As we continue to examine the best young players the NBA has to offer in our NBA 25 Under 25 series, now it’s time to look at the top playmakers drawing straws for the right to stir the NBA drink for another decade.
Previous editions: The Unicorns
5. DENNIS SMITH JR.
Role: Pound for pound, the most bounce to the ounce
The third member of the heralded NBA Class of 2017 on this list, Smith fell to ninth in the draft — and fourth among point guards. In a few short months, though, he’s climbed back up the young playmaking ranks.
Just two years ago, Smith was the most highly regarded point guard in the class. Then, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, missed his final high school season, and played his freshman campaign for an underwhelming squad at N.C. State, where he was plagued by questions about his on-court effort. The Wolfpack’s horrendous defense and a string of 14 losses in 17 games didn’t do much for his slumping reputation.
All that led him to drop in the draft, but the 19-year-old never lost the respect of his classmates, earning Most Athletic and Most Likely to Win Rookie of the Year superlatives on the league’s annual rookie survey. (His pre-draft record-tying 48-inch vertical leap at a Los Angeles Lakers workout would seem to support the former.) So filled with potential is Smith that even his missed dunks are exceptional basketball, and Under Armour didn’t need another look before handing him a multi-million-dollar shoe contract.
Here is @dennis1smithjr showing off that dunk contest bounce.
— Hoopmixtape.com (@Hoopmixtape) August 23, 2017
His averages of 17.3 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.2 steals per game at Las Vegas Summer League, coupled with a healthy 58.2 True Shooting percentage and 28.5 Player Efficiency Rating, were all encouraging signs that he could regain his status as the best playmaker in his class — or close to it.
Smith landed in a prime location. He’s playing for a Dallas Mavericks team that badly needed a point guard, under an owner, coach and veteran superstar with proven track records of winning, and with two young starters, Harrison Barnes and re-signed center Nerlens Noel, who can run the floor with him.
And he certainly doesn’t lack confidence (except when it comes to eating octopus).
“I asked him the question of who he thinks his game is like,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said after the team selected Smith. “He said he thought he was a bit like Derrick Rose. He is a stronger point guard that can slash and create. He can shoot the ball and make plays. That’s not bad. That’s a former MVP.”
4. D’ANGELO RUSSELL
Drafted second overall in 2015, Russell was traded to the Brooklyn Nets along with Timofey Mozgov’s ridiculous contract so that the Los Angeles Lakers could clear room for their latest No. 2 pick, Lonzo Ball, and (potentially) enough cap space for a pair of max contracts in 2018. Still, it’s remarkable that a dormant franchise gave up on a 21-year-old, especially one who showed considerable promise in his only season free from the shadow of a past-his-prime Kobe Bryant jacking jumpers into retirement.
Russell averaged 19.6 points, six assists and 4.4 rebounds per 36 minutes last season. Even if his advanced stats (a subpar 51.8 True Shooting percentage and mediocre 15.3 PER) aren’t as encouraging, only two other players have ever posted those per-36 numbers by age 20: LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.
That Russell is the only player on this list who has actually played an NBA game says a lot about either the dearth of young playmakers in the league or the wealth of talent in more recent draft classes. Either way, it’s far too early to give up on Russell, who was a plus player in almost every off-ball offensive play-type last season, but too often handled the ball for inexperienced Lakers lineups intended to tank.
Granted, the Nets don’t present a marked upgrade from a talent standpoint, but they play hard for coach Kenny Atkinson. Plus, Jeremy Lin can share playmaking duties, and the addition of Allen Crabbe gives Brooklyn another shooter to space the floor for either Russell or Lin to attack the basket.
“Whoever gets the ball, let’s run,” Russell told Sporting News of teaming with Lin. “I complement his game, he complements my game. He’s not a point guard, he’s not a shooting guard. I’m not a point guard, I’m not a shooting guard. I think we’re just basketball players trying to make the best of it.”
And that’s probably the best way to describe Russell — “a basketball player trying to make the best of it.” Russell has a clean slate in Brooklyn now that he’s free from a team that turned its back on him when he did dumb teenage things and also had him developing as a rookie under Byron Scott, who probably contributed to stunting his growth and had little respect for a then-19-year-old’s maturity.
A few thousand miles away from L.A. and a chip on his shoulder should do Russell some good.
3. LONZO BALL
Role: Big balling
We turn from one brash young point guard to his successor in Los Angeles, and we know for sure there are two people who believe the Lakers’ latest No. 2 pick should rank even higher on this list: Lonzo and LaVar Ball. Some evaluators would disagree, citing questions about the L.A. native’s ability to defend and get his shot off at the next level, but there is no denying the younger Ball’s playmaking ability.
From the opening tip of Vegas Summer League, Lonzo exhibited his passing skills:
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) July 8, 2017
And he only impressed more as the week wore on:
The 6-foot-6 facilitator averaged 16.3 points (albeit on 38.2 percent shooting), 9.3 rebounds and 7.7 assists on his way to MVP honors in Vegas. That led Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson to suggest, “If he’s getting triple-doubles in the summer league, he is going to get triple-doubles in the regular season.”
That may be ludicrous logic, considering Summer League is littered with players who won’t earn invites to NBA training camps this fall. Just halving those numbers would make for an impressive debut, though; the list of rookies who have even averaged a 5-5-5 in their debut seasons is only 15 players long and replete with Hall of Fame names like Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Chris Paul, Grant Hill, LeBron James and Jason Kidd.
