After an entertaining summer league, this year’s rookie class figures to be deep and exciting.
Markelle Fultz is one of the most complete guards to come out of the draft in recent memory; a potent combination of size, athleticism and skill. Lonzo Ball has an almost precognitive ability to read defenses, and that attribute might be outclassed by last year’s top overall pick, Ben Simmons, who had his own rookie season delayed to this season.
In a draft with several players possessing the potential to eventually claim the best player of his rookie class, the staff at BBALLBREAKDOWN gives you five of our favorites to watch this upcoming season:
Markelle Fultz, Philadelphia 76ers
By Jesse Blanchard
The ability to create any shot imaginable on a whim can be both blessing and curse for young point guards. By trading up for the top overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft and selecting Markelle Fultz, the Philadelphia 76ers have added one such player.
Fultz’s game is completely self-contained, relying on no specific context to thrive. He’s capable of scoring from all three levels, creating for himself and others or working off the ball, deftly maneuvering against the grain of a defense into open spots on the perimeter, where he hit 41.3 percent from behind the college three-point line.
Balance informs nearly every aspect of his game. Fultz’s ability to get to the rim is balanced by a smooth, effortless shooting stroke with deep range. His sharp crossover off a hesitation dribble is balanced by a whirling spin move. And, of course, his actual physical balance makes each all the more dangerous.
Fultz always appears to come out of his spin moves under complete control, allowing him to finish strong or make a proper pass.
Rarely does he take a step or dribble that doesn’t allow for an immediate and drastic change of course in any direction. And no matter how Fultz contorts his body, there’s never a moment where he’s more than a half step away from the quick hop that sets up his pull-up jumper.
These tools alone would be more than enough to make Fultz one of the more compelling rookies in recent years, but his place on these 76ers makes this season all the more interesting.
The most difficult challenge for a player who can do everything is figuring out when and where he should apply each skill and when doing nothing fits what’s best for the team. It’s a talent, truth be told, that even players like Russell Westbrook or Kyrie Irving, for all their obvious brilliance, have yet to fully grasp. A common flaw for teams building around young franchise point guards is letting that player’s development overpower the rest of the ingredients.
But the 76ers have some interesting components on the roster that figure to help shape Fultz’s development. Ben Simmons is a power forward with the passing ability and IQ of an elite point guard. Though he lacks the natural scoring chops to consistently pressure defenses, his size and mobility activates his passing ability at all times and allows for Fultz to move off the ball and focus on his own scoring exploits. Dario Saric offers some playmaking ability from the forward slots.
Joel Embiid is, when healthy, the most dominant young center the NBA has seen in some time. His presence demands touches and warps defenses in ways that should clear passing and driving lanes for Fultz. But he also requires a guard to get him the ball.
Free agent acquisition J.J. Redick works like a magnet for defenders off the ball, leaving gaps in his wake as he zigs and zags in and out of screens, opening soft spots for Fultz’s playmaking.
Fultz can move in and out of a defense’s focus and his ability to blend both will determine Philadelphia’s ceiling. As a player who can do everything, it’s on him to fill in the gaps his teammates leave while making room to stretch his own abilities.
The talent is there, applying it will be a process.
Lonzo Ball, Los Angeles Lakers
By Brady Klopfer
Ever since Lonzo Ball pogo-sticked towards the top of every NBA draft board, there have been questions about how his unconventional jumper and undistinguished athleticism would translate to the professional game. After Ball shot just 38.2 percent from the field (including 23.8 percent from beyond the arc) while struggling to create separation or penetration in half court sets, those questions emphatically remain.
The question about how Ball’s playmaking ingenuity and spellbinding passing would translate, however, have been just as emphatically answered. When the Summer League moved to Vegas – a city of bright lights, unique attractions and sleepless entertainment – the most mesmerizing show in town was the passing of one Lonzo Ball.
From Steve Nash no-looks, to Kevin Love outlets, Ball’s playmaking dazzled in ways the Summer League has never seen before. But it wasn’t just the highlights that impressed: Ball quietly put his teammates in positive situations time and time again. Rather than holding the ball and assist-hunting, like the pass-first point guard blueprint generally dictates, Ball constantly moved the ball, always looking for a teammate in a better situation than he was in.
