Isaiah Austin – Baylor, Center (Fr.)
Ht.: 7’1, wt.: 225
Strengths: A perimeter oriented big man with range out to the NBA three point line. Can put the ball on the floor. Has become a force protecting the rim. Overcame the odds after a childhood injury cost him the vision in his right eye.
Weaknesses: Had a disappointing sophomore season. Lack of strength a major concern at the next level. Far too unassertive.
Top Ten NCAA Basketball Juniors: 2017-18
While the NCAA junior class typically provides a limited number of NBA-ready options, this could be the most talented group in quite some time.
NCAA juniors might appear to yield limited options for NBA draft purposes. But while the “one and done” athletes receive the most hype, there can also be worthy candidates from the third-year ranks due to factors like attrition, injuries, suspensions or transferring to another school.
Although the majority of last season’s top prospects either stayed for their senior year (Grayson Allen, Trevon Bluiett) or went undrafted (Melo Trimble), there was still NBA-ready talent to be had in both Justin Jackson (Sacramento Kings) and Dillon Brooks (Memphis Grizzlies).
This year’s crop should be more fruitful, as many of the athletes listed below were able to showcase their talents in the March Madness tournament; in fact, three of them played in the national championship game itself.
With honorable mention due to Shake Milton (SMU), Jalen Hudson (Florida) and Melvin Frazier (Tulane), here are the top ten NCAA basketball juniors from the 2017-18 season:
10. Allonzo Trier, SG, Arizona
Tale of the tape: 6 ft. 4 in., 205 lb.
Despite being overshadowed by top overall prospect DeAndre Ayton, Trier had an impressive campaign of his own that featured personal highs in both scoring (18.1 PPG) and free-throw percentage (.865). He was named the MVP of the PAC-12 tournament, but failed to deliver (10 points, zero three-pointers) in the team’s upset loss to Buffalo to derail the Wildcats’ post-season aspirations.
Trier’s college-level career was extended by a pair of PED-related suspensions, but perhaps his season-high 32 points in his first game back served notice that the infractions are firmly in the past. If nothing else, he should at least be able to represent his team in the NBA dunk contest.
Draft-day projection: mid-to-late second round
9. Moritz Wagner, F/C, Michigan
Tale of the tape: 6 ft. 11 in., 235 lb.
Wagner raised eyebrows with his timely three-point shooting in the NCAA tournament, but the reality is that he averaged just over 39 percent from beyond the arc in both his sophomore and junior years. In addition, he set collegiate highs in both rebounds (7.1) and points per game (14.6) in what was a successful, if not breakthrough, campaign.
Although bigs who can shoot from outside are more commonplace than ever, there is surely room in the league for the German who is likely to follow in the footsteps of fellow countrymen Dirk Nowitzki and Maxi Kleber, with the latter being the more apt comparison.
Draft-day projection: mid second round
8. Jalen Brunson, PG, Villanova
Tale of the tape: 6 ft. 2 in., 190 lb.
Brunson blossomed into the Big East player of the year while staying put at Villanova for three seasons. His 18.9 points and 4.6 assists per game as a junior are nearly double what he averaged as a freshman, and his ascension to running the point for the defending national champs has been impressive.
No one can question Brunson’s passion for the game, but he lacks the scoring ability of comparably-sized point guards Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard, both of whom averaged over 24 PPG at the collegiate level. He will also need to improve on the defensive end, but a sustainable NBA career similar to that of Jeff Teague is within reach.
Draft-day projection: early-to-mid second round
7. Chimezie Metu, F/C, USC
Tale of the tape: 6 ft. 10 in., 225 lb.
A Lawndale, CA native who stayed local, Metu has averaged nearly the same points (14.8 then 15.7), rebounds (7.6 then 7.4) and blocks (1.4 then 1.6) per contest between his sophomore and junior years. Yet this apparent level of consistency belies a great deal of variation in his contributions on a game-by-game basis, and don’t think the scouts haven’t noticed.
