The Ringer’s resident draftniks took a break from the Big Board to share their thoughts on the ideal destination for some of the 2017 draft’s top talents.
Lonzo Ball to the Knicks
Danny Chau: Lonzo Ball making his way to Broadway isn’t a perfect situation, but it is a perfect thought experiment. For his entire life, Ball has operated (and thrived) in a world of his father’s design. He played high school basketball in his hometown; he stayed local for AAU, too. Ball had only two scholarship offers when he committed to UCLA three years ago. His father LaVar’s desire to keep his sons in L.A. played a big role; that Bruins coach Steve Alford agreed to the package deal of committing to all three of LaVar’s sons sealed the deal. Staying close to home is important to the family, even as the eldest son graduates to the highest level of the sport. LaVar has made it no secret that he’d prefer his son play for the Lakers, especially with Magic Johnson assuming front-office power. Lonzo is one of Magic’s true spiritual descendants, of which there are startlingly few (Jason Kidd? LeBron James? Who else?). There just aren’t many young players who come into the league fully formed as game-changing altruists. For Ball to field guidance from the man himself would be a true dream scenario.
Which is exactly why Ball needs to be a Knick, not a Laker.
Do I want to see Ball succeed at the next level? Absolutely. But I want to see what it looks like when his genius is finally met with resistance; I want to see what it looks like when he’s trapped in a triangle lock, in a prearranged system that chokes off the point guard’s utility. Then, I want to see him break free.
From high school to college, the game has bent to Lonzo’s will. He’s shown a singular ability to transform teams into modern, spaced-out, passing-obsessed offensive clinics simply by being on the floor. In a season, the Bruins went from the 117th-ranked offense in the nation to no. 1, with a 122.5 offensive rating nearly three points higher than anyone else. They have one of the highest assist percentages in the NCAA, and one of the lowest turnover percentages. With 227 assists so far, Ball will most likely break the Pac-12 freshman record for most assists in a season, set by Gary Payton (229) 30 years ago, within the first few minutes of his next game. Lonzo may not be universally beloved, but it’d be hard to deny that he is a one-of-one type of player.
Mainly, I want to see him, a player who is not afraid to shoot from 35 feet away, in a 1–5 pick-and-roll with a 7-foot-3 Latvian who hits 38 percent of his spot-up 3-pointers. I want to see Lonzo and Kristaps take the triangle and turn it into TRAPPIST-1. The Knicks have shown themselves capable of interdimensional levels of incompetence, but should the Knicks be so lucky as to find themselves in situation where Ball is still available to them, there should be only one choice.
Malik Monk to the Sixers
Jonathan Tjarks: Monk to the 76ers makes too much sense for it to not happen. At 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, Monk is a shooting guard trapped in a point guard’s body. He’s one of the best scorers in the country and an elite athlete who can create his own shot off the dribble whenever he wants, and he has already made a name for himself in his one season at Kentucky for fire-bombing teams from behind the 3-point line. He scored 47 points against UNC, including a game-winning shot in the final seconds, he has passed the 30-point barrier four different times this season, and he is shooting over seven 3s a game at a 41.6 percent clip.
The ideal scenario for Monk at the NBA level would be to replicate his situation at Kentucky, where he plays next to fellow one-and-done guard De’Aaron Fox, who runs point and can handle the more taxing of the two defensive assignments in the backcourt. Monk can serve as a secondary playmaker, but he’s averaging only 2.4 assists on 2.2 turnovers a game as a freshman, and asking him to channel his talents into facilitating instead of looking to score at every opportunity is not the best use of his ability. Players with his skill set often end up as electric sixth men, à la Lou Williams, unless they are on a team with a bigger player who can initiate the offense and allow him to guard the opposing team’s point guard. He isn’t asked to play much defense at Kentucky, but he has the physical tools to develop into a decent defender under Brett Brown’s tutelage.
As it so happens, the 76ers have one of those players in 2016 no. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons, who has missed all season while recovering from a broken foot. At LSU, Simmons averaged 19.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 4.8 assists a game on 56 percent shooting, with his only weakness being a refusal to shoot from the perimeter. Simmons needs to have the ball in his hands for most of the game to be successful, and he needs to play with guards who can open up the floor, get out on the break, and score in bunches without needing to hold the ball. Just imagine Simmons and Joel Embiid running a pick-and-roll, with Monk serving as the outlet valve on the other side of the court. Depending on the outcome of the lottery, the 76ers could have two lottery picks in this year’s draft, and Monk would be a perfect fit with the rest of their young core.
