Over the next few weeks, as part of a new series called Prodigies, we will be breaking down the strengths and weaknesses of the NBA’s top up-and-coming players. This group of highly talented prospects (all age-25 or younger) have a chance to be superstars in the NBA over the next decade. Each of these players has their own specific skill-set, but they all share one very important thing in common: consistent improvement, which is required in order to reach their full potential. We will evaluate each of these players and pinpoint their strengths and weaknesses, determining the areas of development they can focus on to take the next step as a player and dominate even further.
The first two players we will be profiling are New York Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis and Milwaukee Bucks point-forward-center-everything Giannis Antetokounmpo. Both Porzingis and Antetokounmpo are extremely gifted and possess high-level foundational skill-sets.
Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks
19.9 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 1.8 BPG, 45% from field, 40% from three
The No. 4 overall pick of the 2015 NBA Draft has improved immensely from last year to this year, upping his scoring average by about six points while shooting better from the field and from behind the arc. The Latvian has a dynamic, hybrid-stretch-four skill-set that allows him to operate both down low and on the perimeter. Standing 7’3 with a 7’6 wingspan, Porzingis uses his size, adept shooting touch and above-average ball-handling skills to create scoring opportunities. The kid has a ton of potential, and many believe he has the chance to become a perennial All-Star in the league.
Improving shooter: Porzingis ranks in the 71st percentile in the NBA in regards to jump-shot opportunities, per Synergy, and has a knack for relocating to openings around the perimeter for shots and drifting off of ball screens to find quality looks. He also does a good job getting his feet set into his jumper and he has a fairly quick release. Factor all of this in with his size, and not many players coming from the help side have the range to effectively contest him.
Scoring moving without the ball: The big man has also been effective creating scoring opportunities moving without the ball this season. He can score it relocating out of pick-and-rolls and he creates opportunities for himself by setting fade, wide and down screens for teammates, which usually frees him up for shots. Through his first 27 games of this season, Porzingis scored 68 points on 44 such possessions – ranking him in the 89th percentile in the NBA, according to Synergy. Additionally, Porzingis is highly effective when it comes to dribble-hand-off (DHO) opportunities, according to Synergy. DHOs only make up only about two percent of his overall offensive plays, but Porzingis has been a killer: He has scored 17 points on 11 such possessions, ranking him in the 99th percentile in the league in this type of play. Hand-offs allow Porzingis to create enough of a rub on his defender to either get to the rim off the dribble or create space for his jumper. Considering his high release, any space he creates makes it nearly impossible for most defenders to adequately guard his jumper.
Rim protection and rebounding: Porzingis is currently 10th in the league in blocks per game with 1.78. He also ranks 30th in double-doubles with six. Porzingis is long enough and moves well enough to deflect shots in the post as well as on drives to the basket. He also does a good job rotating out of help-side defense to disrupt shots or clog the middle on drives to the basket. As Porzingis gains more strength, he should be able to counteract the stronger players who attempt to negate this shot-blocking ability by getting into his body.
Playmaking ability: Despite being a solid straight-line driver, Porzingis is not great when it comes to the changing of directions off the bounce. Opposing teams often force the big man off of the three-point line and off pick-and-pop opportunities, causing him to make plays off of the dribble. This is one part of his game that, if improved, could counteract many of the defensive schemes geared toward stopping him.
Physical strength: Throughout his NBA career, Porzingis has struggled with stronger, more mature players. Oftentimes, opposing teams will assign smaller, more physical wings to cover him, which at times has disrupted Porzingis’ playmaking ability. The smaller defender uses his leverage to keep the Knicks forward off balance. Porzingis also at times struggles to defend stronger players in the post. At 21 years old, Porzingis will gradually improve in this area as he continues to make this a focus and grows into his body.
