While the 2017 NBA Draft features a number of intriguing high-level talents across multiple positions, the main battle in this draft could come down to point guard.
Kentucky freshman De'Aaron Fox can certainly stake his own claim for this sort of title, but for this exercise, we’re going to focus on the two lead guards who many consider to be the potential No. 1 and No. 2 picks in the draft: Washington’s Markelle Fultz and UCLA’s Lonzo Ball.
Could the two Pac-12 stars revitalize the famed Celtics/Lakers (or Sizers/Lakers should the trade go through) rivalries of the ’80s if they are the top two picks? That’s hard to say with so many future unknowns. But we can compare Ball and Fultz across a number of categories and see who stands out where.
Size and Measurements
Both Ball and Fultz have the kind of special skill level that has put them in the conversation for No. 1. But both guards also possess very good size and measurements for future NBA point guards.
The measurements of Fultz are a little more reliable at this point since he has consistently been with USA Basketball over the past year. Last summer, while competing with the USA U18 team, Fultz measured at 6’3 1/2" with shoes on with an impressive 6’9 1/2" wingspan. There are other reports out there that list Fultz closer to 6’4" or 6’5" in shoes now, but the wingspan remains the most impressive part of Markelle’s physical traits.
Since Ball hasn’t participated in a USA Basketball event since 2014, his measurements aren’t quite as specific as Fultz during his late high school career. But Ball has been listed at 6’6" in shoes with an estimated 6’8 1/2" wingspan, so he’s also no slouch when it comes to size and length.
While both of these guards have size to see over smaller defenders and the wingspan to potentially cover some bigger wings, Ball gets the slight advantage in this category since he has an inch of height on Fultz.
That extra inch might not seem like much, but it allows for Ball’s ridiculous vision to see over the top of more defenders than Fultz.
This is an intriguing debate since both of these players possess deceptive leaping ability while also being able to launch deep three-pointers.
Fultz can play above the rim if he gets some space for take off as he isn’t a particularly great vertical leaper, but he does have good take-off ability that enables him to finish dunks that you might not expect to see coming.
Ball also showed an ability to play above the rim — particularly as a lob target in transition in UCLA’s high-octane offense — but, like Fultz, he also needs some space to operate before taking off.
Since both Ball and Fultz have good size on the perimeter, both can also rebound and push as both guards have solid top-end speed in transition.
Lateral quickness is a bit of a question mark for both players since they struggled defending smaller and quicker guards on the perimeter in college. Both players have the chops to get better in this department, (more on that in defensive ability) but there are some concerns about this going forward.
Fultz probably gets the slight nod in the athleticism department over Ball because of his slightly better first step and ability to create for himself in the half-court. While Ball is a world-class transition player who is also fine in the half-court as an offensive weapon, he did struggle at times to get in the paint off the dribble, which is something Fultz was more effective at, in-part, because of his first step.
When it comes to being a pure scorer, there aren’t many players in the 2017 NBA Draft better than Markelle Fultz. Gifted with a truly unique offensive game where he can score with either hand, off either foot in basically any situation, Fultz is the kind of offensive weapon that is going to be very tough for opposing NBA defenses to stop.
Fultz isn’t afraid to use spin moves, creative footwork and awkward herky-jerky motions to get his shot off and his insane handles also allow him to dribble through traffic situations with limited turnovers.
In his lone season at Washington, Fultz put up 23.7 points per game while shooting 47 percent from the field and 41 percent from three-point range. Fultz’s three-point range also extends well beyond NBA range at times as he’s the type of player who is always launching unique distance shots before and after practice.
Free-throw shooting was a concern for Fultz at Washington as he only shot 65 percent from the charity stripe last season. Compared to his other splits, this is a bit glaring, so it will be something to watch for over time.
While Ball is known more for his passing and floor vision, he is also no slouch when it comes to scoring the ball on his own. Ball averaged 14.6 points per game last season while shooting 55 percent from the field and 41 percent from three-point range. Thanks to his special gifts in transition, Ball is a complete weapon with the ball in his hands when he has options around him as a passer.
