After reviewing the results spat out by SMILODON for the previous five drafts, I was somewhat surprised to see the top of the 2017 draft fare so well - and the bottom fare so poorly. There appears to be a clear drop-off after the top 11 NCAA prospects, with a shortage of obvious gems lurking in the second round. However, this skills-based draft projection system did throw up some interesting results. Today, we look at the consensus top ten.
For those new to this series, SMILODON is a skills based draft projection system that attempts to translate college production into statements about player skills. If a prospect is flagged as a “steal”, that means that he has either a blue flag, multiple green flags, or all of his skills save one are at least at the level of a yellow flag. A prospect flagged as a “bust” will usually have multiple red flags without the corresponding green flags for balance.
Some flags are more important than others. Age is crucial; a player with a red flag for age needs proficiency in at least two of the three “s” categories: size, shooting, and shot blocking to be taken seriously as a prospect. The general profile for a successful older perimeter player is that of a player with good size for his position who can shoot and shows another advanced skill. Robert Covington, a small forward with a nearly 7’2 wingspan and elite defensive numbers, and Malcolm Brogdon, a shooting guard with a nearly 6’11 wingspan and excellent passing, are two examples. Undersized 22 year old seniors posting good numbers should be heavily, heavily discounted. Shooting is also crucial for perimeter players. Guards who can’t shoot need to be All-NBA defenders to be worth a first round pick. Point forwards who can’t shoot are also likely to be far less valuable in the NBA than their projections might suggest.
As in every article, I sorted players by Draft Express’ mock draft to lessen hindsight bias and provide an accurate basis of comparison for pre-draft projections over different years.
It is very unusual to find a point guard as young and well-rounded as Markelle Fultz. I could not find another point guard from the past six years with a comparable profile. He is bigger, younger, and posted better stats than all of them. Even though he does not possess the most green flags in SMILODON, there is little reason to doubt the consensus. My only concern is his free throw shooting, which took his shooting flag from green to yellow. If his free throws are more indicative of his shooting potential than his numbers from the field - both from two and three - then he could struggle more than I anticipate.
At first glance, Lonzo Ball also has an excellent profile, but his red flag for driving is a big deal. Here are some other point guards from the past several years who struggled in that area despite at least two other green flags.
It’s not an inspiring group. Ball is bigger than most of these players, with a better overall profile, but I don’t think any of them have lived up to their draft position. D’Angelo Russell is the best comparison because he is similarly sized, and many Lakers fans want to play him at the two. Russell should have been drafted between 4-10, after KAT, Porzingis, and Turner, and I think Ball belongs in the same range.
Josh Jackson is fantastic at everything except shooting. He avoided a red flag based on a 38% mark from both two and three, but similar players have found it difficult to excel immediately.
Certainly all of these players are or can become useful, and Jackson is obviously better than most or all of them, but this list underscores the importance of shooting in becoming a star. I would still bet on Jackson because he will almost certainly be the best player in the draft if he learns to shoot.
If I trusted SMILODON a little bit more, I might put Jayson Tatum at #1. As it is, he’s probably my pick for the #2 prospect in this draft, depending on my (hypothetical) shooting coach’s evaluation of Jackson. None of Tatum’s skills are outstanding; most of his green flags are closer to “OK” than “ELITE”, but it’s very rare to get a player with his size, scouting hype, and diverse skillset. His 85% mark from the line as a freshman is especially intriguing, as it suggests the possibility of elite shooting down the road. Here is how Tatum compared to similar wings from the past several classes.
I am slightly bearish on De’Aaron Fox, despite his elite ability to get to the rim. There is only one other recent prospect that makes sense as a comparison.
Whether De’Aaron Fox is a better prospect than Elfrid Payton is an interesting debate. Payton was bigger, stronger, and a better defender. Fox is a better shooter from the line and faced better competition. I think they’re close. Payton had a better season than I had remembered this year, making me think that Fox could be a very good player, but it’s difficult to watch this year’s playoffs and imagine a championship team building their offense around a non-shooter. I like Fox’s ability to score, but his limitations would cause me to rank him closer to the back of the top ten than the front.
Jonathan Isaac and Lauri “The Markksman” Markkanen are each bigs with a unique profile. Isaac is a Swiss Army knife defender who has the length, anticipation, and lateral quickness to shut down opposing forwards, but projects as a finisher rather than a creator on offense. The Markksman is suitably agile for a seven footer, and can shoot the ball like no first round big man since Ryan Anderson, but moves around the court like he’s scared of knocking over a priceless vase. I would feel safer betting on Isaac becoming an All-NBA defensive force than on Markkanen improving his driving and passing enough to become a primary offensive option.
In contrast to the two bigs, Malik Monk is a very similar prospect to many that we’ve seen over the past several years.
C.J. McCollum seems like a reasonable best case scenario, though there is certainly a possibility Monk’s defense fails to improve and he is best as a microwave scorer off the bench on a good team. (Or he could become a guy who puts up good scoring numbers on bad teams.) I will be most interested to see if Monk can eventually thrive as the nominal point guard next to a point forward, like the role Kyrie Irving sometimes fills next to LeBron. That may be the best way to play to his strengths on a championship contender.
Dennis Smith Jr is another point guard, like Markelle Fultz, that doesn’t have a great comparison in the SMILODON era. Here are a few point guards who share Smith’s ability to get to the rim and his shaky jumper. Of these players, Jordan Clarkson is the best comparison, but overall, Smith’s profile is the best of the bunch.
While Smith posted acceptable steal and block rates, there are serious concerns about his potential on that end. He didn’t try much, only gambling for steals when he felt like it. It is unknown whether that will change in a better environment. His lack of size and wingspan is also a negative indicator when considering his defensive potential. On the other hand, Smith suffered an ACL injury a year before his NCAA season, so there is the possibility that he has athletic potential beyond what he showed at NC State. If that is the case, then Smith might be a good use of a top five pick.
Finally, Zach Collins is currently mocked 10th. What makes Collins an interesting prospect is his potential to develop into a “unicorn big”, that is, a big who can both protect the rim and make shots from the perimeter. These types of two way centers are one of the most valuable player types in the NBA, making Collins an excellent prospect despite his bench role this year.
Richaun Holmes, Meyers Leonard, and Joel Embiid are other comps for Zach Collins, as bigs with potential to become two way centers. Collins also passed my eye test as a big man who moves well on the perimeter and in the interior. His biggest Achilles heel is the lack of passing ability demonstrated at Gonzaga. This causes him to turn the ball over too often and may prevent him from becoming a primary option in the NBA. But even as a high quality role player, he could be very valuable. Think Tyson Chandler with a three point shot. The other concern with Collins was the level of competition that he faced, but during the NCAA tournament he averaged 9 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 blocks in only 18 minutes a game. Those stats came with an inordinate amount of turnovers and fouls, but the team that takes him will be betting that those problems will decrease with age.
Next time, I will examine the rest of the draft in slightly less detail. After that, I will unveil my SMILODON-influenced board for this draft. As for next time, well, if you are passionate about examining the differences between backup centers, this is the draft for you!