Offseason chaos has been a staple of the NBA over the past few years, though a weaker draft and free agent class promised to grind that chaos to a halt this fall. However, the NBA’s revised CBA only being completed on November 9th, just over a month before the start of the season, has made for an incredibly accelerated offseason timeline. With the transaction window opening on Monday, the Draft on Wednesday and free agency on Friday, teams are scrambling to gear up for the 2020-21 season.
The first pick has not been subject to speculation just 24 hours before the Draft in several years. The Minnesota Timberwolves, whose core of D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns is far more promising than first-pick holders of the past, have not made any real indication of their plans for the selection.
The two overwhelming favourites are, in the eyes of those close to the NBA, LaMelo Ball and Anthony Edwards. Through a tumultuous draft process with Zoom workouts, delayed pro-days and conflicting reports, the NBA has finally made it to draft day, and the Timberwolves could end up selecting either one with the first pick.
Ball’s celebrity status, stemming from his Chino Hill days and his famous family, only scratches the surface of what makes him a fascinating prospect. Unlike any other top-ten prospect ever, the 6’7 point-guard took his talents to the NBL in Australia, where he averaged 17 points per game on 37% shooting with 7.4 rebounds and 6.7 assists per game.
It can be difficult to read into these numbers because, of course, Ball was literally playing on a different side of the planet than his counterparts. Even more so, Ball only played in 12 games during his Australian stint after an injury in late January.
However, Ball’s time in Australia is nothing to scoff at. ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla, who covers international basketball, lists the NBL one of the ten best leagues in the world. His overall solid numbers against a level of competition greater and more physical than the NBA speaks to his upside as a prospect, catapulting him from the middle of the lottery to the top of draft boards.
Anthony Edwards is a different type of prospect. A 6’5 athletic beast who could likely slot into any lineup in the NBA as a two or three, Edwards averaged 19.1 points in 33 minutes at Georgia, good for first in the entire SEC in scoring even though he played the entire year as an 18-year old.
Though the team was only 5-13 in conference play, Edwards caught the eye of NBA scouts and has been at the top of the draft since the beginning of the season. His scoring prowess has drawn comparisons to offensive stars like Donovan Mitchell who also carried high-volume scoring loads at shooting guard.
Neither player is a particularly plus defender, with Edwards being seen as a defensive project and Ball as relatively undisciplined. Thus it is the offensive side of the floor where the Timberwolves will decide who is the better option.
Though the two players are worlds different, their greatest similarity lies in the uncertainty about their three-point shooting. Within Ball’s aforementioned 37% clip, he only hit threes at a rate of 25% in his 12 NBL games.
Though his 25% three-point clip is, without a doubt, a red-flag, the heightened physicality, and defensive play of the NBL gives Ball a bit of leeway. Still, three-point shooting is Ball’s biggest question mark and will be his top priority as he develops for whichever team selects him.
Free-throw shooting is often a good indication of a prospect’s shooting potential, and Ball shot a respectable 72% from the line on just under four attempts per game. His 12 games are also an incredibly small sample size and make it difficult to slot him in as the next Ben Simmons.
During his freshman and only college season, Edwards certainly struggled with his shot in his 32 appearances. While he shot at a clip of 50.4% from 2-point range, he made just 69 of 237 threes, giving him a 29.1% shooting percentage, a hair better than Ball, but still an ugly total.
For Edwards, there is one question that comes to mind; how do you measure an 18-year old given the reigns to do whatever he wanted in a college offense? Edwards is explosive, physical, and dominant at times, so how do we consolidate his low 3-point rate? At Georgia, Edwards had complete freedom on offense, which makes it difficult to put his percentages in the same light as other prospects.
A staggering 147 of 270 jumpers taken by Edwards were off the dribble, with most of these attempts being threes. Though he also shot 29% on catch-and-shoot threes, the shots Edwards took in the flow of Georgia’s offense- or lack thereof- may artificially deflate his shooting percentages.
This high clip of off-the-dribble shooting volume is one that he will not replicate in an offense with NBA players that can score as well as he can and increased spacing. Another saving grace is that similar to Ball, Edwards’ 77% free throw clip denotes that he has the potential to develop a three-point shot. Overall, while Edwards’ three-point struggles are a little bit more concerning than Ball’s, he is nowhere near a lost cause given the difficulty of his attempts.
All in all, the three-point shooting of each prospect is a massive question mark with sub-30% averages for both players. Neither, as explained, are lost causes. In Ball’s case, the sample size is quite low, especially in a more challenging league and in Edward’s case, shot selection and the nature of Georgia’s offense certainly plays a role. Even with the three-point shooting nature of the NBA, the redeeming qualities of the two stars come from other key traits and teams selecting them are taking a flier on their shooting abilities.
