The best prospects in the 2020 NBA draft could be playing halfway around the world during March Madness. A weak group of Americans and a bumper crop of internationals means that at least three European players who never played in college could land in the lottery. That hasn’t happened since Jonas Valanciunas, Jan Vesely, and Bismack Biyombo were taken in 2011.
The difference this time is that these Europeans all play on the perimeter. The 2020 trio is made up of Deni Avdija, an Israeli combo forward, and Killian Hayes and Théo Maledon, two French point guards. NBA teams are no longer just searching for big men overseas. The rise of the 3-pointer over the past generation has put a premium on the more well-rounded offensive games that European guards tend to possess.
The hard part about evaluating European prospects is that they rarely get the same opportunities as Americans their age. That’s what made Luka Doncic so special. He starred in the EuroLeague, winning MVP in 2018, before coming to the NBA. Most European prospects are stuck in smaller roles on their professional teams without getting to show what they can do against elite competition. That leaves NBA scouts to extrapolate from their performances against less talented players.
Frank Ntilikina is the perfect example. He never averaged more than six points per game in two seasons as a professional before being drafted by the Knicks. His breakout performance came when he led France to a gold medal in the under-18 European championships in 2016, but he has not been able to replicate that success in the NBA, where his inability to create off the dribble against elite defenders has kept him stuck in the same complementary role.
The ways that Avdija, Hayes, and Maledon are being used in Europe will leave a lot of questions for NBA teams to figure out over the next few months. Here’s a look at the biggest surrounding each. (All stats courtesy of RealGM.)
The same situation Ntilikina faced applies to Avdija. He’s a role player in his day job with Maccabi Tel Aviv, averaging 4.1 points in 13.9 minutes per game in the EuroLeague. There are games when he doesn’t do much beyond take a few open jumpers and move the ball around the perimeter. His role expands when Maccabi plays in the less competitive Israeli league, where he averages 12.4 points in 26.6 minutes per game. But Avdija started generating real buzz when he led Israel to a gold medal in the under-20 European championships last summer, averaging 18.4 points and 5.3 assists per game.
It’s easy to see why he was so dominant in that setting. At 6-foot-8 and 210 pounds, he has great size for a perimeter player. Avdija isn’t just a big man who dabbles at the 3-point line. He can initiate the offense and create shots for himself and his teammates off the dribble:
But most of his success comes from attacking mismatches, either big men who are too slow to stay in front of him or guards without the size to bother his shot. He’s not going to have the same type of athletic edge in the NBA.
The windows will be smaller for him. He will have to tighten up his handle and become a better outside shooter. His 3-point shot has come and gone in his two seasons as a professional (31.6 percent on 2.5 attempts per game) and his free throw shooting (52 percent on 1.6 attempts per game) has been abysmal.
The biggest question is: How good can he be if he’s stuck in a 3-and-D role? Avdija is a good enough athlete to survive defensively in the EuroLeague, but he’s not long or fast enough to be an elite defender at the NBA level. He needs to be featured on offense or he could wind up like Dario Saric, another playmaking forward who has bounced around the league because teams preferred players with a more complementary skill set as their third or fourth option.
The team that drafts Avdija will have to be patient. He has shown the ability to be the most valuable type of player—a big wing who can run the offense—but he has a long way to go before he’s ready to do that in the NBA, and an unclear path to getting minutes in the meantime.
Hayes is an example of a player who has benefited from the greater opportunities that come with a step down in competition. He struggled in an off-ball role last season in a tougher French league and has blossomed this year after being moved to point guard in a less competitive setting in Germany. His numbers have gone up across the board:
Hayes’s Numbers Year-to-Year
Part of his growth is the natural result of an extra year of development. But the change in his role might be even more important: He’s more comfortable when he can play with the ball in his hands. Hayes is at his best when he’s in control of the offense, which wouldn’t have been possible had he stayed in France.
He plays like a modern NBA point guard. He’s an excellent passer with great size (6-foot-5 and 215 pounds) who can knock down step-back 3s and pull up from far behind the line:
Hayes is a rhythm player who is more effective when he can pick and choose when to shoot instead of waiting for the ball to come to him. His 3-point percentages have improved as he has changed his shot profile. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, he’s in the 84th percentile of players in Germany when shooting off the dribble and in the 13th percentile in catch-and-shoot situations. The difference is that almost half of his jumpers last season came in the latter category compared to less than a third this season.
His potential is obvious. Hayes is much more than just a shooter. He’s an 18-year-old with the savvy of someone twice his age. He knows how to use the threat of his jumper to manipulate defenses, create openings for himself in the pick-and-roll, and find open shooters on the move from anywhere on the court. Hayes can already control the game and he’s more comfortable operating in a half-court offense than most young point guards.
The concern with Hayes is his physical tools outside of his size. He’s an average athlete without great burst off the dribble. That’s where playing in Germany hurts him. He doesn’t get as many opportunities to show what he can do against elite defenders. And there are plenty of times when his inability to turn the corner holds him back even at the lower level:
It’s hard to know how he would do if given the same amount of responsibility in a better league. The team that drafts Hayes has to hope that he can figure how to use his size and skill to make up for his lack of speed, or that they can improve his athleticism on the margins in an NBA strength and conditioning program. The potential rewards are enormous. But so are the risks.
Maledon is on the opposite end of the spectrum. He plays for Tony Parker’s team (ASVEL Lyon-Villeurbanne) in the EuroLeague, where he has carved out a small but important role for himself this season, averaging 7.2 points on 46 percent shooting and 3.2 assists per game.
His biggest strength is his versatility. Maledon can do a little bit of everything—he can run the offense, create a shot for himself, and slide between multiple positions on defense. There are no glaring holes in his game, which has allowed him to play both on and off the ball at ASVEL.
At 6-foot-3 and 170 pounds, he’s smaller than Avdija and Hayes, but he’s also a better athlete. The one thing they all have in common is that they play with more poise than most American teenagers, which makes sense considering their years of experience as professionals. Maledon plays under control and rarely gets rattled by the defense, and has a great feel for when to change speeds in the pick-and-roll and find his teammates:
He might have the highest floor of the three. The questions for him are more about his ceiling. Maledon doesn’t have the weaknesses of Avdija or Hayes, but he doesn’t have their strengths, either. The concern that European scouts have raised with me is that he may not have one thing that he can hang his hat on at the next level. He’s a good athlete, passer, and shooter, but he isn’t great at any of them. That’s the profile of a solid backup point guard in the NBA, which is all that he has been in Europe.
The 18-year-old has never been given the keys to the offense as a professional. It’s possible that a well-rounded young player with a high basketball IQ can be better than the sum of his parts. But a team that drafts Maledon high will have to hope that he can thrive in a role they have never seen him in before.