We’re now hours away from the 2020 draft. What an odyssey.
Big men who can’t contribute away from the basket, either on offense or on defense, have been devalued over these last few years but there is still a place for players who can make a real impact near the goal, either in the form of rim protection or vertical spacing, and the top of this class offers prospects with quite a bit of potential in those areas.
Introduced below are the top five big men, based on ESPN’s top 100, headlined by James Wiseman, who has been on NBA radars for years but who mostly sat out last season, which makes it challenging to properly assess his most recent development.
The list skips cult hero Aleksej Pokusevski, listed as a big man by most due to his seven-foot height, but who I’m inclined to think might be more of a wing prospect in the near future before his thin frame fills out, and also because I just couldn’t find enough video of his minutes in the Greek second division to write intelligently about his most recent development.
The stats cited in this post were researched at our own stats’ database, hoop-math, barttorvik.com and NBA.com/stats/.
James Wiseman (3rd on ESPN’s top 100)
Wiseman logged just 69 minutes in his time at Memphis, so teams are mostly evaluating him based on his performance with Memphis East High School and Bluff City Legends in the Nike EYBL circuit.
At lower levels, the center, who measured at six-foot-11 without shoes at the Memphis Pro Day one year ago, had the freedom to space out to the three-point line regularly and showed the ambition to try developing into a face-up driver.
Wiseman didn’t show anything particularly special operating off the bounce, though. He doesn’t have a quick first step out of a standstill and couldn’t often power through contact against similar-sized players. He pivoted into a not-all-that-fluid spin move on the fly and tried to go between the legs on occasion but didn’t have that level of ball skills for advanced dribble moves by that point. He had a loose handle for the most part and wasn’t strong with the ball on the go – prone to getting it stripped of him in traffic.
His brief cup of the coffee in the NCAA signals that as he moves up through the levels, Wiseman is more likely to settle into a conventional finisher who could space out to three-point line on occasion.
The 19-year-old can play above the rim as a target for lobs sneaking behind the defense, but it is unclear how explosive he can be diving down the lane in traffic. He has, however, flashed some impressive coordination catching the ball on the move and keeping it high while loading up to go up with force in a crowd.
When forced to act as a rim-level finisher, Wiseman hasn’t yet shown particularly noteworthy versatility to his finishing but did fine with his touch on non-dunk scores – converting 17 of his 19 shots at the rim.
He got a bunch of touches in the post and proved himself capable of overwhelming smaller competition with his sheer size, often able to set deep seals close to the basket and rarely crowded effectively, turning the ball over just three times total across his three appearances – a good mark considering his high 27.8% usage rate over his 23 minutes per game.
But Wiseman hasn’t yet developed the sort of skill needed for him to be expected to develop into a shot creator, for himself or others, against competition that can match up his size and physicality.
There were flashes of court vision throwing darts to the opposite corner over the crowd in high school but not as much in college, as he recorded a single assist during his time in the NCAA.
But the team that ends up drafting him in the top five will do so hoping he’ll develop into a difference maker who completely shuts down the rim on defense.
Albeit against lower level competition, Wiseman was very effective near the basket in college.
He was active not just coming off the weak-side on longer rotations and stepping up to the front of the basket as the last line of defense but also shadowing post-ups to intervene at the last second and showing glimpses of being able to play center fielder making preventive rotations that deny the opponent space towards driving all the away to the basket.
Though prone to biting on shot fakes, Wiseman averaged just 2.9 personal fouls per 40 minutes, while consistently looking to make plays on the ball. He averaged 5.2 blocks per 40 minutes over his three appearances and made an impact in the hidden areas of the game as well, by actively challenging shots via verticality and guarding with his arms up near the rim to discourage an opponent from even attempting to finish over him on occasion.
Perhaps more impressively, Wiseman often showed the combination of quickness and effort needed on multiple effort plays, able to cut off a drive and force a drop-off then turnaround to contest his man at the dunker spot effectively.
His work in pick-and-roll defense was more of a mixed bag.
