Consensus is that Philly won their recent mega deal with Boston as there is a steep decline from #1 to #3 in this draft. I largely agreed with this consensus, and I explained why I believe Josh Jackson does not have the upside to merit passing on Lonzo Ball and Markelle Fultz.
Boston is also rumored to be interested in Jayson Tatum. To provide a deeper analysis of the deal, I will break down the elite prospects in question.
Fultz scouting report
Fultz is essentially a James Harden doppelgänger. They share similar dimensions, frames, and athletic profiles. Neither is particularly explosive, but both are able to navigate through the defense with smooth footwork and great body control. They also similarly stuff the statsheet as offensive centerpieces with SG size, and they both play lackadaisical defense in spite of strong rebound, steal, and block rates.
Harden is clearly a strong return on a #1 overall pick, and if Fultz becomes similarly good this trade will sting for the Celtics. But they are not actually the same person, so let us examine the flaws that may keep Fultz from attaining his upside.
Is Fultz a Loser?
James Harden joined an Arizona State program coming off a down year. As a freshman 3 months younger than Fultz, he revitalized their offense and led the team to its 4th best team in 16 seasons of kenpom records. Then as a sophomore he led them to easily their best offense and overall season over that span before hightailing it to the NBA. Like most NBA stars, he made a clear positive impact for his NCAA team.
Conversely, Markelle Fultz’s Washington team was the worst in 15 years coached by Lorenzo Romar, and the worst offense since his first season in 2002-03. Romar is a dreadful coach who has recruited more NBA talent than Arizona State, but Fultz is his first top 5 pick.
Fultz’s team was extremely bad, and it is amazing how many intelligent people are writing this off as lazy as the “rings” appeal. We are talking about the #1 pick in the NBA draft– you are trying to draft a superstar who makes a massive impact on his team’s win and loss column, and this impact is usually easy to discern at the team level.
He had a dreadful cast and coach to be sure, and it is not a death knell for an 18 year old with Fultz’s talent. But the bottom line did not add up like it should have, and there should be concern that the bottom line will not add for his NBA team in the future. There are a few possible weaknesses we can derive from this:
Fultz’s main selling point is his ability to carry an NBA offense, so it is disconcerting that his college offense struggled so badly. This is especially true since he is in the mold of a player who should elevate a poor team to adequacy. The fact that Washington couldn’t even muster a top 100 offense suggests that maybe his passing impact is not nearly as good as his assist rate implies. Fultz may lack the basketball IQ to make good decisions with the ball, even if he sees the floor well.
Perhaps as he matures and receives higher quality coaching, he develops into a good floor general. But it is also possible that he does not make nearly the same passing impact as Harden in spite of a higher NCAA assist rate.
Washington’s biggest issue was their catastrophic defense. And in the 6 games that Fultz missed, the defense actually performed slightly better (although the offense fell of a cliff with no other ball handlers to run the offense). Even though Harden is weak defensively, there is some chance that Fultz is worse.
Another area of concern is Fultz’s 65% FT compared to 75% for Harden. Fultz shot well from 3 and was exceptional shooting off the dribble at an extremely high volume. But his poor FT% casts some doubt into the sustainability of that performance and the overall goodness of his shooting. And shooting is extremely important for Fultz, as he is not adept at getting to the rim as his peer De’Aaron Fox, and he relies heavily on pull-up jumpers.
Fultz is an immense talent, and there are easily enough points in his favor to amount to an NBA MVP candidate. But there are enough flags in his passing, shooting, defense, and basketball IQ to create a downside tail as well, as he is far from a safe bet.
I could see him disappointing as a Kyrie Irving type. Irving is seen as a star by many casual fans, but advanced stats see him as a slightly above average starting point guard as his awful defense and poor passing vision detract from his excellent scoring ability.
Fultz has clear upside to trump Kyrie’s passing with better vision and his defense with much better length, but it is also plausible that he is similarly as poor on these ends. If Fultz struggles nearly as much as Kyrie in these areas, he will be a disappointing return on #1 overall as he is a clearly inferior shooter and likely does not come equipped with Kyrie’s clutch factor.
It is difficult to see Fultz busting entirely, but if Danny Ainge sees him as closer to Kyrie than Harden, it is understandable that he prefers to gamble on somebody else. His talent is undeniable and he is still the 2nd best prospect on my board, but there are good reasons for an NBA front office to be reluctant to stake their future on him.
Tatum has an excellent body for a SF at 6’8″ with a 6’11” wingspan and an excellent frame, which is essentially the prototype for a PF in the modern NBA. He can score from all levels of the court, as he can get to the rim, score from the post, and has excellent shooting potential with 85% FT. He also stuffs the statsheet with rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks, and has good defensive upside with the quickness to guard SF’s and size to defend PF’s.
His flaws are that he is inconsistent defensively and he is surprisingly inefficient on offense for a player with his scoring talent. He had the lowest ORtg (albeit on the highest usage) of Duke’s 6 man rotation, and he has a slightly lower ORtg once adjusted for usage than his defensive specialist peers Jonathan Isaac and Josh Jackson.
Efficiency is Everything
It is surprising that a player who made 85% FT at an above average rate of attempts with as much scoring talent as Tatum had such pedestrian efficiency. There were a number of factors working against his favor:
–He is not a good offensive rebounder and does not move well off the ball– Jackson and Isaac did far more damage than him on putbacks and cuts
–Inconsistent finishing as he had average explosiveness and was rejected surprisingly often
–Turnover prone with a loose handle. In tandem with finishing issues may also have lackluster feel for finding space in traffic
–His 3 point shot is not currently a weapon
–Duke lacked a true point guard
There are reasons for optimism. It starts with his 85% FT, which is backed up by 87% FT in AAU play. Yet in AAU he hardly even attempted 3’s– who knows what level of coaching he was getting there. It is plausible that developing 3 point range only became a focus once he arrived at Duke, and any NBA team will stress this skill. And while a great NBA 3 point shot is not guaranteed, the upside is clearly there.
Everything else could go either way. He could improve his off ball movement, reduce turnovers, improve shot selection, tighten his handle, etc. Or he could struggle to shed his inefficient habits, operate as a team player, and make the necessary skill improvements to become a good player.
For players who thrive on volume scoring, their overall value heavily hinges on their efficiency. Tatum has a wide range of outcomes, and it is difficult to have a decisive opinion on him in either direction.
Tatum just turned 19 in March, and the framework for a future star is there. He has legitimate two way potential, as he offers creation, shooting, and passing upside offensively as well as potential for defensive versatility.
Whether he achieves his potential is a different question. His NBA future could entail empty calories scoring and matador defense, or he could be a two way stud like Paul Pierce or a version of Carmelo Anthony that plays defense.
The one clear conclusion about this deal is that the Celtics are betting against Fultz. I cannot state with any confidence that they are wrong for doing this. Fultz is a compelling talent, but he is no LeBron or Duncan and has enough holes in his profile to become an ordinary pro.
The other leg of the trade remains incomplete. If the plan is to trade #3 straight up for Jimmy Butler, that is a solid move. If the plan is to draft Jayson Tatum, I am not convinced this is smart, but see potential for the gamble to pay off. If the plan is to draft Josh Jackson, it feels a bit more like Danny Ainge was suckered by intangibles but nevertheless could work out. And if the Celtics somehow end up with Lonzo, the trade was masterful.
As much as I like to perceive myself as an expert, I am not particularly confident about many players in this draft. The only thing that can be said for sure is that Lonzo Ball should go #1 and everybody who passes on him is making a mistake. This is my only major qualm with swapping #1– betting against Lonzo is not as likely to succeed as a bet against Fultz.