Although the 2019 Draft only wrapped up six weeks ago, it’s never too early to look ahead at next year’s prospects. Since I cover High School basketball very in depthly, I’ve been aware of most of these prospects since their freshman year of high school. But, evaluating someone’s performance for the sake of rankings or pedigree within their own age group, is a very different task than scouting a prospect for the NBA Draft. The latter requires much more in depth analysis and thinking, as you are projecting how much of a prospect’s game will translate and improve against bigger, stronger, faster and better opponents. With that being said, I have been scouring YouTube for any full High School or AAU games and rewatching Youth FIBA competitions from the past couple of years to get a head start on the 2020 Draft. Throughout this process, some prospects have popped, while others have been underwhelming. First, I’m going to break down one of my favorite prospects in this draft, Nico Mannion. After bursting onto the scene during his 9th grade summer, Mannion quickly became one of the names to know in the 2020 high school class. He got better every single year and maintained his trajectory as a five star prospect. During his Sophomore year at Pinnacle High School (Az.), he shredded the competition, averaging 23 points per game en route to a State Championship and the Arizona Gatorade Player of The Year award. That spring, Mannion again proved to be one of the top prospects in the UAA while dominating the competition alongside future Arizona teammate, Josh Green. After his circuit and camp play in the summer of 2018, colleges started to push him to reclassify to the class of 2019. The move made sense for Mannion, as his game was already very mature, and he could get one step closer to his NBA dream. Mannion bet on himself and did what he always does, dominate the competition. After showing out against high profile opponents during his Pinnacle season, scouts started to talk about him as one of the top point guards in the nation. Mannion continued the momentum as he had great showings on the all star circuit, the Nike Hoop Summit especially. Nico Mannion has nothing left to prove at the high school ranks, and I think he is going to have a productive season at Arizona before becoming a top ten pick in June. I currently have him at #5 on my Preseason 2020 board, and here’s why:
Pick and Roll Maestro
I wanted to start here because it is critical for his NBA projection. The pick and roll is an integral part of the offense for all 30 NBA teams. Mannion is so difficult to stop when operating the pick and roll because he can beat you from every angle. If you drop, he’ll pull up comfortably from anywhere on the court. If you let him turn the corner, he’ll get in the paint, draw the help and make the right decision almost every single time, whether it’s to score it himself or find the open teammate. Although he isn’t a big guard, Mannion does a great job of seeing the floor very well. He has great pace when coming off the screen and is able to throw passes with either hand off the live dribble with precision accuracy and top flight velocity (which I’ll get into later). Because of this ability, defenses become very hesitant to show their help rotations early, which of course opens up more space for Mannion to operate and creates more chaos for the defense when do have to rotate. He also does an awesome job of dragging out the Pick and Roll, this is very common in the NBA to try to exploit mismatches and Nico is already ahead of the game, doing this comfortably. What I mean by “Dragging out the Pick and Roll” is, Mannion will extend the play by either keeping his dribble downhill, or going east-west, and force the screener’s defender (often a big man) into picking him up. The simple way, and often most effective way of taking advantage of the drag is to self-create a bucket against a bigger, slower defender.
