While the 2019 NBA draft had a clear hierarchy at the top -- with a supernatural force in Zion Williamson as the anchor, followed by an uber-athlete in Ja Morant and a versatile, consistent winner in RJ Barrett -- the 2020 NBA draft is flummoxing franchises projected to end up with high lottery picks.
NBA front-office executives have expressed quite a bit of early consternation because of the major questions surrounding this draft's top candidates.
Normally a team (and its fans) that suffers through the misery of a 20-win season can look forward to the salve of a top draft pick, considered among the most valuable assets in the NBA. With the flattened lottery odds, that's less likely, as we saw last year when the New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies jumped from the seventh- and eighth-worst records to drafting No. 1 and No. 2, respectively.
And even for the teams that do win the 2020 lottery, no prospect has emerged as a clear, reliable No. 1 pick. Plus, the talent in the top three relative to previous drafts is increasingly more difficult to discern.
While teams knew going into this season that the 2020 draft class might be lacking in proven, high-end talent, several circumstances have created even more mystery and anxiety around just how to evaluate this group.
What's going on with the top three prospects?
James Wiseman's departure
Wiseman's surprise decision to abandon his Memphis Tigers team midseason just as his NCAA-mandated suspension was nearing its end brought additional scrutiny about his perceived lack of competitiveness among NBA teams.
This has been a lingering concern for Wiseman, as he had already been prone in the past to pick and choose when to play and whether to operate at maximum intensity. That isn't ideal for a modern NBA big man who doesn't have proven shooting range or a means of creating offense consistently off the dribble.
At the moment, Wiseman's candidacy for the top pick consists of two impressive performances against overmatched opponents in South Carolina State and Illinois-Chicago, an inconsistent, foul-plagued showing against Oregon and a strong month on the high school all-star circuit last spring. That body of work leaves a lot to be desired, especially considering the concerns teams have about the ability of big men in his mold -- lacking elite defensive feel or money 3-point touch -- to affect an NBA game.
LaMelo Ball's unknowns
Ball rocketed to the top of some draft boards in the fall with his special combination of size, ballhandling, creativity and passing instincts. However, many skeptical teams did not make it a priority to scout his early-season National Basketball League games, and now a foot injury from early December could cause him to miss the rest of the season.
Most NBA decision-makers projected to be picking at the top of the 2020 draft never got a chance to evaluate Ball live in Australia, despite the early signs indicating he was more than worth their time, which in hindsight was a crucial mistake.
The fact that Ball has missed most of the NBL season because of injury -- something that has also been an issue for his brother, Lonzo, in the NBA -- won't do anything to quell the myriad concerns teams already had about him at the top of the draft. Along with his durability, the questions primarily stem from his reportedly erratic work ethic, potential distractions generated by his father, LaVar, and his glaring inconsistency with defense, perimeter shooting and general half-court scoring prowess.
Ball has clear No. 1 pick talent, but NBA teams still need a lot of convincing to feel comfortable that he has a good chance to realize his full potential.
Anthony Edwards' inconsistency
Edwards might gradually emerge as the consensus safest pick at the top of the draft, which is odd considering the Georgia guard has yet to put together a full game in which he is locked in from start to finish: operating at maximum intensity, making good decisions with the ball consistently and finding ways to use his tremendous tools to make an impact on both ends of the floor.
The theoretical version of Edwards at his peak -- a long-armed, hyperathletic, multipositional guard who can dribble, pass, shoot and defend -- is far more enticing at the moment than what he has actually shown.
To this point in the season, he has been plagued with inconsistency, passivity and inefficiency, but his extreme youth, less-than-ideal team situation and flashes of brilliance in small doses seemingly give him an edge. Those inconsistencies are not as worrisome to NBA executives as the major red flags his competitors for No. 1 carry.
Edwards still has quite a bit to prove over the next two months, but the door is wide open for him to emerge as the presumptive favorite.
