International Scouting Check-In (Oct '21)
A brief check-in on some recent performances from the 2022 NBA Draft prospects we're watching
For better or for worse, the 2022 NBA Draft scouting season has gotten off to an auspicious start. Two of the most highly touted international prospects have underwhelmed early, looking more like second-round picks than top-ten guys. A few returning guys, who flirted with the 2021 draft, look outstanding. Safe to say, October has been a strange scouting month.
We always try not to overreact to small sample sizes, a few games or early season performances. Players, especially young players, all get better as the season goes on and roles become more clearly defined. Especially for international prospects, where the level of competition is extremely high, it’s hard to move them up or down boards this early. They are the only players competing — it would be malpractice to have them leapfrog a college kid simply because they’re playing and the college guys aren’t.
Early on, we have no updates to our 2022 big board to grapple with. That said, we do have a few performances that caught our eye recently, for better or for worse. Here’s what we’ve seen in the mid-October period of Euro scouting.
Yannick Nzosa, Unicaja
Listen to an episode of the Chad Ford NBA Big Board Podcast and you’ll come away thinking that Yannick Nzosa is the most elite defensive prospect in recent memory and a top-three guy in the 2022 NBA Draft. No disrespect to Ford, a polished evaluator who does a great job with his podcast, but we haven’t gotten the same sense from Nzosa. Highlights from last season showed glimpses of incredibly rare natural skills (great length and size with lateral quickness) that pair well with innate IQ rare for a 17-year-old. That combination should give Nzosa excitement.
The issue for Nzosa was figuring out what he gives offensively. While we’ve only seen two or three full games at this point, we struggle to project the areas of impact he’ll have on that end of the floor. Incredibly raw, Nzosa doesn’t appear comfortable taking more than one dribble away from the basket. He’s a solid finisher that doesn’t project as a great lob threat consistently (he doesn’t roll hard enough or direct enough to the rim) and will only get there with strength gains to his lower body. Contact on a screen makes it difficult for him to quickly reorient himself on the roll.
We came away from last week’s game against Manresa thinking Nzosa’s offensive standout skill was his short roll passing, demonstrating a few solid reads and a nice seal on the interior for a handler. If that keeps up and very few developments as a scorer come to be, Nzosa may be below what we’d consider the required threshold as an offensive threat to be considered a lottery (or even a first-round) big man. He’s that far behind on one end of the court.
Of course, the saving grace and what has garnered all the preseason attention for Nzosa has been his defensive upside. To put it bluntly: we weren’t impressed against Manresa. He got caught out of position frequently in Drop coverage out of the pick-and-roll, not influencing plays or discouraging the ball from getting deep into the paint. For how far behind he is offensively, Nzosa needs to be polished, oozing potential and a legitimate game-changer to be worth a lottery selection.
Based on this one game, he’s far away from reaching that point:
Where Nzosa struggled most was in Drop coverage, a staple of the NBA. He couldn’t keep the ball out of the middle, didn’t show great angles on the ball and committed a few cardinal sins, such as letting the roller get behind him. He isn’t perfect on defense, and that’s more than okay for a 17-year-old playing in a pro league. But what we’re seeing is enough to solidify the fact that he isn’t a wunderkind.
Nzosa followed up this game with a 2 point, 4 rebound showing in 19 minutes against Lavrio. Unicaja changed their pick-and-roll coverage a bit when Nzosa was in, going with more aggressive hard hedging. While Nzosa likely won’t be asked to do that in the NBA, he looked a little more comfortable.
Still, there were some areas in which Nzosa simply got overmatched.
Neither coverage seemed to suit Nzosa right now. In a ball screen-heavy NBA, it’s fair to wonder how much work is needed to go into making Yannick a dependable defender on every possession. We’re evaluating long-term, and the natural tools there are solid. He’s definitely worth an investment, now it’s just about figuring out where and when to take that plunge.
He doesn’t project as a great rebounder. He certainly isn’t a finished project with his body. He runs hard and is decently mobile, but isn’t an outstanding vertical threat to thrive in a Jarrett Allen-like roll man responsibility. Nzosa has a long way to go before he cements himself as a top-tier prospect.
Nikola Jovic, Mega
Before the season began, Nikola Jovic was a top-five guy on our big board. As a swing forward who could play the 3 or the 4, Jovic was seen as an elite rebound-and-run threat in the open court, a fantastic secondary playmaker and one of the better off-the-bounce creators for others. That passing would pop offensively when combined with solid shooting.
Jovic made positive strides during the U-19 World Cup to give a ton of optimism about his jumper. Combine that with comfort in mismatch post situations and he was one of those great connector pieces that are so valued, such as Franz Wagner, Tyrese Haliburton or Joe Ingles.
Similarly to Nzosa, one end of the floor is really a negative right now. Jovic struggles defensively. He’s foul prone, slow-footed laterally, easily comes out of his stance and looks very unnatural when having to guard in space. All that means is that the offense needs to be that much better to overcome those shortcomings. For a connector piece like Jovic, that means consistent and efficient shooting, avoiding turnovers and rarely missing games where his output is high.
Thus far, Jovic has not been a consistent shooter, having a strong enough output to make up for his defensive shortcomings or an effective passer. His turnovers are too high and his shot simply isn’t falling. It’s a clear example of a prospect playing at his floor and not indicative of where his ceiling is.
Jovic has played four games this season:
vs. Studenski: 12 points, 4 assists, 6 turnovers, 3-4 3-point shooting in 22 minutes
vs. Cibona: 2 points, 2 assists, 0 turnovers, 1-3 shooting (0-2 from 3), 5 fouls in 14 minutes
vs. Krka: 5 points, 2 assists, 3 turnovers, 1-9 shooting (0-6 from 3) in 31 minutes
vs. Borac: 7 points, 5 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 turnovers, 2-9 shooting (0-3 from 3) in 28 minutes
That’s right: Jovic is 0-11 from three since a strong start to the season. The concerning part is that he isn’t getting out in transition or flashing the expert playmaking that generated so much buzz from the World Cup. He’s forcing passes and aiming his shots, clearly the sign of someone in a funk.
While Jovic is still supremely talented and a guy we believe in, it’s also pretty clear that he’s not voluminous or efficient enough to be considered a lottery name. The defense isn’t solid enough for that connector label to hold up when the shot isn’t falling. We want to believe in the talent he has offensively, and perhaps a different system that is more free-flowing would get the most out of him. But this has been a disappointing start to the season.