NCAA juniors might appear to yield limited options for NBA draft purposes. But while the “one and done” athletes receive the most hype, there can also be worthy candidates from the third-year ranks due to factors like attrition, injuries, suspensions or transferring to another school.
Although the majority of last season’s top prospects either stayed for their senior year (Grayson Allen, Trevon Bluiett) or went undrafted (Melo Trimble), there was still NBA-ready talent to be had in both Justin Jackson (Sacramento Kings) and Dillon Brooks (Memphis Grizzlies).
This year’s crop should be more fruitful, as many of the athletes listed below were able to showcase their talents in the March Madness tournament; in fact, three of them played in the national championship game itself.
With honorable mention due to Shake Milton (SMU), Jalen Hudson (Florida) and Melvin Frazier (Tulane), here are the top ten NCAA basketball juniors from the 2017-18 season:
10. Allonzo Trier, SG, Arizona
Tale of the tape: 6 ft. 4 in., 205 lb.
Despite being overshadowed by top overall prospect DeAndre Ayton, Trier had an impressive campaign of his own that featured personal highs in both scoring (18.1 PPG) and free-throw percentage (.865). He was named the MVP of the PAC-12 tournament, but failed to deliver (10 points, zero three-pointers) in the team’s upset loss to Buffalo to derail the Wildcats’ post-season aspirations.
Trier’s college-level career was extended by a pair of PED-related suspensions, but perhaps his season-high 32 points in his first game back served notice that the infractions are firmly in the past. If nothing else, he should at least be able to represent his team in the NBA dunk contest.
Draft-day projection: mid-to-late second round
9. Moritz Wagner, F/C, Michigan
Tale of the tape: 6 ft. 11 in., 235 lb.
Wagner raised eyebrows with his timely three-point shooting in the NCAA tournament, but the reality is that he averaged just over 39 percent from beyond the arc in both his sophomore and junior years. In addition, he set collegiate highs in both rebounds (7.1) and points per game (14.6) in what was a successful, if not breakthrough, campaign.
Although bigs who can shoot from outside are more commonplace than ever, there is surely room in the league for the German who is likely to follow in the footsteps of fellow countrymen Dirk Nowitzki and Maxi Kleber, with the latter being the more apt comparison.
Draft-day projection: mid second round
8. Jalen Brunson, PG, Villanova
Tale of the tape: 6 ft. 2 in., 190 lb.
Brunson blossomed into the Big East player of the year while staying put at Villanova for three seasons. His 18.9 points and 4.6 assists per game as a junior are nearly double what he averaged as a freshman, and his ascension to running the point for the defending national champs has been impressive.
No one can question Brunson’s passion for the game, but he lacks the scoring ability of comparably-sized point guards Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard, both of whom averaged over 24 PPG at the collegiate level. He will also need to improve on the defensive end, but a sustainable NBA career similar to that of Jeff Teague is within reach.
Draft-day projection: early-to-mid second round
7. Chimezie Metu, F/C, USC
Tale of the tape: 6 ft. 10 in., 225 lb.
A Lawndale, CA native who stayed local, Metu has averaged nearly the same points (14.8 then 15.7), rebounds (7.6 then 7.4) and blocks (1.4 then 1.6) per contest between his sophomore and junior years. Yet this apparent level of consistency belies a great deal of variation in his contributions on a game-by-game basis, and don’t think the scouts haven’t noticed.
As a case in point, Metu’s final Pac-12 tournament ended with a thud, as he managed a mere seven points and four boards against Arizona, and the Trojans were subsequently left out of the big dance. Much like Texas’ Mo Bamba, he possesses the size and tools to be effective in the NBA, as long as he is willing to put forth the effort.
Draft-day projection: late first-to-early second round
6. Keita Bates-Diop, F, Ohio State
Tale of the tape: 6 ft. 7 in., 235 lb.
