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2023-24 PAC-12 Conference Preview
The No Ceilings crew continues their Conference Preview round tables for the 2023-24 season with the PAC-12.
The college basketball season is just around the corner, and the NBA season is off to a roaring start. While many of the rookies from the 2023 NBA Draft are making headlines, the 2023-2024 NCAA season will show prospect evaluators who might be joining this year’s rookies in determining the NBA’s future.
Before the college season gets underway, we simply had to gather the No Ceilings collective for a roundtable and discuss some of the top prospects and players who might be primed to break out and establish themselves on the draft scene. Today, we continue our conference previews with the PAC-12.
1. Ignore “consensus” boards and Twitter groupthink. Who is the best NBA prospect in this conference?
Stephen: I’m probably in the minority in this, but Cody Williams is my top prospect in the PAC-12. His player type is one of my favorites. What’s not to love in a player that has his size, his feel for the game, the bloodline (related to Jalen Williams of OKC), the handle, the ability to hit the open man after snaking into the paint? The absolute best version of WIlliams rivals the top prospects in this class–and are typically selected later than they should go.
Maxwell: It’s Isaiah Collier for me. He can pull up from three. He’s strong and protects the ball well when heading downhill. In EYBL play, he pressured the rim well and was a tremendous finisher. There’s some creativity to how he’ll look off his passes to set up teammates. On defense, he’ll pay attention off the ball. I think he’s in for a big year, and playing alongside other talented guards should help him get comfortable out of the gate.
Albert: Isaiah Collier could potentially be the modern-day Stephon Marbury. It’s hard not to fall in love with Collier’s game. The guy plays with so much force and intensity; he’s always popping off the screen. Collier will have to work on tightening up some of his decision-making and the outside shooting, but it’ll be hard to stop him from getting into the lane and creating for himself or his teammates. I don’t think his outside jumper is as far away as some may think it is, but it’ll be something everyone will be monitoring. The Marbury comparison for me comes not only from his ability to attack the rim but how he protects the ball so well when he’s in amongst the trees and how he has the ability to finish through contact.
Nick: I’m also going to buck the trend here and join Stephen on Cody Williams island. He’s a three-point shot away from being one of the top prospects in the class; his size, his incredibly high feel for the game, and his ability to attack to the basket give him a solid enough base that he can be a threat even if the shot takes a bit longer to fully come around.
Rucker: USC freshman Isaiah Collier is the top prize in the PAC-12 this year. Collier is a bowling ball of a ball handler. He’s listed at 6’5”, 210 pounds, and he plays even bigger. Collier is fearless when attacking the lane and can make defenders bounce off him with relative ease. He’s going to put up big numbers for the Trojans this year. The question remains how does the outside shot develop when it comes to Isaiah becoming a more well-rounded multi-dimensional scorer? If he can develop that, while showcasing some chops on the defensive side of the ball, he’s going to have a chance to be one of the top point guards in this class.
Metcalf: Collier for me as well. The way he pressures the rim and creates for others out of drives is a truly special skill. The shot is rough and the defense is inconsistent, but he’s going to put up some really impressive numbers this season.
Rowan: I’m also in on Collier. He’s fast, agile, and can easily get into the lane. When combined with his premium passing ability, Collier’s upside as a creator makes him the clear top dog.
Evan: I’ll hop on the Isaiah Collier bandwagon too. The incoming USC freshman plays with a ferocious blend of power, speed, and toughness. He might be the second coming of Baron Davis. It’s hard to see another prospect in the conference with a higher pro upside than the Atlanta, Georgia native.
2. Admittedly, one of the most satisfying parts of analyzing the draft is being able to look back and say “psh, about time you guys took notice of him. I’ve been hyping him up for ages.” Who is the prospect that you are irrationally high on?
Stephen: Paulius Murauskas was a player I loved last season, and I have not wavered in my affinity for him at all, as he is an early second rounder on my board currently. At 6’8” and 220 pounds, Murauskas can finish in a variety of ways, and has a healthy blend of strength, athleticism, and feel. His situation at Arizona won’t be unique in his own conference, as the Wildcats have a deep roster of players that, I’m sure, are expecting to see the court.
