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The case for Lonzo Ball as the rightful top overall pick

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Armed with the No.1 pick in the draft, the Boston Celtics struggled in getting Josh Jackson or Lonzo Ball to work out with them. Jackson has been solid thus far, but Ball notching two triple doubles in the past three games has enough people worried that maybe Boston made all the wrong moves on draft day.

Team Needs – The Jordan/Okafor Dilemma

The first issue that the Celtics would have to consider with drafting Lonzo #1 overall would be Isaiah Thomas.

Boston already has a point guard.

I have taken the liberty to update the Jordan/Bowie dilemma to Jordan/Okafor because now we have two very prominent selections that show how that decision can go.

In the case of Jordan, Portland missed out on a once-in-a-lifetime player and having a tandem of Drexler and Jordan because they drafted for need. Okafor was drafted despite Embiid and Nerlens Noel also taking up lottery picks in previous drafts and in the end the Sixers may only end up with Embiid, or nobody if injury issues persist and Okafor plays himself out of the league.

The Sixers took the Best Player Available every time and haven’t seen the payoff yet. One thing that needs to also be included when referencing these situations is that the draft has changed. Michael Jordan played 4 years in college and that was a lot more typical of his era. Freshman now dominate the top of the Lottery and teams must make choices with much fewer games played by the available prospects.

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The league has also changed quite a bit in regards to positionless players, and guard or wing heavy lineups. A Jordan-Drexler lineup would be as unquestioned as putting Kawhi and LeBron together.

Drafting Lonzo Ball with Thomas already there Boston would possibly be making a statement about prioritizing the future. Particularly they might be souring the relationship with IT to the point that next summer Boston either has to pony up a full 5-year Max or he would walk away. As it stands Boston has surrounded Thomas with talent, passed on lottery talent Point Guards in the last two drafts, and featured him in all of their recruiting efforts. Whether that earns Boston a discount in the summer of 2018 remains to be seen but they’ve definitely shown him that the present matters.

But could Lonzo have played well with Thomas? His passing seems contagious to the point that even missing the entire game his team is making the extra pass and emulating his unselfishness. Wouldn’t that benefit a team with capable passers in Haward and Horford and make Thomas a weapon both on and off ball?

You also can’t talk about Thomas without bringing up his size which in turn brings up Lonzo’s. Neither Lonzo or IT are slowing down any of the League’s best Point Guards, but maybe Lonzo actually has success by having him guard mostly shooting guards and letting Thomas get roasted. It’s not a particularly great picture but it does make use Lonzo’s height and hides his slower footspeed against the John Wall’s and (gulp) De’Aaron Fox’s of the world.

But Thomas won’t be around forever. He’s turning 29 in February and everyone knows that at some point the combination of age and (lack of) height will make for a sharp decline. If the Celtics took the longer view and thought just one season playing behind Thomas that Lonzo would be ready to lead, the Celtics could instead be focussing all of their attention and cap dollars at Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins, or LeBron James.  Pulling the trigger on keeping Thomas over pursuing the others isn’t really a situation that any 2017 Draft Pick makes or breaks, but if Lonzo has a transcendent year as a team-ball player it may at least nudge the team in that direction. If either Fultz or Tatum end up looking like the best version of themselves, that would likely translate as high-scoring seasons and not necessarily motivate the C’s in any direction, especially in regards to Thomas.

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Philadelphia already has a point guard.

The second scenario is if Philly traded up to get Lonzo. In this scenario even if Lonzo was the better player, and Tatum ends up the better overall scorer, drafting Fultz looks like the correct play. The 76ers paid a 33-year-old JJ Redick an absurd amount of money even if it’s just for one year and even if they had to use cap space because at this point in time they’re in desperate need of shooting and quality NBA Players.

Fultz will give them shooting, shot creation, bailout shots, and a combo point guard that fits very nicely into the system that the Sixers are building. Despite Lonzo having maybe the best Summer League game ever his shooting is inconsistent and his jumper’s wonky form probably will have to get fixed over the course of his career. Fultz offers them a higher floor right away and shooting that Lonzo and even the rest of the prospects in the draft probably will need to catch up to. Despite Tatum having silky fade-aways and even a very nice Dirk impersonation, he won’t be able to do the things that Fultz will 30 feet from the basket. If Philly were to once again buck their team needs and double down on passing with a Lonzo-Simmons pairing they would be praying for fixes in shooting that may never come.

