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NBA Draft notebook: Markelle Fultz and Dennis Smith Jr. are one and done (already)

In the first of two editions, Aaron provides his thoughts on some rising stars in the college game who could be targets of the Magic in the lottery this June.

NCAA Basketball: UCLA at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

For the past half decade, March has signaled the (beginning of the) end of one season for Magic fans, and the start of another: draft season. The NBA Trade Deadline has come and gone, and while the organization proudly finishes the remainder of its 2016-17 season, Magic fans can once again focus their hopes and aspirations on the college game. Will Orlando’s next All-Star come from a star-studded crop of this year’s college freshmen?

Deep runs in both the conference and NCAA tournaments by potential prospects in the past few years have allowed Magic fans to get extended looks at some of their favorite lottery-bound players. But for two of the upcoming top-6 projected NBA lottery picks by Draft Express, a deep run in March (or any run for that matter) will not be a reality. Let’s take a moment to familiarize ourselves with them now, before they become household names to even the casual NBA fans in the near future.

NCAA Basketball: UCLA at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Markelle Fultz (6-foot-4, 190, 18 years old)

I have found Markelle Fultz to be a bit of an enigma after watching him over the past four months. Don’t get me wrong in the slightest, I find the former star from famed DeMatha Catholic to be an elite talent capable of making numerous all-star appearances throughout his career. I guess I’ve just really struggled placing him; who in the world does his game remind me of? Dwyane Wade came to mind, but he’s no match. Wade was much stronger with a more developed body in college than Fultz appears to be, and he was never the prolific shooter and scorer at Marquette that Fultz has proven to be. I kind of see some Kyrie Irving in Fultz, but it’s an impossible comparison to make, because we never got to see Kyrie play for more than a few college games in Durham. Fultz has posted similar counting stats to what Damian Lillard accomplished at Weber St., albeit it at a much younger age than Lillard posted them, and at a listed height a few inches taller than Lillard (and Irving for that matter).

And then it struck me. I believe if you were able to watch Markelle Fultz play while looking into a mirror, he would basically be D’Angelo Russell. I think that works out, through a mirror everything would be backwards right? It makes sense to me, his dominant right hand would appear to be his left (like Russell), I don’t know. But yes, that’s what I’m going with; Fultz appears to be a right-handed D’Angelo Russell.

Seriously though, the similarities are pretty startling. Russell was a 6-5 (180 lbs,) freshmen phenom at Ohio St. who left for the NBA after one year. Fultz is 6-4, and will do the same. Russell averaged 23/7/6 per/40, Fultz is averaging 26/6/7. Russell shot over 40% from “3” with a TS% over 56% and Fultz has shot over 40% from “3” with a nearly identical TS%. Both guys posted PER’s over 25 in their one collegiate season; both guys posted TO%’s around 14%. And I think both young men can get away in the NBA with playing either guard position.

Per/40 Stats (courtesy of Sports Reference)

Russell ('14-'15) 22.7 45% 41% (3.2-7.8) 75% 6.7 5.9 3.4 1.9
Fultz ('16-'17) 26.0 47% 41% (2.3-5.7) 65% 6.4 6.6 3.6 1.7

Advanced Stats (courtesy of Sports Reference)

Russell ('14-'15) 26.6 57% 671 30% 14.8% 4.4 2.4 11.7
Fultz ('16-'17) 27.9 56% 582 35.5% 13.4% 3.3 0.6 9.2

In fact, I think the position Fultz settles into in the NBA will ultimately be dependent upon the team that drafts him. If the Lakers or Celtics draft Fultz, he very well could end up playing shooting guard. With a 6-foot-9 wingspan and a standing reach of 8-foot-6, he’s plenty long enough to play on the wing in the NBA. If teams like the Magic, Sixers, or Kings draft Fultz, he will more than likely be playing the point.

Wherever he settles in, Fultz will absolutely be dynamic. I’m truly impressed how efficient he’s been playing without anything that remotely resembles a supporting cast at Washington, and apparently playing through an injury for about the last month or so as well. The numbers Fultz has produced this season have been absurd. Consider this for a moment - Fultz has scored 25 points or more on twelve separate occasions this season, including five games of 30 or more points (three consecutive 30 point performances in mid-January). Fultz has also connected on three or more three-pointers in a game ten times, marched to the free-throw line eight or more times in a game nine times this season (Lonzo Ball has achieved this feat three times), and dished out 6 or more assists in a game fourteen different times on the year (including double-digit assists in a game three times).

There has been chatter about Fultz sitting out his remaining college games this season, and that may not be a bad idea. If Fultz does continue to play, you better take the opportunity to watch him as soon as you can, he won’t be playing for long. Washington has been horrid this year and has no chance to participate in any kind of postseason tournament outside of their conference tourney.

