Aleksej Pokusevski is the NBA Draft’s biggest mystery and a bet worth making

(Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images) /

As a versatile shooter with play-making ability on both ends, Aleksej Pokusevski is a top-five talent in this year’s draft class.

Scattered across the 2020 NBA Draft class are perimeter players with international ties. LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton spent the past season preparing themselves in Australia’s NBL. Deni Avdija logged multiple years with Maccabi Tel Aviv of his native Israel. Killian Hayes was born in Florida, but grew up in France and touts a tenure with the country’s youth national teams, as well as European clubs in various domestic leagues. His countryman, Theo Maledon, is a mainstay for ASVEL Lyon-Villeurbanne.

Joining this quintet of potential first-round draftees is Aleksej Pokusevski (read this). He’s an 18-year-old Serbian who cut his teeth with two iterations (Junior Team and B Team) of Greece’s Olympiacos organization over the previous three years and represents Serbia in FIBA tournaments. Pokusevski floats around the late teens and mid-20s on most mock drafts, but is firmly a top-five prospect on my board and sits in my first tier because of his valuable, distinct skill-set and flashes unmatched by anyone in the class.

During his 11 games, tallying 23.1 minutes each contest, in Olympiacos’ domestic league last season, he averaged 10.8 points, 7.9 rebounds, 3.1 assists (1.8 turnovers), 1.8 blocks and 1.3 steals on 52.1 true shooting percentage (.404/.321/.783 split). Apply that data to a 36-minute scale and his numbers shoot up to 16.8 points, 12.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists (2.8 turnovers), 2.8 blocks and 2.0 steals.

Among the 17 games from the 2019 FIBA U18 European Championships and Olympiacos’ domestic league, only three occurred after his 18th birthday. Those 17 games constitute 404 minutes and Pokusevski’s only played 54 minutes since turning 18, highlighting his status as the draft’s youngest player.

There is so little footage from his age-18 season. The wide-ranging displays of a tantalizing skill-set largely happen at 17 years old, rendering them increasingly intriguing and exciting. Projection and growth curve are closely intertwined with draft evaluation; it’s logical to envision the improvements Pokusevski can make, given his baseline skill package at such a young age.

The most tantalizing place to imagine this is with his skill as a shooter. Founded upon his diversity of approach and shot profile, Pokusevski should be a premier, versatile shooter.  He curls around screens, launches step-backs and off-movement, performs as a pull-up scorer in pick-and-rolls, fires from tricky angles and is undeterred by contests. His versatility is saddled with volume, too, sporting a .510 3-point rate and hoisting 7.5 triples per 36 minutes last season.

His 32.1 percent clip beyond the arc this past season and 29 percent mark from the 2019 FIBA games are reflective of the high degree of difficulty on his shots, as well as audacious shot selection. The dude will shoot however he prefers. It’s detrimental in the interim, but beneficial for his shooting development, broadening the scope of his repetitions. The best long-ball gunners are not timid, stationary 40 percent shooters. They are high-volume, malleable, daring shooters whose mere presence bend defenses. This is who Pokusevski can emerge as if provided the requisite boundaries with his NBA team because these kinds of boundaries were rarely, if ever, enforced overseas.

It seems as though he enjoyed complete autonomy with Olympiacos and Serbia, enabled to explore the depths of his creativity, strengths and flaws. This catalyzed the unique prospect seen today, but also spawned some cumbersome habits. As a shooter, he hasn’t discovered consistent mechanics, failing to hold his follow-through and drifting off-balance too often. This is the sort of low-hanging fruit that a coaching staff can address to unlock the value of his shooting.

The objective for Pokusevski is establishing a balance between discretion and brashness to maximize his shooting versatility and ensuring they’re worthwhile possessions. At the moment, he isn’t there in most facets. With Olympiacos, he ranked in the 12th percentile off screens, 14th percentile off the dribble and 30th percentile on catch-and-shoots. During FIBA play, he finished in the 27th percentile on catch-and-shoots and 80th percentile off the dribble while going 2-of-8 off screens (not enough possessions to qualify for a percentile).

There are no more 25 possessions in any of those data sets, so the sample is rather small for each. Acknowledging these numbers isn’t to imply he cannot become proficient. It’s simply to underline that he’s not an elite shooting prospect in the same manner Aaron Nesmith or Desmond Bane are, which is expected because they’re much older and starkly different archetypal players.

