Point guards have taken the NBA by storm over the past couple of decades. From Steve Nash and Jason Kidd, to Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook, every team is looking for a lead guard to control the pace and tempo of any given game. The league was fortunate enough to have a bevy of talented point guards in this year's draft. We're going to look at three in particular to see how they're doing after their first week of the season.
Dennis Smith Jr.
May as well kick it off with Smith Jr. -- as he has played the least amount of NBA minutes compared to his other two peers analyzed within the piece. The Mavericks have been cautious with their first-round pick -- who had ACL surgery in 2015. It’s likely we’ll see him in-and-out of the lineup early on in the season, though the swelling in his knee hasn’t seemed to slow him down when on the court.
Anybody that was worried about his surgically-repaired knee breathed a sigh of relief when Smith Jr. received a lob from Wes Matthews and slammed it down with force for the Mavericks first points of the season. Get used to that Dallas fans.
In two games, Smith Jr. is bouncing around just like he was in Summer League, and during his lone year at NC State. He’s out there hunting for posters.
Nobody is safe from a potential DSJ poster...not even the 2017 NBA Defensive Player of the Year:
That sort of recklessness is what makes Smith Jr. such an entertaining player. His shot comes and goes, and he doesn’t always like to pass the ball. However, when Smith Jr. gets going downhill, you’re in for a treat.
While we only have two games of footage on him so far, we do know Dirk Nowitzki has already benefited from playing with him. In the two games that Smith Jr. has appeared, he has assisted on half of Dirk’s total baskets in those games. The future first ballot Hall of Famer hasn’t had a guard this gifted in the pick-and-roll situation since Steve Nash. Expect a lot of high screen pick-and-pop action from the Mavericks this year, as Smith Jr. is exceptional at garnering attention and getting defenders on their heels:
On this play, Smith Jr. doesn’t even need to take Dirk’s screen to get the defense to stare at the ball. After turning 39 years old this past July, this is a welcomed sight for Dirk.
After the lottery played out in the manner that it did, it was plainly obvious which direction the Kings were headed with their pick. They desperately needed a leader on a team that had jettisoned their franchise cornerstone (DeMarcus Cousins) just four months prior. Coming off a strong NCAA Tournament performance in which he dropped 39 points on the future second-overall pick Lonzo Ball, Fox was the clear selection for the Kings. It was perfect...until the Kings went and messed everything up by inking George Hill to a 3-year, $57 million deal. This effectively muddied up things as it pertained to guard rotations.
This minor setback all but ensured Fox would come off the bench to start his career. Thankfully for Fox’s development, Hill hasn’t significantly cut into the rookie’s time. Thus far, both are near 28 minutes per game. Coming off the bench hasn’t seemed to affect the former Kentucky Wildcat, as Fox has impressed with early averages of 15.0 PPG, 5.0 APG, and 5.0 RPG. If he sustains those numbers, he’d be the 12th person in NBA history to average 15/5/5 in a rookie year. Legends like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson and Chris Paul all achieved that standard in their rookie year. We should temper expectations just a bit -- as the last two players to accomplish this feat were Tyreke Evans and Michael Carter-Williams.
His speed has shined, as many had expected. In transition, Fox is nearly impossible to stay in front of. With that said, he's also shown to be explosive in half court sets. The first bucket of his career came on a straight line drive that you would have missed had you blinked. Fox will get a lot of baskets at the rim early on from defenses either falling asleep, or underestimating his burst. Teams likely will begin to catch on by sending extra help to stunt his drives in the paint. In these instances, Fox has shown touch and grace on bounce passes around the rim. Once he develops a stronger rapport with Willie Cauley-Stein, the pair will have the Sacramento crowd rocking with thunderous alley-oop connections.
