Falling in love with an NBA prospect can be an exciting experience...but what if the things we fall in love with are actually a mirage?
Something interesting happens when people fall in love with a prospect, especially when that prospect ends up playing for your favorite team. Fans will start to romanticize all of the good qualities and disregard a lot of the bad; because after all, these guys are young and full of potential! But what if they weren’t actually full of unlimited potential? What if the things we fall in love with are actually a mirage?
You know the type. Athletic, toolsy, smooth, but often lacking the nuance or desire to put all of those tantalizing skills together.
These kinds of prospects have been around forever and they usually get taken way too early. From Darius Miles, to Hasheem Thabeet, to Cam Reddish; we lush over the promise of these talented prospects piecing it all together and making the leap. But the leap never comes, they eventually get traded, and then the next fan base goes through the same process, only to eventually come to the same unfortunate realization as the prior team, that maybe it’s just not in the cards.
When we look back in hindsight we realize that maybe the signs were staring us right in the face all along.
There are a number of prospects in the 2022 class who may fit the bill. The first guy you’re probably thinking of is Patrick Baldwin Jr. Baldwin’s physical profile and raw tools are mouthwatering, but a glance at his shooting splits may make you throw up in your mouth a little. I don’t want to speak for Rucker, but personally I’m still willing to take the chance on him even if he fits the definition of a Mirage prospect to a T. The size and skill just looks so much like water in a barren desert that I’m willing to possibly die of dehydration. Metaphorically speaking of course.
I do however have real concerns about Notre Dame’s Blake Wesley.
Wesley is a lanky 6’5” bucket getting combo guard that has seemingly come out of nowhere during the 2022 NBA Draft cycle. Wesley has seen one of the sharpest rises of any prospect, going from unranked on January’s $DRFT Stock Update all the way to 25 in February.
On the surface it isn’t hard to understand why Wesley has been shooting up big boards. Wesley has a shifty handle that allows him to create space and knock down tough shots off the bounce. The slithery combo guard has even displayed some intriguing playmaking flashes in his role as a primary initiator for Notre Dame’s offense. At the end of the day you have to put the biscuit in the basket to put a W in the win column. With such a questionable field, Wesley’s creation flashes may be enough to work his way into the late lottery conversation come draft night.
Wesley’s highs are super high. If fourteen year old Corey found Blake Wesley by browsing a Swish Highlights package, I’d want to take him in the top 5. But to quote the Mad Titan, “reality is often disappointing”.
The tools that intrigue most with Wesley are the reason I’m concerned with his NBA projection. Wesley is a tough shot maker, yes, but he’s also a tough shot taker. A very tough shot taker.
Wesley’s shot diet is what my nightmares are made of. Wesley is constantly taking highly contested inefficient shots early in the shot clock that leave you scratching your head. It’s possible to coach bad shot selection out of someone, but it isn’t just the shot selection that leads to his inefficiency. Wesley just isn’t a very good shooter right now. His misses are inconsistent and he lacks the soft touch to buy into his shot long term.
Wesley’s finishing is of equal concern. Wesley is capable of getting up when he gets a clear lane and a head of steam, but he’s mostly a below the rim finisher. The lack of vertical pop and the lack of touch around the hoop has led to some disastrous outcomes, as he is finishing just 44% of his at rim attempts in the half court per InStat.
When Wesley gets downhill, he hasn’t yet figured out how to play with pace and change of speeds to keep defenders on their toes and he hasn’t added a consistent floater to counter when defenders are waiting for him at the rim.
Wesley will often attack with no plan, which leads to needless TOs. Wesley can create space and break down his defender but he’ll miss reads hunting shots and overcommitting to his attack. Primary ball handlers need to have the understanding of what happens when they shift the defense after beating the first guy. Which teammates will be open and where is the help coming from? Wesley is at times like the Joker, just a dog chasing cars (sorry for stepping on your turf here Rucker).
My question regarding Wesley’s NBA future is what role does he project to play at the next level? His shot creation isn’t quite good enough to give him free reign to go get buckets as a primary and as of today he doesn’t offer much off ball as a floor spacer (32% on C&S attempts per InStat) or cutter. NBA teams want to play .5 basketball with guys who can make quick decisions and keep the ball swinging, they don’t want to see a guy pound the rock before letting an inefficient shot go up. Those attempts are reserved for the elite scorers in the game, and even they mostly get theirs in the flow of the offense.
There is certainly a world where Wesley becomes a Caris LeVert type player at the next level. He can either start for you or come off the bench and provide a scoring spark with a hint of passing. He has the size, length, and potential versatility to play in the modern NBA. I want to be more excited about Blake Wesley, but ultimately when I watch the film and look at the numbers, I see a guy who needs another year in college to hone his craft, improve on his weaknesses, and fully become the player he has the potential to be.
Hey, who said that Corey is the only one to have some “fun” around here?
