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The Casual Fan’s Guide to Learning About the 2017 NBA Draft Class, Part I

There’s more to this group of prospects than Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball. Get familiar with the best of the rest, from safe bets to specialists to former top recruits who barely played in college.

(Getty Images/Ringer GIF)

The NBA draft is less than a month away, which means that if you haven’t already decided how the next 15 years of every prospect’s career will play out based solely on DraftExpress breakdown videos, it’s time to get your ass in gear. The internet makes it easier to study up on players than ever before, but the downside to having so many resources is that the abundance of draft coverage can become overwhelming. Nobody has the time or energy to closely follow all of these guys, yet that won’t stop people with social media accounts from proudly declaring that they’re draft experts. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that I’ve been following the draft for 20 years and I still can’t figure out whether mock drafts are supposed to reflect how the writer would select the players or how the writer thinks the players are going to be selected on draft night.

To help simplify draft season, I’ve put together a guide for idiots like me who just want to haphazardly attach a label to a player, maybe throw in a comparison or two, and be done with it.

(A quick reminder of the three golden rules of NBA draft player comparisons: (1) White guys must always be compared to other white guys; (2) Left-handers must always be compared to left-handers; (3) Foreign guys must always be compared to other players from their home continent. It’s also strongly encouraged to compare American guys to players who went to the same college that they did.)

With that, here is Part I of a two-part draft guide (Part II coming Friday!), broken down into tiers, that I worked my ass off to put together just so you could open it, scroll down to whatever prospect you have the strongest opinion about, read the label I assigned him and not a single word more, and then immediately roast me on Twitter. Fair warning: I’m not going to hit every potential draftee; instead, I’m going to focus on the guys who I find the most interesting and/or aren’t going to be overcovered to death in the next month. If you want more in-depth analysis on every guy, check out The Ringer’s comprehensive NBA Draft Guide.

All right, let’s do this.

The Chris Bosh Honorary Safe Bets

Jayson Tatum, Duke

Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball will almost certainly be drafted before Tatum, and rightfully so considering that they have much higher ceilings. But both of those guys also come with key question marks. If Fultz is so good, why did his Washington team lose 13 straight games to end its season? Given that he had the ball in his hands so often in college, why is everyone sure that he’ll become a star at the next level even if he has to play off the ball? And what about Ball’s problems, like his dad, his ugly jump shot that he pulls from his left shoulder, his no-show NCAA tournament performance in the Sweet 16 against Kentucky, his dad, and that time his brother scored 92 points in a high school game and everyone hated his entire family for it? Also, what about his dad?

Meanwhile, Tatum is the quintessential "what you see is what you get" NBA draft prospect. He’ll likely never be good enough to be the best player on a championship-winning team, but he’ll also likely be a guy who averages 17-plus points, five-plus rebounds, and three-plus assists per game in his prime. This middle ground between really good player and superstar is where Tatum’s collegiate legacy will forever live, too. During his lone season at Duke, Tatum shared a court with the preseason national player of the year (Grayson Allen), the no. 1 recruit in the country (Harry Giles), and a guy who was one of the three best players in America during the first half of the 2016–17 campaign (Luke Kennard). By March, Tatum had established himself as the Blue Devils’ go-to option through sheer will and the fact that he was a mismatch nightmare for opponents. (Also helping: his refusal to pass the ball to Kennard.) As great as all of this sounds, it should be pointed out that this Duke squad was one of the five to 10 most-hyped preseason college basketball teams of all time, yet the Blue Devils finished fifth in the ACC standings and gave up 65 second-half points in a second-round NCAA tournament loss to South Carolina.

The point is that Tatum is undoubtedly one of the five best players in this draft, and, barring injury or being thrust into a screwed-up situation, he seems destined to make multiple All-Star teams. Still, if my favorite team drafted him, I’d just shrug my shoulders and say, "Meh, I’ll take it."

Josh Jackson, Kansas

Like Tatum, Jackson’s value lies less in his potential upside and more in the fact that he should still be pretty damn good even in his absolute worst-case scenario. He’s a 6-foot-8 athletic freak who takes pride in defense and plays his ass off every second he’s on the court, traits that are especially valuable because they never go away. Basically, regardless of what happens with the rest of Jackson’s development, it’s sensible to believe that he will become one of the league’s premier perimeter defenders within the next five years. That won’t make Jackson a sexy pick on draft night, but it’s more than many past top-five picks could say about their respective careers.

