One effect of the NBA salary cap is that every team tries to exploit the low cost of rookie-scale contracts. Many young players wash out, but inexpensive contributors open cap space that teams can distribute elsewhere. The Warriors’ title squad had three rotation players still on rookie-scale contracts (Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, and Festus Ezeli), which helped them retain costly key pieces like Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut. The Cavs were able to clear enough cap space to bring LeBron James back in 2014 partially because they didn’t have to worry about their other star; Kyrie Irving had just finished the third year on his rookie deal. Dwyane Wade was on just the third year of his rookie contract when he won his first title in 2006.
The stacked 2017 draft class will inject new, cheap talent into the league. (Assuming the cost for rookies stays low; the new collective bargaining agreement could increase rookie-scale salaries. But one league executive told me that it’s unlikely rookie deals will take high priority in labor discussions.) The crop of point guards is especially loaded, with six first-year-draft-eligible prospects worthy of lottery consideration. They each come with a different configuration of skills. The order in which they’re drafted may come down to team philosophy and fit; the talent gaps among the six aren’t significant.
The influx of distributors is notable considering one understated reality of the market: the cost of starting point guards. The league’s last 25 champions had starting point guards with an average salary accounting for only 11.3 percent of that year’s cap. That’s the equivalent of $10.6 million (or, nearly, Austin Rivers’s 2016–17 salary) under this season’s enormous $94.1 million salary cap. Only two of the championship point guards have accounted for slightly over 20 percent of a cap (Tony Parker in 2014 and Irving in 2016), and only Parker was the highest-paid player on his team. Instead of splurging on star free-agent point guards, general managers of Finals winners have typically leaned on young 1s (Rajon Rondo, B.J. Armstrong, early-’00s Parker) or PGs on inexpensive deals (Derek Fisher, Mario Chalmers, Avery Johnson), paying the spared funds to stars at different positions and key role players.
This doesn’t mean teams are necessarily making a mistake by handing out max contracts to deserving elite point guards; the league’s immense talent at the position only raises its importance. But the talent overflow means it’s not hard to find a good PG. When Doc Rivers admits that having three max players on the payroll makes it hard to find complementary pieces, and when history suggests that a max-level point guard isn’t necessary for a title, you can’t help but wonder whether the Clippers would’ve been better off the past three years with a cheaper point guard and a chunk of cap space to use on role players, instead of Chris Paul at 30 percent of the cap. The Grizzlies could encounter the same issue after signing Mike Conley to a $30.5 million annual cap number, which could prohibit them from adding integral pieces at other positions.
The league is about to receive its biggest point-guard talent infusion since 2009, and that influx will force teams to deal with the convergence of two market realities (the low cost of rookies, and the historical going rate of championship point guards) this season. A team’s championship window could be cracked open just because of the ripple effect of landing a top-flight point guard in the 2017 draft. By filling a position that doesn’t require a high-cost player, teams that become free-agent destinations can spend on other areas of need, like shooting, rim protection, and defensive versatility — skills that are in high demand, but are generally fulfilled by positional groups that don’t have the same talent supply.
The Pelicans, for example, need to start making the right moves quickly before Anthony Davis hits free agency in 2020. Jrue Holiday is a robust pick-and-roll playmaker who has shown good chemistry with Davis. But the Pelicans should pause before overspending on their non-elite point guard when he’s a free agent in 2017, just as teams in similar situations — such as the Hawks (Dennis Schröder) and Pacers (Jeff Teague) — should think twice when it comes time to re-sign their incumbent playmakers; the alternative of drafting a higher-upside point guard and spending elsewhere could lead to a brighter future.
Here are brief scouting reports of six first-year-eligible point guard prospects with lottery potential in 2017:
Markelle Fultz, Washington
At 6-foot-4, Fultz is a big combo guard who has a long wingspan and a skill set accentuated by feel and fluidity. Versatility reigns supreme in the league, and Fultz has the mold to defend multiple positions. His foot speed, length, and frame all project favorably for him on defense. On the other end, Fultz shows an advanced grasp of the game, and can morph into a number of roles. He’s a force in transition, plays at his own tempo in the pick-and-roll, and has the shake to create space one-on-one. He also has excellent touch near the rim that could eventually translate outside as he develops his shot. If the draft were held today, Fultz would be the top prospect on my board. We published an in-depth breakdown of him last week that you can find below.
