The non-conference NCAA season is almost over, and we now have a glimpse of what the top freshmen have to offer. The early returns are extremely promising, as this draft class has potential to be the best top 10 of all time. I have not had time to thoroughly watch all of the top guys so these rankings are highly fluid, but this is what I have so far:
1. Markelle Fultz: 6’4″ PG/SG, Washington
Everything about Fultz screams superstar. He has the skills, he has the tools, he has the instincts, and his statistics are off the charts for an 18 year old freshman. His team success is lagging, but that is likely attributable to teammates and coaching that is even more dreadful than Ben Simmons had to work with. Unless some serious flags arise as the season progresses, it is hard to imagine him not being the #1 pick, as his profile is just dripping with greatness. He is arguably a top 3 prospect of the past 20 years along with LeBron and Anthony Davis.
I don’t want to go overboard with the praise as I have not watched him enough to rate him over past prospects such as Oden, Durant, Embiid, and Towns with high confidence. But based on his numbers and physical profile his upside is boundless, and for now he is the clear tanking prize of the draft.
2. Lonzo Ball: 6’6″ PG, UCLA
Ball is polarizing, as he does not have overwhelming athleticism nor is he much of a scoring threat. But the draft is about finding players with outlier strengths rather than no weaknesses. And it is worth considering the possibility that Ball could become the best passer in NBA history.
In 15 years at coaching at UCLA, New Mexico, and Iowa, Steve Alford has never had a top 10 offense or a top 20 eFG%. His best was the loaded 2014 UCLA team featuring Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams, Zach LaVine, and Norman Powell. They finished #11 in kenpom offensive efficiency, and #22 in eFG%.
12 games into the season, Ball’s UCLA team has the #1 offense and #1 eFG%. Their eFG is as many points better than the #3 eFG team as the Anderson + Adams teams was above average. This UCLA team just doesn’t miss shots, and it is hard to not suspect that Ball has a special impact on the offense. Granted, there are a number of explanations to temper optimism:
- Only 5 of the 12 teams they have faced are top 100 teams, as they have played most of the weaker teams on the schedule
- TJ Leaf is playing an integral role, as he leads the team with a staggering 71.5% eFG%
- It is still a small sample, and UCLA likely will not sustain its 43.9% 3P%
But based on early indicators it is hard to not feel like Ball has a special impact on the offense. UCLA has consistently outperformed expectations, and have been at their best against the stiffest competition. And every returning rotation player has seen his offensive efficiency skyrocket.
Ball’s lack of athleticism and scoring is a harmful flaw on his profile to be sure, but they are worth stomaching with his potential to be a bigger and better version of Steve Nash or John Stockton.
3. Josh Jackson: 6’8″ SF, Kansas
Jackson has been precisely as advertised, as he is elite at everything except for his big flaw of shooting. But his saving grace offensively is that he has feathery touch from short range, which is a stark contrast from Andrew Wiggins bricking layup after layup for Kansas.
His shot appears to be seriously broken, but if he makes a big leap in this regard he is going to be a superstar. And even if it stays broken, he may nevertheless be a valuable NBA player.
Deciding between Ball and Jackson at #2 is going to be an incredibly tough decision. They both have such a special combination of strengths, and both would be #1 picks in most seasons.
4. Lauri Markkanen: 7’0″ PF, Arizona
Markkanen has been placed in a rough situation to start his college career, as Arizona is currently playing with just 7 players with only 3 of them being perimeter players. Thus he has been forced to play small forward in some awkward 3 big lineups, and he has managed to be hyper efficient anyway due to his elite outside shooting and incredible propensity to avoid turnovers.
He still has shown limited ability to create and score inside the arc, which puts a slight damper on the profile of a player who is a one way scorer. But all things considered he has been excellent in spite of tough circumstances, and he has potential to be an elite offensive weapon in the NBA.
5. Jayson Tatum: 6’8″ SF/PF, Duke
After 4 career games, I still do not have the best handle on Tatum. I had expected him to be a Jabari Parker doppelgänger, but based on early returns he appears that he may be significantly better. He had a great game against Florida in the only real competition he faced, and his upside appears to be a better version of Carmelo Anthony. I would like a large sample size of success before getting too excited, but so far he appears to be more than just a mid-range volume scorer.
6. Harry Giles: 6’10” PF/C, Duke
Giles had a tough NCAA debut with an ineffective 4 minutes after various knee injuries have kept him sidelined for the past 1+ year. His stock has been tanking due to the injury flags, but he is a unique talent who offers elite upside in the scenario that he can stay healthy.
7. Jonathan Isaac 6’11” SF, Florida State
Isaac is stuffing the stat sheet with steals, blocks, rebounds, and made shots. But the big wart is just 8 assists vs 19 TOVs, which is a flag for his feel and ability to play the perimeter. There is still enough good stuff here for him to be a very exciting mid-lotto selection, but his wart is a bit more disconcerting than the flaws of the other top guys.
8. Dennis Smith: 6’2″ PG, NC State
Smith has been a bit of a letdown to start the season, as he has not been as efficient as expected and his team is struggling badly. He is coming off an ACL tear and speedy freshman PG’s often are at their best late in the year, so his best play is likely yet to come. But if he does not turn it on down the stretch, his prospect appeal wanes. His small size is more enigmatic the less he dominates NCAA.
9. Malik Monk: 6’4″ SG, Kentucky
Monk’s superpower is that he has an elite intersection of athleticism and shot making ability. He can score from anywhere, and has posted excellent scoring and volume and efficiency thus far.
Monk does this in spite of being unable to create his own shot at the rim in the half court. He racks up points in transition, and in the half court he scores by hitting shots of all difficulty, as he has excelled at shots that are contested and/or off the dribble.
