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You Can’t Fly in the NBA Unless You Have Wings

While ball-dominant guards and big men have long ruled the league, there’s now a greater appreciation—and market—for two-way wings. What does the 2020 draft class have to offer?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Thursday, the NBA’s board of governors voted to approve a 22-team format to resume play on July 31, and we also learned when the league plans to hold its annual offseason events. The draft lottery is scheduled for August 25, and the draft is tentatively set for October 15. The draft’s date could be pushed back if any games or other events need to be postponed due to the coronavirus, according to multiple sources. But that’s the schedule for now. Teams will have ample time to continue scouting this draft, which is weak on star power but heavy with potential high-end role players, especially at the wing spot.

Wings carry a ton of responsibility in today’s NBA. Just look at the Rockets. P.J. Tucker goes from bruising Anthony Davis in the post one night to defending Luka Doncic’s step-backs the next. Robert Covington protects the rim, yet he’s also tasked with defending elite guards on the perimeter. On offense, both of them primarily shoot spot-up 3s, but they also set screens and roll hard to the rim like big men usually would. The league has become a positionless place, and versatile wings like Tucker and Covington are the sticky pieces who make everything around them work.

But it’s usually not easy to find complementary wings who shine in their own roles alongside stars like James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Tucker was selected no. 35 overall in the 2005 NBA draft, played 17 games as a rookie in Toronto, then spent five seasons playing overseas before returning to the NBA. Covington went undrafted in 2013, signed with Houston, got cut before his second season, and then made a name for himself in Philadelphia before Daryl Morey eventually brought him back in a trade this season. Most guys who become versatile two-way wings don’t have all the skills they need as rookies. At only 6-foot-5, Tucker was considered undersized on defense, and attempted only four 3s in college, while Covington wasn’t close to the defender that he has developed into. Not every wing who enters the draft can be like Shane Battier, who was selected sixth overall in 2001 as a prospect with already developed traits.

At Duke, Battier proved he could shoot 3s at a quality level, make solid decisions as a passer, comfortably switch onto guards, battle against bigs, challenge go-to scorers, provide reliable help defense, play hard, and happily accept a role behind a star. Battier was drafted by Memphis then traded to Houston, where he became the quintessential 3-and-D player, and later, helped Miami win two titles. There aren’t many prospects like Battier; usually, a young player enters the league like Tucker or Covington, with concerns about one or more of those aforementioned role-playing skills. It takes time for those prospects to iron out their weaknesses, which makes searching for successful wings in the draft a difficult challenge.

The 2020 NBA draft will be no different. Conversations with general managers and front office executives reveal that opinions and rankings are all over the place for this class. It’s the type of draft that a team selecting in the 40s could land a guy they might have ranked in their teens. There will be good players who slip, and we’ll someday wonder how everyone overlooked them, like Tucker or Covington. There could also be lottery picks who naturally come in with high expectations, but simply grow into an effective role player, like Battier. I have 14 prospects listed as a “wing” on my big board in The Ringer’s 2020 NBA Draft Guide, and all of them have dramatically different questions about their games. Many have iffy jump shots. Some need to work on their shot selection. Others are too thin, raising doubts about their defensive upside. The one thing they have in common: none are ready-made.

Tucker should serve as an archetype for young players looking to stay around. His foundation is his winning mentality. He plays hard. He plays smart. One prospect who displays shades of Tucker is Colorado junior Tyler Bey.

Coaches usually have to worry about rookies making proper rotations, but that won’t be an issue with Bey, who fearlessly steps in front of attackers to alter shots or take a charge. In the clip below, he’s the guy in the bottom right corner of the screen, wearing the no. 1 jersey.

Bey alertly rotates toward the rim, then takes a quick hop before leaping straight up to block the dunk attempt. Bey is thinner in the waist than Tucker, who possesses diesel thighs, but with his length (7-foot-1 wingspan), quick-twitch leaping ability, and overall strength, he projects as an effective rim protector in the NBA. Much like Tucker though, he’ll need to master his perimeter defense to become as laterally agile as possible. But it’s hard not to feel confident he’ll get there considering his work ethic and already impressive abilities.

Whether Bey can shoot is the bigger question. Hitting 3s is far more important now than it was when Tucker entered the league. Tucker tried four 3s combined in all three years of college. Bey attempted only 59 throughout college, and hit 31 percent of them. From the line, Bey shot an encouraging 75 percent. And to Bey’s credit, Colorado didn’t just have him taking standstill 3s; they ran him off screens and used him in pick-and-pops.

Note the fist pump with the reaction from his teammates. Bey is an intense player who sets the tone for the rest of his team. These intangibles give him appeal beyond his straight skills on the court, but Bey’s inconsistent form does need to improve. His off-hand stays on top of the ball for too long and his footwork is spotty, often landing too wide, like in the clip above. Even though he made the shot, players with irregular landings usually have streaky shooting results. Bey’s chances of becoming a reliable shooter from 3 are pretty good. It could just take time.