As the primary ball-handler and overall top option for the Illawarra Hawks of the NBL, Ball’s best case to be an excellent point guard at the NBA level lies with his playmaking numbers. At a 27% usage clip, Ball only turned the ball over 2.5 times per game, good for an assist/turnover ratio of 2.7.
His assist percentage of 36% in the NBL shows an incredible playmaking process fit for the NBA, one that has been a question mark for D’Angelo Russell over the years. Though Ball\’s brother Lonzo has been criticized for being a one-dimensional player, LaMelo’s playmaking is not his only asset, but one that looks incredible when you pair it with his shiftiness and scoring prowess from inside the paint and taller, 6\’8 frame.
For Edwards, his greatest upside is his overall scoring dominance. His 52% true-shooting clip makes him an incredibly promising offensive player, even with his long-distance struggles. He is also a solid decision-maker. In possessions where Edwards attacked the rim out of the pick-and-roll, Georgia averaged 1.211 points, good for the 81st percentile in the nation.
Though Ball’s shortened season results provide a relatively small sample size of shot data, the comparison of the shot chart of the two players with putbacks and post-ups excluded tells an interesting story.
In a league with more physicality, heavier, and taller players, Ball’s percentage from inside the paint within the flow of the offense is on-par with the overpowering Edwards. Pair that with the fact that the two get to the line at a similar rate, and Ball’s ability to score inside is not drastically different than Edwards. Ball even possesses a floater game that, while relatively untapped in college, could make a difference as a scorer in the NBA.
Ultimately, Edwards has a ton of room for improvement, making his ceiling high in the long run. For example, despite his high scoring totals and physical prowess, Edwards only went to the line 4 times a game.
Though Edwards is no Zion Williamson, he should use his strength to his advantage in cutting to the rim and similarly drawing contact. In the NBA, where Zion was able to go to the line 35% more despite similar minute totals, Edwards has the potential to become savvier and use his strength to his advantage.
It is a common theme for Edwards: If he can put it all together, his physical tools will take him a long way. There is a world where he will be able to guard four positions while being an incredible option in transition and an efficient scorer inside the three-point line.
Ball, on the other hand, has some of these tools already. He would already be an elite passer on his first day playing in the NBA. However, his efficiency is a point of contention. Although, he ranked in the top 70% in the NBL as a scorer in the pick-and-roll, which is where a multitude of his points would likely come from in the NBA, especially if equipped with a center like Karl-Anthony Towns.
Both players have incredible variability in their eventual outcome as NBA players. On top of that, with Ball’s short stint in Australia and no NCAA tournament for Edwards, teams have a level of uncertainty we haven’t seen in a long time.
Of course, Edwards is a marginally better fit with Russell and Towns as an explosive scorer who can fit nicely between two skill-based players. The Timberwolves have lacked a real wing presence (sorry, Andrew Wiggins) and though the NBA is trending towards multiple ball handlers on a single team, Edwards is the common-sense match with the Timberwolves core.
The Timberwolves dilemma begs the question: Should the existence of D’Angelo Russell, whom the T-Wolves acquired for Andrew Wiggins at the deadline, really dictate who the Timberwolves should take with the number one pick in the draft?
Even though Ball is certainly no Luka Doncic, we saw a similar conversation a few years ago when the Phoenix Suns selected DeAndre Ayton with the first pick. Luka\’s skillset overlapped with the Suns core both positionally and stylistically, thus nudging them to take Ayton, a center who allowed them to fill a spot of need. In retrospect, the selection was obviously a massive mistake. Devin Booker and Doncic may overlap in their skillsets, but they are without question a better duo.
Edwards, also, is a difficult fit as a complementary player. Sure, it is hard to find a player that Georgia would have rather had controlling their offense, but the Timberwolves are not drafting a player that will match Edwards’ 30% usage rate at Georgia. It is difficult to see how Edwards, who cannot particularly shoot or handle the ball, would fit in as a third or fourth option.
There is not much precedent for guards becoming stars when questions like shot selection and erratic play are prevalent going into the draft. Edwards, despite sitting atop mock drafts, is certainly a risk.
In a draft with no consensus, Minnesota should select whoever they believe to be the best player available. When using this seemingly obvious but often overlooked pre-text, LaMelo Ball is the better option. Edwards’ best-case NBA scenario requires so much drastic improvement it may not be worth it. While still a risk in his own right, Ball is far less shaky than Edwards and it is difficult to go wrong with a scorer that can pass and rebound with the best of them at his position.
In a draft without a consensus top pick, the Timberwolves have a difficult choice to make and will be just the first domino to fall in what should be an interesting draft and free agency period.
Cover photo credited to USA Today (Anthony Edwards) & Getty Images (LaMelo Ball)