Roughly a month and a half separates us from the start of the 2016–17 NBA season, which means we’re roughly a month and a half out from being eight months away from the 2017 NBA draft, the most important sports event of the year. Look, it’s never too early to start thinking about the NBA prospects that will be infiltrating our dreams come June. We had our resident draftniks and basketball futurists weigh in on three of the most notable prospects in what promises to be a draft class worth tanking for.
Kevin O’Connor: One month before USA Basketball won gold at the Rio Olympics, Markelle Fultz led the U.S. Under-18 team to a championship of its own at the FIBA Americas tournament in Chile. Fultz, Washington’s incoming freshman point guard, was named tournament MVP, averaging 13.8 points and 5.2 assists with a 60.4 effective field goal percentage. Fultz is a top prospect in the 2017 NBA draft, which seemed unthinkable just a few years ago when he couldn’t even make DeMatha Catholic High School’s varsity team as a sophomore. The coaches knew he was good, but it wasn’t until Fultz’s three-inch growth spurt (to roughly 6-foot-4 in shoes) that his game blossomed.
Fultz chose Washington, he says, because of a desire to “blaze my own path.” But with the Huskies, he’ll join a long list of future NBA playmakers coached by Lorenzo Romar: Brandon Roy, Isaiah Thomas, Nate Robinson, Tony Wroten, and Dejounte Murray. You’re going to hear a lot of Fultz-Roy comparisons this year. Roy was a big guard with excellent feel, a smooth style, and sneaky athleticism, which happens to describe Fultz’s game well, too. Fultz has developed into a lead guard who can shape-shift into whatever his team needs: a commander, a scorer, or a floor spacer. He’s fast off the dribble and an explosive leaper, yet his movements are equally graceful. Playing at your own tempo can be better than being the fastest player on the floor, and that’s an axiom Fultz fully embodies. He can appear to be moving slowly, but he’s always in control. As a distributor, he has the creative handle to slide through tight cracks of the defense and the vision to make complex passes that turn into assists.
Fultz operates with the same comfort when he turns into a score-first guard. He can create his own shot against a set defense, but he’s even better snaking through screens in the pick-and-roll. It’s rare to see teenagers employ such complex moves to split ball screens, but Fultz makes it looks easy. When he gets to the rim, he will sometimes finish with almost Westbrookian force, but it looks even better when he’s adding vibrato to his layups off the glass.
Once his jumper develops, Fultz will be a perfect fit for teams that run a multiple-guard offense. He’s hit 12 of 34 3-pointers (35.2 percent) in competitions this calendar year (FIBA Americas U18, Nike Hoop Summit, Jordan Brand Classic, McDonald’s All American Game). When he has space to release, he displays the same touch he uses to score expressively near the rim. To take the next step in his development, he’ll need to keep extending his range while tightening his mechanics.
Versatile defenders have an edge in today’s switch-heavy game since they generally have the size to defend multiple positions. Fultz has a long 6-foot-9 wingspan he uses to envelop smaller guards, and a frame that’ll eventually be strong enough against larger 2-guards. But, like any young player, Fultz has room to grow. He tends to relax into an off-balance stance, leaving him prone to getting blown by when he can’t react to a sudden change of direction.
NBA teams fortunate enough to have a shot at Fultz will find he has a short list of weaknesses, all of which can be fixed. If he continues to progress, there’s a strong probability he’s the top point guard in his class, which is loaded at the position with five or six other point guards worthy of lottery consideration.
The Sixers have an elite prospect in Ben Simmons and T.J. McConnell is a summer league hero, but they do need a lead guard. That’s why the team pushed to swap Jahlil Okafor or Nerlens Noel for a top-five pick to use on Kris Dunn. Its trade proposals were rejected, but it might be for the best if Philadelphia lands Fultz next year. The Sixers need shooting, especially when Simmons runs point, and Fultz projects as a better off-ball shooter than Dunn, and as a superior overall prospect, as well.
The Pelicans and Knicks both have starting point guards (Jrue Holiday and Derrick Rose) set to hit free agency next summer, so they could be interested in Fultz as their long-term answer at the position. But both squads appear to be stuck in the middle, so they might not even get a chance. If they do end up tanking, or even winning the lottery, they should make Fultz a top target. I doubt we’ll ever witness a true resurgence from Rose, so the Knicks should start thinking of the future. Holiday is the Pelicans’ second-best player, but he’s had issues staying healthy, so he might not be the answer.
