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: Who Is Cam Reddish?
An underwhelming season at Duke casts a shadow over Cam Reddish, who oozes talent and potential. Shane Rhodes looks to answer the question: Who is Cam Reddish?
“I’m Cam Reddish.”
Cam Reddish gave the tongue-in-cheek response Thursday at the 2019 NBA Draft Combine when asked “who he is” as a basketball player.
But who is Reddish?
A former high school phenom, five-star recruit and projected top pick, Reddish was expected to flourish at Duke University under the watch of Mike Krzyzewski. When R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson later followed him to Durham, North Carolina, the three were expected to take the NCAA by storm.
Things didn’t quite go as planned.
While he is still a projected lottery pick, the jury is out on just who Reddish is and how his game will translate to the NBA. A dominant force in high school, the reserved 19-year-old took a backseat to Barrett and Williamson as the three tried but failed to capture a National Championship in their lone season together at Duke.
When compared to the sky-high expectations that were set for him, Reddish underwhelmed mightily as a Blue Devil, and that played a major part in their failure. Relegated to the role of a spot-up shooter and the third option on offense, Reddish averaged an okay, not good 13.5 points on just 12 attempts across 36 games. He managed a meager 35.6% from the field (33.3% from three) and dished out just 1.9 assists per game. When he had the ball, he often deferred to Barrett and Williamson, too often for some.
The focal point of his high school team at Westtown School, Reddish was lauded for the ability that made him a top recruit. He oozed (and still oozes) athleticism – Reddish, who weighed in at 208 pounds, was measured as 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot wingspan at the Combine – and is as versatile as they come. At Westtown, Reddish ran the point, while he spent most of his time at the two-guard or in the front-court at Duke. He was an aggressive, efficient scorer that had no problem getting what he wanted on the floor with the ball in his hands.
But at Duke, that player that Reddish was, the aggressiveness and ease at which he operated, seemed to disappear for long stretches. Those struggles have cast a large shadow over someone that had the look of a future superstar, and Reddish’s draft stock has taken a hit as a result. While some still stand behind him and his talent, plenty of others have faded Reddish in favor of other prospects.
But, at the Combine, Reddish isn’t dwelling on what was or what could have been at Duke. He just trying to learn and get back to being that do-it-all force that he was.
“I’m just trying to learn about the NBA process,” Reddish said. “I’m just trying to get back to who I can be, who I am.”
But that begs the question: who, exactly, is Reddish, and what could he do at the NBA level?
“I feel like I can do everything,” Reddish said. “I was more of a shooter this year – I don’t want to classify myself as just a shooter. I feel like if I just go out there and play my game, I can do a variety of things.”
“Once I show that, I should definitely move up [draft boards].”
There were plenty of flashes of that player during his short stint at Duke. Reddish, at times, seemed to will the ball into the basket, while his shooting stroke appeared to be as good as advertised. He had a knack for performing in the clutch, with multiple shots to win or tie the game for Duke, or keep them in it down the stretch when the others started to fade. The wing managed double-digit points in 23 games, 15 of which he posted 15 or more points (with 20 or more points in eight of those). Reddish managed 18 multi-steal performances and recorded a block or more in 16 games as well.
Wrap all of that up with his plus-defensive ability, and Reddish could very well prove the type of player that could do a little bit of everything for an NBA squad. But he can bring more than that, not only on the court, but off the court as well.
While some may perceive his passiveness alongside Barrett and Williamson as a negative, a lack of “mamba-mentality” or killer instinct that many teams hope for in their top draft picks, Reddish could (and probably should) just as easily be applauded for his willingness to share the ball and step into an ancillary role on a team loaded with talent. As we saw this season with the Boston Celtics, who were projected by many to go challenge the Golden State Warriors for the Larry O’Brien trophy but flamed out against the Milwaukee Bucks after a season fraught with discontent, that can be hard to do on the biggest stage.
And, while he is the quiet type, Reddish made it a point to say that evaluators shouldn’t confuse that for laziness or lack of effort.
“I’m kind of reserved – my personality is kind of reserved – some people might take that as lazy or too laid back. But that’s not just who I am, I’m just a naturally reserved, calm guy.”
There were certainly issues, however.
Despite flashes, Reddish wasn’t the player he could be on anywhere near a consistent basis, even in a smaller role. His time at Duke revealed some major deficiencies in his game and presented some serious causes for concern; a penchant for bad shots, struggles close to the basket and the inability to maximize his athletic gifts. On more than one occasion, he looked to have turned the corner, only to drop another underwhelming performance soon after.
All of that doesn’t exactly bode well for Reddish’s transition to the NBA, regardless of the team that picks him on draft night.
But, the potential is there for him to be great. Now it’s on Reddish to capitalize on that potential.
