Now that college basketball is in its first week of regular season play, the NBA fans who care about the NCAA only in terms of watching future pro stars jockey for position on mock draft boards can finally start to get their first glimpses of college hoops’ biggest stars – most of whom are likely to be freshmen this season.
In fact, 13 of the top 16 picks in the early DraftExpress mock draft are freshmen, which very likely means that the best individual college basketball we watch this season will come from players we know very little about. In fact, there already are rumblings that this could be the strongest draft class since 2003, which means these youngsters absolutely will be worth watching throughout the season.
With plenty of college basketball ahead, here are five elite prospects who should find their way to the NBA Draft lottery before long:
Markelle Fultz, Washington – Of all the freshmen on this list, Fultz seems like the one with the highest ceiling. And playing at the University of Washington, he’ll have every opportunity to rain down the sort of statistics that make him extremely appealing as a No. 1 overall prospect. His story of getting cut from the varsity team is shades of Michael Jordan, but let’s not get carried away this early. Athletic, explosive, well-rounded and dominant on both ends of the floor, Fultz has the inklings of superior talent. Last year, Marquese Chriss found his way from Washington to the lottery, and Fultz looks like a sure bet to continue that trend.
Harry Giles, Duke – The thing about Harry Giles is that nobody knows exactly when he’ll make his debut for the Blue Devils this year. Giles tore his ACL, MCL and meniscus just minutes into his first game in his senior year of high school, which at this point was over a year ago. However, there have been a number of setbacks for the talented big man and he apparently still isn’t quite ready to play. He reportedly will be soon, even though former Duke great Jay Williams believes he should sit out the whole season. Considering Giles already has torn ACLs in both knees before even getting to college, he’s quite an injury risk.
His talent, though, is sky-high. He’s extremely athletic, runs the floor well, is versatile offensively and rebounds at an elite level. Seeing him play will tell us a lot about how these injuries and a year off of basketball have affected him and whether he’s still good enough to be a top-10 pick in June’s draft. With plenty of Duke games on national television, we’ll have plenty of opportunities to take a close look at him, as will NBA scouts.
Jayson Tatum, Duke – Also playing for Coach K this year will be Tatum, a traditional small forward with an NBA body that looks like he already belongs on a pro roster. He’s exactly the kind of cerebral, likeable kid that Duke always recruits, and on the floor he’s talented enough offensively (especially with mid-range jumpers and finish moves around the rim) to suggest he could be Duke’s leading scorer this season. His defense and deep ball leave something to be desired, which could hurt his stock for a league that values those two things in wings more than ever, but he’s a hard worker and a clean player. Duke fans are going to love him.
Josh Jackson, Kansas – The fact that Jackson is playing his freshman ball at Kansas this year is perfect considering he is essentially an Andrew Wiggins clone. Every bit as athletic, competitive and tenacious on the defensive end, Jackson is an explosive player that looks like he’ll have no trouble scoring at the NBA level. There even have been some Tracy McGrady comparisons that, on the offensive end at least, are lofty but not unreasonable. He was named the Co-MVP of the McDonald’s All-American Game back in the spring, scoring 19 points to go along with four boards and three assists, but he always tends to rise to the occasion in big moments. He’s a passionate kid and really fun to watch. Let’s hope for a deep Kansas run in this year’s Final Four, if only to see how Jackson responds to an even bigger spotlight.
Lonzo Ball, UCLA – There really isn’t anybody like Lonzo Ball in the NBA today. At 6’5, he’d be one of the taller pure point guards in the league, but his size, length and athleticism combined with his uncanny court vision make him look like the kind of floor leader that could restore the UCLA program to a credibility it hasn’t seen for years. Ball and his two brothers spearheaded what many consider to be one of the greatest basketball teams of all time out in Chino Hills, CA, as they scored like a minor-league version of the Golden State Warriors and ran the table last season. Now without his brothers, Ball will adapt his game to more advanced competition, and even with one of the ugliest jumpshots since Joakim Noah, Ball still looks like a fascinating future NBA player. The only question is whether he’ll go one-and-done or wait for his brothers to join him at UCLA.
Dennis Smith, NC State – Smith is a smaller point guard at 6’2, but he’s much more prolific offensively than Ball, particularly in terms of scoring. He’s one of those little speedsters who’s impossible to keep away from the rim. Combine that with his lightning-fast first step and athletic explosiveness and it’s clear he’s an ideal NBA point guard. Think of him as a Derrick Rose type of player, as he sports the same basic skills that made Rose so successful early in his career. Like Rose, Smith also has a torn ACL on his resume, but he seems to be over that and ready for his first (and maybe only) season at NC State, where he’ll likely be allowed to do whatever he wants offensively for a team more than happy to let him have the spotlight.
