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2020 NBA Draft Preseason Big Board: Tier 2 star gambles

Max Carlin breaks down the top prospects in the 2020 NBA Draft and shares his first big board of the year.

High School Basketball: McDonald’s High School All American Portrait Day Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

College basketball is here and I am excited to share my first board for the 2020 NBA Draft. With as many as five picks spanning all ranges of the Draft, 2020 represents a year for Celtics fans to be especially attuned to the happenings of the world’s best young players outside of the NBA. Before the rankings, though, let’s go over some essential background information.

Prior to the 2019 Draft, I wrote a brief piece outlining my philosophies on the draft. I won’t re-litigate any of that here, but I’d recommend taking a quick look before diving into this year’s rankings. The one notable difference between that final evaluation and this preseason version is my willingness to be speculative. When it comes to considering outcomes, I’ll be placing greater weight on high-end outcomes, as there is simply more time to see if prospects can translate tantalizing tools to impact on basketball games.

As for general thoughts on the 2020 Draft, I consider it to be meaningfully weaker than 2019. The simple fact that there’s no Zion Williamson at the top hampers the class a lot, but where I saw the 10-20 range as such a massive strength in 2019, that range is quite weak in 2020. That said, the depth of initiators in 2020 is considerable, and I am a huge fan of the forward/wing depth extending well into the second round (a massive win for good teams needy at the NBA’s most cherished positional group). Due to the extraordinarily weak returning class, we could see record-setting numbers of one-and-dones in 2020.

Check out Tier 1 (#1 favorites and star initiators), Tier 3 (valuable complementary talents and low probability star gambles), and Tier 4 (possible rotation players).

Tier 2: Extremely valuable complementary talents or lower probability star gambles

This is where the 2020 class starts to falter. In a spot where downtrodden franchises are looking for guys who can turn them around, they instead find a bunch of star role players with relatively low-percentage true star outcomes. Generally speaking, this is a range in which teams should avoid picking.

3. Deni Avdija, Forward, Maccabi Tel Aviv

Avdija will undoubtedly draw comparisons to fellow European phenom, Luka Doncic. Those associations should be rejected and their authors questioned. Avdija, however, brings a valuable two-way skill set that offers the potential for a star role player career:

Avdija is highly coordinated for a player his size, and he should thrive as a transition ball-handler. His intelligence shines on both ends, allowing him to be an impactful help defender and clinically pick apart defenses as a passer (particularly in the post in the half court):

Despite Avdija’s coordination, his overall athletic tools measure out somewhere around “fine.” He moves well enough laterally, but he’s no special vertical leaper and requires significant load time to get off the ground. He’s rather weak at the moment and lacks great length (though he plays very physically and uses what length he has well). Most concerning for Avdija’s projection is his shot. At every level, he’s posted putrid percentages from distance and the free throw line while sporting suspect touch.

Overall, Avdija’s is a case in which it’s essential not to get too bogged down in his (considerable) weaknesses, because he’s simply a very good basketball player. As a transition playmaker, slasher, post creator, and impact defender, he consistently exerts positive influence on basketball games.

4. Isaac Okoro, Wing, Auburn

Okoro is the early leader for my annual Grant Williams Favorite Prospect Award. I’ll get the negatives out of the way first: he can’t dribble or shoot. For a wing, that’s highly problematic, and I do not mean to minimize those flaws, but it should indicate how special Okoro is at what he does well:

As a wing defender, Okoro has a very serious chance to be an all-time great. On-ball, he is a menace who routinely shut down elite wing and guard prospects on the AAU circuit. Off-ball, he is clairvoyant, possessing the anticipation and instincts to create event after event. He is, in my estimation, the best wing interior defender I have ever seen, due to those smarts and outlier vertical leaping and strength.

I conceptualize current Okoro much like a defense-first big man prospect, because I believe him to be the rare wing who can create truly elite level impact on that end of the floor, which is why I’m willing to forgive present offensive shortcomings.

Offense, however, is where I see the fringe outcomes in which Okoro is a destroyer of worlds:

Okoro’s intelligence translates to the offensive end, where he’s a lightning-quick decision-maker with strong vision. He is routinely encumbered by his handle, but when enabled to make on-the-move decisions without a dribble on cuts or rolls, he is devastating. He adds to that IQ package elite vertical leaping and strength.

