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June 14, 2017

Sixers 2017 NBA Draft big board

My friend Derek Bodner is one of the best in the biz at covering the NBA Draft, and he eloquently hit the nail on the head when describing the exercise that I am about to attempt. I’m talking about ranking the 2017 NBA Draft prospects on a BIG BOARD.

(Note: There’s no actual board.)

This stuff is freaking hard, man. How many of you agreed with the Sixers drafting Jahlil Okafor over Kristaps Porzingis? Guilty! How many ranked Brandon Ingram as the second-best prospect last year? A lot of people had him first, and with the caveat that he’s still very young, Ingram struggled mightily his rookie season. There are a million other examples of conventional wisdom gone wrong from the past few years as well.

You know what, though, that high level of difficulty is part of why ranking draft prospects is fun. Besides, it’s not like passing on Zinger was my actual responsibility. HOW COULD THEY DO SUCH A THING?

Tier 1

1. Markelle Fultz (6’4”, 195 lbs.), PG, Washington

Fultz is the one player here who doesn’t figure to be on the board for the Sixers. He played with some bad teammates on some hard-to-find channels late at night, but he was my top prospect fairly early in the season.

I’m confident that Fultz has the combination of size, athleticism, skill level to thrive as a lead guard in the modern NBA. At 6’4”, he has an advanced handle and the ability to hit tough jumpers (1.02 PPP on pull-ups ranks second best among draft prospects, per Draft Express):

Then, there his ability to split the pick-and-roll with ease:

Fultz will have to commit to playing defense at the next level (not unlike Ben Simmons!), but the tools are there. Give that man some NBA spacing and shooting and he should be pretty darn good. The bad news is that he’s likely going to play for the Sixers’ biggest historic rival and the only franchise that possesses near the same level of long-term assets as the current Sixers.

2. Lonzo Ball (6’6”, 190 lbs.), CG, UCLA

Pretty, pretty good.

If this ranking wasn’t team-specific, Fultz would be in a tier of his own. But I’m going to bump Ball up here because he’s my second-ranked prospect and would fit next to Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid perfectly in my opinion.

What a unique player. Let’s go about this by focusing on Ball’s weaknesses:

•    Lack of one-on-one creation: Ball’s efficiency numbers at UCLA are mind-boggling (73 percent on two-pointers!), but you do have to look at how he achieved them. Marc Whittington, who does really good draft work over at Liberty Ballers, dug up the stats that illustrated how Ball barely created any shots at the rim for himself:

This is why I list Ball as a true combo guard, which means that I’m not sure he’ll put pressure on the defense as a lead guard over a full game in the way that someone like Fultz is capable of. Lonzo has a pretty basic handle and a below-average first step.

For these reasons, I feel like Lonzo is best paired with another ball-handler. Someone like, you know, Ben Simmons.

•    Unorthodox shooting motion: It’s not pretty and I have no idea if he’ll ever be able to make pull-up jumpers when he’s dribbling to his right against NBA length. However, I am confident that when Simmons and Embiid run a pick-and-roll, Lonzo’s defender isn’t going to be able to help off him. Ball shot 80-194 from deep this season, and I mean deeeeeeeeeeepppp:

If you help off Lonzo, Simmons should find him and he’ll drill that goofy looking shot at a nice rate.

•    Defense: I’m not sure Ball will ever be above-average, but he’s 6’6” and has the smarts to be solid within a team system. And the Sixers also have Embiid, who should anchor a Top-10 defense by himself if he can stay healthy, to clean up most mistakes.

Then there are all of the positives. The transition play with Ball and Simmons would be awesome. The passing in general with Ball should help juice the offense. Lonzo is the type of player whose passing could become infectious.

Tier 2

Before we get started, I want to note that these players are very good and really close in my estimation. The Sixers have some serious optionality here.

3. Josh Jackson (6’8”, 203 lbs.), SF, Kansas

On the night of the draft lottery, Jackson noted that he played out of position this year:

This was true, as Bill Self largely ditched his past preference of playing two traditional bigs and stuck Jackson at the 4, where he doesn’t figure to play in the NBA with his wiry frame. Kansas going small may have allowed Jackson to utilize his quickness in a way that won’t translate to the next level.

Let’s start with something positive, though. Jackson makes a lot of mental mistakes defensively, but his effort level is excellent and all of the tools are there for someone who can shift fairly effortlessly between defending 1 and 3.

Sixers shooting coach John Townsend already has a lot on his plate with trying to refine Ben Simmons’ jump shot, and adding Jackson would give him another pupil. Hey, he shot 38 percent from three at Kansas! Well, Justise Winslow shot 42 percent at Duke and look at his numbers in the NBA. Jackson went an abysmal 57 percent from the free-throw line this season, which is concerning.

So, why is Jackson third? I think that with his combination of defensive tools, athleticism, and passing instincts, he gives the Sixers a good chance at finding a two-way impact player next to Simmons and Embiid. But make no mistake, the lack of consistency on his jumper is a little scary.

