Prospects Are Like Movies – Playmaker Edition

What did the first scenes show us?

What did the first scenes show us?

Even though we have seen several games of every 2017 draft prospect now, it is hard to properly rank them since the sample size of their work is still fairly small. At this point it makes no sense to put too much thought into rating statistical profiles or finding accurate player comparisons that properly reflect on the impact a player might have in the NBA next year. We still need to gather more information to be able to make accurate predictions.

What we can do, however, is talk about first impressions. Watching the first few appearances of prospects is like catching the first minutes of a movie you haven’t seen. The early scenes make you feel something. They are pivotal in deciding if you want to keep watching or not. But you cannot rate the film without seeing the ending.

So why not use this thought experiment to look at the most promising position of the 2017 draft – the playmakers. What kind of movie beginning did their early game tape feel like?

Dennis Smith

His movie so far: Trailers with a fancy look and a great cast got you really excited. But after the first few scenes some plot holes start to appear. You are not sure if those will get ironed out later on or might ruin the entire film for you.

Smith got serious hype over the summer after coming back from a torn ACL, looking as athletic as ever. As a playmaker with superior athleticism and great on-ball skills, many writers and scouts saw him as a sure-fire top 5 pick that was supposed to dominate the college game. His first few games showed that he might not be able to fulfill this promise.

Don’t get me wrong. The strong and bouncy NC State lead guard did show that he can impact every game. His combination of speed, explosiveness and great handling allows him to get to the basket with ease. Smith converts these trips to the rim into free throw attempts at a great rate so far. He also hits them at a good percentage, which certainly delights efficiency aficionados. Occasional dunks emphasize his underrated leaping ability. He possesses great court vision and presents himself as a gifted passer.

However, his first 200 minutes also showed some weaknesses Smith needs to work on to live up to his reputation as an all star caliber talent. He had some early shooting problems from distance and struggled finishing over length at the basket from time to time. On defense, his lack of size already hurt him and forced his coach to hide him off-ball in certain situations. We will have to see if these warts of his game are permanent or just part of adjusting to the new level of competition.

Frank Ntilikina

His movie so far: Intriguing foreign short movie your hipster friend recommended. Even though you had to watch it with subtitles and didn’t understand every word, you love the idea of the story so much that you wish this was a feature film. On the other hand you are a little afraid. What happens if Hollywood adapts this film for real? Will it lose some of its magic?

If NBA GMs could build a playmaker in the lab, they would definitely experiment with the Ntilikina model for a while. 6‘5‘‘, great wingspan, quick feet and a lot of speed – the 18 year old French guard possesses a lot of tools to give him all the athletic potential in the world. It is great to see that this teenager plays regular rotation minutes in league play and even in the continental competition for his club team Strasbourg. Earning this playing time mostly with his defensive ability, his offensive impact seems to improve. Ntilikina looks more confident in his shot than a year ago.

His case is tricky, though. The physical talent is undeniable. The rest of his game still seems unknown. Even though he plays about 15 minutes per game, he is not allowed to run the offense yet. Aside from some duties as a secondary ballhandler, he usually just camps outside the three-point line, spacing the floor for his more experienced teammates. This leaves us with occasional flashes, but nothing solid to work with. How can you evaluate him properly as a full time point guard then, let alone projecting his transition to the NBA game? Until his coach gives him more responsibility on offense, he will stay somewhat of a mystery man, similar to Dante Exum back in the day. But there is a lot to love with Ntilikina already that centers around the buzzword potential.

De’Aaron Fox

His movie so far: Looks like an entertaining popcorn movie that gets the job done. Even though the special effects aren’t revolutionary, they still manage to keep you on the edge of your seat. Explosions are always fun, right? The story is cool, but shallow dialoges seem to hold back the entire movie. If there isn’t a huge twist at the end waiting for us, this film is just slightly above average and nothing we haven’t seen before.

