Two years into their NBA careers, it’s time to re-visit the 2017 NBA Draft class, and figure out who the best prospects are halfway into their rookie contracts.
Hindsight is 20-20.
I’ve been covering the NBA Draft at the Step Back and FanSided for three years now, meaning the 2017 NBA Draft class was my first class. The class was interesting to cover, featuring what felt like five solid point guard prospects at the top, a solid shooting big man, three toolsy but inconsistent wings, and a bevy of raw, talented big men in the middle of the draft. Markelle Fultz was far and away the number one prospect, but coverage was dominated by the circus surrounding the player who went second, Lonzo Ball.
I’ve learned a lot in the last two years, both about this class and about the NBA Draft in general. I like to think I’ve gotten better at this, and many of the lessons I have applied to the 2018 and 2019 NBA Draft classes came from things I got right and wrong about how I evaluated 2017. And this class has been a great test case for that, given how fluid the development process has been for most of the top prospects. As we will detail below, players like Donovan Mitchell, Dennis Smith Jr., Jarrett Allen, and others taught valuable lessons about how to perceive some common situations we see prospects encounter at the college level.
The class started out looking phenomenal — Dennis Smith earned starter’s minutes for Dallas, John Collins and Adebayo emerged from the middle of the class into being quality players, and of course, Mitchell and Jayson Tatum emerged as top scorers on playoff teams in 2017-18. But season-long struggles for Tatum and Smith, Mitchell’s early scoring plateau and subsequent rebound, and players like Jonathan Isaac and De’Aaron Fox emerging in year two have reshaped the structure of the class and given us a better idea of the long-term outlook for the group as a whole. Of course, there’s still time for late bloomers to emerge — no one would have pegged Steph Curry as the best player in the 2009 class after the 2010-11 season, after all — but we can now get a realistic sense of just how deep and talented this class is. Rookie seasons are largely context-dependent outside of elite talent shining through, and it’s important to get a second season under the belt so that you can sift out players who thrived in a specific context like Dillon Brooks on the 2017-18 Grizzlies.
With the 2019 NBA Draft season really kicking into high gear, I thought that this would be a good time for some self-reflection and reconfiguring of my thoughts on the 2017 NBA Draft class. Below, you will find my updated top sixty players from this class, re-organized based on how their performance so far has changed projections of their long-term outlook. A few caveats to keep in mind before we dive in:
- This is based on future projection, looking towards what the player’s peak is going to be. Donovan Mitchell has been the best 2017 draftee so far, but he may not be the best player from the class three to five years from now.
- This is not meant to be a re-draft, litigating the decisions made at the time of the draft. It looks now like everyone missed on Mitchell. That doesn’t mean he should have been drafted second at the time of the draft, and I’m not really interested in getting into what front offices should or should not have done.
- This includes all players who were in the 2017 draft class, not the 2017 rookie class. No Ben Simmons here, while players like Isaiah Hartenstein and Jonah Bolden who played elsewhere in 2017-18 are on the list. It also includes undrafted players, like Antonio Blakeney.
- In the interest of transparency, you’ll see the ranking for each prospect on my final 2017 Big Board, which had 75 names on it, as well as where they were drafted.
With that out of the way, let’s count backward from 60.
Not Ranked (Final 2017 Big Board Ranking in parentheses): Ike Anigbogu (22, injuries), Justin Patton (23, injuries), Jonathan Motley (31, complete whiff), Cam Oliver (36, underappreciated character concerns), Aleksandar Vezenkov (45, draft-and-stash), Devin Robinson (48, fought an Eagles player and got kicked off the Wizards), Jacob Wiley (47, productive Euro player), L.J. Peak (53), V.J. Beachem (59), Nik Slavica (60), Ognjen Jaramaz (64), Vlatko Cancar (66), Nigel Hayes (68), Viny Okouo (69), Georges De Paula (70), Eric Mika (71), Malcolm Hill (72), Alberto Abalde (74)
Tier 6: Career G-League, European, and fringe players
I figured that Lydon wouldn’t be ready to contribute right away for the Nuggets, and would be more of a project. But he hasn’t even consistently looked good in the G-League, and it’s hard to see him latching on somewhere else after he likely won’t have his fourth-year option picked up by Denver. The lesson learned from Lydon, and this will be a common theme throughout this re-rank, is that you have to be good at more than just spot-up shooting to be a playable offensive player, even at the four. Lydon can’t really shoot off movement, and that’s what’s limiting him most currently.
