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Ariel Hukporti and Greatness in Simplicity | The Prospect Overview
Melbourne United's Ariel Hukporti has excelled as a finisher and rim protector. That's quite meaningful! PLUS: Mid-Major Game of the Week and loads of Quick Hits!
Feature: Ariel Hukporti, and Greatness in Simplicity
Burgers and Analytics
I love cooking. Specifically, I love cooking burgers. Slightly before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I got really into the work of George Motz. He’s a burger historian, which is my backup plan if this whole scouting thing doesn’t pan out. For nearly 20 years, Motz has done work across a variety of mediums (movies, television, books, and more) about burgers. When I first stumbled upon his work, I was drawn in by the more over-the-top, outrageous burgers he covered. Burgers stuffed with cheese, burgers with donuts for buns, burgers topped with pastrami—the wild stuff.
As I began to cook many of these burgers on my own, I came to the same conclusion that Motz himself reached—the best burgers are often the simplest. In particular, Motz and I both share an affinity for the Oklahoma fried onion burger. You start by taking a ball of meat, seasoning it, throwing thinly shaved sweet onions on it, and then smashing it onto a scalding hot griddle. When you see juices rising, flip that sucker over, throw some cheese on it, and top it with the bun to soak up the steam. It’s a basic, easy-to-prepare burger that’s done in minutes, but it’s fantastic. The flavor of the beef is front and center, the cheese brings some extra salt, the onion brings some sweetness, and the bun soaks up all the grease. As Motz notes, the grease is the condiment.
With burgers, it’s easy to be tempted by gaudiness. But sometimes, a burger is better on paper than in actuality. What should be innovative and exciting ends up being a messy disappointment. Occasionally, it’s best to stick with what you know gets the job done. The same is true in basketball. And right now, few are getting the job done quite like Ariel Hukporti.
There are a few reasons I wanted to cover Hukporti this week. The first is that, well, he’s been really good this year. The second is that his being really good is a bit of a surprise, as he looks better than ever despite missing nearly all of last season due to a ruptured Achilles tendon. His return from injury didn’t just see him return to form; it’s seen him get even better. Lastly, the data makes a strong case for Hukporti as an NBA player.
I’ve done a lot of data research over the last year for a series I’ll be doing on No Ceilings +. I want to be clear about one thing—a numbers approach to basketball is far from infallible. There are always going to be exceptions to the “rules” in ways both positive and negative, and disregarding or hand-waiving film is a foolish approach. The things numbers don’t account for, like motor, movement patterns, physicality, and work ethic, all matter a substantial amount. That said, looking at trends and patterns can be helpful in determining which players have a chance to stick around the league. When looking at big men, I found two traits that were extremely common in big men who had, or are on pace to have, long-term NBA careers:
In their final pre-draft season, they were good at scoring around the basket in the halfcourt.
In their final pre-draft season, they were good at stopping other people from scoring around the basket in the halfcourt.
Wow, a groundbreaking discovery, right? It’s boring, and it should be obvious, but doing those things well prior to coming to the NBA is a great indicator of success for big men.
Ariel Hukporti is Good at Scoring Around the Basket in the Halfcourt
Hukporti is averaging 9.7 points per game in only 18.8 minutes per game while shooting 62.7% from the field. He maximizes his time on the court in terms of both effort and efficiency. His motor doesn’t shut off. He’s also posting 8.7 RPG (second in all of the NBL), a preposterous number given the number of minutes he plays, and 3.5 of those are coming on the offensive glass. Hukporti has no problem doing the dirty work and cleaning up his teammates’ misses. He’s not just a garbage collector, though.
What stands out most about Hukporti is how great he is at executing the simple parts of a pick-and-roll as a big man. He always makes contact on screens, leveling opponents with his 7’0”, 250-pound frame. His willingness to dish out punishment, paired with his understanding of which angle to set the screen at, aids his ball-handler in creating an advantage. From there, the opposing second level defender is forced to make a tough decision—cut off the ball-handler and risk losing track of Hukporti, or give the guard too much space. Hukporti consistently rolls hard to the rim, leaps with power, and uses his massive catch radius to snare lobs before sending them home with fury.
