NBA Draft

2020 NBA Draft Big Board: Part 2

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Previously on Part 1 of our Big Board, we debated the ranking of top guards in the draft, and the question of potential versus production. Part one tackled the top 13 players, in two separate tiers. However, the draft grants 60 players the opportunity to be selected. Once getting beyond the top picks, the draft is much more a risk than a science. Despite this, lots of players still offer intrigue after the lottery passes. Today, two tiers that are common in each and every draft make headway.

When projecting NBA players, teams often have a tough decision to make. Do they want to focus on what players already do well, or on what they will hopefully do in the future. This debate is quite similar to the potential vs. production debate from the last article, but focusing more on specific skills. For example, does a team see Precious Achiuwa’s size and production and project a jumper, or take Vernon Carey Jr. for what he is, knowing he can shoot. This core concept is what shapes today’s two tiers, and depending on the team, they may be more inclined to choose one type of player over the other.

Obviously, this year will be a unique one for draft prospects. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the pre-draft process will be different. Quite likely, the entire combine and all camps will be cancelled. Some prospects may prefer to stay in school and enter the draft in a more stable year. Others may decide to take the risk, and stand by their college production and film. Unfortunately, NBA teams won’t have an in-person look at many prospects this year. Luckily, neither did I.

Onto the rankings!

 

TIER THREE: THE ALL-POTENTIAL TEAM

14. Killian Hayes, 6-4 G, France

15. Jalen Smith, 6-10 F, Maryland

16. Isaiah Stewart, 6-9 F, Washington

17. Tyrese Haliburton, 6-5 G, Iowa State

18. Precious Achiuwa, 6-9 F, Memphis

19. Josh Green, 6-6 G, Arizona

20. Aaron Nesmith, 6-6 G, Vanderbilt

21. Trendon Watford, 6-9 F, LSU

 

In the NBA draft, it is overwhelmingly easy to be drawn to a player based on their tools, rather than their production. Perhaps it is a long wingspan, big hands or even solid shooting form. Regardless the trait, all it takes is one of them for teams to overlook flaws elsewhere.

There is no better example recently than former Duke guard and current Atlanta Hawk Cam Reddish. Reddish is a guy who struggled mightily as a Blue Devil. He shot a putrid 35.6% from the field, resulting in an Effective Field Goal percentage of 45.9%. Simply put, he was largely unplayable despite his lofty high-school projections. With that being said, his tantalizing combination of size, and a pure shooting stroke still landed him in the top 10 of the draft.

While no player in this tier has such a dramatic variance between perception and production, many of these guys either possess specific tools, or have a particular skillset that projects to fit in the NBA. While many of their cases are different, let’s take a look at three players and break down their intrigue and their ability to capitalize in the league.

Jalen Smith

Smith is a guy who broke through in his sophomore season at Maryland. After playing in the shadow of Bruno Fernando a year ago, Smith was the focal point offensively for a Terrapin attack that was consistently at the top of the Big Ten. Along the way, he showed real productivity from the perimeter offensively, and around the rim defensively.

The player they call “Sticks” has always been a long-limbed rim protector. However, the addition of the pick-and-pop threat he provides offensively was surely the next step for his game. On 87 attempts this season, Smith shot a solid 36.8% from deep, up ten percent from last year on similar attempts.

The future for Smith will likely go one of two ways. His game right now screams NBA role player, especially given the need for most NBA bigs to shoot and protect the rim. Myles Turner and Serge Ibaka are perfect examples of complimentary pieces on good teams who can do both things at a high level. However, neither of their games stretch beyond that.

It is still yet to be seen if Smith’s game can expand further. He is a relatively stiff athlete, so he likely will never turn into a shifty ball handler with tons of playmaking ability. With that being said, developing a strong one-dribble pull-up or improving as a passer are two steps offensively he can take to move his way into the upper echelon of NBA bigs. It certainly isn’t out of the question, and that coupled with his impressive production at Maryland this season makes him a borderline lottery selection.

Isaiah Stewart

Stewart is a polarizing prospect for many. His game doesn’t seem to fit where the NBA is headed in terms of big men. He stands at a chiseled 6’9, without elite length. Further, his game screams low-post bruiser given his strength and touch around the rim. Considering this, NBA teams may not be jumping to select him in the top 20 in this year’s draft.

Despite all this, Stewart’s three-point shooting is a major swing skill. After watching most of Stewart’s games at Washington this season, including one in person, I’m on the side of his shooting translating to the NBA. His mechanics are solid, and his numbers at the line (79% in conference play) show growth. Most importantly, I think his role in the NBA does not reflect that of his role at Washington.

As the star on a struggling team without a point guard, Stewart had to resort to double-teamed post ups and offensive-rebound putbacks to make up a majority of his production. Due to this, he’s only taken 20 threes all year. However, I think that he could thrive in the pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop given his strength and shooting ability. What Montrezl Harrell has been able to do in Los Angeles is similar to what Stewart is capable of. Both have strong frames and a tireless motor. Add on Stewart’s potential from beyond the arc and you can picture a strong role for him.

