NBA scouts and executives are becoming increasingly picky about drafting big men.
It’s rare to find centers and combo bigs who can operate as true rim protectors, switchable defenders and multidimensional offensive threats. Teams don’t base their decisions on size as much as they used to, either. They now gravitate toward the speed and interchangeability with guards and wings.
The 2020 draft class has a handful of intriguing 4’s and 5’s who will get looks from lottery teams nonetheless. But those potential suitors are trying to determine who are good investments and worth drafting over the next guard on the board.
The three most prominent names among big-man prospects are Memphis’ James Wiseman, USC’s Onyeka Okongwu and Dayton’s Obi Toppin. Most prognosticators project them all to land in the mid-to-high lottery range, and any of them could end up being the first frontcourt piece selected.
But which one is actually the most valuable?
We put all three under the microscope, assessing and comparing their aptitude in every key big-man category. Our grades indicate the prospects’ demonstrable skills and tangible NBA potential in these areas, not necessarily their statistical performance in college.
James Wiseman, Memphis C
Height/Wingspan/Weight: 6’11”, 7’4.5” wingspan, 245 lbs
Overall agility/athleticism: A-
Although Wiseman’s college career was stopped abruptly due to his much-publicized eligibility saga, it’s easy to tell he owns NBA-caliber physical tools.
Equipped with above-average vertical agility and body control in the open floor, he has the hardware to be an effective rim-runner and future interior defender. He pairs his mobility with elite length, covering loads of cubic footage on any given play.
The following sequence demonstrates Wiseman’s end-to-end athleticism. He contests and alters the shot on one end, then beats everyone down the floor for a touchdown:
Rim protection: B+
Wiseman’s physical gifts made him a menacing interior defender in high school and college. He has the potential to be an upper-echelon NBA stopper, but he won’t be able to rely on his length as much as he has in the past. He’ll need to improve his footwork and positional discipline while also playing with more consistent effort.
Defensive Interchangeability: B-
Wiseman’s length will help contain guards for short stretches and compensate for some of his positional deficiencies. However, he’s not truly interchangeable and might never be.
He’s not skilled or nimble enough to check guards and wings for extended stretches or serve as a full-time 4. Wiseman could sporadically compensate with his size to catch up to slashers, but that won’t work if he’s switched onto the NBA’s top perimeter weapons. He’ll probably have to spend more time in drop coverage against pick-and-rolls than straight-up switching.
While he may have improved since these high school clips, they reveal his shaky footwork, posture and angles:
Interior Scoring: B+
Wiseman gets good marks here because he takes care of business on above-the-rim plays. His vertical coordination and length make him a terrific pick-and-roll weapon and overall lob threat.
He doesn’t get an A, however, because he doesn’t have elite command on a variety of hooks, bank shots and difficult shots in traffic. Wiseman also takes awkward angles occasionally when attacking the rim.
Shooting Potential: B
I’m not as bullish as some people about Wiseman’s perimeter potential. The southpaw center showed flashes of shooting in high school and some mid-range work in his brief Memphis stint, but he’s a work in progress. His lower body mechanics are inconsistent and uses a bit too much of a catapult motion on the release.
I’d like to see a larger sample size before I buy stock.
Wiseman’s is often active, looking to cut and finish plays while contributing with energy. He doesn’t always read opportunities right away, but he remains engaged. An optimal coaching situation and ecosystem could gradually groom him into an effective off-ball presence.
This is another area where the lack of sample size against legitimate competition makes things murky. Wiseman didn’t stand out as a strong passer in college, and his vision and dexterity as a distributor didn’t stand out in high school either. I don’t hold high expectations for him here because his feel for the game isn’t great.
Onyeka Okongwu, Southern California C
Height/Wingspan/Weight: 6’9”, 7’2” wingspan, 245 lbs
Overall agility/athleticism: A+
Okongwu is the epitome of a “quick-twitch” athlete. He gets off the floor in a blink, thereby routinely beating opponents to the summit on rebounds, post-ups and blocks. He’s also a great lateral athlete, which helps his defensive profile (see below).
Rim protection: B+
Great energy, strength and pogo-stick leaping ability made Okongwu a productive shot-blocker for USC. His knack for covering ground and challenging shots will translate to the NBA. But there’s a lot more to rim protection than explosive shot-blocking.
Okongwu’s rotation decision-making must improve; He could stand to pick his battles better and stay home on some occasions.
My TBW colleague Adam Spinella highlighted Okongwu’s upside on defense:
Defensive Interchangeability: A-
This is an area where Okongwu really stands out over Wiseman and Toppin. He demonstrates a much better knack for switching onto guards and containing them. With a lower center of gravity and elite nimbleness, he can guard positions 3-5 highly effectively at all times, as well as positions 1 and 2 for significant stretches.
Okongwu’s strength, springiness and tenacity will make him a productive NBA rebounder.
He was second in the Pac-12 in offensive rebounds and offensive rebounding percentage last season, and tied for fourth in put-back points per game, according to Synergy Sports. His relatively short stature might hinder him during some defensive rebounding scenarios, but he’ll still get 10-12 boards per game if he’s a starter.
Interior Scoring: A-
Okongwu’s above-the-rim gifts will make him a great rim-diver in pick-and-rolls and short-corner feeds, but he can also sprinkle in some shot-creation.
Not only is he a solid right-hand finisher, but he has developed a dependable left-hand baby hook. He shot 72.6 percent at the rim according to Hoop-Math.com. He has nice footwork for a freshman and even delivered glimpses of Euro-steps on drives to the rim.
