The NBA Draft isn’t for another five and a half months, but scouting departments across the league have been in full swing evaluating prospects for what could be the best and deepest draft in recent memory.
Last year, Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram headlined the draft, but the class lacked depth. The 2017 crop of talent has both star power and depth, particularly at the point guard and forward positions.
The draft is full of talented, young players, as 16 of our top 20 prospects are freshmen in college, two others are 18-year-olds playing overseas, and the final two are sophomores who are under 20 years old.
Next month we’ll extend this list to 30, but as one NBA scout told us, “there aren’t 30 good players yet.” While that was certainly hyperbole, extending this list 10 more spots would just be rolling the dice with so much to play out six months from the draft.
So here is the first edition of our Big Board, and who we think are the top 20 prospects for the 2017 NBA Draft.
Heading into his freshman season, Fultz had a significant amount of buzz, and thus far he’s lived up to it. Statistically, few in the country can compare. As a prospect, Fultz has been on a steady climb over the past three years and it hasn’t slowed down.
At 6-foot-5, Fultz has the ability to play either guard spot and certainly fills the role as the new-age lead guard who scores at a high level but can also facilitate. He has a smooth game and changes speeds as well as anyone I’ve seen over the past 10 years of evaluating high school prospects.
He’s always been impressive athletically, but he’s even improved as a leaper since this past June when he played on USA Basketball’s U-18 team. Fultz has improved his long-range shooting as well. Through 13 games, he has made 25 three-pointers and is shooting 45.5-percent from long distance.
Fultz is the complete package as a guard and is tracking as the best prospect in the 2017 NBA Draft.
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Dennis Smith, PG, NC State, freshman
After missing his senior year of high school due to a torn ACL, Smith is back and perhaps better than ever. The 6-foot-2 lead guard plays at a good pace and keeps defenders off-balance with his ability to change his speeds. Athletically, he’s quite gifted as well and excels when he has opportunities in transition.
Smith is also a crafty ballhandler with good vision and passing ability. One of the questions on Smith in high school centered on his shooting ability, but he’s really picked it up as of late and is shooting just under 40 percent from 3-point range. His mechanics are fine for the most part, but this is an area to keep a close eye on. This is a deep position, and Smith, as of now, is the No. 2 lead guard on our list.
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Jayson Tatum, SF, Duke, freshman
You won’t find a player in this draft who can match Tatum’s size and skill. The Duke standout checks in at 6-foot-8 and was most recently measured with a 6-11 wingspan at the Nike Hoop Summit back in April. Tatum is a versatile wing scorer who is equipped with an advanced scoring package. Tatum is especially effective out of the mid-post or when he gets opportunities to isolate against the opposition in space. He knows how to create space for shot opportunities, his footwork is tremendous, especially considering his age, and his arsenal is full of different ways to score.
If there’s a gripe, it’s that the ball does tend to stick sometimes with Tatum and he’s just OK athletically by NBA standards. Regardless, he’s a heck of a wing prospect with potential to be a dynamic scorer.
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Josh Jackson, SF, Kansas, freshman
At this point, Jackson is slotted as the No. 2 wing and No. 4 overall here, but there’s potential to move up. In terms of wings, he and Tatum are quite different. At 6-foot-7, Jackson has good size for a perimeter prospect and has a wingspan that stretches nearly 6-10. He’s an exceptional athlete who plays the game with tremendous intensity, energy and effort. At this stage, the main hole in his game is his lack of jump shot (just 26.7 percent from 3). Outside of that, he’s solid across the board. Jackson is a gifted passer, a heck of a transition player and the ultimate competitor who is tracking as an impressive perimeter defender.
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De'Aaron Fox, PG, Kentucky, freshman
In a loaded class of point guards, Fox is the No. 3 player at his position on the board. The average size for the point guard position in the NBA is 6-3, and Fox stands just above that. At Kentucky’s preseason draft combine his max vertical was measured at 38.5 inches, so he’s obviously gifted from an athletic standpoint.
But it’s not his leaping ability that is the most impressive. Fox is a two-way player, which is particularly intriguing to NBA teams. He has a very quick first step, terrific end-to-end speed and moves well laterally. Although he has lapses now, Fox has potential to be a very good on-ball defender, which was on display when he matched up with Lonzo Ball head-to-head in a game against UCLA. Fox has good vision and is a talented passer, which is an area he’s continued to improve over the last year and a half. The knock on him at this stage is his lack of shooting ability from distance, as he’s shooting a miserable 4 of 29 from 3-point range on the year.
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Lonzo Ball, PG, UCLA, freshman
Ball was the best passer in the 2016 high school class and he’s carried that over to his freshman season at UCLA. Ball is among the reasons the Bruins have lost just one game a couple days into January. He’s incredibly unselfish and has helped change the culture at UCLA. His passing is exceptional and his vision tremendous. He’s also shooting the ball much better than expected this season (43.4 percent on 83 3-point attempts). That’s up considerably from high school, where he was a career 30-percent 3-point shooter.
