From high-flying, rim-rattling athletic freaks to all-seeing visionaries, from ball-handling maestros to high-volume three-point assassins, the NBA’s best point guards routinely put on spectacles with dizzying and diverse arrays of talent.
The explosive Russell Westbrook, the bulldozing James Harden and the sharp-shooting destructor known as Stephen Curry each earned All-NBA distinction for their 2016-17 contributions. Other members of the coveted postseason award group include Isaiah “King in the Fourth” Thomas and the human Ferrari known as John Wall. In fact, the class of guards was so mind-bogglingly deep this season that Chris Paul didn’t make the cut. (Though that, if we’re being honest, was kind of a sham—an erroneous omission by the voters.)
And you know the scariest part? Reinforcements are on the way.
The 2017 NBA draft class is one of the deepest in recent memory, and it’s most crowded, of course, at point guard. Presently, Draft Express (D/X) predicts five floor generals among the top 10 picks, and each is a different variation of the old model to which we’ve grown accustomed. One’s fast (like, really fast), one has supreme court vision, one has been compared to Westbrook and the other to Harden. Then there’s Frank Ntilikina, the French guard with lanky limbs who may well defy comparison.
Let’s take a closer look at each (minus Ntilikina, for whom there’s less statistical information).
A Closer Look Using TPA
As of their latest mock, D/X has Markelle Fultz (Washington) as the No. 1 overall pick, Lonzo Ball (UCLA) at No. 2, De’Aaron Fox (Kentucky) at No. 4 and Dennis Smith (N.C. State) at No. 10.
Though varying pundits disagree on where each player will ultimately be drafted, what’s without doubt is that all four are elite talents. Here’s how they rank in offensive points added (OPA), defensive points saved (DPS) and total points added (TPA), per NBA Math:
Ball leading comfortably shouldn’t be all that shocking; he ranked first in OPA, partially thanks to his 7.6-assist-to-2.5-turnover average. It also didn’t hurt that his Bruins team was full of other talented scorers such as Bryce Alford (12th in OPA) and T.J. Leaf (36th in OPA), the latter of whom will also be a first-round pick in the upcoming draft.
Ball’s court vision is unparalleled in this class:
And despite his wonky jumper, he nailed 41.2 percent of his threes as a freshman on a 0.566 three-point attempt rate. (For comparison’s sake, Wes Matthews, who pretty much camps out beyond the arc these days, had a similar rate this season for the Dallas Mavericks.)
Simply put, Ball’s season was (offensively, at least) special.
Meanwhile, everyone’s consensus top prospect actually ranks third in TPA among our four floor generals. But that’s really through no fault of his own, since volume is necessary to rise up the TPA leaderboard. Fultz played 172 fewer minutes than any of the other guys on our list—largely because his team was terrible and didn’t qualify for any sort of postseason play.
Could he be partially knocked for not elevating the play of his teammates? Maybe. But Fultz’s team was still so bad that while the likely No. 1 pick ranked 83rd in TPA last season, his next-best teammate (Matisse Thybulle) sat at No. 380. And his next-best teammate after that (Malik Dime) placed 728th. Sheesh.
The guy who, surprisingly, finished ahead of Fultz in TPA was the lightning-quick Fox. Less surprising was the fact that he had the best DPS of the three, considering, well, he’s the best defensive point guard in his draft class. He averaged 1.5 steals on the season and boasted a 96.8 defensive rating. What’s more, Fox held Ball to two of his worst games of the year during their head-to-head matchups, including a Sweet 16 clash when the stakes were at their highest.
Against the Wildcats, Ball shot 9-of-22 from the field (40.9 percent) and had a 1.5 assist-to-turnover ratio. While facing anyone else, he went 180-for-321 (56.1 percent) with a 3.3 assist-to-turnover rate. It’s a stark contrast, one that points to Fox’s absurd abilities on the defensive end. His elite quickness, coupled with his incomparable competitiveness, makes him an absolute menace to opposing lead guards.
