Predicting the college and college-aged prospects to become successful NBA players is an imperfect science. Going through years of past drafts can be maddening when you see how low some successful players were selected in contrast to how high guys who only had a cup of coffee in the league were picked.
For the 2020 NBA Draft, the jobs of general managers and scouts are more difficult since the college season ended prematurely and other amenities that NBA teams normally have, such as player workouts, are not possible. And if that wasn’t challenging enough, there is more uncertainty and disagreement than normal about this year’s class of prospects, who all have unique warts to their games.
However, just like with any year, teams and draft boards favor certain players more than others. To clearly show where players are ranked, Hoops Prospects created an aggregate draft board using a weighted formula based on the NBA big boards of these sites: ESPN, The Athletic, Sports Illustrated, Rookie Wire, CBS Sports and Tankathon. Here are some underrated prospects in order of their draft range based on the results reflected in the collective rankings.
Onyeka Okongwu, Forward/Center, USC
I know what you are thinking. How could Oneyeka Okongwu, a player who routinely appears in the top-10 on draft boards, be overlooked? Admittedly, he is an unconventional choice to be on a list of underrated players entering the NBA draft. Nevertheless, the crux of an Okongwu underrated argument is not based on whether he should receive more consideration as a top-3 talent rather than top-10, but instead, that he should be more highly regarded than James Wiseman — the consensus top big man.
In 28 games, the 19-year-old Okongwu had an impressive, traditional stat line of 16.2 points per game (PPG), 8.6 rebounds per game, 2.7 blocks per game, 1.2 steals per game and a field-goal percentage of 61. At 6-foot-9 and 245 pounds, Okongwu showed that he had active feet on switches and hedges as well as the strength to absorb contact from big men. His 7-foot-1 wingspan helps him grab rebounds and protect the rim at a high level; he was ninth in the nation in blocks per game.
Okongwu’s physical tools and abilities will instantly make him a positive defender on the NBA-level since he has the foot speed to switch on to some wings and the blocking instincts to deter perimeter players from attacking the basket. He also appears to have a frame that can become more chiseled in time, which could compensate for his shorter stature when matched up with NBA centers.
Okongwu was an effective scorer overall at 1.126 points per possession (PPP), putting him at the 97th percentile. When within six feet, he can put the ball in the hoop by going over or around opposing defenders with either hand. He has solid touch for a big man as evidenced by his 66.4 field-goal percentage on non-post ups around the basket in the half court, 63.2 field-goal percentage on post-ups, and 72 free-throw percentage. Although his jumper is a set shot and was not as reliable as you would hope for a big man prospect with touch, it appears solid enough. He converted on 15 of his 35 jumpers in the half court but was one-of-four from three-point range.
Another noticeable aspect of Okongwu’s offensive game is the potential that he has to create for himself off the dribble and for others as a playmaker. His assist numbers and the majority of his game tape won’t show it, but he has a higher skill level than what he is given credit for. He is capable of making basic reads and passes out of double teams, sporadically flashes advanced footwork — like this Euro step he did against Arizona — and sometimes displays ball handling in traffic in short distances from the rim. Under the right coach, who would allow him to explore this part of his game, he has the potential to be an even bigger offensive threat than a typical inside scorer who occasionally takes a mid-range jumper.
Okongwu also plays with a high motor. He excels at crashing the offensive glass, as evidenced by his 3.3 offensive rebounds per game. Overall, he works hard on offense and is alert on defense. Consistent effort also happened to be the department of most concern for Wiseman coming out of high school. He has a reputation for wandering on the perimeter on the offensive end and lacking discipline as a defender. In the three games that he did play, he dominated and often ran the floor hard. But three games is not enough of a sample size to extinguish doubts of his dearth of energy — especially when two of the teams he faced while at Memphis (UIC and South Carolina State) were weak competition.
Even with energy concerns, it is reasonable to believe that Wiseman can address all the questionable areas of his game and be an all-star caliber player in the pros. The lefty possesses amazing physical tools (7-foot-1 height and 7-foot-6 wingspan) and displays smooth athleticism when gliding down the court and soaring for alley-oops. However, there is so much mystery around what he has and hasn’t improved on. It may not be as safe of a bet to choose Wiseman simply because of his reputation and alluring physical tools.
The more proven Okongwu is an outstanding shot blocker, who possesses ambidexterity on offense and the requisite vitality that should make him worthy of being the first big man selected.
