The 2020 crop might have a bunch of potential role players, but it’s low on surefire star power at the top. No one checks all the boxes of coveted skills, and there is certainly no one close to the pre-draft caliber of someone like 2019’s Zion Williamson.
In fact, this might be the most wide-open race for No. 1 since the underwhelming 2013 class.
There are five or six prospects with a case to land first overall this year. I’m bringing in TBW colleague and NBA Draft guru Adam Spinella to help break down all of these potential top choices.
Who do you have as the highest-rated prospect?
Adam Spinella: Dan, I’m not blown away by anybody here, as every pick has their warts. But the highest ceiling of the group belongs to Anthony Edwards out of Georgia. When I’m looking at how to use the top pick, I’m trying to get the guy who will be the best late-clock shot creator and can be solid on both ends.
Edwards is a volume scorer with a bevy of step-backs and off-the-dribble moves. His issues at Georgia, (and why he isn’t seen as a lock for the top pick), comes from consistency.
He didn’t hit his outside shots at a high rate despite the strength of his shooting package—it’s rare to call a guy who shot 29.4 percent from 3-point range a strong shooter. But Edwards is the exception to the rule. Look at how he functionally uses his athleticism and the high level of scoring inside the 3-point range and, if he makes even 34 percent of his treys, he’s seen as a monster scorer.
I’m also a believer in his defensive upside based on the physical tools he possesses. There’s a fusion of Gilbert Arenas and Andrew Wiggins in his playstyle, for better or for worse.
I think Edwards showed enough for how he can impact a game when he gets hot and goes into takeover mode to justify the top pick. But that doesn’t mean he’s without clear risks.
Dan O’Brien: There are definitely some concerns surrounding his all-around value. While Edwards has enticing upside and will likely be a bucket machine, I’m not sold on his defense, intangibles and whether he’ll make his teammates better.
His execution and shot selection wavered at Georgia, and he could be a risky asset in the wrong environment. Edwards could end up being an empty-stats performer who doesn’t really move the needle for his team.
Adam: So who would you put above him? You certainly have somebody you like.
Dan: I believe LaMelo Ball has a case to hear his name called first. His edge to land No. 1 lies in his elite creativity with the rock. No other 2020 prospect is a more dynamic playmaker and no one has a superior feel for the game.
His tools and skills are tailor-made for the modern NBA.
I was skeptical of him when he was in high school, partially because of the hoopla surrounding the Ball family. But the Lithuania and Australia stints matured him as a player and a person. And it doesn’t hurt that he and Lonzo professionally distanced themselves from their dad, who also wisely simmered down.
Ball has terrific size (6’7”) to be a dual-threat offensive weapon, and he’s an above-average athlete in the open floor. He has a tighter, more creative ball-handling repertoire than his brother, along with a similarly sharp vision. Before his foot injury, Ball averaged 21.9 points and 8.7 assists per 40 minutes for the Illawarra Hawks last season.
I’m not here to tell you he’s a good defender, but I believe the issue is effort and consistency rather than ability. Given the lofty, multi-dimensional offensive ceiling he offers, I’m willing to take the bad with the good.
Adam: Interestingly enough, we see him pretty differently, too.
Defense is the major issue for me. Edwards isn’t a try-hard, but his natural traits can carry him. Ball lacks either in my book.
He’s a gangly 6’7″. If you play him on the wings, I don’t see him putting up much of a fight physically in the mid-post or against physical drivers. But even worse is making him guard a smaller, quicker guard who can light him up. He’s got a case of pretzel feet, crossing himself up when trying to shuffle and move in tight spaces. He also had far too low of a motor on defense for me to be enticed by.
His playmaking is a huge bonus and he handles well, but I’m not sure I see him being a great one-on-one scorer against NBA athleticism. The ball-handling and passing creativity are only highly functional skills if he’s able to force defenses to collapse on him. He’s not a top scorer to me, at least in comparison to other guards in the draft.
I’m not sure I could justify taking a top selection on a guy like him if my team needed someone to put the ball in the hoop
Dan: Those concerns are fair. I’m assuming there’s a different guard you’d rather take No. 1 overall?
Adam: On the international scene, I’d put Killian Hayes from Ulm over LaMelo.
