2020 NBA Draft: 5 Reasons It May Not Be the Down Year You Think
Some scouts are already looking forward to the 2021 NBA draft since many have questions about this year's talent. But there are still five reasons to feel optimistic about the 2020 prospects pleasantly surprising.
A shortened season and abbreviated draft process have created more uncertainty about the field.
However, it's too early to write off the 2020-21 NBA rookies, even if the No. 1 overall pick becomes a bust.
Poor Stats a Result of Tough Fits, Heavy Responsibility for Young Players
Among the younger guards, inefficiency was a common theme that has led to skepticism about the 2020 draft class. But context is important. In many cases, team situations and roles made the game tougher for ball-handlers who'll now enter the draft with new or bolder question marks.
It would be irresponsible to criticize Cole Anthony's 38.0 field-goal percentage without noting his 30.0 percent usage rate and the limited spacing caused by a two-big lineup and a team that shot 30.4 percent from three.
Even without much room, Anthony graded in the 92nd percentile out of isolation. He's an advanced shot-creator, as well as a proven, obvious shot-maker after hitting 44.4 percent of his two-point jumpers and making 2.2 threes per game.
He does need to work on his decision-making off the dribble, but he didn't have much support or many threatening targets at North Carolina, and the lane was often clogged. Acrobatic conversions ease concerns over his finishing numbers, and he generated 1.3 points per possession as a pick-and-roll passer (84th percentile).
He also graded in the 75th percentile out of spot-ups and the 71st percentile off screens, promising signs for his potential to play some 2-guard in a scoring role.
LaMelo Ball's shooting percentages don't line up with a typical No. 1 overall candidate's, but he was also given a poor pro team to run in Australia. The Illawarra Hawks leaned heavily on an 18-year-old to generate offense and often create something out of nothing. That responsibility led to forces—some well beyond the arc, others off drives into crowded spaces.
Despite the 37.7 percent field-goal mark and 25.0 percent three-point shooting, Ball still averaged 17.0 points and 1.7 threes while finishing second in the NBL in assists on a low 12.0 percent turnover rate. Better teammates and a lower usage would have likely led to a more efficient shot selection.
Anthony Edwards needs to stop settling for so many hero jumpers. That correctable issue doesn't negate his 20.3 points per game in 18 SEC matchups at 18 years old. It's tough to match his mix of physical talent (6'5", 225 lbs, explosive athleticism) and scoring skills as a shooter and driver.
Tyrese Maxey didn't shoot well, nor did he flash a lot of playmaking. He also had to share a backcourt with Ashton Hagans and SEC Player of the Year Immanuel Quickley, which had to have affected his ability to generate a rhythm.
A brutal seven-game stretch for Nico Mannion from Dec. 14 to Jan. 18 (8-of-37 3PT) ruined his overall shooting percentages for the season. High school tape, the eye test, shot-making versatility and a 79.7 percent free-throw mark say his jump shot and touch are better than his 32.7 percent three-point mark may suggest.
These players' inefficiencies may have highlighted areas to improve, but those aren't permanent flaws. Instead of looking at their numbers as seasonal or career stats, it may be more appropriate to note we're talking about a 20-to-30-game sample size in an unfamiliar setting.
High-Floor, Safe Options
Coming off the Zion Williamson, Ja Morant draft, the biggest complaint about the projected 2020 class is the questionable star power at the top. On the flip side, arguably its primary selling point to skeptics is the number of high-floor, low-risk prospects.
Even if you have a hard time picturing LaMelo Ball as Penny Hardaway 2.0, it's easy to imagine his 6'7" size, ball-handling and spectacular passing translating to special playmaking. Anthony Edwards might not be the next Dwyane Wade, but at 18 years old, he just averaged 19.1 points with 6'5", 225-pound size, explosive athleticism and high-level shot-making skills that point to guaranteed NBA scoring production.
Onyeka Okongwu seems like a sure thing to add easy baskets, quality post-up offense and shot-blocking, regardless of how much his jump shot develops.
Obi Toppin just averaged 20.0 points on 63.3 percent shooting from the floor, production that was fueled by a persuasive mix of athleticism and expanding skills. While his defensive limitations may lower his overall value, his effectiveness in the paint and 39.0 percent three-point shooting seem like a lock to result in similar scoring production.
Deni Avdija was a regular contributor in EuroLeague as a teenager this year. His game might not scream upside, but as long as the bar is set at valued role player or serviceable starter, his 6'8" frame (that continues to get stronger), athleticism and versatility to attack through contact, shot-make, pass and compete defensively remain convincing.