It is already really hard to stand out as a prospect in general. But it might be the hardest for Kentucky playmakers. The list of successful Calipari guards is just too long and ramps up the pressure right from the start. Wall, Knight, Bledsoe, Murray and Ulis is an impressive group that doesn’t even account for Cal’s Memphis prospects Rose and Evans. With this kind of history Fox was kind of set up to fail. After a few games it is safe to say, though, that he will be fine.

Like most of his predecessors, the newest Wildcats playmaker arrived in Lexington with a game built around athleticism and above average size for his position. So far, he is using these great tools to play honest defense and getting to the rim. Once in a while, he puts his solid court vision to work to drop some nice dimes.

Still, on the Kentucky playmaker scale, he might be closer to Marquis Teague and the Harrison twins than to John Wall. Problems with shot creation and his shaky jumper are holding Fox back in a serious manner. Till the end of the year he needs to show that his three-point drought is just an early season shooting slump to give him more upside as an offensive player. His free throw percentage suggests that his shot will come around. But will it be enough for him to not be considered a negative spacing factor long-term?

Lonzo Ball

His movie so far: Going into the movie, you knew that the topic is enticing and absolutely at the pulse of its time. This movie most definitely will have cult status in a pretty big community sooner or later. But will this film appeal to a broader audience as well? So far they are pulling it off. Visually stunning shots of great locations will want to make you come back and see it again for sure. But there was no line of dialog yet. You are awaiting the first encounters of the greatly drawn characters. These will decide if this movie will hold up over time. „Love-it-or-hate-it“-status is also in the realm of possibilities.

The UCLA freshman came into the season as a phenomenon. Every basketball fan had heard about the futuristic play style of his high school team Chino Hills. He was the maestro in an offense that made the 7-seconds-or-less-Suns look slow. Lonzo and his brothers were simply runnin‘ and gunnin‘ away with him being the brain and heart of the system. Now he does the same thing for Steve Alford and his Bruins. Throwing great outlet passes, pushing the ball in transition, setting up teammates with spectacular passes, hitting threes from NBA range – on offense there is nothing 6‘6‘‘ playmaker Ball can’t do at this point. Watching him is just straight eye candy.

On the other hand there might be some problems that will materialize later on. Athletically the freshman seems fine right now, but his speed, explosiveness and wingspan will be average at best once he enters the NBA. Playing an extremely easy schedule so far, it is tough to say how much this will affect his game later on. His lack of burst and lateral quickness could make him a weak link on defense and take away from the offensive dominance he has been able to apply until this point. Matchups against better competition will help us understand how much we can trust his game.

Markelle Fultz

His movie so far: Genius script, stunning cinematography, brilliant soundtrack, sensational actors, smart marketing over the summer. The first sequences look awesome. This film will be in Oscar contention for sure. Critics are already comparing this beginning to all-time classics in their heads. This piece of art has the chance to become a masterpiece for the ages if the ending doesn’t fall off.

To keep this short, let’s just list the things the young Huskies playmaker can’t do. I guess his jump shot isn‘t lethal yet, as his free throw numbers suggest. Additionally, he picks his spots on defense and doesn’t fight every possession like it’s his last. But these are the only criticisms I have for Fultz at the moment.

Besides these minor shortcomings, every other part of his game screams future superstar. Like most other top level talents, he just moves and plays with an otherworldly fluidity. Everything he does on the court seems easy and natural. Fultz can carry a game as an extremely efficient scorer, while also being able to shift into facilitator mode when needed. But he is also fine with playing an off-ball role once in a while if it helps the team. On defense his superior athletic ability will allow him to defend at least two positions. His long arms could even give him the chance to be fine against lighter small forwards. Oh yeah, and he is one of the younger prospects in this class. This dude is just unfair. That makes him the far and away front runner for the #1 draft spot right now, even though his team might miss the NCAA tournament. But this didn’t hurt Ben Simmons either, did it?!


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