It feels like the 2017 NBA draft class started getting hyped from the moment the 2016 draft ended. The incoming freshmen group in college basketball was thought to be one of the strongest of this decade, packed with a great crop of guards, a few potential two-way wings and some exciting international talent.
For the most part, the freshman class lived up to the hype. Lonzo Ball helped UCLA go from a team that couldn’t even finish .500 team to one of the most exciting collections of talent in the country. Jayson Tatum scored from everywhere at Duke, while Josh Jackson played both ends of the court with a rare ferocity for a 19-year-old. Out in the Pacific Northwest, a star emerged in Markelle Fultz.
1. Boston Celtics — Markelle Fultz, PG, Washington
If you were making a modern NBA point guard in a lab, he would look a lot like Markelle Fultz. Every tool is here: size, speed, length, shooting, and the ability to finish above the rim. What really separates Fultz is his creativity off the bounce. Sometimes that means hitting open cutters with a pass. Sometimes it means finding new ways to score out of the pick-and-roll.
There are a lot of great talents in this draft, but Fultz has emerged as the easy pick at No. 1. The Celtics should have themselves a franchise player.
2. Los Angeles Lakers — Lonzo Ball, PG, UCLA
Ball is a difficult player to evaluate because his game is so unique. His greatest strength is his mind: His basketball IQ is off the charts, and it manifests in easy looks for his teammates. UCLA finished 15-17 the year before he arrived on campus; with him, the Bruins were one of the best teams in the country all season. That jump shot might look funny, but he’s proved it works for him.
If the Lakers can find a way to surround him with athletes and shooters, Ball is the type of talent who can quickly elevate everyone around him.
3. Philadelphia 76ers — Jayson Tatum, SF, Duke
Tatum has been bred to be a primary scorer all his life. Unlike many young scorers, Tatum already comes with a plan of attack: He knows his spots on the floor and how to get to them. There were no shortage of options on Duke last year, but by the end of the season Tatum emerged as the team’s go-to player. As long as he improves his reads as a passer, he’s going to have a long career as an excellent offensive player.
4. Phoenix Suns — Josh Jackson, SG, Kansas
Jackson is a plus athlete, a willing defender, a crafty offensive creator, and the type of player who never takes a possession off. He is a two-way wing at a time when they are valued more than ever. Jackson will immediately bring the Suns both versatility and an increased competitive spirit. If his three-point shot keeps coming around, he has All-Star potential.
5. Sacramento Kings — De’Aaron Fox, PG, Kentucky
Fox has good size, elite speed, and a knack for making plays on both ends of the court. He turned in the single most impressive performance of the college season when he torched Lonzo Ball for 39 points in Kentucky’s Sweet 16 win over UCLA. His jump shot is the major question mark.
6. Orlando Magic — Dennis Smith Jr., PG, NC State
Smith tore his ACL in August going into his senior year of high school. Somehow he was still arguably the most athletic point guard in college basketball from the onset of his freshman season. NC State struggled to win games, but Smith was electric at times. Case in point: his 32-point performance in an upset win over Duke in January:
7. Minnesota Timberwolves — Jonathan Isaac, F, Florida State
Isaac is raw, but his physical tools make him one of the most enticing long-term prospects in this draft. At 6’10, he has quick feet and long arms, a combination that enables him to defend the perimeter and protect the rim. He also shot 35 percent from three-point range this season. The hope for the Wolves is that he’ll be able to defend right away while his offensive skill set takes time to develop.
8. New York Knicks — Malik Monk, SG, Kentucky
Monk will immediately provide two things in the NBA: shooting and athleticism. He canned 104 threes at a 39.7 percent clip in his one season at Kentucky. He’s liable to get hot in a hurry, like the time he dropped 47 points on 8-of-12 shooting from three against eventual national champion North Carolina in December. Best case scenario: He evolves into a more athletic Eric Gordon or C.J. McCollum.
