There are no sure things in this year’s NBA draft. The top prospects all have significant holes in their games. No one has separated themselves from the pack like Zion Williamson or Ja Morant.
But that doesn’t mean there won’t be good players available. Go through any draft and you will find guys picked throughout the first round and beyond who carved out long NBA careers. The fact that the players taken in the top five were disappointing doesn’t tell us anything about the ones taken later.
One way to find sleepers in any draft is to look for prospects with the right NBA tools who were stuck in smaller roles in college. No one gets excited about an NCAA player averaging 10 points per game. But that may say more about the way they were used than their ability. Devin Booker is the most famous recent example. He went from a shooting specialist coming off the bench at Kentucky to an All-Star in the NBA. There are plenty of other similar success stories in recent years. Zach LaVine was a reserve in his one season at UCLA. Kelly Oubre Jr. averaged 9.3 points per game at Kansas.
Two freshman prospects in the 2020 draft fit that mold: Josh Green (Arizona) and Cassius Stanley (Duke). They both have the combination of size, speed, and shooting ability that every NBA team needs on the wing. Both are elite high school recruits in complementary college roles. Green is playing with a pair of potential first-round picks in point guard Nico Mannion and center Zeke Nnaji. Stanley is doing the same with Tre Jones and Vernon Carey Jr.
Catch them on the wrong night and you’ll barely notice them. They spend most of their time on offense waiting for the chance to shoot. But every once in a while they will flash the potential to be much more.
It starts with their physical tools. Green and Stanley are two of the best athletes in the country. Stanley (6-foot-6 and 193 pounds) broke the vertical leap record set at Duke by Zion last season. The sheer power of these dunks is frightening:
Green is even bigger (6-foot-6 and 210 pounds) and flies around the court, too. He can leap over just about anyone to grab rebounds and block shots:
But none of that would matter if Stanley and Green couldn’t knock down outside shots. That’s the biggest problem for most young wings with their athletic ability: They spent their whole lives dominating based purely on athleticism, so they never bothered to diversify their offensive game. Getting to the rim and dunking on people is all they ever learned to do—because it’s all they had to do.
Stanley and Green aren’t elite shooters yet, but the foundation is in place. They won’t have to adjust their mechanics or add something new to their games. Their primary job in college is to space the floor, which is what they will be asked to do at the next level.
There are a couple of key markers in their statistical profiles. Both players combine respectable steal and block averages with solid 3-point and free throw shooting numbers:
Green and Stanley Stats
Prospects, particularly wings, who can’t check those boxes before they reach the NBA face an uphill battle. The route to playing time for most young players is in the roles that Green and Stanley already have in college. They won’t have plays run for them. The best way for them to help is by playing defense and knocking down open shots. A coach whose secondary option can’t do that will find an option that can.
Two-way ability has been the key for Terence Davis, an undrafted free agent from Ole Miss who has been a crucial player for the Raptors as a rookie. Davis wasn’t the leading scorer on his college team, but he was an elite athlete who checked the right boxes on defense (1.6 steals per game, 0.6 blocks) and shooting (37.1 percent from 3, 77.2 percent from the free throw line). The majority of players taken ahead of him were better on one end of the floor, but Davis has been more effective in the pros because he can contribute on both.
Look to what Raptors coach Nick Nurse said early in the season about Davis. It’s not hard to imagine Green’s and Stanley’s future coaches saying something similar:
“I’m not sure I expected him to do all that. I’ve talked about [how] he can vault up and shoot the ball, I know that. He’s very athletic, I know that, too.”
It really isn’t more complicated than that. One of the most important tasks for every front office each year should be identifying the small number of prospects in the world who can both jump out of the gym and make 3s. That should be the baseline for every NBA role player.
What separates Green and Stanley within that group is what they did before college. Green was no. 13 in the class of 2019 by RSCI, which averages the rankings of all the major recruiting services. Stanley was no. 33.
NBA executives take those rankings seriously because so much of a player’s performance is determined by factors outside of their control. A superstar will dominate regardless of their situation. Everyone else needs to be in the right role to succeed. A college role player who was highly touted coming out of high school has shown the ability to thrive within a different context.
That is something a G League executive pointed out to me about Danuel House, an undrafted free agent who bounced around the NBA for a few years before starting for the Rockets. House was no. 29 in the class of 2012 by RSCI. He grew up dominating the ball and running the offense. There are times when you can see that in Houston. House isn’t just a 3-and-D player; he can also put the ball on the floor and make plays for his teammates. The defense has to respect his entire repertoire instead of just running him off the 3-point line.
Passing ability within a smaller role can also be an indicator of untapped potential. That is where Green has an edge on Stanley. He has an impressive ratio of assists (2.6 per game) to turnovers (1.5) for a secondary scorer. He consistently makes the right pass within the flow of Arizona’s offense and displays the ability to make advanced reads. Look at the way Green combines his athleticism with his ability to see the floor in transition:
Stanley, who averages 1.0 assists and 1.8 turnovers per game, is more of a straight-line driver. He’s either shooting off the catch, getting to the rim, or passing the ball right back to a teammate. There is little in between.
The upside of his more limited offensive approach is that he’s more efficient. Green often tries to do too much off the dribble, which is why he shoots much worse from 2-point range (46.0 percent on 7.0 attempts per game) than Stanley (54.1 percent on 6.1 attempts).
But he’s still the better prospect. Green is bigger and longer (6-foot-10 wingspan) than Stanley (6-foot-6 wingspan) and has a better feel for the game despite being a year younger.
They both have shown limitations despite playing smaller roles, which is why they are not getting much draft buzz heading into March. But their flaws pale in comparison to many of the players projected to go ahead of them. Look through any mock draft and you will find players going in the lottery who won’t be able to defend anyone at the next level and will have trouble spacing the floor.
Green and Stanley aren’t NCAA stars. But they will be able to succeed right away in the NBA. Players with their skill sets don’t come around often, and they usually outperform their draft spot when they do.
You don’t always have to scour the globe and search under every rock for sleepers. Sometimes they are just hiding in plain sight.