It’s an unusual predicament for the Heat, but with a lottery pick certainly a good possibility – if not a probability – here’s a primer for Heat fans on top college draft prospects that are worth monitoring closely this season in a draft that ESPN.com’s Chad Ford says is potentially the strongest in a decade:
• Point guard: Ford’s top 11 draft prospects are freshmen, and four are point guards in a loaded class, led by Washington’s Markelle Fultz (ranked first by Ford), UCLA’s Lonzo Ball (second), NC State’s Dennis Smith (fifth), Kentucky’s D’Aaron Fox (ninth) and French prospect Frank Ntilikina (12th).
Fultz, 6-4, has been extraordinary, averaging 22.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, 6.4 assists and shooting 49 percent on threes. “He has everything you look for in a point guard -- size, athleticism, an ability to score from anywhere on the floor, leadership and poise,” Ford said.
An NBA scout told Ford that Fultz is “the best point guard prospect to come along in a while. There aren't really any major flaws in his game and he keeps improving every time I see him. He's got a chance to be a star."
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The 6-6 Ball averaged a triple-double in high school and has been terrific at UCLA: 14.3 points, 8.7 assists and 45.3 percent on threes.
“Scouts think he’s Jason Kidd with a jump shot,” Ford wrote. “His dynamic court vision and deep range on his jumper have had some scouts comparing him to Steph Curry. However, Ball isn't anywhere near Curry when it comes to accuracy as a shooter.”
Ball, according to an NBA scout quoted by ESPN, is a “great, elite passer. He's a better Michael Carter-Williams. Big size, not really a shot-maker, knows how to play the game. He'll get a triple-double, and it won't surprise you."
Smith missed his junior season after an ACL tear. He’s averaging 18.5 points and 5.5 assists, but Ford said his jump shot is a major concern.
"I thought he was the best point guards in the class before his injury," one NBA scout told Ford. "I won't be surprised if he's in the mix for No. 1. He doesn't have the size and shooting of Fultz, but he's a more dynamic scorer and playmaker."
Fox’s “quickness and ballhandling abilities are elite and he’s showed terrific playmaking instincts,” Ford said. He’s averaging 16.3 points and 6.8 assists but is shooting just 15 percent on threes.
As for Ntilikina, Ford said “he might see the floor better than anyone else in the draft. His jump shot is his biggest weakness.”
One scout told Ford: "If [Ntilikina] were playing at Kentucky or Duke, he'd be in the mix for the No. 1 pick. If you are picking in the top five and need a point guard, I'm not sure you can go wrong with any of these guys."
ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla said he watched Ntilikina “make 27 of 30 NBA threes” at a New York City workout in July.
If the Heat’s in position to grab Fultz or Ball, it could deal Goran Dragic early next offseason.
And keep in mind that Pat Riley previously told NBA.com that he would like two first-round picks, meaning he would need to trade for one.
• Shooting guard: Kentucky freshman Malik Monk (21.9 ppg, 42.2 percent on threes) is rising as much as any prospect. He’s fourth on Ford’s Big Board after his 47-point eruption against North Carolina last weekend.
Ford wrote Monk's “three-point shooting, ball handling and ability to finish at the rim make him the most elite scorer in the draft… His stock took a major leap when he wowed scouts at Kentucky's pro day. His combination of elite athleticism (45-inch vertical) and slashing ability had a few scouts comparing him to a young Russell Westbrook. Monk's lack of size and length for the position is the major knock on his pro potential. You don't often see 6-foot-3 shooting guards dominate in the NBA. Increasingly, though, the scouts I talk to think Monk could make the move to point guard as a pro.”
Ford quoted a scout on Monk: "He's very, very aggressive with the ball, and he can score it from anywhere. I think he can be a point guard. I don't like the Westbrook comparison, because no one in the world is as athletic and as mean as Russ, but I could see him playing a similar type of game and thriving in it.”
• Small forward: Start with Kansas 6-8 freshman forward Josh Jackson, rated third on Ford’s draft board.
Jackson, averaging 15.1 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.4 assists, “plays as hard as any player in the country on both ends of the floor,” Ford said. “If he had a consistent jump shot, he'd be a slam dunk for the No. 1 pick. There are few wings in the NBA who have his combination of physical and basketball skills.”
But he’s shooting 25 percent on threes and 55 percent from the free throw line.
Ford quotes an NBA general manager saying this about Jackson: "There's no way he's not going to succeed. Even if he never becomes an elite shooter, he affects the game in every other way. He's a more offensively gifted Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. If he can hit threes, he's not just going to be an All-Star, he'll be a superstar in the NBA. Like a top-10 player in the league."
Ford has Duke freshman 6-8 forward Jayson Tatum (14.8 points, 7.5 rebounds) as the No. 6 overall prospect and the second-best small forward prospect, and we all know how much the Heat likes Duke players.
Tatum, who missed the first eight games with an ankle injury, “was ranked higher than Jackson coming into his senior year of high school, but scouts were disappointed that the smooth, versatile forward didn't develop a lethal 3-point game,” Ford said on ESPN.com. “He still thrives primarily in the midrange.”
Said the GM, via Ford: Tatum “is the prototypical sort of wing you look for in the NBA. I want to see him stretch his game on the perimeter more."
Ford’s next-best small forwards: FSU freshman Jonathan Isaac 8th, Michigan State freshman Miles Bridges 10th and Indiana sophomore OG Anunoby 13th.
Isaac, averaging 12.9 points and 7.0 rebounds, has good length (at 6-11) and range (38 percent on three-pointers.)
Ford said “the scouts I spoke with felt like Bridges,” who is averaging 16.6 points and 8.8 rebounds, “has top-10 talent.”
Anunoby, averaging 12.6 per game, has the combination of “elite strength, defensive instincts and ability to stretch the floor that could make him an ideal 3&D player in the NBA,” Ford said.
• Power forward: Ford has Duke 6-11 freshman Harry Giles as the No. 7 prospect and Arizona 7-0 freshman Lauri Markkanen at No. 11 and Cal 6-10 sophomore Ivan Rabb at No. 16.
Giles missed the first 11 games with a knee injury and has had two major knee surgeries. “He would've likely begun the season as the No. 1 prospect in the draft if not for a series of injuries that have given NBA scouts pause,” Ford said. He debuted with a four-minute stint this past Monday.
On Giles, Ford quotes an NBA scout as saying: "He's almost the perfect basketball player when you think about modern NBA bigs. If he can stay healthy, he'll have a chance at becoming a superstar.
"But the knees will have all of us wringing our hands when it's June 22 and we are on the clock. You see what Joel Embiid [post-injury] is doing right now and it gives you courage that maybe you should take that risk. He's that sort of talent."
As for Markkanen (16.1 points, 7.3 rebounds), the native of Finland “has the NBA body and a lethal outside jumper,” Ford said.
A scout told Ford: "He's just so skilled offensively. There isn't a lot he can't do. You wish he was more athletic and a little tougher. You have to score in this league and I think he's going to be really good at it."
Rabb (15.2 points, 8.9 rebounds) shocked everyone by returning to college for his sophomore year; he can rebound and has a good offensive game in the paint. He’s projected for the mid-teens at the moment.
The scout told Ford about Rabb: “I don't think he has a super high ceiling, but I definitely think he'll be worthy of a top-10 pick."