In advance of the 2020 NBA Draft, Peachtree Hoops is evaluating prospects with a look at what the Atlanta Hawks might be considering from now until the selection process occurs. Dozens of prospects will be profiled in this space and, in this installment, we break down the play of Arizona point guard Nico Mannion.
Nico Mannion is the son of Pace Mannion, an American ex-NBA player who also spent time in Italy playing professionally. Through marriage to an Italian woman, his son Nico was born in the Tuscany region of Italy, and as a result, holds dual citizenship between Italy and the United States. For this reason, he had the chance to select to represent the former in international competitions and has competed with the national Italian senior team since the age of 17, a feat that makes him the fourth youngest to ever do so.
Mannion was a five-star high school recruit, and by some services, ranked the top point guard in his 2019 class, ahead of other draft hopefuls like LaMelo Ball and Tyrell Terry. He was also a member of the McDonald’s All-American in that year and faced off against other elite high school talents under a major spotlight.
Still, his one-and-done campaign in Tucson wasn’t quite as impressive as his pedigree suggested, and as a result his draft stock has slipped a bit since a year ago. But in a weak draft class, his strengths may just enamor a team looking for a skilled leader on the court.
Mannion averaged 15.6 points, 2.8 rebounds and 5.9 assist per 36 minutes in his one and only season at Arizona. While his shooting triple slash of 44.4/32.7/79.7 percentages from two, three and the free throw line leaves room for improvement from inside the arc, his level of shotmaking is still rather high and offers the projection to stretch the floor in the NBA.
Mannion is a pass-first point guard who exudes a lot of style and flair in his ability to lead an offense and set up his teammates. At 6’3” and 190 pounds, he appears smaller than he really is on tape, but has adequate enough size to operate in most backcourts. His handle is very refined, with silky smooth dribbles in tight spaces and a quick crossover to free himself for shots.
Mannion recorded 5.9 assists per 36 minutes, using his vision and his ability to whip passes with pace and wrap around passes in traffic as one of the most impressive freshman point guards in the country in 2019-20. Mannion finished second in the Pac-12 in assists (162), assists per game (5.3) — behind fellow draft hopeful Payton Pritchard in both — and in assist percentage (31.5%) or the rate of possessions in which he was on the floor ending in a teammates field goals where he recorded an assist.
There are very few players in this class who can match Mannion’s ability to skip a pass to an open shooter with zip and in the shooter’s pocket. He has control over the full arsenal of passes in half court sets, whether it be a bounce pocket pass in traffic or a two-handed whip to a post player diving toward the rim.
He’s really fun to watch in transition, as he can take the ball off a rebound and immediately use his vision and awareness to find teammates leaking out up the court for easy buckets.
Mannion takes care of the ball well for someone with a high usage (24.5%). He didn’t commit too many turnovers, with just 2.9 per contest, and ended this past season with a AST/TO ratio north of two. His high basketball IQ and uncanny ability to see a play develop and make the timely pass was a boon for the Wildcats. His savvy on the court is a skill matched by few, and he can be a calming influence for a team going through a rough patch offensively.
His feel for the game and touch is very evident in his mid range game. He shows off his pretty floater frequently, and has the touch on his giant killer to counter rim protectors.
Mannion is a very smooth pick-and-roll operator and largely makes the right read to find roller when possible. With a hesitation dribble, he allows plays to develop off screens and rarely is late with a feed or lob. He can comfortably fling passes with either hand, and keeps the ball on a string, rarely giving up his dribble too early.
There’s significant promise that he can operate off the ball for stretches in a true combo guard role, as well. Mannion logged a solid 1.08 points per possession (PPP) in catch-and-shoot opportunities in 2019-20. He’s good at spotting up after moving without the ball and coming off screens, especially along the baseline to shoot from the corners. He has enough body control to allow him to turn off of screens and shoot, even while fading to one side or spinning in air to locate the basket on the fly.
Defensively, he does a good job on the ball despite less than great physical tools. He has the ability to pick up his matchup at half court and beyond and generally doesn’t get beat with speed. Off the ball, he’s stays in good position within passing lanes, picks the right spots to help off his primary assignment, and attacks spot up shooters with smart hard closeouts.
Nico proved to be a frosh basketball player, accomplishing quite a lot despite the cancellation of the postseason. After the regular season, Mannion was named to the All-Pac-12 second team and the All-Pac-12 Freshman Team.
Mannion is a disappointingly bad pull-up shooter, and the causes are hard to pinpoint. At just 0.78 PPP on 105 possessions, it’s possible the combination of struggling against lengthy defenders and a sometimes erratic shot selection — as well as plain old bad shooting luck — are the main culprits.
The main driver of his mediocre 46.5 effective field goal percentage was this very live ball shooting. Too much stock shouldn’t be taken into it, as his shot form and space creation don’t invoke too much worry. In time, this figure should improve going forward just by getting more comfortable operating around better and more athletic defenders through experience.
On the shot selection front, however, he has an odd habit of taking a lot of long threes early in the shot clock. He just hasn’t proven an ability to shoot from that range, possibly in an effort to mirror an attribute that other NBA lead guards have adopted into their game.
Similarly, he’s not yet an effective isolation player at just 0.71 PPP on just 31 possessions. Mannion just doesn’t have the necessary explosiveness in his first step to get by defenders and won’t ever be asked to beat someone on a figurative island.
At times, Mannion can be too passive a scorer as a pass first point guard. He was surrounded by a good bit of talent at Arizona, including two other possible first round selections in Josh Green and Zeke Nnaji, so he rarely had to shoulder the scoring burden. But he alternated between turning down easy shots and jacking up more difficult ones, which resulted in a lot of long twos taken.
Mannion doesn’t have the profile or measureables of even an above average athlete. As measured at the 2019 Nike Hoops Summit, he has a “negative wingspan,” meaning his wingspan is a bit shorter than his height at 6’ 2 ½”. From there, his 8’ 1 ½” standing reach just isn’t great even for a point guard.
Defensively, he does little to affect the game in a major way. There’s a giant goose egg in the category where his season blocks total should be, although he did record 1.3 steals per 36 minutes. The effort and motor are there for the most part, but there’s little chance he can significantly overcome the poor length and height.
Mannion’s low level of strength and ability to operate with contact also means he’s a poor finisher at the rim. He recorded just a 1.00 PPP at the rim, a mark putting him near the bottom of this draft class. Even the slightest contact can knock him off balance in many situations.
Overall, despite being a former five-star recruit, Mannion’s upside is limited by his stature. Certainly, smaller guards can be hidden on defense with more capable wing defenders around him but there’s little reason to hope he’ll ever be a plus in a vacuum in that area.
Possible fit with the Hawks
There are some real similarities shared between the Hawks current star point guard, Trae Young, and Mannion. Both are the sons of collegiate basketball players with five-star recruit pedigree. As high-profile stylish passers on the court with defensive concerns — save for a much lesser level of shot making from Mannion — there is some redundancy in selecting another player who largely needs the ball to be effective.
Still, the Hawks possess too high a first round pick at No. 6 overall to reach and select him — at least in the estimation of this prognosticator — and Mannion should be off the board well before Atlanta picks again at No. 50 overall. Certainly, picks and assets can be traded, but for a team with many other needs, there are perhaps better uses of creative maneuvering.
Despite some worrying signs in his one-and-done season at Arizona, Mannion has the ability to be a more than capable lead guard at the next level and make his teammates better through his passing and control of the offense.