The 2017 NBA draft could potentially see five point guards selected in the lottery—the most since 1999.
Washington's Markelle Fultz, UCLA's Lonzo Ball, Kentucky's De'Aaron Fox, North Carolina State's Dennis Smith Jr. and France's Frank Ntilikina have each flashed starter upside with the necessary tools and skill sets to thrive at the NBA level.
Volume production and/or efficiency have only helped strengthen their cases.
A number of teams are also projected to pick early that could either upgrade their point guard situations (Philadelphia 76ers, Dallas Mavericks, Orlando Magic) or make room for another (Miami Heat, New Orleans Pelicans, Boston Celtics).
I ranked each guard three separate times—in three key aspects of his game, with No. 5 being the worst—based on his current play and likelihood of improving.
|Top Five Point Guard Prospects|
|Ntilikina||18||6'5"||170||7'0" (reported by NBAdraft.net)|
5. Lonzo Ball
Ball's skeptics can make a compelling argument about limited scoring potential.
His 15.8 points per 40 minutes rank last among the other top NCAA point guards. Though he's unselfish with an identity that revolves around passing and facilitating, his point-producing attack has holes in it.
Through 13 games, Ball has converted 32 times at the rim, 29 three-pointers and just one shot in between, per Hoop-Math.com. He's yet to show much of a pull-up or floater game—important weapons for half-court offense.
Lacking vertical explosiveness and upper-body strength, he's no lock to excel around the hoop either. Getting there may be the greater challenge for Ball, who takes 2.9 free-throw attempts per game and has converted only three unassisted field goals at the rim in the half court (not including putbacks).
|Half-court field goals made at the rim|
|FGM at rim in half court||Unassisted FGM at rim in half court (excluding putbacks)|
|Dennis Smith Jr.||16||11|
He is knocking down 2.2 threes per game, however. A confident shot-maker, Ball wouldn't be the first player with unorthodox shooting mechanics to succeed, but until we see his odd release work against NBA defenders, it's tough to buy into his jumper even if nearly every other part of his game works in spades.
4. De'Aaron Fox
Fox averages 16.3 points per game, mostly by putting heavy pressure on the basket and interior defense. Of his 68 made field goals, 48 have come at the rim.
|FGM at rim, total and transition|
|Total FGM at rim||FGM at rim in transition|
His speed and shiftiness make defenses look silly in transition. With 25 buckets in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock through 12 games, he's been a good bet for four easy fast-break points per game (as a scorer). But he's also shaken a number of individuals, including Ball, with advanced ball-handling and quickness in the half court.
At the rim, he's shown the bounce to dunk effortlessly and the coordination to adjust midair. However, Fox shoots 43.9 percent from the floor with an ugly 51.3 percent true shooting percentage.
|True shooting percentage, FG percentage|
|True shooting Pct.||FG Pct.|
The three-point arc is out of his comfort zone, as he's made just four of 26 triples. And though he's capable of pulling up or tossing in a runner, he hasn't been efficient, making 29.1 percent of his 55 two-point jumper attempts.
Fox has flashed potential around the perimeter, mostly inside the arc, but he's clearly behind Ntilikina, Smith and Fultz in terms of shot-making.
3. Frank Ntilikina
The MVP of December's U18 European Championships after putting up 23 points against Italy in the semis (December 21) and 31 on Lithuania (December 22) during the finals, Ntilikina showcased scoring potential that hasn't been fully visible in LNB Pro A (13.1 minutes per game) or Basketball Champions League (18 minutes).
Averaging just 5.5 points between the two leagues, Ntilikina has had a limited role with Strasbourg IG (17.2 percent usage, lowest among the lottery point guards). Despite playing mostly off the ball, he's been efficient, shooting 48.7 percent from the floor, which is a tribute to his versatility and knack for capitalizing opportunistically.
A big reason for his success so far as a teenager among pros is that Ntilikina is connecting from outside. During 2016-17, he's shot 47.1 percent (16-of-34) from behind the arc, a number he helped validate with France at the U18s last week by drilling 17 of 29 three-pointers.
With sharp ball-handling, he displayed crossovers into jumpers and pull-up after pull-up that highlighted improved shot creativity and perimeter scoring potential.
2. Dennis Smith Jr.
Smith will enter the league with the reputation of a scoring point guard in the mold of Damian Lillard.
