Welcome to The Ringer’s 2017 NBA Draft Lottery Big Board, a consensus of the top 14 prospects in the draft formed by our three resident NBA draftniks: Jonathan Tjarks, Kevin O’Connor, and Danny Chau. Each week, we’ll take a fresh look at three trending players, and, on occasion, tip you off to a deserving prospect on the outside looking in. This week, we look at a young French star rising in international tournament play, Arizona’s sweet-shooting giant, and the Kentucky Wildcats’ human torch.
1. Markelle Fultz
2. Josh Jackson
3. Lonzo Ball
4. Frank Ntilikina
Danny Chau: Hi. Meet Frank Ntilikina (jersey no. 2). He’s a 6-foot-5 point guard out of France with a near-7-foot wingspan. Frank’s 18.
Here he is in a game against Bosnia and Herzegovina on Tuesday in the quarterfinals of the FIBA U18 European Championship. Ntilikina is defending an isolation play from 17-year-old Dzanan Musa, arguably the deadliest young offensive player in Europe, who, earlier this year, dropped 50 points in U17 competition and was recruited by North Carolina coach Roy Williams over Skype — Musa’s parents were reportedly serenaded by Michael Jordan on the same video call as a sweetener. Anyway, here Ntilikina is, completely bottling up the shot attempt from start to finish. He’s been battling the flu for days.
Rarely is this the case for a player so young, but the first thing that stands out about Ntilikina is how much he is a gamer on defense. Against a 6-foot-8 Musa (who plays much smaller because of his extremely hunched posture), Ntilikina went around a screen, waved off teammates, and went to work one-on-one; he extended his arms as if to brandish his tremendous wingspan, the great equalizer in professional basketball.
Here, against Slovenia earlier in the tournament, he makes the most of his length on a steal that leads to an alley-oop in transition:
And here, in the semifinal against Italy on Wednesday, the wonderment of Frank’s considerable physical gifts was on full display:
Ntilikina might still be growing into his body, but his assured motions say he knows exactly what it can do. On defense, his quick feet and even quicker hands make him difficult to drive past, and, off the ball, he can track his man through screens like a wraith. He projects the ability to defend three positions, leveraging his reach and lateral quickness, if not his strength in the future. Coupled with his already mature pick-and-roll instincts, Ntilikina’s profile checks off a lot of boxes for teams looking to migrate to wherever basketball is heading. Just off his demeanor on the court, he can make stunning plays look commonplace. Here, hurtling into the lane on a pick-and-roll, Ntilikina casually slips a no-look, one-handed drop pass with three defenders between him and his target:
His general lack of assertiveness and consistency on his outside shot have largely intertwined up to this point, but in both the quarterfinal and semifinal stages of the U18 European Championship, Ntilikina appeared to have reached a new gear. He was looking extremely confident with his 3-point shot, shooting 7-for-10 from long range in his last two games, both off the dribble and spotting up. His quick-draw pull-ups are encouraging; they suggest the on-ball dynamism he plays with today can translate to the next level. But maybe more intriguing is how he’s finding the range off the ball. Here’s a great look at Ntilikina in motion against Slovenia, making himself open by working his way around a couple of screens for a wide open corner 3.
On Wednesday, Ntilikina had about as impressive a game on both sides of the ball as you’re likely to see in an U18 tournament: 23 points on 8-of-11 shooting (going 4-for-4 from behind the arc), nine assists (to only one turnover), one block, and five steals in France’s 82–72 win over Italy in the semifinal round. There’s a lot to like about Ntilikina’s game. His poise on both ends of the floor belies the fact that he will likely be the youngest player in the 2017 draft. Scouts will want to see him more aggressively look to get himself involved in games, especially when Ntilikina, in both build and nascent skills, somewhat resembles Dante Exum, who has looked completely spooked in an NBA offense thus far in his career. If Fultz and Ball serve as the two ends of the 2017 point guard spectrum, Ntilikina comfortably slides somewhere in between. His talent is the real deal. And it’s hard not to love a player who celebrates a win like this:
… Just lay off the smoking gestures for at least the next four years, Frank.
5. Jayson Tatum
6. Jonathan Isaac
7. OG Anunoby
8. Dennis Smith Jr.
9. Lauri Markkanen
Kevin O’Connor: Here’s your Finnish Lesson of the Day: How to Pronounce Lauri Markkanen.
Lauri is pronounced Lowry (like Kyle Lowry) and Markkanen is pronounced Mark-Ken-En (like “marketing” if the G were silent). This is important information because, as a basketball fan, you’ll likely be reading, hearing, and saying the name quite a bit for the next 10-plus years since there’s a strong probability the Arizona freshman has a long, fruitful NBA career.