Okay, but it’s just Summer League…looking back though what else separates these players?

 

Measurables – Comparing the top-5 Picks

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This chart was compiled with some effort because lately NBA prospects have been avoiding the NBA Combine where with little incentive for bias players’ numbers are recorded well. Again, I don’t think vertical numbers really speak to what you would be looking for in a prospect. Basketball players don’t use their maximum vertical for shooting jumpshots, on defense it certainly helps in closeouts and block attempts but hitting their vertical max would be rare because they’re usually back-peddling or not getting a full head of steam. Instead I opted to look at film and see these guys attacking the rim.

Tatum, Jackson and Fox have no problem dunking with people crowding the rim, Tatum because he’s just a lot bigger, and Fox because the speed he generates quickly in addition to being a good jumper translates into a momentum that knocks defenders out of the way and Jackson because he’s got both.

Fultz and Ball can dunk on fast breaks and with a few good steps to the basket but neither looked impressive with defenders. Translating their college play to the NBA would be likely a step back for all of them but maybe smaller steps back from Fox and Tatum.

Lonzo’s height at his position is a positive but for the three guards it’s essentially a draw because none of them are going to look good guarding Chris Paul, James Harden, Steph Curry, or the rest of the NBA’s premier talent at the Point Guard position which runs extremely deep.

Tatum and Jackson have great overall measurables for the Wing position though saying that they have a direct advantage depends entirely on the player they’ll be matched up against. If they’re guarding JJ Reddick once they catch up to him Reddick will have a tough time getting shots off, if they get matched against LaMarcus Aldridge they might struggle. So far in Summer League both Jackson and Tatum are showing great signs of defensive potential though the pre-draft buzz around Jackson’s defense is translating well into Summer League and may translate directly into the NBA.

The MVP Scenario

If you include Ben Simmons, only looking at Summer League and college and then imagining the best case scenario for all of these guys, we may be looking at the best Rookie Class since 2003 with the slight possibility of even surpassing it with multiple MVP candidates and possibly multiple MVP’s.

What’s maybe interesting about this particular group is that none of them are all that interesting. Bill Simmons’ term of Basketball Unicorns (perhaps borrowed from Silicon Valley’s lexicon) doesn’t really apply to any of these players. Nobody is absurdly tall, athletic, long, strong or skilled.

Unfortunately this means that there’s no great conclusion to be made even extrapolating wildly from Summer League and seeing Markelle Fultz limp off the floor one day, Tatum hit the hesi-pull up jimbo another, and Lonzo outplay Alex Caruso to prompt this article, Betteridge’s law of headlines holds true, there’s no absolute evidence yet that Lonzo deserved to be drafted ahead of Fultz or that the Celtics shouldn’t have traded down. If anything their decision of valuing Tatum equally or even above Fultz has proven their scouting abilities have improved since seeing so many of their 1st round picks turn into nothing.

Lonzo definitely has the chance to be special, but in this specific case the Celtics have two timelines to manage and they took care of both of them on draft day and if there’s a slight dropoff in talent it doesn’t seem like it’s enough at this stage to question the long-term plans that Ainge and company have.

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However, messing with the rest of the order and putting Lonzo anywhere else would seem like a massive error and that includes Philadelphia where they drafted for need and got someone who fills their exact holes and can put their hopes of generational passing in Ben Simmons.

The Lakers who actually had a lot of holes to fill made the right move getting Lonzo where they did and not overthinking anything.

Ultimately the one caveat to this discussion which may continue throughout each of their careers, if you awarding any of these players the MVP trophy it seems like there would be scenarios that the numbers and impact could be huge from Fox, Tatum, Jackson or Fultz.

But, if Lonzo Ball is your MVP it would be because of winning, though that doesn’t mean a Championship necessarily, just ask Steve Nash.

 

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