Maxwell: Spencer Jones at Stanford. Are we sure there’s that big of a gap between him and Tristan Da Silva? Jones is built for the NBA from a physicality standpoint. He’s a good shooter at 6’7” who knows where to go without the ball. He’s an intelligent defender who rarely gets caught looking out of place. Grad prospects aren’t sexy, but he’s at least a two-way contract guy in my book. I think he’s in for a big year.
Albert: I love Kwame Evans Jr. of Oregon and he may be one of my favorite prospects in all of college basketball. I’ve always had an infatuation with bigger wings or big men who have guard skills. Last season, I loved Jett Howard and his ability as a bigger wing to handle the ball and shoot from outside. When I look at Kwame, I see a big who may not be a refined low post scorer, but a guy who can offer a ton of skills that most guys his size just don’t possess. He’s a good rebounder who likes to push the ball up the floor. He has good vision and touch on his passes, which is an awesome weapon to have at his size. His outside shot looks good, but it needs some finetuning mechanically and he just flat-out needs to hit more of them. I see Evans as a multi-faceted forward who may not put up the gaudiest numbers in his freshman season, but NBA front offices will come to love due to his ceiling.
Nick: There were plenty of players who stunned me by deciding to return for another season of college basketball, but I’m not sure that any of them stunned me more than Adem Bona. His defensive prowess and rim-running ability make him a clear first round pick for me heading into the season, and barring serious injury I’d be shocked if he falls out of my first round at any point between now and June.
Rucker: Arizona freshman K.J. Lewis will deserve plenty of attention. The Wildcats are going to have a bit of a scrappy team this year and are already looking like a potential force for the 2024-25. Although Arizona welcomed plenty of transfers that should play a big role, Lewis has been a wildcard that continues to buzz in Tucson. It could take Lewis a bit to see his minutes get an uptick, but don’t be shocked if he’s a name that is heating up throughout the 2023-24 season.
Metcalf: I’m not sure this counts, but I’m going with Adem Bona. For some reason, he keeps getting slept on. I don’t really care that his offensive game is rudimentary. He’s a solid rim runner, obnoxious offensive rebounder, and flashed some intriguing face-up stuff at the end of the year. Oh, and he was also one of the best defenders in all of college basketball last season. Try to take note specifically of what he is asked to do on defense, and I dare you to come away not impressed. From blitzing every screen to switching on the perimeter to protecting the rim, Bona was asked to do more on defense than nearly every other player in the country last year.
Rowan: There are many talented centers in the 2024 draft class, but there’s only one Aday Mara. His combination of ridiculous height, length, passing ability, and shot-blocking is unmatched in the draft class, and there’s still room for him to grow as a shooter and finisher near the basket. If he reaches his potential with his 7’7” wingspan, there might not be a player with a higher ceiling in the whole class.
Evan: I’m a big fan of Oregon State’s Michael Rataj, and I believe he’s primed for a breakout season. The sophomore forward is a Swiss Army knife of sorts who positively impacts the game in a plethora of ways. He put up 11.7 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 2.0 APG, and 1.9 stocks per 40 numbers last year. The German product is one of the best offensive rebounders and defensive disruptors in the conference. He’s got some intriguing connective passing ability as well, especially with his off-hand. Ultimately, though, the swing skill for Rataj will be his shooting. He shot a respectable 37.3% from beyond the arc last season, but that was only on 51 total three-point attempts. Displaying that same level of efficiency as a shooter on a higher volume could solidify Rataj as a legitimate prospect for the 2024 draft cycle.
3. Unfortunately, there are two sides to that coin, and they do not have equal probabilities. Which prospect do you like but think has the most likely chance of failing to meet expectations?
Stephen: Sticking with the Wildcats, Kylan Boswell has been a name that has shown up on many preseason boards. Similarly to Murauskas, Boswell will have a number of backcourt players that compete with on his own team–let alone a deep conference–in order to be selected in this year’s draft. The skill is solid, but is the need going to be there for NBA teams?
Maxwell: Is it cheating to say Caleb Love? It seems as if most in the draft space have moved on from him, but at the very least, he’s still discussed as someone who will have a big role at Arizona. He’s wired to score, but never shot above 38% from the floor. With a bevy of other talented guards around him, I wouldn’t be shocked if his role is smaller than some anticipate by season’s end.