He does have to work on his offensive game, as his poor shooting numbers (a paltry 36.2 percent on mid-range jumpers and 24.6 percent from three, per Hoops Math) put a definite cap on his ceiling.
Finally, we have Dennis Smith, who feels like the forgotten man in this year’s crop of 1s. That’s absolutely shortsighted, for the simple reason that he’ll be one of the most freakish talents available come June 22nd. Despite his limited size (6’3″ with a wingspan of the same measure) and the omnipresent specter of the torn ACL suffered back in August 2015, the N.C. State lead guard still averaged a healthy 18.1 points, 4.6 rebounds, 6.9 assists and 1.9 steals as a freshman playing in the mighty ACC.
He had a respectable free-throw rate (0.476) and a decent 35.8 three-point percentage. His precision shooting from beyond the arc, once thought to be a weakness, was even more impressive considering only 48.1 percent of his makes came off of assists, which should ease his transition to the NBA.
Each PG’s Best Performance
Here at NBA Math, we preach multiplicity when breaking down prospects. Sure, stats tell us a whole lot, but actually watching the players can answer questions merely looking at numbers cannot.
As such, one fun exercise for analyzing the ceilings of tomorrow’ stars is watching them dominate at the amateur level. So, we’re going to take the best individual performance by each of our point guards and put them under a microscope.
To decide which of their best games stood out as their very best, we’ll use three factors: their final stats for the game (duh), the stakes at hand (a tourney bout or a matchup against a rival bears more weight than dominating a team that finished 11-24) and the defensive efficiency of the opponent (per the extremely helpful KenPom). Let’s get to it!
- Game: Jan. 14, at Stanford
- Result: 76-69 loss
- Statline: 34 PTS, 7 REB, 3 AST, 2 STL, 2 BLK, 3 TO, 4 PF, 12/23 FG, 4/10 3PT, 6/7 FT
- Stakes: Washington’s season was lost early. However, a win against Stanford would have pushed them over .500 and given them a 2-3 conference record. Instead, the loss essentially ended their year; they wound up losing 13 of their next 14 matchups to close 2017.
- Opponent’s defensive efficiency: 98.9, 65th in the country
Fultz was spectacular against Stanford, scoring in a multitude of way—between his floaters, pull-up jumpers, deep threes and under-control drives, he had it all going offensively. He only had three assists for the contest, but his teammates didn’t help matters by shooting 13-of-42 on the night. Despite having the ball in his hands nearly the entire night, he also turned it over just three times.
- Game: Mar. 19, vs Cincinnati
- Result: 79-67 victory
- Statline: 18 PTS, 7 REB, 9 AST, 2 STL, 0 BLK, 1 TO, 1 PF, 7/10 FG, 4/7 3PT, 0/0 FT
- Stakes: Round of 32 matchup against an American Athletic Conference opponent with a borderline-elite defense. A shot at the Sweet 16 on the line. The stakes don’t get much more bigger than that.
- Opponent’s defensive efficiency: 92.8, 15th in the country
This was a back-and-forth matchup midway through the second half…until Ball decided to take over. He was clearly the best player on the floor that night, and the stats back it up. Nine assists to one turnover? Against the No. 15 defense in the country? Phew.
- Game: Jan. 23, at Duke
- Result: 84-82 victory
- Statline: 32 PTS, 4 REB, 6 AST, 2 STL, 0 BLK, 3 TO, 1 PF, 10/18 FG, 4/6 3PT, 8/15 FT
- Stakes: Before N.C. State lost 10 of their last 11 games, they were still in NCAA Tournament contention (largely thanks to playing in the toughest conference in America). This win at Cameron Indoor Stadium moved them to 14-7 on the year and firmly on the bubble for postseason play. Duke’s defense wasn’t great, but beating them in Durham is never easy.
- Opponent’s defensive efficiency: 96.9, 47th in the country
When Smith has his three-point shot going, he becomes nearly impossible to defend. His athleticism and explosion were on full display against Duke, and the fact that he hit a couple threes early opened up lanes for him to attack. He was also downright vicious in transition.
