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2020 NBA Draft scouting report: Aleksej Pokusevski (Part 2)

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Olympiacos Piraeus v FC Bayern Munich - Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Photo by Panagiotis Moschandreou/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images

If you missed anything from Part 1 of our Aleksej Pokusevski scouting report, please click here.


Let’s move onto the defensive side of things.

Pokusevski boasts a strong advantage in terms of his size and length, so that seems like a good place to start. Such an advantage obviously gives Pokusevski a strong edge at the rim, where he can deter and block shots, as well as deflect passes.

Here, Pokusevski gets a hand in to deflect this pass and the turnover is created. Pokusevski then streaks in transition, receives the ball and takes a quick three-point attempt which is missed but created by the deflection:

Off of a made basket as Serbia trot back on defense, with some of them not facing the ball as they head back, but Pokusevski is facing the right direction and pounces on an attempted pass behind the defense and comes away with the ball and the steal. Nothing comes of it — not even his size and length could’ve reached the eventual attempted pass to him on the wing — but it’s an example of Pokusevski using his size and length to cause some problems:

Pokusevski starts this defensive possession guarding the ball-handler, the screen comes and the switch is instigated. Pokusevski — who switched onto the pick-and-roll big — finds himself a step behind as the pick-and-roll big receives the ball and rolls towards the rim. Yet, Pokusevski is able to recover to contest and block the shot thanks to his size and length:

This next play is a multi-levelled play. It starts with Pokusevski off of the ball defensively and on the wing. As he draws towards the rim, the ball is thrown into the post. On the spin from the man with the ball, Pokusevski is there to prevent a shot at the rim, arms raised and ready. Pokusevski’s teammate gets a hand in for the steal. As he rips the ball away, he falls to the floor and tries to throw a pass to a teammate.

When this effort results in a turnover, Olympiacos are on the back-foot. Pokusevski trails the play as the pass is made (which is to be expected) but he manages to recover to block an almost certain basket — truly a great block. However, there’s no one to be found to secure the defensive rebound and it’s an easy task for the opposition to score the second chance effort:

On the out of bounds play, Germany send a lot of their players behind the arc and Pokusevski’s man initially gets the jump on him and receives the ball. As he rises to convert at the rim, Pokusevski times his jump well and blocks the shot at the rim:

Here, Pokusevski is beaten off of the dribble on the wing but the help defense is there to prevent a shot at the rim. The ball is kicked out to the perimeter and Pokusevski plants himself in front of the rim. The drive is made and Pokusevski is there to swat the attempted shot at the rim:

The pick-and-roll happens out front but this time Pokusevski is placed in the back-line. When the roller receives the ball and challenges the defender closest to the rim, Pokusevski decides to stay closer to the rim (away from his man on the wing) and blocks the shot out of bounds:

For a change of pace, this time, the offensive player tries to take Pokusevski off of the dribble but finds himself in a very tough spot as Pokusevski smothers the shot attempt, forcing the offensive player to chuck the ball out of there — another example of Pokusevski’s size and (more so length) bothering players offensively:

There were a few occasions where Pokusevski would be stationed out in front where he would guard the ball-handler.

Out front, Pokusevski picks up the ball-handler (who isn’t exactly a shifty, pacy point guard but alas...) and does well to stick with him off of the dribble before contesting the runner:

On this possession, Pokusevski picks up in the opposing half and when the ball-handler shifts gears to try and shed Pokusevski as he drives towards the rim, Pokusevski sticks with the drive and blocks the shot at the rim:

Pokusevski’s length means he can drop back off of his man a little should he have possession of the ball and facing up — giving him some ground to get the step should the offensive player go for the drive but also being close enough to contest should the jump shot be attempted — but there are times this doesn’t always go to plan, such as on this possession here where even though Pokusevski contests the shot, the shot is still made:

In scenarios like that, you’d be worried that any sort of step-back would put more than enough space between the offensive player and Pokusevski (despite his length) to hoist a shot.

Even on this play, I wouldn’t even call this a full-blown step-back move but you can see how Pokusevski would be undone in these scenarios:

Let’s try land this one (fair warning that this is going to be a slow descent), and we’ll start with the positives.

Pokusevski is one of the most intriguing prospects of this entire draft but a lot of it obviously has to do with what he could be rather than what he is right now — obvious I know but he’s a project. This isn’t so much of a problem for Pokusevski as it is for some other prospects as Pokusevski is the youngest player who is entering this draft, so he has that on his side at least. We mentioned Thon Maker earlier — he’s still only 23 and it’s four years later. Things didn’t pan out in Milwaukee but Maker is still 23, that’s young!

