Early Surprises in the 2020 NBA Draft Landscape

There have been some unforeseen developments in the 2020 NBA Draft landscape through the first few weeks of the international and college hoops season.

Several prospects are adding skills and adjusting to a higher level of competition sooner than we thought. Others are thriving in a bigger role and are more versatile than anticipated. They’re either making an appearance on draft big boards for the first time or rapidly climbing the rankings.

We’re still in the early stages of the season, so it’s important not to overreact. Nonetheless, here are a few surprises that have turned our heads and changed the 2020 class outlook :

Onyeka Okongwu’s Feel and Skill

NBA Role: Rim protector, secondary scorer

Projected Draft Range: 8-14

Throughout the first handful of Southern California’s games, Onyeka Okongwu has looked less like a fringe first-round pick and more like a lottery prospect with robust upside.

The shot-blocking and above-the-rim prowess he showed at Chino Hills High School was no fluke. Most recently, he uncorked 33 points during USC’s win over Pepperdine Tuesday.

His timing and feel for unfolding plays on both ends has been better than advertised. Okongwu possesses great anticipation as a rim-protector whether he’s on the ball or erasing shots from the weak side. Check out his eight-block effort in the Trojans’ season-opener against Florida A&M:

On offense, his cuts, rim-dives and improved touch have translated to 74.1 percent shooting at the bucket, per hoop-math.com. Few prospects possess his extraordinary mid-air body control in midair.

Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman explained that Okongwu’s progress as a shot-creator and shot-maker boosted his draft value:

Flashes of skill have given Okongwu an extra push up the rankings. He’s delivered numerous pretty post moves, showing ambidexterity and a slippery spin move. Though he uses his jump shot sparingly, his three makes and 6-of-7 performance on free throws highlight encouraging touch.

Okongwu is a bit undersized (6’9”) compared to most NBA centers. However, his playing style, long arms and pogo-stick athleticism suggest that’ll be his best spot as a pro.

Carlos Alocen’s Floor-General Command

NBA Role: Facilitator, shot-creator

Projected Draft Range: Late-first round in 2020, Potential Lottery in 2021

He might not join the NBA for a couple more years, but Carlos Alocen is creating draft buzz with some dazzling quarterbacking in Spain. The 18-year-old was groomed in Zaragoza’s system the past couple of seasons, and he’s excelling on Europe’s biggest stage sooner than most expected.

Alocen’s mix of playmaking craftiness, scoring touch and 6’5” frame are conducive to the modern NBA. He’s developed a deep shooting range with a confident, compact shooting stroke, along with an array of maneuvers to finish drives through traffic.

His composure and effectiveness in an increased role are thoroughly impressive. Alocen is squaring off against some of the best teams in Europe and doing more than just hanging in there. He’s showing a great knack for change-of-pace dribbles, manipulating defenders with his eyes and smoothly executing next-level passes.

Alocen’s range and assertiveness from beyond the arc are also developing rapidly. He’s 8-of-22 (36.4 percent) in ACB play so far this season, keeping defenses honest when they collapse in pick-and-roll coverage.

His substantial role for Zaragoza isn’t common: As ESPN’s Jonathan Givony notes, only six players 19 or younger have averaged 20 minutes per game since 2000. Alocen is in rare company with the likes of Luka Doncic, Ricky Rubio, Sergio Rodriguez and Rudy Fernandez.

The teenage prodigy may need time to adjust to the speed of NBA athletes, and he might only be a mediocre defender. However, he fit into a large role in the ACB faster than most teenagers, so he may acclimate to the NBA quickly as well.

Aaron Henry’s Efficiency

NBA Role: Secondary scorer, secondary shot-creator, versatile wing

Projected Draft Range: 10-20

After a strong stretch run during his freshman year at East Lansing, Michigan State’s Aaron Henry has returned as a legitimate NBA prospect.

The 6’5” lefty swingman’s uptick in overall production isn’t shocking, especially after his NCAA Tournament exploits. What’s most impressive is his level of efficiency despite increased responsibilities. The Spartans sophomore is shooting 69.2 percent on two-pointers, 50.0 percent on three-pointers, and 87.5 percent on free-throws.

His usage rate is up this season (from 15.6 percent to 16.8 percent), yet he’s more efficient on drives to the rim and his assist-to-turnover ratio is vastly improved (from 1.2 to 2.4). Henry’s court awareness and chemistry with Cassius Winston has only grown, and they could feed off each other while both having monster years.

Henry’s defensive efficiency is also trending in the right direction. He’s posting a defensive rating of 80.7 so far, including 4.0 steals, 3.2 blocks and 3.2 fouls per 100 possessions. Last season, he notched just 1.7 steals and 1.3 blocks with 4.8 fouls.

While those outrageous stats may not be sustainable throughout Big Ten play, Henry’s effort on defense is encouraging. Some draftniks noted his erratic footwork and positioning last season, but his level of activity is undeniable. He shows lateral hustle as an on-ball defender, and he’s also disruptive in the passing lanes as a helper.

Even if he never becomes the sharpest defender from a technique standpoint, Henry’s physical tools, energy and dedication on that end will make him an above-average stopper.

Zeke Nnaji’s Interior Command

NBA Role: Rim-diver, high-post driver

Projected Draft Range: 12-20

Arizona’s 6’11” freshman wasn’t one of the Wildcats’ top draft targets entering the 2019-20 campaign. Nico Mannion and Josh Green deservedly garnered most of the preseason buzz. But Zeke Nnaji has quickly joined them in the NBA discussion thanks to his dominant impact around the hoop.

Although ‘Zona hasn’t faced imposing competition yet, Nnaji’s skill, confidence and assertiveness are still impressive. He’s displayed a terrific combination of patience, footwork, and physicality in the post.

Nnaji has taken advantage of mismatches and punished weaker defenders with smooth drop steps and strong finishes off the glass. His spatial awareness near the hoop enables him to convert on either block, albeit predominantly with his right hand.

Per hoop-math.com, Nnaji is shooting 90.9 percent at the rim and 81.2 percent on two-point jumpers. I expect those numbers to taper off once conference play arrives, but they suggest he’s overqualified for tune-up foes and is ready for a bigger challenge.

We knew Nnaji had some upside as strong frontcourt presence. He’s just put things together a bit more quickly than anticipated, catapulting him into the one-and-done conversation.

Prognosticators didn’t think this year would be a particularly strong one for centers, but standouts like Nnaji and Okongwu may change that.