Lessort was a draft-and-stash, and he’s been one of the better rim-runners and rim protectors in Europe for the last two years with Red Star Belgrade and Unicaja Malaga. He probably won’t be coming over any time soon for Philly, but being a quality starter in Europe isn’t a bad life.
He’s already out of the league after a season with Phoenix but has turned into a quality Euroleague starter with the NBA’s honorary 31st team, CSKA Moscow of Russia.
I had Evans ranked highly thanks to his statistical production as the sole creator for Oklahoma State. The undersized point guard showed flashes in his first year with the Los Angeles Clippers, but the team he starts his third year in the league with will likely be his fourth. Evans has been a cautionary tale for undersized point guards who don’t have the athleticism to get to the rim consistently and aren’t great shooters. In hindsight, flipping Evans and Kansas’s Frank Mason would have been more correct.
Briscoe was borderline unplayable at Kentucky, and he went to Estonia for a year after the draft. He demonstrated remarkable improvement while there and earned a contract with the Magic. And while he was basically at the end of their bench this year, it’s remarkable that he’s even on this list.
Taking the L here. Pasecniks has dealt with injuries, certainly, but he hasn’t gotten demonstrably better as a shooter or rim protector in two years at Gran Canaria, even if he’s had his flashes. There’s significant doubt that he ever comes over, especially given that he’s already 24. This could change in a few years, but right now my biggest miss in the 2017 draft class was being incredibly high on Pasecniks’s screen-setting and rebounding without him having the requisite strength to be able to apply those skills in the NBA.
The 2018-19 G-League MVP. Boucher is an elder for this class and was coming off an ACL tear at the time, but he had a monster season for Raptors 905 this year. We will see if he actually makes the full-time roster somewhere next year, but he’s been a pleasant surprise for the class.
2017 was a year of extremely old prospects, with multiple 23 and 24-year olds edging their way into the league. Boucher, Moore, and Allen are probably all peaking right now, but they all have their own skills that provide some value for the teams they’ve been on. While Moore and Boucher have mostly been valuable to G-League teams, Allen’s actually had some bright spots for the Celtics and Knicks the past two years.
Two Euroleague guards who have been erratic, but also have strong upside as bench shot makers. Williams-Goss should get a shot eventually because the Jazz own his stash rights, but with how Guduric has played this year, he could eventually earn a Davis Bertans-style call-over to the NBA.
Blakeney’s our first player on this list with a legitimate rotation spot, earned this year after a nice audition with the Bulls last season. He’s mostly a negative in his minutes, but the key to upward mobility for undrafted players is playing time, and he’s getting it.
Two Pacers who definitely got overdrafted at the time (Reed by the Suns), and haven’t really done much to disprove that through two years. Leaf may have some latent upside due to his shooting, but so far I was closer to the value these two would have than their drafting teams were.
Tier 5: Bench guys
As we mentioned with Evans earlier, Mason is undersized but can shoot and does a better job of managing the game in backup minutes for Sacramento. Consistent skill play is so much more valuable than athleticism or raw talent if you’re under 6-foot, which has applied to the Darius Garland/Ja Morant question on my current rankings.
Dorsey’s proven he can score on bad teams, and still has development room.
Finally healthy, Jackson was mostly bad but played more and more as the Pelicans’ season fell apart. He figures to be a guy on whatever the Pelicans look like next year, and should progress in year two. I sold low on Jackson because of his injury history, but here’s hoping he stays healthy.
Bolden does a little bit of everything and specifically is a pretty decent defender at this juncture. He could rise if he continues to develop in Philadelphia, but so far has had a solid rookie year after a turn at Maccabi Tel Aviv.
I sold low on Rabb based on his disappointing sophomore year at Cal, but he’s actually looked pretty decent in flashes as Jaren Jackson’s primary backup.
A surprisingly competent scoring wing who is a hard worker and developing shooter. Arguably, he’s looked better than Malik Monk at times for Charlotte over the past two years.
