There's not much doubt at the top of Thursday night's NBA draft. Kyrie Irving is almost certainly going No. 1 to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and assuming nothing crazy happens, he'll be followed by Derrick Williams with the No. 2 overall pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
But the further down the list you go, the more questions arise. Who else will go high in the lottery? Who will just barely sneak in? Who will fall all the way to the bottom of the first round?
All these questions and more will be answered.
Here's an educated guess at how the first 30 picks will fall into place on Thursday night.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers — Kyrie Irving, Duke
There's been all kinds of posturing and all kinds of grandstanding, but at the end of the day, there's not much doubt. Irving is the pick. The freshman point guard is the closest thing this draft has to a sure thing — he's athletic, he's smart, and he's the one guy in this draft that is a can't miss. Will he be a Hall of Famer? Maybe not. But he's got a good chance of bringing the Cavaliers back to respectability in the years ahead.
2. Minnesota Timberwolves — Derrick Williams, Arizona
This is a two-player draft; this is the second player. So it's no surprise that Williams goes second to Minnesota. It's a good thing for the T-Wolves, too — they want nothing to do with Irving or any of the other guards in this draft. Selecting too many guards in 2009 was exactly what scared away Ricky Rubio, who's only now coming to the States to play the NBA game. Now we may see Rubio, D-Will and Kevin Love all in the same lineup. Intriguing.
3. Utah Jazz — Brandon Knight, Kentucky
No, the Jazz can't take Jimmer Fredette third, no matter how much the fans of Utah might love it. Knight's the pick here. He's the second-best guard in the draft after Irving, no doubt. There are doubts about whether Knight's ready to be a true point guard in the league, but he can learn for a little bit as Devin Harris' backup. So far, we know two things for sure: one, Knight is an athlete and two, he can shoot. That's a nice start.
4. Cleveland Cavaliers — Enes Kanter, Turkey
This draft is loaded with foreign prospects, and Kanter is probably the best of them. He's a big upgrade over the Turkish center the Cavs already have (Semih Erden) — he's a highly skilled big man on both ends of the floor, and he's shown the range to knock down a deadly jump shot. We don't know much about Kanter yet, but we know he can play.
5. Toronto Raptors — Jan Vesely, Czech Republic
There's been a ton of buzz lately about the Raptors changing course at the last minute and grabbing UConn's Kemba Walker, the hero of the NCAA tournament. I'm not buying it. Vesely is still the best fit in Toronto. He's a long, athletic big man who can strengthen their team defensively by giving them a shot-blocking presence down low. That, not another high-volume scorer at the guard position, is what they need most.
6. Washington Wizards — Kawhi Leonard, San Diego State
Leonard is a small forward, but a very versatile one. He does it all — he scores, he rebounds, he defends, he makes plays for others. He single-handedly carried San Diego State into the Big Dance last year, and he'll have an immediate impact in the NBA. Imagine Leonard, John Wall, JaVale McGee and Andray Blatche all in the same starting lineup. That is one intriguing young basketball team.
7. Sacramento Kings — Kemba Walker, UConn
It's a risky pick for the Kings, because they kind of already have their own "point guard who can't play point guard" in Tyreke Evans. They might not want another one in Kemba. But the former March Madness hero is a dynamic scorer, an unbelievable competitor and he's got his head on straighter than the other young stars in Sacramento. He might be just the addition that this wayward young Kings team needs.
8. Detroit Pistons — Bismack Biyombo, Spain
Biyombo has been compared to Ben Wallace. The Pistons already have a Ben Wallace type, and his name is Ben Wallace — but Ben Wallace will turn 37 before the beginning of next season, so they could probably use a new Ben Wallace. Biyombo is a promising young kid. He can run, he can jump, he can leap, he can rebound, and oh boy, can he ever block shots. His offensive game is still limited, but there's time to work on that. Or he can just never develop it, and he'll turn into … you know. Ben Wallace.
9. Charlotte Bobcats — Marcus Morris, Kansas
Morris is a similar player to the No. 2 pick Williams — he's a versatile forward in the 6-foot-8, 6-foot-9 range whose exact role in the pros is still undefined. Maybe he's a power forward, maybe he's a wing, but in either role, he'll be plenty productive. He's a high-volume scorer and rebounder who can fit in well anywhere. If the Bobcats are lucky, the former Jayhawk will fill the vacancy that Gerald Wallace left last season.