Given how Kansas’s 2016–17 season unceremoniously ended in the Elite Eight when the Jayhawks went 5-for-25 from the 3-point line and were handily beaten by Oregon, it’s easy to forget that this team was a national title favorite for most of last winter. And yeah, I know many of you probably just did the jerk-off motion while claiming that Kansas was never a serious contender because head coach Bill Self always boasts great regular-season teams that fail to make the Final Four. But even if you buy into the "Self is a choker" line of thinking (and you shouldn’t), you at least have to admit that these Jayhawks were markedly different than every other team Self has coached at Kansas. That’s important to note because while Jackson had a teammate who was the national player of the year (Frank Mason III), a strong argument could be made that he was actually the most valuable player on the team. Jackson’s defensive versatility (he regularly guarded four different positions) allowed the notoriously stubborn Self to experiment with stylistic flexibility, which in turn led to the Jayhawks winning the Big 12 by four games despite having all sorts of issues with their frontcourt.

Jackson has some kinks to work out with his jumper, he had some legal issues while in Lawrence, and I have my doubts as to whether he’ll be able to guard four positions in the NBA. But whatever shortcomings his game ends up having, they won’t be for lack of effort.

De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky

Fox feels like the trendiest prospect in the 2017 draft. Maybe it’s because his performance against Lonzo Ball in the Sweet 16 — when Fox dropped 39 points while attempting only one 3-point shot — in Kentucky’s 86–75 win over UCLA left a lasting impression. Maybe it’s because Fox’s obvious NBA comparison is John Wall, who just had one hell of a playoff run. Or maybe it’s because whenever there’s a draft in which everyone focuses mainly on the consensus top two prospects, it’s inevitable that a wave of "what about this third guy — are we sure he can’t crack the top two?" takes come out of the woodwork. Whatever the case, the basketball world is piling onto the Fox bandwagon in droves, and I’m all for it.

De’Aaron Fox (AP Images)
De’Aaron Fox (AP Images)

Fox is basically the point guard version of Jackson, as his physical attributes, work ethic, and pride in playing defense (or doing anything else for that matter) are off the charts. More than anything else, that last bit seems to be what everyone gravitates to with Fox. In a one-and-done system that features lots of guys who frankly don’t give a shit about their college careers, Fox very much gave a shit. Winning was the most important thing, and losing completely destroyed him. Too much can sometimes be made of this stuff (amateur body language experts could have made a case that Kevin Durant didn’t have the competitive gene based on his lone season at Texas in 2006–07), but when all else is equal, I’m always going to take the guy who lives and dies with his team’s successes and failures.

Unfortunately for Fox, all things aren’t equal, and what will prevent him from going no. 1 in this draft is his unreliable outside shot. He hit just 24.6 percent of his 3s at Kentucky last season, a mark that seems bad by itself and looks worse when you realize that the NBA 3-point line is 3 feet farther out than it is in college, and that finding success as a modern guard is virtually impossible without being a threat from deep.

But there is good news: Fox reminds me of Mike Conley when he was in college (they’re both left-handed!) just as much as he reminds me of Wall. Fox seemed way too smart and in control of the Wildcats offense to be a freshman point guard; he’s got insane quick-twitch muscles; and he’s the fastest guy on the court who knows that the most effective way to use that advantage is to deploy clever changes of pace.

What makes that comparison especially apt is that Conley shot just 30.4 percent from the 3-point line during his lone season at Ohio State, hitting four more 3s than Fox did while taking the same amount of attempts (69). Ten years later, Conley has developed into one of the best 3-point shooters in the NBA, connecting on 40.8 percent of his tries from beyond in the arc in 2016–17. So there is hope that Fox could fix his jumper and become one of the best all-around players in the world. Even if he doesn’t, he should still be a great defender and athlete with a high basketball IQ who would chew his own arm off if it meant the difference between winning and losing. I’d take that guy on my team any day.

