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NBA Draft: Sixteen prospects to watch in the Sweet Sixteen

Aaron profiles some potential NBA draftees in his fifth annual rundown of prospects playing in the NCAA Tournament

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Baylor vs Gonzaga Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Four years ago, I had an idea to post a “Sweet Sixteen” primer, and it seemed to be something readers enjoyed. Therefore, I’ve decided to continue the breakdown of College Basketball/NBA prospects this year. Also, please feel free to check out the primers from 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018. They are nice visits down memory lane which include numerous players who are now thriving in the NBA (such as Devin Booker, Karl-Anthony Towns, Malcolm Brogdon, Brandon Ingram, Buddy Hield, Domantas Sabonis, Monte Morris, Lauri Markkanen, De’Aaron Fox, Bam Adebayo, Lonzo Ball, Marvin Bagley III, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, etc.). Perusing the comments section and seeing everyone’s takes is pretty fun as well.

I’ve always considered Draft night a personal favorite holiday of mine where the two basketball worlds that I love, college and the NBA, come together. I’ve had a passion for College Basketball since I was eight years old. I was raised in a baseball household, but I fell in love with the game watching guys like Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, Grant Hill, and the Fab Five.

The NCAA tournament has turned into one of the great sports spectacles in the country. With the second weekend of NCAA tournament games ahead of us, I thought I would write a primer listing sixteen prospects slated to play in the Sweet 16 to keep an eye on.

What I would really like to see is an active comments section within the OPP community about some of these players. How do you think they would fit on the Magic? What is your assessment of their games - strengths & weaknesses? I’m hoping this can be the “official, un-official” game thread for the rest of the NCAA tournament. Enjoy!

Honorable Mention: Kerry Blackshear Jr, F (Virginia Tech); Ignas Brazdeikis, F (Michigan); Bryce Brown, G (Auburn); Corey Davis Jr., G (Houston); Carsen Edwards, G (Purdue); Kyle Guy, G (Virginia); Ty Jerome, G (Virginia); Mfiondu Kabengele, C (Florida State); Naz Reid, PF/C (LSU); Admiral Schofield, F (Tennessee); Tremont Waters, G (LSU); Cassius Winston, G (Michigan State); Kenny Wooten, C (Oregon)

Chuma Okeke, PF (20 years old)
6-8/235 lbs. (7-0 wingspan)

Okeke is often overshadowed by Auburn’s experienced back-court (Bryce Brown and Jared Harper), but the big man from Atlanta is the Tiger’s top NBA prospect. Okeke does all the little things defensively that have helped Bruce Pearl’s team reach the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in his Auburn tenure.

Okeke leads his team in rebounds (6.8) and steals (1.8) per game. He blocks 1.5 shots per/36, and even possesses the ability on offense to set-up others on his team (2.4 assists per/36). According to Sports Reference, Okeke ranks second all-time in the SEC with a career 10.9 Box Plus/Minus. He led the SEC in total offensive rebounds this past season, while finishing second in total steals and steal percentage in the conference.

Okeke’s most appealing NBA-skill is his ability to shoot from the perimeter. Nearly everyone in Auburn’s lineup has the ability to stretch opposing team’s defenses, and Okeke is no exception (59% TS%, .42 3PTAr). Okeke is a career 38% three-point shooter who has attempted just under five three-point attempts per/40 in 71 career games at Auburn (he went 5-7 from “three” against Tennessee in the SEC Championship game). Okeke is an underclassman, so it’s unclear whether he will declare for the NBA Draft. If he does, I have Okeke as a likely late first-round pick (somewhere in the 20-30 range), but that could change with solid individual team workouts.

Jarrett Culver, SG (20 years old)
6-6/195 lbs. (6-10 wingspan)

Culver is a versatile wing who has serious play-making ability (4.2 assists per/36 this season). He plays a little stiff, but I definitely think he can become a factor as a secondary ball-handler/play-maker in the NBA. He’s also a great rebounder for a wing, mostly due to his physical profile and natural instincts (nearly eight rebounds per game per/40).