Offensively, you can see the appeal with Pokusevski: a ‘modern NBA big man’ who loves to launch three-pointers who can make some plays (always nice to have a big man who can dabble in playmaking). He’s not especially efficient on those shots right now but you’d perhaps take the gamble that one day he will be — being able to shoot over most players is a nice advantage to have and there’s something to be said for it.

Pokusevski does have some good foot-speed given his size and he can do some work off of the dribble (again, whether this is translatable outside of the Greek second division remains to be seen and you’d probably have to lean with ‘no’ right now) but the obvious area to invest in is shooting, over everything else. Absolutely over everything else.

If this work off of the dribble does end up translating, that’s a big bonus and you can obviously raise Pokusevski’s ceiling if that does end up being the case. But, right now, the more translatable aspect of his offense — and the focus — will be his shooting.

There are Giannis draft comparisons here for Pokusevski heading into this draft — a player that could potentially burn you for not following your gut and selecting earlier than he ultimately will be.

Unlike Giannis however, I just don’t see Pokusevski as this focal point on offense or reaching that level on offense. That is, of course, fine as Giannis is obviously one of a kind. I see Pokusevski as more Thon Maker than a Giannis heading into this draft — and I can’t say that enough: heading into this draft. Those are not my ‘comps’ for when he enters the league. There is so much more that goes into what a player develops/doesn’t develop into, such as the organization he’s drafted to (this matters) and how hard he’s willing to put in the work to improve and for a player who seems to be more of a project and this is so relevant when talking about Pokusevski.

From a playmaking point of view, Pokusevski possesses a lovely touch, and his vision and IQ are to a high level already. I think it’s worth — whoever ends up selecting him — tapping into that aspect of his game and looking to develop that further. I really think there’s something there worth investing in.

I wouldn’t, perhaps, bank on Pokusevski being able to run plays off of the dribble but perhaps running some plays through him at the PF/C spot. We’ll be looking at an extract from Jonathon Givony of ESPN later here, but he projects Pokusevski as a ‘mismatch, playmaking 4’ and I really like the idea of running some plays through Pokusevski while having the 5 set screens around for your cutters/shooters — Pokusevski will be able to make those passes inside and out.

Defensively, Pokusevski obviously possesses size and length to cause disruption, as well as lateral quickness. The shot blocking potential is clear for everyone to see, both in a one-on-one scenario and as a help defender. Pokusevski’s lateral quickness means he was able to guard multiple positions, ball-handlers included, in the Greek second diviosn. Whether that is something that stacks up long term against tougher opposition will be important to monitor but it won’t be a complete deal breaker if it doesn’t hold up (though, if he’s playing the 4 it makes that option a little less viable defensively but you might just take the bad with the good though when it comes to offense/defense there if the shooting pans out).

His age is obviously a huge factor heading into the draft and will only boost his stock and it’ll give him allowances as he fills out a little bit/allowances for other deficiencies.

Now, the challenging stuff...

Pokusevski did not fill up the box score in terms of averages with 10.8 points per game on 40% from the field, 32% from three and even with his free throw shooting sitting nicely at 78%, his true shooting percentage sat at 52% and effective field goal percentage at 48% — those averages are not terrible but they’re not standout either.

In addition to that, everything he did this season (bar the 1:49 of garbage time against Lyon in the EuroLeague) came in the Greek second-division — that’s not exactly stellar competition to measure against.

That caveat when it comes to competition applies to basically every aspect of Pokusevski’s play this season and you can look at his entire draft stock through that lens (and I’m sure many will): why did he only average 10.8 points per game and on the percentages he did against in Greek second division? Is he able to have this much of an impact defensively elsewhere? Is he going to be able to defend off of the dribble elsewhere? Is he going to have the advantages with lateral quickness that he enjoyed on both ends elsewhere? Are those gaps where he can zing a pass into going to be present elsewhere? And so on...

There’s just a lot left up for debate given the level of competition and it’s arguably the main reason why so many are divided on where Pokusevski will be selected.

Pokusevski’s season was also disrupted with injury but that in itself is worrying with Pokusevski only playing a total of 256 minutes for the entire season and just 12 games — the sample size is not fantastic to go off of.

Pokusevski is also way too skinny at the moment but this isn’t a giant problem because he’s 19 in December and you’d kind of expect it. It’ll get better with time I’m sure but right now it will be a problem and if Pokusevski played any minutes at all in his rookie season (and I would bring him over immediately, get him all of that development time in the G League etc) it would be an issue.

