The NBA's incoming point guard class might just be the best the league has ever seen.
Granted, that's an awfully big might. It's far too early to know just how good a NBA Draft lottery that contained six point guards will end up becoming. But after seeing these prospects in action at the Las Vegas Summer League, it's not too early to get excited.
Lonzo Ball amazed sold-out crowds of Los Angeles Lakers fans with a barrage of highlight passes. Dennis Smith Jr. wowed everyone with his nuclear athleticism and ferocious rim attacks. Donovan Mitchell looked like a veteran, providing steals and buckets from both guard spots. And De'Aaron Fox played at a faster speed than anyone we've seen in a long time.
Oh, and all of that's without mentioning top overall selection Markelle Fultz and the injured Frank Ntilikina, both of whom we'll discuss another time.
For now, let's take a closer look at what stood out about Ball, Mitchell, Fox, and Smith Jr. in Las Vegas:
A player who started off low on draftnik radars but climbed boards over the course of his sophomore season at Louisville, Mitchell was the sixth point guard taken in the draft—and the surprise of summer league. The first thing that stands out is his ability to play fast and keep defenders on their heels while also maintaining poise and control.
That's a difficult and delicate balance for any player to find and maintain, let alone a 20-year-old rookie, but Mitchell is aided by a complete collection of combo guard skills. His three-point shot looks incredibly smooth and balanced, and he does a great job of staying prepared for the shot off of the catch. He also elevates on his shot quite a bit, which makes his release point higher than that of other 6-foot-3 guards.
Throughout summer league, Mitchell was great at attacking closeouts and getting to the rim, or creating space for a one-dribble pull-up. He also has speed, a quick, low handle, and the ability to shift gears on a dime—all of the tools needed to be a great scoring guard.
Mitchell averaged just 2.7 assists last season at Louisville, and his ability to facilitate great offense beyond scoring remains questionable. At times in Las Vegas, his passing looked superb. But he also had more turnovers than assists in his first two games.
On defense, Mitchell has shown incredible feel for shooting gaps and forcing turnovers: his six steals per game in summer league led all players and was nearly twice as many as anyone else. He routinely covers more ground than his opponents anticipate, narrowing passing lanes and cutting off angles to the basket.
Mitchell is sneakily athletic. He put on impressive dunk shows in layup lines and had a handful of rebounds and drives to the basket where he showed off impressive speed and elevation. At his height, he's a bit small for a point guard and very small for a shooting guard, which figures to be his biggest obstacle—athleticism and constant hustle are good traits, but switching onto taller perimeter opponents like Klay Thompson will be challenging.
Mitchell's ceiling is hard to predict, and may be lower than it is for some of his classmates. But he enters the league as someone ready to play and make an immediate impact.
Dennis Smith Jr.
Smith will enter the 2017-18 NBA season as one of the most explosive athletes in the league. He reportedly registered a 48-inch vertical at a workout for the Los Angeles Lakers earlier this year, and based on what he showed at summer league, that number isn't fake news:
Like Russell Westbrook, Smith puts tremendous pressure on the defenders guarding him. Every second trying to contain him off of the dribble is exhausting. He has a lightning quick first step, and enough strength to bully most guards once he is able to gain a half step of separation on dribble drives. Fall behind just a little bit, and defenders risk either fouling Smith or getting posterized at the rim.
And Smith is relentless. He has absolutely no fear of anyone on the court—guards, wings, or centers. He doesn't think twice about challenging much taller and stronger rim protectors inside the painted area. Smith averaged 9.6 free throw attempts per game over a three-game stretch in Las Vegas, an incredibly high number for a point guard. Last season, only Westbrook and James Harden attempted more foul shots per game, and they did it with the benefit of regular season games being eight minutes longer than summer league games.
Heading into the draft, Smith's shot-and decision-making were question marks. Through his first four summer league games, he impressed in both areas, shooting 47.1 percent from the field—better than Ball and Mitchell. Smith took five 3-point attempts per game, and that seems about right, given that his outside shot mostly exists to provide balance to his dribble drives.
Smith's passing also was impressive. He wasn't as ball dominant as he was at NC State— where he was the school's lone half court creator—and that suggests that some of his inconsistent collegiate decision-making was as much due to circumstances as it was to his ability to make reads. Even though Smith split playmaking duties with Yogi Ferrell, he managed to do a superb job of setting up teammates and knowing when to pass and when to shoot.
Defensively, Smith was a mixed bag. His 2.5 steals per game put him near the top of the summer league, and he had moments of great on-ball effort. Off the ball, Smith tended to take plays off, giving up a handful of easy putbacks and backdoor cuts.
Most draft analysts pegged Smith as a high-upside, low-downside prospect, and that view remains fair. In Las Vegas, however, it was easy to imagine Smith getting closer to his ceiling than his floor. He might be the most talented point guard in his class, which is really saying something.
