Early On-Court Impressions of Top 2017 NBA Draft Prospects

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Early On-Court Impressions of Top 2017 NBA Draft Prospects
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Assessments can change from now until June 22, but first impressions of NBA prospects help create a foundation from which to scout.

No longer dealing in offseason theoreticals or past performance, we can now monitor how they grow, improve or plateau. 

Most of this year's top names are off to encouraging starts, and we haven't even yet seen Duke's top three freshmen (injuries) who could all wind up in the lottery. 

The following prospects are viewed as consensus first-rounders if they choose to declare in 2017. Only those who have played a total of three games were eligible for an early breakdown. Top prospects who didn't qualify include California's Ivan Rabb and Duke's Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles and Marques Bolden. 

     

Tyler Lydon (Syracuse, PF, 6'9", Sophomore)

Key numbers: 9.8 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 46.2 3PT%

Rich Barnes/Getty Images

With Syracuse having played four games and won by an average of 33.8 points, it's tough to put much stock into Tyler Lydon's early-season play. Praised for his coveted mix of shooting and athleticism coming in, he hasn't disappointed. He's hit six of his first 13 three-point attempts and looked stronger physically, which has shown up under the boards.

Lydon is averaging 10.8 rebounds per 40 minutes after grabbing just 8.3 as a freshman, while his activity and jumper create stretch-4 potential every NBA team chases. 

He's shown signs (on a few plays) of improved shot-creating and one-on-one offense. Still, it's not an area of his game that's poised to take off. His upside isn't as enticing or attractive as his clear fit in today's league.

Lydon is a low-risk, low-reward NBA role player, and he'll be worth drafting anywhere in the second half of June's first round.

Offseason draft projection: Mid-to-late first round

Current draft projection: Mid-to-late first round

              

Bam Adebayo (Kentucky, PF/C, 6'10", Freshman)

Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Key numbers: 10.2 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 55.2 FG%, 1.4 BPG

The first thing that sticks out about Edrice "Bam" Adebayo is his chiseled upper body. Toned at 260 pounds, his combination of power and bounce has led to easy buckets off dump-downs, lobs and offensive rebounds. 

He's also flashed signs of a jump hook in the lane and a baseline spin move with his back to the basket. Having made 19 of his first 30 free throws (63.3 percent), he's had capable touch out to 15 feet, though becoming a pick-and-pop option or a mid-range shooter would likely require a few years of consistent improvement. 

Used in just 19 percent of Kentucky possessions, per Sports-Reference.com, he's still a below-average offensive player/shot creator who relies mostly on physical tools and his athleticism for scoring. Defensively, he's gotten lost trying to defend ball screens. His 16.5 percent defensive rebounding percentage and 6.7 percent block percentage are also underwhelming, given his strength and leaping ability. 

Though it may be unfair to label Adebayo after just five college games, his NBA projection is trending more toward energizer as opposed to post scorer or rim protector. That knocks him down a tier in my 2017 prospect rankings.

Offseason draft projection: Late lottery to mid-first round

Current draft projection: Mid-to-late first round

      

OG Anunoby (Indiana, SF, 6'8", Sophomore)

Key numbers: 9.5 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 1.5 BPG, 1.0 SPG

Anunoby was hit with unfair expectations after playing just 13.7 minutes per game as a freshman. His role has dramatically increased (24.3 minutes per game), but his physical tools, athleticism and motor remain far ahead of his skills.

Anunoby's strengths still shine on defense, where his size, length and quickness translate to pressure and valuable versatility. On November 11, he did a solid job on Kansas Jayhawks freshman Josh Jackson, a No. 1 overall candidate who didn't make much noise during Indiana's opening-night win.

A season ago, Anunoby converted 13 of 29 threes, and scouts were hoping to see his jumper come to life this year. At 4-of-13 from deep, the sample is too small to judge, but he's capable of sinking triples and improving. 

In the half court, he still lets his athleticism do most of the talking. He's picked up buckets by spinning past defenders in the post or cutting—not by dribbling one-on-one.

Average ball-handling and poor shot-creating ability limit his offensive potential. But assuming he can make a case as a threatening spot-up shooter, NBA teams should still be willing to use a first-round pick on his three-and-D potential. Based on his first four games, the mid-to-late first round sounds like a more reasonable landing spot than the lottery.

