NBA Draft 2022: Notre Dame’s Blake Wesley could be biggest sleeper of the class with elite speed, potential
After the consensus top four players, Thursday’s 2022 NBA Draft could really go in any direction. If anyone tells you they know how the rest of the lottery will play out, they’re lying to you. This year’s class is chocked full of talented young players, but not many have clearly separated themselves during the pre-draft process.
Because the talent level of so many of the prospects is relatively equal outside of the top four — Jabari Smith, Chet Holmgren, Paolo Banchero and Jaden Ivey — it’s a prime year to identify everyone’s favorite word: Sleeper.
And if you’re looking for an under-the-radar prospect who might make some noise — not necessarily on draft night, but during his rookie year — perhaps you should consider Blake Wesley.
The 6-foot-4 combo guard averaged 14.4 points, 3.7 rebounds and 2.4 assists as a freshman at Notre Dame, playing most of the season as an 18-year-old. His poor shooting percentages (40/30/66 splits) likely have prevented him from being discussed as a high lottery pick — most project him to be in the late teens to early 20s — but when you look through his film, shot selection was clearly an issue that could correct itself and increase efficiency at the NBA level.
A common question you’ll hear about prospects is, what’s their translatable skill? With Wesley it’s quite simple. He’s fast. Like, really fast. Like, hurt-yourself-trying-to-keep-up-with-him fast.
“You can’t stay in front of him, and you can’t teach that … He’s so fast, it’s crazy,” Joe Abunassar, the founder of Impact Basketball who’s been preparing Wesley for the draft and has been training prospects for 25 years, told CBS Sports. “He has a burst with the ball, that if you watch some of his breakaways in college, he’ll pass the entire team with the ball in his hands — which is pretty rare that somebody can do that.”
Sure enough, if you take a look at Wesley’s film, it’s hard to take your eyes off him, but also hard to keep your eyes on him because of his speed. Watch here as Wesley starts on the opposite baseline, then streaks past every NC State defender and beats them to the rim for an easy layup:
He’s a blur with the ball as well, as Abunassar testified. Wesley used his 6-9 wingspan to pick up 1.2 steals per game at Notre Dame, and once he gets out in the open floor, good luck trying to contain him. If you test him, you might just end up with a basketball imprint on your forehead:
That speed also translates to the half-court, where Wesley was effective at getting to the basket — and to the free throw line for over four attempts per game — thanks to his burst. Watch here as Wesley gets the Alabama defender leaning toward the screen, then hits him with a quick crossover and gets straight to the rim in the blink of an eye:
Wesley didn’t finish at a high rate around the basket at Notre Dame, which Abunassar chalks up to an 18-year-old figuring out how to play against 22-year-olds at the rim, and it’s been a point of emphasis during his training. That’s also something that can be remedied by getting into the right NBA development program. For example, as a rookie, Golden State Warriors guard Jordan Poole was in the 17th percentile on shots around the basket, according to Synergy Sports. Last season, he improved to the 65th percentile after accruing a dazzling array of finishing techniques over the past couple of years.
In addition to his finishing numbers, Wesley’s shooting percentages at Notre Dame left a lot to be desired. You can attribute the 40 percent field goals and 30 percent 3-pointers to suspect shot selection, but the 66 percent free throw shooting is a red flag in a category that has a track record of successfully predicting 3-point prowess. Abunassar said he and his team have made some minor tweaks to Wesley’s form — making his release quicker and more compact by eliminating a swinging motion as he brought the ball up to shoot — but most of all he’s been getting more reps.
“We shoot a lot of shots,” Wesley told Yahoo Sports in May of his workouts with Abunassar. “So like in the morning, I probably shoot like, no lie, like 800 and 900 shots a day.”
Wesley was a solid catch-and-shoot 3-point shooter at Notre Dame, in the 47th percentile with 0.965 points per possession, which bodes well for his ability to play off the ball. The minor adjustments to his form and the spacing of the NBA floor — he took a lot of contested 3s in college — could easily lead to an increase in efficiency from deep. Abunassar said Wesley’s been shooting the ball “very well” in workouts.
Adding to Wesley’s intrigue is his potential to eventually become a lead guard in the NBA. It may not happen immediately, but putting the ball in Wesley’s hands in the half-court yielded strong results during his year at Notre Dame. Wesley finished in the 73rd percentile in pick-and-rolls including passes, according to Synergy, and while he didn’t make the most spectacular passes, he was effective at recognizing and making the simple play. On top of that, he showed flashes of the type of passing and playmaking that distinguishes the best lead guards in the NBA.
This is a perfect example. Wesley draws the defense, which he has an uncanny knack for, then recognizes the right outlet to get his teammate a 3-pointer. The pass wasn’t right on target, but that is the type of execution he’ll work on once he gets to the league. The fact that he has the vision to recognize his shooter through traffic in the first place, however, is a promising sign:
“He’s long, explosive. He’s everything that an NBA lead guard is today,” Abunassar told CBS Sports. “He can pass, he can score. You can’t stay in front of the kid. He plays hard. He plays very good defense. … I think he translates very well.”
Speaking of defense, Abunassar said he’s gotten incredible feedback from NBA teams about Wesley’s ability to guard perimeter players. It’s not always easy to see in the college game because of the more cramped spacing and different types of zones, but Wesley has shown the tools and motor to be a brilliant one-on-one defender.
Take a look at his lateral quickness here to cut off the drive, then his recovery to block the 3-point attempt without fouling. These are essential defensive skills for an NBA guard:
“We’ve had comments back from some of the workouts saying he’s the best on-ball defender they’ve had in years,” Abunassar told CBS Sports. “He just really can defend.”
Nobody is saying that Wesley is going to be an All-Star next season. His skill set is clearly there in many facets of the game — transition, ball-handling, scoring, defense — but he needs the time and nourishment to develop. That’s why it’s important to remember that going higher in the draft isn’t always what’s best for the player. Finding the right situation and fit is crucial, particularly with players as young as Wesley.
But the fact that Wesley was one of 22 players invited to the green room for Thursday night’s draft seems like a good sign that he’ll, at the very least, go in the first round. Where it proceeds from there is up to him and whichever team ends up drafting him.
“Anything can happen in the draft. Unless you’re one of the top three or four guys, you can move around quite a bit,” Abunassar told CBS Sports. “With a young player like [Wesley], what we’ve learned is that it’s really more about putting him in a good situation to grow and develop versus what number he’s picked.”