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The Year of the Game-Changing Point Guard Prospect

Introducing The Ringer’s guide to the 2017 NBA draft, one full of lead guards with the potential to shape the future of a franchise and of the league

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

The changing nature of the NBA’s point guard from pure passers to turbo scorers has created the position’s golden era. Throwbacks like Chris Paul and Ricky Rubio still exist, but there are more varying styles than ever before, with score-first guards as disparate as Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook taking hold of the position. Teams run pick-and-roll more than ever and are spacing the floor farther and farther out, which enables anyone — big or small — to occupy the point guard position. Someone as little as Isaiah Thomas or as large as Giannis Antetokounmpo can be a playmaker in this era. A wide range of styles abolishes labels like “combo guard” and “undersized shooting guard,” opening the door for an influx of playmakers who don’t fit a singular definition.

With the league evolving the way it is, the 2017 draft class comes at a perfect time. There are seven guard prospects likely to be lottery selections, meaning the position group already flooded with stars is only going to get better. Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, and De’Aaron Fox are the three big names you’re probably already familiar with. Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina could also be long-term fixtures at the position. Now that there’s a greater demand for scoring, more traditional combo guards like Malik Monk and Donovan Mitchell could also develop into point guards. A team in need of a playmaker in the backcourt won’t have to look hard to find one.

Not every prospect will develop into a franchise player, but the team(s) fortunate enough to land one will be at a distinct economic advantage over the next four years. The no. 1 pick in this year’s draft, possibly Fultz, will make only $10.2 million in the fourth and final year of his rookie-scale contract, which is in the ballpark of what Matthew Dellavedova makes now. The no. 10 pick, maybe Donovan Mitchell, will make $4.5 million, about the same as Jameer Nelson.

Having a key player under a cheap deal enables your team to make other big additions. Just look at some of the recent NBA champions. A big reason the Cavaliers could clear space to acquire LeBron James was the fact that Kyrie Irving was still on his rookie-scale contract. The Warriors’ title team had three rotation players still on rookie-scale deals, making it easier to retain more costly veterans.

If we’ve learned anything over the past 25 seasons, it’s that champions haven’t needed an expensive star facilitator. As covered in September, the starting point guards on title teams since 1992 accounted for only 11.3 percent of the salary cap, which is the near-equivalent of Tyreke Evans’s salary under the $94.1 million salary cap this season. Championship teams historically haven’t had to pay a premium on point guards. Only two title teams had starting point guards accounting for over 20 percent of the cap (Tony Parker in 2014 and Irving in 2016), with most teams featuring younger guards (like young Parker or Rajon Rondo) or inexpensive veterans (like Derek Fisher or Avery Johnson).

It’s unclear how much historical precedence matters moving forward. The league is different now. With such a significant emphasis on shooting and spacing, it’s possible things will begin to reverse course; that teams with the premier (and expensive) players at the position will have the best chances at a title moving forward. But no matter the case, great teams typically have players who are good and cheap. Filling the point guard role with a high-level, low-cost player will always have significant benefits since it’s harder to find skilled players at other positions.

The 2017 draft is the year of the guard. The destinies of these prospects may determine which team(s) crack open their championship windows. But first, there are a few things we have to identify: Who are they? How can they improve? And just how soon will their impact be felt?

With The Ringer’s 2017 NBA Draft Guide, our hope is to begin answering those questions (and many more). This is my fourth year in a row making a draft guide, but for the first time, it wasn’t a solo endeavor. I authored the scouting reports, but The Ringer provided a whole team of people who played massive roles in the design, integration, research, and production of the guide. We will have a continuously updating consensus mock draft from myself and my colleagues Jonathan Tjarks and Danny Chau, as well as our personalized top-60 rankings all the way up to draft night. I’m super excited about it, and I hope you find the guide valuable not just leading up to the draft, but beyond it, too — as a tool to track where players were and how far they’ve come.

While referencing the guide, remember that weaknesses come in different degrees — not being a good rebounder as a guard is not as major as having a subpar feel for the game or slow foot speed. But no matter their strengths or weaknesses, all point guards should come with a Patience Required label. There are 12 active point guards in the league who have been named to an All-NBA team, and on average, it took five seasons for them to get there for the first time. The average age was 24; only Paul, Irving, Westbrook, and Derrick Rose made it at a younger age. Kyle Lowry made his All-NBA debut in his 10th season, at 29; John Wall will likely be named to his first All-NBA team this June, at age 26, seven years into his career. Point guards are often in utero for years. It isn’t a process that can be rushed, because point guard isn’t an easy position to master.

Learning point guard is like learning an instrument: There’s a steep learning curve on the way to an advanced level. Some rules must be followed, but others must be bent and broken — improvisation mastered only after years of experience. For the premier prospects of the draft to reach higher ground, they’ll need to prove they have the modern building blocks of the position within themselves.

A Feel for the Game

“This is like the premier position right now,” Wall told me at All-Star Weekend. “Understanding that every night someone’s trying to get a name off you or trying to leave a statement on you. If you’re a rookie, that ain’t gonna be easy.” Wall went through the growing pains. He cites his coaching staffs allowing him to play through mistakes early in his development as key.