Offseason draft projection: Late lottery

Current draft projection: Mid-to-late first round

             

De'Aaron Fox (Kentucky, PG, 6'3", Freshman)

Key numbers: 15.4 PPG, 7.6 APG, 1.8 SPG

Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Averaging 7.6 assists per game, De'Aaron Fox looks like Kentucky's most dynamic playmaker since John Wall. With 42.1 percent of those assists coming in transition, he's at his best initiating the break and pushing the ball off misses and makes.

Fox is fast and uses his ball-handling and speed to weave through traffic while beating defenses down the floor before they can set. In the half court, he's crafty off the dribble and can set the table for teammates off ball screens and penetration. 

He's had less success as a scorer, though he's still averaging 15.4 points and 7.2 free-throw attempts per game. Fox puts pressure on the interior defense with his quickness and athleticism, but he's struggled outside the lane: He's made just 29.2 percent of his two-point jumpers, one of 11 threes and 38.3 percent of his total field-goal attempts.

Fox appears lighter than the 187 pounds the Wildcats list him at, and unless he starts knocking down jumpers consistently, he's going to have a tough time scoring efficiently. At the other end, Fox is a strong on-ball defender but still needs to learn team concepts.

"If he catches up defensively, he’ll play every minute he can be out there,” head coach John Calipari told Cats Illustrated's Derek Terry. "But you can’t just be out there."

Fox's defense isn't as concerning as his perimeter game and frame. Athleticism, passing, attacking, defensive potential and his correctable weakness (shooting) should still cement Fox into this year's top 20.

Offseason draft projection: Top 10

Current draft projection: Mid-first round

      

Malik Monk (Kentucky, SG, 6'3", Freshman)

Key numbers: 17.2 PPG, 47 FG%, 43.2 3PT%

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Malik Monk's jumper and athleticism have unsurprisingly fueled his scoring attack. Productive and efficient while averaging 17.2 points per game on 47 percent shooting, he's had success playing the same role Jamal Murray excelled in at Kentucky.

Having hit 16 threes in just five contests, Monk has a perimeter game that looks deadly and convincing. He's shown he can catch fire and make deep shots in bunches. The fact he's money from outside helps diminish some concerns tied to his 6'3" size and 6'3" wingspan, below-average numbers for an off-guard. 

There are, however, questions over his shot selection and his inability to get to the basket. Despite all the offense he's generated, Monk has attempted just one field goal at the rim in the half court, per Hoop-Math.com. Seven of his eight buckets there have come in transition; he's taken just 10 free throws in 134 minutes. 

Monk relies heavily on his jumper, and hasn't shown combo playmaking skills (1.6 assists per game). What happens when that jumper isn't falling? Can he still impact the game? Between his perimeter streak scoring and his lack of height and length, which could limit his ability to defend starting NBA 2-guards, everything about Monk says "sixth man at the pro level."  

Offseason draft projection: Mid-first round

Current draft projection: Mid-to-late first round

       

Lonzo Ball (UCLA, PG, 6'6", Freshman)

Key numbers: 16.6 PPG, 9.4 APG, 5.8 RPG, 62.2 FG%, 47.8 3PT%

Regardless of whether you buy into Lonzo Ball's NBA potential, he's been great early on.

Having thrived at Chino Hills High School playing a run-and-gun style of offense, he has benefited from the Bruins' early pace, which ranks in the top 10 in tempo, per KenPom.com. Ball is known for his passing, and his vision has lived up to the hype: He's already racked up three 11-assist games in five tries.

Simply put, Ball has an unbelievable ability to see all four teammates—regardless of where he is or when he gets the rock. He makes quick decisions that create open looks for Bryce Alford, TJ Leaf, Thomas Welsh, Aaron Holiday and Isaac Hamilton. 

Ball reminds me of Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio—only he is 6'6" and can jump, something we've seen on multiple alley-oop catches.

The biggest surprise has been his shooting. Despite bizarre mechanics—he starts with the ball on his left hip before bringing it over to his right side on the release—he's made 11 of 23 threes. He clearly has confidence in his jumper. The question is whether the early success is legitimate and sustainable. 

Otherwise, he's been less impressive defensively when challenging on the perimeter and helping. And I'm still somewhat skeptical about his scoring potential, given his skinny frame (190 lbs) and limited mid-range game. 

But he's going to get one team in the top 10 to bite on his size, athleticism and passing instincts, which could help turn Ball into one of the most unique playmakers in the league. He'll have the chance to be special if it turns out his jumper is for real and his body fills out over time. 