Ojeleye is a complete zero on offense, but he’s consistently impressed as a switch defender in Boston’s scheme, able to defend fives and switch onto the perimeter. Plus, he’s one of the most prominent Weird Celtics Twitter Memes, and that holds a special place in my heart even if he regressed a little in year two.
I was very confused by the Wilson hype in the pre-draft process, and so far have been mostly right about that. He’s coming around, but there’s still not a ton to like about him long-term as a first-round pick. Year three development wouldn’t surprise me, but neither would him topping out as a ninth man.
Iwundu still hasn’t figured out shooting, but he has been a positive defender through two years, and he’s made enough progression in re-working his jumper that I’m optimistic he will be a talented bench wing for a good team in a few more years.
Hartenstein fell in the 2017 NBA Draft because of a back injury that wasn’t made public beforehand. But now that he’s fully healthy and has been dominant in the G-League, the young German figures to have a breakout next season if he gets an opportunity in Houston.
Tier 4: Bench guys with clear roles
Thornwell figured to be a good NBA defender at the time of the draft and probably shouldn’t have fallen to 48. He’s been very good on the defensive end for the Clippers, even though he slipped a little this season. He’s a perfect defensive 3 for modern NBA schemes, and should probably stick to see a second deal.
I oversold Jackson’s shooting, which hasn’t translated at a high level yet to the league. He’s still a likely rotation player, but I’m not optimistic he’ll ever live up to the 15th spot. Maybe it should have been an omen that I agreed with Vivek and company on draft value.
A burgeoning 3-and-D wing on the lower end of that spectrum. Brown was a good test case for the “guys who think the game and shoot off movement will stick despite sub-elite athleticism” theory that I have ascribed to.
Hart’s basically been as advertised — a decent shooter and smart ancillary player who gets exposed in certain matchups with better athletes.
Morris proving to be a capable off-movement shooter in addition to his game management traits completely re-vamped his potential. He’s Frank Mason on steroids, and he could still continue to improve if he gets stronger.
For the most part I’ve tried to steer away from overvaluing rookie play in these rankings, but that made Brooks a hard evaluation. He looked very good for most of the year on a moribund Grizzlies team in 2017-18, and then he got hurt with a big toe injury this year. I think Brooks has latent upside that he didn’t really get to display at Oregon thanks to the spacing differences, and still would put him up here even if he hasn’t put up the advanced numbers that Hart and Morris have.
Tier 4: Underwhelming production, but latent upside
Ferguson has been exposed in the Thunder’s playoff series with the Blazers this year, as he’s still not ready to be a starting two guard in the playoffs. But he has his moments, and I still think he locks himself into at least the tier below this one, where I originally slotted him, with an outside shot of being better.
I’ve ranked Jontay Porter 16th on my latest 2019 NBA Draft board despite a second ACL tear in a calendar year, and part of that is because Giles has firmly made his comeback into the NBA. I can’t pretend to victory lap over Giles looking decent for Sacramento, but I’m excited to see him showing flashes. Sometimes, injuries are a problem until they aren’t, and hopefully Giles is out of the woods there.
I’ve talked about shooting off movement being important for wings, but it helps if you can do other stuff, too. Monk isn’t at that point yet. I still think he can turn into a super-sub scorer type, but this ranking has not aged well.
Frank is still only 20, and despite regression, I’m not giving up on him becoming a Marcus Smart type that can defend across all perimeter spots and handle as a secondary facilitator. More than anything, he needs a fresh start on a team that gets what he’s good at. #FreeFrankieSmokes.
Tier 3: Probable long-term rotation players
Bell absolutely needs to develop a functional offensive skill to stick long-term, but he’s a decent defender at this point and has a Warriors pedigree. He’ll get the chances to capitalize on any latent scoring upside he may have, although I still think that’s low.
Movement concerns kept me down on Bryant throughout his college career, even though he flashed much of the offensive skill set that has made him a valuable player in Dwight Howard’s absence this year in Washington. Bryant may not be the most fluid player, but he’s been one of the best finishers in the league this year and has enough potential as a shooter that he could end up being a starter-level player in the league. Touch matters for bigs, and that’s helped Bryant earn a role in whatever the next iteration of Wizards basketball looks like.
