The Finals Rookie Project

by Zach Mitchell

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In the NBA, more so it seems than the other major sports, making it to and finding success in the Finals is more important than anything else. Westbrook averaged a triple double for a whole season? Kawhi was the best two way player since Young Lebron? Anthony Davis is a cross between Durant and Garnett?

Doesn’t matter.

Russ isn’t as good as Kyrie, simply for the fact that the Cavs guard is performing at the top of his game on the biggest stage and Russ is at home, eating Cheez-Its. Kawhi can mediate silently (or whatever he does for fun) while Draymond wins a title and Defensive Player of the Year. As for the Brow? Stay healthy and get back to the playoffs young fella.

For whatever reason, NBA scouts have a tough time figuring out which players make it easiest to earn a Finals bid. Year after year we hear about a project who is can’t miss, a special talent, once in a generation.

And then Dante Exum happens.

Which got me thinking.

If making, and winning the Finals is all that matters for the NBA, then what if we looked at which prospects would do well on its biggest stage? I’m not talking about All-Star appearances, All-NBA teams, or shoe contracts. Just who could play their best when the best teams collide.

For this exercise, I’m ranking my top seven draft prospects by how I think they would play in the current NBA Finals. Could Josh Jackson hang with Durant for 20 minutes? Could Fultz guard Kyrie? Would Lonzo see the floor enough for his dad not to explode?

These rankings aren’t about star potential or even filling the stat sheet. It just comes down to one question: could “Player” play and and impact the Finals more so than any of the players currently lacing them up? It’s not an exact science, just one hoops fan and an excuse to rank a handful of teenagers (and one senior). Let’s do this.

1. Markelle Fultz

Fultz would probably start for the Cavs by Game 3, and be the biggest minute earner of any rookie in this class. For the Warriors, he’d eat into Livingston’s minutes and they’d probably throw out a Durant, Draymond, Fultz, Klay and Steph lineup for seven minutes just to see if they could blow up the scoreboard. It would be awesome.

It turns out that when a prospect has no holes in their game, they’re awfully hard to pass on. Fultz is 6’4, with long arms, smooth game, and elite athleticism. Sure, sometimes it looks like he’s playing half asleep, and his college team sucked. Doesn’t matter. (Except for the fact that he chose his college team. He knew going in they would suck, and said “I’m fine with that”.That worries me a little.). Fultz can shoot, handle, and with proper coaching, could defend any guard in the league. He’s not selfish and won’t be blown out of the water by even future Hall of Famers. He can play on the ball, or off it, and not miss a beat. He’s scary good, and as he just turned 19, he’s only going to get better.

2. Josh Jackson

Disclaimer: I’m a huge KU fan. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s look at perhaps the only prospect who could top Fultz in All-Star game appearances someday, and would definitely give him a run for his money in the Finals.

Jackson’s shot is not a natural shooting motion. That much we know, and it’s unclear if it will ever improve beyond passable. Free Throw percentage is a great barometer for shooting potential, and Jackson shot a measly 56% from the line in college. Does that worry me? Yes. Is there anything else to worry about? No, not really.

For a 6’8 wing, he moves extremely fluid and his feet are very balanced (a reason he’s as good of a shooter as he is. Very square on his feet even on stepbacks and fades.) He can guard 4 positions, and is a good creator with the ball in his hands. Cuts, screens, flares and iso match ups are something he’s very comfortable with. When it comes to squaring up with the league’s best, he’s going to have less of a problem than most.

The issue some teams are having projecting Jackson’s potential, is will he ever be a star? If that jumper never gets fixed and if he can’t put on weight to a thin frame, the answer is probably no. However, given his work ethic, athletic gifts, and feel for the game, we also know that he won’t ever be worse than a serviceable 3 and D wing who might randomly score 20 in a big play off game. Which, I’m pretty sure, every team could use.

He also rocked a sweet fro for his only freshman campaign. In the Finals, style matters.

How would he help these two Finals teams? He wouldn’t start for either, but for the Cavs he would allow Lebron to play more small ball four with Thompson at the 5, letting Jackson go at the 3 and pressure Durant all over the court. He wouldn’t be able to shut the Slim Reaper down (no one can) but at least it would give Lebron a break on D. Given his quickness, the Cavs could still switch every screen and not have an issue putting Jackson out on an island against Curry either.

