The 2018 NBA Draft could wind up as one of the signature classes in league history.
Following their rookie season, third overall pick Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks was crowned the Rookie of the Year and has not looked back since. He has already been named to four NBA All-Star and All-NBA teams over his five-year career.
Now 24, Doncic has emerged as the best player from this draft class so far, but the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is beginning to challenge him for this distinction after a stellar ‘22-’23 campaign.
Gilgeous-Alexander, picked 11th overall in 2018, joined Doncic on last year’s All-NBA First Team after averaging 31.4 points, four rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.6 steals, and one block over 68 games last season.
Jaren Jackson Jr., 2018’s fourth overall pick, is making a name for himself around the league as well as the backbone of the Memphis Grizzlies’s defense. Jackson was named the NBA Defensive Player of the Year in ‘22-’23 and has already led the league in blocks for two seasons.
Both Gilgeous-Alexander and Jackson made it to their first NBA All-Star team last February to join Doncic and the Atlanta Hawks’ Trae Young on the list of 2018 draftees who have been awarded with a slot in the league’s annual showcase.
Team USA standout Mikal Bridges is likely to join this group in the coming season as he is expected to pick up from where he left off with the Brooklyn Nets. Bridges was drafted 10th overall in 2018 by the Philadelphia 76ers, but was shipped to the Phoenix Suns on draft day. He thrived as a high-end role player over four and a half seasons with Phoenix before they shipped him to the Nets prior to the 2023 trade deadline in the Kevin Durant trade.
While these standouts from the 2018 NBA Draft have already made a name for themselves, the first overall pick of this star-studded class has somehow fallen under the radar. Deandre Ayton, Bridges’ former teammate with the Suns, was picked first overall. His rare combination of size, mobility, and a soft touch was too tantalizing to pass up on for Phoenix on draft day.
When the Suns’ front office decided to pick Ayton over Doncic, it was actually a sensible move given his potential. It was also not criticized as much as the Sacramento Kings’ choice to select Marvin Bagley second overall. Ayton impressed from the get-go, averaging a double-double of 16.3 points and 10.3 rebounds over 71 games in his rookie year.
The 6’11 Ayton looked poised to become a perennial NBA All-Star following his freshman year in the league, yet he has instead plateaued since then. Ayton’s per-game statistics in his fifth campaign were quite similar to his first season and rumblings about his attitude further dampened the situation. It became apparent over the course of last season that Phoenix’s patience with Ayton was growing thin and that both parties may be better off going their separate ways.
This finally happened earlier this week as the Suns participated in the three-team trade that sent Damian Lillard from the Portland Trail Blazers to the Milwaukee Bucks. Ayton was shipped to Portland along with two-time NBA All-Star Jrue Holiday, Toumani Camara, the Bucks’ 2029 first round pick, and a pair of pick swaps. While Holiday is expected to be dealt again to a contender, Ayton is expected to remain with the Blazers as the main big man in their rebuilding process.
Ayton joins the third overall pick of this year’s NBA Draft Scoot Henderson, incoming sophomore Shaedon Sharpe, and fellow 2018 draftee Anfernee Simons as Portland’s core players moving forward.
The 25-year-old Ayton is the elder statesman among this group of four and he is expected to emerge as one of the leaders for Portland. Though he has only been in the NBA for five years, he brings a wealth of experience to this rebuild. Ayton has already experienced playing in the NBA Finals with Phoenix in addition to a few other deep postseason runs.
This coming season, he should be featured prominently in their offense and has a chance to finally meet the expectations that come with being a first overall pick. All is not lost for Ayton and this change of scenery comes at the perfect time as he is about to enter what should be his prime as a basketball player.
In a few years’ time, it would not come as a complete surprise if he can catch up to the success of his fellow 2018 draftees and make a few NBA All-Star appearances himself. The tools for success are all there and it is now up to Ayton to make the most of this opportunity.