ESPN's Kevin Pelton ranks Lonzo Ball ABOVE Markelle Fultz

ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton has projected Lonzo Ball to be the better player of the two of he and presumptive top pick Markelle Fultz (subscription required).

Of course, this projection needs to be taken with a grain of salt, as most do. Such estimates often use data which aren't a perfect analogue for NBA play, which complicates the projections from the outset. Additionally, when you're working with very complicated situations comprised of a mix of empirically measurable and intangible inputs, it further erodes the predictive power of any metric to project things like future success in the NBA for players arriving there from lower levels of competition.

That said, Pelton describes his approach to these projections as such:

"So who is No. 1, Ball or Fultz? And how do the other top prospects fare? Let's take a look. My projections estimate the number of WARP (wins above replacement player) that each player will average during his first five seasons in the NBA, based on two components. The first takes translated college or international performance and adds in age to get a stats-only projection. In the list below, players are ranked by their consensus projection, which incorporates a second component -- where players rank on Chad Ford's big board -- to capture the scouting consensus about them for improved historical accuracy."

You can read more about the methodology used here, if you are an ESPN Insider and a stat nerd like myself. Otherwise take my word that it's a faulted metric (as almost all are) not designed to send rockets to the moon, but to guess future success of NBA prospects. Roughly speaking, the projections use past performance and scouting to estimate future success at the NBA level, and while I am not exceptionally critical of the model, it does tend to rely on comparisons between styles and conditions of play different enough from the league's to cloud players playing in systems less similar to the Association. It's also limited by the lack of depth in analytical perspectives, but there's only so much time and money for sharpening the tools available, and these projections are still good tools in the aggregate.

Pelton, who was notably incorrect last year placing Jaylen Brown 28th overall behind players like Dragan Bender (#2), Jakob Poeltl (#4), Kris Dunn (#7), Buddy Hield (#9) and both Celts drafted after him (Ante Zizic, #10 and Guerschon Yabusele, #19) - has also been surprisingly accurate other years, like 2014, where he ranked Marcus Smart just ahead of Joel Embiid overall, which, while sounding absurd at first blush, has certainly been born out in terms of results for the team they've played for since, even if you throw in other '14 draftees ranked lower by Pelton like Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, and Jusuf Nurkic. Sure, you can't account directly for injuries, and this isn't exactly what Kevin is trying to measure, but none of the teams they have played for have done better since, nor were any much better or worse to start with, making a strong argument for the projection. Of course, it's worth noting that Smart's collegiate career and team were a good fit for Pelton's model, too.

This brings us to the case of Fultz and Ball. Some collegiate systems can be a source of noise for Pelton's analysis, and likely provide the bulk of the gulf between Kevin's statistical component. Washington's situation that season was in many ways similar to that of Brown's the year before - much less spacing, and many fewer competent actors to work with, while UCLA was full of top-tier talent. It is further complicated by the strength's of Ball's game - especially distribution - being distorted by that imbalance (you can't log assists if nobody is scoring, for example). So, don't read too much into the assessment. I have the feeling Kevin Pelton would make the same decision most of us would were he the man to make the final call, but of course only he can answer that for sure.

Much thanks to Pelton for the hard work; for those of you who do not have ESPN Insider, I highly recommend getting it - it's some of the best original NBA content out there, even if I do disagree with their assessments from time to time.

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Photo via Elaine Thompson / Associated Press
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