4. Jonathan Isaac (6’11”, 205 lbs.), PF, Florida State

This is my vote for the best defensive tools of this group. Isaac covers so much ground at 6’11”, rebounds and blocks shots like a center, and despite a late-season shooting slump, I think he’ll be able to make catch-and-shoot threes.

Isaac’s 25 percent defensive rebounding rate ranked 25th among NCAA players and his 6.2 percent block rate ranked 100th, both very impressive numbers for someone who can also move his feet on the perimeter. He has a pretty absurd set of skills on the defensive end of the floor, albeit ones that could overlap with Simmons and Embiid.

Isaac doesn’t have the same upside offensively, as he projects mostly as a 3-and-D player with limited creation skills. But on the other hand, the Sixers defense very well could be impossible to score on with him in the fold.

5. Dennis Smith Jr. (6’3”, 195 lbs.), PG, NC State

It was slightly after the buzzer, but Smith’s monster dunk to cap a win at Cameron Indoor Stadium was one of my lasting memories of this college season:

It was also one of the few team successes that Smith experienced, as his NC State team was pretty much a disaster. He certainly played a part in that with poor shot selection and very little defensive intensity, but he’s the point guard prospect outside of the top tier that I would most be willing to draft.

The spacing Smith dealt with at NC State was far from optimal:

That should change in the NBA because Smith is an extremely explosive athlete who has a good handle and impressive vision at times. Smith shot 36 percent from three as a freshman, but he was wildly inconsistent from game-to-game. Some nights he was on fire, while others he couldn’t throw the ball in the ocean.

Smith’s individual workouts and interviews are going to be very important because he has the talent to be a handful to deal with in transition and pick-and-roll. A lot of his negatives can theoretically be fixed with better coaching and teammates, but you need to be sure he’s willing to work on them.

6. Jayson Tatum (6’8”, 204 lbs.), SF/PF, Duke

I really enjoyed watching Tatum play down the stretch this college season. He has an advanced offensive game for a 19-year old and his upside is intriguing because he could theoretically be the player you throw the ball to on the wing late in games who can get a bucket by himself in isolation.

Count me in the camp that believes in Tatum’s three-point shot translating to the next level, which was a major question mark this time a year ago. Tatum shot 34 percent from three but also 85 percent from the line, which gives me confidence that he’ll be able to take his midrange jumper beyond the arc.

Tatum has the length to theoretically guard multiple positions, but I don’t believe he has the defensive versatility that Isaac or Jackson possess in addition to average athleticism that could be limiting on offense. Still, this is an intriguing talent who could be an all-star if some things go right.

7. Malik Monk (6’4”, 197 lbs.), SG, Kentucky

For the Sixers, Monk likely represents one of the safest possible picks. From a fit standpoint, his skills would likely be maximized in Philly, predominantly playing off the ball on offense and guarding 1s on the other end of the floor.

Fundamentally, Monk’s jumper is gorgeous. The elevation he gets on that baby means he should be able to shoot over contesting NBA defenders:

Remember what I said about Lonzo’s man not being able to help off him on the weak side of a play when Simmons and Embiid run a pick-and-roll? Monk’s defender is going to have to stay attached while he runs off multiple screens.

I just wish his leaping ability translated into better defense and more attempts at the rim. For those reasons, my guess is that Monk’s destiny is as a really good catch-and-shoot role player. The Sixers need those guys! I wouldn’t question the fit if the front office drafted him, but they might be sacrificing both versatility and upside in doing so.

8. De’Aaron Fox (6’4”, 171 lbs.), PG, Kentucky

A decent amount of people who have read/skimmed this far will likely be surprised to see this guy ranked this low. I like Fox as a prospect, even if I don’t see quite the realistic upside that others do. Hey, somebody had to be No. 8!

When I look at Fox, the major thing I wonder about is his jumper. NBA teams are going to play way off him and go under every screen, and he needs to be able to make that shot. According to Draft Express, Fox made only 31 percent of pull-up jumpers and 20 percent of spot-up jumpers in the halfcourt. Fox is an unbelievably quick player who got to and finished at the rim well in college, and he’s going to have to continue that in the NBA.

Fox’s fit with Simmons would be tricky, but the same goes for any team that would play him off the ball for even short stretches. Watch the NBA Finals and the two point guards (Kyrie Irving, Steph Curry) are equally adept at scoring on and off the ball. Right now, we can’t say the same for Fox.

It’s worth noting that Fox is thought to be an extremely high-character guy, which definitely matters. Unfortunately, I can’t factor that into this evaluation for the simple fact that I’ve never met him personally. The Sixers will obviously get the chance to sit down with him.

Again, I like De’Aaron Fox and there’s a path for him to become really good. It’s just that unless you’re 6’10” and 240 pounds, point guards who come into the NBA as non-shooters scare me. That’s not a bet I feel comfortable making this high in the draft.

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann

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