The draft evaluation process is full of mysteries and fallacies, but I know two things for certain.

1) There is no such thing as a lock.
2) Everyone has a flaw.

Draft Day is one of my all-time favorite sports movies. The Cleveland Browns roller coaster is truly like none other — as usual — and Kevin Costner, AKA Sonny Weaver Jr., only amplifies the thrill. While I’m not sure if I’d ever sign up to take GM classes from Mr. Weaver, he had one quote that stuck with me and remains true outside of Hollywood. No, it isn’t “I want David goddamn Putney because I feel like it” or “You pancake eating motherf*ker.” When Sonny is in the war room with his scouts, he urges them to find anything on the consensus number one prospect, Bo Callahan. Sonny’s scouts tell him that Callahan is practically perfect, but Sonny Weaver Jr. commands the room with these few lines:

“Everybody has something. Even the great ones. Right? They said that Montana was too small, that he’d get hurt, he’d get banged up, but that didn’t seem to matter, did it? A lot of people said that Elway was too strong, that he threw too hard, didn’t have touch, but that didn’t seem to matter either, did it? And pretty much everyone agreed that Peyton didn’t have the arm strength, that he couldn’t throw deep. But somehow, none of it seemed to matter. You get where I’m going here, guys?”

I know, it’s not very smart to take anything other than entertainment away from a movie as unrealistic — but still amazing — as Draft Day. But, Sonny Weaver Jr. was right. Everyone has something, and that isn’t unique to the NFL Draft. They said Trae Young was too small and Luka Doncic was too slow and unathletic. When Sonny and I pose the question “Does it matter?” we’re not asking if that disadvantage will evaporate at the next level, that’s way too optimistic of an outlook. Good — not even great — players are able to overcome their deficiencies by being that much better at their strengths. Trae is still very small, but he is a lethal pull-up shooter and passer and overcomes his size with pure skill. Luka still isn’t the best athlete, but he makes up for his lack of burst with elite deception, outlier touch and incredible deceleration. We can even take this exercise down a tier, they said Shai Gilgeous-Alexander didn’t have enough pop but he makes up for it with otherworldly flexibility and body control. All these knocks are still evident in player’s today but it doesn’t seem to matter. In this piece, I’m going to throw out some of my biggest doubts about certain prospects and discuss whether I think it “matters” long term. Don’t think of this as an all-or-nothing exercise, even if I say their deficiency “matters” that doesn’t mean I don’t think they can provide some sort of value, it just means that I’m more skeptical they can overcome it and hit one of their higher outcomes.

Onyeka Okongwu
His Something: Underwhelming Size for an NBA Center

I’m all in on Onyeka Okongwu. Throughout the year, people (even myself at one point) have doubted Okongwu’s long term value because he only stands at 6’9”. However, if there’s anything today’s game tells you, it’s that height can simply be a number. Sure, having overwhelming physical tools (height, wingspan, standing reach) will reduce your margin for error on both ends, but Okongwu has other tools that are extremely rare among bigs and only show up on film. First, let’s start with his light feet and extremely quick hips.

He opens up his hips like a prime Richard Sherman and then treats Payton Pritchard’s pull-up like Michael Crabtee in the end-zone, that’s just rare movement and pop. In the NBA, switch bigs come at a premium and Onyeka Okongwu could be the next one in line. His versatility in Pick and Roll coverage will surely allow his future NBA coach to sleep well at night, he can truly play anything. If you want him to drop, he is more than capable as a rim-protector and can sniff out lobs like a 6 year-old dog searching for their favorite treat. If you want him to ice, he is very comfortable guarding in space and knows how to manipulate angles to his advantage. If you want to switch, Okongwu can stay disciplined on the perimeter and use his size to overwhelm smaller guards in the paint. This isn’t a “Jack of all trades, master of none” scenario, Okongwu can do it all at a high level. And if all else fails, Okongwu can just guard the entire pick and roll by himself.

