Four point guards were drafted in the top ten this past year - Lonzo Ball, De'Aaron Fox, Frank Ntilikina, and Dennis Smith Jr. - and with the season at roughly the 40% mark, we've decided to compare their early returns.
Dennis Smith Jr. has come away as clearly the most prolific scorer of the group to begin his career, but he has plenty of room to grow with his below average shooting percentages across the board.
Knicks fans have to be encouraged by Ntilikina's three point shooting thus far, as making his attempts at roughly a league average level is enough to garner the respect and attention of opposing defenses. His solid free throw percentage is an indicator that his shooting success is likely not a fluke, either.
More than enough has already been said about Ball's early shooting struggles, and if not for a recent string of strong performances his numbers would be even worse here. That being said, if he's truly turned a corner in his last few games, being a respectable shooter from deep will make his True Shooting Percentage and overall offensive efficiency numbers skyrocket.
Also, if I'm the Knicks, I'm pushing Ntilikina to become more aggressive hunting down threes. I'd like to see if he can continue to make 35% of his attempts while taking closer to 10 tries per 100 possessions (effectively doubling his 1.9 attempts per game to about 4).
Passing, Rebounding, & Defense:
As expected, Ball shines when viewing his contributions unrelated to scoring. He's shown numerous flashes of his precocious passing and vision, and his ability to generate deflections and ignite fast breaks with his rebounding allow him to impact the game in many ways.
Ntilikina has already become known for his smothering defense, and his pace of 3.3 Steals / 100 Possessions puts him in elite company this season, currently placing him between Paul George (3.5 Steals/100 Poss) and Chris Paul (3.3 Steals/100 Poss).
Fox has also put up some solid numbers in these categories, committing the second fewest turnovers per possession of the group and making noteworthy contributions across the board.
The season is still young, but based on Win Shares, all four players have been net negatives on offense, mainly because all have shot the ball poorly. All of these players are 20 years old or younger, however, so a learning curve is to be expected.
Since PER rewards productivity with less of an emphasis on efficiency, Smith and Ball are the leaders for this category because they've effected the game the most while on the court, Smith with his scoring and Ball with everything else.
I've been baffled by Dave Joerger's rotations so far, as Fox's inconsistent minutes and occasional relegation not only behind George Hill but also Frank Mason are not ideal for his development and the franchise's long term goals. Once Fox is at full health again, I'd like to see lineups like Fox - Hield - Temple - Randolph - Cauley-Stein get significant minutes to let Fox gain experience in full command of an offense with competent NBA players surrounding him that compliment his skills.
Historical Comparison - Usage Rate x True Shooting:
I've added the rookie seasons of Marcus Smart (Celtic green) and Kyrie Irving (Cavalier wine) to two of the visuals to provide some context for this rookie crop with archetypal players of opposite ends of the spectrum:
When looking at only the 2017 rookies before, their poor True Shooting Percentages didn't stand out because they were all similarly bad, but in comparison to Smart and Irving it's clear that all four are really struggling to hit shots so far.
Smith is using possessions at a very similar rate to Irving's rookie rate, giving us an idea of the type of role he might play offensively if he can improve his shooting.
Historical Comparison - Win Shares:
This visual should be taken with a grain of salt, as Irving and Smart's cumulative Win Shares are from their full rookie seasons, not snapshots 40% of the way in like the 2017 rookies' numbers are. Still, this draft class' ineptitude on offense is highlighted by Irving and Smart being the only players with positive Offensive Win Share totals.
It's impressive that Ball is on pace to rack up a similar amount of Defensive Win Shares to Smart's rookie campaign, considering the love that Smart receives as one of the best defenders in the league. The Jason Kidd and Ricky Rubio comparisons are more common for Ball, but I think his floor may be Marcus Smart with elite vision.
It's still early, but right now it's clear that all four players are finding their footing and have yet to stake their claim as franchise cornerstones. A relevant note along those lines is that I didn't include Donovan Mitchell in this group as I still think he's more of a playmaking 2 than a point guard.
Here's how I'd rank the players if we did the 2017 draft over today:
1. Lonzo Ball - If Ball's improvements shooting the ball can be maintained, his impact on all facets of the game give him a chance to be the type of player that LaVar has spoken into existence. His defense has been better than expected and his passing has been as good as advertised.
2. Frank Ntilikina - Frankie Smokes has already emerged as a legit 3&D player and he's only 19. If he can develop into a scoring threat as well he could be special. I'm picturing a bigger Avery Bradley if things fall into place.
3. Dennis Smith Jr. - Smith will have plenty of scoring eruptions and hopefully win a dunk contest or two, but since he isn't doing much away from the ball today he'll need to improve his shooting to become a net positive on the floor.
4. De'Aaron Fox - I was worried about Fox before the draft, and I still am. Right now he profiles as a less aggressive, worse shooting version of Smith, and he's not disrupting things enough on defense to leave the impression that he'll be a star there. Here's to hoping a bigger role can give us more Kameha moments.