In today’s NBA, point guards rule.
Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, John Wall, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, so on and so forth. Some of the league’s best talents are the players who are asked to bring the ball across half court.
Along with the stars that already litter the backcourts across the league, the 2017 draft class possesses a crop of point guards who have the potential to become the next wave of elite lead guards in the NBA.
When the draft night is all said and done, five different point guard’s could very well have been taken within the first ten picks of the draft. But with such a diverse crop of high-level talent and the need for quality point guards, how do these players stack up against each other?
Here’s a look at how these future NBA point guards are ranked in terms of talent as draft night quickly approaches.
1. Markelle Fultz — Washington
Markelle Fultz is the projected No. 1 overall pick by all accounts, and more than likely will wind up a Boston Celtic.
Of all the point guards — and players in general — Fultz has the best combination of NBA-ready skills and potential for growth.
His numbers at Washington during his freshman season project a guard that is perfect for the style of player currently permeating throughout the NBA. 23.2 points, 5.9 assists, 5.7 rebounds and 41 percent three-point shooting per game painted Fultz as a guard who not only could light up a gym with his jump shot, but also get rebounds to push a fast break and become a playmaker.
Along with his stat-sheet-stuffing ability, Fultz stands a solid 6-foot-4. In today’s NBA, point guards are a bit bigger than traditional points used to be. Westbrook, Wall, Curry, Lillard, and Irving are all at least 6-foot-3. From a physicality standpoint, Fultz checks all the boxes.
Roll up all of Fultz’s intangibles and physical attributes into one product and you wind up with not only the best point guard in this draft but the best player available as well.
2. De’Aaron Fox — Kentucky
While Lonzo Ball currently holds the consensus opinion of likely being selected with No. 2 pick in the draft, he still concedes the spot as the second-best point guard to De’Aaron Fox.
Fox is a speed demon who has drawn countless comparisons to fellow former Kentucky Wildcat John Wall for his quick feet and defensive ability. And while some eyes are focused on Ball as the next in line after Fultz is off the board, Fox has the potential to be more of an impact player at the next level.
At 6-foot-4, Fox possesses the height – and length with 6-foot-6 wingspan — to disrupt opposing point guards across the league for years to come. In their Sweet 16 matchup in this past NCAA tournament, Fox hung 39 points on Ball while containing the former UCLA point guard to just 10 points in the Kentucky victory.
The knock on Fox, however, is his inconsistent jump shot. Fox shot just 24 percent from downtown in his freshman year at Kentucky, which evidences his most glaring limitation that keeps him just outside of the “best player in the draft” conversation. Despite his most common comparison player in Wall not being a knockdown shooter by any means, the Washington Wizards point guard still managed to shoot 32 percent from deep during his lone year in Lexington.
If Fox can develop a reasonable jump shot, which isn’t out of the question considering there aren’t any glaring flaw with his shooting form, he could wind up as the best two-way player in this draft class. That potential alone puts Fox just below Fultz and just above Ball.
3. Lonzo Ball — UCLA
Perhaps the most polarizing player in the entire draft, in part because of his father, Lonzo Ball enters the NBA draft as one of the most gifted passers in recent memory.
In his lone year at UCLA, Ball navigated the Bruins’ offense to the top of the collegiate ranks while averaging 7.6 assists per game in the process. As a pure floor general, there isn’t a better point guard prospect in this draft than Ball.
Along with Ball’s boisterous father, LaVar, Ball’s jump shot is cause for concern. The point guard possesses an unorthodox shooting motion where he releases the shot from the left side of his head, as opposed to a more traditional straight away form. While Ball seemed to hit shots anyway — 41 percent from deep during his freshman year — the thought that his shot may be defended easier in the pros has given scouts around the league some pause on what his true potential may be.
Despite his funky shooting motion, Ball possesses every other skill that a team may be looking for in their point guard of the future. Standing at 6-foot-6, Ball has shown the ability to use his height and grab his fair share of rebounds. Listed at just 190 pounds he will need to hit the weight room, but at just 19-years-old, putting on size is the least of his worries.
As Ball continues to grow into his frame and see how his shooting motion adapts to professional basketball, he holds down the third spot in terms of point guards available.
