One of the biggest challenges franchises face approaching the NBA draft is evaluating a class of prospects they hope to find success down the road in a game that’s constantly evolving. A skill set that is coveted today may not be in demand two or three years from now, and the context a player faced in college could create a completely different set of circumstances in the league, with better coaching, teammates, a different set of rules and very likely playing a different position and role than previously asked.
This season’s NBA playoffs provided plenty of examples of players that were undervalued as draft prospects but found considerable success and are on the verge of being rewarded for their ability to adapt and improve since college. All five of these players were either drafted or signed as an undrafted free agent by the same team that’s benefited from their development and led to postseason success.
Poole wasn’t considered a lock first-round pick when he elected to stay in the 2019 draft after an up-and-down sophomore season at Michigan that culminated with a disappointing upset loss in the Sweet 16. Many scouts felt he needed another year in college as he struggled to make shots consistently in Big Ten play and had a difficult time scoring efficiently at times against top-level competition, while being the Wolverines’ clear-cut weakest link defensively.
The Warriors nevertheless picked Poole at the end of the first round and gave him quite a few minutes his first two seasons as they were seemingly transitioning eras, failing to make the playoffs in both years. They sent him to the G League bubble for 11 games with a laundry list of things they wanted him to work on, which seemingly lit a fire under him as he showed impressive sparks of potential as the season wore on.
Poole has blossomed into one of the NBA’s best young guards in terms of his offense volume, efficiency and versatility. He can score from anywhere on the floor, is Golden State’s most dynamic shot-creator, an incredible shot-maker and improving significantly as a finisher around the basket, drawing fouls, especially as a passer.
There simply aren’t many players in the NBA who share the same combination of polished ball-handling ability, footwork and herky-jerky fluidity changing speeds and beating opponents off the dribble without a ball screen. Once considered a very shaky decision maker and a home run hitter who is difficult to trust in crucial moments, Poole’s ability to find teammates off a live dribble is currently one of his biggest strengths, allowing him to shoulder plenty of minutes at point guard despite standing 6-5. A complete offensive player, he puts incredible pressure on opposing defenses with his ability to get to the rim, dish off, draw contact to get to the line or rise up in the mid-range or off step backs from beyond the arc. Never lacking for confidence, the decisiveness Poole plays with gives them an incredible amount of juice off the dribble that they sorely lack, making everyone around him better and allowing the Warriors to lead the league in offensive efficiency during the playoffs. Poole still has wild moments at times and can be streaky from game to game, but he changes the complexion every time he steps on the floor. Only 22 years old, there’s no telling what Poole’s ceiling could be ultimately.
Defensively, Poole remains a mixed bag, something that has long been considered one of his big weaknesses, along with his at-times polarizing shot selection. The Warriors were the best defensive team in the Western Conference in the regular season and have the pieces around him to make up for his lapses off the ball and lack of physicality. At the very least, Poole’s size, length (6-7 wingspan) and instincts allow him to be somewhat of an event creator at times, which the Warriors will turn to as they ask him to double off opponents, roam around and make things happen in unconventional ways.
The players that could benefit the most from the trend: Jaden Hardy, Hugo Besson, Ryan Rollins
Drafted into the NBA a day after turning 20 years old, Poole is an example of a team betting on scoring versatility, instincts, aggressiveness and upside and rounding out the rough edges of his game through a mix of playing time, player development, coaching, and a rock-solid core of existing talent he could learn from daily in practice.
Some of the draft’s best bucket-getters include the likes of Hardy, Besson, and Rollins.
Hardy, in particular, is an interesting case for NBA teams. He’s not that far off from Poole physically with a 6-9 wingspan and solidly built 190-pound frame. Hardy shares some of Poole’s same question marks around shot selection, defensive intensity and scoring efficiency. Hardy has plenty of star quality with the shot-making range he shows, his touch inside the arc and occasional flashes of passing off a live dribble. Like Poole at the same age, Hardy would benefit from simplifying his game, learning how to play within the flow, and generally becoming a more trustworthy offensive option. There was a reason why Hardy started the season off projected as a top-five pick, and at some point in the draft, be it the teens or 20s, an NBA team is going to roll the dice on the 19-year-old and see if they can unlock his all-star potential.