I’m just not completely sold on Culver’s shot-making ability. He’s seemed to tweak his shooting form a couple times already at the college-level. He started this past season shooting very efficiently from the field, but then went ice cold during conference play down the stretch (25% 3PT% in 18 games). Culver has failed to eclipse the 70% mark from the free throw line in either season at Texas Tech, which is somewhat of a red flag for me.

But I do think Culver will be a plus-defender in the NBA. He’s a smart player, he’s plenty long enough to defend on the ball and will help his team defend off the ball as well. Culver will probably declare for the NBA Draft after his season is over, but he will be selected well before the Magic have a chance to consider him.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Baylor vs Gonzaga Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Rui Hachimura, PF (21 years old)
6-8/230 lbs.

Hachimura is set to become just the second player ever of Japanese decent to play in the NBA. The long, muscular forward came to the United States only three years ago, after scoring 25 points against Team USA at the FIBA U-17 World Championships (a Team USA team that featured Jayson Tatum, Josh Jackson, Harry Giles, etc.).

Hachimura has improved every season in Spokane. He’s just a junior, but after finishing this season with a field goal percentage of just over 60% (47% from three, but only 1.1 attempts per/36), a true shooting percentage of 65%, and a player efficiency rating of 29.6 (*with a usage rate of 27.9%), Gonzaga’s leading scorer will likely declare for the NBA Draft after this tournament. He’ll likely be a late lottery to mid-first round pick, within the range of where the Magic will assuredly be picking.

Brandon Clarke, PF (22 years old)
6-8/215 lbs.

Hachimura may be Gonzaga’s leading scorer, but Clarke has emerged as Gonzaga’s top NBA prospect. The junior forward transferred to Gonzaga after playing his first two collegiate years at San Jose St. Clarke leads the Bulldogs with 8.4 rebounds, 3.1 blocked shots, and a field goal percentage of 69.9%.

Clarke, one of the premiere defensive players in the nation, has had an incredible season. He currently sports one of the most remarkable stats I’ve ever come across: Clarke has blocked more shots this season (110) than he has missed fields goals (244-349 FGA’s). The Vancouver-native has come out of nowhere to play himself into the conversation for becoming a top-5 pick in the ‘19 NBA Draft, out of reach from where the Magic will likely be selecting.

Clarke, who boasts a true shooting percentage over 70%, a PER over 38.0, an Offensive Rating over 141.0, and both OBPM and DBPM metrics over 9.0, scored 36 points (15-18 FGA’s) while blocking 5 shots in Gonzaga’s second round game against Baylor.

De’Andre Hunter, F (21 years old)
6-7/225 lbs. (7-2 wingspan)

Hunter has a massive +7 wingspan, immediately putting him in play as someone who could be potentially drafted by Jeff Weltman and John Hammond (although he probably won’t be around by that point).

Seriously though, Hunter is freakishly long. He’s a versatile wing who seems to be cut from the mold of exactly the type of defenders that thrive in the NBA today. I think Hunter will ultimately be strong enough to play the “4” in the NBA, although he probably will begin his career on the wing. Remember, Virginia was missing Hunter last year when they were eliminated in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Hunter can absolutely knock-down shots when left open (63% true shooting percentage). The sophomore from Philadelphia has all the makings of a 3-and-D player on someone’s second unit in the NBA (44% on 3PTA’s this season, 1.5 3PTM’s per/40). I think Hunter’s (somewhat) lack of ball-handling, play-making, and general athletic ability limits his upside, but he will be a good NBA player. Good enough in this draft to be a lottery pick, probably taken before the Magic are on the clock.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Wofford vs Kentucky Matt Stamey-USA TODAY Sports

Tyler Herro, SG (19 years old)
6-5/195 lbs. (6-5 wingspan)

Herro is a guy who has come on of late, he finished his freshmen season shooting 42% on three-point attempts in conference play (18 games). The shooting guard from Milwaukee has the potential to become an elite shooter (94% free throw shooter his freshmen season) in the NBA, although it’s unclear if he’ll declare for the NBA Draft after this season or not. Herro scored 20 or more points in a game six times over his freshmen season, making three or more three-point attempts in a single game nine times.

