The NBA Draft is about value as much as it is talent.
If somebody is talented, they hold value to a team looking to employ the most skilled players possible. But value can also be derived from non-basketball skills in ways that distort the picture on draft night.
Franchises are making investments when they use a draft pick. A high first-round pick is an investment in the type of player that ties a franchise to him for a long time to come. Though likely lacking the ceiling height of lottery picks, mid-to-late first-rounders are still four-year investments and are made with the projection of where the player’s impact will be after those four years.
And now the draft has become even more important with the prevalence of free-agent movement and the advent of Bird rights. To retain their own players when hitting the free-agent market, NBA teams can go over the salary cap.
While that’s a great recipe to fielding a competitive team, it puts an onus on drafting well: You need young guys to progress so they’re ready to make those impacts and prove worthwhile of retaining once their rookie contract comes up.
If a first-round pick is a four-year investment and the team is expecting that player to re-sign a second deal truly worth going over the salary cap for, that’s another three-to-four years tacked on. Thus, no team makes a selection without hoping that the player they snag in the first round will be around seven years from now.
That’s where age comes into play. When framed in terms of that second contract, the difference between drafting a 23-year-old and a 19-year-old is enormous.
A freshman who enters the draft will finish his first-round contract while being only one year older than the current seniors he played with in college. His window for impact is open much longer, which changes his value on draft night.
A graduating senior who played four years in college will likely be 27 or 28 when his first four-year deal expires. Those are the times most players are seen as starting to exit their prime.
Locking up four-year deals with him once again, while paying the money to go over the cap and handcuff the franchise in other ways, is a risky proposition. Combine that with expectations that a 23-year-old will make immediate contributions, and some graduates really must be at the perfect talent level to reach this goal.
But there are a few four-year college players who exhibit enough talent to be borderline first-round picks and, at the very least, should make a strong on-court impact during their first few seasons with the pros.
Killian Tillie – P, Gonzaga
Born on March 5, 1998, Killian Tillie is older than 2017 top pick Markelle Fultz. The 6’10” French shooting big man flirted with the draft in years past but continued at Gonzaga in hopes of securing a national championship.
Tillie’s early entrant periods were muddled by injuries and the need for him to prove his durability and improve his overall athleticism. Playing behind first-round picks Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura a season ago, there was too much doubt surrounding whether Tillie was a draftable NBA player.
As a senior, he successfully removed all doubt.
Tillie played and started 24 games, averaging 13.6 points and 5.0 boards while shooting over 40 percent from 3-point range for the fourth consecutive season. The stretch-big position is incredibly important in the modern game, and Tillie is the perfect role player for teams that need an immediate impact.
Tillie also shot 42.9 percent on pick-and-pop treys this past year, so his assimilation to the pro game should be relatively easy.
But it’s what Tillie showed this year besides shooting that makes him draftable: He scored at over a 70 percent clip at the rim, so he’s not just a stretch-big. The ability to score on the interior is needed for someone who will have to spend time around the hoop.
With his expanded minutes also came flashes of ball-handling and passing rarely seen in someone his size. He showed he could push in transition and get to the rim.
Most surprisingly is what Tillie has proven on defense. The assumption when seeing a tall, relatively unathletic European big who struggled with injury issues is that he’ll be a net negative on defense.
But Tillie’s impact is about more than the stat sheet.
He’s not an above-the-rim shot blocker, but he’s succeeded in small stretches at both switching onto guards and anchoring in drop or ice coverage on ball screens. He’ll be someone who blends into what a team already does, not someone who requires adjustments from a schematic perspective whenever he steps on the floor.
Tillie does have some areas he must continue to improve if he wants to expand his role or see consistent minutes on a good team.
His lack of physicality as a rebounder really hurts him, and his rebounding rate remained low throughout this time at Gonzaga. While they usually played multiple bigs—and doing so can cut into a post player’s individual rebounding rate—the four-year sample makes it very little obvious: Tillie’s just a subpar rebounder at this point in his career, driven by his lack of explosiveness.
It’s small, but a pet peeve of mine is how one-hand-dominant Tillie has been as a finisher or driver. He rarely goes to his left, and that will limit the offense he can initiate if he’s going to be trusted as a playmaker off short rolls or pick-and-pops.
While he has strong instincts and perimeter skill, this one area is a fairly gaping hole in his game. At 22, you have to wonder how come he hasn’t tightened that trait yet and, since he hasn’t already, if he ever will.
Likely the recipient of 12-to-20 minutes a night throughout his career, there’s a lot of Channing Frye comparisons I see when I look at Tillie. Because his athleticism and rebounding issues may cap his minutes, he’s best-served being taken as a late-first or early-second-round selection.
But he’ll blossom into a nice role player as a fairly known commodity at a coveted position.
