De'Aaron Fox, Dennis Smith Jr., Frank Ntilikina, Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum, Jonathan Isaac, Josh Jackson, Lauri Markkanen, Lonzo Ball, Malik Monk, Markelle Fultz
It is a common exercise to rate prospects in the class against each other, as this drives the selections made on draft night. But this class is being hyped as historically good, and it is worth discussing how this crop collectively compares to an average draft class.
The Short Answer:
This draft is completely loaded at the top. I count 8 players who normally belong in the top 3, including 2 above average #1 picks. There are also 3 high risk elite talents who are just outside of most top 3’s, and then after that the draft becomes normal as the upperclass is fairly thin.
I estimate that this draft is similar to an average draft, but with three times as much top 3 talent as normal. To demonstrate, let’s stack the top 11 talents from the past 3 drafts up against my top 11 rankings:
These lists are well balanced, each side has similar prospect value.
I tried to match current prospects with similar ones from prior drafts while also having a reasonable rank of prior prospects, and it all worked out surprisingly well. The prior prospect list is almost a perfect ranking of how they would be valued today with the aid of partial hindsight.
The only improvement to be made with respect to pairings are swapping non-shooters to match primary handlers (Fox and Simmons) and off ball SF athletes (Gordon and Jackson). It is arguable whether this means that Gordon is underrated, Jackson is overrated, or simply that they are not the same exact prospect. But they are deeply similar, and I have more to say on this comp later.
Obviously the 2017 prospects will not all have parallel fates with their parallel prospect, but I feel this accurately conveys my perception of this draft’s goodness: It is amazingly good, and has clear potential to be the best top 11 of all time.
The Extremely Long Answer:
I am going to break this down into 4 classes: transcendent stars, possible stars, risks, and the non-elite.
Transcendent Stars (Strong #1 picks)
1a. Lonzo Ball– 6’6″ PG, UCLA
1b. Markelle Fultz– 6’4″ PG, Washington
Fultz is a transcendent physical talent, Ball is a transcendent mental talent. They are extremely close, and I have a difficult time settling on one as superior to the other.
For now I put Lonzo in the lead because he glows with goodness that has captured my attention in a strong way. I cannot stop watching him, I cannot stop writing about why he is great and why his flags are of little concern. Fultz is amazing in his own rite, but I’m giving the edge to the guy who is aggressively pinging my intuition with signs of greatness.
Among historic point gods, I believe Lonzo Ball is most similar to Steve Nash. He may never match Nash’s off the dribble shooting ability, but he also might. Even if he falls short, he can atone for it with a much lower turnover rate and better physical tools to hold his own on defense. It is difficult to envision him becoming less good than Nash. But his incredibly assist:TOV ratio and elite eFG% reminisces of Chris Paul, and Ball has clear potential to be that good. And with his massive 6″ height advantage over Paul, there is wiggle room for Ball to become even better.
Fultz is a hybrid of Dwyane Wade and James Harden with potential to be better. It is almost easier to see him becoming better than those two than worse. His combination of slashing, finishing, and vision at such a young age is exceptionally rare and he is clearly on the path to greatness. Perhaps he develops at a poor rate and falls well short, but how bad can he be at developing his game if he is already this good this young? His biggest question mark is whether his basketball IQ trails his intuitive instincts by enough to preclude him from greatness. It is plausible, but he is so insanely talented that he is definitely going to be good.
I do not think either of these players measures up to Anthony Davis or Joel Embiid in terms of raw pre-draft talent. But they are likely both top 5 prospects of the past decade, as they both have strong cases to be rated superior to Karl Anthony Towns, Blake Griffin, John Wall, and Ben Simmons. I’d rate them as similar to KAT and superior to the latter 3.
Possible Stars (Strong #2 picks to weak #3 picks):
You can rank this tier in almost any order without getting an objection from me. All of the players have clear star upside, but also have flaws that could render them ordinary NBA players.
3. Josh Jackson– 6’8″ SF, Kansas
Jackson offers loads of goodness, as he is elite at everything but shooting and creation off the dribble. But the worries with Jackson are mounting
- His 26% 3P and 56% FT are major flags. It’s fun to imagine him making a Kawhi level shooting leap, but Kawhi shot 74% FT in college and had a much better starting point.