Reddish could very well prove the most polarizing prospect in the 2019 Draft Class. His ability to maximize his natural talent and recapture the aggressiveness that pushed him to the top of his recruiting class could prove the difference between him becoming the next Jeff Green or the next Paul George
Or, should he really find himself at the next level, he could become the first Cam Reddish.
NBA Daily: Grant Williams: Household Name In The Making
On Friday, Tennessee’s Grant Williams announced that he would stay in the NBA Draft — but this is just the beginning for the collegiate standout, writes Ben Nadeau.
On Friday, Grant Williams made the most important decision of his young career.
After a strong three-year stint at Tennessee, Williams has elected to remain in the selection pool, a choice that will undoubtedly culminate in celebration next month at the 2019 NBA Draft.
At 6-foot-7, Williams effortlessly presents the type of well-rounded skillset that has had scouts drooling all week at the NBA Draft Combine. As Tennesse climbed the NCAA’s power rankings this past collegiate campaign — even standing as Division-I’s No. 1 team for four weeks — Williams’ name and stature deservedly rose too. The Volunteers eventually suffered a heart-breaking overtime loss to Purdue in the Sweet 16 this springtime but by then the damage had been done: Williams was somebody worth watching.
In that late March Madness loss to the Boilermakers, Williams racked up 21 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two blocks on 56.3 percent. A few days prior, during the Round of 32, the high-intensity junior stuffed the box score for 19 points, seven rebounds, five assists, three blocks and four steals. And if those numbers seem impressive — and don’t worry, they are — that’s because Williams practically averaged a similar line all season en route to his second consecutive SEC Player of the Year award.
But that’s not the only reason why Williams has first round-worthy plaudits either, showing promise as a flexible defender and hardcore challenger this week alone.
“Just the improvement that I had throughout my career, showing that I progressively got better — I think teams value good guys and value competitors, so then that really helped me over the course of my career,” Williams told Basketball Insiders on Thursday. “And coach Barnes, like I said, those guys that put me in the best position to help win as well as become a better player.”
As a capable three-point marksman (32.6 percent) and an underrated passer (3.2 assists), Williams fit flawlessly into that modern big man mold that every front office has chased in drafts for the last half-decade. The sample size is a tad small at just 1.2 attempts per game from deep in 2018-19, but many will see Williams as a two-way positive — a high-percentage offensive contributor with lockdown capacity on the opposite end.
During the combine, Williams was adept at switching in the pick-and-roll, a skillset that bodes well for defending multiple positions at the next level too. Even more impressive, back in January, he went 23-for-23 from the free throw line to propel Tennessee past Vanderbilt in overtime — aberration, it was not, as he hit at 81.9 percent for the entire season to boot. But Williams believes that his ability to draw fouls could offer a unique glimpse at more of his NBA-ready strengths.
“Maybe, [but] fouls are different in the league, I think it’s more physical of a game — so you might not get those certain calls,” Williams said. “But it’s just a matter of showing your toughness and being able to be that guy that isn’t pushed around and can hold his own.”
Ultimately, Williams is the complete package — all he’s missing now is the household name.
Soon that will change too.
Williams’ massive choice to remain in the draft likely reinforces that his first-round projections were too good to turn down. In Basketball Insiders’ latest Consensus Mock Draft, two writers sent Williams to the Cleveland Cavaliers at No. 26, while the other pair selected him one pick later at No. 27 for Brooklyn. Elsewhere, The Athletic recently plugged him in at No. 27 too and The Ringer went even higher at No. 17.
Yahoo! Sports, CBS and ESPN all have ranked Williams somewhere within that range too, while Andy Katz — longtime draft analyst — openly gushed about the Volunteer on national television.
Unsurprisingly, Williams’ list of honors is much longer than we can feasibly print but the highlights simply prove that the 20 -year-old has reigned atop Division-I for nearly a full year. NCAA Unanimous First Team All-American, 2019 and 2018’s SEC Player of the Year, All-SEC First Team — in both AP and coach-led versions — and plenty of conference-given Player of the Week awards decorate Williams’ budding trophy case. Today, the Volunteers’ Twitter account made the most succinct point of them all: “Plain and simple, one of the best to ever wear the Orange & White.”
And even though he believes that his day one performance wasn’t quite up to snuff, Williams is determined to prove that the best is yet to come.
“Just the defensive consistency as well as knocking down the shot,” Williams told Basketball Insiders. “I didn’t shoot the ball well [yesterday], I tested well, I think, I had 20 on the bench press and stuff like that before I played. I think that [today] is going to be a better day to show more.”
Of course, Williams could’ve been lured back for a final, year-long curtain call at Tennessee — but without Admiral Schofield and, potentially, Jordan Bone, that thought became a much more difficult torch to bare alone. Leaving that guaranteed money at the wayside, particularly so without his All-SEC teammates, would have been a tough ask — particularly so if Williams is now destined to hear his name called in the first round.
Still, Williams is built differently and watching him play for five minutes, whether in an NCAA Tournament game or combine scrimmages, quickly confirms that notion.
