NBA Draft: Three Wings Who Could Be Late Lottery Steals

Posted: 05/11/2017 by levcohen in Basketball, Draft

The NBA Draft Lottery is next week, which means that the draft itself is not too far away. It’s time to start taking a deep dive into the prospects. For years, this draft class has been deemed the best in recent memory, lauded as perhaps being level talent-wise with the amazing 2003 draft (LeBron, Melo, Wade, Bosh, a ton of good role players). I don’t think it’s that great at the top, but I do agree that it’s deeper than recent drafts have been. Guys who will probably be late lottery picks this year might have gone in the top-10 last year. In particular, I’m thinking about three wings: OG Anunoby, Jonathan Isaac, and Justin Jackson. I was going to start off my draft preview by breaking down the loaded crop of point guards (five point guards will almost certainly go in the lottery, and maybe in the top-10). Instead, I’m going to take a look at the three guys I just mentioned. Not only are they evidence of the depth of this draft class, but Anunoby, Isaac, and Jackson also play at a position that’s quickly become the most coveted and toughest to find — small forward or, more accurately, wing. If you’ve been watching the NBA playoffs, you know how much wings are tasked with. If they’re good enough defensively, they have to guard the opponent’s best player from the outset, because they are the position which generally best combines size and speed, both of which are needed in spades to have any hope of slowing down LeBron, Harden, Kawhi, or Durant, to name a few. And even if they aren’t defensive stoppers, wings regularly find themselves in difficult positions because they’re the guys who do most of the switching. I can imagine how tough it would be to be a wing defender against the Warriors or Cavs. Not only do you have to play impeccable on-ball defense, but you’re also put through endless screens and switches, endless cuts, and endless off-ball screens. And even if you do everything right, there’s still a 50-50 chance you’ll get called for a ticky-tack foul. That’s just the defensive side of the ball.

The hottest commodity in the NBA right now — besides superstar players, because duh — is 3-and-D wings. The “D” part is obvious — I just outlined how much wings have to do on the defensive end of the ball because they’re usually the most malleable players on the court. Offensively, most of the onus has been placed on point guards, who generally slack off on the defensive end of the ball. All wings have to do is hit threes to be considered valuable offensive contributors. The name of the modern game is floor spacing, and the more potent three point threats a team has, the easier it is to drive-and-kick or just drive-and-finish. Just watch the Rockets play. Of course, it’s a huge bonus for wings to be able to do more than just shoot the three and play defense. That’s how you go from being a valuable starter to being Jimmy Butler, Paul George, or Gordon Hayward, all of whom are just a notch below the league’s elite wings. But guys like Robert Covington are enormously valuable, because it’s surprisingly hard to find 3-and-D players. So which of Isaac, Anunoby, and Jackson has the best chance of being a 3-and-D guy? Which of the three has the best chance to grow into an offensive fulcrum? Let’s find out.

I watched a lot of Florida State basketball last year, and sometimes I forgot that Jonathan Isaac was even on the court. I’ll say this right away: if you want a wing who can consistently get his own bucket, you’ll fall in love with Jayson Tatum (who I’ll write about in a different post). You won’t like Isaac. I do like Isaac, and I’m liking him more after watching playoff basketball and seeing the direction that the league is going in. Isaac is 6’11” and has a 7’1″ wingspan. He’s really thin right now, but in a few years I can absolutely see him being a small-ball center. He’s also a really fluid athlete who eats up opposing wings. A lot of big, athletic wings are said to have huge defensive potential, but few of them ever pan out. The biggest reason for that is a lack of foot speed that keeps wings from keeping up laterally with quick perimeter players. Isaac does not have this problem. His foot speed is probably his biggest selling point. It is unbelievably valuable to have a guy who can easily guard four positions, switch ball screens, and disrupt pick-and-rolls. I think Isaac can be one of the league’s premier wing defenders, a rare 6’11” forward who is quick enough to guard wings. A lot of this is based on his tools, but Isaac also produced really good defensive numbers last year. Playing 26.2 minutes per game, Isaac averaged 1.2 steals and 1.5 blocks per game. He was the best defensive player on an overachieving Florida State defense. He also showed a willingness and ability to sky for rebounds despite his lack of brawn — he gobbled up 25% of available defensive rebounds when on the court, a good rate for a power forward, let alone a small forward. He’s going to be a solid NBA defender right away. His defensive potential is through the roof.