Darren Collison, Ty Lawson, and Isaiah Cousins are the Kings’ point guards this season. What more do you really need to know about their needs? Poor DeMarcus Cousins. Maybe 2017 will be the year the basketball gods bless the Kings with an orchestrator capable of helping Boogie lead the Kings back to the playoffs for the first time since 2006, when Mike Bibby and Ron Artest still ran Sactown.
Jonathan Tjarks: Every team in the NBA needs players like Josh Jackson. He’s 6-foot-8 and 203 pounds, and he’s the best athlete in one of the strongest high school classes in recent memory. Even at the McDonald’s All American Game in March, with future pros all over the floor, Jackson stood out. He was as fast as any of the point guards on either team and he had the size to bang with the power forwards. Check out his elevation on this windmill dunk at 0:33. He gets his head above the rim effortlessly:
Not many 6-foot-8 guys, at any level, can go dunk for dunk with Jackson. He has a rare combination of size and athleticism, and those types of players — LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard — are the gold standard in the modern NBA.
Coming into the McDonald’s All American Game, Jackson was neck and neck with Jayson Tatum for best wing player in this year’s freshman class. The two are a study in contrasts. Tatum is smooth and savvy, a teenager who plays like a 10-year NBA veteran and glides around the court. Jackson is raw and explosive, and raw explosiveness won the day. They started the game matched up against each other, and Jackson got right into Tatum’s dribble and hounded him all over the floor, forcing him to take tough shots. Tatum is a midrange killer, but he couldn’t create the same type of separation against Jackson that he could against most wings at the high school level.
Once Jackson gets to the NBA, though, athleticism won’t be enough. What you always have to ask about young players with his size and athleticism is how much they have polished their game. He can win purely on physical tools at his age, particularly because he is more than a year older than Tatum. To fully put Jackson’s age in perspective, he’s seven months older than Brandon Ingram. Playing against his peers in the NCAA last season would have challenged him a lot more than dominating younger players in high school.
Playing for Bill Self at Kansas will be a learning experience. Forget the up-and-down, free-flowing action of AAU basketball. Self’s teams play half court–oriented basketball around two traditional big men, and he has become notorious for burying elite high school recruits instead of showcasing their games to fans and scouts alike. Ask Cliff Alexander, Kelly Oubre, and Cheick Diallo. If Jackson isn’t feeding the post correctly, or he’s not running the right sets, or he’s taking plays off on defense, Self will have no problem taking him out.
One thing that bodes well for Jackson in his transition to the higher levels is his passing ability. He doesn’t put his head down and bully his way to the rim. He can read the floor and run the pick-and-roll, and he looks to make the extra pass when he gets into the lane. He averaged 6.3 assists a game as a high school senior, and he had a couple of nice passes at the McDonald’s game when he brought the ball up the floor himself and found guys on alley-oops.
The big concern about his game, like with so many über-athletic wings at his age, is his jumper. Jackson has lived at the rim ever since he picked up a basketball, so he hasn’t needed a reliable 3-point shot. He has a funky windup and he releases the ball directly in front of his face, so there will be questions about his mechanics until he proves he can consistently knock down 3s in college.
If his passing is a strength and his shooting is a weakness, his ballhandling is somewhere in the middle. While Jackson can get his shot off the dribble and knife through the lane, he can be loose with the ball. It’s something he will have to tighten up when he’s playing in the cramped confines of the Kansas offense. He will find it easier playing up a position as a small-ball 4, where he would be going up against bigger and slower defenders, but that’s not something Self does often.
No matter what position he plays, Jackson might face a player as big or just as fast as him just a few times all season at Kansas. It will be a nightly occurrence in the NBA. Right now, it doesn’t matter that he has a relatively pedestrian 6-foot-10 wingspan and he weighs only 200 pounds. When he’s going up against LeBron or Kawhi or Durant, it’s going to matter a lot. There’s no margin for error at the next level. He can’t have any glaring holes in his game if he’s going to live up to his expected draft position.
You can never have enough versatile wing players in today’s game, so it’s hard to see Jackson slipping far in the lottery. He could be part of an athletic wing tandem with Ben Simmons in Philadelphia, with Brandon Ingram in L.A., or with Jaylen Brown in Boston, or he could round out the young core in Phoenix or Denver as the final perimeter piece. How well he fits on those teams will depend on his shooting and how much he can polish his offensive game overall. Jackson has all the potential in the world. Now it’s just a matter of what he does with it.