Though those three games didn’t exactly offer a substantial video sample, we were able to see Wiseman stressed in pick-and-roll coverage and Memphis asking him to defend it in a couple of different ways.
Against South Carolina State, Wiseman was asked to go up to the foul line and drop back to prioritize protecting the paint. He was seen approaching the ball handler in a stance, which was an improvement over his more lackadaisical approach during the high school All-Start circuit.
Wiseman got beat foul line down by the ballhandler here and there but flashed a fast-twitch reaction recovering to block the dribble driver from behind on one instance. The hustle was impressive but in the NBA that driver tends to get to the rim before the shot blocker can get to him.
He was stretched a little more in the next two games; flipping between show-and-recover and hedging, under both strategies working to make himself a presence at the three-point line.
Wiseman proved capable of influencing the ballhandler and cutting off access to the other side of the floor with his hedges, though his quickness in recovering back to his man left something to be desired.
His work on show-and-recover seemed more effective. He hasn’t yet developed a knack for leveraging his length into shutting down passing lanes (one steal in 69 minutes) but showed to be well-coordinated sliding laterally to prevent the ball handler from turning the corner right away off the pick a fair amount and put in the effort to contest pull-up three-pointers.
Wiseman doesn’t figure to be an option to pick up smaller players on switches on the regular or check stretch big men in the pick-and-pop.
Full scouting report: https://basketball.realgm.com/analysis/258596/Prospect-Report-James-Wiseman-Of-Memphis
Onyeka Okongwu (5th)
Okongwu was a key cog on that 15-16 Chino Hills squad that swept the nation and was profiled by The New York Times at one point.
But as the Ball brothers departed and the team became less prominent, most people didn’t keep track of Okongwu’s development and, although he did arrive at Southern California as the 20th-ranked prospect in the 2019 high school class, there wasn’t a lot of expectation he would end up a one-and-done.
But 858 NCAA minutes were enough for the six-foot-nine center to not only get back to NBA radars but establish himself as a top 10 prospect as well.
He is widely viewed as the better developed on defense of the higher profile big men in this draft class and the team that picks him will be hoping he is able to elevate the level of its rim protection the second he sets foot on an NBA court.
Okongwu impressed with his activity stepping up to the front of the rim as the last line of defense, coming off the weakside in help defense, rotating in to pick up the roll man when he was not directly involved in the pick-and-roll and shadowing isolations to intervene when a teammate got beat.
He is a quick leaper off two feet and a fairly explosive leaper off one foot coming across the lane on longer rotations, capable of acting as a regular threat to block shots in volume or challenging them via verticality effectively.
The soon-to-be 20-year-old averaged 3.5 blocks per 40 minutes last season and ranked 20th in the NCAA in block percentage. As a star rim protector in college, he elevated the level of the defense around him – averaging 30.8 minutes per game for a team that ranked 25th in the country in opponents’ shooting percentage at the rim.
He also managed to make such an impact without putting himself in constant foul trouble, as he averaged just 3.5 personal fouls per 40 minutes.
In pick-and-roll, Okongwu was at his most capable going a step or so beyond the foul line and dropping back to prioritize cutting off dribble penetration.
He is a little hit-and-miss in terms of bending his knees to get down in a stance approaching the ballhandler but impressed with his smoothness and coordination sliding sideways and backpedaling in order to prevent the opponent from turning the corner or getting downhill right away off the pick.
Okongwu can keep pace with smaller players on a straight line from the foul line down and block a shot on the ball or discourage the attempt altogether. He’s shown to be pretty savvy leveraging his length into batting away lobs on occasion and getting his hands into pocket passes, with a few of his 34 steals in 28 appearances materializing in these plays.
Okongwu hasn’t yet proven himself capable of offering versatility in pick-and-roll coverage, in terms of blitzing way high on the perimeter or closing out to stretch big men in the pick-and-pop.
When he picked up smaller players on switches, Okongwu seemed to prefer staying flat-footed while defending out on an island. He didn’t show particularly impressive side-to-side quickness to stay in front of shiftier types regularly and doesn’t leverage his strength into containing dribble penetration through contact, though he does manage to stay attached on a straight line pretty well against guards who only go north-and-south and also showed some hustle to recover and try to block a shot from behind when he got shook or beat on the first step.