Offensively, Isaac’s potential is a lot lower. He’s not exactly a ball-stopper, but he’s pretty uncreative with the ball in his hands. He averaged more turnovers than assists, and he doesn’t have the bucket-making ability to fully make up for that, as he pulls up from midrange way more often than he takes it to the hoop. This can all be corrected, but he dribbles too much sometimes and often doesn’t look like he knows what he’s doing on the offensive side. The one thing Isaac really has going for him is his shooting stroke. He was inconsistent from three in his lone year at Florida State, and ended up shooting just 35% from three. But he’s got good shot mechanics and hit 78% of his free throws, which probably means he’ll grow into a better NBA three point shooter. College three point percentages don’t mean everything. Josh Jackson (easily my favorite wing in the draft, but that’s another post) shot 38% from three, but Isaac’s a much better bet to hit on his long range shots in the NBA.

Is Isaac ever going to be a first or second offensive option? Probably not, no. He can definitely get more polished offensively, but it’s rare that this type of player blossoms into a go-to scorer. Of course, this is why he’s not in consideration for the #1 pick. At his best, Isaac could be the ultimate 3-and-D guy, a 38% three point shooter who regularly destroys opponents’ sets. Some team’s going to see that and take him in the lottery. I think he’s worth a top-7 pick, simply because his floor is so much higher than, say, Dennis Smith’s.

OG Anunoby has a different body type than Jonathan Isaac, but he has the same type of game and upside. He’s a young sophomore, as he’s not yet 20-years-old and is just a few months older than Isaac. He also tore his ACL in January and played just 13.7 minutes per game as a freshman. Development-wise, it’s safe to treat him as a freshman. Whereas Isaac is a spindly 6’11”, 205 pounds, Anunoby is a stout 6’8″, 215. His wingspan is a reported 7’6″. He looks like the prototypical lockdown wing defender, and he plays like it too. Indiana was solid defensively when Anunoby was on the court, which is how they were able to win games against North Carolina and Kansas. They were horrific after he got injured, which is why they finished 18-16 (5-9 in his absence) and got nowhere near the NCAA tournament. Even last year, Anunoby showed an ability to quiet NBA-caliber wings. He shut down Jamal Murray in the NCAA tournament, holding him to 16 points on 18 shots and spurring Indiana’s win over Kentucky. We’ve seen this type of defensive prospect before. When he’s dialed in, he’s the prototypical defensive stopper. Unfortunately, he takes more plays off than you would like from someone who should be bringing toughness and scrappiness to the table. That may seem correctable, but I’ve been burned in the past for assuming that a player’s focus will automatically be improved in the NBA. For a player with so little offensive upside, the lack of consistent defensive effort is a red flag.

Isaac is a better offensive prospect than OG, whose shot is a mess. He shot 31% from three and 56% from the line this year, and he’s really bad when his shot is contested. His shot doesn’t look Andre Roberson-bad, but it’s bad enough at this point that defenses will readily sag off of him. The shot, of course, is the X-factor, as it so often is. We know how important it is to have wings who can at least shoot enough to draw a defender out of the paint. Anunoby’s threes don’t look pretty (they’re line drives), but I don’t think it’s completely broken, so there’s room for growth there. He’d better become an average three point shooter, because he doesn’t have much else to offer offensively. On a fastbreak, when Anunoby is running at a defender with a head of steam, OG is tough to stop. When the defense falls asleep and OG glides in for a dunk, he’s tough to stop. In all other situations, he’s not a very good offensive player. His handle is much worse than Isaac’s, as is his midrange game. He’s even rawer offensively than Isaac, and his shot is years behind.

