When the college basketball season was called off in March and players began declaring for the draft, no one could have foreseen what would come next.
And in the case of the NBA Draft what came “next” was waiting. A whole heck of a lot of waiting.
That’s right, nine months after the last college basketball game was played, Wednesday finally marks the next step in all these young player’s journey’s with the NBA Draft finally set to get underway. It may have taken us nearly a full year to get from “last college basketball game of the season” to “draft night” but thankfully, we’re finally here.
Yet even in a truly unprecedented year, this NBA Draft is extra, especially unprecedented. Last college basketball season was marked more by the guys not playing (James Wiseman, LaMelo Ball, RJ Hampton) than the ones who were, and even most of the “stars” in the sport had seasons that were anything but star-worthy (Anthony Edwards, Cole Anthony, Jaden McDaniels). Not to mention that in a final blow to a sport that relies on March so much, there was no NCAA Tournament for casual fans to familiarize themselves with these players. It hurt star players like Obi Toppin, but also under-the-radar players like say USC’s Onyeka Okongwu, Kentucky’s Tyrese Maxey or Auburn’s Isaac Okoro.
So yeah, because of a confluence of circumstances (some out of the players’ control, some not) this was already an NBA Draft that was being overlooked to begin with. And it doesn’t help that well, to be blunt, the draft got pushed back to November and that there isn’t all that much star power at the top.
Regardless, the show must go on. And with the NBA Draft now just a day away, here is what you need to know about these players and all the top prospects.
Player with the highest upside: LaMelo Ball
So, let’s just jump right into the deep end of the pool and start our coverage with the single most polarizing player in not only this draft, but any draft in recent memory, LaMelo Ball.
Understand that everyone comes into the draft with question marks (heck, even Zion Williamson had a few a season ago) but Ball might have more questions than just about anyone in recent memory. When evaluating Ball, it’s not just about whether you think he’s good or not, but you also have to weigh in so many other factors as well. You’ve got to decide whether you believe his father will be a distraction or not, whether his older brother Lonzo’s relative struggles as a pro are a sign of things to come, and whether there is just too much chaos around his unique path to draft night, a path that included stops at two high schools (Chino Hills and Spire Academy) and two professional leagues (Lithuania and Australia) in the last four years. You’ve also got to wonder if the kid has ever really been coached and if he has any idea how to actually play defense. Early returns are he was more than underwhelming in the pre-draft interview process as well.
Still, despite all those red flags, you also can’t deny one thing: The dude can hoop. Ball has basically been under a microscope since he was 13-years-old playing alongside Lonzo in high school, but the fact remains, that no one – who played college or professionally – has anything close to the actual basketball resume of Ball. This was a kid that averaged 17 points and just under eight rebounds and seven assists per game last season in Australia, competing against grown men sometimes twice his age. Even if Australia isn’t the NBA (no league is) it is still impressive to see an 18-year-old seamlessly transition to the pro ranks and look completely comfortable playing at that level. Keep in mind, that RJ Hampton, who was equally hyped as a prospect heading into his only season in Australia averaged just nine points and two assists during his time there. You can argue their roles were slightly different. But you also can’t argue just how damn productive Ball was.
So, are there a whole lot of red flags with Ball entering this draft? There absolutely are.
And would I blame any team for passing on him? I wouldn’t.
But in a draft where everyone has major question marks, he still has more upside than anyone in my opinion.
The Player with the Second Most Star Potential Behind Ball: Obi Toppin, Dayton
Look, I already know what most of you are thinking: “Of course the college hoops guy is going to defend the best college player in this year’s draft.” And I get it, I do. But first off, I also just said LaMelo Ball – who hasn’t stepped foot on a college campus since watching Lonzo play at UCLA years ago – was the best player in this draft. And I also wouldn’t say it about Toppin if it wasn’t true.
First off, there is Toppin’s skill-set, and all anyone had to do was watch him at Dayton last year to see just how good this kid is. At 6’9 he played a stretch five for the Flyers, as a player who could bang down and get rebounds, but also step back and hit three’s. He was also the most athletic player on the court every time he stepped on the floor, as displayed by one thunderous dunk after another. I don’t care what level you’re playing at – when you can average 20 and nine rebounds per game, while also shooting 39 percent from three, you can hoop.
Obi Toppin is putting on a show! ??
? Threw the ball down like Dwight
? 180 dunk
? Between-the-legs dunk pic.twitter.com/gj6tGSg6W6
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) March 8, 2020
Beyond that, I just don’t buy the narrative that because Toppin is 22-years-old, it means that you can’t take him, or have to select a younger player with more “upside” ahead of him.
The bottom line is that Ja Morant proved that you can take the older college player over the elite freshman (remember he was drafted ahead of RJ Barrett last year) and not regret it. Not to mention that the NBA is littered with all sorts of players who spent multiple years in college basketball and were deemed to “not have very much upside coming in.” That list includes Damian Lillard, who played four years at Weber State, Steph Curry who played three years at Davidson, CJ McCollum (four years at Lehigh), Klay Thompson (three years at Washington State), Draymond Green (four years at Michigan State) on and on and on. Safe to say, those guys have proven that a player with multiple years of college basketball can get better as a pro.
