The Philadelphia 76ers have slowly been gathering foundational talent and in today’s NBA draft, they’re expected to tab potentially the final puzzle piece of their young core in Markelle Fultz.
After moving up from the third overall pick to number one through a trade with Boston, Philadelphia are in position to select the top prospect and perhaps complete their drawn-out ‘Process’.
In a draft full of promising players, especially near the top, Fultz stands out as someone with arguably the highest floor and ceiling. The Washington guard filled up the stat-sheet in his lone collegiate season, averaging 23.2 points, 5.9 assists and 5.7 rebounds, while shooting 47.6 per cent from the field and 41.3 per cent on 3-pointers.
Though his team managed a disappointing 9-22 record, the 19-year-old’s potential has outweighed the lack of collective success and the Sixers are hoping he can form a tantalising young core with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons – Philadelphia’s No3 and No1 overall selections the past two years.
While there’s little to no suspense as to what the Sixers will do at number one, the Los Angeles Lakers at two aren’t set in stone.
Though all signs point to Lonzo Ball being selected by his hometown team, the Lakers reportedly have interest in Kansas forward Josh Jackson and Kentucky guard De’Aaron Fox.
UCLA’s Ball has received extra attention because of his outspoken father LaVar, who has made no secret of his desire to see his son get drafted only by the Lakers. As such, Ball has only worked out for the 16-time champions in the lead-up.
Los Angeles, meanwhile, have been in trade talks with Indiana for Paul George, with the California native making it clear to the Pacers that he plans to hit free agency and sign with the Lakers next summer.
In anticipation of adding George either through a trade or free agency, the Lakers cleared cap space on Tuesday by trading prospect D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov’s massive contract to Brooklyn for Brook Lopez and the 27th overall pick this year.
As well as shedding salary, the move opens up minutes at point guard, which Ball could fill.
Following the Lakers, all eyes will be on the Celtics, as they have been ever since they won the draft lottery last month.
After passing on Fultz, Boston is expected to choose between a pair of forwards – Jackson and Duke’s Jayson Tatum.
While Jackson is the type of player general manager Danny Ainge covets – a defensive-minded, hard-working bulldog –Tatum offers more immediate scoring and shot-making, something Boston is in desperate need of, especially from the frontcourt.
The Celtics, however, could flip the pick as part of a trade package for Chicago star Jimmy Butler, who they’ve reportedly been chasing for some time now.
TOP 10 MOCK
1. Philadelphia 76ers: Markelle Fultz
There’s a lot of optimism that Fultz is the real deal and a can’t-miss prospect, and it’s hard to argue otherwise.
In his only season at Washington, he blended volume and efficiency to be an unstoppable offensive force, even with opposing teams gearing up defensively to slow him down.
2. Los Angeles Lakers: Lonzo Ball
It’s easy to point at all of Ball’s red flags, like his wonky shot form or his loudmouth father LaVar. As far as his shot form, it may not matter if he keeps shooting like he has, while his father will have much less leverage in the NBA. Add in Ball’s amazing playmaking skills and passing and he should be a perfect fit in Los Angeles.
3. Boston Celtics: Jayson Tatum
If there’s one thing that stands out with Tatum, it’s his innate ability to score. It just so happens that’s what Boston need most, especially from a frontcourt position. His footwork and one-on-one moves are advanced for his age (19), and he could be a deadly small-ball four, as long as he becomes consistent on D.
4. Phoenix Suns: De’Aaron Fox
Lightning quick with a motor that just won’t quit, he seemingly has it all… except for a reliable outside shot.
It’s almost impossible to play heavy minutes as a lead guard in today’s game as a non-shooting threat, but his mechanics seem to be promising. Would fit well alongside Devin Booker for the future.
5. Sacramento Kings: Josh Jackson
The Kings might have a point guard at the top of their priority list, but Jackson is more than just a consolation prize. His defence and ability to make winning plays with his hustle and effort will earn him minutes right away, though if his shot mechanics can improve his upside is sky high.
6. Orlando Magic: Jonathan Isaac
As far as raw talent and tools, Isaac has the potential to be a home run pick. The Florida State product offers shooting in a 6’11’ frame, making him an intriguing prospect that could easily turn out to be the best wing in the draft. How he fits with Aaron Gordon is another question, but it’s worth finding out.
7. Minnesota Timberwolves: Lauri Markkanen
If you’re a 7-footer with a smooth shooting stroke like Markkanen, it’s going to be hard for teams to pass on you. His ability to space the floor would be ideal alongside Karl-Anthony Towns and though Minnesota is in need of defence, they can address that in other ways.