Dennis Smith Jr., NC State
There are some point guards who come along and you just know they’ll be good. Think Derrick Rose or John Wall. Smith falls right into that category. He isn’t quite as long as Rose or Wall, though, which puts him in the Steve Francis stratosphere (without the character concerns that plagued Francis). Smith boasts a blazing first step to zoom by defenders, and the explosiveness to put shot blockers on posters.
The best shooters repeat the same motion every time they shoot, but Smith has some inconsistencies with his mechanics that hurt his percentages. Like Rose and Wall when they were coming out of school, Smith needs to make strides as a shooter, but he’s already made progress and has natural touch. Once he irons out any existing issues, he could be awfully dangerous as a scorer in all situations.
Smith is a score-first guard, but he also shows an understanding of how to play with pace by changing speeds and utilizing advanced dribble moves. This manifests for him as a passer, since he can patiently run the pick-and-roll while looking for his teammates. If it weren’t for a torn left ACL that ended his senior season, Smith would be the most intoxicating prospect in this year’s class. Fortunately, he says he’s “110 percent” healthy and looks ready to lead NC State.
Frank Ntilikina, Strasbourg
Ntilikina is like the international version of Fultz. The native of France has a similar physical profile, good size (6-foot-5), and a long wingspan. He possesses less power as a leaper and isn’t quite as fast, which knocks him down a notch as a prospect. Still, Ntilikina’s excellent passing vision and natural pick-and-roll instincts make him a more appealing pure point prospect.
Ntilikina also has an edge on the defensive end. He combines Fultz’s size and versatility with Smith’s energy, making a potential lockdown defender. He weighed in at just 170 pounds earlier this year, though, so he’s years away from handling a full workload in the pros.
Lonzo Ball, UCLA
What Ball lacks in athleticism, he makes up for in feel. When he attacks, he uses crafty hesitation moves to weasel his way to the rim. At just 18, Ball has the passing vision you’d expect from an NBA veteran. He’s also as unselfish as a player can be: In the 2016 McDonald’s All American Game he had 13 assists without scoring a single point. Ball can hit every pass in the book with accuracy off the dribble, and projects as a young player whom teams can rely on early in his career. His size, at 6-foot-6, only enhances his ability, since he can make plays over the top of screens that smaller guards can’t.
The league’s best guards are usually capable of getting a bucket late in the clock by pulling up or attacking the rim. Ball could have issues with both in the half court. He doesn’t have a great burst and isn’t very explosive inside. His thin frame only aggravates those flaws. Point guards like Stephen Curry and Steve Nash have found success despite these natural athletic limitations, but they’ve made up for it by developing finishing moves at the rim that’d make a magician look twice. Ball isn’t at that stage yet.
As a shooter, Ball has one of the strangest releases you’ll ever see. He gathers his shot on the left side of his body and winds it back to the right. The sidespin of the ball is reminiscent of a Joakim Noah or Shawn Marion, and that’s not a good thing. Marion might’ve been a career 33.1 percent from 3, but as a point guard Ball will have the ball in his hands a lot, and it won’t be easy shooting off the bounce (or the catch) when it’s so easy for defenders to contest the shot. Ball does have soft touch, though, so if a coach revises his mechanics, he could theoretically develop into a plus shooter.
Malik Monk, Kentucky
De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky
Fox and Monk will share backcourt duties at Kentucky, with Fox stepping into Tyler Ulis’s pure point role and Monk filling in for Jamal Murray. Monk will play more off-ball in college, but at only 6-foot-3 with a 6-foot-6 wingspan, he’s an undersized 2-guard who projects as more of a score-first combo guard in the NBA. Gravity doesn’t exist for Monk; he’ll be one of the best athletes in the draft. But he’ll project as a less-talented but more-athletically-gifted version of Monta Ellis if he can’t become a more consistent perimeter shooter.
Fox is also small, with a frail 6-foot-4 frame, but he’s a headache-inducer on defense. Swiper the Fox forces turnovers by moving his feet intelligently and swiping at the ball with his lightning-quick hands. Offensively, Fox doesn’t stand out as a scorer, but he’s an unselfish distributor who can manufacture open looks for his teammates. If Fox makes strides creating for himself on offense, he’ll help his cause on draft night, but presently he is below most other guard prospects in this loaded class. Still, players with Fox’s defensive ability tend to stick in the NBA, even if they lack star scoring upside.