Hukporti is also comfortable operating out of the dunker spot. He knows where to position himself off the ball and how to sneak behind back-line defenders as a way of getting open. His face-up game has improved, too. He’s shown greater comfort putting the ball on the deck and countering his opponent. On the block, he’s demonstrated a higher level of patience than in the past if he doesn’t get the look he wants right away. This combined skill set has allowed Hukporti to convert on 72.2% of his halfcourt shots at the rim this past season. That would be a stellar number for a college senior in their final pre-draft season, but he’s doing it in a professional league renowned for its physicality. You don’t get much more legitimate as a finisher than Ariel Hukporti.
Ariel Hukporti is Good At Stopping Other People From Scoring Around the Basket in the Halfcourt
Ariel Hukporti feels like he shrinks the court for the opposing team. His hulking frame makes opponents leery of driving directly into him, and his 9’3.5” standing reach would have been the third-best at this past NBA combine. He’s comfortable against screens, whether he’s showing, playing at the level, or dropping back. Even if he gets switched, he’s more than capable of holding his own. He moves backward well and can recover to his man in a hurry. If he gets strung out and has to guard in space, he moves well for his size and doesn’t cross his feet when sliding. While a lot of big men can look like pogo-stick leapers from a standstill, Hukporti also boasts the ability to soar out of a sliding motion, which helps him significantly in switched-down predicaments. Even opposing big men struggle with his size, going 1-for-6 on post-ups against him this season.
A standout skill for Hukporti is his hand speed. He’s like the Roy Jones Jr. of basketball. Hukporti tracks the ball well, but few big men are quicker to stick their hands up and swat the ball. It’s uncanny how in sync he can be with his opponent as they launch a hook shot or floater. This allows him to reject 1.2 shots per game, which ranks fifth in the NBL as of this writing. Again, he’s doing this in 18.8 MPG. He’s the starting center and anchor of the league’s best defensive team, a team that has an 8-2 record in games he’s played. Opponents are shooting a dismal 27.7% at the rim against him. In a world where young big men routinely struggle to hold their own at the professional level, Hukporti has the best defensive rating in the NBL. Whatever indicator you want to use for future NBA success on the defensive end of the floor, Hukporti is meeting that mark and then some.
Areas of Upside
Look, as much as I love the Oklahoma fried onion burger and its simplicity…I’m not going to lie, it’s even better when you add some extras to it. Get a little paprika garlic mayo in the mix or throw some pickles on there, and it all goes to a whole different level while maintaining its efficient, simple base. Hukporti could do the same to his game.
Hukporti’s biggest issue right now is that he struggles with turnovers, averaging 2.2 per game to only 0.7 APG. Many of these are the result of him playing too sped up and with too much physicality. He’ll find himself rushing to get to a spot on the floor and travel or try to find a passing read too quickly and throw the ball out of bounds. He gets whistled for a lot of offensive fouls, whether it be for a moving screen or because he got too overzealous when he had the opportunity to punish a mismatch. His face-up game lacks polish, and he’s not the best at putting the ball on the floor. If Hukporti can slow himself down a little bit and tighten up his handle, he’d be a much more complete, and more dangerous, offensive player. Right now, he’s best as strictly a play finisher.
Ariel Hukporti is not a unicorn. He is not going to dazzle spectators with dribble combinations, nor is he likely to drain threes at a high clip at any point in the future. Of the centers who played over 15 minutes per game in the NBA last season, few had negative assist-to-turnover ratios. Hukporti might not be the most mesmerizing prospect, and he does need to make improvements to his decision-making process. But something I’ve learned in the evaluation game is not to overlook players who are great at elements of the game that will be critical to their NBA role. Is Hukporti a limited playmaker? Yes. But is he going to be asked to make a lot of plays? No, and especially not out of the gate.
