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Killian Hayes? LaMelo Ball?? Aleksej Pokusevski??? A SMILODON Top Ten

Who should the Wolves take with their (likely to be) top five pick?

Bayern Basketball v Olympiacos Piraeus - EuroLeague Basketball U18 Photo by Marcel Engelbrecht/NurPhoto via Getty Images

With the 2019-20 season on indefinite hiatus, the Wolves somehow in possession of the third best lottery odds, and my work schedule greatly reduced, it becomes both my duty and privilege to publicly contemplate the players Minnesota should draft at the happening of that greatly hyped event. These are my rankings, so feel free to criticize me for them, though they could easily change as I discover my opinions through the act of writing about them between now and June - or whenever civilization resumes.

Tier 1 - Offensive Initiators

  1. Killian Hayes
Killian Hayes Comparables

Ranked by many sites near the back of the top ten, Hayes is my pick for number #1. He’s not a typical #1 prospect; under my current system, he would have been the 3rd best prospect in 2019, the 4th or 5th best in 2018, and the 2nd best in 2017. He is turnover prone, only hit 29% of his threes, and does not have the best burst.

However, there are many reasons for optimism. Hayes hit nearly 88% of his free throws as an 18 year old after hitting 82% as a 17 year old and 86% as a 16 year old, making me think that it’s likely his shooting will continue to improve. He already takes a significant percentage of his threes off the dribble, in contrast to most of the other guards in the top ten, and possesses a functional stepback.

In addition, he uses his size well, shooting nearly 59% from two against fairly robust competition in the German BBL and the Eurocup. He got to the line more as the season went on and racked up steals and blocks at an impressive rate, indicating that his intersection of size and awareness allows him to be effective despite less than ideal athleticism.

Finally, his best trait is his passing vision. Hayes averaged 8.6 assists per 40 pace adjusted as an 18 year old, which is just about unprecedented over the past decade. He has the height, awareness, and change of pace to pick apart a defense with the proper personnel around him. Overall, it’s not a skill package that’s likely to make Hayes a star on the level of Luka or Zion, but a 6’5 guard who can already shoot, pass, handle, and defend as one of the youngest players in the draft is a rare commodity and one who would fit well on the Wolves.

He reminds me a little of Jayson Tatum, in that neither prospect had great burst nor eye-popping numbers, but both share a foundation of positional size, indicators of shooting touch, defensive awareness, and youth.

2. LaMelo Ball

LaMelo Ball Comparables

I have doubts about Ball’s game. He’s very skinny, only played 13 games before an injury, and his brother has faced injury concerns during his few years in the NBA. His free throw rate was pretty low, causing him to post a very inefficient, if abbreviated, season. Furthermore, he shot 28% from 3 and 70% from the line, leading to the primary question surrounding his game: can he shoot?

If he can’t shoot, his career will likely resemble many of his more concerning comparables. His passing, ballhandling, and defensive awareness will be outweighed by missed threes and an inability to bend a defense, even if he still posts acceptable counting statistics. However, there are reasons to think that his shot is not completely hopeless.

For his career, per the numbers I have, Ball has hit 49/69 free throws, which is 71%. The sample size is small, and that number is weak but not indicative of a broken shot. Lonzo came into the league, almost a year older, with a similar shooting motion and indicators but has been able to improve his long range shooting, which is encouraging.

Even an average shooter with Ball’s size, passing, and handle would be a top ten point guard. He passes the “eye test” with good athleticism, the ability to break down the defense, and a surfeit of highlight reel plays. It’s just a matter of learning to consistently shoot and efficiently score for him to be worth a top three pick.

3. Anthony Edwards

Anthony Edwards Comparables

Edwards might be the most athletic prospect in the draft, but his play was even more troubling than Ball. While Ball’s team was merely the worst in the Australian NBL, Anthony Edwards’ Georgia went 5-13 against the SEC with Edwards’ .520 true shooting and uneven defense among the main culprits for their disappointing year. As a college player, Edwards contributed less to winning than almost every other first round prospect.

And yet, many of the problems with Edwards’ game come down to shot selection and awareness - the elements of a 18 year old’s game that are most likely to improve. He shot 77% from the line and made quite a few unassisted threes; he also missed a lot of unassisted threes he should not have taken. He has the speed, strength, and highlights of a player who should live at the rim; only 23% of his halfcourt possessions ended in a shot at the rim and nearly half of those were assisted. He began the season by dominating teams on the defensive end; he ended the year by often losing interest on that end and seeing his defensive stats decline.