I think some will be surprised to see him this low on the list, and in my opinion, he remains arguably the toughest evaluation of this draft class. One of the biggest concerns at this point is handling of ball pressure. Against RPI top 100 teams, Ball is turning the ball over more than double than when he plays against other opponents. It’s also interesting to note that he’s much more reliant on his jump shot against RPI top 100 teams, as he’s shooting 7.25 3s a game against them but just 4.22 threes in games against non-top 100 teams.
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Malik Monk, SG, Kentucky, freshman
From a pure performance standpoint, Monk has been as good as any freshman in the country. He boasts the best performance of the season with his 47-point outburst against North Carolina and has proven to be one of the most electric scorers in the country.
In high school, Monk was known for his scoring but was an inconsistent shooter. Now at Kentucky, he’s shooting above 51 percent overall and above 43 percent from 3-point range. Monk has always been an elite athlete, but the improved shooting is key, especially because of his size. He stands 6-foot-3, which is below average for the position in the NBA. So the necessary improvement on 3s changes the outlook for him as a prospect. At this point, he appears to be a lock top-10 pick, and for a comparison, he’s tracking somewhere between Lou Williams and Monta Ellis in the NBA.
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Lauri Markkanen, C/PF, Arizona, freshman
You won’t find many players who stand 7-feet tall with the shooting ability that Markkanen possesses. The Finnish star has an effortless stroke from long range and is shooting a blistering 44 percent from behind the 3-point stripe.
To go with his ability to shoot, Markkanen has tremendous hands and very good touch around the basket and is a solid area rebounder. Markkanen’s frame is starting to fill out and he projects as a very strong kid. He’s been a solid area rebounder this season. The question moving forward isn’t about his offense, but his defense. He’s been forced to defend out of his position some this season and he’s still lacking on that end. Regardless, he’s a very good long-term prospect who is full of upside and potential.
In between his sophomore and junior years of high school, Isaac stood just 6-foot-6. Now he’s pushing 6-11 and is one of the more versatile and intriguing prospects expected to enter the 2017 NBA Draft. His wingspan stretches over 7-1 and he has a standing reach of just over 9 feet. With that type of size, Isaac is mobile, fluid and a good athlete. But he’s also skilled. Isaac is a solid shooter from long range and has continued to make strides in this area over the course of the past year and a half.
Sure, he lacks strength, and there are questions about him being able to guard quick perimeter players, but with the way the NBA is going, Isaac seems like a good fit, especially when you take into account his measurements, athleticism and skill set. He’s a heck of a long-term prospect.
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Harry Giles, PF, Duke, freshman
The mainstream basketball fan has yet to see the real Giles. And the truth is NBA scouts may not see the Giles that high school evaluators were accustomed to seeing, at least not this season. Giles tore each ACL in high school and had a very minor scope just prior to the college season. Duke has been cautious in bringing him back, and he missed the first 11 games of the season.
When 100 percent, Giles was looked at as the best player in the 2016 recruiting class because of his combination of size, mobility, athleticism, skill set and ability to rebound. This is one we’ll be tracking closely, especially in February and March when he should be getting back into a groove. Scouts are aware of his past, and he’ll likely still go high in this draft, but there are concerns from a health standpoint.
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Ivan Rabb, PF, California, sophomore
Most were surprised when Rabb opted to return to California for his sophomore season, especially considering he likely would have been a top-10 pick and staying means he’ll be in what is thought of as one of the best drafts in recent memory.
Regardless, Rabb, 19, is a very good power forward prospect. He has good size at 6-foot-10, plus good length and mobility, and he is a quality athlete. Offensively, there’s ability, as he’s good over his left shoulder, has nice touch around the basket and is capable of making mid-range jumpers. On the opposite end, Rabb protects the rim, has good instincts and does a good job of rebounding. He’s currently averaging 15.2 points and 10.3 rebounds.
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OG Anunoby, SF, Indiana, sophomore
Anunoby has improved as much as any player on this list since his high school days. An unheralded recruit, Anunoby is now tracking as a top-20 prospect in next June’s NBA Draft. At 6-foot-9, Anunoby has good size, is good athletically and has the look of a potential "3&D" guy the NBA covets. His 3-point percentage (34 percent) has been just OK so far this season, but his shot mechanics, footwork and work ethic lead me to believe he’s going to be very good in this department in time.
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Frank Ntilikina, PG, Strasbourg
This is one of the more unique and intriguing prospects for the upcoming NBA Draft. Ntilikina has impressive physical attributes, as he stands 6-foot-6 and has a lengthy set of arms. He’s quick and a good athlete. My first viewing of him came back in February at Basketball Without Borders, and although his size, length, speed and athletic ability stood out, he lacked polish and wasn’t a confident shooter.