There is also some skepticism surrounding his defensive rebounding. He’s shown only so-so diligence to his boxout responsibilities and not particularly impressive quickness reacting to the ball off the rim – collecting 18.5% of opponents’ misses when he was on the floor. His average of 7.0 defensive rebounds per 40 minutes ranks 24th among 35 big men on ESPN’s top 100.
On the other end, the Chino Hills native profiles as a finisher.
Okongwu is an explosive leaper off two feet to play above the rim as a target for lobs sneaking behind the defense and has flashed the ability to go up strong without needing to load up, which suggests he might also be a threat to throw down lobs going up in a crowd in the middle of the lane.
He struggled some on non-dunk finishes when the lob was poorly tossed and he had to adjust his body in the air but generally showed soft touch around the basket when he got to go up and down – converting his 125 non-dunk finishes at the rim at a solid 61.6% clip.
His coordination also shined through in instances where he needed to catch the ball around the foul line, take a dribble to balance himself and gallop into a two-foot leap in traffic. Okongwu also flashed some appealing court vision on quick kickouts out of the short roll here and there.
He was also an impact player creating second chance opportunities in the offensive glass. His average of 4.3 offensive rebounds per 40 minutes is tied for the 10th-best mark among the big men on ESPN’s top 100.
Besides acting as a regular scoring threat on tip-ins and tip-dunks, his second jump is quick, and he can gather and go back up with power, even if surrounded – converting his 45 putback attempts at an 73.3% clip.
Full scouting report: https://basketball.realgm.com/analysis/257699/Prospect-Report-Onyeka-Okongwu-Of-USC
Obi Toppin (6th)
This a draft filled with unexpected rises to prominence, but Toppin’s is probably the most incredible.
247Sports ranked 558 players graduating out of high school in the 2017 and Toppin was not one of them. Three years later, he is likely to end up a lottery pick after two years at Dayton.
This past season, the six-foot-nine finisher was arguably the most prolific scorer in college basketball – averaging 25.3 points per 40 minutes on 68.4% true shooting and 28% usage, leading Dayton to 29 wins in 31 games, and winning Wooden Award and Naismith College Player of the Year honors as a result.
Toppin exceled as a threat to score around the basket – converting 82.8% of his 203 shots at the rim, with two thirds of his makes assisted.
Though he is mostly an up-and-down leaper who didn’t often show particularly impressive flexibility hanging and adjusting his body in the air or a diverse arsenal of finishes around rim protectors, the 22-year-old can score with either hand around the goal on non-dunk finishes and finish through contact – converting 69.3% of his 88 layups.
He is a good screener who looks to draw contact and disrupt the on-ball defender and even flashed some savviness setting some moving picks. On the roll, Toppin can play above the rim as a target for lobs sneaking behind the defense on longer rolls and even flashed some noteworthy explosiveness rising in a crowd down the lane without needing to load up to go up with power. His total of 107 dunks is the best-mark on ESPN’s top 100.
What sets him apart from other play-finishers is that Toppin is a threat from beyond the arc as well. He nailed 39% of his 82 three-point shots this past season, though at a pace of just 3.3 such attempts per 40 minutes. He finishes his collegiate career nailing 41% of his 103 three-point shots over his two years in the NCAA, though at a pace of just 2.2 such attempts per 40 minutes.
Besides basic spot-ups, Toppin has proven himself able to take long-range bombs off the pick-and-pop and relocating off an offensive rebound too.
He was good post scorer in college but a large chunk of it was based on his ability to overwhelm younger, less physically developed, outmatched competition. It seems unlikely to translate to the pros.
But the biggest concerns regarding his translation to the NBA surround his defense.
When Dayton asked him to venture far beyond the foul line and show hard at the three-point line, Toppin was at times lackadaisical in his approach to the ballhandler and would even overplay the level of the screen, giving up the side of the rejection of the pick completely and rarely being able to get back into the play once the ballhandler got downhill.
