2017 NBA Draft: 5 potential busts
The 2017 NBA Draft is in the books, and teams are resting their hopes on newly drafted talent. Which players selected could turn out to be busts?
Every team wants to draft the next great player, turning every single selection into a positive contributor who outperforms his draft slot. Unfortunately, history tells us that many of the players chosen in the 2017 NBA Draft will turn out to disappoint or, at worst, wash out.
No draft slot is immune either, from top to bottom. In 2013 the Cleveland Cavaliers drafted Anthony Bennett first overall, and he’s currently not on an NBA roster. The fifth pick in that same draft, Alex Len, has not been able to crack more than 23.3 minutes per game on a bad Phoenix Suns team. The ninth pick, Trey Burke, was only the fourth-best point guard on his own team and was traded for a late second-rounder to the Washington Wizards, just to fall to fourth on their depth chart as well.
The Sacramento Kings are intimately familiar with draft busts, from Jimmer Fredette to Nik Stauskas to Thomas Robinson to Ben McLemore — all selected in the top 10 sometime in the last six drafts, all underperforming their draft position if they are even still in the league.
Not every draft bust comes from a player failing to produce at a high level. Some picks become draft busts because of crippling injuries. This famously happened to Greg Oden, one of the best center prospects in recent draft history. At the time, Portland was completely justified in selecting Oden over Kevin Durant, but think about how their history would have changed if they had taken Durant instead.
In the 2014 NBA Draft, Joel Embiid fell to third in light of injury concerns; while those concerns are still present, when on the court Embiid has been the best player in that draft class. Jabari Parker, selected second overall in that draft, had a clean bill of health on draft night and has since torn his ACL twice. Busts aren’t always predictable, either.
As the lights are turned off at the Barclays Center and the 2017 NBA Draft comes to a close, what players have a greater chance to underperform the expectation of their draft slot and provide a poor return for their teams? More directly, which players have the potential to become busts?
Here are the five biggest potential busts of the 2017 NBA Draft class, ranked from lowest to highest draft position.
5. Caleb Swanigan (No. 26) — Portland Trail Blazers
The Portland Trail Blazers entered the 2017 NBA Draft with three first round picks and few glaring needs. With a team filled with players on their second contracts, Portland is looking at an expensive cap sheet and a filled out roster. With no financial flexibility, they needed to leverage whatever picks they kept into meeting their true need: wing defenders.
Al-Farouq Aminu is on a value contract and provides strong wing defense, and Maurice Harkless is an above-average defender as well. But both are combo forwards, but there is no one on the roster capable of guarding elite guard scorers. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are incredible offensive talents, but could not defend a cookie jar from toddlers.
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The Trail Blazers flipped their first two picks into center Zach Collins. Although Portland is laden with big men, Collins was an analytical darling and could develop into a star. He provides insurance in case Jusuf Nurkic leaves in restricted free agency, and at worst is a high-talent backup and occasional running mate in spot minutes at the 4.
That left the Trail Blazers pick No. 26 to get that defender to take opposing guard scorers. Josh Hart was a Wooden Award finalist who projects as a strong backcourt defender. Davon Reed went at 32 and could be the perfect 3-and-D prospect. Frank Jackson and Frank Mason are both tough defensive guards as well. Each of these players were available at 26.
Instead the Trail Blazers selected Caleb Swanigan, a power forward/center prospect out of Purdue. One of the best players in college basketball this season, Swanigan was a double double-double machine for the Boiler Makers. He has the body of a low-post bruiser, and one of the more refined post games of anyone in the draft class.
But the Blazers have Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins, Ed Davis, Meyers Leonard and Noah Vonleh – all who fit best at center. Swanigan might ultimately be a 4, but then the Blazers have Aminu and Harkless to add to the mix.
While Portland will almost certainly have to move a player or two, the reality is that there is simply no room for Swanigan on this team. As Portland remains silent of the G-League front, there is no affiliate team to send him to either.