As for why that’s the case, Markkanen is a 19-year-old 7-footer who leads Arizona in minutes, points, rebounds, and, most importantly for scouts, 3-point attempts and 3-point percentage. Markkanen has hit 43.5 percent of his 3s through 13 games, and his proficiency from deep can’t just be chalked up to a sample size. He sank 41.7 percent of his 156 triples in over four years of FIBA and international play dating back to 2013 during his time with Finland’s U16 team. Markkanen has toted a flamethrower since he was a young teenager, and he’s only gotten better in college:
With sound mechanics, a feathery touch, and deep range, there’s little doubt Markkanen can at least have a career resembling Channing Frye or Ryan Anderson. But you and I already know those aren’t the comparisons a tall, white, shooting big man slated this high in the draft lottery will receive. In just the past few drafts, Kelly Olynyk was compared to Dirk Nowitzki (and wears the number 41), Frank Kaminsky compared himself to Dirk “because he’s a big white guy who shoots well from 3,” and Kristaps Porzingis was lucky enough to receive comparisons to Dirk and Pau Gasol.
Markkanen is next. In fact, it’s already happening. When asked about Dirk, Markkanen told SB Nation: “I’ve watched him a little bit, but not too much.” As for Porzingis, Markkanen said, “Some people talk about it, but I don’t think we’re that similar.” It’s true. Porzingis is better defensively; he’s 7-foot-3 with a much longer wingspan and he’s a better rebounder. Porzingis is more advanced defensively than scouts expected him to be at this stage of his career, and he’s proved in a short time that the sky’s the limit for him.
Markkanen’s defensive prospects aren’t as rosy. He has been shredded on defense thus far this season, though he’s not a total liability. His mobility on the perimeter is solid, but any defensive success he achieves will be due to timing and positioning, not pure length and athleticism. That makes Markkanen more like Dirk — who has never been known for defense — than Porzingis is, but that’s where the comparison will end. I’m not about to liken Markkanen to a future Hall of Famer; it’d be unfair (and quite frankly, sweeping comparisons are more or less useless). What can be said about Markkanen is that he does have skills that could separate him from the Frye or Anderson tier of stretch-shooting bigs.
Markkanen grew up playing soccer, which certainly played a role in him having smooth footwork for a 7-footer. He also played more wing than forward or center as a teen, and modeled his game after Kobe and Wade, not Dirk and Duncan. With that experience, Markkanen looks natural handling the rock, running pick-and-roll, and scoring off the dribble:
Markkanen has already found success attacking the paint in college, a skill that’ll only be enhanced when he’s playing in the NBA, where the paint is wide open due to the three-second violation rule and a deeper 3-point line. Give credit to Wildcats head coach Sean Miller for utilizing Markkanen in creative ways, because not all college coaches would be willing to expand their systems to accommodate a one-and-done superstar prospect.
Of course, at only 19, Markkanen has plenty to improve on. He looks far more comfortable dribbling left than right, so he’ll need to improve his right to be more unpredictable to defenders. He can also do a better job of finishing at the rim; though, with his touch, that should come in time. These knocks are only nitpicks; at this stage of his development he’s far ahead of the curve. Now the onus is on us to actually learn how to say his name.
10. Harry Giles
11. Malik Monk
Jonathan Tjarks: Kentucky freshman Malik Monk doesn’t do a lot of things on the basketball court, but the things he does do he does really well. He’s a great scorer who doesn’t do much else. A player who relies so heavily on his jumper can have wild swings in effectiveness, which we saw in his last two games against UNC and Louisville. After logging 47 points on 18-of-28 shooting (including 8-for-12 from 3) against the Tar Heels, Monk was largely kept in check against the Cardinals, finishing with 16 points on only 6-of-17 shooting. He’s not impacting the game when his shot isn’t falling; in those two games he combined for three rebounds, three assists, two steals, and five turnovers.
It’s a crazy swing in production, but Monk didn’t play all that differently in the two games. He took almost as many bad shots against UNC as he did against Louisville. They just happened to go in more often on Saturday. Louisville made a concerted effort to control tempo, as opposed to UNC, which wanted to run and gun with Kentucky. John Calipari’s team isn’t nearly as effective when forced to execute in the half-court, and it’s not a huge surprise that a team full of freshmen struggled in their first true road game of their college careers.
Monk is at his best in transition, when he can take advantage of his breathtaking athleticism and get to the rim. He can get from one end of the court to the other in a flash, and he’s always looking to push the ball:
What makes Monk such an intriguing prospect is his rare combination of elite athleticism and elite shooting, as well as the ability to get his own shot off the dribble. Not many big-time scorers are explosive and efficient, and Monk is averaging 21.4 points a game on 49 percent shooting this season, including 39.4 percent from 3 on more than eight 3-point attempts a game.
