So many of the top prospects in the 2020 NBA Draft are playing in leagues outside of the United States and far away from the NCAA. LaMelo Ball and R.J. Hampton are American teenagers who have taken their games to Australia and look the part of top-10 draft picks so far. French guards Killian Hayes and Theo Maledon are building similar reputations while playing in Europe. Israeli forward Deni Avdija is drawing top-five hype as a gifted passer and open-floor ball handler while playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv.
The result of so much talent abroad has been a college basketball season that feels a little lackluster, at least at the start of it. Unlike a year ago when Zion Williamson reigned supreme, there remains no obvious No. 1 prospect. There also aren’t any freshmen super teams just yet (though Arizona and Memphis could get there), which means the talent is more spread out around the country.
While we wait for storylines to emerge and the prospect hierarchy to take shape, here are eight college basketball players NBA fans should keep an eye on as the season progresses. Also be sure to check out our first 2020 NBA mock draft, which was published in June the day after the 2019 draft.
Prospects rising into the lottery
8. Isaiah Joe, SG, Arkansas
Joe wasn’t considered a top-100 recruit when he entered Arkansas, but a strong freshman season and a useful skill set has put him on NBA radars at the beginning of his sophomore year. The lone non-freshman on this list, Joe makes the cut thanks to his beautiful shooting stroke. The 6’4 guard can hit threes with deep range and off movement, projecting an easy NBA fit for a team that wants a knockdown threat in the backcourt. He has taken nearly 10 three-point shots per game at the start of his sophomore season, and has knocked them down at a 41 percent clip.
Can Joe get to the rim? Right now, 65 percent of his field-goal attempts are threes. He hasn’t shown a consistent ability to get to the foul line, and was a pretty rudimentary passer last season. His defense will also be under the microscope as this season progresses.
7. Onyeka Okongwu, C, USC
Okongwu has perhaps been the biggest early season revelation for NBA scouts so far. The USC center is long and strong at 6’9, 245 pounds, with a quick second jump, impressive agility, and refined rim protecting instincts. He’s scored at least 20 points and/or grabbed double-digit rebounds in three of his first five games with the Trojans. Watch the highlights of his 33-point performance vs. Pepperdine here:
Okongwu has an obvious fit in the NBA as a bouncy dive man who dunks everything on offense and can block shots and rebound on defense. This isn’t the type of unicorn center NBA teams love right now, but he knows how to play and has a functional skill set.
Top-10 picks with high school hype
6. James Wiseman, C, Memphis
Wiseman’s eligibility status at Memphis has become one of the biggest stories in sports (find out all the details here). We now know Wiseman will be suspended for 12 games and return Jan. 12. NBA scouts will be thrilled to get more tape on Wiseman because he feels like one of the more polarizing prospects in this class.
The No. 1 overall recruit has been hyped as the potential top pick in the draft, and it’s easy to see why some think that. He has broad shoulders, long arms, developing strength and finishing ability. He’s a good shot blocker and dependable rebounder. His face-up game is showing early signs of life. For most of NBA history, teams dreamed about finding 7-footers with this kind of physical profile.
The issue for Wiseman is one of both skill and feel so far. He doesn’t appear to have super quick reaction time defensively on his backline rotations. He’s found himself in trouble biting on pump fakes. His offensive game isn’t particularly developed yet, and he goes too many possessions without making a real impact. Wiseman remains a good prospect, but with centers in his mold becoming more deemphasized in the modern NBA, it feels like he’s better suited to be a mid-tier lottery pick than go No. 1. We had Wiseman at No. 9 overall in our first mock draft and that still feels about right.
5. Nico Mannion, PG, Arizona
Mannion, the 6’3, red-headed point guard on Arizona, is going to be plastered all over ESPN this season. He’s already proven his scoring chops during his short time with the Wildcats, popping off for 23 points and nine assists against a quality Illinois team in his second game. The appeal with Mannion is all about his offense: he’s a skilled pull-up shooter, a crafty finisher near the rim (currently hitting 58 percent of his two-point attempts), and a polished floor general who knows how to run an offense and find teammates. His offensive skill set feels particularly tailored for the spread pick-and-roll era of the modern NBA.
The questions with Mannion will focus on his size and defensive impact. At 6’3, 190 pounds, Mannion will likely struggle to get to and finish at the rim. His early defense has been encouraging in that it isn’t a total train wreck, but his length and strength limitations do hold him back as a switch defender and against more powerful point guards. As long as Mannion continues to look like one of the most skilled offensive prospects in the class, his status as a top-10 pick should be safe.
2-way players with upside
4. Isaac Okoro, F, Auburn
Bruce Pearl has already called Okoro the best defensive player he’s ever coached just a week into his college career. Don’t want to take his word for it? Take it from senior teammate Anfernee McLemore.
“He can guard anybody on the floor. He’s definitely going to be able to be a problem in the SEC,” McLemore said of Okoro before the start of the season. “He can guard centers. He can guard point guards. … He’s just an exceptional athlete. He’s one of those guys that can really play basketball.”