The Graduates From the DeAndre Jordan School of Specialists

Luke Kennard, Duke

It feels weird to tag Kennard with this label given that a huge reason he was one of my three favorite players in America last season was precisely that he wasn’t a specialist. Sure, if my life depended on one college basketball player making a wide-open 3 in 2016–17, I would have picked Kennard without hesitation. But he was so much more than just a spot-up 3-point shooter for Duke. He was a great scorer who also happened to be a great shooter and not the other way around, as he was capable of torching dudes in every way imaginable from any spot on the court. He also had great court vision, proved a surprisingly effective rebounder, and ended his college career as the most (only?) likable great white Duke player ever.

I just can’t imagine a scenario in which Kennard doesn’t become a 3-point specialist in the NBA, though, especially given the direction of the league and the fact he’ll rarely have a size or athleticism advantage over NBA defenders the way he often did at Duke. And for as good as he is at offense in general, shooting will always be the one thing that Kennard can do at an elite level. I’m guessing he knows this (or will realize it soon enough) and will rely heavily on spot-up 3s as he gets his feet wet early in his pro career. Luckily for Kennard, there is no shame in embracing the J.R. Smith lifestyle of launching 3s, cashing checks, and being a cult hero.

Edrice "Bam" Adebayo, Kentucky

It would be fair to say that Adebayo had a somewhat disappointing season at Kentucky, but I don’t think it’d be fair to blame that entirely on Adebayo himself. Circumstances beyond his control — like the country’s most talented backcourt (Fox, Malik Monk, and Isaiah Briscoe) dominating the ball on every Wildcats possession and head coach John Calipari having no idea how to use big men — led to averages of 13.0 points and 8.0 rebounds per game that probably aren’t as high as you’d expect from a former top-five recruit who has the Dwight Howard problem of having to turn sideways to walk through doors because his shoulders are so wide. Adebayo rarely had chances to showcase his skills in college, as most of his production came from him being bigger, stronger, and more athletic than his competition.

Don’t get me wrong, Adebayo can play. He’s got more skill than I probably give him credit for, he had a handful of great games for Kentucky, and he was arguably the best player in the team’s regular-season matchup against UCLA that featured at least six potential first-round picks. It’s just that the role he played for the Cats last season seems likely to be his NBA destiny as well: play great defense, go after every rebound, set a ton of screens, and try to dunk everything.

Jordan Bell, Oregon

Bell became a breakout star in the 2017 NCAA tournament after Oregon forward Chris Boucher tore his ACL during the semifinals of the Pac-12 tournament. Boucher’s injury left the Ducks, who were ranked in the top 15 of every AP poll released after New Year’s Day and shared the conference regular-season title with Arizona, with virtually no interior depth, meaning the 6-foot-9 Bell had to play center for 30-plus minutes a night throughout March Madness. He rose to the occasion and then some, averaging 12.6 points, 13.2 rebounds, 3.0 blocks, and 1.6 assists during Oregon’s Final Four run, highlighted by his ridiculous eight-block performance in the Ducks’ win over Kansas in the Elite Eight.

That five-game NCAA tournament stretch is Bell’s roadmap to having a long, productive NBA career. I wrote last week about how trying to find the next Draymond Green is a stupid pursuit, because ultra-competitive guys who can guard all five positions and who have the ideal combination of physicality and skill are nearly impossible to find. And Bell is no Green: He can’t shoot, he doesn’t have a borderline maniacal approach to the game, and the way Oregon’s season ended doesn’t make a convincing case that he embraces physicality. But he does have some Greenish vibes. He has the same physical attributes as Green (although I’ve seen Bell’s weight listed anywhere from 190 to 227 pounds), he has excellent foot speed, and he has a decent enough feel for the game that it wouldn’t surprise me if a team took Bell early in the second round with the explicit hope that he can develop into the next Green. Instead, that team will likely get a versatile defender who knows his offensive limitations. Bell’s skill set isn’t that of a future star, but he should still be a welcome addition to any roster nonetheless.