- Game: Mar. 24, vs UCLA
- Result: 86-75 victory
- Statline: 39 PTS, 3 REB, 4 AST, 2 STL, 0 BLK, 1 TO, 2 PF, 13/20 FG, 0/1 3PT, 13/15 FT
- Stakes: UCLA’s defense was porous last season, sure, but the stakes were so high (Sweet 16 showdown against an elite point-guard prospect in Ball and a shot at the Elite 8 within grasp) that this performance gets the nod over some of Fox’s great showings against better defenses.
- Opponent’s defensive efficiency: 100.4, 84th in the country
Fox absolutely dominated Ball and his Bruins. He scored 39 on 20 shot attempt while making zero threes on the night—simply wild efficiency. The Kentucky man put constant pressure on UCLA’s interior defense, and it led to him shooting 15 free throws on the night. It’s the most impressive outing of any of the four we’ve listed, making him the winner of this section.
Stat-based Pro Comparison
What better way to end our prospect breakdown than by using statistical data to assign each of our point guards an NBA comparison?
For our purposes, we’ll use the Four Factors (effective field-goal percentage, free-throw rate, turnover rate and offensive rebound percentage), to find the closest possible professional match for our stars of tomorrow—at least on the offensive end.
Smith, who was often likened to Westbrook throughout his prep career, leads us off. But his numbers actually resemble another floor general’s a little more closely:
|Jeff Teague (2016-17)||0.492||0.443||15.3||2.5|
The Indiana Pacers point guard is a near-perfect match in ORB%, and not all that far off in the rest of our categories. Plus, the comparison is made even more interesting due to the two players’ lack of size (Jeff Teague is 6’1″ and Smith is 6’3″, though the former does have a much longer wingspan at 6’7.5″). Teague is longer, but Smith is the more explosive of the two.
But hey, if Smith turns out to be the next Teague, that wouldn’t be a bad thing. The former Wake Forest Demon Deacon has enjoyed a successful seven-year career, and he was an All-Star in 2015.
Next up is Fultz, who has received comparisons varying from Harden to Dwyane Wade. The Wade comparison is mostly made because of the future No. 1 pick’s length and shot-blocking; he averaged over a block last season and measured in with a 6’9″ wingspan at the combine.
Well, I guess the Harden comparison makes sense. Not only are both players extremely crafty scorers from their combo-guard spot, but their numbers match up extremely favorably, as well. The only place they’re not near-identical matches, in fact, is in free-throw rate, which makes sense since the Beard is one of the best ever at drawing foul calls.
As near-perfect matches in three of our four categories, the only area they don’t compare well is in free-throw rate, much like Fultz and Harden. However, it’s a good thing for our college prospect this time around; Fox’s solid 0.471 free-throw rate dwarfs Schroder’s and proves he may have a higher ceiling than the current Atlanta Hawks lead guard.
That’s not to say he’ll be a better player, obviously. Just that coming out of the prep ranks, his outlook is better than Schroder’s was.
Finally, we have the most unique of the four point guards: Ball.
Finding a good statistical comparison was admittedly nearly impossible because his numbers, especially for a 1, aren’t replicated by anyone currently in the pros. The closest we could come is someone who, well…let’s just say if Ball ever reached this player’s peak, Big Baller Brand would overtake Under Armour in shoe sales.
Curry’s 58.8 effective field-goal percentage is the closest you’ll find to Ball’s among NBA point guards who play more than 20 minutes nightly. Also noteworthy is that neither Ball nor the two-time MVP get to the line all that often, though the former does turn the ball over a whole lot more than the latter.
Basically, the statistical similarities arise because both guys live behind the three-point line and don’t get a lot of foul calls. That really may be the only two things they have in common, though, as their actual games aren’t all that alike. Ball just defies comparison.
Take these results with a grain of salt. Like we said earlier, stats do not tell the whole story.
Just a good chunk of it.
Follow Frank on Twitter @frankurbina_.