Okongwu’s load time is also very special for a center. Sometimes it literally looks like he has springs on the bottom of his LeBron’s, since he pops off the floor like an MLB catcher throwing out a stealing runner at second base. This aspect of his rare athleticism package proves to be very valuable on both ends of the floor. On defense, it allows him to contest quicker guards — as shown in the first clip — and have an effective second jump. On offense, it makes him an elite lob threat and a beast on the offensive glass. Also, it opens up his ceiling as an elite finisher. There are several moments where Okongwu will look like he has nothing against a post defender, then, he’ll shoot up and power down a two-handed flush like it was nothing. Similar to some of the game’s elite finishers at the rim, there’s an art of deception when Okongwu goes to leap, which is beyond impressive for a big man prospect who’s very polished.

On top of all these athletic traits, Okongwu also has special touch with both hands around the basket. In the NBA, you have to be extremely efficient to earn post touches but I think Okongwu could eventually reach that level. In the post, he’s able to create space with his lower body strength and despite being “undersized,” that elite pop allows him to sky over defenders. He pretty much has the post hook down with both hands, but Okongwu also has his fair share of improvisational finishes with his left, which are eye opening to say the least.

This finish against Colorado really stood out to me, Okongwu takes his man off the bounce and is coordinated enough to step through and extend the finish with his off hand. While I’m admittedly more wary of attributing touch to shooting improvement, I think Okongwu certainly has a solid case to eventually space the floor. His touch for a big man is elite and he’s been shooting mid-range jumpers since his freshman year at Chino Hills, the mechanics are far from broken and I think it’s definitley plausible that he can be an average to above-average big man shooter at some point in his career.

I am a huge skeptic of the goal line fade, but if you were throwing it up to Okongwu, I might heavily reconsider. He frequently looks like a prime Calvin Johnson with his ability to pinpoint the ball at its apex and have the hands to come down with it. If anyone watched the 2019 Eagles or has ever googled Kwame Brown, you know that getting open is only half the battle and that stone hands don’t make for a solid NBA career. This past season, Zach Lowe wrote about Bam Adebayo’s incredible hands and how it unlocked another gear for him on both ends. I know, we almost made it through without talking about Onyeka and Bam, but here we are. I think it’s fair to assume that Okongwu’s stickum hands will translate to the next level and might even earn a spot in Lowe’s “10 Things” in the near future.

His playmaking for a big is good, but not great. Over the course of the year he definitelty improved and started making quicker decisons and capitalizing on his scoring gravity, but if he can make short roll reads and skips out of the post consistently, Okongwu would be virtually unstoppable.

This pass was the most encouraging glimpse into what he could become, Okongwu attacks off the short roll, doesn’t force anything at the rim, reads the wing defender dropping too far and calmly kicks it out for an open three. It isn’t Jokic-esque, but it’s still an awesome flash.

Does It Matter: NO
Okongwu more than makes up for his height with his NBA-ready skillset and treasure chest of functional athleticism. The NBA is evolving and mobile bigs are at the forefront, don’t overthink Onyeka Okongwu.

Tyrese Haliburton
His Something: Lack of burst, Shaky Handle and Contact Aversion

In my opinion, Tyrese Haliburton is the most polarizing prospect in this draft. I loved Hali, I still do. But, you have to know when to get off the hype train, and this track has gone way too far. Haliburton is a basketball genius, plain and simple. He sees things that very few guys on this planet could ever see and is extremely deceptive in not letting you know what he sees, until it’s too late. However, basketball at its highest level is a game of gravity, if they don’t respect you as a threat then every aspect of your game begins to get marginalized.

