2017 NBA Draft: Ranking Top Prospects by Long-Term Potential
What fuels long-term potential before the NBA draft?
Traditionally, it's tools and athleticism, which create mismatches and allow players to make plays that don't require a great deal of skill. Even when Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo first entered the league, he was able to get himself easy baskets just by tapping into his agility, length and leaping ability at 6'11".
Then his skills caught up, and now he's viewed as one of the game's toughest covers.
The prospects with the most upside have the greatest combination of size (for the position), burst, skill level and youth, which reflects room to improve.
Arizona's Lauri Markkanen and France's Frank Ntilikina are top-10 prospects on my big board, but that's mostly due to their floors—not their ceilings. Markkanen's lack of explosiveness and defense and Ntilikina's subtle playmaking attack appear to limit their perceived upside, though both look like surefire NBA players who don't offer great risk.
Some of the following prospects come with greater bust potential than Markkanen and Ntilikina but also a greater chance to reach NBA stardom.
10. Miles Bridges (Michigan State, SF/PF, 6'6", Freshman)
Among the prospects with top-10 ceilings, Miles Bridges has the lowest floor, given the questions tied to his fit as a forward who lacks perimeter skills and big-man size. On the other hand, he's one of the most explosive athletes in the country with a powerful frame and productive jumper.
Bridges' mix of muscle and bounce seems guaranteed to translate to easy finishes in transition, off lobs and putbacks. He's a ridiculous leaper who gets high above traffic and the rim, and with a strong 230-pound body, strength isn't a concern like it is for many freshmen.
He's also knocking down two threes per game at a 42.4 percent clip, and though his 62.8 percent free-throw percentage says to be wary, Bridges clearly has the shot-making ability and potential as a shooter.
The upside kicks in if Bridges can exploit his quickness against power forwards and his bulk against wings. He's shown he can face up and blow by in line drives and improvise with unorthodox runners on the move, but his three turnovers per game highlight a lack of ball-skill polish.
If it turns out his three-point percentage is fluky, and his handle and decision-making never improve, we could be looking at a Derrick Williams-like tweener. But if the jumper clicks and he sharpens his half-court shot creation, both off the dribble and out of the post, Larry Johnson 2.0 could be making his way to the NBA.
9. Malik Monk (Kentucky, SG, 6'3", Sophomore)
Malik Monk is arguably the top athlete in the draft, but lack of size for an off-ball guard holds his ceiling in check.
At 6'3" without the playmaking skills to play point guard, he'll consistently go up against defenders with three-to-four-inch height advantages.
Monk compensates to a degree with incredible leaping ability, which allows him to create extra separation on his jumper and soar above traffic at the rim. His explosiveness will undoubtedly translate to easy baskets in transition.
His shot-making skills are as good as anyone's in the draft as well. It's not just spot-up threes with Monk, who's making 3.1 triples per game at a 39.9 percent clip. Monk has the ability to shoot off the dribble and hit difficult, contested shots.
Tight defense isn't enough to stop Monk once he's gotten into a zone, and that should allow him to go off as a scorer.
The question is whether he'll be able to do so efficiently without great tools or the ability to pick up free points in the half court. Of Monk's 50 made field goals at the rim, 39 have come within the first 10 seconds of the shot clock, per Hoop-Math.com. He only takes 4.1 free throws in 30.3 minutes a game.
His height and shot selection suggest he'll develop into more of a streak scorer like the Minnesota Timberwolves' Zach LaVine, who averages 19.2 points per game but may never make an All-Star Game.
8. Justin Patton (Creighton, PF/C, 6'11", Freshman)
Averaging just 14.0 points and 6.5 rebounds, Justin Patton won't get looks in the lottery based on his production. His upside is the selling point—Patton stands 6'11" with plenty of athleticism, a high skill level and versatility the NBA covets.
Shooting 71.6 percent, he's flashed the potential to become an easy-bucket machine as a finisher off rim runs, dump-downs, lobs and putbacks. And he's showcased some promising scoring moves in the post with footwork and the ability to convert using either hand.
Patton has also had a number of encouraging moments operating around the perimeter, where he's stepped into five three-point makes and distributed some nice assists off the dribble.