In transition, Lonzo frequently relinquished the ball well before half court, keeping the offense pushing and the defense on its heels. In the half court, Ball regularly found cutting teammates well before they had a shot; rather than waiting for the assist opportunity, Lonzo gave his teammates the ball when they had an advantage, and trusted that they would exploit it, either by scoring or finding their own pass to make. Remarkably, the 9.3 assists per game that Ball averaged strongly underscores just how often he helped his teammates find the basket.
There’s only so much that can be gleaned from Summer League, but Ball’s playmaking almost surely will translate against the game’s elite. He wasn’t getting assists by beating future G-Leaguers off the dribble, and dumping it off when the defense rotated. Instead, Ball displayed a generational understanding of the game, a keen sense of timing and a selflessness that directly contradicts the image his family’s brand has been labeled with.
It remains to be seen just how good Lonzo Ball will be. But one thing is incontrovertible: he is already one of the best playmakers in the Association.
Dennis Smith Jr., Dallas Mavericks
By Bryan Toporek
With Dirk Nowitzki in the twilight of his Hall of Fame career, the Dallas Mavericks need a new face of the franchise. And with all due respect to Harrison Barnes or Nerlens Noel—assuming the latter eventually re-signs with the Mavericks this offseason—neither of them are well-suited for the post-Nowitzki spotlight.
Dennis Smith Jr., however, may well be.
If you’re looking for a dark-horse Rookie of the Year pick, look no further than Dallas’ new franchise floor general, who showed out during his six Las Vegas Summer League outings to the tune of 17.3 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.2 steals and 1.5 triples in 25.9 minutes per game. With each passing night, he further put to rest predraft concerns about whether he had the motor to succeed in the NBA. By the end of summer league, his defensive lapses at NC State and the Wolfpack’s underwhelming 15-17 record were but a distant memory.
Smith’s explosive athleticism will make him a pick-and-roll dynamo from day one, especially when paired with a bouncy big man like Noel. He also has a picture-perfect pick-and-pop partner in Nowitzki, who has spent the past 20 years terrorizing opponents with his trademark fadeaway mid-range jumper. With Seth Curry, Wesley Matthews and Harrison Barnes slotted alongside him as complementary scorers, shooters and playmakers, Smith won’t have to shoulder too heavy an offensive load as a rookie, which should hopefully ease his learning curve as he transitions to the NBA game.
Heading into the draft, the Mavericks were head over heels for Smith, per ESPN.com’s Tim MacMahon, but they were skeptical about their chances of landing him.
“The one thing that I remember thinking to myself right off the bat is, there’s no way this guy’s going to be there at No. 9,” head coach Rick Carlisle told MacMahon. “I thought he was a top-five talent for sure.”
After seeing him at summer league, one member of Dallas’ front office told SB Nation’s Tim Cato, “He might be even better than we thought.”
With team owner Mark Cuban having acknowledged the Mavericks are in the midst of a rebuild, Smith should expect to get his feet wet early. Following the draft, Carlisle told reporters that he planned “at the time” to start the rookie, although he quickly added, “But he’s going to have to earn it. And he understands that.”
Former undrafted free agent Yogi Ferrell played well enough to earn a second-team All-Rookie nod last season, but he won’t stave off Smith for the starting point guard spot. As the Mavericks begin planning for their post-Nowitzki era, Smith is poised to lead the way, making him a must-watch rookie in the 2017-18 campaign.
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
By James Holas
After trading the top overall pick (and an opportunity to select Markelle Fultz) to the Philadelphia 76ers, the Boston Celtics settled on Jayson Tatum and a bold proclamation.
“Yes, we would have picked [Tatum] with the first pick,” Celtics general manager Danny Ainge said.
His comment drew chuckles and eye rolls from the NBA community at large; dismissed as the ramblings of a draft pick obsessed madman. The decision provided another bullet amid the hail of Ainge criticism that was en vogue through the start of the offseason.