Once I got to sit down and watch multiple games of Mannion, this aspect of his game was a pleasant surprise. While I’ll agree that Mannion is a “score first” lead guard, it should be a compliment to his scoring package, not a slight to his passing. Because of his high pick and roll volume in high school, Mannion has been put in a wide variety of situations. As I covered in the section above, Mannion is very effective running this action due to his ability and feel as both a scorer and facilitator. Here, I want to highlight his ability to read defenses and execute passes on the fly with both hands, which is very important for a guard with his physical limitations. Like most highly touted recruits, he faced a lot of double teams in high school, Mannion rarely got rattled, and often read the primary and secondary help before delivering an accurate pass to a wide open teammate.The ability to pass off the live dribble with both hands, especially the off hand, is viewed as a huge positive for a prospect with initiator potential. It opens up a ton of passing lanes and truly keeps the defense on their toes, as they always have to be alert and can’t sag off too much. Another aspect of his toolbox that impressed me was his interior passing, on both lobs and drop offs. There were a couple occurrences where Mannion got a little too excited and put too much zip on the pass, but those were rare. Mainly, he showed poise and elite touch when drawing the defense and finding teammates for easy layups and dunks. As I’ll highlight later, Mannion isn’t the greatest lateral athlete, but he’s very aware of that and instead of forcing wild euro-step layups that create easy run-outs for the opposition, he is comfortable dishing to his teammates even when he’s deep in the paint. Last but not least, Mannion is a great pitch ahead passer. This is one of my favorite parts of his game, as it showcases his elite IQ, awareness, passing ability and touch all in one. It’s very common to see him get the inbound after an opposing bucket, look up and fire an outlet pass with touch and velocity, that usually hits his target in stride for a layup. At the next level, defenses will have to be aware of this, and instead of crashing an extra guy to put some pressure on Arizona, they’ll have to do the opposite in order to stop the break that’s coming their way.
Operating Out Of The Mid/Low Post
This is by far the most fascinating part of Mannion’s game, as he is comfortable and lethal operating out of the post. He finds his way in the post by posting up and then receiving an entry pass after getting position, or by turning his back to the defender and just backing them into his spot off the dribble. When he gets in the post, he’s very good at improvising. Mannion can get some serious lift on his turnaround jumpers, which allow him to simply elevate over defenders and finish with touch. He also has a little half spin shake out of the post in his toolbox. It’s extremely rare for a guard to have these moves in their arsenal, and to have post usage in the first place.But, similar to Villanova national champion Jalen Brunsom, Mannion’s elite feel, IQ and touch make him effective in the post. Brunson appears to have more muscle than Mannion, weighing in at 10-15 pounds heavier, but both guards are 6’3”. While I think Mannion is the superior athlete by a decent margin, they face some of the same movement limitations. Questioning how much weight these “post-ups” carry because they won’t directly translate to the NBA, would be an extremely shallow way of analyzing this usage. Playing with your back to the basket is extremely difficult. You must rely on your peripherals, feel and pure instincts to make the right play, despite not being able to see a good portion of the floor. This is why scoring centers with no feel scare me as an evaluator, and often flame out at the highest level. The fact that Mannion is throwing whip around passes through three defenders, reading double teams and knocking down turnaround jumpers and floaters as a 6’3” guard is wildly impressive. He’s been asked to carry the scoring load in most settings, and guards nowadays are usually score first, but it’s very encouraging to see that Mannion can be relied on to make the right play, in a variety of ways.
How does Mannion make up for his athletic limitations? By understanding the art of deception better than any prospect in his class (Tyrese Maxey and his floaters have an argument here, but I’m still going with Mannion). One of the most lethal facets of Mannion’s game is his ability to change speeds effectively. I think it’s safe to say Mannion won’t finish first in the ¾ court sprint in May at the NBA Combine, but his quickness and speed is very functional on the court because he knows when to go fast, and when to go slow. Mannion’s pull up shot fake and hesitation dribble are incredible. Because of his pull up gravity that I noted earlier, defenses are forced to react when he brings his off hand and head up. He does a great job of authentically selling the fake, and it’s clearly a move he reps over and over again. After coming out of the move, Mannion constantly scans the entire floor before creating for himself or his teammates. The hesitation has a similar effect, as he routinely freezes defenders, especially in transition and ball screens.Mannion sees the help coming from the weakside, and instead of recklessly attacking the rim, he stops on a dime and drills the quick floater.