Saddiq Bey, Combo Forward, Villanova
The 21-year-old sophomore was the leading scorer on a 24-7 Wildcats team that had five players average more than double-digits in points. The system that Head Coach Jay Wright runs includes very few set plays and a strong reliance on drive-and-kick concepts. In this equal-opportunity system, Bey’s productivity and efficiency shined seamlessly. He led the team in points per game (16.1), three-pointers per game (2.5), and three-point percentage (45 percent), was second in assists per game (2.4), and he had only the third highest usage rate on the squad (22.8 percent). The gift to prosper as the best player without being noticeable, however, is a double-edged sword, and is likely the primary reason he is in the 15-30 range on most draft boards.
When watching Villanova, Bey does not pop off the screen. He lacks above average speed, vertical explosiveness, and overall quick-twitch abilities. Although he stands 6-foot-8 and 216 pounds, he did not seem to physically take advantage of smaller opponents offensively or defensively. In live-dribble plays, he does not score as efficiently — Bey is at the 39th percentile on all jump shots off the dribble in the half court, making only 16 of 54 attempts. If he is barely average as an athlete and as a live-dribble scorer on the college-level, then it is reasonable to presume that in the pros, he would be classified as mediocre at best in those areas.
All of those things may very well be true, but it diminishes the fact that Bey was elite at one of the most valuable skills in the NBA: catching and shooting. He was at the 96th percentile on guarded catch-and-shoot jump shots in the half court (37 for 80), at the 98th percentile on no-dribble jumpers (47 for 92) in spot-up situations, and was fourth in true shooting percentage in the Big East Conference at 60.8 percent. He also has ancillary skills that will complement teams that need reliable role players. Bey has solid court vision to make intermediate reads, as well as the instincts to pump fake, drive and kick the ball back out to teammates on the perimeter. Playing in Coach Wright’s system for two years likely allowed him to become a more natural supplementary passer.
On defense, Bey’s steal and block numbers are nothing special, but he moves well laterally and should be versatile enough to handle switches one through three and some fours. He has the height and the awareness to knock away some lob attempts and deter some passes from being made.
Bey doesn’t not appear to be a player with high bust potential. It is reasonable to picture him being a solid seventh man in a rotation that plays a small-ball four at times to stretch the floor. In a smaller role than what he had at Villanova, he can be a productive shooter and provide switchability on the defensive end. In a league that wants versatility from players in the 6-foot-6 range, Bey should give teams reason to consider drafting him above players with higher ceilings but lower floors like Patrick Williams, Aleksej Pokusevski, Tyrese Maxey, and Josh Green.
Daniel Oturu, Center, Minnesota
With the exception of the athletic outliers, such as Wiseman and Okongwu, who appear to have the mobility to guard multiple positions, few, if any, other centers are certain to go in the first round — not even those who had stellar seasons in the Big Ten
This season at Minnesota, the 20-year-old Daniel Oturu put up some gaudy numbers: 20.1 PPG, 2.5 blocks per game, 11.3 rebounds per game, 36.5 three-point percentage on 1.7 attempts per game, and an impressive 30.9 player efficiency rating. As the the unequivocal go-to guy on the Golden Gophers, he carried a huge load and produced efficiently — 58.5 effective field-goal percentage and 61.2 true shooting percentage on 13.7 shot attempts.
Even with such impressive raw and advanced stats, most NBA big boards have Oturu ranked 36th or lower, with Hoops Prospects (ranked 16th) and The Athletic (27th) being the exceptions. Besides being penalized for playing an undervalued position, he does not seem to possess any elite qualities or traits that potentially can be essential on a winning NBA team. There also may be concerns that since he had such a large chunk of possessions night in night out, his offensive stats and abilities could possibly be overstated. However, Oturu was 15th in total productivity per minute among 600-plus prospects tracked by Hoops Prospects this season, and ranked sixth when that number was adjusted for strength of schedule. Regardless, an altered perspective that appreciates how good he is at a lot of things should lead to a more optimistic outlook on Oturu’s talent-level.
The Minnesota big has suitable length, standing 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, and did a lot of things well compared to his conference rivals. In the Big Ten, he was seventh in rebound percentage, seventh in block percentage, first in field-goal percentage, first in blocks per game, first in offensive rebounds and third in offensive win shares, behind Iowa’s Luka Garza and Maryland’s Jaylen Smith. Oturu has underrated mobility for a center, and was an offensive menace drawing fouls, getting to the free-throw line 5.8 times a game.
