The most “important” pick for the Hornets in the 2020 NBA Draft is obviously their lottery pick, which has the 8th-best odds of jumping to the No. 1 overall selection, but their pair of second-round picks are also important. When the Hornets are on the clock at 32, there will likely be a few players with first-round grades available, and at 56, they can take a swing on a more long-term project or a draft-and-stash prospect. In the second installment of the 2020 Hornets prospect scouting report series, we’re gonna take a look at early second-round prospect Elijah Hughes, a wing out of Syracuse.
Height: 6’ 6”
Wingspan: 6’ 8” (estimated)
Weight: 215 pounds
Hughes started all 66 games that he played in his two seasons as an Orange after starting seven games as a freshman at East Carolina, prompting a transfer to Syracuse. He came out of Beacon, N.Y. as a 3-star recruit, and now he’s steadily climbing up NBA Draft boards. The work Hughes has put in to get to this point is second-to-none.
Strengths: Spot-up shooting, isolation scoring, ball-handling, shot-blocking
ESPN’s Mike Schmitz put it best when describing Hughes and his upcoming appearance on Schmitz’s ESPN Film Session series; he is a big-time shot-maker. He led the ACC in scoring at 19.0 points per game and hit 78 3-point field goals, second to his teammate Buddy Boeheim’s 97 made 3-pointers. Hughes hit 34.1 percent of his 7.2 3-point attempts per game, and 50.8 percent of his 2-pointers while leading the ACC in attempts. His true shooting percentage was 56.1 while also having a usage percentage of 26.6, showing how efficient and reliable he was, even with a substantial workload.
This is all to say; Hughes gets buckets. He can break down a defender (he can struggle against lanky, quick wings) and create his own shot on the perimeter, or he can attack the paint and get a pull-up jumper or layup. A tight, controlled handle combined with NBA-level athletic ability allows him to create space for step-backs, side-steps and various other kinds of off-dribble jumpers. Here is Hughes’ Synergy profile, which measures how effective a player is in a certain play type by points per possession and assigns them a percentile, courtesy of Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf on Twitter):
According to Synergy, the only play types Hughes isn’t at least average at are put-backs and pick-and-roll ball handling. For a wing that will be tasked with scoring and defending in the NBA, that isn’t a problem. Obviously these numbers won’t be the same in the NBA, but Hughes performed extremely well as a spot-up shooter, isolation scorer and transition scorer on very high volume.
On top of being Syracuse’s No. 1 scoring option, Hughes was charged with some playmaking duties, too. He was 12th in the ACC with a 1.5 assist-to-turnover ratio, and his 109 assists ranked 11th in the conference. Boeheim and Joe Girard III were the team’s “primary” playmakers, but Hughes demonstrated some ability to find the open man when his shot isn’t there. He isn’t taking charge of the offense and getting the team into sets, or manning the pick-and-roll with frequency, but he can take care of the ball and make the simple reads and kick-outs.
Eli Hughes makes a good decision off an attack dribble with a mid-shot pass to Joe Girard for the and-one. Highly unlikely Hughes' offensive game doesn't translate to the NBA pic.twitter.com/DrQyx9Rsvw— Chase Whitney (@chasewhitney_) May 19, 2020
Syracuse prospects are hard to scout on defense due to coach Jim Boeheim refusing to budge from his patented 2-3 zone, but Hughes’ range and feel for when/when not to rotate to help sticks out. He doesn’t have a ton of length, nor is he an explosive athlete, but he has the necessary strength, foot speed and lateral quickness to stay in front of NBA wings. Hughes is a solid post defender for a wing too, so there won’t be many mismatches where he gets bullied underneath the rim.
Hughes’ biggest strength on defense is easily shot-blocking. He blocked 26 shots, good for 19th in the ACC and third among wings, behind only Florida State’s Devin Vassell and Pittsburgh’s Justin Champagnie. Both in the half court and transition, Hughes possesses nice timing and verticality when blocking shots, and he doesn’t chase after them, either.
Half-court defense is hard to scout because of Syracuse's 2-3 zone, but Eli Hughes times this transition block well and sends it right back to Quincy Gurrier pic.twitter.com/fwjVPX4EK3— Chase Whitney (@chasewhitney_) May 19, 2020
Question marks: man-to-man defense, durability, rebounding
It was fairly hard to write a “weaknesses” section for Hughes. While he isn’t likely to be an All-Star in the NBA, his game is so well-rounded that it doesn’t seem possible for him to be a genuinely bad professional basketball player. His playmaking ability has already been discussed, and could definitely be improved, but it’s not really “weak.” Syracuse’s 2-3 zone defensive scheme doesn’t allow Hughes to play the man-to-man defenses that are commonplace in the NBA, so by default that has to be on here, but it’s unclear whether or not that’s a true “weakness.” He was decent at it as a freshman at East Carolina, but he’s developed a lot as a prospect in that time, so it’s not quite fair to use that film as evidence.
Durability and injury concerns may end up affecting Hughes’ NBA career. He never missed a full game at Syracuse, but there were many instances in which he sat out a portion of a game due to injury. He banged his head on Bourama Sidibe’s knee against Miami and missed the second half and overtime, and played just three minutes after pulling a groin muscle in warmups prior to the North Carolina State matchup last season. He missed seven games as a senior in high school and as a freshman at ECU. NBA trainers will be much better at dealing with these minor, nagging injuries, but it is something to keep an eye on.
This could be due in part to his role at Syracuse, but Hughes wasn’t a very aggressive rebounder. He knows how to get into position when he and his man are battling for a rebound, but he isn’t going to come crashing in from the wing in support. That wasn’t necessarily his job in college, though, as he was the team’s best player and leading scorer. Hughes grabbed 5.4 rebounds per 40 minutes and had a 7.4 rebounding percentage, neither of which are bad, but could be improved. His 1.4 offensive rebounding percentage is not good, but wings aren’t supposed to be offensive rebounding aficionados.
Elijah Hughes’ elite-level shot-making ability combined with the necessary strength, speed and quickness to defend NBA wings gives him a very high floor as a prospect. If his shot translates, and there’s no indication that it won’t, he should have a long, productive career as a role-playing scorer that can potentially defend multiple positions and operate as a secondary or tertiary playmaker. Hughes’ stock has been rising as of late, but he could be available with the 32nd pick. If the Hornets don’t nab a wing scorer with their lottery selection, Hughes would be a helluva pick for Mitch Kupchak. He was efficient while having to do most of the work himself at Syracuse; imagine how efficient he could be with an NBA point guard spreading the floor and getting him open looks!
P.S. He’s also been doing a ton of stuff with The Label Foundation, a Poughkeepsie, New York-based non-profit organization aimed at giving back to underprivileged kids in the area. They did a clothes/sneaker giveaway last weekend for kids in grades 5-12. I will literally always put something non-basketball related in these, because that stuff is important but rarely gets attention. Hughes is clearly a humble young man that knows the power of the position he holds in society as a professional athlete, and is using it the right way.