While Nico Mannion is a very complete offensive player, the majority of his gravity comes from his jumpshot. Whether that’s in the form of a pull up, spot up, relocation or post up, the defense must have a hand up when Mannion releases the ball. First, let’s dive into his pull up game. His pull up game is very impressive, a threat to rise up at any time from anywhere on the court. While he is very capable pulling up off the hang dribble, he doesn’t need it to generate rhythm and power, which allow for a more effective and deceptive release. Mannion gets great elevation on his pull ups which provide a ton of power, that allows him to square his shoulders up with any kind of momentum. Not many high school prospects can stop on a dime anywhere on the court and gather themselves for a pull up. Mannion is comfortable pulling up with either hand, although he does prefer his dominant right hand, and with a variety of footwork. With some prospects, inconsistent footwork can be a negative sign and impact percentages the wrong way. But, with Nico, he has a variety of ways to get into his shot but they are usually consistent with whatever momentum he has.If he’s standing still for a catch and shoot three, he’ll keep his left foot planted and simply bring his right foot over in rhythm with his dip. The timing on this motion makes for a quick, efficient and smooth release. Another aspect of his shooting I’m very high on is his relocation. Being a great relocator is usually a testament to high level awareness and anticipation. Mannion has shown very impressive relocation flashes (2nd clip) and knows how to get his feet set off movement. Coming off the relocation, he has backwards momentum but quickly gets on balance with a rhythm two foot hop. The release is pure, and the shot is money. Last but not least, here’s Mannion drilling a contested three using the “one-two.” This was extremely effective because he could stop immediately and rise up over the defender, if he were to hop into this shot, he would’ve gotten less explosion and given the defender more time to react. His comfort shooting with all different types of footwork and momentum makes me very optimistic about his projection as a high level shot maker, which also makes him more valuable while operating without the ball in his hands.
Decision Making/Leveraging Gravity
Mannion didn’t play on a High School all-star team at a prep school, instead, he attended his local public High School and was the best player on his team by a very wide margin. He has been the best player on basically every court he’s touched (with the exception of the all-star circuit) for the past two years, and with that comes a lot of defensive attention. Whenever he beats his primary defender, there’s always at least two help defenders with their eyes locked in on him. One of his greatest strengths is that he learned how to leverage this attention for the better of his team, not just himself. Due to the enormous load he carried at Pinnacle, there were times when he tried to do too much and played outside of his game, but that wasn’t often. As I mentioned in the first paragraph, it’s rare to see Mannion abandon plays too early. Very often, you’ll see top ranked prospects who are “score-first” try to become more of a facilitator. They clearly approach the game with a different mindset, and forget that their scoring gravity will be their biggest asset while creating open looks for teammates. What I love about Mannion’s approach, is he’s truly comfortable improvising. He rarely kicks the ball out without touching the paint, that may seem like a small thing, but it keeps the defense honest at all times. His ability to think on the fly will be huge for him as he climbs up the ranks.
The majority of Mannion’s negatives will come on this end of the floor, but it’s hardly all bad. I think that Mannion can become a close to neutral defender, despite his lateral limits. This is because of his overall IQ, good anticipation skills and quick hands.He doesn’t have good length so it’s rare to see Mannion jumping passing lanes, but sometimes he’s thinking so far ahead of everyone else, that his lack of physical tools don’t matter. In this clip, he sees the inbounder coming up alongside the player he’s guarding, Mannion has been applying decent pressure throughout the game so he knows his man might want to give the ball up. It might be a coincidence, but if you look closely he wipes his face with his jersey moments before jumping the pass. It could mean absolutely nothing, but because of his smarts, I’m going to say it’s not impossible that Mannion did that to deceive the ball handler into throwing that pass. Lastly, Mannion has shown flashes of quick hand, both on the ball and in help. I haven’t seen it enough to call it one of his skills, but it’s definitely something to keep an eye on this year.
