This article is a facsimile of an earlier version published at The Basketball Writers (TBW), which recently closed its doors.
Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Billy Donovan presented at an online coaches clinic on April 1 about his offensive philosophy.
There he was asked this question by a viewer, "What is the most difficult transition for a player going from college to the NBA?"
Donovan's answer was a brilliant way to frame the pre-draft process. He mentioned guys like Udonis Haslem and Nick Collison, brilliant low-post players in college who torched their opponents. Neither was able to continue utilizing that particular strength in the league at the highest level.
But they survived and made themselves dependable career players because they were able to recognize their limits and reinvent themselves.
Thus, there are essentially three types of guys:
Arizona guard Nico Mannion is a fairly polarizing prospect. Mock drafts have heralded him anywhere from a top-five pick to a late first-rounder. He continues to slide as his athleticism and lack of late-season production come into question, and it's possible he falls out of the first-round on many boards.
Part of that polarity revolves around Mannion's ability to finish at the rim. He seemed to avoid layups early in the year, then either struggled to convert late-year when he forced more shots there or his team struggled down the stretch. In theory, he's an electric passer, a solid scorer and a deep-range 3-point shooter. But Mannion shot 32.7 percent from deep, failed to elevate his teammates or make the Arizona Wildcats a true top-ten team (which they were predicted to be).
He also really wore down towards the end of the season and shot 23.9 percent from 3-point range in February.
As Mannion's physicality and interior scoring presence come into question, I think Donovan's musings are an important way to frame the debate around him: Is he impactful enough at creating offense all-around that he'll play that role in the NBA? Is he versatile and adjustable enough to succeed even if he can't be a premium scorer at the rim? Or will his physical and interior limitations cause him to miss the mark?
Mannion's highlight packages are pretty impressive and, to some extent, they're realistic. The key to understanding him is pace.
Earlier this year, I wrote about how Nico reminds me a lot of Steve Nash. He's not blindingly athletic, he's not a great scorer at the rim, and he's certainly not the biggest guy out there. But he's able to assert himself by playing at his own speed.
When Mannion goes to his right, he's a fantastic threat because he can zip passes at high velocity and on-target. Going to his left, he's a bit more measured and plays off two-feet. Sure, he lacks explosion, but he makes sound decisions and takes care of the ball, which is so much more valuable. Like Nash, Mannion always has his eyes on the rim, looking to generate layups and dunks for his team. He spies openings and sets up his bigs for easy buckets that most cannot spot, much less execute. He has a great, nuanced understanding of help defenses that allows him to make high-level reads.
His timing is superb as a passer and stands out as a skill that only increases when surrounded by greater space, better pass-catchers and other high-IQ guys.
Mannion projects as a pick-and-roll creator due to his great passing, but none of that is possible without his ability to shoot the ball. Think of the difference between Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo here. While both are exquisite passers and playmakers, teams go under Rondo in the pick-and-roll and dare him to shoot.
But because opponents go over the top of ball screens and respect CP3's shot, he has room in the lane to play with an advantage and can utilize his playmaking more simply.
As a 32.7 percent shooter, Mannion's stats don't indicate the true high-level shooting he has. He's able to hide behind screens when defenders go under or are lazy with their show. His shooting the trey sets up the rest of his game.
Mannion is more streaky from deep than consistent, however, though there's evidence that investment in his shot is worthwhile. His mechanics aren't flawed at all, plus he's good off screens as a catch-and-shoot guy (which is highly important). When he shot the ball well, Arizona was a really good team: 13-3 when he made multiple treys. When he struggled (25 percent from deep in losses), the team struggled.
That only illustrates Mannion's value and the burden he had to carry. Arizona lacked other perimeter options. Josh Green and Zeke Nnaji are more slashing finishers than shooters. (Green had a fine percentage but was just as streaky as Mannion.)
Give Nico NBA spacing and the keys to the car, and he'll likely produce to the point where his shooting isn't as make-or-break for his new team.
