Serbian big Aleksej Pokusevski would be a huge risk, huge reward kind of pick in the 2020 NBA Draft for the Knicks, but he does seem talented.

It’s been a while since the NBA Draft had a true mystery box prospect. Maybe that’s what makes it so easy to fall in love with Aleksej Pokusevski, the seven-foot, 200-pound Serbian big upon first seeing his highlights.

In a weak draft full of question marks and lacking much superstar potential, the spindly teenager known as “Poku” represents the highest-possible upside play outside the generally agreed upon top two of Anthony Edwards and LaMelo Ball.

In fact, in some ways Ball stands as the most interesting comparison point for Poku. Calling Pokusevski the seven-foot LaMelo might seem ridiculous on its face, and it’s certainly not a seamless analogy. But in terms of mentality, court vision, and level of sheer audacity, it’s not as crazy as it seems.

Shooting

Let’s start with the shot, which is a perfect representation of the phenomenon I’m describing. Like Ball, Poku is clearly a talented shooter—to see the potential dripping off his 7’3″ wingspan, all you have to do is watch the way he comes off screens, looking for his shot, comfortably adapting to the pressures and openings provided by the defense.

Also like LaMelo, Poku will enter the league not as a simple floor-stretcher, but as someone comfortable, maybe even overly comfortable, creating his own shot off the dribble. This has the double effect of providing glimpses of an intriguing offensive ceiling and causing his shooting percentages to plummet. Despite his clear knack for knocking down shots, he only hit 32% of his threes and 40% from the field this year for Olympiacos B, in Greece’s second-tier league (LaMelo, for his part, shot 25% on threes and 37.5% from the field on a similar diet of difficult and inadvisable shots, albeit on a much higher volume and workload).

Poku also has some funky shot mechanics to work out at the next level, though the baseline he’s starting from is encouraging. Most of the work will just be drilling in a consistent form, rather than rebuilding it from the ground up. He has a tendency to snake-attack his shots, pulling the follow through back in a flashy way that seems to rob him of his balance more often than not. Sometimes it works, other times not so much.

But once again, the overwhelming similarity to Ball as a shot creator is the upside and promise offered by the ability to even get to these shots comfortably and consistently at his age—which, for the record, is younger than many of the freshman of the 2021 draft class.

Passing

Are you getting Kristaps Porzingis vibes yet? I wouldn’t blame you, but it’s only because the picture is still taking shape. After all, one of the biggest sticking points with KP was how little he effected the game when he wasn’t scoring. Porzingis has long maintained one of the lowest assist rates in the league—this year’s mark of 8.8%, by far his career-best, placed him 333rd league-wide. That won’t be an issue with Poku, whose 1.62 assist-to-turnover ratio is pretty remarkable for his age and size.

Here’s another place the Ball comp holds up: while Pokusevski might take some truly terrible shots, and could probably be labeled a gunner, he’s by no means a selfish player. He regularly kicks ahead off rebounds, is a talented pick-and-roll ball-handler, and shows a creative mind that regularly finds gaps that shouldn’t exist—or thinks he does, resulting in silly turnovers on impossible passes.

Another comparison I couldn’t help but think about while watching some of Poku’s FIBA game tape (which is the some of his only readily accessible footage, another huge part of his mystery status) is Lamar Odom. The fluidity of his handle and passes, the good but not elite athleticism, the sweet jumpshot, the ability to push off a rebound, not to mention the flash and showmanship, are key-points to unlocking both bigs’ games.

While Odom was a much more physical player coming into the NBA (his college free throw attempt rate of .432 dwarfs Poku’s .219), their stats are actually fairly similar, granted in much different roles. Poku’s numbers (included below) are pure extrapolation, given how little he has played over the last year, while Odom (the lower row) played 34 minutes a night for the University of Rhode Island and was a focal part of the team. But still, the similarities are there:

Aleksej Pokusevski, Knicks, NBA Draft

He displays some instincts that are positively Nikola Jokic-ian, and while he’s not on anything close to Big Honey’s level as a consistent playmaker, that kind of high-feel playmaking will be a huge point of emphasis for any team that uses a high draft pick on him. Basically, you’re investing in him as a potential future point-forward type.

Defense

Of course, basketball is played on two ends of the floor. Poku’s defense, like much of the rest of his game, is defined by contradictions. He moves smoothly on offense but looks much more his size at times on defense. Not unlike Obi Toppin’s issues on that end, he has a high center of gravity and hips that don’t seem to react quickly, making it easy for ball handlers to turn the corner on him. He seems to have pretty awful form on his close-outs, and one of the points that seems to come up with him often is his low motor on the defensive end.

On the other hand…

 
Poku, for all his flaws, is definitely a playmaker on defense. In 180 minutes over seven FIBA Under-18 games in 2019, Poku recorded 29 blocks and 18 steals. He had four games with five or more blocks, four games with three or more steals, and three games with double-digit rebounds, not to mention four games with five or more assists. If that’s not production, I don’t know what it is.

