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:
To question #1, let's take a generic prospect and call him "Joe Brown". Brown may have a ceiling of being a transcendent, franchise-caliber point guard based on his scoring skills. His floor is imagining his shooting not progressing and him losing the ball in his hands. That median outcome would be, then, built around average shooting, where it handicaps him from being a great scorer but keeps him on the floor and is good enough to be a starter.
Guys in Brown's category are usually lottery locks, where they may might be missing one skill's precision, but the median is still very good.
That conversation alone doesn't take the likelihood of reaching each into consideration. Let's say Brown has a ton of mechanical flaws, or a super slow release off the dribble. That might reasonably lower the likelihood of him reaching that ceiling. The same could be said if he's a questionable worker, or doesn't grade out great on IQ or character questions.
If you feel there's only a 10 percent chance Brown turns into that ceiling, and a 40 percent chance he's going to lose the ball in his hands, he becomes nearly impossible to take in the lottery.
That's pretty much how we feel about Jaden McDaniels and Aleksej Pokusevski. Both are raw bundles of talent, with abounding upside and a ridiculously high ceiling. But that high ceiling can be fool's gold if the likelihood of reaching that level, and of bringing rewards to the team that drafts them in a four year period, is low.
Jaden McDaniels - ATH, Washington
Coming into the season, Jaden McDaniels was a top ten prospect in my book. His combination of length, athleticism and fluidity checked so many boxes that it was difficult to ignore.
But McDaniels struggled during his lone year at Washington, and it's gotten to the point where many scouts, including myself, have soured on his upside.
McDaniels can score, and do so in volume. He's a pull-up-happy maestro with a seven-foot wingspan and some flashes of high-level ball handling.
In a draft without high-level, one-on-one scorers, McDaniels' skills stand out more than usual. Transition finishes, difficult jab-step moves, a solid statistical output from behind the arc: The upside is there for him to be a three-level scorer.
Upside is the key word, however. For every great play McDaniels made at Washington, he made two negatives. He led the conference in fouls and was second in turnovers with 100.
His footwork in isolation was inconsistent. His decision-making somehow was worse. Little of what McDaniels does blends in well with others.
Essentially, for him to play the role he's accustomed to on a winning team, he'll have to drastically improve his efficiency and ball security so he's deserving of that volume.
McDaniels will also have concerns around strength and defense hounding him on draft night, which is where the mystery comes in.
Skill on offense isn't the only area for McDaniels to tighten. He must transform his body and become more functionally strong: Too often this year, his high center of gravity was used against him.
He's also a bit of an unknown on defense after playing in Washington's 2-3 zone the entire season.
In order to be an isolation scorer, McDaniels has to become much more efficient. Cut down on the turnovers, prove reliable in knocking down his beloved mid-range jumpers, increase his odds of getting to the rim, and create more as a passer (by both improving his skill and changing his shot selection). His 3-point shot and off-ball skill isn't incredibly consistent yet, either, and his overall shooting form, albeit high, is questionable.
Think of it this way: the things McDaniels does really well all require the ball being in his hands. If he doesn't seem worthy of that role due to polish issues, how confident are you that he'll impact the game in other ways?
As the draft approaches, guys with high risk like McDaniels tend to drop. He's gone from a high-end lottery pick to a questionable first-rounder. The 2020 crop is weak on star power, which could help him, but he's not a prospect in my top 50.
Yet, I do understand the attraction based on his physical profile and how fluidly he moves. The draft is frequently about upside, and for many franchises, they'll reach a point where his tantalizing upside is too attractive to pass on. I'd expect that to be in the second round.
Aleksej Pokusevski - ATH, Olympiacos B
A 7'0" 18-year-old with perimeter skill in a draft like this? Alexsej Polusevski isn't just a tantalizing prospect, he's this year's International Man of Mystery.
It's easy to understand the appeal of Pokusevski when he's framed as a unicorn offensive prospect.
He's got those rebound-and-run skills so coveted in a frontcourt guy, mostly because he plays more like a wing. He's been deployed as someone who attacks closeouts, comes off screens and spends 90 percent of his time on the perimeter.
But here's my question on Pouksevski: What skill does he have that gives optimism about his ability to put the ball in the hoop?
His highlight packages show unique flashes of skill, particularly in areas NBA teams like, but none of them have to do with scoring. Is he just a uniquely-sized role player?
Poku isn't an elite athlete, and he's thinner than a spaghetti strap. He's a solid shooter but he isn't consistent, and his form is a little rigid. His range is as wide as any prospect I've seen, yet he appears to be a first-round lock this year.
Guys with his perimeter skill and length don't come along every draft. And while I've watched extended versions of his highlights, I've got the limited perspective most of us do, and haven't been able to scout him fully in games. Such a limitation gives me pause in projecting him as high as some view him, which is why he's a bit of a wild card: he's a rare prospect playing in a subpar league in Greece where it's tough, without great league familiarity, to judge his impact.
Any team drafting Pokusevski does so with the understanding that it will be 2-3 years minimum before he makes an NBA impact. He's a home run swing that could go in the top ten if someone is enamored.
I'm not as high on him as most, simply because I don't see him becoming a reliable scorer, even if the skill package he's flashed is understandably attractive.