At the moment, Okoro’s best offensive role is likely that of a big man, where teams could benefit from his decision-making and finishing without damage from his shooting and handling. Given his unique interior defensive impact at his size, I do think that could actually be a viable strategy in spurts similar to how the Celtics have found success using Williams as a big.

With one-of-a-kind defensive impact and foundational tools for offensive emergence down the road, Okoro is flying under the radar both as an elite complementary talent and very fringe star gamble.

5. Tyrese Maxey, Combo, Kentucky

Maxey is an excellent all-around basketball player. He’s an imposing guard defender with high-level strength that does not diminish his quickness. He’s a very good shooter, offering versatility off the dribble and off movement. He has a hilariously refined runner game:

Wildly explosive neither horizontally nor vertically, Maxey may be labeled a poor “athlete,” but he compensates with strength and an uncanny ability to shrink his large frame into small spaces and contort around defenders.

I worry about Maxey’s feel for the pick-and-roll, which we unfortunately may not see much as he slides into the Jamal Murray/Tyler Herro role at Kentucky. I question how elite he’ll be as a pull-up shooter with a low release point that might not translate perfectly to the transient shooting windows an NBA lead guard sees. But Maxey profiles well as a two-way contributor who could conceivably be more with a high-end shooting outcome and development as a pick-and-roll player.

6. Nico Mannion, Initiator, Arizona

Mannion is another well-rounded guard prospect. He derives his value primarily on offense, where his game is centered on diverse shooting. He gets to his pull-up quickly, and generates tremendous rise on the shot, allowing him to launch over contests with ease. Off-ball, he is both an excellent shooter, and crucially, an accomplished relocator:

With good burst and vertical leaping, Mannion is capable enough of getting to the rim, but lacking strength and length hamper his finishing (he has flashed well as a finisher at times). Those subpar physical tools hinder Mannion on defense as well, though he compensates some with strong communication and intelligence:

He’s not quite genius level, but solid IQ manifests in Mannion’s (ambidextrous) passing as well:

Mannion checks most of the boxes necessary for a competent initiator. I’m not certain he’ll have enough scoring gravity on-ball to be a great offensive engine, and thus might be a situation-dependent complementary guard, but he could be very good in that role. The possibility for strength improvement or elite shooting carries interesting upside for which we must account.

7. LaMelo Ball, Initiator, Illawarra Hawks

I don’t know that there exists any inherent value in uniqueness, but LaMelo Ball’s uniqueness unambiguously translates to impact on basketball:

Through his genius, touch, creativity, and preternatural court awareness, LaMelo creates passes that didn’t exist until the split second he thought up and flawlessly executed them. He sees passing windows and angles and the game of basketball in a way no one else does. And he’s willing to try anything.

A unique mind and audacious style separate LaMelo as a new viewing experience. As someone who watches a fair amount of basketball, I still can’t get over how jarring it is to watch him play what amounts to a different sport at times. Everyone else is an iteration; he’s something new.

When forced into the confines of normal basketball, though, Ball has often struggled. Prior to his time with Illawarra, he had never played defense, notably functioning as a risk-taking free safety with Spire Academy. That lack of experience has shown in Ball’s transition to the NBL:

Improved effort has been a welcome sign of development, but that doesn’t mitigate LaMelo’s complete inability to navigate a screen or tendency to make ill-advised gambles. Furthermore, traditional on-ball creation can be a mixed bad due to his underwhelming burst:

There’s also the issue of Ball’s shooting. In NBL play, he’s connecting on 3-pointers at 18.9%. Given his lack of explosion, he’ll always be incredibly reliant on the jumper, and I have major reservations thanks to his striking lack of core strength and balance:

But then he does this:

The handle, touch, never-before-seen mind and approach produce moments that inspire certainty LaMelo is destined for greatness. Stepping back, trying to reconcile that LaMelo’s uniqueness still has to conform to the game of basketball as we understand it, there are too many monumental holes in his game to be certain of anything.