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Mikal Bridges shoots during 2018 Big East Championship Game at Madison Square Garden.


Top Five Sleepers in the 2018 NBA Draft

Every year in the NBA draft, there is at least one player who ends up getting drafted too low. Last year, Donovan Mitchell fell outside of the top 10 and ended up having the best rookie season of anyone in his class. Meanwhile, Jimmy Butler and Giannis Antetokounmpo continue to show that franchise players can be found outside the top-10 draft picks.

This year, some players have fallen off the radar and could slip outside the top-10. Here are the top NBA draft sleepers for the 2018 NBA Draft:

Mikal Bridges

Why Is He a Sleeper?

Mikal Bridges still has a chance to go in the top-10 so he may not seem like a sleeper. The reason he belongs here is that no player besides Luka Doncic possesses the versatility that Bridges can bring to the table. Doncic and Bridges are the only two players in this year’s draft who could have confidently stepped into the NBA finals and been contributors right away.

Bridges makes his living on defense where he hounds ball-handlers across the positional spectrum. His exceptional lateral quickness and length help him stay in front of even the fastest players and contest shots when they can generate any space. Villanova switched regularly and that meant Bridges got all types of defensive assignments, which should prepare him well for a career in the NBA. Bridges can contribute immediately on that end for any team that drafts him.

Offensively, Bridges is already an elite shooter at his position and there is no noise in those numbers. His free throw percentage is as excellent (85 percent) as his shooting from distance (43 percent). Like his defense, Bridges can immediately step in offensively and space the floor for the team that drafts him.

Why Could He Fail?

The knock on Bridges is that his ceiling is lower than some of his peers. This is due to both his age and lack of offensive upside. That said, offensive upside is the same reason that Darko Milicic and many other draft busts find their way to huge NBA contracts. With Bridges, the concern is legitimate. Bridges will never be the primary creator on a championship team and seems more like a third option.

However, the league and its best teams need release valve players. Kawhi Leonard and Klay Thompson are both players who also lack the playmaking ability that teams associate with an alpha offensive player. Bridges is that type of player and like Thompson, his size makes him a nightmare on switches. If he can develop his one-dribble moves and become a better post player, he could be a better offensive player than many pundits currently predict.

NBA Outcome

The floor for Bridges will be a Danny Green or Robert Covington type player. His ceiling is probably a better version of Klay Thompson or a poor man’s Kawhi Leonard. Bridges is probably the most bust-proof player barring injury and his ability to contribute as a 3-and-D wing make him a valuable commodity who should be coveted by every team as the NBA moves to a more perimeter oriented and shooting–focused game.

Miles Bridges

Why Is He a Sleeper?

The other Bridges is another overlooked player. Like Mikal, Miles Bridges has suffered from returning to school and allowing evaluators to pick him apart for another year. It is easy to see why too after a cursory glance at his stats. After all, his shooting percentages both from three and from the field actually went down. In fact, his rebounding and minutes did, too! Clearly, Bridges’ development stagnated and he is the same player as a year ago, right? Not so fast.

The changes in Bridges game were subtle. The best predictor of a player’s three-point shooting is not their college percentage from distance but their free throw percentage. Bridges did a lot of work on his stroke this year and his free throws showed it. He turned himself into an 85 percent shooter. He also took more three-pointers and found himself operating as more of a perimeter player with stud freshman Jaren Jackson in the fold. That changed the way Bridges had to play.

Bridges became a more perimeter-oriented player, which might infuriate MSU fans who saw Bridges strong frame that could capably box out and pull down contested rebounds. It will not disappoint his future NBA team, though as Bridges will certainly play at forward during his NBA career. Subsequently, the reps Bridges received this past season should prepare him for an NBA grind that will ask him to move his feet, make plays with the ball in his hands, and shoot open threes. Bridges improved his assists and cut his turnovers as a sophomore, which showed the mental development he had in East Lansing.

Why Could He Fail?

The problems for Bridges at the next level revolve around his size and that playmaking ability. He is undersized to play the power forward position as a professional. He is an excellent rebounder who should look towards PJ Tucker as a player to emulate at the next level. If he can develop as a playmaker, he will zoom past that level of comparable player and find himself as a potential perennial all-star with his mix of skills.

The other piece for Bridges will be his defense. He was an excellent defensive player in college who had great instincts, quick feet, and contested everything without fouling. Will that translate against NBA-level athletes? If he struggles on that end, he probably lacks the offensive upside to justify his presence on the floor.

NBA Outcome

Miles Bridges should be no worse than a reserve who can switch, defend, rebound, and hit threes. Bridges is a hard player to project due to his unique size and skill set but if he continues to improve his ball-handling and shooting stroke while maintaining his defense than he could be special. It is not impossible to see him becoming a Charles Barkley-lite who can push the ball in transition and use his size and strength to get to the rim. If Bridges can become a top shooter, it would open up his ability to get to the rim by making defenses play up on him. While he has a relatively high ceiling, Bridges is an intriguing prospect due to his unique skill set and versatility.

Zhaire Smith

Why Is He a Sleeper?

Looking for the next big-time sleeper who falls out of the top-10 and then emerges as a superstar NBA player? Look no further than Zhaire Smith. His tantalizing upside could draw comparisons to some of the other players who have emerged as NBA stars from lower in the draft. Like Giannis Antetokounmpo or Donovan Mitchell, Smith is a raw prospect with a lot of athleticism and room to grow.

Smith jumps out of the gym and that athleticism translates throughout his game. He can guard 1-4 in the pros because of his athleticism and nearly 6’10’’ wingspan. He gets to rebounds a player his size should not even have a chance at and swipes the ball from unsuspecting ball-handlers.  Defensively, he should be a plus player when he arrives in the NBA.