10. Milwaukee Bucks — Alec Burks, Colorado
This guy might well be the best shooting guard in the draft. He averaged 20.1 points per game for the Buffaloes last season, showing an ability to create his shot from anywhere on the floor. The Bucks could definitely use a guy like that, as their offense struggled a lot last season. Then again, who couldn't use a guy like Burks?
11. Golden State Warriors — Jonas Valanciunas, Lithuania
If not for contract concerns, Valanciunas would be going a lot higher. Rumor has it that the Lithuanian big man won't be able to get out of his current contract, forcing him to wait until 2012 to make the trip stateside. That would be a deterrent to most teams, but the Warriors? They can wait another year. They've got nothing to lose. It's going to be a long rebuilding process anyway under new coach Mark Jackson. Valanciunas might prove to be worth the wait.
12. Utah Jazz — Chris Singleton, Florida State
Again, the Jimmer temptation will obviously be there. But again, Kevin O'Connor will know to make the best basketball decision, not to pick the sentimental favorite that his fans will worship. Knight is the obvious pick at No. 3, so the Jazz will already be getting a small guard earlier in this draft. At No. 12, therefore, they should go for Singleton, a versatile wing player who may prove to be the best defender in the 2011 draft class.
13. Phoenix Suns — Tristan Thompson, Texas
Like Singleton, Thompson is another energetic young small forward known for his defense. It's questionable, though, whether Thompson will become known for anything else. He's still a raw player offensively, but with the 13th pick in a weak draft, he's a good enough athlete that the Suns should probably go ahead and take the chance.
14. Houston Rockets — Markieff Morris, Kansas
Markieff might be the lesser of the two Morris brothers, but he's still a lottery pick. The Rockets need size up front, and this Morris led the Jayhawks in rebounding at 8.2 per game last season and plays like a true power forward. He'd be a great fit in Houston.
15. Indiana Pacers — Jimmer Fredette, Brigham Young
Wouldn't this be ironic? Jimmer gets passed up twice by the Jazz, then slips all the way to the second-whitest team in the NBA, the Pacers. Well, believe it. Not many teams are in the market for a little guy that chucks crazy jumpers, but Indiana is one place he'd fit well. The Pacers need one more big boost to transform from an 8-seed to a true playoff contender, and if Jimmer can score in the NBA anywhere near the way he could in college, then look out.
16. Philadelphia 76ers — Nikola Vucevic, USC
The Sixers need a true center, a really huge dude that can clog up the paint and grab every rebound. Vucevic, at 7 feet and 260 pounds, is that dude. He might be the biggest player in the whole draft. He gives the Sixers another element, making them a tougher team and perhaps a greater playoff threat a year or two from now.
17. New York Knicks — Klay Thompson, Washington State
The Knicks would love to add a guard who can shoot. Mike D'Antoni loves shooters. His system has room for as many as possible. But most of the big names — Kemba, Jimmer, Alec Burks — will be off the board by No. 17. Thompson is the next-best thing. He's not a great athlete, but he's big for a shooting guard at 6-foot-6, and he sure can shoot. Thompson averaged 21.6 points per game for the Cougars last year, and that skill might just translate to the pros.
18. Washington Wizards — Donatas Motiejunas, Lithuania
Motiejunas is a 7-footer, and the Wizards already have a legit 7-footer in their lineup in JaVale McGee. But Motiejunas is different. He's got the Euro game, the inside-out style that's been perpetuated in the past by international 7-footers like Dirk Nowitzki and Andrea Bargnani. Motiejunas might not be as good as those two guys, but he'll bring a similar game to the NBA.
19. Charlotte Bobcats — Kenneth Faried, Morehead State
Faried averaged 14.5 rebounds per game last year as a senior at Morehead State. If we've learned anything about the draft in recent years it's that rebounding ability always translates to the pros, so at No. 19 Faried may end up being the steal of the draft. His offensive game is still growing, but it's shown improvement over time, and Faried may turn into a complete NBA player in a few years. Don't bet against him.
