Answering All of Your Questions Before the NBA Draft

The NBA Draft is in two days. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Which is weird, because there hasn’t been a college basketball game in months and the NBA Finals ended several months ago.

If anything, our brains should be particularly prepared for this NBA Draft. Yet it seems for most of the sports world, the opposite is true. Football is top of mind. A wave of COVID-19 is jeopardizing college and youth sports across the nation (among other many more vital things like school, family gatherings, and you know, life as we know it).

Typically, I would post my rankings of the top players in the NBA Draft in the days leading up. Last year, I even charged a fee to see my Draft Guide (although it’s free if you want to peek back to see my feelings about the soon-to-be second year players).

This year threw us a curveball, in more ways than one. The flow of the schedule, the uncertainty of when (and if?) the draft would be scheduled, and a lack of information about this draft class has made analyzing this draft a tougher task this year. The presumed top three picks in the draft played 34 combined college games. According to ESPN’s most recent DraftExpress mock draft, four more top twenty picks also come to the NBA having not played in college.

Because this blog is dedicated to all things college basketball, I am unusually ill-suited to provide the same level of detail about this draft class as I typically would. If you’re looking for in-depth breakdowns and rankings, Sam Vecenie of The Athletic released a 90+ page, 106,0000+ word draft guide this week. That should suffice the nerdiest of your desires.

For those of you looking for something a little bit more surface level, I can help. If you just learned that the draft is this week, I think I may be able to provide something a little bit more your speed. Without further adieu, allow me to answer some of the questions that you might have rattling around pre-draft.

Who will be the first pick in Wednesday’s draft?

Great question! We don’t know. The Minnesota Timberwolves are slated to make the first selection in the draft, but for a variety of reasons, there could be a number of players taken first, potentially by a team that is not Minnesota.

For starters, this draft class is not strong at the top. There is no sure-fire, must-have prospect. There are a ton of useful NBA players to be found in this draft. There aren’t, however, players expected to grow into superstardom. That can change! There are guys with high ceilings, yet in many cases, they also have low floors. We’ll get to them.

Additionally, Minnesota is in an atypical position for a team with the top pick. They have an established star in place in Karl-Anthony Towns. D’Angelo Russell is a strong secondary piece. They aren’t necessarily looking for a player to come in and contribute with a high usage rate. So maybe they look to trade the pick? But given the lack of star power in the draft, teams likely aren’t lining up to hand over a king’s ransom for the top pick. That leaves Minnesota in limbo.

OK, so three paragraphs and you didn’t answer the question.

Right, right. Sorry about that.

The money is on LaMelo Ball. Yes, of that Ball family. Remember the viral videos of Lonzo’s kid brother bricking 40 foot jumpers from a few years ago? He might be the first pick in the draft.

He’s come a long way in certain regards since then. He’s filled out to a 6-foot-7 frame. LaMelo is an elite passer for his age, better than even Lonzo was at UCLA. His shot is a bit of a mess, making just 25 percent from long range last season in Australia. That’s a bit skewed by his tendency to shoot pull-up threes from anywhere at any time. His defense was, by all accounts, not good. Most scouts don’t even think he’s a bad defender as much as a lazy or disinterested party on that end of the floor.

I hate to simply compare him to his brother, but I said of Lonzo coming out of UCLA, “the next time Lonzo Ball plays good defense will be the first time.” And you know what, he turned into a pretty reliable defender in the NBA! Maybe LaMelo will play harder under the bright lights than he did down under.

If you project LaMelo Ball to be an All-Star in the NBA, you think of him as a basketball savant. Ben Simmons-type passer. Perfect body for a lead guard in today’s league. Sees the game in slow motion.

We also know that LaMelo hasn’t played much defense in his life and enjoys the hell out of a 28 footer with a nearly full shot clock. Not exactly savant stuff. That’s hard to square. Genius isn’t optional and doesn’t take breaks.

Ok, so if not LaMelo, who else is in the mix?

Consensus has a top tier of three players at the top of this draft: Ball, James Wiseman, and Anthony Edwards.

