Best- and Worst-Case Scenarios for NBA's Unproven Youth
Certain NBA teams must make key decisions soon on recent lottery picks who have either struggled to produce, haven't been able to stay healthy or have dealt with crowded rotations.
These top-20 picks from 2017 and 2018 will have a lot to prove once basketball resumes. Each will be playing for his second contract and perceived value, whether it's with his current team or a new one.
A few showed important signs of progress before the COVID-19 pandemic cut their seasons short. But there were others who will be under serious pressure to make substantial jumps before their front offices have to make decisions about their futures.
Michael Porter Jr. (Denver Nuggets, Age 21)
Best case: Quality starter/fringe star
Worst case: Productive starter
The Denver Nuggets have been careful with Porter, who played just 14 minutes a game (48 contests) after sitting out his entire true rookie season to recover from back trouble.
In flashes, the 14th overall pick in 2018 reminded scouts why many pegged him as a potential No. 1 selection before his injury. At 6'10", the size of some NBA centers, he shot 42.2 percent from three and demonstrated wing-like mobility and coordination while scoring in the lane.
It sounds like a reach to predict him as a future All-Star, but if he can improve enough off the dribble with his attacking and pull-up, he could reach Danilo Gallinari's scoring level.
Marvin Bagley III (Sacramento Kings, Age 21)
Best case: Quality starter/fringe star
Worst case: Productive starter
Drafted before Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Trae Young, Bagley has played just 75 games through two seasons because of injuries. He's still just 21 years old, and he averaged between 14-15 points as a rookie and sophomore.
His athleticism for finishing and scoring in the lane creates a high floor. He'll be a productive starter for as long as he's healthy. But to reach All-Star status, he'll need to make significant improvements to his skill level as a post player, passer and shooter. Bagley seems too far away from that happening.
Wendell Carter Jr. (Chicago Bulls, Age 21)
Best case: Quality starter/fringe star
Worst case: Productive starter
The new front office in Chicago is promising, but Carter needs his health more. He's played fewer than 45 games in both seasons.
On the bright side, he nearly averaged a double-double during the 2019-20 season in 29.2 minutes per contest. At 21 years old, the 2018 seventh overall pick looks like a grown man on the block. His post moves are basic but polished. He has soft touch inside of 17 feet. And he's delivered enough promising sequences of defensive movement to feel good about his projection as a two-way player.
But his outside shooting hasn't carried over from Duke. And he's flashed little ability to face up and put the ball down. The predraft Al Horford comparisons now look ambitious, though Carter clearly looks solid enough physically and fundamentally to be a quality long-term starter in Chicago.
Zach Collins (Portland Trail Blazers, Age 22)
Best case: Productive starter
Worst case: Quality role player
Sophomore flashes led to 2019-20 expectations, but a shoulder injury in November eliminated Collins' breakout opportunity. The 10th overall pick in 2017 has become appealing for his potential trajectory as a shooter, shot-blocker, switch defender and overall efficient player.
Collins doesn't seem to possess star upside, lacking any elite strength or skill. But there can be plenty of value tied to stretch bigs who guard multiple positions, and Collins appears to be headed toward that archetype.
Zhaire Smith (Philadelphia 76ers, Age 20)
Best case: Team energizer
Worst case: G League/benchwarmer
Injuries, offensive limitations and Philadelphia 76ers' acquisitions have limited Smith to just 13 games through two seasons. And now there is uncertainty about where his career will go from here, particularly after the Sixers added Josh Richardson and Matisse Thybulle.
He jumps out as an interesting buy-low trade candidate for another team. The 16th overall pick in 2018 put together some promising sequences late during his rookie season, and his 37.6 percent three-point mark over 28 games in the G League in 2019-20 was encouraging.
Still just 20 years old, Smith has plenty of time to get back on track and eventually unleash his explosiveness and his quickness on defense and for off-ball scoring plays.
Jerome Robinson (Washington Wizards, Age 23)
Best case: Bench scorer
Worst case: G League/benchwarmer
Robinson seemed doomed in L.A. once the Clippers added Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Landry Shamet. The trade to Washington should at least give him a chance. The 13th overall pick in 2018 didn't shoot well in 13 games with the Wizards, which is an issue for a non-playmaker or defender.