20. Minnesota Timberwolves — Marshon Brooks, Providence
The Wolves have their rebounding big man in Kevin Love, and their scoring small forward in Michael Beasley. If all of the above is correct, they're about to add Derrick Williams, too. But they still need a shooting guard, and Brooks is a monster one. He dropped 52 points in a single Big East game this past season. If he can't score in the pros, it'll be a shock.
21. Portland Trail Blazers — Jordan Hamilton, Texas
Who needs Brandon Roy when you've got this guy? OK, maybe that's going a little far. But Hamilton might turn out to be a similar player. He's big for a shooting guard, he's competitive and he can knock down jumpers in boatloads. Hamilton's got the talent to far exceed the expectations of a typical No. 21 pick.
22. Denver Nuggets — Tobias Harris, Tennessee
The Nuggets just lost a 6-foot-8 forward this season (you may have heard of him — name's Carmelo Anthony), and they've got a chance to grab a new one in Tobias Harris. Harris is still only 18, the youngest player in the draft, but he's a good athlete and he's growing into something a little more than that. He'll fit in well with a Nuggets team built around a dozen role players and zero big stars. He can contribute right away.
23. Houston Rockets — Darius Morris, Michigan
What's that, you say? A third Morris in the first round? Yep, that's right. The Rockets like size, toughness and rebounding ability at every position, and this Morris can offer them that. He's a 6-foot-5 point guard, a physical guy who can add a little extra edge to their bench rotation. Morris is a solid mid- to late-first rounder.
24. Oklahoma City Thunder — Kyle Singler, Duke
Singler is a smart, disciplined player who spent four full seasons developing at Duke under Mike Krzyzewski. He's developed his basketball instincts well enough that he could play for an NBA contender right now, at least in a limited role off the bench. If he goes to OKC at No. 24, expect Singler to be an immediate contributor to Scott Brooks' second unit backing up Kevin Durant.
25. Boston Celtics — Jeremy Tyler, Japan
The C's aren't looking for an immediate impact player in this draft. They're content to find a long-term project, stash him away and wait until 2012 or later to unleash him. Tyler could be a good fit for that. He's an explosive big man with all kinds of physical tools, but questions about maturity derailed him in his quest to become a high lottery pick. There's nothing quite like a year of Kevin Garnett boot camp to whip a young kid into shape.
26. Dallas Mavericks — Justin Harper, Richmond
What do the champs need? Well, nothing in particular. That's why they're the champs. But they can't go wrong adding Harper, a capable small or power forward with scoring range from here to Jupiter. He averaged 17.9 points per game last season as a senior at Richmond, but he's still got room to improve further.
27. New Jersey Nets — Tyler Honeycutt, UCLA
Honeycutt wasn't a dominant anything in college — scorer, defender, rebounder, playmaker. But he did everything pretty decently. He's a solid all-around player who can play anywhere from one to four, and his role will depend on the team that drafts him and its needs. In New Jersey, he could come off the bench as a key defensive stopper for Avery Johnson. It's a possibility.
28. Chicago Bulls — Shelvin Mack, Butler
The Bulls would love to find a backup they can trust for Derrick Rose. So why not Mack? He took the Cinderella Bulldogs to the Final Four in 2011, so he's proven he can win big games. At a muscular 6-foot-3, the Butler point guard gives the Bulls a solid, tough youngster to work into their bench rotation for next season.
29. San Antonio Spurs — Davis Bertans, Latvia
The young Euro measures at about 6-foot-9, or even 6-foot-10, but he's really a small forward. He's a 3-point shooter — perhaps the best one we've seen in the draft in a long time — and he's exactly the kind of role player who quietly makes a name for himself under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio. It might take a few years, but Bertans could grow into a really great Spur.
30. Chicago Bulls — Nikola Mirotic, Serbia
Mirotic is a 6-foot-10 power forward with solid all-around fundamental game and deadly scoring efficiency. On talent alone, he could be a lottery pick in this draft, but concerns about his contract situation with Real Madrid are a little worrisome. The Bulls can afford the risk, though. They'll draft him, sit on him for a couple years, and then show him off stateside whenever he's ready.