In a parallel universe, the 2020 NBA draft would have taken place tonight. In this one, it will not. August 25, the night of the draft lottery, and October 15, the official draft date, are somehow still light years away. This has been an exhausting, arduous ride for everyone involved. At least there’s a real timetable now, but part of me wishes they had just done the draft in June and held all the rookies out until next season.
Pulling back the curtain for a second, let me just say that rehashing this draft from all angles has not always been fun, nor has it always been productive. By my count, I saw 154 live basketball games between college, high school and the NBA this season. In March, after a stretch of nine games in five states across the East Coast (plus Washington D.C.), in eight days, I was preparing to fly to the SEC tournament in Nashville when COVID-19 shut everything down. It was abrupt. I spent the first stretch of quarantine diving into game film. Somewhere in April, I hit a point of diminishing returns and needed a serious mental break. Point being, there’s a palpable attrition factor when you do this year-round. Front offices can feel it too—there are only so many Zoom interviews with fringe prospects that can be done, and only so many games worth watching before your mind and your opinions start to warp—and there’s another four months still to go until the draft.
Hundreds of thousands of extra words are only going to accomplish so much at this point. I’m going to embrace brevity. Pretty soon we’ll go full-pivot back into what remains of the NBA’s on-court season (assuming, of course, everyone makes it to Orlando without a hitch). So here’s how I feel about the draft right now. To be continued.
1. I’ve written this before, but I would hedge a reasonably confident bet that the first nine players picked in the draft, in some order, will be Anthony Edwards, LaMelo Ball, James Wiseman, Obi Toppin, Onyeka Okongwu, Deni Avdija, Tyrese Haliburton, Killian Hayes and Isaac Okoro. The next group of players slated to go between 10 and 20 is slightly more difficult to pin down, but from everything I’ve gathered, those are the nine who have put themselves in higher regard. My informed gut feeling still says it’s Edwards who gets drafted first, and I’ve felt that way all season. But I honestly wouldn’t want to be the team that wins the lottery this year, and that sentiment is relatively popular around the league right now. Again, not news, but the margins separating these players are relatively slim by NBA standards. Ball and Edwards have the most significant perceived upside; neither is widely viewed as a can’t-miss prospect.
2. I wouldn’t expect the new Aug. 17 early-entry deadline to have a significant impact on this draft class. The NBA created another window for prospects to apply for entry given the strange nature of events (and a collective bargaining stipulation that players have the ability to petition for eligibility at least 60 days prior to the draft). There are maybe a handful of prospects currently slated to return to college who could shake things up with a surprise decision. I’d guess the new deadline ends up being a viable out for college players who are still stuck in transfer or eligibility limbo more than anything else. More importantly, the NCAA’s deadline is Aug. 3.
3. With international basketball leagues reconvening to finish their seasons and creating windows for prospects like Deni Avdija and Leandro Bolmaro to audition for NBA teams, I’d probably caution against putting a ton of stock into rest-of-season results. It’s not even so much about the players themselves. The hasty and unusual nature of leagues returning to action—plus the varying levels of competition to begin with—is almost certain to skew the quality of play even more. Avdija had a strong game in Maccabi Tel Aviv’s return to action, but it came against the worst team in the Israeli league by a wide margin. If Avdija finishes the season on a tear and establishes a bigger foothold in the rotation for Euroleague games, it becomes a more notable data point. But in his case, the biggest concerns won’t be adequately answered until he’s thrown into the fire and asked to create shots off the dribble against more athletic defenses. Still, his size and playmaking ability are pluses, and I ultimately think Avdija will shoot just fine, albeit not in a highly-dynamic sense. But comparing him, as an inherently passing-oriented forward, to someone like Danilo Gallinari, who has always been wired to score, strikes me as lazy and overly convenient.
4. The more I watch R.J. Hampton, the less convincing his NBA acumen becomes, and many scouts I’ve spoken to feel similarly. I jumped the gun in aggressively ranking him last spring (based largely off what I’d seen at USA Basketball), when he initially reclassified to go overseas. It’s fine that he struggled in the NBL—he only played three years of high school ball in Texas and didn’t attend a national powerhouse program, so that was probably to be expected. But looking back at his AAU film from last spring corroborated a lot of my concerns, none of which were really assuaged by his season with the Breakers. Hampton fits physically in the NBA, and his acceleration and speed helped him dominate in high school, but he’s inherently drive-first and has never been a guy who works particularly hard to set up teammates.
