Scouting the 2017 NBA Draft

The 2017 NBA Playoffs are in the books and one thing is clear: people like the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors. The TV ratings reached record highs as two of the most dominant teams we’ve seen in NBA history rampaged through their respective conferences on the way to a showdown that featured plenty of memorable moments, even while lacking in suspense. Barring an unprecedented shakeup during the offseason, there’s little reason to think we won’t be seeing something a lot like this next year. However, for one night on Thursday, the basketball world will turn its attention to building a future without the Warriors and Cavs’ dominance.

That’s right, it’s time for the 2017 NBA Draft because basketball never sleeps! This year’s draft could be particularly important to the shape of the league’s future, especially in light of the blockbuster trade between the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers, giving the latter the number one pick while the former picked up an extra asset to potentially trade for a star.

For fans enmeshed in the NBA for the last few months, it might be hard to think back to the NCAA season, so consider this blog post a refresher on the top five prospects. However, as any fan of Jimmy Butler or Kawhi Leonard will tell you, there’s often talent to be found in the deeper parts of the draft. So, to pair with the big names, I’ll also identify a player outside of the lottery who may have his own star-level upside.

Markelle Fultz, Washington Huskies. 2016–17 Box Plus/Minus: 9.1. 2016–17 PER: 27.9 Comp: James Harden with defense. Doppelgänger: Sindarius Thornwell

Fultz has been out of the spotlight even longer than the rest of this year’s top prospects, since his team missed out on the NCAA Tournament. However, while the group around him wasn’t ideal, Fultz is the real deal; he’s the second Power Five player since 1992–93 to average 20 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists per game and the second in any conference to do it as a freshman. Fultz was a two-way force, leading the Pac-12 in points produced per game while also ranking in the top 10 in both blocks and steals.

It’s hard to find a comp for Fultz. He stuffs the stats sheet the way we saw Harden and Westbrook do it this year, but he’s less battering ram reckless than Westbrook and already seems like a more capable defender than Harden. His 64.9% shooting on free throws is a tad concerning, but since he was a 41% three-point shooter, that seems easily correctable.

That three-point stroke is going to be especially important if Fultz is going to be slotting in alongside Ben Simmons on the 76ers. While Simmons showed unusual ability as a ball-handler and playmaker for someone his size, he only made one three-pointer in college and shot 67% from the charity stripe. This inability to space the floor may not be a total drag on Simmons value, but it could hurt Philly as they try to fashion a modern NBA offense around him. A good comparison is Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks still managed to rank 13th in offensive rating in the regular season, but they totally collapsed on that end in the playoffs, the price of having a primary ball-handler who isn’t a fearsome long-range shooter (although The Greek Freak did go 4–10 on threes in the Bucks’ playoff series against the Toronto Raptors).

If he develops into the player scouts think he’ll be, Fultz helps solve this problem. Fultz can make plays with or without the ball and provide an escape valve for the Philly offense while also being more than capable of making plays on his own. And all of this is without mentioning the true heart of the team: unicorn center Joel Embiid. A Fultz/Simmons/Embiid trio ranks as the most exciting collection of lottery talent on a single team since the Oklahoma City Thunder had Harden, Westbrook, and Kevin Durant. And unlike OKC’s big three, Philly’s has the interlocking skill-set, off-ball ability, and defensive potential to seem like a team that can stay together long-term while playing at a high level.

However, it’s worth noting that Fultz wasn’t actually the best player in college basketball this year. According to Box Plus/Minus, that honor actually goes to Sindarius Thornwell, who led South Carolina to an unexpected Final Four appearance. Thornwell is projected as a late second rounder, but he may be worth a deeper look, consider this list of players:

That’s everyone who led the nation in BPM since 2010–11, and it’s quite a list. In 2012 and 2015, the BPM leader was the #1 pick and pretty unquestionably the best player in the draft. While injuries have held Embiid back, its pretty clear that in a vacuum, he’s the best player from the 2014 draft. And while you’d probably rather have Davis or Damian Lillard, it’s tough to argue Draymond Green hasn’t been one of the three or four best players from the 2012 NBA Draft. Even Oladipo, who may look out of place on a list like this, has been one of the best players from his super-weak draft year.

Only Denzel Valentine is really an outlier here and he’s only played one season on a relatively dysfunctional team. I’m not saying a team should take Thornwell over Fultz or anything crazy like that, but in the second round, when most of the picks are a shot in the dark anyway, Thornwell seems well worth the risk.

Lonzo Ball, UCLA Bruins. 2016–17 Box Plus/Minus: 12.2. 2016–17 PER: 24.7 Comp: Jason Kidd. Doppelgänger: Jawun Evans

So far, Lonzo’s been the second most discussed member of the Ball family (and I’m obliged at this point to direct readers to LaVar Ball’s hilarious College Basketball Reference page). However, that looks poised to change once Lonzo enters the league. While his dad has been yelling at Stephen A. Smith, Lonzo has put together one of the best freshman seasons in Pac-12 history.

Lonzo excelled as a playmaker, averaging the most assists per game by a Pac-12 freshman since Jason Kidd. He also seems like he could be an incredible defender, considering he’s 6'6" and nearly averaged two steals and a block per game. Lonzo seems perfectly suited to the modern NBA: he’s incredible in transition, shoots over 40% from 3, and has the frame to be a two-way player at a position that’s stacked with many of the league’s best players.

