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Mavs Moneyball’s Big Board, Part 1

It’s time to go deep on the entire NBA draft

Ratiopharm Ulm v MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg - EasyCredit Basketball Bundesliga Photo by Harry Langer/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

With the Dallas Mavericks 2019-20 season over, it’s time to look at what lies ahead for a franchise clearly on the upswing. After enduring some, shall we say, trials and tribulations (i.e. losses) in the twilight of Dirk Nowitzki’s career, the Mavericks have re-established themselves as a potential title contender in the next half-decade, or possibly even as soon as next year. How did they accomplish this? Well, a big part was the 2018 draft, when Dallas added Luka Doncic, a generational talent and centerpiece of what was a record-breaking offense this past season, as well as Jalen Brunson, a key rotation guard and spot-starter.

Dallas has historically treated the draft as a low-priority method of talent acquisition, and we don’t need to rehash that history here, but it cannot be overstated how important it is for consistently competitive teams to add pieces this way. Young players on cheap rookie deals are like a franchise cheat code, and the great teams of the modern era are usually those who not only scout prospects well, but create an environment where those young players can contribute and develop.

With that in mind, we turn to the 2020 Draft class, an unusual bunch for an unusual year. I’ve been writing about the NBA Draft for Mavs Moneyball since 2012, and this may be the most uncertain I’ve felt about the incoming draft prospects in that time. Other drafts have had lack of consensus at the top (2013 springs to mind), but most years, there has usually been at least one guy you could point to and say “I think that guy is going to be a star”, and I can’t say that about this group. Statistically speaking, odds are pretty good there’s at least one guy in all this mess who will make an All-Star team, but boy oh boy am I glad I don’t have to be the person whose job rests on figuring out which one it is.

Without much further preamble, here is my big board for the 2020 NBA Draft. Just to be absolutely clear: this is not a mock draft. This is purely my take on the prospects, based on tape, statistical evaluation, and input form some of the many brilliant draft voices out there, who know way more than I do or frankly ever could. I usually try to formulate my own views as much as I can, and be advised there will be some rankings in here that differ greatly from those in mainstream publications. In the past I’ve done more “Mav centric” rankings, but this year I’m shying away from that a little, and just trying to identify who I believe fits best within the modern NBA context as a whole, though I do touch on how certain guys might be utilized potentially in Dallas.

1. Killian Hayes, PG, ratiopharm Ulm(BBL)

A big lead guard who was born in Florida but raised in France, Hayes earns the top spot on my board mainly because I believe he has a higher floor than the next two guys, while still possessing significant upside. That latter part may be something the NBA disagrees with, however, as Hayes is currently being discussed more as an option just outside the top half-dozen picks.

At 6’5, Killian is the first of several point guards with excellent positional expected to go in the lottery, and of those prospects, Killian has probably the broadest skill set. He’s capable of making every pass out of pick and roll sets, but also has demonstrated the ability to create his own shot (especially off screen action), using deceptive stop-start moves and nice touch around the basket. He isn’t exceptionally explosive, and will need to continue to add to his bag of tricks and tighten his handle at the next level to counter the major jump in athleticism, but the simple fact is Hayes was productive as the primary initiator in a professional setting before he turned 19. Sound familiar?

Hayes is being dinged a lot for his poor three point shooting, specifically spotting up off ball. I certainly don’t want to downplay that, because his catch and shoot numbers are indeed quite bad (under 30%), but I think I’m more confident than others he can sort that out in time. For one thing, he’s quite effective shooting midrange pull-ups and step-backs off the dribble, as he has a nice looking shot that he can get it off quick in tight spaces. For another, he’s been an outstanding free throw shooter for several years now, and as many know, free throw shooting tends to be more translatable as a predictive metric than three point shooting.

Lastly, where Hayes really separates from the next two guys is at the defensive end. He’s made real strides with his technique and footwork, and with his natural size and anticipation he should be able to competently guard multiple positions. A strong steal rate sells the notion of high BBIQ, as well. Even if Hayes isn’t a future star, getting an intelligent, skilled, two-way playmaking starter is a solid outcome in this class.

