Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball: A word of caution

I want to address something about this summer's presumed top draft picks, Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball, inspired by Bill Simmons’ latest mailbag, which I only just got around to reading today.

To do that, we should start with a disclaimer: This isn’t specifically about Simmons, nor is it even necessarily specifically about Fultz and Ball.

Here’s the passage:

The crucial part in there for me is how he frames Fultz and Ball, ”two no-doubt-about-it picks,” and the context in which he places them (a couple lines lower: “we’ve had only 12 no-doubt-about-it draft picks in the past 20 years: Duncan, Yao, LeBron, Carmelo, Dwight, Oden, Durant, Rose, Blake, Wall, Davis and Towns.”).

Let’s start with the obvious: That latter bit is revisionist nonsense. I promised this wasn’t about Simmons, and I meant that. He specializes in embellishments and certainties and that’s okay, it’s his style, it made him what he is, and to get worked up over it in 2017 would be a supremely pointless exercise.

It is, however, bizarre to cherry-pick only the success stories (plus Oden) of the last 20 years and declare them no-doubt guys. For one, there were some doubts, or at least debates, about Dwight (who was considered rawer than Emeka Okafor) and Durant (who faced questions of whether his upside was as high as the skilled, 7-foot Oden).

Second, it ignores another handful of guys who were considered on that level of must-take choices and just didn’t really hit. Jay Williams in '02, Darko Milicic in '03, Okafor in '04, Marvin Williams in '05, and both Michael Beasley and OJ Mayo in '08 were No. 2 or 3 selections who were seen as near-equal prizes to the top pick that year.

So, obvious as it sounds, it’s just not as obvious as it always seems in hindsight.

It’s the last part of that passage, though, that has me thinking about Fultz and Ball. These two, both established as a rare no-doubt-about-it pick by Bill's accounting, join just five other such pairs in history featuring in the same draft.

Except, by my reckoning each of the last three drafts have been characterized that way.

Following the 2013 draft that everyone always agreed was bad, 2014 had Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker, and Joel Embiid would have counted too if not for his injuries. The next year had Towns, the clear No. 1, but D’Angelo Russell and Jahlil Okafor were extensively billed as guys who would also go No. 1 in any other year. Just this last summer we had Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram painted as sure or at least near-sure future stars.

The record in there is mixed. Only Embiid and Towns look solidly still on the path to stardom.

Wiggins is a wonderful attacking talent but still can’t play defense. Parker looked like maybe a bust before figuring out how to shoot threes and turning his outlook around this year. Russell, 123 games into his career, still seems a little overwhelmed by the pace of the NBA. Okafor is bad, and Ingram is having a bad rookie season. Simmons won’t play til next year.

Now, Fultz and Ball. The question I have is, are they so special they’ll, together, prove a pretty big outlier in the recent set, or are we chronically overhyping guys? Between Twitter chatter and YouTube mix tapes, I think it’s easier to fall into that trap than it used to be. I think it’s easier now to focus on what guys can do (Wiggins had “off the charts run/jump athleticism!” Okafor was “one of the most advanced low-post scorers the college game has seen in quite some time!”) and ignore what they can’t (play defense).

I can’t answer that question, of course. If I could, I’d be running an NBA team. I’ll say this for Fultz and Ball: I definitely, definitely agree they should be the top two picks. In a league where the best offenses start with creative, attack-minded point guards, these two do look the part.

Both can knock down a three, both are aggressive, both have an eye for a slick pass.

But, and here’s the but: People are already dreaming on these guys as future Steph Currys and James Hardens, and it takes a process to reach that point. Neither of those two developed into what they were until their middish-20s.

They’re also not just a couple of very creative three-point gunners. They’re the two best ball-handlers in basketball, and that skill is the key that unlocks their creativity. I’m not sure I see those kinds of handles in either Fultz or Ball.

I think I see Fultz as the smoother and maybe more instinctive playmaker, the more ready to impact the NBA right now. Ball might be a little more athletic, a little more improvisational with his passing.

Then again, his shooting motion is notably funky and his dribble is a bit elongated. He kind of reminds me of RJ Hunter, who too had an impressive hoops IQ and pedigree, and who hasn’t to this day ironed out the rough edges in his game.

Then again then again, he does have more of that unique, outlier feel to him that the real superstars like Curry and Harden possess.

It’s as much about development as anything, really. If you had to give me my pick, I’d probably take, “Whichever One Winds Up On The Celtics.” In any case I don’t think either will be the “transformative rookie” Simmons predicts. It’s always been especially hard for rookie point guards, and I’d argue it’s nigh-impossible for one to come out in today’s faster, more fluid NBA and be a difference maker right away.

D’Angelo Russell might be an instructive case. He scored over 19 points a game for Ohio State in 2014-15 and shot 41.1 percent from three. His overall field goal percentage was 44.9. Ball is scoring 15 points per game at UCLA, shooting 42.1 percent from three and 55.0 percent overall. Fultz is at 23.2 points per game, 41.3 percent from three and 47.6 percent overall. Between five (Russell) and seven and a half (Ball) assists per game.

Russell, as earlier noted, has a good chunk of NBA experience now, and he’ll have his moments, but he just doesn’t quite yet appear to know how to really pull the strings on an NBA offense. To impose his will on a game. He can’t get to the rim as easily (40.5 percent shooting so far) or comfortably hit from distance (34.8 percent) like he did in college.

That’s not a death sentence. It just means it takes more time than we usually appreciate. Russell might be a premier point guard in three or four years. And Fultz and Ball might be even better a year or two later.

But it probably won’t happen next season. It’s important to maintain a healthy perspective on why.

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