Let’s focus on what Hukporti can do. He’s going to set excellent screens. He’ll catch and convert lobs. He’s going to protect the rim. His frame, lateral agility, and leaping ability will allow him to play in different types of ball screen coverage. So many prospects have struggled in the NBL, but Hukporti is anchoring the league’s best defense and scoring efficiently. As I said at the beginning of this article, one of the best indicators of NBA success is finishing at a high clip while stifling attempts to finish on the other end. Ariel Hukporti is doing that. Even more impressive, he’s doing it after missing almost an entire season due to injury. Come draft night, teams should be strongly considering what Hukporti brings to the table. The allure and the deceptive illusion of upside trips up many teams deeper in the draft. Few upside gambles have returned value in the second round over the past six years. Often, the well-executed, straightforward item on the menu is better than the complicated idea of one that pops off on Instagram. Ariel Hukporti isn’t food, though. His opponents are, and he eats them for lunch.
Mid-Major Game of the Week
This week’s Mid-Major Game of the Week (as voted on by you, The Sickos) was St. Mary’s vs. New Mexico. Unfortunately, it wasn’t much of a game, as the Gaels routed the Lobos 72-58. It was much less competitive than the score indicated, with St. Mary’s leading by over 20 points with 15 minutes to go.
No one contributed to the dominance of the Gaels more than Aidan Mahaney. The sophomore 6’3” guard scored 25 points on 19 shots and came out of the gates scorching. Mahaney has always been a bucket, and he proved it again on Thursday night. He’s got soft touch in the mid-range and floater area, and he’s a lights-out shooter from deep. He hit five threes against New Mexico, and only one was a standard spot up. The others were off the dribble, off screens, or dribbling off of screens. If the defenders in a ball screen don’t find a way to get a hand in his face immediately, he’s going to pull up, and there’s a good chance he’ll put points on the board.
A key improvement area for Mahaney will be finding a better balance of playmaking for others in his game. He falls victim to tunnel vision at times, which can lead to forced looks and missed opportunities. I feel a bit more optimistic coming out of this game. After his hot start, he leveraged defensive attention to whip a nice live-dribble pass to a cutter. Later in the game, he got into the paint and dropped a cross-body dime that was placed perfectly, leading his teammate to the basket. If he can be more of a well-rounded offensive guard, he’ll add to his appeal. I’m generally leery of guards, especially given where the league is going. Mahaney needs to become a more consistent passer and a more potent defender. He’ll also need to fill out his frame. The good news is that he has several more years before he has to worry about that next level. Plus, his shot-making foundation and shooting confidence make for an intriguing base.
Sadly, New Mexico was without Jaelen House, who is their best “this year” prospect. Another guard shined in the light of House’s absence—Donovan Dent. The 6’2” sophomore had 15 points, five assists, and three steals. He’s speedy and slippery, but he still knows how to play at different speeds and decelerates well. He worked hard on defense to try and get his hands on the ball as much as possible. He’s got a short memory, too, and responded to a rejection at the rim by relocating out to the perimeter and draining a three. Again, it’s tough for guards these days. Dent has to fill out his body, but his poise, athleticism, and playmaking savvy make him worth keeping an eye on.
Long term, the guy who played that I’m most interested in is JT Toppin. The 6’9” freshman didn’t have a wild stat sheet performance for the Lobos, but he had some eye-popping moments. He’s big, moves like a pro, and plays hard. He had a giant block on Augustas Marciulionis in the second half. A four-star recruit, Toppin has the tools to be a great play finisher and a versatile defender. The southpaw airballed his only three-point attempt on Wednesday, but if he can add some range to his shot, he’ll be impossible for NBA teams to ignore.
Next week’s Mid-Major Game of the Week will be Weber State vs. Yale! Make sure you’re following me on Twitter/X to vote in future polls!
