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 Arizona sharpshooter Lauri Markkanen; Kentucky’s elusive facilitator, De’Aaron Fox; and the latest newcomer in Texas A&M’s Robert Williams.
Note: OG Anunoby has fallen off our Big Board after news of his season-ending knee surgery last week. Without an indication of whether he would declare himself draft-eligible or return for another season at Indiana, we thought it’d be fairer to leave him out of the top 14 until his intentions are clearer. He was our seventh-ranked prospect in Version 2.0 of the Big Board.
1. Markelle Fultz
Point guard, Washington, freshman (6-foot-4, 195 pounds)
(Last ranked: 1)
2. Lonzo Ball
Point guard, UCLA, freshman (6-foot-6, 190 pounds)
(Last ranked: 3)
From Tjarks in December:
3. Dennis Smith Jr.
Point guard, NC State, freshman (6-foot-3, 195 pounds)
(Last ranked: 2)
4. Jonathan Isaac
Forward, Florida State, freshman (6-foot-10, 210 pounds)
(Last ranked: 6)
From Tjarks in December:
5. Josh Jackson
Forward, Kansas, freshman (6-foot-8, 207 pounds)
(Last ranked: 5)
From Tjarks on January 3:
6. Lauri Markkanen
Forward/center, Arizona, freshman (7-foot, 230 pounds)
(Last ranked: 9)
Tjarks: Markkanen faced one of his biggest tests of the season last week in a Los Angeles double-header against USC and UCLA, two of the top teams in the Pac-12. They were big games for Arizona, and for him, as both schools feature an NBA prospect at power forward: sophomore Chimezie Metu at USC and freshman TJ Leaf at UCLA. Markkanen, a 19-year-old from Finland, has been one of the most impressive offensive players in college basketball. It’s his defense that concerns NBA scouts.
At 7 feet tall and 230 pounds, Markkanen has an unusual combination of size and shooting ability that draws inevitable (if unfair) comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki. Arizona mostly plays him in Twin Towers lineups with fellow European 7-footer Dusan Ristic, making the Wildcats significantly bigger than most NBA teams, let alone the college teams they face. Markkanen is going to have to show the ability to guard smaller, more athletic players on the perimeter at the next level, and going against the Trojans and Bruins was as good an opportunity as any to see how he might fare.
It was a mixed bag. Markkanen was able to use his size to frustrate Metu and Leaf at times, but he also struggled with their quickness. On the surface, he performed well defensively, holding Metu to 11 points on 4-of-13 shooting and Leaf to 12 points on 5-of-10 shooting. Neither player had the skill set to fully take advantage of Markkanen on defense, but they both attacked him in ways that more talented players could exploit on the next level.
Metu is very athletic for a player at 6-foot-11 and 225 pounds. He’s developing a perimeter jumper, but he’s still fairly raw offensively. He was at his best against Markkanen when he used his quickness to attack the Arizona 7-footer off the dribble, which he did on the very first play of the game.
Markkanen responded by playing farther off Metu and letting him fire away from the perimeter. Metu couldn’t make enough shots to punish Markkanen for giving him the extra space, neutralizing his advantage in quickness. However, he was able to crash the boards against Markkanen and Ristic, and plays like this have to concern NBA evaluators. Markkanen had better be diligent about boxing his man out at the next level, because he’s not going to win a lot of jump balls:
Leaf, who is listed at 6-foot-10 and 225 pounds, is more of a pure perimeter player than Metu. He shoots 48.8 percent from 3 on two attempts a game, and UCLA uses him in a role similar to Markannen, spacing the floor for another 7-footer at center. Markannen had trouble tracking Leaf around the perimeter, as UCLA ran its freshman around a lot of screens to get him open:
Markkanen tried the same general defensive strategy against Leaf that he used against Metu, repeatedly backing up when Leaf was dribbling and hoping his size would still allow him to contest his shot despite giving up several feet of cushion. Even then, he still struggled at times to keep Leaf in front of him. If Leaf had been able to consistently knock down off-the-dribble jumpers, he would have had a field day against Markkanen. It wasn’t an issue on Saturday, but there is no shortage of NBA players who can shoot well in motion, and it’s fair to wonder how he’ll be able to respond.
No matter how bad he is at defense, though, Markkanen’s offense is going to make him very valuable as a pro. Few big men have ever been as prolific from distance as Markkanen in college. He boasts an absurd 67.6 true shooting percentage, which is particularly notable considering 45.3 percent of his attempts come from 3. He seemingly never misses open shots, and he has an incredibly quick release that means he doesn’t need much (if any) space to feel comfortable taking the jumper. Look at his shooting numbers in comparison to Channing Frye, Kevin Love, and Ryan Anderson when they were in their final seasons in school:
A big man who shoots as well as Markkanen can’t be left open at the 3-point line, which creates massive driving lanes for his guards. Watch how closely UCLA center Thomas Welsh hugs Markkanen on this pick-and-roll, and how it leaves the paint wide open for Arizona guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright. NBA guards are going to make a killing playing with Markkanen, and points will be almost automatic when he’s involved in the pick-and-roll.