Detractors may not be laughing for long, as Tatum could be a perfect fit for the Celtics’ march into the future of basketball:
Versatility and switch-ability are key in the modern NBA. The Golden State Warriors are especially lethal when they deploy their interchangeable Death Lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green—a unit that is fast and big and can switch almost all screen actions.
Tatum joins Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris as similarly long-armed athletes who can toggle between perimeter play and mixing it up inside without batting an eye.
Offensively, watching Tatum in action, one sees shades of Paul Pierce and flashes of a bygone NBA, but high-level scoring works in any era.
At times during summer league, he dribbled the air out of the ball and took entirely too many contested midrange shots; but for a rookie dipping his toe in NBA-style action, Tatum passed with flying colors. With advanced footwork and one-on-one scoring ability, Tatum had the full repertoire on display in six games; scoring 17.7 points per game on a bevy of step-backs, feints, post ups and drives. He showed exemplary touch with both hands around the basket and his feathery high, quick release means he’ll be hard to guard on any level.
It’s easy to envision Tatum on the floor with any combination of Celtics, disrupting on defense and forcing mismatches on offense. Switch a guard onto him and he can elevate from midrange or punish in the low post. If a big man gets the assignment, Tatum has shown he can attack closeouts and get to the rim.
Like Jaylen Brown before him, don’t expect extended minutes or enormous production from Tatum. The Celtics have legitimate Finals aspirations and its veteran core will do most of the heavy lifting. For now, Tatum will intern against second units and do his real work developing with the coaching staff behind the scenes.
While Fultz and other rookies will most likely dwarf Tatum statistically this season, look for him to eventually play a key role in what the Celtics do. Within the ranks of Boston’s versatile roster, Tatum gives the Celtics a unique skill set with his isolation scoring and proclivity for midrange jumpers, adding more layers to an already savvy offense. It’s easy to imagine him popping into open corner three-pointers or elbow jumpers as the ball pings around in coach Brad Stevens’ offense.
The Celtics of 2021 will look markedly different than the Celtics of 2018. But if we look closely enough, we’ll get to see glimpses of a fully-formed Tatum as part of the position-less revolution going on in Boston.
Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
By Brandon Jefferson
After two forays into Summer League (Utah and Las Vegas), it looks like the Utah Jazz might have came away with the best bargain of the lottery.
On draft night, the Jazz shipped Trey Lyles and the 24th pick to the Denver Nuggets for the 12th pick, which they used to draft Donovan Mitchell.
Mitchell was not a name mentioned amongst the likes of Lonzo Ball, Markell’s Fultz, Dennis Smith Jr., Josh Jackson and Jayson Tatum as one of the top players in the 2017 NBA Draft Class heading into the draft. However, he turned heads right away with his play in the summer.
An athletic guard standing 6’2″ with a 6’10” wingspan, Mitchell has the profile to play either guard position in the NBA. Right now he works better off the ball and with facilitators like Ricky Rubio and Joe Ingles on the roster they won’t have to rely on him to make plays for others too often.
Mitchell displayed an impressive outside shot and an unrelenting mentality in his summer league showing.
Matched up against Tatum in Utah, he stripped him then threw down a dunk and gave Tatum a stare down. He followed that up by putting Tatum’s ankles on notice and dropping a no-look assist to cap off the highlight.
He also scored a summer league-high of 37 points—though it wasn’t done in the most efficient manner.
With Gordon Hayward reuniting with Brad Stevens in Boston and Utah’s free agency signings leaning more defensive so far, there is a chance for Mitchell to earn himself some minutes if he can bring a scoring punch off the bench.
Though Utah has a flock of wings on their team, none of them really bring what Mitchell can if developed properly. Rodney Hood, Joe Johnson and Alec Burks are their best scorers, but none of them have the potential two-way impact that Mitchell brings to the table. Ingles and Dante Exum can play both on and off ball and guard multiple positions, but neither is the athlete Mitchell is.
The Jazz have built a deep roster over the past couple years. They have solid wing depth, the most dominating interior defender and playmakers. The addition of Mitchell gives them the best long term prospect they’ve had since drafting Hayward ninth overall in 2010.
Much like Hayward, Mitchell gives this franchise to develop a player that can be the head of the totem pole.
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