4. Dennis Smith Jr. — North Carolina State
Before tearing his ACL prior to his senior year of high school, Dennis Smith Jr. was regarded as arguably the best point guard in his recruiting class. With wicked athleticism that allowed him to jump out of any gym, Smith Jr. seemed poised to make an NBA team happy in the near future.
While he isn’t the best point guard in his class anymore, Smith Jr. will be worth every bit of a top-10 pick during this June’s draft.
As the focal point of North Carolina State’s offense, Smith Jr. put up 18.1 points per game while making plays for his teammates in the process, collecting 6.2 assists per contest as well.
But what separates Smith Jr. from the first three guys in the top-tier of guard talent is his lack of size. While he stands at a solid 6-foot-3, his wingspan mirrors that number exactly, posing potential problems on the defensive end of the ball. During his freshman season, Smith Jr. struggled at times on defense and registered a 109.1 defensive rating.
Along with his potential defensive woes, Smith Jr. isn’t a knockdown shooter by any means. While that is a problem for prospects like Fox and Ball as well, their other strengths mask that a bit. After shooting just 45 percent from the floor, and 35 percent from three-point range during his freshman season, Smith Jr. will need to put work into his jump shot at the next level. While he isn’t the best shooter in the draft, Smith Jr. does display a great ability to get the basket off the dribble.
With a serious injury already under his belt and some questions about his defense and shooting, Smith Jr. heads the second-tier of point guard prospects in this draft. But with the quality and volume of point guards in this class, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
5. Frank Ntilikina — France
The mystery man of the 2017 point guard class, Frank Ntilikina has found his way onto the radar of teams selecting in the top-10 without having nearly as much information or film to study as the college prospects.
Logging his minutes for SIG Strasbourg over in France’s Pro A league, Ntilikina has been the recipient of the league’s best young player award two years running.
Standing at 6-foot-5, he is one of the tallest point guards available in this year’s draft. DraftExpress’ Jonathan Givony describes Ntilikina as a “lockdown, multi-positional defender” in part because of his size and footwork. Where Ntilikina may struggle at the pro level in terms of physicality is with his sheer athleticism. Givony describes the Frenchman as lacking a “degree of quickness from a stand-still.”
While his physical limitations may keep him from being a dominant isolation player, Ntilikina displayed a degree of sniping capability with his shot, which is proving more valuable by the day in the evolving NBA. Over the course of 27 games during his last season, Ntilikina connected on 33-of-64 three-point shots. At the Under-18 championships, Ntilikina sank 17-of-29 shots from deep on his way to an MVP performance.
As this draft’s de facto foreign prospect set to go in the top-10, Ntilikina could prove to be a value pick should his game translate effectively.
6. Jawun Evans — Oklahoma State
After the top five point guards are off the board on draft night, there is a considerable drop off in talent.
In steps Jawun Evans.
The former Oklahoma State point guard opted to declare for the draft after his sophomore season where he scored 19.2 points per game while also contributing 6.4 assists.
What separates Evans from his point guard contemporaries is size. At the NBA Draft Combine, Evans was measured at just under 5-foot-11. In an NBA where size and versatility have become essential, Evans’ height certainly isn’t benefitting his draft stock.
However, there are a lot of positives to the former Cowboys game. Last season, Evans shot nearly 38 percent from beyond the arc, and his shot displays room for improvement in that department. Evans’ playmaking ability is among the best in his class as well as he registered a 42.9 assist percentage through 54 career college games.
While most of the point guard talk for this draft will focus on the five guys who may potentially be drafted in the first 10 picks, Evans knows he’s underrated, as he told Basketball Insiders’ Michael Scotto.
Although Evans may not be as physically imposing as some other lead guard prospects in this June’s draft, his play speaks for itself and he could wind up as one of the steals of the draft in the back end of the first round or beginning of the second round.
NBA Daily: Checking In With Terrance Ferguson
Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Terrance Ferguson talks to Basketball Insiders about learning from his teammates, earning minutes and being mentally tough.
Before he reached the NBA, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Terrance Ferguson was once often referred to as a man of mystery. After changing course on two different programs in a two-month span, Ferguson ditched the typical one-and-done collegiate season for an adventure on the other side of the planet. But even after the Thunder selected Ferguson with the No. 21 overall pick in last year’s draft — the questions still lingered. How would a teenager with one season overseas adjust to the world’s most physical basketball league?
