We’re about two weeks away from the 2020 NBA Draft, which means we’re deep into smoke and mirror season. Rumors are abound about what each team will do, which prospects they like, and the trades they could consider to get their player on Draft Night.
For the Boston Celtics, no rumor seems to be gaining steam more than the potential to consolidate their three first-round picks and move up into the top ten. Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer reported the C’s interest in shipping picks 14, 26 and 30 to move up, a way of both maximizing the talent they’d bring in and solving the roster crunch created by holding three first-round selections.
There’s no one name that stands out as the obvious target for Danny Ainge. Instead, many prospects fit the bill as strong fits next to the core of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart. Boston’s draft capital and trade assets likely don’t warrant a move-up into the top echelon of this class, where true alpha-type scorers with high ceilings exist. Instead, Ainge would look to reel in the complimentary piece that can be a long-term fit with the core and play off the strengths of Tatum and company on both ends.
CelticsBlog’s Adam Taylor already wrote two glowing reports about such candidates in Onyeka Okongwu from USC and Kira Lewis Jr. of Alabama. Okongwu, a rim protecting big with great mobility, would tighten up the defensive end and perhaps be the missing link at center. Lewis, a speedy point guard who can impact the game with the ball in his hands, could project as the heir apparent to Kemba Walker.
There’s one player in this draft who I’d project as elite as a role player, and feel really confident in that projection. That player is Devin Vassell, a 6’7” 3-and-D wing out of Florida State. Vassell doesn’t have the typical path nor statistical line of a lottery prospect. He was vastly under-recruited out of high school, and had a well-rounded yet pedestrian stat line: 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 1.6 assists per game. However, there’s nothing pedestrian about his game. In my years of watching basketball, I’ve never seen a more impactful, smarter or more unbelievably polished team defender at the college level.
Looking forward to his NBA role, Vassell does have room for growth. But his floor is among the highest in this draft. Two consecutive years of shooting over 40 percent from 3-point range, a 6’7” rangy wing with a 6’10” wingspan and elite help defense makes him not only a safe pick, but an incredibly impactful one for any team fortunate enough to draft him.
Part of Vassell’s preparation to be an elite help defender comes from his time at Florida State, playing under former NBA head coach Leonard Hamilton in a switch-heavy scheme. The Seminoles would swap matchups on-ball and off-ball, maximizing the awareness of every player in their system. There were countless moments where Vassell put the clamps on guys one-on-one, but even more instances of brilliance with how he rotated away from the ball.
Without gushing too much about how much he excels at seemingly mundane movements, his instincts and defensive IQ are off the charts. Really good defenders have a mastering of where to rotate and don’t make mistakes. Excellent defenders have the feel for when to break off those standard patterns to make emergency plays and save their team. Vassell had more emergency blocks at the rim and perfect perimeter switch-outs than most NBA guys have in a year.
On-ball defense is no weak spot for him either. With a 6’10” wingspan and quick lateral movements, Vassell only gets beat to the rim when he’s taking gambles or applying a great deal of pressure on-ball. But he has the chops to recover and forces mid-range pull-ups or pins shots to the backboard from behind. He’s switchable and can guard 1 through 4 effectively in isolation.
From a statistical standpoint, Vassell is really impactful. Per 40 minutes, he averaged 1.9 steals and 1.3 blocks, and helped Florida State to a 26-5 record and the #4 ranking in the country, the school’s highest since 1973. Vassell was the team’s leading scorer, despite only taking 9.8 shots per game.
Vassell really fills out the 3-and-D mantra by being an above 40 percent 3-point shooter. He’s got a nice, high release that utilizes his length to get off and over approaching defenders. There’s been some panic in many circles about reported tweaks to his shooting form, but his camp has effectively walked those back by ensuring leaked videos were merely teenagers messing around on the court. I don’t have many doubts about Vassell being a good shooter and impactful spot-up threat in the NBA.
By being a master of what he’ll be asked to do frequently, improvement for Vassell will center around skill development in other areas. That provides the unique opportunity to raise his ceilings in ways other 3-and-D wings don’t get the opportunity. By being in a small role in Boston, there’s little onus on him to create offensively until he adds some strength and offensive seasoning.
Look at most 19-year-olds and its hard to say adding strength isn’t paramount for them all coming into the NBA. Vassell is no different; he’s a wiry athlete with very thin arms and will need to add core strength before banging with the NBA’s elite wing scorers. Boston has lofty playoff expectations that could expose him physically as a rookie, but stocky defenders in Tatum, Brown and Smart would offset Vassell’s fragility.
From a skill standpoint, Vassell doesn’t do much to create his own shot or looks for others. He’s an adequate passer and has glimpses of pull-up scoring down the line, but neither are close to being strengths. When he can’t separate from his man, Vassell has a tendency to engage in multiple spin moves that wind up going nowhere. He’ll need to be more simplistic to be functional as a closeout-attacker.
Around the hoop, Vassell could do more to finish through contact. Of course, the addition of strength will help him handle bumps to his core and climb the ladder when he runs into physicality. Still, he doesn’t have a great feel for how to create contact or when to avoid it. Those discrepancies result in lowering his efficiency at the rim, a real shame for someone with great athletic burst when given a runway.
Fit in Boston
The Celtics have all the one-on-one scorers they need; adding another in the draft doesn’t have to be a priority this year. Instead, they need more guys who can play off-ball, space to the corners and 3-point line, and knock down shots.
Vassell complements offensively while making the team’s strongest attribute a damn near invulnerability. Defenders like Vassell, Tatum, Brown, Smart, and others like Gordon Hayward and Grant Williams make Boston the most switchable, multi-use wing rotation in the league. They can do so many things on that end that Brad Stevens might actually smile at the thought of it.
Right now, Vassell has a fairly wide draft range. It’s not inconceivable that he falls to 12 or 13, just before the Celts are on the clock. He could end up going as high as sixth to the Atlanta Hawks. In order to safely cut the line to secure him as the pick, Boston may have to overpay into the higher-end of that range.
Danny Ainge is known for going after undervalued scorers and guys with strong offensive pedigrees. Vassell doesn’t necessarily fit that bill, so anticipating Ainge trading a hefty sum just to select him would be a break from the norm.
But Ainge also knows that all championship teams have not just an abundance of star power, but players who can dominate their roles. At some point, the Celtics need to add those guys who can be that piece, the Andre Iguodala of the Golden State Warriors dynasty. Vassell can certainly be that, and in a draft class without an abundance of high-end star talent or offensive firepower, there may be no better time to soak as much value out of a defensive stalwart as possible.