In more conservative drop-back coverage, going up no more than a step beyond the foul line, he didn’t prove capable of making a substantial contribution either. Toppin rarely contested pull-up jumpers effectively and, though he was able to keep pace with ball handlers on a straight-line foul line down, he was not much of a threat to block shots defending on the ball.
But perhaps more troubling for his pro prospects, Toppin didn’t prove himself quick enough to guard both the ballhandler and keep the roll man from getting behind him or to shut down pocket passes and bat away lobs, which limits his team’s ability to defend the pick-and-roll two-on-two, which is what the NBA is looking for these days. Especially considering he didn’t show enough footspeed to stop the ball and hustle to contest stretch big men in the pick-and-pop either.
If you can’t guard the pick-and-roll two-on-two and limit help as much as you can, what NBA teams prefer to do then is switch and Toppin also doesn’t figure to be an asset for that strategy either.
As a help defender, he can rotate and block a shot from time-to-time but has shown only so-so proactivity and quickness coming across the lane in help defense on longer rotations. Keeping a hunched posture off ball, he looked to have heavier feet moving off the ball than I remember seeing from him as a freshman or even that you usually see from him on offense.
Toppin didn’t make much of an impact in the hidden areas of the game either, as you don’t often see him shadowing isolations to intervene at the last second when a teammate gets beat or making preventive rotations that cut off a driver’s path to the basket. He is actually quite detrimental in one of the hidden areas, as he’s often blown by on closeouts and exposes the defense behind him.
Full scouting report: https://basketball.realgm.com/analysis/258020/Prospect-Report-Obi-Toppin-Of-Dayton
Precious Achiuwa (12th)
Achiuwa was the biggest beneficiary of Wiseman’s decision to leave Memphis after just three appearances.
With the six-foot-11 center gone, he got to play closer to the rim on both ends and compiled strong numbers as a finisher, rebounder and shot blocker.
A closer look reveals a prospect who is underdeveloped in terms of skill and technique, though.
The six-foot-seven big man has shown to be attentive to his responsibilities stepping up to the front of the rim as the last line of defense, as well as an easy leaper off two feet and adept at leveraging his nine-foot standing reach to challenge shots above the rim.
Perhaps more impressively, he also flashed some promising recognition skills helping against backdoor cuts and making preventive rotations that denied the ball-handler space towards driving all the way to the rim.
He’s also shown to be active rotating off the weakside to pick up the roll man and a quick enough leaper to make plays on the ball off quick sprints to the basket – averaging 2.5 blocks per 40 minutes last season.
Achiuwa is not yet as effective a rim protector as he could be because it’s not uncommon to see him trying to meet the ball-handler at the summit with odd angles. He has a habit of not turning his body towards the opponent completely, thus unable to position himself perfectly between the opponent and the goal.
He is also prone to biting on shot fakes, although he managed to stay out of foul trouble in his one year at Memphis – averaging 3.1 personal fouls per 40 minutes.
In pick-and-roll, Achiuwa was most commonly asked to show-and-recover while extending a couple of steps above the foul line. He was regularly seen approaching the ball handler flat-footed, didn’t stand out in terms of being able to stop the ball while keeping track of the roll man behind him and had some iffy moments where he got completely turned around out in space.
In more basic north-and-south actions, Achiuwa puts in the effort to contest pull-ups and his nine-foot standing reach is an asset in mid-range. He also impressed with his hustle defending the pick-and-pop, able to cover some ground in a pinch and contest the catch-and-shoot attempt effectively.
Given the fact he was more of a perimeter player in his one year at Montverde Academy, there is hope he could pick up smaller players on switches regularly but his time at Memphis was discouraging.
He didn’t hold up as well in college as he had in high school, exchanging into the ballhandler flat-footed and then getting into a soft stance, too spacey to be effective. He has a few lateral slides in him to stay attached to less threatening types who can only go north-and-south without much speed but without locking in, Achiuwa can’t be trusted to switch onto a shiftier type who can shake him side-to-side. He was also not a good option to crossmatch onto perimeter players regularly, even other wing-sized players, due to his inability to get over a screen.
