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A 2019-20 College Basketball Primer for the NBA Fan

The arrival of NCAA hoops season also means the beginning of the NBA draft season. Even if you can’t tell the difference between a Tar Heel and a Bulldog, we’ve got you covered. Here’s everything you need to know about the draft prospects, the trends, and the sleepers who will matter next summer.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Some NBA fans are apathetic toward college basketball. I get it! College talent and coaching are inferior to the pros, and it’s overwhelming to consume all the story lines and crucial games in just one level of basketball, never mind two. With that in mind, here’s a road map for the madness of the college season (which starts Tuesday), designed for the pro hoops fan. We’ll cover the 2020 NBA draft class, the must-know story lines, and the must-watch games.

Guards Will Define This College Class

The NBA is overflowing with perimeter standouts, from superstars like Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving, to emerging young talents like Trae Young and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, to bench spark plugs like Seth Curry and Lou Williams. Look around the league, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a team that actually needs guards. Well, too bad, because this college class is loaded with guards. I’ve chatted with scouts who have suggested the league needs more switchable wings than perimeter playmakers. But having more ball handlers never hurts. And just because a team doesn’t need a guard today doesn’t mean it won’t need one tomorrow.

There are a fair amount of teams with aging starting guards: I’m looking at you, Toronto (Kyle Lowry, 33), Utah (Mike Conley, 32), and Minnesota (Jeff Teague, 31). Those teams could begin to look ahead with this draft. So many teams are running systems with multiple ball handlers, even Oklahoma City could use one to groom a player next to SGA (and Chris Paul, who is 34).

Two different agents I talked to recently noted the lack of affordable rotation guards in the upcoming free-agent class, so the draft could be an opportunity to get a guard on the cheap. More than half of the first round could be composed of guards, either traditional playmakers or modern combo guards. Here are five guards to know:

Georgia’s Anthony Edwards is my top prospect entering the season. He’s a power guard with elements of Victor Oladipo to his game, along with creativity off the dribble, explosiveness, and a thick frame. Oladipo is a good ceiling for Edwards if he learns to maximize his physical tools (6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan) on the defensive end. If Edwards displays consistency in his decision-making, improves as a playmaker, and plays hard on defense, he has the potential to become the clear no. 1 pick.

North Carolina’s Cole Anthony is a smooth, shifty scorer who comes from an NBA family (former guard, current analyst Greg Anthony). He’s a shot creator who can generate space from anywhere on the court. The question is whether he’s more of a shot taker or shot maker; he’s not a knockdown shooter and has struggled with his consistency. At 6-foot-3, he lacks ideal size as a defender and vision as a playmaker, but his scoring could be enough to vault him up to no. 1, or at least keep him in the lottery.

Arizona’s Nico Mannion has hair the same color as the ball. So he’s got that going for him. He looks to create for his teammates and shows an advanced knack for creating space off the dribble. He’s 6-foot-3 with short arms and a thin frame. He might be limited when it comes to finishing around the rim and defending. It’s vital that his scoring continues to improve to outweigh the cons of any weaker traits. Expect him to go in the mid-lottery to mid-first.

Kentucky’s Tyrese Maxey reminds me of a smaller CJ McCollum. He gets buckets from anywhere, though he isn’t a natural playmaker. In preseason action, he’s shown off a pretty floater that he uses when he doesn’t get all the way to the rim; it’s a valuable shot for a player who could be tasked with creating shots at the end of the clock. I hesitate to fall too deeply in love with his game, since he’s undersized, isn’t an above-the-rim finisher, and has a low jumper release. But he’s undoubtedly a first-round talent who should be, at worst, a valuable bench scorer.

Illinois’s Ayo Dosunmu is everything I wish Frank Ntilikina could be: a defensive pest who controls tempo offensively and makes occasional eye-popping plays. Dosunmu is a sophomore who got steadily better as a playmaker all of last season by using herky-jerky movements to create space off the dribble. Let’s just hope his shot develops, but nonetheless, he could end up being a valuable contributor in the rotation as a mid-late first.

The Warriors Probably Won’t Find Their Tim Duncan

The Warriors stink, just like the Spurs did in 1996-97. Back then, San Antonio lost David Robinson to injury for 76 games of the season, ended up with the third-worst record, won the lottery, and drafted Tim Duncan. The absences of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson certainly have a Robinson-esque significance, but history probably won’t repeat itself, and that’s unfortunate for Golden State. Entering the 2019-20 season there isn’t a no-brainer top prospect like Duncan was in ’97—he was a player so dominant that teams tanked their asses off just for a chance to have him.

