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Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Ranking the 10 best guards in 2017 NBA Draft

Malik MonkNow that the NBA Finals have ended, it’s time to focus on the draft. Finding players who can make an impact on the league has proved easier said than done in recent offseasons. The style of play in the NBA is ever-changing and spotting players who can fit in, or elevate their team, isn’t easy.

With the game speeding up and spreading out, guard play may be as important as ever. Almost on cue, this year’s draft class is loaded with talented ones and twos ready to make an impact.

Making things even more perfect, the top of the draft is filled with teams in major markets ready for their next star. This June’s draft could have major implications across the NBA.

Here now are the 10 best guards available in this class. These rankings ignore the crucial effect of team and player fit. For example, as the Sixers build around Ben Simmons, a ball-handling non-shooter, they likely find less value in a player like De’Aaron Fox, another ball dominant non-shooter. Instead, these rankings look to generally compare the top guards by their overall talent, as well as their expected ceiling and floor as NBA players.

1. Markelle Fultz, Washington

The conventional wisdom has written off Markelle Fultz’s first and only season at Washington as a waste of time, not worth exploring in depth. The team around Fultz was terrible and their coach, Lorenzo Romar, would later be fired despite having the nation’s top recruit set to arrive next year. Look deeper and this season showed why Fultz is the top prospect in this draft and capable of becoming an NBA All-Star.

As just a freshman, Fultz averaged 23 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists. No player in the 25 seasons tracked by Sports Reference has ever matched those numbers. Not upperclassmen or small school players or future NBA champions. Only Fultz.

He did so surrounded by a lackluster roster. Only one of Fultz’s teammates averaged even 40 percent on two-point jump shots, obviously leaving little space for creation on offense. From outside the arc, the rest of the Huskies were even worse, managing only 33.9 percent.

Despite that, Fultz was a magician on pick-and-rolls, using his long arms and silky jump shot to find opportunities for himself and his teammates. He showcased the kind of skillset that makes for perfect guard in today’s NBA, capable of scoring and sharing the ball.

The only true knock on Fultz this season was his defense. At times he looked disinterested, out of place, or overwhelmed on that end of the floor. At Washington he was doing absolutely everything for the Huskies, so defense took a backseat. He’s always flashed the physical tools capable of guarding opposing ones and twos, but will need to show he cares about doing so early on in his career.

2. Dennis Smith Jr., North Carolina State

Across the country, a similar situation unfolded at North Carolina State.

Dennis Smith averaged 18 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds for a team that floundered throughout the season, never getting on track, and ended up with their coach fired. He was the heart and soul of everything the Wolfpack did offensively, creating almost all of his own opportunities.

Only 20 percent of Smith’s shots at the rim were assisted, compared to 48 percent of his made threes and only 3 percent of his 2-point jumpers. Contrast that with Malik Monk, still to come on these rankings and having played on a very talented Kentucky, who had 47 percent of his shots at the rim assisted, 20 percent of his 2-point jumpers, and a whopping 82 percent of his threes (all stats per Hoop-Math.com).

Despite carrying that heavy workload, Smith shot within 5 percentage points of Monk from each of those locations. He showed an uncanny ability to finish in the paint despite a lack of space or comfort. That will serve him well at the next level, helping him becoming a score first point-guard like a taller Isaiah Thomas or a less explosive John Wall.

3. Lonzo Ball, UCLA

There are plenty of reasons to believe Lonzo Ball can be a franchise point guard. He showed the basketball IQ and passing acumen to lead an NBA offense, and the ability to make shots from NBA range.

Unlike Fultz and Smith however, Ball was surrounded by talent. He led the best offense in college basketball. Despite what his father might say (and really that clause could precede every sentence about Ball), Lonzo was not surrounded by “three white guys”, but by skilled shooters and scorers at every position. TJ Leaf and Ike Anigbogu will also hear their names called in the first round this year. Thomas Welsh and Bryce Alford are both knockdown shooters, spacing the floor.

Watching Ball, it’s difficult to see if he’ll be able to create his own shot or for others without that ample space around him. He certainly has the vision and body to get the ball where it needs to be, but without wide open driving lanes and advantageous match-ups, he may struggle to find offensive opportunities. On top of that, his slingshot shooting delivery may not be dependable at the next level.

He falls behind Smith in these rankings, with his success more heavily depending on the situation he finds at the next level than that of Smith.

Not to mention, Lonzo Ball was an absolute zero on defense for UCLA this season. If he plays anywhere close to the same level of defense in the NBA, he’ll be essentially unplayable as a rookie.

4. Malik Monk, Kentucky

After one year at Kentucky, Monk’s ceiling and floor seem among the most definable in this class. If he is merely a very good shooter, without ever being elite from outside, he could replicate the careers of useful players like Jamal Crawford or Eric Gordon.

If his jump shot proves to be among the best in the world, he could be a star on the level of Damian Lillard or even Ray Allen.

There is certainly plenty of room between those two outcomes, and a scarier reality beneath them. If Monk’s shaky defense and ball-handling cripple his chance to showcase his jumper, he could fade into obscurity, just as recent shooters without other skills in years past, like Nik Stauskas and Ben McLemore.

5. De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky

Watching the NCAA Tournament, many scouts and fans fell in love with De’Aaron Fox’s competitive edge and lightning fast feet. If he were in the draft 20 or even 10 years ago, he’d be in the conversation to be a top-three selection.

In 2017, it’s hard to see Fox as a star, due to a broken jump shot. He made less than one-quarter of his three-point attempts this season. Off the dribble or after the catch, Fox simply cannot be effective.

Luckily, he’s shown a killer first step and an ability to score in the lane. He took 48 percent of his shots at the rim this season. No player ahead of him on this list attempted even more than 37 percent of his shots at the rim. It is rare in today’s league to see players able to score despite a lack of jump shooting, but Fox is as equipped as anyone.

Even better, his defense is superb. Even if his jump shot hampers him offensively, he’ll find a way to contribute like other non-shooters across the NBA, like Marcus Smart or Tony Allen.

See Nos. 6-10 on Page 2

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