Chad Ford and Kevin Pelton are back with their series on NBA prospects, rookies and sophomores -- this time ranking their top five players for the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft, which looks wide open at the top.
Who's on top?
Chad Ford: For the first time since the 2013 NBA draft, the field for the No. 1 pick is wide open. I've spoken with numerous NBA scouts and executives and have heard seven different prospects mentioned as the top guy on a particular team's board.
Sometimes that lack of consensus is an indicator that we have a weak draft, with no clear franchise players at the top. This year, that lack of consensus reflects a feeling that the class is filled with elite prospects who could be All-Stars down the road.
We are now halfway through the college basketball season, and I think it's worth taking a look at who our top five picks would be if the draft were held today. There's no clear-cut answer for me, but I think Washington freshman guard Markelle Fultz has the slight lead -- on team draft boards and on mine as well.
Fultz checks just about every box an NBA team looks for in a prospect. He has size and length for his position. He can play and defend multiple positions. He can shoot the 3 and handle the ball. He's a good athlete, with a high basketball IQ and character.
The biggest knock? His team is pretty terrible, and that makes it feel, at times, like Fultz is playing a little one-on-five. I doubt that would've been an issue had he played at Kansas or Kentucky, though.
Does your big board have Fultz No. 1?
Kevin Pelton: Fultz's consensus WARP projection (which includes where a player ranks on your big board as well as his statistical projection) is ahead of where No. 1 pick Ben Simmons finished last season. But it's not No. 1 among this year's prospects by that measure. Instead, that honor goes to UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball, who rates ahead of Fultz on the strength of versatility.
I look at 10 different skill categories to identify prospects' strengths (where they rank among the top quarter of NBA-bound players at their position) and weaknesses (bottom quarter).
Ball is in the top quarter of NBA-bound point guards in five categories: 2-point percentage, rebound percentage, assist percentage, block percentage and foul percentage (where lower is better, naturally). That's more than any other underclassmen. (Naturally, because these aren't adjusted for age, more-experienced players will have more strengths.)
Fultz, for what it's worth, has just two statistical strengths: rebound and block percentage.
Is Ball No. 2 on your board?
Ford: Yes, Ball is No. 2 for me, and personally, my favorite player in the draft. I get why Fultz would be ahead of him on draft boards. He doesn't have a major weakness to really harp on. But as far as upside goes, Ball has the highest ceiling in my opinion, and in the opinion of many GMs and scouts.
A number of GMs refer to Ball as Jason Kidd with a jump shot. He has the size, strength, athleticism and uncanny feel for the game that Kidd did. And he's ultracompetitive, like Kidd. The difference is that Ball is shooting 43 percent from 3-point range on 5.6 attempts per game. While Kidd got better as a shooter as his game matured, he never shot anything like that.
Alas, Ball's jump shot is also the one thing that often has scouts wringing their hands. While it goes in, it sure doesn't look like it should. His unusual shot mechanics scare some scouts and explain why some teams feel that red flag puts Fultz ahead of him.
I can tell you this: You're going to have the entire league showing up when those two go head to head on Feb. 4 in Washington and again at UCLA on March 1. It's rare that you get to see the two top point guards in the draft match up head-to-head twice.
Who's No. 2 on your board, Kevin?
Pelton: It is Fultz.
While he doesn't have as many statistical strengths as Ball, to back up your comment, he also has no statistical weaknesses. (Ball is in the bottom 25 percent of NBA-bound point guards in usage rate and free throw attempt rate, reflecting how infrequently he gets all the way to the basket off the dribble.)
Having watched Fultz closely all season long, the closest thing I can find to a weakness is his occasionally lax off-ball defense in the half court. That complete skill set, and Fultz's ability to create for himself and others, should make him an ideal NBA point guard.
I'll be there when Fultz and Ball play in Seattle, so hopefully the NBA scouts save me a seat.