2. LaMelo Ball, PG, Illawara (NBL)

Ball seems like the favorite to go first overall, if recent draft buzz is to be believed. Truthfully, Ball is a difficult prospect to evaluate, for a variety of reasons, and I’ve had him up and down each of the top three spots at various points the last six or seven months. One could certainly make the case he’s the most “talented” player in the draft, or perhaps the one with the best shot at eventually being an All-Star. If he finds his way to the right situation, there probably won’t be anybody more prominently featured in future highlight reels. He’s that exciting with the ball.

His creative passing and ballhandling are extraordinary for someone his age, and he routinely does things that nobody else in this class would dare attempt, let alone be able to execute. Full court one handed football passes, and-one style double behind the back dribble-pass moves; when he’s at his best he looks like the type of guy a franchise builds their brand around, and you don’t get the sense that LaMelo will shrink from the spotlight once he finds it, given his family history and the well-publicized path he’s taken to get here.

The inevitable comparisons will be with his older brother Lonzo, and while from a traditional scouting perspective I would argue Lonzo had the better resume at this point (he was dominant in his one season at UCLA), there are areas where LaMelo outshines him. First and foremost, LaMelo appears to be slightly bigger, at 6’7 with an unofficial wingspan over 6’10. The younger Ball also looks like a more fluid athlete with the ball in his hands (and a better dribbler at the same age), capable of beating his man and attacking the basket, something that could go a long way toward unlocking the rest of his game, which Lonzo has as of yet not been able to and perhaps never will.

The reason I’m lower on Ball than some, and why I couldn’t bring myself to put him at #1, is because there are some huge question marks here, and what seems clear to me is that whoever ends up with LaMelo will need to be extremely patient and have a clear plan of development, both in terms of working with him as an individual and building around him in team concept. Both LaMelo’s shooting form and shot selection are, at best, highly questionable. He regularly launched off-balance 30-plus footers, with a funky looking flip shot (it isn’t the cross-body monstrosity Lonzo had, but it also isn’t especially pretty) which opposing defenses were only too happy to let him do. He did convert free throws at better a clip than his brother, but this is undoubtedly going to be a crucial area of improvement for him going forward, as being a non-threat from outside will eat considerably into his upside as a playmaker, much in the way it’s been for Ricky Rubio, another brilliant passing wunderkind.

If the shooting is one problem, the other is defense, where LaMelo frankly didn’t seem particularly interested in exerting himself. Both his effort and technique fighting through screens is severely lacking, and too often he was caught standing and watching off-ball. His size and awareness give me hope he’ll eventually be a positive at that end (he did get some steals and he’s a good rebounder), but there could be a long, long way to go before that happens. In the meantime, expect games with plenty of highs and lows. It’s probably a good thing the hilariously impatient James Dolan and the Knicks won’t have a shot to take him.

3. Anthony Edwards, G, Georgia

Edwards began the season as sort of the default top prospect, and around Christmas time things were actually looking pretty OK for the player known as “Ant Man”. As the season went on, however, things went south, and the red flags turned into giant, blaring neon billboards.

When he’s on, Edwards looks like the ideal 2-guard, straight out of central casting. He has an NBA caliber body right now, with long arms and a strong, muscular frame. He has athleticism to spare, a nice looking shooting stroke, and will show flashes of a true 3 level scoring repertoire, able to drive and finish at the rim or hit tough jumpers over defenders. There’s nothing he can’t do on the court when locked in.

The problem is, as you might imagine, that he seemed bafflingly UN-locked in, a shocking amount of the time. I don’t know how many blue chip wing prospects with effort questions turned in to stars, but I can’t imagine the list is terribly long. Edwards looked flat out bored at times, at both ends of the court, loafing back on defense and settling for contested jumpers on offense. If you’re feeling generous you can make the argument that Anthony could benefit from being asked to do less at the NBA level, but then again…if he’s going to a bottom three team, he might not.

In an organization that can give him a more specialized role in the short term, while allowing him opportunities to gradually build and harness the rest of his game, there’s a path for Anthony Edwards to be a star. That feels like a sentence you see written a lot about highly touted busts, but, again (not to be a broken record), in this draft, there’s justification for taking that risk. Incidentally, the Warriors have the second pick…

4. Onyeka Okongwu, F/C, USC

Okongwu is the first non-guard on the board, and while he likely won’t be the first big man actually drafted, I am firmly on the side of preferring his long term outlook. At 6’9 245, with a reported 7’1 wingspan, Okongwu’s dimensions and athleticism are extremely similar to that of breakout Miami Heat star Bam Adebayo. Like Bam, Onyeka should have immediate value as a rim protector, switchable defender, and lob roll threat, with a chance to develop some offensive skill as he gets older.