Assuming Pokusevski’s shot selection improves, he’s going to be quite valuable as a floor-spacer. He already wields shooting gravity, while his offensive fluidity allows for diverse deployment. Whether it be traversing off-ball screens, serving as the screener in pick-and-pops, relocating around the arc, lurking as a baseline cutter (he’s a heady off-ball mover) or puncturing closeouts, he’s equipped to excel in a secondary creation role offensively because of guard-like movement patterns. The last talent is where he can regularly capitalize on his shooting gravity, attacking closeouts as both a scorer and passer.

Transitioning to a vastly more challenging playing field in the NBA will present hurdles for Pokusevski. Because of an aversion to contact, poor vertical explosion and a severe lack of functional strength, he’s a poor finisher (15th percentile at the rim in the half-court during FIBA, 3-of-9 with Olympiacos), all of which can prompt him to short-circuit forays inside the arc. NBA defenders will be more disciplined in their closeouts and apply their strength advantage to stymie his effectiveness operating off the catch, aware of his limitations finishing through help.

If he doesn’t pose an imminent threat as a slasher, smart teams will game plan for this. Even so, he should offer some equity as a finisher because of his innate body control and 7-foot-3 wingspan, empowering him to convert over or around undersized defenders. It’s not as though he’ll always have to drive all the way inside because his pull-up shooting should progress, middle side-step triples or an in-between off-the-dribble game viable when chased off of the 3-point line. His ingenuity as a distributor, able to conjure impromptu reads when necessary, helps mitigate some of these concerns, too.

As natural physical development helps him add weight, the key will be to improve his functional strength. He’s listed at 205 pounds and while I’d bank on that number being moderately higher on an NBA roster page for 2020-21, there remains a lengthy process before his height is an advantage offensively. If he reaches, say, 235 pounds, he’ll likely open up more possibilities to weaponize his shooting gravity in actions as a screener — ideally, refining his absorption and embracing of contact — and reduce the impact of assigning smaller guards to him. Despite standing 7-feet tall, Pokusevski is functionally a guard and physical, well-built backcourt mates might be stuck to him. Opponents could have confidence he can’t exploit these match-ups in the post and a more physical defender could disrupt him while he tries to spring free as a shooter.

This is a swing skill of sorts. Will his release point and height advantages overwhelm smaller defenders to amplify his shooting? If so, it’d force big men to defend him and attempt to mirror his distinct offensive fluidity, a precarious task for most guys capable of genuinely contesting his jumper. If small guards are viable against him, that eliminates a portion of his value. They’ll match his mobility and pressure his handle, meaning the on-ball utility is dicier to implement. And yet, it might result in another mismatch elsewhere, with a big possibly tasked against a ball-handler/perimeter creator.

So, really, the crux is building strength that doesn’t hinder his mobility but also dissuades teams from putting guards on him — or at least, diminishes the impact of such a decision. Pokusevski doesn’t need to become functionally strong enough to battle with other 7-footers, just strong enough to punish guards using size and strength, and not be overly bothered by their physicality. There is a gulf between those two points, though the latter still necessitates a targeted plan of action in his development.

All of this is vital for his trajectory. If he reaches a strength threshold that requires bigs to defend him, it’ll forge an avenue to assert his on-ball arsenal. Most 7-footers or power forwards will not have the fluidity and screen navigation to contain him in pick-and-rolls.

Pokusevski isn’t someone who should ever be asked to create in isolation. But ball-screen actions are a legitimate option with his handle, pull-up shooting and passing, in which his height permits him to identify more windows over the top and execute in different scenarios. His handle won’t be much of a tool against guards who can crouch low and crowd him. Stiffer bigs with a higher center of gravity are exploitable to generate space and advantages — underscoring the importance of his strength development to mandate like-sized assignments.

He isn’t your traditional initiator running spread pick-and-roll out top play after play. Optimally, he’ll conduct motion and side pick-and-rolls, commandeering possessions with momentum on his side against tilted defenses and a slice of the leg work already completed for him. His handle, cadence, awareness of angles and manipulation are good enough to manufacture value, though he has to shore up the sloppiness of his decision-making, passes and accuracy on reads.

