There are 189 days between now and the 2017 NBA draft. Though that’s a relatively long time, as the New Year approaches and college conference play nears, it’s no longer too early for us to start daydreaming about ping pong balls, wingspans and vertical leaps. We have a reasonably good idea of which teams are going to be picking high in the lottery, so here’s something for embattled fan bases to chew on: as you’ve probably heard, this is shaping up to be a pretty strong draft class.
We are often way quick to label drafts using the binary of great or awful. The unsexy truth is that we can’t and won’t know that for a few more years at minimum. Get excited, but it’s wise to keep the roll at an appropriate pace and hands and legs inside the vehicle right now. It’s December. Things are looking up, though: I don’t know that this draft will deliver a smattering of full-blown superstars, but relative to how we looked at last year’s group, there’s a greater number of truly intriguing prospects with clearer routes to contributing at the NBA level.
What’s that? There’s no room for reserved takes in this day and age? Look, the first rule of ranking future draftees is that nobody ever really knows anything. That’s not meant to be a cop-out for this board come June, 2017 or 2030—the fact of the matter is, you can never be completely sure how good Players X, Y or Z are going to be. That’s because no one can perfectly predict the future (…but if you’re out there, call me ASAP). This is why teams are, yes, frequently wrong.
Smart franchises make important choices by gathering as much pertinent information as possible and scrutinizing every aspect of their given decision. As such, the goal of these big boards will be to inform and to trade mass draft hyperbole for nuance as much as possible. These are rankings in a vacuum, unconcerned with team needs and situations. Here’s an early ranking of 30 top prospects for 2017.
1. MARKELLE FULTZ, WASHINGTON
Although the Huskies are going through serious struggles, Fultz remains a fairly strong consensus at No. 1 as the New Year approaches. His combination of playmaking, size (a 6’10” wingspan!) and explosiveness had him here before he showed up in college and shot better than 40% from the three-point line. Fultz is a proven scorer off the dribble and should be able to create separation just fine. He also turns 19 in May, making him one of the younger prospects in the draft and adding an edge here. For comparison, consider the appeal D’Angelo Russell had two years ago: Fultz lacks a bit of the passing flair, but he’s a better athlete, has a chance to be an impact defender, and is fundamentally a stronger prospect. His combination of projectability and floor is unmatched in this class.
2. jayson tatum, duke
It was especially difficult sifting through all these guys to settle on who belonged at this spot. I’m rolling with Tatum, who has looked like the most skilled wing player in the class. He’s back from a foot sprain and has looked good as he eases back into Duke’s rotation. A well-developed mid-range game has been complimented by some nice fundamental mid-post moves, and Tatum has always understood how to get his shot off and use his size pretty well. He’s a gifted scorer, and while he tended to hunt his shot a little too much as a prep star, Tatum appears to be assimilating just fine into his place on a team replete with offensive weapons. Extremely smooth and natural with the ball in his hands, Tatum profiles as a versatile contributor at forward.
3. josh jackson, kansas
From a physical standpoint, Jackson has everything you want in an NBA wing. He’s one of the higher-end athletes in the draft and has the ability to be a true nuisance on the defensive end. He’s a slasher in the halfcourt and at his best in the transition game, where his playmaking ability shines. Jackson is also a good rebounder with a competitive streak that should serve him well. There are some legitimate qualms here: he’s very old for his class (he’ll be 20 on draft night), his shot mechanics could be cleaner, and as such, he doesn’t profile as a consistent three-point shooter. He’s a good prospect, but those struggles could cap his growth out pretty quickly. He’s going to be drafted high. I’m a little less sold than most.
4. malik monk, KENTUCKY
Malik Monk has been one of my pet prospects for a couple years now. His athletic ability presents as much room to dream as any kid in this draft: he’s one of those rare guys who just glides. In his first month or so at Kentucky, he’s proven to critics that he can shoot the basketball. In high school, Monk was often pigeonholed as a tweener, and it’s true he doesn’t have shooting guard size, nor is he a point guard in the traditional sense. His quickness off the floor and ability to set his feet will help compensate, and he’s developing a nice in-between game. It’s encouraging that he’s accepted a role at Kentucky, as plenty of scorers have before him. If Monk keeps hitting those jumpers, the possibilities are through the roof.