Collins hasn’t shown a ton through two years in Portland, but he has supplanted Meyers Leonard in the rotation for the most part, and he’s been a decent defender and pick-and-pop guy. With Jusuf Nurkic potentially out for much of next year due to his injury, I’m betting on year three being Collins’s breakout campaign. He’d be a little lower if we were purely going by production so far, but he still has some solid upside.
I’m not willing to completely give up on Jackson, but having him second, and over Jayson Tatum, is one of my bigger misses of the class. Jackson’s a full year older than Tatum and has so far proven incapable of providing any pull-up threat at the NBA level, which makes his passing, his signature skill to me in college, somewhat moot. The defensive side of the ball hasn’t entirely materialized either, and Jackson very well could end up completely marginalized in the rotation by Mikal Bridges and potentially R.J. Barrett or Jarrett Culver depending on the 2019 NBA Draft shakes out. I still think Jackson does enough to stick on pedigree for a while in the league, and he is a guy who would probably benefit from a more secure situation in the draft. The Suns were a bad fit for him, but still, overvaluing Jackson’s passing without considering how functional it could be in the NBA was a major learning point for me.
Kuzma coming back to earth this year after his rookie year success helped my ego, but this was another major miss for me. I didn’t scout Kuzma as thoroughly as I probably should have and underrated his handle and incorrectly projected his jumper. However, I’m not ready to call him more than a rotation guy, because he’s still a very passive defender, and somewhat of a black hole still. But those types of guys can be valuable, and Kuzma’s finishing and decisiveness attacking will bring value off the bench for awhile.
He’s been up and down for his first two years, but Kennard has significant latent upside thanks to his shooting progression, and he’s a quality decision-maker as well. He’s somewhere on the Redick tree, the only thing left to see is if he can get on Redick’s level as a floor spacer.
Tier 2B: Starter-level players
I’m splitting tier two into two sub-tiers: Starter-level players with potential scheme-changing impact, and those who will probably peak out as complimentary players on good teams or lead guys on bad teams. This group is the latter.
For the most part, Allen is still pretty raw, but he’s had some really solid rim protection production so far. I don’t think he’s ever going to get to the level of Rudy Gobert though, and we’ve seen that Gobert’s schemable in the playoffs, so Allen is a little lower than his likely upside would dictate because of positional value.
I don’t have many victory laps to take for the 2017 NBA Draft Class, but I will take one for Anunoby, who received enough hand-wringing about his ACL tear and shooting that he fell to 23rd. That was a mistake for a lot of teams because Anunoby’s athleticism hasn’t been affected much at all, and he’s providing a lot of value to the second-best team in the East because of his defense and cutting, even if he’s not a passable shooter yet. I don’t worry too much about ACL tears given how modern rehabilitation has done a good job of getting a majority of guys back healthy, and that’s looked smart between Anunoby and Giles this year.
Anyone that tells you that they know what Lonzo is at this point is either lying to you or a Lakers fan. On the positive side, Ball’s passing has certainly progressed even from where he was as a college passer, and he can be a comfortable game manager for an offense for stretches. His defense has also come better than advertised. But his inability to do anything consistently in terms of scoring, and the circus that has surrounded him in his first few years in the league contributing to the Lakers’ chaotic state, really is quite worrying. Ball seems like he’s going to be a long-term starter in the league, but thinking he’s anything more at this point feels foolish. Buying his shooting in particular for me was a mistake, given how obvious it is in hindsight that his mechanics weren’t workable for the NBA level.
A case for doing a two-year re-rank instead of a one-year exercise: Isaac, who had a very troublesome rookie year, suffering through injuries and inconsistent offensive play. He’s turned it around in year two, providing solid defensive play off the bench for a suddenly competent Magic team, and showing signs of turning his offensive potential from college into real production. Lots of stock buyback occurring with Isaac this year.
Smith was a player I was all in on in 2017 — he displayed all of the skills you could want from a lead guard, terrifying athleticism, and great feel in terms of passing awareness. Sure, he hadn’t figured out how to manage a team and had some off-court concerns, but he’d figure it out. How couldn’t a player that talented?