8. New York Knicks: Malik Monk
The Knicks are in serious need of something to be excited about and Monk certainly provides that. He’s undersized for a two guard and it’s unknown how much he can play the one, but regardless his fantastic shooting and ability to light it up in a hurry is just what Madison Square Garden needs.
9. Dallas Mavericks: Dennis Smith Jr
There’s arguably no better athlete in the draft than the North Carolina State point guard. His ability to jump out of the gym and get by defenders gives him a high ceiling, but he’s not the most polished player. Still, the Mavericks won’t mind swinging for the fences at a position they need.
10. Sacramento Kings: Frank Ntilikina
After not taking a point guard at No5, the Kings could select the first international player on the board. His size at 6’5”, combined with his length makes him physical appealing, but he’s a bit of a mystery outside of his defence. The upside could be worth the risk.
Almost anyone familiar with Michael Jordan’s legend is aware of how his basketball journey started.
Famously, someone who’s widely considered the greatest player of all-time and arguably the greatest team sports athlete ever, didn’t make the varsity squad as a sophomore in high school.
While not an abnormal circumstance for the average high school kid, being kept off varsity is extremely rare for future NBA players, let alone for someone who went on to reach the heights Jordan did. The story, as is the case with many mythical figures, has been twisted over the course of history to reflect that Jordan was cut from his team, not held to junior varsity. Regardless, it’s one of the first tidbits brought up when celebrating his career.
One day, the same could be said of Markelle Fultz.
Four years ago, a 15-year-old Fultz also failed to make the varsity team as a sophomore at Maryland’s DeMatha Catholic High School.
This Thursday, at 19, he’ll be selected first overall in the NBA draft.
It was assumed Fultz would begin his professional career in green after the Boston Celtics won the draft lottery in May. Instead, he’ll likely be joining the young core in Philadelphia and become the latest disciple to ‘Trust the Process’, with news breaking on Saturday the Celtics have agreed to trade the top pick to the 76ers.
Boston’s intentions for dealing away the chance to draft the consensus top prospect in this year’s draft aren’t fully known, but what is clear is Philadelphia’s view that Fultz could be a franchise cornerstone. The 76ers aren’t alone. Though Fultz wasn’t the clear-cut number one pick at the start of this past collegiate season, he separated himself from the pack by the time his lone campaign at Washington came to an end.
Likewise, he’s now indirectly grabbed the spotlight leading up to the draft, wrestling it away from Lonzo Ball and to a greater extent, his rival’s father, LaVar Ball.
Respected draft analysts far and wide have Fultz atop their board and The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor is no exception.
“I just think, you look at him and he definitely has future All-Star, All-NBA potential because he really checks all the boxes,” O’Connor told Sport360°. “What you look for in a star point guard in today’s league, Fultz has pretty much all of that – with his ability to create off the dribble, pick-and-roll play, passing vision, ability to score from different levels of the floor, competitive on the offensive end, and defensive upside if he falls into the right situation that asks him to defend consistently.
“He’s like James Harden in the sense that he can change speeds and change pace. I think his versatility on the offensive end as is going to be immensely valuable.”
As an 18-year-old, Fultz filled up the stat sheet for the Huskies as college basketball’s most dynamic offensive force. The guard managed to find the sweet spot between volume and efficiency to average 23.2 points, 5.9 assists, 5.7 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.2 blocks, while shooting 47.6 per cent from the field and 41.3 per cent on 3-pointers. He became the first player since LaDrell Whitehead (1994-95) to average over 20 points, five assists and five rebounds as a freshman, while setting the highest scoring average in the Pac-12 since Ed Gray’s mark of 24.7 in 1996-97.
And it’s hard to believe anyone could have seen it coming.
If Fultz’s path from high school tryout casualty to one of the most coveted assets in the NBA sounds unlikely, that’s because it is. When Jordan was kept off varsity in 1978, it was during a time when it was rarer for sophomores to play on the senior squad.
Fultz, meanwhile, is the quintessential late bloomer. A growth spurt certainly helped, as he shot up nearly half a foot from his stature as a freshman to a 6’3” frame at the start of his junior year when he was 16. He showed promising signs when finally given the chance at varsity, while also displaying his talent and potential as part of his grassroots team DC Blue Devils in the Under Armour Association.
Slowly but surely, the Division I offers started to pour in and Fultz’s decision eventually came down to choosing between Washington, Arizona and Louisville.