Also a deep-range three-point shooter, Ball wasn’t afraid to launch triples from the UCLA logo this season as he looked comfortable shooting deep shots off the dribble or the catch. As seen with Steph Curry, this kind of unique 30-foot floor spacing is important to Ball’s overall offensive attack since defenders have to guard him from essentially all over the floor.
Ball’s question marks as a scorer come in his ability to score consistently in the half-court — specifically if it isn’t a three-pointer. While Ball is a gifted passer and perimeter shooter, he struggled at times to get in the paint as he didn’t seem particularly adept at attacking for himself off ball screens.
This is also seen in Ball’s low number of free throws as he only had 98 attempts in 1,262 minutes this season. Showing little-to-no mid-range game at UCLA, Ball is going to have to prove that he can do more than just shoot three-pointers as a next-level scorer.
This is going to be a work-in-progress for both players since they were clearly more focused on the offensive end during their lone seasons in college.
Fultz might be even more of a question mark defensively than Ball, however, since Washington didn’t play a lot of competitive games against top competition.
While Fultz has the measurements and lateral quickness to be a solid next-level defender, he was lazy during a lot of times at Washington as he would jog back on defense and not show the required intensity. Fultz does have the ability to play passing lanes and hunt the occasional block thanks to his athleticism and anticipation, but sometimes he gambles too much for the big play and it leaves him out of position.
Then again, you also can’t fault Fultz for having teammates who also couldn’t defend much of anything as the defensive culture at Washington seemed toxic last season.
Ball (and UCLA) weren’t exactly known as defensive killers themselves last season, but they did get better as the season wore on and they did play in big games against great teams where they needed to get stops to win (the win at Arizona comes to mind).
As an individual defender, Ball suffers from some of the same intensity issues as Fultz, as he has the raw tools to make steals or blocks but he sometimes finds himself out of position. Ball also got exposed at times as a ball screen defender — particularly in the NCAA tournament loss to De’Aaron Fox and Kentucky.
Ball showed very good ball-screen recognition as a defender as he just didn’t seem to have a good feel for how to approach each situation. Again, part of this might be on UCLA and the way they focus on things, but this was a concern for Ball.
Both of these players are going to have a lot of work to do in order to improve defensively at the next level, but Fultz has the slightly better athletic profile and seems to have a better understanding of reading ball screens right now, so he gets the slight nod.
When it comes to long-term potential, the most important thing here might be if Lonzo Ball gets the proper offense and personnel around him to maximize his potential.
We’ve already seen what Markelle Fultz can do on a crappy Washington team. We’ve also seen Fultz when he’s playing with other talented players at USA Basketball. In both instances, Fultz was effective and he’s going to figure out a way to score no matter who is on the floor with him.
Ball needs to have a high-speed offense that has a lot of floor spacers around him to fully thrive. If Ball does indeed go No. 2 to the Lakers, then this shouldn’t be an issue with head coach Luke Walton being a Golden State disciple who likes how the Warriors are playing.
But what if Ball goes to a situation that doesn’t exactly suit him? Those teams at Chino Hills and UCLA were both very successful, but they were also rosters that were completely built to maximize Lonzo’s special gifts. Is every NBA team going to try to construct a similar roster for Ball and cater to his gifts, or are they going to ask him to adapt to how they play?
That’s ultimately the huge question with this NBA Draft with Lonzo Ball. Ball showed a winning mentality at both Chino Hills (during an unbeaten senior season of high school) and UCLA (Sweet 16 appearance) and that has to account for something since Fultz hasn’t had that kind of prep success.
Ultimately, I think Ball will be fine at the NBA level, no matter what style of play or personnel he has around him but he does have some glaring holes that have to be accounted for.
Fultz is the safer pick with higher individual upside, but Ball is the ultimate winner who could be perfectly built for the high-speed version of the NBA.