Finally, to those who think Toppin is closer to his “ceiling” than say an Anthony Edwards or James Wiseman (more on those guys coming) remember, he stood just 6’2 as a junior in high school and 6’5 his senior year. Meaning that he has grown seven inches in five years, and is largely still growing into his body.
If I had to bet my life on one guy in this draft being a star, Toppin is it.
(You can listen to interviews with Toppin, Kentucky’s Immanuel Quickley and more on today’s Aaron Torres Podcast)
So what’s wrong with Anthony Edwards and James Wiseman?
Nothing per se. I’m just not sold that either one becomes a franchise-changing superstar. And when you select a guy in the top five of an NBA Draft, that’s what you’re hoping to get.
Look, at the end of the day each has their own unique skill-set, which makes it easy to see why NBA people like them. Edwards has the ability to score in bunches, including an insane 39-point performance against Michigan State in Maui last year. And Wiseman is a legitimate 7’0, with size, skill, athleticism and touch that you simply can’t teach.
Of course each has their downsides as well. Edwards can disappear for large chunks of time, and has never helped his team win at any level, even while putting up stats. It wasn’t just at Georgia (where the Dawgs went 16-16 last year and finished 13th in the SEC) but high school and AAU as well. As for Wiseman, he is someone who hasn’t always shown the best motor dating back to his high school days, with many questioning whether he really loves the game. Leaving Memphis (although partially the fault of the NCAA) certainly didn’t help that narrative.
To be clear this isn’t me being critical. These are genuine concerns NBA people have brought up throughout the draft process.
Despite it though, there is good news with it as well.
One, we could all just end up being flat out wrong about Edwards and Wiseman. Stranger things have happened than a top-two pick turning into an NBA All-Star.
But even if that doesn’t happen, each is talented enough to eventually evolve into a really talented NBA role player. And as anyone who has watched the NBA through the years knows, there’s good money to be made as a role player. Like “you could easily clear $100 million in salary” type money. Not too shabby.
Maybe even better, there appears to be a natural landing spot for both players that amounts to a near perfect fit, where neither would need to be an immediate star. Assuming LaMelo Ball goes No. 1 (and from what I’m hearing it feels like it is leaning that way) it means that Wiseman could likely fall to the Golden State Warriors at No. 2, where he can be the fifth option (if that) on a veteran team where he can learn how to win. That would allow Edwards to fall to Charlotte, where they have a nice young core that includes Devontae Graham, Miles Bridges and PJ Washington and the entire fate of the franchise wouldn’t rest on his shoulders.
It’s not all downside, and as I said, it could work out well for each.
Safest Pick: Onyeka Okongwu, USC
First off, kind of a cool story: Okongwu is from Chino Hills, California and actually played on the same high school team as the Ball brothers. No matter what you think of LaVar Ball and his traveling circus, it’s pretty cool that we could get three NBA lottery picks (Lonzo Ball, LaMelo Ball and Okongwu) from a random, public high school in the California desert.
Two, I believe that of every player in college basketball, no one outside of Toppin was more hurt by no NCAA Tournament than Okongwu. Had there been an NCAA Tournament, my hunch is that you would have caught yourself watching some 7-10 game at 2 in the afternoon, seeing a USC big man you’d neve heard of and say “who the heck is THAT guy.”
Onyeka Okongwu, future Cavalier pic.twitter.com/B99nWhci1m
— LeBron after Klay´s comment? ?? (@BronCedi) November 16, 2020
Well, that my friends is Okongwu, who stands a legit 6’11, has crazy go-go-gadget long arms, elite athleticism and a great feel for the game. He averaged 16 points, nine rebounds and nearly three blocks per game last year at ‘SC, and did it on a roster with a freshman point guard and for a team which rarely ran any offense for him. That’s not a knock on the ‘SC coaches, but a credit to Okongwu, who was able to average a double-double, mostly on energy, effort and put back dunks.
That’s also why he is probably the safest pick in this draft. He is a guy who *already* was not only comfortable playing a role in college, but thrived in it, and with his size and strength he can probably step in and do something similar next season for whomever drafts him.
Okongwu will likely never be a star. But he could easily play in the league for 10 seasons.
As for the rest of the lottery: Insert throwing up emoji
Understand, that’s no knock on any of these kids. But they are professionals now, and let me just say, the rest of the lottery outside those five (and maybe Israeli forward Deni Avdija) is lacking. The reality is, this is one those drafts, where you’d probably rather be picking in the 20-30 range than in the 5-15 range.
That’s because when you’re picking anywhere in the Top 10, you’re traditionally a bad team, and traditionally hoping to find a player who can at least play a role, and help push you into the playoffs next year. I’m just not sure any of these guys are it. Not Auburn’s Isaac Okoro, Iowa State’s Tyrese Haliburton, Florida State’s Devin Vassell or Patrick Williams or Vanderbilt’s Aaron Nesmith.
At the end of the day, those guys are – at best – projects who will need two or three years to reach their potential. Unfortunately, they’ll all be drafted somewhere where fans hope they can come in and contribute right away.