Bates-Diop responded to his medical redshirt in 2016-17 by becoming the Big Ten’s player of the year, during which he produced 19.8 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. He averaged 26.0 PPG in the NCAA tourney, although he was nearly kept off the glass (three rebounds) in the Buckeyes’ elimination loss to Gonzaga.
While Bates-Diop has drawn comparisons to the Dallas Mavericks’ Harrison Barnes, his burly stature seems more reminiscent of former Mavericks forward Justin Anderson, who has been a bench fixture since his trade to the Philadelphia Sixers. Despite Bates-Diop’s impressive college resume, it will be incumbent upon him to cause matchup problems as a stretch-four at the next level, a stipulation that most likely will eliminate him from lottery pick consideration for now.
Draft-day projection: late first round
5. Jacob Evans, SF, Cincinnati
Tale of the tape: 6 ft. 6 in., 210 lb.
Evans brings Swiss Army knife potential at the small forward position that NBA teams covet. His surface-level stats (13.0 PPG, 3.1 APG) aren’t eye-popping, but when you consider that he led the NCAA’s second-ranked defensive team in both categories, it seems feasible that he was limited more by style of play than by personal ability.
Despite his deflated offensive stats, Evans converted 37 percent of his three-point attempts, so comparing him to the Houston Rockets’ Trevor Ariza seems appropriate for his skill set. In the Bearcats’ loss to Nevada in the NCAA tournament, Evans had 19 points and seven rebounds, which coaches would gladly take from him on a regular basis.
Draft-day projection: late first round
4. Khyri Thomas, SG, Creighton
Tale of the tape: 6 ft. 3 in., 210 lb.
With a 6 ft. 10 in. wingspan (showcased on this block) and the ability to connect at a 41.1 percent clip from outside, Thomas may best exemplify a prototypical “three and D” player in the league. His 15.1 PPG and 1.7 SPG are both indicative of year-over-year improvement, and he possesses the physical dimensions that can make him effective as a pro.
Playing on a Blue Jays squad that got eliminated in their first game of both the conference and the NCAA tournaments afforded Thomas little opportunity to perform in the spotlight, but the level of consistency with which he produced before those early exits cannot be ignored.
Draft-day projection: mid-to-late first round
3. Jerome Robinson, SG, Boston College
Tale of the tape: 6 ft. 6 in., 191 lb.
A tall shooter with a slight frame, Robinson brings to mind former NBAer Kerry Kittles, who was a productive member of the New Jersey Nets (before they moved to Brooklyn) for several years. Playing for an average Eagles squad, Robinson provided double-digit scoring in all but three games during his junior season, including a whopping 46 points at Notre Dame.
Although his Boston College team didn’t participate in March Madness, Robinson still averaged 21.7 PPG in three conference tournament games, which included two opponents (Clemson, NC State) that were invited to the big dance. He probably won’t be drafted in the top 15, but he makes for a safe choice among the better NBA teams, which would allow time for him to develop his upper body strength.
Draft-day projection: mid-to-late first round
2. Aaron Holiday, PG, UCLA
Tale of the tape: 6 ft. 1 in., 185 lb.
After starting his freshman year, Holiday was relegated to the bench as a sophomore before reclaiming the starting gig after incumbent Lonzo Ball departed for the NBA. His junior campaign was remarkable, as he averaged 20.3 PPG and connected on 42.9 percent of his three-point attempts. Over the course of the season, he scored in single digits once while cracking the 30-point barrier on three occasions (including the Pac-12 quarterfinals).
As the youngest brother of current NBA players Jrue and Justin, Aaron Holiday brings a pedigree that should enhance his draft-day value. While he is smallish by league standards, both Yogi Ferrell (as a key reserve) and Kemba Walker (as an All-Star) have proven that so-called limitation is far from being a show-stopper.
Draft-day projection: mid-to-late first round
1. Mikal Bridges, G/F, Villanova
Tale of the tape: 6 ft. 7 in., 210 lb.