As a case in point, Metu’s final Pac-12 tournament ended with a thud, as he managed a mere seven points and four boards against Arizona, and the Trojans were subsequently left out of the big dance. Much like Texas’ Mo Bamba, he possesses the size and tools to be effective in the NBA, as long as he is willing to put forth the effort.
Draft-day projection: late first-to-early second round
6. Keita Bates-Diop, F, Ohio State
Tale of the tape: 6 ft. 7 in., 235 lb.
Bates-Diop responded to his medical redshirt in 2016-17 by becoming the Big Ten’s player of the year, during which he produced 19.8 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. He averaged 26.0 PPG in the NCAA tourney, although he was nearly kept off the glass (three rebounds) in the Buckeyes’ elimination loss to Gonzaga.
While Bates-Diop has drawn comparisons to the Dallas Mavericks’ Harrison Barnes, his burly stature seems more reminiscent of former Mavericks forward Justin Anderson, who has been a bench fixture since his trade to the Philadelphia Sixers. Despite Bates-Diop’s impressive college resume, it will be incumbent upon him to cause matchup problems as a stretch-four at the next level, a stipulation that most likely will eliminate him from lottery pick consideration for now.
Draft-day projection: late first round
5. Jacob Evans, SF, Cincinnati
Tale of the tape: 6 ft. 6 in., 210 lb.
Evans brings Swiss Army knife potential at the small forward position that NBA teams covet. His surface-level stats (13.0 PPG, 3.1 APG) aren’t eye-popping, but when you consider that he led the NCAA’s second-ranked defensive team in both categories, it seems feasible that he was limited more by style of play than by personal ability.
Despite his deflated offensive stats, Evans converted 37 percent of his three-point attempts, so comparing him to the Houston Rockets’ Trevor Ariza seems appropriate for his skill set. In the Bearcats’ loss to Nevada in the NCAA tournament, Evans had 19 points and seven rebounds, which coaches would gladly take from him on a regular basis.
Draft-day projection: late first round
4. Khyri Thomas, SG, Creighton
Tale of the tape: 6 ft. 3 in., 210 lb.
With a 6 ft. 10 in. wingspan (showcased on this block) and the ability to connect at a 41.1 percent clip from outside, Thomas may best exemplify a prototypical “three and D” player in the league. His 15.1 PPG and 1.7 SPG are both indicative of year-over-year improvement, and he possesses the physical dimensions that can make him effective as a pro.
Playing on a Blue Jays squad that got eliminated in their first game of both the conference and the NCAA tournaments afforded Thomas little opportunity to perform in the spotlight, but the level of consistency with which he produced before those early exits cannot be ignored.
Draft-day projection: mid-to-late first round
3. Jerome Robinson, SG, Boston College
Tale of the tape: 6 ft. 6 in., 191 lb.
A tall shooter with a slight frame, Robinson brings to mind former NBAer Kerry Kittles, who was a productive member of the New Jersey Nets (before they moved to Brooklyn) for several years. Playing for an average Eagles squad, Robinson provided double-digit scoring in all but three games during his junior season, including a whopping 46 points at Notre Dame.
Although his Boston College team didn’t participate in March Madness, Robinson still averaged 21.7 PPG in three conference tournament games, which included two opponents (Clemson, NC State) that were invited to the big dance. He probably won’t be drafted in the top 15, but he makes for a safe choice among the better NBA teams, which would allow time for him to develop his upper body strength.
Draft-day projection: mid-to-late first round
2. Aaron Holiday, PG, UCLA
Tale of the tape: 6 ft. 1 in., 185 lb.
After starting his freshman year, Holiday was relegated to the bench as a sophomore before reclaiming the starting gig after incumbent Lonzo Ball departed for the NBA. His junior campaign was remarkable, as he averaged 20.3 PPG and connected on 42.9 percent of his three-point attempts. Over the course of the season, he scored in single digits once while cracking the 30-point barrier on three occasions (including the Pac-12 quarterfinals).
