Gone are the days when your college production is commensurate with your pro prospects. National player of the year Luka Garza, for instance, isn’t among our top-60 prospects entering this month’s draft. Or take the national scoring leader from last season, Oral Roberts’ Max Abmas — he announced last week that he’s withdrawing from the draft and returning to school after his stock settled well outside first-round range. Scouting for the pros now is as much about projection, athleticism and body type than what a player has proven in college.
This year is as good an example as any. Take Texas’ Kai Jones for example: He was the Longhorns’ sixth-leading scorer last season but could be drafted inside the top 10 later this month. Or take Michigan’s Franz Wagner: he wasn’t the most productive player on his team — he was the third-leading scorer for the Wolverines — but is tracking towards becoming a likely lottery pick. The same is true of Tennessee’s Keon Johnson, who put some athletic flashes on tape but lacked consistency. Johnson could be a lottery pick after setting a vertical leap record at last month’s NBA Draft Combine.
The latest draft-centric episode of Eye on College Basketball is here. Listen now and subscribe here.
In some cases, production and pro prospects align. Luka Doncic was a superstar in Europe before becoming a top-five pick. Zion Williamson was national player of the year at Duke before becoming the No. 1 overall pick in 2019. But increasingly, putting up big numbers is not only no longer a prerequisite to lottery consideration — it is in many cases the exception.
Here are those who fit that profile in this year’s draft. All of them save for one — Texas’ Kai Jones — are of the one-and-done variety.
Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton is making a habit of producing lottery talent who more often than not come off the bench as freshmen. Last year it was Patrick Williams, who went No. 4 overall to the Chicago Bulls after making zero (zero!) starts. This year it’s fast-rising forward Scottie Barnes, who made just seven starts in 24 appearances last season. Barnes’ counting stats don’t jump at you — he came off the bench for a loaded FSU team — but the role was there all season. He led the Seminoles in assists and finished the season with a higher assist rate than presumptive No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham and likely top-five pick Jalen Suggs, illustrating just how dynamic Barnes is on offense — to say nothing of his versatile defensive tools.
In 10 of Keon Johnson’s first 15 games last season he failed to reach double figures in scoring — but he closed on a tear down the stretch. The improvement coincided with Vols coach Rick Barnes trusting him with more playing time and in a larger role. It also came as his draft stock soared into first-round territory. And while he’s a raw offensive player still — he shot 27.1% from 3-point range and lacks polish with the handles, which will unlock his game if he can find some seasoning — his athletic profile and flashes of skill shown in college will be enough to get him potentially drafted in this year’s lottery. One of the true boom-or-bust talents of the draft.
Kai Jones played just over 22 minutes per game as a sophomore for Texas last season. He finished the season sixth on the team in scoring, third in rebounding and third in blocks — despite being the Longhorns’ tallest player at 6-foot-11. But at that height, the body control, shooting and skill off the bounce are the stuff of unicorn-caliber prospects. Players his size doing stuff like this don’t usually last too far in drafts.
There’s no doubt some ironing out in his game that needs to take place — he needs to get stronger, become a better rebounder, learn the game and develop on offense — but he has all the building blocks to be one of the draft’s biggest stars if he hits. And when you consider that he only began playing basketball at 15 years old, it’s hard not to talk yourself into this kid’s bright future despite lackluster production at Texas.
The rare high-usage, small-sample prospect, Jalen Johnson was a key cog for Duke in 13 games, averaging 11.2 points, 6.1 rebounds and often initiating offense on fastbreaks. But Johnson left Duke before the season ended to prep for the draft after a lot of his weaknesses as a prospect came to light. Johnson’s stock in the aftermath of that decision fluctuated a bit — and certainly was well below preseason expectations as a top-10 talent — and it has yet to really settle. His draft range is vast. He could go inside the top 10 or drop to the 20s. Big picture, it’s more likely to be closer to the former — 6-9 forwards with big-guard skills are prospects teams will jump at the chance to invest in. Even if what we saw from him at Duke left us with a lot of questions about some of his offensive limitations in the halfcourt and on defense.
A strong showing at the NBA draft combine left Joshua Primo, the youngest prospect in this year’s class, with no choice but to stay in the draft. He, more than arguably anyone else, boosted his stock most while in Chicago. Guards who are 6-5 and are knockdown shooters like him are undoubtedly worth first-round looks but he showed some pizazz on the ball at the combine to boot. That baseline skill set combined with the youth and long-term role-playing potential could get him to lottery range just months after finishing as the fifth-leading scorer for SEC-winning Alabama.
Draft range: 20-30
Auburn flew under the radar last season more than it deserved considering its talent level — due largely to its self-imposed postseason ban — and JT Thor was the hidden gem of the Tigers’ roster. He was sixth on the team in scoring and seventh in minutes played, yet he is now tracking towards similar first-round range as teammate Sharife Cooper. He has a 7-3 wingspan, a smooth, left-handed jumper that looks like it’ll track and the all-around game that could in time make him a dangerous floor-spacing big in the NBA.
Stanford had a tough season living out of hotels for much of the year to combat COVID. And in the meantime, injuries and attrition to key players were a mainstay. The roster was rarely consistent. Ziaire Williams’ production was fittingly unreliable. He had big moments — even a few big games — but he never hit a groove like you typically see from a one-and-done prospect his caliber, as he had flashes but just as often fizzled. His role was more or less steady throughout the year as the team’s No. 3 option but he remains one of the more challenging evaluations because of how he floated in and out of games and never asserted himself forcefully into the lottery discussion. Nonetheless, measuring nearly 6-10 at the combine with an 8-11 standing reach helped his case, and there’s going to be believers in his skill in the early-to-mid-teens.