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NBA Draft Watch: Some early reviews on potential Raptors picks

It’s a ways away now, thanks to the season restart, but over the summer we’ll looking at various mock draft boards to track how the Raptors are projected to pick in the upcoming NBA Draft.

2019 NBA Draft Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

For the first time since 2017, the Toronto Raptors are in a position to pick in the first round of the NBA Draft. The last couple of times the Raptors had a crack in the late first round, those picks became OG Anunoby (23rd overall in 2017), and Pascal Siakam (27th overall in 2016). Not bad, eh?

Looking at Masai Ujiri’s drafting history going back to his Denver Nuggets days, it’s safe to say that he’s used to scouting for talents outside of the lottery range. Except for Toronto’s Jakob Poeltl pick in 2016, most of Masai’s first-round picks have been from the 20th pick onwards.

This year, of course, is a strange one. The NBA Draft is to be held on October 16, thanks to the ongoing restart to the season. As it is, there’s still plenty of work to be done for every team. The 2020 NBA draft class may promise to be bit flat on top-level talent, but the gap between the late lottery versus mid-second round picks may not be that big. If Masai and GM Bobby Webster are looking to restock the cupboards for the Raptors, this draft might be “it” in terms of a mini-rebuild.

The Raptors are projected to select 28th in this upcoming draft in the 1st round. This is not set in stone, as the standings may change based on the remaining games to be played in Orlando at the end of the month. Still, looking at various mock draft sites, these are the prospects of interest:

Various Mock Draft Sites’ projected selection for the Raptors. Note: The Ringer’s list is only up to 50 picks, while CBS only covers the first round.

Now let’s compare how these draft sites see the other prospects:

Note: Some sites only go as far as 50th pick, while CBS focused on just the first round.

The oldest prospect on the list is Tyler Bey, a Junior from Colorado at 22 years old. In contrast, the youngest, Aleksej Pokusevski, a Serbian prospect playing in Olympiakos B is just 18 years old.

The majority of the players on the list have a wide projection range. For example, Leandro Bolmaro is projected to go as high as a fringe lottery pick (14th), to potentially falling into the 46th pick.

Jalen Smith is the only player who seems to have a firm range, as most mocks project him to go mid-to-late 20s.

Are the mocks expecting the Raptors to rebuild? Some prospects (Bolmaro, Aleksej Pokusevski, Jalen Smith, Vernon Carey Jr.), are intriguing but could use multiple years of development time. Also, three of the prospects are projected to be either C or PF/C — are they potential Serge Ibaka/Marc Gasol replacements?

Starting today, we’re going to keep track of the fluctuations in draft stock for various players the Raptors may be interested, highlighting three players at a time. The NBA Draft may be a ways away, but it’s never too early to start thinking about the future in the NBA.

Prospect Highlight

The Raptors have apparently already interviewed draft prospects Markus Howard, Skylar Mays, and Zeke Nnaji. With the Raptors holding multiple picks in this coming draft (28th, 58th, plus making undrafted signings), these three prospects are within their range.

Howard and Mays are both seniors, while Nnaji is a freshman. Mays is the oldest at 22 years old (turning 23 this year). Markus Howard is another undersized guard that can put up buckets similar to the Raptors prospects in the G League (Shamorie Ponds, Kay Felder, Matt Morgan, Jordan Howard). Nnaji is a big that has a game that should transition well in the NBA.

Let’s dig deep into these guys.

Markus Howard

Why Markus?

Howard’s mock draft projections slated him as high as 49th (Tankathon) to going undrafted in half of them. As a draft prospect, Howard can be a decent Raptors 905 project as a two-way player. Regardless of Fred VanVleet’s future next season, the Raptors should be looking at grooming a prospect to be at least a capable backup point guard.

Howard is a lights-out shooter. He’s probably one of the few NCAA players that shot more than 40 percent from the perimeter in all four seasons. Pretty much half of his attempts are three-pointers, which gets him to an average fo about ten 3FGAs per game. Given Howard’s game and his team’s reliance on him to score, he could have improved his draft stock if he had been given a chance to explode in March Madness.

Areas of Concern

Is size an issue for the Raptors when it comes to their guards? While Kyle Lowry and VanVleet are generously listed at six-feet, those guys are stockier and stronger than their size. Howard would have to overcome the shortcomings of his height and slight frame. We have seen his brother Jordan Howard play with the Raptors 905 last season, and it looks like he’s the slightly taller and stronger of the two.

Offensively, Howard would have to prove that he can get his shot off against bigger/taller/longer defenders in the NBA. He’s money when he’s wide open in the perimeter, and he can get a shot off quick even with a defender in his face. But once that’s taken away, can he get deep in the woods and have similar success as he did at the collegiate level?