Outside of pick-and-rolls, the most likely lane to extracting value from Pokusevski as a passer or secondary initiator is in transition. He’s been used in the mid-post as a facilitator, but his functional strength shortcomings and subpar finishing make it dubious he’ll be workable there, at least early on or consistently long-term. The open floor is where his creativity prominently shows itself. His future team should encourage him to run, as well as emphasize an up-tempo pace during his minutes because he’s diversely equipped on the break.

In both offensive facets, scoring and distributing, he creates some mind-boggling plays, featuring 3s, behind-the-back dishes, cross-court flings and space-eating buckets fueled by coordination and stride length. The duality of his transition prowess is part of his value. He can put a bow on plays with long balls, launch outlet passes to ignite opportunities or weave through defenders as a handler to score or play-make.

Helping to increase Pokusevski’s transition volume are his defensive instincts. In six FIBA games last summer, he averaged 9.7 stocks (5.8 blocks, 3.9 steals) per 36 minutes and this season, he averaged 4.8 stocks. Issues persist with his defense, but he’s a high-level events creator who excels as a help-side rim protector and has the reaction time and length to envelop passes in his orbit. He encounters trouble when asked to process multiple decisions at once, such as evading off-ball screens while keeping an eye on the primary action or toggling between man and ball as to not lose cutters or shooters. Essentially, stressing his mental capacity with simultaneous events is where he struggles off the ball.

Although delayed load-up speed as a vertical leaper inhibits him on the interior at times, he’s most commonly in the proper spots rotationally to influence plays. Once a turnover is created, he’s able to spearhead the break if necessary, too. Using a 7-foot-3 wingspan to gum up possessions with deterrence, blocks, steals and deflections, he’s constantly aware of the ball’s location.

At the summit, he’s an off-ball roamer, frequenting passing lanes, altering shots at the rim and amassing rejections inside. Here, he’ll induce transition offense and high-efficiency offensive opportunities while limiting the opposition’s field goal attempts. Scheming ways to maximize his time in this role is vital for his defensive impact because on the ball, whether it be posting up, closing out or around the arc, Pokusevski is quite poor.

He doesn’t have the core strength to prevent easy low-block scores and is jostled around by most guys. His closeouts are stiff and apathetic, and he struggles to swivel his hips if he approaches from a bad angle. Against ball-handlers, he doesn’t have the foot speed or consistent change of direction to deter dribble penetration. Pretty much any on-ball context defensively is going to highlight his flaws and demand the surrounding personnel to be quick with help.

This is the paradoxical conundrum of Pokusevski. For all his fluidity and mobility offensively, he does not translate that defensively, and it’s compounded by severe functional strength shortcomings. If he had the body composition of a typical 7-footer, stationing him near the rim and on the interior, emphasizing his secondary rim protection and playmaking, would suffice. He’d likely fare adequately one-on-one, at least enough for teams to not divert from the game plan and target him, while also supplying valuable rim deterrence. Perimeter drawbacks would still exist, but they wouldn’t be as damning.

Instead, he offers little recovering to shooters, containing switches or walling off the paint. His on-ball defense is a significant concern because there isn’t anywhere he’s comfortable enough to be slotted and not compromise the integrity of a possession. Guiding him to his ceiling will, of course, require an excellent physio development staff. Strength-building is step one, particularly for his offense, but refining his movement skills defensively should be the second priority.

Pokusevski has flashed a wherewithal to navigate screens — though, only when it’s his sole focus — and deter drives, playing light on his feet with quick changes of direction. Expanding on these brief sequences as a means of achieving on-ball defensive serviceability must be how an NBA team approaches him. In the right situation, it’s plausible, ensuring his off-ball playmaking, a remarkably profitable trait, is not burdened by his on-ball weaknesses.

Both technique and physical strides are ingredients in this gambit, further illuminating the need to treat him as an investment, not a purchase. Every draft pick is an investment, but Pokusevski embodies this theory as the sort of prospect needing a calculated, fixed development program, more so than most of his contemporaries. Accentuating strengths, addressing flaws and bundling a collection of skills is always the formula, especially for him, whose strengths and flaws are so drastic to each pole, and who habitually teeters the line of controlled and unhinged chaos in his play-style.

Hitting the mark with him is entirely worthwhile and yields a rare archetype: the versatile spacing 4-man with two-way playmaking chops and complementary handling. It’s the sort of outline that infuses novel layers into his own coach’s playbook and hamstrings opponents’, crafting an advantage before the ball is even tipped — a tenet of the sport upon which wins are built.

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