Welcome to The Ringer’s 2017 NBA Draft Lottery Big Board, a consensus of the top-14 prospects in the draft as determined by our three resident NBA draftniks: Jonathan Tjarks, Kevin O’Connor, and Danny Chau. Every once in a while, 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 NC State’s explosive point guard dynamo, Michigan State’s latest super-tweener, and the confounding state of Duke’s Harry Giles.
1. Markelle Fultz
Point guard, Washington, freshman (6-foot-4, 195 pounds)
2. Dennis Smith Jr.
Point guard, NC State, freshman (6-foot-3, 195 pounds)
Tjarks: It’s difficult to evaluate NC State freshman Dennis Smith Jr. because he’s so much more athletic than just about everyone he faces at the college level. Most college guards have no chance of staying in front of him, and most college big men can’t prevent him from setting up camp at the front of the rim. At 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds with a 6-foot-3 wingspan, Smith combines the broad shoulders of a football player with the burst and explosion of a high-end sports car.
In a 104–78 victory over Virginia Tech on January 4, Smith had 27 points (on 9-of-16 shooting), 11 rebounds, 11 assists, and 5 steals, and he spent most of the game in the lane. Not many point guards at any level of the sport can throw an alley-oop to themselves off the backboard in traffic a la Tracy McGrady, but Smith did so comfortably:
Smith is going to be an elite athlete at his position even when he gets to the NBA. He reportedly has a vertical leap upward of 40 inches. He may not be quite as explosive as guys like John Wall, Russell Westbrook, and Eric Bledsoe, but he’s also still recovering from tearing his ACL before the start of his senior season of high school. Either way, he will at least be in the discussion. He gets off the ground so quickly that it often surprises opponents; players who try to loft passes over Smith’s head find out they don’t have much time before he’s airborne. From there, once he gets in the open court, it’s over:
Smith’s athleticism translates to almost every aspect of the game. He comes up with more steals and gets to the line more often than any of his fellow one-and-done point guards. Only Lonzo Ball and De’Aaron Fox shoot a higher percentage at the rim than Smith, and Ball’s gaudy percentages are helped by the fact that he takes four fewer shots a game due to the much smaller scoring load he carries in the UCLA offense.
Smith has to do just about everything for an NC State team that doesn’t have many other players who can create their own shot. He has a usage percentage of 28 this season, and no one else in the Wolfpack’s regular rotation has one higher than 22. For the most part, Smith has done a good job of balancing looking for his own offense and getting everyone else involved, averaging 18.8 points and 6.2 assists a game on 46 percent shooting. Defenses have to sell out in order to stop him, which creates a lot of openings for his supporting cast, and he is patient enough to find them.
The big question for Smith, like for most über-athletic point guards at the college level, is what happens if opposing teams can keep him out of the lane. We got our first answer in NC State’s 107–56 loss to UNC on Sunday. Joel Berry II hounded Smith all over the floor, while the Tar Heels’ waves of athletic, NBA-caliber big men walled off the paint. Smith finished with 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting, and he had more turnovers (six) than assists (five).
UNC came into the game with a plan: The Heels were willing to live with Smith shooting off the dribble. He wasn’t able to make them pay. He went 2-of-6 from 3, and he was 0-for-3 on step-back jumpers, continuing what has become a trend for him in ACC play. According to the Raleigh News & Observer’s Joe Giglio, Smith went 1-for-11 on step-back jumpers in NC State’s games against Miami, Virginia Tech, and UNC. The really concerning part isn’t the misses. It’s how badly he is missing them:
His streaky outside shooting wasn’t as big a deal against Miami and Tech because he was able to get to the rim so easily. He shot 23 free throws in those two games, compared with only one against UNC. To be sure, there were some extenuating circumstances. The game was originally supposed to be played on Saturday night, before being postponed due to icy weather in the Chapel Hill area, and the entire NC State team seemed to be in a daze the following afternoon. Smith picked up three fouls in the first half, effectively ending the game before it ever really had a chance to begin.
You never want to take too much away from any one game, but how Smith fares against NCAA teams loaded with NBA-level athletes on the floor is more indicative of how he will play at the next level. We already know Smith can overwhelm college teams at the rim. What we want to find out is how well he can do if he’s forced to operate on the perimeter.
