Revisiting 2018 NBA Draft: Shake Milton, Gary Trent Jr. among biggest surprises from their class

With Luka Doncic and Trae Young preparing to face off Wednesday night — and show once again how both sides in the famed Mavericks-Hawks draft day trade won — it’s a good time to examine the rest of the 2018 NBA Draft class. While both Doncic and Young have proven to be bona fide All-Stars in this league, look beyond them and you’ll see plenty of productive NBA players drafted in both rounds. Guys like Collin Sexton (drafted eighth overall) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (11th) have become centerpieces for their respective franchises, while others like Mikal Bridges (10th), Michael Porter Jr. (14th) and Kevin Huerter (19th) have become quality role players.

This class provided some big surprises and major disappointments, along with others still considered uncertainties for one reason or another. In this three-part series, we’ll be breaking down players in each category from the 2018 draft. While there were some great players who went undrafted that year and have had success in the league — like Duncan Robinson — only drafted players will be considered here. Also, this doesn’t mean a player’s projection can’t change in a year or two from now. They’re still incredibly young, so there’s plenty of time for development and growth. 

First up, let’s look at three of the most surprising players from the 2018 NBA Draft class.

Milton is the biggest surprise among the players who were drafted in 2018. He’s played more than double the amount of games as the six guys drafted after him, and is one of only seven players from that draft class to put up 39 or more points in a game, and four of those seven were lottery picks. 

He went from playing 13 minutes a game in just 20 appearances as a rookie, to now being an essential cog in the Sixers rotation while averaging 14 points a night. It’s incredibly uncommon to find a ton of talent in the tail end of the draft, but Philly saw something in Milton, which is why it traded for him on draft night. So far, it’s worked out.

Similar to Trent, Milton was pushed into a bigger role last season due to other injuries on the team. Just a week before the league was shut down, he had his biggest game yet — a 39-point performance against the Clippers where he shot well over 70 percent from both the field and long range.

When the season resumed in the bubble and the postseason rolled around, Milton dialed up his scoring (14.5 points a game), and still maintained his efficiency from deep (40 percent). Now in his third season, he’s built upon his success from the bubble, averaging a career high in points (14.1) and assists (3.0) entering Wednesday. He has struggled to find his touch from deep so far this season, shooting just 29.6 percent, but that should work itself out as he’s shown to be an above average 3-point shooter in his short career.

Milton has become a solid scorer out of the pick-and-roll, generating 1.018 points per possession, and while his 3-pointer isn’t falling he’s been incredibly efficient from pretty much everywhere else on the floor. The other bonus the Sixers are benefiting from is that Milton is just 24 years old, so for a third-year player in the league he doesn’t make as many mistakes as a younger player would.

I think the most surprising part of Trent’s trajectory has been the fact that he was taken in the second round. He’s a Duke guy who averaged 14 points on 40 percent from deep in his lone season in college, which in most draft years would be enough to go in the middle of the first round. Yet he fell to the second round and into the lap of the Blazers, and after riding the bench his rookie season, he’s become a star on both ends of the floor for Portland. 

After injuries plagued the Blazers last season, Trent was required to step up, and although it took him a while to gain his footing in the rotation, he really began to break out when the league returned after the hiatus due to the pandemic. As Portland fought for a playoff spot in its eight seeding games, Trent proceeded to average 17 points on 50.7 percent shooting from deep. There were several players across the league that felt the shooting benefits of the bubble, and Trent was certainly one of them as he played a crucial role in getting the Blazers to the postseason.

It’s not just his shooting that has earned him praise, his defense should be equally recognized. He’s arguably Portland’s best perimeter defender, and is typically tasked with checking the opposing team’s best perimeter player.

Breathing room is minimal when Trent is guarding guys, and it either translates to a difficult shot:

… or a turnover:

His breakout performance in the bubble has so far translated to his third season in the league with the Blazers in an even bigger way. He’s averaging a career-high 14 points and two rebounds, while shooting a career-best 43.6 percent from 3-point territory. His defensive metrics have regressed slightly from his second season, but he’s still a tough draw on that end of the floor. 

If you watched Trent in college you may not be surprised by what he’s doing, but no one could’ve expected him to be this important to Portland so early on, and the crazy part is he’s only 22 years old. The Blazers should be ecstatic about Trent’s progression.

3. Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets — No. 34 pick

When a player like Luka Doncic advocates for you to win Most Improved Player, then you know you’re doing something right. While Graham wasn’t nominated last season for the award, he certainly should’ve been after putting up 18.2 points, 7.5 assists and 3.4 boards while shooting 37.3 percent from deep. Rewind a little bit and remember that this was the same player who was buried at the end of the bench in his rookie year while spending part of his time down in the G League.

It actually shouldn’t be that surprising what Graham’s doing given how well he played in college for Kansas, but as an undersized guard — he’s only 6-1 — there weren’t many high hopes on his outlook. However, he’s been another player who has made the most of the opportunities he’s been given, and he’s proving to be someone that could be in Charlotte’s long-term plans going forward.

Just as he was in college, Graham has been an electric offensive player for the Hornets. He has range to knock them down from deep, he can put the ball on the floor and go in his bag to shake a defender loose and he can get to the rim with his athleticism and quickness. 

Oh, and he can get hot in a hurry, as evidenced from his 40-point outburst last season against the Nets:

The beauty of Graham’s game is that he can play with or without the ball in his hands. In his sophomore year, he was more ball-dominant and given more freedom to do what he wanted on a bad Charlotte team. This season, with new additions like Gordon Hayward and rookie LaMelo Ball, Graham has been doing a little bit of both, which is what he was familiar with in college under Bill Self. 

He started this season slow in terms of shooting efficiency, knocking down just 30 percent of his shots from deep, but in his last 10 games he’s averaged 41.2 percent from long range while putting up 17.3 points. Graham is a versatile player who could play in the starting lineup or come off the bench, and with the Hornets having a dilemma in who should be the starting backcourt between him, Ball and Rozier, it’s a good problem to have knowing that Graham can excel in either role.

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