It’s never too early to look ahead to the draft, and for 2020 the crop of prospects currently projected to go in the first round has quite an international flavor to it – even if some of these players are American. Semantics!
Both LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton decided to join the Australian NBL this season, foregoing college for the opportunity to play against seasoned players and, let’s be honest, earn money off their hard work, which wouldn’t have been the case had they opted for the NCAA.
Of the two, Ball has started off the best. The 6’6 all-around point guard, shooting guard, positionless guard, or however you wish to categorize him, is putting up huge numbers for the Illawarra Hawks, ranking second on the team in scoring (17.0) and first in rebounds (7.5), assists (6.9), and steals (1.7). Ball has put up monster triple-double games this season and is looking like a player who can come into the NBA and contribute immediately.
Ball is a freight train of energy who pushes the ball whenever the opportunity presents itself, and seems to be involved somehow in every possession when he’s on the floor. Ball has the green light to more or less do whatever he wants, and that shows in his efficiency, which is a cause for concern. Ball is hitting just 37 percent of his shots, including a frankly miserable 24 percent from range. He shot 1-for-11 against Hampton’s New Zealand Breakers on November 30th.
While it’s impossible to deny Ball’s dynamic play, it’s fair to question his sense for shot-selection and understanding what a quality attempt is. In the NBA, putting up wild shots outside of the flow of the offense will quickly lead to a benching, and Ball right now has a bang-bang-play mentality which needs to be matured. At 18 however, this is a common theme for most players.
Hampton, a 6’5 lead guard who also projects to become a multi-positional player, is also doing well, albeit his play has been less spectacular than Ball’s. Hampton is averaging a more modest 10.0 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 2.6 assists over his first 11 games, but does not have as free rein as Ball, which could explain his pedestrian stat-line. Hampton is averaging 22.5 minutes a night, almost nine minutes less than Ball’s 31.3.
The 18-year-old Hampton plays a more under-control disciplined game, taking shots within the offensive structures, moves the ball, and makes straight-line drives to the rim when the lane is open. He’s shooting 44.7 percent from the floor, including 34.3 percent from range, and is converting on just 62.5 percent of his free throws, which is an area that needs to improve in both volume and percentage.
Hampton’s modest line doesn’t prevent him from being impressive with his open court speed. It seems he’s the quickest player on the court during most nights, and he will leak out after opponent misses to create transition opportunities. Hampton is in many ways the more mature player when it comes to his decision making, but his lack of big numbers could influence NBA decision makers come June.
Elsewhere in world, specifically Europe, two french point guards are making waves, as Theo Maledon and Killian Hayes are preparing their games for the NBA next season.
Maledon has started in seven of his 11 games this season for ASVEL, and while the 6’3 point guard isn’t putting up numbers that will blow anyone out of the water, it’s worth mentioning he’s played better in Euroleague context than in the French Pro A league, also known as the Jeep Elite. Furthermore, Maledon missed 10 games of play due to a shoulder injury.
Maledon is netting 5.3 points and three assists in league play, shooting just 39 percent from the field. Those numbers increase to 6.4 points and 3.6 assists in Euroleague play, and he’s playing roughly 16 minutes per game in both leagues.
Maledon resembles Hampton in the sense that he’s a fundamentally sound player, who plays within a team scheme. He’ll hit rolling big men off pick and rolls, he’ll seek out corner shooters, and make simple entry passes.
Offensively, he’s confident enough to come off picks and pull up for mid-rangers, and he won’t hesitate to take open three-pointers if he’s open. He’s not yet someone who will wave people off and go heavy on isolations, which is very typical of young European guards not named Luka Doncic.
Defensively, Maledon is a scrappy player who does his best to fight over screens and fit into a team defense. When he comes over, it wouldn’t come as a shock if his future NBA coach will talk about his coachability and willingness to adapt. Maledon is, in theory, a player you can plug into any system and he’ll find a way to make himself useful.
At just 18 years of age, Maledon has already played professionally since 2017, and seems unfazed when going up against giants such as Olympiacos or Maccabi Tel Aviv, which bodes well for his NBA future.
In Germany, Hayes is tearing up the BBL (Basketball Bundesliga) after switching teams over the summer due to bizarre circumstances. Hayes debuted for Cholet in the Jeep Elite at age 16, but transferred to German Ratiopharm Ulm this summer to avoid having to sit out six regular season games because of a suspension by the french basketball federation due to his unwillingness to participate in the U20 European Championship.
Having avoided that situation, the Florida-born Hayes is now playing the best ball of his young career, admittedly against inferior competition. Whereas Maledon is playing in the Euroleague, Hayes is playing in the less competitive Eurocup.
Hayes, in league play, is netting 10.1 points and 5.1 assists in just over 23 minutes of play and is stepping up to the plate at a tune of 12.5 points and 6.9 assists in Eurocup play. He’s shooting just 29.6 percent on three-pointers overall, but his 90.2 percent free throw stroke indicates a lot of potential in that area.
Not unlike the Ball/Hampton dynamic, is Hayes a more flamboyant player than Maledon. At 6’5 and with a quick lefty trigger, Hayes isn’t afraid to play aggressive ball and break out on his own. Potentially due to having an american father, who had a professional background in basketball, Hayes seems more immediately adaptable to the US game, as he loves going downhill, and will pull-up from three off the bounce.
Maledon and Hayes, much like Ball and Hampton, are projected first-round selections, but each player will need time to round out, and refine, their game.
That also stands true for Deni Avdija, the only international non-guard currently projected to be selected in the first round.
The 6’8 forward from Israel, who plays for Maccabi Tel Aviv, is averaging 8.3 points and 6.7 rebounds in 22.7 minutes – which shows a fair amount of trust in the 18-year-old, as a 20+ minute average for someone that young is a rare occurrence.
Avdija is hitting 51.4 percent of his shots, including a decent 35.7 percentage rate from deep, in league play. In Euroleague competition, his opportunities are significantly smaller, as he’s averaging just 11.7 minutes and 2.2 points.
NBA teams will enjoy the chance to speak to Avdija in the pre-draft process as his english is already very good, meaning there will be no communication hiccups. In that sense, he is similar to Kristaps Porzingis who came over speaking english fluently, which helped him accelerate his own development. Avdija also has former NBA forward Omri Casspi in his corner, a player he ironically compares well to.
Avdija enjoyed tremendous success last year for Maccabi’s junior team, averaging 24.4 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 6.3 assists, functioning as the team’s leading decision maker. He won MVP in Charlotte in February, at the NBA Without Border All-Star Camp, and projects as a multi-functional forward, who can initiate the offense, playmake, and spread out the defense with his clean shooting stroke.
NBA teams should have no qualms paying extra for their scouts’ nine or ten-hour flights this season. It looks like a pretty good investment to do so.