Offseason draft projection: Mid-first round 

NBA draft projection: Top 10

      

Miles Bridges (Michigan State, SF/PF, 6'7", Freshman) 

Key numbers: 17.4 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 1.7 BPG

Miles Bridges likely jumped up on more than a few draft boards since the start of November. While his explosive athleticism was known, his scoring ability, passing, rebounding and defensive playmaking were less obvious. 

Having hit 14 threes through seven games, he's shown that his shooting stroke works, even if it goes hot and cold throughout the year. Bridges has knocked down spot-ups, rhythm pull-ups and rise-and-fire jumpers one-on-one from the short corners.

He can also make moves off the dribble, though his fluidity isn't there yet. Sometimes his body moves too fast for his handle, and it's clear he'll need work as a shot creator. Bridges is a passionate player, and his frustration also leads to questionable decisions, as he's averaging 3.4 turnovers per game. 

Otherwise, he's leaned on his leaping ability and his coordination for offense off lobs, drives and putbacks. When Bridges has room to lift off, he can rise above traffic at the rim; it's helped him block 12 shots as well. 

The big draft-time question is about how he fits in today's NBA. But if they haven't already, teams should wind up feeling comfortable with Bridges playing small-ball 4 at 6'7", 230 pounds. He compensates for his height with his power, quickness, shooting and motor under the boards. 

Offseason draft projection: Mid-to-late first round

Current draft projection: Top 10

     

Lauri Markkanen (Arizona, PF/C, 7'0", Freshman)

Key numbers: 18.8 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 51.8 FG%, 36.4 3PT%

After I saw Lauri Markkanen lead the U20 European Championship in scoring over the summer, it was clear Arizona was getting an offensive weapon, but I didn't know he was this sharp. 

Markkanen has flashed glimpses of Kristaps Porzingis-like perimeter skills, and though he's not as tall, his handles and shooting are still rare for a 7-footer. To say he can put the ball on the floor would be an understatement: Markkanen can change direction or spin, as well as pull up or step back for unguardable jumpers. 

He has a good shooting stroke (28-of-30 at the line) with plenty of range (eight threes in five games), and he's connecting off the catch and the dribble.

He's also turned the ball over just three times in 173 total minutes, a tribute to his skill level and IQ.

Markkanen's flaws show up around the basket, where he offers minimal rim protection (three blocks in five games) and rebounding physicality (14.2 percent rebounding percentage). 

His offensive game is still too strong, and though not a defensive presence inside, he's looked capable guarding in space around the perimeter.

Offseason draft projection: Late lottery to mid-first round

Current draft projection: Top 10

    

Jonathan Isaac (Florida State, SF/PF, 6'10", Freshman)

Key numbers: 15.3 PPG, 6.3 RPG 

It's only been six games, but Jonathan Isaac looks like a dark-horse top-three pick in 2017. Just like Brandon Ingram did, Isaac immediately stands out with power forward size, ridiculous length (7'1 ¼" wingspan) and guard skills. He's made 12 of 24 threes, looking like a proficient shooter while pulling up and spotting up. 

He's beaten defenders with a quick first step off the bounce, and he's gotten to and finished at the rim using a mix of dexterity, length and body control. 

Isaac hasn't done much between the key and the arc; he's been unselfish, trying to move the ball and not let it stick to his hands. 

Though known more for his offensive versatility, his defense has been just as effective. He's held his own down low and against guards or smaller wings away from the basket. Isaac should wind up being an effective pick-and-roll defender. 

Averaging 15.3 points per game on 60.3 percent shooting while contributing at both ends of the floor, he's been as good as his role allows him to be. During the offseason, potential alone had Isaac lumped in as a lottery prospect. If he hits his stride, he'll be too big and long for 3s with mismatch quickness and face-up skills for power forwards. 

Consistent production and efficiency throughout the year should strengthen his credibility and boost his stock even further.

Offseason draft projection: Lottery

Current draft projection: Top five

Josh Jackson (Kansas, SF, 6'8", Freshman)

Key numbers: 14.4 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 2.4 APG, 1.2 SPG, 55.8 FG%

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Josh Jackson had the difficult task of debuting against one of the nation's top defenders in Anunoby. It's been smooth sailing since—Jackson made 26 of his next 41 field-goal attempts over a four-game span. 

He opened eyes during a second-half spurt against the Duke Blue Devils on November 15 that saw him go coast-to-coast, cross over into a floater, hit a pull-up jumper and drain a three-pointer. It highlighted his versatility, which he's consistently flashed, not just as a scorer but as a passer as well. Unselfish with vision and some developing ball-handling skills, Jackson has also established himself as a playmaking threat. 

