On the latest episode of the Bleav in Wizards podcast, Larry Hughes and I recapped the Washington Wizards’ bubble experience and evaluated the performance of their young core. While there were some bright spots, it was abundantly clear to both of us that this roster lacks three-and-D wings. Obviously, they could use help at other positions as well and in previous posts I discussed the top center and point guard prospects in the draft.
A defensive wing with the ability to at least hit corner threes to keep opposing defenses honest has become one of, if not the most, popular player archetypes in the entire league. The better teams seem to stockpile as many of them as possible.
While you could make the case that some of the Wizards youngsters could develop enough to fill that role, none of them stand out as an immediate answer. They also likely look to address this hole in free agency but adding more depth at that position through the draft is still a worthwhile pursuit.
With that in mind, here are the five guys I would target in the NBA draft to bolster the small forward position.
1. Devin Vassell (6’6ish):
I think we would all agree that the Wizards need better defenders. Given how things typically play out in the comments sections here, I think it might be the one thing we can all agree on. And with the value placed on spacing in the modern NBA, it’s almost impossible to have multiple subpar perimeter shooters on the floor at the same time.
Unless something has drastically changed in his time away, John Wall is a subpar three-point shooter at worst and an adequate one at best. He mostly makes up for that by being perhaps the best guard in the league when it comes to creating open three-point looks for his teammates. So if you need a stingy defender who can also shoot it at a high level, Devin Vassell is your guy.
He isn’t the tallest, strongest, or most athletic guy on this list but he is long and lithe. He uses his length, timing, and quickness to smother opponents. Bulking up some would allow him to better match-up with the more physical imposing small forwards in the league and give him even greater value.
I would love to see the Wizards add a veteran wing in free agency but even if they do I could see Vassell being able to earn minutes right away. That’s assuming that Scott Brooks would actually play a promising, scrappy rookie which is never a guarantee.
I know some have labeled him a high-floor, low-ceiling guy but I don’t agree. Being probably the best three-and-D prospect might be the floor but I think he has the ability to really blossom as an all-around scorer. Watching him during his freshman year at Florida State you were almost nervous for him to dribble. He made great strides in his sophomore season in terms of being able to put the ball on the floor before shooting.
I’m not saying he’s remotely the same caliber of player but his offensive profile at Florida State reminded me of Bradley Beal at Florida. Both guys weren’t as heavily featured in their collegiate offenses as some of their peers and both had a lot of room to improve in the pick-and-roll. Again, I’m not saying he’s Bradley Beal or ever will be so please don’t call me a moron in the comments for “comparing him to Beal.” Vassell’s usage on his college team just made me think back to Beal coming out.
Vassell was a less-heralded recruit who put in the work to turn himself into a lottery pick in just two years. That’s the kind of guy I’m willing to buy stock in and expect improvement from. If he can efficiently create his own offense and get stronger, his value goes up exponentially. In a league where the better teams have multiple long, defensive-minded players in their rotations he’s still extremely valuable as is and could be this team’s Danny Green.
2. Aaron Nesmith (6’6ish):
As you all know, in the game of basketball, it’s important to put the basketball in the basket. Aaron Nesmith did a lot of that over a 14-game stretch as a sophomore at Vanderbilt this season. He shot 52-percent from three on eight attempts per game and averaged 23 points. If that’s remotely translatable at the NBA-level then even a team like the Wizards who needs strong defenders should give him a look.
Vanderbilt ran some surprisingly complex sets for a college team under Coach Jerry Stackhouse to get Nesmith good looks. Considering I still don’t really know what Scott Brooks offensive system is all about, Nesmith wouldn’t face a steep learning curve in terms of being able to understand what the team is trying to run. Realistically, a healthy John Wall could create plenty of open looks for Nesmith all on his own.
Watching the Bubble Wizards it seems pretty clear to me this team would benefit from more shooting, especially if Davis Bertans doesn’t stick around. Nesmith could come in and space the floor for Wall, Beal, and Rui Hachimura right away. And while I think he has the ability to be a more versatile scorer in the long run (if his handle drastically improves), his catch and shoot ability would hopefully earn him minutes right away.
To me, Nesmith is the best shooter in this group, although Vassell isn’t far behind. Vassell is the superior defender right now but Nesmith made some pretty impressive plays on that end this year as well. He seems to understand how plays are developing which serves him well in terms of getting open on offensive and understanding when to gamble on defense.
I would have to say that his team defense was considerably better than his on-ball defense so far. Vanderbilt did some unconventional things defensively this year so it was a little hard to judge what was scheme-related and what was ability-related.
Overall, I buy Nesmith’s ability to be a solid defender more than I buy Isaac Okoro’s ability to be a solid shooter, which is why I’m going against the grain and putting Nesmith higher on this list. I had a hard time finding a comparison for Nesmith. I saw shorter Cam Johnson and taller Buddy Hield but those didn’t totally click in my mind.
I see Nesmith being like Justin Holiday on steroids. Holiday shot 40-percent from three on almost five attempts per game while playing strong defense for the Indiana Pacers this year. Getting a rookie who could provide similar value right off the bat and potentially grow into a more advanced offensive player would be a nice addition to the roster.