Bam is an incredibly unique player, who offers rare dribble/pass ability from the five. It probably isn’t realistic to expect that kind of development curve from Onyeka, but as the college season progressed we saw more and more hints of Onyeka as a scoring weapon, both in the post and as a midrange shooter. He shot 72% from the line, a respectable percentage for a big. At the very least, he has enough touch to at least suggest he won’t have to be purely a dunker with the ball, and if he does expand his range, he could conceivably play down positionally, giving him more options for staying on the floor.

To be honest, I like Okongwu’s chance of sticking as a viable starter on a good team way more than Anthony Edwards, and I think he has a much better chance of helping a team right now than Ball, but this is the part where the elephant in the room must be addressed: that being what the positional value of centers are in the modern NBA. Onyeka’s ability to move laterally and switch gives him a chance to stay on the floor in a wide open pace and space format, but the pendulum is still swinging in the direction of true 5’s being a highly replaceable asset(and no, the Lakers crushing the small ball Rockets does not move me off this spot). Fair or not, that has to be taken into consideration when weighing how you use premium picks, as you only get so many shots at acquiring elite playmakers.

5. Aleksej Pokusevski, F, Olympiacos

Now things get a little weird. Pokusevski is a popular dark horse favorite among online draftniks, and it’s easy to see why. “Poku” is a rail thin 7 foot Serbian who takes the stereotype of the tall skinny Euro with a finesse game to hilarious heights. We’ll be talking more about Pokusevski’s game in the coming weeks(months?) before the draft, but in all the years we’ve been hearing about these mystery foreign big men who play like guards stashed away in low level leagues, only to have them arrive in the NBA and just end up being another white stiff, Poku may be the closest thing to the real deal. He has pretty legitimate guard skills/IQ at over 7 feet tall, capable of making ultra-flashy dribble moves and passes out of live ball setups, and while his shooting will need to get better(not many 18 year olds you won’t say that about), he has great form and was used in a variety of looks on offense, from pin downs to curl screens and more.

Where Pokusevski goes in the draft is anyone’s guess. A team that’s done their diligence could take him in the lottery…or, given some of the valid question marks surrounding what his ultimate ceiling is in the most competitive league in the world, it’s possible he falls to end of the first round(or early second). There are certainly rubs here, as Aleksej has the physique of a twig and I’m not sure realistically how much weight he can even put on. He will probably never be especially thick in the lower half, and that will make him a bit of a liability defending in the post/boxing out. His length and awareness should offer utility as a weak-side shot blocker and play disruptor, but since he’s more fluid than explosive as an athlete, there’s a cap on his value at that end most likely.

Still, Poku is the type of prospect you can dream on, and his playstyle and personality give me reason to think he won’t suffer from the exact same shortcomings that ruined the career of Dragan Bender, his closest comp(Poku defies comparison, but that’s the closest I can come up with) and maybe my biggest whiff as a draft fan. While Bender could be far too passive at times, Pokusevski plays like he thinks he’s the best player on the floor every minute, and even though he tries things that look completely insane at times, he never appears dissuaded by failure.

Would a Poku/Porzingis frontcourt even work? I have no idea, but I’d absolutely love the chance to find out, and at worst, Poku would be an excellent insurance policy should KP’s knees explode at some point. But, and this is key: whoever drafts him will need to be ready to wait at least a couple of years, because the jump in competition level will be very steep and Pokusevski will need as much body work as any prospect in recent memory. Good thing he’s also the youngest guy in this draft.

6. Tyrese Haliburton, G, Iowa State

After an under the radar but ultra-efficient Freshman season at Iowa State a year ago, I had Haliburton pegged as the guy I wanted Dallas to take in the middle of the first round. Unfortunately, both Hali and the Mavs overachieved this season, and now the tall point guard seems a lock to go in the top 10 or 12, comfortably ahead of where Dallas picks.