For as gifted as he is physically, Smith does have an Achilles’ heel. In comparison to Wall (6-foot-9.25 wingspan), Westbrook (6-foot-7.75) and Bledsoe (6-foot-7.5), all of whom have Inspector Gadget–type arms that allow them to play much bigger than their size, Smith has a below-average reach (6-foot-3) that would put him in the bottom 10th percentile of starting PGs in the NBA. The lack of length hasn’t prevented players like Isaiah Thomas and Kemba Walker from becoming stars, but that’s because they are lights-out shooters who can score at will 20–27 feet from the basket. Kemba’s huge leap over the past two years has coincided with him becoming a much better 3-point shooter, as he’s gone from shooting 30.5 percent from 3 as a rookie to 42.1 percent from 3 this season.
Smith has been a pretty good shooter at NC State, shooting 73.9 percent from the free throw line and 37.7 percent from the 3-point line on 4.5 attempts per game. However, that’s still a pretty small sample size for a guy who wasn’t known as a great shooter in AAU ball, and it’s something NBA scouts will be monitoring very closely over the next two months. Because of his size and speed, Smith will always be able to dribble into jumpers. It’s just a matter of how many of them will he make.
There’s nothing noticeably wrong with his shooting form, and he’s far ahead of guys like Fox, who is going to have to totally rebuild his shot in the NBA. However, because Smith has spent most of his life getting to the rim, he hasn’t needed to practice and refine his jumper to the same extent as some of his smaller and less athletic peers. So while it’s fun to watch him dunk on people at NC State, don’t let the highlights distract you from the most important aspect of his game. The only thing you need to watch with Dennis Smith Jr. is his jumper.
3. Lonzo Ball
Point guard, UCLA, freshman (6-foot-6, 190 pounds)
From Tjarks in December:
4. Jayson Tatum
Forward, Duke, freshman (6-foot-8, 204 pounds)
5. Josh Jackson
Forward, Kansas, freshman (6-foot-8, 203 pounds)
From Tjarks on January 3:
6. Jonathan Isaac
Forward, Florida State, freshman (6-foot-11, 205 pounds)
From Tjarks in December:
7. OG Anunoby
Forward, Indiana, sophomore (6-foot-8, 235 pounds)
From Tjarks in November:
8. Frank Ntilikina
Point guard, Strasbourg (6-foot-5, 170 pounds)
9. Lauri Markkanen
Forward/center, Arizona, freshman (7-foot, 225 pounds)
10. Miles Bridges
Forward, Michigan State, freshman (6-foot-7, 230 pounds)
Chau: It’s normal to feel a familiar twinge of cognitive dissonance watching Miles Bridges play. It’s a brand of dissonance that Tom Izzo and Michigan State almost seem to have finely crafted in recent years. Their stars take uncommon abilities and house them within even more unconventional frames. But the unconventionality of it all poses a problem: We view Spartans stars through the lens of what they don’t have instead of what they do. It’s not that Draymond Green and Denzel Valentine were all that similar as players, but we saw two below-average athletes in between positions serving as de-facto point guards; everything else about their games was secondary in this convenient comparison. Bridges is not Green, and he is certainly not Valentine; at 6-foot-7 and 230 pounds, he has roughly similar dimensions, though that is being awfully charitable to Draymond and Denzel. Bridges is chiseled, not doughy, and he isn’t only not a below-average athlete, he’s a remarkable one. Still, he follows the narrative of his predecessors: He’s made the most of the body he was given, but there are worries that it still might not be enough for him to make a seamless transition to the NBA.
To add to the confusion, because positional labels appear to mean both more and less in college than they do in the NBA, Bridges is considered a “guard” by Michigan State. In practice, and from any other perspective, Bridges is a classic tweener forward. But, sure, let’s roll with the idea of him being a guard. Bridges averages eight rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game, a testament to his bull-like frame and athleticism. According to Sports-Reference, there are only three college guards since the 1993–94 season to average more blocks per game than Bridges, and there’s a strong argument that none of those players are or were guards, either. OK, so we’ve established what Bridges isn’t. So, what is he?
That’s where things get interesting. There has never been a better time in the NBA to be considered a tweener, across all positions, and Bridges might just represent a tipping point where comparing prospects to an archetypal ideal of a position becomes a less significant factor in draft scouting. There is at least one YouTube highlight reel that compares him to Charles Barkley in the video title — and you know, for all that he gets wrong about today’s game, Chuck probably would have crushed it in this era.