Fox enters the NBA as the rawest of his summer league peers. He's also the fastest and one of the quickest, unmatched among rookies in end-to-end speed and his unique ability to shift and maneuver at full throttle. His open court shimmy against Phoenix's Derrick Jones Jr. was the highlight of his summer league so far.
Fox's quickness is more useful on defense, where he's able to hound ball handlers all over the court. It's nearly impossible to shake free from Fox, and his super-slender frame gives him a long-lasting motor. He also has solid defensive footwork and timing, quick hands and feet, and great instincts for on-ball defending. His 2.3 steals per game were impressive considering that he only averaged 21 minutes per game.
That said, Fox has two major weaknesses working against him. First, his inconsistent jump shot makes him a reluctant scorer; second, his skinny frame makes it hard for him to fully take advantage of his speed. Over his first four summer league games, Fox took just 36 total field goal attempts—14 fewer than Mitchell, who appeared in just two games, 15 fewer than Smith, and half as many as Ball.
The biggest pre-draft knock on Ball was that he would have a hard time creating shots for himself against NBA defenders. The same could be said of Fox. Defenses figure to sag off of him and dare him to make plays off of the dribble. In Las Vegas, he was very selective with his shot, passing up plenty of scoring opportunities. While Ball generated nearly 10 assists per game, Fox has just 12 assists total over four games.
Of all the rookie point guards, Fox has the biggest gaps in his game. His speed is unique and there will be nights that he can leverage it into elite playmaking, but NBA teams will throw long defenders on him, sag off and go under on screens, and dare him to shoot from outside. He'll have to make quick progress on both his ability and willingness to take jump shots in order to counter.
Part of what makes Ball such a polarizing prospect is that his game is so unique—there aren't any great comparisons to him, neither in the current NBA nor in league history. He was one of the most efficient three-point shooters in college basketball history, yet there's concern that his shot won't translate when NBA defenders can take away certain angles on his highly unorthodox shot. He was an elite passer in college, but his teammates also hit an abnormally high amount of their shots when receiving passes from him. His defense is a mixture of great feel as a helpside defender and slow feet when guarding the ball.
Through four summer league games, I'm not sure Ball's skeptics nor his fans changed their minds.
Ball is at his best in transition: he makes blistering fast decisions with the ball, throws pinpoint passes, and scrambles defenders. His ability to create transition offense on nearly every possession is underrated. Off misses and makes alike, he's great at getting the ball out of his hands early and advancing it up the court, effectively creating an extra two or three seconds of shot clock to operate in the half court. It also seems like Ball's teammates are starting to adjust to his quick thinking and running the court more and more, looking for outlet passes and filling lanes.
And it's not just his assists that help. Ball moves the ball quickly when he sees an opportunity for someone else to exploit a defensive imbalance on the other side of the floor, showing incredible trust in his teammates. Summer league doesn't have publicly available SportVu player tracking data, but there's a great chance he led all players in hockey assists by a wide margin. After four games, he led all players in regular assists at 9.8 per game, two more than anyone else and almost twice as many as any other player drafted last month.
But Ball's shot was also off during that span. He shot just 35.7 percent from the field, remarkable considering he shot worse than that just twice during his entire freshman season at UCLA. Some of those shots have been solid catch-and-shoot looks that probably will progress back to the mean over the course of an 82-game NBA regular season, but some of his shooting struggles came off of the exact plays scouts worried about. Ball has air-balled and clanked pull-up shots going to his right, and has been forced into contested step-back threes late in the shot clock.
Yet even when Ball slumps, he makes winning plays. Against Philadelphia, Ball scored 36 points, primarily off of dribble drives when the 76ers attempted to pressure him and test his handle. That plan backfired as Ball took over the scoring load and picked the Philly defense apart, getting to the cup and either scoring or finding the open man on the kickout.
As an on-ball defender, Ball has suffered some disastrous moments, especially in the pick-and-roll. He probably doesn't have the foot speed to cover some of the league's quicker guards, like Westbrook, John Wall, and Kemba Walker. He has the length to sag off of lesser shooters, but teams can combat that by forcing him into ball screens below the three-point line. In Las Vegas, Ball hasn't been able to fight through those screens and contain penetration.
Off the ball is a different story. Ball has shown great anticipation—especially in transition, where he jumps passing lanes and disrupts fast breaks. Ball ranked second in steals per game behind Mitchell and his six blocks through four games stood out quite a bit among guards. He also was a good defensive rebounder.
Over the course of summer league, all four rookie point guards looked like elite prospects. Each had their ups and downs, but mostly stood out for good reasons. Going forward, their diverse skills, strengths, and weaknesses will make for some interesting comparisons, and make the NBA as a whole more enjoyable to watch. Let's see what happens next.