Story short, it feels clear to me that he’s a two-guard. And unless you think he’ll eventually shoot capably from distance—which I’m not sure I do—then it’s hard to project him confidently as a future rotation player. I think best-case scenario, Hampton becomes a Spencer Dinwiddie type scoring combo who’s best off as a third guard. He’s got talent, but should embrace the prospect of spending time in the G League next season. There’s a lack of intuitiveness to his decision-making that concerns me, and I likely wouldn’t gamble until the back third of the first round.
5. I’ve watched a lot of Aleksej Pokusevski now and can understand the arguments for and against him as a long-term investment. His feel and skill level for a forward listed at 7’0” appears pretty substantial. But I do think it’s worth noting that there’s not really a strong history of efficient scoring production—he shot a meager 29.1% on 11 attempts per game at the U18 Euros for Serbia (and while he racked up rebounds, assists, blocks and steals, keep in mind the competition at that event still isn’t particularly athletic). Some of these Greek B League games look like Lifetime Fitness runs when you assess body types and general athletic ability. He’s athletic and skilled relative to that level. His impressive passing is the biggest thing I think will translate, but he has to be able to do other things well enough to set it up.
That said, you’re not just going to scoop a young 7-footer with perimeter skills off the scrap heap, and Pokusevski has a rare, demonstrable knack for playing on the outside at his size. How long it takes for those things to turn him into a net positive is another question, and he has basically no physical strength. At the very least, Pokusevski becomes a unique developmental piece, preferably one you can keep in Europe another year, and more palatable if you’re a front office with multiple picks or with the ability to swing and miss without risking your job. But NBA teams are proceeding with appropriate caution, given the fact he’s not an eye-popping athlete who has basically never played against athletes, or legitimate competition in general. He’s the youngest player in the draft, which works in his favor. I do think Pokusevski gets drafted in the first round. But barring a Thon Maker-like surprise, I’d guess it takes place in the latter half.
6. I don’t really get the apparent holdup over Xavier Tillman, particularly relative to the general morass of bigs in this draft. He was arguably the best defensive big in college basketball over the past two seasons, his playmaking component (bolstered by a stellar 18.1% assist rate for a big) is pretty inarguable, and he’s consistently been a strong finisher—in the Big Ten, no less—despite lacking ideal size for his position. He profiles as a good enough athlete and smart enough player to succeed as a rotation piece. The only real hole in his skill set is his jumper, which scouts thought might come around this season but never really did (and he’s a career 69.5% free throw shooter). Still, I’d take him in the first round with confidence he’ll return value on his first contract, and would prefer him over many of the younger college bigs in the draft. He’s outplayed pretty much every other center in his conference at various junctures.
7. The 20-50 range looks like a very good spot to turn a profit on guards. As far as experienced college players go, I prefer guys like Malachi Flynn and Jared Butler over Devon Dotson and Tre Jones based on the fact defense have to fully account for them away from the ball. Dotson and Jones had great sophomore seasons, but remain questionable perimeter shooters. I’d prefer Charleston’s Grant Riller to both, although I was a bit underwhelmed with him in a live setting in March. He’s an exceptional finisher and twitchy athlete who should outkick his draft slot as a bench piece somewhere, but I worry about his body type holding up defensively. I still like Nico Mannion to pan out as a successful long-term player, and if he played two or three years in college, I think he’d be more clearly viewed as a Jalen Brunson-type guard. Now, whether it’s worth rostering that player at 19 to develop on the bench for a year or two is another question, and depends on where you’re drafting.
Take those names and add in Tyrell Terry (who I’d take in the teens based on his elite shooting profile), Jahmi’us Ramsey, Immanuel Quickley, Cassius Winston, Skylar Mays and Desmond Bane, and it’s clear that some pretty decent guards are going to be strewn across a fairly wide juncture of picks. “Good backup guard draft” isn’t really what juices the conversation, but it’s something.
8. A short list of college players that should distinctly benefit from their perceived intangibles: Tyrese Haliburton, Isaac Okoro, Obi Toppin, Isaiah Stewart and Jared Butler. Teams want people who inject positive energy on and off the floor. In the cases of Stewart and Butler, it should help prop up their draft ranges.
9. This is actually just a total aside, but Cade Cunningham’s decision to stay at Oklahoma State despite the team’s postseason doesn’t surprise me at all. He’s always struck me as being wired a bit differently, and his choice to remain loyal to the staff and players that came in with him should be endearing in the eyes of the NBA. The fact his brother is an assistant coach doesn’t hurt, but Cunningham has always been transparent about family playing a role in his decision process. The NCAA made a dumb bottom-line decision that it should probably reverse, anyway, given Cunningham will be their most marketable star next season and the prospect of a postseason certainly helps. But regardless, it does not take a genius to posit that Cunningham should be and will be the first prospect drafted in 2021.