(First posted at RealGM)
Markelle Fultz announced last week he is declaring for the 2017 NBA draft, terminating his brief cup of coffee at the University of Washington.
With that as the case and with the trade deadline gone, giving us a clearer picture regarding which teams are expected to have the higher odds of winning the lottery, it seems appropriate to start thinking some more about how the projected number one pick in the draft is expected to fit with each of these specific teams.
I’ve profiled his base skill-set with more depth last month but for the tl;dr crowd, here are the basics:
- Fultz is considered one of the very best prospects of the last decade because his skill level is remarkably well polished for someone who won’t turn 19 until May. He does not have jaw-dropping quickness but can get wherever he wants on the court due to his dribble moves and ability to change speeds or directions with suddenness.
Consistently able to get separation to pull-up from mid-range and get to the basket in volume, Fultz has proven himself a very good scorer, as he’s averaged 26 points per 40 minutes while shooting 61.6% at the rim, 43.8% on two-point jumpers and 41.3% from beyond the arc – according to hoop-math.
He’s also shown to be a team-oriented player who makes the right reads when he manages to draw two to the ball, whether that’s passing across his body to the opposite end of the court, turning the corner out of the pick-and-roll, making the pocket pass when he gets downhill, hitting a big man spot up at the dunker’s spot at the last second or simply moving the ball around the horn when he gets a kick-out – assisting on 35% of Washington’s scores when he was on the floor this season and turning it over on just 13.4% of his possessions, according to our stats database.
- Fultz’s combination of physical profile and athleticism suggests he will offer positional versatility, giving his team’s general manager some flexibility for how to build a team around him. A model to follow is great but sometimes the market forces you to deviate from the plan and Fultz is envisioned as someone who can keep options open. Boston, for example, wouldn’t need to make a choice between Isaiah Thomas or Fultz. They should be able to just play together.
Offensively, Fultz is already there. He’s shown no problems playing without monopolizing possession of the ball. If anything, he’s shown a natural inclination towards being a ball mover. And he is a good catch-and-shoot three-point shooter.
But Fultz is not there yet defensively. In order to make these lineups with two point guards work, he will probably be the one guarding opposing wings and while he has good enough height and the length for it, Fultz probably lacks the strength and toughness to do it often at this point.
He’s expected to bulk up eventually, though. And that expectation that he’ll meet the physical demands needed to guard bigger players soon enough is part of what makes Fultz such an appealing prospect – the idea that you’d able to plug him into whatever role you need of him.
- Only one other prospect is in a reasonable discussion with Fultz for the top spot in this class: UCLA’s Lonzo Ball. Every other player is either not as well polished in as many aspects of the game, not as athletic or doesn’t offer the same potential – given Fultz’s age.
Ball, himself, also doesn’t meet these standards. He has several holes in his game, doesn’t have the same level of leaping ability and is seven months older than Fultz.
But Ball is not only better than Fultz in one specific skill (passing), but it seems as if he might be historically remarkable at it. At that point, it becomes a matter of who do you think has a higher chance of translating into difference-making greatness at the next level: someone who is good-to-very good at most things or someone who is historic at one thing.
- Despite his individual statistical greatness, Fultz was unable to carry Washington into decency. When draft discussion becomes more prominent in more popular vehicles, he is probably going to get some crap for it. Discussions will be had about whether Fultz (who appears to have more of a laid-back nature and plays gracefully at his own pace) has enough of a killer instinct to carry a team on his back.
But I tend to think that things are simpler: the team around him was poorly assembled and poorly coached, at least to compete in what was probably the best conference this season.
It could be argued that once it became clear Washington’s season was going poorly, Fultz had a responsibility to try forcing the issue some more. Since he can do more, more was expected of him. But then part of what makes him so appealing, the efficiency and team-oriented style of play, wouldn’t be there for us to praise him for it.
Boston has the highest odds of landing the number one selection, via Brooklyn’s pick, which they have the right to swap for. Very aware of it, the Celtics were cautious at the trade deadline, despite rumors that indicate Jimmy Butler and Paul George were available.
Given the way things played out, it seems fair to determine Boston is valuing its chances of getting Fultz (perhaps even Ball) higher than landing a player in his prime who still probably wouldn’t make the team good enough to beat Cleveland in the near future.
You can argue that they are underrating how much of a difference guys like those two can make and overrating how great Cleveland really is at this point. Nonetheless, the strategy here seems clear: Boston will be content striking a deal similar to the one New Orleans made for DeMarcus Cousins but it will not overpay for anyone. It wants to retain its assets and financial flexibility to try pulling off being good now and being good later, and their inactivity at the trade deadline indicates they feel this team is good enough for now that they don’t want to give up even an inch of their potential to be good later.
And if they get Fultz, then they are well set up for that.
Given the versatility of his skill-set on offense, Fultz can be paired perfectly well with Isaiah Thomas – spotting up on the weak-side when the diminutive star is on the ball or setting up the offense when Brad Stevens opts for having Thomas sprint around a series of screens to destabilize the defense and get him head-start attacking off a live dribble.
Fultz’s presence could also solve a pressing issue Boston has dealt with over the last two seasons, especially against playoff-caliber defenses: the lack of a functional offense when Thomas rests. The Celtics have rolled with Marcus Smart as their lead guard in those minutes this season but the Oklahoma State product hasn’t made any strides as a scorer, which figures to be a bigger problem in the postseason – when good defenses scheme to expose this exact sort of weakness.