James Wiseman is 7'1", 240 pounds with a 7'6" wingspan. Few NBA centers can match his measurements and athleticism. Struggling to develop his jump shot, post game or decision-making shouldn't prohibit him from still holding some value as a starting-caliber finisher and shot-blocker.
Isaac Okoro, 6'6" and 225 pounds, should be able to guard both forward spots from day one while adding efficient complementary offense from off the ball in the form of finishing, cutting, passing and occasional spot-up shooting.
After converting over 40 percent from deep in both seasons at Florida State, Devin Vassell projects as a sure-thing three-and-D wing with his high-release jump shot and tremendous defensive athleticism and IQ.
Athleticism and pull-up shooting limitations raise questions about Tyrese Haliburton's upside, but he won't need either to fit in, assuming his signature passing IQ and spot-up shooting carry over. Even if he can't beat anyone one-on-one, teams should be able to use his vision and decision-making in ball-screen situations or slide him off the ball to stretch the floor and hit catch-and-shoot attempts.
One senior was taken in the last two lotteries combined. There won't be any taken that high in 2020. Early projections suggest the most likely candidates to come off the board first are Cassius Winston, Desmond Bane, Payton Pritchard, Grant Riller and Skylar Mays.
They all could offer excellent value relative to where they're projected to be selected.
Over the last few years, seniors taken No. 20 or later include Malcolm Brogdon (No. 36 in 2016), Caris LeVert (No. 20 in 2016), Matisse Thybulle (No. 20 in 2019), Devonte' Graham (No. 34 in 2018), Josh Richardson (No. 40 in 2015), Derrick White (No. 29 in 2017), Josh Hart (No. 30 in 2017), Richaun Holmes (No. 37 in 2015) and Fred VanVleet (undrafted in 2016).
Once again, 22- and 23-year-olds figure to slip through the cracks with teams typically more willing to gamble on youth and theoretical upside.
A terrific leader and setup passer, Winston also just put together a seemingly unmatchable shooting profile, hitting 46.9 percent out of spot-ups, 58.1 percent off screens, 41.2 percent off the dribble, 43.2 percent from three and 85.2 percent from the free-throw line.
Riller could be the class' most advanced shot-creator. Despite being Charleston's obvious player to stop and plan for (21.9 points per game), he still registered a 60.9 true shooting percentage, the third season in a row in which he topped 60.0 percent.
Bane, 6'6" and 215 pounds, just shot over 42.0 percent from three for the third straight season while improving his playmaking skills (3.9 assists per game). He projects as an easy fit as long as his athletic limitations don't hold him back, and his shooting consistency at TCU wasn't fluky.
Mays isn't an exciting athlete, either, but he's crafty with his change of direction and speed for creation and acrobatic finishing, and he just made a notable jump as a shooter to get to 39.4 percent from three.
One of college basketball's most impactful players and toughest competitors, Pritchard averaged 20.5 points and 5.5 assists on 41.5 percent shooting from deep. His skill level and intangibles are top-notch and potentially capable of overriding his physical limitations en route to a long pro career.
General managers who are nervous about Killian Tillie's medical history could lead to him becoming one of the draft's top buy-low value picks. He shot over 40.0 percent from three in all four seasons at Gonzaga, demonstrating enough post and passing skill and defensive mobility to become more functional than just a standstill shooter.
Potential Saviors from Overseas
Prospects who spent the season overseas could help save the draft class if the NCAA players disappoint.
LaMelo Ball leads the pack of non-college names capable of making regular All-Star appearances. His rise and aura overshadowed RJ Hampton, who also played regular minutes in the NBL and is far more explosive but needs time to sharpen his core skills.
Having no specialty or signature strength could work against Hampton in the draft, but his athleticism and flashes of versatility hint at longer-term upside worth thinking about for lottery teams. He blew past Ball on multiple occasions during their matchup in Australia, and he should continue to experience success attacking downhill and slashing, regardless of how his development goes from here.
He delivered enough glimpses of shot-making, ball-screen playmaking and floaters to feel optimistic about his potential to evolve into a multidimensional offensive combo guard.
Deni Avdija could emerge as one of the draft's better players. He showed he can play a supporting role in EuroLeague, demonstrating a mature, well-rounded game that bodes well for his chances of fitting into most lineups. For Israel at the European Championships, where he won tournament MVP, and in the Israeli BSL, he's also proved he can assert himself as a lead option.
