When Terry Rozier was drafted in 2015, the city of Boston threw the biggest collective fit since it heaved dried herbs into the Atlantic. The fear, which seemed legitimate at the time, was overcrowding an already dense backcourt by adding another undersized guard.
Nearly two years later, in a tight, second-round Game 2, Rozier hit a 3-pointer with 1:38 left in the fourth. It tied the game — one the Celtics would eventually win in overtime — and marked the apex of how helpful the second-year player had become as a postseason benchman. When Rozier was drafted, Danny Ainge called him “really athletic and really tough.” And if that sounds like the Celtics personified, well, that’s Ainge, too: “I love those kind of guys.”
He wasn’t the versatile wing or rebounder that Boston needed, but the Celtics provided the identity that Rozier — aggressive, quick, determined — required to not be overlooked. It was the perfect spiritual team. Sometimes, like in the case of this undersized 2-guard, the player and team also pair well on court. Maybe the combination of the two are even the difference between a four-year NBA stint and a productive career. However, it doesn’t work out that way for every player — some personality matches translate on the court worse than a Hungarian proverb does in Google. Think of the great run J.R. Smith had with NYC clubs during his final (17-win) season as a Knick: The player and team feel right, but only, really, in terms of vibes. This summer, every player in the draft won’t be the appropriate fit, and some will be better off if it doesn’t work out — but what if it does?
These are the perfect spiritual teams for this year’s (projected) lottery picks:
Markelle Fultz — Portland Trail Blazers (but Really, Anywhere)
What makes Markelle so attractive is that he could fit anywhere. But the man is essentially a Dame software update without the rapping, already a year deep into the Northwest mentality of hikes and coffee and indie rock. Plus, Fultz already has his Lillard/All-Star-sized chip on his shoulder from being cut from varsity in high school.
Lonzo Ball — San Antonio Spurs
No, Lonzo isn’t an international diamond stuck deep in the rough of the second round. He isn’t an overlooked role player, and enough provocation has come out of his camp to account for five Tim Duncan lifetimes. Except Lonzo isn’t the big personality — his dad is. In the over-the-top interviews that the father and son have done, Lonzo is sitting in the background, quiet, and dare I say, quite boring in comparison. Not only is it dull — it’s downright Spursian. Not to mention Lonzo’s quotes when addressing his father’s behavior, like “I just go out there and play,” are such generic athlete speak that Kawhi Leonard literally used a nearly identical response when asked about MVP voting. Lonzo is a selfless playmaker who makes his teammates better. Being a Ball makes this spiritual fit feel wrong, but take that Shakespearian line about roses by other names smelling as sweet, and apply it to his passing. Just as sweet.
Malik Monk — Phoenix Suns
Every side of Ryan McDonough’s 8-ball shows a blue Wildcat pawprint. Monk, the latest in a long line of Kentucky one-and-dones, would be the fifth Calipari U alum on the Phoenix roster. But it’s a fit even past the bluegrass: The Suns played at the league’s second-fastest pace this regular season, and Monk’s speediness allows him to thrive in transition.
Josh Jackson — Houston Rockets
Pour one out for Mike D’Antoni. No lottery pick shot zero midrange jumpers while maintaining high volume in both the paint and perimeter. Jackson is the next-best thing for the Rockets: a mix of a pesky defensive mentality (an ode to Patrick Beverley) and the kind of “balance, force, and feel” that routinely draws fouls (ode to James Harden’s shooting arm).
De’Aaron Fox — Oklahoma City Thunder
Initially, colleague Micah Peters sold me on Fox as the ultimate metaphysical Pelican. And yes, a lanky, elite defender from the city of New Orleans who, to quote Micah, “can’t fall out of a boat and hit water” seems the perfect Pel. But his poor outside shooting is the best OKC fit since Russ wore the photographer vest. Fox’s accuracy fits somewhere between Victor Oladipo’s lackadaisical shooting and Andre Roberson’s … whatever you call that (here’s to hoping his postseason 3-point shooting carries over to next year). He favors a fast-paced game and has impressive handles and a knack for drives that he finishes with an unreliable flair true to OKC. But the most convincing tidbit of all comes, again, from our 2017 draft guide: He’s “prone to turnovers as a result of trying to do too much as a playmaker.” Welcome, my dear man, to Oklahoma.
Jayson Tatum — New York Knicks
Phil Jackson (and by way of transfer, the Knicks) is stuck on trying to revive an expiring system. More midrange attempts came out of New York than anywhere else in the league this season. Tatum, to quote our 2017 draft guide, “lives in [the] midrange” and has an unreliable off-ball influence. The Duke forward is a strong scorer, but without the rock in his hands, his impact plummets — what’s more Melo Knicks than that?
Jonathan Isaac — Golden State Warriors
Golden State’s fourth-best player touches the ball for less time than some sixth men (and still produces five times the points). Being valuable off the ball is as treasured a skill to the Warriors as defensive ability, and Isaac shows promise at both.
Dennis Smith Jr. — Minnesota Timberwolves
Whisper “young with freakish athleticism” three times alone in a Duluth bathroom stall, and Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, and Karl-Anthony Towns will appear. Smith is both — add his questionable defense, and it’s two-way compatibility. The Wolves had the league’s fifth-worst defensive rating this season (what a confusing world that Wiggins, Kris Dunn, and Tom Thibodeau helped create that). And thanks to bumps in production from guys like LaVine and Ricky Rubio, this Wolves staff can tout the shooting development that Smith needs to fulfill his scoring upside.
Frank Ntilikina — Denver Nuggets
Denver has drafted 11 international players in the past six years, and Ntilikina is a Frenchman. [Chef’s kiss.]
OG Anunoby — Philadelphia 76ers
OG is a wing who should be a big with a 7-foot-2 wingspan and an ACL injury. Which is to say, OG is a Sixer. The Process is dark and full of minute-sharers.
Zach Collins — Miami Heat
Labeled “hungry for blocks,” Collins led the Zags in three stats as a freshman: denials (1.8), field goal percentage (65.2), and player fouls (2.7). Throw him in with the likes of Hassan Whiteside and undefeated MMA fighter James Johnson, who helped Miami become third in blocks and top (or bottom, depending on whether you’re Bill Laimbeer or not) 11th in fouls this season.
Donovan Mitchell — Boston Celtics
It’s not a coincidence that Mitchell and Rozier both hail from Louisville and also mesh with the Celtics. Boston can have all the beef it wants with Rick Pitino, but his knack for recruiting and grinding out quick, fierce defenders makes his college backcourts the ideal thread for the fabric of Brad Stevens’s roster. A 6-foot-3 frame makes Mitchell too short for an off-guard, his ideal undertaking, so he needs a team unafraid of small ball. But in lacking a true position, he finds a fit with Boston and a couple of soulteammates.
Jarrett Allen — Orlando Magic
Allen has the makeup of an old-school center without the physicality. His attempt to stretch the floor (seven 3-point shots at Texas) ended in seven misses, and he’s timid when contact is necessary inside. Send him away from small ball and back to the classics, or the land of traditional big men, Orlando. (Also known as the only team in the league that would play Aaron Gordon at small forward.)
Lauri Markkanen — Milwaukee Bucks
Jason Kidd converted Milwaukeeans to a religion with a single sin: standing under 6-foot-8. (At 3 inches short of that, Malcolm Brogdon atones with production.) Markkanen — a 7-foot stretch forward who thinks he’s a guard — is its next disciple. He can score in multiple ways and his accuracy outside bodes well for the Bucks’ top-10 deep shooting. His only shortcoming preventing him from entering the league’s tallest team is his (ready the holy water) average wingspan.