Players compete at the 2019 NBA Draft Combine, which will not take place this year

24 Seconds With SI draft analyst Jeremy Woo

by Jim Eichenhofer

Ahead of what figures to be an unprecedented lead-up to the 2020 NBA Draft, caught up with Sports Illustrated staff writer and NBA draft analyst Jeremy Woo, to help us learn more about this year’s crop of prospects. New Orleans will learn where its first-round pick lands during Thursday’s draft lottery, scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on ESPN. The Pelicans have a 5.7 percent chance of moving somewhere in the top four, but also could wind up with the No. 13 or No. 14 selections, the latter if Memphis moves up to a top-four pick. New Orleans obviously hit the jackpot by winning the lottery in 2019, when there was a clear-cut, consensus top pick in Zion Williamson. How does this year’s top-tier talent compare in terms of potential or agreement on who should be the No. 1 pick or the first few selections?
Woo: Well, I’ll put it this way — 2019 was a much, much better year to pick atop the draft. Obviously, there was a clear No. 1 with Zion, and a second franchise-cornerstone type player in Ja Morant, both of whom were worth being excited about. I think most around the league would agree that there’s not a prospect of that caliber — where you look at them and see multiple time All-Star upside combined with a relatively safe floor. The sense I get is that due to the range of opinion and lack of a consensus top guy, which player goes No. 1 will largely hinge on which team has the pick. I would call Anthony Edwards (who I’ve had projected at 1 all season) the soft favorite, but it could be James Wiseman, and at this point I’d say Obi Toppin and LaMelo Ball are dark-horse candidates. The lottery order will be more of a determinant than it has in recent years, so there’s real intrigue despite the fact this is not the most captivating group of top prospects relative to past drafts. As much as the Pelicans would love to strike gold two years in a row and gain a top-four pick Thursday, if the 94 percent odds dictate that they pick near the end of the lottery, how optimistic should they be about the available talent in that middle portion of the 2020 first round?
Woo: From my perspective, the shape of the player pool should actually produce fairly good value for teams picking late in the lottery and on toward the early 20s — there’s not a ton separating most of the first-round prospects as far as talent is concerned. So the guy you take at 12 or 13 could have a case to go at 7 or 8, and the narrow gap between players tends to put a little extra emphasis on team fit when these decisions are being made. Sometimes it’s actually harder to be the team picking in front of the pack, because your decision tree is a little wider, and while you have the advantage of choice, there’s also some extra pressure not to screw it up. I thought the Pelicans did a good job grabbing Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker at 8 and 17 last year, and similarly, there should be players on the board at 13 who can help address some of their long-term needs. New Orleans also has multiple second-round picks coming in October. How would you rate the depth of this year’s draft class compared to most years?
Woo: I think you can always find ways to win the second round if you’re creative, and having multiple picks always helps. Because the gap in terms of quality isn’t insanely wide from say, 20 to 45, there will inevitably be some guys who fall in this draft and end up surprising and delivering value. Maybe someone you like slips and you try to combine your picks to move up, maybe you try to stash an international player, or maybe you have a sleeper who makes it to 39 and can just stay put. The lack of excitement around the industry with this draft stems more from the very top than anything else, and I always think the conversation about depth of a draft class is more relative than anything else. Is this draft deeper than last year’s or next year’s? Not necessarily. But if you can find a player in the 30s or 40s who you like as much if not more than someone who was drafted in the 20s, that’s what matters more. It’s been a bizarre year in a multitude of ways, including some very specific to this draft, such as there being no draft combine, and in-person workouts would seem to be difficult/impossible to conduct right now. How might the lack of workouts impact this draft? Do teams have to weigh in-game production more heavily, for example?
Woo: Yeah, I think it’s very much about the film now. Teams have less new information than ever before this year. It does sound like the combine will take place virtually, but that’s more about the medical component for teams. The virtual workouts only help to an extent and could actually hurt players’ stock at this point, so I’m skeptical that top prospects will participate. On one hand, I think you have to recognize that the combine and a lot of these individual workouts aren’t always meaningful inputs – a player’s individual growth and overall body of work should always matter more in theory than any skills they’re able to show dribbling against chairs or making wide-open shots. But I think smart teams have a feel for what’s useful and what isn’t in those situations. Teams are always diligent as far as background calls are concerned. So while the circumstances are different, it’s just going to be about adaptability and trusting what’s already on film. This is probably an impossible one to answer, but we’ll ask it anyway. Draft-wise, New Orleans will continue to reap the benefits of its June 2019 blockbuster trade with the Lakers in 2021. If there is no conventional college basketball season this winter, what could the major potential repercussions be for the draft in ’21?
Woo: It’s important to preface this noting that teams are fairly excited about the potential 2021 draft class already, and it’s expected to be deeper and feature more high-end talent than this year’s group. At this point, there have been limited opportunities for the team executives who actually make the draft decisions to get a feel for the 2021 class, and say what you want about college basketball aesthetically, but at least it’s a level that scouts are familiar with, which helps from an evaluative standpoint. Obviously, it will help all parties if games can actually take place next season — players can boost their individual profile, and teams can get a better understanding of who they are. That doesn’t mean it has to be a 30 or 40-game season to matter — any type of competitive platform at the college level is going to be useful. But if that doesn’t happen and the pre-draft process ends up being harder to navigate for another year, I think it just becomes about preparation and due diligence, given how hard it could be to actually get eyes on these prospects. Having the best information possible will be even more imperative. That being said, hopefully the landscape can return to some degree of normalcy by this time next year.

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