Just about the only consensus opinion entering the 2017 NBA draft is that Markelle Fultz should and will be the first pick. The Boston Celtics have already gotten familiar with Fultz on a personal level, and his main competitor for the No. 1 slot, Lonzo Ball, might not even be the Los Angeles Lakers' choice at No. 2. Fultz's well-rounded profile has won out over Ball's more polarizing strengths and weaknesses.
Yet, it is always worth questioning whether an emerging consensus is justified. If the ultimate goal of drafting is to help build a championship team, an argument can be made that Ball is more suited for the task.
I have already written my magnum opus on Lonzo Ball. Some thoughts have changed since then, but I encourage you to read that for a more detailed two-sided breakdown of Ball’s game. This piece will argue why a team should favor Ball over Fultz, and the team-building philosophies behind such a view.
There are three main reasons for this argument:
- Ball’s upside to be the best player on a championship team is greater than Fultz’s
- Ball would be better next to another superstar than Fultz
- If neither turn out great, they will be similarly valuable players
1. Ball’s upside to be the best player on a championship team is greater than Fultz’s
Most others disagree, but I find it nearly impossible to envision Markelle Fultz as the best player on a championship team.
The current iteration of James Harden would be hard-pressed to be the best player on a championship team, and not just because of the presence of the Warriors. Just to meet historical championship-team standards, the Rockets would need to greatly improve their supporting cast and get pretty lucky. There are about four to six guys in the league who are better than Harden, and it is damn hard to be better than their teams when you’re starting with a worse star.
Markelle Fultz’s upside is somewhere close to, but below Harden's. Both are elite scorers from three, mid-range, and at the hoop. Both are great creators in pick-and-roll. Both also both lack absolute outlier shooting, athleticism, or passing. Even with good development across the board, Fultz may never reach Harden's level of efficiency of shot selection, shooting ability, foul-drawing ability, or passing.
Fultz can make up some of that gap on the other end, but it's hard to envision Fultz playing even average defense if he’s carrying a high usage load. He was a legitimately poor defender in college and not nearly as good in FIBA play as some laud him for being. Getting beat off the dribble by guys like Bryce Alford is not going to cut it in the NBA.
On the other hand, Ball's unique game does give him a chance to be that guy. He doesn't play well in pick-and-roll, struggles handling against pressure, and isn't great at creating his own inside the arc. Yet, Ball still won national freshman of the year and completely turned around his UCLA team. To understand what makes Ball special requires understanding that he dominated in the NCAA despite these weaknesses.
There has never been an NBA star with Ball's flaws, sure. However, what is crucial to realize is there had also never been an NCAA star with those flaws until Ball came around. He is a unique amalgamation of strengths who succeeds in a completely unprecedented way. It was unprecedented at the NCAA level, so it would be foolish to not at least cede the chance that he could also star in a revolutionary way in the NBA.
The stars the league does not see coming are often those whose play style does not match any past star. Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and Nikola Jokic all were seen as "low-upside" prospects precisely because their success came in ways the league had never seen before.
Ball detractors often muse about how can he be successful in the NBA if he can’t consistently create advantage situations. Well, how about the same way he did in the NCAA? Why not by creating transition opportunities out of thin air, adding value with his cutting, spotting up as a shooter, running the occasional pick-and-roll, moving the ball in the flow of the offense, and every other little thing he did that allowed him to turn UCLA around. Little touch passes like this that no one else would make, but end up carving the defense apart.
The best thing I can say about Lonzo Ball is that when he touches the ball, the offense ends up in a better place when it leaves his hand. If he’s shooting the ball, it is almost always a high-efficiency look from three or at the rim. His 67 percent true shooting mark is simply unheard of for a guard. If he’s passing the ball, he’s moving it to the right player, in the right spot.
I am not arguing that Ball is anywhere near likely to become a revolutionary NBA star. Instead, I'm saying it's more likely than Fultz doing the same. The league has seen pass-first point guards be top-five players, but honestly has never seen a star in the mold of Lonzo Ball. It may be wise to bet against something we have never seen before, but that is an easy way to miss on true game changers.
2. Ball would be better next to another superstar than Fultz
The Heat might not have won a single championship without Dwyane Wade. He was a true second star next to LeBron James. Yet Wade's individual game was not optimized playing next to LeBron.
Fultz absolutely can bring value as the second-best player on a championship team. He has the shooting (which Wade didn’t), slashing, and passing skills to play off another star wing. He could certainly operate next to a star big man in pick-and-roll sets.
Still, Fultz’s primary value comes when he has the ball in his hands. It's not that Fultz will "hurt" the other star he plays with, whether because he doesn’t space the floor or that he’s selfish. The problem is that Fultz brings the most value to a team is by spending time on-ball and finishing possessions. Therefore, next to another star who is best served initiating the offense, Fultz's individual game will not be optimized.
Contrast this with Ball. It is true that Ball benefited as much from the talent around him at UCLA as guys like T.J. Leaf, Ike Anigbogu, Bryce Alford, and everybody else benefited from playing next to Ball. However, that mutually beneficial relationship is precisely what makes Ball special.
He is the rare star who both has his own value elevated and elevates the value of others when next to other stars. The only current "star" player in the NBA who fits this mold is Draymond Green. Playing in the space created by Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson makes Draymond look a lot better, but Curry and Thompson also look better playing next to someone who can pass, shoot, and defend like Draymond.
Draymond is a very good off-ball offensive player and an all-time great off-ball defender. Ball’s smarts and instincts can allow him to be a very good off-ball defender who is an all-time great off-ball offensive player due to his vision, decision making, and tremendous range.
In the case where Ball does not turn into the best player on a championship team star, he will still be what I will call a "symbiotic star" in the making. A middle-of-the-road team looking to crack 45 wins might prefer Fultz, but a championship contender would rather have Ball’s ability to be a superstar role player.
3. If neither turn out great, they will be similarly valuable players
Teams at the top of the draft should be swinging for potential greatness more than avoiding a bust. Nonetheless, Ball comes out perfectly fine through this lens as well.
A worst-case scenario for each player involves their three-point shot not translating to the NBA. Both of their volumes and efficiency from three in college this year make such an outcome unlikely, but their low free-throw percentages do cast some aspersions on their shooting. In such a scenario, neither player would be all that good. Fultz would be more useful due to his on-ball ability, but since both players wouldn’t be changing their team’s fortunes, it's not important to differentiate between the two. It's not like Fultz has less downside risk.
If we assume that both players' shooting translates somewhat but their overall games do not develop much, they profile as similarly valuable players. Both as below-average defenders. Ball would be an off-ball guy who really struggles to dribble against NBA athletes, but still brings a bunch of offensive value due to his shooting and passing. Something like an offensive hybrid of Danny Green and Ricky Rubio. Fultz would be a moderately efficient lead guy who takes too many mid-range shots, but can create in volume for himself and others. He'd resemble Kemba Walker before Kemba became more efficient under Steve Clifford.
Both of those guys are still useful players, but the point is they don’t look all that different in terms of value.
Fultz is a great prospect that'll probably go No. 1 in the draft, but there's too much focus on his strengths and Ball’s weaknesses. It's more important to focus on the strengths that allowed Ball to be such an incredible college player.
That's why I’ll be betting on Lonzo Ball.