NBA Counterparts for College Basketball's Top Point Guards
Diehard fans try not to look at it this way, but it's hard to deny that college basketball is viewed by many—particularly those in the NBA—as an unofficial minor league for the pros. And because of this, any time a college player starts to stand out at that level, he's immediately compared to those in the NBA.
This begins long before many notable players even get to college, as Bleacher Report recently listed pro comparisons for the top high school prospects in the 2017 recruiting class. It's a natural reaction to compare and contrast, even if there's no perfect match for the dimensions, skills and drive of the prospect.
With the 2016-17 college basketball season still more than two months away, we've got plenty of time to break down the best players in the game, many of whom will eventually end up in the NBA or some other pro league. This week, we're breaking down the best college point guards, with a look at how their games equate to those of current or former pro point guards.
Lonzo Ball, UCLA
Compares to: Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
In 2008, the last time UCLA made a Final Four, it had a stacked lineup full of future NBA players, including Darren Collison and Kevin Love. But it was Russell Westbrook, a relatively unheralded recruit who blossomed into a star as a sophomore, who tied all those standout Bruins together with his ability to score and distribute with ease.
And that's what UCLA is hoping it has again in Lonzo Ball, who comes to Westwood with much more hype—he's the No. 3 player from the 2016 class—and expectations that are just as lofty. Look at any preseason college basketball rankings, and you'll see the Bruins, who were 15-17 in 2015-16, among the top 10 or 20 teams. And though this is due to a number of factors, including four players who averaged double figures last season, it's just as much the result of Ball's impending arrival.
"The best way to open a description of Ball’s game is to remark on his unique skill set," Scout.com's Rob Harrington wrote. "He’s either a very tall point guard at 6'5", or else he’s a supremely skilled and instinctive wing. Either way, he can fulfill a large number of roles."
Westbrook has been a similar player in the NBA. This past season, he was second on the Oklahoma City Thunder in scoring and rebounds while leading in assists. While Ball might not be as involved in the rebounding with UCLA, his length makes it possible to pull down boards when needed.
De'Aaron Fox, Kentucky
Compares to: John Wall, Washington Wizards
Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari has sent dozens of players to the NBA during his long coaching career, many of them point guards—Eric Bledsoe, Tyreke Evans, Derrick Rose, Tyler Ulis and John Wall, just to name a few—so it's no surprise that incoming point guard De'Aaron Fox has been described as a future pro.
"He’s got elite length for a point guard, he’s extremely athletic and has good vision and handles," Tom Stephenson of SB Nation's Team Speed Kills wrote.
The 6'4" Fox still has to work on his jump shot, though with fellow guard Malik Monk joining him at Kentucky, he'll only have to shoot when he wants to and not by necessity. This will lead his other attributes to stand out, most notably his quickness, and when that happens, the similarities to Wall will stand out.
Wall averaged 16.6 points and 6.5 assists for the Wildcats in 2009-10. With the Washington Wizards, he's improved his scoring over his six NBA seasons and is the No. 2 active leader in assists per game at 9.0.
Markelle Fultz, Washington
Compares to: Brandon Roy (retired)
With Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray both going in the first round of June's NBA draft, Washington's Lorenzo Romar has coached nine first-round picks in his 14 seasons with the Huskies. Markelle Fultz is all but assured to be his 10th—DraftExpress has him No. 1 in 2017—and possibly the best of the lot.
If the 6'5" Fultz is able to live up to the praise that has made him so well-regarded at the prep level and in international play, where he recently led Team USA's U18 team to the FIBA Americas championship in Chile, he might also help the Huskies get into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011. With Team USA, Fultz averaged 13.8 points, 5.2 assists and 3.2 steals per game while shooting 54.7 percent.
Romar's first two NCAA tourney teams at Washington, in 2005 and 2006, reached the Sweet 16 thanks to the play of a similarly dynamic point guard. Brandon Roy averaged 20.2 points and 4.1 assists per game as a senior in 2006, then went sixth overall in the 2006 draft and averaged 18.8 points per game in his five full seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers before injuries ended his career at 28.