As a freshman, Haliburton played a key role as the linking piece on a rather selfish Iowa State team. He would always make the right pass, right rotation and right basketball play. He had 28 turnovers in 1163 minutes played!! That’s incredible and certainly deserves its flowers. As a sophomore, Haliburton was thrusted into a primary role, the offense was run through him and Steve Prohm let him rock out with a plethora of high ball screens. This made for some wizardry reads — which we’ll get into later — but it also showed the ugly flaws of Hali that I think some are too hesitant to admit. Listed at 6’5” 175, Hali already has a high center of gravity without a ton of muscle, a match-made in heaven for pesky on-ball defenders who get paid to push guys off their spot. Now, this sounds a lot like LaMelo Ball, but there’s a mountain top to valley difference in their handle, and that’s one of the main differences in projecting one as a primary and one as a ball mover. Hali’s handle is just way too loose and shaky to initiate action in the NBA, he doesn’t have go-to combos to create space or the burst to make hyper-aggressive defenders pay for gambling. In the NBA, the primary initiator’s role is to create advantages and I just don’t see Hali doing that against the best of the best.

Instead, I see him more in his freshman year role, someone who preys on advantages created by their teammates and makes the defense pay with the right decision. Let’s just get this straight, that is more than fine and can make for a valuable rotational piece, but it is certainly not worth a top five pick nor should that be your franchise cornerstone. Now that the Hali-isn’t-a-primary spiel is out of the way, let’s dig into some positives.

Hali is one of the best off-ball passers I’ve ever seen at the college level, his reads are second to none and I love how decisive he is when the ball ultimately comes to him. He often wastes no time in making the defense pay with a wicked plus-one pass or a simple — but very effective — ball reversal. That pass above is absolutely wicked and there’s plenty more where that came from. I’m also very optimistic of Hali’s catch and shoot potential in the NBA. Everyone knows the mechanics are wonky, but from a CnS perspective, I’m actually a big fan. He gets it off rather quickly thanks to the lack of dip and he generates a ton of range while consistently maintaining his accuracy. Among all division one players with at least 50 spot up no dribble attempts, Hali ranks 4th in the nation in PPP (Points per possession) while shooting a whopping 54.5%. Those numbers are very impressive and are relatively consistent with his freshman year numbers. This wasn’t fluke or an outlier, I genuinely believe Hali is a very good to elite catch and shoot shooter and fully expect it to translate.

It would be naive of me to talk about Hali and not mention his pick and roll play this past year. Hali regularly made a few “Hold up I need to rewind and see that again” passes out of this action, consistently toying with the tag defender and making him pick between the corner shooter and the roll man. Hali would often wait until the very last possible second to then dish out a wicked drop off or skip pass, reminiscent of Lance McIlhenny running the option at SMU in one of my favorite 30 for 30s, Pony Excess. While Hali didn’t exactly have Eric Dickerson or Craig James waiting in the wings, George Conditt made do. One of the first things they teach you in basketball is to avoid jumping to make a pass, it puts you in a near-impossible bail out situation, well, Hali made a living off these. That top tier deception returned again as he debated between pass or shot while he hung in the air like prime Jordan before eventually making a read.

This play is nuts and pretty much sums up Hali’s unorthodox yet otherworldly playmaking ability.

But, yup, you knew there was a big but coming. As I said in the beginning, basketball at its highest level is a game of gravity, and if opposing defenses don’t respect you as a threat, you can ask Frank Ntilikina how difficult things can get. Hali was a pick and roll mastermind in college, and due to his lack of handle and burst, it would have to serve as his main action as a primary initiator. In a scheme-heavy league like the NBA, they will do everything to force you to your weaknesses, which means Hali will usually see a drop big with his initial guard defender chasing him over the top of the screen while everyone else stays home. Drop coverage is very common amongst NBA circles and will invite Hali to shoot a ton of pull-up jumpers. While I’m a big fan of his shot mechanics for the sake of catch and shoot shots, they severely hamper his shooting versatility.

