With J.J. Barea — the team’s best and perhaps only playmaker — now out for at least six weeks, Rick Carlisle and the Dallas Mavericks will have to make do with an utterly depleted position group at point guard.
How well Barea recovers from this injury is not entirely certain, either, given that he’s 32 and has needed every drop of athletic ability to carve out the kind of career he’s had as one of the shortest players in the league. Barea won’t be able to adjust to losing a step the way a bigger point guard like Deron Williams did.
Speaking of D-Will, at this rate it’s not unthinkable that the 12-year veteran will have to retire at year’s end. His play has slipped almost season-by-season, as he continues to struggle with nagging injuries. There were stories out of Brooklyn that chronic pain nearly resulted in an early retirement years ago, so how much longer he has left is anyone’s guess. Either way, the Dallas native will be a free agent (again) at season’s end, and if he’s unable to bounce back and put a healthy campaign together, it seems very possible that his time as a Mav will come to a close.
Would Dallas go back to the free agency well to find his replacement, should that scenario arise? I’m not so sure, because the free agent point guard crop is not so much a well as it is a small trench filled with all the money teams are going to line up to offer Stephen Curry. Once you get past that name (the sort of which Dallas has had exactly zero success luring away, anyway), the options become fairly grim.
Despair not, Mavs fans, because I have some good news, and play along if you’ve heard it already: this upcoming draft class is special. Potentially historic, when looking specifically at the point guards, and certainly the most promising since Steph Curry was taken in that 2009 class.
As of Friday morning, the Dallas Mavericks were all alone with the third-worst record in the NBA, giving them a not-terrible shot at the top overall pick. I was one of those people who optimistically hoped Dallas could grind out another playoff appearance, but with all the injuries mounting, coupled with the worst start to a season in nearly two decades, my focus has changed. With so few young quality pieces on the roster, and the team already in the spot they’re in in the standings, it would seem that the rebuild starts here. If you can’t be good, be bad.
Let’s take an early peek at the possible names of the next Mav starting point guard:
Markelle Fultz, 6’5, Washington
If you were betting on the 2017 top pick, right now (and until Harry Giles looks healthy again) the two likeliest candidates would probably be Kansas’ Josh Jackson and Markelle Fultz. Since we’re talking about point guards, Fultz is a great place to start.
It’s not breaking news to state that this is probably the best era for point guard play in the NBA’s history. Watching Fultz, you see all the tools necessary for him to add his name to the list of exceptional lead guards. He’s big, he’s athletic, has superb ball-handling skills, and he has a knack for scoring as well as setting up his teammates. Other than that, he’s terrible.
Fultz looks so in control when he has the ball in his hands, it rarely seems as though he’s really exerting himself. That is, of course, until he sees a chance for a Lebron-esque chasedown block (he’s had two of them in just two games so far), or gets the ball in the open court for a breakaway dunk (he’s had several of these already, too). Most encouraging is how well he’s played in the half-court, however, which lets people like me dream about how Fultz would look running Rick Carlisle’s pick and roll heavy flow offense.
In our gushing about Markelle, we must remind ourselves that players like this almost never fall out of the top 3, so the Mavs will need to play a lot more losing basketball then get some ping pong ball luck to even sniff this kid. With the 76ers 76er-ing, odds are they’ll just miss out, but for anyone feeling down and out about the Mavs’ present status, be aware that players like Fultz can be franchise-changers.
Dennis Smith, Jr., 6’2, NC State
Dennis Smith Jr. entered the college season as -- at worst -- the #2 PG behind Fultz, but after electrifying observers during exhibition play, he hasn’t had nearly the start to the regular season Fultz has. To be fair, Smith missed his entire senior season of high school recovering from an ACL injury, so he deserves a little time to catch up to the speed of true game action.
Certainly, even with only a moderate showing, Smith has demonstrated why the hype follows him. He’s arguably the most explosive athlete in the class, with a hyper-aggressive mentality to match. In the latest MMB podcast, Austin made the Kyle Lowry comparison, and there’s both a literal resemblance as well as play style one, though Smith is not only bigger but unlike Lowry, can play above the rim.
Like Lowry during his college days, Smith has not yet developed a three-point shot (he’s 0-8 so far), and that will be worth keeping an eye on as the season continues. If he improves from outside, he’ll push himself into the conversation for the top overall pick.