Smith is a 6'3" jet who is averaging 18.9 points on 45.3 percent shooting. His attacking ability is his signature strength, thanks to a quick first step, tight handle and athleticism. He uses transition, ball screens and isolation to change directions and blow by defenders. Between his driving prowess and confidence, he projects as a frequent visitor to the free-throw line, where he's making 79.7 percent of his 6.6 foul shots per game.
Smith's two-point pull-up and floater need work (12-of-44), but he's looked capable, while his free-throw percentage and 1.7 threes per game (38.5 percent) create optimism about his shooting potential.
Recently making nine of 12 threes against Fairfield (December 18) and McNeese State (December 22) combined, Smith has proved he can catch fire from outside, which allows him to take over stretches of games. Compared to the other top players at the position, his shooting consistency and shot selection will wind up determining just how valuable he'll be.
1. Markelle Fultz
Fultz has already hit the 25-point mark five times and leads all NCAA freshmen in scoring (22 points per game).
An advanced shot-creator, Fultz consistently gets open looks by changing speeds and direction with nifty footwork and handles. He effortlessly separates into high-percentage shots, including layups and dunks off drives but also jumpers, whether it's by stepping back or abruptly pulling up.
|Perimeter scoring (NCAA PGs)|
|Two-point jumper Pct.||Two-point jumpers made||3PTM||3PT Pct.|
Fultz improvises by using runners and floaters and can hit tightly contested shots. Though he occasionally gets too flashy at the rim, he's shown he can finish high above it or at tough angles beneath.
Fultz has jumped out as the most complete and lethal scorer from all three levels. In today's league, that's a big plus. He's long, athletic and polished, so there isn't any reason to think his college numbers won't carry over to the NBA.
5. Frank Ntilikina
Ntilikina lacks explosiveness off the dribble, which limits him as a playmaker. He's a fine passer with a good feel for facilitating pick-and-rolls, but he doesn't come off as a breakdown guard.
He's only totaled 24 assists through 20 games with Strasbourg IG, though that's playing mostly shooting guard.
Ntilikina's 4.5 assists at the European Championships were more encouraging. Poised and patient, he picks his spots wisely by waiting for space to shake his man, drive and dish. He compensates for average burst with long, decisive strides.
4. Dennis Smith Jr.
Known for his scoring punch, Smith has been willing to move the ball and create for others at North Carolina State. Facilitating isn't his forte, but his elusiveness off the dribble naturally leads to assist opportunities.
Of our top four NCAA point guards, he leans on transition the least for dimes. It reflects his ability to make things happen once the game slows down.
|Percentage of assists that come in transition|
|Percentage of assists that come in transition|
Still, based on his shot selection, scoring and mindset, Smith never figures to rank highly in the assist category as a pro.
3. Markelle Fultz
You get the impression Fultz could easily average more than 6.3 assists if Washington didn't need him to carry the scoring load. His 35.3 percent assist percentage is higher than Fox's and Ball's.
Fultz is a dangerous passer on the move: We've seen spins into dump-offs and pick-and-roll assists that thread the needle. He uses hesitation and screens to penetrate, kick it out or drop it off while maintaining his vision in traffic.
His scoring remains ahead of his distributing, but he hasn't given scouts much to criticize, ranking No. 6 in the nation in points produced per game while taking care of the ball (13.4 percent turnover percentage).
2. De'Aaron Fox
Playmaking stands out as Fox's most attractive strength from an NBA scouting perspective; he's thrived as Kentucky's setup man, averaging 6.8 assists.
Difficult to stay in front of, Fox does a great job of getting into the lane, triggering the defense's collapse and finding the open man, whether it's a backdoor cutter, a big man in dunking position or a spot-up shooter. He also excels as a pick-and-roll lob passer.
Fox is at his best in the open floor, pushing the break and weaving through defenders. He creates quality scoring chances with his combination of speed and vision. He combined for 19 assists during anticipated matchups against UCLA (December 3) and North Carolina (December 17).
1. Lonzo Ball
UCLA's success can be tied to Ball's contagious passing and ability to make the game easier for others. With many of the same rotation players back, the Bruins are shooting 55 percent as a team, up from 45.4 percent in 2015-16.
He sees plays before they develop, both in transition and in the half court, where his basketball IQ shines most. From skip passes to simple extra passes, he consistently gets the ball to finishers or shooters in high-percentage scoring situations.
His 8.3 assists per game rank second in the country and first among freshmen, just ahead of Fox and Fultz. It wouldn't be shocking if Ball wound up leading the NBA at some point in his pro career.
