Arizona freshman guard Nico Mannion isn’t the flashiest of players, but his well-rounded offensive arsenal should be a clear plus in the NBA.
Head coach Sean Miller arrived at Arizona in the fall of 2009. Over the past 10 years, he’s welcomed seven top-10 recruits to Tucson. Prior to this season, all five were forwards or centers. Miller was yet to acquire a freshman guard like Nico Mannion, who has immediately stepped into a starting role ready to set the table and score off the dribble.
Mannion’s production through six collegiate games isn’t overwhelmingly dominant. He’s averaging 14.8 points, 5.0 assists, 2.2 rebounds and 1.0 steals in 28.0 minutes a night. Yet the manner in which these numbers have arrived is what’s most notable, as Mannion currently sports a .528/.480/.808 slash line, good for 68.1 percent true shooting. The red-headed guard won’t drain 48 percent of his long balls over the entire season, but his pre-collegiate indicators are near-elite for a recruit. According to MaxPreps and PrepCircuit, he shot 36.6 percent beyond the arc and 82.3 percent at the line during high school and AAU play. As an NBA prospect, the allure of his shooting begins with the pull-up game.
Despite some athletic limitations — ones I’ll dive into later — Mannion has very little trouble shooting off the bounce, even in the face of defensive pressure. This is accentuated by his start-stop ability and capacity for controlling forward momentum. He also utilizes precise footwork and initiates the gather phase of his shot before coming to a complete stop. All of this allows him to create space without relying on blazing quickness to blow past defenders or electric shiftiness to shake free from assignments.
This is an advanced tool for an 18-year-old to have in his bag. It’s not as though Mannion is just some nuclear shooter whose raw bucket-getting enables him to score off the dribble. His technique and process are both encouraging, establishing a solid foundation moving forward. The footwork, shot preparation and release are all positive signals. Contemporary hoopers rarely have such a developed pull-up game and a host of NBA players can’t decelerate into jumpers as he does.
Further reinforcing this distinct skill-set is the fact that he’s comfortable going right or left and uses dribble moves like hesitations, hang dribbles or crossovers to set up defenders before elevating. Rather than win with sheer athleticism, he wields craftiness to emerge victorious.
Because he lacks elite north-south and vertical explosiveness, Mannion projects best as a secondary creator in the NBA. His arsenal is conducive to directing an offense, but the physical profile hinders him. This is where a portion of his IQ, balance and start-stop ability prove resourceful. He’s hinted at potential as an off-movement shooter and flashes the awareness to be a perceptive off-ball relocator.
Outside of LaMelo Ball, Mannion is arguably the most functional passer among guards ranked in my top 14 (only Killian Hayes rivals him). His pull-up gravity forces defenders to guard him tightly, both straight up and in pick-and-rolls. When he curls around screens, the drop big has to respect the threat of Mannion rising for a jumper, which leaves the roller open, and he boasts the vision to burn teams.
While timely, accurate lobs and on-the-move pocket/skip passes are essential — all plays he’s assuredly capable of — there is much more to his facilitating repertoire. What truly distinguishes him from other ball-handlers in this class is his creativity. Mannion is an instinctual, ambidextrous passer who understands how to bend the opposition and capitalize on that distress. The following play exemplifies his marriage of playmaking in an organized context and impromptu reads that manipulate defenses.
Initially, he threads a pass to Chase Jeter while the drop defender is occupied with his pull-up shooting. A third defender rotates to tag the roll and another drops down to cut off the interior feed to Stone Gettings. Jeter sends the ball back to Mannion, who spots Jemarl Baker in the corner.
Rather than simply swing it to the wing — potentially allowing the defense to recover on the perimeter — Mannion immediately rifles a pass to Baker for the open 3. He anticipated how defenders would prioritize rotations — first to him then to the right wing and lastly to Baker — and spurred an open look; that understanding enabled him to skip a step and ensure his teammate was available. Over the span of just five seconds, his diverse passing is illustrated. A pocket pass through a tight window is easily executed before intuition and intelligence take over to log an assist.
Mannion is constantly making quick and correct decisions with the ball in his hands; his timing often feels impeccable. Across a combined 102 collegiate, high school and AAU games, he handed out 568 assists to 273 turnovers (30 assists and 14 turnovers in six NCAA contests). As the game speeds up at higher levels, with better athletes and smarter players aiming to contain him, his prompt and witty decision-making will be beneficial, especially if he’s inserted into a role where he commands less on-ball usage.
Secondary creators have less time to mull things over because they’re often operating against a scattered defense that’s trying to reorganize. If recent tape holds true, Mannion won’t need much time and can maximize those opportunities.
The biggest offensive concerns stem from Mannion’s debilitating burst. When he builds a head of steam, he’s fairly zippy. But from a standstill, he struggles to find the edge and charge downhill. These poor athletic traits are reflected in his half-court rim frequency. According to Synergy, he’s only attempted three shots at the rim in the half-court this season compared to 27 jumpers. The small sample caveat is worth acknowledging, but I’ve watched all six of his games and it’s clear he’s not beating many guys off the dribble.
That’s mildly alarming from a projection standpoint because it suggests a hard cap for his on-ball creation upside and means he’ll likely be heavily reliant on pull-up shooting. He’s not going to compromise a ton of NBA defenders, which dampens his passing impact and ability to produce easy shots at the basket, the free-throw line or by way of rim pressure/gravity. Unlike Tyrese Maxey, it’s not a problem borne of mindset or on-court tendencies. This results from Mannion’s subpar quick-twitch genes. You see it manifest on both ends of the floor. His poor lateral quickness leaves him susceptible to on-ball defensive breakdowns and his blase first step mitigates some dribble-drive potential.
To combat that issue, Mannion brandishes an elite floater. A 6-foot-1 wingspan is another potential hurdle for his finishing, so he relies on an intermediate game instead. When he does weave into the lane, usually either via ball-screens or being run off the 3-point line, his elite touch becomes a weapon to score over bigs. The consistency in rhythm, pace and extension is uncommon.
To find success inside the arc and on non-pull-up jumpers at the next stage, this type of shot must be profitable. The likelihood of that occurrence seems plausible and I have significant confidence in his floater, but there’s no denying that investing in such a shot is a risky proposition. Floaters don’t tend to be high-value propositions and Mannion will have to buck the trend to reach his scoring upside. Considering the way he leverages his handle to manufacture space and establish advantages offensively — both as a driver and shooter — it certainly might happen.
His IQ also shines through as a team defender and while his off-ball motor was inconsistent during high school, it’s seemingly improved early in college. He’s still not making every necessary rotation, though the effort and awareness are noticeably better. In conjunction with his quick hands and general engagement, he’ll probably be able to compensate for some of the physical deficiencies that hold him back.
I don’t expect Mannion to top out as anything more than a neutral defender during his peak but he shouldn’t be one of the league’s worst; put simply, his defensive shortcomings won’t be enough to overshadow the offensive value he provides. He understands his responsibilities, is quite clearly a smart basketball player and tends to apply himself on that end of the floor. Those are all ingredients to breed a competent defender.
There are few players as offensively polished as Nico Mannion in this draft. The playmaking versatility, adaptable shooting and intermediate touch blend together for a highly talented guard. That intersection is tough to uncover among fellow 2020 ball-handlers — and in the NBA.
Wherever he goes, he’ll alleviate some of the offensive burden by plugging holes as a dynamic shooter and secondary initiator. He doesn’t have the broad athleticism of Cole Anthony, Anthony Edwards or Tyrese Maxey — which limits his creation ceiling and defensive impact — but in a class devoid of deep star power, Mannion is firmly entrenched as a top-10 prospect.