At 6-5 with a plus-zero (6-5) wingspan, Herro’s length as a potential NBA prospect worries me a bit. Herro did a fantastic job (along with Ashton Hagans) defending Fletcher Magee in Kentucky’s second round match-up against Wofford. Of course, Magee is the all-time NCAA leader in three-point makes, but Herro was able to hold Magee without a three-point make in the contest.

If Herro were to declare for the draft, he’ll likely be a mid-to-late first round pick, within the range of where the Magic will be selecting.

Keldon Johnson, SG/SF (19 years old)
6-6/210 lbs. (6-9 wingspan)

Johnson looks the part of an NBA “wing”; with a 6-9 wingspan, he probably profiles more as an NBA shooting guard than a small forward, but those distinctions are rather fluid. The 19-year old freshmen from Virginia can go. Some of his best games have come on big stages: 23 points in the season opener against Duke, 21 points against North Carolina, 25 points in Kentucky’s opening game of the NCAA Tournament against Abilene Christian.

Johnson shot 39.6% from behind the arc his first season in Lexington (57% TS%). Johnson is solid in a lot of areas, but I don’t find him to be spectacular in any single-area. He’s a prolific rebounder considering he’s a wing-player (6.8 rebounds per/36). Johnson has been able to use his athletic ability to get to the free throw line at Kentucky (.43 FTAr). The Oak Hill product was a high-profile recruit coming into college who has lived up to his billing (for the most part).

Johnson will likely declare for the NBA Draft after this season. He’s projected to potentially be selected in the lottery, probably getting picked prior to Orlando having a chance at him.

P.J. Washington, PF (20 years old)
6-8/225 lbs. (7-3 wingspan)

Unlike past seasons, Kentucky doesn't have the sure-fire NBA top-5 pick on their roster this year. Johnson may be the guy off the board first this coming June, but Washington is my favorite Kentucky prospect. The sophomore power forward from Dallas came back to Lexington this year with an improved perimeter game, something he didn’t possess his freshmen year. Washington made five three-pointers his entire freshmen season (5-21 3PTA’s); this year, Washington made 31 three’s (31-74, 42%).

Washington is a solid all-around player (top-5 in the SEC this season in FG%, eFG%, Defensive Rating, and PER) with plenty of length to play in the NBA (7-3 wingspan, that’s not a mistake: +7 height-to-wingspan). My favorite moments involving Washington this season were his three battles against Tennessee’s Grant Williams. Washington injured his foot against the Volunteers in the SEC Tournament, and has missed Kentucky’s two opening games of the NCAA Tournament.

It’s unclear whether Washington will play Thursday night in Kentucky’s next game. Washington will likely declare for the draft after this season. A likely mid-first round pick, Washington should be available when the Magic are making their first round selection.

Nickeil Walker-Alexander, SG (20 years old)
6-5/205 lbs. (6-9 wingspan)

Okay, I’m going to be completely upfront here. I’m not a huge believer in Walker-Alexander. And I’ll admit, I’ve completely changed course with my outlook towards his game. At the beginning of the year, the Canadian-native was atop my list of guys I wanted the Magic to draft. He’s a very solid two-way player, no doubt. I thought he would be perfect for the organization.

That still may be the case, but I caught like five or six really rough tapes of Walker-Alexander in a row, and I sort of just moved on from him. Guards go through shooting slumps, I get that. For me, it was more than that. I noticed how much his game fell off when Virginia Tech’s star point guard, Justin Robinson, went down with an injury. Walker-Alexander assumed the role as the primary ball-handler in Robinson’s absence, and his production fell off considerably (42% FG%, 49% 2PT%, 34% 3PT % in conference play).

