The United States Junior Select team took a two-game losing streak against the World Select Team into Saturday’s Nike Hoop Summit, a game that annually pits the best of the American senior high school class against the some of the best players 19-and-under from the rest of the world. It is the premier scouting event of the high school All-Star circuit because the coaches and players actually try to win. The World team began practicing in Portland on Monday, while a smarting USA basketball* brought in its players a day earlier than normal, beginning practices Wednesday before staging two-a-days Thursday and Friday.
*In the postgame press conference, USA coach Mike Jones of DeMatha High School in Maryland alluded to the fact that he wasn’t sure he’d be brought back after the last two losses.
This US team was notable for its vocal, positive attitude in the practices, and they played like it in the game. Team USA fell behind early as they initially struggled to solve World coach Roy Rana’s extended 3-2 zone, which he deployed from the jump on makes and dead balls. The US trailed 24-15 at one point after some temporarily hot shooting by the World team, but roared back to take the lead by halftime with the help of foul trouble for the World’s three best big men. Ultimately, Team USA’s withering press and overall athleticism forced the World into 21 turnovers and held them to an offensive rating of 82.9 over 88 possessions in an 84-73 win. USA basketball did well to assemble a team and coaching staff that brought home a win against a World team that probably would have been favored by most of the NBA personnel in attendance.*
*Those scouts were only allowed to view one USA practice, a Thursday scrimmage against local collegians and low-level pros in which the US made two jumpers outside the paint the entire night.
Although much of the World was comprised of US high schoolers, they lacked any athletic wings the quality of Americans Justise Winslow, Stanley Johnson, Kelly Oubre and Theo Pinson. Much like at the senior national level, where international teams have no answer for the American wings, they proved the difference in this game as well. Here is how the individual American prospects break down.
Jahlil Okafor, Center, Committed to Duke
Okafor is by far the best known player in this class. By now, most are aware of his strengths and weaknesses. He has fantastic post moves and touch with either hand. The Chicago native is quite light on his feet for someone his size–6’11, 272. His wingspan and standing reach easily check the boxes for a center.
His weakness is exactly what you would expect for a heftier big guy with limited explosion: rim protection. However, his quick feet make him a reasonable pick-and-roll defender, and he was able to switch onto guards on occasion without getting absolutely torched.
Okafor could stand to get into better cardio shape, like most high school big men. When he is fresh though he can get out in transition and is a capable finisher due to his great hands and footwork. While he has become more explosive, he is not going to go up and dunk on anyone, and needs to continue to work on using his body to create space. With his frame, he could also work much harder on Zach Randolph-style duck-ins. If Okafor gets into good enough shape to outwork guys in addition to outskilling them, he could be an absolute terror. At times he over-relies on his balletic post moves when he needs to just put his shoulder into guys, back down and shoot a jump hook. Instead, he likes to catch the ball pretty far out and work his way into the lane with spin moves, but these proved easy to strip from guards digging down. Dealing with double teams is also an enormous weakness of his, as he will simply retreat into the corner when this occurs and rarely makes an incisive pass from the post. All of that should improve in time, and he will likely have plenty of space to operate regardless in Duke’s open system.
Okafor has a long windup on his jumpshot, but it goes in pretty well for him from midrange. This will likely be an effective weapon for him in time. I am less sanguine on his prospects as a pick-and-roll finisher due to his lack of explosion, but his great hands and footwork should enable him to be moderately effective rolling to the basket a la Marc Gasol as long as there are not great shot-blockers in his way.
It seems likely that Okafor will be a top five pick next year, but his limited rim protection somewhat limits his ceiling. At this point, I would compare his game, if not his temperament, to a less physical version of DeMarcus Cousins.
Cliff Alexander, Power Forward, Committed to Kansas
Unlike the rest of these players, this was Alexander’s first USA basketball event. Alexander’s best attribute right now is his ability to power up strong with two-foot dunks around the rim. If he gets the ball on a dump off, it’s a bucket or a foul every time. Because he is such an explosive finisher on film, it was surprising to see how short he was in person. He is 6’8 in shoes, although with a 9’0 standing reach and 7’3.5 wingspan. He can also be an impressive shot blocker, although it takes him quite a while to load up and jump so he barely misses a lot of shots in the air. He also has a fledgling jump hook shot, although no real counters at this point.