The challenge is figuring out what this amounts to in the NBA. He is undersized for a SG, has a reputation for coasting on defense, and is completely allergic to rebounds, so it is safe to call him a one way prospect. JR Smith seems like a reasonable comparison, but Monk seems to have an extra gear of shot making ability that Smith lacks.
It is possible that Monk is so good at making jump shots and has enough passing vision such that he can become an offensive star in the NBA. But being a 6’4″ SG who does not get to the rim or play defense are big warts that cannot be overlooked.
10. De’Aaron Fox: 6’3″ PG, Kentucky
The perfect yin to Monk’s yang– Fox excels at the areas where Monk is lacking: defense, rebounding, point guard play, slashing to the rim. But he is almost as bad at making shots away from the rim as Monk is good. He is just 3/23 from 3 and just 6/25 from mid-range shots in the half court, as per Synergy Sports. The glimmer of hope comes from his 76% FT, and if he can learn make jump shots Fox becomes a highly attractive player. But if he cannot he may be worse on offense than he is good on defense.
11. Ivan Rabb: 6’11” PF/C, California
Rabb is off to a slow start this year as he has battled injuries, but he should be his regular super Zeller self once his wounds are healed.
12. Frank Ntilikina: 6’5″ PG, France
Ntilikina is an international box of mystery, and I have no idea where he should go.
13. Rodion Kurucs: 6’8″ SF, Latvia
Kurucs is super young and has a compelling international stats, and could be a good gamble once the stud freshmen are off the board.
14. TJ Leaf: 6’10” PF, UCLA
Leaf’s limited wingspan and athleticism cast doubt on his ability to translate his offense to the NBA and fit in defensively. But his offensive skill and feel is so great that he has pretty good upside in spite of his physical limitations
15. Miles Bridges: 6’7 SF, Michigan State
Bridges offensively efficiency has been bad in 8 games for Michigan State, but if he can improve his shot and cut his turnovers it is easy to see him amounting to a pretty good NBA player with his body, athleticism, and defensive potential.
16. OG Anunoby: 6’8″ SF/PF, Indiana
Anunoby has an intriguing blend of physical tools, defensive upside, and youth. The big question for him is whether he can fit into an NBA offense without being a massive liability.
17. Jawun Evans: 6’0″ PG, Oklahoma State
Evans is undersized for a PG, but does literally everything for Oklahoma State offensively at an efficient clip. He is a poor man’s Chris Paul. This does not paint a clear outcome because being worse than Chris Paul means he can be anywhere on a scale of not NBA caliber to an all-star. But since the original CP3 was undervalued in the draft, it is reasonable to suspect that Evans may be as well.
18. Michael Weathers: 6’2″ PG, Miami OH
My favorite statistical outlier of the season. Weather is listed at 161 pounds, but that has not stopped him from rebounding like a forward and blocking shots like a center. And he also does everything offensively at a not bad efficiency for a mid-major team that is otherwise bereft of talent.
He clearly has potential to rise up to the lottery the way Cam Payne did. Rivals rated him as a 3 star recruit, and he is super quick. If he can add muscle to his frame he becomes highly intriguing, as he is as outlier as you can get for a mid-major prospect.
19. Ethan Happ: 6’8″ PF, Wisconsin
Happ is an old school low post power forward who is too small and with too limited range to catch the eye of NBA scouts. But he is a full fledged statistical outlier, and there are some shades of Paul Millsap in his profile. All of the upperclassmen who fit preferred archetypes are so bad that I would easily gamble on Happ’s unique NCAA performance over a prototypical future d-leaguer.
20. Robert Williams: 6’9″ PF, Texas A&M
I highlighted Williams as a non-elite prospect who could rise in the draft ranks in my season preview, and based on the early returns he should be a 1st round selection. He is undersized to play center, but his appeal is centered around his surprisingly decent passing and shooting ability for an athletic shot blocker.
21. Rawle Alkins: 6’5″ SG, Arizona
Nothing about Alkins jumps out as elite, but he is a solid and well rounded SG prospect who does a little bit of everything. Why not gamble on him in the late 1st over an upperclassmen with more obvious limitations?
22. Josh Hart: 6’5″ SG, Villanova
Nothing about Hart’s profile is amazing. He is merely good but not great in most categories: athleticism, shooting, scoring, defense and is undersized for a wing. But he has the tools to fit in, and is so smart and well rounded that it is not hard to envision him becoming a quality NBA role player.
23. Monte Morris: 6’3″ PG, Iowa State
Morris does not have enough athleticism, shooting, or scoring ability to be loaded with upside. But he may be able to overcome his athletic shortcomings with exceptionally smooth footwork, and his feel and efficiency may yield a quality rotation player.
24. DeAnthony Melton: 6’4″ SG, USC
Melton has tantalizingly good stats for an NCAA role player, as he racks up rebounds, steals, assists, and blocks while maintaining a good offensive efficiency. But he has elite offensive efficiency because he cannot do anything off the dribble and ergo does not try, and he is a poor shooter as well. He is fairly athletic and super young so there is still hope that he manages to fit into an NBA offense, but he will likely be undone by his inability to do anything on offense.
25. Bam Adebayo: 6’10” PF, Kentucky
The runt of the Kentucky litter, Adebayo excels at offensive rebounding and dunking and not much else. He is also old for his class and I do not see anything special about him to argue that he belongs in the lottery.
26 and beyond
Things are getting pretty thin at this point. The draft is loaded at the top, but after the elite freshmen are off the board the international and upperclass crops are both too thin to offer much depth.