His mechanics off the bounce are all over the place and for lack of better words, just don’t look right. Teaching a standstill catch and shoot jumper is one thing, but developing a pull up jumper is a whole different animal and I’d be extremely cautious of predicting drastic improvement. Primary initiator’s have to create advanatges against the defense, one way or another. This is an iso against backup center Colin Castleton, yeah, not ideal. Hali’s lack of burst and handle — typical skills for a primary — force him to settle for this contested step-back, let’s just say he wouldn’t thrive at Dyckman.

Due to his slender frame and issues off the bounce, Hali also has trouble getting to the rim and is prone to be contact-averse when he does get there.

This clip is the epitome of those limitations, he actually gets Eli Brooks to bite on the pump fake but then acts like Austin Davis is literally on fire and does everything in his power to avoid making any contact, this creates a very tough look which eventually results in a miss. He only attempted 62 shots at the rim this past season, which is fourth lowest among draftable players in my database who played at least 20 games, only ahead of Isaiah Livers, Immanuel Quickley, Isaiah Joe, John Petty and Cole Anthony. He only sports a meager .184 free throw rate which is very uninspiring for someone who had the keys to the Cadillac all season.

Does It Matter: Yes and No
While some might view this as a cop out answer, it’s not. This disparity between my answer is solely based on the team he lands on and the role he is asked to play. If he can spot up, move the ball and just be the ultimate puzzle piece, then I’m in, I just don’t think it warrants a top five — or even top 10 — pick. But, if he’s asked to be your franchise point guard, without any rim gravity, handle or pull-up game, then I become extremely skeptical.

Cole Anthony
His Something: Finishing Woes and Playmaking Chops

Most college programs cater to their elite prospects like celebrities at a five-star restaurant, aiming to make their stay enjoyable as possible by serving their strengths and throwing their weaknesses in the dumpster out back, 2020 North Carolina did things a little different. Cole Anthony has one of the most impressive pre-college samples in recent history, EYBL MVP, Hoop Summit MVP, McDonald’s All American MVP and the list goes on. Cole dominated every single setting he ever stepped foot in throughout his youth career, and I fully expected that to continue at UNC. The combination of injuries and team context had other plans.

In his pre-college sample, Cole was a bursty score-first guard who could knife into defenses at the snap of a finger and make them pay. He was also a high-level shot creator, regularly unleashing an impressive step-back three and all types of shotmaking combos.

Without question, his shot-making was the most fluid translation of all those skills, but I’m here to tell you why everything else isn’t completely Cole’s fault.

At North Carolina, Cole typically played his minutes with two big men — neither of which are reliable floor spacers — who basically clogged up the lane at all times.

This is a common occurrence, Cole will get by his primary defender, only to be derailed by one (or sometimes two) post defenders just waiting for him at the rim. Cole’s finishing numbers are not great by any means — he shot just 53.6% at the rim — but this is why the film never lies. Are there times where Cole could’ve pulled-up for a jumper or stopped on a dime for a floater or dished it to one of his teammates? Yes, and those are all reads he’ll have to learn, but for a downhill guard like himself the congested paint at UNC was far from ideal. On the rare occasions that Cole was lucky enough to have some sort of spacing, he often flashed that pre-college slashing ability. Here, he finally gets a normal spread pick and roll, attacks the big and finishes by skying off one leg, that’s the Cole I know and love. While he definitely missed some bunnies and he is certainly responsible for a fair share of that 53.6%, basketball is all about contextualization and sometimes a single number doesn’t do it justice. I do think there’s some credence to the point that Cole looked a little less explosive than he did in High School, but between the injury and the spacing I don’t want to put too much stock into it.

I mentioned the shotmaking above and that was one aspect of his game that certainly didn’t disappoint. Whether it was off the bounce or off the catch, Cole was money. He only shot 34.8% from three which doesn’t exactly jump off the page, but when you consider the difficulty of his shots and the constant offensive load he was asked to carry, I think it’s more than impressive. Earlier in his career, I think people were hesitant to call Cole an elite shooter because of the mechanics, it certainly wasn’t Klay Thompson, but you can tell he’s put a ton of work into straightening out his shot-line and improving on little details, which is not easy.