Albert: I think Jan Vide is the guy here. The main reason for why I’m a little hesitant when it comes to Vide is his outside shooting and his defense. Head Coach Mick Cronin has a notoriously shorty leash when it comes to freshman and it’s usually triggered by defensive effort and attention to detail. I’m not 100% sure Vide will have the defensive acumen that coach Cronin is looking for from his players. I also think it’ll be interesting to see how all the new pieces integrate and come together. Currently, Vide is a good scorer from the mid-range and inside, but his outside shot will need work and you have to wonder what he’ll look like when he doens’t have the ball in his hands. Although Vide is not the strongest outside shooter, he is a good cutter and he’ll have to leverage that ability into some easy looks around the basket.
Nick: I don’t think it’s cheating to say Caleb Love here, and I’m totally on board with Maxwell’s pick here. Sure, the shot looks pretty when it goes in, but it just doesn’t go in often enough for me to buy in–especially since he doesn’t do enough else at a high level to mitigate the concerns about the shot not going down.
Rucker: This is a tough one because I love the potential of this prospect but I’m going to go with Cody Williams of Colorado. Now, let me just explain why before everyone goes crazy. Williams is OOZING with talent. He’s truly a prospect that it seems it’s only a matter of time before all the pieces start to fall together. I believe Cody is still a bit raw and it could take him more than one year for his game to be fully unleashed. It wouldn’t shock me if the light comes on at some point during the 2023-24 season. If it does, Cody should be skyrocketing up boards. For now, I’m in wait and see mode. But there’s no denying the Colorado freshman has a VERY bright basketball career ahead.
Metcalf: Aday Mara is really fun but… I certainly understand the intrigue with Mara because few players are as creative of passers as he is. I just worry that he’s really going to struggle with the physicality. Mara constantly gets moved around the rim and gets bullied by players a lot smaller than him. He could also end up as a Top 10 pick, so this could look incredibly foolish. I’m just a little hesitant to buy all the way in.
Rowan: When it comes to intriguing West Coast NCAA teams, the Washington Huskies aren’t the first that come to mind. With a ton of transfers in and out of the program, there’s a world where Wesley Yates III comes in and shatters expectations from day one as a top offensive option. At the same time, Mike Hopkins’s loyalty to his senior-laden roster and Koren Johnson’s presence could stunt Yates III’s earlier attempts at a breakout.
Evan: There are two things Mick Cronin hates: having fun and trusting freshmen to play a significant role in his rotation. That terrifies me for incoming Spanish wonder kid Aday Mara. This is by no means an indication of how I feel about Mara, I love his upside as a unicorn big. However, between Cronin failing to give him adequate opportunities to showcase it and having to compete with a defensive dynamo like Adem Bona for minutes, I struggle to see how Mara makes himself worthy of a top-five pick this season.
4. The shiny new thing is always the most enticing to go after, but there is always a ton of value in older prospects. Based on their previous college seasons, which returning player are you most excited to watch and has the best NBA potential?
Stephen: I don’t know if anyone should be allowed to say anyone other than Adem Bona. He would be on an NBA team right now if he would have been alright with being selected later than he will likely go in 2024. While I am super excited to watch his rim-running and rim protection, I am anxiously waiting to see the Bona/Mara tandem.
Maxwell: I’ll zag a little bit and go with Kobe Johnson. The man makes a ton of plays on the defensive side of the ball. Offensively, he has wiggle and creativity attacking the basket. After improving his jumper last season and having a great year at the free throw line, I’m optimistic about his shot. The phrase “connector piece” gets thrown a lot, but he can be that at the 2-spot for an NBA team if his three-ball keeps progressing. He can move the ball in a variety of ways, attack, and guard.
Albert: Kobe Johnson is also my guy here. I’m a big believer in his spot-up shooting and the intagibles that he brings to the floor. Johnson is an electric cutter and always knows where to be on the floor. He’s a really good rebounder that is relentless on the offensive boards. He’s an awesome defender that causes ball handlers a ton of headaches who averaged over two steals per game last season. He shot 85% from the charity stripe last season and is another reason why I’m such a big believer in his shooting. I see a ton of Josh Hart in his game and I think he’s going to be the perfect compliment next to Isaiah Collier this seasons.
