2017 NBA Draft Prospect Profiles: Is Markelle Fultz really worth the No. 1 pick?

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Markelle Fultz is the best prospect in the 2017 NBA Draft, which is not exactly something that you would’ve seen coming had you known him as a sophomore in high school.

That was the year that Fultz failed to make the varsity team at DeMatha (Md.), one of the nation’s best high school basketball programs. From there, he developed not only into a point guard, but into one of the nation’s best high school players, eventually landing in the postseason all-star games and on the Team USA U-18 roster that competed in the FIBA Americas event.

Fultz committed to Lorenzo Romar early in the process and maintained that commitment, even as he watched a Washington team that failed to make the NCAA tournament lose Andrew Andrews to graduation and Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray to the NBA Draft. As a result, and in spite of the fact that Fultz was putting up insane numbers, the Huskies couldn’t even crack 10 wins with Fultz at the helm, and it eventually cost Lorenzo Romar his job despite the fact that the favorite for the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, Michael Porter Jr., had already signed to play for him.

How will NBA teams weigh that?

Fultz put up ridiculous numbers, but he did it on a team that was the laughing stock of the Pac-12 come February. Is that guy worth the pick?

Height: 6′4″
Weight: 185
Wingspan: 6′10″
2016-17 Stats: 23.2 points, 5.7 boards, 5.9 assists, 41.3% 3PT

STRENGTHS: Fultz is an unbelievably well-rounded offensive player. I’m not sure what there is that he can’t do on that end of the floor. He shot 41.3 percent from beyond the arc last year and better than 50 percent inside the arc. At 6-foot-4, he’s big enough — and physical enough — to take smaller defenders into the post and score in the paint or simply shoot over the top of them off the dribble, and he does so effectively. His 6-foot-10 wingspan, huge hands and explosion on the move means that he can finish in traffic, whether it be with a dunk over a defender — his extension in the lane is reminiscent of Kawhi Leonard — or a finish around the shot-blocker; Fultz has terrific body control, and when combined with his length, allows him to finish contested layups at weird angles.

He’s more than just a scorer, however, as he averaged 5.9 assists last season with a higher assist rate (35.4 vs. 31.4) and lower turnover rate (15.4 vs. 18.9) than Lonzo Ball. That’s startling efficiency considering that he played such a major role on a team with so few options around him. Since 2012, only six guards have bettered his usage rate and offensive rating: Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Nate Wolters, Erick Green, Kay Felder and Jawun Evans.

Fultz is excellent leading the break in transition but may be even better operating in ball-screen actions — according to Synergy, more than 30 percent of his possessions came in the pick and roll last season, and he averaged 1.011 points-per-possession, which was in the 93rd percentile nationally. He is patient, he’s ruthless if you switch a bigger defender onto him and he has terrific vision, whether it’s driving and drawing a help defender, finding the screener rolling to the rim or popping for a jumper or spotting an open shooter on the weak side of the floor.

Ideally, that’s the role that Fultz would play in the NBA, as a ball-dominant lead guard in the mold of a James Harden or Russell Westbrook or John Wall.

But Fultz is also big enough and long enough to share a back court with a smaller guard — Isaiah Thomas? — because he will be able to defend shooting guards. He’s also a good enough shooter that he would be able to play off the ball offensively in that same scenario, meaning that he not only has the ceiling to be a new-age franchise lead guard in the NBA, he has the potential to be a multi-positional defender.

In theory, he’s everything NBA teams are looking for.

WEAKNESSES: The biggest concern with Fultz is on the defensive end of the floor. While he has the tools to be a plus-defender and has shown the ability to be a playmaker on that end — he averaged 1.6 steals and 1.2 blocks, many of which were of the chasedown variety — but it was his half court defense that was a concern.

In a word, he was far too lackadaisical on that end of the floor. Whether it was being late on a rotation, getting beat on a close out because his feet were wrong, getting hung up on a screen, switching when he shouldn’t because he didn’t want to chase a player around a screen, failing to sit down in a defensive stance, etc., it’s not difficult to watch tape and find examples of the mistakes that Fultz made. How much of that was playing on a bad team for a coach that didn’t hold him accountable defensively, and how much of that is who Fultz is as a player?

To be frank, my gut says it was more of the former than the latter, but there also is a concern that Fultz’ approach to the game is too casual. He’s the kind of player that needs to grow into a game as opposed to being a guy that takes games over from the jump, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a guy who projects as a lead guard and a distributor.