If he were center-sized with his explosiveness, he would probably be the favorite for the number one pick in 2015. As it is, he will need to develop more of an outside game to become an elite NBA prospect. This may be in the offing, as he shoots his jumper easily with solid form and shoots free throws acceptably for a high school big man. Aside from working on his outside game, Alexander needs to get in better shape from both a cardiovascular and physical standpoint. At 251 pounds, he could stand to lose about 10 pounds and really cut up. It would also help him to slide his feet on defense and jump more quickly.
Alexander’s other main weakness right now is his basketball IQ. He only started playing the game a few years ago, and has absolutely no idea how to deal with double teams.* At times in practice his attention seemed to wander, and although he was not awful mentally he was the most likely on the team to mess up a drill or a play.
*He was not helped by the fact that the US team did not practice this at all, despite the fact most of their plays were designed to elicit postups for Alexander and Okafor.
If Alexander can increase his skill level and slim down a bit, he could be a top five pick next year. His upside might be something like Amar’e Stoudemire if he really improves, but there is also the possibility he never develops and remains a raw dunker.
Potential NBA Rotation Players
Stanley Johnson, Wing, Committed to Arizona
Johnson earned his frequent Ron Artest comparisons this week, weighing in at a giant 237 pounds on his 6’7 frame. In fact, I cannot think of a prospect in recent history who has a more apt NBA comparison. He is going to be a terror on defense with his 6’11 wingspan, as he gets copious steals on his man or off ball through anticipation. One on one, he moves his feet much faster than someone his weight should be able to. He really gets into his man and takes pride in his defense. Johnson was particularly impressive in Friday night’s scrimmage, when the US overwhelmed local collegians with their press and he had at least five steals. He is a bit handsy out on the perimeter, but that should be easy for Sean Miller to clean up next year. In the game itself, Johnson actually guarded World team point guard Emmanuel Mudiay most of the time. But he then was able to switch to playing as a four and blow by the bigs at the base of the World’s 3-2 zone. That lineup was key to the US comeback in the second quarter.
On offense, the Mater Dei high school product is a good one foot jumper, although he is less explosive off two. He did not appear to possess a ton of advanced dribble moves, but the spacing was rarely there for such attempts. His jumper is improving, and he was able to hit about 50 percent of FIBA threes in warmups when he was shooting set shots directly off the catch. Unfortunately, his release is very low in front of his head and he is much less effective shooting actual jump shots off the dribble.
Johnson is not going to be an offensive superstar, but much like Artest he should be able to manufacture points using his strength and an adequate jumper in time. His defense alone should ensure a long career.
Kelly Oubre, Wing, Committed to Kansas
The 6’6, 204 pound lefty might have the best physical profile of anyone on the USA team with his 7’2 wingspan and nuclear powered right calf, as evidenced by his dunk on former Oregon Duck Mike Moser during a scrimmage.
Oubre can also heat up from outside on occasion, hitting two key FIBA threes (the line is a little over two feet beyond the high school line) to spark the US comeback, though he finished 2-7 overall. His jumper waxed and waned, and he looks like he’ll be more of a streak shooter than a knockdown spotup guy for the time being.
The Houston area native played his part getting steals in the US pressure defense, although he doesn’t D up quite like Winslow or Johnson. For weaknesses, he did not seem to have a lot of advanced dribble moves (though it could be difficult to tell due to the lack of spacing for the US in the halfcourt) and did not shoot a shot with his right hand all week.
With his physical profile and ability to get to the basket and at least shoot passably, Oubre has the makings of a lottery pick. If he can improve his intensity and become a lockdown defender under Bill Self, he can cement that status. Among the four US wings, he has the most upside.
Myles Turner, Center, Undecided
Turner was not at his best this week due to a knee injury. He ran with an awkward limp and pretty much was unable to sprint all week, finally succumbing to a sprained ankle in the game after only seven minutes. Scouts were very concerned about his body, but he was not nearly as awkward when I saw him last year at adidas Nations so it could simply be the result of the injury. He has grown an inch and added 1.5 inches to his standing reach since October, while putting on 12 pounds to get up to 242. He has enormous feet, leading one to think he might grow even more.
