It’s NBA Draft time – finally.
Last month, the NBA bubble in Orlando culminated with the Los Angeles Lakers defeating the Miami Heat in the Finals to secure their 17th championship in franchise history. After almost 100 days in seclusion on the campus, we were rewarded as Jimmy Butler submitted one of the best Finals performances of all time, LeBron James continued his G.O.A.T. quest, and Anthony Davis cemented himself as one of the best players in the league.
Now, a standard NBA offseason usually takes about four months or so. This offseason, however, the customary schedule has been thrown out the window. After a feverish bout of negotiations between the NBA and NBPA, an agreement was made on an amended collective bargaining agreement and a start date for the 2020-21 season on December 22. One downside (or upside if you love chaos like me) is that now these teams must cram four months of a regular offseason into a one-month span.
That means tonight we get the 2020 NBA Draft, where the next generation of superstars enter the league and find new homes. Then within 48 hours, free agency and all its madness begins. December 1 is the start of training camp, and the season will begin three weeks after that date. It’s a lot of moving pieces, but it’s necessary to prevent the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars.
So, we’ve heard and seen enough about the elite prospects like LaMelo Ball or Anthony Edwards or Killian Hayes. One thing about me, though, is that I love shedding some light on the unheralded players, regardless of league or level. Today, we’ll be looking at three players who will most likely go in the second round of the NBA draft, for various reasons, but who I believe can potentially iron out roles in the league to contribute in the future. Let’s get started.
2020 NBA Draft Second Round Gems to Watch
Lamine Diane, Cal State Northridge
So, to kick this list off we’re taking a trip to the Big West. Now, these players will most likely go in the second round, maybe even undrafted, which means you might not have even heard of them or seen any footage to gauge them as a player. To fix that, I will be including a highlight montage of all their best plays so you can get some idea of what they can provide to a team.
Let’s start with Lamine Diane, who would be in the conversation for No. 1 overall on Wednesday night if he were 19 and averaged these same stats.
Alright, now that you have seen what Diane can do, let’s break down his strengths and weaknesses.
Strengths: productivity, NBA-caliber measurables, physicality, versatility on defense
I mentioned earlier that if Diane averaged these same numbers at 19 years old, he would be in discussion for the top NBA draft pick with Ball and Edwards. Diane put up an astonishing 25 points per game and a shade under 11 rebounds a game, averaging also close to four stocks a night (steals + blocks) on the defensive end. He missed about half of the season due to academic issues, but when looking at Diane’s advanced stats from this past year, there is a lot to like. The first thing that stands out to me when looking at these numbers is his true shooting percentage of 53.5% and his offensive box-plus minus of 4.2, despite a steep usage percentage of 35.7%. His ability to maintain decent efficiency with such a high usage rate is a strong sign of his skill on the court.
Another positive: his free-throw rate and proficiency around the rim. Diane attempted 14.6 free throws per 100 possessions last season as his free throw rate jumped from .358 to .486, and he shot a commanding 72.5% at the rim, per Barttorvik. In short, he used that NBA-caliber wingspan (7’1”), along with his speed and agility to maneuver past some of the slower big men in the Big West and finish with an array of moves.
On defense, Diane’s physicality and versatility resulted in a ton of outlandish highlights while at Cal State Northridge. Sure, he started games at power forward, but on a nightly basis, he showcased some competency to switch out and guard smaller players on the perimeter while holding his own in the post. Diane produced a strong defensive rebounding percentage of 25.5% last season, showcasing his tenacity on the glass constantly.
Weaknesses: draft age, shooting concerns, overall consistency
Unfortunately, Diane is one of the older NBA draft prospects, just recently turning 23 years old on November 7. This isn’t a death knell to Diane’s prospects as a valuable contributor in the NBA; Pascal Siakam and Malcolm Brogdon are recent examples of older rookies who have carved out roles in the NBA as above-average players. Nonetheless, his NBA draft age should be noted when discussing his ceiling.
Another downside to Diane’s game would be his shooting form and overall concerns. Credit to Diane, his free-throw percentage increased from 52.2% to 66.3% his second season and his three-point percentage didn’t drop too far despite the uptick in attempts. Nevertheless, when looking at the numbers, as well as his wonky shooting form that takes a bit of time to load up and sometimes results in a leg-kick, it could be a while before he becomes a solid shooter at the next level.
