While most attention is always focused on the top picks of the draft, we see NBA teams time after time manage to find valued contributors by drafting them in the 2nd round, and sometimes even by signing prospects as undrafted free agents. Rockets fans should especially be familiar with the concept, as 5 of the 9 team leaders in minutes played per game from the last season were either undrafted or late 2nd round picks.
Inevitably, some of the players who may not hear their name called in the 2022 NBA draft will end up as NBA contributors, in some way or another. Who might those be? In this article, I wrote about 3 names who I believe are underappreciated as prospects:
- Vince Williams Jr (born on August 30th, 2000)
Standing at 6’5 with a 7 foot wingspan, Vince Williams Jr’s case to be drafted is about how well he can slot into an NBA role from day 1, and affect the game without the ball in his hands. He does pretty much everything you’d want your typical role player to do, and is well-acquainted with an off-ball role.
On offense, he offers the combination of strong spot-up shooting, impressive passing, great feel for the game and terrific footwork off the catch. Williams won’t have any plays called for him in the NBA, but he’s elite at what he does, and can contribute offensively without taking up touches from more talented players.
If you don’t close out hard enough, you give up a 3 to a high-volume 40% 3 point shooter. If you do, Vince will attack the closeout, get downhill, and consistently make the right decision, including making zip passes off a live dribble. The best compliment that I can give Williams is that he makes basketball look simple:
Vince Williams Jr’s most impactful skill is his shooting, but his best one? That’s his feel for the game, and that also shows on defense.
Williams’s best defensive role is the one of a roamer. Stick him on a questionable shooter, and he’ll make an impact by blowing up plays, rotating from the weakside, and contesting well with his 7 foot wingspan and strong chest. Williams may only be listed at 6’5, but he plays like a big defensively.
An on-going theme with Vince is that he makes the best of what he’s got, and as a result, his defense is centered on his smarts and physicality. While he has his limitations, such as consistency, jumping at fakes, and his lack of height, speed and lift for his position, Williams is a high IQ defender with length and elite motor. That combination should win out and allow him to make a positive impact in a helper’s role:
The Catch: Being able to make an impact with minimal touches is great, and a harder skill to find than you’d think. But when you can’t handle any type of creation load, that also sets a ceiling on how impactful you can be as an offensive player. Williams’s entire offensive game is based on his shooting, yet he’s not good enough as a shooter to run off screens. So how many possessions can one impact when he’s exclusively used as a spot-up shooter and driver? What happens when he has an off night? And how valuable is that type of player?
Really though, the main concern with Williams, and the reason he isn’t a consensus first round pick, is that he struggles to stay in front of guys in the perimeter. He defends when flat-footed way too often, lacks foot-speed, and has to rely on beating the ball handler to a spot, which doesn’t always work. Every year in the playoffs we see poor on-ball defenders get hunted and played off the floor, so you can already imagine how harmful these plays could be to a defense:
Getting blown by by Hyunjung Lee? Come on, brother. If Williams’s on ball defense doesn’t improve against better competition, resulting in him becoming a liability when guarding the ball, he may not get an opportunity to play to his defensive strengths. I can already see him being put in pick and roll and the defense being forced to blitz or hedge, because you can’t switch him, or play drop with a 6’5 defender.
The bright side is that of the 3 swing skillsets mentioned in this article, his is easiest to fix. Williams may be able to improve his defensive mobility, and just get his on-ball defense to respectable levels by shedding a few founds, and that would go a long way.
The bottom line: It’s easy to watch Vince Williams play basketball and immediately project his role as an NBA contributor. He’s not without his flaws, but his combination of shooting, passing, IQ and length should award him a floor of a scalable multi-year rotation player, and that’s worth a late first round pick.
2. Khalifa Diop (Born on January 15th, 2002)
If you were able to create the perfect center in a lab, what would you do?
You’d probably give him a high motor and make him extremely tall and long. Say, a 7 footer with a 7’3+ wingspan? Then you’d give him the ability to jump high, run fast, move his feet and switch to the perimeter, correct? And also make a couple of nice passes and be extremely strong to boot, I imagine?
That, plus some impressive fluidity, is Khalifa Diop. I kid you not, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a prospect with his tools.
Diop’s offensive role in the NBA will be the typical rim runner, a role he should absolutely excel at. He’ll easily outrace centers in transition, is a ridiculous lob threat, very capable of setting strong screens or slipping them in a timely manner, and most importantly- he doesn’t have terrible hands. Just throw it up there, he’ll finish it. He also has a promising floater, always looks to pass once he draws attention, can handle the ball a little and explode the rim. This stuff translates:
That is it for his offense, and that’s fine. He currently doesn’t have the skill to score on guys in the post, shoot, or create, but he won’t need it to make an impact. You would like to see him to develop some counters once he catches the ball inside and get comfortable with 1 dribble finishes, but I have hope it comes in time.
