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These 3 NBA Draft Prospects Are Perfect Fits For The Modern League

The 2020 NBA draft class contains no obvious franchise player. Instead, there are question marks attached to almost every potential lottery pick. Teams will choose from volatile, ball-dominant playmakers, imposing big men who aren’t well-rounded, tantalizing athletes who either can’t shoot or don’t defend and speedy, undersized floor generals.

Outside these specific categories are three modernistic wings — Villanova’s Saddiq Bey, Florida State’s Devin Vassell and Vanderbilt’s Aaron Nesmith — who have been pegged by most mock drafts as worthy of a late lottery pick. They deserve to be held in a higher regard. Each prospect has a wingspan that stretches to nearly 7 feet, defensive awareness and a precise 3-point shot as their most attractive attributes, making them tailor-made for an NBA that for the past half-decade has put a premium on such traits.

These three players aren’t projected to become the featured options in a top-10 offense. They might not make the unteachable, can’t-miss plays that immediately imbue an entire fan base with hope. Instead, their initial appeal is in the comfort of certainty: Bey, Vassell and Nesmith would make sense anywhere — and their skills are as necessary as they should be coveted.

Until further notice, there’s no such thing as having too many good 3-point shooters — in a league where the average 3-point rate grows every year — who can defend multiple positions. At the same time, the “3-and-D” label that’s been written across these players’ foreheads over the past couple of months undersells everything else they can already do, along with the skills they might still develop.

At worst, these players could become complementary pieces — think Danny Green, Jae Crowder or Robert Covington — who could conveniently see a ton of minutes regardless of the opponent. (According to KenPom, Bey finished eighth in the Big East, in conference play, in the share of his team’s minutes he was on the floor.) At best, they could turn into longtime, solid staples for whichever team selects them, if not reliable scoring options in their own right who are capable of an All-Star appearance or two. (Think Klay Thompson, Khris Middleton or a slightly larger Buddy Hield with defensive chops.)

Inject one of these players into a sterile Atlanta defense that, according to Second Spectrum, allowed a league-worst 1.18 points per possession when switching screens, and it would be more difficult for offenses to single out and attack targets like Trae Young. And on the other end, the Hawks averaged the third-fewest off-ball screens per 100 possessions last season, so adding Nesmith, Vassell or Bey could diversify a predictable pick-and-roll attack.

The New York Knicks (eighth pick), Detroit Pistons (seventh), San Antonio Spurs (11th) and Chicago Bulls (fourth) are all in search of a shot-creating centerpiece, but each team is likely facing a lengthy rebuild regardless of who they take in this draft. Why not solidify their foundation now by locking down a two-way cog who answers more questions than he creates — the exact type of player who will contribute to a potential playoff-caliber team in the near future?

Accurate long-range shooters who aren’t weak links on defense have become obligatory in the postseason, and when those players are also able to confidently attack closeouts, run secondary pick and rolls, get to the rim off a dribble handoff, or even punish a mismatch in the post, they raise their team’s floor and ceiling. Bey is an ideal example.

He’s a rangy, strong, 6-foot-8 forward (with a 6-foot-11 wingspan) who drained a staggering 45.1 percent — fourth-best in the NCAA and first in the Big East — of the 5.6 threes he launched per game last season. (According to KenPom, Bey also finished 85th overall in effective field-goal percentage (58.5) and first in offensive rating in the Big East (119.0) among all players whose usage rate was at least 20 percent.)

Bey can function in any offensive or defensive system, rebound, move the ball and, if all goes well, eventually make decisions with it in his hands. On offense, Villanova coach Jay Wright believes Bey can even play some point guard, while his defense could be even more versatile. Last season, Bey was an across-the-board stopper, according to Wildcat assistant coach Kyle Neptune: “If it was the point guard, Saddiq would guard him. If it was a two or three man, Saddiq would guard them. If the best player was a four man, Saddiq would guard him, too.”

It’s easy to imagine a player like Bey immediately helping a playoff team by widening driving lanes for his teammates, operating off the ball and covering one of the opponent’s better options every night — or at least switching onto them and being able to handle his own. The Philadelphia 76ers (21st), Dallas Mavericks (18th), Portland Trail Blazers (16th) and Brooklyn Nets (19th) could use some or all of what he brings to the table. (If the Golden State Warriors aren’t in love with any of the top prospects, they wouldn’t be foolish to trade down and select Bey — or Vassell and Nesmith.)

