It’s been a year, hasn’t it? The lack of a clear number one pick in this November’s NBA draft has certainly left many basketball fans feeling disoriented, melancholic, and oddly ambivalent about not only the fate of the 2020-21 season, but even the future of the country. Yet, we are not here to mourn, grieve, or pontificate; we are on this website to split hairs based on insufficient data. And of the data most insufficient, we find the thirteen games played by LaMelo Ball in the Australian NBL.
Ball is the presumptive number one pick, with his size, handle, and passing marking him as an intriguing prospect. And yet, none but the few whose draft models presumably account for a multiplicative effect between rebounds and assists seem particularly enthused or confident by the prospect of taking Ball first overall. Perhaps it is the inconsistent jump shot, the questionable decision making, the lack of effort on defense, or the fact that he and his brother have both struggled with leg injuries. No matter the ultimate reason, fans and analysts alike have searched high and low for someone to pilfer the prospective crown.
Enter Killian Hayes.
Those of you familiar with my work may be surprised to find that we are three paragraphs in and I have not yet uploaded a PNG containing many brightly colored boxes. My SMILODON draft projection system, which I reintroduced here and you can find previous results for here, underlies this analysis, but is not necessary to comprehend it.
Instead, let us ask — what is it that basketball players do? On the court, I clarify hastily.
Well, they shoot, they dribble, they pass, they cut, they set screens, they defend on the perimeter, they defend in the post, they make rotations, they rebound, and plenty more. Indeed, this is a rather a crude list. One could break down “they shoot” into numerous striations of the term, whether that be shooting from midrange, from deep, off the bounce, off the catch, stationary, off movement, etc. I have heard tell of brave monks in remote lands who have categorized dozens, nay, even one hundred skills in this manner before they were driven mad and never heard from again. Perhaps they are still out there, in their lonely attempts to create a perfect logical form to contain the infinite possibilities of “our league,” if I may be so bold to coin a phrase.
But enough with the Wittgensteinian folderol, I hear you say, across the barriers of time and space. What does this have to do with Killian Hayes? It’s about simplification. Paradoxically, more data can lead to indecision, as we are overwhelmed by confounding variables, as in the parable of the mad monk. What we need to do then, is identify the most important variables and only compare those, lest we be swamped by the infinite possibilities of a chaotic universe. For guards like Hayes and Ball, I have identified the most crucial skills as shooting, handling, passing, and defense.
And now we get to the point, which I will state as plainly as I know how: Killian Hayes is the only prospect in the draft I am reasonably certain will be good at all four of these skills. Did that point necessitate 500 words of preamble? Yes, yes, I am certain it did. But let us examine each of these skills in more detail.
Shooting: Hayes was certainly not a knockdown shooter by his three point percentage, but he knocked down nearly 88% of his free throws and a sizable percentage of his mid-range shots. His development in this area reminds me of Jayson Tatum, another very young prospect who made an outlier percentage of his free throws and gradually became more accurate from further and further out. To be clear, if Hayes was an older prospect, I might be concerned about the raw percentages. However, his shot, for his age, seems very promising, especially when considering that many of these came off the dribble.
Handling: Like his shot, Hayes’s handle is not flawless, but is advanced for his age. He was very efficient when attacking the rim, as can be seen from the shot chart above. His free throw rate wasn’t elite, but it was fine given the circumstances. And he already has a good stepback and an elite understanding of how to use his handle to create angles and creases in the defense.
Passing: Often, he will use these seams to set up his teammates. This is the strength of Hayes’s game, as he posted nearly 9 assists per 40 minutes, often out of the pick and roll. He showed the ability to hit the roll man, wing shooters, and even opposite corner shooters with consistently - an attribute which will make him extremely valuable given the pick and roll heavy style of today’s game.
Defense: His excellent feel for the game does not only show up in his passing, but also in his defense. Hayes was very active in passing lanes, gathering 2.3 steals per 40 and was able to use his size and understanding of angles to become a tenacious on-ball defender by the end of the season. Given his size, basketball intelligence, and improvement over the past couple years, it is conservative to project him as a positive defender in the NBA.
And, really, that’s the argument. Hayes has a very obvious path to be above average to elite at every important basketball trait, and he is extremely young, skilled, and big for his position. It’s useless for me to write that players with that combination of skills rarely fail because players like that rarely come around, period. And that’s why the Wolves should select him on Wednesday.
The Wolves do also possess the #17 and #33 picks. It will be more difficult to predict who will be available at each of those spots, but I will give a few likely options with rationale.