We have plenty of examples of college players with the athletic tools to get to the rim who only figured that part of their game out in the NBA - Zach LaVine, Donovan Mitchell, and Devin Booker are some prominent recent examples - and Edwards could easily fit into that category. The shooting guard from Georgia probably has the highest ceiling in the draft. He has the talent to be able to create a shot out of nothing against any defender. He has the athleticism and anticipation to dominate defensively. And yet, it often did not come together on the court and I would rather bet on Hayes and Ball: young, talented players with perhaps less athleticism but oodles of on-court awareness.

Tier 2 - Difference Making Bigs

4. Onyeka Okongwu

Onyeka Okongwu Comparables

Okongwu is an undersized but athletic center who can protect the rim and finish around the rim with good touch. Normally that would be a player that I would recommend drafting later in the first round, but there are a few tantalizing aspects to his profile that have caused me to bump him into the mid-lottery.

The first is a very good steal rate for a center. This is an indication of awareness and coordination that sometimes is a prelude to anomalous improvement. If you watch Okongwu play, you can also see that the lateral quickness that allows him to get some of those steals also gives him the ability to stay with smaller players on the perimeter. This means that Okongwu might provide more defensive value than the typical big man defensive specialist.

The other piece of Okongwu’s game that is unusual for a big man is the speed of his first step. This is sometimes the prologue to a shockingly nimble spin move, auguring that Okongwu could have intriguing offensive upside if his handle ever becomes adequate. (In the draft business, we call this the Pascal Siakam Development Curve.) The 72% from the line communicates that his shot is not completely hopeless, but I wouldn’t count on him becoming a good three point shooter.

The downside is that OO’s smaller size prevents him from effectively guarding big men like Embiid and Jokic, while his unique package of speed, bounce, first step, touch, and awareness never coalesces into an offensive game. In that case, he would become an expensive, if high level, backup center.

(For a team like the Wolves who already has a franchise center, I probably would not draft him with a top ten pick.)

5. James Wiseman

Wiseman only played three games in 2019-20, and two of them were against South Carolina State and the University of Illinois-Chicago. Therefore, I’m not even bothering to post his numbers, which are as impressive as his AAU statistics are concerning. Anthony Edwards also looked like a generational prospect after a couple games against subpar competition and that did not hold up over the course of the year.

On the plus side, Wiseman is young, huge (7’1), and athletic. He moves well enough to be a major threat in transition and the pick and roll. He is long enough to protect the rim and lock down the low post. Based on size, youth, and athleticism, he should be a starting center for the next fifteen years.

The concerns around Wiseman have to do with his feel for the game and his proper role on offense. His assist to turnover rate and steal percentage have consistently been poor and he has a tendency to float towards the perimeter, shooting jumpers instead of attacking. Like Edwards, he’s very young, and if he goes to a team with a good system and culture, I’d expect him to be very effective.

(For a team like the Wolves who already has a franchise center, I probably would not draft him with a top ten pick.)

6. Aleksej Pokusevski

Aleksej Pokusevski

“Poku,” as I will call the youngest player in this draft, is a fairly unique prospect who could end up anywhere on the Zhou Qi - Nikola Jokic spectrum of “skilled foreign bigs with athleticism questions.” Poku is extremely skinny, doesn’t draw many fouls, and shoots a low two point percentage for someone of his size and level of competition. Despite his height, he may have to play the four in the NBA due to his lack of strength. The fact that he missed part of the year with an injury is also concerning for someone of his height and physical profile.

All of that said, the potential here is immense. When I see clips of him play, I don’t think “that’s a weak center.” I think, “that’s a big forward.” Poku is a fluid athlete for his size, which, combined with a decent handle and projectable shot, forms the foundation for a terrifying scorer. How many 7 footers could shoot, pass, and handle even a little at barely 18 years old? Completely dominating an inferior league can be just as strong an indicator of success as merely belonging in a superior league, and Poku has shown flashes of dominance this season in the Greek 2nd division. Per 40, he is averaging about 20 & 14 with almost 6 assists and over 2 steals and 3 blocks in an admittedly tiny sample size.

Pokusevski is definitely a few years away, but in a weak draft, I’d be very excited to take a gamble on a prospect with a unique intersection of size, shooting, vision, handle, and rim protection. After all, selecting a really young, tall Euro teenager with excellent vision is how Denver & Milwaukee won some relatively weak drafts in the past decade.

Unless the pre-draft process resumes and he dominates workouts, Poku probably won’t be taken this high either, so you could likely trade down to grab him. In a draft like this, ending up with multiple shots at a functional player might be the best strategy.

