A look at whom the Suns could tab as their point guard of the future in the NBA draft.
The Suns don’t need a point guard. Eric Bledsoe is coming off a career season. According to General Manager Ryan McDonough, he was Phoenix’s best player, averaging career bests in scoring and assists.
At the same time, the Suns will look at a promising group of point guards in June’s NBA draft. They have no choice. Washington’s Markelle Fultz, UCLA’s Lonzo Ball and Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox could be franchise-changing talents. In addition, North Carolina State’s Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina of France also have high potential.
“The strength of the draft is at point guard,” said ESPN college analyst Fran Fraschilla, who will work the NBA combine, which runs May 9-14 in Chicago. “There’s five in the top 10, including the French kid.”
The issue for the Suns, provided they go this route: deciding which one is the best fit. Fultz, widely considered as the top overall pick, is the best scorer. Ball is the best playmaker, someone labeled as the next Jason Kidd, while Fox is the best defender.
Fraschilla doesn’t see a scenario in which Fultz doesn’t go first. At the same time, a Division I college coach, who talked on condition of anonymity, ranks Fultz behind both Ball and Fox. Then there’s Don MacLean, a Pac-12 and NBA television analyst. He agrees with Fraschilla on Fultz but doesn’t buy into what he calls the “Ball hype machine.”
“My order of point guards in the draft is Fultz, Fox, Dennis Smith and Ball,” said MacLean, who coincidentally played at UCLA, where he finished as the conference’s career scoring leader.
With the league’s second-worst record, the Suns are guaranteed a top-five pick. Entering the May 16 draft lottery, they have a 19.9 percent chance of landing the top pick and a 55.8 percent chance of landing within the top three. With that in mind, let’s look at the top point-guard options – Fultz, Ball and Fox.
If the Suns land the top pick for the first time in franchise history, Fraschilla advises not to waste much time contemplating their selection.
“I can tell ya, they’re not passing Fultz up,” he said. “They may decide they like Ball better, and it doesn’t matter how many guards they have, I have a hard time thinking they’re going to pass up somebody who might be a transcendent-type of player.”
The 6-4 Fultz has topped mock drafts for most of the past year. In his only college season at Washington, he produced at a high level, averaging 23.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.9 assists. His smooth style – never rushed – reminds some of James Harden. Like the Houston Rockets star, Fultz gets to where he wants to go and is versatile in pick-and-roll situations.
On Feb. 4, Fultz played well against UCLA, but Washington lost 107-66. During the Pac-12 Networks broadcast, MacLean said he wanted to see Fultz become more aggressive “in terms of taking over the game.” In Seattle, the analyst drew criticism for his comments because those close to Fultz say that’s not his personality.
“A million articles have been written about how that’s not his nature, that’s not his personality, but I have a feeling that once he gets to the league, whatever team he goes to will be like, ‘Hey, Markelle, we know that’s not really your nature, but we kind of need it to be,’” MacLean said. “And if he ever does, I think he’s in the Westbrook, Harden, John Wall, Chris Paul conversation. Maybe not right away, but I’m telling you, however long I’ve been covering this league, 13 or 14 years, he’s the best guard I’ve seen in terms of how he’ll translate to the next level.”
Some – like the college coach interviewed for this story – question Washington’s record. How can the No. 1 pick come from a team that finished 9-22? Maybe the Huskies didn’t have the supporting cast needed for NCAA Tournament contention, but they should’ve been better.
Fraschilla doesn’t hold that against the point guard.
“I don’t put any stock into the Washington situation,” he said. “I just think Fultz has a natural knack for scoring, more so than anybody in this draft. People don’t realize that creating your own shot in the NBA is a skill in of itself. Kobe had it, obviously. James Harden has it. This kid can go create his own shot against anybody.”
“He’s as good a passer as anybody who’s come into the league in the last 40 years,” Fraschilla said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Magic, Jason Kidd, Ben Simmons, this kid has transcendent passing ability. He sees teammates who are open before they even realize they’re open.”
A first-team All-American, Ball transformed UCLA during his only college season. He’s the reason the Bruins went from 15 wins in 2016 to 31 last season. An athletic 6-6 point guard, he averaged 14.6 points, 6.0 rebounds and 7.6 assists. And even with an unorthodox shooting form, he made 41.2 percent of his 3s, many of which were contested.
