|Ellenson (left) and Bentil (right) are two of the prospects I'm high on this year.|
But my new job has had me quite busy, and I haven't had the time for offseason blogging, which is a bit of a luxury. But my NBA Draft Preview has become an annual tradition. Last year's is here.
As always, I'm only going to comment on college players. I don't have educated opinions on the European players, and unless you're Fran Fraschilla then you don't have one either.
Also, as always, I've broken down players into three categories: Guys invited to the Green Room, guys certain to be drafted but who weren't invited to the Green Room, and borderline second round/undrafted guys. Let's do this:
Green Room Guys:
Henry Ellenson - I've actually seen some projections that don't even have Ellenson going in the Lottery. One of the things to remember is that most NBA writers don't really watch much college basketball, and when they do watch it tends to be Duke, Kentucky, and a couple other blue chip programs. Ellenson was stuck on a miserably bad Marquette team that you weren't watching unless you were a fan of them or a team that they were playing, or unless they really love college hoops. In other words, you've got a whole bunch of NBA Draft writers who never saw Ellenson play in a full game. The fact is that Ellenson would be considered a much better prospect if he had played on Kentucky.
Ellenson is a risky pick, of course, but he has the potential to be a real star in the NBA. He is a true 6'11" in shoes and he's fantastically athletic, able to physically dominate both ends of the court. He didn't hit three-pointers at a great clip this past season (29%), but he has confidence in his jump shot and has a solid mid-range jumper (41% this past season). If he can eventually expand his range to the three-point line, which is a reasonable projection, he'll become a nightmare to defend on the wings.
Domantas Sabonis - Sabonis could have come out after his freshman year and been drafted. What you want to see in a guy who came back for his sophomore season is improvement, particularly in areas where he was weaker as a freshman. And Sabonis absolutely improved in a big way (This is also true for Jakob Poeltl, by the way, but of the two I'm giving the "underrated" edge to Sabonis).
Sabonis was already a monster rebounder and athlete, but he became a significantly more complete player a sophomore. He became a significantly better defender, both on the perimeter and in the paint. Offensively he became a better passer and a much more confident shooter. As a freshman, only 28% of his shots were jumpers, and only 6% were from beyond 10 feet. As a sophomore, 47% of his shots were jumpers, with a full 21% beyond 10 feet (the latter at a very respectable 46.9 eFG%). You have to figure that he will eventually become one of the most physical players in the NBA. And now that his offensive game is progressing nicely, he has NBA All-Star potential.
Buddy Hield - As a college player, Hield was actually underrated until his senior season. He was an analytics darling, and he was a deserved NPOY as a senior. But I've seen mock drafts with Hield going as high as #3 overall, and most mocks have him in the Top 5. It is just awfully hard for a senior to justify a Top 5 pick, and in particular one who didn't really improve that much from year to year aside from his three-point shooting taking a big jump between his junior and senior seasons.
An additional concern with Hield's NBA potential is that he did most of his damage by chucking up long jumpers. A full half of his shots taken were threes, and most of those were taken off the dribble. By all means, the NBA has room for three-point sharpshooters, but Hield is not your traditional "stand in the corner and hit spot-up three-pointers when we pass it to you" guy, and even if he was... is that really worth a Top 5 pick? I haven't seen evidence that Hield is going to be able to score at the rim against NBA paint defenders, and he's not an elite defender. I just don't see where the upside is here.
Skal Labissiere - Obviously Labissiere is a raw talent freak. There's a reason that he was so hyped coming out of high school, and why he's still likely to be a Lottery pick. But it matters how badly he struggled as a freshman. Offensively, he just didn't have the ability to create offense against power conference quality opponents, and he lacked any post moves. Most of his scoring came on 5-12 foot jump shots. And defensively he's just a disaster. He blocked a reasonable number of shots, but blocks and steals can be deceptive stats when you have players who take a lot of risks. Labissiere's 7.6 fouls/40 minutes were second highest in the SEC, and John Calipari rarely trusted him to defend quality big men. Obviously Labissiere has a high ceiling, and he might pay off down the road, but he has a very low floor. Things could go south to the point that he's playing in Europe in four years.
Late 1st/Early 2nd Round Guys:
Ben Bentil - In my opinion, it was Bentil and not Kris Dunn who was Providence's best player this past season. And in my opinion it is Bentil and not Kris Dunn who is Providence's best NBA prospect. Bentil improved dramatically year over year, going from a defense/rebound guy to Providence's go-to scorer. He even showed flashes of a nice three-point stroke late in the season. He'll probably be a wing in the NBA, but he has the quickness and athleticism to defend other wings. To me, the fact that most mock drafts don't even have Bentil as a first round pick is ridiculous. I think that you can justify a Lottery pick on him.