Oturu checks a lot of boxes, but the most interesting box that he checks is outside shooting. He put up a 36.5 three-point percentage (19 for 52 in total) and was 14 for 30 on no-dribble jumpers in spot up situations. The confidence and the textbook form that he shoots with, especially for a big man, should lead evaluators to believe that he will be someone who can be a threat on the perimeter. By no means is he going to be a knockdown shooter since he also only shot 70.7 percent from the free-throw line, but he does possess enough shooting touch to keep the defense honest close to 20 feet from the hoop.
The only real drawback that he has as a defender is his lean 240 pound physique. He is not as strong as most five men that he’ll face in the NBA. But on the college-level, he held his own as a rim protector, who could occasionally cut off drives from perimeter players. However, he does jump too much on pump fakes and did have the third most personal fouls in the conference with 83.
Oturu should be given more love just on the fact that he is multidimensional as a player. He did a lot of things well and was an impactful go-to guy, scoring 1.046 PPP (91st percentile). He is not going to receive Joel Embiid-like amounts of touches, as he did for the Golden Gophers, but he should become at least a serious pick-and-pop threat with a talent for offensive rebounding. That alone is worth being chosen in the 20-25 range in this year’s NBA draft — even for a center.
Jared Butler, Point Guard, Baylor
One thing about this draft class is that it is loaded with point guards, from top to bottom. LaMelo Ball, Killian Hayes, Cole Anthony, Tyrese Haliburton and Kira Lewis are all lottery talents. Then there’s Devon Dotson, Tre Jones, Tyrell Terry, Nico Mannion, Grant Riller and others that are expected to be picked in the late first round or the first few picks of the second round. Jared Butler can easily get lost in the shuffle and not draw as much intrigue, even as a productive 6-foot-3 sophomore guard in the Big 12 Conference.
Only two of the five draft boards rank Butler above the 38th slot. Tankathon even has him as low as 51 on their draft board. It is understandable why Butler may slip to the second round with so many prospects at his position, but it is still surprising how overlooked his talent is for a guy who turns 20 in August.
Butler did two things exceptionally well in the collegiate game: score from the pick and roll and shoot off the dribble. When he was single covered as a pick-and-roll ball handler, he averaged 1.128 PPP (92nd percentile), 1.209 PPP (93rd percentile) when shooting a dribble jumper after using a pick, and on all jump shots off the dribble in the half court, he ranked in the 89th percentile at 1.012 PPP. In short, Butler gets buckets.
Although he lacks the reputation of being an elite shooter, Butler passes the eye test with flying colors when watching his games. He has a pretty jump shot that is high arcing, a nifty handle that allows him to create space from the defender, and an overall confidence to his game, all of which make him an excellent shot creator — an aspect of basketball that is more difficult to become proficient at. Against high-level competition, such as conference rival Kansas, he routinely punished defenders on ball screens and/or created his own shot with a taller man tightly guarding him.
As a defender, he surprisingly ranked really well on Synergy. For overall defense, Butler was at the 94th percentile for allowed PPP at 0.631. What makes this more interesting is that Baylor utilized three guards in its starting unit. The other two guards were no taller than him, yet, oftentimes, Butler would hold his own guarding the second or third biggest player on the perimeter. He can move his feet and force turnovers, as evidenced by his 1.6 steals per game.
Butler does not receive as much love likely due to his lack of athleticism and his low assists averages. He relies on guile and deception to get to the hoop, and played a role that did not need him to initiate most times down the court. He also struggles at finishing in transition or through contact since he does not elevate exceptionally and lacks the strength to overpower his defenders. Butler does, however, have an aptitude for runners, ranking at the 82nd percentile after 43 attempts.
If Butler can continue being reliable as an off-the-dribble scorer and hold his own as a defender, he will have a spot in the league as someone’s backup guard and be worth a late first- or early second-round pick.
Sam Merrill, Shooting Guard, Utah State
Sam Merrill of the Utah State Aggies is a guard whose potential as a pro is dependent on his marksmanship from beyond the arc. He made 41 percent of his 6.8 three-point attempts per game, and was at the 90th percentile (1.215 PPP) for three-point shots in the half court. Of the five NBA draft boards used in the collective rankings, three have Merrill in the range of 65-70. The justification for him to likely be undrafted is primarily due to his relative old age and his lack of athleticism.
