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Empire of the Suns NBA Draft Big Board, Pt. 5: LaMelo Ball at the top

LaMelo Ball of the Hawks in action during the round 9 NBL match between the New Zealand Breakers and the Illawarra Hawks at Spark Arena on November 30, 2019 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

It’s that time of year again! Well, at least we assume it is.

The 2020 NBA Draft is coming at some point. It’s reportedly scheduled for Oct. 15. We’ll see.

The Phoenix Suns are currently slotted 10th in the reverse standings, which will hold if neither they nor the Eastern Conference’s Washington Wizards make the playoffs after an eight-game regular season.

Let’s take our time waiting to find out their draft slot by getting familiar with the top prospects.

With a third guard and power forward at the top of Phoenix’s shopping list this offseason, it’s actually quite a good class for James Jones and company to comb through.

To wrap up our first big board, here are the top four prospects.

All statistics via Hoop-Math and Sports-Reference

Tier 2

4. Onyeka Okongwu, big, USC, 19 years old

Okongwu’s got a real shot at being a well-balanced big, proving at the college level he’s capable of all the offensive and defensive responsibilities that can lead to domination if it fully comes together.

He has real explosion and power to his play. That applies the most to his finishing and shot-blocking, of course, where he placed his opposition in a nightmare factory.

His faceup work too, though, has some shine.

Fluidity in movement goes a long way and is something you should notice as a strength just as much as a weakness. Okongwu’s handles have got a fair bit of promise because of that.

Unlike what we see too often, there is no bizarre imbalance in the space-time continuum on the offense/defense switch. Okongwu uses this gift on defense to evaporate pick-and-roll ball-handlers.

Then he will do something like this a few times each game that makes you wonder if he’s got even more untapped potential.

Okongwu’s gonna need to put on some muscle. He’s getting pushed around often, and at 6-foot-9, a 7-foot-1 wingspan can only save him so much until he gets bulkier. The “untapped potential” is what he will have to partially unlock to be a potential All-Star as well because most of what he does is shading in the edges as opposed to being the central force of his game.

Unlike how Wendell Carter Jr. went under the radar in a loaded 2018 class with a similar outlook, Okongwu is going to shine in this class because of it. He’s already very good at what he does compared to the average lottery-projected freshman big.

As was the case with Carter’s unfortunate start in Chicago, though, Okongwu has to get on a team that understands how to use him and doesn’t put him in a box.

Most of his evaluation is strong plug-and-play value but most of the offense hinges on the fit. Stick him in the right system with a lead guard who knows how to use a dive man, and Okongwu will be a real problem. Fail at that and now it’s a problem for the team that drafted him.

He’s going to be good, I think, and I feel safe saying that about … yeah just him.

3. Anthony Edwards, G, Georgia, 18 years old

(AP Photo/John Amis, File)

Edwards being the top pick in this draft would be fitting because of how much he represents the theme of it. He’s immensely frustrating to watch because the pieces to become an awesome, clear-cut No. 1 prospect is in there.

When Edwards scores the way he does at his size and with his physical tools, you think you’re watching one of the best bucket-getters to come out in the last few years.

He’s 6-foot-5 with a stocky build and has burst, explosion and overall speed when handling the ball. He grades extremely high as an NBA athlete.

A more sustained look at Edwards, however, shows you a guy that’s going to be a volume scorer with efficiency questions until he figures more out.

Edwards shot 40% on 15.8 attempts per game and 29% from three-point range on 7.7 attempts per game.

There are no real secondary elements to his game. His jumper is too inconsistent to be an off-the-ball threat, and while his overall ability as a passer is decent, his poor decision-making and vision cancel that out.

His motor, especially on defense, wasn’t there on a Georgia team that sucked. But his tools are there to absolutely wreak havoc there, a la Ben Simmons, who went from not giving two bleeps about defense at LSU to being one of the best at it in the world. So we can shrug at that one.