Tier 3 (&D)

7. Tyrese Haliburton

Tyrese Haliburton Comparables

Unlike Hayes, Ball, and Edwards, I don’t think that Haliburton has the capability to lead a good NBA offense. Over his first two college seasons, the skinny point guard has posted a minuscule free throw rate, suggesting an aversion to contact that will make it difficult for him to finish at the rim against NBA athletes. This is especially harmful as he lacks the burst to beat most defenders off the dribble. His lack of physicality also hurts him on the defensive end, as he creates turnovers, but is not the best on-ball defender.

On the other hand, Haliburton is tall, which will help him as an effective off-ball point guard. He can shoot off the catch, and possibly off the dribble, his vision is fantastic, and his handle is good enough to attack an opening. He played a very efficient game in college (.631 true shooting), but it did not translate to very many wins for Iowa State this year. That reinforces my impression that he can be a very effective role player, but should not be counted on as the foundation of a team’s success.

Despite his shortcomings, I do have Haliburton as my 7th best prospect. I like betting on players who can shoot, “think” the game, and are big enough to have positional flexibility. As Lonzo Ball has shown in New Orleans this year, those players can be very useful, even if they are too limited to become stars.

8. Kira Lewis

Kira Lewis Comparables

Lewis really came on strong during the second half of the season. He’s a lightning quick point guard who averaged nearly 24 & 7 over the last five games of the season - averages that do not include either a triple double or a 37 point outburst earlier that same month.

A sophomore who is nevertheless one of the youngest players in the draft, the primary issue in Lewis’s game is his weight and its effects on his ability to finish inside. He got to the rim nearly at will, but only shot 58% there - 54% in the halfcourt. He is listed at only 165 pounds and there aren’t very many players who have been effective at that weight. The NBA team that drafts him has to hope that he can gain strength without losing the speed and agility that drives his effectiveness.

The rest of his game is functional but not elite. His shooting is closer to the level of Ja Morant’s than that of Trae Young. He is a good playmaker on defense, but not a great one. His vision is workable, especially for a young point guard, but not prodigious like that of Hayes or Ball. My expectations are that Lewis will become a decent starting point guard with the upside of a player like Tony Parker with whom he shares the ability to slither through a defense.

9. Devin Vassell

Devin Vassell Comparables

Vassell is one of several promising 3&D prospects in the middle of this draft, many of who will probably end up on more successful teams than their more highly touted counterparts. Haliburton is technically the first, but the Florida State guard is a more classic version of the archetype. He can play the 2 or the 3, hit an assisted 3, create havoc on the defensive end, and never turns it over (1.1 turnovers per 40).

Like Haliburton, Vassell rarely gets to the line. He lacks the former’s vision, instead seeing the court like a typical wing. He’s also pretty limited off the dribble, either kicking back to the perimeter or pulling up for a pretty but ultimately low value mid-range jumper. His three point volume is less than ideal, but it’s possible that’s a function of Florida State’s democratic offense and shoot first initiators. He’s not an elite man to man defender or the strongest player, but he’s good enough against smaller wings and guards while shining off the ball.

Ultimately, Vassell is a 6’6 wing who can defend multiple positions, shoot the three, and play intelligently. That’s just valuable, no matter his other limitations.

10. Saddiq Bey

Saddiq Bey Comparables

Bey is a 6’8 combo forward who can shoot (45% from three on high volume), pass, and competently defend. His (lack of) defensive statistics initially gave me pause, but Villanova has had a track record of players outperforming their steal and block rates recently (Donte DiVincenzo, Jalen Brunson, Eric Paschall, even Omari Spellman to an extent).

Bey is not the most physical player and does not flash the smoothest handle, but at the risk of sounding like a broken record, every NBA team needs a combo forward who can shoot a high volume from three. There’s a very real tradeoff between height and skill, and players who can be trusted to make shots and decisions become more valuable at every inch.

Bey’s SMILODON comparables are mostly players who have found niches in the NBA despite mediocre college stats, and he is a better shooter than any similar player in my database. I expect him to become a quality 4th/5th starter, which is a quality find in the late lottery of a weak draft.

Next time: Theo Maldeon, Cole Anthony, Aaron Nesmith, and the best of the rest of the next group of prospects. I will attempt to split hairs between prospects on a similar tier and justify my relative pessimism on Isaac Okoro, Deni Avdija, Tyrese Maxey, and Obi Toppin, all of whom appear in most top tens.

You can find SMILODON for 79 of the top NCAA and international prospects here. The sheet also includes projections for all draftees, and a significant number of undrafted prospects, going back through the 2012 draft. If you missed my initial overview of this draft, you can find it here.

Who do you want the Wolves to draft?