As for the back end of the first round: Thumbs up emoji
Weirdly, this is the gift and the curse of this year: While there is little star power at the top, and most of the rest of the lottery is filled with guys who are projects, the back half of the first round is filled with guys who can fit needs and potentially contribute immediately.
There are guys like Precious Achiuwa, who averaged 16 and 10 at Memphis last year, and can immediately step in as an energy role player down low. Same with Isaiah Stewart. He isn’t an elite NBA athlete, but man does he play hard. If you need shooting there’s Stanford’s Tyrell Terry, Arkansas’s Isaiah Joe or Kentucky’s Immanuel Quickley and if you need a “Three-and-D” guy, go ahead and scoop up Villanova’s Saddiq Bey or TCU’s Desmond Bane.
As I mentioned, there is really good value in the second half of the first round.
What about the Kentucky effect?
One of the random, weird interesting things to me to monitor is that this the first NBA Draft since the NBA bubble. Meaning it is the first NBA Draft since John Calipari’s grand vision for this program came together, and former UK hoopers balled out every night. So with the success of Anthony Davis, Devin Booker, Tyler Herro, Bam Adebayo, Jamal Murray and more, does it give extra value to the UK guys in this draft?
I’ll be curious to see so.
As of right now, the early mocks don’t reflect it, with Tyrese Maxey slated as a mid-first rounder, with Immanuel Quickley and Nick Richards in the second round and Ashton Hagans going undrafted. At the same time, I wouldn’t be surprised to see all those guys creep up, after Kentucky players spent all of late summer and the fall showing that they can step in, immediately contribute to winning basketball and in some cases carry their teams.
Will Maxey, Quickley and the others be over-drafted based on what former Wildcats did these last few months?
It wouldn’t surprise me one bit.
It’s also the year of the back-up point guard!
I know, I know, talking about drafting back-up point guards is about as sexy as breaking down offensive guard depth in the NFL Draft. But if you need an extra guard, this is your year.
In no particular order, there is Duke’s Tre Jones, Kansas’s Devon Dodson, Arizona’s Nico Mannion and Michigan State’s Cassius Winston. Or Oregon’s Payton Pritchard or San Diego State’s Malachi Flynn.
All have different plusses and minuses, benefits and drawbacks.
But if you need another guard, this is the draft for you.
Three players I like more than most
Before we get out of here, it feels like a good time to discuss some players I like more than most, and three others I like less than most. Since I’m a glass is half full guy, let’s start with guys I’m excited about:
Immanuel Quickley, Kentucky: Now more than ever, the NBA is a guard’s league, and a league where versatility is key in the backcourt. Well, who is more versatile than Quickley? Remember, he was recruited to Kentucky as a point guard, so in theory he can play there, but played mostly off the ball during his time in Lexington. Even better, in a league where shooting has never been more valued, Quickley shot a staggering 43 percent from behind the arc last season. I’ve been saying it since March, but I believe he is a first rounder.
Malachi Flynn, San Diego State: Basically take the same thing I said about Quickley, copy and paste it here and you have Flynn. He can play on and off the ball, can score (he averaged 17 per game), dish it out (he averaged over five assists per contest), shoot the rock (he shot 37 percent from three) and as an added bonus is an excellent defender as well. He took home Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year honors a season ago, in addition to being name the league’s most outstanding player.
Mason Jones, Arkansas: Jones might only do one thing at an elite level, but that one thing is super important: He can score the basketball. Jones averaged 22 points per game last season, and got to the foul line a nation-leading 10 times per game. In a sport where teams routinely need to score 130 points to win games, you need bucket getters off the bench and Jones is one guy who can certainly do that.
Three players I like less than most
Now let’s get to some guys I’m way lower on than most.
Nico Mannion, Arizona: Mannion got off to a blistering start last season, before Pac-12 defenses figured him out and largely shut him down. If you watched closely, Mannion doesn’t do anything at a particularly elite level – he isn’t super quick, isn’t super athletic, isn’t strong, can’t get to the rim and can’t finish once he’s there. He is a guy who spent a good chunk of time during the season in mock drafts in the lottery, who I could see falling to the late second round or going undrafted. They hype far outweighs both the production and long-term upside here.
Josh Green, Arizona: I know that every player has different reasons for leaving college and I’m sure Green’s were justified, but right now he’s just an athlete that doesn’t seem to know how to play basketball. He averaged a respectable 12 points per game, but if you look at his split stats closely, he averaged just nine per game on the road and shot just 21 percent from three outside of the McKale Center. To me, he is the perfect example of a guy if, had he come back to college and simply worked on his jump shot and all-around game, could’ve ended up as a lottery pick next year. Instead he’s a fringe first rounder who will have to fight his way up through the G-League to earn a spot on an NBA roster.
Isaac Okoro, Auburn: I watched a ton of Auburn games, and can’t definitively remember one thing that Okoro did. I know he’s a solid defender and by all accounts a great energy player. As I said, I think most people just hope for a bit more out of a potential lottery pick.
Enjoy the draft everyone!