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Five Player-Team Combinations to Avoid in the 2017 NBA Draft

Just because an option is there for a lottery team doesn’t make it a good one. Here are five bad fits that should be avoided.

(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)

We are less than a month away from the 2017 NBA draft, and with all the downtime between NBA Finals games, this is the perfect time for fans and front offices alike to think about all the different options they’ll have at their disposal when their time on the clock comes up. One team has an obvious choice; for every other lottery team, there are a multitude of possibilities. But just because an option exists doesn’t make it a sensible one; certain prospects just don’t make sense in the context of what certain teams are building. Here are five player-team draft combinations that would be the equivalent of forcing a square peg into a round hole.

Sixers: De’Aaron Fox

Danny Chau: Assuming the Celtics and Lakers take their expected routes on June 22 and choose Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball with the first two selections, the Sixers will, once again, hold down the all-important pivot point in the draft at the third spot, where they’ve selected Joel Embiid (2014) and Jahlil Okafor (2015), two players who have come to embody the successes and failures of the Sam Hinkie era. What Philly does with this third pick will tell us a lot about the stage of development the front office thinks the team is in.

It’s a monumental decision, and it’s good that they’re exploring all options. The New York Daily News reported that the Sixers have interest in De’Aaron Fox and Dennis Smith Jr. with the third pick, and both players are talented enough to merit that discussion. But boy, selecting either prospect would be a bummer — especially Fox, whose strengths and weaknesses overlap with a number of the Sixers’ most promising players, but at half a foot shorter and over 40 pounds lighter in size. The Sixers are in a position to eschew convention, and they have verbally committed to the idea of Ben Simmons as their 6-foot-10 lead distributor. This allows them the leeway to look at a relatively undersized shooter in Malik Monk or grab a hyperathletic jack-of-all-trades in Josh Jackson. The Sixers aren’t in a position where they have to draft for need, but they’re far enough along in their puzzle where they should start looking at how the pieces are fitting.

Pair Simmons with Dario Saric — who, also at 6-foot-10, has shown the ability to be an offensive facilitator — and the the idea of bringing in a wiry, traditional point guard (who, like Simmons, showed a complete reticence from the perimeter in college) sounds like an untenable nightmare in spacing. Out of the three of them, Saric might be the best 3-point shooter … and he shot 31 percent during the regular season. You can place three astronauts on a shuttle, but without a release valve, they’re all going to suffocate eventually.

Magic: Jonathan Isaac

Kevin O’Connor: New Magic front-office brass Jeff Weltman and John Hammond will look to change Orlando, and perhaps history can give an indication as to how they’ll do it. In 2013, when Weltman was an assistant general manager to Hammond in Milwaukee, the Bucks made their best decision by gambling on a mysterious Greek kid named Giannis Antetokounmpo. One year later, after Weltman took a job with Toronto, he played a role in the decision to draft Bruno Caboclo, a raw, unknown prospect from Brazil. “Raw, long, and athletic” are three scouting terms they’re well familiar with.

There are no secrets this year in the lottery, but there is, like Antetokounmpo and Caboclo, another athletic forward with long arms and an underdeveloped offensive game Hammond and Weltman will have a chance at. His name is Jonathan Isaac: He projects as a multidimensional defender who can both protect the rim and lock down the perimeter. There’s little doubt Isaac will at least produce considering the state of the NBA’s value for defensive versatility.

The Greek Freak was worth a shot. So was Bruno. Isaac fits the new Magic front office’s modus operandi. But I think the Magic should pass on Isaac, unless there is no better, higher-upside prospect available. While Isaac is ranked seventh on my general board in The Ringer’s 2017 NBA Draft Guide, the Magic need to be thinking about finding their cornerstone this draft, even if there’s higher risk involved.

Jayson Tatum would provide the Magic with a potential go-to scoring presence that can be leaned on in end-of-game situations. De’Aaron Fox is a point guard who can change the game with his speed and defense. Malik Monk’s shot-making is extraordinary. One of them should be available with the sixth pick.

Considering Isaac’s physique, some of the comparisons being thrown out make sense. But what made Giannis special as a prospect was his feel, dexterity, fluidity, and ball-handling ability. Brandon Ingram is another reference point, but Ingram demonstrated tremendous instincts and passing vision in college. Isaac hasn’t yet showcased any of these qualities: He’s much more of a follower than a leader offensively.