Watch him contain the ball handler, lead the break, then relocate for three in this one play against Lithuania:

 
Are you salivating yet?

It’s hard not to be, right? The player above seems to be the outline of the perfect modern four(ish), if he could just add weight and clean up some of the very coachable weaknesses already described: shot selection, shooting form consistency, some kind of conscience when trying out the more ambitious shots or passes, and a basic understanding of defensive discipline. If you squint really hard, you can see someone with Davis Bertans’ outrageous shot selection and Pascal Siakam’s ball skills, or something in a similar mold.

So, like, what’s the deal with his draft stock?

It’s a fair question: in a draft with so few truly exciting prospects, why isn’t someone with this kind of upside a consensus top-five pick?

As mentioned before, Poku’s game at the moment seems to be a series of contradictions. An impressive shooter who is as likely to airball a step-back three as he is bury it in the defender’s face. A unique passer who will often dribble into a crowd without a care in the world and be stripped by any number of defenders. A defensive playmaker who will be easily and regularly exploited by the athletes of the NBA.

One of his biggest offensive issues is how he loses momentum when bothered by defenders. Because he’s too weak and contact-averse to explode out of a standstill or through defenders, his fluidity is often disrupted entirely by the slightest hint of defensive pressure, leading him to take weak-legged fade-aways or throw the ball away.

His decision-making will cause some of the more impatient coaches in the league to tear their hair out in frustration, and if he can’t keep his motor running hot, he may never be able to put all the pieces together. There’s very real downside, should things go badly.

But the thing likely keeping his name lower on draft boards (at least for now—once workouts start, he could rise quickly), is that even if he does eventually make good on his potential, he simply won’t be ready to contribute in a meaningful way in year one.

Now, we’ve heard that before with everyone from Porzingis to Mitchell Robinson, both of whom contributed in big ways during their rookie campaigns. But with Poku, it really is true. If Knicks fans were annoyed with KP’s tendency to get bullied by the Marcus Smarts of the world (and were they ever!), boy, will they be skeptical of Poku, who is coming in considerably weaker and smaller than his Latvian predecessor.

Poku will likely need a lot of time in the G League to get reps, development, and some of the disciplined coaching that seems to have been missing from his journey to where he is now. The team that takes him will need to be one that isn’t embarrassed to send their draft picks down to get the work they need.

It’s been mentioned before that taking Poku is basically like securing a 2021 lottery pick a year early, and that should probably be the approach for the team willing to use a 2020 lottery pick on him. This raises other interesting team-building questions: taking Poku early in the draft could allow Leon Rose and company to all-out tank for 2021 (not a likely outcome, but a possible one) pretty easily, or to sign veterans without having to worry as much about finding starters’ minutes for their new lottery pick.

It’s entirely possible that Poku, in time, adds his name to the long list of can’t-miss European prospects who did, in fact, miss. His success at the next level is by no means a safe bet. But then, nothing about Poku is safe. That’s part of what makes him so damned interesting as a prospect, which is inherently a world of projection and guesswork. Drafting someone with as wide a range of potential outcomes as Poku takes a lot of guts.

The question, if you’re the team brave enough to take Pokusevski, is how much do you trust your development staff?

For the Knicks, historically, the answer has been “about as far as I can throw them.” However, it can’t be overstated how radically different the infrastructure still being assembled is from the one that has existed over the last few years. It’s only fair to give respected development guys Johnnie Bryant and Kenny Payne the benefit of a clean slate to see what they can do with the potential-and-question-mark-filled young core of this Knicks team. Between the aforementioned coaches and the track record of Walt Perrin in Utah, it’s possible the Knicks could see Poku as the splash needed to fundamentally augment the direction of the current rebuild.

Mitchell Robinson and R.J. Barrett both have plenty of upside, but also questions as to how high their ceilings truly are. Pokusevski, with his well-rounded offensive game, could be a crucial piece to unlocking both players, if the team is willing to do the hard work it takes to extract the best possible version of the young Serb.

 
The most interesting thing about Poku as a prospect is how wide his draft range seems to be. It’s entirely possible that he ends up a top-10 pick—or he could slide all the way to the early-to-mid 20’s, though it seems unlikely he’ll still be there by the time the Knicks’ 27th pick comes around. If the Knicks really want him, they could have options: take him at eight, trade down to get him, or try to trade up from 27 to pair him with whoever they select at eight.

A draft like this one offers different choices in priorities: do you go for the guy you think has the safest chance of being a productive player, maybe even a solid future starter? Someone like Onyeka Okongwu or Devin Vassell would allow front offices to play it safe and save the big move for next year, when the franchise-changers come to town.

Or, do you instead go for the biggest swing possible? If you take that swing and miss in a weak draft, is it as devastating as it would be in a more loaded one? One unexpected draft hit can change a franchise, not to mention save the job of a hot-seat executive. Could Poku be that hit for the Knicks?

 

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