A swingman by NBA standards, Bridges nearly doubled his production as a sophomore by averaging 17.7 PPG, which was buoyed by his ability to make three-pointers at a 43.5 percent clip. Although super-sub Donte DiVincenzo dominated the national title game, it was Bridges who led the Wildcat starters with 19 points of his own after being named MVP of the preceding Big East tournament. Much like the aforementioned Jacob Evans, he is capable of stuffing the stat sheet, but Bridges is the better offensive threat of the two.
With his 7 ft. 2 in. wingspan and long-distance accuracy, perhaps Bridges himself said it best when he listed Paul George and Kawhi Leonard as players that “intrigued” him. While mock drafts have varied wildly in terms of projecting the other names on this list, Bridges appears to be a consensus top-ten pick, albeit towards the tail end of that continuum.
Draft-day projection: early-to-mid first round
NBA Daily: The NCAA’s Recent Policy Changes are Problematic
The NCAA made unilateral changes to its rules that may look good on paper but more likely make a difficult situation even more complicated.
Going into 1995 NBA Draft, the NBA still allowed high school players to enter straight into the NBA but few had actually done so over the years. That year, Kevin Garnett, an extremely talented high school prospect, went straight into the draft from high school and went on to have a Hall of Fame career. Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, like Garnett, also went straight to the NBA from high school and each have also had Hall of Fame careers. Many other similarly situated players such as Rashard Lewis, Jermaine O’Neal and Tracy McGrady succeeded on the same path. Yet concerns remained that although there were individual success stories, perhaps it would be best overall to have kids mature a bit more before entering the NBA. Eventually, through collective bargaining, new rules were put in place that prohibited high school players from entering the league.
As time has gone on there has been some frustration with the fact that perhaps these young men, legally adults at 18 years of age, have been unfairly prevented from earning at least one year of significant income as an NBA rookie. There is also frustration, mentioned below, at how the NCAA and college programs have policed themselves (or failed to do so) over the years. There is rampant abuse and under the table dealing that has largely benefitted the people around these young athletes and the schools, while often times harming the players or not benefitting them in any tangible way. The FBI has been conducting an investigation into these practices, which has shed new light and more focus onto the situation. Accordingly, now there is widespread discussion and speculation that the NBA again intends to reverse course and allow players to bypass the collegiate game.
With accusations of impropriety, constant attacks against the amateur model and an ongoing federal investigation, the NCAA took drastic action last Wednesday to counter the negativity around the college game — at least in appearance.
NCAA basketball says it will now allow "elite" high school and college prospects to be represented by an agent. NCAA will also permit players to return to school if unselected in NBA draft.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) August 8, 2018
First the good part; players will be allowed to enter the draft and should they be not be chosen, the player may return to school under certain circumstances. Back at his collegiate program, a player can return to a place where he can continue to mature as a basketball player and as a college student. This is a nice option for many players and should have been available years ago.
For NBA teams, they now face the prospect of a first wave of high school seniors going straight to the NBA in addition to the other collegiate and international prospects. If it turns out that these high school prospects are collectively more prepared than expected and demonstrate they can contribute at a high level shortly after entering the league, there could be a sizable shift in how teams value first-round draft picks. Teams are already extremely hesitant to trade first-round picks, which means there would be some additional stagnation in the trade market. There are many complexities to this prospective new system that could have consequences that aren’t even foreseeable at this juncture.
Additionally, while this may be an appealing option for some players who are on the fence about going pro, it may not have as much widespread appeal. Some prospects may not realistically expect to be drafted. Once skipped over, a player is likely to seek compensation in the G-League or by playing international basketball. That’s the rub overall, the college game is sticking to the amateur model and the insistence that players not be compensated beyond the education they receive. Even worse, a player may have declared for the draft knowing that he might be leaving behind academic or conduct violations behind. Should that player attempt to go back, he would have to deal with any situation that joining the professional ranks would have avoided. The point here is that while this new rule may look good for the NCAA from a PR perspective, the truth is it may have little benefit to the college players overall.