Finally, I would have liked to see some more focus and consistency on defense for Diane. You’ve seen the flashy blocks and him jumping passing lanes, but also, I’ve noticed Diane taking possessions off or loafing around on that end. I’ll cut him some slack since he, along with Terrell Gomez, had so much pressure offensively to score and facilitate. But, if he were more locked in, Diane’s ceiling would be more evident.
Verdict: Please do not let him end up in Toronto/San Antonio/Boston/Memphis
As you can see by my verdict, I absolutely love Diane as a player. Regardless of conference, he downright dominated his competition. He’s shown some finesse to create off the dribble, and his assist percentage improved while his turnover percentage remained in the same neighborhood, so he’s becoming a better playmaker. Also, his ability on defense is prevalent and he should theoretically have little issues against NBA bench lineups.
If he ends up on the Spurs on Wednesday, that means he’ll get to learn from Chip Engelland, one of the best shot doctors ever. If Toronto selects him, then he gets to play in the same developmental system, sans Phil Handy, where Siakam and others have flourished. If the Celtics or Grizzlies draft Diane, then they get to pair him with Grant Williams or Brandon Clarke, respectively, which just sounds like hell for opponents. In short, do not let him go to any of these spots or the league might be effectively ruined. Putting these doomsday thoughts to the side, Diane is a phenomenal player and is certainly worth a flyer in the second round.
Sam Merrill, Utah State
Up next, we’ve got Sam Merrill, a marksman from the Mountain West who, while known for his three-point shooting prowess, brings a couple other great qualities to the table.
Strengths: incredible shooting mastery, passing, solid build
It goes without saying that Merrill is one of the best shooters in the NBA draft. Personally, I’ve got him up there with Isaiah Joe and Desmond Bane, among others, in terms of three-point shooting talent. What intrigues me about his game, though, is that Merrill isn’t just a spot-up guy. He’s definitely elite at that aspect of the game, but he is also extremely capable of shooting difficult shots off the dribble.
While his assist numbers might not jump off the page, Merrill is an amazing passer in all facets of the game. He attracts so many eyes on defense, and yet he almost always knows when to make the right read and find the open man. When looking at his advanced stats, Merrill’s assist percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio are perfectly fine for someone who was one of the lead ballhandlers and offensive initiators on their team. As shown in his games against San Diego State in February and Nevada in January (12 and 8 assists, respectively), he is adept at getting his teammates involved.
Lastly, Merrill has solid size at his position. Coming in at 6-foot-5 and about 200 pounds, he was somehow the second-shortest player on the Aggies roster. I would like to see more in terms of agility or speed, but quite simply, that’s not Merrill’s game. He manages to pair his decent size with great IQ, which makes up for his athletic limitations on offense.
Weaknesses: draft age, defense, lateral quickness, explosiveness
Like Lamine Diane, Merrill is among the older NBA Draft prospects, as he spent two years in Nicaragua doing a Mormon mission before he enrolled at Utah State. As a result, he’s basically two years older than most of the seniors in this draft. This potentially puts a ceiling on his upside as a player.
Unlike Lamine Diane, Merrill is not a strong defender. On offense, his nonexistent explosiveness isn’t a concern; no need to dunk when you have top-notch intelligence and can read the defense to score with ease. On defense, he lacks a ton in the agility department. Credit to Merrill, he at least tries on that end somewhat, but he is unquestionably at a disadvantage when it comes to NBA-caliber quickness or strength. It was evident in college and it will be almost inescapable at the next level.
Verdict: Future 8-year sweet-shooting pro
I like Merrill a lot, honestly. He already has a premium skill, and in today’s NBA, you can never have enough shooting. While there are some legitimate concerns defensively, Merrill offers so much as a shooter that it could easily offset the other issues. I predict that Merrill probably goes undrafted Wednesday and plays overseas for two seasons, then pops up back in the NBA like Lakers Summer League legend Matt Thomas did. Quite simply, Merrill’s capabilities on offense are too great to pass up, and some team picking in the No. 55-60 range should give him a two-way contract.