Update: Fultz, who was held out of Washington’s last two regular season games, has not been cleared to play in next week’s PAC-12 tournament. He hasn’t been officially ruled out for the rest of the season, the situation seems to remain fluid.

I have Lonzo Ball sitting just slightly higher than Fultz on my board, but I would be thrilled with either young man ending up in pinstripes. If Ball is 1a, Fultz (for me) is a very close 1b.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina State at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Dennis Smith Jr. (6-2, 190, 19 years old)

Like I mentioned with Fultz, if you want to see Smith Jr. play in college, your opportunities are running out. Smith Jr.’s college career will likely be through with by the end of the week. The Wolfpack finished their regular season below .500 and were only able to secure four conference wins. Adding to the mess that was N.C. State this season was the instability of the program’s head coaching position. Head coach Mark Gottfried was essentially dismissed from the program midseason, but then successfully talked his way back into the position to finish out the remainder of the season as the Wolfpack’s coach.

All things considered, Smith Jr. had a pretty superb freshmen season in the ACC overcoming a lot of chaos that fell out of his control. Smith Jr. finished Top-5 in the ACC in free-throws made, free-throws attempted, assists (1st), assist % (1st), steals, steal %, points, points produced (1st), and offensive +/-.

My biggest problem with Smith Jr. is his inconsistency. I think he arguably has some of the best game films out of all the top prospects in this year’s draft (four 30+ point efforts this season, four 10+ assist games as well). His two performances @Duke (32 points and 6 assists, four three-pointers) and vs. Miami (31 points, 9 assists, five treys) were incredible. I just seemed to catch Smith Jr. having subpar games too often throughout the season; he shot below 40 percent from the field on twelve separate occasions this season, he also turned the ball over 4 or more times in a game fifteen times (104 TO’s this year compared to 80 from Fultz, another ball-dominant, high-usage guy).

Again, the inconsistency at times, the poor decision-making at key moments; a lot of that can be attributed to being a college freshman. Trust me, it’s hardly a knock on Smith Jr. from me at all. It’s impossible to tell how much of the looseness that crept in to Smith Jr.’s play this year is just a product of the dysfunctional environment he found himself in.

It would’ve been interesting to see if Smith Jr. would be perceived differently heading into this year’s draft if he had posted the same numbers this season playing for Duke, UNC, Kentucky, Michigan St., etc. Case in point, as a huge Duke fan, I see a little bit of Jay Williams in Dennis Smith Jr. In fact, their measureables (both are 6-foot-2 and 190 lbs. with 6-foot-3 wingspans) and production are extremely comparable. Williams was an All-American numerous times, a National Player of the Year in the college game, and a #1 overall pick in the draft. I just don’t see Smith Jr. getting that kind of notice/recognition even though he was individually comparable (statistically) in just one season to Williams (who played three years in college), nor should he be (because basketball is obviously a team sport, recognition often goes to players on successful teams).

I can’t help but think of former Magic guard Steve Francis (6-foot-3, 195 lbs.) has an example of what kind of player I think Smith Jr. will become in the NBA. Francis, like Smith Jr., was a strong lead-guard who had some serious bounce in transition (who doesn’t miss Francis on the break alley-ooping passes to himself? Just me?). Francis could distribute and produce points in a hurry, but was prone to turnovers. He was a streaky scorer who peaked and valleyed routinely. Pretty much everything I’ve seen from Smith Jr. this season at N.C. St. as well.

Per/40 Stats (courtesy of Sports Reference)

Francis ('98-'99) 22.2 52% 39% 79% 5.9 5.8 3.9 3.6
Williams ('99-'02) 23.3 45% 39% 67% 4.4 7.2 4.7 2.6
Smith Jr. ('16-'17) 21.3 46% 37% 72% 5.1 7.2 3.9 2.2

Advanced Stats (courtesy of Sports Reference)

Francis ('98-'99) n/a 62% n/a n/a 17.9% 4.1 2.5 n/a
Williams ('99-'02) n/a 57% n/a n/a 18.9% 3.4 2.4 n/a
Smith Jr. ('16-'17) 23.7 57% 612 34.6% 17.2% 3.2 0.8 7.8

If Orlando ends up picking somewhere in the 3-6 range in this year’s draft, and say Ball and Fultz are off the board, I think the organization will have an interesting decision to make. Even though Smith Jr. certainly plays a position of perceived need for the Magic, I clearly have him in a tier below Ball and Fultz. Would the Magic take Smith Jr., or perhaps choose to take a chance with a forward like Jonathan Isaac, Jayson Tatum, or Josh Jackson (even though the Magic already have Fournier, Ross, and Hezonja on the wing)?

Fultz and Smith Jr. both performed incredibly in their roughly 60 combined college games. As college players, we barely got a chance to know them. I’m sure both young men would love to be leading their respective teams into the NCAA tournament next week. But believe me, we all will hear from them again very soon.