Now the thornier part. As reported, the NCAA will allow “elite” high school prospects to obtain an agent. Previously this would have been a violation of NCAA rules that prevent amateur students from doing so. Should a player instead decide to go to college, he would have to break off his relationship with the agent. This adds more complications and issues to a system that is already plagued with questionable rules and policies.
In addition, it appears that USA Basketball was not initially thrilled to be put in a position to determine which players are considered “elite,” which could cause some more logistical issues.
There is much more to dive into on this issue unfortunately. The NCAA has seemingly taken a strategy to fixing issues that are symptoms of a bigger problem – that is the NCAA’s insistence on treating its players as students who should not be compensated rather than actual athletes. There are no easy solutions to this situation and adding more layers of complexity with unilateral changes such are likely to make matters worse.
NBA Daily: It Still Isn’t Time To Expand The NBA
As much as we talk about expanding the NBA, has anything really changed to suggest it’s any more viable now? Basketball Insiders’ Publisher Steve Kyler digs into the barriers that have to be overcome.
Expanding The NBA?
In what has become an annual off-season obsession, the topic of expanding the NBA beyond its current 30 teams has surfaced, again.
There is little doubt that the top-level concept of more NBA teams is fun to contemplate, mainly because there are major cities without teams. There is almost no one that wouldn’t want to see the Seattle market get their Sonics back, or Las Vegas complete their pro sports team trifecta by adding an NBA team to their exploding local sports market. Kansas City has long been talked about as an appealing basketball market, along with Louisville. There is a growing swell of renewed support in Vancouver for another run through the NBA, and Mexico City continues to host massive crowds during the now annual regular season NBA games held there.
So why not pull the trigger on one or two of them if local ownership groups can pony up the expected $1 billion or more expansion fees?
There are a number of issues with expanding the NBA. Here are a few of them:
The biggest hurdle facing NBA expansion is revenue sharing. Currently, the biggest NBA cash markets are contributing serious dollars to the lesser markets to create a more balanced playing field for the league as a whole. While that’s evened out some things economically, there are still more than a handful of NBA teams that would be money losers if revenue sharing were backed out of the equation.
Equally, the NBA salary cap system is based on total revenue generated by the league, which does not take into account local market inequities. For example, the teams in LA have local television deals worth almost three times that of say Milwaukee or New Orleans. Those teams still have to pay out salaries and compete in a salary and expense landscape of teams sometimes generating twice their local revenue. Revenue sharing helps make that work, but adding new teams, that may or may not compete economically is a tough sell, especially to ownership groups that are already sharing dollars with other teams.
Proponents of expansion point to an easy fix, by not allowing new teams to participate in Revenue Sharing for a fixed amount of time but is that really a reasonable long-term answer? Adding a new team or teams and then immediately handicapping them economically for the first years of their existence?
Some would say that problem would simply have to be factored into an expansion agreement, and new owners would have to shoulder that risk as part of gaining entry into such an exclusive ownership club, but is that really good for competitive balance and solidarity of the business?
The TV Deal Isn’t Forever
Currently, the NBA is swimming in a record-setting media rights deal that has ballooned franchise valuations and NBA payrolls dramatically.
The problem with the current rights deal is the shifting and changing landscape of broadcasting. With traditional cable services dying out, and new “Over The Top” media players coming into the sports rights market, there is a sense that maybe the next round of rights negotiations could see the NBA eclipsing the current deal, and that would be a second windfall of dollars current NBA owners would have to share with new owners.
There is also the risk that with subscribers defecting the NBA current partners in droves, that broadcast rights could become less valuable by the end of the current agreements or far more complicated than the current two-partner model that’s in place now.
There was talk the last time around that Google and Facebook, the titans of the digital world, wanted in on NBA rights. That could be a good thing for preserving the value of rights related revenue streams, but its far from a given that NBA games will be consumed the same way they are being consumed today inside the next five years. That is a variable that has a huge impact on the appeal of expansion.
Is There Enough High-Level Talent?
The biggest on-court hurdle for expansion is the lack of star talent. Ask any NBA fan to name the top 20 NBA players, and you’ll find the talent pool flattens out pretty fast outside the top ten or 15 players.