The only player in the past 25 years to win back-to-back SEC Player of the Year, Williams wasn’t short on accolades coming out of Tennessee. Still, there were real questions about how his style of play would translate, as a 6-foot-7, below the rim big man with limited length (6-10 wingspan) who barely shot 3s at Tennessee (averaging less than one attempt per game). After a poor showing at the NBA combine, it appeared Williams might fall to the second round. Still, the Boston Celtics showed enough confidence in Williams’ résumé to take him with the No. 22 pick.
After a rocky start to his NBA career, Williams has emerged as a key contributor for a Celtics team that is now playing in the NBA Finals, making 41% of his 3-pointers this season and being tasked as the primary defender for Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jimmy Butler in consecutive playoff series. The Celtics probably wouldn’t have advanced out of the Eastern Conference semifinals if not for Williams’ back-breaking 27-point outing in Game 7, where he repeatedly punished the Bucks for leaving him all alone beyond the arc by knocking down seven 3-pointers.
There’s a lot of uncertainty about where Tennessee’s Grant Williams might end up tonight, possibly in the second round. I went on Outside the Lines to talk about why I think teams might be missing the boat on him. pic.twitter.com/66opnJPwv4
— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) June 20, 2019
Instead of being a liability with his average physical tools, Williams has instead emerged as a fearless floor-spacer that needs to be accounted for on the court at all times by opponents, which has made the life of stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown significantly easier. He’s quickened his release significantly and boasts stellar footwork, stepping into catch and shoot 3-pointers without hesitation, hitting 44% of his attempts in both the regular season and playoffs.
When defenders close out too aggressively on his jumper, he’s more than capable of putting the ball on the floor, either with his head up looking to dish off to open shooters, to go all the way to the rim for a floater or at times even relocate beyond the arc for a pull-up 3. When opposing teams have tried to improve their own spacing by going small against Boston’s two-big men lineups of Robert Williams III and Al Horford, Williams has consistently punished them in the post, on the offensive glass, or by finding the mismatch with timely passes — making it very difficult for the likes of Duncan Robinson and Max Strus to survive as part of four-guard lineups.
On the other end of the floor, Williams has been an absolutely essential cog in the NBA’s top defense, not only becoming a player who can hang with the other team’s best scorer, but also being one of their best off-ball defenders. Williams is still not the quickest, longest or most explosive player — something that shows up at times when asked to guard on an island — but he is a savant at knowing the scouting report and manipulating opponents to take the type of shots he wants. He has outstanding timing closing out on shooters, is extremely intelligent with the way he reads passing lanes and rotates to protect the rim with verticality and is also extremely tough and physical putting a body on opponents in the post.
Much was made of the Celtics’ decision not to package their trove of first-round picks in an attempt to land stars such as Paul George or Butler. But lo and behold, six of the eight rotation players that led them to the NBA Finals were their own first-round picks. Drafting a lot and drafting well helped put them in a position to potentially win an NBA Championship, and having enough talent in the cupboard also gave them the confidence to ship out two first-round picks in the last year to land Al Horford and Derrick White to further solidify their chances.
The players that could benefit the most from Williams’ success: David Roddy, E.J. Liddell
Williams’ NBA success tells us about the importance of not discounting college productivity, especially for players who are young for their draft class that demonstrate a strong feel for the game, toughness, soft touch from the free throw line and inside the arc and the ability to defend multiple positions. Perhaps what’s allowed Williams to thrive the most is his unlimited self-confidence — something that’s evident every moment he’s on the floor, and especially off it, where he’s not bashful at all.
At 6-6, 261 pounds with a 6-11½ wingspan, Roddy has similar dimensions to Williams, while bringing some of the same attributes with the competitiveness he shows, his instincts as a passer and defender and ability to space the floor. Like Williams, teams are questioning Roddy’s body, footspeed and the amount of time he spent in college punishing defenders in the post. Roddy, like Williams, struggled to score efficiently at the NBA combine, opening plenty of question marks about how his game will translate.
Roddy is a better shooter than Williams at the same stage but played at a lower level of competition in the Mountain West and wasn’t quite as versatile defensively. Still, there are plenty of similarities to point to for scouts who are fans of Roddy’s game, and the way Williams is currently playing in the playoffs should help his cause for those looking to make an argument in his favor in a team war room.
Liddell’s measurements are even closer to Williams, at 6-7, 243 pounds with a 6-11¾ wingspan. Like Williams, he saw a lot of his offense in college in the post, and although he isn’t the most explosive leaper around, he did become a 37% 3-point shooter as a junior on a decent amount of attempts. Liddell’s feel for the game and skill level isn’t as high as Williams’, but he plays exceptionally hard, is an excellent shot-blocker and has made significant strides with his versatility on both ends of the floor since entering college.