These two clips are about 18 months apart and you can see the drastic improvement. He no longer has the knee-knocked base, now he has his feet much closer together. Cole also alleviated the two motion “rise and then fire” release he had before, making the energy transformation much more fluid between the dip and eventual wrist flick, and he tailored his guide hand interference back as well. I’m pretty confident Cole Anthony will be able to make tough shots at the NBA level, but there are still still qualms about the rest of his game.

Some have raised concerns about his score-first approach as a lead guard, and while I do think he’ll be able to play — and maybe even thrive — alongside another ball handler, I was pretty impressed with his playmaking after he came back from the injury.

This clip is really interesting to me, it shows that Cole isn’t one of these revolutionary thinkers when it comes to passing or he would’ve waited a split second to hit the cutter, however, it’s still a quick and decisive read that creates an open shot for his teammate. We didn’t see a ton of manipulation, but Cole has real upside as a big time scorer, as long as he’s capable of making sound decisons consistently, he doesn’t have to be a wild playmaker to still bring impact to an offense. This pass pretty much sums up the last few sentences, could he have dragged the tag man in and then hit the weak side corner for a three? Probably. Instead, he sees a window and rifles in a pass to the roll man, it’s not the most advanced read there is, but it’s effective. Overall, I’m on the higher end of his playmaking, he has a lower threshold to hit because of his scoring and shooting prowess and I think he showed he is more than capable of hitting that.

Some have countered Cole’s team context point by saying “Everyone is better with NBA spacing.” Yes, that’s obviously true and there’s no denying that, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell you that not all spacing is equal at the college level, therefore the change will be more radical for some than others. Cole is in that some. Trust me, if Cole played for Dayton and was running pick and pops with Ryan Mikesell, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Does It Matter: No
Of course I would’ve liked the finishing numbers to be better, but I’m comfortable saying he’s better than that. The shotmaking flashes are incredible and I think it’s one of the most bankable skills in the entire class, as long as Cole can continue the decision making he showed towards the end of the season, he should be more than fine in the association.

Aaron Nesmith
His Something: Lack of Ancillary Skills

As someone who really values high level shooting, I should be higher on Aaron Nesmith, but there’s *multiple* things that just leave me wanting more everytime I pop in Vandy tape. The 6’6” sharpshooter only played 14 games before suffering a season-ending foot injury. He was on an absolute tear prior to being sidelined, shooting a scorching 52.2% from three (68.5 TS%). Unfortantely, Nesmith’s injury only allowed him to play one conference game, so his strength of schedule was pretty subpar, but hey, they say go out while you’re on top.

For the sake of his draft stock, I certainly think Nesmith benefitted from the injury. Beyond the likely shooting regression from his unheard of effciency, Nesmith’s one demensional game probably would’ve hit some serious bumps in road during conference play. Better athletes, better coaches, better players and better schemes certainly could’ve posed problems for Nesmith by running him off the line, but for now, let’s talk about what actually happened instead of spectulating.

Aaron Nesmith is a lethal movement shooter with great size for the role, and that’s what everyone is ultimately intrigued by. His he has impressive change of pace and deception to set up the screens and his footwork is flawless when he gets the rock, there’s no wasted motion.

This and-one three feels like the signature Nesmith play, there’s no way to sugarcoat this clip, it’s ridiculous on every level. I was also super impressed by this movement three earlier in the same game, he maintains his composure and times the hand-off perfectly. Nesmith hops right into it and drains the shot, no wasted steps. I do want to give a shoutout to Coach Stackhouse and his staff too, they were very creative in drawing up sets and quick hitters for Nesmith, and he executed most of them. This is a simple catch and shoot three ball, clockwork for Nesmith, but I love his “Catch high keep high” approach. Klay Thompson made the no-dip motion famous in today’s generation, but it’s a move every elite shooter has to have in their arsenal. By elimating the dip, he is able to get this shot off quickly and cleanly. While Nesmith is an elite shooter off the catch and his pull-up numbers were pretty solid (given small sample size) I have a couple of reasons why I’m skeptical of him becoming a shot-creator and maker.