Post play: Due in part to his lack of strength and a high center of gravity, Porzingis’ post-up effectiveness lags behind some of the better players in the league. As such, he is currently averaging .85 points per possessions in the post – ranking him in the 50th percentile in the NBA, according to Synergy. There’s no doubt that his inside-outside versatility makes him a dynamic talent, but as the numbers stand now, the bulk of Porzingis’ production is created off of the block or on the perimeter. Creating more balance between his plays in the post and on the perimeter play will only help to stymie defenders.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
23.4 PPG, 9 RPG, 5.8 APG, 2.1 SPG, 1.9 BPG, 53% from field, 29% from three
The 22-year-old combines his 6’11 height and 7’3 wing span with great athleticism and an improving all-around game, which has placed him in the MVP conversation. Only five other players in NBA history have averaged at least 13 points, six rebounds, three assists and one block by the time they turned 22, according to Fox Sports. Antetokounmpo is among those five, along with the likes of greats like Tracy McGrady, Kevin Garnett and Chris Webber. The dynamic Antetokounmpo is currently leading the Bucks in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. Antetokounmpo could be a once-in-a-generation player if he can continue to develop.
Elite-level defense: Antetokounmpo is already one of the best defenders in the league. He is in fifth place in blocks and fourth in steals. He is also fifth in Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating, which is ESPN’s stat to measure estimated impact on team defensive points allowed per 100 defensive possessions. Basically, Antetokounmpo is a beast on defense. When he was drafted, he was 6’8.5. By the end of the season, he has grown to 6’11. The kid may have one of the best basketball bodies to ever come into the league, with a 7’3 wing span and huge hands that measured in at 12 inches (the average adult hand is 7.4 inches). Antetokounmpo combines these physical attributes with his elite athleticism to dominate the defensive end. His dominance on the defensive end should only improve, especially as he begins to master team defensive dynamics.
Versatile offensive skill-set: Antetokounmpo transitioned from the wing to point guard spot late last season after Michael Carter-Williams went down with an injury. The move gave he and the Bucks a boost by effectively positioning Antetokounmpo to do what he does best: attack the rim. According to NBA.com, the Bucks’ offense improved by about six points per 100 possessions when Antetokounmpo was running the show last season. This season, Antetokounmpo continues to flourish at the point and leverages his primary ball-handling duties to attack open driving lanes to the basket, which creates three-point opportunities for teammates. With Antetokounmpo on the floor, the Bucks’ three-point percentage is considerably higher, according to NBA.com. Antetokounmpo also ranks third in the league in points in the paint and has the fifth-best efficiency rating in the NBA. Antetokounmpo’s scoring is primarily comprised of layups, dunks and free throws.
Excels in transition: Antetokounmpo has been superb in transition this season, where he is averaging 1.19 points per possession. One reason for this is that he gets to unleash his explosive athleticism. Antetokounmpo only really needs two-to-three dribbles in order to go from rim to rim. Antetokounmpo relies on transition plays to generate a large portion of his offensive production. According to Synergy, transition scoring makes up 23 percent of Antetokounmpo’s total offense.
Strong rebounder: Averaging 9.1 rebounds per game this season, his rebounding numbers have continued to rise since he came into the league in 2013. His offensive rebounding (two per game) has improved as well. Antetokounmpo now seems to have a knack for hitting the offensive glass and already has 32 points off of put-backs this season. As he continues to put on weight, expect his rebounding numbers on both ends to increase.
Shooting: Antetokounmpo struggles with shooting efficiency. Despite the stellar season he is having, he is shooting just 29.8 percent on jump-shooting opportunities, which ranks in the 16th percentile in the NBA, per Synergy. Antetokounmpo also struggles to make shots off of the dribble; he averages .53 points per possession. His 26 points on 49 possessions ranks him in the bottom five percent of the league. Antetokounmpo is in the 22nd percentile in the league in three-point shooting (27.4 percent, 17-62), according to Synergy. With so much upside, it is scary to think how good Antetokounmpo could be if he begins to improve his shooting efficiency.
Isolation action: Another area where Antetokounmpo could stand to improve is in isolation situations. Currently, Antetokounmpo is in the 34th percentile in the NBA in scoring efficiency out of ISOs with .783 points per possession, according to Synergy. He particularly struggles on pull-up jumpers in these situations, converting only 33 points on 44 attempts.
