Since the NBA raised its age limit to 19, NCAA “one-and-done” players have defined the top of the draft; from Oden and Durant, to Simmons vs. Ingram. Much like the 2014 draft was headlined by a crop of freshmen big men, this year’s class is rich in one particular resource: point guards.
If you are an avid reader of Hardwood Blues, you already know about Markelle Fultz, who I called the “best PG prospect since Kyrie Irving” before he had played a college game. Now that I have seen him at the NCAA level, there is no need to hold back; Fultz is a sure-fire stud and the obvious #1 overall pick. In broad strokes, Fultz reminds me of a subdued version of Russell Westbrook. He is a big, athletic point guard, an explosive scorer, a plus passer, and an aggressive albeit undisciplined defender.
When you consider that Fultz is literally twice as good as freshman-year Russ despite being a late bloomer in his own right, it wouldn’t shock me if he became an even better pro than Westbrook. This may seem crazy given that Westbrook is currently stuffing the box score at an historic rate, but it’s not like he’s the best player in the NBA. He’s not even the best point guard- Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, and James Harden are all clearly better in my opinion. A player with the aesthetics of Russell Westbrook and functional value closer to Chris Paul or Steph Curry could rule the NBA, and represents a far higher upside than any other prospect in this year’s draft.
UCLA is college basketball’s most fascinating team. The unbeaten Bruins are loaded with offensive talent, play an entertaining, up-tempo style, and have a budding defensive anchor in Ike Anigbogu. The main event is Lonzo Ball (pictured), a 6-foot-6 Jason Kidd wannabe from Chino Hills, CA who drains cockeyed three-pointers from the parking lot.
Ball is definitely fun to watch, but whether or not he’ll actually be good in the NBA is still up for debate. He is not a good defensive player, which is where the (inevitable) Kidd comparison falls flat, and he struggles to score in the half-court when he’s not dropping bombs over the defense, in part because of shooting mechanics that…need work. In spite of that, I am a believer in Lonzo. He has a special skill-level and feel for the game and boasts a track record of leading dominant and exciting teams in high school and now in college. Ball’s flaws make him far inferior to Markelle Fultz, but he’s somewhere in my top five overall.
Dennis Smith Jr.
School: NC State
Relative to expectations, Dennis Smith has been the most disappointing member of this freshman class. Something that hurts Smith in relation to Fultz and Ball, who possess outlier size and abilities, is that he is very cookie-cutter point guard. Unless he is still shaking off the after-affects of knee surgery (a distinct possibility), he is not a Derrick Rose/Eric Bledsoe-level athlete as advertised, and he doesn’t have any other plus skills that I can identify. Smith will likely get it going and improve his standing statistically (currently 14th overall in DMX, behind OK State’s Jawun Evans), but as of now there’s no way I’m taking him over Ball, and he’s not even in the same stratosphere as Fultz.
Fox is far and away the best defender of the group, most notably getting the better of Lonzo Ball in their head-to-head matchup at Rupp Arena. De’Aaron is long, quick, and active and has flashy passing skills. Since I’m talking about him last, you already know what’s coming: he can’t shoot. As I’ve stated before, I have a soft spot for this prototype, probably to a fault.
Kris Dunn, Elfrid Payton, and Marcus Smart are all players who I enjoy, but they haven’t shown to be particularly useful in the NBA and you could argue that all three were over-drafted. Smart has the most optimistic outlook, and he projected far better than Fox coming out of college. Fox is a solid mid first-rounder.