5. dennis smith, n.c. state
He’s taken a backseat to Fultz somewhat in the point guard conversation, but Smith is the other slashing guard with a nose for the basket garnering top five consideration. He’s returned from a torn ACL to mixed individual results—Synergy data shows he’s struggled in iso situations, and his overall efficiency could improve. He’s carrying a heavy workload, to be fair, and the more he gets his feel back, his change of pace and direction should help that improve. Smith is more scorer than playmaker, but the overall package pops nicely.
6. lauri markkanen, arizona
Markkanen arrived from Finland with less fanfare than he probably warranted: he’s provided a presence on both ends of the floor and been a lynchpin for a Wildcats team thinned by injury. The first thing you notice is his ability to shoot from deep: his game is perimeter-oriented, and makes him the most interesting long-term, face-up four man in the class. Markkanen moves his feet remarkably well and has shown the ability to corral pick and rolls, but isn’t a big-time shot blocker. He’s a positional blend well-suited for “positionless” NBA play on offense, though he needs to convince people he can do the dirty work inside. If he can stick at center, he might be a special player.
7. jonathan isaac, florida state
You’ll probably hear some Brandon Ingram comparisons as the draft gets closer, and Isaac indeed comes from a similar template. A spindly forward, his height, jump shot and fluidity make him a obvious candidate to space the floor and score at the next level. He’s less polished than Ingram (who’s just a month older), particularly as a ball-handler. Nevertheless, it’s the type of projectable skill set that gives him a chance to get picked very high. He needs to get stronger (where have you heard that one before?), but he’s off to a very nice start.• MORE NBA: Moment of joy: The perfect send-off for Craig Sager
8. o.g. anunoby, iNdiana
The secret is out on Anunoby and his (unofficial) 7’6” wingspan. Kawhi Leonard is a wholly unfair comparison, but he did in some ways pave a blueprint for an elite defensive prospect to rocket up draft boards relatively fast. A no-frills player and multi-position defender, there’s not another guy quite like him in this draft. He doesn’t create much of his own offense yet, though he looks improved as a spot-up shooter this season. Anunoby appears a malleable sort of player with a big ceiling as he learns to manufacture points to accompany his defensive contributions.
9. lonzo ball, ucla
It’s clear after a month of college games that Ball is a unique sort of artist with the ball in his hands, serving as the engine for a high-powered Bruins offense. He’s a special passer with great size for a pure point guard. With even more space to operate in the NBA, he’s going to continue making his teammates better. But there’s also been a degree of overhype around him of late that’s inflated expectations somewhat. I suspect he may be more of a super-sized Ricky Rubio than anything else, contributing across the board statistically but less of a star than his preceding narrative suggested. Ball’s shooting motion has been a point of critique, but it works for him from deep—I’m more concerned about his ability to penetrate in the NBA halfcourt and find ways to score on the interior levels. Defending man-to-man, Ball’s a bit of a work in progress. If he’s a good three-point shooter and elite passer, he’s got plenty of value built in already, but there’s reason to wonder how the whole package looks at the highest level.
10. harry giles, duke
Once the crown jewel of this class, a series of serious knee injuries has turned Giles into a wild card. He’s nearing a return to the court for Duke after spending an extended period without competitive basketball: he missed his entire senior season of high school with a torn right ACL and had another surgery to clean out his left knee in October. He previously tore the ACL, MCL and meniscus in his left knee as a high school sophomore, making this three surgeries in three years. That’s a huge red flag for any player, but especially a big man. By the end of his season at Duke, we’ll hopefully have a better idea of where his body is at, but a pre-injury Giles would have had a great shot to be the No. 1 pick. If he recovers enough of his quickness, explosion and confidence, he could still be worth a gamble. Stay tuned.