Not many rookies can contribute to a 40-plus win squad out in the cutthroat Western Conference so quickly — but down the stretch, here Ferguson is doing just that. With the Thunder locked in a tight playoff battle with six others teams, the 19-year-old’s hard-working personality has fit alongside the roster’s three perennial All-Stars — Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. And although his rookie season has come with some growing pains, Ferguson is earning meaningful minutes and making the most of them.
“I think it’s my work ethic, I come in every day with the same mentality,” Ferguson said. “I work my butt off — inside the game, being physical. Even though I’m a skinny guy, as everyone can see, I’m still everywhere on the floor being physical. I think [the coaching staff] really likes that, especially on the defensive end.”
Skinny or not, Ferguson is one of the league’s youngest players, so the 6-foot-7 guard has plenty of room to grow — literally. But for now, he’s playing an integral role on an Oklahoma City team looking to protect its high postseason seed. Late January brought the unfortunate season-ending injury to Andre Roberson — an All-Defensive Second Team honoree in 2016-17 — so the Thunder have needed both new and old players to step up in bigger roles.
While those candidates included the three-point shooting Alex Abrines, veteran Raymond Felton and the newly-acquired Corey Brewer, Ferguson’s recent rise in the rotation has arguably been the most interesting development. Since the calendar flipped to January, Ferguson has featured in almost all of the Thunder’s games, tallying just two DNP-CDs and one missed contest following a concussion. This steady diet of opportunity comes as a stark contrast to the 15 games in which he received no playing time, spanning from the season’s opening tip to the new year.
Of course, playing time is not always indicative of success, but Ferguson himself isn’t surprised that he’s carved out a crucial role ahead of the playoffs.
“Not really, it’s all up to coach’s decision,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just here playing my part, staying ready at all times and some minutes came, so I’mma take them and play to the best of my ability.”
Back in October, Basketball Insiders’ own Joel Brigham spoke to Ferguson about his unconventional path to NBA and the choice to spend a year grinding with the Adelaide 36ers, an Australian outfit. In the land down under, Ferguson averaged just 15 minutes a night, considerably less than he would’ve likely received as a highly-recruited prospect here in America. Some five months later, Ferguson’s early-season stance on the move still stands out.
“I’m living the dream now, right? I must have done the right thing,” Ferguson said.
Today, it’s hard to disagree with Ferguson’s decisions considering that they’re currently paying off. In 2009, Brandon Jennings became the first to skip college and play in Europe before being drafted, with Emmanuel Mudiay most notably following in his footsteps six years later. While those two point guards both were selected in the top ten of their draft classes — at No. 10 and No. 7, respectively — it still remains the road far less traveled.
Considered raw by most pre-draft evaluations, an early expectation was that Ferguson would spend much of the season with the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s G-League affiliate. Instead, Ferguson has played in only three games with the Blue, where he has averaged a commendable 14.7 points, four rebounds and 1.3 steals per game.
But as of late, the Thunder have found somebody that’ll always work hard, learn from others and do the little things that don’t show up in the box score.
“I’ve learned a lot more from when I first started,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I got great teammates — I got Nick Collison, I got Russ, PG, Melo, so just picking their brains. I got Corey now, so just the work ethic they put in, just picking their brains each and every day about what I can do better, watching game film, it’s a lot of things.”
When he was drafted, Ferguson had a reputation as a skyscraping leaper with the athleticism to become an elite perimeter defender. Although his current averages with the Thunder understate his innate potential, Ferguson knows he can contribute without scoring — even noting that he can make up for it “on the other side of the court.” Playing defense and competing hard every night, he has slowly made a name for himself.
And while Ferguson has tallied far more single-digit scoring outings than his 24-point breakout performance in early January, he’s earned the trust of head coach Billy Donovan and his veteran teammates, which is something the rookie will never take for granted.
“Coach believes in me and that means a lot to me,” Ferguson said. “But my teammates believe in me, so I’m not gonna let them down. I’m gonna go out every day and play my hardest, compete and try to get the win each and every night.”
One might assume that his year abroad in Australia helped to mentally mold him into the high-flying, hard-nosed rookie we see today. Ferguson, however, contends that he’s had that edge from the very beginning.
