The No. 1 pick in the 2020 NBA draft is up for grabs, especially with little consensus among the crop of likely one-and-done college prospects. And three months into the season, the European hierarchy is just as wide open.
Outside of Deni Avdija -- who has been scouted heavily and looks like an established top-10 pick at this point -- there's minimal clarity at this stage in what's shaping up as a deep international class.
Is Leandro Bolmaro the draft's second-best prospect in Europe?
The 19-year-old, 6-foot-7 Argentinian playmaker is generating momentum as a possible first-rounder. He caught the eye of NBA scouts during a 19-point, 7-assist performance with Barcelona's second team over the weekend. Although he's playing at a low level in the Spanish third division, Bolmaro dominated the game on both ends.
Barcelona head coach Svetislav Pesic liked what he saw from the teenager so much that he rewarded him with his first career Euroleague start against ASVEL and Maledon a few days later -- playing Bolmaro exclusively at point guard, a rarity for the veteran-dependent coach. Although he logged only nine minutes in the win, Bolmaro showed talent, aggression and nonstop energy. At times against Maledon, he looked like the superior prospect, playing full-court defense, fighting over screens, getting downhill out of pick-and-roll and keeping the offense humming.
A well-rounded athlete with a tireless motor and a flair inspired by fellow Argentinian Manu Ginobili, Bolmaro offers real versatility. He can play off of others as a slashing, cutting wing or function as a big point guard. After shooting just 29.9% from 3 in 127 attempts with Barcelona B last season, his stroke looks cleaner. He's converting 34% from distance through 16 games, making for increased effectiveness. On top of that, he has developed into a valuable defender with sharp instincts and quick feet.
He's still streaky from the perimeter and not the most efficient half-court scorer. He lacks elite length relative to his height and can be a bit erratic with his deliveries at times. On top of that, Bolmaro was far from dominant at the U19s, with an even assist-to-turnover ratio and a 48.6 true shooting percentage. He also shot just 8-for-27 in his first two LEB Silver games this season. And despite his start against ASVEL, Bolmaro doesn't have the cleanest pathway to playing time, which could affect his decision to enter the 2020 draft.
But the fact that Bolmaro is getting occasional Euroleague burn for one of the best teams outside of the NBA speaks to his ability to impact winning. He deserves to be entrenched in the first-round conversation. Add in that teammates rave about his work ethic and Bolmaro might have one of the highest floors in the draft among the European crop. He holds clear role-player potential, with a chance to develop into more than that given his skills and creativity at his size.
Killian Hayes and Theo Maledon battle to be top Euro PG
The French guards remain in a see-saw battle for top European point guard status, with each fluctuating wildly over recent weeks.
Hayes laid an egg against Monaco in a recent EuroCup game with 10 NBA teams watching, finishing with only three points, four fouls and two turnovers on 1-for-5 shooting in a blowout loss, with some of Hayes' athletic shortcomings and turnover issues shining through. Hayes rebounded from the loss exceptionally well, though, going for 15 points and four assists in a do-or-die German Cup game days later, looking the part of a lottery pick in the process. After a rough start to the season, his Ulm team has won four of its past five Basketball Bundesliga games.
Maledon's production and playing time have been even more erratic. With a large contingent of NBA scouts in Lyon to see Maledon take on Milano in Euroleague action, his minutes evaporated. Maledon finished the night playing a Euroleague season-low six minutes, only nine days after getting a season-low four minutes of action in a 25-point win over Nanterre in France Pro A action. Maledon had been struggling to stop the ball on the defensive end. His coach Zvezdan Mitrovic clearly wanted to send a message.