Howard will have to prove that while also showing that he can be an NBA-level point guard, with all the ball-handling and play-making skills that entails. Howard shared PG duties with Canadian Koby McEwen as starters in his senior year, which changes up the equation somewhat.

Roster Fit

Howard would most likely be in a #ProveEm Summer League/Exhibit 10 situation, hoping to parlay his game into a two-way contract. If he makes it as a two-way player, he’ll be spending a lot of time in Mississauga.

Skylar Mays

Why Skylar?

Skylar Mays is Jonathan Wasserman’s (Bleacher Report) sleeper pick in this draft, putting him on the 19th spot on his mock draft. In contrast, the others project him to go late in the second round or not at all.

Mays doesn’t fit the lengthy versatile two-way players that Masai is trying to assemble, but if anything, he’s more in the VanVleet mould. Mays’ athleticism seems to be below average (he’s probably one of those guys that would get labelled with “sneaky athleticism”), and he is undersized as a shooting guard. However, Mays does a great job leveraging his basketball IQ to put himself in pretty good scoring positions. Speaking of IQ, I have no doubt that he aced the IQ test the Raptors administered during his interview.

Much like Siakam, Mays uses his spin move to create space or a step advantage over his defender. He’s able to use it moving downhill and stay under control the entire time, which bodes well. After the spin, Mays can quickly assess the situation and finish with either hand and even on the wrong leg. He can also go old-school and back his man up in the post or spin-off his defender for a shot.

Mays is also coming off a season where he had his best shooting percentage from the three-point arc at 39 percent. It looks like his shot mechanics have vastly improved since his freshman year, too.

Areas of Concern

One of the biggest knocks on Mays game is his defense. Unfortunately, it looks like he’s got the DeMar DeRozan Defensive Package. He tends to lose his man, get lost on switches, and/or die on screens. Maybe Mays is compensating for being a high usage guy in the LSU offense, but it doesn’t look good. To play for the Raptors, you have to work hard on defense.

Offensively, Mays struggles against quick and lengthy defenders that can stay in front of him. His lack of burst or a quick first step to gain separation limits his ability to score in the paint. Which is a shame because Mays is a crafty finisher with either hand once he gets an angle off his defender.

Roster Fit

Mays would probably have to transition into a combo guard with the Raptors. For this to happen, they would probably hand him the keys to the Raptors 905 hoping for the kind of success they had with Jordan Loyd. Loyd made a successful transition from shooting guard to the Raptors 905’s starting point guard last year.

The transition into a combo guard shouldn’t be foreign to Mays, as he was asked to play the point during his freshman year, and was pretty much a combo guard in his senior year.

If Mays can show that he’s not a negative team defender, it will come down to whether his shooting and shot creation can hold up in the NBA. If those things pan out, including being able to run the offense a bit, he can be a good depth piece for the team. And he could potentially be someone who would fit on Siakam/VanVleet/Anunoby’s timeline.

Zeke Nnaji

Why Zeke?

Nnaji’s game fits the modern NBA. Right now, he’s like Ibaka with the midrange pick-and-pop. He shows potential that he can transition that “pop” to the perimeter.

Aside from floor-spacing potential, Nnaji has an excellent motor. He’s an energy big that will run in transition well and crash the boards. Nnaji’s got good mitts too, which means he can catch the ball on the move and transition smoothly into a dunk or layup. He’s got pretty decent footwork to go with his post moves, but tends to shuffle his feet when he’s trying for multiple pump-fakes.

Nnaji’s offensive game, particularly the midrange efficiency, reminds me of young Channing Frye’s game.

Areas of Concern

Nnaji’s defense needs an overhaul. Right now he lacks the fundamentals, and at times, shows low defensive IQ. It’s concerning how he’s either late or unable to read what the offensive player is trying to do. Even when he does, Nnaji’s processing time and/or reaction time is a step slow. I hope this is just him being only 19 years old, as it takes a while for bigs to figure it out.

Offensively, there are some of the bad aspects of Ibaka too. A team may not want Nnaji making decisions with the ball outside of shooting it. Right now, he’s pretty much rolling with his athleticism, current skills, and instincts.

Roster Fit

Nnaji’s age, upside, and physical tools make him an intriguing option for the Raptors’ 28th pick, especially if there aren’t any big “upside” prospects left. Most of the players in this range are usually decent players with a big “but” and little upside. Regardless, he reads as being a few years away, especially considering the Raptors’ and Nick Nurse’s standards.

Still, in theory, Nnaji can play with Siakam and OG in the frontcourt if he can avoid defensive lapses. It’s worth noting too that Dewan Hernandez is already in the Raptors’ queue as a potential rotation big in a year or so. With the setback in his development this past year, I’m not sure if the Raptors can afford taking on another project big man. But we’ll see.