Every year, NBA scouts and analysts pore over hundreds of hours of game film, breaking down hundreds of collegiate and international prospects with meticulous precision. For most amateur draftniks, this level of commitment is unrealistic, but through YouTube, draft websites, and some casual spectatorship during the season, the rest of us are able to get a decent sense of the top of the draft class.
No matter where you fall on the continuum of NBA Draft geekdom, you likely find yourself comparing incoming prospects to players currently in the league. It’s a useful heuristic to employ when summarizing the skills and playing styles of these young hopefuls, and it helps us project their potential roles and the impact they might have at the next level. These types of comparisons aren’t always perfect, especially with the league in a constant state of evolution, but they’re handy nonetheless.
We set out to take the top seven prospects entering the 2017 NBA Draft and compare them to their pro counterparts based on a number of criteria, including strengths and weaknesses, style, personality, background, and physical profile. Here’s what we came up with…
It’s been a long time since a point guard has entered the league with the type of tantalizing skill set Markelle Fultz brings to the table. Considered the near-consensus No. 1 prospect in the class of 2017, Fultz was electric in his lone season at Washington. And while he failed to lead the Huskies to an NCAA Tournament berth (or double-digit wins, for that matter), his 23.2 points, 5.9 assists, and 5.7 rebounds per game made NBA scouts drool.
Like 2017 MVP-hopeful James Harden, Fultz has very few holes in his game. He can score from all three levels, converting 41.3 percent of his 3-point attempts and using his slipperiness and slick handle to free himself up for pull-up jumpers as well as shots at the rim. Like Harden, the 19-year-old Fultz won’t wow you with explosive plays at the rim or beat opponents down the floor with his straight-line quickness. Instead, he relies upon outstanding body control, an impeccable ability to change speeds, and remarkable creativity with the ball in his hands to embarrass defenders one-on-one and finish through contact at the hoop.
Both Harden and Fultz possess outstanding size for the lead guard position, standing 6’5” and 6’4” respectively, and boasting wingspans in the 6’10” to 6’11” range. And while neither has been able to turn those natural gifts into defensive production, both have the ability to make plays on that end of the floor when crunch time comes.
Over the past decade, basically every 6’5”-plus point guard who’s entered the league with even a hint of playmaking ability has been compared to Jason Kidd. We’re looking at you, Michael Carter-Williams…. But when people say it about Lonzo Ball, it’s no joke.
The 6’6” Ball is one of the smoothest passers to enter the draft since Kidd, and his supernatural feel for the game and elite ability to push the tempo in transition make the comparison between the two an easy one to see. Their similarities as collegiate freshmen are uncanny…. In Ball’s lone season at UCLA, he averaged 14.6 points, 7.6 assists, and 6.0 rebounds. In the first of Kidd’s two seasons at Cal, in 1992-93, he put up 13.0, 7.7, and 4.9 in two fewer minutes per game. And watching tape on the two only drives home the comparison further, from their similar ball-handling styles, to their unselfish play, and of course to their lanky frames.
And while Kidd—a future Hall of Famer—edges Ball out in a few areas, namely defense, LaVar’s kid has a few tricks hidden up the sleeve of his $80 Big Baller Brand hoodie as well. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Ball’s game is his ability to connect from long range. The 19-year-old shot 41.2 percent from beyond the arc at UCLA, and he did so while taking many of his 5.4 attempts per game from Steph Curry range. Kidd, on the other hand, did not become a consistent 3-point shooter until he had been in the NBA for more than a decade. And as a freshman, Ball was arguably a more polished floor general than Kidd, turning the ball over just 2.5 times a game vs. 3.9 times per game.
Whether or not he lives up to Kidd’s outstanding resume remains to be seen, but Lonzo Ball is an elite point guard prospect, who almost seems lab engineered to play NBA basketball in the year 2017.
In terms of raw physicality and talent, Josh Jackson might rank second in this year’s draft, behind Markelle Fultz. But as the NBA has shifted toward a style of play that increasingly asks wings to be knockdown shooters from distance, players like Jackson, a 6’8” swingman who takes more pride in his on-ball defense than his step-back jumper, have become less and less valuable.
It should be made clear that Jackson is no slouch on the offensive end of the floor. Of course that is why he’s considered a surefire top-five pick in this draft. Like Andre Iguodala, the longtime Sixer-turned-Warrior who combines outstanding defensive awareness with surprisingly competent playmaking skills, Jackson is a player who projects to be a key contributor on a contender (but never its best and probably not its second-best player) if he pans out in the pros.
As a freshman at Kansas, Jackson averaged 16.3 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per game; he also added 2.8 combined blocks and steals per contest. In the NBA, he figures to have the ball in his hands less than he did with the Jayhawks. But for someone with the type of complementary skill set he brings to the table, being afforded the ability to pick his spots and not overexert himself offensively might be a blessing in disguise. Unlike with Iguodala, let’s hope Jackson’s first stop allows him to be Robin, or even Alfred, just not Batman.