At the other end of the draft, there’s Jawun Evans. Evans doesn’t have any of Lonzo’s physical gifts — he’s listed at 6' but that may be generous — but he actually outperformed Ball as a playmaker (43.6% assist rate vs Lonzo’s 31.4) while also shouldering a larger creative burden (32.7% usage rate vs 18.1). Evans was second in the Big 12 in PER with a 27.3 and it’s worth keeping in mind that the Big 12 was the best conference in college hoops this year, according to SRS.

Evans’ size will present problems in the bigger, tougher NBA, but Isaiah Thomas has shown that its possible for a score-first undersized point guard to thrive in the modern game. Ball’s the obvious choice at 2, but Evans should go well before the 60th pick, where Thomas was famously drafted as Mr. Irrelevant in 2011.

Josh Jackson, Kansas Jayhawks. 2016–17 Box Plus/Minus: 10.7. 2016–17 PER: 24.1 Comp: Kawhi Leonard. Doppelgänger: Caleb Swanigan

Josh Jackson is the kind of player that every team wants: a 6'8" wing who can hang with Kevin Durant and switch onto Stephen Curry defensively while being enough of an offensive threat to avoid getting the Tony Allen treatment. Jackson is the very definition of a two-way player; since 2010–11, only four other players broke 5.0 in both offensive and defensive BPM and they all seem to be on their way to excellent NBA careers:

However, it’s reasonable to ask whether Jackson’s upside might be closer to Smart or Winslow than Simmons or Davis. He’s unquestionably a less skilled offensive player than the latter and it’s worth keeping in mind that he only made 34 three-pointers (a little over one per game), despite the NCAA’s shorter three point line.

Still, these are nit-picks, and even Jackson’s downside seems to be closer to being some kind of Harrison Barnes-esque role player than a total bust. But if teams pick a future Barnes, they may look back on the draft and regret missing out on this year’s Draymond Green. Honestly, comparing Caleb Swanigan to Draymond has become somewhat hackish at this point, but that’s only because Swanigan did so much to merit it.

Like Draymond, Swanigan is a Big Ten consensus All-American projected to go in the second round and like Draymond, Swanigan doesn’t shy away from doing the dirty work (12.5 rebounds per game in 2016–17). He doesn’t have Draymond’s gawdy assist numbers (3.0 assists per game in 2016–17), but neither did Draymond in college (3.8 assist per game in his final year at Michigan State).

Swanigan has shown improvement as a three-point shooter, draining 44.7% of shots from downtown in 2016–17 and making more threes in total than Jackson. He’s also the only player since 2010–11 to post a 25 PER, a 20% rebound rate, and a 15% assist rate. Swanigan could end up being the prototype for a post-Warriors modern NBA big; not bad for someone projected to go in the 40s.

Jayson Tatum, Duke Blue Devils. 2016–17 Box Plus/Minus: 7.5. 2016–17 PER: 22.0 Comp: Andrew Wiggins. Doppelgänger: OG Anunoby

Tatum is the only top five player I’m not crazy about, mainly because I’m not sure how much of a place in the modern NBA there is for a Carmelo Anthony/Rudy Gay style volume scorer who doesn’t contribute much else. Tatum only shot 34.2% from three (.507 effective field goal percentage in total) without breaking 15% in assist or rebound rate.

But maybe I’m being too hard on Tatum. He has excellent size and averaged over a steal and block per game. If he can continue at that level as an NBA player, he’ll be a good enough defender to hang with the top players in the league. And, to be fair to Melo, he hasn’t exactly been surrounded by great talent in recent years.

Still, his game is kind of a throwback, in contrast to OG Anunoby, the man of mystery from the Indiana Hoosiers. Anunoby was a relatively unheralded prospect who burst on the scene last year and continued his fantastic play this season. He’s quick enough to keep up with wings but strong enough to be a power forward or perhaps even hang at center against teams like the Warriors.

His shooting is a question mark, having shot 31% on a much higher volume of threes as a sophomore after doing pretty well as a freshman. However, if he can get that down, he’ll be the exact kind of player the Cavaliers badly needed in the Finals: an energetic, quick, and strong defender who can also contribute on offense.

De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky Wildcats. 2016–17 Box Plus/Minus: 8.7. 2016–17 PER: 22.6 Comp: John Wall. Doppelgänger: Nigel Williams-Goss

Like Fultz and Ball, Fox is a tall and long at the league’s most stacked position, making him a natural top pick. However, he’s going to have to improve his shooting or he simply won’t be playable at point guard in the NBA. Ask Michael Carter-Williams or Rajon Rondo what its like for an NBA PG in 2017 who shoots 24.6% from three (although, I suppose there’ll still be a spot for Fox on the Chicago Bulls if he doesn’t improve).

Still, Fox has speed and size which, unlike shooting, can’t be improved with practice. However, while he has one of the highest upsides in the draft, his floor is definitely lower than someone like Nigel Williams-Goss. Williams-Goss was a better shooter than Fox by three-point percentage, true shooting percentage, and effective field goal rate. Williams-Goss didn’t play in nearly as challenging a conference as Fox, but he seems like someone who could slot onto an NBA bench and run a second unit

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