At his best, the now 6’11.5 Turner is effective challenging shots with his 7’4 wingspan and 9’1.5 standing reach, but he was not really able to make his presence felt to his usual extent, this week. He also possesses a solid jump shot out to the FIBA three point line, although he had few chances to display this in Team USA’s post-centric offense. The Texas native has little feel on the block, and does not look like he’ll be comfortable putting the ball on the floor facing up or off closeouts either. Still, a player who can block shots and shoot threes is quite valuable, and Turner could be that assuming his health issues subside. For this week, he gets an incomplete.
Justise Winslow, Wing, Committed to Duke
The Houston native has an NBA body right now at 6’6, 221 lbs, and really has since he was a rising junior in high school. The lefty also has NBA athleticism, showing an ability to sky behind the defense for alley oops off one or two feet, pressure the ball and get out for dunks in transition. He also exhibited a quick first step in the half court going to his left, although he struggled to finish over challenges at the rim when he couldn’t dunk the ball.
In the actual game, Winslow overwhelmed the World team at times with his athleticism and intensity, much as he did for Team USA at the U-19 World Championships in Prague last summer. Against higher quality athletes at adidas Nations last summer and in the practices here, he was not able to exert his will on the glass and in transition quite as easily. In those settings, his deficiencies are more apparent. His jumper is a work in progress, and while he is clearly working on going right and finishing right handed neither is an effective weapon for him yet. He can dribble the ball upcourt, but largely dribbles defensively because he is not confident enough in his handle when smaller guards are around in transition. He is also very handsy on defense when defending on the perimeter, a tactic he should soon be disabused of at Duke with the new college emphasis preventing contact on the perimeter.
At a minimum, Winslow’s physical profile, good character and motor should give him an NBA future. Whether he can become more than just a back of rotation defensive wing depends on how much he can improve his shooting, non-dunk finishing and moves off the dribble.
Theo Pinson, Wing, Committed to North Carolina
As the thinnest of the US wings, the 6’6 Pinson was not the physical force of nature that the rest of the US wings were, but he probably has the best game off the dribble. He is a good but not great athlete who can slither to the basket and is effective in transition. He also has a nascent in between game for shots in the lane where he can’t get all the way to the rim. Pinson got going from outside in Friday night’s scrimmage, but aside from that his flat jumper was not falling and did not really appear to be a great weapon at this point, at least from the FIBA line.
His biggest project right now is to get stronger. He has only gained six pounds in the last two years, and weighed in at only 188 at the Hoop Summit. Strength will help his finishing at the rim and ability to get there to begin with when he hasn’t completely beat his man. On defense he too has a huge wingspan of 6’11, but was not a stopper on the level of Johnson or Winslow. Adding strength will help there as well. Right now, he is reminiscent of a worse-shooting Tony Snell. To become an NBA rotation player in the future he will have to get much stronger or become a much better shooter.
Of note, Pinson managed to tough out an ankle injury sustained in Thursday’s scrimmage to make it through two practices Friday and the game on Saturday.
Tyus Jones, Point Guard, Committed to Duke
Jones is going to be a very steady college point guard. He runs the team, knows when to make incisive passes or simply the right one and generally avoids turnovers. His in between game is wonderful, as his floaters from the dreaded 3-9 foot range were money all week no matter what angle he was penetrating from. Down the stretch, he abused the World team’s Jamal Murray for a couple of buckets to ice it for Team USA.
Unfortunately, he lacks a standout offensive skill aside from his passing. He lacked the ability to finish at the rim even at this level, which has resulted in his developing the aforementioned floater. At 6’1 with a 6’3 wingspan and only 7’10 standing reach, he does not have impressive size for a pro point guard. He also is not really a leaper–he doesn’t dunk even on fast breaks–and his quickness is perhaps slightly below average by NBA standards. He exhibits solid form on his jumper, but was not willing to shoot when the defense went under the pick and roll. He took a few wide open threes but largely missed them. I suspect he will improve his shooting in time though, as his jumper is not broken by any means.
Jones is a high character player who doesn’t make mistakes. That could eventually get him a role in the league as a backup point guard. But he’s unlikely to be a starting level player unless he can improve his jumper to nearly automatic.
