If you haven’t been able to tell, the point guard position is stacked in college basketball this season, which has led to much more entertaining basketball
Point guards are crucial to a team’s success in March, and the additions of a quartet of future NBA stars have made this one of the best years of college basketball in recent memory. Freshmen guards Lonzo Ball, De’Aaron Fox, Markelle Fultz and Dennis Smith Jr. are all potential top-10 picks, and have opened eyes of NBA scouts and college basketball fans alike.
Starting off, Lonzo Ball has been the key cog in the revitalization of the UCLA Bruins basketball program. The Chino Hills product has the Bruins at 18-1 and number three in the most recent polls. The high-paced offense run by Steve Alford has played to Ball’s strengths perfectly.
Ball is best in the open court, using his vision to find other scorers like Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton, Aaron Holiday and TJ Leaf. His passing is his best asset, dishing out eight assists per game, good for second in the country behind Mo Watson Jr. (who just blew out his knee, strong tear).
At 6’6″, people would expect Ball to be a good rebounding guard, and they would be right. Ball corrals five misses a game, and is a threat to go coast-to-coast or deliver a beautiful outlet pass to a teammate leaking out after a shot attempt.
As for his scoring, Ball has always been known for his ability to get to the rim and finish through and above a defense, and he’s carried that trait over to the college level. However, questions remained about his outside shooting ability. After a scorching hot start to the season, people still questioned his outside shot because of a truly funky release, but those questions have been quieted, as Ball has continued to knock down threes. He’s even shown off a step back three now and again and has looked comfortable in both catch-and-shoot and spot-up attempts. It would be nice to see Ball work on his mid-range game, which is one of the few parts of his game that lacks behind.
On the defensive end, Ball has shown solid anticipation and quick hands to the tune of 1.8 steals per game. In six conference games, Ball has seen both an uptick in scoring and steals per game.
Ball has established himself as a top 10 pick in this summer’s draft, and plenty of teams in the top 10 could be looking for a point guard of the future. Ball’s numbers to this point in the year draw comparison to another former guard of the PAC-12, Jason Kidd. In his two years at Cal, Kidd averaged 14.9 points per game, 5.9 rebounds per game, 8.4 assists per game and 3.5 steals per game. Ball is currently averaging 14.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 8 apg and 1.8 spg. Scarily similar.
Across the country that is the United States, De’Aaron Fox is the lead point guard to the most exciting player in the country, Malik Monk (more on him in the future). Fox is just another in a long line of elite John Calipari produced point guards. Fox has his fellow Wildcats as the early runaway favorite to win the SEC with a record of 15-2 and a number five ranking in the country.
The first thing people notice when watching Fox is his blinding speed with the ball in his hands. The second thing people notice when watching Fox is his inability to shoot.
As for the first point, Fox, like Ball, is best in transition. Fox also displays great vision and finishing ability at the basket, but does struggle with finishing through contact at just 185ish pounds. Fox changes speeds well, which keeps defenders off balance even when they know he can’t shoot. If he gets a step on his defender, it’s game over, and he’s gone in a burst to the basket for an easy layup or dunk. When on the drive, Fox is a savvy finisher, and has shown off a floater and euro-step. When Fox does get fouled, he only converts at a 71% clip.
As for the jump shot, it actually doesn’t look bad, it just doesn’t go in. There isn’t a major overhaul needed in terms of form, but more reps could work wonders for Fox. On the year, he’s shooting an absolutely brutal 14% from three-point range, which makes Shaun Livingston look like a sharpshooter. His lack of shooting touch, in both off the dribble and catch-and-shoot opportunities are killing his draft stock.
On defense, Fox quickness allows him to stay in front of his man and dodge screens. His quickness translates to his hands, where he’s a threat to reach in and pickpocket an opposing ball handler, leading to a solid 1.7 steals per game.
Fox and Ball actually faced off at Rupp Arena in early December, and while UCLA got the win to stay undefeated, Fox outplayed Ball for much of the game, finishing with 20 points and eight assists. Ball finished with 14 points, six rebounds and seven assists, but also had six turnovers that kept Kentucky in the game and only shot 5/12 from the field and 2/8 from three.
Fox is a likely lottery pick, but his inability to shoot, finish with his off (right) hand and his lack of strength will keep him out of the top ten. Fox has drawn John Wall comparisons, but could wind up being more like Rajon Rondo, which is still great company. Teams like the New York Knicks and Sacramento Kings could take a long look at Fox come draft night.
Not too far away, in North Carolina, Dennis Smith Jr. is silencing doubts; not over his game, but over his surgically repaired knee that caused him to miss much of his senior year of high school. It doesn’t seem to appear as though Smith lost any explosiveness at all. And, if at all possible, it looks like he even gained some power.