Robinson won't have much margin for error, but if he's able to stick around the league, it will be as a perimeter scoring specialist who can create and make outside shots.
Dennis Smith Jr. (New York Knicks, Age 22)
It was only a little over a year ago that the New York Knicks saw Dennis Smith Jr. as a key asset worth acquiring in a Kristaps Porzingis trade. Now, rival teams would likely hesitate to give up a late first-rounder for the 2017 No. 9 overall pick.
He was seen as one of the highest-upside prospects when the Dallas Mavericks took him. How much of that upside is still left at 22 years old?
Though injuries have held Smith back, the eye test doesn't indicate a potential NBA starter anymore. There are too many issues with his shot and decision-making.
Smith's jumper appears to be broken, with an ugly hitch at the top of his release. He made just 16 threes (29.6 percent) in 34 games last year and only 50.9 percent of his free throws. It's difficult to ever picture him as an above-average shooter.
And he's never shown a great feel for shot selection and optimizing his scoring for efficiency and impact.
But Smith can still hold value to the right team because of his athleticism, shot creation, playmaking abilities and streaky scoring. Inconsistency has cast a cloud over his career, but he's still had positive showings that have highlighted his ability to generate offense, make shots and put pressure on defenses.
Realistically, however, a team can't trust him as the lead ball-handler in a starting lineup. In a best-case scenario, Smith transitions into a sixth-man role after a year or two of good health and getting his jumper back to normal.
Worst case, we're looking at another Emmanuel Mudiay, who can have promising stretches but not to the point where a team is willing to sign him to a long-term contract.
Like Mudiay, it's possible Smith will never give a team something it can bank on every night. His floor is as a third-string point guard with a poor three-ball and a weak feel for running offense.
Frank Ntilikina (New York Knicks, Age 21)
Though Frank Ntilikina is still 21 years old, we can rule out the possibility of him turning into a quality scorer, which significantly reduces his value for a guard. The 2017 eighth overall pick has hit the 20-point mark once in three seasons, shot below 40 percent from the floor in each and lacks the ball-handling and wiggle for shot creation.
However, flashes of defensive potential through two years turned into legitimate defensive impact in 2019-20. He finished second on the Knicks in defensive box plus/minus (behind Mitchell Robinson) and tied with Mike Conley in defensive real plus-minus at 33rd among point guards.
Given Ntilikina's age, terrific tools, ability to pressure, versatility to guard different positions and improving confidence/swagger, his defensive trajectory remains promising. It could take him toward a tier with some of the league's best defensive guards.
And given how little he's improved offensively, he seems to have shown a greater sense of urgency to become as elite defensively as possible. He appears to have put his energy and focus into being a speciality stopper.
Best case, he continues to raise his three-point percentage into the 35-38 range. That would help turn him into a three-and-D guard—with passing skills in ball-screen situations—who is worth starting in a lineup that can surround him with enough creators and scorers.
Last season, he got up to 32.1 percent from three, but he also showed touch by hitting 86.4 percent of his free throws.
If Ntilikina struggles to make any progress with his shot next season, it could be a killer for his second contract. A guard who doesn't create or shoot won't be worth paying big bucks for, regardless of how strong he is on defense.
Patrick Beverley isn't a scorer, but at least he's averaged 1.6 threes and shot 38 percent behind the arc for his career. He wouldn't be valued as much as he is if he couldn't make open shots.
Failing to become a decent shooter will mean Ntilikina hits his floor as a career second-unit role player.
Kevin Knox II (New York Knicks, Age 20)
The New York Knicks have done little to aid in Kevin Knox II's development. They dramatically reduced his minutes last year, and since they added a handful of power forwards in free agency, he's played the 3 for 77 percent of his possessions.
The best-case scenario is Knox turns into a stretch 4 who creates mismatches for bigs with his shooting range and face-up play. But to get there, something needs to happen with his shot. His shooting numbers were disappointing in 2019-20: 32.7 percent from three, 31.0 percent catch-and-shoot, 31.3 percent off the dribble.