Good College Players
Reid Travis, Power Forward, Committed to Stanford
Despite being listed at only 6’7, the Hoop Summit roster listed Travis as a center. This proved accurate, as he doesn’t really have the quickness to play away from the basket. While he readily takes 17 footers, his jumper is pretty hitchy and does not project to be a major weapon without some refinement. Travis is a sculpted 6’8, 241, with commensurate 7’0 wingspan and 8’8.5 standing reach that is adequate but not spectacular. His game evokes Carlos Boozer’s in college, before he evolved into a solid midrange shooter. However, he is not quite as strong as Boozer, nor does he jump as high at this point. He does show more defensive effort though, and moves his feet well for his size.
Travis’ best attribute right now is how hard he plays, which manifests on the offensive glass and racing the floor in transition. He crashes the glass hard for tip-ins, although he can’t quite get up for follow dunks. The key for Travis’ NBA future will be developing a midrange jumper (ironing out the kinks in his form) and increasing his explosiveness. Right now to these eyes he projects as the type of player who will stay in college and could eventually be a second round pick, but lacks much more upside than that.
Joel Berry, Point Guard, Committed to North Carolina
Joel Berry struggled more this week than anyone on either team. He goes 6’2, 185 with a 6’3 wingspan, and appears to be an average NCAA athlete for the point guard position. He has solid form on his jumper, but didn’t appear comfortable shooting even at the college three point line. The North Carolina commit struggled with turnovers throughout the week, with entry passes to the US post players proving a particular foible. Other than odd man fast breaks, he wasn’t really able to get to the basket either.
Berry didn’t hurt the US in the actual game, but Tyus Jones played 32 of the 40 point guard minutes for a reason. Throw in the fact he just turned 19 on April 1, and it is hard to see Berry as much of a prospect at this point. Frankly, it was surprising that Berry was considered the second-best point guard in this class by USA Basketball.
James Blackmon, Jr., Shooting Guard, Committed to Indiana
The 6’3 Blackmon has one outstanding skill: His jumper was money all week when left open out to the international three point line. With a 6’8.5 wingspan, he should be able to hold down the shooting guard position just fine at Indiana. However, he probably is not athletic enough to really qualify as an NBA prospect either, especially since he turns 19 in a few days himself. The only way that might change is if he can develop some point guard skills and become a lockdown defender a la the similarly sized George Hill, but Blackmon did not display that type of mentality or quite that level of athleticism this week. Although not a top-level prospect, Blackmon was a good choice for a Hoop Summit team that needed shooting.
We previously ran a preliminary report after last Thursday’s practices, and will have a full report on the World team, including Karl Towns, Emmanuel Mudiay and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk in the next few days.
Sources: Jontay Porter Re-Tears Right ACL
Jontay Porter’s NBA stock has taken a turn for the worse.
Porter, the Missouri power forward who missed his sophomore season after tearing ligaments in his right knee during a preseason scrimmage against Southern Illinois, recently re-tore his right ACL while in Denver, multiple sources told The Star. The Missouri basketball team confirmed the injury.
Porter was in Denver rehabbing his first knee injury. Sources told The Star the injury didn’t come directly from rehab but happened while he was on the court working out. It’s unknown if Porter was cleared for activity when he was injured.
NBA Daily: Four Prospects Ready To Rise In NCAA Tournament
Every March brings a collection of mock draft risers ahead of combine season, but there are four names worth your attention this spring, writes Ben Nadeau.
Ah, it’s almost that time of year, folks.
No, not just placing a bet on college basketball or filling out the winning bracket.
With conference tournaments set to wrap up this weekend, and Selection Sunday not far behind, the mental preparations for the big dance have already begun. Each season, like clockwork, a group of players seemingly raise their stock amongst fans ahead of workouts and the combine. Last season, of course, the largest beneficiary of the bright spotlight was Villanova’s Donte DiVincenzo. During the NCAA Championship, DiVincenzo torched Michigan for 31 points on 5-for-7 from long range — then once he measured out well, it was all but settled. In a matter of two months, DiVincenzo had gone from a near-lock to return to college to a potential lottery selection.