As the youngest brother of current NBA players Jrue and Justin, Aaron Holiday brings a pedigree that should enhance his draft-day value. While he is smallish by league standards, both Yogi Ferrell (as a key reserve) and Kemba Walker (as an All-Star) have proven that so-called limitation is far from being a show-stopper.
Draft-day projection: mid-to-late first round
1. Mikal Bridges, G/F, Villanova
Tale of the tape: 6 ft. 7 in., 210 lb.
A swingman by NBA standards, Bridges nearly doubled his production as a sophomore by averaging 17.7 PPG, which was buoyed by his ability to make three-pointers at a 43.5 percent clip. Although super-sub Donte DiVincenzo dominated the national title game, it was Bridges who led the Wildcat starters with 19 points of his own after being named MVP of the preceding Big East tournament. Much like the aforementioned Jacob Evans, he is capable of stuffing the stat sheet, but Bridges is the better offensive threat of the two.
With his 7 ft. 2 in. wingspan and long-distance accuracy, perhaps Bridges himself said it best when he listed Paul George and Kawhi Leonard as players that “intrigued” him. While mock drafts have varied wildly in terms of projecting the other names on this list, Bridges appears to be a consensus top-ten pick, albeit towards the tail end of that continuum.
Draft-day projection: early-to-mid first round
Q&A: Jaron Blossomgame on the Pre-Draft Process
Former Clemson standout Jaron Blossomgame speaks to Cody Taylor ahead of the NBA Draft.
For many prospects, it may be hard to believe that the day they’ve dreamed of for their entire life is almost finally here. Dreams will come true for 60 prospects on Thursday night as they hear their name called.
These prospects have put in countless hours at the gym in order to have a chance to one day play in the NBA. In recent weeks, players have worked out in front of NBA executives and coaches to prove why they should be drafted tomorrow night.
One player who expects to hear his name called Thursday night is Jaron Blossomgame. After averaging 17.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.5 assists this season at Clemson, Blossomgame established himself as one of the top seniors in this year’s class. He has excellent athleticism and possesses great physical tools that figure to translate well at the next level.
Blossomgame is currently projected by Basketball Insiders’ Steve Kyler to be drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers at No. 46.
Basketball Insiders recently caught up with Blossomgame to discuss the pre-draft process, his expectations for draft night, how he stayed ready during all of his workouts and more.
Cody Taylor: How many workouts have you done?
Jaron Blossomgame: 12 or 13 workouts.
Taylor: Were there any that stuck out that were the toughest?
Blossomgame: Houston was pretty bad. It was a full two hours on the court. Every workout has been the same thing: play 1-on-1, 2-on-2, 3-on-3 and do some shooting. They’re all high-level workouts. They were really fast paced. The basketball part is the easy part. The hard part is the travel.
Taylor: A couple guys have mentioned Utah as being pretty tough. Did you work out with them?
Blossomgame: I went to Utah last year. They were my first workout last year. I remember the altitude was a factor a little bit.
Taylor: How was it working out against a lot of the same players?
Blossomgame: It was pretty good. We all kind of know each other through this whole process and meeting at the Combine. Once we’re all on the court, it’s very competitive. I remember working out against [Kyle] Kuzma in San Antonio and Philadelphia. It’s just high-level basketball. You have six guys total in a workout and they’re all trying to take your head off. You gotta be on your toes at all times and be really sharp. It’s a really fun process. I love it. Obviously, seeing these guys a lot, you kind of build tendencies and understand what they like to do. If they get the best of you in one spot, you’ll see them again.
Taylor: Do you prefer an individual workout or a group setting?
Blossomgame: I’m pretty good at 1-on-1, but I can also play 3-on-3. It doesn’t really matter. I like competing in a setting like that in a workout. It doesn’t really matter to me, to be honest.
Taylor: What are some things you’re hearing from teams during workouts?