To answer Sir Tulaba’s point above, I’m still very much in on the Patrick Baldwin Jr. train. Yes, the year is going to have plenty of basketball fans and scouts experiencing a cold sweat running down their spine…but the “mirage” of a bad year can also be something that shifts in another direction.
Throughout the 2022 NBA Draft evaluation process, I’ve found myself always wanting to have an open mind when it comes to a number of prospects in this class. Each Draft cycle is going to feature a number of “headaches” or players that some might struggle to get a strong grasp for when it comes to their trajectory as an NBA player. There’s an epic battle that continues to rise within your mind. It’s as if the Riddler just presented you with another mind torture of a question that requires you to dive deep into your thought process.
While I do agree with Corey about Notre Dame’s freshman Blake Wesley giving off some serious “smoke and mirrors” when it comes to his NBA readiness, let’s throw out another name out there that’s making some evaluators sleep a little restless at night.
Let’s talk about G-League Ignite guard Jaden Hardy.
Coming into this year, Hardy was viewed as a potential wildcard to make a case for the Top-5 of the 2022 NBA Draft. A lethal shooter out of high school, Hardy announced he would make the jump to the G-League while spending a year training with the Ignite team in order to prepare himself for the Draft. Many were expecting that Hardy would come into the G-League and put up some eye-opening numbers with his ability to stretch the floor from limitless range. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case as Hardy has continued to struggle with his efficiency throughout the year.
Now I’m going to go on the record here, because everyone likes it when someone is a little crazy and goes against the storm. I still remain high on Jaden Hardy as a talent at the next level. Is the “mirage” with Hardy a real thing? Absolutely. But the battle between expectations and development could prove to be the very thing that we are all struggling to balance in the evaluation process. There’s been plenty of highs and lows when you watch Hardy throughout his season with the G-League Ignite. Listed at 6’4”, 190 pounds, the 19-year-old guard has been put in some uncomfortable situations when it comes to his role this year.
The important thing to remember when watching the G-League Ignite is the goal within the team is to develop these prospects at the best of their ability. The harsh reality…the Ignite don’t care if they win the G-League championship. The goal is to develop these young players as much as possible to get them to have success at the NBA level.
The Ignite have made it a point of emphasis to put the ball in Hardy’s hands as much as possible. The result…well, it hasn’t always been pretty. There’s been ups-and-downs throughout the year and it’s resulted in Hardy having a high number of turnovers throughout the season. When Hardy allows the game to come to him, he shows the vision and potential to be a promising distributor at the next level. Will NBA teams make it a goal to put him in a playmaking role as much as possible early on? Highly unlikely. But Hardy came into the year as a gifted shot maker and the Ignite are making it a goal to continue to develop the other aspects of his game.
But there’s still a glaring development that is struggling to come around on a more consistent basis with Jaden Hardy. The problem with being a young guard who can shoot the crap out of the ball is you’re going to need to still have other parts of your game that you can go to when the shot isn’t falling. To say Hardy struggled early on this season with having the game slow down would be an understatement. It was a bit of a rude awakening for the young guard, who had a number of tough outings to start the year. Still, you see some signs of development when it comes to his feel. On this first clip, Hardy comes off a screen but shows some hesitancy when it comes to realizing that he has a wide open look. The second clip is a similar action, but you can see that Hardy understands that if he takes another dribble and stresses patience, he can get a much cleaner under control look.
As Corey said above, the highs with a player can have the “mirage” hitting you at a dangerous rate. The same can be said for Jaden Hardy. When he’s rolling, he can get you quickly buying into the buzz. You find yourself saying, “nope I’m in…I don’t care what anyone else says.” The problem is you have to continue to hold onto those flashes as you battle through the stretches of inconsistency. Are you buying into the positives or are you focusing on the negatives? You’ll see plenty of times on tape that Hardy simply struggles when it comes to driving the lane. It’s almost as if he’s a young guard who is still trying to adjust to the speed of the game after taking a giant leap in competition level. WAIT…THAT IS HIM!
Still, you can see the ability that Hardy has when he’s under control and doesn’t try to force the issue. Although his handles and decision making are still going to need time to develop, there’s some serious flashes that have you nodding your head in approval.
There’s times on film in which you simply see Hardy is struggling to make split second decisions when the ball is in his hands. It’s almost as if he’s trying to move too fast before he truly knows what he wants to do with the ball. Guards take time to adjust to the speed of the game and although Hardy has shown flashes of lethal scoring ability, he’s going to continue to need time to adjust to the next level as well. The talent is legit and the tools are raw. If Hardy can land with the right team, he still has the ability to be a dangerous off-ball scorer while the rest of his game continues to load.
The “mirage” can be a disease that infects every evaluator and NBA fan. We find ourselves smitten on the idea of a player reaching their potential and overcoming some glaring weaknesses. While there’s always going to be some rough stretches when it comes to prospects possessing “raw” areas in their game, it’s always important to keep a clear vision when balancing both the strengths and improvement areas of a young talent. If you don’t, things can get a little blurry…and you might just find yourself looking at an illusion of hope that will struggle to get clearer.