I wouldn’t call Pokusevski’s offensive game especially diverse but I also have no issues with Pokusevski just prioritizing threes at the expense of other aspects of his offense — I think that’s absolutely fine right now.

What I do have issues with, however, is that Pokusevski — it felt like — was allergic to setting screens, like, actual screens. Not the half-roll screens. He literally never makes contact on any screen and almost avoids them if possible (perhaps the physical aspect is one they’re trying to avoid?). This limits some of the action he was involved with offensively but you can take encouragement from the fact there could be more to be drawn out Pokusevski offensively?

So... how would you go about this one? Where would you select Aleksej Pokusevski? I can only imagine the conflict NBA teams are feeling when it comes to Pokusevski.

Pokusevski, if everything goes to plan, could become this 7 plus footer with shooting range with good lateral movement at that position and could potentially defend multiple positions, play multiple positions on offense and defend the rim well, his length and size contributing to potentially both blocks and steals.

A 7 footer with that kind of skill set is a hot commodity in the NBA — everyone wants one, teams often pay a lot of money to acquire one (John Collins ticks a lot of these boxes — other than the 7 foot part — and he’s about to get bank soon). The only question teams need to ask themselves is do they ever see him getting there? If they see it and believe it, who blinks first with their draft selection? Do you pounce and select him in the lottery? Do you trade up and spend assets to get your foot in the door? Or do you play the dangerous waiting game and hope he falls?

With how most experts seem to view this draft, a lottery selection would not be out of the question for Pokusevski. A top-10 selection probably shouldn’t be out of the question either.

Thon Maker was taken at No. 10 overall in 2016 at the age of 19, and you can see a few similarities here with Pokusevski heading into the draft in terms of the potential/upside etc. Some team is going to take the reach on the potential upside here, given how bad this draft could potentially be as people say it is. The Bucks, in retrospect, reached on this selection but they get a free pass because Giannis was an overwhelming success with a similar reach in 2013.

Not every team has such a luxury.

The Atlanta Hawks own the No. 6 overall pick and I just can’t envision Travis Schlenk and company taking the gamble on Pokusevski with that pick — it’s probably just too high.

Should they opt to trade down, it’s still a little tricky because how soon is too soon? I’m not sure if this is the right path for the Hawks this year with the pick they have.

If they were in the San Antonio Spurs’ shoes in terms of draft position (11th overall) then I think it’d be an acceptable risk. Or in a situation like (and this is not an original thought and it’ll be attributed to Sam Vecenie of The Athletic below soon) Boston where they have multiple selections in the first round and you take a punt with one of those selections.

A scenario similar to the one the Hawks were in last year would’ve helped here (where they owned two first rounders, and, heck I advocated for the Hawks to take Sekou Doumbouya with their second first round pick after choosing someone ‘safe’ with their first selection) but alas, that was then and this is now and the Hawks don’t have that luxury this year (as of right now).

Plus, given where the Hawks are at, a project like Pokusevski might not be the way to go this year.

If this was a scenario where the Hawks just came off of a season where they fell short of the 8-seed and had the 14th pick — or even made the playoffs at the 8-seed and had the 15th pick — and they’re further along on that journey I think it’d make a lot more sense then to take the risk. But not at 6, not as a team that is still developing and very much on the outside looking in and not after the year they had.

Though, for the record, I’d love to see Schlenk exhibit the balls that would sink a shark to the bottom of the ocean and take Pokusevski at 6, purely from the risk side of things and how confident Schlenk would be in his evaluation to do that, but it probably wouldn’t be the smartest move in the world at a time where Schlenk needs to build a competent roster and the draft is basically the only area in terms of talent acquisition he has had success at when it comes to team building...we shall see what happens this summer in free agency.

Even 15 may be a stretch in a hypothetical. Pokusevski’s range seems to be wider than most other players in this entire draft, this is reflective in the varying spots that some outlets have mocked Pokusevski to be selected.

Sam Vecenie of The Athletic would appear to be one of the experts who is higher on Pokusevski, mocking him 14th to the Boston Celtics in his post-lottery mock draft with this to say about the Serbian:

Pokusevski would certainly be a big swing for an organization that, seven years ago, decided not to take the swing on Giannis Antetokounmpo. And with Celtics owning three first-round picks, in addition to a bunch of other young players on the roster from last year’s draft, I would love it if Boston took an enormous swing. They have assets to where they really could. The Celtics could also use a big man who can be a consistent threat as a shooter. As I’ll dive into a bit more detail later, I would be surprised if the Celtics keep all of their four draft picks, including three first-rounders. But if they’re going to really go for it on one, why not go for the home run?