When Thomas’ contract is up, Boston will have a tough decision to make, regarding whether or not it wants to pay him star money long term, while aware guards his size don’t age very well. But if they are comfortable doing so, Fultz’s presence shouldn’t be a restriction to keeping him both long term.
Fultz is not a particularly impressive defender at this point of his development but has the physical tools to become someone capable of checking opposing wings often. Given the track record of Boston’s coaching staff developing guys like Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart, there should be an expectation that if the Celtics were to land Fultz, he would at the minimum become a functioning part of a very good defense.
That sort of optimism wouldn’t be the same if he were to land with the Lakers, though.
Luke Walton got his team playing reasonably decently earlier in the season but things appear to be going off the rails over the last month. All this losing is good for the overall picture of the organization, as it helps them keep this year’s top three protected pick and improve their odds of getting Fultz.
That said, some of the enthusiasm that typically follows the start of an inevitable and unarguable rebuild appears to have been sapped by the reality of the grind and struggle that truly constitutes such a thing.
Early on, every pull-up three-pointer off the pick-and-roll by D’Angelo Russell, every grab-and-go off a defensive rebound by Julius Randle, every time Brandon Ingram initiated offense, every close loss were reasons for optimism. Now the losses aren’t that close anymore, Ingram is having a remarkably poor season scoring off the pick-and-roll, Randle looks like a tough guy to place in a modern team despite his empty numbers and Russell is losing playing time at the point.
They’ve also changed management in-season and it’s unclear how much of what’s already in place fits the vision Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka have for the future of this team.
Fultz could re-ignite this franchise and fit alongside Russell or Jordan Clarkson much in the same way he would alongside Thomas in Boston, if both or either of those guys remain a part of the plan. His natural inclination towards moving the ball would be totally match Walton’s intentions of eventually turning this team into a carbon copy of the Warriors’ program where he was developed.
That said, if the Lakers were to keep their current course (very unlikely, given the opinions of such a path Johnson has stated publicly in the past), adding Fultz to this mix might be one unreliable defender too many. All of sudden it becomes tough to envision how Walton can build a good defense around a collection of Fultz, Russell, Clarkson, Randle and Ivica Zubac, with only Ingram and Larry Nance, Jr. projecting as potentially impactful defenders long term.
That, of course, doesn’t mean the Lakers should think twice about drafting Fultz if they have the chance. But it does mean they will to consider moving on from some of their other prospects eventually, as guys like Randle and Russell come up for extension soon enough and someone like Clarkson is asked about in trade inquires.
Yet, the outlook for Fultz would probably still be better in LA than it would be Phoenix, given the Suns don’t appear to be very good at this developing thing.
Forget the fact Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss didn’t look any good this season. Those two are teenagers and always had a small chance of looking any differently than they did right away.
Devin Booker is the top prospect in their system, averaging 20 points per 36 minutes in his first couple of seasons as a pro and looking a lot more capable of creating offense for himself and others than he did at any point at Kentucky.
But other than him, no one has gotten that much better through the years. TJ Warren still doesn’t shoot three-pointers and still doesn’t create for others. Alex Len has logged fewer minutes than Tyson Chandler this season despite the fact he’s appeared in 16 more games. Tyler Ennis and Kendall Marshall are long gone by now.
I guess Markieff Morris is the true success story this franchise has to show for over the last half-a-decade but his breakout in 2013-2014 was such a long time ago that Earl Watson was still playing.
Phoenix plays fast and has a bunch of veterans who understand what they signed up for to mentor their young prospects. They are trying to head in the right direction but there’s just no track record that indicates they’d be able to do so.
The Suns have Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight under contract for a while longer but their presences truly mean nothing if they can get Fultz. They will both be traded eventually, given they just don’t fit the timeline of rest of their young core.
Meanwhile in Philly, the picture is pretty clear. Brian Colangelo has not changed Sam Hinkie’s approach and didn’t invest anything of long-term consequence at the point guard position.
Ben Simmons will run every bit of offense when he is on the floor for now, that’s for sure, but it’s unclear if he’ll be able to defend opposing point guard on a full-time basis. Given he’s never shown to be the most interested defender, the 76ers will probably need to pair him with a 3D point guard to take those assignments away from him. As mentioned early, Fultz has the physical tools to be expected to develop into someone who can do that.
Obviously, if the Sixers could get Fultz, they wouldn’t just pigeonhole him into such a bit role. They will then try to recreate the reasonably cohesive dynamic LeBron James and Kyrie Irving have in Cleveland, though Simmons still needs to develop that catch-and-shoot three-point shot to act as a credible threat away from the ball.
And if Joel Embiid’s perennially uncertain health status ever stabilizes, then it’s hard to fathom the ceiling Philly could enjoy over the next decade. If it materializes, then they will probably have to build a statue for Sam Hinkie.
 Six-foot-four height, six-foot-nine wingspan – according to Draft Express
 Currently listed at 185 pounds
 Think about how someone like Russell Westbrook, who plays furiously at break-necking speed, is perceived as the greatest alpha-male these days
 Though it should be noted these guys were naturally inclined to playing hard on defense to begin with, which helps any coaching staff
Editor’s Note: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at RealGM, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara