The 2016-17 college basketball season will begin with not one, but a handful of strong first-pick candidates. This is according to 13 scouts, executives and select media members Bleacher Report polled to identify the top dog on preseason NBA draft boards.
At this time last year, the only other name being mentioned to compete with LSU’s Ben Simmons, who went first in the draft, was Kentucky’s Skal Labissiere (my, how that changed during the season). This year, four different players were nominated in my preseason poll, none of whom dominated the voting.
But there is a slight favorite early on among NBA evaluators and draft minds.
Voters were asked to make their No. 1 overall predictions and provide backup answers for their No. 2 prospects in the 2017 draft. The number of No. 1 overall predictions determined the rankings.
The Long Shots
Jonathan Isaac (Florida State, SF, Freshman)
Upside earned Isaac a lone backup vote. He isn’t overly polished, but his 6’10” size, smooth athleticism, ball-handling, shooting touch, mismatch-type physical tools and versatility fuel top-five potential.
Isaac figures to be a difficult cover at either forward position, given his tremendous size for a wing and his face-up scoring ability to burn bigs.
But projecting Isaac to soar up boards requires him tying everything together. Flashes alone won’t be enough. Leapfrogging the heavier favorites will require consistent production, and at this stage of his development, based on what we saw in high school, Isaac appears to be more of a project than an immediate force at Florida State.
Ivan Rabb (California, PF, Sophomore)
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Rabb, a name I wasn’t expecting to see, was the only non-freshman to receive a mention (more than one). One scout said if the team that wins the lottery needs a big, it will look to Rabb.
“I’m basing this off watching him from his freshman year in high school, just watching his growth and development,” the scout said. “Because he was so thin, people thought he’s going to have trouble because he’s going to get pushed around. But he’s a fighter.
“He can really defend ball screens,” the same scout continued. “He can defend in the post. He’s a prolific rebounder. He has a motor. The one area he can continue to improve on is that 15-17-foot jump shot. Once he gets that down, he has the chance to be like a LaMarcus Aldridge.”
At 6’11”, Rabb’s size, bounce and phenomenal hands scream “low risk, high floor.” Whether he can evolve into a top-two pick from a safe, late-lottery option comes down to how much he sharpens his post moves and jumper.
As a freshman, we saw glimpses of back-to-the-basket play, short-corner face-ups and mid-range touch. He’ll need to convert the extra touches coming his way into more consistent production and frequent stretches of domination.
Rabb should return with a featured role following the departures of leading scorers Tyrone Wallace, Jaylen Brown and Jordan Mathews. It gives the sophomore a better chance to showcase an offensive game that previously cranked out 12.5 points per contest.
Jayson Tatum (Duke, SF, Freshman)
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Though nobody chose him as their top choice to go first, Tatum received more backup votes than anyone. It highlights his recognizable potential but also indicates some general hesitation toward proclaiming Tatum as 2017’s prize.
He passes the NBA eye test, both physically and fundamentally, and should emerge as a consistent scoring weapon for Duke. An advanced ball-handler and shot creator with next-level pull-ups and step-backs in his arsenal, Tatum projects as an iso savior. He’s money in the mid-range with post moves and shoots a reliable three-ball, while his physical tools and scoring attack mirror many of the league’s top wings.
Shot selection and efficiency will be key for Tatum. He takes a lot of tough two-point jumpers and isn’t known for his passing or playmaking. Scouts will wonder whether he’ll ever check off the “makes his teammates better” box. He could be vulnerable to low percentages in 2016-17, and that could ruin his chances of rising to No. 1 in a competitive 2017 field.
Still, production, measurements, athleticism and skill level anchor Tatum inside the top 10. Only the perfect storm of consistent shooting, flashes of post scoring, effective driving and defensive promise could launch him into the No. 1 overall mix.
The Top No. 1 Overall Contenders
4. Josh Jackson (Kansas, SF, Freshman)
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Surprisingly, only one scout picked Jackson to go first, though a handful of voters had him as their No. 2 option.
“If a team is looking for an athletic, attacking wing who plays hard every minute he’s on the floor, they got Jackson,” one scout said.
At 6’8″, Jackson sports that can’t-miss blend of size and elite athleticism. His ability to handle, pass, hit open jumpers and defend highlight tantalizing two-way versatility. By next April, I wouldn’t be shocked if there’s game film of him guarding each of the five positions.
Although Jackson’s offensive ceiling appears higher, stylistically, he reminds me of Andre Iguodala. They share similar bounce, defensive prowess and vision off the dribble. For points, they pick up layups and dunks by cutting, slashing and getting out on the break. Neither are isolation scorers or snipers, but they’re capable of canning spot-up threes and rhythm mid-range jumpers.