Well, so far that hasn’t happened precisely because Smith’s lack of feel for the game management aspects of the position have held him back. He also hasn’t really translated as a finisher because of his decision-making and lack of craft, which he can’t overcome because of his smaller frame. He’s been a cautionary tale to me the past two years, really making me examine Trae Young and Ja Morant, two other slight point guards with game management concerns, with a close eye. Trae could overcome his issues at Oklahoma with his elite shooting and passing awareness, while I’m not sure that Morant can. Smith is probably still going to top out as a passable volume scorer for a bad team, but he’s been a good learning experience for evaluating point guard play at the next level.
An important caveat to my final ranking for White — I was unsure where he would land, and hedged against the idea that he wouldn’t land somewhere that would be able to make full use of his brilliant defensive talents. Had I known that he was going to get two years to assimilate into the Spurs Borg, I would have had him closer to the top 10. Perhaps the best marriage of prospect and team in the draft class, and an important reminder that the context these guys start out in matters a ton for their overall development.
I don’t know, man. No one could have seen the past two years of Fultz’s career unfolding the way that they did, or how badly the 76ers would mismanage that situation. This will probably come back to bite me in two years, but Fultz getting a fresh start in Orlando is incredibly important, and I still believe in his overall talent level despite the fiasco that was his rookie season.
I really undervalued Collins as a finisher and playmaker because of his black hole role for the Demon Deacons. He was a player I was completely out on, but he quickly made many a believer with his efficiency and athleticism as a pick-and-roll dive man. Collins probably won’t top out as much more than what he has been over the past two years, but he’s a player in a role that has value next to an elite shooting point guard, and is going to look even better on a good team. Collins is basically mini-Amar’e, and seeing him next to peak Trae Young is going to be incredible.
Tier 2A: Starter-level players with All-Star upside
The lesson learned here: the Heat know how to develop talent, and there’s no team better at extracting previously unknown talent from mid-level prospects. Adebayo looked like a decent rebounder and pick-and-roll finisher at Kentucky; Erik Spoelstra has him out here switching pick-and-rolls and containing elite wings and displaying levels of handle and face-up ability previously thought impossible. Adebayo might have All-Defensive team upside, which is why he’s rated this high. What a steal for a team who looked like they overdrafted by about 20 spots.
Markkanen’s defensive liability hasn’t totally mattered yet, which is nice because it’s afforded him the ability to take major leaps as an offensive player. He looks like a very solid number two option on offense as a pick-and-pop guy and face-up big, and he doesn’t look completely useless in the pick-and-roll on defense. He honestly probably belongs in the next tier, but Chicago’s exit interview quotes about Markkanen needing to model himself after Larry Bird are…….concerning.
Tier 1: Multi-time All-Star Upside
Sacramento’s monumental turnaround was in large part due to Fox’s progression from over-his-head rookie to confident second-year playmaker. Somehow, he looks like the only clear star out of the supposedly stacked point guard class of this year, and his shooting progression was incredible from year one and year two. Most people had Fox in the back half of the top ten prior to the draft because he looked like a complete non-shooter, but the combination of Fox with a pull-up game and his athletic finishing profile is a definite star in the making. Let’s see if the Kings can keep from screwing it up.
Jazz fans don’t read this. Celtics fans, hello.
The rationale for having Tatum over Mitchell, despite Mitchell’s stronger rookie year and absolute scoring torrent in the second half of the season: Mitchell, for all of his isolation and pick-and-roll scoring talent, doesn’t have the same avenues to taking the next step as Tatum does. Tatum’s path to reaching the next level of performance offensively — improving decision-making as a primary and continuing to progress as a volume 3-point shooter — are a little more achievable than Mitchell being able to improve his court vision and handle. Couple that with Tatum having a higher defensive ceiling, and being a year younger, and Tatum gets the slight edge for me moving forward. Keyword: slight. This was a really tough call.
Both of these guys also extrapolate the college context question for evaluating NBA Draft prospects. One of the most difficult things to parse is how what a player is asked to do in college mirrors the extent of what he can do. Tatum was an isolation scorer from the elbow at Duke, who didn’t show the extent of his playmaking and outside shooting prowess; meanwhile, the question, “What in the world was Rick Pitino doing using Mitchell as purely a dribble handoff specialist at Louisville???” has constantly been in my head watching Jazz games over the past two years. Sometimes what a player can do to win college games is not the same thing as what they can do to win NBA games, and the two biggest successes of the 2017 class hinged on teams taking bets that they could sift through that question better than we could.