The funny thing about a draft as bereft of elite talent as the 2020 NBA Draft is that it’s hard to hate many of the picks when you love so few of the players.
There were players available throughout the first round who can become starters in the league, but almost none who figure to be stars eventually.
NBA DRAFT 2020: Greer’s pick-by-pick analysis | Picks by team
And so it wasn’t always easy to find a lot to get worked up about, no “How can they let Karl Malone slip?” moments.
It was intriguing to see the lottery teams, the teams that have made such a habit of losing, take stabs at unproven players while the winning teams that selected late in the first round stocked up on proven college winners such as Udoka Azubuike of Kansas and Payton Pritchard of Oregon, who both played in Final Fours, and San Diego State point guard Malachi Flynn, who might have if there had been an NCAA Tournament in 2020.
There were some picks that stood out, of course, on both sides of the ledger. These were the biggest steals and worst reaches of the 2020 NBA Draft’s first round:
James Wiseman, C, Memphis (No. 2 overall, to Warriors)
Wiseman is the most purely talented player in the draft. For a 7-1 player, few ever have featured his combination of speed, agility and dynamism. He should become an elite pick-and-roll defender, and he already is an effective rim protector. What is bothersome about Wiseman is how he handled his college career – what there was of it. He played three games, received a suspension from the NCAA and then walked away from the Tigers when the 12 games nearly had lapsed. If Wiseman had been headed toward one of the NBA’s dysfunctional franchises, then his career might have stagnated, but instead he’ll join a team made of champions: Steph Curry, Draymond Green and, if he’s healthy, Klay Thompson. The culture will nudge him toward excellence.
Obi Toppin, PF, Dayton (No. 8, to Knicks)
When is the last time the Knicks have been handed this sort of good fortune? OK, that’s not a tough question: in 2015, when Philly took Jahlil Okafor at No. 3 and left Kristaps Porzingis on the board. And yes, they ultimately made a mess of that. Let’s hope the new management team at what has been one of sports’ most dysfunctional organizations does better with its newest prize, who fell to No. 8. Toppin is a dynamic athlete who is a scoring force around the rim and from 3-point range. He will have to prove himself as a defender, but he will be a player.
SN 2019-20 ALL-AMERICANS: Toppin on first team
Deni Avdija, SF, Maccabi Tel Aviv (No. 9, to Wizards)
With so many teams reaching so hard for potential, it was hard to believe Avdija lasted all the way to the No. 9 pick. Avdija probably was done a disservice by constant comparisons to Luka Doncic, but it’s rare for someone with his height and strength to have his vision and ability to pass on the move. Avdija is not a proven shooter, but neither is he a poor shooter, like some of those selected above him. He should have the ability to initiate offense from various positions on the floor, a quality many teams in the league are valuing now.
Tyrese Haliburton, PG, Iowa State (No. 12, to Kings)
It’s easy to love the idea of Halliburton, a first-rate long-distance shooter, pairing in a two-point backcourt with De’Aaron Fox. Halliburton’s shot is a bit tricky; he’s not going to get it off when tightly defended because it’s basically a set shot. But it’s going to be tough to hang with him as the ball zips through the halfcourt off his fingertips and those of Fox. Can the Kings keep them together long enough to become a force?
Saddiq Bey, F, Villanova (No. 19, to Pistons from Nets)
This is the best pick in the draft. Why Brooklyn wouldn’t want to celebrate the good fortune of sitting there with a pick this late and having a 3-and-D winner like Bey fall in its lap, who knows? But Detroit general manager Troy Weaver is taking advantage of the Nets’ generosity. I had Bey rated as the fifth-best player in this draft, because he’s powerful, tough, a terrific shooter, a determined rebounder and a guy who has been a part of one of college basketball’s best developmental pipelines.
Isaac Okoro, SG, Auburn (No. 5, to Cavaliers)
The Cavaliers won 29 percent of their games last season. If the season had lasted the full 82 games, then that would have been 24 victories. Can they afford the luxury of selecting a one-way player with the fifth pick in the draft? Okoro averaged 12.9 points in his one college season on a team that was begging for someone to step forward and make buckets. But it’s hard to get that done when defenders play off you and dare you to shoot. Tigers coach Bruce Pearl was correct when he said Okoro was the best defensive guard in the draft. But Okoro was 20 of 70 from 3-point range, a .286 percentage. It’s hard to see how he makes Cleveland better.
Aleksej Pokusevski, PF, Olympiacos (No. 17, to Thunder from Timberwolves)
The Thunder essentially have invested a top-20 pick in a player whom Olympiacos did not trust to play with their senior team last season. And who, with their “B” team, didn’t average even 11 points a game. This is how you know an NBA front office is trying too hard. He carries only 200 pounds on a 7-foot frame. He has modest jumping ability. He has fine basketball skills but nothing extraordinary. He’ll be a solid EuroLeague player for a good while, and maybe someday he’ll jazz up the Thunder’s G-League squad.
Leandro Bolmaro, SF, Barcelona (No. 23, to Timberwolves from Knicks)
The T-wolves haven’t evolved to the point where they should be playing the draft-and-stash game. They’ve had one winning season in the past 15. Who are we kidding here? And it’s hard to say for certain Bolmaro is a player worth stashing. He has done little to suggest he’s a shooter, still hasn’t established himself as a starter at Barca and has not, at any level in any competition for the past four seasons, managed to shoot even 45 percent from the floor.
Jaden McDaniels, SF, Washington (No. 28, to Timberwolves from Lakers)
If the Lakers had kept the pick, then it would have been a low-risk gamble for a team needing no immediate help from a rookie. McDaniels is a raw talent who would have benefited from hanging around studs like LeBron James and Anthony Davis. But now he’s headed to Minnesota, which owns none of these luxuries. McDaniels barely could keep his eyes open during UW’s games last season. His lack of passion for the sport was a huge reason the Huskies fielded two first-round picks and still had a losing season overall and won just five Pac-12 games. Whatever his gifts, he lacks assertiveness and feel for the game and shot only 40.5 percent from the field and 33.9 percent from deep.
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