5. Dennis Smith Jr.
Smith has made a habit of jumping lanes and turning steals into fast-break points. He's quick with a sturdy 195-pound frame.
Yet he also plays flat-footed off the ball and could stand to improve his energy.
Already too small to cover shooting guards, the fact that Smith's wingspan could be four to seven inches shorter than that of many of the point guards he'll face doesn't bode well for his defensive upside. Will he be able to effectively challenge NBA scoring ball-handlers?
4. Markelle Fultz
Washington can't stop anybody, and Fultz's uninspiring defensive effort hasn't helped. He's been caught lazily going under screens and losing track of his man, something that happened multiple times against Gonzaga on December 7, when dozens of scouts were probably watching.
It's been the only real knock on Fultz early on, but it's one that won't sit well with NBA coaches.
He's averaging 1.8 steals and 1.3 blocks per game, so the defensive playmaking has still been there and should ultimately translate to the pros, given his athleticism, quickness and length. He'll need to improve as a team defender, but he has potential to do so.
3. Lonzo Ball
Ball's hands and reaction time are fast. He anticipates, picks pockets and jumps passing lanes. But he doesn't always fully close out on shooters and isn't the toughest to beat in isolation. Against Kentucky on December 3, Fox exposed Ball multiple times around the perimeter.
The NBA's speedier point guards—as well as physical screeners—could give Ball trouble around the perimeter.
2. De'Aaron Fox
Already one of the country's better on-ball defenders, Fox is difficult to shake. Pesky with lightning hands and feet, he can harass, as well as avoid and slip through screens.
Occasionally, he loses focus off the ball, but it doesn't appear to be a long-term concern.
They don't make them much quicker than Fox. A lack of size, strength and length remains the only negative tied to his outlook. It should limit him to guarding point guards—not 2s or wings.
1. Frank Ntilikina
Ntilikina put on a defensive clinic last week in Turkey, suffocating opposing ball-handlers at the U18s.
At 6'5" with a reported 7'0" wingspan—according to Ntilikina himself via NBAdraft.net's Aran Smith—the Frenchman has the size, length and foot speed to create a monster defensive ceiling. Not only has he shown the potential to force turnovers and make plays on the ball (2.2 steals, 1.2 blocks in 27.8 minutes per game at the European Championship) with snapping hands, long arms and pressure, but he offers the versatility to guard both backcourt positions.
Even if Ntilikina's offensive game fails to take off, his defensive tools should hold value and keep him relevant.
Top Five Point Guards (Overall)
5. Frank Ntilikina
Ntilikina's measurements, defense and shot-making push up his floor, but his playmaking and penetrating skills aren't up to par with that of the other four point guards. Without bulk, great speed or bounce, his offensive ceiling is debatable.
He should still be worth taking late in the lottery as a defensive-minded guard who can move the ball and hurt defenses when given an opening.
4. De'Aaron Fox
Fox ranks ahead of Ntilikina with superior athleticism and facilitating ability. He also projects as a defensive asset, and though he's not as proficient of a shooter, he could improve his jumper and range.
He'll have the chance to be a top-15 point guard in the league if his shooting gets better over time.
3. Lonzo Ball
Ball's intangibles would rank No. 1, but in this case, scoring potential holds more weight. I'm not convinced he can become one of the game's premier point guards if he averages "only" 10-15 points per game.
But just like he's done for UCLA, Ball should be capable of making an NBA team better offensively with his game management. He puts players in position to succeed, and at 6'6" with enough wiggle and bounce, Ball should continue to dish at the highest level against NBA defenses.
2. Dennis Smith Jr.
Smith should put up big numbers as a pro once he tightens his perimeter game and shot selection. He can generate offense out of every situation—transition, pick-and-rolls, isolation, off-ball action. He ranks ahead of Ball with an offensive attack that is better suited for today's NBA.
Staying efficient with short arms and a shoot-first approach will be Smith's challenge.
1. Markelle Fultz
Textbook tools, showtime athleticism, advancing scoring and exciting playmaking consistently power Fultz to No. 1 on our 2017 NBA draft big boards and mock drafts. He should wind up providing too much firepower for defensive lapses to hurt his overall value.
His size and shooting could even allow him to play alongside other point guards.
But the ability to take over games as a scorer and pick apart opponents in the passing game makes Fultz an ideal lead guard to build around.