Nick: Adem Bona is the clear pick for me, but since I’ve already answered with Bona for another question, I’ll go in a different direction here. Kobe Johnson has just the right kind of versatile skill set to explode this season with Isaiah Collier running the show, and his two-way play could shine brightly with so much of the spotlight squarely focused on USC this season.
Rucker: Maxwell is onto something with USC’s Kobe Johnson, but there’s no way I’m passing up an opportunity to praise the big fella at UCLA. Adem Bona has the chops to be the best defensive big man in college basketball next year. After an impressive freshman year, Bona tested the 2023 draft waters, but was unable to participate in workouts due to a shoulder injury. Many are going to wonder how the pairing of Bona and spanish freshman big man Aday Mara will work. But Bona’s high motor and defensive ability will be tough to keep off the court for Mick Cronin. If Bona can continue to be a dominant defensive force while being a beast around the basket, he’s going to have plenty of NBA teams intrigued.
Metcalf: I’ll go with Jaden Bradley. Bradley was electric at Alabama last season and should provide some much-needed pace, athleticism, and rim pressure at the point for Arizona. The question is what does the shot look like? If it’s workable and something the defense at least has to respect, Bradley could be one of the biggest additions in college basketball.
Rowan: I too am in on Kobe Johnson as the prime candidate to break out. He’s a great wing athlete, plays zealous perimeter defense, can stripe shots from deep, is a willing passer, and can put the ball on the floor when he needs to. There may not be a more versatile player in the whole draft class when it’s all said and done.
Evan: I’m going to go with Jamiya Neal out of Arizona State. He only got the chance to start one game a season ago, but I expect that to drastically change in his junior year. Neal’s a springy athlete that excels in the open floor and as an off-ball threat offensively. He has shot just 26.1% from the three-point line during his two seasons with the Sun Devils though, which is concerning. However, if he can improve on that and flourish with more opportunities to showcase what he can do as a playmaker, there’s a chance Neal sneaks into the latter portion of the draft.
5. Whether it’s Anthony Edwards dropping 37 points against Michigan State or Austin Rivers ripping the heart out of UNC fans or De’Aaron Fox vs. Lonzo Ball, fans are provided with mesmerizing matchups and performances every season. Which matchup, whether team vs. team, player vs. player, or player vs. team, are you most looking forward to?
Stephen: This conference has so many matchups that will be exciting, but I think the matchup between Arizona and UCLA will be fascinating. Both teams have rosters that have so many potential NBA players.
Maxwell: USC vs. UCLA for me. I think it’s particularly interesting because USC is more guard-heavy, and UCLA has a lot of skilled players with size. Is Aday Mara quick enough for the next level? How does Isaiah Collier deal with size at the rim? We’re going to get answers to a lot of big questions in that one.
Albert: I just want to see what UCLA looks like against the conference as a whole. I think it’ll be really interesting to see how they integrate all the new guys coming in with their returners. It’s going to take them a couple of months to really get going, but by the end of the season they could be an interesting team to watch. A guy that I don’t see talked about a ton is Ilane Fibleuil. He’s a really interesting wing prospect that might actually get some playing time this season. As much as guys like Vide and Buyuktuncel will get a ton of the attention, Fibleuil could have just as much of an impact.
Nick: USC vs. UCLA. Isaiah Collier, Bronny James, and Kobe Johnson attacking the paint with Adem Bona and Aday Mara lurking down low for UCLA? Sign me up, all day every day.
Rucker: You want to get nuts? Come on, let’s get nuts. Oregon vs Arizona has the makings to be an absolute bar fight. Oregon is going to have a team that could be an absolute wildcard in this conference with the likes of Kwame Evans, Jackson Shelstad, and Mookie Cook. That trio going up against a scrappy Arizona team should be entertaining, to say the least.
Metcalf: UCLA vs Oregon. There are prospects, there’s size, there’s athleticism, and there’s a high possibility for extreme incompetence from at least one participant. It has all the ingredients for a tremendous college basketball game.
Rowan: I’ve got to go with USC vs UCLA as well. Six prospects on my top 60 Ouija Board are playing in this game and with two-plus games between the teams, we’ll get to see how each prospect adjusts to the matchup on the second go-around.
Evan: UCLA vs. Marquette in the Maui Invitational on November 20th. This matchup is a pro prospects galore.