By Nick Whalen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
Nearly five months after its original date, the 2020 NBA Draft is set to take place — virtually, of course — on Wednesday night. When the festivities kick off at 8:00 PM ET, we’ll have gone a full 517 days between NBA Drafts, by far the longest span in league history.
The ongoing global pandemic has wreaked havoc on draft preparations. The NBA Draft Combine, a late-May staple, was canceled. As a result, teams were forced to conduct mostly virtual evaluations, though some restrictions have been lifted in recent months.
On top of all of the pandemic-related uncertainty, the 2020 class is far from an easy evaluation. If there’s one thing evaluators can all agree on, it’s that the draft lacks an obvious No. 1 pick. There’s no Zion Williamson or Anthony Davis or Blake Griffin in this class.
Outside of the supposed top three this year, the stakes may not be as high, but the decision-making doesn’t get much easier. While this is a class flush with depth, it’s anyone’s guess which players will turn into solid role players and which could develop beyond that level. With so much good-but-not-great talent available in the 4-to-30 range, teams are expected to be active in the trade market, both leading up to the draft and on draft night itself.
With the draft set to begin in just a matter of hours, here are the prospects and storylines to know:
The Big Three: Anthony Edwards, LaMelo Ball, and James Wiseman
Again, there’s no obvious prize at the top of the draft, but the trio of Anthony Edwards, LaMelo Ball, and James Wiseman have separated themselves as something of a consensus top three. They each carry more question marks than you’d prefer from a potential top pick, however. For Edwards, decision-making and outside shooting are the concerns. Ball also struggled shooting the ball in the NBL last season, but his effort and instincts on the defensive end may be even more of an issue.
Wiseman has the fewest glaring flaws of the three. He’s a monster athlete with great size and even better length. Wiseman isn’t quite as versatile as some of the elite bigs in the NBA, and he’ll likely never be an offensive hub, but he moves well and has the foundation of what looks to be a reliable mid-to-long-range jump shot. If there’s a hole in Wiseman’s profile, it’s that evaluators got to see only a glimpse of him against collegiate competition. The Memphis native played just three games for coach Penny Hardaway before withdrawing from school last November.
Imperfections aside, Ball, Edwards, and Wiseman — in that order, according to the DraftKings Sportsbook — are the heavy favorites to come off the board with the top three picks.
Movers and Shakers
Traditionally, draft night acts as a catalyst for trades, and this year projects to be no different. With a condensed offseason schedule, the trade moratorium was lifted Monday afternoon, giving teams two-plus days to negotiate before the draft.
On Sunday, the Lakers and Thunder kicked things off with Oklahoma City agreeing in principle to send Dennis Schroder to Los Angeles in exchange for Danny Green and the 28th pick. On Monday morning, Detroit swapped defensive-minded guard Bruce Brown for the Nets’ second-round pick and forward Dzanan Musa. That was quickly followed by the Suns acquiring Chris Paul from the Thunder for a package revolving around Ricky Rubio, Kelly Oubre, and a 2022 first-round pick.
Schroder will go a long way toward patching some holes in the Lakers’ rotation, and Paul could push Phoenix toward contender status. But they’re far from the only big names who could be on the move. For weeks, rumors have swirled around Jrue Holiday — who just joined the Bucks in a huge deal — Victor Oladipo, James Harden, Andrew Wiggins, and Russell Westbrook, among others. Established stars on bloated contracts make for difficult negotiations, but as the clock ticks down on “future picks” turning into “actual NBA players," the pressure will be turned up for teams like the Nets, Pacers, Rockets, and Pelicans.
Meanwhile, the perceived depth in the late lottery and beyond could lead to an increased trade-up market. The Hawks’ pick at No. 6 is believed to be available, though how much value that slot holds could vary widely from team to team in a draft with so much variability.
It’s no secret that Golden State’s pick at No. 2 could be available, but all indications are that the Warriors won’t include the pick in a deal that doesn’t net them a star in return. So far, that deal hasn’t materialized, but that doesn’t mean it won’t before Wednesday night.
Fans of college basketball are plenty familiar with Obi Toppin, Tyrese Haliburton, Anthony Edwards, and — to a lesser degree — James Wiseman. But a handful of international prospects are expected to come off the board in the lottery. Here are the names to know:
LaMelo Ball: He’s not a traditional “international” prospect, but like Brandon Jennings, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Terrance Ferguson before him, Ball spent a year overseas, rather than playing college basketball. The Chino Hills, California native averaged 17.0 points, 7.4 rebounds, 6.8 assists, and 1.7 steals in 12 games for the Illawarra Hawks last season. Ball’s decision-making can be erratic, and his three-point shot is a concern, but he has excellent size at 6’7” and could instantly be one of the five best passers in the NBA next season.
Killian Hayes: Widely projected as a top-10 pick, Hayes is arguably the best true international prospect in the draft. The 19-year-old Frenchman is not as athletic as Edwards or as crafty as Ball, but Hayes is another big-bodied (6’5”) guard with great length (6’8.25” wingspan) and playmaking skills. Just 18 years old, Hayes still has some developing to do, but he already has a reliable jump shot and an advanced feel for the game on offense.
Theo Maledon: As a prospect, Maledon isn’t in the same conversation as Hayes and Ball, but he’ll be in play in the mid-to-late first round. Yet another big guard with length (6’8.5” wingspan), Hayes profiles as more of the facilitating type, rather than a score-first attacker. He’s a strong finisher who uses change-of-pace to make up for so-so athleticism.
