2019 NBA Draft Prospect Breakdown: The Wild Cards
Through my own recruiting and this draft scouting process, I keep circling back to this quote in examining my own methods. All scouts and assistant coaches must answer to somebody when gathering information on a player, and they will be forced to answer questions to provide context and conclusions from the legwork they’ve done.
But the questions they are able to ask themselves, or a group as a whole, are just as important.
“Asking the right questions takes as much skill as giving the right answers” – Robert Half
For some prospects, the scouting process is fairly cut and dried. They do what they do well, have glaring areas of improvement, and even the untrained eye can see those traits with some clarity. Success comes from unearthing gems, finding value and hitting on a risk someone else is not willing to make.
Teams must be able to provide answers to the important questions regarding the high-risk, high-reward prospects in a draft. Better yet, they have to know what questions to ask in order to feel competent in their analysis.
For this draft prospect preview, we look at four “wild card” prospects that require the correct questions being asked to determine their value. In addition to the normal strengths and improvement areas videos on these four prospects, I’ll attempt at framing the discussion around their draft stock with one important question about each.
NASSIR LITTLE – W, NORTH CAROLINA
The first wild card is a former top-three recruit in the country (according to many scouting services at the time) that didn’t pan out as a freshman at North Carolina.
Nassir Little came off the bench for the top-ten Tar Heels and certainly made a solid impact in his limited minutes, but there’s a lot missing from his game, including play on the perimeter.
NBA teams begin their scouting process earlier than a player’s freshman year in college, so Little has been on radars for a few years. You have to wonder how much this season causes teams to sour on his production as opposed to remaining optimistic about his potential.
Little is one of the premier athletes in this draft, and he’s only 19, so there’s plenty of time for the polish to come.
Few can do what he does in the open floor, combining a seven-foot wingspan with elite leaping ability. He’s an elite transition piece as a wing and a highlight waiting to happen. What goes unnoticed is how strong of a finisher he is. Little combines strength with body control and handles defenders with size very well.
There’s some upside for him as an on-ball defender, an area where his versatility and athleticism plays a large part. The impact Little makes at the NBA level is due to his athletic portfolio and how quickly he can improve the parts of his game that are rough around the edges.
The terms “raw” and “potential” are just a fancy way of saying “hasn’t done anything yet”. The operative word: yet.
Little shows potential and raw athletic ability, but there is an assumption he will clean up his game and tighten everything to become a high-level contributor. And that’s not necessarily (ever) a safe assumption (with any player).
Little has several issues as a passer and a shooter that make him a risky perimeter option. He’s a horrid passer, doesn’t create a shot for himself or others against solid defense, and is wildly inconsistent from three. Essentially he’s a bully driver and athlete, but nothing else right now. That’s a lot to clean up.
Defensively he’s prone to lapses—it appears to be more that he doesn’t want to defend than he isn’t capable. That can cause teams to sour on putting all the work into fixing his offense. What’s the point if his attention to detail remains in question?
ONE IMPORTANT QUESTION
Where is 19-year-old Little in comparison to other similar prospects in this draft (PJ Washington, Brandon Clarke) when they were 19?
Drafting Little at the tail end of the lottery puts him up against other athletes that can play the 4, have great athletic profiles and similarly are not polished offensive pieces. While Clarke and Washington have both shown a greater impact on both ends, they are older—Clarke is 23, Washington will be 21 before playing an NBA game—and thus more developed.
Little deserves to be compared to these guys as a selection in the teens, and the long-term prognoses are in his favor.
If a team feels confident he can have a greater impact in three years than Brandon Clarke does now (regardless if it is in the same ways), Little should be the selection. The same goes for Washington, who was in the same boat as Little a season ago before returning to Kentucky and improving his jumper. We tend to be down on Little after his freshman season, but there’s still a ton to like here, particularly in comparison to older prospects.
The closer we get to the draft, the less likely that Little slips outside the lottery. His athleticism is too tantalizing and he’s the type of player that would thrive in individual workouts.
NBA teams put a tad too much stock in those settings, meaning Little is more likely to rise than fall. I don’t think he gets past the Boston Celtics at 14.
KEVIN PORTER JR – CG, USC
Perhaps no player has a wide a range for a first-round talent than Kevin Porter Jr. He’s a skilled scoring guard with good wingspan and versatility to play either guard spot. He’s also a lottery talent at the draft’s weakest position.
Attitude concerns may deflate his draft stock and cause him to plummet on draft night, but how far he drops remains to be seen.
There’s a reason Porter was so highly touted coming out of high school.
The dude has demonstrated an ability to score off the bounce and in isolation that others simply do not have. He’s a left-handed scorer that can go either way, has effective pull-up range from 3 and can play above the rim at times.
Standing 6’6″, he’s got great size for a guard and an outstanding wingspan to boot. Nobody loves step-back jumpers more than Porter, and he hits a fair amount of them, making him stand out as an isolation-driven scorer.
Porter’s game is the least of my concerns when it comes to areas of improvement. He had such a strange season at USC, getting suspended for “personal reasons” and missing some time due to an injury.
Porter then struggled to regain his form. He averaged 8.9 points and recorded 18 assists and 30 turnovers in 22.0 minutes per game once he returned—far from sexy numbers for a lottery prospect, and particularly one with upside to run a team.
The maturity and character issues are a real concern and dampen Porter’s clear athletic talents. He had a strange season at USC, but talent never won out on a team that went 16-17.
That’s concerning for either reason: Either he’s not talented enough to overcome mediocre teammates in the backcourt or his attitude problems set him back and the team preferred struggling than rewarding his behavior with playing time. Either way, a bad look.
ONE IMPORTANT QUESTION
Is Porter a good-enough passer to be a primary creator. Is he a willing enough bystander to be a secondary one?