More worthy contenders
He's a little harder to appreciate on the surface than Ball or Fultz, but dig a little deeper and there's so much to love about his game. Jackson is long and athletic. He can play three positions and has the best motor in the draft as well as an incredible feel for the game.
Usually the combination of athleticism, basketball IQ and motor is a major recipe for success in the NBA. His inconsistent jump shot is his weakness and is a concern, given league trends. But Jackson reminds me a bit of Kawhi Leonard at this stage. I think he'll keep working on his shot until it isn't a concern, and the rest of his game is really, really special.
Kevin, where does Jackson fit on your board? Do the numbers like him as much as scouts do?
Pelton: Jackson's stats-only projection is for 1.2 WARP, putting him well behind Ball (3.6) and Fultz (2.7). I think that will improve as the season goes on -- as I've mentioned before, my projections are designed to regress early-season performance to positional averages, and the average assist rate for a small forward is much lower than Jackson's.
The Leonard comp isn't bad, even to Leonard's sophomore season (when he was about the same age Jackson is now), but I have a hard time comparing any college prospect to Leonard given the way he has developed far beyond any reasonable expectations coming out of college.?
My consensus projections have North Carolina State point guard Dennis Smith Jr. in third. His offensive statistics are strikingly similar to Fultz's -- they boast nearly identical true shooting percentages and assist rates. The biggest difference between them statistically at this point is Smith is six months older, giving Fultz the long-term edge.
Ford: My No. 4 pick is a guy I'm guessing you don't have in your top five: Kentucky freshman Malik Monk. He has been the best scorer in college basketball as a freshman, averaging 22 points and shooting 41 percent from 3 on nearly eight attempts per game.
He's one-dimensional, which I think probably affects his statistical projection, but Monk can score from everywhere. He's shooting 74 percent at the rim and 49 percent on his 2-point jumpers. He's possibly the best athlete in the draft as well.
I'd love to see Monk's rebounding, assists and steals numbers improve. And I think some scouts believe he'll be able to make the transition to the point in the NBA, negating his biggest weakness -- a lack of size for his position as a 2-guard.
I see the case for Smith as well, but I think Monk has the slight edge among scouts. What do you think about Monk, and who do you have at No. 4?
Pelton: You'll be surprised, as Monk is No. 4 in the consensus projections. His standing on your big board is a big part of that; Monk ranks 17th in the stats-only projection, though that's solid in its own right.
As compared to the other top prospects, Monk figures to be a more efficient scorer even with his projected 3-point percentage regressed heavily to the mean (35.0 percent). The effective shooting inside the arc you mention helps offset that, and rebounding is Monk's only huge weakness statistically.
Does Smith round out your top five?
Ford: Yes, Smith is No. 5 for me. And if I were just ranking by most likely to go No. 1, I'd probably put him ahead of Monk. I'm just not sure I see any team in need of a guard taking Monk ahead of Fultz, Ball and Smith because of questions about whether Monk can transition to the 1 in the NBA.
A handful of NBA scouts and execs have Smith at No. 1 on their board. His combination of explosive athleticism and his ability to get to the rim is impressive.
The concerns I hear most from scouts center on a torn ACL that caused Smith to miss his senior season of high school and questions about his shooting ability. He wasn't a great shooter in high school, and while he's shooting 38 percent from 3, according to Hoop-Math.com he's shooting just 29 percent on 2-point jumpers.
I think the shooting ability of Fultz and Ball probably will help them win out on a head-to-head matchup against Smith, in terms of draft status.
Pelton: Tatum gets the nod for the fifth spot.
Since returning from a foot sprain, he has shown a broad skill set, including impressive steal and block rates that are slightly better than Jackson's in both categories. So far, Tatum hasn't been particularly efficient offensively, in large part because he has shot 8-of-29 (27.6 percent on 3s). I think he has the ability to shoot better, and he has been impressive thus far from the foul line (86.4 percent).