Current NBA teams are struggling to find franchise cornerstones now. Would adding more teams really help competitive balance, especially with current stars opting to play together when they reach unrestricted free agency?
There is little doubt new expansion teams could field rosters, there are plenty of talented players that could populate a team. But the last time the NBA allowed expansion, the new teams were restricted from landing the top overall picks in the draft. How do those new teams compete?
Pay Once Eat Forever
The idea of a $1 billion expansion fee on the surface seems enticing. Especially given that the bulk of that fee would go to existing owners. Let’s assume that the NBA allowed two new teams, that’s $2 billion in expansion fees, divided by at least 30 teams (the NBA historically has taken a piece of those fees to cover operating costs), but for the sake of discussion, let’s say $2 billion paid out to 30 ownership groups, or roughly $66.66 million per owner.
Is a $66.6 million per team worth a slice of the NBA pie in perpetuity?
Let’s take the current $24 billion TV deal that breaks out to roughly $800 million per team over the life of the deal. Let’s say the next deal is $28 billion, that’s $933.3 million per team. If two more mouths are added to the table, that reduces the per team share down to $875 million, or $58 million less per team.
So, is getting paid a one-time team fee of $66.6 million now worth $58 million less in a new rights deal later?
Sure, there are caps and limitations that could be imposed on new ownership groups as part of expansion agreement, which lessens that impact on the current individual teams, but the biggest argument against expansion is that new teams don’t raise the revenue waterline enough to justify the slice of the revenue pie they get forever.
From a fan perspective, more teams sound like a great idea, especially in markets with rabid fan interest, but the reason expansion hasn’t been actively explored is because of many of the items listed above. That’s not to say those obstacles can’t be overcome, but when you hear NBA commissioner Adam Silver really downplay expansion, there are a lot of reasons for that, and most of them are simply that the current owners don’t want to see their golden goose diluted any more than necessary.
Expanding the NBA isn’t a dead issue, it’s simply not one the NBA seems overly eager to start chasing.
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NBA Daily: Memphis Poised for Comeback
After one of the franchise’s worst seasons, “Grit-and-Grind” should be back with the vengeance after the moves the Grizzlies made.
There are a few teams that should bounce back after their disappointing output from last season.
Washington certainly comes to mind with John Wall coming back healthy and after what they added this summer. Detroit does too, since they never really played with their current roster fully healthy after the Blake Griffin trade. However, the team with the safest bet to make the strongest comeback this season is the Memphis Grizzlies.
It’s a shame what happened to Memphis last season, and after such a promising start too.
The Grizzlies started off as hot as could be, as they won five of their first six games against some stiff competition, namely, the Warriors, the Rockets (twice), and the Pelicans. Teams are always bound to cool off after a hot streak, but shortly after the Grizzlies came back to earth, Mike Conley Jr. went down for the season with a heel injury.
It all went downhill from there.
Besides the Celtics, there wasn’t a team bitten as badly by the injury bug as the Grizzlies were in 2018. Just about everyone on the roster besides Marc Gasol missed a good chunk of time with some kind of ailment. It may have helped that the injuries led to a high lottery pick, but who enjoys watching their team lose 19 games in a row?
A season in hell usually triggers a rebuild for a team like Memphis. Conley and Gasol aren’t getting any younger, and the Western Conference remains as tough as ever. But as evidenced by the moves they made this summer, the upcoming challenge this season didn’t phase them for a second.
Hence, NBA audiences should expect Grit-and-Grind to return for the following reasons.
A Savvy Off-Season
Because of their tight salary cap situation, the Grizzlies only had so much cap room to work with this summer. Despite the cap limits, they made the most of what they had at their arsenal.
First, they made use of their expendable assets. The Grizzlies probably regret trading the 2019 Clippers pick for Deyonta Davis, but at least he was traded for something valuable. Davis, along with Ben McLemore, was traded to Sacramento for the criminally underrated Garrett Temple. Though he is a late-bloomer, Garrett Temple should give Memphis a veteran sharpshooter who can also play solid defense. In other words, think of him as the new Courtney Lee in Memphis.
