- Markelle Fultz (PG – 6’4” 195 lbs, Washington – FR)
(previous rank: 1)
Blessed with physical gifts and an incredible all-around game, the only knock on Fultz is his team. Much like Ben Simmons last year, Fultz plays on an awful Huskies squad. Lorenzo Romar coaches a “pro-style” system that will showcase Fultz in the best way possible but is quite frankly awful to watch. Don’t knock him for it. He can play either guard spot, has a condor-like wingspan and has an impressive off-the-bounce game. He’ll need to improve his point guard skills but can play on or off the ball and will fit with any team in the NBA.
- Lonzo Ball (PG – 6’6” 190 lbs, UCLA – FR)
(previous rank: unranked)
I had no idea what to do with Lonzo. Coming from a think-tank offense in High School at Chino Hills, where his father let the Ball brothers (there’s three of them!) shoot at will from anywhere on the court. I knew he had a funky shot that went in, underrated athleticism, and great court vision, but doubted how easily it would translate. Well, I was wrong. Ball has lit the world on fire, whipping one-handed passes (with either hand) perfectly to his teammates and hitting 28-foot jumpers without hesitation. He needs space to attack off the bounce, has no in-between game, and still has a frightening jumper, but I’m trying not to overthink it. He looks like the next prospect we doubt translates at the next level, and then changes the game. I’m bullish on Lonzo. Don’t overthink it.
- Dennis Smith (PG – 6’3” 195 lbs, NC State – FR)
(previous rank: 2)
Smith did not drop a spot; Ball surpassed him. Smith has done nothing but improve over the first two months of the season, albeit against subpar competition. After missing his senior year of high school with a knee injury, Smith has quickly rounded into form and knocked the rust that was evident in his summer tour. His athleticism is real (see: Rider dunk) and he runs the pick-and-roll like a 10-year veteran. The jumper has come along nicely; he’s shooting 40% from deep (58% in the last 5 games) and 80% from the charity stripe (a good barometer of consistency). His defense is lax and his size isn’t elite, but he will be a tremendous player for a long time.
- Josh Jackson (SF – 6’8” 203 lbs, Kansas – FR)
(previous rank: 3)
And now, a polarizing case. Josh Jackson does everything right – except shoot. His motor is unrelenting. He would guard 1-5 with a bulldog’s mentality if you asked him to. He’s been great on the glass and a terrific glue guy on both ends of the court, fitting right into the flow of the game. But he can’t shoot. His jumper is broken – don’t let the one-off games fool you. He has had flashes of consistency from the perimeter, but his 54% mark from the free-throw line tells you all that you need to know. He’s great to watch, but 29 teams in the league don’t employ Chip Engelland. Rebuilding a jumper is not an easy task. If he can become a league average shooter, he’s a perennial all-star. If he can’t? He’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Not a bad player by any stretch, but worth the high pick?
- Frank Ntilikina (PG – 6’5” 170 lbs, France)
(previous rank: 6)
HOT TAKE ALERT! Why am I including an 18 year-old kid with a 5/1/1 slash-line in my top 5? Projectability. That’s not a word, but there’s no better way to put it. Frank is everything you want in a modern-day point guard. Size? 6’5” with a reported 7’0” wingspan. Athleticism? Easily changes gears from high to low and get up with any of his peers. Shooting? 59% from deep at the U18 Euro Championship this month (12/13 at the line). Court-vision? PnR whiz kid, sees over the defense, plays smooth and under control. Defense? Can guard 1-3 on the ball and plays ahead of his years off of it. Frank is a point guard you grow in a laboratory. You’ll hear his name more and more in the coming months.
- De’Aaron Fox (PG – 6’4” 171 lbs, Kentucky – FR)
(previous rank: 5)
I’m admittedly more bullish on Fox than most, but I just can’t shake this kid. He’s the fastest guard I’ve ever seen – I’d stick him against Wall or Westbrook in a 94-foot race. Despite that, he plays under control; Coach Cal has entrusted him with the offense and he’s produced for him. On pure tools and athleticism alone, he’s earned this spot. You’ve heard it before, but the main problem he has is the jumper. I actually like his stroke; I think it will be something that comes with time as his mind catches up to his body on the court. In the pace-and-space NBA, he has enough pace to make his name fairly easily. If the rest catches up? Watch out.
