There’s more competition than usual for the No. 1 NBA Draft spot entering the 2016-17 season. We don’t have an overwhelming favorite yet, and instead of the usual two or three frontrunners, there are five or six prospects with a legitimate argument to land first.
The college hoops season will eventually and inevitably pare down the list of candidates. But it’s exciting there are so many potential top picks this fall, and the race for No. 1 is far from a foregone conclusion. Each candidate must uncork a strong campaign in order to stay in the mix.
Who’s in the field of prospective top picks, and what should each competitor do to gain an edge throughout the season?
Harry Giles, Duke PF (Freshman)
Vitals: 6’11”, 222 lbs, 7’3” wingspan
Giles is the most agile big man in the lottery, with vertical explosiveness and aerial agility that will translate smoothly to Duke and the NBA. His physical tools make him a matchup problem in transition, post-ups and face-up drives. Those gifts also enable him to terrorize opponents on the glass.
Although Giles’ all-around skill set is far from polished and diverse, he shows promise in key areas. He shows soft touch on a hook shot, spin moves near the basket and a good-but-not-great jumper. Giles’ shooting form is a bit mechanical, but he has noticeable mid-range potential.
Giles’ value on defense is equally fascinating. He’s armed with length to contest shots around the bucket and elite quickness to check perimeter players. Danny Chau of The Ringer noted Giles’ side-to-side agility and positional interchangeability.
The most impressive aspect of his athleticism might be how comfortable he is moving laterally. At this stage in his development, Giles might actually be a better defender on the perimeter than he is closer to the basket. Giles switches screens beautifully, and ably defends all the way out to the 3-point line. Teams can put him in unique situations knowing he has the agility to keep up anywhere on the court.
Why he could go No. 1: He has a chance to be a hard-to-guard scorer and a four-position defender. His ceiling is a second scoring option on a playoff team and his team’s top stopper.
Why he could fall short: Previous ACL/MCL injuries could crop back up. His offensive value will diminish if he doesn’t exhibit jump-shot improvement at Duke.
Dennis Smith Jr., N.C. State PG (Freshman)
Vitals: 6’2”, 175 lbs, 6’3” wingspan
The reason some prognosticators such as NBADraft.net have Smith slated to land No. 1 is his speed and playmaking creativity. He’s not the most common choice to land first, thanks to his short stature, but his acceleration at the point of attack puts him in the conversation.
Smith’s forte is slashing toward the bucket and finding scoring opportunities for himself and teammates. The incoming Wolfpack guard finishes around the bucket with dexterity and owns smooth drive-and-dish skills. College and pro defenders will struggle to corral him, and Smith could thrive with the right pick-and-roll. While Smith’s not an efficient outside shooter yet, his form is fluid and he passes the eye test as a shot-maker.
Defense may be a challenge for him, although his quickness will give him a chance to compete. There are several short guards who are top-tier defenders (think Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry, Patrick Beverley, Eric Bledsoe). However, there’s still a limit to his potential on that end; he’ll be a one-position defender due to his lack of length.
Why he could go No. 1: He might dominate the ACC and emerge as dynamic, convincing dual-threat prospect. Smith would have to stand out defensively and also shoot 37 percent or better to ease some downside concerns.
Why he could fall short: Other than Markelle Fultz & Co. outplaying him? Smith could struggle to be a consistent decision-maker and efficient floor general. That, along with his relative lack of matchup versatility might keep his stock in check.
Jayson Tatum, Duke SF (Freshman)
Vitals: 6’8″, 204, 6’11” wingspan
Tatum is considered a top-five prospect and has an outside shot at No. 1 because he’s already highly skilled. It’s rare to see 6’8″ freshmen with a bag of tricks like his.
Whether it’s mid-post turnarounds, spin-move slashes or step-back jumpers, Tatum executes them with great command. There’s still room for improvement, especially in the three-point department, but he’s a striking talent. Even though he’s not an elite athlete, Tatum shakes defenders with sharp footwork and a wide array of moves. Ben Stram of Today’s Fastbreak explained what makes Tatum a rare prize:
…It’s his offensive repertoire that sets him apart from others…Unlike most NBA-sized swingmen at 18 years old, Tatum has mastered the art of the in-between game and the mid-range. He has good touch around the basket and is a knockdown shooter from around 15-18 feet. He has excellent footwork to maneuver in tight spaces to create separation against defenders. He also has a great feel with the ball in his hands and is willing to make the extra pass to an open teammate.
