As the calendar year winds to a close and the NBA season nears the halfway point, it’s time to look back at the 2017 draft and check in. Safe to say at this stage, early returns on blue-chip draftees have been mixed, and the presence of not-actually-a-rookie Ben Simmons has skewed perception of this class a little bit. Still, we’ve seen plenty from a number of players to spark enthusiasm for the future, and there’s more than enough talent to rethink what a new draft might look like six months later.
Admittedly, this is far from a perfect thought exercise. Re-drafting uses current information to theoretically reorder the past, and as such, there’s no way to truly eliminate all hindsight. Nothing short of a time machine could have placed a player like Kyle Kuzma in this year’s lottery, yet it’s the strength of his NBA sample that allows him to rise here. And speaking of samples, literally every rookie’s data set is too small to weigh heavily.
Looking at a small swath of games played also creates a chicken-or-egg problem. Does a player’s sheer talent create the opportunity and context for rookie success, or does that context enable him to be successful in a manner he wouldn’t enjoy on another team? There are an infinite number of those questions that you can apply to any rookie in any situation. Because we have only the data from one NBA season (and one set of parameters), they’re hard to effectively answer. College stats and pre-draft assessments can point you in the right direction, but they have to be considered alongside rookie performance as part of the projection puzzle.
So, rather than harp too heavily on what teams’ needs were in June, we made our selections based more as a way to evaluate long-term potential. Surprising breakout guys are given an opportunity to be recontextualized among peers who were drafted higher. There are players like Frank Ntilikina who have the ability to crack this list but narrowly missed the cut.
While acknowledging these sorts of issues, The Front Office’s Jeremy Woo and Chris Johnson sat down in their GM chairs and took turns making their picks (and defending them). Here are the results.
1. 76ers: Jayson Tatum | Original: Markelle Fultz
Well, there’s no shortage of irony here. Danny Ainge said Tatum was the guy the Celtics would have preferred with the first pick, never mind the future first they got from the Sixers just to move down two spots and draft him anyway. Tatum’s well-developed skill set was no secret, but it’s the surprising diversity of his polish that’s made him arguably the 2017’s most impressive draftee to date. And so, he’s the top choice here, given all we currently know. Tatum has been a seamless fit in Boston, providing a shocking amount of stability off the bat as a fill-in for injured Gordon Hayward and performing as one of the league’s best shooters from distance as a 19-year-old. He’s worked to become a valuable part of the Celtics’ top-rated defense and answered questions about effort on that end of the floor. No longer simply a gifted iso scorer, Tatum has emerged as the versatile type of two-way forward every team could use, and he’s done it before the halfway point of his rookie season. It’s fun to imagine the possibilities from here.
Knowing what we know now, and considering Markelle Fultz’s delayed start and Lonzo Ball’s predictably up-and-down season, Tatum gets the nod at No. 1. A greater role in the Celtics’ offense would appear to be on the horizon over the next several seasons, and Boston can afford him patience and nurture his confidence in the process. Donovan Mitchell and Kyle Kuzma have gaudier per-game averages, but consider how Tatum has thrived with just the seventh-highest usage rating of Boston’s eight primary players. It’s fair to posit that had he landed with a needier franchise, there’d be an all-around uptick (although his efficiency and quality of looks would both dip). This is one of the limitations of the redraft exercise: Tatum inarguably landed in an ideal growth situation, and superimposing him onto a Philadelphia roster in theory (although he’d fit in nicely) wouldn’t mean we see the same player at this stage. But his advanced all-around package is certainly an easy sell. — JW
2. Lakers: Donovan Mitchell | Original: Lonzo Ball
When Utah swung a deal with Denver to move up and pick Mitchell at No. 13 on draft night, it felt like a prudent upside play on a versatile backcourt piece who, at the very least, seemed ready to contribute defensively right away. Now he looks like an instrumental component of Utah’s post-Gordon Hayward foundation and, in the short term, he could be the difference between the Jazz staying in the mix for a spot at the bottom of the West playoffs and taking another shot in the lottery this summer. Utah has given Mitchell more offensive freedom than any rookie has a right to demand, but he hasn’t buckled under the heavy shot-creation load. Mitchell is using a higher percentage of possessions while he’s on the floor than any of his teammates.