As an offensive player, he shows flashes of nascent playmaking ability. He can get into the paint and finish strong. He might be the most explosive player in the class in terms of finishing and should give Colin Sexton a run for best dunker.

Why Could He Fail?

Smith is incredibly raw offensively and needs to rework his mechanics before he will garner respect from NBA defenses as a shooter. Combine that with a loose handle and questionable playmaking abilities and Smith does not have a natural position in the pros.

The team that drafts Smith will likely need to give him the keys to the offense and let him learn through his mistakes. He has some of the Russell Westbrook athleticism that could enable him to get by as a primary playmaker if he continues to develop. His jumper and handle will need some serious work before he can even enter that type of conversation, though.

NBA Outcome

Smith’s floor should be a poor man’s Tony Allen where becomes an impact defender without much offensive upside. However, Smith has a chance to become the best player in the class if he becomes a better shooter and ball-handler. He could become a lesser version of Westbrook whose ability to penetrate and get into the paint help simplify reads offensively and cover up a lack of natural playmaking ability. For teams outside of the top-10, there might not be a better player who represents a home-run swing.

Elie Okobo

Why Is He a Sleeper?

Many people who read this will have no idea who Elie Okobo is. Okobo has emerged as a legitimate draft prospect with his stellar play in France.

Okobo played as a shooting guard for much of his younger years before becoming a point guard. He has a lethal bag of tricks with the ball in his hands and fluidly gets to his spots on the floor. In addition to getting to his spots, he knows how to finish when he gets there. He is a great finisher at the rim and also has shown nice touch. He has a feathery jumper and his shooting stats from overseas also paint him as a good shooter.

Athletically, Okobo shows flashes of being an excellent athlete as he elevates in traffic, skies for rebounds, and locks down opposing point guards when on the ball. He is not the fastest player but can slither into the lane.

As a playmaker, Okobo changes speeds and uses advanced dribble moves to get around defenders. He shows signs of improved playmaking, which is promising given his relative newness to the point guard position.

Why Could He Fail?

There is not a lot of tape for Okobo. He played against a lower level of competition and there are questions as to how his success will translate to the next level. His shot and athleticism might not translate into a league with bigger and faster players.

Okobo needs to become more consistent. Even in the limited film of his games, he drifts and lollygags on defense. Likewise, his playmaking comes and goes. He misses some easy passes and takes some awful shots. He is still young and new to the point guard position but he needs to be more consistent on both ends to have an NBA future.

NBA Outcome

Okobo has the widest range of outcomes for any prospect in this draft. The NBA is stacked with great point guards and Okobo shows the potential to be one of them. On other nights, he plays like a G-leaguer. With that glut of point guards, the floor for Okobo is a backup or third point guard on a team. The reason Okobo is a sleeper is that he also has the potential to be the best point guard in the draft. He has advanced moves for a player his age, a jump shot that could make him tough to guard anywhere on the floor, and a frame big enough to be a high-level defender. Like Zhaire Smith, Okobo will need a patient team who will let him develop and learn from his mistakes. If they do, they might find one of the best players in the draft.

Keita Bates-Diop

Why Is He a Sleeper?

Imagine the ideal player for today’s NBA. It would probably be a wing player with a long wingspan. They would be able to rebound, shoot, and make plays with the ball without sacrificing much on the defensive end. They could play off-ball and make defenses pay with smart cuts or by spotting up. The player we just described sounds a lot like Keita Bates-Diop.

Bates-Diop played four years at Ohio State and separated himself as a defensive player. He was the glue guy on a number of strong teams. After a stress fracture, the Buckeyes struggled and Bates-Diop was granted a redshirt year due to injury. In this past season, Bates-Diop became the focal point of the Ohio State offense and the Big Ten Player of the Year by getting a little bit better at everything.

Bates-Diop was already a great defensive player but in his redshirt junior year, Bates-Diop shot more often from the floor, from three, and the free throw line than any year in college. In fact, it was not particularly close as he shot nearly 5.5 times a game from beyond the arc and increased his attempts overall by more than five a game. His percentages went up as well. He was never much of a playmaker but his assist to turnover ratio stayed static despite the extra offensive load and he maintained his defense while seeing a significant uptick as a rebounder.

If all that is not enough, he turned Ohio State alum turned columnist Mark Titus into a believer. As Titus notes in his excellent piece, Bates-Diop was a major recruit for Ohio State and simply was a late bloomer. Older players often get labeled as having a lower ceiling but the talent was always there for Bates-Diop.

Why Could He Fail?

Bates-Diop becoming a failure depends on expectations. If he slips to the end of the first round, there is a near zero chance that he becomes a bust. He is simply too good as a defensive player, rebounder, and cutter to be less than a valuable role player barring injury.

However, Bates-Diop is not a playmaker and any team hoping to get someone who can be an offensive creator is bound to be disappointed. He is an average athlete who cannot get to the rim. His ceiling is not as high as many of the players that will get drafted around him.

NBA Outcome

Bates-Diop is the antithesis of two players above. Unlike Smith or Okobo, there is no ceiling here. If the difference between floors to ceiling is a mansion for Smith and Okobo, it is a chicken coop for Bates-Diop. He might never make an all-star team but he could easily become an all-around contributor for an NBA team. The best comparison might be Tayshaun Prince with a better jump shot or for a starrier comparison, he could play a role a lot like Robert Horry.

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Ben is a Staff Writer at with a focus on the NBA.
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