The team that drafts Markkanen could just live with his poor mobility on defense, like the Cavs do with Love and the Rockets do with Anderson, but Markkanen is much bigger than either of those two. If he can’t stay in front of smaller players, one solution is to slide him up a position from where he’s playing at Arizona and have him guard bigger players at center. He’s not much of a rim protector, averaging 0.5 blocks a game, but a team that plays such an elite shooter at the 5 might score so many points that it doesn’t matter.
At the very least, like Frye, Markkanen will likely slide between both interior positions in the NBA. If he can be even decent defensively, he’s going to be an incredible weapon. It’s just a matter of finding the best place to hide him.
7. Malik Monk
Guard, Kentucky, freshman (6-foot-3, 200 pounds)
(Last ranked: 12)
(Editor’s note: You’ll notice the huge jump here. We’ll have another Monk update soon enough, but the ease with which he is scoring is becoming impossible to ignore.)
8. Jayson Tatum
Forward, Duke, freshman (6-foot-8, 205 pounds)
(Last ranked: 4)
From Tjarks on January 18:
9. Frank Ntilikina
Point guard, Strasbourg (6-foot-5, 170 pounds)
(Last ranked: 8)
10. De’Aaron Fox
Point guard, Kentucky, freshman (6-foot-3, 187 pounds)
(Last ranked: 13)
Kevin O’Connor: Fox is electric with the ball in his hands, seemingly operating at a different gear than anyone else on the floor. It’s like watching Usain Bolt race against a college track team.
If you were distracted the first time, please take a second to rewatch the gorgeous finish at the rim. The way he hangs in the air showcases his body control, and the creative finish bodes well for his ability to score against long rim protectors. At just 19, Fox also has soft touch on floaters and layups, and he knows how to use angles off the background.
Fox is a visually stimulating prospect, but he complements flash with substance as a lead guard capable of firing laser passes to his teammates and defending with intensity and activity both on and off the ball. With such a well-rounded skill set, there’s little doubt Fox will carve out a successful NBA career. But to what degree? His floor is lower than one might hope and his ceiling might not be any higher than other lottery-projected point guards.
As intoxicating as Fox is, he’s a poor shooter and a questionable decision-maker, and his twig frame may hinder some of his most promising traits in the NBA. As the draft approaches, you’re going to hear this sentence a lot: Just imagine how great Fox could be if he could shoot. These were some of the same things said about recent lottery picks Elfrid Payton, Dante Exum, and Michael Carter-Williams. Payton is in the middle of the most successful run of his career, in large part due to the progress of his jumper, but prior to this stretch his production was spotty at best. Exum’s torn ACL in 2015 set back his development, but he hasn’t looked very promising before or after the injury. Carter-Williams is plastered to the bench behind Washed-up Rajon Rondo. They’ve all shown flashes and they’re all still very young, but they’ve also shown serious warts that may prevent them from being anything more than role players.
The common denominator among these players is the lack of a reliable jumper, which becomes a liability when they’re off the ball, and limits their dynamic driving ability because teams will sink below screens to protect the paint. Fox is shooting 17.9 percent on 3-point attempts and 34.1 percent on 2-point jumpers, per Hoop-Math. These are exceedingly poor numbers, especially in the NBA, where point guards are frequently required to play off-ball in systems that use multiple ball handlers.
Fox’s lack of confidence in his jump shot is especially pronounced when compared with his peers: He attempts only 2.7 3-pointers per 40 minutes, compared to 5.2 for Markelle Fultz, 6.3 for Lonzo Ball, 5.7 for Dennis Smith Jr., and 4.8 for Frank Ntilikina.
Since 2010, the only first-round point guards to average fewer than four 3s per 40 minutes with a 3-point percentage below 30 in their final collegiate seasons are Carter-Williams, Payton, Tony Wroten, and Archie Goodwin. Those players are shooting a combined 25.2 percent from 3 over their careers.
So it’s a concern that Fox often appears reluctant to even attempt 3s, instead preferring to drive into dribble pull-ups from midrange. That’s a habit he’ll need to break, no matter what system he’s part of.
Point guards can be successful without a jumper if they’re elite in another category. Fox’s best skill is his speed, but his decision-making isn’t on Ricky Rubio’s level, his defensive versatility isn’t on Marcus Smart’s level, and his slender frame puts him in that risky Dennis Schröder–Dejounte Murray category of prospects. Schröder so far is a success story, and Murray’s is just beginning: He was a projected lottery pick who went free-falling all the way to the Spurs with the 29th pick. Murray has looked terrific when given opportunities, but he’s also playing for San Antonio, which routinely turns water into wine. It’s a surprise when their picks don’t work out. If Kawhi Leonard played for any team other than the Spurs, he wouldn’t have had access to Chip Engelland’s tutelage. And without that, it’s plausible he wouldn’t have fixed his jumper. And without that, it’s probable that he wouldn’t have turned into the superstar he is today.