Mitchell’s cracked the 30-point barrier three times in December and he was most recently seen putting up 29 points on 12-of-16 shooting against the Thunder’s stingy defense on December 23, a performance that resulted in his third-highest Game Score, a John Hollinger-created metric to gauge per-game productivity. Mitchell has played the majority of his minutes at shooting guard this season, but he has the court vision and ballhandling chops to moonlight at the 1. He’s long enough (at 6’3’’ with a 6’10’’ wingspan) to check three positions. Though Mitchell probably would be better off with a smaller offensive plate at this point in his career, he hasn’t squandered the opportunity presented to him. It’ll take the Jazz a while to recover from losing Hayward in free agency this summer, but Mitchell’s exciting development should make it easier to stomach watching Hayward anchor an East power in Boston. — CJ
3. Celtics: Lonzo Ball | Original: Jayson Tatum
The rush by many to label Ball a bust in the first two months of his career has predictably rivaled the public pre-draft furor over his fate as a future superstar. Blame his father’s attention-grabbing antics or an over-eager television media for the narrative that branded Ball the league’s next great point guard, but if you paid close attention, he’s about on schedule. Resetting expectations is healthy, but we also have to acknowledge how many of Ball’s strengths have translated nicely to the NBA game. He’s a terrific passer, can think the game multiple moves ahead, and has also made a nice impact on the glass, able to grab rebounds and initiate transition play with the outlet pass or off the dribble. While he’s sometimes given too much credit for the uptempo Lakers’ changes in play style and culture, Ball’s ability to succeed through sheer unselfishness makes him a unique player to build around. Had he landed in Boston, per this selection, he’d likely have fit in just fine.
Though not wired to score, Ball still has a big adjustment ahead when it comes to being aggressive and figuring out which spots work best for him. Creating your own shot in late-clock situations is essentially a prerequisite for elite lead guards, and it’s possible Ball’s unorthodox jump shot could preclude him from taking that step. But to reach some baseline level of effectiveness, he need only space the floor consistently enough to draw closeouts, then drive, kick and keep the ball moving. Ball’s substantial shooting struggles are a thing, but he’s made multiple threes in each of his past six games and appears to be trending toward respectability. When he’s attacking downhill on a regular basis, Ball has been able to impact games just fine. His fluctuating aggressiveness may be more of a long-term concern for his star ceiling than his rookie-year percentages, and it’s yet to be seen how he’ll fare as a player expected to help close games. All things considered, Ball has left plenty of room for optimism. — JW
4. Suns: Markelle Fultz | Original: Josh Jackson
Celtics backers are still doing victory laps over Danny Ainge’s pre-draft trade with Philly to pass on Fultz and move down to select Tatum at No. 3. Boston is going to come out of that deal a winner no matter what Fultz turns into; Tatum is a stud with a projectable game in a league that places a premium on long, athletic wings who offer two-way value. But that doesn’t mean it’s time to give up on Fultz altogether. The All-NBA potential that led draft experts to anoint him the best prospect in this class is still there. It’s just harder to make out after the rocky launch to Fultz’s pro career, to say nothing of fellow Ben Simmons’s sterling debut campaign at Fultz’s nominal position. If Fultz can set his jump shot straight and there aren’t any lingering issues with his shoulder, he’ll slot next to Simmons in a smooth-fitting perimeter rotation with the prospect of developing into the East’s strongest long-term counter to the Celtics’ Kyrie Irving-led backcourt.
Fultz has all the makings of a top-shelf floor general in the modern game: size, three-point range, creative instincts, the ability to make things happen off the dribble. But he’s adaptable enough to play off the ball, and pairing him and Simmons wouldn’t pose any glaring issues defensively because they’re both big and quick enough to be moved around to optimize individual matchups. When Jerry Colangelo shoved his chips into the middle of the table to acquire the top pick this summer, he almost definitely didn’t envision the opening phase of Fultz’s rookie season being consumed by cringe-worthy replays of a broken free-throw release and conflicting statements in the media from his agent. Colangelo can take comfort in the fact that this may be just a temporary nightmare. — CJ
5. Kings: Jonathan Isaac | Original: De'Aaron Fox
Placing Isaac in this range of this draft class has always been a play on long-term potential. The fact he remains here—one spot higher than his actual draft position—as we approach the midway point of the season reflects how much upside he has, and how much has left to play out for him. Isaac began the season in the Magic’s rotation before missing a month with an ankle injury, then re-tweaking the same ankle last week before shaking much rust off. As such, there’s not much of a sample size to rely on, only the glimpses of the defensive versatility, poise and offensive skill that make the 20-year-old a tantalizing project. While in real life the Kings defensibly filled a need with De’Aaron Fox, in this scenario the selection comes with a long-term view.