Indeed, Bridges is at his best running north-south with a full head of steam, fully leveraging his athletic gifts. He’s not the craftiest ball handler, but that’s not necessarily an issue if you’re not trying to be elusive. Here, against Duke, Bridges takes the ball coast to coast and wills the ball into the hoop despite a great contest from the defense:
It can be hard to overlook the one physical shortcoming that seems to loom over everything: his average wingspan. He plays much bigger than he is, but how much longer will that be the case? It’s not hard to imagine him as an effective pick-and-roll defender with his mobility on the perimeter and the strength to hold his ground against almost anyone. But with a wingspan below 6-foot-9, he likely won’t have the same success he’s had at the college level as a rim protector.
It’s not the best one-to-one comparison, but Justise Winslow is a player teams might look at as an encouraging precedent for Bridges’s future prospects. Like Winslow, Bridges has shown precocious leadership skills, and his willingness to fall in line speak volumes as to how he’s handled the college game, and how he might translate to the NBA. Bridges can often be seen communicating orders on offense, and for a player who is essentially of 2-guard height, he has no problems setting screens for teammates. Bridges may be the team’s leading scorer on a per-game basis, but he’s also the team’s best decoy. Because defenses always have to be aware of his scoring ability, his screens often lead to easy opportunities like this:
The Spartans don’t have any one primary facilitator at the point guard position, and so Bridges on occasion is expected to create for himself and others. While he doesn’t bear the load that Valentine and Green did before him, he does have excellent court vision, and on occasion will flash some panache to his passing:
It’s more of a mixed bag when Bridges is put in isolation situations, though. While he has a full array of jukes and spins, they aren’t always put to effective use, and he never quite generates as much space with them as he’d probably like to; his forays toward the basket can sometimes lead to wild attempts when he isn’t able to get around his man. It’s largely a matter of learning how to be patient and how to take advantage of his strength; he looks comfortable driving right, and has excellent touch on short-range shots with his off hand. Like other undersized power players, he’s discovered the baseline as his new best friend on offense, where he can remain somewhat hidden on a play behind the trees, and use his athleticism to explode up over and/or around taller defenders.
Bridges is shooting 37 percent from the college 3-point line on just over four attempts per game, and it would be a boon for his stock if those numbers hold up. There is a bit of a protracted dip in his stroke before the ball is released, so his jumper often looks better when he has time to set up than it does off the dribble. A legitimate perimeter game would seriously open up a world of possibilities with Bridges, but currently, his shot still produces some ugly misses, and his poor free throw percentages suggest we’re looking at a mirage.
We’re not looking at the next Draymond, but Bridges’s unique package of strength and skill is ripe for experimentation at the NBA level. Here’s hoping he finds the right home.
11. Harry Giles
Forward/center, Duke, freshman (6-foot-10, 240 pounds)
O’Connor: In high school, Giles resembled a new-age center who could pass and handle, and defend all areas of the floor like he was in the Night’s Watch. The consensus no. 2 recruit lacked a reliable perimeter jumper, but with natural touch and an elite work ethic, progress seemed inevitable.
That’s video of Giles during the 2015 FIBA Under-19 World Championship, where he averaged 14 points and 10.6 rebounds in 21 minutes per game and won his third gold medal playing for Team USA. The tournament took place nearly two years after Giles tore the ACL, MCL, and meniscus in his left knee playing for USA Basketball in Uruguay in 2013. Giles recovered and looked every bit as dynamic as he was prior to his first major injury. Then, in the first game of his senior year in November 2015, Giles tore the ACL in his right knee and missed the rest of the season. Nearly one year after that, mere weeks before Duke’s season opener, Giles underwent another surgery, a left knee arthroscopy.
It’s important to understand who Giles was as a player, because if your frame of reference stretches only as far as his last month of play, you’d be wondering why he’s even on this list. Since returning to the floor in mid-December, Giles hasn’t looked like himself. The lateral quickness that once made him a lockdown perimeter defender is diminished.
Giles was never a trampoline jumper like Blake Griffin, but throwing down open dunks was never an issue. Lately, it has been.
