By: Justin Lynch
Lynch tells of the college players to keep your eye on with the their NBA future in mind.
This is not a list of players I think will be the best in college basketball this year. This is not my all-americans or Wooden Award predictions. Yes, most of these guys will be top-notch college players, but I’m not here to talk about their effectiveness in college. I am writing this with the NBA in mind, so bear with me while I make too many assumptions based off of mixtapes.
Top of the Class
Jamal Murray--6’5”, 18 years old, Freshman, Kentucky
Murray comes into Lexington this season after impressing in the Pan-American games over the summer. Murray’s highlight was his thrilling performance against the United States (22 fourth quarter points), single handedly leading the Canadiens to victory. Murray is as NBA-ready as they come. At 6’5”, with great athleticism, Murray will also enter college with a polished three. Murray is so dangerous because he is not afraid to pull up fromm anywhere and, just when you take a step to contest the shot, he has a quick enough first step to blow by the defender and make plays in the paint. Murray should grow defensively, though I'm not sure how good he will be right away. He is sort of a tweener defensively, being bigger than your average point guard, but not quite a two-guard. I think he has the athleticism to hang with NBA point guards and shooting guards, but we will have to see his development. At Kentucky, Murray should see a lot of playing time, but they also have two other big-time point guards in Isaiah Briscoe and Tyler Ulis. Ulis will likely start with either Briscoe or Murray at the two. I wouldn’t even be surprised if we saw some action from Murray at the three. How Calipari uses him will be something to watch, but this kid has too much talent to sit on the bench, and it’s a better chance than not we see him in the top-5 come June.
Ben Simmons--6’10”, 19 years old, Freshman, LSU
The Montverde Academy product has been widely recognized as the top high school product of 2015. Simmons length and athleticism on the perimeter are what make him who he is. He is comfortable handling the ball and being a distributor on the perimeter, but also excels at taking guys to the basket and finishing at the rim. Defensively, he should be a menace. He’s long and will likely be able to guard four positions right away. NBA scouts should be drooling over his potential to switch pick-n-rolls on the perimeter and pick up quicker guards with ease. The only real downside to Simmons is his jump shot. We don’t see a lot of Simmons from behind the arc, mainly because he is so good at getting to the rim. But in college he will have to adapt and his success going forward hinges on his ability to develop an outside shot. It’s unclear how good or bad his shot currently is, but that is the biggest thing I will be watching for from the likely number one overall pick.
Brandon Ingram--6’9”, 18 years old, Freshman, Duke
Ingram is the only player in the draft who’s shot can compete with Malik Newman’s. Ingram is a thin 6’9”, but he can really shoot it. He’s projected as a top-5 pick by many and with good reason. He’s long, athletic, and can shoot. What more do you need in today’s NBA? He certainly needs to bulk up and will be a small forward for the early stages of his career until he grown into his body to where he can play a little bit of stretch four. Duke should have him on display as he, along with Grayson Allen, will likely be their go-to options offensively. Ingram may be perimeter oriented, but has a quicker first step than most realize and is able to get to the rim against most defenders. He needs to improve his finishing around the bucket, but that will come with time as he gets stronger. Despite Ingram’s talents, this draft is so deep and talented that very few guys are shoe-ins for the top-5. Ingram will need to impress this season to keep him near the top of the draft board.
Skal Labissiere--7’0”, 19 years old, Freshman, Kentucky
Skal comes into Kentucky hoping to continue the recent trend of elite big men in Lexington. My earliest concerns of him were over his strength, but Skal has put on a lot of weight over the last two years and will be even stronger when the season starts. Skal is no longer a scrawny kid who wants to take 18-footers. He can bang down low and score in the post, but he did not lose his comfort from outside. He is like Towns in the sense that he is comfortable with his outside shot, but I believe Skal has an even more developed shot than Towns did at this point in his career. Not only that, Skal isn’t afraid to put it on the deck if he has a mismatch. We likely will not see much of him dribbling at Kentucky, but it just goes to show how skilled he is. I was down on Skal for a while but I am starting to turn around on him. Regardless, his performance this season will dictate his future. Many love him as a prospect, but in what should be a deep draft, Skal needs to be more than impressive to live up to his potential and become a top-3 pick.