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John Collins, Wake Forest

I get the feeling that Collins would be a lock for the top 10 if this draft were taking place in 1997 instead of 2017. Yet the NBA has collectively deemphasized throwback big men who can own the low block, making someone with a ton of post moves in his arsenal less valuable than he once may have been. Collins has limited range, isn’t a great defender, and fouls way too much. He’d ideally be an inch or two taller than his listed 6-foot-10, and he has a one-track mind ("get buckets") on offense. Throw all of this into a pot, sprinkle in the fact he’s really been on the scouting radar for only one season (he wasn’t even a top-100 recruit in the 2015 class and his freshman year at Wake Forest was unspectacular) and that season consisted of his team finishing 19–14 and losing in the First Four, and it starts to make sense why Collins will be lucky to go in the lottery.

I still say he’s worth a roll of the dice. I mean, the dude averaged 19.2 points and 9.8 rebounds in the ACC while playing only 26.6 minutes per game. What else needs to be said? Collins is a great athlete, has a motor that doesn’t stop, and is on the right side of 20 years old. And even though the league has become perimeter- and 3-point-oriented in recent years, who’s to say that philosophy will stick around for the next decade or more? If every team goes small and begins chasing 3-point records like the Rockets and Warriors, won’t having a reliable and unguardable big man start becoming an advantage? I know Collins isn’t going to light the league on fire, so I’m not saying I’d build a team around him or anything. But if I’m picking in the no. 10 to no. 15 range and the top nine guys (Fultz, Ball, Jackson, Tatum, Fox, Monk, Jonathan Isaac, Dennis Smith Jr., and Lauri Markkanen) are already off the board, I’m probably grabbing Collins and calling it a day.

Zach Collins, Gonzaga

The first McDonald’s All American to ever commit to Gonzaga directly out of high school came off the bench for the Zags and averaged just 17.3 minutes per game for the season. Think about that for a second. That is truly unbelievable, even by the standards of this Cavaliers-Cubs-Trump era in which we live. A 7-foot All American went to a tiny private school in the middle of nowhere Washington and averaged 17 minutes per game despite being billed as a potential lottery pick every step of the way! And the entire situation actually made sense! Hooray for college sports!

Zach Collins (AP Images)
Zach Collins (AP Images)

Because Gonzaga head coach Mark Few gave Collins such limited playing time, it’s impossible to know how good he really is. Truth be told, most of those who are high on Collins’s draft stock feel the way they do solely because of his performance against South Carolina (14 points, 13 rebounds, and six blocks in 23 minutes) in the Final Four. Every other game Collins participated in during the 2016–17 campaign had the same "he would be so good if he played more" vibe, including Gonzaga’s national championship loss to North Carolina, in which Collins’s foul trouble swung the outcome in favor of the Tar Heels. Collins’s incredible promise far outweighs his college production, making him the very definition of an NBA draft gamble.

If you’re asking me, though, that game against South Carolina on college basketball’s biggest stage added to countless other moments throughout Gonzaga’s season to prove that Collins is basically Jian Yang from Silicon Valley — so great in the tiny doses we’ve seen that it’s clear he just needs more time to show off his eight different ways to make Chinese octopus.

Justin Patton, Creighton

Patton is probably the riskiest pick in the entire draft from a career-variance standpoint. If you told me 10 years from now that he’d become a perennial All-Star who pulls down double-digit rebounds almost every night and can score from anywhere on the court, I’d nod along and say that makes perfect sense. But I’d do the same if you said he had fallen out of the league within five years because he was always a project and teams simply ran out of patience waiting for him to get over the hump. Patton is raw as hell and inconsistent on both ends of the floor, and that’s going to drive the fans of whatever team drafts him nuts for the next couple of years.

But I believe in Patton for two reasons: (1) He is almost 7 feet tall (and you can’t teach that!), and (2) he shot 67.6 percent from the field last season while taking 8.5 shots per game, including 53.3 percent from the 3-point line in a limited sample size (8-for-15). What’s especially intriguing is that Patton still has no idea who he is as a basketball player. His freshman season at Creighton was reminiscent of Peter Parker’s experience in his bedroom after being bitten by a radioactive spider; Patton played like he suddenly realized he had superpowers, but wasn’t sure how strong they were or even what they were capable of accomplishing. Give him another five years to develop those powers as he surrounds himself with NBA players and coaches? Hoo boy. He could be something special. Or, you know, he could struggle and drop out of the league. That too.

