Kia Rookie Ladder, Rookie Point Guard Ladder -- same difference.
The post-Draft/pre-Summer League ranking of the top first-year players might as well be a position breakdown, not only with a flood of ball handlers entering the league via the 2017 Draft but with a depth chart that includes the delayed debut of the No. 1 pick from the 2016 Draft, Ben Simmons.
This sets up so good heading into Saturday and the first action of the Orlando Summer League, to be followed the Utah Summer League starting Monday and the Las Vegas Summer League on Friday, that this is not merely a storyline for the regular season ahead.
How the Draft decisions on the point guards play out will be a league-wide watch for many years. Five players at the position in the first nine picks of the ’17 Draft plus Simmons and his recovery makes it a career-long judgment, starting now, with point guards holding the top five spots and six of the first 10 in the initial Ladder.
1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
This is about Simmons, of course. But it’s also about the 76ers. Simmons is the point guard on a team with Joel Embiid, Markelle Fultz, Dario Saric and Jahlil Okafor as known targets and, if management’s plan comes true, a veteran shooter coming before the end of summer. Simmons’ health will be an issue until proven otherwise after missing all last season with a foot injury -- he is expected to sit out Summer League and could open 2017-18 on a minutes restriction -- his elite vision and passing create nonstop possibilities.
2. Lonzo Ball, Los Angeles Lakers
Ball passing it off to Brandon Ingram, Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle and Brook Lopez isn’t far behind Simmons and the Sixers for intriguing possibilities. Ball is a better shooter, which will help his case. But Simmons will rebound, maybe at a high level compared to any guard, not just rookies, and has the running start of the redshirt 2016-17. Trading D’Angelo Russell clears the way for Ball to have a major role right away, and coach Luke Walton showed last season, with Ingram, that he will invest big minutes in a rookie.
3. De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings
Fox has as much star potential as Simmons and Ball. He just doesn’t have the same roster of multiple scoring threats to pile up the assists. But it is easy to see him surging to the top of the list with the kind of speed that should lead to several transition baskets a game and sparkly scoring numbers. Turning the potential to become a good defender as a rookie into reality would be another step forward.
4. Dennis Smith, Dallas Mavericks
His speed and leaping ability will be an energy infusion if nothing else. It has a chance to be a lot more. While Yogi Ferrell had an encouraging finish in 2016-17, a surge that took him all the way from the NBA G League to No. 7 on the final Rookie Ladder of the season and second-team All-Rookie, Smith’s upside is impossible to miss. Developing a consistent jump shot to go with the expected scoring in transition will be important.
5. Markelle Fultz, Philadelphia 76ers
It’s a strange year when the No. 1 pick in the draft has to squeeze into the top five of the post-draft Ladder, and even stranger when the No. 1 pick isn’t even the highest-rated rookie on his own team. But welcome to it. While Fultz is an ideal fit for the Sixers, running with Simmons and several other emerging prospects will not be the best immediate showcase for Fultz. It’s great for his long-term view, just not his Rookie of the Year chances.
6. Jonathan Isaac, Orlando Magic
Defense doesn’t usually generate support from Rookie of the Year voters, but Isaac could force the issue. He might guard three different spots in the first season alone while playing power forward and small forward. The No. 6 pick is listed at 6-foot-10 and 210 pounds, so adding muscle is a priority. Plus, the Magic have a lot of sorting out to do in the front court. But Isaac is athletic, defends and has 3-point range. That’s a promising starting point.
7. Josh Jackson, Phoenix Suns
Jackson, like Isaac, could make an immediate impact on defense, guarding multiple positions as part of a very versatile Phoenix frontline that already includes 2016 lottery picks Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender at forward. Jackson is not a good shooter, from much beyond mid-range or even from the free-throw line, and that’s an obvious problem. But he will move the ball and fit in as a complementary piece to the returning Suns.
8. Frank Ntilikina, New York Knicks
The concern is that Phil Jackson’s farewell gift to New York may have a harder climb than most other rookies, at 18 years old and without the prep work of a season against NCAA competition or the best of Europe. But Ntilikina is also no ordinary teenager who has been playing in France. His poise, unselfishness and vision as a pass-first point guard are beyond his years, and he can shoot with range. Plus, he could be the opening-night starter.
9. Terrance Ferguson, Oklahoma City Thunder
Talent meets opportunity. One of the best perimeter shooters in the draft -- along with Luke Kennard of the Detroit Pistons, a near miss for the last couple Ladder spots -- lands on the team that finished 30th in 3-point percentage. Victor Oladipo may be set as the starting shooting guard and Kia MVP winner Russell Westbrook may dominate the offense in general, but if Ferguson is hitting from beyond the arc, he plays. Maybe a lot.
10. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
On a roster that provided a clear path to big minutes, Tatum would open in the top five. He has a chance to be that good, especially on offense. The Celtics, though, have Jaylen Brown coming off a promising rookie season and veteran Jae Crowder, and that’s before getting into the possibility of Boston adding an All-Star small forward via trade or free agency. Tatum may have landed in a very good situation overall, but not for Rookie of the Year chances.
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