-Every year, I feel like there’s one freshman who immediately makes me say “whoopsie” for not respecting them on my initial board. I’d like to apologize to Yves Missi, who looks awesome. The 6’10” Baylor freshman is a big-time mover with an NBA body and an awesome catch radius on lobs. His body control, whether it’s staying in bounds for a loose ball or having to slide his feet on defense, appears outstanding. His length, agility, and want to have enabled him to post four steals and five blocks through two games. If he looks, moves, and plays like an NBA center…he’s probably an NBA center.
-An interesting development: I loved Trey Alexander last season but had some concerns about his athleticism. He only dunked twice last season. This year, he’s already matched that total after two games. Even better, both of those jams came off one foot in the halfcourt after coming off a curl. He also appears to be getting better lift on his mid-range J. You love to see it.
-While his counting numbers may not have popped, I thought Silas Demary Jr. had an encouraging debut for Georgia. The 6’5” freshman guard showed confidence in his shot when opponents went under ball screens. His ability to change speeds and play with shiftiness both translated well to the college level. Demary also threw a nasty high pump fake at one point and could be a Sir’Jabari Rice Pump Fake Artist of the Year Award candidate if he keeps that up. I also loved the intensity he showed on defense. He hounded his man and played tight. Even if he got called for four fouls, he’ll learn. I’d much rather see that mentality and scale it back than deal with a lack of want-to or aggressiveness.
-UConn’s Alex Karaban pieced up Northern Arizona for 22 points in his first appearance of the season. He’s coming off a strong shooting season, but his low, hitchy release always left me a little puzzled. If Monday was any indication, it’s time to stop sweating that. He also looked leaner, moved better, and got off the floor with an easier second jump. If the skilled 6’8” redshirt sophomore keeps it up, he should be firmly entrenched in the 2024 conversation.
-Micah Handlogten may be ready for the big time sooner than I expected. While covering him for my No Stone Unturned series, I noted concerns about his skinny frame. At 7’1”, Handlogten still looks thin at 235 pounds. But that didn’t hold him back against Virginia, as he racked up 14 boards, including six on the offensive glass. His touch shines through, whether it’s on a tip-in, baby hook, or quick tap pass to an open teammate. Handlogten also knocked down two triples in the season opener against Loyola Maryland. If he’s still producing against high-level opponents, and if he truly is expanding his range, Handlogten could be a 2024 guy.
-A few weeks back, I wrote about sophomores who could step up. The guy on that list who popped the most to me in week one was the 6’4”, 210-pound Roddy Gayle Jr. While Gayle has gone 0-for-7 from deep to start the year, I like how aggressively he’s seeking his shot. He also appears to have taken a massive playmaking leap. After posting a barely positive assist-to-turnover ratio last year, Gayle has 11 assists to five turnovers to start the year. It’s especially impressive given that the Buckeyes faced a Texas A&M squad that excels at forcing opponents to make mistakes. Gayle’s had some mesmerizing, heads-up deliveries and has steered away from forcing passes through non-existent windows. If the shot gets back on track, and I think it will, there will be a lot to be excited about.
-While a loss to Princeton was far from an ideal start to the year, Rutgers big Clifford Omoruyi still had some nice moments. Omoruyi measured with a 7’6.25” wingspan at G League Elite Camp, and the senior has athleticism to spare. As such, his swatting four shots wasn’t a surprise. I also thought he better anticipated double teams and made some nice passes. Already a proven finisher who can defend in multiple schemes, adding some playmaking to his game could do wonders for his draft stock.
-Kentucky has loads of interesting players, but I’m excited to track Reed Sheppard. The 6’3” freshman is a menace defensively, guarding up tightly on the ball with excellent hands at the point of attack. He’s also always talking on that side of the ball and covers ground well for his size. He feels bigger and more imposing than his listed height. Through two games, he has five steals and four blocks. Add in a real-deal three-ball, and he could have a path as a 3-and-D guard despite his athletic limitations.
-Three schools. Two back-to-back missed seasons due to a medical redshirt. His sixth college season. He’ll be 24 and a half on draft night. Still, I think there’s a real chance Blake Hinson crashes the party and gets into serious conversations by the end of the season. At 6’8” with a strong body, the Pittsburgh forward has limitless range and is a high-volume shooter. He went 38% from deep last year and is on a similar path yet again. Older prospects like D’Moi Hodge and Taylor Funk have still managed to get a foot in the door, and I think Hinson might be next.