For a wing, Nesmith’s handle is extremely suspect. He rarely looks in control while dribbing and the ball is certainly not on a string.

Here, he gets a step on his defender, but the loose — to put it nicely — handle just doesn’t allow him to get anywhere with it. His lack of ball control leads Nesmith into attempting this wild finish that never had a chance. Shot-creation is very similar to student-athlete, some “prioritize” the first term more, but in reality, the latter term is really what carries the weight. Obviously making the shot is what ultimately counts, but if you can’t create the look in the first place with burst, a handle or any other way basketball players create shots, then how can you become a viable shot-creator? That’s the question I’ve been urging Aaron Nesmith apologists to answer as of late. Nesmith also has a prevalent hitch in his pull-up jumper that isn’t in his catch and shoot jumper, combine this with the handle and I’m just not optimistic about him creating good looks in the NBA.

I went on a twitter rant last summer about how some analysts are in a really bad habit of billing three point shooters or defensive specialists with limited ancillary skills as “3&D” prospects. The actual archetype isn’t as easy as some make it out to be, and I strongly believe that reaching a high level at either of those two skills, to the point where it ultimately becomes one of your calling cards, is basically unteachable. Yes, you can probably teach someone to shoot a standstill three. And yes, you can probably teach someone basic scheme defense reads. However, in order to become a high level shooter and impact defender, there’s usually some serious signs. In regards to Nesmith, he’s getting pitched as a 3&D wing, but only checks one of the boxes. He has an impressive frame, but suffers from slow feet and hips, which raise questions about him guarding on the perimeter. My real issue with Nesmith comes from his positioning off-ball, he is consistently two steps away from where he actually needs to be, which makes him late to the rotation far too often.

On this side pick and roll, Nesmith has tag responsibilites on the roll man. Not only does he not tag, but he basically doesn’t react in help until Krutwig puts the ball on the floor to attack the rim, by then it’s way too late. As I mentioned above, you can teach scheme defense, but Nesmith is just extremely slow processing reads and help responsibilities and I think that’s a very hard issue to fix. So in summary, if he’s not a wing stopper or a great — or even good — team defender, where is the D coming from?

His playmaking, or lackthereof, is the dagger in the heart for me. In 500 minutes played this season, he totaled just 13 assists, that’s one assist per 38.5 minutes.

Nesmith wasn’t typically tasked with initation responsibilites in my viewings, and this pick and roll from him isn’t very encouraging. This is the equivalant of throwing a slant over the middle when the middle linebacker is just waiting to light him up. Sure, the big was a little out of control, but the tag was there the entire time and Nesmith just disregarded it. I’m not inside his head, but it looks like he wanted to pull-up but then tried to hit the bail out pass without reading it. This is the sample we’re missing most from the injury, SEC opponents would’ve ran him off the line and forced him to make decisions. In our 14 game sample, that aspect wasn’t very pretty.

Does It Matter: Yes
Aaron Nesmith has a bankable skill that comes at a premium in today’s game but that doesn’t mean we should just overlook the rest of his evaluation. Shooters still have to play defense and make decisons, and I just don’t feel comfortable projecting to do either of those at a high enough level. Ancillary skills matter. Nesmith’s shot will allow him to stick in the league, but I think he has too many traits working against him to provide real value.

As I mentioned in the beginning, this isn’t an all or nothing exercise. All four of these prospects are probable top-20 picks and will likely have a decent stay in the league. The point of this piece was to dive into their weaknesses and discuss if they’re capable of overcoming them or compensating with their strengths, I hope you enjoyed it.

NBA Draft Mailbag 1.0
Draft Journal Vol. 4