College basketball is finally underway, and for many of us that means getting our first look at the top NBA draft prospects. These five players represent some of the best of those prospects, so keep your eyes on them and enjoy the forthcoming NCAA season!
NBA Daily: Junior Robinson: “Size Doesn’t Matter”
Junior Robinson talked to Basketball Insiders about the Pro Basketball Combine, his athletic family tree and that killer on-court fearlessness.
At just 5-foot-5, Junior Robinson is easily one of the shortest players to go through the draft process in some time. But after four successful seasons at Mount Saint Mary’s, Robinson refuses to let his height define him as he reaches for the next level in his ever-evolving basketball journey.
In May, Robinson was invited to the Pro Basketball Combine, an opportunity for the collegiate star to prove himself on a big stage ahead of the NBA Draft. But even with a solid showing in both the testing and scrimmage stages of the audition, Robinson is expected to go undrafted this month. Still, there remain plenty of avenues — starting with summer leagues and two-way contracts — for Robinson to head down.
For now, however, he’s happy for the chance to compete and prove himself one more time.
“It was fun, I’ve had a great time so far, I’m here to have fun as well as try to make a name for myself — as the rest of these guys are,” Robinson told Basketball Insiders. “I think I played well, I didn’t make a lot of shots, as many as I wanted to, but, at the end of the day, I think I did well.”
Robinson, who led the Mountaineers to 18 wins in 2017-18, has undergone the type of transformation front offices specifically scout for. After averaging 8.2 points and 3.3 assists as a freshman, Robinson grew into his game, role and responsibilities. He would finish his collegiate career pulling down 22 points and 4.8 assists per game instead, a scoring tally that was good for 16th-best in all of Division-I. For somebody that often faced defenders more than a foot taller than him, shooting 44.6 percent from the field — and a workable 38.8 from three-point land — this year is a testament to Robinson’s willingness to adapt and survive.
“I had to find different ways to do different things, I’m not jumping over guys like 6-foot-9 — so I had to find a way to score around, over, or, you know what I’m sayin’,” Robinson said. “I had to do a lot of things to just improve my game inside, outside, ball handling, everything had to improve in order for me to be where I am today.”
Today, although accomplished, the odds are still stacked against Robinson. To date, only Earl Boykins and Muggsy Bogues have reached the NBA at 5-foot-5 or smaller. Bogues averaged 7.7 points and 7.6 assists over 14 NBA seasons, while Boykins himself enjoyed 13 — but those are two of the greatest exceptions, not the rule. Currently, the league’s shortest players are Kay Felder, who only played two games in 2017-18, and Isaiah Thomas, both standing at 5-foot-9. Of course, Thomas, a more recent success story, was the No. 60 overall pick in 2011 and has parlayed that opportunity into two All-Star appearances and a top-five MVP finish last season.
But when he was asked what exactly he’s looking to prove these days, Robinson’s answer was compelling.
“That size doesn’t matter. I mean, as long as you have heart and you’re willing to compete and give it your all every day — what’s height got to do with it?” Robinson told Basketball Insiders. “All my life, I’ve been told I’m too small, I’m too short or that I’m not gonna be able to play with bigger guys. At some point, that phrase and all those have to go away, you just have to be a basketball player.
“And that’s what I try to prove — that I’m just a basketball player like the rest of these guys.”
Over his four seasons in Maryland, Robinson collected a handful of impressive individual outings — but perhaps none more so than the show he put on against Loyola back in early December. During a slim five-point victory, Robinson logged 39 points, four rebounds, four assists and three steals on 4-for-7 from long-range. No matter your size, that’s an achievement worth acknowledging — and Robinson made a habit of putting in big performances like that all season. When Robinson scored above his season average (22), the Mountaineers were 11-4, a mark that accounted for 61 percent of the university’s wins last year.
Where Robinson went, so did Mount St. Mary’s.
Watching Robinson, even from afar, is a treat. There’s certainly something to be said for the league’s hulking, mammoth rim-rattlers, but Robinson’s craftiness and clever play can be just as enthralling. Utilizing pump-fakes, feints, floaters and his reckless abandon, Robinson frequently excelled at creating scoring chances out of very little. Any NBA franchise that gives Robinson an extended look this summer will find a hard-working, determined scorer — traits he credits to his uber-athletic family tree.
“My parents are pretty athletic,” Robinson said. “My mom played at Elon and went overseas and played in Germany. My dad was really athletic, he could do any type of dunk at like 5-foot-4. It’s in my genes as well, it’s also a competitive thing — I wanna be the best I can be. I wanna be just as good as these guys or be on that pedestal. For me to be able to come in here and play with them, it’s great for me.”
For now, nobody is quite sure what the future holds for Robinson, but he’ll likely get his shot to go headlong at looming seven-footers soon enough. His fearlessness has been a staple for Robinson since he arrived at Mount St. Mary’s in 2014 — get knocked down, get right back up. As he tells it now, Robinson knew he had to be unshakable to make the next level, slowly honing those killer instincts and shifty offensive moves. What we’re left with now, effectively, is a very talented 22-year-old scorer that spent last season as a legitimate Division-I force to be reckoned with.