Doesn’t seem fair to knock him for the team’s point guard going down, again - I get it. Except for the fact that many draft experts predict that the sophomore guard is better suited to play point guard in the NBA than he is at the “2”. That is something I just don’t see.

I’m just not as high on his ball-handling and play-making skills as others are. I think they are encouraging in the “secondary” sense, but not as a team’s lead guard. I think Walker-Alexander will be an above-average NBA spot-up shooter; a solid player off a team’s bench. I would probably draft a guy like that in the mid-first round, maybe even very late in the lottery, but not any higher than that. Coincidentally, that is exactly where the Magic will likely be selecting in the first round, so Walker-Alexander is very much in play for Orlando.

Grant Williams, PF (20 years old)
6-7/240 lbs. (6-11 wingspan)

Williams is (somehow) still a relatively unknown guy to a lot of folks who don’t follow college basketball closely - despite being a two-time SEC Player of the Year. The 6-7 junior is one of the strongest players in the country who plays mostly in the paint on offense. Williams converted a career-high 56% (2nd in SEC) of his field goals attempts this past season (59% 2PT FG%). Williams led the SEC this year in free throw makes, free throw attempts, points produced, player efficiency rating, offensive box plus/minus, box plus/minus, and offensive rating (ranks 1st all-time in the SEC with an ORtg of 118.9).

The Wooden Award finalist’s most translatable NBA skills come on the defensive end. Williams recorded four steals and three blocks in Tennessee’s overtime win over Iowa in the second round last Sunday. Williams is a battle-tested college veteran who can potentially come in and do the little things for a team that are needed to win in the NBA. Williams doesn’t possess exceptional NBA length for a big man, and he’s only 6-7. Those measurables could potentially hurt Williams at the next level, but I doubt it. He’s a very skilled (and smart) player, cut out of a mold similar to Boris Diaw.

NCAA Basketball: Duke at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Nassir Little, F (19 years old)
6-6/220 lbs. (7-1 wingspan)

Little did not have the kind of season in Chapel Hill that I think a lot of people expected of him. North Carolina is a veteran team, especially in their front-court. Little had a lengthy adjustment period to the college game, but he’s starting to play his best basketball at the right time.

The freshmen from the state of Florida is an NBA-caliber athlete with elite length. If Little can play the small forward position in the NBA, then he will be a monster (size-wise). If he’s going to play the “4”, which a lot of people think he will, then he’s probably a little undersized.

You see flashes from Little during certain pockets of his freshmen season on film (1/21 vs. Virginia Tech, 2/23 vs. Florida State), but also a lot of inconsistency. His shot clearly needs a lot of work. He wasn’t as solid of a finisher in the paint this year as I would have expected either. But like I said, he has worked through some of those growing pains, and things are looking up for Little at this moment. Through North Carolina’s first two tournament games, Little is averaging 19.5 points in 19.0 minutes per game (17-24, 71% FG%). Once presumed to be a top-3 pick, Little has at the very least probably played his way back into the late lottery.

Coby White, PG (19 years old)
6-5/185 lbs.

I don’t want to even try to hide the fact that I absolutely love Coby White. He’s been my favorite prospect in this class for most of this season. White is one of the more “slept on” prospects in this draft, regularly getting “mocked” to teams outside of the lottery. I said heading into the NCAA Tournament that I thought White was in a position, maybe more so than any player in the field, to best improve his draft stock.

White is a streaky shooter, and he’s certainly had his “off” games this year. But let’s not forget, this is a 19-year old freshmen who was handed the keys to run Roy Williams’ offense, an offense that ranks at the top of nearly every efficiency statistic in the country. I think White plays with excellent pace, and at 6-5, I really like his defensive upside.

White needs to continue to hone is craft (play-making, ball-handling, lead-guard skills), but I’m more than confident in his ability to do so. On offense, the North Carolina high school star’s greatest strength is his shooting ability. White can fill it up quickly; he scored 25 points or more in a game five times this season (eclipsing 30 points three times). White made four or more three-point attempts in a game 11 times this year, including two games where he made seven three-point attempts.