On paper, Haliburton is close to the ideal point guard to play next to Luka Doncic. Though Haliburton is a terrific passer with great instincts and an ideal mix of creative flair and patience to avoid forcing things, at the next level he profiles better as a secondary playmaker, since he’s not much of a threat to score one on one and would likely be overtaxed as the primary offensive engine. He’s thin, and shies away from contact at the rim, and his unorthodox shooting form requires too much loading time to make him a consistently dangerous shooter off the dribble.

Despite that, Haliburton should be just fine as an off-ball shooter, assuming he has room to fire. He made well over 40% of his threes in both college seasons, and converted 82% of his free throws as a sophomore. So, funky or not, it works. Haliburton is an extremely intelligent player, who plays within himself and makes winning plays at both ends, so he should be a coach’s dream wherever he lands.

Defensively, Tyrese’s size and length are tantalizing. At just under 6’6 with a 6’11-ish wingspan (unofficially, there’s a lot of variance in that reporting there), he is an absolute terror playing the passing lanes, and is exceptional at closing out on shooters or recovering when beat off the dribble. He’s not the most spectacular athlete, but he’s quick enough to offer plenty of defensive versatility, given the physical dimensions and smarts. The other great thing about his ability to create turnovers is that it allows him to get out in transition, where he consistently makes the right read and will wreak havoc on a scrambling defense.

7. Devin Vassell, G/F, Florida State

Vassell is another guy who probably won’t be a star but gets pushed up on this board due to overall lack of talent elsewhere and the fact that he fits an extremely important role as the premiere 3&d guy in this class.

The sophomore from FSU has good length and size at 6’7. That, combined with good lateral quickness and outstanding defensive instincts make Vassell a potential stud on defense, both at the point of attack and in team concept. He regularly picked the pocket of the opponents’ top guard, and perhaps his most impressive stat from this past season was his block total, giving an indication of the kind of ability he has to read and react both helping from weakside and closing out on shooters. While he’s not quite as world-envelopingly long as Mikal Bridges, Mikal’s success as a budding stopper in the bubble serves as a promising example of the kind of role Devin could have for a team. It probably won’t be Dallas, since Vassell seems likely to go before pick 18, but should he either fall or the Mavs decide to trade up, Devin would address both critical areas of need for Dallas: wing defense and outside shooting.

Speaking of the shooting, some are cautiously pessimistic about that part of Vassell’s game. Though he made over 40% of his threes in two years with the Seminoles, his FT% was a more pedestrian 73%, and he’s tinkered with his form somewhat since arriving on campus, leaving some to wonder if his value as a shooter will be based heavily on spotting up and not off movement.

It’s true that Vassell may be a little limited in his offensive role in the NBA, but I’m optimistic about his fit and room for growth given his combination of IQ and athleticism. He’s a good leaper(he elevates really well on jumpers and should be able to get his shot off with ease), and a low-mistake player who knows how and when to move the ball, which shows up in his statistically profile in the form of high rebound/block rates and strong assist/turnover ratios. Simply put, everything about Vassell says “winner.”

8. Desmond Bane, G, TCU

In this house, we respect Desmond Bane. The TCU Senior is currently still being mocked mostly in the 2nd round, which surprises me although frankly projecting any pick past 15 or so is utterly futile. If by chance Bane is available when Dallas’ 2nd round pick(the first one in the 2nd round, as luck would have it) comes on the board, rest assured I will be screaming with all my might at my television, computer and/or phone screen to take him. In fact, not only is taking Bane at 18 perfectly acceptable in my eyes, it’s probably what they should do!

Bane is another 3&D wing who would bring a healthy portion of threes and dees to a franchise who could very much use both. Bane and Vassell do differ in some important ways, however. For one, while Vassell is a wiry, long athlete, Bane is more of the chiseled, tank on legs physique, which seems only natural for a guy with the same name as a buff Batman villain.

As a senior, Bane also has a lot more experience running offense than does Vassell, and has enough handle to offer value there attacking closeouts or even running pick and roll as a third option. Statistically, Bane does just about everything: shoots, passes, rebounds, oh and did I mention he shoots? Bane is a career 43% three point shooter with good volume of attempts and strong free throw percentages (career 80%) just for good measure. He showed off some deep range at TCU, bombing away from well beyond the college line, and with enough handle to create space for step backs, he can let it fly anytime as well as anywhere. An OK leaper when he has room to load up, Bane isn’t quite explosive enough to finish consistently in traffic, and despite his bulky frame he didn’t draw many fouls, so most of his scoring will likely come from the perimeter at the next level.