All in all, if I’m a team and I don’t believe in Stewart’s three-point jumper panning out in the pros, I shy away from him. After all, his defense isn’t anything to write home about, and he surely won’t be posting up so frequently. However, if a team does buy into the jumper, he’s a sneaky pick in the teens with a ton of potential to grow into an effective pro.

Aaron Nesmith

One of the biggest travesties of the college season was Nesmith’s foot injury early on. He was shooting a ridiculous 52.2% from deep, one of two players in NCAA history to shoot above 50% on more than eight attempts per game. He was showing, and exceeding the production that many expected when he arrived at Vanderbilt last year, albeit a season late. 

I’m a sucker for 3-and-D guys, especially ones that actually check off the “3” category. This is undoubtedly Nesmith’s main selling point in the league. He had multiple steals and/or blocks in 11 of his 14 games this season. Nesmith uses his strong 6’6 frame to stay in front of defenders and possesses solid athletic ability to match. He certainly can improve his off-ball defense, but that is a typical misstep of many college athletes tasked with running the show offensively. Unlike Stewart, Nesmith will fit on any team in the league.

Beyond that, there may be potential for him to develop even further. If he can tighten his handle and improve as a playmaker, it would do a ton for his development. He averaged less than one assist per game last season, although the talent around him was poor. Not only would this help him make plays for others, but he could then get to the charity stripe more frequently, where he only took 4.5 attempts a game. 

In reality, Nesmith could fit in multiple tiers across the big board. One could even argue that he would be in the top-10 range if he didn’t get hurt so early. However, what intrigues me so much about Nesmith and players of his skillset is the high-floor and high-ceiling potential. It seems relatively unlikely that Nesmith flunks in the NBA, other than this year’s shooting being a fluke. Combine that with all of the skill development and training that comes with being an NBA player, and a team could strike gold in the late-lottery.

 

TIER FOUR: THE PROTOTYPICAL ROLE PLAYERS

22. Vernon Carey Jr., 6-10 F/C, Duke

23. Saddiq Bey, 6-8 F, Villanova

24. Paul Reed, 6-9 F, DePaul

25. Xavier Tillman, 6-8 F, Michigan State

26. Tre Jones, 6-3 G, Duke

27. Jordan Nwora, 6-7 G/F, Louisville

28. Myles Powell, 6-2 G, Seton Hall

29. Kira Lewis Jr., 6-3 G, Alabama

30. Devon Dotson, 6-2 G, Kansas

31. Grant Riller, 6-3 G, College of Charleston

32. Cassius Winston, 6-1 G, Michigan State

33. Payton Pritchard, 6-2 G, Oregon

34. Devin Vassell, 6-6 G/F, Florida State

35. Zeke Nnaji, 6-11 F/C, Arizona

 

Yes, every NBA team needs superstars. In fact, most championship-level squads have multiple. However, the best teams are the ones that have prototypical role players that fit well with their All-Stars. Think about the top two teams record wise in the NBA this year, the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers. They have arguably the two best players in the NBA, along with Anthony Davis, a top-10 player. However, guys like Brook Lopez and George Hill for the Bucks, or Danny Green and Dwight Howard for the Lakers are similarly key to their teams’ success. Simply put, good role players are the back bone to a solid NBA rotation.

This group of 14 players all certainly have their differences, but can mainly be categorized under three specific skillsets.

 

The Backup Point Guard

The Candidates: Tre Jones, Kira Lewis Jr., Devon Dotson, Grant Riller, Cassius Winston, Payton Pritchard

It isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for draft-able backup point guards to be extremely effective college players, but in this class, all have had tremendous seasons. Four of them were recently named to one of the three All-American teams. Many of them are looking to follow in the footsteps of star college guards who didn’t possess the size or athletic ability to project as an NBA star. Jalen Brunson of the Mavericks or Devonte’ Graham of the Hornets come to mind. Really, these players have all been too productive to be left off of draft boards entirely, but they aren’t quite as enticing as more promising prospects listed above.

For me, two of these players stand out above the rest. First, if you have never had the pleasure of watching College of Charleston guard Grant Riller in action before, I highly recommend you change that. He is electrifying in the open floor, and despite a ridiculous amount of defensive focus from opposing teams, he has remarkably shot 59.3% from inside the arc over his four year career. He is quite likely the best finisher in this entire class, and he is a 6’3 guard.

I mean look at the lay-in at 1:25 or the pull-up at 1:40. That is who I want running my team while my star is on the pine. Riller has proven more than enough throughout his college career for me to look past the mid-major label. His long range jumper is surprisingly weak for a scorer of his magnitude, but the positives significantly overweigh the negatives in my opinion.

Second, a guy who I think would have broken out in the national spotlight of March Madness, had it happened, is Oregon senior Payton Pritchard. It’s hard to call a first team All-American a breakout candidate, but perhaps playing out west prevented basketball fans from seeing Pritchard hoop. He has the basketball IQ of an NBA veteran. He is a solid playmaker who led the PAC-12 in assists this season. Plus, he even shot 41% from three, including a bunch of beyond-NBA-range bombs.