But the makes still looked good on his high-arching shot, and given his age, there is still enough room for optimism with his consistency. The 2018 ninth overall pick just may require a more consistent role to build some rhythm/confidence, whether it's with the Knicks or another team. If he receives one and his shooting numbers start to improve, Knox may turn into a more valued 6'9" 4 who can stretch the floor.
He's also flashed the ability to attack closeouts and use the runner for scoring in the lane, so he's not just a one-dimensional perimeter threat.
His ceiling doesn't appear to be as high as it did on draft night, given how badly he's struggled to create and finish. He was never proficient at generating his own offense, even dating back to his freshman year at Kentucky. So it's more realistic to expect a best-case Knox being valued exclusively for his shotmaking off spot-ups, screens, quick pull-ups and runners in the lane.
It is not reasonable to expect isolation scoring or playmaking to become part of Knox's offensive package.
Defensively, Knox was bad early, but he made some progress in 2019-20. He has the body, mobility and reputation for work ethic to become a serviceable defender as his IQ and awareness grow.
Overall, if Knox hits his upside, he would be a shot-making specialist, possibly one worth starting on the right team that needs offense and has creators, passers and rim protection. Projecting him as a bench scorer is more realistic.
Worst case, Knox can't improve on his poor finishing feel in traffic (38.1 percent around the basket), and he continues to struggle with shooting inconsistency. If that's the case, a good team wouldn't have any use for him.
The Knicks still have incentive to find minutes for Knox to develop. But New York's poor spacing, plus Julius Randle's presence, makes it difficult to picture the team's 2018 lottery pick making a big jump.
His floor is benchwarmer low, but at the least, it's reasonable to expect Knox to improve his jumper just enough to remain relevant, given teams' interest in shooting bigs.
Josh Jackson (Memphis Grizzlies, Age 23)
Traded to the Memphis Grizzlies just two years after going No. 4 overall, Josh Jackson is trying to restore his NBA value.
He's quietly trending upward. Jackson emerged as one of the top G Leaguers for the Memphis Hustle, averaging 20.3 points on 38 percent shooting from three in 26 games. It earned him a call-up in January and an eventual regular role for the Grizzlies' second unit.
The arrival of the coronavirus was ultimately tough timing for Jackson, who'd been averaging 16.6 points through five NBA games in March.
Between the G League and 357 minutes with the Grizzlies, it looks possible he's turning a corner with his shooting—always considered a key swing skill to complement his athleticism for transition scoring, driving and cutting.
Adding a consistent outside shot could be critical for his offensive role and purpose, and in 18 games with Memphis (after shooting well in G League), Jackson converted a promising 41 percent of his spot-up jumpers.
He was never an efficient creator, and it seems unlikely he'll become one in his mid-to-late 20s. But best case, his three-ball will reach the respectable 35 percent range, and he'll carve out a regular supporting role for his off-ball offense and defensive energy.
Worst case, the signs of shooting improvement were fluky, and his suspect decision-making resurfaces on and off the floor.
The Hustle suspended him for a game after a violation of team rules in December, and it wasn't the first time (dating back to college) he'd made headlines for non-basketball-related reasons.
Basketball-wise, if he can't create or make shots at an adequate rate, he'll find himself back in the G League or overseas, where international teams may value his athleticism.
Lonnie Walker IV (San Antonio Spurs, Age 21)
There is still plenty of optimism over Lonnie Walker IV's development and future. But through two seasons, the 18th overall pick in 2018 is still relatively unproven, having played just 70 total games and averaged 5.6 points per contest as a sophomore.
The 21-year-old guard has had a tough time finding minutes in a rotation that features Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Bryn Forbes and Patty Mills. Head coach Gregg Popovich hasn't been ready to let Walker play full time through mistakes.
But the Spurs are in position to be in the lottery, and the time is coming when Popovich will need to figure out what he has in his younger players.
Best case, the flashes from Walker's 28-point explosion against the Houston Rockets in December become regular occurrences. Between his powerful, athletic slashing and shotmaking, which confidence can ignite, Walker has cornerstone potential at shooting guard.