Wiseman you’ll remember as the star of a college basketball soap opera at Memphis this season. He played three games while dancing around NCAA violations and suspensions. Ultimately, he called his season early in favor of draft preparation. Would I pick a center who only took four field goal attempts against the University of Illinois Chicago with a top three pick in the NBA Draft?

I’m not sure I would take any center with a top five pick in the NBA Draft at this point in basketball history, so this is a tall order. Wiseman might be athletic enough to guard multiple positions. He certainly looks like a natural rebounder. He can score in the paint and would work as a pick-and-roll dive man.

That all makes some sense. He doesn’t make sense as a complementary piece to Towns and it’s hard to believe he’s a fit for the Golden State Warriors, who inexplicably are picking second in this draft.

Charlotte, picking third, would make more sense for Wiseman.

That brings us to Edwards. You must be THIS TALL to ride the Anthony Edwards Roller Coaster of scouting takes. Opinions about this kid are all over the place. If you look for a comparison to a current or former NBA player, the two most common names are Dwyane Wade and Dion Waiters. There’s a ton of room between those two worlds and your guess as to where Edwards lands is as good as anyone’s.

His 37 point, 4 steal performance against Michigan State in Maui last year was eye-popping. In his final collegiate game, he played all 40 minutes, took nine threes, made one of them, scored six total points, and beat Ole Miss. He scored more than 25 points five times last year and scored in single-digits five times. He took 237 shots from 3-point range and made only 29 percent of them.

Anthony Edwards is daring GMs to draft him. I’d be terrified to take him if I was Minnesota, but Charlotte or Chicago might be willing to roll the dice.

So if you don’t love Ball, Wiseman, or Edwards, who do you like in this draft?

Fair question. Little disclaimer first: I am a college basketball blogger. My draft takes, while nuanced, are always slightly tilted towards college basketball performance. I know that doesn’t always translate to the NBA. I know age is a huge factor. I know that these guys have played in showcase events, AAU tournaments, and international games. But for me, the majority of their work, and the most crucial part of their resume, comes in NCAA play.

So I would rather take my chances with two players who have shown more promise against college competition: Obi Toppin and Tyrese Haliburton.

Obi Toppin was the National Player of the Year in college basketball this season. Had the NCAA Tournament occurred, I would have picked Toppin and the Dayton Flyers to win it all. He led the nation in true shooting percentage and flashed with above the rim highlights all year long. If you’re going to take a 22 year old in the top five, he damn well better have dominated college competition (Toppin did) and be ready to contribute on Day One. The latter half of that equation is more uncertain for Toppin. Offensively, he can be Amare Stoudemire-like right away. Defensively, he may struggle. He’s small for a center but slow for a power forward in today’s game. I think there’s an avenue to success for him on that end of the floor and think he’s athletic enough vertically to make up for some of his lateral deficiencies.

That’s particularly true if Golden State took Toppin with the second pick. You know who else was an old draft pick with uncertain athleticism and questions about his position? Draymond Green. Pair Toppin with Green, put him under his wing, insert several more cliches here, yada yada yada, and it all makes sense.

Now, I think Toppin makes sense for a Golden State team trying to win the title next year. Does he make as much sense as flipping that pick for an established veteran who is a known quantity? Maybe not.

More importantly, are the Warriors looking at this pick as a way to win in 2020 or do they see this as a chance to bridge their success from one decade to the next? The Spurs stayed successful as Tim Duncan declined because they drafted Kawhi Leonard. The Celtics pivoted from the Garnett days to a bright future thanks to smart moves with draft choices. The Timberwolves will likely take Ball or Edwards and then the draft hinges on the Warriors decision here. I’d take Toppin.

Or I’d talk about Tyrese Haliburton. Man, I love that kid. As a freshman, he played on an Iowa State team that featured five players who thought they were point guards. It was a weird situation. Four of those players left or graduated and Haliburton was given the keys to the Cyclones’ car. He responded, averaging 15.2 points, 6.5 assists, 5.9 rebounds, and 2.5 steals per game.

Haliburton shot 43 percent from long range in college and posted an assist rate over 35 percent. He’s 20 years old, straddling the line between NBA ready and having room to grow. Best case scenario? He has Manu Ginobili vibes to me.

Downside? His shot works but it’s ugly. He’s also the skinniest 20 year old you’d ever consider drafting, listed at 6-foot-5, 175 pounds last season. Get this kid on the DeChambeau diet and firm up his shooting mechanics. I’d love to bet on him with a top five pick.

Who are other top ten prospects in the mix?

I think the logically next place to go is Isaac Okoro and Onyeka Okongwu.

Okoro is an off-guard from Auburn. Really interesting year as a freshman. Only averaged 12.4 points per game and still has a long way to go as a passer, creator, scorer, and offensive contributor. Why is he being talked about as a top eight pick?

He’s bananas-level athletic.

I think he has a long way to go to become something more than a Tazmanian Devil-style role player. He shot 29 percent from outside the arc and made under 68 percent of his free throws. He’ll do some really fun things on defense, in transition, and in the Dunk Contest in his first few seasons. For him to be worth a top ten pick, however, there’s a lot more he’ll need to build on offensively.

Meanwhile, Onyeka Okongwu, a center from USC, is a hot name this week. He’s become, in many ways, the anti-Wiseman choice for teams at the top. While Wiseman played just three games as a freshman, Okungwu started all 28 for the Trojans and was a very productive player. He posted 16.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks per night in the Pac-12. He’s a high motor defender and rim runner.

No one benefited more from the year (and playoff run) we saw from Bam Adebayo. Teams are looking to replicate that performance and think Okungwu could be the same type of player. I think Adebayo has grown into a better passer and decision maker than Okungwu likely could, yet those weren’t traits we saw out of Bam at Kentucky, so with the right coaching, maybe that level of growth is possible for Okungwu as well. The Hawks would be crazy to let Okungwu slide past them (at the 6th pick), if someone else doesn’t pull the trigger first.

What about these Florida State guys? There’s two of them?

Yes, there two of them. They’ve been two of the more fascinating names in the draft process.

We’ll start with Devin Vassell. He had a strong sophomore season in Tallahassee, topping 12 points per game and 41 percent outside shooting. In March, I’d have graded him as a pick just outside the lottery in the late teens. He looks like a strong third guard option at the next level.

And then, things got weird.

A video emerged of Vassell training for the draft and his jumper looked radically different, in a worse way.

Now every take about him this fall has included a disclaimer. If he shoots like this? Stay away. The last time a weird video of a player messing around with his shooting form emerged pre-draft, the Sixers were snake-biten by Markelle Fultz. Vassell now claims he was kidding around in this video. Funny bit, Dev!

As Vassell has fallen down boards, his former teammate Patrick Williams has risen. Williams is your proto-typical draft nerd’s dream. He has an insanely athletic build at 6-foot-8 and tools that could build into a long time NBA starter.

On the other hand, he scored only 9.2 points per game, shot 32 percent from the college 3-point line, had just 29 assists to 50 turnovers, and did not start a game all year.

His future isn’t easy to gauge and seems very destination dependent. If he fell to the Spurs at 11, I’d probably start sculpting his Hall of Fame bust. The Pistons or Knicks take him earlier, I’d be very surprised to see him contribute in a meaningful way on his rookie contract. I think the career carved out by Marvin Williams is a likely path for Patrick Williams. That would feel disappointing if a team selects him in the top eight picks, but would seem more than reasonable in the late lottery (especially in this draft).

OK, so who do you like in this draft, say more than most people?

I’d point to three players that I would be more keen than most to select in the first round.

First, Tyrese Maxey from Kentucky. I’ve gushed about Maxey on this blog before. I think the advantages he reaps from his ball skills and his basketball IQ far outweigh his lack of athleticism. He may struggle defensively, but from everything we saw at Kentucky, he’ll at least battle on that end of the floor.

Offensively, he’s a high level pick-and-roll ball-handler and the kind of player who can create for himself and others. You want Maxey with the ball when the shot clock is dwindling or the game is on the line. In today’s NBA, that’s the kind of player worth betting on.

Next, I think Saddiq Bey from Villanova has a long future in the NBA. He is also a step slow athletically, but he doesn’t get credit for being one of the best shooters in this draft class. He made 42 percent of more than 300 collegiate 3-point attempts. Off the dribble or off the catch, he’s a knockdown shooter who fits in any offense.

He may struggle on defense, but I think he can benefit a lot from guarding fours instead of chasing on the perimeter. Bey is 6-foot-8, with 6-foot-11 wingspan. Add some weight to his frame and I don’t think he struggles as a stretchy power forward. Phoenix would be wise to nab him with the 10th pick.

Lastly, I fell in love with Desmond Bane last year and it now doesn’t look like I was alone. He can play the two or three position at the next level, thanks to his 6-foot-5 frame and a body built out of anvils. Bane attempted 575 threes in college and made 43 percent of those looks. He defends at a high level and rebounds exceptionally well for his position.

It doesn’t matter that he’s 22 years old. He may not be a superstar but he’s a basketball player. Draft him. Tell him to shoot. Win games because of it.

What is your biggest question going into draft week?

Wow, good question. Thanks for asking.

Certainly the entire draft could change depending on what the Warriors decide to do near the top. More importantly for me, there is a prospect with about as wide a draft range as I can remember.

Who the hell is going to draft Cole Anthony?

Let’s back up and recap Anthony’s journey to here. For his entire life, former NBA player and broadcaster Greg Anthony’s son has been the best player in his class. He came to North Carolina last year as the top freshman and the presumed top NBA prospect in the country.

Then North Carolina had a nightmare season. Injuries were in part to blame, especially when Anthony had to miss a long stretch of games. The Tar Heels were an abject disaster, unable to get anything going offensively and perhaps played even worse on defense.

During all of that, Anthony scored 18.5 points per game with 4.0 assists. His shot remained reliable, though his percentages were skewed by how many contested attempts he hoisted. Some of that was poor shot selection. Some was Carolina’s lack of other scoring options.

In the end, I didn’t see the no-brainer lottery pick we were promised, but also never doubted his future as a longtime pro point guard. I wish he showed some more explosion with the ball in his hands. I wish he shot it a little better. I also think it’s crazy that he’s being talked about as the fifth or sixth ball-handler taken on Wednesday.

I am not, however, as in tune with Anthony’s personality and pre-draft interviews as many insiders are. From all reports, he does not get glowing reviews as a teammate. Teams picking in the teens and early 20s don’t seem to be tripping over each other to nab a guy with Anthony’s pedigree as he sinks down the draft board.

Someone could still take him in the lottery. I would not be shocked if the first round ended with Anthony still available. I think Orlando would be crazy to let him slide by the 15th pick.

OK, Shane. Go ahead. List a bunch of late first round-early second round sleepers you are in love with.

Good, god. I thought you’d never ask!

Devon Dotson has been a favorite here at Palestra Back for a few years now. He’s lightning quick, super smart, and constantly makes winning plays. He’s undersized but doesn’t play like it. If his shot stays sharp, I think he’s a starting point guard at the next level.

I am much higher on Immanuel Quickley than others. The league needs shooters. Quickley has an effortless, fast release and can hit from anywhere. There’s a spot for him.

Ty-Shon Alexander is the kind of 3-and-D wing player who can actually shoot threes and play defense in practice, not just in theory. There’s no shot reworking or defensive intensity needed. Put him in your lineup tomorrow and he contributes.

I’m a Gonzaga homer but I refuse to live in a world where Killian Tillie isn’t an NBA player. The guy just knows where to be and makes plays that win games.

Jalen “Sticks” Smith from Maryland is really fun. I think backup or back-end starting centers are a commodity to be found in the second round. Sticks can come in and fill that role with gusto.

If Malachi Flynn is available when the Sixers pick in the second round, Daryl Morey should burst his vocal chords calling in the pick.

Paul Reed from DePaul is one of the most interesting players in the draft. In the second round, interesting is a good thing. He’s not a star, but he’ll do the dirty work.

I like Jordan Nwora more than most. After he failed to lived up to expectations as a star at Louisville, I’m bullish that he works better as a role player.

Just draft Payton Pritchard. You won’t regret it.

Here are my top 50 rankings, with a caveat that the ten players in the far right column are clear omissions. They are all consensus draft-able prospects that I don’t have the background to rank. Take these rankings with a grain of salt. It’s 2020. Nothing is normal.

******

Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.

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