That sounds like a pretty mixed bag and a risk, but Edwards was dynamite a handful of times this season, most notably against Michigan State in Maui when he scored 37 points.

A team is drafting Edwards if it 1) thinks it can get enough out of the scoring while it waits and prays to everything holy that 2) he develops his playmaking, basketball IQ and defensive effort/focus. There’s also the off-chance that his bad on-court situation in college severely impacted his level of play.

He’s a polarizing prospect who could go either way, just like the two guys in front of him, which is fitting for this draft.

2. Killian Hayes, G, France, 18 years old

Hayes would sneak by in a lot of different drafts and probably get taken outside the top-5, or at least not get on the radar of those teams until a few weeks before the draft.

With the lack of potential star power and All-NBA talent in this class, though, that ain’t happenin’.

It’s funny watching this generation of prospects because it’s evident which guys are obsessively watching the same few players over and over, stealing moves and picking up on little things through YouTube highlights. With Grant Riller, it’s Damian Lillard. With Precious Achiuwa, it’s Pascal Siakam.

Hayes, a lefty, clearly rips stuff from the likes of James Harden, D’Angelo Russell and Manu Ginobili. He’s already got Harden’s patented trave— I mean step-back jumper down.

All three influences you can see in this reel.

Hayes already understands the way defenses are moving. You can see his reading of the floor coming together more naturally over the past year. He gets where openings are going to be, even in situations like below where he’s simply making the pass and it’s not off his own action.

To give an example of where he wants to be headed, Luka Doncic was doing this type of defense-reading while on the move attacking and running the offense. Even if this isn’t that and more of a fundamental ball rotation, for Hayes to have the “fake pass while looking at the weak-side help defender” in his pocket is a great start.

That’s what he’s the best at. Hayes’ primary initiator equity is more his playmaking setting up his scoring, rather than the more common inverse. That was demonstrated by how much better he got at that from playing last summer for France to the end of his season playing professionally in Germany.

That trend demonstrates that Hayes has a great chance to do the same over his first two NBA seasons and really explode once everything comes together.

That is the bet, because Hayes hasn’t shot well from 3 over his career, relies on his left hand to an embarrassing level and the skill/basketball IQ combo on the ball does not outweigh his burst/first step issues enough to make you feel comfortable enough.

Edwards is a much better scorer than Hayes right now, but Hayes could catch him. The archetype for Hayes being a high-level offensive weapon is easier to forecast. That’s the breaking point right here, and what makes Hayes a top-3 pick.

Tier 1

1. LaMelo Ball, PG, United States, 18 years old

Ball as a talent makes you love basketball more. The handle, vision and passing ability all morph into this dude who can make anything happen as a point guard at 6-foot-7, even though he’s not explosive with speed or hops.

There’s a viable concern as to how much of a scoring threat Ball can be given his struggles to create separation. Then he does stuff like this.

His touch is other-worldly.

Ball’s feel for everything, like his brother, is absurd to compare to anyone else in his class. That’s not only with the playmaking, but cuts, defense, loose balls, rebounds etc. Again, like Lonzo. Aspects of team basketball just sync up with him for whatever reason.

Ball can make almost any shot because of his touch, and his biggest fault is that he knows it.

Whether you want to blame the kid, where he’s played his ball or whatever, his decisions as a scorer are mind-numbing. Calling it a lack of discipline is an insult to the phrase indicating that he even had any in the first place.

That reflects nowhere more than when watching him shoot. The need for a shooting coach is just as evident as him not having worked with one, even though he has made some positive strides the past year.

It’s amazing to stack up Ball’s strengths and weaknesses because it accentuates and equates to some romanticized nonsense you’d hear in some C-tier basketball movie.

If Ball trusts and respects the process of becoming a great NBA pro while learning his position the right way, he will be one of the best point guards of the last decade. He is too talented for the hard work to fail him.

If he gets in his own way, who knows the type of player we wind up with.

Whoever picks him, buckle in!


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