9. Dallas Mavericks — Frank Ntilikina, PG, France
Ntilikina has long arms, quick feet, and a developing three-point stroke. He could become a three-and-D point guard like Patrick Beverley or George Hill. The Mavs will have to be patient: At 18 years old, he’s one of the youngest players in the draft.
10. Sacramento Kings — Hamidou Diallo, SG, Kentucky
Diallo follows in the footsteps of Thon Maker last season as a fifth-year high school player jumping straight to the NBA. With Diallo, there’s a twist: He committed to Kentucky for the second semester and spent a couple of months practicing against De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, and the rest of the Wildcats even if he never appeared in a game.
Diallo is an explosive athlete with a 44-inch vertical jump. It would be a big risk taking him at this point in the draft, but his upside plus positional scarcity on the wing could elevate him higher than expected on draft night. It’s not like the Kings need another big man with Skal Labissiere, Willie Cauley-Stein and Georgios Papagiannis on the roster. They already took a point guard with their first pick. If anyone is in position to gamble on Diallo, it’s them.
11. Charlotte Hornets — Lauri Markkanen, PF, Arizona
Markkanen arrived at Arizona from Finland and immediately became one of the best shooting big men college basketball has ever seen. He knocked down 69 threes at a 42.3 percent clip by showing off a quick release and deep range. If you saw how Ryan Anderson helped unlock James Harden’s MVP potential, you know how valuable Markkanen’s skill set can be in the league.
12 - Detroit Pistons — Zach Collins, C, Gonzaga
Collins has a complete skill set for a big man. He blocks shots, can stretch out the defense with his jump shot and has a developing post game. He was Gonzaga’s first-ever McDonald’s All-American, and now he’s the program’s first ever one-and-done. He’ll need to continue to work on his body, but the Pistons will like his skill level.
13. Denver Nuggets — OG Anunoby, SF, Indiana
It’s a risk taking Anunoby in the lottery because he tore his ACL in January and is still so raw offensively. But if the Nuggets are thinking long term, they will see a strong, long, and athletic forward who can guard four spots on the floor and help cover up for Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray’s deficiencies on the defensive end.
14. Miami Heat — Donovan Mitchell, SG, Louisville
Mitchell lacks ideal size for an off guard at 6’3, but he makes up for it with long arms (6’10 wingspan) and a 40-inch vertical. He’s one of the best pure athletes in the draft; someone who projects as an energy guy at both ends while his skill level develops. Victor Oladipo seems like a fair comp.
15. Portland Trail Blazers — Justin Jackson, SF, North Carolina
Jackson hit 63 three-pointers at about a 30 percent clip in his first two years at North Carolina combined. As a junior, he knocked down 105 threes at 37 percent. There’s more to Jackson than his jumper: He also defended Malik Monk as well as anyone in the Elite Eight and has one of the best floaters in this draft.
16. Chicago Bulls — Terrance Ferguson, SG, Adelaide (NBL)
Ferguson got $1 million to play professionally in Australia rather than honor his commitment to Arizona. He averaged less than five points per game on the season, but a team should still be willing to take a chance on his skill set in the first round. He has great size for a shooting guard at 6’7 with explosive leaping ability and deep range on his three-point shot.
17. Milwaukee Bucks — D.J. Wilson, PF, Michigan
The Bucks could use some insurance on Jabari Parker after his second torn ACL. That’s where Wilson comes in. His combination of length, shooting, and shot-blocking makes him a rare talent. He finally started to put it all together at the end of the season for Michigan. Picking Wilson this high is a bet on tools over production. That bet has paid off for the Bucks before.
18. Indiana Pacers — Harry Giles, C, Duke
The Pacers might as well start preparing for life without Paul George. That means swinging for the fences in the first round. Giles was thought to be the top high school player in the country before a series of knee injuries limited his effectiveness at Duke. If he can regain the form he once showed on the grassroots circuit, the Pacers could have an intriguing twin towers look with Giles and Myles Turner.
19. Atlanta Hawks — Jarrett Allen, C, Texas
Allen didn’t get much publicity playing for a Texas team that was one of the country’s biggest underachievers, but anyone who saw him on the recruiting trail knows how talented he is. Allen combines quick feet with a 7’5 wingspan that makes him a fascinating long-term gamble in the front court.