Pick-and-roll ball-handler: Antetokounmpo has not proven he can excel out of pick-and-roll situations as of yet. Considering he has recently made the move to point guard, it makes sense that he is still in the process of calibrating his PNR decision-making and efficiency. This season, Antetokounmpo is in the 40th percentile in PNR ball-handler offense, converting 65 points on 88 possessions, according to Synergy. As the 6’11 point acclimates even further to running the show, his passing and scoring efficiency out of PNR situations should continue to increase.
In the next part of the Prodigies series, we will evaluate the skill-sets of two bigs on the verge of becoming superstardom: Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid.
NBA Daily: Fixing The Cleveland Cavaliers
Spencer Davies starts Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series with the rebuilding Cleveland Cavaliers.
Can you believe that the NBA regular season is less than a month away from concluding? It’s March 18, and teams are gearing up for the final stretch run before the playoffs get here. Thus far, there have been three teams to solidify their spots—the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers—while the rest of the league looks to jockey for postseason positioning.
On the flipside, there are four organizations that have begun to look towards the future with their immediate futures already decided, and 10 more will join them in the coming weeks as they become eliminated from playoff contention.
Basketball Insiders is bringing back its annual “Fixing” series to provide a blueprint of how to get each of those teams back on the right track moving forward. We’ll get things started with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
What Is Working
In the second half of the season, the Cavaliers are 5-7. Yes, that is two games under .500 and should not be something to celebrate—but it’s how they are playing that deserves praise. Aside from a couple of clunkers against the Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic, they’ve been a resilient young group that has clearly matured under the direction of head coach Larry Drew.
The return of Kevin Love coinciding with Cleveland playing its best basketball all year is not a matter of happenstance, either. As detailed a couple of weeks ago, his impact on Collin Sexton, Cedi Osman has made both inexperienced players significantly better. As the team’s “go-to guy” as Drew likes to put it, everybody can play through a legitimate All-Star in a number of ways—feeding him on the block, finding him on the perimeter or even allowing him to dribble drive and create for others.
The Cavaliers are quite excited about the determination of their guys, specifically Sexton and Osman. It’d be foolish to base the projection of a rookie’s career off playing alongside multiple two-way and 10-day contract players, and some did when Sexton had his fair share of struggles. The same could be said for Osman, who’s really turned up the playmaking and shooting as of late. It takes talent and consistency to be in the NBA, which is a lesson they’re learning every night. And the optimism should go beyond just those three, too. There are a number of players who could be a part of the team’s core in the future.
Experiencing perhaps his best season as a pro, Larry Nance Jr. is becoming a vocal leader on and off the floor. Ante Zizic has taken his opportunity as a starter and run with it, averaging nearly 12 points and eight rebounds in 20 of such situations. Drew has constantly praised David Nwaba’s efforts when he’s needed a guy to step up and defend opponents’ top players, even when out of position. Jordan Clarkson thrives as the sixth man and Matthew Dellavedova is the perfect mentor and floor general off the bench.
What Needs To Change
Now comes the harsh part—Cleveland has been a horrific defensive team for a number of years. They’ve ranked among the worst in basketball for the past three years, and that includes the last two seasons they had with LeBron James. It begs the question: Is it scheme or is it personnel? In the case of the Cavaliers, the answer is probably a little bit of both.
There is often confusion with the coverage calls. Blown assignments, miscommunication and difficulty with the pick-and-roll can best describe the mess that is on the floor. There isn’t as much finger pointing as there was at the beginning stages of the season, but it’s paramount that the team drastically improves in this area. Considering the number of injuries, inexperience and lack of continuity that they’ve had this year, it should get better.
While shot selection has gotten better throughout the season, the Cavaliers have to move the basketball better on a consistent basis. Again, Sexton and Osman felt that they had to carry the load in the absence of Love as the primary scoring options—and Tristan Thompson’s injuries didn’t help—so there was a lot of hero ball going on. At least in the last month, these totals have gotten higher.