Saben Lee, Vanderbilt
Lastly, we’ve got Saben Lee from the Commodores. During his time at Vandy, he had to deal with two head coaches, three athletic directors, and they only won nine conference games in his three seasons on campus. However, notwithstanding the rough circumstances, I think he showcased a few tools that could lead to success at the next level.
Strengths: insane leaping ability, passing development, attacking the rim, active hands
Lee is quite honestly one of the most impressive athletes I have ever seen. His father, Amp Lee, had a nine-year career in the NFL as a running back, so that at least offers up some explanation for him having bungee cords for tendons. During recent combine drills, Lee posted a ridiculous 44” vertical leap. At only 6-foot-2, that’s quite absurd, and it shows when he’s on the court.
Another positive of Lee’s game is his consistent improvement at Vanderbilt as a passer. As his role changed, shifting from starter to the bench and back, he continuously stepped up as a lead playmaker, and it showed in the advanced numbers and on the court. Last season alone, despite coming off the pine for 15 games, his assist percentage ticked up six percent from his sophomore year. He utilized the pick and roll and his rim gravity to rack up easy dimes to his teammates.
Speaking of Lee’s gravity in the restricted area, he was one of the most aggressive players when driving to the basket this season, ranking fifth in the nation in percentage of field goal attempts at the rim. For reference, per Barttorvik, Anthony Edwards made 89 field goals at the rim, including 27 dunks. Lee, who is three inches shorter, made a whopping 137 field goals at the rim, including 24 dunks. And it isn’t just dunking and layups either; Lee has utilized a litany of gathers and finishes like runners, jump-stop floaters, and finger-rolls.
Defensively, Lee attempts to make up for his lack of size with active hands and other techniques. He tends to jump passing lanes or make plays from the weak side, even sometimes interrupting dribble hand-offs. His small stature is concerning at the moment, but he uses his dexterity well on that end to contribute.
Weaknesses: three-point shooting, ball control, scoring more efficiently
Lee almost doubled his three-point attempts from year two to year three, and as a result, his efficiency took a hit; he only shot 32.2% on almost four attempts per game. He has a slight hitch in his jumper, and he elevates a ton when he shoots, which could be potential reasons for concern. A silver lining to this was his free-throw percentage last season, a somewhat encouraging 75.2%. If he cleans up the issues, he could develop into a solid shooter at the next level.
I have ball control as a weakness for Lee, but it isn’t a glaring issue for me. He was an ambitious passer last season and sometimes tended to lose control of the ball when driving to the hoop. I won’t put too much stock into it, since he essentially was the Commodores’ offense once Aaron Nesmith went down with an injury, but I would have liked to see fewer mistakes to boost his NBA draft stock even more.
Lastly, I would have liked to see overall more efficient scoring at the rim. Lee was able to rack up buckets in the restricted area due to sheer volume and applying pressure at the basket throughout the game, but his percentages leave much to be desired. Per Barttorvik, Lee shot 60.4% at the rim last season and 56.7% his sophomore year (Ant Edwards shot 69%, for reference). We’ve seen what he can do in terms of dunks and floaters, but once he increases his overall efficiency inside the arc, he’ll be much more dangerous.
Verdict: older Dennis Smith Jr. clone
Ok, now I know this sounds weird, but hear me out. Firstly: two wildly athletic scoring point guards with similar builds? Check. Two guards who both had at least 20 dunks and shot similar percentages at the rim during their most recent college seasons (DSJ: 64%, Saben: 60.4%), with very few of those buckets being assisted (DSJ: 12.6%, Saben: 24.1%)? Check. Both had nearly identical true shooting percentages, assist percentages, steal percentages, free throw rates; it is uncanny how similar the advanced numbers are between Lee’s last season and Smith Jr.’s one year at NC State.
Now, obviously, this doesn’t mean the same what it meant for Dennis Smith. He was years younger than Lee is now and also shot better from behind the arc, so it was presumed he would have a solid ceiling. Smith hasn’t panned out to this point, but that doesn’t mean Lee won’t. These numbers were just too eerily similar not to point out.
The point is, Lee already has a similar shot profile and defensive advanced stats to someone who has been in the NBA for multiple seasons now. If Lee is given an opportunity, he can show the world what he’s made of. Hopefully, he lands a spot in the G League somewhere because his skillset is worth a look.