This is, in essence, the offensive version of the question “is Player X a tweener or a multi-positional defender?” Porter can handle the ball and his get own shot, so he seems best deployed with the ball in his hands. But he’s neither a great passer, nor a willing one. He can score and put up numbers, but is that part of a winning style?
The same goes for his complimentary role.
If Porter is moved to a secondary playmaker, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest he won’t love that role. Certain players display winning habits by their ability to blend into an offense. If a front office does not view Porter as the dynamic playmaker worthy of being the main creator, it is legitimate to question his current character issues.
Porter’s range is dependent on how teams feel about his personality. His talent would place him outside the top ten.
He could sneak into the lower end of the lottery but is more realistically looking at the 15-17 range as his earliest. There’s also a chance Porter slides towards the end of the first round, where the risk for a player of his upside is financially minimized.
Personally, I do not like the way that Porter plays as a very one-on-one heavy scorer that gets few teammates involved. I wouldn’t spend a first-round selection on him.
nic claxton – p, georgia
As unpolished as he is talented, Nic Claxton is one name rising up draft boards right now.
In a league driven by versatility in the frontcourt, Claxton has many scouts and even general managers intrigued by his combination of length, defensive quickness and unique offensive traits.
Anybody looks good in a highlight tape, but Claxton’s potential jumps out from his mix.
He’s an unbelievably talented athlete with a long frame and quickness. He can guard any position for spurts and is perfect in either a switching scheme, an aggressive scheme or drop coverage. At Georgia, he was utilized as someone that can guard perimeter drives and both a 4 and a 5. That versatility could make him great at the next level defensively.
Claxton is raw offensively but has the tools to be a unique creator. He’s a good ball handler that can rebound and run, be used in the pick-and-roll or face-up, and pass from the high post. His shot is long and has promise, and he began shooting more threes last year for the Bulldogs—albeit to mixed results. There’s a lot to like about the variety of tools in his box.
For a guy that made nearly 30 percent of his threes, Claxton has some horribly awful mechanics on his free throw and his pull-up.
He doesn’t separate off the dribble to create enough space and does not project to be a high-level scorer thanks to his inability to change direction in traffic. He’s not great with his weak hand near the rim and he’s super weak in terms of upper body strength.
There’s a lot for Claxton to improve, making him a very rough-around-the-edges prospect.
ONE IMPORTANT QUESTION
If the shot doesn’t improve, is Claxton’s offensive role still effective?
We saw an uptick in shooting volume from Claxton last season, but the mechanics still need work. He’s a few years away from being a regular contributor, but we cannot assume that his shot will definitively be respected in the league.
Ball handling bigs that do not force defenders to check their perimeter game become easier to guard. The messy mechanics, particularly on his free throw stroke, should cause hesitation to proclaim him a stretch big. But scouts have to figure out exactly what his offensive role will be, and that means examining the possibility of how he’ll be defended if his shot stays weak.
We may be falling in love with the idea of Claxton more than who he actually is. A talented athlete that shows major upside in bursts, his ceiling is uniquely high in a draft without many high-upside players. Claxton is not only far away from a Pascal Siakam-like impact, but he hasn’t proven efficient numbers on offense or defense.
How high does he go? He could sneak into the late teens, but it seems like—for a player with considerable downside and risk—he’s better served going in the late twenties. Nobody is climbing up draft boards faster, though.
Jontay Porter – P, Missouri
In an absolutely heartbreaking fashion, Jontay Porter re-tore his ACL while training for the draft process this Spring. The outlook is now clear: Porter is likely to go two full years without game action and will have the snakebit injury designation trailing his career so closely.
Stranger still, he’s hurt by the same concerns hampering his brother, Michael Porter Jr. of the Denver Nuggets.
Before the injury, Porter was my top post prospect and firmly in the top-four among my overall draft board. Yes, I was that high on him. Now his draft stock is in flux and it’s difficult not to worry about spending a valuable first-round draft selection on a player with as many bodily red flags.
Porter’s ability as a shooting big is undeniable. He’s the perfect face-up 5 for today’s game thanks to his quick shooting release, playmaking ability as a passer and some upside to take other bigs off the bounce. Put Porter in a system where he’s frequently spacing to the corners and above the break, and he’ll be an offensive maestro.
While not a great defender, he can hold his own as a very talented rim protector.
Porter never relied on his athleticism when healthy, which makes for an interesting paradox when evaluating his upside post-surgery.
There likely isn’t a great loss in his strengths due to the knee injuries, as he was never explosive to begin with. But does his injury compound that lack of athleticism?
Porter must especially focus on how he finishes inside. As a near seven-footer, he cannot afford to shoot below 45 percent at the rim or miss as many easy looks with either hand. He’s heavily left-hand dominant and does not have a polished post arsenal.
Those are areas where a player without athleticism cannot fall short.
ONE IMPORTANT QUESTION
Does a player who doesn’t rely on athleticism have a greater or lesser downside after suffering multiple ligament injuries?
We alluded to this question above, but it’s a huge point worth belaboring. Porter never was an athletic maestro, even at his peak. So does an average athlete become a below-average athlete after multiple ACL surgeries? Or does an average athlete’s playing style not alter, so there’s relatively little risk to picking him?
I’m not sure anybody knows how to correctly answer this one, but it does seem like the right question to be asking, given that not all players are affected the same by major surgeries.
Picking where Porter ends up is like trying to predict the winner of The Bachelorette on opening night. There are so many candidates and options that it is difficult to assess just how far his injury will drop him.
Looking on the positive side, he has taken the injury opportunities to fix his body and shed weight, making him an NBA-ready prospect once his knee heals. If Porter gets picked outside the first round, I have full confidence in saying he will pleasantly surprise whichever fan base is lucky enough to have him on their side.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.