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2017 Prospect Primer: The Point Guards

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High School Basketball: McDonald's All-American Portraits Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

It’s the doldrums of “Nothing Is Happening in Basketball” season, which means there isn’t a whole lot to discuss or think about. If you’d like to argue about Jahlil Okafor, we’ve got plenty of comment space for you to do it, but, in the off-chance that you’re (somehow) sick of said escapade, perhaps you’re looking for a different way to waste your time on the internet.

If that’s the case, boy have I got the thing for you!

Once again, the Sixers’ season is largely to determine their draft position, as the team continues its slow build towards what it hopes will be a future championship contender. The Class of 2017 is a remarkably heralded one, with an impressive 28 five-star recruits, according to ESPN. This is a class stocked with athletes and creators, and most of the best players have measurables that easily translate to their intended NBA position.

Unlike last year, where you had to squint to find talent beyond the Top 3 or so, there is a bevy of players who could have wonderfully productive careers. If ever there were a year for the Lakers’ pick to convey in the Top 6 or so, 2017 is it.

Without further ado, here’s a primer on the top point guards in the class. We’ll be following it up with coverage of the wings and big men, as well as a reminder of returning players, and a section on my own personal sleepers.

Markelle Fultz, Washington

DX: 1, ESPN: 3, ESPN 100: 7

6’4 with shoes, 6’9 wingspan

Age: 18.2

Why to be excited:

Fultz is simply the most complete point guard prospect in the last half decade, and possibly stretching farther back. He has outstanding size and length for the lead guard position and the athleticism to throw down in the paint.

Fultz has shown comfort shooting both off the catch and the dribble, and his advanced handle combined with great athleticism allows him to get to the rim frequently. Fultz has also demonstrated himself to be a natural facilitator, setting up teammates and finding seams in the defense.

In addition to his skillset and physical tools, Fultz is one of the youngest players in the draft, which means he has more time and opportunity for growth than the majority of his peers.

Here, have a Fultz highlight reel:

Why to be worried:

There aren’t a lot of reasons to worry about Fultz as a prospect. He’s a very complete point guard prospect, he’s young, and he showed a knack for steals, with decent defensive aptitude in high school showcases and the FIBA U-18 tournament. The biggest questions for Fultz aren’t about his skills, but about the level of those skills: Is he a great shooter off the dribble, or merely adequate? Is his defense average, good, or elite? How advanced is his handle?

These aren’t questions that will impact his ability to play in the league, but they will dictate the degree of his success. If Fultz is merely good across the board, he’s still an excellent prospect, with a shot of being a Top 8 point guard in the league. If he’s excellent in enough areas, he could be a generational point guard.

What to watch for:

How he plays in Lorenzo Romar’s system. Romar likes to play fast, and is notorious for failing to instill sound offensive philosophy in his players, while often fielding abysmal defensive teams. I’ll be paying particular attention to how Romar hones Fultz’s decision-making and the effort that Fultz puts in on defense, as I try to evaluate him.

Dennis Smith, NC State

DX: 2, ESPN: 4, ESPN 100: N/A

6’2 with shoes, 6’3 wingspan

Age: 18.8

Why to be excited:

Smith is the best athlete to come into the league at the point guard position since John Wall. He is one of those rare types of athletes where his burst and explosiveness alone make him a force to be reckoned with, at every level. Smith would immediately join Wall, Russell Westbrook, and prime Derrick Rose as one of the most athletic point guards in the NBA during the 21st century.

Normally, mixtapes are a terrible way to judge talent. In Smith’s case, you should do yourself a favor and watch his explosiveness before you judge any other aspect of his game.

Smith recently returned from a torn ACL, and he lit up Adidas Nation a few weeks ago. Worries over his injury seem to have subsided, and he looks to be near 100% again.

Why to be worried:

Smith may or may not be able to shoot. For the caliber of athlete that he is, it may not matter in the long run, as all three of Wall, Westbrook, and Rose had successful careers without ever finding a jump shot. But it does change his overall outlook.

In addition, Smith has a short wingspan, at only one inch higher than his listed height. For a player whose game is predicated off of aggression and athleticism on both sides of the ball, it may be a limiting factor in his defense and rebounding that holds him back a bit.

What to watch for:

Shooting and decision-making. If Smith can pair his athleticism and drive with a real jump shot, he’s a no-brainer number one pick. I’ll be watching his shooting percentages and hoping that he can limit his turnovers.

Frank Ntilikina, Strasbourg

DX: 6, ESPN: 5, ESPN 100: N/A

6’5 with shoes, 6’10 wingspan

Age: 18.1

Why to be excited:

Ntilikina isn’t quite in Smith’s league as an athlete, but he’s an excellent one in his own right, and has elite length and height for his position to boot. Ntilikina burst onto the scene at the Basketball Without Borders camp, where he displayed a knack for pick and roll play, strong defense, and general unselfishness. He plays hard on both ends of the floor, navigates screens successfully as a defender, and has a knack for reading the defense as a floor general.

With his size and length, Ntilikina is built for the switch-heavy defenses that are currently en vogue in the NBA. He would have no problem guarding positions 1-3, and could likely handle most 4’s as he fills out later in his career.