We’ve seen this type of prospect so many times. Oodles of defensive potential. No off-the-dribble game. A shaky shot. This type of prospect so rarely pans out, so I’d be hesitant to draft Anunoby. I think the most likely scenario is that he’s a bench player who contributes a valuable 15-20 minutes as a defensive stopper (think Jerami Grant). OG fans will bring up Kawhi Leonard, and I can see why: they are similar physically and have the same type of defensive ability. But Leonard’s transformation from a bad college offensive player to an MVP-caliber finisher and creator is very, very rare.

Justin Jackson is the guy everyone’s most familiar with of the three, for obvious reasons. He was a three year starter for a team that made two straight title games, winning this year. He was a first team All-American and the ACC Player of the Year. You probably know him for his feathery floater, which always seems to go in. He turned into a plus (37%) three point shooter this year, and he was a high volume three point shooter (7.1 attempts per game). Jackson has a super quick release and transformed his shot mechanics during his time at Chapel Hill. Just as importantly, he also has great offensive instincts, which is what truly differentiates him from Anunoby and Isaac. He became a facilitator in the NCAA tournament, averaging 3.7 assists per game as he had the ball in his hands more and more often with point guard Joel Berry hobbled. With all of that said, Jackson still certainly has offensive warts. I hate it when people criticize a player for not being able to score as well against size and length, because I feel like that’s true of every single player. But it’s definitely a more pronounced difference for some, and I think Jackson is one of those guys. His worst games of the year came when the opponent was able to get physical, which makes sense given that Jackson is not off-the-charts athletically and is a very skinny 6’8″ (193 pounds). He’s not an explosive player, which will probably keep him from ever being a go-to threat at the next level. It’s also worth noting that Jackson is probably getting a little overhyped because of the team he was on. His stats this year (18 points per game on 44/37/75% shooting) were good, but it’s not like he was putting up 25 points per game or consistently finishing in traffic. The fact that he’s already 22-years-old also doesn’t help. But make no mistake about it: Jackson has the chance to be a very good secondary creator, with the ability to shoot from three or put home that beautiful floater and the court vision to find the open man.

I was really impressed with Jackson’s defense in North Carolina’s final three tournament games. I didn’t focus much on Jackson’s defense before the tournament, so I can’t say if he was doing this all year, but he shut down Malik Monk (12 points) and Tyler Dorsey (3-11 from the field) and was instrumental in holding Gonzaga’s Nigel Williams-Goss to a 5-17 shooting performance. In those three games, Jackson looked like a shutdown defender. This should all be taken with a grain of salt. Jackson has a 6’11” wingspan and is way bigger than Monk (6’4″, 6’3.5″ wingspan), Dorsey (6’4″, 6’3″), and Williams-Goss (6’4″, 6’6″). He should be shutting down those guys. But I was impressed by Jackson’s lateral quickness and his defensive fluidity. In the NBA, I don’t think he’ll be strong enough to bang with power forwards or quick enough to slow down the league’s great wings. But I had assumed he’d be a total defensive liability, and now I think there’s a chance he’s a solid defender in the NBA.

Jackson certainly has the intangibles going for him. He’s a smart, unselfish player who rarely makes rushed or bad decisions. That alone makes Jackson an easy fit in the NBA. But intangibles alone don’t get you drafted in the lottery. The reason the draft’s second best J. Jackson deserves to go in the lottery is that he’s a really solid all-around player. I think he’s a really projectable player, a guy who’ll probably be best suited to be a sparkplug off the bench. He’s not a good pick for a team looking to hit a grand slam, but he fits in relatively well to the evolving NBA and will slot in as a valuable piece for the team that drafts him in the middle of the first round.

Here’s how I’d rank the three:

Jonathan Isaac
Justin Jackson
OG Anunoby

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