A lack of strength and physicality dents Patton's ceiling—he averages just 10.3 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per 40 minutes, disappointing numbers when considering the Big East centers he faces. But Patton's offensive development and room to improve create enticing inside-out potential.
7. Jayson Tatum (Duke, SF, 6'8", Freshman)
Textbook tools and an advanced skill level power Jayson Tatum's upside.
At 6'8" with a classic small forward body, he could be a tough one-on-one matchup at both forward positions, with the size to play over wings and the quickness to shake 4s.
He's flashed go-to scoring potential as an option coaches can feature in isolation. Loaded with moves you typically see from many of today's top scorers, including step-backs, pull-ups and fallaways out of the post, Tatum is already an advanced shot creator, which he can credit to an excellent handle.
Versatile with the shot-making ability to connect off balance or set from behind the arc, he's also sharp and controlled off the dribble. Tatum finds ways to slice through defenses and get to the hoop or draw the foul in the paint.
His ceiling would look higher if he offered anything more than scoring—Tatum isn't a playmaker or difference-making defender or rebounder. And if his shot is off, he isn't likely to bring much to the table.
A lack of explosiveness also raises questions as to how easily he'll be able to separate. His 50 percent finishing clip at the rim in transition, per Hoop-Math.com, is alarmingly low for an offensive player of his caliber.
Still, the potential to become a top-two option for an NBA team creates one of the 10 highest ceilings in this year's class.
6. De'Aaron Fox (Kentucky, PG, 6'3", Freshman)
De'Aaron Fox's speed, quickness and explosive leaping ability at the rim are on par with some of the most potent NBA point guards.
He's going to step into the league right away and blow by defenders in transition and ball-screen situations. It should immediately translate to assists—Fox has a strong feel as a facilitator—and field goals in the lane.
With fast hands and feet, he should also wind up being one of the more effective on-ball, pressure defenders at the position. At the least, a team should wind up with a playmaker at both ends of the floor.
Fox's ceiling falls short of Washington Wizards' John Wall, who shows similar burst and bounce. Wall checks in nearly five inches longer, and he was further ahead as a shooter out of college, having hit 37 threes his freshman year at Kentucky.
Fox is 7-of-39 (17.9 percent) from behind the arc and 30-of-88 on two-point jumpers, per Hoop-Math.com.
The fact that he's still averaging 16.2 points without a perimeter game makes you drool when thinking about how good he can be if he adds one. But at this point, Fox's shooting is too far below average. Expecting him to ever be consistently threatening from outside seems unrealistic based on where he's currently at with his development.
Still, worst-case scenario, we're looking at Elfrid Payton-like value. Fox should wind up being viewed as a quality starter if he can just become an average shooter. If he becomes proficient, he'll have the chance to earn All-Star consideration in his prime.
5. Lonzo Ball (UCLA, PG, 6'6", Freshman)
There is no doubt Lonzo Ball will go high in the draft and help someone right away. His core strengths and value will always revolve around vision and the ability to create high-percentage shots for teammates.
The questions are how far his passing can take him and how much he can pad his facilitating with scoring.
He's shown no mid-range game with the pull-up or floater, having made just two shots inside the arc that haven't been layups or dunks, per Hoop-Math.com. He also doesn't get to the rim much in the half court, where he's only converted nine unassisted baskets all season.
Having hit 53 threes, though, including several that have come from 25-plus feet out, Ball has flashed deep shooting range.
For Ball to bust through his ceiling, he'll have to either strengthen his two-point scoring attack or become so effective as an orchestrator and three-point shooter that he can hold superstar value without being one of the league's top scorers. Cue the comparisons to Jason Kidd, one of the all-time greats who averaged just 12.6 points for his career.
4. Josh Jackson (Kansas, SF, 6'8", Freshman)
For a 6'8" forward, quickness and explosiveness fuel obvious upside for Josh Jackson, whose ceiling reflects two-way versatility and exciting potential at both ends.
Jackson flies in the open floor, both with the ball and without it. Regardless of how much skill he adds, he should wind up being one of the more effective transition and slashing weapons in the league.
His foot speed on defense, along with his competitiveness, should also allow him to lock down around the perimeter and guard positions 1 through 4.