11. frank ntilikina, strasbourg
The lanky French wünderkind checks all the boxes athletically, boasting a wingspan apparently close to seven feet and reputation for his defensive prowess. Like most teenage prospects in Europe, he’s been unable to secure consistent playing time with his club this season, but the flashes have been positive and NBA teams remain on his scent. He should be able to capably defend both guard positions and has a reputation as a collected decision-maker. Ntilikina’s perimeter shooting remains a work in progress, but he’s got a lot to look forward to as he improves.
12. de'aaron fox, kentucky
A toolsy, defensive-minded point guard who prefers to penetrate and make plays, Fox comes packaged in the mold of an Elfrid Payton or Dennis Schröder, with his three-point shot and finishing ability at the rim similarly posing some questions at this stage. His clear strengths—on-ball defense, burst and competitiveness—offer a solid NBA floor. His size and potential to stick either guard spot should help him find a place in a rotation. Whether he finds a way to make it work as a serious scoring threat will determine his eventual ceiling.• MORE NBA: Win-now Knicks clash with Porzingis's learning curve
13. ivan rabb, california
Rabb was on the lottery fringe last season and has looked plenty good on his second go-around, returning from injury to start his college season with four straight double doubles. A natural rebounder with mobility and a nice frame, Rabb’s post-up game continues to develop and he also has the framework for a jump shot. Last season, one scout likened him to a Myles Turner, as a college prospect who might be undervalued in the draft, but display even more ability at the next level. He’s a nice prospect, if not an extremely flashy one.
14. terrAnce ferguson, ADElaide 36ers
With an ideal three-and-D skill set, Ferguson set off for Australia to do a year and the early reports are pretty good. A gifted shooter with length and leaping ability, he’s settled into a floor-spacing role over there not unlike what he’ll be asked to do in the league. He’s long and has potential defensively as he fills out. Right now, Ferguson looks more high-level specialist than a guy who can carry an offense. Whether he’ll be more than that is a fair question, but that said, wing players in his mold are currently more valuable than ever.
15. edrice adebayo, kentucky
Here’s a guy who’s had an NBA-ready body for a couple years already, knows what to do with it, and will have a ready-made role wherever he ends up. Adebayo’s been a great rebounder and productive finisher everywhere he’s gone, and functions as a great glue guy for a guard-focused Kentucky team. He’s not especially skilled in the post, but seems to know who he is as a player and counters for it with great strength and athleticism. Think along the lines of a poor man’s Tristan Thompson, for starters. There’s some safety in that.
16. thomas bryant, indiana
Pulling out of last year’s draft looks like a solid move for Bryant, who had Top 20 upside then and has shown improvement as sophomore, particularly with better production on the glass. He’s got a workable jumper and finishes well around the basket, showing a desire to work the offensive glass. He’s not a big-time shot blocker and could probably be better there given his physical tools. Bryant plays hard and has been a catalyst for a good Indiana team. The more you see of him, the more you like.
17. miles bridges, michigan state
Bridges has been a highlight reel for the Spartans early on, and his explosive leaping ability and instincts have helped him to thus far compensate for a lack of ideal height and length for a forward. He’s a nimble, powerful athlete and has been a pretty good jump shooter so far, which bodes well, but it takes a special talent to function as an undersized combo at the highest level. There’s a bit of a tendency to do too much with the ball in his hands, and Bridges has had some issues finishing against longer defenders, preferring to work around rather than through contact. If he proves he can defend twos and threes, he could be a matchup problem in the NBA, but he’s not a very natural guard. So, you see the conundrum.• MORE NBA: Wiggins, Parker, Embiid deliver returns on 2014 draft
18. jarrett allen, Texas
It’s all projection right now for Allen, who’s a good shot-blocker with a nice touch around the basket, rebounding ability, true center size and good athletic tools. He still has a ways to go as far as learning the game, and doesn’t look instinctive sometimes. Foul trouble has been an issue for him early on. Allen profiles as an above-average defensive player and could certainly be more as he develops. He’s very young for his class and is the type of player teams will be happy to let develop for a couple years.
19. t.j. leaf, ucla
One of college basketball’s breakout freshmen, Leaf’s inside-out game, toughness and aggressive rebounding have helped the Bruins to a sterling start. He runs the floor will, can hit a three with his feet set and has more post skills than he got credit for coming in. Lateral quickness on defense will likely be a concern. He’s got the full stretch four package and can be a productive, multi-dimensional energy big if it all breaks right.