Why he could go No. 1: Tatum has a chance to be a do-it-all wing. He could become his NBA team’s primary offensive weapon, especially if he proves he can knock down triples.
Why he could fall short: If he struggles to hit outside shots and Duke and wavers defensively, he’ll be closer to No. 5 than No. 1.
Frank Ntilikina, France PG (18 years old)
Vitals: 6’5″, 170 lbs
The shifty French playmaker is in the mix to be this draft’s best guard. That means he has a legitimate chance to sneak up draft boards into consideration for No. 1 overall. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how he’d fare against top NCAA competition, but it’s reasonable to claim he’s the best passer in the lottery.
Ntilikina demonstrates superb timing and touch on pick-and-roll passes. He has a great feel for driving, freezing the defense and taking what it gives him. Ntilikina can drop passes to open teammates, weave all the way to the cup or separate into step-back jumpers.
One of the most attractive aspects of his NBA candidacy is his defense. Ntilikina’s footwork and talent is more advanced than the vast majority of his teenage peers, and his 6’5″ frame should allow him to contain NBA point guards and shooting guards.
Markelle Fultz and Dennis Smith Jr. are still ranked ahead of the French prodigy on most mocks and draft boards. But Ntilikina is not far behind at all, and he’s poised to challenge them for the No. 1 spot if they falter.
Why he could go No. 1: Ntilikina’s mix of size, scoring, passing and defense make him an ideal NBA point guard. As we mentioned, Fultz, Smith and Co. would have to underachieve to give him a better shot at landing first.
Why he could fall short: He’ll land mid-lottery or later if he doesn’t show improved strength/toughness in traffic and shooting consistency.
Josh Jackson, Kansas SF (Freshman)
Vitals: 6’8″, 203, 6’9.75″ wingspan
Jackson might be the most electrifying wing in the 2017 class, equipped with pogo-stick springs. He uses his athleticism and 6’8″ frame to out-maneuver opponents on offense and defense.
As a slasher and part-time facilitator, Jackson deploys hesitation moves and spins to create in half-court sets. When he gets to the hoop, he usually finishes way above the rim and showcases NBA-caliber acrobatics. The best part is he’s not a tunnel-visioned driver, but rather a heads-up attacker who finds open teammates and sets them up.
Defense might be his greatest strength right now. Not only can Jackson check positions 1-3 like several quick wings, but he also has the strength and instincts required to bother post players. There’s reason to believe he could spend time hounding four different positions in the NBA.
Jackson has the potential to become an interchangeable weapon, a “position-less” asset. We’ll see if he can accentuate his strong suits while addressing his question marks like shooting.
Why he could go No. 1: His scoring and passing command could make him one of the most versatile wings in the NBA. The defensive versatility could be even better, which makes him hard to resist.
Why he could fall short: Like many prospects, his jumper could use ironing. If he disappoints from the perimeter at Kansas, it will make it easier for the lottery winner to pass on him.
Markelle Fultz, Washington PG (Freshman)
Vitals: 6’5″, 186 lbs, 6’9.75″ wingspan
Washington’s star recruit has gained draft value in recent months due to his all-purpose skill set and physical prowess. Fultz glides around the court and makes plays with an agile 6’5″ frame, looking the part of a lethal NBA combo guard.
He shined during Team USA’s U-18 gold-medal run at the FIBA Americas tournament. In just 21.8 minutes per game, he tallied 13.8 points, 5.2 assists and 3.2 steals. Fultz is an athletic, creative weapon in transition, but he can also generate buckets in half-court situations with shiftiness, vision and pull-up jumpers. On the defensive side, his long arms and anticipation are a disruptive combination. He effectively contests shots, rebounds well for his position and forces turnovers in the passing lanes.
For many scouts and draft experts, the No. 1 draft spot is Fultz’s to lose. He has the tools to become a star-caliber combo guard as well as a multi-positional defender.
Why he could go No. 1: He could become his NBA team’s top scorer or top passer (or both). His 6’5″ frame, agility and skill level give him a high ceiling and a high floor.
Why he could fall short: Lack of command and intensity could put a dent in his stock and allow others to outshine him during critical games.