I don’t know if he’s an NBA point guard, shooting guard, lead guard, or whatever. I’m just a big fan of the kid, and I think the Magic would be wise to take a long look at White (if he’s still around by the time they pick).

Cameron Johnson, SG/SF (23 years old)
6-8/210 lbs.

Cameron Johnson is the best knock-down shooter in this draft class, it’s not really up for debate. Johnson sports a 64.9% true shooting percentage this season, knocking-down 3.2 three’s per/36 (7.0 3PTA’s per/36, 46% 3PT% - tops in the ACC). At 6-9, Johnson also possesses terrific size for a wing player, which helps him get his shot off with relative ease.
Johnson has made three or more three-point attempts in a game 16 different times this season. He’s undoubtedly a specialist; half of his field goal attempts come from behind the arc. With an Offensive Rating of 131.4 (second in the ACC), the Pennsylvania native is one of the most productive offensive wings in the country. Johnson ranks 2nd in the ACC in OBPM, BPM, and eFG%.

So what’s the problem? Well, Johnson is a fifth-year senior - he will be 23 years old when he’s drafted. What an old-timer, am I right? No, I’m not right - I think Johnson will be fine. His advanced age compared to college freshmen in this class may knock him down a peg or two with NBA personnel, but I don’t think he’ll be hurt too much. Johnson will likely be on the board when the Magic draft this year. He’s being mocked as a late first round pick, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Orlando took a look at Johnson.

NCAA Basketball: Georgia Tech at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Cam Reddish, SF (19 years old)
6-8/220 lbs. (7-1 wingspan)

Similar to the circumstances I mentioned above with Nassir Little, in Reddish you have a highly-touted recruit who entered college with lofty expectations and probably fell well short of what many draft experts expected of him this season. Maybe we need to pump the brakes with these 19 year-old kids a bit?

Mohamed Bamba’s former high school teammate played in the shadows of his freshmen counterparts Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett for most of ‘18-’19. Reddish was wildly inefficient from the floor (36% FG%, 33% 3PT%), he couldn’t finish in the paint (40% 2PT%), and he was often careless with the basketball (nearly four turnovers per/40 minutes).

Reddish does have an exceptional physical profile, he just looks like an NBA wing. I have zero doubt that the Westtown legend will be able to defend at a high-level in the NBA. And he did show some signs of developing advanced vision for a wing player. Still, your’e pretty much rolling the dice with Reddish if he’s at the top of a team’s board.

A team that takes Reddish early is drafting him solely on upside alone. For me, he played his was out of being considered a top-5 pick in this draft. But I think he will still be picked in that range anyway, especially in a relatively weak draft.

R.J. Barrett, SG/SF (18 years old)
6-7/205 lbs. (6-9 wingspan)

Scouts certainly got plenty of opportunities to see Barrett this year. He led the ACC in minutes played, field goals made, and field goals attempted. With Barrett, you’re going to get volume and lots of usage. I think Barrett, this season’s leading scorer in the ACC, is best when he’s going downhill and attacking the rim. He has great body control and an already-advanced propensity at getting to the free throw line (led ACC in free throw attempts).

Barrett is no finished product by any means. His outside shot has a long way to go before he can become an elite NBA player. One welcomed development I saw from Barrett as this season wore on was his secondary play-making ability. I think Barrett can be a plus-producer on offense from the wing, which obviously raises his ceiling as a player. He must get stronger; he must get better at finishing against NBA-length at the rim. But I really like him as a player. Obviously, Barrett will be in a limo en route to his after-party by the time the Magic select in late June, so this is all moot.

Zion Williamson, PF (18 years old)
6-7/285 lbs. (6-10 wingspan)

Yeah, I’ve hit my word limit. Honestly though, what could/can I possibly say about Williamson that hasn’t already been said? Do you really need me to tell you to watch him play basketball? YouTube him, find him on Instagram, turn on a television.