- Aside from spacing issues– can he be a point forward? As per synergy, he is averaging 0.59 PPP as P&R Handler and 0.46 in Isolation, good for 24th and 9th percentile respectively. This is largely correlated with his shooting woes, as when he does not get to the rim he will often pull up and brick, as he his shooting 29.3% eFG off the dribble (23%ile)
I still have him at #3 because he has such great strengths, and still manages to produce on offense thanks to excellent passing, cutting, and touch near the rim. He reminisces most of the awesome and underrated Shawn Marion with a worse shot and better passing and athleticism. But I also said the same thing about Aaron Gordon in 2014. Gordon appeared to be on the path to stardom after his sophomore NBA season, but now has an unclear upside in the midst of a third year slump.
As mentioned earlier, they are deeply similar prospects who are excellent at everything but shooting and shot creation. Gordon bricked harder on NCAA FT’s at 42%, but he was 1 year 7 months younger as a freshman. His average NBA age is similar to Jackson’s NCAA age, and he has shot better on FT’s (66% vs 56%) and 3’s in spite of longer distance (30% vs 26%). Jackson is a different person and player with his own share of advantages (better rim touch, more steals/blocks, better cutting) and he could develop at a faster rate. But are his advantages enough to outweigh his inferior shooting by a significant enough margin to make him a star? Should we be encouraged by Gordon’s promising sophomore season, or are his third year struggles a sign that it is crazy to take Jackson #3 overall? It’s tough to say– Jackson is an extremely weird prospect.
I am erring on the side of optimism for now because Jackson’s intangibles are reputedly excellent, as he is a fiery competitor with 3 technical fouls on the season. He is not the type of player I am in a rush to bet against, and placing him outside of the top 3 feels like it would be such a bet. So for now Jackson leads my second tier, but he may creep down to the 4-6 range by draft night.
4. Malik Monk– 6’3″ SG, Kentucky
I normally am opposed to drafting one dimensional shooters with defensive question marks too early. My first post on the site was about Doug McDermott being an overrated prospect, and last season I singled out Buddy Hield as the clear dud of the lottery. But Monk and Lauri Markkanen are outliers, so they get special consideration.
I already wrote about Malik Monk’s elite shooting, and I am not sure why has not received more comparison to Steph Curry. Let’s compare pace adjusted per 40 stats from their freshman seasons:
The differences in 3PA rate and FT% such that Monk is not a Curry level outlier in either accuracy or trigger, but the fact that he is even in the ballpark is exciting. He has a chance of becoming the 2nd best shooter in NBA history. And he does far more damage than Curry did inside the arc. Granted, much of that is in transition which translates poorly to the NBA, but Monk’s additional production and athleticism cannot be ignored.
Curry’s comfortably superior steal and rebound rates in spite of comfortably inferior athleticism imply some drastic instinctual advantage that likely precludes Monk from becoming as good as Curry.
But Monk’s athleticism is evident in his higher block rate, and his ability to avoid turnovers is another feature that helps counter-balance the comparison a bit. And most importantly– Monk’s assist rate is surprisingly close considering that he shares the backcourt with two traditional PG’s in De’Aaron Fox and Isaiah Briscoe. He has shown flashes of impressive vision and passing ability, and it is feasible that he develops into a great distributor like Curry.
Overall Monk’s inferior shot, instincts, rebounding, and ball handling likely preclude him from achieving Curry’s level of greatness. But his athleticism and ability to avoid mistakes give him a shot of coming close. Even if he falls short of Curry, he can still be as good as another hyperefficient shooter who was allergic to rebounds: Reggie Miller.
He could also fall short of Miller, but I would be surprised if he fell on his face altogether. His combination of elite shooting accuracy, volume, athleticism, and offensive feel for the game is too much to not become good offensively. I would be surprised if he is not at least as good as the 2016-17 version of Bradley Beal.
Monk’s flaws are real, and they cannot be ignored. His defense and rebounding will almost certainly be bad as a pro, and it detracts from his value. But offense is much higher leverage for guards, and he has such a high floor high ceiling offensively that I suspect his defensive warts will be well worth stomaching.
