Every NBA draft features can’t-miss talent — players who are as close to a sure-thing as can exist in an endeavour that attempts to forecast the next 15-20 years of a teenager’s future.
But after those early selections come off the board on draft night, NBA teams are faced with a choice: Do they choose players who project to be role-players, or do they go for the moonshot and risk a pick on a boom-or-bust prospect?
There’s merit in either decision. Cost-controlled contracts for role-players are essential to sustainable team-building; unearthing All-Star talent in the bottom-half of the first round — players like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard, both taken 15th overall, or Tony Parker and Pascal Siakam, taken 28th and 27th overall respectively — can completely change the trajectory of a franchise.
It’s never a guarantee, but the 2019 NBA Draft boasts a handful of players who could prove to be the next diamond in the rough, the next Siakam, or Antetokounmpo.
Sekou Doumbouya | SF/PF/C | Limoges, French Pro A league
The allure of a moon shot often lies in a player being either extraordinarily gifted at a single, valuable skill to the exclusion of almost everything else, or possessing a raw physical and mental composition that is sufficiently intoxicating a team may think they can mold it into what they need most.
Doumbouya offers the latter.
At 6-foot-9 with rangy arms and an effortless stride that lets him glide from baseline to baseline, Doumbouya’s frame contains multitudes. He is large enough to attack mismatches in the post and fast enough to hustle for chase-down blocks in transition; strong enough to handle contact on drives and agile enough to handle pick-and-roll responsibilities; long enough to become a meaningful rebounder and quick enough to put the ball on the floor once securing it.
Enticing, right? The downside, of course, is that the upside has appeared solely in flashes.
At just 19 years old, and after reportedly only playing since age 12, Doumbouya has a lot to figure out. He’s still learning the game, still an erratic shooter, still in need of moves beyond being more athletic than his defender to score.
Therein lies the risk: Can all of that be taught?
If it can, and if Doumbouya is capable of learning it, then a world in which he becomes some approximation of Siakam — a tough, agile defender whose athleticism makes them a menace in transition — is not tough to imagine.
But if it can’t, the path to becoming even a serviceable role-player could be a long one.
Tyler Herro | SG | Kentucky Wildcats
The importance of long-range shooting in the NBA is a tired refrain at this point, as is the league’s shift to smaller, guard-centric rotations.
Herro emphatically checks both those boxes. Arguably the best marksman in the draft, his compact shooting mechanics and quick trigger let him get his shot off without much time or space. In 37 games for the Kentucky Wildcats, Herro shot 46.2 per cent from the field and 35.5 per cent from beyond the arc as well as a staggering 93.5 per cent from the charity stripe — the first SEC player in over 25 years to do so from the free throw line.
The question marks, though, start to pop up once you dig beyond the overall lofty shooting numbers.
Over Kentucky’s first 15 non-NCAA tournament games he averaged just 32.9 per cent shooting from three-point territory, during the next 16 that number sky-rocketed to 41.5 per cent, which then plummeted to 18.8 per cent during the tournament itself on similar attempts. Variation, especially for a young player, is expected. Going from average to exceptional to horrifying in a single season, though, is jarring.
Rui Hachimura | F | Gonzaga
Hachimura didn’t start playing organized basketball until age 14 and his year-over-year improvements have been impressive — especially in college where he emerged as a versatile scorer in his third year at Gonzaga.
This season he averaged 19.7 points per game while shooting 41.7 per cent from long range, but it’s the diversity of what he can do on offence that stood out most. On one play Hachimura could be used in the post, the next as a cutter able to spot-up and drain shots from multiple places on the floor, the next as a straight-line driver to the basket.
When he does get to the rim, Hachimura flashed finishing ability with both hands and that, paired with his shooting and willingness to be a screen setter, make him an enticing pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop partner for any guard in the league.
At six-foot-eight with a seven-foot-two wingspan and weighing in around 230 pounds, the Japan native is imposing. His solid frame, long arms and general athleticism give him the natural tools to become a threat on both sides of the ball — a player able to lead the charge on fast breaks after pulling down rebounds all while being a capable defender against multiple positions.
It’s easy to see why someone able to do all that at 21 years old with just seven years of real basketball experience behind him would be an appealing project. If he could learn this much in the first seven years, what could he learn to be in the next seven?
The physical tools and raw skills are there, but Hachimura’s biggest shortfall is his decision making and awareness and that’s where the doubts come in.
In college he struggled to read the floor and search out the best passes available and, even when he did pass, the success rate of those passes was hit-and-miss — averaging 1.8 turnovers compared to 1.5 assists per game attests to that. Defensively, Hachimura regularly failed to read how plays were unfolding fast enough to be a positive difference-maker, oftentimes becoming a liability in pick-and-roll situations and being slow to rotate when help was needed.
There’s a chance Hachimura continues to learn and grow into a two-way threat who can be plugged into any lineup; there’s a chance Hachimura never develops the awareness to stay on the floor as more than a spot-up shooter. Parsing out whether his significant year-over-year improvements can continue at their current pace will be what both vexes and entices NBA front offices on draft day.