These Three Picks Were the Biggest NBA Draft Surprises

June 21, 2019 - 1:13 pm

By Jordan Cohn

The 2019 NBA Draft has come and gone, and the top three picks -- Zion Williamson, Ja Morant and RJ Barrett -- were practically guaranteed. But the remaining lottery picks were heavily disputed among experts and bettors alike.

Coby White (seventh overall), Jaxson Hayes (eighth) and Cam Reddish (No. 10) were all examples of prospects with multiple potential landing spots, but they landed around their expected position. Nevertheless, there were major surprises beyond these three players.

Cameron Johnson (Round 1, Pick 11 | Phoenix Suns)

Johnson (16.9 points per game) improved in his final campaign at UNC, guiding the Tar Heels to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, shooting the long ball at a very impressive 46.9 percent clip and leading the team in both scoring and steals.

While his shooting ability was undeniable, his physicality and defensive prowess led to concerns about his transition into the NBA. As a 23-year-old, his room for growth represented another liability. Johnson wasn’t one of the 24 players invited to the green room during the draft, and the expectations as to where he’d end up were tempered to the late first-round.

The Suns shocked everyone by trading up to draft Johnson at No. 11 overall. By receiving Dario Saric and that pick in exchange for the No. 6 selection (Jarrett Culver), it appears the Suns were looking for forwards that could space the floor when needed. But did they really need to trade up this far in order to attain a player that was expected to be a late first-round/early second-round pick?

Keldon Johnson (Round 1, Pick 29 | San Antonio Spurs)

In an increasingly positionless league, Keldon Johnson fits the bill as a wing with a versatile skill set. Johnson, ranked as the No. 12 prospect going into the 2018-19 college basketball season, averaged 13.7 points and 5.8 rebounds per game at Kentucky while scoring in a variety of ways. Runners, downhill finishes, and spot-up threes were all part of his arsenal. The SEC Rookie of the Year could defend, too. He ranked in the top 10 in defensive win shares.

Projected to be a late-lottery pick in many mock drafts, the Spurs jumped at the opportunity to take such a natural talent that will fit well in their system. He’s similar to some other draft picks that the Spurs have taken in recent years, presenting a well-rounded game (Kyle Anderson, Dejounte Murray, Derrick White).

Johnson’s athletic ability and three-and-D potential are promising. While he may not be San Antonio’s next Kawhi Leonard, he should be one of the steals of the draft.

Bol Bol (Round 2, Pick 44 | Denver Nuggets via Miami Heat)

Even though Bol Bol (stress fracture) only played nine games as a freshman at Oregon, he still posted dominant numbers (21.0 points and 9.6 rebounds per game).

The 7-foot-2 big knocked down 3s at a 52.0 percent clip, along with displaying ball-handling and playmaking abilities. At the other end, he took after his father (Manute Bol) with 2.7 blocks per game. This blend of raw talent and physical dominance has rarely before been seen in the NBA.

There were certainly red flags, among them his aforementioned injury, maturity, and weight (208 pounds) at the combine, which was significantly less than previously recorded. Even with his frame, many experts thought that Bol would be a late lottery pick because of his limitless potential.

But Bol slid past the lottery before dropping out of the first round. Denver, which already possesses a unique big in Nikola Jokic, traded a future second-round pick and cash to the Heat in exchange for Bol. If he can stay healthy, he appears unguardable at times. Good luck defending a ball-handing, floor-spacing seven-footer -- a rarity at any level.