Folding for Fultz: Why the Washington Point Guard is Tonight's Lottery Prize

Folding for Fultz: Why the Washington Point Guard is Tonight’s Lottery Prize

Everyone agrees that the 2017 NBA draft class is special. People disagree about why.

Many attribute value to the classes depth—Dennis Smith at No. 9, Justin Jackson outside of the lottery, Ivan Rabb in the 20s or Jordan Bell in the second round are nice propositions. Others attribute it to the top two point guards—Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball.

Less talked about is the generational specialness of Fultz and Fultz alone.

 

The four pillars of being a point guard in today’s NBA are size, athleticism, shooting and passing. Yet, in a league dominated by point guards, there is not a single player who possesses all of those traits.

Stephen Curry checks three of the four boxes. He’s 6’3, the best shooter ever and perhaps, subtly, a top-three passer in the league. However, his first successful dunk of this season came in March.

John Wall is 6’4, the best draw-and-kick player not named LeBron, and the most explosive player end-to-end not named Russ. Seven years into his career, though, he still can’t shoot from distance. The same goes for Westbrook, though he is far below Wall as a pure passer.

Damian Lillard might be the closest, with at least a light checkmark in every box. But he plays smaller than 6’3 (he struggles against length and is weak on the glass), his athleticism doesn’t translate on defense and he is an adequate-but-not-great passer.

Markelle Fultz could be that guy. His resume:

  • He’s 6’4, probably 6’5 by NBA standards (this matters more when comparing his to other NBA players). He has tremendous length (6’10 wingspan), which means there’s less concern of him “playing small” like Lillard.
  • He’s not quite Westbrook or Wall athletically, but he is legitimately close. He’s an above-the-rim finisher, a budding chasedown artist and a blur in transition. He has a superb first step, though he uses it more like Harden (when you don’t expect it) than like Wall (every time).
  • Part of why Harden’s blow-by is so effective is his pull-up game. The same goes for Fultz. He shot 41.3 percent from deep in college and flashed NBA range, while his midrange pull-up is already good enough to be an NBA tool.
  • Again, like Harden, Fultz has an innate creativity. He’s a skilled passer with excellent vision.

Don’t let the Harden comparisons fool you, though: Fultz is a real point guard. Many scoff at the distinction since Harden was Houston’s lead ball handler and facilitator (leading the league in assists in the process), but he was not Houston’s point guard. He was rarely guarded by point guards, rarely guarded opposing point guards and was never the smallest guy on the court.

The definition of point guard goes beyond semantics. It matters. If Harden was capable of guarding 1s, and was quick enough to be the smallest guy on the court, Houston could build a much different type of team around him. They could play more size at the 2, forcing opposing 1s to guard Harden more. They could play longer, stronger defenders at forward, preventing Harden from having to be the de-facto 4 in small lineups.

Fultz’s quickness and defensive projectability is what makes him a point guard, and what makes him a more special prospect than many are giving him credit for being.

 

Potential Upside

His upside is just what I’ve laid out: He could be the NBA’s only prototypical point guard across the board, mixing all the advantages of a playmaking wing with the necessary point guard traits of quickness and shooting.

The model of surrounding a playmaking point guard with shooters is getting harder and harder to follow.

Defenses are smarter than ever. They sag off point guards who can’t shoot, making it harder to play-make in the process. If a team’s lead facilitator can’t shoot, they’d rather that player be a wing, since wings can pass over the top even when sagged off of.

It’s also easier to find a 3-and-D point guard to play next to a playmaking wing than it is to find a 3-and-D wing to play next to a playmaking point guard. Two-way wings are at a premium. Thus, teams are looking more to their wings as creators and their point guards as shooters.

Six of the top eight offenses in the league this year were built around a player who can shoot and pass: Golden State (Curry), Houston (Harden), Cleveland (James), LA Clippers (Chris Paul), Toronto (Kyle Lowry) and Boston (Isaiah Thomas).

