2020 NBA draft: The uncertainty of a high-risk, high-reward class
It’s not quite holding your nose because the crop of prospects stinks, but this NBA draft has more uncertainty than any of the past decade.
Or, at least, since the 2013 version, which saw the Cleveland Cavaliers take Anthony Bennett No. 1 and the best player turned out to be an unknown, lanky kid from Greece named Giannis Antetokounmpo — who went 14 picks later.
The draft is routinely a crapshoot. Guaranteeing millions of dollars and putting a 19- or 20-year-old a step closer to generational wealth while handing him the keys to a billion-dollar franchise always comes with question marks.
Only the benefit of hindsight makes such decisions as obvious as they are framed. But in the moment, there are usually heavy discussions in team facilities and, sometimes, heated disagreements on which player fits a team best for its present and future.
And the debates often go on for years, between fan bases among themselves or teams intent on being right even in the face of conflicting evidence.
This year’s top three picks present conflicting, or incomplete, information even if the consensus is that LaMelo Ball, James Wiseman and Anthony Edwards are in the top tier. And that’s not to mention a few others who’ve drawn attention, including Killian Hayes, Patrick Williams and Deni Avdija — whose name seems hard to pronounce now, but if his play checks out, it’ll roll off the tongue like “Antetokounmpo.”
The Minnesota Timberwolves, Golden State Warriors and Charlotte Hornets — who have the top three picks — are all at different stages of franchise expectations and development. Their individual needs don’t necessarily conflict, but it doesn’t mean there won’t be some fireworks tomorrow, headlined by the uncertainty of the talent at the top.
“There’s nothing special in this draft,” a longtime personnel person told Yahoo Sports. “The talent is just OK.”
It’s unlikely the top three will be in the class of last year’s 1-2 punch of Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, but those two were initially believed to be franchise cornerstones at best, impact players at worst. The intrigue began when the New York Knicks drafted RJ Barrett third and most of the top 10 had inauspicious rookie seasons.
Depending on who’s talking, one of the three wild cards can turn out to be a franchise player, or in the case of the much-maligned Ball, be “boom or bust” — a phrase two executives reached by Yahoo Sports said on the eve of the draft.
So much about Ball’s evaluation has to do with things outside of basketball. His brother, Lonzo, his boisterous father, LaVar, and LaMelo’s own basketball journey has taken him around the world but not to a college campus.
He’s not the only player with an incomplete resumé given his unconventional path, but given his fame he will be poked and prodded more than the rest.
“He’s inconsistent and erratic,” a Western Conference executive told Yahoo Sports. “But he has an elite IQ and he’s 6-foot-7.”
“I worry about giving him the keys to my franchise,” an Eastern Conference personnel director said. “But he’s a worker and handles pressure so well.”
Teams talk themselves in and out of love, with the Western Conference executive saying he didn’t have a great feel for the top of the draft before play stopped but now has watched so much available film he warns against overthinking.
He believes Edwards, a bulky 6-foot-5 shooting guard from Georgia, is the best player. Edwards had a televised pro day recently on ESPN, and the player he’s most compared to, Dwyane Wade, said Edwards can be better than him.
Edwards isn’t the first recent guard to have the Wade comparisons, as Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell carries them as well. Several teams passed on Mitchell before the Jazz traded for him at the 13th spot, making most regret that error.
Edwards is bigger and taller than Wade, but it’s tough to place such labels on a player who just turned 19, and it’s easy to assign comparisons to the greats, considering Wade just wrapped up a Hall of Fame career that places him at the Mount Rushmore at his position alongside Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Jerry West.
“I have my concerns about his motor,” the executive said. “But at the end of the day, he has the best scoring potential. And he’s a good kid.”
“High risk, high reward,” another Eastern Conference executive termed Edwards.
It’s a league full of terrorizing, versatile wings and every team is looking for the next athlete to combat the evolving trends. And you don’t wanna miss on the player who fills all of the baseline needs.
But what about the player who goes against the trends? Who’s just talented and can play basketball, regardless of whether the league is moving away from the big man?
Wiseman didn’t play long at Memphis before the posse at the NCAA ruled him ineligible after just three games.
But there are some who believe he’s an All-Star in the making and are terrified of the Warriors picking him second, believing he can develop quickly enough to be in the thick of playoff basketball immediately.
“Of the three, he’s the one,” an Eastern Conference general manager said.
“I like Wiseman as a good long-term player,” the Eastern Conference personnel person said.
“Everyone’s afraid of bigs now, but he’s a shot-blocker, a rebounder with a good feel and smooth touch,” the Western Conference executive said.
Wiseman only worked out for Golden State and Charlotte, so it’s hard to see him going lower than that. But Charlotte has been connected in talks to acquire Russell Westbrook from Houston, and certainly the third pick would be included in such a package.
The Warriors seemingly control the draft with the second pick and could leverage it for a ready-made player to pry open the remaining years of championship basketball headlined by Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.
Can Wiseman switch out and defend wings or guards in a pinch? Or will he be planted firmly on the interior, where a defense will have to be devised to hide him from his weaknesses and inexperiences?
Usually, teams tend to focus on a player’s strengths this high in the draft, hoping their development program and reps will shield a 19-year-old from the worst possible scenario.
But there’s no consensus on these picks or even those further down the line, which is why there’s been so much conversation surrounding getting out of the draft altogether or trading down.
“We’re gonna see who the smart teams are compared to the ones who think they’re smart,” a Western Conference general manager said.
As the night goes, high risk, high reward.
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