Meanwhile, Bane is an intelligent defender who knows where to be on the floor and is rarely out-muscled, though again he’s not a quick-twitch athlete and his (very) short arms could limit his ability to play up positionally. He may not be the stopper Vassell is, but he’s similarly a savant as a team defender, anticipating movement well and using his smarts and strength to compete. Already 22, Bane may not have much upside, but he did continue to improve each year at as a Horned Frog, and even if he doesn’t get much better from here, the current package is good enough to contribute immediately as a role player on a team like Dallas.

9. Deni Avdija, F, Maccabi Tel Aviv

A tall, multi-faceted combo forward who really came on down the stretch as he led Maccabi Tel Aviv(the same club former Maverick Gal Mekel played for, among others) to the Israeli League Championship. Avdija won MVP honors, thanks to improved outside shooting that had previously been a bit of a concern for him from a prospect standpoint. Avdija is being talked about as a potential top 5, so I’m a little lower on him than that, though there’s certainly plenty to like about the 19 year old.

What stands out most about Deni is his playmaking ability at 6’9, as he can handle the ball and pass, showing good feel for the game and enough athleticism to be at least a quality secondary shot creator. Avdija is a better athlete than Dario Saric, or fellow Israeli Omri Casspi, but his scoring profile is built more on craftiness and guile than explosiveness. He flashes three-level scoring potential, but a lot of that is still hypothetical, and dependent on how well he ends up shooting from outside.

It’s worth noting there’s a pretty steep drop in competition level between the Euroleague and the IBL, where Avdija performed significantly better. His numbers in Euroleague play are solid for a prospect of his age and stature, but hardly mind-blowing. In particular, Avdija’s shooting numbers are a bit alarming, at under 32% from 3 and a paltry 54% from the free throw line. If those numbers are a better indication of his shooting skill than what he showed over the summer, Avdija’s star potential diminishes greatly.

The other issue with Deni is what position he defends. In this era, these are probably less pressing issues than before, but Deni has a little bit of a “tweener”profile, as he’s not super long(though in what game action I saw he seemed surprisingly effective at using verticality to deter drivers) and he may not be quite quick enough to check wings. The best outcome is that his shooting improves and he can be a dynamic stretch 4 with elite playmaking chops, while using his anticipation and athleticism to offer solid rim protection.

10. Isaac Okoro, G/F, Auburn

For the most part, the guys I have ranked 9-11 are fairly interchangeable, depending on roster makeup. On the right team, I could easily be talked into putting Okoro a spot or three higher, but in terms of likelihood to reach borderline star status, I have him a hair behind Deni.

Okoro has all the physical tools you could ask for in an NBA wing, at 6’6 225 with decent length and the explosive athleticism to finish dunks in traffic and shut down opposing players one on one. Projected to go in the top 10, Okoro will be drafted for his defense first, and he should fill the role of stopper right away for whatever lottery team takes him. Usually asked to guard the opposing team’s best player by Auburn’s Bruce Pearl, Okoro plays with a mean streak and had several highlight quality blocks helping from the weakside, as well. His strength and vertical leap should allow him to defend 1-4 at minimum. You’d have like to have seen a few more steals, perhaps, but that’s nitpicking: Okoro has clear All-Defensive potential.

On offense, it’s a fuzzier picture, but Okoro is young enough to grow, and by most accounts is a hard worker who won’t fail from lack of effort. His passing and dribble drive improved as the year went on, and while his outside shooting isn’t there yet, he showed some nice touch finishing layups and short one-handers in the paint when he needed to. He’ll also get plenty of garbage points off offensive rebounds, cuts, and transition dunks. We shouldn’t oversell his skill level, but he makes the right pass more often than not.

Like many NBA prospects, shooting will determine a lot about how Okoro’s career goes. He made just 28% of his threes and 67% of his free throws as a freshman. That must get better. But on a team that needs tough, physical defense and some influx of athleticism, Okoro will be a welcome addition and a solid foundation piece to build with.

I’ll be back soon with my other big board picks. Will I do all 60? Probably. Will I write this many words again? We’ll see. Are you still reading this? You’re the kind of reader I love.