But to reach that status, he'll have to make big jumps with his ball-handling and creation. Right now, he's most useful off the ball, in spot-up shooting (46.5 percent) and when attacking closeouts all the way to the basket (12-of-22).
He's had limited success with ball screens and isolation scoring, and he has to develop a better feel when entering the lane, where he shot 7-of-26 on runners.
No matter what, Walker figures to always be more of an off-ball scorer, as he's never been the type to create for others or use many dribbles to set up his own offense. But Walker could max out as a better defensive Buddy Hield, who signed a four-year, $94 million extension.
For a 21-year-old, he's already flashed enough shotmaking, defensive potential and functional athleticism to stay relevant, regardless of how much his off-the-dribble game grows.
If Walker can't find any three-point consistency and he never develops into a useful pick-and-roll ball-handler, he could go through Ben McLemore's ups and downs. But McLemore has revived his NBA stock by shooting, and Walker's jumper should similarly keep him afloat.
Malik Monk (Charlotte Hornets, Age 22)
After underachieving through two seasons in Charlotte, Malik Monk had finally started to find his rhythm. And then he blew it by violating the league's anti-drug policy and drawing a 25-game suspension.
But Monk, who was getting DNPs as an NBA sophomore, was starting to get comfortable during his third season, averaging 17 points over his final 13 games.
Though the No. 11 overall pick in 2017 is still erratic from the outside, his big jump came as a result of his improvement inside the arc on drives and finishes. Out of spot-ups, which accounted for 29 percent of his offense, he shot 40.6 percent on dribble jumpers and a remarkable 74.3 percent on takes to the basket (98th percentile).
Monk became far more effective putting the ball down off the catch, doing a better job of converting off the bounce as a stop-and-pop shooter and slasher into runners (45.6 percent) and layups/dunks (59.2 percent).
And he still has plenty of room to improve as a shotmaker, which is ironic considering that shotmaking was expected to be his bread and butter out of Kentucky. Monk only hit 1.1 threes per game on 28.4 percent shooting last season. As his confidence grows, it's easy to picture him peaking by averaging around two threes in the 35 percent range while knocking them down off spot-ups, pull-ups and screens.
Monk is still a limited creator (5-of-26 isolation) and playmaker (8th percentile in pick-and-roll passing), and he appears to be too far away from turning into a strong one-on-one player, facilitator or defender.
But best case, he should be able to emerge as a valued off-ball scoring rotation player or reserve microwave. He could eventually work as a starter if he improves his shooting consistency and his defense, and the right supporting cast can mask his weaknesses. But that doesn't seem likely in Charlotte.
Monk has become good enough at making shots without needing to steal dribbles, so he shouldn't have to worry about finding a job.
But he can hurt his team when his shot isn't falling since he won't be adding much value as a passer or defender.
Worst case, he's an unreliable and inefficient bench player but one capable of catching fire in spurts.
Markelle Fultz (Orlando Magic, Age 21)
A change of scenery to Orlando was needed for Markelle Fultz, who used last year to revitalize his reputation and create optimism over his ability to get back on track.
How much further can he climb the ladder toward No. 1 overall potential? Probably not all the way, but the top pick in 2017 is still 21 years old. And after it looked like he'd have to perform without being able to shoot outside the paint, his jumper has started to come back to life.
Even if this is it—25.4 percent shooting from three, 38.7 percent on pull-ups—Fultz can hold starter value for his ability to create, play-make and score in the paint.
He just averaged 5.2 assists, shot 50.0 percent on runners and 57.5 percent around the basket in 2019-20. With enough shooters around him, Fultz can be effective with his ball-handling, his change of speed to shake defenders and with his skill level in terms of passing and finishing.
Gradual improvement to his jumper—he connected on 41.3 percent of his threes at the University of Washington—would unlock a whole new level of offensive upside.
Based on where he is now as a shooter (0.5 threes per game, 36.2 percent mid-range), a realistic best-case projection shows Fultz's shooting trajectory mirroring Derrick Rose's. In his prime, he should be capable of hitting between one and two threes per game on roughly 30-35 percent.
If that happens, Fultz should have enough in his bag, from his setup facilitating, two-point scoring efficiency and capable outside shot, to be a solid middle-of-the-pack starter who can help the right team win games.