But as Basketball Insiders’ Steve Kyler pointed out alongside his most recent mock draft, importantly, it was a combination of everything that vaulted DiVincenzo into the cultural forefront. With much of the collegiate sphere transfixed, rightfully, on Zion Williamson’s return to Duke, plus his renewed efforts with top prospects Cam Reddish and R.J. Barrett, most of the collective draft class has just slipped on by. So although scouts may have a handle on the NCAA’s very best prospects, there are plenty of other cases worth adding to join to the pre-tournament hype conversation.
Given that March Madness kicks off on Tuesday, there’s no better moment to investigate the portfolios of some potential risers. Again, a stellar showing in the tournament won’t do it alone — but, regardless, these are four players that could do a ton of damage between now and the NBA Draft in June.
Eric Paschall, Villanova
Speaking of DiVincenzo, the Wildcats have sent a handful of players to the NBA over the last three years and senior Eric Paschall appears to be next in line. The 6-foot-8 forward bided his time alongside stars like Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson, but the former All-Tournament selectee has bloomed as Villanova’s main man. Over 32 contests, Paschall has averaged 16.7 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 2.1 three-pointers per game, helming his now-depleted squad to 23 wins.
Although he hasn’t collected the same awards that Brunson did last year, NBA teams tend to love ready-to-contribute Wildcats, no matter their age.
Paschall will be 23 once his rookie year begins in the fall but he’s got big-game confidence and oodles of experience already. On Thursday, Paschall scored 20 points and 10 rebounds to pace No. 25 Villanova past Providence in Big East Tournament play. There are some concerns over his pro-level fit as a power forward, but his massively improved three-point conversion mark will definitely have scouts back on board.
Of note, Paschall was unanimously named to the All-Big East First Team and he’s currently heating up ahead of another deep Villanova run. Paschall’s fantastic put-back helped the Wildcats force overtime against Xavier on Friday, while his clutch three-pointer and subsequent free throws then iced it.
Jaxson Hayes, Texas
Texas’ newest rim-protecting impact player is the 6-foot-11 Jaxson Hayes — a well-executing shot blocker and walking highlight reel… sound familiar? While the comparisons to Jarrett Allen are simply unavoidable at this point, Hayes has been a worthy target alone based on his slow, but steady improvement throughout the 2018-19 campaign. Through 32 games, the freshman has averaged 10.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.2 blocks on 72.8 percent from the field. Those standout numbers — blocks and field goal percentage — rank as 23rd and second-best in Division I, respectively.
In Hayes’ best performance yet, the big man pulled down 15 points, six rebounds and five blocks during a mid-season victory over rival Oklahoma. Earlier this month, Hayes was named the Big 12 Freshman of the Year, an honor recently bestowed upon Trae Young, Josh Jackson and Myles Turner. Along with Allen and Turner, Haynes joins Mohamed Bamba as highly-rated former Longhorns with huge professional-level projections — that’s not bad company to keep.
Unfortunately, at 16-16, Texas now faces an uphill battle to even reach the big dance. Much worse, Hayes played just 14 minutes before leaving the game with an injury during their loss to No. 3 Kansas in the Big 12 Tournament on Thursday. Head coach Shaka Smart said he hoped “it’s not extremely serious” but a status update has not been revealed as of publishing. However, as an athletic leaper and instinctual defender, Hayes remains one of the top long-term projects, injured or not.
And with moments like these, it won’t be long until the country takes notice as well — even if he’s sadly done for the season now.
Tre Jones, Duke
Of the names on this list, Tre Jones’ line is certainly the least jaw-dropping — 8.9 points, 5.4 assists and 2.1 steals — but he’s been the fourth mouth to feed behind the Blue Devils’ trio of future top five picks. Still, Jones has been a steadying force for the star-studded side, even seeing a healthy uptick in the three weeks that Williamson was sidelined. During Duke’s slim loss to North Carolina a week ago, Jones chipped in with nine points, five rebounds, seven assists and two steals.
With Williamson back in the lineup versus Syracuse on Thursday, Jones dropped 15 points and eight assists — which, long story short, proves the court general is good no matter who is on the floor. While those statistics aren’t enough to push Jones into lottery territory, the 19-year-old point guard has some promising upside for a team with less ball-dominating assets already.