A top-10 recruit coming out of high school, Looney slid to the last pick of the first round after being medically red-flagged at UCLA for hip injuries that ended up costing him most of his rookie season. After averaging only 8 minutes his second season, the Warriors declined to pick up his fourth-year option, leaving him in a position to possibly be out of the NBA by the time he turned 22.
Still only 26, Looney is in the midst of the healthiest and most productive season of his career — starting 90 regular season and playoff games and playing an essential role in the Warriors’ Western Conference finals win over Dallas.
His passing ability has long stood out as his best offensive attribute, as the Warriors run quite a bit of plays through him, which helps negate his lack of perimeter shooting. Looney is outstanding operating out of dribble hand-offs, in short-roll situations and finding backdoor cutters from the high post in their trademark five-out sets while also being an outstanding screener and cutter himself. He certainly benefits from the talent level of his teammates and the amount of defensive attention they draw, but he processes the game at a very high level and does a great job of knowing his role and not trying to do anything he can’t.
Looney’s length, activity level and smarts also makes him an elite rebounder and defender. He’s a highly switchable and versatile defender who will often be tasked with guarding the other team’s best player (i.e. Luka Doncic), is difficult to shoot over on the perimeter and extremely smart about funneling his man into help defense. He’s not the fastest or most explosive player, but has great footwork, balance and timing and plays with a sense of calm on both ends of the floor that he simply didn’t have early in his career.
The players that could benefit the most from Looney’s success: Jaylin Williams, Dominick Barlow
Medical red flags can at times be overstated, especially when causing teams to draft players who are lacking talent, which seemed to be the case in the 2015 NBA draft, where half of the 29 players selected ahead of Looney are already out of the league.
Similar to Grant Williams’ case, big men with instincts, feel, intensity and competitiveness shouldn’t be discounted, especially if they have huge wingspans (7-3½) and standing reaches (9-2) that allow them to play the center position with relative ease despite not being overly tall, strong or explosive.
Perhaps the least replicable part of Looney’s story is the fact that he’s been with the Warriors for seven years, since he was a teenager, growing up around Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, helping to develop incredible chemistry that manifests itself on both ends of the floor with the beautiful style of basketball they play.
While not possessing quite the same length, Arkansas’ Jaylin Williams shares plenty of similarities with Looney with his passing ability, defensive instincts, rebounding, lack of shooting range, toughness and selfless style. Similar to Looney, Williams landing in the right situation that values his skill set and is willing to live with some of his limitations as a scorer will be important, but Looney is an excellent blueprint for him.
Barlow is a near-identical match measurements-wise (6-10, 221 pounds with a 7-3 wingspan) but is a bouncier leaper who offers similar defensive versatility on the perimeter and competitiveness while showing intriguing flashes of skill and upside at just 19 years old. Not a very polished player skill-wise and lacking considerable experience as a late-bloomer who essentially skipped his senior year of high school to head straight to the pros, Barlow is a long-term prospect who may not reap consistent dividends for a team that drafts him until his third or fourth year in the NBA — like Looney — but could definitely reward a patient team with a strong player development infrastructure.
Vincent is perhaps the most unlikely story of any player to see minutes in this year’s playoffs. He averaged 13 points as a senior at UC Santa Barbara and didn’t get invited to any NBA events or summer league — only two teams were willing to bring him in for a private workout as a favor, according to his agent, Bill Neff. A Stockton, California, native, he happened to be around when the Kings needed an extra workout body, landing a $25,000 training camp contract from Stockton Kings general manager Anthony McClish after lighting it up in an open gym versus NBA players, earning his spot on their G League team for the season. A 35-point explosion at the G League Showcase in his second season with the Kings put him in line for a two-way contract with the Miami Heat in early 2020. Vincent slowly worked his way up the pecking order of the organization before being forced into considerable action this season due to injuries and the Heat’s precarious salary cap situation, something he took full advantage of with many strong performances all season.