Isaac’s ability to cover ground, switch defensively and block or alter shots gives him a valuable baseline as he bulks up. Not many 6’10” players can move like he does, and the Magic have generally guarded better with him on the floor: his individual defensive rating of 101.1 is best on the team (though he’s appeared in just 14 games). On the other end, he’s adept at finding pockets around the basket and has continued to demonstrate the ability to hit set jumpers. The early ability to contribute without the ball in his hands is a good sign for Isaac, who’s an able ball-handler but has a ways to go in terms of creating his own offense. If he can defend three or four positions and efficiently space the floor in time, he’ll become a unique piece for Orlando. — JW
6. Magic: Dennis Smith Jr. | Original: Jonathan Isaac
Smith may have the highest ceiling of any of the top-end point guards in this class, even though four players at that position were off the board when Dallas selected him at No. 9. He’s a high flier who can roast defenders off the dribble, drill shots from three-point range and find his teammates for good looks around the basket. Smith’s statistics are underwhelming, but that’s not surprising for a rookie being handed the keys of a team toiling in the West basement. Not only has Smith started all 26 games in which he’s appeared this season—a hip strain sidelined him for a six-game stretch earlier this month—his usage rate is 3.5 points higher than any other Maverick and he’s attempted a team-high 18 shots per 36 minutes. Dallas can get away with throwing its prized newbie into the deep end and seeing if he sinks or swims.
This season has brought low-stakes basketball for a franchise that, in the Mark Cuban era, has grown accustomed to competing for homecourt advantage in the playoffs. By the time Smith reaches his prime, he should be surrounded by a stronger supporting cast, including a lottery pick from this year’s draft. (The Front Office would like an invite to the Smith-Deandre Ayton pick-and-roll party.) That’ll lessen Smith’s offensive burden and enable him to focus on what he does best: Bursting toward the basket and finishing above the rim with vigor. In the meantime, Smith’s biggest moment in the spotlight could come on All-Star weekend. Put the man in the dunk contest. Smith deserves it. — CJ
7. Bulls: Lauri Markkanen | Original: Lauri Markkanen
Back on draft night, I graded this pick as a C+ for Chicago. Please consider this repeat selection somewhat of an apology to Markkanen. He’s acquitted himself well, with quality three-point shooting at his size clearly a valuable skill and his ball-handling further along than many realized. While hindsight is hard to totally eliminate in this scenario, the initial skepticism over this pick was more attributable to the jarring nature with which the Bulls dealt Jimmy Butler and hit reset during the draft. Taking Markkanen at No. 7 was perfectly defensible and perhaps the safest choice at that spot, particularly given that the Bulls added young guards Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine in the deal. In this re-draft scenario Chicago makes the pick again, banking on the blend of floor and upside.
Though Markkanen’s shooting numbers aren’t surface-level great (40.9% FG, 33.2% from deep), he’s shown enough to establish himself as a floor spacer defenses have to account for. The Bulls have experimented by letting him work off of ball screens and leverage some of his athleticism to create off the dribble, adding a potential dimension to his offense long-term. His biggest area of improvement efficiency-wise is on the block, where adding bulk to help hold position and leverage his shooting touch could take him a long way. As Markkanen’s feel as a passer and roll man evolve, there’s considerable scoring potential in a 7-footer with his skill level. The Bulls will need every bucket. — JW
8. Knicks: OG Anunoby | Original: Frank Ntilikina
It’s not hard to see why Anunoby slipped to No. 23 on draft night. He hadn’t played in a regulation game since suffering a serious knee injury last January, and it was difficult to put a lot of faith in his three-point shot given he attempted only 74 of them at Indiana and knocked them down at a lower clip as a sophomore than he did as a freshman. But Anunoby’s blend of physical tools (including a reported 7’2’’ wingspan) and mobility gave him the outline of a multi-position defensive menace, the sort of switchable stopper every team is trying to stockpile in gaming out how to gum up the Rockets’ and Warriors’ turbo-charged offenses. Raptors execs were probably doing backflips in their draft war room when Anunoby fell to them, but they probably didn’t envision him acquitting himself this well in year one.