Cleveland may take the cake in scoring droughts as well, which leads to other teams taking games over. A scenario we’ve seen all too much this season: Cavaliers take the ball down the floor, pass it maybe once or twice and don’t find the open man, which leads to a rebound and numbers for the opposing team that almost capitalizes in every instance. Stagnancy is a killer for the wine and gold, which is a group that needs to play in a transition-heavy, free-flowing type of game to succeed.
Focus Area: The Draft
Currently owning the third-worst record in the association, the Cavaliers would have the same 14 percent odds to land the first overall pick in the NBA Draft as the two teams behind them, the Phoenix Suns and the New York Knicks. If the standings locked, Cleveland would be guaranteed a top-seven selection—although the percentages indicate they’d have a good chance to land in the top four and likely drop no further than sixth. They also are going to convey a draft pick in the mid-to-late 20s from the Houston Rockets via the Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss trade.
There is no singular focus area with the Cavaliers. They could use any talent they can get to add to this developing core and set the tone for the future. Obviously, the buzz surrounding Duke superstar Zion Williamson is real. If you were to pigeonhole him as just a dunker or a highlight reel, you’d be completely mistaken. Though needing to work on a reliable jump shot, the 18-year-old phenom is loaded with an incredibly versatile skill set at his age and a build that is tailor-made for the NBA. Positionless basketball is the future, and Williamson fits the bill.
If Cleveland lands another first overall pick, they’d be foolish to pass up on such a potential franchise changer. Just imagine the speedy Young Bull and bulldozing Williamson on a fastbreak opportunity with Love just waiting on the elbow. That’s quite a triple threat.
Say the Cavaliers end up second, third or fourth—this writer would jump at the opportunity to add Temetrius Morant, a man whom the basketball world knows simply as “Ja.” Set to be a top-five pick in the upcoming draft, the 19-year-old point guard is an absolute blast to watch play the game. He scores the basketball at will. He distributes at a high rate and shares the wealth with his teammates. He excels in transition. Morant lacks some size and will likely need to put on some weight, but forming a tandem with Sexton—who’s found a real groove playing off the ball—could work out famously.
Willamson’s teammates at Duke—RJ Barrett and Cameron Reddish—also have plenty of intrigue about them at those spots. If Cleveland gets put in the worst case scenario, talented wings like DeAndre Hunter and Keldon Johnson might be the way to go.
However, regarding the Rockets’ pick, there might be some diamonds in the rough. Here’s a list of names that could be attractive depending on the draft results: Bol Bol, Jontay Porter, Kevin Porter, Tre Jones, Matisse Thybulle, Luguentz Dort, Ashton Hagans.
Focus Area: Free Agency
With nearly its entire roster returning in 2019-20, Cleveland will not be much of a player in the free agency period. Nik Stauskas and Chriss have expiring contracts and Channing Frye is retiring.
General manager Koby Altman is going to be active in finding a trade partner for J.R. Smith, whose $15.68 million contract fully guarantees on June 30. If the Cavaliers can do so before that day, the team that traded for him can waive him and will only be on the hook for $3.87 million. It seems as if draft night—June 20—would be the most logical time to try this. If Altman is successful in moving Smith, the organization will have opened a roster spot.
Considering the team has been more than pleased with Nwaba’s contributions when healthy, it’s probable that he’ll be tendered a qualifying offer. If he is, then the 26-year-old guard would become a restricted free agent, meaning Cleveland could match any offer he’d receive. If Nwaba doesn’t get any bites, then it’s plausible he’d accept the $1.89 million one-year offer to stay.
Altman did yeoman’s work this year as a front office executive. He took what was a horrific financial situation loaded with unhappy veterans and turned it into something much more manageable, all while bringing in future assets and players on flexible deals. We don’t know whether those additions—Dellavedova, Knight and John Henson—are going to be a part of the future or used in potential trades down the line. The same could be said of Thompson and Jordan Clarkson, who also are on the last years of their respective deals.