Smith has been far and away the best player for the NC State Wolfpack, scoring 19.5 ppg and has shown the ability to convert at all three levels. Smith is shooting 38% from deep, much better than scouts anticipated and has shown smooth athleticism and toughness when driving to the bucket. He’s shown the ability to finish through traffic, and converts at a 73% rate, something that can certainly be improved upon.
Smith has shown off the hops with plenty of monster jams, and in an absolutely stacked ACC, he’ll have a chance to establish himself as the best prospect in the country. Smith has had a few clunkers, especially early in the season, but rust was certainly a factor. However, Smith isn’t strictly a scorer.
Throughout the year, Smith has been able to find open teammates on the drive by either dishing to a big man underneath or kicking out to open shooters, most typically Torin Dorn. Averaging 6.2 assists is a good number for any guard, especially one on a team where there are few other players who can create their own shots.
Smith’s defensive abilities stem from his quickness, like any good point guard. He’s smart with his risks, which shows in his 2.2:1.9, steals to fouls ratio (not really sure if that’s a ratio, but those are his numbers so I’m sticking to it).
Where Smith could stand to improve is in his decision making on the offensive end. His 3.2 turnovers per game have been a result of both questionable decision making, and trying to force the issue. Consistency will also be something to look at, as he’s had two-to-three game stretches where his shot hasn’t been falling, and then casually drop a triple-double, like he did against the upset in Virginia Tech two weeks ago. It will be up to Smith to carry the Wolfpack into the NCAA Tournament, where he can showcase his skills to a national audience.
Smith is a bonafide top five pick, and will likely wind up in the top three. His game shows a lot of resemblance to a young (key word: young) Derrick Rose, right down to the knee injuries. Right now, it’s a dogfight between him and Fultz for the top point guard on the board. Bottom-dwelling teams such as the 76ers, Heat and Mavericks should be licking their lips at the possibility of grabbing an All-Star calendar point guard of the future. Also, the Celtics own the Brooklyn Nets’ pick, who happen to have the worst record in the league.
Back to the Pacific Coast for the last point guard who should go high in the draft this summer.
Markelle Fultz is writing some kind of story, and one that is becoming better known as his stardom continues to grow. At Washington, Fultz has seen his game reach new heights, where he makes scoring 20 points look as easy as falling asleep. In fact, he could probably drop 20 in his sleep. With his scoring average up over 22 points a game, Fultz has only been held under that 20 point mark five times in 17 games for the Huskies.
Fultz moves effortlessly around the court and makes the game look smooth and natural. He possesses outstanding body control when attacking the rim, and loves to the spin move on the drive, where he can finish with either hand.
He is very comfortable and lethal in both the fast break and in the half-court. While Dennis Smith may be the more explosive athlete, Fultz seems to glide through the air while punishing the rim.
Fultz can score any which way. He’s excellent on the drive, but also knocks down 41% of his triples, which have come off pull-up’s, spot-up’s and catch-and-shoot scenarios. At 6’4″ 195 pounds, Fultz has the strength to finish through contact at the rim. Fultz gets to the line almost seven times a contest, but only hits 67% of his attempts from the charity stripe, but based off of what has been seen from his three point stroke, that number should rise.
The DeMatha Catholic product can create his own shot like no other point guard in the country, something NBA teams have come to covet. As a passer, Fultz can get fancy, and drops just over six dimes a game.
An underrated yet strong part of his game is his rebounding ability. His 9.3% rebound percentage would rank him only behind Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Patrick Beverley, Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul among NBA point guards.
As a defender, Fultz’s hands may not be as quick and Fox’s or Smith’s, but he still racks up 1.6 steals per game and has numerous chase-down blocks on the year. In fact, Fultz blocks an average of 1.3 shots per game, showing he can be a valuable rim protector from the point guard spot.
There aren’t any glaring weaknesses in Fultz’s game, which puts just slightly higher over Dennis Smith. Fultz is the favorite to go number one, but both him and Smith could take that top spot come draft night. Some NBA teams may prefer Fultz’s natural scoring ability and could be turned off by Smith’s injury history. There is no exact NBA comparison to Fultz currently in the NBA. He scores as effortlessly as Kyrie Irving, has the size and athletic ability of a Damian Lillard, and plays doggish defense like Eric Bledsoe. He’s a dream point guard, in other words.
Each of these guards has a long and successful NBA career awaiting them and have surpassed expectations to this point in their first years. Fultz and Smith are franchise caliber point guards, but Ball and Fox could make a few All-Star teams as well, even in a point guard dominant league.
Cover Photo via NBCPhiladelphia
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