Setbacks caused by a lack of scouting opportunities
Wiseman's abrupt desertion, combined with injuries to Ball and North Carolina guard Cole Anthony, have brought to the forefront a long-bubbling conversation in scouting circles pertaining to the NBA's self-imposed handicaps for evaluating future draft picks.
Outside of a handful of camps and all-star settings -- such as the McDonald's All American Game, the Nike Hoop Summit, the National Basketball Players Association Top 100 camp and the USA Basketball junior national team minicamp -- NBA scouts are restricted in their exposure to top high school talent before those prospects enroll in college. Scouts aren't allowed to watch elite prospects in their most natural settings (high school and AAU games), as the 2005 age limit intentionally restricted NBA scouts' ability to travel to games for youth prospects over a year away from draft eligibility.
More and more, NBA teams are asking why these outdated rules -- which are rife with confusion regarding who can and can't be scouted -- are still in place. Many expect a push to come soon that will allow scouts to return to high school gyms, even without the one-and-done rule going away.
Since the age limit was instituted, there have been numerous examples of players being drafted despite playing only a handful of college games -- or none at all, in the case of Darius Bazley and Mitchell Robinson. Injuries to the likes of Kyrie Irving and Darius Garland showed young prospects that the NBA isn't afraid to pick players in the top five even if they've played only a fraction of a season. The extreme case of Dante Exum, in which the Australian sat out an entire season to protect the draft stock he built up at the FIBA level and was nevertheless picked in the top five, showed the benefits of withholding scouting opportunities.
Now, more prospects feel that there's no need to risk injury or poor play knowing that the NBA has rarely shied away from selecting players due to limited information if there's intriguing upside attached.
From a basketball development standpoint, there's a strong case to be made that top prospects considering this strategy might very well be costing themselves the valuable experience of playing in big games, participating in practices, engaging in film sessions, undergoing skill-development training and handling legitimate feedback through the ups and downs of an actual season. It's one thing to be drafted high in the lottery, but it's another altogether to be ready to compete and excel in the NBA.
There's a real chance that none of the top seven players currently in our top 100 NBA draft rankings ends up playing a single NCAA tournament game. The entire top half of the lottery not playing in the tourney would be unprecedented in draft history, further costing NBA teams opportunities to evaluate prospects in high-stakes situations.
A number of scouts are concerned that the lowering of the age limit back down to 18 could cause elite prospects to take the drastic step of skipping their senior years of high school altogether, which would lead to further confusion in player evaluation. So it's no surprise that the chatter around one-and-done going away has screeched to a halt, as executives have encouraged their owners to tell NBA commissioner Adam Silver how opposed they are to making draft decisions on high schoolers yet again.
How this uncertainty could change the draft These questions and the general lack of enthusiasm surrounding this group of draft prospects might cause teams to prioritize older, more proven players on draft night -- guys who spent multiple years in college and ultimately emerged as All-Americans.
It's not lost on teams that some of the biggest draft misses of the past few years were upperclassmen who were undervalued due to a perceived lack of upside, which might lead to a market correction. We began to see that last year, when many young players -- such as Bol Bol, Talen Horton-Tucker, Jalen Lecque and Luguentz Dort -- dropped deep into the second round or went undrafted altogether, as older players -- such as Cameron Johnson, Grant Williams and Dylan Windler -- took their spots in the first round.
The lack of hierarchy in the draft also might make for a different type of pre-draft process, where players are forced to conduct more workouts for larger draft ranges, putting themselves in competitive situations to prove they are worthy of selection by the most coveted destinations.
What will this all mean on draft night? With teams likely to have wildly different player rankings, we could be looking at some real chaos as it pertains to projecting how the draft unfolds and how players get real information about their draft stock, as well as potentially a flurry of trades as some teams scramble to get off of picks and others target prospects they value more than others.
Add in the fact that the 2020 NBA free-agent class is shaping up to be fairly underwhelming, and there's a sense among teams right now that there simply aren't as many avenues as usual to improve via trades, the draft or the open market, which could lead to some boom-or-bust moves.