Great Prospects, But Some Questions
Malik Newman--6’4”, 18 years old, Freshman, Mississippi State
Malik's decision to play at Mississippi State has thrown him under the radar. Once looked at as a top-5 recruit, Malik has dropped down in many watch lists. Say what you want about his decision to play at a place with little shot to do much this year, but this kid’s a gamer. He plays with a fire and intensity unlike anyone else in this draft class and I’m sure he believes he can bring Mississippi State to the Final Four on his own. The fearlessness with which he plays is obviously a plus, but his bread and butter is his outside shot. Malik is the best shooter in the class who will likely be a lottery pick. He can shoot off the dribble or coming off screens, and he is not afraid to embarrass the defender with dribble moves before he does it. He may be slightly undersized to play the two-guard and he certainly can’t run an offense, but I like his potential. I’m not sure what his effort on the defensive end will be like or if he will get lost in the mix due to Mississippi State’s tradition of basketball irrelevance, either. Certainly, he has more concerns than the your top-tier talent, but just make sure you do not forget about him this season.
Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk--6’8”, 18 years old, Sophomore, Kansas
This kid is good. He did not play much at all last season in Kansas, but this year he should start to see the floor. He’s super young, at just 18 years old as a sophomore, and is still improving. He is pretty athletic, has a good handle, and has a solid shot from deep. He also will have the advantage of playing in both big college basketball games and in international European tournaments. Don’t overlook that, very few players get exposed to both college basketball and international basketball before turning pro. Much of what he truly is is unknown, but many have called him the best European product since Ricky Rubio, which is pretty high praise. Hopefully Mykhailiuk gets on the court enough for us to really see what he can do.
Jaylen Brown--6’7”, 19 years old, Freshman, Cal
Brown will join Ivan Rabb at Cal in an attempt to make the Golden Bears the best team in California. Brown is a really good prospect, but it is really tough for me to analyze his game without stating the obvious: He is Stanley Johnson. They have almost identical features (height, weight, wingspan) and they play almost identical games. Both are athletic and strong for their size. We saw Johnson come into Arizona and make an immediate impact last year especially on the defensive end. Brown is primed to do the same thing for Cal this year. Offensively, the shot is a work-in-progress, but it is better than people think. He is quick enough to get by his defender and create for himself. He is certainly not a deadly scorer at this point, but, like Stanley Johnson, he can put the biscuit in the basket. What I am most excited about is that he will be featured in Cal’s offense. We did not get to see Stanley with free reign due to the talent around him at Arizona, but Cal will be the Jaylen Brown-Ivan Rabb show and I can’t wait to see what he can do.
Under-the-Radar guys to watch
Caris LeVert--6’7”, 21 years old, Senior, Michigan
LeVert is first non-freshman to make my players to watch list, and with good reason. Before last season, LeVert was projected to go as high as the top-10, before a disappointing and injury-riddled season forced him to return to Ann Arbor for another season. Michigan has solid guys with him in the backcourt, including Spike Albrecht and Derrick Walton, which will likely push LeVert into the other wing spot, and into a position where he guards small forwards on defense. If LeVert can return to form and show his defensive prowess, as well as an improved shot, he will return to being a lottery pick. However, if we see a LeVert with a merely average jumper and a guy who is not the same after the injury, LeVert may drop out of the top 50. His upside is there, and I have been high on him for a while now, but it remains to be seen if he can put everything together this season.
Carlton Bragg--6’9”, 19 years old, Freshman, Kansas
No one is talking about Bragg. The likely starter at power forward for the Jayhawks this season, Bragg might be the piece that finally puts the Jayhawks over the hump. With great talent around him (Perry Ellis, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, Wayne Selden, and Frank Mason), Bragg will not be the first weapon offensively, but his impact will be clear. Bragg is 6’9”, long, and is about an eight on a 1-10 scale of athleticism. His thin frame allows him to move fluidly and run the floor well, making him an ideal fit for a Jayhawks team that should try to run this year. But he will more than likely get lost in the mix at Kansas while scouts pay all the attention to Sviatoslav (for the record, I like Sviatoslav's game, too). Despite his likely lack of attention, Bragg needs to be someone you keep an eye on because of his NBA potential. His jump shot is his biggest asset. He can shoot the three and does so with confidence. He dives to the basket hard on pick-n-rolls and just when defenses play soft on him, he steps out and knocks one from deep. Bragg strikes me as someone that might not want to bang with guys down low, but there is no doubt in my mind he will put some weight on and become more comfortable fighting for rebounds. He is more of a project that some of the earlier guys on this list. Questions concerning his lateral quickness need to be alleviated, but he has NBA-athleticism and he can shoot. If you have those two things and have the size to play stretch-four, he could be dangerous. The best comparison I have is that he is a better version of Kevon Looney. I know, I know, that is not very appealing, but you’re just going to have to trust me here: Carlton Bragg is going to be a player.