Mississippi State sophomore Robert Woodard II fits a similar profile. He shot just 27 percent from 3 as a freshman, but jumped to 43 percent as a sophomore. It’s an encouraging leap, although his free throw shooting (64 percent this season) remains a struggle. Still, much like Bey, he’s a versatile on-ball defender and an attentive help defender. Here’s the type of play scouts love to see from a projected high-end role player:

Woodard is no. 12 in the top left corner, helping on the big man rolling to the rim, then rotating back to his man to intercept the pass. Then comes the sexy highlight with a looping touchdown pass to his teammate. Woodard has the brains and the body—at 6-foot-7, 235 pounds, with a 7-foot-1 wingspan—to be a winning player who can make an impact like Covington, who is one of the game’s best help defenders and a versatile on-ball defender.

What’s odd is that Covington didn’t obviously project as a quality defender coming out of college like Bey and Woodard—among other prospects in the draft such as Arizona freshman Josh Green and Villanova sophomore Saddiq Bey (no relation to Tyler). Covington played four seasons at Tennessee State and averaged 14.8 points per game while shooting 42 percent from 3 and 80 percent from the line. There was little doubt about his offensive ability. The concern was his defense after playing with uninspiring effort and a lack of fundamentals. Covington had to change his priorities—he went from a primary option on offense in college to a player who rarely dribbles the ball in the pros.

Florida State freshman Patrick Williams will have to undergo a similar transformation at the next level. While coming off the bench for the Seminoles, the strong-bodied 6-foot-8 wing displayed valuable defensive versatility that could someday translate into long-term success once he learns to change directions quicker. On offense, he averaged 9.2 points, showing a knack for shooting off the dribble. Williams hit 18 of his 43 (41.8 percent) pull-up jumpers, according to Synergy Sports. But he also had a bad habit of driving into traffic or rushing into his moves, both of which led to avoidable turnovers (50 turnovers to 29 assists). Williams will need to become more impactful without the ball in his hands—he looks fluid pulling up for jumpers, but he’s rigid shooting off the catch. He shot just 31 percent on spot-up 3s, per Synergy. As an 84 percent free throw shooter, however, he projects long term as a solid spot-up marksman. And maybe someday, he’ll tap into his on-ball scoring ability, too. But to earn playing time early in his career, he’ll need to show his coaches he can do more by doing less with the ball.

Williams should learn from his teammate, sophomore Devin Vassell, who shines in a low-usage role. Vassell primarily adheres to spot-up 3s, attacking closeouts, cutting, and making wise decisions as a passer. Unless he makes more progress as a ball handler—he hit one dribble jumper as a freshman and then 39 as a sophomore—he’ll likely project as a complementary offensive player. But that’s OK, because Vassell should be a lottery pick alone for his defense.

Vassell must have eyes in the back of his head because plays like the one above are routine for him. Even when he’s not involved in a play, he has the awareness to rotate and disrupt an action. He gets a nasty block in the clip above, but other times he’ll just shift over and deter an opponent from driving in the direction they intended. He hustles for chasedown blocks, too. And as a man-to-man defender, he displays sound fundamentals regardless of the type of opponent he’s facing. There is no “Shane Battier” in this draft, but Vassell, who displays the same no-quit personality, is the closest comparison.

Vassell isn’t a perfect defender. He’s lean. Battier was 6-foot-8 and weighed about 220 pounds during his playing days. Vassell is 6-foot-7 tops, and weighed 194 pounds before his sophomore season. In order to effectively push back on a switch against a big, or keep an oversized perimeter player from plowing his way to the basket, Vassell needs to get significantly stronger. With such a slender frame, he might have some limitations there that cap his defensive versatility.

Auburn freshman Isaac Okoro, another projected lottery pick, has the opposite issue. He’s a chiseled 6-foot-6, 225-pound talent who has everything you want in a defensive player—versatility, effort, intangibles, strength, and quickness. But college opponents began to ignore him on offense whenever he was behind the 3-point line. Okoro shot 68 percent at the rim but 25 percent everywhere else on the court, including just 29 percent from 3, per Hoop-Math. He has stiff mechanics—it looks like he’s heaving a boulder at the rim. What’s worse is he’d often hesitate on open looks or pass them up completely.

Prospects like Okoro often come around; we saw two of them in 2015 with Justise Winslow and Stanley Johnson. Both had shaky jump shots. Winslow was sort of able to figure it out as a 34 percent 3-point shooter over his career. But Johnson hasn’t—he’s shooting just 29 percent, and now he’s barely hanging onto an NBA roster spot. It remains to be seen which side Okoro will fall on.

Players like Okoro make the draft so challenging. There can be so much to like, but it takes only one glaring hole to hold you back. Given the recent emphasis on wings, it’ll be interesting to see when and which teams will be willing to roll the dice in the draft. There are plenty of other wings who offer intrigue. Gonzaga junior Corey Kispert is a sweet-shooting, potential second-round steal. Vanderbilt sophomore Aaron Nesmith and Washington freshman Jaden McDaniels are likely first-rounders. Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Deni Avdija is a projected lottery pick—if there’s one wing who stands as the leading candidate to explode into a superstar, it could be Avdija with his versatility and intangibles. And there are plenty of others who you can read about in our Draft Guide.

It’s a shame these wings can’t all be fused together. But basketball science hasn’t advanced that far yet. Teams can’t even work out players in the gym right now due to the coronavirus pandemic. FaceTime meetings and cell phone video will have to do. Come draft time, some teams will take a risk on a glue guy who makes everyone better any time he’s on the floor. But if these players’ paths are anything like Tucker’s or Covington’s, it might be their second or third team that ends up reaping the benefits.