On offense, the Port Harcourt, Nigeria native acted primarily as a threat to finish near the goal at Memphis.
His hands catching the ball on the move proved to be only so-so but Achiuwa proved capable of going up explosively off two feet without needing to load up and play above the rim as a target for lobs, not just sneaking behind the defense on longer rolls and out of the dunker spot but diving down the middle of the lane in a crowd too.
With Lance Thomas and Isaiah Maurice spacing the floor, he was able to live near the basket once Wiseman departed – taking 62.6% of his live-ball attempts within close range and being assisted or finishing putbacks on 79% of his makes there.
Achiuwa showed glimpses of versatility to his finishing package at the basket with reverses, using his length to over-extend, going to his left hand reasonably comfortably and being able to finish through contact. But his touch on non-dunk finishes left a lot to be desired.
His 148 makes at the rim rank fifth among NCAA prospects listed on ESPN’s top 100 and his 64.1% shooting on 231 total attempts at the basket looks solid on the surface but subtracting his 47-for-52 shooting on dunks results in Achiuwa shooting just 56.4% on 179 layups.
Achiuwa has shown a two-dribble stop-and-pop pull-up off immediately attacking the pass when he spaced out to the three-point line and it looks sweet if he’s allowed to go into this pre-arranged choreography unbothered but other than that, Achiuwa struggled badly away from the immediate basket area – missing 75.4% of his 138 shots away from the rim.
He spaced out to the three-point line from time-to-time but far less than he showed the ambition to do in his time at Montverde, averaging just 1.7 three-point shots per 40 minutes in his one year at Memphis.
Achiuwa hit just 32.5% of his 40 three-point shots this past season, as well as just 59.9% of his 187 foul shots, putting into question if he even has the touch in place for a projectable jump-shooting stroke to be built upon.
Jalen Smith (20th)
Smith is the premiere 3&D center in this class.
As a sophomore, the Baltimore native played center throughout and averaged 31.3 minutes per game for a team that ranked 30th in the country in lowest percentage of shots allowed at the rim and 71st in block percentage at the rim, which boosted them to finish 22nd in adjusted defensive efficiency.
He is attentive and active stepping up to the front of the rim as the last line of defense, a quick leaper off two feet and leverages his nine-foot-two standing reach to block and alter shots in volume. His 8.3% block rate is the sixth-best mark on ESPN’s top 100.
It’s not as clear how quick he is coming across the lane on longer rotations but sticking near the goal, Smith exceled as a rim protector.
In pick-and-roll, the 20-year-old usually went up to the foul line and dropped back. He often approached the ballhandler flat-footed and didn’t slide laterally to stop the ball as quickly as he was expected but showed fluid footwork backpedalling to keep pace with smaller players foul line down and proved himself capable of blocking a shot defending on the ball.
Smith really impressed with some multiple effort plays where he was able to stop the ball, force the pocket pass and then turnaround to contest the roll man at the basket effectively, besides showing glimpses of good quickness contesting shots at the three-point line in the pick-and-pop.
On offense, the six-foot-nine stretch big impresses the most as a three-point shooter.
He didn’t space out to the three-point line as much as he’ll likely be asked to do in the pros, taking just 27.9% of his field goal attempts from beyond the arc in his final year at Maryland.
Most of his long-range bombs were taken out of the pick-and-pop and Smith really stood out with the fluidity of his release and his footwork in these instances.
He nailed 36.8% of his 87 three-point shots last season, at a pace of 3.6 such attempts per 40 minutes.
Near the goal, Smith can play above the rim as a target for lobs out of the dunker spot and on longer rolls, though it’s unclear if he’s explosive enough to go up with power diving down the lane in traffic.
His total of 49 dunks in the sixth-best mark among those on ESPN’s top 100 who played in the NCAA last season and his touch on non-dunk finishes impressed too, as he shot 61.3% on 106 layup attempts.
Full scouting report: https://basketballscouting.wordpress.com/tag/jalen-smith/