The attribute teams were most worried about with Fox was his jump shot. Athletic gifts and less-complex defensive schemes allowed Fox to get all the way to the rim when he wanted during his college days. The NBA is different, as many aspiring lead guards have learned. Teams will take away what’s most comfortable. Fox will see opponents go under screens time and time again until he proves he can hit an outside jumper. He’s fared well thus far -- hitting 50-percent of his pull-up jumpers on the season, including this one against Dallas:
J.J. Barea isn’t a great athlete, but he’s smart and knows how to use his feet. He goes way under the Kosta Koufos screen to allow him to recover and get back to Fox’s body. Fox knows this, and gives Barea a subtle in-and-out to create that extra separation. It’s a rhythm jumper that Fox needs to make consistently if he wants to be an elite attacker off the bounce. When Fox starts making a few of these, he’ll start seeing defensive schemes like he saw against Denver the very next night:
Mudiay is the defender here, and is far less experienced than Barea. He doesn’t really attempt to fight over the screen, but he gets a bit of help from Millsap (whose matchup is 30-feet away from the basket). Same thing here, Fox gives that in-and-out -- a patented move for speedsters -- and creates enough space to take a rhythm dribble into his shot. He’ll see better defense than this, and it’s alright if he misses this shot in those situations. But the willingness to take this shot is uber-important early on, and Fox hasn’t shied away from this area of the floor.
A player Fox could pattern this part of his game after is Tony Parker. Parker entered the league with similar traits as Fox, but even less physical gifts. Once teams began denying the paint, Parker developed one of the most deadly mid-range games in the league. Take this cold-blood bucket over Kyle Lowry for an example:
That shot is from 2015, when Tony Parker was already 32 years old and beginning to decline athletically. He even goes away from the screen here. But year after year he has hit that same exact shot, which put just enough doubt in Lowry’s mind for Parker to create space. Seeing Fox incorporate this specific play in his arsenal might be ambitious for his rookie year, but he certainly has the skill set and speed to create space in a similar type of situation. If he does add this to his game, he’ll be a 20-plus point scorer in the blink of an eye.
The enigmatic elder Ball was a celebrity before he even played a single minute in the league. His boisterous father, LaVar, “spoke” the Lakers drafting him into existence. His two younger brothers (Gelo, Melo) are famous in their own right. What sometimes got lost in the shuffle is just how talented the 19-year old from Southern California is.
In an era shifting towards the scoring guard, Ball is the outlier. He loves passing, but he isn’t necessarily ball dominant. He’s more of a hockey playmaker than a quarterback, gifted in delivering touch passes as soon as the ball hits his fingers:
His skills as a player can’t be understated, but it’s his effect on the rest of the team that could make him a transcendent talent. Ball’s passing is infectious. He makes it cool to pass. Players want to play with him because they know he’ll find them in their spots. He even has a perennial ball stopper in Jordan Clarkson passing the ball. Clarkson had 24 points and five assists in their loss against the Pelicans on Sunday -- a stat line that he had only reached three times in his previous 162 games.
And scratch what I said earlier about Ball not being a quarterback, because that’s the only explanation for him being able to complete passes like this:
Many detractors will point out his weak performance against the Clippers, though there isn’t much to be said about a 19-year old struggling against one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. Patrick Beverley got into Ball -- no doubt about that -- but Ball didn’t back down. Following an aggressive push by Beverley early in the game, Ball responded with a sweet crossover that got the Clippers guard into foul trouble early (although the foul was later assessed to DeAndre Jordan):
This play showcases Ball’s maturity as a player. He doesn’t give into Beverley’s tactics and makes a smooth move using his defender’s aggression against him. After blowing by Bev, he keeps him on his hip a la CP3 until he gets in range for a makeable floater. After the game, Beverley told Lonzo that opposing players are going to go after him because of everything Lavar has been saying. Although this means the Lakers will get the best out of every other team this year, this only bodes well for Lonzo's development as a player. Getting guys like John Wall, Damian Lillard and Beverley to play all-out in a regular season game will serve as great experience for Ball and the rest of this young Lakers squad.
His shot hasn’t been falling. Scratching out his stellar game against the hapless Suns, Ball has shot 4-19 from the field and 1-8 from three in his other two contests. Wonky shooting form aside, Ball has the mechanics to develop into a deadly three point shooter.
He was a 40-percent marksman from downtown in his single season at UCLA, and connected from NBA range with regularity. Guys are going to go under screens until he’s hitting them at a better clip. At the very least, Ball hasn’t backed down from the challenge.
Sources: YouTube.com/Real GD's Latest Highlights, YouTube.com/MD Highlights, All Gifs via Giphy, Sergio Estrada/USA TODAY Sports, Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports, Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports