In an ongoing attempt to continue to get you your basketball fix, Basketball Insiders is taking a look back at recent draft classes and assessing them relative to the expectations that were in place as of their respect NBA Drafts.
We are grading according to the following criteria:
The Hits – the players that panned out
The Misses – the players that did not pan out
The Sleepers – the players that exceeded minimal expectations
The Jury Is Out – those that have shown flashes
Matt John did a fantastic job assessing the 2014 NBA Draft. Ben Nadeau and Spencer Davies did an equally impressive job reviewing the 2015 and 2016 draft classes, respectively. Up next, we’ll dive into the controversial 2017 NBA Draft class.
The 2017 NBA Draft appeared to be as stocked with high-end talent as any of the other recent draft. But for those of us who needed a refresher on the old “everything that glimmers isn’t gold” adage, 2017 served that purpose. No one anticipated the struggles that Markelle Fultz would face due to a shoulder ailment and a case of the yips; Fultz is probably the highest-profile “bust” since Greg Oden.
And while Fultz has at least gained some traction in Orlando since his challenging time with Philly, there are plenty of other interesting storylines from the 2017 draft. It was seen as the year of the point guard, but its best players don’t exactly fit that bill. Now with all of that being said, let’s jump in.
Jayson Tatum, No. 3
Tatum was special in his lone season at Duke. No one thought he’d be this special, though. Tatum fits perfectly in the modern NBA. He’s as smooth as they come offensively, and his length and mobility make him an above-average defender and rebounder. He’s a dead-eye shooter and he’s one of the best tough-shot makers in the league. Tatum is the rare talent who can put a team on his back for extremely long stretches. Oh, and he also plays nice with others. No one expected Tatum to be THIS good.
De’Aaron Fox, No. 5
Fox was viewed as the steal of the draft before the draft was even over. He was a boom-or-bust prospect whose style fit the league perfectly. He’s a lightning-quick lead guard who wants all of the smoke. Despite being ranked as a lesser prospect, he took it to Lonzo Ball in just about every matchup they’d had in college. And he’s continued to impress in the NBA. Fox is the kind of player around whom you build your franchise. While that’s always been thought of as his ceiling, it’s rare to see players live up to their potential to the degree in which Fox has.
Jonathan Isaac, No. 6
Entering the draft, Isaac was seen as the prototypical stretch-four. He took time to develop – averaging only 5.4 points per game in his rookie season. But he blossomed in his third season in the league. Isaac supplanted Aaron Gordon as the Magic’s best defender, and his defensive versatility gives the Magic options they’d only dreamed of prior to this season. He’s also a pretty efficient offensive player who poster a better than 50% effective field goal percentage. Isaac still has to prove he can play at a high level with consistency, but he made major strides this year – living up to his draft position, and then some.
Donovan Mitchell, No. 13
Mitchell is the major surprise of the 2017 NBA Draft. The Louisville standout was seen as too small to succeed in the NBA. But that way of thinking was quickly debunked as Mitchell proceeded to average more than 20 points per game as a rookie – and he hasn’t looked back since.
Mitchell since established himself as the cornerstone of the Utah Jazz, and he’ll probably hold that title for the next decade or so – if he wants it. Mitchell easily outperformed pre-draft expectations. Phil Jackson, then president of the Knicks, saw potential in Mitchell. Few others did with the exception of the Jazz. And now they’re reaping the rewards.
Bam Adebayo, No. 14
2019-20 was Adebayo’s coming out party. Prior to this season, Adebayo was a reserve. Still, his per-36 numbers projected an effective and versatile big man. This season, he delivered, averaging 16.2 points, 10.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game. Adebayo affects the game in every way possible. And considering his relatively low profile entering the draft – Adebayo was projected to be drafted 17th overall by NBADraft.net and was called “raw” and an “energy big” by various outlets– he turned out to be a steal in the late lottery.
Markelle Fultz, No. 1
Fultz got all of the hype you’d expect a first overall pick would receive. Despite missing the NCAA tournament in his lone season at Washington, he was a generational athlete who shot it well from deep and possessed game-changing size and physicality for a point guard.
But Fultz’s rookie season was derailed thanks to shoulder issues. He was (probably) mismanaged by the Philadelphia 76ers and allowed to play too early, leading to a loss in confidence and – ultimately – his departure from Philadelphia. Fultz contributed far more consistently in Orlando in 2019-20, but he still underperformed for his draft position. And he’s still not anywhere near as good as pundits felt he’d be prior to the 2017 NBA Draft. It’s a sad story, but it’s not over yet. At least he’s righted the ship.
Josh Jackson, No. 4
Fultz might provide more interesting – albeit premature – headlines, but Jackson’s path been more painful to watch – mostly because his setbacks are mostly his own fault. Jackson entered the 2017 NBA Draft as the Swiss Army knife of the bunch. He was seen as a do-it-all wing whose game fits the modern NBA’s as perfect as any prospect. Instead of hitting the ground running, Jackson had multiple run-ins with the law, resulting in suspensions and a trade from the Phoenix Suns. But Jackson flourished in the G-League after being dealt to the Memphis Grizzlies, and he continued to play efficiently after being called back up.
Jackson could still easily turn his career around. But the setbacks he’s undergone make his first three years a major disappointment.
Dennis Smith Jr., No. 8
Smith Jr. was one of the more celebrated prospects in 2017. And based on his rookie season, his profile seemed justified. But then Luka Doncic shook up the NBA – and Smith Jr.’s effectiveness waned.
Still, Smith Jr. has shown signs as recently as the end of 2018-19. He was traded to New York as part of the deal that sent Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks. He averaged 20 points and 5 assists in March 2019. And while he might not have looked like a cornerstone, that was more than the Knicks had at point guard in some time. He struggled with personal loss and a back injury early on this season and he never recovered. And while he possesses the athleticism and ability to be a borderline All-Star, he’ll need to prove it on the court before this writer is comfortable calling him anything less than a miss relative to expectations.
John Collins, No. 19
Collins has progressed pretty much exactly how teams like their young stars to do so. His scoring average, minutes per game and PER have all shot up in the last three seasons: 10.5 points in 24.3 minutes per game with an 18.3 PER in 2017-18; 19.5 points in 30 minutes per game with a 21.8 PER in 2018-19; and 21.6 points in 33.2 minutes per game with a 23.5 PER in 2019-20. Further, he’s an excellent three-point shooter (40.1% in 2019-20) and extremely active around the rim.
Collins is not THE centerpiece of a contending NBA team, but he’s got all the right attributes to be a starter and a third option. And at 22-years-old, Collins could get even better. Not bad value at all for the late-middle of the first round.
Jarrett Allen, No. 22
Despite the fact that Allen’s status on his own team is in question, he’s still an elite defender who’s an above-average lob-catcher and screener. He’s versatile enough to switch on to ball-handlers in screen-and-rolls, and he’s already built an impressive highlight reel of blocked shots that includes LeBron James and Giannis Antetokunmpo.
Yes, Allen was an integral part of a playoff team as recently as two months ago. But expectations were nowhere near that high for him. And while there is some uncertainty ahead for Allen, his talent and work ethic will win out. While he’ll probably never develop a consistent jump shot, his motor and defensive gifts render him a starter in the NBA for years to come
OG Anunoby, No. 23
Anunoby was pegged as a breakout player for 2018-19. But Pascal Siakam stole his thunder. While Siakam delivered again this season, Anunoby would not be ignored in two straight seasons.
But rewind a bit and you’ll read about a risky prospect projected to fall into the second round. Unfortunately for the rest of the league, Masai Ujiri and his staff saw the potential of Anunoby, and he’s rewarded them for their faith. He came into his own in 2019-20, establishing himself as a legitimate starter in the NBA. Who knows what he’ll look like next season.
Kyle Kuzma, No. 27
Kuzma quickly proved his worth, averaging 16.1 points per game as a rookie. His scoring average jumped in his sophomore season (18.7); but his production took a fairly big hit in 2019-20 after his good friend Lonzo Ball was sent to New Orleans alongside Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram and numerous draft considerations in exchange for Anthony Davis.
But Kuzma is still viewed very favorably around the league. His fit alongside the win-now Lakers might not be ideal, but he’s still seen as an extremely valuable building block for most teams – especially ones in the middle of a rebuild. Kuzma was selected late in the first-round, and he’s already outperformed even the highest of expectations for the 27th pick of virtually any draft. In the right situation, he could put up All-Star-caliber numbers. And the Lakers are running low on trade chips. This writer wouldn’t be surprised to see Kuzma playing elsewhere as soon as next season – whenever that is.
Derrick White, No. 29
Thomas Bryant, No. 42
Dillion Brooks, No. 45
Monte Morris, No. 51
Jury Is Still Out
Lonzo Ball, No. 2
Ball entered the NBA with tremendous fanfare thanks, in part, to his father’s loud endorsements. LaVar Ball wasn’t entirely wrong about his son, though; It’s just that Lonzo hasn’t translated as well as his dad predicted.
But Ball’s quickness, court vision and defense render him a huge net positive. His shot, on the other hand, has hurt his ability to stretch the defense and be a scoring threat at all times when on offense – even though it did look significantly better in 2019-20 than in years’ past. Ball isn’t the first player who’s experienced relative success in the league while also undershooting expectations, and he won’t be the last. He could still grow into an All-Star, but he’s not the transcendent talent we were led to believe he’d be.
Lauri Markkanen, No. 7
By the parameters of this series, Markkanen looked way more like a hit entering 2019-20. But then this season happened. Markkanen was used as more of a spot-up shooter than he’d been in the previous two seasons. His minutes dropped slightly, as did his scoring (18.7 to 14.7 per game), rebounding (9.0 to 6.3) and his three-point percentage (36.1% to 34.4%). And his field goal attempts were down considerably from inside the three point line all the way to three feet from the basket.
But Markkanen doesn’t qualify as a bust, either. He still averaged 14.7 points and 6.3 rebounds in less than 28 minutes per game. He’s a seven-footer who is still an above-average marksman given his size and position, and he’s still just 22. Markkanen might end up as a multi-time All-Star, so no need for too much alarm. And expectations weren’t too high on him as of 2017. But he’s hasn’t established himself as much as the “hits” featured above.
Frank Ntilikina, No. 8
The Knicks were dead set on a point guard in 2017. They were reportedly down to Ntilikina and Smith Jr. – ironically, they now employ both. But where Smith Jr. started off strongly and tapered off, Ntilikina took time to ramp up. In fact, he’s still ramping. Ntilikina is a sneaky good defender whose offensive prowess continues to grow. He’s a high-IQ player who will require more polished offensive talent around him if he’s going to start on a contender. But ultimately, the jury is still out. Ntilikina hasn’t been nearly consistent enough to be deemed anything but an unfinished product. He flashes the ability to oversee the offense, remain aggressive on offense, create for others and (obviously) defend multiple positions at a very high level. He just hasn’t done it regularly. He’s still only 21, so there is still ample time for Ntilikina to fulfill all of his potential and then some.
Every draft class is interesting with its share of hits and misses. While analyzing how well players perform relative to past expectations feels unnecessary, it’s also really fun. And doing so with the 2017 draft class is no different – and it provides even more opportunity than most to examine the draft order really closely and embrace the “what ifs.”
2017 might not have brought us any new entries into the GOAT debate, but it certainly left us with plenty of other items to discuss.