There’s no arguing that Jayson Tatum is an impressive talent. At 6’8”, he handles the ball like a guard and runs the floor like one too. His natural scoring ability and solid frame and footwork give him the potential to be a real contributor on both ends of the floor. But when the player Tatum could theoretically be is compared to the player he currently is, the discrepancy is obvious.
As a freshman at Duke, the 19-year-old Tatum averaged 16.8 points and 7.1 rebounds per game while boasting a 57.1 percent true shooting percentage and decent block/steal numbers (2.4 combined per game). But a troubling amount of his scoring came on jumpers from midrange, the area of the floor between the paint and 3-point line that NBA coaches and execs beg players to avoid. According to Synergy Sports, 36.3 percent of his shot attempts came from midrange, and to make matters worse he converted just 37.7 percent of those attempts, good for only 0.75 points scored per attempt. That’s not a very efficient way to make a living at the next level.
Tatum compares unfavorably to Rudy Gay, the perennial 20-a-night scorer whose teams seem to inevitably play better without him than with him despite his ability to post impressive counting stats. The 30-year-old forward was the eighth-overall pick in the 2006 draft, and in 11 seasons has yet to earn an All-Star bid. Like Gay, Tatum has all the tools to be great. But if he wants to get there, he needs to become a better perimeter shooter and playmaker.
Last summer, Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley was signed to the richest deal in league history, a five-year contract worth $153 million. People around the NBA scoffed at the massive payout the 6’1” Conley received, given the fact that he had never made an All-Star appearance since being drafted in 2007. And while he was still a notable All-Star snub this past season, the quick and scrappy Conley put up career highs in points (20.5) and true shooting percentage (60.4 percent) in 2016-17 while serving as Memphis’ unquestioned leader. De’Aaron Fox brings many of those same qualities to the table.
At 6’4”, Fox combines a wiry frame with the quickness, playmaking ability, and defensive tenacity that make Conley one of the best point guards in a loaded Western Conference. Unlike Fox, who shot 24.6 percent from deep as a freshman at Kentucky, Conley over time has become a 40-plus percent perimeter shooter. But he too struggled from distance early in his career, shooting 30.4 percent from beyond the arc in his lone season at Ohio State.
While De’Aaron Fox probably has a lower ceiling than most of the other players on this list, it’s hard to imagine his physical talents, playmaking skills, and ability to get to the free-throw line not translating to the next level. But, heads up to the team vying to draft Fox this year—bring a visor instead of the usual draft snapback since Fox would like to show off his signature hairstyle.
Dennis Smith Jr. is everything you wish your NBA 2K MyPlayer was. Physically, he has it all, from his lightning-quick first step to his Westbrookian ability to explode through contact and finish at the rim thanks to a reported 48-inch vertical. And he combines those impressive tools with a smooth jumper, killer handle, and a motor that’s relentless when turned on (see: NC State vs. Duke). The problem is that often times his switch is shut off.
Watching only highlights of the seven players on this list, one might reasonably come to the conclusion that Dennis Smith Jr. is the best player in this draft. And they wouldn’t be entirely wrong, at least as far as upside goes. The 19-year-old has the potential to be a franchise player from day one, something that not many people in this draft—or any, for that matter—bring to the table. But where the NC State alum gets into trouble is with his consistency.
Watching Smith play, it’s difficult not to see the similarities between him and former Rockets star Steve Francis. Like Smith, Francis entered the 1999 Draft to much fanfare, with some believing his poor decision-making and off-the-court issues could be managed and his sky-high potential could be achieved. And while concerns about Smith have more to do with the ACL tear he suffered as a high school senior and his inconsistency at NC State, his boom-or-bust potential is similar to that of Francis. Let’s hope things turns out better for him….
OK, we know what you’re thinking, but hear us out…. Malik Monk is typically compared to conscience-deprived gunners like Nick Young, JR Smith, and Dion Waiters, but we think he can be much more than that. Standing 6’3” with a 42-inch wingspan, Monk shot 39.7 percent on 6.9 attempts from beyond the arc as a freshman at Kentucky. But unlike the microwave scorers to whom he’s typically compared, Monk doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective. According to Synergy Sports, 45 percent of his shot attempts last season came on spot-ups and off screens, while another 30 percent came in transition. And he knows his role offensively, running the baseline and coming off curls to find daylight for quick-release shots from distance.
Like Ray Allen, one of the most prolific scorers and shooters to ever grace the NBA, Monk is able to fill it up within the flow of the offense. Against UNC last season, he scored 47 points on just 18 shots—mostly from beyond the arc. And while the presence of De’Aaron Fox and Isaiah Briscoe limited the Wildcats’ need for Monk to handle the rock, he showed the ability to make plays for others in transition and occasionally in the half court.
Malik Monk would be lucky to have half the career Ray Allen did, but we think there are a lot more similarities between the two of them than most people are willing to admit.