Allow me to channel my inner Wolf Blitzer on Election Night.
It's time to call the race.
While it's only early-July and there's still time for separation and analysis through the draft process, I've seen enough to believe Anthony Edwards out of Georgia is the highest blend of athleticism, alpha gene and likelihood of succeeding that another pick with the first overall selection would befuddle me.
Edwards has always been number one on my big board, but I wanted to wait until doing a thorough dive into all other players before proclaiming him as the clear top target. With over three months until the actual draft in this unorthodox calendar, plenty of time remains for consideration. I'd caution against straying too far from a normal draft plan. Time can lead to over-analysis and doubting what you already know. That can be paralyzing.
So, allow me to remind everyone why Edwards has star potential few others in this class do. To illustrate why what he's already shown is the game-changer all lottery teams look for. To quell fears that, while he has his fair share of needs to improve, his floor is much higher than most give credit to.
Scheme and system make a large impact on how a team is successful. Coaching staffs work very hard to build and identify something that fits their personnel, and recruit personnel who fit their principles.
Many NBA prospects owe their success to the systems they play in. Sometimes it exacerbates their strengths, giving them the chance to perform in ways that make NBA scouts see their true potential. In other ways, some systems and player development programs teach fundamentals skills which pay off once that player is in the league.
In an increasingly analytically-driven scouting process, the context of a system is sometimes lost on those who make first-glance evaluations.
Tyrell Terry of Stanford is the perfect example of this.
Most major publications have included Patrick Williams, a versatile forward out of Florida State, in their first-round mock drafts since January. Over the last few months, it seems his name has gained some steam to raise higher in the first round, entering the lottery and approaching top-ten pick status.
There's reason for this. Williams is a solid defender with offensive upside. It seems people are falling in love with the athletic profile of Williams and who he could be, more than who he is and what he's tangibly good at.
Modern NBA playstyle is pretty largely dependent on who the team puts at the 4. A stiffer, less mobile player may get blitzed by smaller lineups. A small 4 could have trouble if asked to guard a big. The position unlocks switchability, guarding secondary screeners and has a massive impact on floor spacing.
But any 4 man has to be good in practice, not just in theory. Countless prospects who have good athleticism, size and look the part get drafted based on the promise they have to unlock that position for a team. Williams may become that guy, but his offensive skill set has some violation of a principle I find at the heart of prospect evaluation: be good at what you do often.
Before we get into the four backcourt prospects we'll be analyzing for the NBA Draft, let's play a little game. Below is a table with all four, names removed, showing some key statistical points. The number in bold is the statistically best of the group. Based on the numbers, size and age, which output profile would you best vote for?
This isn't a draft with many elite-caliber big men. James Wiseman from Memphis is shrouded in intrigue after only playing three collegiate games, but is a high-level offensive talent.
On the other end of the spectrum is Onyeka Okongwu, a more defensive-minded big who is a talented finisher, strong athlete and more conventional in how he plays the game. Okongwu shot up draft boards this year and has been a top-five pick in the eyes of many.
There are three questions as it relates to Okongwu and the draft, though:
In looking for an opportunity to blend where the stats and the film coalesce, I've developed a few important factors for 3-and-D prospects that can statistically illustrate their value in that role.
The stats are, when framed correctly, to be built around what a player's college role was and how that might prepare them to fill it in the NBA. The model doesn't give much caution to players who shoulder a much greater load in the collegiate ranks necessarily, and then have to transform themselves into a role player at the next level.
What measures are we using?
To call out the best 3-and-D indicators, we use
Only four prospects rated out as positives in those three categories in 2020: Devin Vassell, Saddiq Bey, Desmond Bane and Josh Green. Bane's inclusion might even be a bit dicey, as he was the primary initiator in his offense, skewing his usage and assist rates beyond the typical role of a 3-and-D wing.
We hear the question all the time now: who's your favorite sleeper? Who are we sleeping on? Who is being undervalued and is destined to outperform their draft stock?
Second-round or fringe first-round prospects are pretty dependent on fit and role for how they'll succeed. Most of those guys come in to fill a role early in their careers, then eventually can blossom into something greater. Some make immediate impacts, and others need time to develop to acclimate to the NBA.
I'll heap some high praise on Mississippi State's Reggie Perry initially. He was the MVP of the 2019 FIBA 19-U World Cup, the prototype for how the NBA should be played at the 5. He was a ball of energy, blocking shots left and right. Part of what garnered Perry MVP honors with the FIBA U-19 Games last summer was his elite rebounding prowess. He looked like a man among boys, and he backed up that showing by averaging a double-double at Mississippi State, (17.4 ppg. and 10.1 rpg.).
From my vantage point, Perry is much more skilled of a perimeter player than he showed in those games, something on display during his sophomore year at Mississippi State. He's a really good passer, a high-volume shooting threat and can handle the ball in unique ways, such as in the full-court after a board or on the perimeter in wonky pick-and-roll or face-up situations.
There's a tinge of Pascal Siakam to his game.
As we've mentioned several times before, preseason perception can unfairly color expectations. Whether influenced by high school recruit rankings, team expectations or the spotlight they happen to catch, prospects get pegged as a draft favorite.
That head-start rarely gets ceded to the late-chargers, those who flew under the radar until their body of work was so complete it was difficult to discount.
In the 2020 NBA Draft, three players at similar positions have different trajectories, but their overall statistical outputs really aren't too dissimilar:
The three players are pretty similar statistically–and that's the point.
Every year, a few draft prospects come out that are such wild cards that predicting their draft positioning is migraine-inducing. There are some prospects with elite upside, but are so far away from reaching that point. Others are unique balls of clay, with skillsets rarely seen for their size. Not only is skill development important for them, but imagination for how they'll be used is paramount.
This year, two prospects fit into each category. While they have vastly different paths, draft stocks and games, my main takeaway is the same: based on where common chatter has them being drafted, they pose too great a risk when other players might be available.
I think of drafting and prospect evaluation in the context of these three questions:
This article is a facsimile of an earlier version published on The Basketball Writers (TBW), which recently closed its doors.
Over the last three weeks, I've watched about 15 NBL games in preparation for the 2020 NBA Draft. Two top prospects, LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton, moved across the world to play there and prepare themselves for next year. While they spurned the typical college process, very little about their seasons and experiences were similar.
International basketball is a blind spot for many American scouts and journalists who readily give draft intel and help shape the public perception of prospects that even front offices work off. In my own attempts to understand the NBL better, I came away with three pretty sweeping thoughts:
Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz failed to make the NCAA Tournament, but Simmons has turned out just fine. Nobody here should punish Ball solely because his team was pretty putrid. Instead, we should examine whether giving Ball the keys to the car is about his ability or the team's lack of it.
The more games and clips of the season I watched, the more I began to shift away from public perception. For full disclosure, I've been skeptical of LaMelo since early in his NBL tenure due to his defensive struggles. While some of that view was reaffirmed, I left my homework feeling much higher on Hampton than anticipated and struggling with the notion that Ball is viewed as a much greater prospect in this class.