If the U-18 European Championships are any indication, he’s made improvement in the shooting category, as he connected on 17 of his 29 3-point attempts and appeared to be a good shooter when he was in catch-and-shoot situations and got his feet set. The next step is tightening up his ball handling and cutting down on turnovers (20 in six games at the U18 European Championships).
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TJ Leaf, PF, UCLA, freshman
Leaf has helped himself as much as any player in the country over the first half of the college basketball season. What’s been most impressive is his overall efficiency on the offensive end of the floor. He’s shooting nearly 70 percent on his 2-point shot attempts and over 48 percent from 3-point range. Leaf has shown he can score the ball in a variety of ways and is effective both facing the rim and with his back to it. His rebounding has improved a great deal since high school, and he’s played with tremendous energy throughout the season. Sure, there are defensive concerns, but his style and strength fit with what the NBA is looking for out of power forwards.
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Omer Yurtseven, C, NC State, freshman
The Turkish star turned down a lucrative professional contract with Fenerbahce to come to the United States and play college basketball. Yurtseven sat out the first nine games of the season and since has been fairly up and down, which is to be expected getting thrown into the fire in the middle of the season. That said, Yurtseven certainly has shown flashes of his ability. Yurtseven is a sturdy center prospect who stands at least 6-foot-11, if not 7-feet tall. He holds his ground, will be a good area rebounder in time and he has quite a bit of potential offensively. He’s already confident stepping away for mid-range jumpers, but he’s also a capable scorer around the basket with either hand and has impressive footwork.
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Miles Bridges, SF, Michigan State, freshman
After scoring over 20 points in four of Michigan State’s first eight games, Bridges has missed the last seven with an ankle injury. At 6-foot-7, Bridges is strong, athletic and versatile. A perimeter player who plays with power, he’s also improved as a shooter off the catch (38.5 percent from 3-point range), does a good job of rebounding in and out of his area and is always capable of a highlight reel dunk in transition. The areas for concern at this stage are his ballhandling and perimeter defense, but there’s plenty to like about the Michigan State wing.
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Robert Williams, PF/C, Texas A&M, freshman
Last year Marquese Chriss made a jump from a top 50 prospect his senior year of high school to the No. 8 pick in the NBA Draft. Although it doesn’t look like Robert Williams will go that high, he’s certainly tracking as a potential first-round pick after leaving high school as the No. 46 overall recruit.
Williams is a 6-foot-9, 240-pound power forward equipped with an impressive 7-4 wingspan. He’s strong and athletic, playing the role of an enforcer in the paint. In just 20 minutes of action, he is averaging 5.1 boards and 2.5 blocks a game. But he’s more than just a rim protector and rebounder. Williams has shown progress since high school on the offensive end of the floor. He possesses tremendous hands, nice touch around the basket and is finishing 65 percent of his two-point field goals. Williams is a bit of a wild card, but he’s been one of the biggest surprises of the young college season.
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Terrance Ferguson, SG/SF, Adelaide
NBA scouts have been making their way to Australia to see Ferguson, who opted to play overseas rather than stay in the U.S. and go to college. But the truth is most are well versed on his game from viewings at the Nike Hoop Summit, the McDonald’s All-American game and three FIBA events.
At 6-foot-7, Ferguson fits the mold of a 3&D guy. Ferguson is a tremendous leaper, has potential to be a knock-down shooter and he can defend. When you have those three qualities at that size, there’s a lot to like. Perhaps, Ferguson’s brightest spot thus far was going 7-for-11 in the Hoop Summit back in April. In high school there were times where he faded and disappeared in games, so improving his consistency is certainly something that he’ll need to improve, but long-term there’s quite a bit of potential here.
A strong, tough and powerful low-post prospect, Adebayo has been Kentucky’s lone consistent post presence this season. At 6-foot-9, Adebayo is undersized for a center prospect in the NBA, but his energy, ability to run end-to-end and athleticism make him an intriguing prospect. His value lies in his ability to rebound and his motor.
At the NBA level, you would think length and athleticism will bother him, but at the collegiate level it hasn’t. Just look at his pair of monstrous dunks on Anas Mahmoud against Louisville in late December. Thus far he’s played to his strengths in college, but if he wants to move up this list, he’ll need to show he can do more on the block and potentially even facing the rim.
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Marques Bolden, C, Duke, freshman
Thus far, Bolden has only played in six games and logged just 39 minutes in his freshman season at Duke. It’s evident that his leg injury in the preseason has set him back some. So this evaluation is based on the dozens of times seeing him in high school.
Bolden, the top-ranked incoming freshman center, is loaded with talent. At 6-foot-11 and boasting a 7-foot-plus wingspan, Bolden has good measurables to go with quality hands and touch. He’s also equipped to score over either shoulder. In high school, Bolden was a very good area rebounder, but his stats in that department, at least this early in the season, are somewhat pedestrian. It would do Bolden some good to return to Durham for another season, but if he opted to go he’d be taken in the first round.