There’s never been a class like the one up for grabs in the 2020 NBA Draft on Wednesday night: Teams have never had more time to prepare, but they’ve never had less to work with.
Workouts and interviews have largely been conducted through Zoom instead of gyms. March Madness was canceled, denying scouts and executives one of the most critical evaluation periods for incoming talent. With conditions for next season in flux – most teams playing without fans and the likelihood of atypical travel schedules – teams have less certainty than ever about the prospects they’re considering and how they might perform.
The most coveted prospects in the draft have some of the least available film. While most of the basketball world is well acquainted with the family of 6-foot-6 guard LaMelo Ball, the youngest of the three SoCal brothers only played 12 games in Australia for the Illawarra Hawks last year. James Wiseman played just three games for Memphis before the 7-foot-1 center was hamstrung by NCAA rules and decided to pass on the rest of the season. Both are expected to be among the top three picks.
That’s the kind of mystery that shrouds this process – one in which NBA executives have reasons to feel the most prepared yet also the least confident when the draft begins at 4 p.m. PST from a studio in Bristol, Conn.
“For us, this is not a decision for one night – this is a multi-year decision,” Minnesota Timberwolves president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas said on ESPN’s “The Jump” on Tuesday. “That takes a lot of diligence. That takes a lot of time. We’ve been fortunate during this pandemic that we’ve had more than enough time to make this decision.”
Prognosticators largely observe there is no “sure thing” at the top of this draft, no one in the mold of MVP-level stars such as Anthony Davis or Luka Doncic. Even the best ones – generally regarded as Ball, Wiseman and Georgia’s Anthony Edwards – have glaring on-court weaknesses. Further down the line, there are plenty of prospects who traditional evaluation methods would judge as hit-or-miss.
But for players such as Obi Toppin, a Dayton big man who has been a rapid riser in the draft process, the extra five months have been occupied by weight room sessions and on-the-court workouts. He spent his offseason in New Jersey playing pick-up games with NBA players, which he says has provided valuable feedback and vaulted his confidence for when he finally plays in an NBA game.
“I feel like I’m more prepared and mentally prepared for when the time comes,” Toppin said recently. “When I’m on the court and that jump ball goes up, I feel like I’ve been waiting so long, it’s gonna be an amazing feeling.”
But since a Monday start to a wild trade season that has already seen significant shifts among NBA contenders, it’s also reasonable to think that 2020 draft picks might continue to fly around as trade capital. The Lakers got a start on that Sunday, agreeing in principle to trade their No. 28 pick and veteran Danny Green for Dennis Schröder (the trade won’t be complete until the Lakers make the pick on behalf of Oklahoma City on draft night). The Houston Rockets traded away Robert Covington to Portland for a chance to get back in the draft at No. 16.
What key decision-makers really think of this draft class will start coming to light early – particularly among teams with high draft picks that expect to be competitive this season. The Golden State Warriors stand out in particular among those, possessing the No. 2 overall pick after a miserable, injury-ridden 2019-20 season.
Now with a healthy Steph Curry and Klay Thompson back in the lineup, the Warriors must closely weigh whether one of the projected top picks can help their goal of resuming title contention, or if they choose to trade back. Wiseman is commonly linked to them at No. 2 to help fill a void in the frontcourt, but only the Warriors know if they think the former top-rated high school prospect can help them get back to the Finals.
What Minnesota does with the No. 1 pick also could be instructive, with All-Stars Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell looking for a third star to help propel the franchise back into the playoffs. Rosas declined to tip his hand on the draft, saying he was open to drafting top-of-the-draft players with overlapping talents, but also open to conversations about trading the pick. His boards, he said, are “set” – all that remains is seeing which scenarios play out.
There will be no red carpet treatment in New York for the NBA’s best prospects this year, and jersey presentations will be digital rather than on a stage with Commissioner Adam Silver. It’s not quite the moment he dreamed of, Iowa State’s Tyrese Haliburton acknowledged, but he said it’s still a dream come true, by 2020 standards.
“Obviously it’s a different time, but none of us guys know any better,” Haliburton said. “We’re just ready for what’s thrown at us, and we don’t really have a choice but to be ready.”