Although head coach Mike Krzyzewski dreams of a sophomore year return, Jones’ laser-sharp distribution and above-average defense will make him a popular name this spring. Jones’ 3.73 assist-to-turnover ratio is third-best in the entire nation and his ability to drop picture-perfect passes to Duke’s sky-walking dunkers has made them appointment viewing all season.
And if you’re feeling some slight déjà vu right now, that’s for good reason. Back in 2014-15, Tyus Jones, Tre’s older brother, was an electric playmaker for a Blue Devils team that won it all. But if you see Tre knocking down important, pressure-laden shots like Tyus once did, don’t be surprised — that clutch gene still runs in the family.
Jaylen Nowell, Washington
This foursome has covered nearly every corner of the scouting conundrum checklist thus far: Hayes? Too raw. Paschall? Too old. Jones? Too underutilized. While those are all things that front offices may eventually look past when drafting those three in June, Jaylen Nowell falls into zero of those buckets.
Nowell is 19 years old, just won Pac-12 Player of the Year and seems poised to lead Washington to their longest tournament run in over a decade. Heading into the postseason, Nowell is leading the Huskies in points (16.5), assists (3.1) and three-point percentage (44.9), while the guard is their runner-up in rebounds (5.4) and steals (1.2) too. Uncoincidentally, Washington’s 25 wins are the most the college has finished with since Isaiah Thomas led them to 26 and the Sweet 16 in 2009-2010.
In 2018-19, Nowell has topped 18 or more on 15 separate occasions, including a massive 26-point, six-rebound effort against the likely No. 1 overall-seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs. Nowell is an incredible dribbler and the sophomore has put plenty of talented defenders on skates — but he’s also been largely hidden in a subpar conference this season. Fundamentally strong, Nowell has shot below 40 percent in just five of Washington’s 32 games so far.
Consistent and reliable, he’ll be their go-to star in the NCAA tournament without a doubt. Before long, the rest of the country will recognize him as one too.
Zion Williamson has been deservedly tough to look away from this season — but collegiate basketball’s biggest showstopper has robbed onlookers of some other incredible narratives as well.
Whether that’s the scrappy lead guard throwing alley-oops to Williamson on the daily, a forgotten National Champion or a budding first-rounder on the opposite coastline, March Madness is shaping up to be another worthy runway for takeoff. Unfortunately, Hayes will likely miss out — even in the now-unlikely circumstance that Texas is selected — but his agile, smooth skillset as a near seven-footer will make him a sought-after interview come draft season.
Between now and April — through a mix of their tournament efforts and combine measurements — an elite group of prospects will rise up mock draft boards once again. Who will it be this year?
NBA Daily: Uncovering The Next Rodions Kurucs
The Brooklyn Nets struck gold with second-rounder Rodions Kurucs last year. Which under-the-radar prospect could be the next steal of the draft?
Zion, Zion, Zion.
With a splash of Ja Morant and R.J. Barrett mixed in for good measure, this college basketball season has been all about Duke’s Zion Williamson. The flash card-worthy facts are astonishing — 18 years-old, 6-foot-7, 285 pounds — but his highlight reel moves, both offensively and defensively, have everybody drooling. And although collegiate and professional onlookers alike wait to hear news of a potential Williamson return — or lack thereof — most franchises won’t have a shot at adding the prodigal teenager during draft season. For others, even picking in the lottery isn’t possible and, for a rare few, selecting at all in the first round is entirely off the table — looking at you, for now, Toronto, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Denver and Dallas.
In those cases, they’ll look for uncut gems and low-profile lottery tickets to take a swing on in picks past No. 30 overall. Recent years have brought renewed plaudits to the second round steal, most notably in regards to Isaiah Thomas’ rise to prominence (No. 60), Malcolm Brogdon’s Rookie of the Year campaign (No. 36) and Nikola Jokić’s MVP-worthy efforts in Denver (No. 41). Still, Thomas was a standout at Washington for three seasons, Brogdon the same over four at Virginia, while Jokić — albeit passed upon by every team in the 2014 NBA Draft at least once — averaged 15.4 points and 9.3 rebounds per game and earned Adriatic League MVP before he even joined the Nuggets.