3. Isaac Okoro (6’6ish):
Isaac Okoro is strong, long, patient, and understands positioning better than you would expect from any college prospect, let alone a freshman. He’s one of the rare guys who could be an impact defender in the NBA from day one.
In the actual draft, he will likely get taken first of this bunch. Watching the bubble Wizards reinforced for me how tough it is to have one-dimensional wings. As much as the Wizards need defenders, I would be hesitant to pull the trigger here simply because Okoro’s offense is such a question mark.
I’m not saying he won’t end up a productive offensive player at the next level because he isn’t totally devoid of skills on that end. He finishes well around the rim and has good timing and footwork on spin moves and euro steps. I’m just saying it’s far from a guarantee he will be able to significantly move the needle on that end, especially early. Most of the others on this list have a more easily projectable offensive role they can fill right out of the gate.
I also always feel like seeing a player in person goes a long way in informing my opinion of them and the one time I saw Okoro live, I was seriously underwhelmed. He was efficient in the game but he also had a smaller, slower defender that he should have been able to abuse repeatedly. Instead, he seemed content to just sort of float around the court and do most of his damage in transition.
If you just search “Isaac Okoro player comparisons” you get everything from Kawhi Leonard (apparently Kawhi is so easily to emulate) and Jimmy Butler. I’m not sure I really see either of those. In terms of role he could fill, becoming the small forward equivalent of Marcus Smart makes the most sense to me. And that’s clearly a valuable player, you just need to surround him with the right personnel to best optimize his impact. I’m just not sure the Wizards are the team for that, hence his position on this list.
4. Saddiq Bey (6’8ish):
Saddiq Bey seems like the ultimate complementary guy to me. He won’t be a star but I definitely wouldn’t be surprised if he had a really long, productive career. I’ve heard the criticisms that maybe his shot is too slow or maybe he’s too slow-footed to be a full-time small forward. But he’s just so solid that I expect him to figure out.
Some player evaluations question his lateral quickness but this is a guy who frequently matched up with some of the quickest point guards in college basketball. The Wizards could certainly use someone who seems eager to take on tough defensive matchups and also has positional flexibility on that end.
I got to see him in person twice this year and was much more impressed with him after doing so. He legitimately guarded a point guard and a power forward in the same game and did a really effective job on both. He might not be quite that versatile in the NBA but he would have more defensively flexibility than pretty much anyone else on the current roster. Having a player who could bang with Zion Williamson, make life tough on Brandon Ingram and chase around J.J. Redick all in one game would come in handy.
So much of defense is about effort, taking in pride in it, understanding angles, and studying player tendencies. Listening to several interviews with Bey and knowing how Jay Wright coaches his guys, I think it’s fair to say he checks all of those boxes.
Offensively, he knocked down threes at a high rate in college (45-percent this year). To me, the shot looks smooth and fluid. He does a bit of a weird leg kick sometimes but his body always seems squared up and I expect the shooting to translate. He also showed some ability to post-up and attack off the dribble. Bey is a willing passer and unselfish teammate which will make him a popular teammate with some of the more shoot-first players on the Wizards’ roster.
He defends and make shots without needing a lot of touches. What’s not to like? I’m not advocating we draft him with the ninth pick but I think on paper his skillset makes a lot of sense for this team. It’s probably hard to trade down in a draft like this but if we did, I wouldn’t be mad at them for having an eye on Bey. Best case scenario is probably peak Robert Covington but I think it’s more realistic to expect him to fill a Jae Crowder-esque role for whichever team drafts him.
5. Patrick Williams (6’8ish):
This might sound like a stupid cliche but Patrick Williams looks like he really enjoys playing defense. Hopefully, that would be something infectious if he ended up in Washington because you don’t see a lot of that from the current bunch.
Judging by his lack of offensive production (9.2 points per game) you would assume he’s really raw offensively. However, it isn’t because of a lack of skills like certain other young prospects. He actually has a decent handle for someone his size and his jumper doesn’t look bad despite him shooting an underwhelming 32-percent from three. He has some real moves in his repertoire and he attacks the offensive glass pretty relentlessly.
He kind of reminds me of the inverse of Rui Hachimura. Hachimura was able to produce right away offensively and only showed occasional flashes defensively. Williams, however, could be an impact defender from the start who shows some tantalizing flashes offensively but doesn’t have the polish or assertiveness to bring it consistently.
The way this draft is shaping up, he could theoretically end up being the best guy on this list if he puts it all together. But, in my opinion, he also has the biggest bust potential and that would make me shy away from him if I were Tommy Sheppard. He has some of the same lateral quickness concerns that Saddiq Bey does without the consistent track record offensively. His offensive skillset seems more refined than Isaac Okoro’s, yet Okoro was much more productive and better put his skills to use.
In a full year of questions marks, I find him to be the biggest one on this list. He’s clearly got the tools but there’s no way to tell based on where he is development-wise if he will ever be assertive enough to capitalize on them. In that way, he reminds me of Marvin Williams. Williams never lived up to his original potential because he just wasn’t that kind of player with that kind of killer instinct. He still carved out a nice career as a hybrid forward who played defense and spaced the floor. I also see him carving out a niche similar to peak Moe Harkless.
For the more statistically-oriented fans, here are a couple of numbers to mull over: