Thursday, April 30, 2020
The 2020 NBA Draft Class Isn’t Weak: It Just Isn’t Heavy on Stars
Any NBA team would obviously rather draft its own Steph Curry or LeBron James in the lottery, rather than its own Shaun Livingston or Tristan Thompson. But every championship team in history has featured secondary guys who complement and enhance its best players—like Livingston’s playmaking did for the Warriors and Thompson’s rebounding did for the Cavaliers. And aren’t we all watching The Last Dance, which details how the Bulls front office built a strong supporting cast around Michael Jordan? Even the all-time greats needed help to win titles. The 2020 NBA draft class lacks the type of elite one-name prospects, like Luka or Zion, that we’ve been spoiled by in recent years. But while it doesn’t have star power, it does have depth and a plethora of potential high-end role players who could develop into the missing ingredient of a championship team’s recipe.
It’s still unclear when the 2020 draft will take place, because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The draft can’t happen until after the 2019-20 season is over, and the league will hold off as long as possible before making any cancellations. League sources expect the NBA to push the draft from June 25 to August or September. Front office executives and scouts will have a lot of time to prepare for what is a particularly complicated draft due to the lack of in-person workouts and interviews, and the lack of consensus about the top prospects. Some teams consider LaMelo Ball the best prospect because of his size, silky ballhandling, and playmaking wizardry; others don’t have him in their top five due to concerns over his jump shot, decision-making, and defensive focus. Georgia guard Anthony Edwards could also go no. 1; he plays like a more muscular version of Victor Oladipo, but there is some Dion Waiters to his game, too, with his frustrating shot selection, hazy passing vision, and inconsistent defense. Teams drafting high will have to ask themselves: Does it make more sense to gamble on a prospect with theoretically higher upside like Ball or Edwards, or make a safer bet?
Ball and Edwards can be juxtaposed against a prospect like Iowa State sophomore Tyrese Haliburton, who is more than a year older than them, and lacks the flashy handle and athletic burst found in many franchise-changing point guards. But he compensates with his natural feel for the game and a reliable jumper. Haliburton is a genius-level playmaker with a deep understanding of how to manipulate defenders and the ability to deliver the ball with precision.
NBA coaches will love Haliburton because he does all the little things that contribute to winning. He swings the ball, takes the right shots, and makes smart defensive rotations. Haliburton makes for an appealing prospect in the mid-to-late lottery of any draft class; he ranks no. 4 on my board this year, and to put the strength of the 2020 class in perspective, he would have ranked seventh in 2019. Haliburton is one of many lottery guards available this year who could eventually run effective offenses. My top-ranked prospect is French guard Killian Hayes, who projects as a productive playmaker and scorer. There’s a speedy shot creator in Alabama’s Kira Lewis Jr., a freshman with a knack for making clutch plays in Kentucky’s Tyrese Maxey, and a sharpshooter in Stanford guard Tyrell Terry—among others. Not all of them will necessarily find success at the next level, but they’re all appealing talents for teams to pluck from the crop.
Shot creation is one of the most important skills in today’s league. So is versatility. The 2020 draft is littered with 3-and-D wings of many different varieties. There are players who need to improve their jumpers but already defend as if it’s their way of life, like Auburn’s Isaac Okoro. There are those who can shoot the lights out but need to improve their man-to-man defense, such as Vanderbilt’s Aaron Nesmith. There are raw talents like Washington’s Jaden McDaniels. And there are players who flash star ability like Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Deni Avdija. But Florida State wing Devin Vassell, who ranks sixth on my board, is arguably the best of the bunch. Vassell is an excellent defender who disrupts action off the ball and who has the length and agility to defend quicker guards in addition to opposing wings. On offense, he shot 42 percent from 3 and as a sophomore he displayed flashes of being more than a spot-up shooter.
Consider Memphis center James Wiseman, who is widely considered the best big in the draft. Wiseman is a physical specimen who shows flashes of Rudy Gobert on the defensive end and Rasheed Wallace on the offensive end. But there have long been concerns about his ability to make the quick reads needed to be an excellent defender and more of a creator than a finisher on offense. Unless a center projects as a bona fide star like Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokic, a team is usually best served searching for a bargain and spending elsewhere—like the Lakers did with JaVale McGee, the Clippers with Ivica Zubac, and the Celtics with Daniel Theis. Plus, selecting centers high in the lottery is risky. Recent big men like Deandre Ayton (no. 1, 2018), Marvin Bagley III (no. 2, 2018), Lauri Markkanen (no. 7, 2017), and Dragan Bender (no. 4, 2016) have underwhelmed compared to wings and guards drafted after them.
But Wiseman is no slouch. It’s tough to see him failing. He could immediately slide into a rim-running role on offense and it won’t require much work to make him an impactful defender because of his sheer size. Teams may understandably covet him because they know he could become a competent center, even if he never fully realizes his tremendous potential.
Wiseman is a potential star, but he’s not the only potential contributor. It’s easy to envision USC’s Onyeka Okongwu or Dayton’s Obi Toppin also finding NBA roles. Both of them should be mid-to-late lottery picks. Okongwu lacks Wiseman’s ceiling because of his offensive shortcomings, but he has a higher floor because of his handle, passing vision, and defensive instincts. Toppin looks like a modern Amar’e Stoudemire on offense, even if he has glaring warts on defense. Rankings are all over the place for each big because of differing philosophies around the league about the position’s value in an era that puts a premium on shooting and playmaking. But their potential to contribute is undeniable, and if one (or more) of them end up falling in the lottery, they could be cost-effective role players for a team in immediate need of a big man.
Wiseman, Ball, and Edwards are the projected top picks, but no one really knows how this draft will shake out. It will probably be a long time before we hear Adam Silver call a draft pick’s name. Teams might not find many franchise saviors this year, but they don’t have to look hard to find role-playing talent that can help build a winning organization.