#17 - Aleksej “Wild Magic Table” Pokusevski. Poku has been mocked anywhere from the late lottery to the late twenties. He put up ridiculous numbers in a tiny sample size in an unimpressive league and showed flashes of wild, unharnessed talent. The Minnesota Timberwolves franchise has been alternately blessed and cursed with players that fit a certain “Island of Misfit Toys” motif, and no player would embody that more than Pokusevski. He’s extremely skinny and weak for a big man, and plays with worryingly reckless abandon, but he’s a 7’1 wing who can shoot, pass, and handle. I can’t think of another prospect he genuinely resembles, mostly for positive reasons, and that’s certainly worth a gamble at #17.
#17 - Kira Lewis. Yes, he’s another guard. And yes, the Wolves “need” wings more than guards. But, Kira, pronounced “Keye-ruh,” would give them a new dimension - a blazingly quick point guard who can push the pace, run the offense, hit shots off the dribble, and dart to the rim. Lewis was a sophomore the age of a typical freshman, and by the end of the year, he was putting up 25+ points on a regular basis. He could be a very effective 6th man sparkplug with a good chance of developing into a starting caliber point guard down the line.
#17 - Saddiq Bey. This will be perceived as the safe pick. Bey lacks elite, or even NBA average, athleticism, but is tall, smart, and can really shoot. He hit 45% from three on pretty high volume this year, and any wing-shaped player who can do that will get NBA looks. Bey pairs his ability to his shots with very good decision making and two years of experience at a Villanova program that has done an excellent job recently of producing post-lottery talent that has found consistent playing time in the NBA.
If everyone is gone: If Tyrese Maxey slips this far, it might be a good time to utilize the PKP system despite his underwhelming stats. I think Theo Maledon is slipping in recent mocks for no good, discernible reason, and should be taken around this spot.
#33 - Jalen Harris. This guy is projected to go undrafted in many places, and I have no idea why. Let me make the case for him.
First of all, he’s athletic. His athletic testing was off the charts at the virtual combine. Maybe those numbers should be taken with a grain or three of salt, but he still did better than everyone else there. Harris shot 61% at the rim and got to the line nearly seven times per 40 minutes, suggesting that he was applying some of his athletic advantage, if not all of it.
Secondly, he can probably shoot. 36% from three is ok on high volume and 82% from the free throw line is encouraging. He also shot 40% on mostly unassisted two point jumpers, which is not spectacular, but is fine.
Thirdly, he’s not a point guard, but his passing was decent. Harris posted a 1.6 assist to turnover ratio, which is completely respectable for a score first combo guard.
When you put it all together, athleticism plus shooting plus passing is a really valuable confluence of skills for a 6’4 guard, and I would bet Harris puts together a successful NBA career.
#33 - Desmond Bane. You know him, you love him, he’s the darling of draft twitter. Bane will probably be gone by this point, but if he is still available, a wing who can shoot it at high volume, pass, and know where to be on defense is tantalizing despite his athletic shortcomings.
#33 - Malachi Flynn/Payton Pritchard. Both of these guys look like good backup points to me. Obviously, if the Wolves end up with Kira, they become less attractive. Flynn is the more cerebral of the two, and the more instinctual defender, but the fact he’s only 180 pounds at 22 does concern me. Pritchard is a bit tankier and I trust him a little more as a shooter. He’s also more likely to be here at #33.
#33 - Tyler Bey. The Colorado prospect has also seen his stock rise recently, especially after a bonkers combine, so he may not be available here. If he is, he promises to be a versatile, athletic wing defender with a shot that is slow but not completely broken, and the Wolves could always use another wing defender.
If everyone is gone/you don’t like Jalen Harris: Xavier Tillman could be the evolutionary Chuck Hayes to bail out KAT for 20 minutes a game. Devon Dotson is an athletic point guard with a questionable shot. If it develops, he could be really good. Grant Riller is Jalen Harris with less athleticism and shooting, but more raw production.
Some intriguing 3&D targets who could go undrafted are C.J. Elleby, who flashed some interesting skills in a wing role that was too big for him at Washington State, Nate Hinton, who plays with the ferocity of a Tasmanian Devil, Trevelin Queen, who racked up threes and steals at an advanced age, Malik Fitts, an athletic combo forward who can maybe shoot, and Anthony Lamb - a unique player who put up a lot of good numbers which might translate into 3&D.
My full board is below. I cut it at #40, because I believe any attempt at ranking players after then is pure narcissism - and frankly, after #25 is pushing it - but it includes more players likely to be undrafted than the Wolves will have open roster spots. Unfortunately, I do not have standing verticals for most of the players, so it is reasonable to imagine that the very athletic players who have a blank value for the column are being shortchanged by a point or two in the final numerical rating. Other, less athletic players may have seen their final number drop slightly with the inclusion of that measurement.
Finally, players in red are rated on a small sample size and players in brown are rated on a reasonable sample size of international statistics, which are still slightly less reliable due to the increase in confounding variables that often accompany international play. You can find the full spreadsheet here.