- Lauri Markkanen (PF – 7’0” 225 lbs, Arizona – FR)
(previous rank: 8)
Could be Dirk! Might be Ryan Anderson! What if he’s Kyle Wiltjer? Big-white stretch-fours are puzzling. Markkanen can stroke it from deep; he has great form and has shown consistency from all over the floor. While not an elite athlete, he competes and isn’t pushed out of the gym. But he can’t do much else at this time. His post-game isn’t anything to write home about and his defense is less than stellar, but again, in today’s NBA, his skillset is needed. Just shoot 40% from beyond at that size and don’t be a dumpster-fire on defense, and you’ll play for many years in the league. High upside but also high floor. And he’s from Finland!
- Malik Monk (G – 6’4” 185 lbs, Kentucky – FR)
(previous rank: 10)
Thought he’d be higher? Maybe he should be. Monk has lit the world on fire at Kentucky. Elite athlete, beautiful jumper and strong handle. He torched UNC (among others) and has the best off-the-bounce game in the nation, maybe the best since Kemba Walker. He can create space and get off his jumper whenever he wants, which leads me to my doubts. “Whenever he wants”. Monk is a gunner. Prior to the season, I knew what he was: a volume-scorer that could join the ranks of Jamal Crawford and Lou Williams as a second-unit all-star and perennial sixth-man of the year candidate. At this point, I still think that may be his best role. He’s small and has no conscious with the ball. When the shots fall, you win. When the shots don’t fall, you lose. He’s not good enough to play the point, but too small to cover wings. Could he play the point with a team that happens to have a 6’10” Australian point guard where he wouldn’t have to dominate the ball and would have the freedom to score off the ball and run a second-unit? TBD, but I’m intrigued.
- Jonathan Isaac (F – 6’11” 205 lbs, Florida St – FR)
(previous rank: 7)
Thank you Brandon Ingram, for showing us how much people love looooooong wings with beautiful jumpers. Isaac fits the bill for the annual “wing prospect that grew into his body and played great at the end of the year”. He’s rail thin and has small hands for someone his size, but has a great handle and smooth jumper. Expect him to be a late riser as FSU racks up ACC wins and he shows out in a big game. He’ll need a few years of seasoning, but he’s your stereotypical hybrid SF/PF.
- Jayson Tatum (SF – 6’8” 204 lbs, Duke – FR)
(previous rank: unranked)
I am not a fan of Tatum. I just don’t understand how a guy with no perimeter game and mediocre defense/athleticism is such a highly regarded wing. He’s an in-between player who dominates ISO matchups with mid-range shots and a post-up moves. All that said, he has been impressive since debuting for Duke a few weeks ago and I’ve rewarded him. He’s gotten to the line (and converted at 92%) and scored at will, but I still struggle to see the fit. 10-15 years ago, he may have went first overall. Slot him in at the SF spot on the 1998 Jazz and Jordan may have one less ring. Maybe I’m wrong, but I just don’t see how his game translates.
Dropped from preseason rankings:
OG Anunoby (4th)
Thomas Bryant (9th)
Notes: Still bullish on the Hoosiers, but both have underwhelmed. Neither has played poorly, but neither has done enough to keep their spots.
Flavor of the Month: Jawun Evans (PG – 6’1” 177 lbs, Oklahoma St – SO)
I love this kid. He’s a fringe first-round pick at best for most right now, but I’d be happy to take him late in the lottery. Why? He plays within himself and battles at both ends. He has a complete offensive game, with a solid shot (52% from beyond, 74% from the line), a tight handle (5.3 assists/2.6 turnovers), and the ability to create inside the arc. His size holds him back from being elite, but I love his mentality. On the defensive end, he has good lateral quickness to stay in front and has active hands (2.1 steals). As a sophomore lead guard averaging 20/5/3 and locking down opponents at the other end, he has my attention. I’m interested to see if the jumper keeps falling, but if it does, he will be a riser closer to the draft.