“If there’s a dilemma, it’s can he get his own shot with a low shot clock?” Fraschilla said. “Because he’s going to be in that situation anywhere from 15 to 25 times a night, where the ball’s in his hands in a low shot-clock situation. That’s the reality of the league. And that’s a key question for him.”
For such reasons, MacLean compares Ball to Kendall Marshall. Like Ball, the former North Carolina point guard was an elite distributor, but his game didn’t translate to the NBA. The Suns chose Marshall with the 13th pick of the 2012 draft. Five years later, he was out of the league.
“If you’re starting a college team, you want Lonzo Ball to be your point guard,” said MacLean, who also helps players train for the draft. “If you’re starting an NBA team, you want Fultz or De’Aaron Fox. Here’s why: His game as a pro, to me, doesn’t translate as well because he’s never run the screen-roll game. He doesn’t shoot any shots between the rim and the 3-point line, and that’s a problem.”
Ball last season shot an incredible 73.2 percent inside the arc, which ranked fourth nationally, but many of those opportunities came in transition or through penetration. According to DraftExpress, which used Synergy technology, Ball rarely looked for his own offense in pick-and-roll situations, passing 75 percent of the time. In addition, he took only 35 jumpers off the dribble all season, and many of those were step backs.
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“You got to shoot runners, floaters, pull-ups, and he doesn’t have it,” MacLean said. “He’s got a catch-and-shoot deep 3 and he can get to the rim. Against NBA defenses, his straight-line drives through the defense, DeAndre Jordan’s waiting for that, and he’s sending that back. You get to the rim in the league by beating defenders and finishing before the defense can rotate. You’re never driving from the 3-point line all the way to the rim and getting away with it.”
At the same time, Ball’s star potential might be too hard to ignore.
“Really, someone’s got to tell me they’ve seen a better passer in the last 40 years than him,” Fraschilla said. “We could argue about Jason Kidd and Magic. OK, fine. They’re both Hall of Famers, so if someone says he’s No. 3 behind those two? That’s still pretty high praise.”
The Kentucky guard’s weakness is well known – he made only 24.6 percent of 69 3-point attempts. That said, he checked a lot of boxes during a freshman season in which he averaged 16.7 points, 4.0 rebounds and 4.6 assists.
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- Attitude: “He’s a little bit nasty,” the Division I coach said. “He has that intensity, that fire that you love to see from the point guard.”
- Athletic ability: “A lot of times a kid is a great athlete in high school and then they become a very good athlete in college,” Fraschilla said. “But then all of a sudden they’re just a good athlete in the NBA. The level just increases. You’re no longer a man among boys, you’re actually a boy among men. In De’Aaron’s Fox’s case, he’ll be an elite NBA athlete from the day he steps on the court at training camp.”
- Defense: “He picks you up 94 feet,” said Tony Delk, a SEC Network analyst who played at Kentucky and spent 10 years in the NBA, including two with the Suns. “He can turn guys left and right.”
The 6-4, left-handed Fox matched up against Ball twice this season. He out-played the UCLA star for most of the first matchup (20 points, nine assists in a 97-92 loss) and for all of the second (39 points, four assists in an 86-75 NCAA Tournament win).
Should that matter to NBA teams?
“If I’m a GM, I’m definitely looking at that,” Delk said. “During the NCAA Tournament game, it was like night and day. You had different players. One was up for the challenge and the other wasn’t so much.”
“It’s called Recency Bias,” the ESPN analyst said. “It’s what people see last. I watched the tape like everybody else. UCLA played a lot of 3-2 zone. (Kentucky) screened Ball at the top of the zone. That was a tremendous performance, needless to say, but I put more stock in the fact that De’Aaron did a really good job defending Lonzo in the first matchup, at least until the second half.”
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Of the three point guards, Fox has the defensive edge. Offensively, he’s dangerous in the open court and shows potential in pick-and-roll situations. At the same time, he might have the most room to grow.
“He’s going to have to become a little more cerebral with his decision-making, but it’s not bad,” Fraschilla said. “He’s got a good in-between game, makes mid-range shots, makes floaters. But the one question everyone has is: Is it in his DNA to work on his 3-point shooting? If he ever became an average-to-above-average 3-point shooter, he’d be unguardable like a number of guys in the league.”