Early expectations are that Ball will put up numbers on a roster bound for the lottery once again, as reflected by his status as an odds-on co-favorite for Rookie of the Year. But greatness will come as the awkward shots start to fall and his court awareness translates to the defensive end in Years 2 and 3, when the Lakers are hoping to retool their roster with a pair of max-contract free agents.
And if the other parts of his game never catch up to the sensational glimpses he’s already shown … well, LaVar won’t want to hear this, but that list of players who posted a 5-5-5 in Year 1 also features Michael Carter-Williams — a Rookie of the Year who posted big numbers on a bad team, has since sputtered, and this October will begin his fifth NBA season on his fourth NBA team.
2. MARKELLE FULTZ
Role: Procuring buckets as if they were filled with Chick-fil-A
Because “The Process” produced the last two No. 1 picks, the Philadelphia 76ers now boast the game’s two most promising playmakers under age 25. That could present a problem if Fultz, trying to make his own way in the NBA, takes issue with Ben Simmons naming himself the starting point guard.
So far, at least, Fultz seems cool with sharing playmaking duties, saying of Simmons soon after he was drafted in June, “I think we’ll complement each other’s game really well. I can bring the ball up, he can bring the ball up, and we can create mismatches to help us score.”
That may be oversimplifying it, but Fultz isn’t one to elaborate, and positions don’t matter much in today’s NBA. The question is whether they can coexist, and the Sixers are fortunate Fultz can play off the ball. He was better than a 40 percent 3-point shooter in college and is capable of slashing to the basket. That opens the door for all sorts of possibilities, including, as The Sixer Sense’s Mike O’Connor posited, the sort of offensive sets LeBron and Kyrie Irving ran in Cleveland.
Plus, Fultz can do this:
— SLAM Magazine (@SLAMonline) August 11, 2017
It seems clear Fultz complements Simmons well, but the real magic will happen if the reverse is true, too. At the very least, they can each run a pick-and-roll with Joel Embiid from either side of the floor, with J.J. Redick roaming the perimeter as a spot-up option. And if Simmons has improved his jumper, as he said he has, he and Fultz could combine on a potentially unguardable pick-and-roll-or-pop.
“It’s a real exciting challenge to have, trying to grow those two outstanding players,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown told reporters in June. “Let them coexist and learn more about each other. I think that the start of the season and training camp in the month of September is going to be really important to use to allow those guys to feel each other out and the coaching staff to truly see it on the court.”
It took future Hall of Famers James and Dwyane Wade a year to figure out the alpha-dog dilemma when they teamed up in Miami, but imagine how devastating they would have been had they developed for years entering their primes. That’s what has Fultz already guaranteeing a playoff berth, and a Sixers franchise that hasn’t won a title since 1983 dreaming of resurrecting the Moses Malone-Julius Erving-Maurice Cheeks dynamic.
1. BEN SIMMONS
Role: The Australian LeBron James
We’ve been hearing about Simmons’ transformative playmaking ability ever since he was drafted No. 1 overall by the Sixers in June 2016, but outside of a few Summer League appearances last year, we’ve yet to see him on an NBA floor. Simmons suffered a Jones fracture in his right foot prior to the preseason last October. By midseason, Philadelphia shut him down for the entire year, announcing he received a bone marrow injection to “stimulate bone growth and accelerate healing” of an injury that kept him sidelined far longer than initial projections.
All the while, 76ers general manager Bryan Colangelo stayed confident Simmons would continue on the path of “becoming a great basketball player, and becoming a Hall of Fame-type of player.” When next we saw Simmons getting some work in during a trip to Indiana this past March, we had no reason to believe the foot injury would physically prevent him from reaching his considerable potential:
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) March 27, 2017
Just what that full potential is remains to be seen. Every month or so, whispers grow louder about how special Simmons could be. Reports in April suggested he had grown another two inches to 7 feet tall. While it wasn’t “prudent” for Simmons to participate in the 2017 Summer League session, Colangelo revealed in late June that he did not anticipate minutes restrictions for the 21-year-old come October.
A few weeks later, Simmons declared himself “a starting point guard.” Las Vegas oddsmakers named him the co-favorite to win Rookie of the Year honors. And earlier this month, he seemed to double down on those odds:
“Roughly a year since I arrived in Philly and some think I’ve stayed the same,” Simmons wrote on Instagram. “I’ve had a year to learn, experience and develop my game to the point where I’m ready [to] grab this up coming season by the throat. Looking back now I would have killed the old me on the court. Philly, it’s going to be a scary sight. Let’s go!”
Strong words from a kid who hasn’t played in earnest since his LSU Tigers fell short of the 2016 NCAA tournament. Still, if Simmons improved his areas of weakness, he could be a frightening presence. Even if just 75 percent of his college production translates to the NBA in Year 1 — averages of roughly 15 points, nine rebounds and four assists — those numbers at age 21 would put him in the company of only Blake Griffin, Nikola Jokic, Kevin Garnett, Chris Webber and 1976 Rookie of the Year Alvan Adams.
Now, imagine that dude with a 3-point shot.
Simmons attempted just three 3-pointers his entire freshman season, but if he is to be believed, “The whole time I was out I was working on [my shot].”
More from our NBA 25 Under 25 series:
• Giannis Antetokounmpo and the players who will redefine the league
• Bradley Beal, Devin Booker headline the NBA’s next generation of scorers
• Otto Porter and the unsung heroes who make good teams great
• Jusuf Nurkic and the young players on the verge of breaking out
• NBA 25 Under 25: Giannis, Brow, KAT and the next generation
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