As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, the 2020 NBA Draft is not well regarded for its star potential. There will be useful players in this class, but the top end of the lottery is as bereft of surefire stars going in as any year in recent memory. More than one bad team will probably opt to take the perceived safe pick, when in reality, they should swing for the fences. This is in part because what constitutes a “safe pick” in this class is up for debate.
Enter Serbian teenager Aleksej Pokuševski. The first thing you notice about Poku is his incredible fluidity and coordination for someone his size at his age. He’s listed at 7-feet, though there is some anecdotal evidence that he’s a little taller than that now, and given that he turns 19 after Christmas, he’s the youngest player in the entire class. Poku does not have the pedigree or the base statistical profile one would generally associate with a top-10 pick. Only playing in 12 total games in the low-level Greek Second League, Poku was not the dominant scorer in Europe that current superstars Luka Dončić and Nikola Jokić were, averaging only 9.9 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game. His profile is closer to something like what Kristaps Porziņģis’ was, albeit against lesser competition.
As you can probably tell, a more thorough examination of the numbers is where Poku shines. His Per 36 numbers this season are quite good — he averaged 16.7 points, 12.2 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.9 steals, and 2.8 blocks. I shouldn’t have to note how uncommon it is for a younger seven footer to average almost five assists per 36, never mind those rebounding and steal/block numbers. The way he gets those assists is even more remarkable, functioning as a legitimate ball handler in transition and in the pick-and-roll. In case you think these numbers are a fluke, bear in mind that they similar to the numbers he had last summer in the Under-18 European Championships: 21.6 points, 9.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 3.1 steals, and 4.8 blocks per 36.
Not to get too numbers heavy but, a 17/18-year-old tallying 57 steals and blocks in about 350 minutes is superhumanly good. The same player also having 117 rebounds, 43 assists, and 27 made threes in that period of time is almost unheard of. Across all of 2019, Poku went for 18.1 points, 11.6 boards, 4.3 assists, 2.3 steals, and 3.4 blocks per 36 minutes. He also had a positive assist-to-turnover ratio and a 27-for-73 (.369) mark from deep. It’s not entirely out of the question to ask if any other recent 7-foot prospect has put up numbers like these, so I figured I’d check.
With apologies to Marvin Bagley, here’s everyone ever called a “unicorn” and what their Per 36 numbers looked like in the year before entering the NBA Draft.
What really stands out here is Poku’s rebounding, passing, and defensive playmaking (as well as his miserable overall field goal percentage, which we’ll get into). It’s really not a stretch to say he’s the most multi-faceted big man in recent Draft history. I included Giannis less as a direct comp and more because he’s the only one of these players to also play in the Greek Second League, although Poku was younger.
Is all of this to say Poku will be as good as any of these players in the NBA? Of course not, and that’s especially true with Embiid, Giannis, or Jokic, who are all incredibly strong and well-built players. The biggest reason for that poor field goal percentage inside the arc is Poku’s complete lack of strength in his upper and lower body — he’s listed at a paltry 201 pounds.
Thankfully, Poku has the potential shooting versatility that all these players, save Jackson and Towns, lack. He comes off screens, shoots stepbacks, pulls up in transition, and shoots from either end of a pick and roll. That last one is a particularly rare skill, even in the three and PnR heavy NBA. Here he is isolating at the top of the key, moving to his right, and firing off a contested three. On shots like this, it almost doesn’t matter if it misses, because this sort of thing puts fear into any defense.
Here is Poku spotting up in transition with a quick hitter. This is something you’re likely to see from Seth Curry or Troy Daniels, not a seven footer playing in his first international tournament.
That’s an even more terrifying pull-up. These are just three isolated shot attempts from Poku and only scratch the surface of all the things he can do on the court. Connecting on 37.5 percent of his threes and 77.1 of his free throws are legitimate shooter’s numbers at any age. This isn’t a big man like Deandre Ayton or Embiid taking some open shots at the top of the key. There are questions about Poku playing the 5 in the NBA, but if he’s ever physically able to do so and he takes shots like this, he’s going to break defenses.
That’s really the biggest question about Poku at this point, whether or not he’s ever going to be able to withstand any amount of physicality. Defensively, he’s generally able to use his length and timing to absorb contact from smaller drivers, but even then, against someone like Russell Westbrook, he’ll be toast. The positive is that he’s not afraid of contact, it’s just going to take time. Toni Kukoč or Lamar Odom might be good comparison points for Poku’s NBA future. Kukoč in particular was not physically dominant at all, but was still a matchup nightmare for NBA forwards for the better part of a decade and was one of the best FIBA players of the ’90s as a whole.
A potentially positive trend is Poku’s shot chart at Olympiacos B this season. While his two-point percentage is still pretty miserable (I’d say mostly because of his aggressive shot selection), his percentage at the rim is greatly improved from his FIBA play last summer.
While 20-for-32 isn’t terrific, it at least points to Poku’s good natural touch and, perhaps, a growing sense of propriety in the paint. It would be a good step forward for him to be able to determine when he should and shouldn’t be attacking players that are likely much stronger than he is.
The best evidence I have for Poku being a success in the NBA is his obvious work ethic. He’s been preparing himself to play in the NBA, having learned English and played professional basketball away from his home for years. Comparing his numbers to Giannis’ earlier wasn’t meant to suggest he could ever become the dominant force that the NBA MVP has become. Very few people in human history have had the maniacal drive and work ethic Giannis possesses, but if Poku has even half of the desire to succeed, then it’s hard to argue against him becoming a star in this league.
He’ll likely have to spend a lot of time in whatever the 2020-21 version of the G League looks like, but if you could guarantee me that Aleksej will gain 15 pounds of legitimate muscle, I would probably take him third overall in this draft and take my chances.