Defensively, he is hilarious. When switched to the perimeter, he dominates with his ground coverage. He’s very good at showing and recovering in pick and roll, as it’s nearly impossible to pass over him and he’s fast in recovering to his man. He’s incredibly physical, has a high motor, and let me tell you, there are about a thousand things these guard would rather do than challenge him at the rim:
The Catch: Remember the lab? Unfortunately, the machine was unplugged just before you were able to add the shooting, elite feel for the game and knowledge of how to excel in multiple defensive coverages. So now we’re here- talking about a center with world-class tools, who is currently unable to make the best use of them and is mocked late in the 2nd round.
As a result of his disappointing technique and obscene physicality, Diop averaged 7 fouls per 36 minutes in the ACB league. He plays like someone who has been screamed at by his coach to not jump at every fake, so now he sometimes just doesn’t jump, and his rim protection left a lot to be desired. To be fair to him, he didn’t face college guards who just drive inside recklessly- he played legitimate professional comp, against experienced players who are masterful at manipulating the defense. Still, some of the defensive tape is rough, and is better explained through film:
Can you teach Khalifa Diop to play defense? That is the million dollar question. Finding a big with his tools in the 2nd round is not something that happens regularly, and I maintain that his offense is NBA-ready. Picturing Diop excelling when playing against a team like the Golden State Warriors, though, being forced to make the right decision in a split second time after time, can become quite difficult.
The bottom line: Where Khalifa Diop goes in the draft will help answer the question of how much NBA teams value tools vs production in 2022. He’s raw, and a likely draft and stash candidate, but his combination of tools and motor is beyond enticing, and in my eyes, makes him worthy of an early 2nd round pick. Whether Diop actually good at protecting the rim or not, he’ll be a rim deterrent, he should be effective in switch-everything schemes, and an impactful garbage man & vertical threat on offense.
3. Gabe Brown (born at March 5th, 2000)
While you could find Vince Williams Jr and Khailifa Diop on most boards, Gabe Brown is nearly-universally absent from NBA draft discussions. His case is simple, and revolves around length, motor, athleticism, and a whole lot of shooting.
Brown excels in specific things. His best and most translatable skill is his shooting, where despite an unconventional form and a difficult shot diet, he’s at 39% from 3 over the past 2 seasons. While his shooting isn’t Duncan Robinson level good, I do believe he’ll clear the bar to have NBA teams run him off screens to free him up for movement jumpers, replicating his role at Michigan State. He’s also a historically good free throw shooter for college basketball to boot, hitting 90.6% of his free throws over his last 3 seasons.
Another NBA-ready skill of his is his cutting, fueled by his athleticism. It’s easy to envision him running of screens in the league, countering top locking by cutting back-door and having lobs thrown toward him to finish. Package that with his motor on the boards, and you get a forward who legitimately can give you value off the ball:
Defensively, Gabe Brown looks the part. He’s capable of sliding with guards on an island, is good at boxing out his man, and his energy is infectious. He’s shown flashes of high-level help defense, and his 7 foot wingspan and athleticism should enable him make some impact as a low man in the NBA. You don’t play 4 years for Tom Izzo without learning how to value every defensive possession, and with his tools, that typically makes an impact:
The Catch: I didn’t write much about his overall defense and game off-the-dribble, because those aren’t really clear positives for Brown. Offensively, he’s purely a straight-line driver, and not a good decision maker. The team signing Brown will have to put him in a very specific role, because while Gabe does specific things very well, his awareness and feel are poor and multi-tasking is more of a struggle.
Brown has the movement skills to guard PGs in space, but once you get a screen involved, he doesn’t really know what to do other than switch. His rotations were inconsistent, and when he was tasked with making decisions on the fly, he occasionally froze in place, and was very prone for mental mistakes.
He was often put on opposing sharpshooters for Michigan State, not because he’s elite at getting through screens- but because it could enable him to focus on one specific thing, and do his best at it. Here are a couple of examples of what I’m talking about:
While Gabe’s issues may tank his ceiling, they shouldn’t prevent him from being a multi-year role player. Maybe he needs a year in the G League first, but team defense is something players always improve at in the NBA, and I think Brown’s skillset is valuable enough that just being a “Guy” on defense would be enough.
The bottom line: Gabe Brown may have to carry the “low feel” label with him for the rest of his career, but he’ll also always be an elite shooter with an ideal frame who’s tenacious on the court. I believe Gabe is an NBA player. Probably not a starter, might not ever get MLE money, but every team could use what he brings to the table, so contrary to popular belief, I’d happily draft him with an early 2nd round pick. NBA teams can draft him, or they can watch the Heat sign him and somehow get another playable shooting specialist through undrafted free agency.
All 3 of these players are similar, in a sense. Both are better offensively than they are defensively, despite their tools. All play with high effort, and are limited on the defensive end due to their physical or feel limitations. Drafted or not, I’m excited to follow the 3 in their NBA trajectory for years to come.