodions Kurucs, Latvia
Predicting which team likes which international player is always a challenge, but everyone seems intrigued by Kurucs. He has a smooth game and good size, and as a 19-year-old, he would make an ideal draft-and-stash fit to bring over in two years, when his deal with Barcelona ends.
25. Orlando Magic (via Toronto Raptors)
C Bam Adebayo, Kentucky
One NBA executive, who spoke under condition of anonymity for competitive reasons, told USA TODAY Sports that Adebayo stands out among this crowded field of big men because of his natural ability to switch onto guards while still protecting the paint, a valuable skill. Think Clint Capela or Tristan Thompson. He also was tremendously productive at Kentucky and proved his athleticism at the combine.
26. Portland Trail Blazers (via Cleveland Cavaliers)
C Isaiah Hartenstein, Germany
Born in America but raised in Germany, Hartenstein has proven divisive among NBA types. His playing time for Lithuania’s legendary Zalgiris team was limited to garbage time, but he has shown in youth tournaments that he is a great passer who knows how to use his size. The success of European centers in the NBA likely will help him.
27. Brooklyn Nets (via Boston Celtics)
C Jonathan Jeanne, France
Jeanne is 7-2 with a 7-6½ wingspan, making him the tallest and longest player at the combine. He also weighs 207 pounds despite 8.7% body fat. For comparison, 7-footer Omer Yurtseven weighed 248 pounds with 7.6% body fat. That physique is scary, but Jeanne shows perimeter skills and has the ceiling to be a valuable long-term player.
28. Los Angeles Lakers (via Houston Rockets)
SG Hamidou Diallo, Kentucky
His 44½-inch vertical leap made it clear why many call him the best athlete in the draft. But after not playing a game for Kentucky because of an eligibility situation, Diallo is one of the rare players who might be better served passing up being a late first-rounder now and returning to school, which he still can do.
29. San Antonio Spurs
C Anzejs Pasecniks, Latvia
The Spurs have a tendency to do two things with their annual late first-rounder: take the guy everyone was stunned to see slip to them or go with a foreign player. Pasecniks is a 7-2 giant who has been hyped in certain NBA circles for years, in part because he’s older than a lot of the top European prospects.
30. Utah Jazz (via Golden State Warriors)
PG Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State
The biggest gap between Evans and the point guards in the top 10 is size; he measured to be under 6-foot at the combine. But he’s a brilliant natural playmaker with enough speed and strength to be a factor on pick-and-rolls. The Jazz may need a point guard, and Evans is a potential steal.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Adi Joseph on Twitter @AdiJoseph.