Swanigan could be a solid bench player in the NBA, but he cannot shoot and his defensive skill-set is limited. Sitting the pine in Portland will not help him develop, and it will not help this team guard the Stephen Currys of the league. Portland probably needed more from this pick, and it could set Swanigan up for failure as he begins his professional career.
4. T.J. Leaf (No. 18) — Indiana Pacers
Even as the Chicago Bulls pulled the trigger on a trade package for their superstar, the Indiana Pacers held pat with their star in Paul George. This was surprising for many, as George made clear his intention earlier in the week to leave Indiana in free agency next summer.
The Pacers held conversations with a number of teams, and The Vertical‘s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Boston Celtics kept Indiana on the phone well into the first-round before the teams ultimately failed to come to an agreement.
Sources: For now, Boston-Indiana talks on Paul George have stalled. Live: https://t.co/pVi69Gfatv
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojVerticalNBA) June 23, 2017
The Pacers are now in a state of limbo, suspended between contending for the postseason and tearing things down for a rebuild. It’s possible George is moved in the next week before free agency begins on July 1, but until he does, clarity on the Pacers’ future stays murky.
Enter T.J. Leaf, the wingman for college basketball’s greatest show in Lonzo Ball at UCLA. As the league touts shooting from the frontcourt Leaf comes in as a sharpshooting stretch-4. On the surface his best skill, shooting, works well with a roster without the best shooters in their backcourt.
But Leaf had a breakout year playing in a shooter’s paradise in UCLA, and the Pacers don’t have a Lonzo Ball on their roster. Jeff Teague and Monta Ellis are not pure passers, and in fact, no one on the roster fits that role. If Leaf is required to create his own shot off the bench, his outlook becomes less rosy.
Then there are the defensive concerns, as Leaf doesn’t have the physical tools to be a rim protector nor the foot speed to guard on the perimeter. If the team keeps George and its other veterans, Leaf will most likely play off the bench behind Thaddeus Young. Neither Al Jefferson nor Kevin Seraphin can guard the rim either, setting Leaf up for failure from the jump.
If George is moved and a youth movement begins, Young will most likely go and Leaf could start. Then he will be leaned upon to generate offense, something he hasn’t proven able to do. Defensively, a pairing with Myles Turner works better, but no plan that trots out a minus defender is perfect.
Leaf isn’t a terrible fit on the Pacers, but he was a reach at 17 and could struggle outside of the warm environment of UCLA. That could mean disappointment for an Indiana team dealing with layers of that recently.
3. Lauri Markkanen (No. 7) — Chicago Bulls
The Chicago Bulls had engaged in trade talks for Jimmy Butler since two trade deadlines ago, coming to the brink on 2016 draft night last year before pulling back. This year, they came to the brink and didn’t back away, dealing Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves for a three-piece package.
Zach LaVine is the most accomplished piece of that package, but he is recovering from a torn ACL and almost certainly will not be ready to start the season. Kris Dunn was a highly touted prospect last season, but failed to make any sort of an offensive impact last year for the Timberwolves. That means Bulls fans will be looking to Lauri Markkanen to show them Chicago was right to move Jimmy Butler.
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The 7’0″ teenager from Finland — the first player of Finnish birth ever selected in the NBA first round — brings one elite talent to the table in pursuit of living up to his draft slot. He is a shooter, one of the absolute best in the draft, and perhaps instantly the best shooter for his position in the league as a rookie. His stroke is fluid, smooth and effective, and he will hit plenty of shots his rookie season.
The problem is that the Bulls don’t have any shooters to put around him. Despite boasting a collection of five point guards, none of them has an outside shot. Dwyane Wade only hits three-pointers in the postseason. Nikola Mirotic is supposed to be a stretch-4 but he couldn’t hit shots last year. Markkanen could stand alone in the Chicago rotation.