In addition to his game as a lead guard and defender, Ntilikina is, again, one of the youngest members of the draft class, having just turned 18 in July. Like Fultz, he has a lot of growing left in his game.

Why to be worried:

Like Smith, Ntilikina can’t shoot either. Point guards who can’t shoot and lack the elite athleticism of Westbrook, Rose, and Wall have a concrete ceiling on their NBA potential. While it is still possible for that type of player to be useful (see: Ricky Rubio and prime Rajon Rondo), it’s a much harder path to get there.

What to watch for:

How his shot develops over the next year. Ntilikina is still young enough that it is possible for him to grow into a passable shooter, which would open up a number of point guard prototypes that he could grow into— perhaps as a longer Jrue Holiday, for instance. The story is about his shot before anything else.

Lonzo Ball, UCLA

DX: 14, ESPN: 6, ESPN 100: 4

6’5 with shoes, 6’7 wingspan

Age: 18.8

Why to be excited:

Lonzo Ball is one of my favorite prospects in a long time. His senior season at Chino Hills was the stuff of legend, as he and his two brothers, LaMelo and LiAngelo, led the team to an undefeated season, and Lonzo averaged a triple double over the entire season. The Ball brothers routinely pulled up for 30-foot bombs and played wild, scrambling defense, while Lonzo’s signature moved, if you could even call it that, was the one handed outlet pass. Seriously.

Ball plays fast, and he plays unselfish, and it’s a real blast to watch, even if it leads to unadvisable 28-footers with 25 seconds left on the shot clock.

Ball’s passing vision is also among the best in recent memory. At the McDonald’s All-American game, he tied a record with 13 assists, including a few ridiculous alley-oops.

Why to be worried:

It’s unclear how much of Ball’s success was due to his school’s helter-skelter system, and how much was due to an unparalleled ability. He appears to be a good athlete, but isn’t an outlier in the way his peers are. And, while he has no qualms shooting for distance, his jump shot is very strange, as he releases across his body on the left side, and it’s unclear whether he is actually a good shooter or not.

It’s entirely possible that Ball isn’t an NBA-caliber athlete and has a broken jumper, in which case he’s not much of a prospect at all. But he could also be a modern-day Jason Kidd with a jumper that’s just good enough, and that’s a real player. Needless to say, I will be watching a lot of UCLA this year.

What to watch for:

How Ball’s hectic game translates against higher competition, and how his athleticism holds up, especially on defense. There’s no doubt that getting out in transition generates many easy buckets for Ball’s team, but the question is whether his pressing style of defense will have the same impact against better ball handlers and decision makers. Between those two questions and his jump shot, there’s a lot to pay attention to for Lonzo Ball.

De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky

DX: 11, ESPN: 9, ESPN 100: 6

6’3 with shoes, 6’7 wingspan

Age: 18.7

Why to be excited:

Fox is another natural point guard who relishes setting up his teammates and has excellent physical tools for the position. Fox has also been billed as the best defender of the American point guard class, as he has elite quickness and gets skinny navigating picks really effectively.

In the high school showcase games, Markelle Fultz was moved off-ball to allow Fox to be the lead facilitator.

Why to be worried:

While he is a good passer and an unselfish player, Fox struggles the most of these players to create for himself. He’s a poor shooter (noticed a theme here?) and can struggle to separate himself against the best athletes, as well as occasional troubles finishing at the rim. If he can’t solve those issues, he’ll quickly be on the Elfrid Payton/Ricky Rubio track of point guards.

What to watch for:

His jump shot. If Fox can set himself up successfully, it will open up a lot more opportunities for him to facilitate for his teammates. The harder it is for him to score, the harder it will be for him to be an elite lead guard in the NBA.

Malik Monk, Kentucky

DX: 22, ESPN: 15, ESPN 100: 9

6’3 with shoes, 6’6 wingspan

Why to be excited:

Malik Monk was one of the headliners for this class for years, as he was an unparalleled scorer with explosive athleticism. Unfortunately, he’s not really a point guard, and he’s undersized for a shooting guard, so his draft stock has dropped the last few years.

To my eyes, he still seems to be a useful player, though. He was not selfish by any means in the high school showcase games, demonstrating a knack for finding the open man, and showing off a few nice dishes after penetrating the defense. He will probably never be a primary lead guard, but as a secondary creator with some passing and PnR ability, Monk could be a useful tool. I like to think of him in the Brandon Knight mold.

Oh, yeah, and he can shoot! Elite athletes who can shoot, pass, and create a little are always useful, and he could be an excellent complement to Ben Simmons.

Why to be worried:

He’s not a point guard and he’s undersized for a wing. He really has true point guard size, which is too bad. If he were three inches taller with a longer wingspan, many scouts would probably be talking about him as a Top 5 player. As it is, he’s currently slotted outside of the lottery in both of the major draft publication sites.

What to watch for:

How good of a passer is Monk, and can he defend? Monk’s feasibility as a secondary creator is predicated entirely on the premise that he is unselfish and can create for others. The high school showcase games hinted at that skillset, but we still need more clarity before declaring that he will really be able to.

I also have no read on Monk’s ability to defend. He has the tools to be decent at the point of attack, but showcases are poor mediums for judging defense, so there was little to be gleaned in them. If he’s a sieve, it will be hard for Monk to provide positive value at the next level.