Heading into the 2019-20 NCAA season, Nico Mannion was thought to be a clear top-10 pick in the NBA Draft, a one-and-done who hardly needed to prove himself. The Italian-born son of a basketball lifer, Mannion had dazzled in international competition, AAU ball, and won the Arizona high school title all before starting his leading one of the more starry recruiting classes in recent memory at the University of Arizona. Once the season started, though, Mannion could not live up to those lofty expectations. With the NBA Draft less than a month away, Mannion suddenly is not a lock to be drafted in the first round.
The 6’3 point guard sits at No. 25 on ESPN’s big board after a season in which he shot just 39 percent from the field and Arizona’s offense as a whole underperformed. In just about every close game of the season, Mannion’s inability to create advantages for himself and his teammates bit him.
Throughout the year, Mannion’s foibles routinely cost Arizona big games. The Wildcats lost by five to Baylor in a December game in which Mannion was 3-for-14 from the field. A couple weeks later, Mannion’s clutch mistakes and 3-for-20 shooting night cost Arizona a big game against Gonzaga. They dropped a clunker to St. John’s to finish out their non-conference schedule, with Mannion shooting 6-for-15 and notched only three assists. In just about every one, Mannion’s lack of burst and athleticism meant the Wildcats couldn’t create good offense late.
When Arizona could create turnovers, play fast, and generate threes for their deep collection of shooters, the offense looked great and Mannion was quite comfortable. Mannion deserves a fair bit of credit for proving himself to his coach so quickly in that regard. Arizona’s offense was in the 89th percentile in transition efficiency last season (per Synergy Sports) in large part because of Mannion’s effectiveness in the open floor. The problem is that NBA teams already knew they could trust that part of his game, and he failed to show growth in other areas as a freshman.
Plenty of NBA players succeed in spite of being relatively slow or ground-bound. The idea of Mannion as a prospect was that he could be Steve Nash without the generational basketball IQ, but over the course of his one college season, the biggest sign that he wasn’t at that level was that his jump shot never came along. Though he shot 80 percent from the free throw line — often a good indicator of a player’s shooting talent — and showed good touch on floaters and flips around the rim, the results just weren’t there from deep.
It will be hard for NBA teams to pull the trigger on a player who theoretically provides value as a shooter and play-maker when he’s never proven his shooting (the more valuable ingredient in that mixture) is real. Mannion shot just 33 percent from deep overall and put up an ugly 43.9 effective field goal percentage on jumpers coming off screens overall, per Synergy. Nothing really suggests his form is the problem, but rather his lack of confidence and ability to create separation seemed to have hurt him here as well.
Despite the way his offensive limitations showed up at Arizona, it’s not all bad with Mannion. He genuinely is one of the best passers in this draft class and his overall shot-making could become more valuable once he learns how to get past his man more often. There’s also the fact that Arizona head coach Sean Miller is hardly a creative offensive mind — he tends to hand over the offense entirely to the most basic skill set of his best players and relies on that over anything else. That hurt Mannion’s value to the team and draft stock even as it might have given him more confidence. A team and coaching staff that works harder to help him in the open court (even if that means playing off the ball more to better use his shooting) and is dedicated to playing fast when he’s on the floor would be a much better situation than what he was given at Arizona.
The other thing to keep in mind about the Arizona product is that unlike Trae Young or even Nash, defense is not a wash for Mannion. Of course, weighing in under 200 pounds limits his ability to switch or move around within a scheme, but when he defends point guards, Mannion gives multiple efforts, fights through screens, and rotates intelligently. For a team thinking about drafting him, that combined with his ability to shoot and good decision-making means you can trust him to stay on the floor as a rookie rather than thinking of him as a risky project.
Mannion’s trip to Tucson was tainted from the start, when pay-for-play drama around Arizona’s program created distractions all season long for the program’s talented freshman class, which included Josh Green and Zeke Nnaji, both of whom could join Mannion as first-round picks next month. NBA teams will have to decide whether the situation in college explained away Mannion’s problems enough to bet on their program being a boon for him, or whether he’s more of a toss-up unworthy of a first-round selection and fully guaranteed contract.