Other than the potential two rookies, there probably won’t be too many new faces around the Cavaliers in the summertime. It might change as we get into the 2019-20 campaign, but that’s down the road. Don’t expect a lot of change roster-wise going into the new league year.
Of course, coaching wise is a completely different story. The prevailing thought is that Cleveland is going to want a first-year head coach to grow and develop alongside their core players. Reports indicate the front office might prefer a person who has previous connections to the franchise in some capacity.
There are two assistants on other teams who have been the head coach of the Canton Charge—Denver’s Jordi Fernandez and Utah’s Alex Jensen—that could make sense. Toronto Raptors assistant and former player Adrian Griffin is a potentially appealing name as well, per Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com.
If Larry Drew decides he doesn’t want to stick around, finding the right person to lead this Cavaliers team into the next era is going to be crucial.
The “second first” year without LeBron didn’t go as planned. Firing Tyronn Lue six games into the season didn’t make matters easy, nor did Love going down with a toe injury to miss two-thirds of the season. Yet through the bad times, this Cleveland bunch has refused to mail it in and has earned a deal of respect from its competition.
They’re embracing the role of playing spoiler as the year winds down. It’s all about meaningful minutes for these guys, and until the clock hits zero on April 9 at Quicken Loans Arena, the work on the floor won’t be done.
NBA Daily: Is Starting That Big Of A Deal?
It’s easy to conclude that a bench player should replace a starter in the lineup if the former is outplaying the latter, but Matt John explains why that may not be the best idea.
Of all the topsy-turvy things that have happened to the Boston Celtics this season, Jaylen Brown’s sudden decline and subsequent comeback might just be the topsiest-turviest thing of them all.
And that’s saying something.
There may not have been a starter in the league who played as badly as he did when the season began. In his first month and a half as the starting shooting guard, Jaylen averaged 11.1 points on 39.8 percent shooting from the field and 25.3 percent from three. That was quite the drop off from his numbers the previous season, where he averaged 14.5 points on 46.5 percent shooting from the field and 39.5 percent from three.
Advanced metrics showed that Brown’s struggles were hurting the Celtics too. Boston was minus-11.9 with Brown on the floor, which was the worst on the team among players who played at least 100 minutes. By December, Brown was benched in favor of Marcus Smart, where the Celtics not so coincidentally started picking things up from there.
Since his move to the bench, Jaylen has regained his footing, averaging 14 points per game on 48.4 percent shooting and 36.3 percent from three. This most recent stretch has been really encouraging for him, as he’s put up 16.4 points a night on 49.5 percent shooting and 40.5 percent from three. Best of all, his play is benefitting the Celtics, as they are plus-6.9 with him on the floor, good for third-best among players who have played 97 or more minutes behind only Al Horford and Gordon Hayward.
His timing couldn’t be better, as the playoffs are just around the corner. Brown playing his best basketball of the season could really help the Celtics’ chances. So one question remains – why not put him back in the starting lineup?
It would make sense. The uptick in Brown’s production has coincided with the diminishment of Marcus Morris’ production.
Morris and Brown have come from opposite ends this summer. While Brown has worked his way up after falling so far down, Morris has descended quite a bit since his brilliant start.
“Mook” was playing the best basketball of his career when the season began. In fact, he was one of the few positives in a season that started as underwhelmingly mediocre as the Celtics had. Through the first two-and-a-half months, Morris was playing like a borderline all-star.
In that time, Morris averaged 15.5 points on 50.1 percent shooting and 44.1 percent from three. The Celtics were plus-5.5 with Morris on the floor, with all of the positivity coming from the offensive end, where the offense was plus-11.6 with him on the floor, second only to Kyrie Irving.
Since then, Morris’ production has tailed off. There was bound to be some regression in Marcus’ case, but since the all-star break, he’s playing what could very well be the worst basketball he’s played since becoming a Celtic.