But to him, Robinson’s unparalleled fearlessness is all just another day at the office.
“I think was I was nine, I went up and a kid knocked me over and I realized: It’s not going to kill me, so why not?”
And the rest is history.
NBA Daily: Egor Koulechov: Three Schools, Five Years, One NBA Dream
At the Pro Basketball Combine, Egor Koulechov talked about his overseas journey, his extensive collegiate history and what it was like leaving home to chase a dream.
“Do you want the beginning, or do you want the condensed version from when I got to the states?”
When Egor Koulechov was asked to describe his worldwide basketball journey at May’s Pro Basketball Combine, he laughed before responding. After all, it’s a story he’s told a hundred times before — so what’s one more? In pursuit of reaching the summit of his NBA dream, Koulechov grew up grinding overseas before attending three stateside colleges in five years.
While he’s facing an uphill battle from here, Koulechov refuses to give up on it just yet.
As Koulechov, 23, recounts it now — albeit in an abridged, rapid-fire version — he lived in Volgograd, Russia until the age of six, then his family moved to a Neve Ur, a kibbutz in northern Israel. At 14, Koulechov relocated from home and played for two separate academy clubs, Maccabi Rishon LeZion and Wingate, as he progressively fell further and further in love with the game. Subsequently, Koulechov told his parents he wanted to play basketball in the United States, so he packed up and stayed with a host family alone for the following two years.
“I remember when I was sitting on that plane when I left my parents, that’s when it kind of hit me,” Koulechov told Basketball Insiders. “I’m not going to see my parents every day anymore, I’m not going to be home, I’m going to have to take care of myself. . .
“It’s just been an incredible journey, to be honest, I’ve met so many people, but it’s such a big adjustment, I remember, at 16, I struggled with it for a little bit.”
From there, Koulechov enrolled at Arizona State, where he averaged just 3.7 points and 2.8 rebounds in 14 minutes per game as a freshman. Smartly, the Israeli-Russian transferred to Rice University, sat out a season in accordance with NCAA rules and then took a massive step forward. In his second season at Rice, Koulechov pulled down 18.2 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists on 47.4 percent from three-point range. All of sudden, he was back on the map.
“Then, last year at Rice, I had a decision to make, whether I wanted to go pro or would I want to do a grad year,” Koulechov said. “I was kind of in between and decided to give this thing one last go-around to stay in the States and give myself the best shot of making my dreams come true — that’s why I went to Florida for one year.”
This past spring, Koulechov wrapped up a graduate transfer season at the University of Florida, where the 6-foot-5 guard tallied 13.8 points and 6.4 rebounds over 30.6 minutes per game. He started in all 34 games for the tournament-bound Gators, using his innate playmaking abilities and solid shooting marks to take advantage of smaller defenders. During Florida’s first-round victory over St. Bonaventure, Koulechov took in a team-high 20 points along with six rebounds — all season long, he was the team’s most consistent contributor. Although it wasn’t enough to get Koulechov to the NBA Draft Combine, he was more than happy to compete in the Pro Basketball Combine instead.
“It was awesome, honestly, I haven’t done workouts like that in front of teams, I haven’t had any NBA workouts, I have some lined up later — but this was good, this was a good experience,” Koulechov said. “It’s honestly a little nerve-wracking at first, when you kind of have all those people watching you there shoot, kind of a little tense, but once you start getting used to it and getting in the flow, it’s kind of easier.”
More likely than not, Koulechov will go undrafted later this month — but with private workouts, multiple summer leagues and two-way contracts ahead of him, he’ll get plenty of chances to prove he belongs. Even as he works from behind the eight ball, the modern league thrives on three-point shooting, so it doesn’t seem unreasonable that Koulechov, a career 39.5 percent marksman in college, could certainly catch on with the right franchise.
But his capable combine performance helped him exhibit far more than just his long-range abilities.
“Toughness, shooting, rebounding, defense, all those things — the 3-and-D thing that’s been going around a lot,” Koulechov said. “That’s kind of what I try to portray and show those guys, but it’s just how I play. It’s not like I try really hard, it’s kind of coming natural.”
Of course, it hasn’t been an easy road for the overseas dreamer — but it’s only served to make him even stronger. Unlike most NBA prospects, Koulechov was never a highly sought-after high school prospect, nor was he chased by five or six elite collegiate programs either. And yet, he still sacrificed everything to come stateside and compete for an opportunity. Now, he stands closer than ever to the big leagues, but he almost didn’t make it here.
During that challenging season at Arizona State in 2013-14, Koulechov couldn’t stop the doubts from sneaking in.