Despite their offensive prowess, each of those players gives their team a deficiency that had to be reconciled (besides James, who is one of the three greatest players of all-time). Curry and Thomas struggled to defend point guards (especially Thomas), meaning Golden State and Boston needed 3-and-D shooting guards like Klay Thompson and Avery Bradley to be successful on both ends. Houston needed a 3-and-D point guard (Patrick Beverley). Paul and Lowry’s size (both are 6’0) and lack of pure speed made it tough for them to create against bigger defenders, forcing them to lean heavily on Blake Griffin and DeMar DeRozan in certain matchups.

Peak Fultz would require no such compensation. That isn’t to say that he won’t need good players around him to succeed, but that his lack of a weakness would allow him to succeed with any type of roster. That kind of flexibility is a huge edge for general managers, and that advantage is inherent to Fultz even if he doesn’t reach his ceiling.

 

Built-in Upside

Even if you are exceedingly high on Lonzo Ball, there is a right and wrong way to around him. That’s less true than it was for last year’s No. 1 pick Ben Simmons, as Ball can at least function as a spot-up shooter. Still, any team that doesn’t both put the ball in Ball’s hands and surround him with shooters and scorers will be wasting his talent.

Of the 13 teams with a chance at the No. 1 pick (Philadelphia gets the higher of Sacramento’s pick and its own), four already have rosters that would accommodate Ball. All 13 would fit Fultz.

Of course, if the Magic finish second in the lottery and Fultz goes No. 1, they should take Ball. He would immediately become their best asset, and re-working their roster to fit around him would still give them more direction than they currently have.

If they land Fultz, they don’t have to re-work anything. He can play next to Elfrid Payton, or replace Payton and add much-needed shooting to a team that finished No. 29 in 3-point percentage this year.

Some teams are even worse fits for Ball. The Sixers might genuinely consider passing on him if they pick at No. 2. The same goes for Minnesota. Both teams would snag Fultz, howver, in a heartbeat.

There is no counter example. The teams that Ball is a natural fit on (the Lakers, Suns, Mavericks and Heat) would have zero issues with Fultz. And even for those teams, Fultz represents the safer long-term play.

Say D’Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram—the two guys that make Ball a nice fit in LA—never figure it out. The Lakers young core would be Ball and Julius Randle, and the team would desperately need shooting and athleticism at the wing spots. If it were reversed (Russell and Ingram succeeding with Randle flaming out), both Ball and Fultz would fit in extremely well, even if Ball would work slightly better offensively.

The team-building flexibility that Fultz provides cannot be brushed off. The Wolves drafted Wiggins No. 1 in 2014, and are now desperate to add shooting and defense (though to be fair, Wiggins was supposed to be a defensive stud). They may prefer to leave this draft with a Jonathan Isaac or Malik Monk instead of a Lonzo Ball or Josh Jackson, even though the latter two are clearly superior prospects.

With Fultz, it’s plug and play. Even if he doesn’t reach his ceiling, his team is more likely to reach its own.

 

Risk?

Much like last year’s No. 1 overall pick Simmons, Fultz failed to make the NCAA tournament this year. There is a worry among some that he lacks a competitive edge, a killer instinct, an ability to make his teammates better or even a passion for basketball. This, in contrast to the fire and joy that Ball plays and injects his team with, is the biggest reason many are higher on the UCLA point guard than his Washington counterpart.

Had Fultz not averaged 23.2 points, 5.9 assists and 5.7 rebounds on 47.6 percent field-goal shooting and 41.3 percent 3-point shooting (with a shaky 64.9 free-throw mark, though Ball’s was not much better at 67.3), this argument would hold weight.

Fultz is immensely talented, and, more importantly, without a weakness. If his fire is an issue—and we really don’t have any basis for saying it is, other than Washington’s mediocre record with an awful roster around him—it’s only one in the sense that he’ll never be Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant or LeBron James. Guys with all-around games that translate to the NBA rarely flame out. If his only weakness is his lack of ferocity, his floor is Carmelo Anthony.

Of course, no player has a floor that high. Fultz might be a bust, just like every other prospect. But he has the skill set to be the best point guard in basketball and the versatility for any team to build around him with ease. Point guard prospects more flawed than he—Derrick Rose, Wall, Kyrie Irving—have gone No. 1 in recent years. This draft class may be deeper than the ones in 2008, 2010 and 2011, but Fultz still stands tall above the pack.