Next, with the available cap room that they had, they gave Spurs alum Kyle Anderson a 4 year, $37 million contract. That may have been a slight overpay, but Anderson fits the style that Memphis loves to play. While not a floor stretcher, what Anderson brings defensively — his Defensive Real Plus-Minus of 3.2 was second among small forwards — should improve the Grizzlies’ defense, which was ranked no. 25 in defensive rating last season (111).
They also made under-the-radar acquisitions such as signing Shelvin Mack, a productive backup point guard who has played under brilliant coaches such as Quin Snyder and Brad Stevens, and Omri Casspi, who was a rotation player for the Warriors before injuries ended his season prematurely.
Though not the sexiest group of names, Temple, Anderson, Mack, and Casspi is a fantastic haul for a team that was looking for depth this summer.
Jaren Jackson Jr.
The Grizzlies picked wisely at the 2018 draft. With the fourth overall pick, they snagged the hotshot big from Michigan State, and boy, was he the talk of the town this summer.
Jackson was a perfect fit for the Grizzlies because what he brings to the table should make him NBA-ready from the start. Jackson was one of the most obvious stand-outs at the summer league, as his agility and floor spacing abilities wowed audiences everywhere. Best of all, though he already has proven to hit the three-pointer, he showed that his all-around offensive game is raw but malleable.
What makes Jackson the perfect player for Memphis is that he fits the team’s timeline no matter where Memphis goes from here on out. What he brings to the court should fit well with the Grizzlies’ hopes of going on a playoff run this season. At the same time, should they decide to rebuild, Jackson is a perfect building block to start with.
Regardless of how he fares compared to his peers in his draft, Jackson was the right choice for the Grizzlies because of what he can offer both now and later.
Their Best Players’ Health
Injuries ruined the Grizzlies last season, so it’s imperative that their guys will be ready to go once the season begins. That all starts with Mike Conley. Conley waited until mid-season to have surgery on his heel. It’s sad to see one of the game’s underrated floor generals go down like that, so it’s encouraging to see that he should be fine coming into the season.
— Flight Lab Hoops (@flightlabhoops) July 10, 2018
Conley runs the Grizzlies, so having him healthy for the season opener should be very encouraging for Grind City’s fans.
Then there’s Gasol. Foot problems are not easy to deal with for bigs, especially as they approach their mid-30’s. So far, Marc Gasol has been an exception to that. Gasol has been pretty healthy over the last two seasons since his foot surgery in 2016 and was one of the few Grizzlies who stayed on the court through most of the season.
Gasol is not out of the woods yet, but Grizzlies fans should be relieved to see that their franchise player has not slowed down a bit in the face of adversity.
Conley and Gasol carry this stable, so having them at 100 percent should do wonders for the Grizzlies this season. Nothing is set in stone, but having the two faces of the franchise fully functional is always a good thing.
Other Future Moves
Since the Grizzlies fetched back decent value out of McLemore and Davis, who’s to say they can’t do the same with other dead weight on the roster? I wrote last week about how the moves the Grizzlies made this summer indicate that Chandler Parsons will probably spend the majority of his season on the bench. Since the Grizzlies’ transactions have demonstrated that they are going all in, trading Parsons may be in play.
Trading Parsons for a player on a fair contract is probably out of the question, so the Grizzlies may look to trade him for another player who is overpaid but at least more productive than him. That’s only in theory, though. If everything goes Memphis’ way this year, expect Parsons to be in some trade rumors.
At the end of the day, you have to tip your hat to Memphis. They have steadfastly refused to pull the plug on Grit-and-Grind even though they haven’t done much since pushing the Warriors to six games in the conference semifinals three years ago. With what they’ve added to their roster, it’s clear that they’re going for as much success as they can possibly attain.
A title is probably not on the horizon, but the Grizzlies should be admired for milking Grit-and-Grind to the very last drop.