The NBA Draft — or any draft, for that matter — is far from an exact science.
While some teams are certain of who the best players are, others disagree. Add in a team’s needs and how a player might fit into the team’s system and you can have wildly varying draft boards.
According to NBA personnel that spoke with The News, that appears to be the case for Michigan State’s top two prospects — Jaren Jackson Jr. and Miles Bridges.
Some believe Jackson is the can’t-miss prospect, sure to be taken in the top five where most mock drafts have him pegged. Still, at least one scout has the 6-foot-11 freshman rated lower, going somewhere around the 10th or 11th pick.
The same goes for Bridges. The 6-7 wing who passed on the NBA Draft last year to return for his sophomore season at Michigan State. Projected to go in the top 15, one executive wonders about a potential slide down the draft board while another sees him, not Jackson, as the top-five talent.
Plenty will get sorted out over the next month and change. It begins next week with the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago — both Jackson and Bridges have been invited — and culminates with the draft itself June 21 in New York. The time in between will be filled with team workouts as the final determinations are made.
As for Michigan State’s potential picks — sophomore Nick Ward has also declared for the draft but has not hired an agent and was not invited to the Combine — let’s start by looking at Jackson.
“He's athletic, he's got really good hands and he can shoot the three,” one Western Conference executive said. “His shot, it looks funky but it goes in. So you project a kid like that can shoot the three from our distance. … You see his shoulders. He can put some weight on. I see his motor, goes after every rebound. He has a lot of positive qualities about him.
“He's 18 years old. Youngest in his class. He's a like a young colt you can see developing into a special player.”
Jackson played just more than 21 minutes a game for the Spartans but averaged 10.9 points and 5.8 rebounds while shooting 39.6 percent from 3-point range. His versatility was also on display as a defender, blocking a program-record 106 shots.
It’s the sort of athleticism that had an Eastern Conference coach admiring Jackson’s versatility in “positionless” basketball and made him a sure-fire top-five pick.
“He's long enough for shot blocking. He can switch and stay in front of guys,” the Western Conference executive said. “I'm telling you, I can see him playing small-ball five all day. I think he's gonna be a power forward. He's gotta get stronger, that's gonna happen naturally. His instincts, his timing, though.
“Three years from now, I can see him having the impact, like why didn't they take this kid No. 1 overall? I can see that. With his mobility, he can be the best in his class.”
Still, Jackson’s future isn’t a slam dunk.
Another Eastern Conference scout sees the same value in Jackson as a defender but wonders about his potential on the offensive end.
“What would be his position?” the scout said. “He's a defensive player right now. He can shoot the three if he's wide open, but he's not a shooter. He's gonna be all right. I slid him down.
“I have him 10-11. He's long, he's more a defensive guy, rebound and pass a little bit. He's gotta go to the right team.”
And, the Western Conference executive admits, there is some risk to investing such a high pick in a player that will still be 18 when training camp opens. However, it’s not enough to sway a team from taking someone as talented as Jackson, especially considering he’s benefitted from his father, Jaren Sr., having played in the NBA.
“I just think the kid has been raised right,” the executive said. “Everybody knows his dad but his mom has been on him about being serious, being businesslike. He's got the work ethic. He's just immature. He's young. He's doing kid stuff.
“You watch his ability, his length, his quickness, his motor. You put all this together and five years, boom. You got yourself a stud.”
For Bridges, the analysis varies just as much.
Most of the uncertainty centers around where Bridges fits in at the NBA level — does he play the three or four? — while there is definite agreement about his athletic ability.
“He's a small forward that can slide over and play power forward,” an Eastern Conference scout said. “He can post up, and he's strong. That's what a lot of people have forgotten. He's athletic enough to guard the small forward.”
The numbers from year one to year two at Michigan State don’t vary greatly. He scored 17.1 points and grabbed seven rebounds a game as a sophomore after scoring 16.9 points and pulling down 8.3 rebounds as a freshman. His shooting dipped a bit, from 38.9 percent to 36.4 percent from 3-point range as he moved from playing primarily as a power forward to the wing last season.
It has some unsure of how good he’ll be at the next level. It’s not enough to scare them off as they still consider Bridges to be a player that will have a long NBA career.
“He's athletic. He has some bounce to him, but what position does he play?” a Western Conference executive said. “Some people say he's a small forward, some say he's a power forward. He's gotta be able to put it on the deck more. But he's a great kid, a terrific kid. That's a big part of it.
“A kid like that will work, he'll succeed. You don't know to what level, but he's a lottery pick. He'll be in our league a long time. He's a great kid.”
Great enough to make a surprise jump on draft night?
One scout thinks he’s a top-five talent, ranking him right behind DeAndre Ayton of Arizona, Duke’s Marvin Bagley III and Luka Doncic from Slovenia.
“I have him up high,” the scout said. “Some of the other guys, you can have them. I have him ahead of Jaren Jackson. Ayton, Bagley, Doncic, Bridges at four. I know what he has.”