Payton Pritchard – PG, Oregon
TBW’s Jalon Dixon did a lovely full profile on Pritchard recently, highlighting comparisons between his collegiate career to those of Jalen Brunson of the Dallas Mavericks. Both were prolific scorers and leaders at the college level who enjoyed years of success.
While Brunson came out a year earlier than Pritchard, he still didn’t get selected until the second round when the Mavericks scooped him up with the 33rd pick.
Why did Brunson, the nation’s top college player, fall so far? His age was one factor, but his overall lack of imposing size and athleticism dropped him further. There was little risk in taking Brunson, but he was a fairly known commodity. The low athletic upside meant he was in a category with many scoring-minded, crafty point guards.
Those guys are a dime a dozen in the second round or undrafted free agent ranks.
The same stigma will hurt Pritchard on draft night, but it shouldn’t hold him down from making an impact wherever he winds up as a professional.
Most 6’1″ point guards don’t leave college with the shooting resume Pritchard boasts. He hit 41.5 percent from 3 on over 200 attempts this year. His deep range is evident from the clips, too; He’s going to adjust fine to the NBA.
When you need a play late-clock, Pritchard can make it. He’s a savvy pick-and-roll maestro, makes timely reads and passes, and possesses the competitive genes to survive at the NBA level.
He’s a really nuanced player.
But defense will knock Pritchard down a peg. He played a bit hunched over on the ball and isn’t always crisp with his positioning.
Guys who thrive in the NBA guarding the point of attack are usually quick-twitch athletes. They can easily react to the powerful and speedy moves their opponents throw at them. Pritchard didn’t exhibit those traits, and that could be as big of a draft-night inhibitor as his age.
From an offensive standpoint, Pritchard is a first-round talent, but the defense drags him down. There’s enough shot-making and offensive polish to expect he’ll get selected somewhere, but it’s hard to envision him sneaking even into the top half of the second round.
Wherever he goes, he’s bound to outperform draft spot expectations and be a meaningful rotation guy.
Desmond Bane – CG, TCU
If you cannot tell, shooting is a pretty important skill for guys who were four-year college players.
I’m a firm believer that every NBA player, unless graced with absolutely elite athleticism, should be an average shooter who can space the floor. Desmond Bane from TCU fits the bill.
Three college seasons above 40 percent from deep place him in rare company. What’s even rarer is that the 6’6″ Bane is not your typical 3-point specialist. He’s one of two players ever to shoot over 40 percent from deep with 90 makes while recording over 120 assists and 200 rebounds. The other: Denzel Valentine, a first-round selection in 2016 despite being a four-year player.
Bane may not poke his way into the first round this year, but he’s a fairly young 21-years-old for his class. (He’ll turn 22 in June before he plays an NBA game, which is why my video below denotes him as 22.)
There’s more upside than meets the eye:
Bane is an awesome shooter on the move. He can be used as a cutter and someone coming off screening actions for a second unit in need of offense. That ability to play off-ball is highly coveted.
His stroke is a tad unorthodox and needs time on first look, but Bane has been successful in tight windows. The result is more important than the process when a three-year sample of success already exists.
Off-ball presence isn’t the only area in which Bane thrives. He is terrific with the ball in his hands, especially out of the pick-and-roll. He converts as a shooter and a pull-up scorer, which draws help defenders to him. Then he can utilize his passing and playmaking skills, which are the most underrated part of his game.
Bane is also a switchable defender that can guard most wings, and he has a great amount of strength to his frame. He’s a smart defender who is aware of his limitations. Even though his wingspan is small, he still blocks shots and affects perimeter jumpers.
There’s a lot of impact and a little sexiness to how he plays, but the guy just produces despite flaws at first glance to his length, shooting form and age.
His lack of length comes into play more on offense. He’s a grounded finisher at the rim and gets a ton of shots blocked as a result. His first step isn’t incredibly quick, as evidenced by how he struggles to get past bigs on switches.
If his role is to be a catch-and-shoot guy, he’ll need to attack closeouts better. If he’s someone with the ball in his hands, he’ll have to improve his separation and finishing ability.
Worries about Bane’s defensive consistency may subside as he assimilates to a more familiar role.
At TCU, Bane was the only strong offensive producer. He did it well, without too much sacrifice in efficiency. But it wore him down on the other end, and he was really prone to falling asleep off the ball and going into low power mode.
Bane will need to be highly alert in order to maximize his defensive utility at the NBA level.
A reduction in what he’s asked to do on offense could be just what he needs to find full 3-and-D utility. Those guys are coveted, no matter where they get drafted, and Bane has one added bonus over most: He can handle and facilitate.
I’d expect him to be an early second-round pick and a name to remember in this 2020 draft class.
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.