Unless Fox plummets on draft night like Murray, the chances of the Spurs selecting him are slim. There are few shooting coaches on the planet who come close to Engelland’s level. Here’s the funny thing, though: I bet the Spurs look at Fox and think he has an improvable shot. He shoots a solid 71.1 percent from the free throw line and with terrific touch at the rim and on floaters. And given the right mentorship, that touch should be translatable to the perimeter. If you happened to watch only Fox’s makes from outside, you’d think he were a natural shooter. There is nothing egregious about his stroke.
There’s a big difference between looking good and being good, though. The numbers don’t lie; Fox has never been a plus shooter. There’s something wrong with his jumper that’s difficult to assess without standing next to him in a gym. Maybe it’s simple. Maybe his lack of strength limits his range. Or maybe it’s his finger/hand placement on the ball. It’s just as likely that the issue is biomechanical, something that can’t be detected by the untrained eye.
These are the variables that make scouting so difficult. It’s possible Fox quickly fixes his jumper and turns into a steal, but it’s also possible that in a few years we’re saying what we are now: Just imagine how great Fox would be if he could shoot.
11. Miles Bridges
Forward, Michigan State, freshman (6-foot-7, 230 pounds)
(Last ranked: 10)
12. Harry Giles
Forward/center, Duke, freshman (6-foot-10, 240 pounds)
(Last ranked: 11)
13. Justin Patton
Center, Creighton, freshman (7-foot, 230 pounds)
(Last ranked: 14)
14. Robert Williams
Forward/center, Texas A&M, freshman (6-foot-9, 237 pounds)
Chau: Like Patton in the Big Board 2.0, Williams lands in the final spot of our top 14 as the rare freshman who has a strong chance of being drafted in the lottery despite being outside of the Recruiting Services Consensus Index’s top-50 recruits of 2016. Williams is one of the more intriguing projects in the late-lotto tier, a 6-foot-9, 237-pound big with gliding athleticism and feathery touch around the rim. With a wingspan last reported at 7-foot-4, Williams has the functional length of a player much taller than he is, while maintaining the coordination and lateral mobility of a typical combo forward. He’s raw, and lack of polish is made evident the second you watch him run around the court, but there are instances when his raw tools catch up with his instincts, and the shape of an excellent modern NBA defender begins to take form.
The amount of ground Williams can cover is staggering, and it helps that he has quick reflexes.
While his end-to-end agility is not anything extraordinary, Williams’s recovery speed in short distances and his vertical leap (allegedly in the 40-plus-inch range) is extremely impressive for a player his size. Switching on screens is close to becoming a requisite skill for big men, and for his awkward gait and bouts of inattentiveness on defense, Williams has shown the ability to seal off penetration from guards much smaller than he is and play out on the perimeter without much discomfort. Then there are plays that make you wonder just how good Williams can become.
Above, UCLA big man Ike Anigbogu finds himself in perfect position for a wide-open, uncontested dunk after Bryce Alford draws the eyes of the entire A&M defense. But as Anigbogu gathers himself to go up for a dunk, Williams already has a few steps planted, taking him from the free throw line to the restricted area. He takes off a beat quicker than Anigbogu, and actually splits three of his fellow Aggies defenders in midair to spike the attempt before it even has a chance to see the rim. It happens so quickly, Williams’s teammate Eric Vila, the actual helpside defender, is still going up for the block as the ball is being swatted out of bounds.
Williams is averaging 2.4 blocks per game and has a block percentage of 11.4, which is the 10th-highest figure in the country among players who average at least 20 minutes per game. Squint and you’ll see flashes of a Larry Sandersesque player. But even when he isn’t in ideal position for a chasedown block, players on the run have to account for his length. Below, on what should have been an easy Lonzo Ball layup, Williams catches up just enough to take a quick swipe at the ball, forcing Lonzo to compromise his attempt off the glass. Then, on the other end, he gets an easy tip shot on a lob play simply by jumping with his arms raised high. Oh, the wonders of having arms that stretch beyond the length of a king-size bed.
Williams is averaging 11.1 points (on 60.7 percent shooting), 6.7 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks in 22.4 minutes a game. Aggies coach Billy Kennedy was intent on easing Williams along, even as he was posting outstanding numbers off the bench. He finally relented three weeks ago, placing Williams in the starting lineup against South Carolina. Since being named a starter, he’s averaged 13 points, 10.3 rebounds (including 4.2 offensive rebounds), and two blocks per game in 27.7 minutes. The next big step for Williams will be refining his extremely raw tools on the offensive end. For a player as lanky as he is, he has a strong base, and looks fairly comfortable down on the block, taking full advantage of his length and leaping ability by keeping the ball high and releasing the ball far beyond his defender’s reach. He’s shown promise with his jumper ever since high school, where he had something close to a set shot; his mechanics still aren’t perfect (he hangs a bit in the air before the ball is released), but he could eventually become a good-enough midrange shooter. There are plenty of edges to smooth with Williams, and drafting a blank slate with elite physical tools is exactly the kind of move that terrifies a fan base. But teams will absolutely bite the bullet for a small-ball center with the ability to guard multiple positions like Williams.
Anyway, sorry I buried the lead: Robert Williams’s nickname is apparently “Boo Butt.”