As for the Warriors, having him and Iguodala on the same team is a bit redundant. The team from the Bay doesn’t need what Josh can give them as much as the Cavs, but throwing him out there for twelve to fifteen minutes a game just to wear Lebron and Kyrie out a little more would just be straight mean.
He’s going to be a difference maker on defense immediately. If he is able to create for himself and others, and make a few 3s a game? That’s when it gets scary.

3. Malik Monk

If you’re not going to be good at everything, be great at something. When it comes to Monk, putting the ball in the basket is his saving grace. He’s a six foot 3 pogo stick of a scorer who won’t win any rebounding or assist awards. He doesn’t make his teammates better, he’ll give up nearly as many as he scores, and a stiff breeze could carry him away like Mary Poppins.

In this situation though, it doesn’t matter. Much like how Kyrie’s game took off when Lebron showed up and guaranteed him a spot in the Finals, Monk’s game would increase as well. With better teammates, no team would be able to double him, and he’d most likely be left with the least least serviceable defender. Kyle Korver on Monk? Forget about it. Would Steph like chasing him around screens for twenty minutes a game? I bet not.

Monk’s destiny in the NBA is going to be about what team gets him. If he’s allowed to become the best version of Ben Gordon ever, then he could be the best player in this draft. If some team thinks they can turn him into Chris Paul, it won’t be pretty. Monk lives for taking shots that make his coach’s wince, right up until the ball goes in. He thrives for SportsCenter highlight dunks and running the shoes off his defender.

On either of these teams, he’d go nuts. Imagine, with Lebron as his creator and the Warriors worried about Kyrie? Come on. He’s the rare player whose role doesn’t change with the team.

He’s just there to grin and get buckets.

4. De’Aaron Fox

In somewhat the opposite case of his former Kentucky teammate, Fox finds himself with a skill set of many things he does well.

It’s just that he can’t shoot.

Can his jumper be fixed? Sure. Fox has a decent touch, and given his blazing speed he’s always going to be able to step into a jumper with as much room as his defender will give him.

Still, a point guard who can’t shoot is death in today’s NBA. Just ask Orlando. Or the Timberwolves. Or the Knicks.

(Actually, don’t talk to Knicks fans. You’d get a more coherent answer from a zombie in the Walking Dead. If my team were still trying to run the triangle in 2017 while the rest of the league got faster and more athletic while my GM said that you can’t win while shooting 3s and did everything he could to run Porzingis out of town, my head would fall apart like a bad special effect in a straight-to-Netflix movie. Stay classy Phil.)

So why rank Fox fourth? Easy. It’s what he does when he’s not shooting.

Put him on the Cavs and give him one job: wear Curry out. Fox, at 6’3 and with a 6’6 wingspan can guard anyone on the perimeter. With a gas tank that never empties and a hunger to get better (see: his tears after losing to the eventual champs in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament) Fox is somewhat like Josh Jackson. He might not score much early in his career, but he brings it at every other facet of the game.

He’s going to be good simply because in a game of tag, no one other than perhaps John Wall could catch him. If he wants to be more than another Elfrid Payton, he needs to be able to knock down a 3 once in awhile. Playing with Lebron or Durant, it wouldn’t matter all that much.

5. Lonzo Ball

Five spots too short for Lavar’s oldest son (yes, I said five. The fact that Lonzo has to be on this stupid list probably ticks Lavar off more than the fact Lonzo is fifth. Did you know that they named the Finals MVP award after Lavar? That’s obviously not true, but there’s a 50/50 chance he thinks it is).

Lonzo brings a 6’6 frame, unreal feel for the game, decent athleticism and a wonky but effective jump shot to a Finals built around the idea that positions no longer matter. It only counts if you got game, and Lonzo is full of it.

Why 6th? I think he’s going to struggle to guard any of the top flight guards. He also struggled against Fox (twice). Fox made Lonzo give it up the ball almost immediately, which isn’t a good thing for a point guard.