Since the return from the All-Star break, Morris has averaged 13.1 points on 40 percent shooting from the field and 27 percent from three. The Celtics are minus-17.1 with him on the floor during that span. In other words, he’s hurting them badly on both ends.
So, subbing the slumping Morris for the thriving Brown in the starting lineup would seem like an obvious move to make. The Celtics could do it, and no one would bat an eye, but in this time of the season, it wouldn’t be smart to mess with the lineups this late into the season, or more specifically, it wouldn’t be smart to mess with what’s been working for Brown.
Though it took longer than Boston would have liked, Jaylen Brown has found his stride with the second unit this season. Even if Morris has struggled over the last month or so, taking Brown out of a situation where he’s playing at his best and putting him back into a lineup where he struggled could mess up his mojo. It’s unlikely that Brown will be coming off the bench through the duration of his career, but this season, he was meant to play in the second unit.
There are certain players who, despite having the talent to be a starter, are put in the NBA for the sole purpose of ruling over the second unit. Jamal Crawford and Jason Terry fit that certain mold, but there may not be a player that fits that description better than Lou Williams.
At the age of 32, Williams has already done enough to cement his status as one of the best microwave scorers of all time. The 13,135 points that Williams has scored in his NBA career is good for No.194 among all-time points scored. Last week, he surpassed Dell Curry for the No. 1 all-time scorer off the bench. That is impressive whether he started or not. However, if Lou had been a starter for his entire career, those numbers wouldn’t have as much meaning as they most definitely do as a sixth man.
It’s not as much about having as high scoring numbers in his case. It’s more about the purpose of what those numbers do for his team. Williams’ scoring abilities off the bench give his teams an edge that a fair amount of second units don’t have. His impact offensively is so strong that, like Brown over the past month, he usually winds up finishing games. That’s why having guys like Williams or Brown off the bench is important – They bring an advantage.
Another example would be Williams’ teammate, Montrezl Harrell. Doc Rivers, who has a very solid case for Coach of the Year, has elected to start then-Clipper Marcin Gortat and recently acquired big man Ivica Zubac over Harrell at center this season despite it being very clear that Harrell is his best player in the frontcourt.
He does this because Harrell gives LA an edge in the second unit much like Williams does with the energy he brings to the court. Harrell influences the game so much that again, like Williams, he’s usually out there finishing games as well. His skill set makes him a perfect fit in the second unit, and he could very well be Lou’s best competition for Sixth Man of the Year.
Those are examples of players who could be starters if their team wanted them to. They just play better when they come off the bench, but are there players who – despite being a starting-caliber player – are not a good fit in their starting lineup?
As it turns out, Derrick Favors is one such player. It’s been a much-debated controversy in Utah now about whether Favors should be starting in the frontcourt alongside Rudy Gobert for the Jazz. Honestly, those two aren’t bad together, but they play so much better when they pair up with a floor spacer in the frontcourt instead of each other.
In two-man lineups, Favors and Gobert are a plus-1.4 together. Defensively, the two of them are great together, giving up 98.3 points per 100 possessions. Alas, they only score 99.7 points per 100 possessions. Compare their two-man lineup to one with either Joe Ingles or Jae Crowder.
Favors and Ingles: +6.1
Favors and Crowder: +2.6
Gobert and Ingles: +4.5
Gobert and Crowder: +4.1
To be clear, Favors is good enough to be a starter. He just might not have the best frontcourt partner to be paired with.
When you take all of this in, it’s fair to say that to a certain extent, starting is overrated because it has no bearing on who plays the most minutes. What’s most important really is who finishes the game. Sometimes it’s the starters while at other times, it’s one or two bench players. It all comes down to who is the most reliable.
Because of this, in the Celtics’ case, the more accurate conclusion is that Brown should be getting more minutes than Morris rather than he should be replacing him in the starting lineup. That is, if he keeps this up.
No matter what Boston decides to do, one final question must be brought to our attention – Does anyone else think it’s an odd coincidence that Brown’s and Morris’ productions both started trending in opposite directions after the two of them got into that skirmish back in January?
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.
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?