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Top 6 NBA Draft Prospects in College Hoops

A look at six college stars who are separating themselves from the pack and climbing draft boards.

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While there are plenty of true-blue, die-hard NCAA basketball fans, many NBA devotees look to college hoops merely to get a glimpse at future pro talent and perhaps for the entertainment that comes with March Madness.

In fact, there are plenty of people who don’t really care about those burgeoning NBA prospects until spring rolls around, but that’s only because March is when all the heavy-duty press about these young stars makes the rounds.

Now – while the NCAA men’s basketball season is young – would be a great time to take a look at some of the most exciting names in the college game, if only to keep an eye on which kids might be the next Karl-Anthony Towns or Jahlil Okafor in the next draft.

Here’s a quick look at six of the most promising stars in college basketball this season:

Ben Simmons, LSU, Freshman – Already enjoying glowing reviews from even the largest of media outlets just a few games into his college basketball career, Simmons was a player earmarked for huge success on this level from the moment he made the decision to move to the U.S. from Australia. Over the course of his first five games for LSU, Simmons has shown a diverse skill set that’s going to work extremely well on the NBA level. At 6’10 he has the body of a stretch-four, but a lot of times he plays like a point guard. Defensively he’s extremely versatile, while on the offensive end he only is beginning to show his potential as a dangerous threat to defenders.

He’s averaging 16.2 points, 14.4 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 2.2 steals and 1.4 blocks, all while shooting 53.4 percent from the floor and playing a whopping 34.4 minutes per night. He’s a generally subdued and mild-mannered dude in person, which so far has shown up in his unselfishness on the offensive side of the ball. If he ever figures out how to be more aggressive on that end and improves his jump shot, he’s going to be the best player of his draft class no matter what year he decides to come out. Right now, he looks like the No. 1 overall pick, and if he keeps up this pace all season that won’t change. For more on Simmons, check out our recent breakdown of his game.

Skal Labissiere, Kentucky, Freshman – Considering that 19-year-old Haitian immigrant Skal Labissiere has only been playing basketball for just over five years, it’s pretty incredible that he is already considered one of the top prospects in college basketball. This Kentucky big man is so good that he’s already garnering comparisons to fellow UK bigs Anthony Davis (which John Calipari has poo-pooed) and Karl-Anthony Towns (which Calipari has admitted is a much closer match).

Either way, he’s a huge prospect at 6’11 with enough raw talent to leave him plenty of room to grow in the coming years. And since he’s already so good (averaging 14.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in 24.3 minutes per game), it’s easy to see why NBA scouts are drooling over him. The thing about Kentucky kids is that there is so much talent on the roster that no individual player ever gets to show his full potential. That, coupled with Labissiere’s developing understanding of the game itself, is enough to make him highly intriguing as a draft prospect. If anybody is going to challenge Simmons for the top overall pick in June’s draft, early signs point to Labissiere being the guy.

Jaylen Brown, California, Freshman – As the kid who wears the flattop and the John Stockton shorts with biker spandex beneath them, there really isn’t any question which future draftee will show up to shake hands with Commissioner Adam Silver in the flashiest tuxedo. But the good news for Brown (and his draft stock) is that his stylistic flash spills over onto the court as well. He has already put up one of the filthiest dunks of the young college basketball season and is averaging 16.5 points and 5.8 rebounds in just over 24 minutes a night.

At 6’7 and 225 pounds, he’s the perfect size to play a swing position in the NBA, and his 7’0 wingspan means he should show plenty of defensive potential this season in California. He’s a strong scorer with a good first step and impressive athleticism. Not to mention, he has the sort of confidence and charisma that lends itself to the big stage of the NBA. If everything goes as it should for him this season, he looks like he’ll be a top-five pick in the draft this summer.

Brandon Ingram, Duke, Freshman – While it should be pretty clear at this point that the freshmen are going to be the most prized prospects of the 2016 NBA Draft, Ingram is an especially intriguing case because he’s so much younger than the rest of the freshman on this list. Having just turned 18 years old in September, Ingram is 10 months younger than Simmons and more than a year younger than Labissiere.

Youth, obviously, isn’t the only thing that matters when scouting NBA talent, or else LeBron James, Jr. would be atop every team’s draft lists. What makes Ingram so interesting beyond his youth is his body. At almost 6’10 with a 7’3 wingspan, he would play small forward at the NBA, and since he’s likely to get plenty of run at the four in college, he could be a nice stretch-four type for whatever pro team drafts him. That, or he’ll be a massive mismatch at the three every night.

A Vine has circulated with Ingram showing off Earl-Manigault-type hops, and that athleticism will take him a long way at the NBA level. His numbers so far have been solid if not staggering (11.3 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 1.2 SPG, 1.0 BPG), but he’s a work in progress that is going to appeal to a lot of NBA teams.

Kris Dunn, Providence, Junior – A veritable senior citizen compared to most of the other top draft prospects this year, the 21-year-old Dunn was seen as a sure-thing first-round pick in last year’s draft before he chose to play another year of college ball. As a redshirt sophomore at Providence, Dunn averaged 15.6 points, 7.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 2.7 steals, which was more than enough to warrant him high praise and put him in the conversation as a potential lottery pick in the 2015 NBA Draft.

This season he has been even better, averaging 18.7 points, 6.7 assists, 6.3 rebounds and an insane 4.3 steals through five games, and he’s doing it playing fewer minutes. In his team’s matchup against the New Jersey Institute of Technology early in the season, Dunn put up 22 points, 10 boards, nine assists and seven steals, proving his all-around value as a potential NBA player. He’s a well-liked, coachable kid with experience, which actually could play to his advantage in a lottery full of green prospects. He has looked like a star in the making for two straight seasons.

Jakob Poeltl, Utah, Sophomore – Had Poeltl stayed in the draft pool this past summer, he almost certainly would have been selected – most likely in the first round. But as a 7’0 “stiff” with only flashes of brilliance on his resume, he felt there was still more to prove before solidifying his draft stock, so he came back to Utah for another year of college ball.

So far, that has looked like the correct decision. Through six games, Poeltl is scoring 20.5 points per game on 66.7 percent shooting from the field, while also pulling down 10 rebounds per game and swatting away 2.3 shots a night. He has yet to score fewer than 15 points in a game and even has a 32-point outing to his name this early in this season, which is why there are some people calling him the most polished big in the NCAA at the moment. That’s a huge step up from the raw prospect he was a year ago, and it’s done wonders for his draft stock. Should his strong play continue, it should almost certainly place him among the top 10 players selected next June.

 

There are, of course, many other talented college players worth watching this season, but at the moment these look like the most promising NBA Draft prospects. One or two surprise breakouts almost certainly are coming, but in the meantime the new crop of top freshmen and a couple of college returnees are dominating the draft conversation. Barring injury, these six should remain at the top of most scouting boards all season long.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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