The Philadelphia 76ers need more offensive firepower. Ball handling, playmaking, three-point shooting (especially off the dribble), shot creation — there are plenty of areas they need to improve in. As they look ahead to the 2020 NBA Draft in search of players who could help, Arizona point guard Nico Mannion might be worth considering.
At 6’3” and 190 lbs, Mannion’s underwhelming physical profile isn’t much to initially look at. Neither is his lacking explosiveness (an issue I’ll get onto more shortly). His basic numbers from his one year in college don’t jump out too much either. He averaged 14 points, 2.5 rebounds, 5.3 assists to 2.6 turnovers, and 1.2 steals per game, shooting 39.2 percent from the floor and 32.7 percent from three on 5.1 attempts.
However, Mannion has a bunch of attributes that fit into what the Sixers need.
While Mannion’s three-point efficiency at Arizona was disappointing, he showed the ability to shoot from comfortably behind the arc and hit tough jumpers off the dribble. This is something the Sixers sorely need after ranking 30th in made pull-up threes per game this season at 1.6. Mannion has a fairly fast, compact release, and he can decelerate in a hurry and get his feet and shoulders set. This helps him get off shots quickly and, along with the high lift he gets on his jump, increases the space he can create:
The best element of Mannion’s shooting skillset is his ability off the bounce, but he has more to offer. He’s active when on the floor, and similarly to his pull-ups, the way he quickly sets his body and fires at different angles helps him when shooting on the move. In limited opportunities to do so at Arizona, Mannion flashed comfort shooting off movement, whether he’s relocating into space or coming off screens:
If Mannion is being deployed as a secondary ballhandler — for instance, playing alongside Ben Simmons — tapping into more of this shooting would help maximize his value.
While Mannion’s explosiveness, driving and creation ability are the biggest concerns in his game, he’s still crafty with shot fakes, and changes of direction and pace. His soft touch is evident inside as well when he utilizes smooth floaters and runners:
Mannion’s impressive intelligence stands out most when watching him. He isn’t an elite playmaking talent, but he reads the floor at a high level and frequently makes a positive impact through his strong awareness and quick, smart (and creative) decision-making. From deceptive fakes to throw defenders off to create more space for shooters, to nifty pick-and-roll play and accurate pocket passes, Mannion has upside as a quality playmaker.
The following possession demonstrates Mannion’s activity and fast decision-making throughout. After running off a screen along the baseline, he flows into a dribble hand-off and makes a timely pocket pass. Once Mannion gets the ball back, he immediately fires a two-handed pass to the other side of the floor to set up an open corner three:
The play below is an example of how Mannion uses fakes, hesitations and good timing to generate space for teammates. He draws two defenders with him off the high screen, pauses, and focuses at his teammate on the block to throw the defense off, and then hits his man for a wide-open three on the wing. By this point, Mannion has generated as much space as possible:
Again, Mannion’s timing in the next play is perfect. He takes two defenders with him in the pick-and-roll, waits for his target, Zeke Nnaji, to get under the basket past UCLA’s defense, and then fires a pin-point jump pass inside to beat the high defensive pressure and set up the dunk:
Mannion often makes the most of his IQ and limited physical attributes on defense as well. He has decent lateral quickness and is fairly competitive on the ball against opposing point guards, sliding his feet pretty well and using sharp anticipation to match his opponent’s movements or beat them to their intended driving lane.
While Mannion has some lapses with his off-ball positioning at times, he’s generally fairly aware, engaged, and in the right spots. He shouldn’t be viewed as an inevitable defensive weakness just because of his physical profile. With solid quickness, aggression and his IQ, he should have the ability to at least play at a passable level (or something close to it) against opposing point guards in the NBA.
Mannion’s main flaws come back to his lack of size, strength and explosiveness. While he uses his craftiness effectively on offense, he’s limited by his athleticism and struggled to consistently get to the rim. This hurt his overall efficiency (a True Shooting Percentage of only 52).
Mannion isn’t too slow when he gets going downhill, but without much bounce, a better first step, or strength to beat opponents off the dribble and play effectively through contact, it’s hard for Mannion to put much pressure on the rim. Against the elite athletes in the NBA, and the far better rim protectors that will be waiting for him at the basket, this is the biggest concern for Mannion.
The following two plays are an example of how Mannion can struggle. Even though he uses a pump fake to get his defender off their feet and find some space, he still fails to find any clear separation on his drive and get all the way to the rim. Settling for a floater just past the free throw line isn’t ideal:
In this play, Mannion again demonstrates his ability to hit difficult shots off the bounce, but a fading, well-contested jumper still isn’t the kind of shot you want him taking too often. He doesn’t get any separation from his defender on the initial pick-and-roll, and fails to get a step on his defender and drive into the lane or generate more space after getting the ball back:
And despite his competitive efforts defending opposing point guards on the ball, Mannion still runs into trouble at times due to a lack of strength and length with his 6’2.5” wingspan. He moves his feet well on this play to stick with the drive (and is trying to avoid fouling), but can’t offer resistance at the rim. It’s too easy for Payton Pritchard to power through Mannion and finish over him:
Mannion can’t fully escape the issues caused by his physical and athletic limitations on defense. While he can offer more resistance against guards than some give him credit for, he’s still going to be a target at times on switches against faster, stronger perimeter players (which, of course, is the case for most small guards anyway).
His lack of burst and driving ability might be what ultimately limits his upside and efficiency in the NBA, and stops him finding more success when operating as a lead ballhandler. Instead, with his limits as a primary on-ball creator, he’ll be best suited to a secondary role.
Even with his obvious flaws, Mannion is good. He has a lot to offer and can address some areas of need for the Sixers. He can handle a dose of pick-and-rolls, provide a touch of off-movement shooting, help keep the offense humming with sharp passing and quick reads, and provide secondary creation with selective drives/floaters and pull-up jumpers.
That said, he’s still not an ideal target for the Sixers’ first-round pick given the lack of lead creation he provides, which is something they need more of from their ballhandlers. There’s plenty of guard talent in this draft as well, and The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie has written that Mannion seems to be slipping down the boards of NBA teams as their evaluations of other prospects — like Tyrell Terry and Kira Lewis Jr. — improve. It sounds like there’s a chance Mannion falls into the second round.
I’d peg Mannion as more of a late 20s pick. He shouldn’t be a top target over other guards, such as those mentioned above and others like Desmond Bane, who has a lot to offer, including superior shooting and defense. The best idea may be to look elsewhere in the first round, and consider Mannion if he slips into the early 30s. If he’s available for the Sixers at 34 or 36, they may be able to get a good value pick.