Lonzo Ball, 6’5, UCLA
Lonzo Ball is going to be a lot of basketball fans’ favorite college player, I suspect. Coming from a super fast-paced offense in high school, Ball could absolutely be a star for a team that likes to run and play up-tempo. He’s already averaging nearly a triple-double early in his freshman season at UCLA, which undoubtedly conjures images of former Bruin Russell Westbrook, but Ball is probably closer to a cross between another ex-Westwood kid, Zach Lavine, and Jason Kidd.
Now, that comp probably oversells Ball, but hear me out: not only does he have the size, unselfish passing game, and knack for rebounding from the guard spot that Kidd had, but Ball even looks a little like pimply-faced Cal era Kidd, with the early ‘90s short shorts and matching hairstyle.
Watching him play so far, I’m tempted to say that Ball will end up moving into the top 5 or 6 picks, but for now he’s being projected closer to the back half of the lottery, and I suspect there are a couple of reasons why. For one, he has some funky shot mechanics, snapping the ball from just left of his face across his body. He’s been pretty successful with that release to this point, but at the next level it may get him in trouble. The other issue is whether Ball is capable of creating offense in the half court. He doesn’t have quite the attack-the-basket game of Fultz or Smith, but you love his unselfishness and court-awareness. He’s already doing all the little things, like making the extra pass, spacing himself properly, etc. High basketball IQ is one of those qualities that teams like Dallas love.
De’Aaron Fox, 6’4, Kentucky
De’Aaron Fox is the newest in the long line of big, athletic Kentucky guards who can thrive in John Calipari’s dribble-drive motion offense. Fox is long, wiry, and quick — sort of like a lefty version of ex-Wildcat John Wall. He’s probably the worst shooter on this list, but as a pure point guard who also prides himself on his defense, he has a chance to make an NBA career for himself even without a reliable jumper.
So far his best scoring attribute has been getting to the free throw line, where’s a perfect 21-21 to this point (giving hope he has some potential as a shooter going forward). He’s been able to his use elite speed both in fast break situations as well as breaking down opponents off the dribble in half-court sets. He has a slithery nature to him, and being a lefty he gives defenders a look they probably aren’t used to seeing very often.
I like Fox, even if he is perhaps more of an old-school point guard relative to the current basketball paradigm. In most drafts he would be in contention for a top 5 selection, but with the depth at this position, it seems entirely possible he could be pushed down, perhaps into the late lottery or mid-first round.
Malik Monk, 6’3, Kentucky
Malik Monk is Fox’s backcourt mate, and although he’s going to play off-guard mostly this season, I’m including him in this point guard ranking because I think there’s a chance that will be the position some teams consider trying him at. Monk is a little undersized for a 2, and doesn’t have the natural passing instincts the other guys mentioned here do, but he wouldn’t be the first guy to successfully transition from college shooting guard to NBA point guard.
Whatever his position, Monk is going to make his money getting buckets at the next level. He has a picture perfect shooting stroke, and can get hot quickly from outside, like he did against Michigan State when he sank 7 threes in a surprise rout. He also has some serious hops, with a reported 40-plus inch vertical.
He can get himself into trouble by falling a little too in love with the deep ball, and will need to fight labels like “gunner” and “streaky,” proving he can cut down on bad shots, while also making enough plays to show teams he’s not one-dimensional. With Kentucky once again loaded up for a tourney run, scouts will get to see plenty of Malik Monk against top competition, so time will tell where he ends up on draft boards.
Assuming Dallas keeps its pick, they are going to have an outstanding chance to grab their point guard of the future and possible face of the franchise going forward. This could be one of those rare instances where the depth of quality at a position falls directly in line with a teams’ biggest need, and I would submit to you that to get back to contending status Dallas is going to need a stud manning the point.
If you remain skeptical of all this draft talk so early in the season, I implore you to take a look at the list of free agent point guards for next summer. It isn’t pretty.
Lastly, while I focused on all domestic products here, but there is another name worth mentioning: Frank Ntilikina, an 18 year old 6’5 guard currently playing in Strasbourg. Ntilikina fits the Exum mold of a young, tantalizing prospect who will enter the league as a bit of an unknown quantity. There will be lots of time to get to know this kid better, but for now, let’s just leave it that he’s freakishly long, athletic, and has mega-upside.