A Serbian-Greek center for Olympiacos’ second team, Pokusevski is a 7-footer with legitimately terrific shooting potential and terrific athleticism. He is seen as an interesting long-term play as the league continues to look for floor spacing from the frontcourt. Above all, the most translatable skill here is his shooting. Pokusevski takes high-degree-of-difficulty shots and has incredibly fluid jumper mechanics for someone his size. His handle is kind of absurd for a 7-footer. He moves like a wing and has a 7-3 wingspan.

He can pass the ball at a high level. In the second division Greek league, he averaged 10.8 points, 7.9 rebounds, 3.1 assists and over a steal and a block in just 23 minutes per game. At that level, he’s the most athletic player on the court and takes advantage of it, even if his relative inefficiency isn’t terrific. But what does this very skinny big man’s game look like when he’s not the most athletic guy? Honestly, I have no idea. But I’d probably be willing to find out if I were Boston.

There aren’t many players here with a wider draft range than Pokusevski. Anywhere from No. 10 down to the end of the first round would make a lot of sense to me.

Should Pokusevski fall to 14 or below, that’s probably the best likely outcome for any of those teams outside of the lottery — a playoff team that doesn’t have to bank on Pokusevski being the home-run pick. This just doesn’t work for the Hawks at 6, or any team that needs something a little more sure, a little more safe.

ESPN rank Pokusevski No. 19 on their ‘Best Available’ list with Jonathon Givony outlining a few points on Pokusevski’s game/projection, first by shedding light on his strengths.

- Has unique dimensions for a perimeter player, standing more than 7-foot in shoes, with a 7-foot-3 wingspan and 9-foot-1 standing reach. Smooth and fluid for his size. He is the youngest player in this draft class, not turning 19 until late December.

- Skilled and versatile offensive player. Can make 3-pointers running off screens or pulling up off the dribble. Takes defensive rebounds coast to coast. Attacks closeouts with either hand. Can play pick-and-roll and pass off a live dribble.

- Effective rebounder who gets in passing lanes and rotates impressively to protect the rim.

Nothing too out of the ordinary here — we’ve looked at basically all of this in some way, shape or fashion. I would’ve liked to have seen a few more instances of Pokusevski coming off of screens but we saw enough to get an eye in.

In terms of improvement, the following areas were highlighted by ESPN.

- Hasn’t been scouted as thoroughly as other international draft prospects. Played only 254 minutes this season in the Greek second division, a low level of competition. Was out for nearly three months because of an injury.

- Weighs only around 200 pounds. Frame looks several years away from being NBA-ready. Lacks toughness and physicality even beyond his lack of strength. Frequently beaten off the dribble. Shies away from contact inside the paint.

- Has struggled to put the ball in the basket efficiently for much of his career. Career 40% 2-point and 32% 3-point shooter. Shows impressive shot-making prowess at times but lacks consistency.

Projected role: Mismatch, playmaking 4

Again, the level of competition, Pokusevski’s efficiency against said competition, the lack of playing time this season, the skinny frame are all things we looked at. Givony seems to be a little lower on Pokusevski and his abilities off of the dribble. Undoubtedly, Givony has a lot more access to film than I do but I think there was some potential off of the dribble for Pokusevski and the fact he can sit back a tad given his length to give him some space to catch up on a dribble (which obviously comes with danger of having jumpshots hit on step-backs).

CBS Sports, on the other hand, didn’t have Pokusevski mocked inside the first round until recently. Even post-lottery, Gary Parrish does not have Pokusevski mocked in the first round, but Kyle Boone has Pokusevski at No. 24 to Milwaukee, a potential dream scenario for both player and team.

For Sports Illustrated, Jeremy Woo mocks Pokusevski at No. 23 overall to the Utah Jazz.

Pokusevski is rightfully viewed as one of the wild cards in this draft, having showcased flashes of unusual perimeter skills for his size, albeit primarily against poor competition in Greece’s second division. There’s real hesitance around the league surrounding his frame and efficiency struggles. But he’s done enough that at this point it appears he’ll land safely in the first round, most likely somewhere in this range. Pokusevski would be a big-time project for Utah, but a viable flier play with intriguing upside, but also bust potential.

The last part of that excerpt is why it’s too risky, arguably, for any team in the top 10 to select Pokusevski. Yes, there is potential, but there are two sides to weigh when considering Pokusevski, especially in the lottery. In contrast, a playoff team will just be hoping Pokusevski falls out of the lottery and into their lap.

Who will blink first?