Jonathan Isaac to the Wolves
Tjarks: If past history is any indication, Tom Thibodeau probably wants to trade the Wolves’ first-round pick this season for a veteran. He’s not going to be too eager to give a raw teenager heavy minutes next season, not for a franchise that’s trying to wrap up a rebuilding program and start contending for the playoffs. The Wolves’ recent strong play may push them to the very back half of the lottery, if not the playoffs, but if they do wind up picking somewhere in the no. 5–10 range of the draft, the guy who would make the most sense for them is Florida State freshman Jonathan Isaac.
While Isaac hasn’t gotten as much publicity as many of his fellow one-and-done talents, he’s an intriguing talent that’s somewhat hidden as a third option on a deep FSU team. At 6-foot-10 and 210 pounds with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, he’s going to have to put on weight to excel as a power forward in the NBA, but he has the exact skill set teams are looking for at that position. He has the speed to switch screens and guard smaller players on the perimeter, and he’s an excellent shooter, shooting 37.7 percent from 3 on 2.9 attempts per game and 80.2 percent from the free throw line on 3.7 attempts per game.
With the Wolves committed to some of the best young offensive talents in the league in Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Zach LaVine, whoever they draft has to be a defensive-minded player who doesn’t need a ton of shots to be successful. Isaac is a combo forward with the potential to be an elite 3-and-D player. He possesses a much better feel for the game than most players with his physical tools, and his addition would give the Wolves one of the longest, most athletic front lines in the NBA. Selecting Isaac would allow them to move Towns to center and play a five-out lineup with two big men who can switch screens. That is the blueprint for the next great team in the NBA. Grasp Thibodeau’s defensive principles, and the Wolves could be that team.
Josh Jackson to the Lakers
Chau: The Lakers are the second-worst defensive team in the league, with a paltry 110.4 defensive rating that is somehow worse than their rock-bottom 109.3 rating last year. A change in scheme and system, in coaching and culture, was necessary, but it was never going to fix a problem with so many moving, uninterested parts. L.A. needs a defensive stopper, but what they really need is a miracle.
Drafting Josh Jackson wouldn’t be a panacea, but it’d definitely help having a world-class athlete who actually gives a damn on defense showing up his teammates as a rookie. Accounting for his athleticism, his basketball IQ, his versatility, and his work on both ends of the court, it’s reasonable to consider Jackson the most talented player in this coming draft. Nominally a wing, he’s been integrated into Bill Self’s Jayhawks offense as a sort of 6-foot-8 position-fluid destroyer, spotting up for corner 3s like a swingman and getting fed in the post and on baseline cuts like a 4. Tjarks laid out Jackson’s influence on Kansas’s latest dominant Big 12 season, and it’s not hard to envision Jackson being able to translate a lot of what he’s asked to do in college to the NBA game. Defense has been Jackson’s calling card since high school; what’s new is how willing and capable he’s proved himself to be against power forwards and centers, despite his still-frail frame. While his jaw-dropping athleticism allows him to make stops that few basketball players on earth are capable of, it’s that competitiveness and his ability as a team defender that will put him high on the Lakers’ wish list — especially considering the kind of slow-gestating culture that both Magic and Luke Walton have preached.
But we’ve seen Jackson’s type before. Can he be more than a Michael Kidd-Gilchrist or a Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, two incredibly smart and athletic team players who just can’t shoot remotely well enough to be anything more than buoys? Jackson has been shooting 42.9 percent from 3 since the start of 2017 (up from 26.9 percent in his 13 games in 2016), but his free throw percentage has remained stagnant (and really bad, at 56.9 percent). Watching Jackson shoot from outside can be strangely hypnotic; the ball practically descends down a canyon before it enters his shot pocket. If he’s able to maintain his consistency from the corners, Jackson could be the missing piece, the kind of adhesive to make sense of the Lakers’ strange collection of individual talents — none of whom have had yet made a significant leap in their productivity.
[Ed. note: We interrupt this completely sensible piece of NBA draft geekery to offer a dispatch from the future.]