Deandre' Bembry - It's hard to get a great read on Bembry because there are holes in his game. He's not a good outside shooter yet, for example. But despite the fact that opponents knew that, Bembry was still a fantastically efficient offensive player, both in creating his own shots and setting up his teammates. If he can develop that outside shot, he's the type of wing that you can run a lot of your offense through. He might even be a point guard in the NBA. And defensively, he doesn't put up elite stats, but he was probably the best defensive player on a strong Saint Joseph's team. You're not drafting him for his defense, but he's not going to hurt you there either.
Damian Jones - Jones is listed as a 7-footer, which automatically bumps him in most people's minds, but he's not Jakob Poeltl-sized. In fact, at the official NBA Draft combine, he was only measured at a quarter of an inch taller than Henry Ellenson, with one extra inch of wingspan. And Jones is nowhere near the athlete or scorer than Ellenson is. And for a "big guy", Jones isn't an elite rebounder or post defender either. Most mock drafts have him as a first round pick, yet it's hard not to think that he'd be considered a borderline undrafted guy if he was a single inch shorter. And considering the fact that Jones played three years at Vanderbilt and didn't display much year-over-year improvement, I'm not sure why anybody would expect a large improvement in the NBA.
Cheick Diallo - Diallo is, of course, a similar situation to Skal Labissiere. Both had some questionable academic situations coming into college, and both found themselves significant disappointments as freshmen at major programs. But while Labissiere at least occasionally found himself useful for a few minutes at a time off the bench, Diallo basically was taken out of the Kansas regular rotation late in the season. In their seven Big 12 tournament + NCAA Tournament games, Diallo played more than a single minute in a game just once, and it came in their first round blowout of Austin Peay.
What was the problem with Diallo this season? He just wasn't really good at much of anything. Offensively he was a mess, unable to create or shoot. Defensively he did rebound and block shots well, but his aggressiveness often got out of hand, and he was foul prone. Bill Self simply felt that Landen Lucas and Carlton Bragg gave him a better chance to win.
Perry Ellis - There's a chance that some clever team will take Ellis early in the second round, but it's not even a guarantee that he'll get drafted at all. And to me, that's nuts. Ellis is hardly a sexy pick, in large part because even as a freshman he already looked like he was 30 years old. Ellis is no athletic monster either. But he is fantastically efficient, on both ends of the court, and he did it at the highest level of college basketball. Ellis is never going to make an NBA All-Star team, but he's also a guy who could end up playing in the NBA for a decade. Considering how many second round picks never even play in the NBA, that's just great second round value.
If you're a GM, nobody in the press is going to laud you for picking Ellis. He's going to be seen as a boring pick with no upside. But he's just good at absolutely everything that you need a guy to be good at in a basketball game, and you're never going to regret putting him on the court.
Fred VanVleet - Obviously the observation that Wichita State utterly fell apart this past season when VanVleet was hurt is a relatively small sample size (only six games where he was hurt/limited), but the fact is that VanVleet was the primary playmaker on a Wichita State program that was Top 10 in Pomeroy the past three seasons. VanVleet and Ron Baker are both being treated as similar prospects (likely late second round guys), but that confuses me. VanVleet is the better dribbler, the better passer, the better shooter, and probably the better defender as well. VanVleet has the potential to be a an above average starting NBA point guard. It's hard for me to see Ron Baker ever starting for a decent NBA team.
Kay Felder -This pains me, because I like to see "unknown" guys from smaller schools make it big in the NBA. But I'm not sure what the precedent is in the modern NBA is for a 5'9" guy who can't shoot the ball real well being an effective NBA player. Felder is a great playmaker, and he led the entire nation with a 50.0% assist rate this past season, but the fact is that NBA teams aren't going to help defend a guy who can't really shoot and who is never going to be able to finish at the rim against NBA defenders.
Isaiah Whitehead - Whitehead had his best stretch of play of his career during the Big East tournament, which caused him to shoot up media "draft boards" and which led him to leave college early to go pro. He was also, of course, a big prospect out of high school. But you can't judge a guy on a handful of games, and there are a number of red flags with Whitehead. One is that he absolutely killed the locker room as a freshman at Seton Hall. The veteran players couldn't deal with him, and it led to the transfers out of Sterling Gibbs and Jaren Sina. When Whitehead got hurt, Seton Hall actually played their best ball of the season. Whitehead was a much more effective player as a sophomore, in large part because he got to dominate the ball and play hero ball. But he's just not good enough to play hero ball as an NBA player. He's going to have to be able to accept being a complementary piece.
In addition, Whitehead is just not an efficient scorer. He hit two-pointers at a 38% clip as a freshman and a 39% clip as a sophomore, which is awful. That's because he forces a lot of terrible shots. So while Whitehead put up good counting stats as a sophomore, he just was not an efficient player. And if you think he's going to handle well being stuck deep on the bench for a couple of years in the NBA, I'll refer you back to his freshman year at Seton Hall. With guys like Perry Ellis, Fred VanVleet, and Demetrius Jackson likely available in the mid-to-late second round, I don't see why you'd spend a pick on a guy like Whitehead.