Danny Chau: Harry Giles has torn the MCL and meniscus in his left knee, and he’s torn the ACL in both knees, all before turning 18. Had everything gone perfectly, he would have assuredly been the undisputed no. 1 player in the nation. Instead, after two catastrophic knee injuries — the most recent occurring 10 months ago, during the first minutes of his senior-season debut — Giles plummeted all the way to … no. 2, according to the cumulative rankings compiled by the Recruiting Services Consensus Index. ESPN, so enamored with Giles’s talent, kept him in the no. 1 position at the end of the season; a day after the tear was confirmed, Giles became the crown jewel of Duke’s outstanding 2016 recruiting class. Calamity keeps trying to get in the way, but Harry Giles might be too special, too Teflon, for any of her wicked stunts to change the trajectory of his career.
As is generally the case with top-flight big-man prospects, Giles’s physique is the gateway to his allure. Standing nearly 6-foot-11 and somewhere between 222 and 235 pounds, with a 7-foot-3 wingspan and a maximum standing reach an inch taller than Anthony Davis’s, Giles has the body to play either position on the front line. As much as any player over the past five seasons, Giles fills the archetype of what a star big man ought to look like in 2016. He’s the type of player the Mavericks could build around after Dirk Nowitzki’s grand departure, or the type of player the Hornets so desperately want, but have yet to strike gold on.
Yet, what stands out about Giles’s talents at first glance isn’t what you would normally associate with starpower. My introduction to Giles came during the semifinals of the 2014 FIBA U17 World Championship against Serbia, where he was a starter despite being one of the two youngest players on the squad. Giles’s first two baskets in the opening quarter came off of extended possessions on long offensive rebounds, both times reacting to the ball and rising up for a midrange jumper before his opponent could process where he was supposed to be. His instincts on the glass, particularly on the offensive end, are remarkable. Watching him work for boards is reminiscent of how Taj Gibson has made his living in the NBA — with timing, tenacity, and a superior second and third jump.
Before his latest injury, Giles proved that he could explode off his feet, but the most impressive aspect of his athleticism might be how comfortable he is moving laterally. At this stage in his development, Giles might actually be a better defender on the perimeter than he is closer to the basket. Giles switches screens beautifully, and ably defends all the way out to the 3-point line. He walls off drives, and in the U17 tournament, funneled perplexed slashers right into a wall made of Diamond Stone.
Teams can put him in unique situations knowing he has the agility to keep up anywhere on the court. During the second quarter of the Serbia game, U.S. head coach Don Showalter had the team running a 1–3–1 zone press to change things a bit. It’s fairly typical to see the small forward take the role of chasing the point guard. In this case, it was the 6-foot-10 Giles at the tip of the spear, completely engulfing 6-foot-5 Stefan Peno, Serbia’s starting point guard:
Giles gets called for a foul after getting a little too close once Peno crossed half court, but his lateral strides kept him in lockstep with the point guard and forced Peno to flail his way out.
In 2013, Giles would have told you he models his game after Kevin Durant, and he probably did. Fast-forward two years, and his pet move is something Durant didn’t fully incorporate into his arsenal until his seventh NBA season: a hook shot.
It isn’t picturesque — his release is a bit rigid, but he has more than enough touch on the ball to ease the landing. Hook shots fully leverage his length, quickness, and leaping ability in ways that his fledgling outside jumper doesn’t. He has surprising range on his hooks, too — he’s had success in the past getting into the body of a defender and tossing up a running hook from the free throw line extended. Giles’s offensive game might seem a bit old-fashioned, but there are glimpses of a creative mind who just needs more reps. Take a look at this pretty, off-hand shuffle pass to Stone as he spins out of the post, coasting into the baseline:
Giles will have to extend his range if he wants to become one of the NBA’s multipurpose darlings, but he’s laid a solid foundation for himself, not unlike Karl-Anthony Towns before him. Towns spent a majority of his time at Kentucky down on the blocks, overwhelming his defenders with hook shots and drop steps; part of the revelation with Towns in the NBA is the array of skills he is showcasing outside of what he demonstrated in Lexington.
That’s the kind of promise Giles holds, though I suppose it comes with the biggest possible caveat. Giles is still only 18, and it’s better to have major injuries at a time when the body still has the bandwidth to replenish itself, but it’s even better to have never had two major knee injuries in the first place. The most striking parallel might be Quincy Miller, a 2011 top-five recruit who tore his ACL in his fifth game as a high school senior, and didn’t regain his explosiveness quick enough in his one season at Baylor. Giles is much further along in his development, both in skill and physique, than Miller was at the same age, and by all accounts, there doesn’t appear to be much pessimism regarding Giles’s future. Still, it’s been nearly a year since Giles has played competitive basketball. No one knows how his season at Duke will play out, but Giles has been fated as the Next One for years now, and deservingly so. Lightning isn’t cruel enough to strike thrice, is it?