Slow-motion look at Amar Sylla's shooting mechanics. Becoming reliable from 3 is definitely a priority as far as his long term development goes. In the short term, can impact the game with his length and outstanding agility at 6-9. pic.twitter.com/e4uHPs2rAg— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) December 15, 2019
After responding with a solid 25-minute showing in a French league game, Maledon was inserted back into the starting lineup against Barcelona on the road and more than held his own, finishing with 10 points, 3 assists and 4 turnovers in 21 minutes before fouling out halfway through the fourth. Maledon defended harder, made better reads, played with more aggression and shot it well from 3, but still showed shortcomings as a shot-creator athletically. Consider, though, that there are no 18-year-olds in the draft logging 20-plus minutes at the Euroleague level. The simple fact that he's able to compete in that type of game speaks to his maturity.
So, which French guard will ultimately end up as the better NBA player?
Hayes has more on-ball upside given his ball-screen shot creation and confidence, and Maledon is a hint more versatile. Maledon is viewed as the safer pick thanks to his ability to function on or off the ball, along with his heralded work ethic. So long as he eventually develops into a serviceable defender given his size and 6-9 wingspan, Maledon projects as a reliable guard who can make a spot 3 or pull-up against an under, get a team into its offense and ultimately exist in multiguard lineups.
On the flip side, Hayes is more gifted with the ball in his hands. He's developing into a fairly dynamic pull-up shooter, passer and scorer with floaters or at-rim finishes inside the arc. Although he's playing against a lower level of competition, Hayes has been slightly better than Maledon at the defensive end, even if he's prone to fouls and getting beat off the dribble by quicker guards.
Yet Hayes is not a jet with the ball. He struggles to do much of anything with his right hand, he's a streaky shooter and he's fairly ball dominant. Still, Hayes' long leash has allowed scouts to get a clear view of how his game translates to the NBA as a 6-5 pick-and-roll lead guard.
Scouts are still trying to figure out what to make of Maledon's ceiling. He has incredible poise for an 18-year-old, and his work ethic is tireless. But you'll often hear Frank Ntilikina comparisons from NBA scouts regarding Maledon's risk-averse style of play. For Maledon, it's important to reestablish his productivity from last year to maintain his draft stock.
Even if -- according to some scouts -- Hayes might be trending ahead of Maledon, both still have questions to answer. They are firmly slotted behind the top collegiate point guards such as Tyrese Haliburton and Nico Mannion.
The wild cards
Teams have wildly different opinions on two international prospects in Amar Sylla and Aleksej Pokusevski.
Pokusevski is shaping up as the draft's mystery man, as several high-level executives have traveled to Athens to watch him practice and play in Greece's second division (an extremely low level of competition).
A highly-skilled, agile 7-footer, Pokusevski is tantalizing with his pass-dribble-shoot skill set, yet he's tough to evaluate given his narrow frame, lack of toughness and development situation with Olympiacos. I was slated to go see Pokusevski on two occasions during this trip, but a nagging injury suffered on Nov. 30 has kept him sidelined. For now, some scouts see a unique sleeper while others are making Dragan Bender comparisons.
I was able to catch Sylla, a Senegalese big man. Although his night was cut short because of a calf injury, Sylla showed exactly why he was once a projected lottery pick. In just 14 minutes of a Belgian Cup quarterfinal, the 6-9 Sylla managed to knock down two midrange jumpers, hammer home two putback dunks, run the floor hard and show his defensive versatility, sliding on the perimeter and covering an incredible amount of ground for a one-legged block at the rim.
Having moved from Senegal to Real Madrid as a 14-year-old when he first picked up a basketball, Sylla is now starting to hit his stride in his debut season with Oostende of Belgium. Sylla took time early to get comfortable at this level, as he struggled to play with consistent energy and grasp concepts on both ends. However, the rangy lefty is starting to turn the corner. He's averaging 11.4 points and 6.2 rebounds while shooting 63% from 2 and 21% from 3 in 30 minutes over his past five games across both the Belgian League and Champions League.
He's an ideal fit physically in today's game, with measurements nearly identical to Pascal Siakam. Siakam is an evaluation outlier and figures to generate a lot of unfair comparisons for young players, but from a physical perspective, there are definite similarities.