In terms of upside, it’s clear there is enough here to justify No. 1 overall consideration. The biggest thing working against Jackson right now is not having a definitive signature skill. He’s not a sharpshooter, not a smooth one-on-one shot creator and not a natural playmaker. He also turns 20 in February, making him over a year older than other top candidates.
Still, Jackson’s flying to the top of the draft with across-the-board production is entirely conceivable—competitiveness and intelligence should only help his cause.
From a scouting perspective, it will be interesting to see whether a big role (without Wayne Selden Jr. or Perry Ellis) exposes his limitations, as opposed to giving him a platform to take off. Jackson’s blueprint to follow: demonstrate comfortable three-point range, two-point efficiency and the ability to separate into quality looks.
3. Dennis Smith Jr. (North Carolina State, PG, Freshman)
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Smith is starting to regain steam following last summer’s torn ACL. Multiple voters, including one NBA executive, pegged the North Carolina State freshman as 2017’s No. 1 pick.
A reported eye-opening showing last month at adidas Nations helped assure NBA evaluators his bounce has fully returned. “No one ever makes or breaks their draft stock here, but Smith just put himself back in the conversation [for the top pick],” one scout told Sports Illustrated‘s Luke Winn.
Listed at 6’3″, 195 pounds, Smith packs quickness, power and explosiveness. He’s a terror in transition with sickening change-of-direction shiftiness, as well as the springs to launch himself above rim protection.
And he’s plenty skilled. He features an adept floater and flashy playmaking off screens and penetration. Smith’s ability to shake free and dance into the paint should lead to regular open looks for teammates. He also projects favorably on defense, where he digs in on the ball, gets strips and jumps lanes.
A Russell Westbrook-like burst differentiates Smith and ultimately drives his ceiling through the roof—making his knee recovery and durability that much more important.
The No. 1 overall recipe for Smith: a full, setback-free season that includes big ACC numbers and a believable jumper.
2. Harry Giles (Duke, PF, Freshman)
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Those who didn’t predict Giles to go first were quick to blame his knees. Both the right and the left have already been operated on, with a second ACL tear costing him his senior year in high school.
“Giles is the better player, but obviously, he has long-term health concerns,” one scout told Bleacher Report.
Still, undeniable talent helped Giles secure the second-most first-pick votes.
“If I had to make the pick right now, it would probably be Giles, as long as his knee holds up,” one general manager told Bleacher Report. “His two-way game should translate nicely to the NBA.”
Giles is more body and athleticism than skill and polish, but so was Anthony Davis at 18 years old. Injury history aside, you won’t find a better power forward foundation (6’10 ¾”, 222 pounds, 7’3″ wingspan) to build off, given his size, length, explosiveness and motor.
Over the years, evaluators have seen enough flashes of face-up and back-to-the-basket scoring to suggest his offense will eventually come around.
In the meantime, Giles’ explosiveness, quickness and energy will translate to volume rebounding, easy buckets and the versatility to defend inside and out. The obvious question concerns his durability and whether early-knee trouble makes him too risky at No. 1.
The Preseason No. 1 Overall Favorite
1. Markelle Fultz (Washington, PG, Freshman)
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Nobody has risen like Fultz, the most popular preseason prediction to go first in the 2017 NBA draft.
A 6’4″, scoring ball-handler, he represents the NBA’s new true point guard.
His MVP performance at July’s FIBA Americas U18 Championship looked like a needle-mover, even if the competition wasn’t top-notch. Fultz was convincing in a lead guard role, having shown the ability to control the pace and take over on demand. And while it’s ridiculous ball skills that separate him, Fultz dropped jaws with a number of explosive finishes in traffic.
Between his crafty passing, difficult shot-making and effortless approach, one can picture D’Angelo Russell—only a lot bouncier and tenacious on defense. Quick hands and feet suggest Fultz has two-way potential, making it tough to find a significant hole or wrinkle in his game.
He’s poised to post monster stats this year at Washington, where he’ll dominate the ball for a team that ranked No. 2 in the country in pace last season, per KenPom.com.
“I’ve only heard great things,” one scout said when asked about Fultz’s character and work ethic.
“He’s got that drive,” another scout said. “He’s got a lifelong chip on his shoulder, and when you combine all the things—good athlete, good size, good IQ—when you can add that chip-on-the-shoulder element, he’s a guy that you feel comfortable with.”
For what it’s worth, he’ll start the year atop my board as well. Assuming Fultz puts up enormous numbers at Washington in a 30-plus-minute role, he’ll look difficult for the lottery winner to pass on, regardless of who’s already in its backcourt.