Mannion must clean up his defense and finishing. The aforementioned interior scoring is a bugaboo for a lot of scouts and can lead to pessimism about his long-term trajectory.
For Mannion to improve there, he'll need to rely on craftiness and learning tricks of the trade. At 6'3" with a 6'3" wingspan, his overall athleticism won't carry him to improvement.
For defense, there's a bit of awareness and teaching that needs to take place for Mannion to be seen as more than just an offensive piece. He's not a liability by any means, but he's a long way away from being a consistent positive.
Mannion didn't block a shot at Arizona, which isn't that bothersome on its face. He's a point guard and spends a ton of time defending other guards, so those aren't typically shot-blocking opportunities.
But Mannion has a tendency to leave his feet on pump fakes or attempt to block shots—a bad habit for someone who doesn't impact the game that way. He'll also stand up while crowding the ball, take a swipe or two for a steal, but then lack the quickness to recover if he misses.
Those are gambles he cannot afford to take.
Mannion is also now infamous for is how averse to contact on drives. He loves to puff his chest out, stick his arms out and consider that defense. He doesn't move his feet enough, doesn't take contact with his chest and assumes that by sticking his arms up he'll make some form of impact. He'll be the smallest wingspan on the floor in the pros, so those tactics won't fly.
Of course, Mannion needs to get stronger, and he got picked on against switches. Most NBA teams run a variation of Pistol offense, which sees early possession guard-to-guard screens. As such, Mannion can't be hidden or blanketed on point guards; He'll have to improve his acumen against bigger, more physical wings. Arizona coach Sean Miller tried to protect his point guard as best he could, but there were a few forced switches where Mannion was brutalized. He's not unlike most young point guards in that respect.
Now back to the finishing... and this is where the Nash comparisons really come into play.
Mannion would be well-served sitting down, grabbing a note pad and learning from how Nash played. He could add so much to his repertoire, from how the former MVP zig-zags through the lane to improving the use of his left hand.
The similarities come from the reliance both have on their floater, an elite part of their game that serves as an extended layup. Mannion's is terrific, and he hits it going either direction. For smaller guys, an extended layup package is crucial to saving their bodies and avoiding getting the shot smacked into the front row.
I don't buy into the notion that Mannion is going to struggle to score on the interior because I lump these floaters into the same category and see the value they have for guys of his stature.
But Nico isn't great with his deceleration at the moment. He seems too intent on playing at top-speed to outrun his opponents, thinking that is how he'll get to the rim and finish. Doing so gets him into trouble. He smokes some layups by playing too fast and is prone to picking up charges.
The best approach may be to slow down and play a more grounded game, a la Nash. Nobody was better than Nash at using the rim to protect himself, weaving through traffic and bodies to create open lanes and sneak his way into layups:
Nash was able to get to those spots by slowing down, playing angles and opening up the whole game around him. The work for getting himself open as a finisher was done as soon as he came off the screen, not when he decided he got to the lane.
Mannion's passing instincts, tight ball-handling and shooting (which forces opponents to go over screens) will put him in similar situations as Nash.
Overall Analysis and Draft Projection
The comparisons drawn to Nash were made early in the season before Mannion hit his scoring slump and Arizona seemed to have its season derailed.
But my faith isn't shaken.
Role projection is about visibility and seeing what fit the player can provide. If placed in a similar situation that Nash was—where he's surrounded by shooters, a savvy pick-and-roll big and is given the ball to create—Mannion can absolutely fulfill this part at the next level.
If not, and he's pegged into something different, I think there's still enough craftiness and versatility to carve out a solid career for himself. Mannion's ability to shoot on the move and make high-level reads should translate to a team that wants to run a more motion-based approach than simple spread pick-and-roll offense.
In examining Mannion through the three-tier prospect lens from Billy Donovan, he comes across as firmly in the first two tiers. A motion-based, off-ball role may not maximize his strengths to their fullest, but he can fit in any scheme and have an impact on winning. His draft range may vary, but let's not underestimate his offensive versatility or the overall impact he can have if he reaches his peak.