Siakam stood 6-9½ and 227 pounds with a 7-3 wingspan as a 22-year-old at the 2016 NBA draft combine. As a 17-year-old, Sylla measured 6-9 in shoes with the same 7-3 wingspan. He's now at 207 pounds as an 18-year-old with a wiry frame. Like Siakam, Sylla is an incredibly agile mover with the ability to change directions quickly for his size.
Big jump from French guard Abdoulaye N'doye this season as he's averaging 11.1 PTS, 4.8 REBS, 2.8 AST, and 1.5 STL in 28.4 MIN for 9-3 Cholet. Also shooting 60% from 2 and 8-of-16 from 3 so far. Has always been physically interesting at 6-7 with a 7-2 wingspan. Auto-eligible. pic.twitter.com/FGdz2zDaA5— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) December 14, 2019
When Sylla is playing with the energy I saw firsthand in Oostende, he's one of the most graceful rim-runners you'll find. His agility jumps out defensively, as he can switch onto the perimeter and has the fluidity to shift all over the floor should his decision-making improve. But he's not overly physical, his motor fluctuates and he doesn't have a reliable offensive skill right now. He's really at his best functioning as an athletic 5 rather than the 4-spot he's playing. Despite a streaky jumper with inconsistent rotation, Sylla has long preferred to operate as a more perimeter-oriented skill guy.
Should Sylla commit to being an energizer early in his career while building out his skills, he could prove to be a draft-day steal for a team willing to be patient with his development.
Improving auto-eligible prospects
I got a firsthand look at Cholet's Abdoulaye N'doye in a France Pro A game at Le Mans. Although Cholet lost only its fourth game of the season, N'doye stood out as one of the more valuable players on the floor in a team-high 36 minutes. After not generating significant interest as an early-entry draft candidate last summer, he's far more consistent in his defensive approach now. He's sliding with point guards, containing wings and even switching onto some bigs at 6-7 with a 7-2 wingspan, looking like one of the more versatile on-ball defenders in Europe.
N'doye is more confident and efficient with his spot-up 3, shooting 9-for-19 from distance and 75% from the free throw line through 13 games. He still runs from open looks a bit and needs time and space to fire, but he's more than capable of spacing the floor with his feet set.
While he still fancies himself a big point guard, he looks more comfortable playing as a secondary option, which masks some of his athletic limitations in terms of burst and pop around the rim. He has found success playing alongside Michael Stockton, being able to play off closeouts and attacking space into floaters with either hand. N'doye is more valuable as a 3-and-D wing who can play some second side pick-and-roll, which makes for a more realistic pathway to an NBA career. Should he keep this up and answer questions about his approach to the game, N'doye should become a popular second-round name in June.
Louis Olinde also reenters the back end of our top 100 draft rankings due to his play this season as a starter for a Bamberg team that's 7-3 in the German BBL and 4-5 in Champions League. Although there's nothing overly flashy about his game, Olinde is starting to fill out his rail-thin 6-10 frame while making 36.8% of his 3s, moving the ball offensively and playing with activity on the defensive end.
Serbian 7-footer and Red Star product Borisa Simanic is another prospect scouts will continue tracking, as he was highly touted as a youngster and has some value given his shooting stroke, along with his fluidity and ability to finish above the rim in space. He has been in and out of the lineup, but he shows you enough flashes to stay on the draft-day radar.
One last scouting note about potential sleepers and steals: Between Australia and Europe, this year's crop of international prospects is as spread out as any class in recent memory. Looking at our top 100 rankings, there are prospects playing across 12 different countries in Europe: Israel, Greece, Belgium, France, Spain, Serbia, Italy, Bosnia, Lithuania, Latvia, Germany and Russia, which makes scouting this group a longer, more tedious process than usual for teams -- especially when you add in LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton in Australia.
In a draft with little consensus and prospects all over the globe, I'd expect even more draft-day steals than usual come June.