The Mavericks are not a true playoff team. Yes, they may get the eight-seed. No, they will not avenge the 2007 squad against the Golden State Warriors. So, now that the Dirk era is coming to a close (even though the Big German is providing efficient offensive fireworks in his reduced minutes capacity), what comes next for Dallas?
I believe that the 2007-08 Chicago Bulls illustrate the best-case scenario for Dallas. Chicago went through many of the same injury issues that have plagued Dallas this season, eventually falling four games shy of the playoffs. Despite extremely low odds of coming out on top in the draft lottery (roughly 1.5 percent), they pulled a Rose out of a hat, and with their improbable first pick, the team selected the Memphis point guard destined to become the league’s youngest-ever MVP and lead the Bulls back into title contention.
A similar fate would be an exceptional outcome for Dallas. This team can compete with the league’s best on its good nights, but the growing pains before they can compete for titles again are many. Harrison Barnes has already made massive steps forward this year, but has a long way to go to be “the guy.” Wes Matthews has found his form. Dorian Finney-Smith has been a great surprise and looks like an asset on the wing, while Dwight Powell has turned into an elite pick-and-roll finisher with some defensive shortcomings to work on.
The pieces are there, but the team needs a creator as Dirk loses the ability to draw double teams for 36 minutes and score 25+ points every night. Fortunately, if the team were to get a high pick, they’d have some interesting choices staring them in the face.
Of all the recent drafts, this is the one in which the team can likely find that creator. You have Frank Ntilikina, the French mystery talent; Dennis Smith, the silky North Carolina State guard; Josh Jackson, who can run the point forward spot; De’Aaron Fox, who is leading Kentucky alongside Malik Monk; possible Dirk heir apparent Lauri Markkanen, who plays like Nowitzki with ball handling skills…the list goes on at the top of this draft.
But the crown jewels are Lonzo Ball and Markelle Fultz, widely regarded as the top two guard prospects in the country. I recently got the chance to watch each of their games against Stanford, and while I came away impressed by both, Lonzo Ball has earned my number one spot for the time being. Let’s look at why:
Lonzo Ball is 6’6 and 190 lbs, while Fultz comes in at only 6’4 but 195 lbs. Neither has reached his 20th birthday yet, though Ball is about six months older. Fultz edges out Ball slightly in standing reach and wingspan, which says a lot about just how long he is. Both are big for the point guard slot, and both are built with the tools to defend and the tools to make plays.
Shooting and scoring
Lonzo Ball shoots better in every area of the floor. He’s shooting 53.0 percent overall, 43.0 percent from three, and 67.8 percent from the free throw line, while Markelle Fultz is less efficient both overall and from deep (he’s shooting 48.9/40.3/67.7 this season), all per sports-reference. It should be said that Fultz is shooting well; 40 percent from three even in college is worthwhile. But Ball is taking deeper shots, closer to where the NBA three-point line would be, and he just shoots such an easy ball. Watch his threes against Stanford below:
Now watch Fultz. He’s shooting just as deep here, but look how much longer his release takes. It allows the defender to challenge his shots and increase the degree of difficulty or even prevent the shot. He’s still a great shotmaker, but those little things can be the difference in the NBA.
Ball’s a more efficient scorer too, although he has finished far fewer possessions than Fultz this season. Ball is scoring 1.099 points per possession, while Fultz is only at 0.974 PPP, even though Ball’s non-conference schedule had him matched up against tougher defenses.
And look at how smooth Ball is in everything he does, how quickly he gets down the court and right by defenders. Then look at how Fultz has to work to do those things. That’s not to say Fultz can’t do them or isn’t excellent, but there are signs that he may struggle against NBA-caliber bigs at the rim or strong guards on the wing.
Ball? He just scores. The first play you’ll see is one Fultz never threatened to pull off. Ball has the explosiveness and the touch, while Fultz leans on physicality and force against college kids, which he’ll struggle to maintain at the next level.
One key stat here really sums up the difference between these two players: Synergy’s points per possession on possessions finished by that player or by that player assisting another player. Markelle Fultz is excellent by this metric. His 1.292 figure ranks in the 87th percentile, and he has a 2.1 AST/TO ratio.
But Lonzo Ball is on another planet, with a 1.611 PPP that puts him seventh in the nation among players with at least 100 possessions and third amongst all Power Five conference players. He does so with an excellent 3.4 AST/TO ratio and roughly 40 more assists than Fultz on the year despite having the ball less.
Watch first as we see how Fultz has the instinct to get his, even though the pick and roll forced extended help from Stanford’s big man and the guard defender stayed on his hip. There’s a play to be made, but Fultz keeps his head down until he sees no other option and even then doesn’t make the crisp pass that would allow his chosen escape route to catch and shoot for two points. More than anything, I was never worried that the Stanford defense would load up too much against Fultz and he’d punish them.
Now look at Ball. The alley-oop play designed for him doesn’t work, but he’s able to redirect the ball to a teammate. Then, as the shot goes up, Ball is getting in position to grab a tough offensive board. Not only does he gain control of the ball, he finds the same player for an open free-throw line jumper rather than trying a difficult, defended shot.
That’s the guy I’d draft.