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OG Anunoby, Indiana

The problem with Anunoby is that he’s never really earned his reputation as a prized draft prospect. He’s always been a decent enough player who can occasionally generate a highlight-reel play and make your head spin. But after averaging 4.9 points and 2.6 rebounds in 13.7 minutes per game in 2015–16 by basically hustling and being a ridiculous athlete, he faced unfairly lofty expectations entering his sophomore season. Indiana fans thought he was the next coming of Victor Oladipo and NBA fans thought he was the next coming of Draymond Green, and nobody seemed to care that his physical profile was the only thing about his game that resembled either one of those players. So when Anunoby averaged 11.1 points, 5.4 boards, 1.4 assists, and 1.3 steals and blocks last season, you’d think that those who were so quick to exalt him would have pumped the brakes a little.

Instead, the opposite seems to have happened. Anunoby’s 2016–17 season ended prematurely when he injured his knee in January and had surgery, a series of events that apparently invalidated the lackluster outings he had before that. Now we’re back to square one with the Anunoby hype, where everyone is sold on a guy who shot 31.1 percent from the 3-point line just because if you squint hard enough he kinda, sorta looks like he could be Draymond or Kawhi Leonard.

To be clear: I love Anunoby and expect him to have a good NBA career. He’s a phenomenal athlete who is built like a tank and should become a lockdown defender in the league for years to come. I just don’t like how high the bar has been set for him, or that nobody seems to care that he grabbed 10 or more rebounds in a game only once in his collegiate career and that he scored 15 or more points on only four occasions. If Patton is Peter Parker in his bedroom experimenting with newfound powers, Anunoby is the guy wearing a ski mask who wrestled Randy Savage in a cage match. Yet everyone seems to think he’s already a full-fledged ass-kicking superhero.

Harry Giles, Duke

Giles is a former no. 1 overall recruit who turned 19 years old in April. He has had three knee surgeries in the past four years, and he averaged fewer than four points and four rebounds per game in his lone collegiate season, mostly because he looked like his sole goal every time he took the floor was to return to the locker room in one piece. He is more of an urban legend than a legitimate basketball player at this point, and that’s a damn shame because people who saw him play in high school swear that the kid is legit. Hopefully he will one day rediscover that magic and enjoy a lengthy career that seemed so promising not long ago.

In the meantime, there’s something else you should know about Giles: He had a 27-inch vertical leap at the NBA draft combine, which is the exact same vertical I had when I tested myself three weeks ago. If you find yourself saying, "Who cares what your vertical is? You’re some washed-up writer I’ve never heard of," allow me to offer this response: exactly.

Ike Anigbogu, UCLA

Anigbogu averaged 4.7 points and 4.0 rebounds while playing just 13.0 minutes per game for UCLA last season. Yes, you read that correctly: 13.0 minutes per game for a potential lottery pick! I know that NBA games are eight minutes longer than college games and that the following note would be dumb even if they were the same length. Still, I can’t resist pointing out that Brian Scalabrine averaged 13 minutes per game for his entire NBA career and once logged 21.6 minutes per game for a playoff team.

As someone who makes a living almost exclusively from following college basketball, I’ll be the first to say that Anigbogu would probably be at least the seventh name out of my mouth if you asked me to name the guys from UCLA’s 2016–17 roster. I know he’s got an old-school game with a killer skyhook that he can hit from 15 feet out, and I remember that in January the biggest story in college basketball was Anigbogu punching TJ Leaf during a Bruins practice. But I also remember how I completely made up both of those Anigbogu facts and how some people who religiously follow college basketball just nodded as they read them because even they don’t remember anything about Anigbogu’s college career.

That’s why I’m officially calling bullshit on people who try to claim that they have any kind of idea what Anigbogu will be like as a pro. And that includes me — I’m calling bullshit on myself for even including Anigbogu in this section as though I have a shred of compelling evidence as to why I wouldn’t draft him high in the first round. Anigbogu scares me as an NBA draft gamble for the same reason that mesothelioma scares me: I have no idea what he actually is.

Return to The Ringer on Friday for Part II of Titus’s draft guide.