20. Portland Trail Blazers — T.J. Leaf, PF, UCLA
I talked to Leaf at the draft combine in Chicago last week and can say with authority he knew more about the NBA than any college player I’ve ever talked to. Someone asked him about the Magic, and he started his answer with “Obviously, they were in the Finals in 2009 ...”
Aside from being an NBA junkie like me and you, Leaf can also shoot the hell out of the ball. He hit 46 percent of his threes at UCLA and would give the Portland frontcourt some much needed floor spacing.
21. Oklahoma City Thunder — Luke Kennard, SG, Duke
Kennard is like Doug McDermott or Kyle Singler, only good. He was one of the country’s breakout players as a sophomore, posting an absurdly high offensive rating (127.3 compared to Tatum’s 108.8) buoyed by his 43.8 percent clip from three-point range. This pick would provide the spacing Russell Westbrook badly needs.
22. Brooklyn Nets — Justin Patton, C, Creighton
Patton was hit with a redshirt when he arrived at Creighton because the coaching staff thought his body needed more time to develop. He proved to be a genius move: Patton was one of the best centers in America from the start of last season, growing into an efficient scorer because of his great touch around the rim. He runs the floor as well as any big man in this class.
23. Toronto Raptors — Rodions Kurucs, SF, Latvia
Kurucs has been a pro in Spain since he turned 16. He has great size for a wing at 6’8 with good athleticism and a developing skill set. He could be a nice draft-and-stash option for Toronto.
24. Utah Jazz — Semi Ojeleye, F, SMU
It was jarring looking at Ojeleye at the draft combine. He’s about as physically strong as any basketball player you will ever see: 6’7, 240 pounds with 5.5 percent body fat and a 40-inch vertical leap. The former Duke transfer blossomed into a three-level scorer in his first year at SMU and wound up being conference player of the year in the ACC. He’s one of my favorite sleepers in this draft.
25. Orlando Magic — Ike Anigbogu, C, UCLA
The Magic paid a hefty price for lob catching and rim protection when they signed Bismack Biyombo last year. Anigbogu offers a similar skill set — and the same 7’6 wingspan — for much cheaper.
26. Portland Trail Blazers — Kyle Kuzma, F, Utah
Kuzma was excellent during the 5x5 portion of the draft combine this weekend. He has a strong 6’9 frame with long arms and the type of switchability on defense teams covet. Here’s what DraftExpress wrote:
The 6' 9.5 Kuzma proved to be one of the most offensively talented prospects to play 5-on-5, as he showed how projectable his game is when he's knocking down shots with consistency (something he struggled with at times at Utah). Sporting a quick release with sound mechanics, Kuzma made four spot threes, knocked down a one-dribble pull up and looked really comfortable attacking off the bounce and finding teammates on the move.
27. Brooklyn Nets — Derrick White, SG, Colorado
The best story of this draft class, White played DII ball for three years before transferring up to Colorado and becoming one of the best players in the Pac-12. He doesn’t have any apparent holes in his skill set: He’s able to shoot, pass, and dribble, and he tested well athletically at the combine, too. He has done enough in the post-season draft process to work his way into round one.
28. Los Angeles Lakers — Jordan Bell, C, Oregon
Bell is undersized for a center, but he also counts as a freak athlete at that position. He tested as well as anyone in the agility drills at the combine and has plenty of college tape to prove how dominant he can be. You can start with his amazing Elite Eight performance to key Oregon’s win over top-seeded Kansas.
29. San Antonio Spurs — P.J. Dozier, G, South Carolina
Dozier can be special defensively with the versatility to guard multiple positions at 6’6 with long arms. His jump shot is the big question mark.
30. Utah Jazz — John Collins, PF, Wake Forest
Collins is a bucket-getter through and through. He was one of the breakout players in the country at Wake Forest as a sophomore by shooting 62.2 percent from the field while cleaning the glass at both ends. He needs to improve defensively.