Trae Young has unmatched court vision and passing skills. Zion Williamson has a tank-of-a-physique and hops to boot. Russell Westbrook’s fierce competitive drive and freakish athleticism are the stuff of legend.
Each of the three NBA stars have qualities or traits that make their game stand above the rest and elevate their games, in one area or another, from their peers. They are bankable assets that translated to success in transitioning from college to the NBA.
When I scout prospects, it’s something I look for: What specific trait can provide immediate value to an NBA team?
Players without any great skill can get by simply by being a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. Sometimes just being a well-rounded basketball player projects perfectly to the league. But for an exercise today, I’ll single out some skills of 2020 draft prospects who really pop — those who really stand above the rest in specific areas of their game. The masters of one (or more than one) who have at least one skill that should translate to success early on in their NBA careers.
LaMelo Ball’s court vision
There are a number of high IQ guards in this draft who can operate as a lead ball-handler and facilitate the action as a No. 1. Yet none are as crisp and polished as LaMelo Ball. While he still has sporadic lowlights in this facet of his game, he’s far and away the most ready-to-contribute as a playmaker because of his elite vision and ability to read and react. Check this play below in which he gets to the rim, goes around his back to dodge a hedge, then abruptly goes around his back again to deliver an on-time dime to a teammate for a wide-open lay-in.
Or this behind-the-back pass, in which he again splits two defenders to deliver a perfectly placed assist.
Ball is aided by some incredible ancillary personal assets. He has great positional size, he’s a capable ball-handler who keeps it on a string and he can control the pace as he sees fit. And all of that put together builds up his capacity to read the floor better than any other guard in this class.
Onyeka Okongwu’s defense
I’m a huge Okongwu fan because of his well-rounded game on both ends of the floor, but it’s his defense I’ll choose to sing praises of here. At USC, he played a lot of drop coverage in pick-and-roll defense, but he moves very well laterally and having him in drop didn’t do justice to his potential as a perimeter defender.
He’s not switchable 1-5, but he has good instincts, slides his feet well and has shot-blocking chops to top it off. He can drop off in coverage and recover, and he can recover with speed.
Okongwu ranked third among all power-conference freshmen in block rate, per KenPom data, while finishing fourth among Pac-12 freshmen in steal rate at 2.3%.
Obi Toppin’s rim-running
Not only did Toppin lead all of college basketball in the category of Most Fun to Watch, he also led all of college basketball in dunks with a whopping 107 of them. Here are the two I’ll remember most fondly.
Does dunking translate to the NBA, you ask? Is that his only asset? It does and it is not. He’s wildly efficient beyond just the slams. As a redshirt sophomore at Dayton, he shot 69.8% from 2-point range and also 39% from 3, making him one of only two players last season to reach those elusive benchmarks (among those who took 20 or more 2-point attempts).
Aaron Nesmith’s 3-point shot
Despite playing only 14 games before a season-ending injury, Nesmith took 115 3-pointers and made 52.2% (!!) of them while averaging 23.0 points per game. Here’s the list of players last season who shot 50% or better from 3 while taking at least 100 attempts from major conferences:
- Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt
And here’s the list of players since 2015 who have taken at least 100 3-point attempts in a season, made 50% or better, and played in one of the major conferences:
- Markus Howard, Marquette
- Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt
His quick release, deep range and ability to make shots on the move all bode well for his 3-point stroke translating seamlessly to the next level.
James Wiseman’s shot-blocking
Here is where I’ll emphasize in bold that Wiseman played only three college games and a total of 69 minutes. However, the analytics sure loved his brief blip at Memphis. In those games he recorded a 13.6% block rate — comparable to Anthony Davis’ freshman rate of 13.7%, Jaren Jackson’s 14.3% and a handful of others (which you can peruse through here via College Basketball Reference).
Again: it’s an extremely small sample size. But there’s no question he can defend the rim. He’s done it at the prep level and he did it at a high level in college, albeit for only a fleeting moment. He has great timing and anticipation and is a threat to swat shots playing on or off the ball.