Nowadays, there’s Rodions Kurucs. Everybody wants their own Rodions Kurucs.
For those somehow still under a rock, Kurucs has been a welcomed revelation for the Brooklyn Nets in their surprisingly win-laden campaign thus far. The Latvian-born baller was once-hyped as high as a potential lottery selection back in early 2017 before withdrawing from that season’s draft. But as his on-court time waned with Barcelona, his stock dropped so harshly that he would’ve likely gone undrafted just one year later if not for previous scouting by the Nets. Thankfully, the Nets snagged Kurucs at No. 40 overall and expected him to play an entire season with Brooklyn’s G League affiliate on Long Island.
Kurucs, of course, had other plans.
Through an aggressive, fast-paced style of play, Kurucs has been a massive bright spot for the Nets through their first 60 games. After an injury bug hit Brooklyn hard, Kurucs joined the starting lineup and the Nets instantly rattled off 13 wins in their next 18 contests. All in all, he’s averaged 8.8 points and 3.6 rebounds in 20.9 minutes per game, including a breakout 24-point performance on 5-for-8 from three-point range against the rival Celtics in January. Those unexpected contributions led Kurucs to a well-deserved spot in All-Star Weekend’s Rising Stars competition, where the 21-year-old finished with 10 points, five assists and four rebounds — and, most importantly, looked the part.
As of today, Kurucs has outside odds on reaching the 2018-19 All-Rookie Second Team and the playoff-hopeful Nets look infinitely more athletic and modern game-ready with the forward on the floor. Perhaps in the know about Kurucs from the get-go, the Brooklyn gave him a fully guaranteed four-year contract, with a team option on that final season, shortly after he was drafted. In no uncertain terms, Kurucs is one of the biggest victories of the 2018 class so far. Kurucs was cheap, young and ready to chip in from opening night, a rarity from second-rounders with very little overseas achievements.
Which is all to pose one simple question: Who is the next Rodions Kurucs?
In order to answer that, there are three important pieces of criteria to hit upon before creating such a list of candidates. First and foremost, the player must be a projected second-rounder — if he’s locked into a guaranteed contract, that’s not a draft day steal, that’s a commitment. Building on that, the player must be a relative unknown to some extent. For instance, everybody knew Thomas’ name after he averaged 16.8 points and 6.1 assists, led the Huskies to the Pac-10 tournament championship and then the NCAA’s bracket-busting second-round back in 2010-11.
Ultimately, Thomas slipped to No. 60 because of concerns over his height — not because he was under-scouted or off radars altogether.
Finally, the next Kurucs must be a natural fit in today’s NBA landscape. Jokić was a unicorn-in-waiting, whereas Kurucs is a 6-foot-9 uber-athletic floor-runner that can provide on both sides of the ball. If Kurucs adds a consistent three-point shot to his repertoire, something he’s focused on all season long, he’ll be a lock in Brooklyn’s young rotation for the foreseeable future.
With that in mind, here’s a short-list of contenders that could have a Kurucs-level breakout in 2019-20: Abdoulaye N’Doye, Cholet; Brian Bowen, Sydney Kings; and Darius Bazley, USA.
More popular names like Sekou Doumbouya, Luka Šamanić and Goga Bitadze will continue to garner buzz — particularly following the instant adjustments made by Luka Dončić this season — but all three international prospects have been ranked as a potential first-rounder in the early editions of draft boards, so they don’t qualify for now. Which leaves us with three options — one genuine overseas prospect and two Americans with a couple of unique circumstances.
N’Doye is a 6-foot-6 guard from Dunkirk, France, a 21-year-old that sports a strong physical stature already. Coincidently, he’s garnered comparisons to Frank Ntilikina, another French-born defensive-minded and similarly-sized point guard. Although he’s struggled to find his footing under two different head coaches in two years, Ntilikina still went No. 8 overall not too long ago and N’Doye could project on the same wavelength.
For Cholet of the LNB Pro A, N’Doye has averaged 6.1 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.5 steals per game on 43.8 percent from three-point range. And for an athlete that puts up a little less than five shots every contest, N’Doye’s jumper looks sturdy, all things considered. Physically, N’Doye frequently appears as if he’s in an entirely different stratosphere against his competition, often using his quick hands and ridiculously adapt wingspan to spring one-man fastbreaks.