Fultz has had no injury concerns to this point, so there's no reason to suspect he won't stick around in the NBA far longer than Roy but with the same results.
Devonte' Graham, Kansas
Compares to: Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
For all the success that head coach Bill Self has had at Kansas, he's done so without many NBA-level point guards. The last to get drafted was second-rounder Tyshawn Taylor in 2012, and he was out of the NBA after two seasons.
Devonte' Graham might not have looked like someone destined for the pros a few years ago, when he was set to go to Appalachian State before doing a post-graduate year in prep school and ending up with the Jayhawks. But after moving into a starting role as a sophomore and excelling, Graham has climbed draft boards and could go late in the first round after the 2016-17 season if he turns pro.
Graham averaged 11.3 points and 3.7 assists last season, numbers that would have been higher if not for being part of a two-point guard lineup alongside Frank Mason. His 2.19-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio wasn't as good as Mason's 2.4, but he made up for it with better shooting numbers, particularly from three-point range (44.1 percent).
Rated by DraftExpress as the No. 4 performer at the Adidas Nations event earlier this month in Los Angeles, the 6'2" Graham has the makeup of a late bloomer like Damian Lillard was in four seasons at Weber State before being Portland's first-round pick in 2012.
Monte Morris, Iowa State
Compares to: Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets
Monte Morris has made a name for himself as one of the best (and most careful) ball-handlers in college basketball. In his three seasons at Iowa State, he's turned it over just 123 times in 105 games with an astounding 4.48-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, giving it away only 11.7 percent of the time in 2015-16 and 11 percent for his career.
Those kinds of numbers aren't common at any level, but they're the reason Morris will likely get a look in the NBA a year from now. He could have taken the plunge after his junior year, though a shoulder injury kept him from declaring.
"My shoulder didn't heal right away, so I wouldn't have been able to do workouts or anything, but all of a sudden I woke up and it magically felt good again," Morris told MLive.com's Eric Woodyard. "… I wanted to leave this year and go play in the NBA because it's been my dream. But stuff happens for a reason."
The return to Iowa State gives him another year to hone his skills and fit into a pro role, with his willingness to distribute and delegate a bonus. If the 6'2" Morris can continue to develop his overall offensive game—in particular, become more of an aggressive shooter—then the comps to Kemba Walker make even more sense.
For now, we're going with the former Connecticut star because of his care with the ball. He has a 10.9 percent turnover rate in five NBA seasons with Charlotte in addition to 17.3 points and 5.3 assists per game.
Emmett Naar, Saint Mary's
Compares to: Matthew Dellavedova, Milwaukee Bucks
Sure, it might feel like a cop out to compare Emmett Naar to one of the previous Australian standouts to go from Saint Mary's into the NBA, but even if he and Matthew Dellavedova weren't from the same country and alma mater it would still fit. We could have also gone with Patty Mills, but since Naar isn't likely to get drafted, the Dellavedova comp works better.
The 6'1" Naar hasn't drawn as much praise as his Gaels predecessors to this point partly because the program hasn't made the NCAA tournament since 2012-13. The Gaels were one of the first ones out this past season despite a 27-5 mark heading into Selection Sunday, and they ended up reaching the NIT quarterfinals.
Naar was the leading scorer (14.1) and assist man (6.3) on that Saint Mary's team while also shooting a team-best 41.8 percent from three-point range as a sophomore. Mills left for the NBA after his second year with the Gaels, while Dellavedova stayed all four years, which seems to be the path Naar will take before trying to latch on with an NBA team thanks to his high motor and scrappy play.
Dennis Smith, North Carolina State
Compares to: Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers
Before he returned to action recently, scouts and experts looking to evaluate Dennis Smith had to go back a ways to find usable film and results since he missed his senior year of high school after tearing knee ligaments.
What they saw before that was promising, which is why he remained seventh in the 2016 class, and he looked healthy enough at the Adidas Nations tournament in California to be projected by NBADraft.net as the No. 1 pick for 2017.