Any fear that Anunoby would be a non-shooter straightjacketed to a screen-and-dish role on offense has been dashed. Since taking Norman Powell’s spot in the starting lineup in mid-November, Anunoby has posted a team-high Offensive Rating rating while making a team-high 47.6% of his three-point attempts among players putting up at least one trey per game. That make rate probably won’t hold, but Dwane Casey will be hesitant to put Anunoby on the bench as long as he can command some defensive attention when standing behind the arc. Toronto bears a higher burden of proof as a Finals contender than other East and West heavyweights because of its recent postseason track record, but Anunoby could help push it over the top, even if it doesn’t happen this season. — CJ
9. Mavericks: De'Aaron Fox | Original: Dennis Smith Jr.
While I may have been a little too bullish on Fox entering the draft, his natural gifts on both sides of the ball still make him one of the better prospects in the class. He’s a quick-twitch playmaker who’s still learning to run a team, and after starting out hot, it hasn’t been smooth sailing. He’s been outperformed by fellow rookie Frank Mason, which was to be expected given Mason is close to four years older and was one of college basketball’s most polished players last season. His overall learning curve isn’t the Kings’ fault, but Sacramento has also struggled to develop young players in recent years. As with all of this year’s rookies, nothing is written in stone, and Fox has as much athletic talent as any of them.
That said, there’s still plenty of ability here. Fox’s ability to score in isolation has actually been better than expected, as he’s generated 1.031 points per possession and had success scoring off the drive. He’s otherwise had trouble scoring efficiently, and the concerns about his jump shot were warranted. Over Fox’s first seven games, he averaged 13.4 points, 5.0 assists and 4.3 rebounds while shooting 33.3% from outside and 41.7% overall, which wasn’t bad. He’s still incredibly fast and quick, and should get to a point where he can make an impact defensively while ably attacking defenses on the other end. Fox’s flashes of brilliance have been plenty noteworthy, including a game winner against the Sixers and some creative finishes with both hands. He can still be the culture-changer and on-court leader the Kings sorely need. — JW
10. Trail Blazers: Kyle Kuzma | Original: Zach Collins
Here’s a thought experiment: Which rookie would you rather have right now, Ball or Kuzma? The order of this redraft reflects where we stand on the matter, but the fact that it’s even worth considering is stunning given both players’ reputations last June. Ball was viewed as the precocious passing savant who’d spearhead the Lakers’ rise out of the post-Kobe abyss, while Kuzma was a solid late first-round grab who seemed like a good bet to spend more time in the G-League than Staples Center this season. Following up his encouraging draft combine showing and headline-stealing stint at Summer League, Kuzma has shattered any sensible projection for his rookie campaign by building a credible case as this draft class’s biggest steal. He’s far more than a League Pass novelty charming Baby Lakers devotees late at night and posting empty stats in blowout losses.
Kuzma gives the Lakers another functional combo forward to go with 2016 lottery pick Brandon Ingram, and he looks capable of developing into an important contributor on their next title contender. Among rookies averaging at least 20 minutes per game this season, only Tatum and Atlanta’s John Collins (more on him below) have posted higher Player Efficiency Ratings, and only Mitchell is putting up more points on a per-36-minute basis. Let’s not get carried away here: Kuzma ranks 85th among power forwards in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus this season. But his offensive tool kit has a place in the league, whether that’s with the Lakers or another team after Magic Johnson pulls the trigger on an assets-for-A-lister trade. — CJ
11. Hornets: Josh Jackson | Original: Malik Monk
No lottery prospect fell more precipitously during this exercise than Jackson, who dropped from No. 4 to the Suns to a position just outside the Top 10. He was billed as a do-everything wing coming out of Kansas, where his jumper had shown some signs of improvement, but has been one of the least-efficient scorers anywhere this season, ranking in just the 12th percentile league-wide, according to Synergy Sports. Some of this certainly falls on the Suns, who have given Jackson a notable share of offensive opportunities right away and seen few positive results. His shot selection is often poor, and the rudimentary nature of his basket-slashing has also been exposed, due in part to the fact he no longer enjoys a physical advantage over most opponents. Admittedly, he was mislabeled as an NBA-ready prospect. Statistically, you’ll find little to like here.
