There were four points guards in the top 10 of 247Sports’ final composite rankings for 2016: Lonzo Ball (No. 3), Markelle Fultz (No. 5), De’Aaron Fox (No. 6) and Dennis Smith Jr. (No. 7). Ball and Fultz went west to UCLA and Washington, respectively, while Fox and Smith set up shop closer to the Atlantic Ocean — Kentucky and NC State, respectively.
Say what you will about recruiting rankings, but those who evaluated these four players have been spot on so far. That quartet now features some of the best players in all of college basketball.
No matter where you look, it’s a guarantee that you will find this foursome inside the top 10 of any 2017 NBA mock draft. If all four of these guys go pro after this season — a distinct possibility — their careers could be tied together for a long time, like Chris Paul and Deron Williams back in the 2005 draft.
We are a ways from there, though; it’s not even January. Before the calendar turns over to 2017, here’s a look at how they stack up.
Dennis Smith Jr. — NC State
Mark Gottfried handed the keys to NC State’s basketball program over to Smith back in October — as evidenced by the fact that DSJ was the only freshman in attendance at ACC Operation Basketball. If that gesture was symbolic, then what’s played out on the floor has been far more literal.
No one on NC State’s roster has played more minutes (383) or used more possessions (27.3 percent usage rate) than Smith. He’s also the team’s leader in terms of PER (22) and assist rate (29.6 percent).
It took NC State’s star guard a few games to find a rhythm shooting the ball, but Smith’s range-finder has zeroed in recently. In recent wins over Appalachian State and Fairfield, Smith shot better than 61 percent from the field and 67.7 percent on three-pointers. Smith is a near 80 percent shooter from the foul line, and he gets to the charity stripe 11.2 times per 100 possessions.
The Wolfpack have experienced problems on the defensive end of the floor. The team is currently No. 114 in the country in points allowed per possession. But with DSJ running the show, NC State can score the ball with just about anyone. Speaking of ball…
Lonzo Ball — UCLA
His shot may not be the prettiest (it’s not), but my word, does it frequently go in. Ball scores betters than 14 points per game on around nine field-goal attempts — over half of which come from outside the arc. He’s shooting a sizzling 45.3 percent on three-pointers, and the 6-6 Ball ranks inside the top 40 in the country in terms of true shooting rate — 67.8 percent.
His shooting range is a total game-changer; Ball can extend defenses farther than anyone in America. The ability to shoot like this, off the dribble, is special.
Ball has played more minutes than anyone else on a roster that composes the No. 1 offense in America; the Bruins, who are the No. 2 team in this week’s AP poll, score 122.1 points per 100 possessions, according to Ken Pomeory.
He’s not just a shooter, though. Ball hands out 13 assists per 100 possessions, and when he’s on the floor, the point guard assists on one-third of his team’s made field goals — which ranks inside the top 60 in Division I.
The freshman doesn’t get to the foul line much (three attempts per game) and can get a little loose with the ball (turnover rate of 19.2 percent), but he has already stacked up a team-leading 2.6 win shares and has a player efficiency rating (PER) of 24.1.
De’Aaron Fox — Kentucky
Malik Monk, another freshman, grabbed all of the headlines after Kentucky’s win over North Carolina — and deservedly so. When you score 47 points, that’s how things go. However, the second-best Wildcat on the floor that day was Fox: 24 points, 10 assists and just two turnovers.
That performance was emblematic of Fox’s season: 15.9 points, 7.2 assists and a usage rate of 24.7 percent. He has struggled shooting the ball from beyond the arc, connecting on just 13 percent (3-of-23) of his three-pointers. However, who needs to shoot jumpers when you can do this?
Fox draws a ton of fouls — 6.7 per 40 minutes, to be exact — and has the look of really good two-way player. The southpaw accounts for nearly three steals per 100 possessions. He’s the only Wildcat to play more than 30 minutes per game; Kentucky, by the way, is one of just two teams to currently rank inside the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. (Virginia is the other.)
Fox is second on Kentucky in win shares (1.9) and fourth in PER (22.8).
Markelle Fultz — Washington
The most complete player of the tetrad, however, resides in the PNW. Fultz threw down the gauntlet right out of the gate, scoring 65 combined points in his first two games on 67.7 percent shooting, while handing out 12 total assists.
Since going zero to 60 to start the season, Fultz hasn’t slowed down much. Or at all. He’s scored 21 or more points in eight of his 11 career games, and he’s done so efficiently. Fultz is a 49 percent three-point shooter on nearly four attempts from deep per game. According to ESPN, he’s one of just 27 players in America with a PER north of 30.
The Huskies have struggled, winning just six of 11 games, but Fultz has shined while carrying a heavy load. Fultz has played nearly 86 percent of Washington’s available minutes, and he has assisted on more than 35 percent of the team’s made field goals while on the court. The freshman has a usage rate of 29.4 percent, according to Sports-Reference, which is a well-above-average clip. This means that when Fultz is in the game, nearly 30 percent of Washington’s possessions end with Fultz shooting, getting fouled or turning the ball over.
All four of these point guards are incredibly good and can offer something a little different to a team. Ball is the tallest and best shooter; Fox is the best athlete; Fultz has been unstoppable; Smith can run a pick-and-roll with the best of them.
NBA teams that land in the 2017 lottery and are in need of a point guard should be in luck. They will likely have several options to choose from.