"He is quickly shaking off the rust," NBADraft.net's Aran Smith wrote. "He showed off his elite explosiveness on numerous occasions. … Sort of a blend of Chris Paul with Derrick Rose hops."
Ironically, Adidas Nations was the same event in which he suffered his torn ACL a year ago.
The limited information on a top prospect because of injury is similar to what scouts dealt with when Kyrie Irving entered the 2011 NBA draft. He played only one season at Duke and just 11 games at that—eight before suffering a foot injury and then three in the NCAA tournament—yet that was more than enough to convince the Cleveland Cavaliers to draft him first overall.
The 6'2" Smith will hopefully have the benefit of a full freshman year before deciding whether to turn pro, which seems likely if he remains high on draft boards.
Edmond Sumner, Xavier
Compares to: Jamal Crawford, Los Angeles Clippers
It will probably be a little while before Edmond Sumner is getting a full NBA evaluation, seeing as DraftExpress has him listed as the 32nd-best player from last year's college freshman class. And that's after all of the one-and-dones turned pro and were removed from that list.
But after a promising first year at Xavier—one in which he rebounded from a scary head injury in late December to average 11.0 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists—Sumner is going to be one to watch in the near future.
"Sumner has the instinctual tactical skills and makeup to blossom," Dan Stack of TodaysU.com wrote. "While he is [a] gifted scorer, he is also honing his craft as a point guard."
What will intrigue scouts most about Sumner is his length. He's 6'5" with a 6'8" wingspan, much longer than most ball-handlers. That length has helped Jamal Crawford hang around the NBA for 16 seasons, and though no longer a starter, he's still a valuable backup.
Melo Trimble, Maryland
Compares to: D.J. Augustin, Orlando Magic
His stock has seemingly dipped by the day as his career has gone on, never higher than at the end of his freshman season, but Melo Trimble still has NBA talent and figures to again get plenty of looks when he goes through the draft process next spring. He was one of the last players to withdraw from the draft and return to school in May, ultimately coming back to a Maryland team in which he'll be the only returning starter.
That could either provide the platform for Trimble to shine as a do-everything guy—and thus raise his stock again—or cause it to fall even more since he may end up being the only good player on an otherwise disappointing Terrapins squad. Scouts will watch for how his game might change, using whatever feedback they gave him from the draft combine and individual workouts.
The extra time in college has exposed some of Trimble's most glaring weaknesses, notably his lack of athleticism and turnover issues. Because of this, he's gone from being compared to Stephen Curry, as 247Sports' Josh Stirn did in July 2015, to Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman using D.J. Augustin as a comp in March.
"His playmaking and pull-up shooting ability are worth looking into," Wasserman wrote, adding that Trimble seems headed for a career backup role like Augustin has had while starting only 170 games in eight NBA seasons. However, Augustin still earned a four-year, $29 million contract with the Orlando Magic this summer.
Maurice Watson Jr., Creighton
Compares to: J.J. Barea, Dallas Mavericks
Maurice Watson Jr. shined in relative anonymity this past season at Creighton, his first after transferring from Boston University and sitting out a year. He averaged 14.1 points and 6.5 assists as a junior on a 20-win Blue Jays team that overachieved without any other real notable player.
It will be different in 2016-17 with former Kansas State guard Marcus Foster eligible following his transfer, and though some of Watson's scoring numbers could dip, his assist figures might rise now that another viable scorer is on the court. And that should lead to more team success, and thus more interest from scouts looking to see if the 5'10" Watson can be the next diminutive guard to carve out a niche in the NBA.
Watson declared for the draft in March but withdrew in early May after not earning a combine invite. Even with a breakout senior year on a team that makes the NCAA tournament, NBA teams might be leery to use a pick on someone his size, so he'll likely have to sign a rookie free-agent deal and fight for a spot.
That's what J.J. Barea did in 2006, signing with the Dallas Mavericks after a strong summer, and now he's headed into his 11th pro season.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.