“I’ve been mentally tough, it wasn’t overseas that did that,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I had to be mentally tough just to go over there — so I’ve always had that mentality, the [desire] to just dominate, play to the best of my ability and compete.”
And now he’s doing just that in the NBA.
Is Kyrie Irving’s Second Opinion a Cause for Concern?
Shane Rhodes breaks down the tough situation the Celtics are in with Kyrie Irving.
The Boston Celtics are in one awful predicament.
With a third of the roster out due to injury, Brad Stevens has been forced into the impossible task of maintaining Boston’s championship aspirations with some subpar talent; while they have performed admirably, the likes of Abdel Nader and Semi Ojeleye wouldn’t see the same run they are currently on with most contenders. Gordon Hayward has missed the entire season, save a few minutes on opening night. Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis are all currently out, some for the year and others not. Key contributors Al Horford, Marcus Morris and others have missed time as well.
It couldn’t get worse, could it?
Well, it may just have. Reports surfaced Tuesday that Irving, who had missed time this season — including the last four games — with left knee soreness, is seeking a second opinion after a lack of progress in his recovery.
My understanding is that Kyrie Irving is getting a 2nd opinion on his left knee, perhaps as soon as tomorrow. Bottom line: he needs the screws out. Knee is flaring up. He will either play thru it going forward or … he will get thee screws out and won’t play at all. Stay tuned.
— Tony Massarotti (@TonyMassarotti) March 20, 2018
With lack of progress on his ailing left knee, Celtics All-Star Kyrie Irving plans to travel for a second opinion later this week, league sources tell Yahoo.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) March 20, 2018
In the wake of the Isaiah Thomas fiasco and his ailing hip last Summer, an injury that lingered deep into this season, the Celtics will likely be more than cautious with Irving, whom they gave up a haul (the rights to the 2018 Brooklyn Nets first round pick, most notably), to acquire. But one can only wonder if these persistent issues — Irving’s left knee was surgically repaired after he sustained a fractured kneecap in 2015, and he reportedly threatened the Cleveland Cavaliers with surgery this offseason before his trade to Boston — are a cause for concern for general manager Danny Ainge and the Celtics.
The situation presents the Celtics with a quandary, to say the least.
Knee injuries aren’t exactly a death-knell, but fans need not look far for to see the devastating effect they can have on NBA players (e.g. Derrick Rose). They can snowball and, over time, even the best players will break down. Regardless of the severity, Irving’s knee issue presents problems both now and in the future.
The problems now are obvious: the Celtics, already down Gordon Hayward, cannot afford to lose Irving if they are at all interested in making a Finals run this season. Boston struggles mightily on the offensive end when Irving and his 24.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists aren’t on the court. In a playoff atmosphere, especially, the team would sorely miss his scoring prowess.
Looking ahead, if Irving is dealing with these problems at the age of 25, what could the future hold for the All-Star guard? Knee issues, most lower body issues in general, are often of the chronic variety, and constant maintenance can wear on people, both mentally and physically.
Just a season separated from a likely super-max payday, will the Celtics want to commit big-money long-term to potentially damaged goods?
If there is a silver lining in it all, it is the fact that 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum must now shoulder the scoring load, something that should go a long way in building on the potential that made him the No. 3 overall pick last June. And, should Irving miss the remainder of this season, exposure to the fires of the playoffs should only temper the Celtics’ young roster. In the event that Irving’s absence isn’t prolonged, time like this could only serve to strengthen the roster around him.
Still, Ainge brought Irving to Boston for a reason: he was meant to lead the Celtics into battle, alongside Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, in their quest for a title. Obviously, he can’t do that from the bench. Without Irving at 100 percent, the Celtics are not a championship caliber squad, healthy Gordon Hayward or not. That fact alone will make Irving’s situation one to monitor going forward and for the foreseeable future.
NBA Daily: Houston Has It All
Deciphering whether Houston is a contender or pretender is tough, but they’re making it easy.
It is very easy to get caught up in the NBA regular-season hyperbole. The past is littered with a plethora of NBA teams that looked like world-beaters in the regular season only to pull up lame in the playoffs and emerge as a bunch of pretenders.
