2020 NBA Draft: Syracuse Sleeper Elijah Hughes
Every year, a couple of late-first or second-round NBA Draft picks outperform their selection spots.
Syracuse wing Elijah Hughes has a chance to become one of those overachievers next season. Armed with ample skills and solid physical tools, he could even earn a role as a scoring threat.
After posting 19.0 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game for the Orange last season, the former East Carolina transfer has earned some draft buzz. Hughes is currently projected to land anywhere from the back end of the first round to the late second round, depending on who you ask. He’s not an elite athlete, and he played on a mediocre team for the past couple of seasons, so scouts haven’t pegged him as a surefire NBA cog.
Thus, he’s certainly a guy who could use a boost from strong pre-draft workouts, if those ever materialize.
We combed through the film and stats on the 6’5″ Orange standout. What are his greatest assets and shortcomings right now, and what kind of pro career could he have?
Hughes’ NBA value stems largely from his talent as a shot-creator and shot-maker. He served as Syracuse’s primary scoring threat last season, showcasing a diverse perimeter arsenal.
His footwork is crisp, and he looks comfortable shooting off the hop and the 1-2 step. Hughes is dangerous as a catch-and-shoot threat in transition, with great footwork and a quick, fluid release. This trey against Georgia Tech illustrates Hughes’ range and how comfortable he is when shooting on the move:
Hughes is also adept at creating his own shot via step-backs and side-steps. He has a knack for shaking laterally and then stopping on a dime to go vertical for a clean look. Per Hoop Math, 82.5 percent of his two-point jumpers were unassisted.
Check out this flurry of off-the-bounce jumpers against North Carolina in the ACC Tournament:
I’m not worried that Hughes shot 34.2 percent during his third year of college. He was Syracuse’s only top-tier offensive weapon, so he had to take a bunch of tough shots in tight situations.
In 2018-19, when Tyus Battle was attempting more of the tricky looks and Hughes’ shot quality was better, he was 24 percentage points higher. That’s a better representation of his NBA role: a supplementary scorer who doesn’t have to put the team on his back.
He posted some elite stats that reflect his success as a handler and receiver. Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman noted that Hughes was No. 4 in the country in isolation points per game (4.0) and also in the 85th percentile on spot-up jumpers.
Hughes’ shooting skills will pull NBA defenders toward the perimeter, and he’ll capitalize when they overplay him. Whether it’s a backdoor cut or attacking a closeout off the bounce, Hughes has a solid feel for foiling defenders who are slightly out of place.
He could also contribute in the NBA as a secondary playmaker.
Hughes made great strides as a passer in 2019-20, showing better vision in transition and defter distribution in the half court. I don’t expect him to create for his NBA teammates at a high volume, but he has solid instincts that will allow him to make smart, quick reads within the flow of the offense.
Offensive Deficiencies and Limitations
Hughes may struggle to generate shots as proficiently in the NBA as he did in college. His foot speed and agility are good, but not amazing, so he won’t shake high-caliber defenders all the time.
I’m not confident he’ll consistently get into the teeth of the defense and find ways to score or create in the paint.
He’s also currently not as dexterous with his left hand in traffic as he is with his right, so that limits his slashing effectiveness. When he drives toward the rim, he tends to gravitate back to finishing with his strong hand. If he wants to score consistently against NBA stoppers, he must become more comfortable with his left.
There aren’t many other major shortcomings, just some deficiencies that might cap Hughes’ ceiling.
For example, despite his ball-handling skills vision, he’s not a highly effective facilitator via ball screens. He needs to attack the rim more decisively and take better care of the rock. As TBW’s Adam Spinella notes in the video above, Hughes had a swollen turnover rate of 21.8 percent in pick-and-rolls last season.
Given Hughes’ unique combination of strengths and limitations on offense, he has a wide range of outcomes. On the higher end, he could be a starting NBA 2-guard who’s the second or third scoring option on his team. His basement is European or G-League stardom.
As is the case with any Syracuse prospect, Hughes’ defensive potential is murky. We don’t have much of a sample size of man-to-man defense from him; we can only glean a little bit from his time at East Carolina and during Syracuse’s full-court pressure.
That footage wasn’t particularly impressive.
Given his middle-tier agility, it won’t be a cinch for Hughes to begin guarding the Association’s stable of lightning-quick drivers. He spent most of the last two seasons on the backline of the Orange zone, not at the top of the arc. Making the right rotations and team reads on the perimeter will be challenging.
There are certainly some bright spots to his defensive profile. He makes disruptive plays to deny slashers when he gets a running start, demonstrating terrific timing as a help defender. Hughes climbed the ladder on numerous occasions and brought timely energy to the Orange zone:
Hughes will likely check mostly NBA 2’s and 3’s. He may struggle to contain the quicker shooting guards, and the vertically athletic 3’s will also be tricky.
However, he has enough physical tools to hang in there if the fundamentals come around. If he exerts consistent effort and polishes his man-to-man footwork, Hughes can avoid being a net negative on defense.
Depending on how sharp he stayed during the pandemic hiatus, Hughes has a great chance to raise his perceived value in pre-draft workouts. He would fare well against other prospects as a versatile offensive threat, and he’d have the opportunity to prove he’s better on defense than we thought.
Former Memphis Grizzlies Vice President of Operations John Hollinger believes many scouts and media are underrating Hughes. In a recent scouting report for The Athletic, Hollinger explains that Hughes’ combination of size and skill could make him more than a bench player:
In Hughes’s case, I think he has starter upside as a scoring wing. He has deep range but needs to shoot the ball more consistently…
Hughes has a good handle for his size, operating as Syracuse’s de facto point guard at times…Big wings who can jump and dribble are hard to find. Hughes has been undervalued.
I agree that he could potentially be a starter if he reaches his ceiling. That kind of value warrants first-round interest.
It’s understandable that there are a wide range of projections on Hughes’ draft landing spot. He’s a 23-year old who’s not a lock for stardom, but any prognosticators placing him lower than 40-45 are snoozing on him.
In this year’s draft, he’s worth a glance for late-first round teams, and I’d consider him a steal if he falls past No. 40.
A special thanks to TBW’s founders, editors, and subscribers, as well as my friends and family.
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