That means his defender will stay glued to Markkanen at all times, and he will need to show he can score while guarded. Does he have a move to attack closeouts? What happens when teams run him off the three-point line? And can Fred Hoiberg afford to play him in crunch time if he is the complete disaster on defense he projects to be?
These questions are reasonable for a player taken seventh overall, but Markkanen doesn’t have the luxury of taking his time. This Chicago fan base is expecting the next Kristaps Porzingis, if not the next Dirk Nowitzki. Can Markkanen hold up that end of a bargain? He will need to be great, and that just might not be in the cards.
2. De’Aaron Fox (No. 5) — Sacramento Kings
NBA teams love intangibles and De’Aaron Fox is flush with them. They love competitive fire and humility and intelligence and hustle, and Fox is the poster child. On the NCAA’s biggest stage, he showed up in a major way, dominating the opposition – including Lonzo Ball – to lead the Wildcats to within a shot of the Final Four.
Fox has tangible strengths as well, from his elite speed to his ability to finish in traffic. Fox locks down opposing players, preventing them from shooting and daring them to attempt a pass. He is a rugged defender who can guard anyone, anywhere.
But De’Aaron Fox cannot shoot, and that may prove to be his undoing. It’s not simply a matter of changing the scheme, it’s completely overhauling a roster to accommodate a player. The modern NBA requires point guards to shoot, and there is a very small chance Fox adds a jump shot with consistency.
Not only is Fox a poor three-point shooter, but he takes so few. His offensive game will consist of short jumpers and shots around the rim. To succeed with Fox at the point the Kings will need to surround him with shooters, forcing their hand at who they put on the floor with him.
That doesn’t mean Fox cannot be a great player, and he has succeeded at every level thus far without a jump shot. Even with such a severe limitation, Fox has the intensity and athleticism to make it in the league in some role.
But with the fifth overall pick the Kings needed a can’t-miss star, and for a franchise with an overwhelming recent history of busts, they can’t be wholly confident Fox will reach that level. That makes this pick a shaky one.
1. Lonzo Ball (No. 2) — Los Angeles Lakers
Ball is not the typical bust candidate, as he was a consensus top-three pick all season and on nearly every draft board. While some outlets expressed concern with the Lakers taking him with the second overall pick, it was close to a done deal since they were awarded the pick in the NBA Draft Lottery one month ago.
There is certainly plenty to like about Ball. Statistical models almost unanimously put him as the top prospect, in large part due to incredibly efficient scoring. No player in college basketball for at least 10 years has shot over 70 percent from two-point range and 40 percent from three-point range.
Ball is also a dynamic passer, completely altering a team’s culture to focus on ball movement and pace in order to generate the highest-quality looks. He transformed UCLA from a mediocre power-five team to an offensive powerhouse and national contender. In Luke Walton‘s system, Ball should thrive.
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That being said, there is a ton of pressure on Lonzo Ball to succeed and quickly in Los Angeles. The fan base is not used to losing, and is ready to turn things around immediately. All of LaVar Ball’s bluster about championships and “ordained by Zeus and Jesus” is not going to help things either.
Ball is also being handed the keys to the Lakers’ offense, and there are reasons to think he is not ready for that responsibility. He is a surprisingly weak ball-handler, proving unable to consistently attack big men on switches. A lack of elite athleticism means that Ball could struggle to finish against longer NBA defenders, and a point guard who always drives to pass will find those passing lanes snuffed out.
Defensively, Ball is a minus — and a significant one. While he has good height for the position, he is thin and prone to being beat up. A lack of lateral agility projects him to struggle on slipping screens, and he needs to improve on getting into a deep defensive stance.
In the end, Lonzo Ball could become the showtime star the Lakers and their fans are counting on him to become. Alongside Paul George and another free agent, he could thrive and put up huge numbers. Or he could struggle under the weight of expectations and unravel all of Magic Johnson‘s plans. No pressure, Lonzo.