As a bonus, his explosiveness on the offensive glass will boost his productivity:
Shooting Potential: C
Don’t expect Okongwu to provide floor spacing, especially in the short term. He has a flawed delivery with a low release point. However, he made a few mid-range jumpers last season.
There’s a chance he won’t be a “zero” in this department. That said, his mechanics and range suggest he’s a long ways from being a viable pick-and-pop threat.
Okongwu moves quite well without the ball, which is part of the reason he enjoyed a bevy of close-range buckets this past season. He operates well as a screener, a roll man and an off-ball cutter sliding in from the short corner to the dunker spot.
Okongwu is a willing passer and made some nice kick-outs to shooters from the paint last season. He also showed nice touch on a few dump-down passes from the high post.
If he cuts down on some of the tunnel-vision drives and works on his short-roll execution, he’ll be more than serviceable.
Obi Toppin, Dayton PF
Height/Wingspan/Weight: 6’9”, 6’11” wingspan, 220 lbs
Overall agility/athleticism: B
Toppin moves well for a 6’9” college player, with long, agile strides on drives and end-to-end plays. However, he will not stand out athletically in the NBA. (He’ll be in the middle tier.)
Thanks in part to a relatively high center of gravity, Toppin lacks the explosiveness and fluidity to gracefully change directions and outperform top-tier athletes.
Rim protection: C+
Toppin’s biggest question mark as a prospect is: “Who will he guard?”
Chasing athletic 4’s will be challenging, as will tangling with 5’s. His posterior and legs are not sturdy, and it shows when opponents bully him on drives, post-ups and rebounds. Unfortunately, late rotations like this one are all too common for him:
Defensive Interchangeability: C-
Given the aforementioned concerns about guarding quicker 4’s, it shouldn’t surprise you that Toppin is a shaky perimeter defender. He will likely struggle to check NBA guards and wings if he encounters them on switches.
He just doesn’t have the lateral burst or swiveling agility.
I don’t foresee Toppin being an amazing rebounder due to his aforementioned middle-tier physical gifts. He wasn’t that impressive on the offensive glass (just 37 offensive rebounds in 31 games). However, he has good hands and instincts, so he won’t be dismal.
Interior Scoring: A
Toppin’s most valuable attribute is his ability to find close-range buckets in a variety of ways. He flourished in Dayton’s continuity ball-screen offense, converting a blistering 82.8 percent of his shots around the rim (per Hoop-Math.com).
He has great touch on catch-and-finish plays on the move going to his left or his right. He can also attack closeouts and put the ball on the deck once or twice.
Here are some quick facts on #Naismith2020 finalist Obi Toppin:
🏀 Led volume scorers in offensive efficiency for this season's most efficient offensive team
🏀 Finished with an NCAA-best 110 dunks while also converting 71% of his layups
🏀 Shot 23-50 on wing 3P pic.twitter.com/aEAePn5sZy
— Synergy Basketball (@SynergySST) March 18, 2020
Shooting Potential: A-
After dabbling as an efficient three-point shooter during his freshman year (11-for-21, 52.4 percent), Toppin nearly quadrupled his volume and maintained a strong percentage (32-of-82, 39.0 percent). He has a repeatable motion and high release point that should translate well to the Association, making him a useful pick-and-pop weapon.
I’m projecting him to be a 35-38 percent three-point shooter on moderate volume in his NBA prime:
He may not be a productive shooter off the bounce, though. His ball-handling and mechanics aren’t quite fluid enough.
As ESPN NBA Draft Analyst Mike Schmitz noted, Toppin went just 1-for-8 on off-the-dribble jumpers for the entire 2019-20 season.
There aren’t many forwards in college hoops with better instincts and awareness than Toppin. He has superb timing and spatial awareness when cutting to the rim or flashing to the ball. He’ll also be a useful screener because he’ll take good angles, although he won’t necessarily be a brick wall.
Toppin’s feel for attacking defenses will make him a proficient supplementary passer in the NBA. He didn’t facilitate much for Dayton because he was their primary scorer, but he showed solid vision and dexterity in passing situations.
He’ll streamline his new team’s offense as a high-post decision-maker.
The Bottom Line: Who is Most Valuable?
Every NBA team has different needs, so it’s hard to say which big man will land first until the lottery unfolds.
Wiseman has the best physical measurements and some tantalizing upside as an inside-out threat. Okongwu is the most explosive athlete of the group and offers the most positional flexibility on defense. And Toppin is the most skilled offensive weapon, with proven efficiency on a top-tier college program.
From a “best prospect available” standpoint, Okongwu is my choice. He earns high marks as a defensive prospect because he fits the modern game’s emphasis on positional interchangeability.
He’s the only one of the three who could potentially guard any type of scorer. While he won’t be a primary shot-creator, he will impact his team offensively in a variety of ways.
Toppin’s offensive value is tempting. However, I don’t project him to be a transcendent offensive talent because he won’t consistently create his own looks. The level of offensive reward might not be worth the price of his spotty defense.
Meanwhile, Wiseman might have the loftiest best-case ceiling, but a lot needs to happen for him to get there: His fundamentals, feel for the game and perimeter skills must improve.
Of the three, Okongwu is the prospect I would want on my roster heading into a key playoff series. He has the most agility and the best two-way motor of the group, even as his offensive skills are still developing. Mid-lottery teams who are hunting for a big man should strongly consider USC’s one-and-done riser.
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