2020 NBA Draft's Biggest Boom-or-Bust Prospects
Boom-or-bust NBA draft prospects have perceived high ceilings and low floors.
Best-case outcomes for the following five players could result in future All-Star invitations. But questions about their skill sets and weaknesses create worrisome worst-case scenarios relative to where they're projected to go.
The bar is naturally set higher for the projected top picks, who can be labeled as busts even if they last 10 years as a role player.
It's time to sort out the players who could make front-office execs look like geniuses or have those decision-makers second-guessing themselves.
Aaron Nesmith (Vanderbilt, SF, Sophomore)
From a draft stock perspective, Aaron Nesmith's season-ending foot injury might have helped. It occurred 14 games in, when he was averaging 23.0 points on 52.2 percent shooting from three, likely unsustainable numbers for an entire season. But the small sample size may have been enticing enough for Nesmith to draw interest in the back end of the lottery.
Some scouts have called him the draft's best shooter, and 6'6" size makes it easier to picture his shot-making translating.
But what if the accuracy was fluky? He shot 33.7 percent from three in 32 games last year. Nesmith won't have any margin for error in the NBA, given how little he contributes in other areas, a reason why one executive told me he ranked him as more of a late first-rounder.
He totaled 13 assists in 500 minutes while generating six total points on 16 pick-and-roll possessions. And though he was ridiculous shooting off the catch, Nesmith finished just 13-of-37 on dribble jumpers.
Vanderbilt also lost to Richmond, Tulsa, Liberty, Loyola Chicago, SMU and Auburn during his 14-game season. None of the team's wins came against power-conference schools.
Maybe Nesmith's numbers were legitimate and indicative of special shooting. Or maybe it was just a scorching-hot streak. Given his limitations as a creator and passer, a streak-shooting Nesmith doesn't sound that attractive or valuable for a potential lottery pick.
Aleksej Pokusevski (Olympiacos II, PF/C, 2001)
Aleksej Pokusevski's highlights scream star, and his specific counting stats say unicorn. His lowlights and inefficiency raise questions about whether he's built for the NBA.
Few 7-footers on the planet are as fluid skill-wise as Pokusevski, whose transition ball-handling, smooth shooting stroke, shot-making versatility and flashy passing consistently pop. And though he projects more as a forward than center, based on his particular game and body, he's quick to get to shots defensively in rim protection.
Between last summer's U18 European Championships and his 11 games in the HEBA A2 League, he combined to average 1.5 threes, 3.3 assists and 2.6 blocks, a set of numbers no college player on record has ever matched in a season.
The sample size is smaller and took place in different settings, but Pokusevski checks a unique set of boxes in terms of his capabilities, and he's also the draft's youngest prospect, not turning 19 until Christmastime.
A skeptic will point out Pokusevski's skinny upper body, 40.4 field-goal percentage in Greece and sometimes wild decision-making. He tends to showboat or put in limited effort defensively. I've heard a scout question how seriously he takes things, hinting that he's more gimmicky than a realistic NBA prospect worth drafting in the first round.
With a range of outcomes that seems extremely wide, Pokusevski is all over the place on draft boards, as his stock and trajectory have become one of the 2020’s draft’s most fascinating storylines.
Jaden McDaniels (Washington, SF/PF, Freshman)
When Jaden McDaniels started at Washington, there was a sense he could be one of the class' best prospects in the same tier as currently projected top picks. Inconsistency killed that idea, as did questions about his motor and drifting.
Still, McDaniels' mix of talent and skill is obvious and unique, given how he operates as a smooth, 6'9" wing. With power forward size, he hit 43 threes and 39 pull-ups in 31 games while generating .86 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler (77th percentile). He projects as a 4 with a fluid jump shot and creative moves for creation around the perimeter.
On the flip side, with power forward size, McDaniels shot just 40.5 percent. A face-up game makes him different from others at the same height, yet he shot 5-of-20 out of isolation. He totaled 100 turnovers to 65 assists, coughing the ball up 3.2 times per game despite being used on just 25.6 percent of Washington's possessions.
McDaniels has an advanced skill set in place, and mastering it could elevate his scoring potential and create consistent mismatches against slower bigs and smaller wings. But at this stage, his execution is far away. And not sharpening each skill and his IQ could leave McDaniels looking more like Kevin Knox II by his third NBA season.
James Wiseman (Memphis, C, Freshman)
Teams see star upside tied to James Wiseman's 7'1", 240-pound frame, 7'6" wingspan, quick leaping ability and flashes of skill. Unless someone trades up, he figures to go top-five to either the Golden State Warriors, Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls or Cleveland Cavaliers. But going that high raises the bar and makes Wiseman vulnerable to the bust label, even if he lasts 10-plus years.
Topping out as a strong finisher and shot-blocker would still result in disappointment. And at this stage of his development, those are his only bankable strengths we know should translate.
However, he's going early in the draft to a team willing to bet on his development as a shooter, post scorer and rim protector.
He didn't get to show it in just three games at Memphis, but over his junior and senior years of high school, Wiseman delivered glimpses of grab-and-go transition ball-handling, back-to-the-basket moves and creation into soft jumpers around the key. A ceiling projection for Wiseman pictures him as a top option in the half court, capable of working defenders from the elbows and short corners, hitting mid-range shots and changing games defensively with his length.
But Wiseman has bust potential for a top-five pick. A lot has to go right with his development for top-five teams to get the returns they'll be looking for. Right now, Wiseman isn't a legitimate perimeter threat, polished creator or passer. And though he'll always block shots, they don't always translate to defensive impact, as he has plenty of IQ to build in terms of pick-and-roll coverage and avoiding fouls.
But there aren't many NBA players with Wiseman's measurements and athleticism. If he gradually improves his offense and feel, he'll become a difference-maker to build with. But there are plenty of powerful bigs who are only used to run, jump and dunk, and those centers don't get paid like top picks.
RJ Hampton (New Zealand Breakers, SG, 2001)
Some might see RJ Hampton as safe, given his athleticism and versatility. I picture boom-or-bust potential with his array of skills—but nothing we can bank on translating to being above average.
I've talked to at least one scout who gave him a lottery grade and another who had him second round.
The boom hits with Hampton if he develops a pull-up game and continues to build on the flashes of playmaking. He's explosive in the open floor and while turning the corner off a ball screen. Complementing that burst to the rim with more off-the-dribble moves/shots away from the basket—floaters, step-backs, stop-and-pop jumpers—would elevate his scoring.
Willing and capable of setting up teammates off pick-and-rolls and penetration, Hampton appears to have more assist potential than the 2.4 he averaged for the New Zealand Breakers.
However, he isn't a strong shot creator for himself outside of capitalizing on open lanes as a driver. He shot 5-of-23 on dribble jumpers, 2-of-10 on floaters and 3-of-14 out of isolation in 15 games. It's also tough to envision a lead point guard, with Hampton more of a straight-line player than creative ball-handler.
Hampton will need to improve his catch-and-shooting (8-of-27) to hold enough value in an off-ball role as well. And given his questionable creation ability, he's likely to spend a lot of time spotting up early in his career.
Athleticism won't be enough to keep Hampton super relevant if he has trouble getting his own shot, making wing/corner threes at a good rate or working as a primary playmaker. But turning flashes in each area into routine strengths could lead to Hampton's emergence as one of the class' most dynamic guards.