On Thursday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski joined the analyst’s desk to share a gem he’d picked up from Kendrick Perkins, one of the coaches working at the combine, noting that Williams, out of nowhere, naturally assumed a leadership role throughout the scrimmage portion of the afternoon.
“Williams came in with his team, started organizing the team right away, talking to guys about their strengths, how they could come out here and play well, play to each other’s strengths,” Wojnarowski mentioned. “[Perkins] said it’s kind of rare to see that leadership, that type of initiative in the combine process.”
For Tennessee and their fans, however, that’s just a normal day with Williams, their beloved three-year standout who is finally ready to make his jump to the professional level.
But when asked about what’s he’s getting out of the NBA Draft Combine, Williams offered up a refreshing slice of perspective.
“[I’m] enjoying it, just enjoying the process, as well as enjoying the opportunity because not many guys get this opportunity to be here,” Williams told Basketball Insiders. “And that’s part of the reason why I played [in the scrimmages], I wanted to go through the full experience.”
NBA Daily: Ja Morant Aims To Continue Rising
Not many people knew who Ja Morant was last year, but they do now – and the Murray State star believes it’s not going to end there, writes Matt John.
One year ago, not many in the basketball industry knew the name of Temetrius Jamel “Ja” Morant. Coming into his sophomore year at Murray State, the 19-year-old was slated to be the third option on a team that did not appear in the NCAA preseason rankings.
By garnering minimal attention at the season’s start, Ja Morant used it to his advantage to get to where he is now.
“It’s been a big motivation,” Morant said at the 2019 NBA Draft Combine. “Honestly, coming from under the radar, not being paid much attention to, I can say it made me play with this chip on my shoulder.”
Following a consensus first-team All-American performance and after putting on a spectacular one-man show in this year’s March Madness tournament, Morant’s efforts have skyrocketed his stock all the way up to the near-top. It is widely believed that Ja could be selected as high as second overall in this year’s upcoming draft.
With all the attention that’s been coming his way in the past 12 months, Ja is simply soaking it all in.
“It’s been crazy honestly,” Morant said. “To come from being under the radar to one of the most talked-about players now. Obviously, it’s been rough. It’s something I’m getting used to, but I’m happy for it.”
Even with all the newfound attention in recent months, that hasn’t stopped Morant from remembering how far he’s come and the people who have helped him get to where he is today.
“I feel like I just worked for it,” Morant said. “I never gave up (on) anything. I’ve obviously been under the radar where you probably have doubts. There was a time where I doubted myself, but my parents didn’t allow me to quit. I didn’t allow myself to quit.”
That doesn’t mean he’s out of the woods just yet. As any aspiring professional basketball player would know, transitioning from the college level to the professional is going to be difficult no matter how much hype he may have coming out. Morant clearly understands the tough road ahead and is preparing himself accordingly this summer.
“I have to get stronger to really be able to absorb contact in the league,” Morant said. “I’m in the weight room now actually. I’m working on my upper body. I’m pretty sure everybody knows I can jump, so legs (are) not really a factor, but I do leg workouts too.”
The obstacles ahead for Ja are going to be tough for him to get through. Even with that, he is confident that he will be prepared for whatever challenge he’ll have to face when he comes into the league.
“I think I’m ready,” Morant said. “This is something I’ve been training for all my life. It’s one of my goals, and now I’m in a position to accomplish that goal.”
There will be plenty of room for Ja to grow when he enters the NBA, but he believes his playmaking abilities will be ready enough to help the team that drafts him.
“I’m a pass-first point guard who just loves to get his teammates involved,” Morant said. “I feel like my IQ is the strongest part of my game, being able to make plays for me and my teammates.”
Ja’s passing abilities were very much on display during his sophomore season in college, as he averaged 10 assists per game. However, even though he averaged 24.6 points on 50/35/81 splits this past season, he believes that teams will be surprised most by his scoring abilities as a point guard.
“I really don’t try to focus on scoring,” Morant said. “I would rather take an assist over a bucket any day, but I really feel that I can score the basketball.”
Morant’s future may already be set for the next couple of years. Literally one day after winning the second overall pick in the NBA Draft Lottery, it appears that the Memphis Grizzlies have already decided that they will use the selection on Ja. Despite all the rumblings and the hype surrounding him, Morant’s opted to stay humble throughout the entire process.
“I would really be happy with any team that drafts me,” Morant said. “That means they see something in me. It’s just an honor to play this game at the highest level and to be in the position that I’m in right now.”
Morant’s explosion in the NCAA this season caught so much admiration that some believe Morant may actually be a better player than the anticipated number one pick in this draft, Zion Williamson. Even with all the praise and the higher expectations placed on himself, Ja refuses to use his status as one of the expected top picks to put himself above his fellow 2019 draftees.
“There’s a lot of talented guys in here,” Morant said. “Obviously, to be talked about one of the top players in this draft is just an honor.”