The 2020 college class is nothing like 1997; there may not even be consensus on the top prospect come draft night. One front-office executive I chatted with says this upcoming class is more like 2013, when nobody agreed on who was the best prospect, and then Anthony Bennett unexpectedly went first ahead of Victor Oladipo and Otto Porter Jr. The 2020 draft is deep and has a pool of players who should find a place in the league, but there’s no Duncan.

Maybe a player like Edwards will establish himself as the top dog, much like Zion Williamson did shortly after the last college season began, but it’s a draft class with a lot of questions. The Warriors don’t need a guard anyway, which means they could look at a different position ...

There’s One Potential Elite Big Man

For the Warriors, or any other team looking for a big early in the draft, Memphis big man James Wiseman is probably at the top of their mocks. At 7-foot-1 with bounce, Wiseman uses his 7-foot-6 wingspan to inhale opponents’ shot attempts. On offense, he can finish with power around the rim, shoot the 3, and even create offense for himself. That latter skill is most important since it’s what separates good modern bigs from great modern bigs. If a player is solely reliant on others to create shots, then their upside is limited. Wiseman’s potential is limitless.

The excitement around Wiseman’s sheer size and his flashes of two-way brilliance are dampened somewhat by his inconsistent shot and generally apathetic approach. He often floats on defense and lacks a degree of discipline you’d hope for in a defensive anchor.

If Wiseman can erase those concerns with a high-effort season, he could solidify his status as a potential no. 1 pick. But scouts are understandably concerned he will slip, much like Myles Turner did in 2015, or even like Skal Labissière in 2016. Look, Turner is a good player for Indiana, and Labissière is getting rotation time for Portland, but Wiseman should want to be considered something like the next iteration of Joel Embiid or Anthony Davis.

There are other quality big man prospects, like Washington’s Isaiah Stewart and Duke’s Vernon Carey Jr., but no one who can carry a franchise. It’s up to Wiseman to give the top of this draft some size.

There’s a Shortage of Wings

Bad news if your team needs a wing (everyone’s team needs a wing): There aren’t many to choose from. Washington freshman Jaden McDaniels stands out as the highest-upside talent. McDaniels is the brother of Jalen McDaniels, who was drafted 52nd in 2019 by the Hornets. Jaden is the better of the two, and measures at 6-foot-9 with long arms and fluid athleticism that makes him a handful to contain offensively. But he’s lanky like Brandon Ingram, and players with bodies like McDaniels’s may struggle to handle contact around the rim and can get roasted on defense. It especially hurts when their effort fluctuates, as is the case for McDaniels.

Scottie Lewis, a freshman at Florida, is unlike McDaniels. There’s no question about Lewis on defense: He’s a grinder. At 6-foot-5, he’s a bit lean but his length, intensity, and elite athleticism help make up for any size limitations. Lewis’s athleticism pops on offense; he’s like a tier below Zach LaVine as a leaper, and he’s incredibly fast in the open floor. Learning to slow down will be key to him developing a more mature offensive skill set.

Beyond McDaniels and Lewis, Memphis freshman Precious Achiuwa and Louisville’s Samuell Williamson are two potential lottery picks. Other players could emerge, but for the most part the college class is thin on wings. Teams may need to look internationally at players like Deni Avdija to find high-impact wings and forwards in the 2020 draft.

Find Me a Sleeper

If you’re looking for sleepers in the 2020 draft, look for the shooters. “You have to look real hard at guys that can’t shoot, and it’s almost to the point where those guys are almost not draftable,” Mavericks president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson told me in September. It’s a sentiment shared around the league. Shooting is a borderline requisite skill across all positions. That’s why second-rounders like Joe Harris get numerous chances, then end up sticking. And it’s why late-first rounders like Landry Shamet become successes. Good shooting is so hard to find that players who can reliably space the floor keep getting chances to play, and those minutes can lead to improvement.

Falling in love with a guy who “just needs to improve his jumper” is a recipe for heartbreak. It’s much more likely that a good shooter will get better at defense than a bad shooter will get better at shooting. The Joe Harris/Landry Shamet in the 2020 college class is Arkansas sophomore wing Isaiah Joe, who’s my favorite sleeper entering the season. He shot 41.4 percent on 273 3s last season. He can hit 3s from NBA range by using screens and stopping on a dime in transition, or he can drain basic one-to-two-dribble jumpers.

Envisioning Joe on an NBA floor isn’t hard. Every team with a ball-dominant star like Luka Doncic or Giannis Antetokounmpo should look for low-maintenance impact players like Joe. It helps that he’s a smart player, too; he knows how to cut and relocate on offense, and he’s solid at rotating on defense. Joe’s ballhandling and on-ball defense need work, but at 6-foot-5 with dynamic shooting skill and instincts, he’s someone to bet on.