5. Lauri Markkanen– 7’0″ PF, Arizona
Markkanen is shooting 83.5% from the line, and the only 7’0″ NBA player with a greater career FT% is Dirk Nowitzki. If you include 6’11” players: Mike Gminski, Jack Sikma, and Bill Laimbeer all check in between 83.7% and 84.9%. Gminski only made 6 career 3P, and Sikma and Laimber shot 33% from 3 on low volume, yet the latter two collectively appeared in 11 all-star games. Then Yao checks in at 83.3%, and the combination of being tall and great at FT’s continues to look like a strong combination.
You need to go below Lauri’s current FT% to find the discouraging comps of Channing Frye, Andrea Bargani, and Meyers Leonard in the 82-83% range for their NBA careers. But their pre-draft FT%’s all pale compared to Lauri as they were all in the 73-76% range, and Bargnani and Leonard were rife with flaws that precluded them from NBA goodness. A better shooting version of Frye would be a reasonable floor for Lauri, which is good for a non-top 3 pick.
Now let’s consider the meaning of his elite FT%. First it loudly suggests that he has a chance to become the best 6’11″+ shooter in NBA history, especially taken in tandem with his 50% 3P. It also hints that he has an outlier level of coordination, which gives him potential to develop an elite creation ability to complement his elite shooting. This is why the Dirk comparison is so pertinent, especially when he has the ability to pull off a move like this off the dribble.
Most are not convinced of the Dirk comp, as Markkanen does not score high volume for Arizona and is consensus rated outside the top 7. But given his hyper efficient 137 O-Rtg and how well he eye tests, I believe his Dirk upside is more attainable than commonly perceived. If nothing else he will be a highly efficient complementary scorer who physically can hold his own on defense, as he does not have lead feet like Steve Novak. He may nevertheless be a poor NBA defensive player due to lackluster instincts and length, but at least he has a chance of competence.
Markkanen’s range is a better version of Channing Frye or Ryan Anderson to the second coming of Dirk. I believe he is underrated by consensus.
6. De’Aaron Fox– 6’3″ PG, Kentucky
With a strong start to SEC play, the quick De’Aaron Fox jumps over the lazy Dennis Smith Jr. in my rankings.
Fox may seem high at #6 considering his poor shooting from all levels: 3P (5/37), mid-range (4/20), and short range (6/21). But he has super powers that cannot be ignored:
- His unique combination of quickness, coordination, and ball handling enables him to get to the rim at will, and his touch near the rim enables him to finish efficiently.
- He has an elite assist and turnover rate for a volume scorer
His 69% FT suggest that his shot is not hopelessly broken, and it is worth gambling that he makes an outlier leap. One sneaky benefit is that he is so adept at getting to the rim he does not pull up for bricks as often as other bricklaying PG’s, and is shooting 55% on 2P thus far. It is feasible that he becomes a good offensive player even if his shot stays broken, and if he makes a big leap he will become a full fledged stud lead guard.
Most will want to compare him to past Kentucky guards like Rajon Rondo and John Wall, but Rondo is more cerebrally gifted, Wall is more physically gifted, and neither has Fox’s ability to smoothly navigate through defenses.
The best comparison for Fox is Rod Strickland, who shared similar dimensions (6’3″, 175) and had a good statistical prime in spite of limited shooting range. Isiah Thomas has similarities as well. The most optimistic upside comp if he makes the shooting leap is Gary Payton. Although Fox is an extreme long-shot to match Payton’s shooting AND defense, he is a much more advanced scorer at the same age. Yes, it is the pinnacle of optimism, but it is hard to find pertinent comps for Fox since he is such a special snowflake.
The fact that most Fox comps inspire optimism is a good sign, as it is difficult to find a past guard who offered scoring, passing, and limited mistakes while amounting to little in the NBA. In spite of the poor shot, #6 may be too low for Fox as he arguably has as much upside as anybody outside the top 2.
7. Jonathan Isaac– 6’10” SF/PF, Florida St.
Isaac is the defensive specialist of the draft, as his profile is highlight by a rare combination of height and quickness that gives him elite versatility to guard multiple positions. He fits especially well into a heavy switching scheme, and considering his awesome steal, block, and rebound rates he has potential to be an extraordinarily valuable defensive player as a pro.
