For many, the NBA Draft is like Christmas morning. We go to bed the night before the big day, dreaming of the shiny new prospects who soon might be ours.
But often times, instead of getting Madden 64 like we asked for, our mom ends up buying NFL Quarterback Club 98 because “the man at the store said it’s basically the same!”
To this point, the 2017 Draft has yielded many more duds than it has studs, and Frank Ntilikina and Markelle Fultz — both of whom had been born before those games were released – seem more and more like they’re destined to be traded in for $5.85 in GameStop credit.
A quarter of the way through their sophomore seasons, both Ntilikina and Fultz have been net negatives for their respective teams due to poor shooting and inexperience. But the jury remains out on both players — the youngest two, respectively, selected in the first round of last year’s draft.
With a bit of polish, both could turn their careers around. So who has the brighter future moving forward?
Team: New York Knicks
Position: Point Guard
Hometown: Strasbourg, France
Nickname(s): Frank Nicotine, Frankie Smokes, The French Prince
Experience: 2 years
Draft Info: 8th pick, 1st round (2017)
Before The NBA: SIG Strasbourg
2018-19 Stats: 24.0 MPG, 6.4 PPG, 3.1 APG, 2.2 RPG (35.2 FG%, 26.9 3P%, 93.8 FT%)
2018-19 Advanced Stats: 6.7 PER (player efficiency rating), -3.9 BPM (box plus-minus), -0.2 VORP (value over replacement player)
Career Games Played/Started: 99/23
Ntilikina came into the league in 2017 with vastly different expectations than Fultz — the first-overall pick that same year. A tangle of legs and arms who did a lot of things well but nothing great, he was drafted in part because of his ability to fit Phil Jackson’s triangle offense. But with the Knicks and Jackson inexplicably deciding to part ways just a week after the draft, the Rwandan-French point guard has, to this point in his career, not been enough of a playmaker to be the team’s primary ballhandler and not reliable enough in catch-and-shoot situations to be effective off-ball.
Since being demoted to the second string a couple weeks ago, Ntilikina has played most of his minutes alongside reserve point guard Trey Burke, further highlighting his weakness as a shooter. As a pro, he’s converted just 30.4 percent of his three-pointers, and amazingly all but 10 of his 224 threes have come with the closest defender more than four feet away; the other 10 were misses.
Ntilikina’s length has made him pretty useful on the defensive end, where he actually has a net-positive impact for the Knicks in terms of opponent offensive rating, field goal percentage, and turnover rate. But he’s yet to figure out how to use that length to finish over defenders at the rim, where he seldom finds himself with the ball in his hands and where he even more rarely converts. It’s no wonder international draft guru Fran Fraschilla said that Ntilikina was still a year away from being two years away when the Knicks drafted him.
Team: Philadelphia 76ers
Position: Point Guard
Nickname(s): Kelle, I guess?
Experience: 2 years
Draft Info: 1st pick, 1st round (2017)
Before The NBA: Washington
2018-19 Stats: 22.5 MPG, 8.2 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 3.1 APG (41.9 FG%, 28.6 3P%, 56.8 FT%)
2018-19 Advanced Stats: 10.7 PER (player efficiency rating), -3.0 BPM (box plus-minus), -0.1 VORP (value over replacement player)
Career Games Played/Started: 33/15
Unlike Ntilikina, Fultz wasn’t expected to be a long-term project when the Sixers traded the division-rival Celtics two first-round picks to move up and take him first-overall. With his freakish combination of size, explosiveness, and talent, the First-team All-Pac-12 point guard was expected to immediately join Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons in the starting lineup, and embarrass defenders with his Globetrotter handles and hesi pull-up jimbos (only REAL hoopers will understand this).
Instead, Fultz has looked even more lost than Ntilikina, missing 72 of a possible 104 games since turning pro due to a nagging right shoulder injury, and/or just forgetting how to shoot a basketball — depending on who you believe.
It’s hard to even compare Fultz to other 2017 draftees, simply because he’s felt less like an NBA player and more like the plot of a not-even-that-interesting episode of Arliss. Through 32 career games, he’s shot 41.4 percent from the field, 26.7 percent from beyond the arc, and just 53.4 percent from the free-throw line. And that 41.4 percent number exists despite Fultz getting to the rim in the 89th percentile, and finishing in the 69th percentile relative to fellow NBA point guards.
But more important than his inefficiency as a shooter is the fact that he physically shoots the ball like one of those machine learning simulations designed to figure out the most efficient way to perform a task.
As hard as it is to bet on Fultz right now, it’s probably still the right move. Despite so far being one of the biggest draft disappointments in recent NBA history, he has actually been decently effective as a finisher at the rim (shooting 60.0 percent in the restricted area) and as a playmaker (3.7 assists to 1.3 turnovers) this season. And like Ntilikina, his ability to force turnovers and make plays in transition combined with his physical tools make him an interesting two-way prospect.
The problem at the moment is that Fultz’s game is so one-dimensional that defenses can collapse on him in the paint when he drives and completely ignore him on the perimeter when the ball isn’t in his hands. If he could regain even half of the shooting stroke that made him an elite prospect less than two years ago, he would immediately become a valuable contributor on a Sixers team that believes it has a chance to get out of the East this year now that it’s acquired All-Star forward Jimmy Butler.
Ntilikina, on the other hand, still lacks offensive polish and will need to improve as both a ballhandler and playmaker, while also improving his jumper, to become a reliable piece moving forward.