But these teams will probably need to trade up from the back half of the first round if they want Bey, who also makes sense on several teams that haven’t seen the postseason in years. The Atlanta Hawks (sixth), Washington Wizards (ninth), New Orleans Pelicans (13th) and Phoenix Suns (10th) are a few examples: Each one has already molded their style of play around a high-usage All-Star. If Bey, Vassell and Nesmith end up on one or more of these teams, they won’t need the ball. That should be seen as a feature, not a bug.

Furthermore, according to Second Spectrum, the Suns, Spurs, Charlotte Hornets (third) and Bulls allowed the fourth-, fifth-, sixth- and seventh-most points per possessions guarding isolations last season. The Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers surrendered the third- and second-most, respectively. Improving perimeter defense is a must for each of these lottery teams.

For that reason alone, Vassell, who has been pegged as one of the best defensive players in the entire draft, makes sense for all these teams. Along with having a wiry 6-foot-7 frame with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, his off-ball awareness makes it seem as if six defenders are on the floor. Whether he’s trailing ball-handlers over screens, ducking under them and then recovering, or chasing JJ Redick-esque shooting guards from sideline to sideline, Vassell should display his value from the jump.

Just as important: He made 41.7 percent of his threes in two seasons as a Seminole. It wasn’t at the same volume as Bey or Nesmith (only 3.5 tries per game last year), but as a sophomore, Vassell finished second in offensive rating (126.9) and sixth in true shooting percentage (58.5) in the ACC. Nationwide, he had the 16th-lowest turnover rate (8.2 percent), according to KenPom. Along with Bey, Vassell can excel inside an important role while having the size, physical tools and skill to someday expand beyond it.

Here’s what Florida State assistant coach Stan Jones recently said about his development: “He’s got great basketball IQ. He’s a great finisher in transition. He’s got an unbelievable ability to go left or right, take one or two dribbles and get his primary defender up in the air a little bit. And he’s a killer on midrange jumpers.”

Nesmith’s draw skews a bit less toward his ability to lock down multiple positions and more toward his potential as the most dangerous outside shooter on the board. Before a foot injury ended his sophomore season, the 6-foot-6 wing drilled a scorching 52 percent of his threes (60 of 115 overall). He only made 33.7 percent of them as a freshman, granting fair skepticism of that small sample size. But the long-range baskets he did make weren’t all wide open and off the catch.

Instead, in part by studying how Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum create space with their footwork, Nesmith has incorporated some helpful sidesteps and stepbacks into his own repertoire, stretching his own value outside a traditional 3-and-D weapon. Those rapid-fire responses against NBA-level athleticism will go a long way in winning the constant one-on-one battles that take place 28 feet from the basket.

On the other end, with his 6-foot-11 wingspan, Nesmith is confident that he can not only stay on the floor, but also improve whichever defense absorbs him. “I’m strong,” he told USA Today’s Bryan Kalbrosky. “I can guard the four on most teams, and maybe even one through five on teams that like to play small ball.”

There are important areas of basketball where these three don’t shine, and itchier GMs may reach for the brawny, rim-running 7-footer or a guard who may one day offer a tsunami of scoring options all by himself. Talent and upside are often too enticing to pass up. But Bey, Vassell and Nesmith are equipped with an invaluable amount of skill and size, enough to elevate their surroundings and simplify their teammates’ responsibilities whenever they share the floor.

In a league that craves the offensive gravity and defensive versatility each one promises to offer, it shouldn’t be a surprise if more than one is off the board before the first 10 picks are announced. And at the same time, if all three don’t go in the lottery, every team that leaves them sitting in a virtual green room may live to regret it. Bey, Vassell and Nesmith have exactly what every team needs to win in today’s NBA.

Michael Pina is an NBA writer from Boston who lives in Brooklyn. His work has been published in GQ, The New York Times and several other places across the internet. He is also the co-host of Sports Illustrated’s Open Floor podcast.