We just saw Fultz's worst-case season, and it wasn't so bad. This is his floor—being able to create for teammates and score on drives and runners.
But he won't offer much value playing off the ball. And he won't be able to add significant scoring firepower while making just one three every other game.
Now, he's a lower-level starter or a quality reserve.
Mo Bamba (Orlando Magic, Age 21)
Mo Bamba's perceived value might be different had another team drafted him. Stuck behind Nikola Vucevic, 2018's No. 6 pick has been limited to backup minutes. And it's difficult to picture his role changing soon, which means a best-case projection includes a trade to a team that needs a center.
Valued mostly for his potential in rim protection out of Texas, Bamba did rank second among Magic players in defensive box plus/minus. But it seems like the predraft concerns about his physicality and toughness are legitimate after two NBA seasons.
Despite his mobility for a 7-footer and his spectacular 7'10" wingspan, Bamba has been just an average finisher and a horrendous post player. He only shot 58 percent around the basket, roughly the same as 6'3" teammate Fultz (57.5 percent). Bamba ranked in the 14th percentile on pick-and-rolls, and he generated six points on 17 post-up possessions in 2019-20.
These problems are worth noting, since he graded in the 31st percentile on post-ups and the 20th percentile on rolls with the Longhorns. Bamba doesn't have the strongest foundation when rising against his man or in traffic.
The most promising offensive number has been his outside touch. He shot 35.6 percent on threes this year, making 37 in 60 games, and he hit 10 of 22 jump shots inside the arc.
He should still be good for easy finishes on lobs and offensive rebounds, even if he doesn't add strength. Throw in a threatening jump shot and enough shot-blocking, and Bamba's best-case scenario could still propel him into a starting lineup for the right team. It just won't be with the Magic.
And at this point, we can kiss the All-Star projections goodbye, since it's clear teams won't be running offense through him, and he doesn't possess the same shutdown defensive mentality as Rudy Gobert.
Worst case, Bamba never finds a way to optimize his tools for inside scoring, and his jumper isn't threatening enough to save his offensive value.
His shot-blocking and easy baskets should keep his NBA career alive but only one year at a time on short-term deals. We have to assume he'll eventually change teams. And if he fails to capitalize on the new role, he'll enter the free-agent pool as a low-cost, backup-center option.
Troy Brown Jr. (Washington Wizards, Age 20)
The draw to Oregon product Troy Brown Jr. was his two-way versatility and his age. And though he hasn't been overly productive through two seasons (9.7 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists per game in 2019-20), not much has changed regarding the appeal of the 20-year-old interchangeable wing.
Used on and off the ball, the 15th overall pick in 2018 graded in the 72nd percentile out of spot-ups while tallying 121 pick-and-roll ball-handling possessions.
He's made promising progress, having shot 41.8 percent on spot-up non-dribble jumpers and a respectable 34.5 percent (for his age) from three in 2019-20. However, dating back to high school, his playmaking abilities are what have set him apart from other players his size.
The 6'6" swingman has strong setup passing instincts off the dribble, and if he continues to gradually develop, his best-case scenario is as a secondary facilitator who can average over four assists per game.
He doesn't project as a high-level shot-creator for himself, though. And he's struggled to shoot off the bounce (33.0 percent). But Brown can drive and slash, and he's already been an efficient finisher at the basket (59.3 percent).
Brown's defensive outlook remains exciting, given his tools and his foot speed for defending positions 1-4 and his IQ to make reads and plays.
The Washington Wizards may not wind up with an All-Star or a 20-point scorer if Brown maxes out his potential. But he possesses quality-starter upside and could be a valuable high-end role player worth signing long term.
Worst case, Brown's shooting development stalls, and it turns out he's not elusive or sharp enough to earn the point-wing label.
If there was a reason to be nervous about him out of college, it was because he didn't have one elite skill or strength.
Still, Brown's floor appears to be high, as he's already a useful two-way player who shot 45.3 percent from the floor during the 2019-20 campaign. If we were looking at his ceiling this past season, he'd be a serviceable jack-of-all-trades reserve.