Deni Avdija: The most accomplished international prospect in the draft, Avdija spent the last several years developing, and eventually starring, for Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Euroleague. A big wing with guard-like offensive skills, Avdija doesn’t have the same ceiling (or floor) as Luka Doncic, but he’s an advanced playmaker who bucks the archetype of the classic European wing. The primary question mark: Can Avdija improve as an outside shooter after hitting just 30.9 percent of his attempts over the last two seasons? Avdija’s poor free-throw shooting (58.8% FT last season) is one reason some teams have doubts.
R.J. Hampton: Another domestic prospect who spent his would-be freshman year overseas (New Zealand), Hampton didn’t find quite as much success as Ball, but he remains in contention for a late lottery selection. A very good athlete with an elite first step, Hampton may not be as NBA-ready as some of his peers, but his upside is one of the highest in the class. How rapidly he can ascend will depend on the development of what’s so far been an inconsistent jump shot.
Aleksej Pokusevski: The seven-footer from Serbia will be one of the biggest gambles in the draft — especially if he comes off the board in the lottery. Pokusevski is an extremely unique prospect who has guard-like skills and a shockingly versatile offensive package for a player of his size. He’s a good passer, decent ball-handler, and confident jump-shooter, but Pokusevski desperately needs to add weight to his rail-thin frame. The 18-year-old weighs in at just 201 pounds. For context, Kevin Durant is listed at 240 pounds.
A year ago, only Ja Morant and Kendrick Nunn cracked the top 120 in eight-category leagues (total value). On paper, this is another draft that likely will not be flush with fantasy-relevant players, at least not in 2020-21. As always, a few rookies will ultimately work their way into that range, and plenty more will have weeks — or even months — of fantasy utility, but pinpointing who those players are is a difficult task.
Whoever the Timberwolves take at No. 1 will join a roster that already features two All-Stars in Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell. If the Warriors hang on to the No. 2 pick, James Wiseman or LaMelo Ball would enter a fantastic basketball situation, but not oone that would lead to monster fantasy numbers. Roster context aside, both Ball and Edwards have significant efficiency concerns that could drag down their fantasy profiles.
The Hornets at No. 3 could be perhaps the best fantasy landing spot. Terry Rozier is a solid starting guard, and Devonte’ Graham was one of the best stories of last season, but neither is a foundational player worth drafting around. The Hornets may also have the worst wing and big man depth in the league, so if Wiseman, in particular, were to fall to three, he would easily be in the best position of the elite prospects. Of course, there’s a chance that Charlotte’s roster looks quite a bit different by the time Wednesday night arrives. The Hornets are among the teams rumored to be interested in a Russell Westbrook acquisition.
For fantasy purposes, Iowa State’s Tyrese Haliburton is a name to watch in the lottery. He may never project as a 20-point-per-game scorer, but Haliburton has perhaps the highest floor of any guard in the draft. A great passer and reliable shooter with excellent size, Haliburton could be the type of all-around fantasy producer who’s worth a late-round pick in standard leagues (and he should be coveted in keeper formats).
Other prospects to monitor
Obi Toppin: The main knock on Toppin is his age (he’ll be 23 in March), but there’s no questioning his accomplishments at the college level. Toppin was the best player in the country last season, averaging 20.0 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.0 steals, and 1.2 blocks, while shooting 70 percent from the field and 39 percent from three. That borderline-ridiculous efficiency is probably due for some regression against better competition, but Toppin is the complete package on the offensive end. He’s the most NBA-ready prospect in the draft. If Toppin lands in even a reasonably advantageous situation, he should be the favorite to lead all rookies in fantasy value.
Aaron Nesmith: The Vanderbilt product is the best three-point shooter in a draft rich with catch-and-shoot threats. Nesmith hit 52.2 percent of his 8.2 attempts per game last season, though he was limited to just 14 games. Floor-spacing is the reason Nesmith could work his way into the late-lottery, but he’s more than just a stand-still, catch-and-release player.
Precious Achiuwa: He may not be a difference-maker in Year 1, but Achiuwa is the type of prospect any team in the league would love to have. A bouncy, high-energy big, Achiuwa will generate most of his production via hustle plays, put-backs, and finishes at the rim. Down the road, Achiuwa could be a productive points/rebounds/blocks/field goal percentage fantasy contributor.
Onyeka Okongwu: The freshman from USC could go as high as the top-five, and while he may not be an instant-impact player, there’s a reason he’s drawn some Bam Adebayo comparisons. From a playmaking perspective, Adebayo is far superior, but Okongwu has similar length and athleticism, and for fantasy purposes, he projects as a good source of efficient scoring, rebounds, and blocks.
Cole Anthony: Anthony’s much-anticipated freshman season at North Carolina was derailed due to injuries, but the 20-year-old lived up to his reputation as a high-volume scorer. He doesn’t always do it efficiently, but Anthony’s style fits the NBA game. In the right landing spot, he could be a factor off the bench right away.
Tyrell Terry: A late-riser who’s used the extended draft process to shoot up draft boards, Terry is a big-time scorer with the confidence to shoot from anywhere. There’s certainly some Trae Young to Terry’s game, but he’s not nearly as advanced as a passer, which may make it difficult to gain the respect of NBA defenders. Like most undersized guards, Terry will likely go through some growing pains early on, but keep an eye on the Stanford product in deeper fantasy formats.