There's a reason why we use the term "improvement area" and not "weakness" in the pre-draft process. These players are very, very good. They don't have deficiencies, just areas it appears they have to focus on more in order to get to an NBA level. The draft is an investment in humans, meaning variables around work ethic, quickly picking up new concepts or changing trajectories is always in play. What might appear to be a large skill gap can be shortened rather quickly if things just click at the right time.
As the All-Star Break approaches, we find ourselves in the territory of having enough sample size to understand just what developments are legitimate, meaningful and lasting. We're looking today at those which most quickly prove us "wrong" -- they're areas that were seen as major improvement areas that caused us to pause during the pre-draft process, thinking it would take years before they got up to where they needed to be.
Some of these might include scouting misses and accountability for those misreads. Others give genuine praise to players who really changed and worked through their flaws to generate a reliable NBA skill. Any way you slice it, these are some of the most positive surprises of the 2020 NBA rookie class.
Tyrese Haliburton: Off the Dribble Shooting
Coming into the draft cycle, Haliburton was an analytics darling. Great catch-and-shoot numbers, high assist to turnover rates and someone who took very few mid-range jumpers. He's a wizard with the ball in his hands, possessing a really high-IQ and the ability to manipulate the defense at such a young age. The word savant wasn't too far off.
But Haliburton had, in my eyes, one major flaw with how all those skills would translate: he really struggled to create his own shot. Part of this was athletically driven. Haliburton is certainly long and has a tight handle, but is thin, has a slow first step from his spot-up footwork and didn't create a ton of space one-on-one at Iowa State. The other part was influenced by his unorthodox jumper. It's a tad slow, is very stiff and doesn't translate to consistent results off the dribble.
That's why, at Iowa State last year, Haliburton was 16-57 (28.1%) on dribble jumpers. There was reason to believe that all he was doing was avoiding his weakness by taking so few mid-range jumpers; the analytical benefits of his game could get exposed when teams play a ton of Drop coverage and dare him to shoot those pull-ups, or switch with elite defenders who don't let him get a step to the basket. I saw very little long-term upside to his self-creation one-on-one, and if a brilliant passer can't create his own shot, it would limit the amount of help defenders that leave their man when Hali has the ball.
Hali is proving me wrong. And I couldn't be more happy about it; he's a great kid and, as a terrific passer and playmaker, is someone I thoroughly enjoy watching. To see him add an element to his game this quickly means we'll see him on the floor a ton, and I'm excited about that.
What he's done since we last saw him in college is speed up his release on pull-ups. In the mid-range, they are so much smoother, with a true jump and a wrist flick as opposed to the drifting set shot he tried to get to at ISU.
I mean, this looks pretty much just completely different from what we saw from him last year:
The fluidity of his shot from base to top, and the stronger footwork and base to launch into it consistently, are drastic changes from then to now. It's helped transform Haliburton into one of the most effective rookies in this class.
Beyond his ability to snake into the mid-range and hit shots late-clock, he's become fairly consistent with off-the-dribble shooting behind the line. He has an effective step-back move against switches, where he can bounce hard at them to move the defender off the line, then quickly realign himself behind the arc.
He also has sped up his pull-up shooting when teams go under handoffs or screens. Since the Kings need to get him the ball on the move to maximize his playmaking (he still isn't great at separating one-on-one) he's in speedy handoffs a ton. As teams get comfortable with going under and daring him to shoot, this shot is an important development. His effectiveness in both these areas is thwarting my prediction that he would struggle to counter teams that went under his screens.
These are all functional shots that he's gaining consistency with:
As of March 2nd, Tyrese Haliburton is 29-79 (36.7%) on dribble jumpers and 31-59 (52.5%) on runners. Solidly respectable numbers that he can build upon. Only one rookie has a higher field goal percentage on dribble jumpers than Haliburton on the same volume. He just so happens to be the next surprise on our list...
Patrick Williams: Offensive role
Coming into the draft process, Williams was seen as a solid pull-up shooter. He was comfortable in the mid-range, especially at the elbows, and really struggled as a spot-up threat. His numbers were adequate, but the wide array of air balls was a major worry of mine. Plus, to be given the leash to be a pull-up shooter means to be adequate in all other creative regions: score at the rim, shoot the ball, facilitate for others.
âIn a way, Williams was the inverse of Haliburton as a prospect. He had the pull-up scoring but didn't consistently show the other factors at Florida State:
Offensive versatility was a big part of Pat Will's upside -- that he can do a little bit of everything. A worry of mine was that he didn't have a true defined skill to hang his hat on, other than mid-range scoring, which is analytically the toughest spot to excel in. He got a ton of shots blocked at the rim and seemingly played less athletic than he is. The pull-up scoring range didn't extend to 3. He was a little rigid and robotic when making off-the-dribble reads.
The mid-range scoring has translated. Williams is 35-78 on dribble jumpers, and his 45% mark is better than those of Brandon Ingram (44.7%), Kawhi Leonard (43.7%), Devin Booker (42.5%) and Bradley Beal (42%). The volume is lower, but Williams still takes 2.5 dribble jumpers a game.
A lot of the credit for how Pat Will is used belongs on Billy Donovan. He's constructed an offense that gets Williams downhill regularly, keeping him in the slots and left wing and letting him play off handoffs with a head start on the lane. His spot is the right elbow, and the Bulls work hard to get him to that spot to keep it simple:
But Pat Williams has been adequate in other facets of his game. His catch-and-shoot numbers are solid, and high enough that he has to be respected. He's shooting 36.2% on catch-and-shoots in the half-court, and is finishing at an adequate 52.9% at the rim. Those are... fine. Nothing to write home about, unless you're a guy like me who had Williams 40th on the board and thought those numbers were much farther away.
I still don't love how mid-range-heavy his shot selection is, with only half his jumpers coming from 3-point range. But developing that range is a process, and he's found a way to be impactful while playing through those improvement needs. That's what it takes to get the most out of a guy like Williams, who shows elite flashes but is still clearly raw. I was pretty wrong on how far away Williams is, and I'll own that.
Zeke Nnaji: Shooting range
During the pre-draft process, Zeke Nnaji was one of the more difficult evals for me. He stood out as a guy who did a lot of things well but nothing great. In a league oversaturated with big men, I didn't have an easy time seeing where he'd put his stamp on the game. He rebounds well and plays with energy, runs the floor, is somewhat switchable and somewhat a good defender. He was the guy who was only a few improvements away from being good at a lot of things -- but without a signature skill to hang his hat on, what were you really getting from him that couldn't be found elsewhere?
Part of those tweaks he needed to make in a few areas was getting his range out to three. His jump shot mechanics were great in college, but the range wasn't quite there. I thought he'd be an effective pick-and-pop shooter eventually, but not in year one.
Well, Nnaji is off to a great start. He's over 40% from 3 on a solid attempt rate. And his makes are really pure. His mechanics consistent, smooth and efficient. It's a picturesque stroke.
Best of all, Nnaji's shooting development allows him to play alongside Nikola Jokic, an MVP candidate who gets the lion's share of minutes at the 5. When the two can play side by side, the Nuggets are able to maximize minutes for a guy they spent a first-round pick on:
Nnaji is a solid defensive prospect in the frontcourt. He can defend the 4 and 5 (though I'm not sure if he's great at guarding either) and if he makes shots from the corners, he'll be a competent few minutes a game for a playoff team. I don't think Nnaji gets in the postseason rotation, but I'm encouraged by how quickly the shot has gotten to this point from 3-point range.