Isaac has small hands, which shows in the frequency of passes he bobbles or times he loses grip of the ball on his drives. It’s hard to recall many (or any) players reaching a superstar level with lousy hands. Isaac should be a very good player. He could become an important player on a winning team, especially as the league gets smaller. There’s nothing wrong with what Isaac can be on offense. He can score effectively off-ball by hitting spot-up 3s, attacking closeouts, and cutting.

But Orlando has significant draft capital with picks 25, 33, and 35, and they should find valuable pieces to fill those roles. With the sixth pick, they should take a swing on a player who can become the man, not one of the guys.

Knicks: Dennis Smith Jr.

Jonathan Tjarks: If Phil Jackson wants the Knicks to continue running the triangle, then he should not draft Dennis Smith. The quickest way to waste draft picks is to pick players whose skills don’t fit with the personnel around them and the system they will be in, and to do so without a clear plan as to how to use them. The triangle may not be the most efficient way to create offense in today’s game, but it’s definitely not going to work if the Knicks commit to players who don’t have the skill set to run it effectively. Smith is almost the exact opposite of the type of point guard who has been successful running Jackson’s preferred offense.

A good triangle guard is a steadying presence who has the size to feed the post, can cut through the lane, and can consistently threaten the defense as a spot-up shooter. Smith is an inconsistent outside shooter (he shot 35.9 percent from 3 on 4.8 attempts per game) without great size (6-foot-3 and 195 pounds) who needs to play with the ball in his hands and doesn’t play any defense. The only way for Smith to be successful is if he dominates the ball and has the driving lanes to attack the basket and then kick it out to shooter. Having him walk the ball up the floor and throw it inside is a waste of everyone’s time.

Kings: Jayson Tatum

Chau: Sacramento moved up in the draft lottery for the first time in nearly three decades (1989), so of course it had to be the year that they were forced into a pick swap with Philadelphia. Luckily, the Sixers’ pick is a pretty solid hand-me-down. At no. 5, the Kings will have their pick of a number of talented second-tier prospects (which isn’t as bad as it sounds when the only player in the first tier is Markelle Fultz). Can we trust the team to make the right call?

The Kings have plenty of options, but one that wouldn’t make much sense given the team’s context is Jayson Tatum. Rudy Gay, one of Tatum’s stylistic parallels, is an impending free agent, and unloading his presence of the team finally gives the franchise an opportunity to start fresh — drafting Tatum would be an attempt to fill a void that no longer exists.

Built around the athletic promise of their frontcourt of the future (Willie Cauley-Stein and Skal Labissière) and the sharpshooting Buddy Hield (who had an outstanding second half of the season as a featured option, averaging 15.1 points on 48 percent shooting from the field, and 42.8 percent from 3), the Kings suddenly have a foundation for a modern and versatile game plan. Jonathan Isaac slotting in as a versatile, situation-dependent wing-big hybrid is intriguing with Cauley-Stein’s ability to stay in front of all five positions, but sooner or later, the team will have to address the fact that it hasn’t had a legitimate point guard since Isaiah Thomas in 2013.

They desperately need someone to distribute — WCS can’t catch lobs that aren’t there; Buddy’s off-the-dribble game is getting better, but he deserves more easy baskets; Skal can’t roast players with his shockingly mature inside-out game without having a point guard who can ably get him the ball. Tatum is a smart, proven scorer who would do great on many lottery teams, and maybe this is unfair to him, but if the Kings are ready to move into the future, why draft someone who might remind them of their past?

Mavericks: Lauri Markkanen

Tjarks: Markkanen to the Mavs makes sense on paper. He’s a skilled European 7-footer who is the best shooter in this year’s draft (he shot 42.3 percent from 3 on 4.4 attempts per game), and there’s more than a little Dirk Nowitzki in his game. Dallas will eventually need to replace Dirk, and drafting a player with Markkanen’s skill set would allow them to continue running many of the same offensive sets for years to come. However, Markkanen (like every other sweet-shooting European 7-footer to come over to the NBA in the last two decades) is not Dirk, and he would not be a great fit with the Mavs’ young core.

Harrison Barnes exceeded expectations in his first season in Dallas because the Mavs turned him into a full-time small-ball power forward, taking advantage of his ability to defend much bigger players and then attack them off the dribble on the other end of the floor. Moving him back to small forward would negate those strengths, and the addition of Nerlens Noel at the deadline means the Mavs don’t need a center, either. Dallas has too many holes to spend a lottery pick on a player who doesn’t have a clear path to the starting lineup.