It's always an interesting path when you're an NBA prospect that gains a lot of preseason hype. On one hand, if you surpass those lofty expectations, it could skyrocket your draft stock in the eyes of talent evaluators. But on the other hand, if you seem to come up short, it could leave your stock cooling down at the worst time.
When you watch Arizona Wildcats freshman guard Nico Mannion it's hard not to be a fan. His combination of playmaking ability and feel for the game stands out immediately. You could argue that Nico might be one of the best passers in the 2020 Draft Class. A bit undersized for a modern ball-handler at just 6'2" with a 6'3" wingspan, Mannion makes up for it with his instincts and basketball IQ.
Mannion was getting a serious amount of preseason hype after his impressive performance over the week while at the Nike Hoop summit. It's safe to say that Mannion went into the season with some lofty expectations in NBA circles. The Arizona Wildcats this year suffered from a weak roster. Some might argue that the Wildcats are projected to potentially have three first-round selections, but to go the distance you need depth, and this year's Arizona squad didn't have it. Mannion was asked to carry the load in a big way, and while he did his absolute best...that just simply wasn't Nico's game. Mannion hasn't shown flashes of being a high scoring point guard, and that might be something that leaves a bad taste in NBA circles. Is Mannion capable of being a starting point guard at the next level? The answer is yes. Let me show you why.
FEEL FOR THE GAME
Plays like this are the reason in which NBA teams are convincing themselves that Nico Mannion has a long NBA career ahead of himself as a floor general. Mannion doesn't get himself into a lot of trouble usually. He's calm, under control and has a fantastic overall feel for the game. Here you can see Mannion lulling the defense to sleep in transition after a defensive rebound. All it takes is a little hesitation and Nico sees his window to attack. As mentioned earlier, the physical limitations will have some talent evaluators skeptical of Nico at the next level. Here though, Mannion does a fantastic job of getting by the defender and using the rim as another protector.
When you watch Mannion on tape, you don't get the vibe initially that he was a guy that shot 32.7% from three this year. Mannion has good shooting form and often found himself trying to carry this Arizona Wildcats team, which wasn't a strong offensive team. Nico would finish the year with a True Shooting % of 52.0.
CHANGE OF GEARS
One of my favorite things about watching Mannion on film is his ability to use hesitations. Mannion does a great job changing gears. For all of you that don't understand what that means, imagine a sports car getting in and out of gears at different speeds. Mannion still needs to develop some advanced counters, but he's twitchy and gets defenders guessing. His floater is one of his go-to moves off of the bounce as well and it's a good one.
OFF THE BOUNCE
I swear. If Mannion had better percentages and had a desirable wingspan...he'd be everything you want in a guard. Mannion plays like he's 6'5 and 200 pounds, and that's why I truly believe that some NBA team is going to buy into this kid. Notice the burst from Mannion once he realizes he has an opening in the lane. Hopefully, the basketball fan inside of you is holding up your left hand in the air while watching that clip.
Great job here again of Nico demonstrating patience and allowing this lane to set up. Notice how he waits for the initial ball screen. Once he realizes his defender is trailing. Nico attacks off of another hesitation and goes right into the body of the defender. It's something he's going to have to get used to, with bigger defenders at the next level. But showing the capability to do so at the college ranks, just shows Nico understands the game.
CATCH AND SHOOT
I wanted to make sure to get a number of different looks at Mannion in shooting situations, especially when he's balanced. Thought Mannion had a number of possessions over the year in which Arizona was in desperate need of something to get going (often) and Nico was pressing the issue. It could be a reason why his percentages are so low. Here we get a good look at Nico coming off of the ball into a nice, and balanced, catch and shoot opportunity.
This is the type of play that needs to gain your attention when you watch Mannion as a prospect. There's a serious case to make that Mannion could be one of the best passers in this draft class. He's not the flashiest, but he can hit the small windows. This pass is absurd. Notice the minimal room for error here, this pass had to be right on the money.
PLAYMAKING PART II
This was right after an Illinois bucket and it's the little things that stand out to me personally when you're watching a ball handler. Here, Nico kept his head up the entire time in transition and was surveying the floor. Once he sees that the Illinois defense is out of place, Nico hits fellow draft prospect Zeke Nnaji with a bullet pass for an easy two.
ATTENTION TO DETAIL
You love to see it when the little guys are willing to put in the dirty work. Here we see a dribble hand-off that starts this set. Mannion flashes down to the block before coming up and setting a nice backscreen on his teammates' man. This sets up just enough of a window for Mannion to come up and get a clean look at a 3.
Another textbook example of Nico's ability to change gears and set up his defenders. That's Ayo Dosunmu defending Nico. Dosunmu is a young and lengthy ball handler that will be a name to monitor this upcoming season. The point being, Nico has him guessing all over the place with his hesitations.
ABILITY TO CREATE SPACE
Mannion has some sneaky ability to stop on a dime. Again, it's just furthering the point of Nico's impressive feel for the game. He understands he has his defender trailing by the time he gets to the three-point line. Once Nico has him in the right spot, he slams the breaks on and gets more than enough room for a wide-open jumper.
Arizona would go on to lose this game, but Mannion was a huge reason why they were able to climb back into this one. Here, we get a great defensive awareness sequence. Notice as Nico tags the initial roll man and stays with him until his teammate recovers. Once Nico realizes his teammate is back in position, Nico explodes back for a beautiful read on the passing lane.
The Arizona guard has been one of the more interesting evaluations I have done in a long time. After seeing Nico play in-person a number of times throughout the year, I often left wanting more. Mannion had the ability to become a takeover player...but his mindset is set specifically on putting his teammates in the best position to succeed instead. That's not a bad problem to have. But it could explain why his stock has cooled down a bit recently. If Mannion does slip a little on draft day, it could be a blessing. Mannion might not project to have a serious amount of star power, but he would be a phenomenal asset to add to a potential playoff team. Mannion will be one of those prospects where you know exactly what you are getting when you invest in him. You're getting a high basketball IQ player who can distribute the ball and make the correct reads. Currently, we have Nico Mannion 12th overall on our 2020 NBA Draft Board.