The bigger issue with Fultz is that he lacks initial burst off the dribble and there are questions about whether or not he can turn the corner against NBA defenders. His game is awkward when you watch him, but that’s because he has this uncanny ability to get defenders off balance. Hesitation moves, hang-dribble pull-ups, splitting the pick-and-roll, euro-steps in traffic. Some might call it crafty or slippery, but the bottom-line is this: Fultz is able to get by defenders because he has them leaning the wrong direction, and once he gets a step on you, his length — both his strides and his extension — make it impossible to catch up.

But he’s not a Russell Westbrook or a John Wall in the sense that he’ll be able to get by any defender simply due to his explosiveness, and that is where the questions about his jumper come into play. If Fultz is going to consistently be able to get to the rim, that jumper is going to have to be a threat, because Fultz’s arsenal won’t be as effective if defenders can play off of him.

On the season, his shooting numbers were impressive, but those percentages took a dip against better competition and on possessions where he was guarded (1.020 PPP, 57th percentile) vs. unguarded (1.636 PPP, 94th percentile), although that may be a result of being on a team that had no other option for offense.

Put another way, Fultz is a tough-shot maker, and there is reason to wonder if he’ll be able to make those tough shots against NBA defenders.

Markelle Fultz is defended by Lonzo Ball (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

NBA COMPARISON: There really isn’t a perfect comparison for what Fultz could end up being as an NBA player. James Harden is probably the most apt considering that they are roughly the same size with the same physical dimensions, they both are ball-dominant scorers that can see the floor, they both likely needed a smaller guard in the back court with them because, despite their physical tools, they both lack that mean streak defensively.

But comparing any rookie to a guy that could end up being the NBA MVP after a season where he averaged 29.1 points, 11.2 assists and 8.1 boards is probably unfair. Perhaps D'Angelo Russell is more fitting, at least in the sense that it limits some of the expectations.

Whatever the case may be, if Fultz reaches his ceiling, he’ll be a franchise lead guard that has an entire offensive built around him. If he decides that he wants to play on the defensive end of the floor as well, he could one day be a top five player in the league.

OUTLOOK: Fultz has the potential to be the face of a franchise at the lead guard spot. His skill-set — the scoring, the ability to operate in pick-and-rolls, the efficiency — and ability makes it easy to picture him one day ending up playing a role similar to that of Harden or Westbrook or Wall. At the same time, I find it hard to envision a world where Fultz doesn’t one day end up averaging 20 points and six assists. It’s hard not to love a prospect where their floor is a bigger, more athletic D’angelo Russell.

When a player has the least risk and the highest ceiling of anyone in a draft class, it’s no wonder they end up being the consensus pick to go No. 1.

Utah’s Rudy Gobert, Brooklyn’s D’Angelo Russell both make return from injury tonight

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Let’s try something different: How about some good injury news for a change?

Going through the roughest part of their schedule without their Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert, the Utah Jazz have fallen out of the playoff picture in the West. The good news is Gobert is back starting Friday night.

The Brooklyn Nets took on a lot of salary (hello Timofey Mozgov) to get ahold of and see if they could develop D'Angelo Russell into their point guard of the future. However, he has been out since Nov. 12 and had to get his knee scoped to solve some issues. Now he is back as of Friday against Miami, and the Nets will again be able to get a look at him (as he heads into restricted free agency).

Neither of these returns are turning these teams into playoff teams, but they do help.

Brooklyn is not about the playoffs this season, but their gritty performances this season have picked up enough wins to frustrate Cavaliers fans (the Cavs have their pick in this draft). The Jazz are not completely out of the playoffs, but they are five games back in a deep Western conference and that will be hard to make up without some help. Getting Gobert back at least gives the Jazz a chance, and it’s an opportunity for Gobert and rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell to start to develop some chemistry.

Report: Cavaliers interested in George Hill trade with Kings

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When the Sacramento Kings made the much-maligned move to sign three veterans this summer to healthy contracts — George Hill, Zach Randolph, and Vince Carter — there were three reasons for it. Two the Kings were very public about: They wanted mentors for the 10 young players on their roster, and they had to get up to the salary floor anyway.

The third, less discussed reason is those guys might make decent trade chips. Especially as the Kings move toward playing their youth more (as they should).

Enter the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are stumbling through the East right now and have reached out to the Kings about a potential trade for Hill, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

In an effort to bolster their backcourt situation, the Cleveland Cavaliers are expressing interest in a trade for Sacramento Kings guard George Hill, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Cleveland has emerged as an interested suitor, with the Cavaliers pursuing Hill to potentially slide into a dual-guard role, starting at either backcourt position or playing as a reserve, league sources said.