Blossomgame: I’m very aware of my game and who I am as a player and my role. Everything that I know I need to work on is really consistent with what teams are telling me. I think the two areas I really want to improve on is just continuing to work on my ball handling and continuing to shoot at a high level. My shooting was a little inconsistent last season. I shot 45 percent from three my junior year and 25 percent my senior year. Just finding a balance. I’m somewhere in between that but I’m trying to find out where it is. Just staying in the gym, getting up shots and continuing to work on my ball handling is the two things I really want to get better at.
Taylor: After having been through the pre-draft process last year, have there been any surprises this year?
Blossomgame: It’s been pretty smooth sailing this year. The Combine was all the same this year. I did seven workouts [last year] so I got a good feel how the travel can be. Just learning how to take care of your body. Every workout now, you’ve got guys saying they’ve had [up to] 15 workouts in different places. Down the stretch it can get tough for guys; some guys have back to back workouts and even three in a row. Just taking care of your body; cold tub after every workout. Get some treatment. Nutrition is very important also. Just doing the right things and taking care of your body.
Taylor: Do you feel like all of the travel can prepare you for an NBA season?
Blossomgame: Definitely. The NBA season plus the playoffs could be like 90-something games. Travel can be very hectic. This process you learn some tips and stuff that you will take with you the rest of your career. Speaking for myself, as far as nutrition and recovery, I really wasn’t a big fan of icing and doing the cold tub but now I have to do it.
(Note: This interview was recorded last Friday. Blossomgame departed Indianapolis after his workout with the Pacers Thursday night at 8:25 p.m. and landed in Atlanta at 9:58 p.m. Due to numerous delays, he didn’t leave the airport in Atlanta until 12:30 a.m.)
Today was a back to back. I was in Indiana yesterday and didn’t get in until 12:30 a.m. and woke up this morning at 7 a.m. and had to be dressed and ready to go on the court at 9 a.m. Just doing things to take care of your body and find different ways to sleep. Stretch. Stay hydrated. Just prepare yourself for play the next day. It’s a long season. The travel experience right now is definitely benefitting other players as well.
Taylor: What’s Draft Day going to be like for you?
Blossomgame: I’m actually going to the draft. I’ll be there in New York City. I’m going to sit in the crowd. So I’ll be there waiting for my name to get called.
Taylor: What are your expectations for Draft Day?
Blossomgame: I am definitely expecting to be drafted, for sure. As far as where, I have no idea. You know how the draft goes. I remember watching last year and I think DraftExpress or somebody had Demetrius Jackson at like 16 and he ended up going 45. Some guys had Taurean Prince at 28 or 31 and he ended up going 12. Through this process, I really don’t pay attention to mock drafts; it’s just distractions. That’s an easy way to get sidetracked from the main goal and that is winning each day and just going out here and having fun. I think one thing we fail to realize and do during this process is understanding the opportunity we have and have fun with it. Not many people get to do this and not many people get workouts. So we just got to give thanks and be appreciative we’re right here. Not many people have this opportunity so just soak it in and take it all in and be very appreciative of it.
Taylor: Are you going to be with anyone in particular at the Draft?
Blossomgame: Probably my family and my AAU coach and then some family friends.
Taylor: Once you get drafted, will it be a relief for you know that you can finally lock in with just one team?
Blossomgame: I’ll definitely be relieved, that’s a great way to put it. I’m sure a lot of people will be relieved. This three and a half week period that we’ve been through with all of these workouts have been very tough. Guys are ready to hear their name called. I’ve been counting down every day. I look at my calendar every day. It’s definitely going to be a special night. For myself and a lot of my friends, this process has put a lot of hard work into, it’s definitely going to be great to see my dreams come true and also theirs.
Sources: Bulls, Knicks Have Interest in Josh Jackson
The Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks, who are fielding trade offers for their high-profile players, both have shown interest in draft prospect Josh Jackson, sources tell ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne.
The Bulls have the 16th overall pick and the Knicks are slotted at No. 8, so either team likely would have to trade to a higher spot in the first round in order to select Jackson, who widely is projected as a top-five pick.