After one of the best drafts in recent memory, with a star-studded lottery, useful role players throughout the first round, and a few hidden gems in the second, the 2019 draft certainly feels like a letdown. Unlike last year, when the Wolves would have been debating between Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Miles Bridges at #11, both of whom I would have rated as top five picks this year, we are left discussing a series of prospects with tantalizing but very flawed profiles.
However, if we look to the second round, there are still several players being mocked near or below the Wolves’ #43 selection that could end up as valuable NBA players. If your favorite target is not on this list, it is likely that they are appearing too high in most mock drafts.
The Covington Clone: Chuma Okeke (#41 in ESPN mock, #36 on Athletic big board)
Robert Covington became an immediate fan favorite here with fantastic defense, perimeter shooting, and effort. Okeke promises pretty much the same. He’s a 6’8 combo forward with a wingspan likely in excess of 7’’ and impressive “do shit” numbers this year - 2.5 steals, 1.7 blocks, 9.4 rebounds (pace adjusted per 40). He’s more of a lateral athlete than a vertical one and is a bit of a 3⁄4 tweener, but neither of those are necessarily bad things given the current style of play in the NBA. He’s also, by my draft projection system SMILODON, a player who should probably be receiving top five consideration.
Okeke could be compared to a more physical, worse shooting Mikal Bridges. Other recent prospects with similar profiles include Rodions Kurucs (in a very small sample size), Gary Clark (three years older), K.J. McDaniels (worse passing/feel, shot never developed), Robert Covington (better shooter, worse passer), Otto Porter (shooting did develop), and Jae Crowder, whose career stats at Marquette (ages 20 & 21) are nearly identical to Okeke’s (age 20) season.
Okeke does come with a few concerns. Despite shooting 39% with a high release from three both years at Auburn, he did so on a moderate amount of attempts and only hit 70% of his free throws over the two years. His handle is rudimentary, and he will likely be the fourth or fifth offensive option whenever he is on the floor, barring unexpected improvement. Though, to be fair, unexpected offensive improvement often comes to bigger players with excellent awareness. Finally, he tore his ACL this March and will likely miss most of his rookie year rehabbing that injury and losing precious on-court development time. Given the state of modern sports medicine, I am not worried that he will lose much from his game, but this factor is likely limiting his draft stock.
All in all, any time you can grab a player who is likely to be a Jae Crowder/Robert Covington/Mikal Bridges type in the second round, you do it, despite the injury. If possible, you even trade up to do it. However, it is reasonable to assume that he may be gone by the time the Wolves pick and so we need to talk about a few more prospects.
The Serbian Secret: Alen Smailagic (#58 in ESPN mock, NR on Athletic big board)
Alen Smailagic is the youngest player in the history of the G-League. This is important because age is the most important variable to consider when comparing prospects who are actually good. And Smailagic was actually good. As an 18 year old on a team of adult former prospects - Deyonta Davis, Damion Lee, Jacob Evans, Kendrick Nunn, Antonius Cleveland, Michael Gbinije, and others - Smiley had the 3rd best PER, the 3rd best WS/48, and the 2nd best BPM on the 34-16 squad.
This article does a good job of breaking down his game in exquisite detail, but I want to pull what I sometimes consider a cheap trick and present the stats of three big men - all 18 year olds, playing in adult leagues, not the NCAA.
Players B & C are interesting studies in the types of statistics that can usually be very important in predicting future growth. Player C has superficially better stats - 22 & 13 with a higher FG% - but player B has more perimeter skills, far better court vision, and probably better hands or defensive awareness. We can see this from the fact that he is attempting a lot of threes at a young age, has a phenomenal assist to turnover ratio, and a very respectable steal rate, especially for a young center.
The first player on the list appears to be between the other two in most skills. His assist to turnover rate is not good in a vacuum, but for an 18 year old center, it is promising. His steal & block numbers are very encouraging - better than both of the others. The three point shot is definitely not there, but there is maybe some hope. And finally, the high number of offensive rebounds point to athleticism & aggression - two positive traits for a young big.
Player A is, of course, Alen Smailagic, playing in the G-League this year. Player C is the half year older Ante Zizic, playing most of his minutes in the Adriatic & Croatian leagues. And Player B? 18 year old Nikola Jokic in the Adriatic & Serbian leagues. Now, I’m not saying that Smailagic is the next Jokic. That would be ridiculous. What I am saying is that the same process that we could have used to identify Jokic as an intriguing prospect would also highlight Smiley. And you can’t ask for much more from a second rounder in an underwhelming draft.
Smailagic does have clear weaknesses. He may never be big enough to be a full time center, instead limited to the four. His defensive rebounding rate is alarming and he sometimes moves like a baby deer still unsure of the location, position, and number of its legs. Still, the combination of extreme youth, perimeter skills, shooting potential, aggression, and court awareness from a 6’10 prospect is rare.
The Mighty Mites: Shamorie Ponds (#46 in ESPN mock, #48 on Athletic big board) & Tremont Waters (#45 in ESPN mock, #52 on Athletic big board)
Ponds & Waters both score well in SMILODON, though Waters’ combination of high turnover rate and lack of height nerf his passing score beyond what is reasonable. I’ll be reconsidering the formula this summer. Statistically, the two are very similar. (Waters is a few months older.)
Apart from Waters’ small advantage in steals, Ponds is slightly more impressive across the board. Much less turnover prone, better shooting percentages, more rebounds, and more baskets at the rim (not shown). Each has the same set of weaknesses as prospects: short height and wingspan, lack of nuclear athleticism, and the need to dominate the ball to be effective. The last one makes me think that each will be successful in more of a J.J. Barea style bench role than as a starter on a good team.
There are a few other differences in their games. Ponds is stronger and takes more of his shots off the dribble (52% of his made 3’s were unassisted compared to 35% of Waters’). This gives him an easier path to scoring effectively in the NBA and it’s worth noting that despite taking more unassisted shots, he still scored more efficiently than Waters in college. On the other hand, Waters is craftier and more agile, and he is less prone to pounding the ball than Ponds, which might makes it easier for him to fit as a bit piece within a team construct. Overall, I’d probably take Ponds first because I think he has an easier path to efficiency in the NBA, but either would be a solid pick at #43.
The Fair Fliers
These players don’t have the statistical strengths of the previous prospects, but could be reasonable choices. Isaiah Roby is essentially a worse all around version of Okeke. He’s a very shaky shooter and has been accused of lacking toughness, but is an athletic wing with defensive potential and the steals and blocks to back that statement up. Terence Davis is an older, skinny 3&D guard with good athleticism and questionable decision making. DaQuan Jeffries and Terance Mann are both older, undersized, but tough wings with some 3&D potential. Mann’s defensive statistics are weirdly low for a physical player with decent court awareness, but he subjectively looks like a NBA player when I watch him. Cerebral but unathletic big man Jontay Porter had a really good freshman year at Missouri before showing up to last year’s combine out of shape and then tearing his ACL twice in the same year. He could be worth a flier if the medical staff clears him. Finally, the numbers like guard John Konchar, though I’m a bit leery of a 23 year old small school power guard who shot 71% from the line. You can see the SMILODON ratings for all of these players and more, going back to 2012, here.