Lonzo will be useful to any NBA because he gets unskilled players easy points. Tristan Thompson, Shumpert, Draymond and Livingston are definitely skilled, but when it comes to get buckets, they’ve struggled in this series. Lonzo gets them easy looks with flashy passing that no other rookie this last decade can touch. With a decent first step and good touch from 3, Lonzo would be a fun addition to either of these Final teams. The question is, does what he brings with highlights and scoring make up for the fact that his thin frame won’t help him much on defense, and that every NBA team is being built to take away 3s and layups? I say yes, but out of everyone mentioned so far, Lonzo has the furthest to go in terms of making a huge difference.

6. Donovan Mitchell

A 6’3 burst of athleticism and hit or miss skill, Mitchell gets the 6th spot on this list because even as a role player he projects to be a valuable member of any NBA team. While on the short side for a lead guard, a near 6’10 wingspan ensures that he can guard anyone short of Durant or Lebron. When it comes to pure freakiness, he might be the best athlete in the draft. There’s just a few question marks about how quickly it’ll take him to learn the NBA game and settle into the pace of it, but when it comes to running jumping and dunking he’s already ahead of the curve. If all you need is someone to check Klay for five minutes a half, to hit a couple of jump shots, and to maybe someday have a chance to develop into a legit player, Mitchell has as much potential as anyone. His floor is rather high, and if he gets comfortable shooting the ball and creating, he could be a better version of Eric Bledsoe.

7. Justin Jackson

The best player on the best team in college, (for maybe two years. Don’t hate, Nova fans. It was an incredible shot.) the other Jackson isn’t projected to be a star. Instead he looks to be a valuable member to any team, to get paid fairly well over his career, and to hopefully become a better version of Danny Green.

Jackson needs to fill out, but at 6’8 and with good feet it looks like he should be able to step in and at least pester most wings in the league. A capable shooter, the Tar Heel can stand in a corner, hit a couple of 3s, and make an impact. He’s a senior, which means AARP will mailing him packets every week, but these Finals aren’t about being young. They’re about winning, and Jackson has done as much of that as anyone these last two years in college. I like that he returned to school. I like that he went out a champion, and I like that he got better every year. He won’t move the dial much wherever he gets drafted, but seven or eight years down the road he might be the third best player on a championship level team.

For this goofy exercise? He’s good enough to steal minutes from Korver or spot minutes from Ian Clark. And that gets him on the list.

As for the rest of the upcoming rookies, I think they’ll do just fine. Jayson Tatum is the Next Carmelo, with all the faults of the Old Carmelo. That’s fine on the Kings, just not in the Finals. Jonathan Isaac is going to be really good someday. He just needs to do whatever it was that Durant did to be able to bench press 185 pounds more than once.

There’s a ton of talent in this draft. The NBA hasn’t been in as good of shape since the mid 80s. Expansion isn’t out of the realm of possibilities. Most of these guys are going to be headed to bad teams, and yet, they won’t even be the best player on those squads. That speaks more for the talent in the Association than it does for these teenagers.

The NBA is in a great place. These Finals have set records in regards to viewers, and with the new talent coming in the league will only continue to grow. This class of rookies might give us five or six different All-Stars, not to mention valuable secondary stars who make their name in the playoffs year in and year out.

With the league getting younger, but the teams in the Finals getting older (no player for the Cavs getting regular minutes other than Kyrie is younger than 28.) it comes down to how quickly a player can make a difference. The Warriors drafted 3 of their top 5 players. The Cavs built through free agency, then Lebron realized that his team sucked, left for a few years, the Cavs rebuilt, and he came back. It’s just that easy.
For these rookies, making the Finals won’t be so easy. Fultz (most likely as a Celtic) will find out just how great Lebron is for the next couple of years. If Lonzo is a Laker, well, he won’t have to worry about playoffs anytime soon. But you see my point.

This year has been fun. The Finals have been exhilarating, if somewhat depressing as the Warriors run away with it. Adding a handful of these rookies to the mix might not change much, but someday, hopefully, we’ll get to find out how good they can be at the highest level.

As Malik probably says, live life and get buckets.

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