The Cavaliers are starting Isaiah Thomas at the point, with the assumption that he will find his groove as his conditioning improves and he gets used to playing next to LeBron James, however, they have had issues at the two spot. J.R. Smith starts there now with Dwyane Wade and Kyle Korver (both really more threes) behind him, but with Iman Shumpert out due to a foot injury the Cavaliers could use backcourt depth.

George Hill appears to have taken a step back this season, but he is still a solid guard who can shoot the three (45 percent this season) and be a good floor general. He could be a better backup point guard than Derrick Rose. Hill is not a season changer for Cleveland, but he would give them some solid depth and versatility.

The problem is money — Hill signed a three-year, $57 million deal with the Kings. The Kings might be open to a Hill for Tristan Thompson and a second rounder deal (no way Hill earns a first, even a Cavs late one).

Consider it something to watch. The Cavaliers have to get better at the trade deadline, although they have no plans to move the Brooklyn Nets pick. The Kings are open to the idea of a trade. It’s a first step.

Stan Van Gundy backs off feud with ESPN ahead of televised Pistons game

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Pistons president/coach Stan Van Gundy said he wouldn’t give ESPN its usual access – a private pre-game meeting and an in-game interview – in the aftermath of ESPN publishing LaVar Ball’s negative comments about Lakers coach Luke Walton.

The first test of Van Gundy’s new policy comes with today’s Pistons-Wizards game on ESPN… and Van Gundy is mostly backing down.

Van Gundy, via Rod Beard of The Detroit News:

“I got an email from Rick Carlisle of the coaches association and they want me to cooperate, so my whole idea was to boycott the thing in support of coaches,” Van Gundy said. “If the coaches don’t want that, then it would be a selfish thing, sort of a grandstanding thing.”

“I’m certainly not looking to do extra stuff with ESPN.com when those guys call and want to do things,” Van Gundy said. “They want to put themselves out there as a journalistic enterprise — they’re clearly not. They don’t have any journalistic standards. I have no obligation to do anything extra.”

Many media members have quoted Ball on a variety of issues. Coaches threw a fit over this one because they’re sensitive to coaches being criticized. It wasn’t about journalistic ethics or the source. Van Gundy and other coaches simply didn’t like Ball’s conclusion.

I’m so glad Van Gundy is no longer grandstanding. [extreme sarcasm]

He’s not obligated to speak with ESPN reporters, but when Van Gundy rails on journalistic standards as cover for disagreeing with the opinion a journalist published, he sounds a lot like the guy he loves to criticize.

Pistons’ Jon Leuer to undergo season-ending surgery

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Jon Leuer‘s ankles survived this.

But apparently they’re not invincible.

Rod Beard of The Detroit News:

After suffering a sprained ankle on Oct. 31, the symptoms worsened, as an exam revealed bone fragments and other issues. Leuer has missed the last 35 games and has decided to have season-ending ankle surgery, he told The Detroit News on Friday.

Leuer, 28, has scheduled the procedure to remove bone fragments for next Friday and will have a four-month rehabilitation process.

The Pistons have applied to the NBA for a disabled-player exception

The Pistons have been without Leuer for a while, and they’ve done fine without him. Anthony Tolliver is a capable backup stretch four, and Henry Ellenson adds even more insurance there. Detroit misses Leuer as a stretch center, providing a different style behind Andre Drummond, but Eric Moreland and Boban Marjanovic have at least decently handled those reserve minutes.

The bigger issue: The Pistons are paying Leuer $10,497,319 this season and owe him $19,510,724 over the next two years and don’t miss him that much. He’s a luxury they don’t need and maybe can’t afford.

Perhaps, they’ll deal him before the trade deadline, as they look to upgrade the roster for a playoff run. Detroit could send Leuer and a draft pick or young player (Stanley Johnson) for a better player on a more favorable contract. How about Leuer and a first-round pick to the Bulls for Nikola Mirotic?

A disabled-player exception (DPE) would be worth $5,248,660, half Leuer’s salary. It could be used to sign a free agent for the rest of the season or trade for a player in the final year of his contract.

But the NBA grants a DPE only if a league-appointed physician rules the player is “substantially more likely than not” to be unable to play through June 15. The reported timeline would have Leuer back in May.

Still, the league tends to be lax with giving out DPEs. Detroit has a chance to get one.

The Pistons are just $2,745,417 below the luxury-tax line. So, they’re unlikely to use a full Leuer DPE to acquire another player (and would still need to clear a roster spot). But it could be helpful in facilitating a bigger trade.