This is the type of hype typically reserved for the highest achieving McDonald’s All-Americans, not a dude who was ranked No. 36 overall in his class entering college. But while mainstream analysts slept on Okoro’s game, internet scouts like Mike Gribanov saw his high school tape and knew he was a high lottery pick. Through his first few games at Auburn, Okoro has been as impressive as his biggest fans could have hoped.
The 6’6, 225-pound wing will always be a defense-first prospect, but his offense is already showing signs of life. He’s hitting nearly 72 percent of his two-point attempts (on eight attempts per game) and has looked good slashing to the basket. His three-point shot is his biggest area of improvement and the shaky free-throw stroke he’s shown off thus far is more evidence that he has a ways to go as a shooter.
This remains far from a consensus ranking for Okoro, but the praise from his teammates and coaches and the early tape sure looks promising. It isn’t hard to think of the defense-first prospects to hit the draft in recent years whose offensive game has blossomed in the league. That will be the hope for whatever team takes Okoro.
3. Tyrese Maxey, G, Kentucky
Maxey started the season on the bench for Kentucky but established himself as the best player on the team from the first game. He scored 26 points to fuel an upset over No. 1 Michigan State in the Champions Classic and announce himself as a serious lottery prospect. While there’s nothing overwhelming about his tools, he is a smart guard who plays with contagious energy and never takes a possession off at either end.
Think of Maxey as a defensive-minded guard with scoring ability. He earned Defensive Player of the Year honors as a rising senior on Nike’s EYBL circuit and has already showed quick hands and quicker reaction time during the start of his tenure with Kentucky. Offensively, Maxey uses great straight-line speed to force transition opportunities out of thin air. He’s already skilled with his floater and is gaining more confidence in his jumper after hitting three three-pointers vs. the Spartans.
Maxey feels like a safe bet to be a good NBA player, but it is fair to wonder if his theoretical upside is high enough for a spot this lofty. Is he long enough to also defend shooting guards? Will his jumper fully come around? Does he have the facilitating chops to be a full-time point guard? The last one he won’t have an opportunity to prove at the college level playing next to sophomore floor general Ashton Hagans.
Maxey is currently projected at No. 14 overall in ESPN’s mock draft, but internet scouts like Ross Homan have been preaching about his talent for a while. It’s starting to feel like Maxey has a chance to have star-level impact one day in the league, but even if he doesn’t, he should be a dependable player for a long time.
The contenders for the top pick
2. Cole Anthony, PG, North Carolina
Anthony is going to put up superhuman production all season at North Carolina. He dropped 36 points on Notre Dame in his college debut, a warning sign for future opponents that he’s the baddest freshman in the country. He already has a rare level of ownership over games, whether he’s thriving or struggling.
It is so easy for Anthony to create offense. He can burn defenders off the dribble with a quick first step, and has an advanced ability to operate in the pick-and-roll. He’s a threat going to the basket with tremendous vertical leaping ability and the touch to finish at the rim. He’s a threat to pull-up off the dribble as well with deep range and unfettered confidence in himself.
It’s fitting that Anthony followed up his star-studded debut by scoring only 20 points on 24 shots in his next game against UNC-Wilmington. This is the other side of Anthony’s game, with his unrelenting scoring mindset occasionally tricking him to try to take on the world by himself. Anthony is the type of point guard that’s going to shoot a lot. It’s going to be mesmerizing when it’s working but can be cringeworthy when it isn’t.
It’s worth noting Anthony is older than Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett from last year’s draft and a year older than many fellow freshmen in this class. Even still, he’s the safest bet in this draft to one day put up all-star caliber numbers in the NBA. He never stops attacking, for better or worse.
1. Anthony Edwards, SG, Georgia
Edwards is going to be a long-term play for whoever takes him at or near the top of the draft. Nearly 15 months younger than Cole Anthony, Edwards was originally slated to graduate high school in 2020 and is going to be one of the youngest players available on draft night. While he doesn’t have the current polish of the UNC point guard, we’re giving him the slightest edge early in the season because of how tantalizing his talent can be once it’s fully realized.
Edwards is a 6’5, 225 pound ball of quick-twitch muscles. He’s a powerful downhill attacker who has a one-track mind to put pressure on the rim. He’s already strong enough to absorb and finish through contact in the paint but also has the body control for crafty finishes. He’s making a living at the foul line through his first four games at Georgia, and that shouldn’t change. He ultimately projects as the type of player who commands help defenders whenever he drives.
Edwards is still rough around the edges in both his shooting and decision-making. He needs to become a more consistent shooter on spot-ups to be a threat off the ball. He needs to continue to learn how to read the floor as he drives so he can best leverage his scoring ability to benefit his teammates. He’s racked up tons of steals defensively in his short time with the Bulldogs on sheer physicality. There will be learning curve on that end, as well.
Edwards is still growing into his game and his body, but the early signs are as intriguing as any player in this class. Playing for Tom Crean, the comparisons to Victor Oladipo and maybe even Dwyane Wade will be inevitable, but they hardly contextualize what Edwards currently is. He has so much to build on and plenty of time to do it.