Even if it takes a few seasons for the offense to catch up with the rest of his body, envisioning N’Doye as a day one asset on defense doesn’t feel like a major stretch. The French circuit isn’t as competitive as Spain or Turkey, for example, but it’s still the league where Tony Parker, Boris Diaw, Nicolas Batum, Evan Fournier and Clint Capela all earned their stripes before heading stateside — in fact, Cholet was the team that birthed the early beginnings of Rudy Gobert from 2010-13.
For Brian Bowen, however, his long-winding journey is far from over, it appears.
Bowen, best known for his involvement in Louisville‘s recent scandal, is trying to claw his way back into draft contention. The quick-fire SparkNotes for the uninitiated: After Bowen was deemed ineligible to play for the Cardinals in 2017-18, the talented scorer tried to transfer to the University of South Caroline, where, following a two-semester NCAA transfer sit-out policy, he could begin rebuilding his NBA resume in early 2019. Instead, Bowen declared for the 2018 NBA Draft despite not participating in any collegiate games, went to the combine, didn’t sign an agent and eventually withdrew before the international deadline.
While this move effectively killed any lingering NCAA dreams, it left the G League and overseas route open as well as his NBA Draft eligibility. So, long story short, Bowen then signed with the Sydney Kings of the Australian NBL and has been working there since August in hopes of jumping back on front office radars with a full season of experience under his belt. Bowen may not have become the breakout star the Kings expected, but the 20-year-old has held his own in a decently competitive league.
The 6-foot-7 forward has tallied just 6.5 points and 3.1 rebounds over 28 games for Sydney — still, it’s far too early to give up on Bowen. Remember, it’s only a few years removed from Bowen being ranked as ESPN’s 14th-best high schooler in an absolutely stacked class that once included Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III, Michael Porter Jr. and more.
Or, in other words, if Bowen declares for the 2019 NBA Draft and sticks with it this time, he’s got the makings of a perfect second-round homerun swing.
Lastly, there’s Darius Bazley, perhaps one of the most interesting cases in recent draft memory. Bazley, 18, was a former five-star recruit and a McDonald’s All-American that originally committed to play for Syracuse in 2018-19. At the last moment, Bazley decided to skip college altogether with plans to head to the G League for a season before jumping to the NBA. Before long, the 6-foot-9 southpaw forewent that intermediary league too, announcing that he’d spend the entire year training for the draft instead. And… that’s pretty much where things stand in early January.
Bazley has some impressive high school-level highlights that exhibit his above-average court-running abilities and slender frame — but, as always, those clips can be incredibly deceiving. For now, Bazley has taken up a million-dollar internship at New Balance but he’ll certainly land somewhere in second round come draft season. Of course, this path is close to that of the New York Knicks’ Mitchell Robinson, a ceilingless rookie that withdrew from Western Kentucky to train in private for the draft just last year. In order to keep the air of mysteriousness surrounding his on-court talents, Robinson dropped out of the NBA Draft Combine as well.
Ultimately, Robinson fell to No. 36th overall, where the Knicks were more than happy to grab the potential-laden center. If Robinson hadn’t missed a 14-game chunk already — and stayed out of foul trouble a bit better — he’d be spoken of as highly as Kurucs has been so far. Of note, over Robinson’s 43 appearances, he’s already brought in 26 multi-block efforts — for a second-rounder, that’s playing with house money. Naturally, Bazley has a tremendous distance to go before he even reaches Robinson territory, but even this path to the NBA has found recent triumphs — he’ll just need to land in the right spot.
Zion Williamson is an otherworldly, once-in-a-generation prospect, just like Luka Dončić was before him. But while fans and general managers deservedly salivate over those teenagers, most franchises must dig far deeper to unearth under-the-radar contributors. Kurucs’ immediate accomplishments will bode well for front offices that continue to do their due diligence on late-round rookies. The Nets’ savviness has landed them a talented youngster at a multi-year cost-controlled price — but now it’s an outcome that the other 29 other teams will all look to replicate come June.
Between now and the NBA Draft, it’s all about uncovering the next Rodions Kurucs or Mitchell Robinson — but who will it be?