Hayes won’t turn 19 until late-July, but he’s already a legitimate 6’5″ with a 6’8″ wingspan and put up fantastic per 36 numbers during his first EuroCup season: 17.2 points and 8.3 assists on 39 percent shooting from deep and over 50 percent inside the arc. The numbers are great, but how he gets them is even better.
Hayes is the most dynamic passer out of the pick-and-roll in this year’s class. He’s a true lefty that plays with tremendous pace and reminds me a lot of D’Angelo Russell because, while he’s not the flashiest athlete, his unorthodox pace and mastery of the dribble allow him to create space.
Hayes isn’t an elite scorer yet, but the consistency of his step-back jumper is something to relish in an 18-year-old. Worries about him creating his own shot are instantly cooled when looking at the step-back. There’s a ton to like about this kid and how he just produces.
Dan: He’s a fascinating option for sure, especially given his pick-and-roll command. The main worries I have about his upside as a top pick are his lack of explosiveness and his off-hand skill level. Hayes must continue improving his skills to compensate for the mediocre burst, and that includes polishing his right-hand dexterity.
What about the bigs?
Let’s talk about a dark horse big man with some top-pick potential: USC’s Onyeka Okongwu.
The one-and-done standout played with LaMelo at Chino Hills, and he has several attractive qualities on both offense and defense. I love his foot-speed, instincts and energy on defense, where he offers invaluable interchangeability. He has the chops to be a true five-position defender who can switch any pick-and-roll and stymie any type of scorer.
On offense, he’ll be one heck of a pogo-stick rim diver, but he’s much more than that. Okongwu has shown some creativity off the bounce, including driving euro-steps and a soft touch with either hand. He’s not three-point ready yet, but he displayed glimpses of mid-range shooting and posted a respectable free-throw rate (72 percent) last season.
While it’s unlikely a big will land first overall this year, Okongwu is the top frontcourt option in my opinion. His elite defensive versatility and budding offensive game will make him extremely valuable for the club that selects him.
Adam: Dan, I’m glad you brought up Okongwu. I’m not opposed to having him atop the draft board for bigs, although he and James Wiseman are likely neck-and-neck in that category.
But my opposition isn’t so much to Okongwu as it is to bigs in general.
Over the last decade, we’ve seen a shift across the NBA towards small-ball, which is manifested in two ways: Teams are playing only one back-to-basket, non-pick-and-pop big at a time; And more teams are going so small in late-game situations that they abandon having a big altogether. It has almost cut the opportunity for guys who are 6’10” and not freakishly fluid with guard skills in half.
As someone who covets winning and wants to get out of the lottery as soon as possible, I can’t justify taking a big whose positional relevance is just as risky as the normal risk-reward that goes into the draft.
There’s no reason I can think of to take a big in the top-10 when there’s a strong likelihood of finding a place with similar replacement value in the late-first or mid-second round.
To put it another way, you don’t go to a four-star steakhouse and buy chicken nuggets. It doesn’t necessarily mean the quality of the chicken is poor, but you have to take advantage of the rarity of visiting a steakhouse and get something that you can’t get elsewhere. That’s how I feel about bigs in the lottery.
Okongwu is a fine player, and there are plenty of NBA decision-makers who will vehemently disagree with my draft methods and simply take the guy they think is best-available. But I haven’t seen a transcendent amount of talent from Okongwu that would assuage my fears of going big first.
Dan: I agree that a frontcourt piece probably shouldn’t go No. 1 in this era unless he astounds all suitors—Okongwu and Wiseman don’t figure to be the next Anthony Davis. I’m just a strong believer in Okongwu’s tools, versatility and skill development.
He has the capability to have a Bam Adebayo-esque impact, and his two-way value deserves high-lottery interest.
Adam: If our dissent on these prospects proves anything, it’s that this draft is really uncertain at the top. There are way more than one or two names being tossed around, and we’re less than sixty days away from the scheduled draft.
Perhaps we get some clarity as the process unfolds and other background pieces of information come out, but if there is no consensus this close to the draft, it should provide for some draft-night drama.
Dan is a TBW staff writer. After playing college ball at Franciscan University, he covered the NBA and NBA Draft for Bleacher Report for four years and the FRS Network for three years. He now co-hosts the Unlimited Range podcast and continues to campaign for Doris Burke’s promotion to lead analyst at ESPN. Follow him on Twitter: @DanO_Bball