“[I felt like giving up] many times, many times,” Koulechov told Basketball Insiders. “But after my freshman year, I was kind of like: ‘Wow, why do I need this?’ Why when I could just go back home, play pro and make decent money? But I like to think of myself as mentally tough, and I know a lot of Israeli players who came through college and came for one year and then they left — everybody leaves after one year.
“I kind of wanted to be tougher than that. I didn’t want to be just another guy that tried it and went back to the same old thing, so that’s what I really wanted to get out of it.”
He’s not wrong either, and the current list of Israeli-born NBA players is a short one. Outside of the Indiana Pacers’ T.J. Leaf — born in Tel Aviv — and Omri Casspi, who was cut by the Golden State Warriors in early April, Israeli representation remains low. Koulechov’s passion for his hometown has motivated him through years of ups and downs — but following that stellar second season at Rice, he knew he had to keep reaching for his decade-long goal.
“If I did go back to Israel, I’d have to do military service, so this right now is me trying to make it to the NBA so I can represent Israel and give them another player,” Koulechov said. “That’s my dream, that’s always been my dream since I started playing basketball at 13. So that’s why I stayed here for another year.
“I could’ve been playing pro after one year of college or even before that — but this has always been my dream so I’m just trying to give it my best shot.”
After recapping his lifelong journey up until this point — a path that took him to three countries and three colleges before the age of 22 — Koulechov paused, smiled and said: “That’s the condensed version.”
And if Egor Koulechov has his way, his story is far from over.
Pulling Out Of The Draft Isn’t A Simple Decision
Making the decision to pull out of the NBA Draft isn’t an easy one, as there are a lot of factors that go into that decision.
The Big Decision
The NCAA deadline for NBA Draft hopefuls to return to college was 12 pm EST Wednesday night, and roughly 70 players that had declared for the 2018 NBA Draft have announced their intention to return to school.
It is important to note that the NBA’s deadlines are not currently aligned with the NCAA deadlines, so an official list of players that have withdrawn won’t be issued by the NBA until after the deadline.
On the surface, for many of these players, the decision to return for one more season of college experience might seem easy. However, it’s actually a hard decision for a number of reasons, beyond just the notion of getting drafted.
It is not at all uncommon for a college team’s priorities to change from season to season. The role a player played last season may not be the same in the upcoming year. Coaches change, new players come into the program. Philosophies change.
Every player has to weigh whether the environment changes of a team will help or hurt their chances to improve, especially for the non-degree seeking players that are simply leveraging college for a chance to be a professional.
A player’s returning role becomes even more relevant for the players at huge recruiting schools like Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina, where a new crop of blue-chip recruits are coming on campus every season.
Will You Get Better?
Another factor draft prospects have to consider is this: will returning help them get better? On the surface that seems like an easy answer, but it might not be.
Some players have exhausted the coaching and training available to them at the college level. Some players need more gym time or more specialized training. Unfortunately, there are limitations imposed at the NCAA level on how much time coaches can spend with players, and if the team’s priorities are changing, will a returning player be the priority for the coaching staff that maybe they were last season?
Even if a player goes undrafted and ends up in the NBA’s G-League, they’ll have the chance to focus solely on improving as a player, and that’s a factor some players must weigh.
There is also the question of eligibility. In the case of South Carolina’s Brian Bowen, who got caught up in the on-going payment of player scandal at Louisville, He was advised that he would not be eligible to play next season as a result of the implication. And while he may go undrafted in the NBA Draft, he was not going to be eligible to play, making it an easier decision.
Unfortunately, for a number of players, their goals are strictly to get to the NBA, and they may or may not have taken the required coursework to remain eligible if they were to return.
Equally, some players find that the grind of the college athlete world isn’t worth it for them personally and they opt to stay in the draft class even if they may not get drafted.
More Than Just The Draft
It’s easy to think about declaring for the draft as a singular opportunity. However, the draft is simply one doorway into professional basketball.
After the draft, teams clamor for the chance to scoop up talented undrafted players and try to get them into their programs. This starts with Summer League invites.
Equally, it’s not at all uncommon for NBA teams to start making partial guaranteed commitments or even two-way contract commitments to secure a player they may have liked in the process but were unwilling to invest a draft pick into.
The appeal of the new two-way contracts for undrafted players is real. Even more so with the G-League increasing its base compensation for all players, making a two-way contract worth a maximum of $385,000 next season.
With 60 two-way contracts available to NBA teams, most fringe level draft prospects are seeing potentially sixty more professional jobs, making the draft pool more than just the sixty-first and second-round selections; and that is before you factor in the ten true roster spots per team in the G-League.
On the surface its easy to make pulling out of a draft class about the draft alone, but it’s a much bigger decision that a player must make. Especially when you consider that historically, most players that have “tested the waters” usually don’t improve their draft stock too dramatically the following year.
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