-Don’t sleep on Oumar Ballo, who showed continued improvement against Duke on Friday night. The burly seven-footer looked a little better guarding in space, and he’s a force on the interior on both ends. He’ll decimate smaller opponents on the block, and penetrators trying to get to the rim bounce off his chest. Ballo is also cleverer than he gets credit for when it comes to passing and using his hands to generate steals on defense. Sure, he’s not the most mobile, and he’s older. But Ballo’s raw power and finesse are an enticing combination.
-I attended the Barstool Sports Invitational in Chicago on Wednesday and wanted to give some love to two players who popped there. The first is Florida Atlantic’s Vladislav Goldin. Now, if you saw their Final Four team, you’re probably like “wait, that guy?” Yes, I swear, yes. The 7’1” big man played a phenomenal game and looked like he could be at least a future Portsmouth invitee. He’s moving better in space, and his defensive instincts were sharper than iron. Loyola Chicago couldn’t get anything easy inside against him. When he gets the ball, he can either finish with soft touch or make a savvy passing read. Even when defenses collapse on him, he stays poised and limits his mistakes. His screens are nasty, and he doesn’t shy away from physicality in any sense. Big Bad Vlad finished with 19 points, 10 boards, five blocks, four steals, and two assists.
-In the second game, Trey Fort threw me for a loop. The 6’4” guard went from UT-Martin to Copiah-Lincoln Community College to Howard College (a JuCo in Texas) to now Mississippi State. After a circuitous journey, he may have finally arrived. Fort is a lethal shot-maker, capable of pulling up from deep or firing off the catch from long range. He’s got some real springs on him, too, soaring for blocks and boards. His shooting, paired with the hustle plays he made on Wednesday, definitely raised my eyebrows. It was my first time seeing him, so I still have questions about what he can do inside the arc and if he can make plays for others. But if he can show something in those respects, he may be onto something. On that same team, I have interest in Cameron Matthews as an E10 target. The 6’7” senior is a wonderfully versatile defender with a pro frame and endless motor. He’s got some passing juice, too. His jump shot has never been there, but if it even approaches respectable, I’d want to take a bite at the apple. He does literally everything else you could want.
-While smaller schools are often lambs to the slaughter during this part of the year, a few guys always make an impression. One was Dusan Neskovic, who put up 23 points for Dartmouth against Duke. He’s strong, has counter moves, and he’s an outstanding shooter. He went 42.4% from distance last year, and at 6’7”, that’s always appealing. His self-creation, power, and off-ball work rate add to the intrigue in this case. He’s a name to put in your back pocket.
-On a similar note, credit to Florida Gulf Coast’s Zach Anderson. A perennial stat-sheet stuffer, the 6’7” senior displayed great mental toughness and a short memory in a 19-point outing against Indiana. Even when things didn’t go his way or when he got his shot blocked, he never stopped engaging or going at the Hoosiers. He could make a real Top 100 push this season.
-The final step-up, small school guy for me was BJ Freeman. Another No Stone Unturned name, Freeman dropped 33 points and 10 boards against Providence on Saturday. There are few better bucket-getters than the strong-bodied, 6’6” prospect from Milwaukee. He uses his excellent footwork to get inside the paint, eats up contact to the line, and is a heads-up passer. There’s a draftable path for him at some point if he can continue to play tough defense, reel in his shot selection, and continue to improve.
-Since we opened with a guy playing in Australia, let’s close with a player from Australia, Anthony Dell’Orso. The slithery, hard-nosed 6’6” wing scored 35 points against East Carolina on Saturday. This comes after posting 17.9 PPG on 53.6/39.0/80.6 splits over the final ten games of the last season. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this smaller conference underclassman get scooped up by an NBL squad the same way Lachlan Olbrich was this past offseason.