The 76ers took the layup Thursday night in New York by selecting Washington guard Markelle Fultz, almost universally rated the best talent available, with the first pick in the NBA draft.
They didn’t bounce the ball off the glass and windmill it home. They didn’t pull up and try a three-pointer. They didn’t throw a behind-the-back pass into the seats. They took the layup and put the sure points on the scoreboard.
It was the right play and one they telegraphed by trading a future first-round pick to Boston to move up from No. 3 to No. 1. As often as it is said, trades are rarely good for both teams, but this one was an exception. Boston, which doesn’t need a point guard, got the added value of the pick, and the Celtics still came away with the small forward they wanted. The Sixers, desperate for backcourt talent, got the most promising guard in the current class.
What the Sixers didn’t get, however, and what Bryan Colangelo has to somehow find is reliable perimeter shooting. Fultz’s college range was acceptable but nothing great, and Colangelo acknowledged that among the top prospects in the draft, none had “brilliant shooting numbers.” So, the Sixers came away from the draft – at least as far as can be reasonably projected – without the one vital skill they lacked upon entering it.
Fultz is a facilitator and a playmaker, according to Colangelo, one who will be able to co-exist with Ben Simmons in the backcourt, if that is where Simmons ends up, or one who will still be able to work in tandem with Simmons if the bigger man slides to a wing position. The vision is that Simmons will be the primary ball-handler, but with Fultz not far behind. Even in the world of free-flowing, position-less basketball, where the traditional 1-5 numbers don’t necessarily apply, it will take some time to figure out. With talented players, of course, all problems are solvable.
In the modern NBA, though, solving offensive problems and opening the floor for all that slashing and passing and movement to the rim is not possible without a three-point threat the other team must respect. Last season, the Sixers were awful at spacing the floor in the halfcourt. Opponents played under all their ball screens because there was no reason to guard the perimeter honestly. The Sixers were a ridiculous seventh in the league in three-point attempts and 25th in three-point shooting percentage. Their two most accomplished threats, Robert Covington and Nik Stauskas, combined to shoot well below the NBA average, and would have been secondary perimeter options, if that, on a better team.1
Colangelo holds out the hope that the Sixers will be able to develop Fultz into a real shooter, which is possible. It would be a particularly nice bonus if Simmons does remain on the perimeter himself, because he isn’t going to provide that threat.
“We feel like we’ll be adding the best player and the best fit, and if he’s not the best shooter, we’ll work to make him the best shooter,” Colangelo said before the draft. “That’s where the development phase comes in and where your coaching staff is so effective. One things that guys do in this league is improve their shooting.”
Well, not always. In the previous 10 drafts, starting in 2007, 14 true guards were selected among the first five picks of their respective drafts from U.S. colleges.2 Not a single one of them – from Mike Conley in 2007 to Kris Dunn in 2016 – has an NBA career shooting percentage higher than his final season of college ball. Only three have higher career three-point shooting percentages than they had in college. (Conley, 37.9 percent to 30.4; Bradley Beal, 39.9 percent to 33.9; Tyreke Evans, 29.5 percent to 27.4).
Understanding that defense is much better in the NBA and the three-point line is a yard deeper, expecting great improvement in shooting percentage is a faint hope. If the most talented players in the draft can’t do it, who can? Even expanding the statistical range to include all guards taken among the top 10 picks during that span, a total of 34 players from U.S. colleges, only one has improved both his overall shooting percentage and his three-point shooting percentage compared to college. And if you think there are a lot of Steph Currys out there, think again. He’s an exception to the rule in many ways.
Fultz shot 47.6 percent from the floor and 41.3 percent from three-point range in his season at Washington, both of which are pretty good, but, again, not predictors of future accuracy given the level of competition and the three-point distance. Among those 34 top guard picks mentioned above, for instance, a total of 10 shot 40 percent or better from three-point range in their final college season and only one, C.J. McCollum, has an NBA career average that high.3
The realistic hope isn’t that Fultz improves his shooting percentages greatly, but that they don’t diminish greatly. Staying the same would be accomplishment enough. Meanwhile, Colangelo still needs to address the need for reliable perimeter scoring.
He has cap room to court free agents, and that is probably his most likely avenue. Making a trade for such a valuable commodity would be difficult given his roster and the fact that the various protections of the Boston trade tie up several future first-round picks. They’ll lose only one, but at the moment, it could be the Lakers’ 2018 pick, the Kings’ 2019 pick or their own 2019 pick.4 Until it is known which of those will be conveyed, the others are in limbo. You can’t trade a pick that might already be promised to someone else.
It could be that Colangelo and the Sixers aren’t trying to fill every need for this season, of course. Taking a year to let the core grow together isn’t a bad strategy before committing resources to plug gaps that might not exist. That would be understandable, if not necessarily helpful to the bottom line of wins and losses.
For the moment, they took the layup on Thursday night and it was the right move to make. Markelle Fultz checks nearly every box on the list. But layups aren’t three-pointers and a team needs those, too. The Sixers did before the draft, and they still do after it.
1.Covington’s three-point accuracy of 33.3 percent (137 for 412), ranked him 110th in the NBA among 117 qualified shooters. Stauskas, at 36.8 percent (132 for 359), ranked 62nd.
2.Ricky Rubio of Spain was taken with the 5th pick of the 2009 draft, the 15th guard taken in the top five between 2007-16. Additionally, the total number of guards taken in those 10 drafts among the top 10 was 36. Rubio was not included in the statistical comparison and neither was Brandon Jennings, who played a season in Italy after high school before becoming the 10th pick in the 2009 draft.
3.McCollum’s senior season at Lehigh was cut short to 12 games by injury, so his 51.6 three-point shooting percentage that season might be less indicative than his 37.7 percent mark for his four-year career.
4.To review, as compensation for swapping the No. 1 pick for the No. 3 pick this year, the Celtics get the 2018 Lakers first-round pick, but only if it falls between Nos. 2-5. If it does not convey, the Celtics get the more favorable of the 2019 Sacramento and the 2019 Sixers first-round picks, unless either is the No. 1 pick in the draft. In that case, Boston gets the other one.