Ranking the Top Plug-and-Play Prospects in the 2017 NBA Draft Class

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterApril 27, 2017

Ranking the Top Plug-and-Play Prospects in the 2017 NBA Draft Class

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    It's getting harder for NBA rookies to enter the league and make an impact. Outside of the Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid, who was drafted in 2014 and only played 31 games, no other rookie this year averaged more than 12.8 points per game. 

    But there are always a handful of prospects NBA-ready to contribute, and some capable of becoming difficult covers right off the bat. 

    When projecting and ranking the top plug-and-play names, we took into account physical tools, athleticism, skill level and previous production. Here, we are ranking plug-and-play potential in a vacuum, not each prospect's overall NBA outlook.

    Guards who struggle to shoot, along with weaker, poor defensive bigs, typically need time before adding value. The following players can be relied on to replace a current NBA player in a lineup without bringing his team down.

Non-Lottery Honorable Mention: Caleb Swanigan (Purdue, PF/C, Sophomore)

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    Plug-and-play position: Backup big

    Immediate role: Stretch rebounder

    Caleb Swanigan isn't high on draft boards and doesn't appear to offer significant upside, but for a team that lacks frontcourt depth, he's an intriguing plug-and-play backup.

    At 6'9", 247 pounds with a 7'3½" wingspan, he'll be a handful inside right away. The nation's second-leading rebounder, Swanigan's strength, technique and instincts should continue leading to success under the boards. 

    Because of his high-level passing (3.0 assists per game) and polished back-to-the-basket game, teams can throw the ball to Swanigan in the post and expect a high-percentage shot to follow.

    As long as he can make enough open jumpers—Swanigan hit 38-of-85 threes and 78.1 percent of his free throws—he should offer enough to justify minutes as a backup rookie big.

5. Lonzo Ball (UCLA, PG, Freshman)

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    Plug-and-play position: Starting guard

    Immediate role: Ball mover/shot-maker

    Teams interested in Lonzo Ball can't expect him to contribute much scoring or perimeter defense. But his vision and basketball IQ will translate right away.

    Expect Ricky Rubio rookie numbers (10.6 points, 8.2 assists per game) for Ball, whose passing will continue to result in open looks for teammates. He'll keep creating quality shots in transition, especially given the NBA's faster pace and extra space. And coaches are bound to value his quick decision-making, which promotes ball movement, rhythm and unselfishness. 

    Even if he struggles to create, the fact that he hit 80 threes at UCLA, many of which were from NBA range and 59 of which were assisted, per Hoop-Math.com, suggests Ball will still hurt defenses as a spot-up target around the arc.

4. Malik Monk (Kentucky, SG, Freshman)

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    Plug-and-play position: Sixth man

    Immediate role: Shot-maker

    Lacking sharp ball-handling skills and strength, Malik Monk's 19.8 points per game will not carry over right away. Instead, teams will call on Monk for off-ball shot-making, though his specific team's situation will dictate his initial position and role. 

    Chances are, whoever drafts Monk can plug-and-play him at sixth man. Without much size (6'3") or length (6' 3½") for a 2-guard, teams can mask his potential defensive limitations by playing him against second-unit backcourts. And as a bench spark, coaches can give him the green light to shoot and opportunity to catch fire.

    Monk's most translatable early skill: the ability to knock down jumpers by running off screens, spotting up or leaking out in transition. 

    He's not a playmaker and won't rebound, but expect Monk's rookie numbers to mirror Tim Hardaway Jr.'s: 10.2 points on 1.6 threes per game and 36.3 percent from deep.

3. Josh Jackson (Kansas, SG/SF, Freshman)

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    Plug-and-play position: Starting forward  

    Immediate role: Secondary playmaker, fourth option

    Josh Jackson would benefit from joining a team with established scorers and playmakers. Because at this stage, his athleticism is still ahead of his ball skills. 

    He'd thrive by playing to his strengths as a driver, cutter, secondary playmaker and spot-up shooter. 

    Either way, Jackson's tools and explosiveness should naturally translate to easy baskets wherever he winds up. He's just too quick, bouncy and coordinated. Turning 21 in February, he's also older for a freshman.

    Jackson covers enough ground at both ends to add something on a routine basis, whether it's transition scoring, passing, open shot-making or perimeter defense. He won't match Markelle Fultz or Jayson Tatum in the scoring department, but Andre Iguadala-like rookie numbers—9.0 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists—appear reasonably attainable. 

2. Jayson Tatum (Duke, SF, Freshman)

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    Plug-and-play position: Starting forward

    Immediate role: Top-three option

    Should Jayson Tatum land with a wing-needy team like the Phoenix Suns, Philadelphia 76ers or Orlando Magic, he'll start from opening night.

    For a small forward, his 6'8" size and 6'11" length nearly match Paul George's from the 2010 NBA combine, and though not as explosive, he compensates with sufficient athleticism and sharper skills at 19 years old.

    His shooting may be on-and-off and he could struggle to consistently finish at the rim. But next year, teams can still count on Tatum for immediate scoring, both off one-on-one moves inside the arc or open spot-up threes. 

    Polished with enough size to separate and quickness to defend, Duke's second option looks poised to become a productive NBA rookie.

1. Markelle Fultz (Washington, PG/SG, Freshman

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    Plug-and-play position: Starting guard

    Immediate role: Top-three option

    Even without knowing what team Markelle Fultz will play for, he has to be the early favorite for 2018 NBA Rookie of the Year.

    Already far ahead of the curve, both physically and fundamentally, Fultz shouldn't have trouble adjusting to the NBA's size or level of play. 

    At 6'4" with a wingspan over 6'9", his measurements are on par with John Wall's from the 2010 NBA combineHe'll enter the league with advantageous height, length and above-average athleticism for a lead guard, but also enough for an off guard.

    Sharp skills, from his handle and shot-creating to his shooting and passing, create versatility that suggests he'll fit into any lineup or situation. Whoever drafts Fultz immediately gets another source of scoring and playmaking.