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By Rahul Lal
The 2017 NBA Draft is full of talent from top to bottom, with plenty of hype to match. Can this year’s draft class live up to the high expectations? Given what they’ve already shown on the court, there’s a pretty good chance.
The top prospects each have star or even superstar potential and will, at the very least, be key contributors wherever they land. Many could be slotted in as starters from day one, given the rosters of the teams picking early, like the Los Angeles Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns. Cracking the Boston Celtics’ starting lineup, given their Eastern Conference Finals appearance, may be another story.
Here are my top-five prospects for the 2017 NBA Draft.
Markelle Fultz – PG (Washington)
Although his team struggled, Markelle Fultz averaged 23 points, and nearly six rebounds and six assists per game. “He’s a combo scorer, he’s a very good athlete,” said Jon Rothstein, CBS Sports Network College Basketball Insider. “He’s obviously more of a combo guard that can play both guard spots, similar to the way that Dwyane Wade was when he came out of Marquette.”
Fultz has a remarkable ability to get to the hoop and score. His superb size and athleticism. along with a light shooting touch and solid playmaking ability, allow him to do a bit of everything.
Markelle has only worked out for the Boston Celtics, who hold the top pick this year. Fellow Washington Husky, Isaiah Thomas, wants his team to draft Fultz for him to play alongside. Boston would have to decide next season whether to extend Thomas or give the reigns to Fultz.
Josh Jackson – SF (Kansas)
Josh Jackson is the best two-way player in this year’s draft. As tall as Draymond Green (6’8″) and as athletic as Andrew Wiggins, Jackson can go into any system without disrupting the offense. (Kawhi Leonard came into the NBA as a similar prospect on both offense and defense.) His versatility on offense, mixed with his ability to guard multiple positions, would make him as a great fit anywhere.
“Josh Jackson is an alpha dog that has the ability to have a great impact on the game by not demanding shots,” Rothstein explained. “He impacted the game without shooting — 13 games with 10 rebounds or more.” Jackson should be a plus-rebounder at the next level. “But, for somebody who people were concerned about in terms of his ability to shoot, he really did a good job of making shots. They say he can’t shoot, but he shot just under 40 percent from three.”
The Lakers, with the second pick, will take a look at him, and the Sixers, with the third, would love his defense, though they may look for a more developed shooter or playmaker for their system. The Suns, at four, would have a tough time turning down Jackson and not pairing him with Devin Booker on the wing.
Lonzo Ball – PG (UCLA)
Most everybody is familiar with the Ball family. Say what you will about the Big Baller Brand or his father, LaVar, but Lonzo turned a 15-win UCLA team into an NCAA title contender.
“Lonzo Ball is a guy that has the ability to make everybody around him better at a higher level than anybody else in the NBA Draft,” Rothstein proclaimed. “I think you have to look at Lonzo Ball as somebody who is going to be an NBA star and a multi-year NBA all-star. I think back about 15 years ago when Jason Kidd got Kenyon Martin a max contract with the Denver Nuggets and then he got Richard Jefferson a six-year, $76 million contract with the New Jersey Nets. Those guys got those contracts because they played with Jason Kidd, and Lonzo Ball has the ability to do those things for other players.”
Lonzo may end up lifting fellow ex-Bruins T.J. Leaf and Ike Anigbogu into the first round with him. Other teammates saw career-high percentages shooting the ball. The Los Angeles Lakers are the team most-linked to Ball. With his ability to play both guard spots, he could fit nicely as a passing guard with D’Angelo Russell, who would be more efficient as a shooter and scorer. The Sixers would also love to get their hands on Lonzo to run their offense.
Dennis Smith Jr. – PG (NC State)
Smith Jr. is often forgotten, despite putting up similar stats to Fultz. Those include a couple monster triple-doubles against ACC opponents — an impressive feat considering college basketball’s shorter games. Smith is a nightmare on offense, as he can shoot, get to the basket and distribute.
He is an athletic freak at the point guard position, reminiscent of Russell Westbrook, and can can take over games with his style of play. “When you look at Dennis Smith, you have to look at a guy that can be like a young Steve Francis coming out of Maryland,” said Rothstein.
Smith has stayed steady in the five-to-10 range in the draft, but will get hard looks from the Sacramento Kings, Orlando Magic, New York Knicks and Dallas Mavericks.
Jonathan Isaac – PF (Florida State)
At nearly seven feet tall, the gifted Isaac has the potential to be a menacing matchup at the next level. His defensive tools will allow him to be a plus defender who can guard multiple positions. On the offensive end, his game is still developing, but he boasts a decent jumper and can handle the ball better than most his size.
“Jonathan Isaac was somebody who I thought had a really good impact defensively because of his speed and how he worked on ball screens,” Rothstein told me. “He probably needs to be a little bit more consistent shooting the ball. Some of the easy baskets he got in college he won’t necessarily get in the NBA. But he could evolve into a more consistent outside shooter. His body, his chemical makeup reminds you a little bit of a guy like Rashard Lewis, who obviously had a good run in the NBA for a long time.”
Isaac instantly could slot into the baby Wolves rotation. The Timberwolves, who pick seventh, are in need of a stretch-four that can play their uptempo style. The athleticism and versatility in a starting lineup of Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, Isaac and Karl-Anthony Towns would give teams nightmares for the next decade.
CBS Sports Network will air six one-hour draft shows leading up to the NBA Draft on June 22, 2017. Draft coverage will include more analysis of the top prospects, along with breakdowns of players by position.
The first draft special will air Tuesday, June 13 at 7 p.m. ET.
Rahul Lal is an LA native stuck in a lifelong, love-hate relationship with the Lakers, Dodgers and Raiders. You can follow him on Twitter here.