He hasn't shown much one-on-one creating, and chances are he won't this yearparticularly on a team with such talented guards. His shooting stroke looks good inside 18 feet, but at this stage, he isn't likely to consistently make threes with mechanics that expose a low release right in front of his face.

At the baseline, he's a fantastic athlete, transition weapon, slasher and defender. Jackson is exceptionally quick laterally, and once he figures out how to avoid fouling (5.4 fouls per 40 minutes), he's going to be a handful for small-ball 4s, wings and guards. 

Jackson is averaging 14.4 points per game and still has enormous room for improvement. I'm not convinced he'll ever be a go-to player, but that shouldn't stop the top five lottery teams from showing interest in June. 

Offseason draft projection: Top five

Current draft projection: Top five

      

Dennis Smith Jr. (North Carolina State, PG, 6'3", Freshman)

Key numbers: 17.8 PPG, 5.2 APG

Dennis Smith Jr. is trying to get comfortable in terms of picking his spots, but he's still averaging 17.8 points and 5.2 assists per game while taking care of the ball (11.6 turnover percentage).

He's already answered his biggest offseason question by showing his explosiveness has returned following last summer's torn ACL. Between Smith's shiftiness and renewed burst, he's gotten to the line 39 times (made 34) in five games.

He reminds me of Portland Trail Blazer Damian Lillard off the dribble; he's another scoring point guard who similarly operates low to the ground and changes direction with tight ball-handling and hesitation. And though Dame is the more advanced shooter, Smith gets extra lift at the rim, which allows him to hang in the air, finish after contact and draw fouls. 

Smith is generating most of his offense by attacking (12 field goals made at the rim, five on two-point jumpers, seven on threes, per Hoop-Math.com). The pull-up and floater are in his arsenal, and he gets them off with ease. But they'll need time to become consistent.

The same goes for his three ball, which has hit on seven of 24 attempts. He's capable from behind the arc, threatening inside it and erratic in general around the perimeter. But becoming better than average from outside still seems plausible or even probable over time. 

Smith has also shown a willingness to get teammates involved. He's already created a number of highlights by breaking down the defense and either dumping it off or lobbing it up to a dunker. And he's made some nice pick-and-roll assists for easy buckets at the hoop and open threes on the wing. 

It wouldn't hurt for Smith to show more urgency or energy: I've caught him flatfooted multiple times when he didn't have the ball. But if we're just judging based on talent, Smith should start and finish the season in the top-five discussion.

Offseason draft projection: Top five

Current draft projection: Top five

       

Markelle Fultz (Washington, PG, 6'4", Freshman)

Key numbers: 25.5 PPG, 6.5 APG, 5.3 RPG, 1.8 SPG, 62.1 FG%, 47.1 3PT%

Markelle Fultz entered the season No. 1 on my board, and nothing has changed through Thanksgiving. 

He opened the season with 30 points against Yale and followed that with 35 versus Cal State Fullerton. Regardless of how little you think of Washington's early competition, Fultz has looked every bit as good as the preseason buzz suggested he was following his MVP showing at the U18 FIBA Americas in July.

He's smooth with his delivery and operates at his own pace: It's not lightning fast, but he doesn't have trouble shaking off defenders by changing speeds. Once Fultz gets inside the arc, he's highly advanced with pull-ups, step-backs and floaters. Together, he's made 17 of 28 attempts (60.7 percent on two-point jumpers, per Hoop-Math.com). 

Fultz has been even more impressive at the rim (11-of-13), where he's flashed the explosiveness to soar and dunk over shot-blockers, as well as the coordination to adjust midair and finish at tough angles.

Averaging 6.5 assists per game, Fultz has already made numerous high-IQ assists off screens and his own dribble creativity. There won't be any debate as to whether he projects as a 2 or a 1 in the pros Fultz has point guard instincts to back up the scoring and shooting. 

Per KenPom.com, Washington ranks 111th in adjusted defensive efficiency, and Fultz hasn't helped. He's at least used his athleticism and terrific length (6'9 ¾"to make big plays on the ball (seven steals and five blocks through four games). 

Fultz hasn't been tested, though, and the Huskies opened the season with a bad loss to a Yale team that was missing its best player (Makai Mason). But if he continues at his current rate, no one should stop him from going No. 1.

Offseason draft projection: No. 1 overall

Current draft projection: No. 1 overall 

     

Stats up to date as of Friday. Unless otherwise noted, advanced stats courtesy of Hoop-Math.com and Sports-Reference.com. Wingspans courtesy of DraftExpress.

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