But why the Huskies? The Seattle university was neither close to his home state of Maryland, nor one of college basketball’s biggest powerhouses.
Rather, Fultz relied on the relationships he had built. Long-time trainer Keith Williams gave a heads up to his good friend Raphael Chillious, who was an assistant coach at Washington at the time, and he and Huskies head coach Lorenzo Romar scouted Fultz at DeMatha early in the process.
Now that Fultz is on the cusp of being the top draft pick, his decision to choose Washington appears to have more than worked out. However, it’s testament to his own individual brilliance that his stock wasn’t significantly affected by his team’s performance.
Similar to future 76ers team-mate Ben Simmons, who couldn’t single-handedly elevate LSU to the NCAA Tournament in his lone season in college, Fultz could hardly change the fortunes of a Huskies side that finished 9-22 overall.
So how much of those struggles should reflect on Fultz?
“Zero. None,” said O’Connor. “But I’ll tell you this, a lot of people talk about Fultz’s effort on defence and say ‘he was in a losing situation, that’s why he wasn’t trying because the team stunk’. Sure, but look at game one of the season when Washington were 0-0 and in that game Fultz isn’t putting in much effort on the defensive end of the floor. So I think it’s false to say that Fultz wasn’t trying because his team was terrible. He just wasn’t trying on defence, period.
“He’s a good athlete and he has long arms and should be able to defend multiple positions, but some guys just don’t have that mind-set. He seems quiet and shy at times. I don’t know if he has that crazy mental makeup to lock in consistently on the defensive end.”
Perhaps it was Fultz’s defensive inconsistency, or question marks over how much he can influence winning and make others around him better, that led Boston to move down from the number one pick. Maybe it’s unrelated to Fultz altogether. Philadelphia, however, seem to be banking on Fultz living up to the hype, which is unavoidable when you’re on the verge of joining a shortlist of players throughout history to earn the distinction of being drafted at one.
As with any player, however, it’s impossible to know until they step foot on an NBA court.
“I think Fultz is a terrific prospect, but I don’t know if he’s ballooned to an extent that people are talking about him like he’s definitely going to be this transcendent cornerstone, generational player,” O’Connor said. “He’s not a generational player. He’s not a no-brainer to be that guy.”
Fultz has certainly proved people wrong before and his meteoric rise may just be beginning.
It’s hard to escape the feeling that the end result of this NBA season was inevitable, with more of the same on the way.
Ever since Kevin Durant announced his decision to join the Golden State Warriors back on July 4 of last year, the NBA Finals felt pre-determined.
As it turned out, the regular season and playoffs went just as everyone imagined they would, with Golden State conquering everyone in sight. Even one of the greatest basketball players of all-time could only take a single game off them when it mattered.
This is what the NBA is dealing with right now. On one hand, we’re witnessing what’s probably the best team ever. That claim would be more clear-cut if they had finished off the ‘fo-fo-fo-fo’ and gone a perfect 16-0 en route to the title. But even so, the collection of talent and skill and shooting and unselfishness and dominance that defines this Warriors team is something we’ve never seen before.
Warriors had the 2nd-largest average scoring margin for any team that played at least 5 games that postseason pic.twitter.com/N4moc67Img— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 13, 2017
It’s all well and good to be witnessing greatness, but it comes at the cost of parity and, more concerningly, suspense. The NBA, after all, is an entertainment industry and last I checked, like any movie or book, it’s harder to be entertained when you know the ending.
The real question is, are we sure we know the ending?
In this moment, Golden State look like basketball’s version of the Roman Empire, but in sports, things can change quickly and unexpectedly.
The most obvious deterrent to a Warriors dynasty isn’t LeBron James bolting Cleveland again and creating his own superteam, but rather the salary cap.
The Warriors have four players who can command max salary contracts and even if each of them agrees to take a discount, it’s unlikely it’s to the extent that the franchise doesn’t find itself paying heavy luxury tax.
Durant and Curry are both free agents this summer, while the market-friendly contracts of Klay Thompson and Draymond Green come off the books in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Along the way, it will be difficult to retain key role players like Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston.
Golden State may well win two more championships before they’re forced to split their core due to financial reasons, but the window for them being as good as they were this past season could be no more than another two years.
Throw in the fact that LeBron still lives and breathes, San Antonio never die, Boston’s ceiling, injuries, plus everything else that makes sports so unpredictable, and nothing is guaranteed.
The intrigue is still there, it’s just shifted. For now, the mystery isn’t over which team will win it all – it’s over how and when this run is going to end.