20. marques bolden, duke
A true center, Bolden has elite physical tools for his position and is a strong interior finisher with a good foundation of post skills. He’s just returned to the court for a crowded Duke team and hasn’t had much of an opportunity to be showcased. He’s not an above-the-rim type and will need to show a commitment defensively, particularly as the two-way demands on NBA centers have increased. A productive freshman year will have teams very interested.
21. ikE anigbogu, ucla
Anigbogu may have the most long-term defensive potential of any kid in the draft, with a heavy emphasis on kid: he just turned 18 in October. He’s predictably very raw and has a very long way to go skill-wise. It’s his shot-blocking and rebounding instincts that have stood out in his very limited early minutes for the Bruins, despite the fact he’s just come off a knee injury. He has a chance to be an impact defender and useful finisher around the rim, and two years of college would benefit him. If he comes out this year, he’s on track to get picked anyway.
22. edmond sumner, xavier
Sumner boasts the prototypical size and athleticism you want in a point guard these days, though he’s had a tricky time staying healthy in college. When he’s on he’ll fill up a stat sheet, but he struggles as a perimeter shooter and with turnovers, which has led to a lot of variance in his production. He’s atop the second tier of a pretty deep point guard class.• MORE NBA: Will Murray emerge as steal of 2016 draft?
23. luke kennard, duke
The surprise breakout star on college basketball’s most loaded team has been Kennard, who’s shown a multidimensional set of offensive skills to accompany a sweet left-handed stroke as a sophomore. His size and playmaking ability give him a slight edge over teammate Grayson Allen on this board.
24. grayson allen, duke
Allen likely would have landed around here in last year’s draft had he stayed, and looks fully recovered from a toe injury that hampered him early this season. He’s a good athlete and tough player with a sometimes streaky but potent perimeter game. One scout I spoke with last season compared him to Kirk Hinrich.
25. isaiah hartenstein, lithuania
Hartenstein grew up in the States (his father played at Oregon) before moving to Germany, and is playing sporadic minutes for a big European club in his first taste of high-level competition. If he were a college freshman, we might be talking about him with added hyperbole: his physical tools and bag of skills as a face-up big are definitely enticing, given where the league is headed.
26. jawun evans, Oklahoma state
After showing serious flashes of potential as a freshman, Evans has stepped up this season as the floor leader for the Cowboys. He’s been asked to score first and foremost, and possesses good instincts as a distributor and defender. Evans is small for an NBA point guard, but if his big numbers continue, he’ll be tough to deny come spring.
27. alec peters, valparaiso
A big-time mid-major prospect, Peters has improved his numbers every year at Valpo and has scored 20-plus points in each of his first 10 games this season. He’s a gifted shooter, has shown some post skills and profiles as a reliable specialist, though he lacks ideal length and will have to prove he can stay on the floor defensively. Great shooters are in demand, and his ridiculous college production arc can’t be ignored.• First-Quarter Awards: Rookie of the Year, MVP and more
28. tyler lydon, syracuse
RECORD: LAST BIG BOARD 28
Another stretchy big with some upside, Lydon’s off to a slow start as a sophomore. He landed squarely on radars after a strong freshman year, when he shot 40% from deep as the Orange made a surprise tournament run. He rebounds and has some ability as a passer, too. You’d like to see him string together some more consistent scoring production as this season rolls on.
29. jaron blossomgame, clemson
Blossomgame will turn pro as one of the draft’s more physically ready prospects, with potential as a multi-position defender and shooter that can round out a rotation. He was a probable second-rounder before pulling out of last year’s draft. His name is also excellent.
30. tony bradley, north carolina
With less fanfare than some of his All-American counterparts, Bradley has made a nice impact right away as part of a deep UNC big-man rotation, showing post moves and rebounding instincts. He’s not an above the rim player and hasn’t shown much shot-blocking ability, but has a nice feel for the game and good set of skills that should translate just fine. Bradley’s a guy to watch, and if not for this draft, then certainly the next.