 

However, what stands out the most when watching Pritchard is his constant knack for big time plays at the most important moments. Beyond the buzzer beater seen above, it seemed like every time Oregon was in a close game, Pritchard was the one making the play. He saved his team time and time again, relentlessly attacking the rim to get to the line, making the right play to a teammate, or hitting the game winner above. The Ducks won eight games by six points or less this year, and that was in large part due to Pritchard. He had the type of storybook season that tends to take a life of its own in March.

So, what does this mean for him? Unfortunately, at only 6-2 without elite athletic ability or solid measurables, Pritchard will likely fall come draft night. Despite this, his experience and skill will most certainly get him drafted, and only time will tell whether his dramatics will follow him to the NBA.

 

The Low-Maintenance Big Guy

The Candidates: Vernon Carey Jr., Paul Reed, Xavier Tillman, Zeke Nnaji

An essential characteristic of many successful role players is their ability to be effective without many touches. This carries even more weight when it comes to big men. NBA teams just simply don’t have enough touches to provide players who excel at catching the ball at the block or high-post and “going to work”. Don’t get me wrong, a guy like Vernon Carey Jr. could certainly be effective in that role, but he’s shown the ability to compliment players around him. Compare that to players like Luka Garza, who may struggle to find an NBA job given he needs those touches to provide value.

It’s the same reason why many valued Brandon Clarke over his Gonzaga teammate Rui Hachimura last year. Hachimura needed the ball in his hands to be successful, while Clarke was much more effective when playing off of it. As a result, Clarke is second amongst rookies in Player Efficiency Rating, while Hachimura sits 11th. At the end of the day, being able to do more with less should be the signature slogan for potential role players.

No one in this draft fits that statement more than Michigan State big Xavier Tillman. He only took 10 shots/game this season, yet put together a remarkably well-rounded stat-line of 13.7 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 3.0 APG, 2.1 BPG and 1.2 SPG on 55% from the field. He was the only player in all of college basketball to put up those numbers. In fact, in the past 27 years, only hall-of-famer Tim Duncan put up comparable stats. It’s hard to imagine watching a player barely reaching double-figure points be so elite.

Tillman isn’t the most athletic big, he’s only 6’8, and shot just 26% from deep this year. Despite these clear limitations, teams will be lining up to draft him at the back of the first round. Advanced stats love him, and likely so will his teammates. I would question his position fit in the NBA, especially questioning his ability to guard fours in space. With that being said, he is the prototypical low-maintenance big man. He’s never going to make a team worse, and most nights will be a major help to any NBA franchise.

 

The Sharpshooter

The Candidates: Saddiq Bey, Jordan Nwora, Myles Powell, Devin Vassell

This group could easily be split into two more sub-groups, Myles Powell and everyone else. First, we’ll start with everyone else. It’s hard to not project guys like Saddiq Bey, Jordan Nwora and Devin Vassell at the next level. They all stand at 6’6 or taller, and shot over 40% from three with a large sample size. They were three of only 14 players to have accomplished that at their size this year. Bey and Vassell especially, also have the ability to defend at the next level, bringing them into the notorious 3-and-D discussion.

At the end of the day, if you can bring in wings who aren’t undersized and have shown extensive shooting prowess in college, teams will jump at the opportunity. They may not be the flashiest of picks, but they’re sure to be effective at what they do, which is essentially what teams hope role players provide. Don’t forget that bench wings only have to guard other bench wings. Even a guy like Nwora who struggles laterally won’t be burned defensively, so long as he’s guarding James Ennis and not Kawhi Leonard.

That switches things over to Powell, a polarizing prospect in my eyes. Nothing says controversial than a first-team All-American who is an undersized shooting guard at 6’2 and shot only 39.8% from the field and 30.6% from deep this year. In theory, Powell is a bench scorer who can put up points in a hurry. After all, he did average over 21 points in both his junior and senior seasons.

He certainly can shoot, but the numbers certainly didn’t back it up, this year at least. A team that believes in Powell will attribute the numbers to two things. First, he was so notoriously known as a scorer after a scorching junior year that defenses ganged up on him all season. This is especially true for Big East opponents, given it was their fourth year facing him, and he only shot 26.5% from deep in conference play. The second factor, which plays into the first, is his ridiculous shot selection. The guy did not see a shot he didn’t like, and may have settled from time to time this year. Just look at some of these clips.

When his shot is falling, like that Michigan State game, Powell looks like the second coming of Lou Williams with his scoring potential off the bench. When they aren’t falling, like his 3-16 night against Creighton in February, you wonder if he’s an NBA player at all. For me, I worry that his difficult shot making is going to be even more difficult against longer and more athletic defenders in the NBA. Still, Powell has proven too much for him not to be given a chance, and I look forward to him proving me wrong in the NBA.

Follow us on Twitter @Draft_Lead for the latest NBA Draft insight.

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About Matthew Winick

Matthew Winick is an avid basketball fan both from the NBA side, as well as NCAA hoops. A native of Toronto, Ontario, he is a lifetime Raptors fan and is just now reaping the benefits. He is currently studying Sport Media at Ryerson University in Toronto, and hopes to be talking sports with the best of them in his future. You can reach him on any social media @matthewwinick.

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