Lastly before I get to the concerns, I wanted to highlight this little part of his game. Throughout the multiple games I watched, Mannion consistently used vetern tricks to gain free throws and aggravate his defenders. They might be for one or two plays per game, but it speaks volumes to how closely Mannion studies the game at the highest level. This topic is controversial to some, but at the end of the day, working the refs and getting opponents in foul trouble is all apart of the game. Living in Maryland, I’ll never forget Melo Trimble’s signature “head snap” when he was being pressured as a ball handler. It worked much more often that it should’ve, and provided the Terps with advantages throughout the game. Here, Mannion is being guarded by Devin Askew, a five star class of 2021 point guard with blue blood offers (Nico gave him 45).Askew has three fouls and is pressing up on Mannion, he remains under control and hits Askew with the “head snap.” The official buys it and Askew is forced to sit with four fouls, Pinnacle is provided with a huge advantage. Then, while being closely guarded by Scottie Lewis at the Hoop Summit, he did it again and Lewis was called for the foul. Lewis jumps in the air with his hands on his head, as he thinks he did nothing wrong, but Mannion got the official to buy it and put his World Team one foul closer to the bonus. Later in the game, Mannion again makes Lewis the victim.Late in the shot clock, Nico knows he’s most likely going to force up a tough shot, so when Lewis reaches in a little too much, he immediately rises up and flails his arms to draw the foul. You may not like it, but it was a clear foul and Mannion gets three free throws in a very close game. Of course, these are just small flashes, but it showcases the wherewithal and attention to detail that Mannion possess.
Part of the reason why I like Mannion so much, is because he’s so well rounded. Sure, would it be awesome if he was a better point of attack defender, but it’s still very early. My biggest concern with Mannion, and the only one I’m comfortable writing about early on, is his lack of lateral athleticism. I think Mannion is a better vertical athlete than he gets credit for, as he’s had his fair share of poster dunks. But, the lack of lateral quickness is a real concern of mine, and it impacts both sides of the ball. It’s much more obvious on defense, as Mannion is prone to blow-byes and getting shook by guards with his similar pedigree. Most of the time, it’s not for lack of effort, which is good and bad when evaluating. The good thing is that you know he’s a competitor, no matter the setting he’s going to get after it. The bad thing is that there’s not many other areas he can make it up in. Take LaMelo Ball for instance, there are times he doesn’t even come back into the broadcast screen when the opposing team is on offense, which is straight embarrassing. However, it’s hard to write him off as a defender because he has good physical tools and maybe if he does try, he isn’t all that bad. With Nico, he doesn’t have great tools and the defender he is today, is probably the level of defender he’s going to be moving forward. This is far from career ruining, as I mentioned above, he can leverage his anticipation and smarts to figure out a defensive niche, but point of attack defense will probably be a concern that executives are thinking about next June. On offense, sometimes Mannion will lack the ability to shake defenders due to the lateral limitations. This was nearly non-existent on his Pinnacle tape, as he was just cooking defenders by changing speeds and mastering simple combos. However, despite playing the game of his life at the Nike Hoop Summit, Mannion struggled to shake bigger wing defenders Scottie Lewis and Isaac Okoro late in the game. I’m not too overly concerned about that, considering those two players are known as defensive specialists with overwhelming length, and Mannion had little to no problems doing his thing against Cole Anthony in the first three quarters. But, it is worth noting, considering some people (not me included) question if Nico’s skills will hold up against bigger, faster, stronger and longer athletes at higher levels.
I know I ended on a negative note, but you shouldn’t leave here with any negative thoughts about Nico Mannion. No prospect is perfect, and I wouldn’t be doing my job correctly if I only showcased the positives. With that being said, I think the positives significantly outweigh the negatives. I think Mannion will have a very productive year at Arizona next year, but I’m not too crazy about his situation. I’m probably lower on Josh Green than consensus, and I think Mannion’s overall supporting cast as a whole is somewhat underwhelming, especially with the devastating injury to Brandon Williams. I currently have him at number five on my preseason board, which might be a little ambitious, but I’m a believer. Despite athletic flaws, I love his moxie and poise as a lead guard and I think he can become a very capable shot maker. The pull up three seems to be the most valuable shot in basketball nowadays, and if what he did at lower levels is any indication, Mannion will certainly provide value with that shot. In a class loaded with talented guards, I think Mannion presents himself as a safe bet. He might not have All-NBA potential (It’s unfair to declare that now) but he is super skilled, smart and well rounded. All those traits make a successful pro, and I think Nico Mannion can be a good NBA player for a long time.