His biggest warts appear on offense, as he is limited off the dribble and a long windup on his shot results in a low 3PA rate. Consequently, he has a medium usage that does not have great upside to be stretched, and his limited ball skills show in his poor assist:turnover ratio. But he is not a complete disaster on this end– his 38.5% 3P and 82.4% FT imply that he should be an acceptable NBA floor spacer, and he moves well off the ball with great efficiency on cuts (95%ile per synergy) and put backs (97%ile).
Isaac is a one of a kind super role player. There is one strong upside comp who mirrors his physical profile and skill set: Andrei Kirilenko. Kirilenko is highly underrated and would be an awesome return on any draft slot. Isaac is far from certain to be as good defensively as AK47, and his passing is far behind. But he his a much better shooter and has a reasonable chance of matching Kirilenko’s overall peak value. But Kirilenko is an extremely special snowflake, and Isaac may end up closer to the strikingly similar Marvin Williams. Pace adjusted per 40 freshman stats:
Isaac converted more shots inside the arc and displayed more comfort shooting from 3 point range. But at 8 months older, there is not much separating their NCAA offensive output.
This is where Isaac sets himself apart, with slightly better rebounding and steal rates and much better block and foul rates. And while he also has an assist:turnover flag, it is a lighter shade of red than Marvin’s.
Overall Isaac is clearly the superior prospect, and a better defensive version of Marvin Williams is not a bad floor. But Williams is a cautionary tale for Isaac’s offensive warts, as his lack of NBA 3P range and ball skills depressed his offensive output early in his career. If Isaac runs into similar translation problems, his offensive weakness may offset his defensive goodness.
Marvin Williams to Andrei Kirilenko presents a wide range of outcomes, but Isaac’s upside and ability to fit in almost any NBA lineup is highly attractive for a non-top 3 pick.
8. Jayson Tatum– 6’8″ SF, Duke
Tatum is the top 8 player that I have the toughest time grasping. On one hand– he has clear two way star potential as his scoring instincts and 85% FT give him offensive upside, and his steal and block rates imply great defensive upside.
Conversely, nothing is guaranteed on either side of the ball. Offensively his FT% is extremely promising, and he also has the ability to score volume and the vision to whip an occasional great pass. But there is also a laundry list of warts to fret over:
- Does he have NBA 3 point range? Only making 30% of 3’s on low volume for Duke and seems to be more comfortable in the mid-range.
- He gets stripped and swatted a ton for a player of his talent. His high turnover rate and 48% 2P makes his overall efficiency meh in spite of his free throw dominance.
- He is a poor offensive rebounder for his size, and pales in comparison to similar players such as Jabari Parker and Carmelo Anthony in that regard.
So he is a mystery box. Maybe he will always be a black hole of inefficiency with limited spacing gravity, or maybe the rest of his skill level will catch up with his elite FT% and he becomes a star on this end. I don’t know.
Defensively the steals and blocks are exciting, but he was never reputed as a lockdown defensive player and Duke as a team has been underachieving on defense relative to their talent level. So maybe he is a sieve, or maybe he makes a positive impact on this end. Again, I don’t know.
His range is roughly an overrated mediocrity like Glenn Robinson to a suped up version of Carmelo Anthony. I am slightly more pessimistic regarding Tatum than consensus, largely because his mold presents a more worrisome downside tail than the other prospects in this tier. But he definitely offers enough goodness to have star upside, thus he occupies the final slot in the tier.
Tier 3: Risky Talents (Standard #4-7 picks):
9. Harry Giles– 6’10” PF/C, Duke
On top of injury flags, Giles has also looked like a disaster since entering Duke’s rotation as he appears completely lost on defense. His instincts look bad, and he also may have some lack of physical confidence as he appears surprisingly prone to bullying for a player of his physical profile.
It is hard to project his NBA future, as he could so easily be a zero. But prior to the injuries, he was a front-runner for the #1 overall pick in front of all of these studs. His AAU stats are awesome, his physical profile is awesome, and he is a rare enough talent to be worth a shot in the dark gamble in the back end of the lottery.
His downside is Andre Drummond with injury flags, his upside is a better version of DeAndre Jordan. Once the tier 1 and 2 players are off the board, it is likely worth it to take a shot on him and hope for the best.
10. Frank Ntilikina– 6’5″ PG, France
Ntilikina is a complete mystery box. His profile suggests that he has clear star potential, but without any reasonable gauge of statistical production we must reduce the odds of his upside being attained and fatten up his downside tail.