The Heat were 7-1 in the playoffs with Vincent as their starting point guard, a position he’s grown into over time after being more of a 3-and-D combo guard earlier in his career. He plays an unselfish style, capable of driving and dishing, passing ahead in transition and making intelligent reads out of pick-and-roll, even if he’s still evolving as a ball-handler and primary creator. Vincent’s size — 6-3 in shoes, 200 pounds with a near 6-7 wingspan — allows him to play off the ball as well, as he’s a very capable shooter, especially off the dribble where he’s shown signs of dynamic shot-making ability. Vincent’s length and toughness have allowed him to emerge as a multi-positional defender who brings strong instincts and impressive physicality on and off the ball. He did an outstanding job of slowing down Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young in the first round of the playoffs and was very effective against Philadelphia’s backcourt in the semis, while constantly flying around and putting a body on everyone he encounters on switches all playoffs.
Vincent’s effectiveness in playoffs suggests he’s well on his way to being a valuable contributor for the Heat next season — and beyond — once his minimum contract expires and he becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2023. The lesson we can learn as it pertains to the 2022 NBA draft? That draft night is just one moment in time and players who aren’t on anyone’s radar from this class can still emerge and become excellent players if they have the right mindset, work ethic, physical tools, character and opportunity. Vincent was young for his class, suffered a brutal knee injury midway through his junior season, got hurt again as a G League rookie, but continued to develop his game regardless until he finally broke through on the NBA’s best development team.
The players that could benefit the most from Vincent’s success: Marcus Sasser
Sasser is far more heralded a college player than Vincent was, but the two do share some similarities in terms of build, length, defensive intensity and shot-making prowess. Like Vincent, Sasser’s junior season at Houston was cut short by an injury that limited him to just 11 games. NBA teams will also want to see him improve his ball-handling and decision-making to become more of a full-time point guard, something he’ll be able to do as a senior.
Sifting through this year’s draft class, there’s a surprising dearth of 6-3, strong-framed, long-armed combo guards with dynamic shot-making ability, passable playmaking prowess and multi-positional defensive versatility — like Vincent. He wasn’t a great playmaker, shooter or the most consistently intense defender coming out of college — those were areas Vincent developed in over the four years since college. Keeping an open mind about undrafted players, continuing to monitor their progress and seeing how they evolve in different contexts should shed light on who the “next Gabe Vincent” might be — something that is very difficult to peg right now.
A five-star recruit coming out of high school, Finney-Smith went undrafted after five years in college at Virginia Tech and Florida, in which he improved significantly but was deemed to possess neither the polished skill level nor considerable upside to deem worthy of being drafted.
Finney-Smith signed with the Dallas Mavericks just prior to summer league as an undrafted free agent, making the team through training camp six years ago and has not looked back since. He stepped into immediate playing time as a rookie but has become a far more versatile offensive player as his career progressed, posting career highs in scoring, assists and 3-point shooting in helping the Mavs reach the Western Conference finals.
His ability to make open shots, attack closeouts effectively, make timely cuts and be a pressure release valve out of short rolls when Doncic is trapped in pick-and-roll has made him arguably the second most essential player in the Mavs’ rotation considering what he brings on the other end of the floor, leading the team in minutes played. Finney-Smith rarely turns the ball over, sports a 61% true shooting percentage, plays anywhere from small forward to small-ball center and guards the opposing team’s best player on a nightly basis, giving him huge value in the modern NBA. He has extreme range with his ability to slide his feet, is difficult to shoot over with his 7-foot wingspan, can put a body on big men with his 220-pound frame and plays with outstanding activity, chasing opponents around screens and even moonlighting as a rim-protector with timely rotations off the ball.
The fact that a 23-year-old, fifth-year senior can continue to improve every season into his late 20s certainly puts into perspective the conversation we have annually about upside as it pertains to older draft prospects. Finney-Smith could barely dribble or pass coming out of college and sported an ugly, mechanical offensive game few thought would translate.
The 3-and-D wing-stopper archetype has become one of the most coveted prospects in the NBA draft and there’s a long line of players in this class with similar measurements to Finney-Smith, including Agbaji, Moore, Walker, Rhoden, Brown, Watson, Williams and others.
These prospects vary dramatically in draft ranges, ages and college accolades from potential lottery picks to likely undrafted, and none are identical matches in terms of playstyle, or shooting volume. Ultimately a player such as Finney-Smith developing the way he has shows how hard the draft is to evaluate and how important it is for players like him to find an opportunity to get minutes early in their career and be surrounded with the right type of talent to accentuate their strengths and minimize their weaknesses.
Jonathan Givony is an NBA Draft expert and the founder and co-owner of DraftExpress.com, a private scouting and analytics service utilized by NBA, NCAA and International teams.