So when it comes to the Houston Rockets, it’s no surprise many pundits and fans of the game fall heavily on one side or the other. The 2017-18 Rockets are a polarizing squad in that respect. On one side of the fence, you have the folks that are struggling to get behind Houston until they see how the franchise performs in the playoffs under the brightest of lights and on the biggest of stages. On the other, folks that place a great deal of weight on the 82-game regular season and the ability to sustain consistency throughout the marathon.
As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
At the top of Houston’s lineup are two future Hall of Famers in James Harden and Chris Paul. The latter was a perennial star in his heyday and is still a top-tier talent in the league. Harden, on the other hand, is closing in on his first MVP award and had serious cases for winning the honors in prior seasons, as well. Both Harden and Paul are criticized for their past playoff failures.
Paul entered the league during the 2006 season and has been dogged by the ever looming fact that he’s never reached a Conference Finals. Harden has been to the NBA Finals but has been dogged for multiple playoff missteps and shaky performances that remain etched in everyone’s memory. But something about this season’s Rockets team (57-14) seems different as the duo closes in on 60 wins.
One way to measure the true greatness of a NBA team is evaluating how many ways the roster can win playing a variety of styles. From the eyeball test, Houston checks the boxes in this category. The team sustains leads during blowouts. They have an offense built to erase large deficits quickly. The team possesses the talent to employ an array of versatile lineups to withstand top heat from opposing teams. Head coach Mike D’Antoni has shown the ability to adjust on the fly during certain situations. Houston is seemingly comprised of a bunch of guys that are selfless and ready to sacrifice at this stage of their respective careers.
Time will tell on all of those aforementioned aspects, but the Rockets are built to compete and win now. On paper at least, the team fits the criteria.
Paul has a chance to go down as a top five point guard in NBA history .His court vision is unquestioned and his big men always seem to end up being in the top five of field goal percentage each season (i.e. Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and now Clint Capela). In years past, the Rockets faltered down the stretch of games because the entire system ran through Harden. But this year’s club has the luxury of taking some of the on-ball expectation away from Harden and by giving the rock to Paul who naturally thrives in this role the squad doesn’t take a step back on the floor.
This is going to be big for Houston which has seen Harden gassed late in playoff games from carrying the entire load.
Small Ball Ready
Presumably standing between the Rockets and an appearance in the NBA Finals are the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors turned the NBA upside down with their free-flowing offense, long range accuracy and the successful ability to push the pace while playing small ball.
At the height of Golden State’s success they employed the “death lineup” which places All-Star forward Draymond Green at center. In different variations this gives the Warriors five guys on the court who can dribble, drive, pass and shoot. Versatility is important and if you look at this year’s Rockets team they have the ability to match the death lineup with their own version. Veteran forward P.J. Tucker would be able to guard Green in this scenario at center or Houston could just rely on the athleticism of Capela.
When it comes to defense, the Rockets will never be confused for the bad boy Detroit Pistons of yesteryear, however, the team has an assortment of individually capable defenders on the roster. Paul has all defensive team honors hanging on his mantle during his time in the league. Small forward Trevor Ariza made his bones in the league by placing an emphasis on defense. Before Capela emerged as a double-digit scorer, he was relied on as a defensive spark off the bench. Luc Mbah a Moute has a reputation and consistent track record of being a very willing defender.
Shooting, Versatility and Experience
All of this success, leads to the variation D’Antoni can put out onto the floor. The versatility to go with a small ball lineup or a lineup heavily skewed toward defenders is a luxury amenity. Houston also features five guys with 125 or more three-pointers made this season with Harden, Eric Gordon, Ariza, Paul and Ryan Anderson leading the way. A sixth, Tucker, should join the +100 club before season’s end. Veteran Gerald Green has only played 30 games with the franchise but has already knocked down 76 attempts from distance.
Experience is key as well. This year’s Rockets team features only one player under 25, receiving 25 or more minutes per night in the rotation. Look at NBA history, title winning teams are full of veterans not second or third year players.
Again, the Rockets will never be confused with the late 80s or early 90s Pistons but the team has more than a few guys that don’t shy away from contact or physical play. The collection of Nene, Tucker, Green and Ariza have had more than their share of shoving matches when things get heated on the floor.
With the start of the NBA playoffs (April 14) under a month away, the Rockets continue to build momentum toward a title run. Will Harden and Paul’s playoff demons from the past emerge or is their first true shot at greatness with a complete team? These questions will soon be answered.