His passing ability will translate and enhance his value as a playmaking wing. There aren't too many of them. Jackson averages 3.1 assists, showing impressive handles and vision on the move.
But at this point, he's not the strongest shot creator in the half court, and having made just 31.9 percent of his threes and 55.8 percent of his free throws so far, Jackson's shooting stroke—which isn't mechanically ideal—needs a lot of work.
Unless he makes significant strides with his pull-up and spot-up games, he isn't going to be a volume scorer, which makes it difficult for him to reach All-Star status. Then again, he did knock down all four of his threes against West Virginia on Tuesday night. We'll be talking about one of the most complete small forwards in the league if he can consistently make defenses pay from around the arc.
3. Jonathan Isaac (Florida State, SF/PF, 6'10", Freshman)
There aren't many wings who can match Jonathan Isaac's 6'10" size. Power forwards won't enjoy defending his face-up quickness and agility, either.
In a best-case scenario, Isaac develops into the mismatch every Los Angeles Lakers fan is expecting Brandon Ingram to become.
A big man (12.4 rebounds per 40 minutes) with guard skills, Isaac can handle the ball, get by slower defenders and shoot over smaller ones. And he already appears to have a jumper (35.7 percent from three, 82.4 percent free throws) that teams could use in 2017-18.
Isaac looks comfortable and fluid during catch-and-shoot opportunities from three, and he's shown the valuable ability to escape closing defenders with a dribble or two into a pull-up.
Averaging 20.6 points per 40 minutes on 52.3 percent shooting and just a 21.7 percent usage rate, per Sports-Reference.com, Isaac has been productive and efficient, and it's helped catapult Florida State into the Top 10 rankings.
He's good right now at both ends with a game that could translate to the NBA right away, given his tools, shooting and knack for making plays within the offense. Isaac will have the chance to be special once his body fills out, and his scoring confidence and repertoire continue to build.
2. Dennis Smith Jr. (North Carolina State, PG, 6'3", Freshman)
A mixture of Eric Bledsoe's athleticism with Damian Lillard's skill set creates exciting potential for Dennis Smith Jr.
He doesn't have great tools, though, with a relatively short 6'4 ½" wingspan (Lillard and Bledsoe both at least 6'7 ½"). And there is another point guard in the 2017 field who's a hair sharper offensively but bigger and longer as well.
Still, Smith is quick and shifty, making him tough to stay in front of off the dribble. He can also explode above the rim and hang in the air after contact. Between the two strengths, Smith should wind up being able to put heavy pressure on the defense and score—even if his perimeter game never becomes elite.
However, like Lillard, he's shown the ability to pull up over screens, shoot off the dribble with range or loft in a floater before traffic. Smith isn't nearly as accurate or deadly yet, but he's also just 19 years old.
He's still been effective, making 1.8 threes per game at a 37.6 percent clip, though a 28.6 percent mark on his two-point jumpers, per Hoop-Math.com, highlights how far he has to go.
Whether Smith maximizes his potential will come down to how dangerous and consistent he becomes around the perimeter, and whether he can master the controls at the point and efficiently balance shot-hunting with distributing. Smith has a tendency to get careless with his shot selection and decision-making.
1. Markelle Fultz (Washington, PG, 6'4", Freshman)
Markelle Fultz is what you'd want your lead guard to look like if you were to build one in a lab.
At 6'4" with a 6'9 ¾" wingspan, quickness and explosiveness, he packs an ideal blend of size, length and athleticism for a lead ball-handler.
Combining the elite physical qualities with a James Harden-like package of scoring and playmaking creates upside worth chasing at No. 1 overall.
Averaging 23.7 points and 6.2 assists on 49.1 percent shooting, Fultz is already polished. He's destroying defenses with more skill than anything else, showing the ability to easily separate into quality looks and knock down tough ones on a consistent basis. It's as if he has control of the man guarding him.
Fultz's high IQ passing is also on display regularly. Proficient out of pick-and-rolls and constantly threatening to drive-and-dish, his ceiling as a facilitator isn't much lower than his scoring potential.
He's going to start his rookie NBA season at 19 years old with a skill level on par with some of the better guards in the league. There is a chance Fultz will be mentioned in the same breath as them by 22, which is how old he'll be after three NBA seasons.