Which of Kentucky’s prized trio is the best NBA prospect?

Dec 7, 2016; Lexington, KY, USA; Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari talks with guard De
Dec 7, 2016; Lexington, KY, USA; Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari talks with guard De /

In the least surprising story of this college basketball season, Kentucky is once again loaded with potential lottery picks. Coming off his ridiculous 47-point outburst against UNC Malik Monk has been garnering most of the hype recently, but point guard De’Aaron Fox and big man Edrice “Bam” Adebayo deserve their fair share of attention. DraftExpress currently has all three in their top-15, while our own Chris Stone has the trio all in the top-17 of his big board.

Before evaluating their individual projections at the next level, it is important to understand the context of their play at Kentucky. As is typical of a Calipari team, floor spacing is not the priority for Kentucky’s offense. They start two guards who aren’t 3-point shooting threats in Fox and Isaiah Briscoe, and of their frontcourt players only Derek Willis has shown to be a legitimate outside shooter.

Kentucky is left playing two or just one floor stretchers in nearly every lineup, severely constricting each player’s room to operate. With the understanding that Kentucky’s cramped floor may be limiting guys’ offensive production; where Monk, Fox, and Adebayo’s games currently stand can be properly evaluated.

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Fox has the makings of a very good NBA point guard, but faces one central flaw. He has the size, athleticism and instincts to be a high-level defender and combines those tools with a tight handle and good vision to create on the offensive end. However, as Chris Stone highlighted in one of his five takeaways this week, Fox simply cannot shoot the ball. Worse even, despite shooting 13 percent from 3 and 29.8 percent on 2-point jumpers per Hoop-Math.com, he has taken them in high volume with 23 3s and 47 mid-range attempts through only 11 games. As a result, Fox has an atrocious 40.4 percent effective field goal percentage in the half-court, again according to Hoop-Math.

There is worthwhile nuance to be scouted in Fox’s ability to finish, just how good his defense can be and exactly what level passer he is, but ultimately his NBA future mostly boils down to two questions. How much can he improve as a shooter? And how much can improved shot selection help his game even if his shooting does not develop? Fox is absolutely talented and athletic enough as a two-way player to be an NBA starter, but his lack of jump shot may prevent him from ever being a starter on any quality NBA team.

It is almost comical how Monk’s strengths and weaknesses are an inversion of Fox’s. Both are elite athletes and almost the exact same size, but while Fox excels at getting in the lane and playing defense, Monk is weak in both those areas, but absolutely incredible at making outside shots. He is shooting 42.2 percent on 3-pointers and an even more impressive 51.1 percent on 47 2-point jumpers.

I’m not usually a big fan of undersized one-way shooters, but there are a few indicators in Monk’s profile that make me more optimistic. Defensively, his box score impact leaves a lot to be desired but he moves his feet pretty well, and strikes me more as sub-par on that end rather than a complete disaster. He doesn’t get to the hole at all on offense mostly due to his high and loose dribble, but he has a really quick first step and good passing instincts so it’s fair to hope a more spaced floor and some development of his ball-handling could allow him to provide some attacking value. More than anything though, his ability to take and make shots in volume is really impressive, and even if he regresses a bit he will have one of the best shot-making profiles ever produced by a NCAA freshman.

Monk’s billing as a top-5 pick is a stretch — he doesn’t have the handle or defensive chops to justify it. However he is an elite enough shot maker with non-terrible flags in other areas, so he could be the type of player whose offense simply outweighs his defense. If J.J. Redick and J.R. Smith can be useful starters on some of the NBA’s best teams there is absolutely a path for Monk to be similarly good, or even better.

Adebayo is in many ways the simplest guy to evaluate. In the NBA he will be a small center at 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-1.5 wingspan, but he has the girth and leaping ability to play the position. He has one elite strength in his ability to offensive rebound and is solid in almost every other area. He moves his feet reasonably well, has decent shot blocking instincts, sees the floor okay for a big, is a threat for lobs in pick-and-roll and has decent touch around the rim.

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Many people compare him to Tristan Thompson due to their offensive rebounding, but Bam is a little less lithe and quick, making him worse on both ends. If he were more dynamic as a rim protector, perimeter defender, or dive threat on offense he would have starter potential, but as things stand he looks more like a future backup center.

Comparing across the three, I would rank them — Monk, Fox, Adebayo. Bam is a notch behind the other two, and while Fox has a higher ceiling if he were able to improve his shot a bunch, Monk’s shooting leads to more scenarios in which he is a useful player for a good team. Fox could be a very good backup point guard on a good team, but he is good enough to where he’s cursed to probably be a low-level starter on bad teams instead.