At 24 years old, Merrill is one of the oldest prospects eligible for the draft. Generally, good young prospects have greater upside and are deemed more valuable from a long-term perspective in contrast to players like Merrill, who have a smaller window for growth . It also doesn’t help Merrill that he is at a disadvantage athletically in almost all aspects. He isn’t quick or explosive on either end of the court and isn’t strong enough to overpower smaller guards, although he is 6-foot-5 and 205 pounds. With all that being said, he still merits being ranked in the 50-60 range on a big board.
Merrill’s high basketball IQ negates the physical limitations that he has as an athlete. He is a sharp and decisive passer, even when defensive pressure is focused on him; he routinely makes quick reads and accurate decisions. Although he is not faster than most of his defenders, Merrill knows how to relocate around the three-point line when the defense is lax, and he finds a way to get to the free-throw line to shoot 5.3 attempts per game.
In a draft that’s hit or miss throughout, it is better to prioritize players who are practically finished products with lower upsides than the young prospects who have a slim chance of living up to their potential in two to five years. In this year’s draft, a guard like Merrill, who has legit shooting touch and the on-court intellect to outperform his talent level, should be a late second-rounder.
Matt Mitchell, Combo Forward, San Diego State
If there is going to be an Aztec player making an underrated players list, that would typically be Malachi Flynn — the productive point guard who took the Mountain West Conference by storm after transferring from Washington State. But alas, he has been called underrated so much that he seems to have become properly rated now. Flynn’ partner in crime Matt Mitchell, on the other hand, has pro-level talent, and yet does not appear on most draft boards.
During Mitchell’s junior season, he put up solid numbers averaging 12.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.1 steals per game. His primary skill as an NBA prospect is his outside shooting. He shot 39.3 percent from three-point range and 87.3 percent from the charity stripe. On catch-and-shoot jump shots in the half court, he was at the 93rd percentile (1.316 PPP). He also was at the 91st percentile on guarded catch-and-shoot jumpers in the half court after going 16 for 37.
The second thing that makes him interesting is his positional versatility. He is 6-foot-6 and 225 pounds, with a naturally broad physique — used to weigh 240 pounds. He uses his strength in matchups with front-court players and his lateral mobility to guard wings. His 6-foot-10 wingspan, albeit not extraordinary, partially makes up for his lack of height as a forward and assists him in disrupting plays as a team defender. He has the physical tools and the awareness to be a Swiss Army knife defender that can make pivotal rotations on defense, hold his own in the post, and stay in front of guards in isolation situations.
In terms of his defensive and offensive play style, he appears to have a blend of PJ Tucker’s switchability, grit, and spot-up shooting abilities, along with some impressive ball skills typical of wing scorers. He technically played both forward positions in most San Diego State lineups, but he did show flashes of putting the ball on the ground and creating his own shot. He occasionally bumps defenders to create space for short-range jumpers and can make clean slashes to the hoop after setting up his drives with hang dribbles. Like Tucker, he is a proficient corner shooter and a ball mover capable of making some skip passes from a stand still. Athletically, Mitchell is good in that department but not great. He has above-the-rim finishes on put-backs and clear paths to the hoop. However, his athleticism doesn’t always translate when using his speed to close out on catch-and-shoots.
The cause for pause on drafting Mitchell is justified since he is still a short power forward who, in theory, has the ability to switch and be a consistent shooter. He has the potential to be a Tucker-type player with some wing scoring abilities, but that likely won’t materialize in the NBA. The glimpses that he did provide was in the relatively talent-deficient Mountain West Conference, on a team with talented transfers who took pressure off of him. Opposing teams’ game plans were not solely meant to shut down Mitchell. Additionally, he is already 21 years old with a lower floor and an uncertain trajectory for improvement compared to prospects who have proven their abilities on a higher level and are younger. Regardless, he has enough talent and intriguing tools that make him worth betting on in the late second round, even if it takes some time for him to be unlocked on the right NBA team.
Sources, Credits, and Acknowledgements: Stats used in our scouting reports come from Synergy Sports Technology, RealGM.com, and Sports-Reference.com. Other outside sources are noted with links to the source.