“My rookie year, my first couple games I [averaged 5.8] turnovers. It was just an opportunity to learn and develop and try to see where I could find myself in this league,” Wall said. “Nowadays you see a lot of younger guys having that opportunity themselves because they have a coach who’s letting them learn and letting them develop at a young age.”

Wall had the benefit of being a no. 1 overall pick, and Fultz presumably will too. However, unlike Wall, Fultz will enter the league prepackaged with a broad set of strengths and without any glaring weaknesses. He lacks the elite burst of guards like Wall, but he falls into the James Harden category in terms of balance and pace. At just 19, he has the special ability to manipulate defenders to go where he wants and maintain equilibrium in his body while twirling and spinning his way to the rim.

As a freshman at Washington, Fultz spent virtually the entire season playing on the floor with two non-floor-spacing big men. The NBA will be different. No matter where he’s drafted, he’ll have more space than ever to attack for buckets or kickouts. The key to achieving stardom will be to extend his shooting range, add more dynamic dribble-jumper moves, and hone the strengths he already has. It’ll take time. The nice part is, because he checks all the boxes from a skill and physique standpoint, he will thrive regardless of his circumstances. Fultz can be a chameleon. Depending on where he goes, certain facets of his game — either on-ball or off-ball — will shine brighter than others.

These traits make Fultz a rarity — it’s why he is on a tier to himself among the point guard crop and the draft class in general. Much of the class, however, will have to figure out how to best leverage their athleticism in a league full of outstanding athletes and unlearn a lot of what they relied on at the high school and college levels. This will be the case for Dennis Smith Jr., a freshman out of NC State projected as a top-10 prospect. Smith can do stuff like this:

But he also needs to learn when to attack and how to do it efficiently. Contested shots early in the clock were common with Smith, as were careless turnovers:

It’s conceivable that Smith never develops into a true lead guard, and that’s OK. Any team that drafts him is doing so for his scoring ability. They’re imagining him in a system with a spread floor and utilizing his flashy first step to blow by defenders. They’re not worried about his lackadaisical defense or his passing. They want scoring — and with Irving’s role with the Cavaliers serving as a precedent, scoring could be enough to maintain a successful career. If secondary skills aren’t there, however, it’s increasingly important he develops his offensive repertoire. He might not be able to make it up in other areas like some prospects can.

Defensive Foundation

Kyle Lowry was the 24th pick in 2006 and had stops in Memphis and Houston before landing in Toronto. Lowry played behind Chucky Atkins and Damon Stoudamire as a rookie in Memphis; then the Grizzlies drafted Mike Conley in 2007, who immediately was handed the keys to the car. Lowry was dealt to the Rockets, but found himself behind Aaron Brooks and, later, Goran Dragic. “Sometimes you’re on a team where you have some big dogs in front of you,” Lowry said at All-Star Weekend. “But you still gotta let those guys know you got their back, and you’re just trying to help them.”

Lowry took a long path to stardom and was afforded multiple chances because he had a calling card: defense. Teams knew he could be relied on at that end of the floor, which gave Lowry the cushion he needed for luck, timing, and opportunity to reveal themselves — he has since blossomed into one of the NBA’s premier point guards. Louisville point guard Donovan Mitchell and Strasbourg’s Frank Ntilikina are different players, but they can similarly hang their hats on defense as they develop.

Ntilikina is a human vise grip: He uses his long arms to whack away the ball and puts his body (frail as it is at 6-foot-5, 170 pounds) on the line to get stops. Ntilikina knows how to play point guard, too. He’s smart. He understands where to be in the pick-and-roll. You’re going to read or hear a narrative that he’s not a point guard. He is, or he can be — it just depends on whether he’s quick enough. On offense, though, putting the ball in his hands is like putting 50-pound weights on his ankles. Watch Ntilikina struggle to turn the corner here against a basic defensive coverage:

His first step is slow. His handle is loose. He can’t handle pressure. Why the hell is he a top-10 prospect? I ask myself the same question, but I keep going back to this: He’s not even 19 yet, and he doesn’t have any other major red flags. There’s a strong probability that he’s simply inexperienced, like a lot of teenagers are, and just needs time to grow into himself.

Mitchell is like a cross between Smith and Ntilikina. He has Smith’s athleticism and scoring instincts, as well as his subpar decision-making. He lacks pure point skills like Ntilikina, but shares his tremendous defense. In fact, Mitchell might even be the best defender in the draft. He has a compact, muscular 6-foot-3 frame with a long wingspan to hound opponents.

It’ll take years for Mitchell to develop lead-guard tendencies, if not forever, but if I’m a team in the lottery, I’m willing to take that risk. It’s easy to see him as a player who earns minutes early in his career because of his defense. Then, should a team see him as a future floor general, he’ll have opportunities to learn how to play the position, much like Lowry did. Don’t be surprised when Mitchell’s name gets called in the lottery.