Kevin O’Connor: It’s the morning of the 2017 NBA draft. Jimmy Butler wakes up to a phone call from Bulls general manager Gar Forman. “Hey Jimbo, I’m sorry to inform you that by the end of the night you’ll be traded to the highest bidder,” Forman says. “We’ve already received offers from — ” Butler interrupts and shouts, “Don’t. Call. Me. Jimbo.” He hangs up the phone. Butler’s agency leaks that Butler will only re-sign with title-contending teams once he hits free agency in 2019, but it doesn’t matter: Offers come flooding in from winning and losing teams.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, Woj drops a nuclear bomb:
Sixers fans are enraged that Bryan Colangelo has officially ended the Process. The assets Sam Hinkie assembled are dumped for a player who may not even re-sign in Philadelphia. “We’re really changing our focus toward winning,” Colangelo (actually) recently said. “It’s part of a shift in culture, a mindset.” The hardcore segment of Bulls fans understands this was an overwhelming offer that could not be passed on, especially after Chicago collapsed and missed the playoffs.
The Bulls select Washington point guard Markelle Fultz with the first pick and Arizona big man Lauri Markkanen with the fourth pick. With their own no. 14 pick, they add center Harry Giles. “We’ve got to put this back together now,” Forman said after the 2016 draft. “Going younger, more athletic and building it back up moving into the future.” This year, he meant it.
It’s simple for teams to integrate a guard like Markelle Fultz, who is already capable of running the pick-and-roll at a high level and can space the floor when the ball’s not in his hands. Fultz can fit anywhere, but the ideal situation is one that can provide him early opportunity and has optimal floor spacing. At Washington, driving lanes are suffocated by the defense since Fultz typically plays with two big men that don’t shoot well. That makes life hard.
At the next level, Fultz should be able to run a downhill pick-and-roll attack with all shooters spacing the floor. The 18-year-old can pick defenses apart with the pass, pull up to shoot from anywhere, or attack the rim.
Fultz is already a sophisticated lead guard, but every young player still has lots to learn. Reps are especially valuable for point guards so they can learn the intricacies of the position: changing speeds, making quick reads, and mastering their passing. On a rebuilding Bulls squad, Fultz would start and go head-to-head against the league’s talented and deepest position on a nightly basis.
Many teams are running multi-ball-handler offenses, which Hoiberg would ideally like to run if he had the right pieces. With this new core, they’d be able to do that. Fultz would join a versatile trio of guards with Denzel Valentine and Cameron Payne, and Dario Saric, all of whom can serve as a playmaker or floor spacer. Fultz would be the alpha, but his ability to shape-shift into varying roles, with or without the ball, is something teams should also develop early in his career.
Fultz would be paired with the NBA’s next lethal pick-and-pop weapon in Arizona power forward Lauri Markkanen. The Bulls rank last in 3-point percentage and attempts this season. That’d change with a gunner like Markkanen. The Bulls hoped Nikola Mirotic would develop into an impactful sharpshooting forward, but Niko’s been nothing but streaky. Markkanen has the sweetest stroke of any big man over the past handful of draft classes. The Arizona freshman hits 44.4 percent of his triples and it’s not just a small sample: He’s drained 41.7 percent of his 3s over four years of FIBA and international play.
Markkanen, in a worst-case scenario, projects as a Channing Frye–type floor spacer, though he could become much more offensively if he continues developing his scoring off the dribble. Arizona head coach Sean Miller does a great job of putting Markkanen into dynamic positions to score by using him as a pick-and-roll ball handler and by encouraging him to attack closeouts. Like any young player, Markkanen needs to tighten his dribble, but it’s exciting to imagine what he’ll be capable of once he’s benefiting from the NBA’s increased spacing.
With that said, Markkanen isn’t perfect. There’s a little Kelly Olynyk to his game in the sense that he needs to make significant strides as a defender and is a paltry rebounder. Olynyk has developed into a reliable, competent defender for the Celtics, but he’s still a major liability on the defensive boards. At the next level, Markkanen will be, too. Watch him get outrebounded twice on this single possession:
Markkanen gets outmuscled and then outjumped, and in both instances he’s out of position for the boards. The Finnish forward will get stronger, but athleticism and instincts are often hard to improve noticeably. It’s conceivable that he’ll always be a liability on the boards, which makes it all the more important that he’s paired with either a strong rebounding unit in small-ball lineups — which he’d have when paired with Saric — or an excellent rebounding center in two-big lineups.
The Bulls’ current roster construct isn’t optimal for the latter, since they lack a center who fits that criterion. Robin Lopez is statistically one of the worst rebounding centers in the NBA. Cristiano Felício and Bobby Portis are merely average. That’s why the (hypothetical) selection at no. 14 of Duke center Harry Giles makes so much sense. Giles’s future is concerning due to his injury track record, but if healthy, he at least projects as a stout defender and an elite rebounder. Giles himself lacks a reliable shot, so he’d ideally serve as a screener and rim runner in an offense while being paired with a floor-spacing forward like Markkanen.