Ivan Rabb--6’10”, 18 years old, Freshman, Cal
Rabb was once the number one player in this class, but is now being overlooked even on his own team. Jaylen Brown is getting all the attention, but Rabb may be just as good (probably not, but maybe). Rabb is athletic and he sees the floor well. At 6’10”, those are big positives to have. He has a developing outside shot that has the makings of something potentially dangerous. Defensively, he will be active, but his overall presence may not be too intimidating, at least until he bulks up. Rabb is a top-tier player, but he is one of those guys that might go either way.
Dwayne Bacon--6’7”, 20 years old, Freshman, Florida State
Just another player who is gritty and plays like he’s the best player on the floor at all times. Has a lot of talent and athleticism. Not sure how well he will translate to the NBA landscape, but is someone whose stock could skyrocket throughout the season.
Isaiah Briscoe--6’3”, 19 years old, Freshman, Kentucky
You’re going to see a lot of Briscoe this year in Lexington. ESPN’s 13th ranked recruit comes in as the third best guard in the system, and has a lot to prove. He’s a tough player with a chip on his shoulder. At 200 lbs., he is thick and has an NBA-ready body. The jury is still out on how his ceiling is, which will wind up determining his draft position.
Grayson Allen--6’4”, 20 years old, Sophomore, Duke
Allen will be a go-to scorer for the Blue Devils in his sophomore campaign. I’m not sure he’s an NBA player, but he can put the ball in the basket. I would not expect him to be a high pick, but if you carry Duke, anything is possible.
Alex Poythress--6’7”, 22 years old, Senior, Kentucky
Poythress is an uber-athletic swingman. He will get a lot of minutes in Kentucky this season, as one of their veterans. He missed much of last year with a torn ACL, but will have another opportunity to prove why he deserves to play in the league. He’s ready defensively, but is extremely limited offensively. Ultimately, his NBA future hinges on his offensive development.
Malik Pope-- 6-9, 19 years old, Sophomore, San Diego State
Good shooter, especially for his size. Either he takes over at SDSU this season and becomes a lottery pick (unlikely), or he shows improvement and gets taken between 18-24 (more likely). Regardless, I like his game and see him as an early contender for best mid-late selection (I know, I’m wayyy too far ahead of myself).
Jakob Poeltl--7’0”, 20 years old, Sophomore, Utah
Many have him going in the top-10. I’m not as high on him as most. He’s like Andrew Bogut. Though he’s been scoring, I’m not sure his scoring will translate. Kind of a plodder, but he’s big. Many like his potential, I would keep an eye on him, but I might be out on Poeltl. Realistically, can someone with the last name Poeltl (yes, there are two “L’s” in there) be a force in the NBA? I don’t think so.
Damian Jones--7’0”, 20 years old, Junior, Vanderbilt
He’s okay. We’ll see how he does this year. He’s pretty athletic and even moves decent laterally. He can finish near the rim, but is painfully slow diving off of pick-n-rolls. Has questions regarding his motor. I do like him more than Poeltl, though.
Domantas Sabonis--6’10”, 19 years old, Sophomore, Gonzaga
Jury is still out on him. He’s young, but he isn’t even his the best player on his team...and he plays for Gonzaga. Has some skills, but needs to polish them. He is projected pretty high on most mocks, but I see his stock taking a dive throughout the season.
Cheick Diallo--6’9”, 19 years old, Freshman, Kansas
He’s out due to NCAA eligibility right now. Won the McDonald’s game MVP. I mean, he’s a 6’9” big guy with not a great outside shot. Let’s keep an eye on him, but let’s not overdo it.
Kris Dunn--6’4”, 21 years old, Junior, Providence
Many have him as a top-10 prospect. He’s going to light it up for the Friars this season. He has a lot of upside, but at 21 years old, he’s a little old to expect a huge improvement. Staying in school will drastically help his draft stock. Might be the most fun player to watch this year in college, but I’m weary of his NBA potential at this point, though he could come out on fire and blow me away.
Antonio Blakeney--6’4”, 19 years old, Freshman, LSU
The less-talked about of the incoming freshman class in Baton Rouge, Blakeney is a real player, too. Not quite NBA range as a shooter, but he can get to the basket and finish. He’s a tough player and has big-time athleticism (45 inch max vert). He’s not ready yet, but he’s fun to watch and could develop into an NBA prospect as early as next year.