That may sound like just about the worst case scenario, but it’s still too soon to completely bail on Jackson. While the prospect of him ever becoming a real shooter is fuzzy due to weird mechanics and a lack of consistent touch from outside, he’s still a dynamic athlete with some playmaking ability in the open floor. Right now he’s biting off more than he can chew, which is palatable so long as he makes adjustments. The Suns don’t need him to be a superstar, but they do need him to become an effective complement to Devin Booker. That reality begins on the defensive end, where Jackson can be terrific when applying himself. It stands to reason that Phoenix may need to take baby steps with his development. — JW
12. Pistons: John Collins | Original: Luke Kennard
Collins might be the Hawks’ biggest selling point as a viewing proposition this season. For a franchise that waited way too long to detonate its Horford-Millsap core and take the plunge into rebuild mode, Collins was a nice grab outside of the lottery, not to mention the early answer to the question of which of the two 2017 first-rounders surnamed Collins (along with Portland’s Zach, at pick No. 10) will enjoy a more fruitful career. Pre-draft questions about John Collins’s positional fit and defensive shortcomings have been put to rest by his sheer production. No qualifying rookie is rebounding more on a per-possession basis, and only one, Golden State’s Jordan Bell (more on him below), has converted a higher percentage of his shot attempts.
It would require an unexpectedly rapid ascent from the East cellar to prevent Collins from spending the next couple of years, at minimum, treading water out of the national spotlight, but Atlanta’s lack of urgency to push for a playoff spot should free up coach Mike Budenholzer to let Collins play through his mistakes while he smooths off some of the rougher edges of his skill set. In the process, he’ll give East frontcourts fits with his activity on the glass and reliable interior finishing while giving Smith a run for his money as the most entertaining dunker in this class. Collins’s fit into the Hawks’ future plans is difficult to discern, in large part because this roster feels stocked with short-term rentals who won’t be around the next time they’re playing meaningful spring basketball. Collins looks like a keeper, though. — CJ
13. Jazz: Malik Monk | Original: Donovan Mitchell
In recent weeks Monk has fallen out of the Hornets’ rotation, reportedly due to poor defense, and was just handed a G-League assignment to find some playing time. The 11th overall pick has always profiled as a professional scorer and has a lot of ground to make up on that side of the ball, but the move also shouldn’t be viewed as an early condemnation of his long-term prospects. Perhaps Charlotte should afford him more patience and maybe it’s just a quick stint, but Monk’s overall scoring profile has come in line with his skill set. It’ll take some level of a leash when it comes to minutes, but his dynamic perimeter scoring ability still warrants lottery status here despite his other flaws.
More so than most rookies, Monk’s distinct strengths and weaknesses have played out according to expectations. He’s shot at a respectable 34.3% clip from outside, ranked in the 89th percentile in transition efficiency and the 82nd in spot-up efficiency. Monk’s deep range and athleticism tend to play best in space, where he finishes more easily and can play off of ball-handlers. Conversely, his pick-and-roll play has put him in just the 14th percentile, confirming concerns about his playmaking ability. Monk isn’t a point guard, but his most frequent role has been as a ballhandler using a screens, which makes some sense given his threat to pull up and shoot. He hasn’t been great coming off screens either, though it’s a tiny sample size. Monk’s talent was on full display at Kentucky, but it’s clear that he may not add a ton in other areas beyond getting buckets. At this stage, it’s on the Hornets to figure out how to weaponize him. — JW
14. Heat: Jordan Bell | Original: Bam Adebayo
Chicago let the Warriors make out like bandits in a cash-for-Bell swap last June, but what looked like a lopsided trade then has increasingly come to feel like a straight-up fleecing for a franchise that already owned far-and-away the league’s most loaded roster. One of the reigning champions’ only apparent frailties coming out of last season was a thin big man rotation, and in Bell, they snagged a productive solution on the cheap without lifting a finger in free agency. Bell is an efficient interior scorer, capable rebounder and advanced shot-blocker with the playmaking juice to keep the offense whirring at full tilt, and his ability to take on a range of defensive assignments could make him the closest thing Golden State has to a Draymond 2.0 on that end of the floor as well as an invaluable part of the Dubs’ plan to neutralize the Rockets in a hypothetical playoff series.
Sure, most rookies would take well to a rotation spot on a dynastic juggernaut with four of the league’s 10-or-so best players wherein hustling, moving the ball and staying out of Steph and KD’s way are at the top of the to-do list, but Golden State has spent the last couple of seasons cycling through low-cost veteran bigs on the back nine of their careers. By contrast, Bell is a gifted 22-year-old far from his peak whose physical tools and skill set fit the Warriors’ pace-pushing style, and who they can keep around without much strain to a cap sheet that’ll only get more bloated in the coming years. — CJ