On these dunk attempts and the foul clip above, Giles’s lack of lateral and vertical explosiveness is apparent. His game never used athleticism as a crutch, but it certainly played a big role. His hypermobility was what smoothed over a lot of his wrinkles and made him an effective defender. He didn’t protect the rim by blocking shots as much as he did by being in the perfect position and neutralizing threats from even penetrating the lane. No amount of injuries will sap Giles of his advanced basketball IQ, which still manifests for him as an elite rebounder, but if the body can’t keep up with the mind, then he’s going to have difficulties like he has through six games with the Blue Devils.
Obviously, any player who returns from injury will have rust. The difficulty is figuring out if his multiple knee surgeries have degraded his body (and therefore his projectable skill), or he’s simply working his way back into basketball shape.
But that doesn’t touch on the greater issue. Even if Giles returns to form, leads Duke all the way back to the title game, and in the final seconds throws down a game-winning, buzzer-beating, putback dunk that’s played on March Madness highlight reels forever, it doesn’t change the fact that his injury history is troubling enough to cause serious concern about his future. If you’re a team with a mid-lottery pick, would you really want to take a risk on Giles when a floor-spacing big man like Lauri Markkanen or a two-way point guard like Frank Ntilikina could be on the board? Does Giles have that much more upside than the rest of the lottery field anyway? And if he does, is it enough of a difference to make up for his injury concerns?
NBA teams will have access to his medical reports soon enough, but then come the philosophical basketball questions that each lottery-bound franchise will need to think about and debate. But as of now, teams that use a high draft pick on Giles are doing so not for what he is today, but on what he was and could someday become again.
12. Malik Monk
Guard, Kentucky, freshman (6-foot-4, 185 pounds)
13. De’Aaron Fox
Point guard, Kentucky, freshman (6-foot-4, 171 pounds)
From O’Connor in September:
14. Justin Patton
Center, Creighton, freshman (7-foot, 230 pounds)
O’Connor: Only 25 of the 154 lottery picks since 2006 were players who landed outside the top 50 high school rankings when they entered college (according to DraftExpress’s Recruiting Services Consensus Index data), a list that includes players ranging from Russell Westbrook to Hasheem Thabeet. Very few of these unheralded high schoolers turn into college one-and-dones, but some — like Marquese Chriss and Zach LaVine — need just a lone season to vault from unknown to beloved.
Creighton redshirt freshman center Justin Patton could soon join that list if he declares for the 2017 NBA draft. Patton was the 74th-ranked high school prospect in the nation and upon joining the Bluejays, both parties mutually agreed that redshirting was the best decision for his future, considering he was a 7-footer who needed to get stronger than his 207-pound frame would allow. He’s gained 25 pounds since, enhancing his power to go with his nimble quickness and explosive leaping ability.
The hard work in the weight room has translated onto the court, where Patton is averaging 14 points on a 76.4 effective field goal percentage, while rebounding 19 percent of available opponent misses and blocking 6.2 percent of shots. Patton’s efficiency makes him an advanced stats darling: He posts a box plus/minus of 13, per Sports-Reference, which leads all college freshmen who have logged at least 250 minutes and puts him in the same stratosphere as Joel Embiid, Cody Zeller, and Steven Adams. The Omaha native has juicy numbers, but the video is even better:
With soft, natural touch and improvable mechanics, it’s possible that Patton could develop into a modern-day shooting big, but it’d take tweaks to his form to reach that level. While Patton’s made five of his nine 3-pointers, he’s also hitting just 47.7 percent of his free throws. Nevertheless, NBA teams will salivate over Patton’s scoring ability near the rim. When he’s not throwing down dunks, he’s capable of scoring ambidextrously on layups and jump hooks, which is often an overlooked skill when evaluating big men. Patton’s wingspan is reportedly 7-foot-1, a subpar number for a center of his size, but he does a good job of moving his feet to keep in front of the opponent. At 230 pounds, Patton still needs to put on a lot of muscle, so he’s prone to getting overpowered when boxing out or defending post-ups, but that’s true for most teenagers.
Patton is still ranked outside of the top 30 on DraftExpress and ESPN, while CBS Sports has him unranked, but it won’t be long before Patton starts gaining traction as a potential lottery pick. Creighton is 16–1, the eighth-ranked team in the nation, and Patton is its most promising prospect.