Acclimation to the NBA’s Physicality

Wall, Lowry, and other All-Star point guards I’ve talked to, like Isaiah Thomas, all say adjusting to the speed and physicality of the game are the biggest hurdles for a young guard. Kemba Walker says it’s learning how to play with pace. “Going into the lane and challenging the bigger guys like we did — when we was in high school and college it worked, but here it doesn’t work as well,” Walker said at All-Star Weekend. “Knowing how to slow down, knowing when to speed up. It’s really about pace. That’s the word, really.”

The two battles between De’Aaron Fox and Lonzo Ball this season were decisive wins for Fox, particularly their March Madness matchup. Fox is a blur on the court who can zoom by defenders then finish loudly at the rim. But speed isn’t enough in the half court at the NBA level. The improvements Fox will need to make are obvious, but how he addresses them will tell us a lot about his star potential. First, he’ll need to dramatically improve his shooting; then, he’ll need to learn to play with pace to better create for his teammates and finish in the lane. Otherwise, there will be a lot more where this came from:

Walker was drafted ninth in 2011. It took him until this season — his sixth, at age 26 — to be named an All-Star. The most significant improvements in his game were his 3-pointer — rising from 31.8 percent over his first four years to 38.6 percent over the past two — and his at-rim finishing — from 51.9 percent to 57 percent over the same time span. Fox will likely struggle to score at first, but with his immense speed (and defensive impact), he’ll be given the benefit of time to iron out his issues.

Fox’s athleticism was too much for Lonzo Ball, who you already know as the son of Big Baller LaVar Ball. He’s also a likely top-three pick and one of my favorite prospects to watch, ever. Ball’s one of the best passers and most unselfish players I’ve watched in the college game, but he has conspicuous flaws.

I try to be like James McAvoy in Split when I scout; it can be useful to take on different roles with different personalities to assess a prospect. The thing is, when you do that, you start worrying about moments like this from Lonzo:

Ball has no shake in the half court. I went in-depth before on how his funky shooting mechanics cripple his scoring off the dribble, but even when he tries to get to the rim, he has trouble. In the Draft Guide, you’ll see he shoots 75.6 percent at the rim, but that’s a misleading figure: Most of his at-rim shots come open in transition or from cuts to the rim. He avoids contact like the plague in these situations: If he can’t blow by Wenyen Gabriel or lay the ball up over Isaac Humphries (two Kentucky bigs unlikely to be NBA prospects), then how will he score in the half court against starter-level players at the next level?

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge the fact that Ball, in the clip above, used the same in-out dribble move four times in a row before going into an ineffective crossover. It reminded me of button mashers in video games:

Ball won’t be a bust. He’s too good of a passer. He has the it factor. He’s too good of a spot-up shooter, at least when he has space. Teams can put him into a role where he doesn’t have the ball in his hands the majority of the time, and he’ll flourish. But it’s fair to be skeptical: Not every team has the top of the draft as a Fultz-Ball race. One team executive I talked to claimed that the Jason Kidd comparisons that have been floating around were outrageous. Ball will have a high burden of proof to clear because of questions regarding his game, not because of LaVar’s hype machine.

Since he lacks a top gear, he’ll need to learn how to play better at different speeds and add more ballhandling maneuvers. Otherwise, he might end up as a present-day Shaun Livingston with a 3-pointer. That may not scream “superstar,” but is that really so bad?

Youth and Adaptability

“Malik Monk is special, folks,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said to a swarm of reporters at the NBA combine, while rattling off all of Monk’s strengths. “But they’re all young. They’re 19. They can’t get a beer or go to a club. If you’re going to draft him, know that. Don’t think they’re 25.”

Calipari’s statement underlines the whole point of player development: You can’t expect any of these players, as rookies, to be now what they’ll be in six years — which is why it’s so important fans stay patient with players like D’Angelo Russell and Dante Exum. It’s rare that a player enters the league already pre-baked in the college oven, ready to play. Projecting the arc of a prospect’s development is hard; having the patience and commitment to see that growth through is even harder.

Monk is an intriguing case. I wasn’t particularly high on him at the start of the season: He reminded me of Zach LaVine, who I didn’t like as a prospect and still don’t as an NBA player. Like LaVine, Monk is an elite athlete with a terrific jump shot. Monk also has LaVine’s loose handle, poor passing accuracy, and apathetic defense. But compared to LaVine at the same stage of development, Monk is better: He has feel and vision, which makes improved playmaking a projectable skill. With the way the league is going — four-out or five-out offenses with heavy pick-and-roll action — it’s hard not to envision Monk as an ideal fit for an offense that shares lead ballhandling duties. He could eventually make simple passes like this:

Or attack the rim when he has space:

And he could still be used as a ferocious off-ball weapon who complements another primary distributor like Ben Simmons on the Sixers. It’s possible Monk becomes another Lou Williams — a glorified sixth man. He could also become a modern Ray Allen — who could pass in his heyday but played in an era when the game operated much differently than today’s.

No matter the case, it’ll take time. As Coach Cal said, these kids are just teenagers. A combination of film study, live-action opportunity, and learned experiences over a period of time are necessary for a point guard to assimilate into the NBA. Stay patient, but remain hopeful: This year’s class is loaded with potential stars.