Like most great shooters, Monk is a wizard at moving off the ball, and a huge portion of the Kentucky offense consists of running him through a blizzard of screens until he gets a split-second opening to get his shot off:
The threat of the jumper makes Monk almost impossible to guard because he can (and will) raise up from anywhere on the floor to shoot, and Calipari gives him the green light to take shots that would get most players around the country benched. Even a 6-foot-8 defender like UNC’s Justin Jackson, a first-round prospect in his own right, can’t really affect Monk because all he can do is force him to take a contested fadeaway, which is exactly the shot Monk wants in this sequence:
What’s unclear with Monk is whether he is settling for bad shots or taking what the defense gives him. He rarely gets to the rim in the half-court, which is why he doesn’t take many free throws (2.6 attempts per game) and he isn’t much of a distributor (2.3 assists against 1.9 turnovers a game). When you are creating a bunch of off-the-dribble jumpers from 20-plus feet out, you aren’t putting a ton of pressure on the other four players on defense, even when they go in.
Part of the issue is that Monk is one of the only 3-point threats on the Kentucky roster. Only two other players in their rotation (Derek Willis and Mychal Mulder) shoot better than 28 percent from 3, and both have limited roles coming off the bench, so Monk almost never has any clear driving lanes to the basket. Take a look at how many defenders he attracts on this floater against UCLA. Opposing defenses don’t respect De’Aaron Fox or Isaiah Briscoe from the 3-point line, so it’s almost always easier for Monk to pull up than to take the ball into the teeth of the defense:
Given the importance of the 3-point shot in the NBA, it’s hard to see Monk not carving out a long career for himself at the next level. What makes projecting him tricky is his size. At 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds with a 6-foot-4 wingspan, Monk is built like an NBA point guard, even though he spends most of his time in college playing off the ball. In that sense, Fox, another freshman projected to go in the lottery, is his ideal backcourt partner, a player with the size and athleticism to match up with either guard position on defense while also being able to initiate the offense on the other end of the floor.
Monk doesn’t have to do much heavy lifting on defense at Kentucky. Fox usually guards the other team’s primary offensive option, Briscoe starts at small forward and matches up with the bigger wings on the opposing team, and Dominique Hawkins, who gets most of the minutes behind their three perimeter starters, is Kentucky’s defensive specialist. As a result, Monk spends most of his time on defense off the ball, and usually winds up on the least important offensive player. Just compare the number of times he is attacked on defense in comparison to the rest of Kentucky’s perimeter players. Hawkins averages 12 fewer minutes per game than Monk does, yet he has been in more one-on-one possessions on defense this season (all numbers from Synergy Sports):
A generation ago, Monk probably would have wound up as a sparkplug sixth man in the NBA, à la Lou Williams or Patty Mills. He’s a pure scorer who doesn’t have the playmaking ability to be a full-time point guard, and trying to make him a pass-first player would only diminish the strengths of his game. Playing off the ball would have been tricky for Monk at the NBA level: He doesn’t have the size to survive on defense against bigger wings. But that was then.
What has changed is the way NBA teams distribute skill sets throughout their starting lineup. Size no longer dictates positional responsibility, skill does. LeBron James has been a point guard in all but title for his entire career, while James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo have done away with the fiction entirely. They are being used as point guards, which means a point-guard-sized player they share a lineup with doesn’t necessarily have to be a classic distributor. In that situation, having an additional facilitator can actually hurt a team by taking the ball out of the best player’s hands. It’s more important for the team’s nominal point guard to be able to stretch the floor, attack closeouts, and be a secondary playmaker, which are the things Monk does well. Fox, for example, is a better all-around player than his Kentucky backcourt partner, but his inability to shoot the ball makes it much more difficult to put him in lineups with another ball-dominant player.
There obviously aren’t many players like Giannis, Harden, and LeBron in the NBA, but there are more of them every year. That’s exactly the type of player the 76ers envision Ben Simmons becoming, and Brett Brown has already called Simmons, nominally a 6-foot-10 combo forward, a point guard. Monk would be great playing off Simmons in Philadelphia, who have two lottery picks in this year’s draft (their own and the Lakers, which looks likely to be conveyed), or even someone like Kansas freshman Josh Jackson, a supersized wing with great passing ability who is projected to go in the top five. For as dominant a player as Monk can be at Kentucky, he’s more suited to being Robin than Batman once he gets to the NBA.