He just went or 23 points, seven rebounds and five assists in his return to action on Sunday, giving scouts some final looks at his ability to beat defenders off the dribble, find teammates and hit jumpers when locked in.
Killian Hayes has moved into the top three on my draft board. He could wind up being the most complete point guard from the class if he continues to improve his shooting. Already a crafty passer and natural facilitator at 6'5", he took a big jump forward this season with his shot-creation and shot-making on runners and pull-ups.
He just averaged 11.6 points and 5.4 assists on 59.1 percent true shooting between Eurocup and the German BBL at 18 years old. Only six NCAA freshmen have matched those numbers, and four were Lonzo Ball, Chris Paul, Jason Williams and Jameer Nelson, per Sports Reference.
A pair of wild cards—Leandro Bolmaro and Aleksej Pokusevski—could really swing the narrative on the 2020 class. Given their limited minutes against quality competition this past season, neither is expected to go in the lottery, yet both have lottery-caliber upside.
Bolmaro, who just started playing again with Barcelona in the Spanish ACB, was averaging 14.9 points, 3.6 assists and 1.8 threes in Spain's LEB Silver league. He's a point wing with a unique ability to create and pass at 6'7", and he often brings the defensive intensity to pressure and blow up screens.
His jumper isn't consistent yet, but for a 19-year-old, it's capable enough to bet on it improving a desirable amount.
Pokusevski is 7'0" with an eye-opening skill set that includes fluid three-point shooting, special passing instincts and exciting shot-blocking ability.
He's extremely skinny, a question mark for a big who doesn't project well defending away from the basket. But he's also the draft's youngest prospect, turning 19 on Dec. 26, and few pros his size are capable of drilling jumpers off screens or setting up teammates off the dribble. Successful physical and fundamental development could result in his trajectory soaring over lower-ceiling NCAA prospects.
Theo Maledon could also be a sneaky pick, though his lack of explosion suggests his upside is limited. He wouldn't be the first point guard to get by with skill and feel over athleticism. He's also one of the most experienced eligible prospects, having played 43 Jeep Elite games (France's top division) last year and 22 EuroLeague games (12 starts) this season.
While he struggles to blow by defenders, he's a comfortable, balanced shooter off the catch and dribble, and he compensates for his lack of bounce with body control, coordination and paint touch.
There Could Be Stars; They Just Might Be Tougher to Identify Right Now
The last time there was this much fear about a draft class was in 2013, when the lack of a consensus top option led the Cleveland Cavaliers to select Anthony Bennett first overall.
But after a few seasons, CJ McCollum won 2015-16 Most Improved Player and become a 20-plus-point scorer in the West. Then, Victor Oladipo became the league's 2017-18 Most Improved Player, an NBA All-Star and an All-NBA contributor. Steven Adams turned into a $100 million center. Rudy Gobert earned Defensive Player of the Year honors twice.
And then Giannis Antetokounmpo won NBA MVP.
Those stars weren't obvious before their draft. And though there aren't many obvious ones in the 2020 class, it's possible they're just tougher to identify this early.
What if Isaac Okoro maxes his defensive potential to become one of the league's best wing stoppers before eventually turning flashes of playmaking and spot-up shooting into regular skills the way Andre Iguodala did?
What happens if Killian Hayes, Leandro Bolmaro or Tyrese Maxey make strides as shooters? Or if Obi Toppin gets to an average level defensively while averaging the 20 points and eight rebounds his college numbers, body and skill set suggest are entirely possible?
What if Aleksej Pokusevski, a 7'0", 18-year-old shooter, ball-handler and passer, puts on weight the way Kristaps Porzingis did? Isn't it possible that Patrick Williams, a 6'8", 225-pound forward and the youngest draft-eligible NCAA prospect, continues to build on flashes of pull-up shooting, pick-and-roll passing and defensive playmaking?
Why can't Grant Riller, Cassius Winston or Skylar Mays, older prospects, improve in their mid-20s the way Fred VanVleet, Devonte' Graham and Malcolm Brogdon did? And why can't Aaron Nesmith, a 6'6" forward who made 60 threes in 14 games at a 52.2 percent clip, emerge as one of the league's better wing shooters?
They won't all become stars, but there are enough prospects in this draft with potential trajectories that could clear basic role-player heights. And chances are, some of the unsuspecting ones will catch their wave.
Stats courtesy of Synergy Sports