Most people will point to Giannis Antetokounmpo as an example of an upsidey mystery box being underrated in the draft, and yes he was an incredible steal who is much better than all 14 players drafted ahead of him. But for every Giannis that binks, there is a truckload of Bruno Caboclos that come nowhere close. How do we tell the difference from afar? We cannot, we can only accept the uncertainty and try our best to rank him at a level headed slot considering his wide error bars.
Ntilikina is playing professionally in France, but due to low minutes and a limited offensive role as an 18 year old string bean, it is nearly impossible to gauge his level of goodness. If he played NCAA we would at least have an idea of how he looks as a primary handler, but as is he averages 3.2 pts per game with more turnovers than assists. He has some home run potential, but is more likely to be a complete whiff.
He cannot go ahead of elite freshmen who solidified their appeal with great NCAA production, but once they are all off the board it is reasonable to gamble.
11. Dennis Smith Jr.– 6’3″ PG, NC State
I rate DSJ as the clear fraud of the lottery, as in spite of his great athleticism and statistical production his team continues to rack up losses. This is because he has poor basketball IQ, makes inaccurate passes, and over gambles on defense.
And while his talent is good, it is not great. He has great athleticism, but isn’t an explosive freak and his poor wingspan and reach diminish his physical profile. And while he is a capable shooter, he is not great. His intersection of handles, shooting, athleticism, and vision are nice, but not special or outlier enough to make him an exciting gamble in the top 5 given his losing tendencies.
I have a hard time seeing Smith as a star that helps his NBA team win games, although he may post nice fantasy stats as a pro. His upside is Stephon Marbury and his downside is just bad. Maybe I am underrating him– I do not feel quite as pessimistic for him as I did for Andrew Wiggins. But I have a hard time getting excited for him relative to the other studs in the class.
Tier 4: The Rest (standard #8-16 picks)
12. Isaiah Hartenstein
13. Rodions Kurucs
14. Ethan Happ
15. Ivan Rabb
16. Miles Bridges
17. TJ Leaf
18. Robert Williams
19. Andrew Jones
20. OG Anunoby
After the top 11, the draft starts to lose appeal as the non-freshmen are fairly weak this year. But there are a few players who deserve mention.
Hartenstein is a rapidly rising international who is gaining appeal based on his great physical profile and balanced stat stuffing in FIBA U18 play. I just skimmed his DX profile and know little about him, but it is possible that after further analysis he should belong a tier higher. He is highly appealing at a glance.
Kurucs is a young, versatile, international wing who may not declare for this draft.
Happ, Rabb, and Anunoby are my super sophomores and the only NCAA non-freshmen I have in my top 21. The ones who just missed the cut are Dedric Lawson, Bryant Crawford, and Josh Hart.
Happ is the underrated gem of the draft, as he excels at everything but shooting and has potential to be a Draymond/Millsap level steal when he declares.
Rabb will likely be a solid NBA player similar to the Zeller bros, but it is difficult to see his path to stardom. Anunoby is a one way defensive beast who recently underwent season ending knee surgery. I believe he is too much of an offensive zero to justify a lottery selection as he is currently projected.
The Other Freshmen:
Bridges is the consensus next best freshman after the elite group. He has the athleticism, smoothness, and balanced production to sum to a quality NBA player, although his questionable efficiency and steal rate hint at him not being a future star.
TJ Leaf has significant appeal as a skilled and smart PF that offers versatile scoring and passing. His downside is his limited athleticism and defense. I would have an easier time getting excited over Leaf’s offense if he shot better than 62% FT, but he nevertheless pings my intuition as a player whose upside is underrated.
Robert Williams is a weirdo who pairs great length and athleticism with a unique skill set, as he offers great passing, cutting, and rim touch for a pogo stick. But his shot is a work in progress, and his offensive creation ability is sorely limited.
I wrote about Andrew Jones as Diet Russ, and since then he has committed many turnovers. He still piques my interest as a player who has nice upside if his skill level improves at an outlier rate, but right now he is incredibly raw.
Bruce Brown is my top freshman to miss the cut. He is an unheralded athletic freshman SG for Miami who is a nice athlete and does a little bit of everything.