Believing in NBA Draft Safety
There's no such things as a "safe" pick when it comes to the NBA Draft. But there are some players who could point the needle in the right direction for the 2023 class.
There is no such thing as a “safe” pick when it comes to the NBA Draft.
The harsh reality is that there are simply too many obstacles that have yet to be encountered. Teenagers are suddenly about to begin the next chapter of their basketball journeys. All of the extra hours spent working on their games, getting shots up until late into the night…it’s all been worth it to get the opportunity to hear their name called on draft night.
While it’s an exciting time for every crop of players entering a draft class, the realization of being in the NBA is about to hit like an emotional sledgehammer. NBA organizations are about to invest millions of dollars into teenagers from all different backgrounds. It will be a leap of faith for both parties. Teams will be hoping that they have done their homework and made the right choice when it comes to the future implications involving their new addition.
The NBA Draft is always a gamble. There’s a feeling of uncertainty that seems to float throughout the air this time of the year. Sure, there’s no such thing as a “safe” pick. But what if there’s a slate of prospects that could start to turn the needle in the favor of a team?
We find ourselves chasing this concept with each passing draft class. There’s always an assortment of specific players in a class in which we convince ourselves… “well, that kid could work with ANY team.” The ironic realization when it comes to that pool of players is they often go much later on draft night than they deserve. So why is that? Well, for one thing…they are usually older. Because teams are always hunting upside, there’s a common misunderstanding that older players, or upperclassmen, are finished products.
Here’s a list of some names that might offer “safety” when it comes to draft night. These prospects might not project extreme upside, but they deserve to hear their names called earlier than others might believe.
Colby Jones, Guard, Xavier
I’m willing to push all of my poker chips into the middle of the table for Colby Jones. It’s not just that I’m personally a big fan of Jones’s game. But I believe that there’s a chance Jones could be a leading candidate for the “who goes much earlier than expected?” While there have been plenty of mock drafts out there on the web that have mocked Jones in the 20-30 range, I would be surprised if he goes much earlier.
Colby is a player that should have the excitement of plenty of front offices. Jones has the physicality and tools to be an impactful presence on the court. One of the biggest knocks on Colby coming into the 2022-23 season was the fact that he needed to become a more consistent outside shooter. After shooting 29.2% from three-point range as a sophomore, Jones shot 37.8% from three this season.
The talented junior stands out as one of the smartest players on the court when it comes to his feel for the game. Jones ranked in the 91st percentile when it came to catch-and-shoot offense, posting an impressive 63.8 eFG%.
Players like Colby Jones don’t have NBA fans foaming at the mouth before the night of the draft. That’s until your team is on the lock and decides to turn in their card with his name on it. Then, you find yourself pumped out of your mind realizing you drafted this two-way guard that projects to be an NBA player for a LONG time.
So…why not get excited about him right now?
Kris Murray, Forward, Iowa
How the tables have turned. Last year, I found myself willing to go to war with most folks that weren’t in on the Keegan Murray Express. A year later, I found myself dealing with a cold chill down my spine in the middle of the night.
Is Kris Murray going to be a highway robbery in the first round?
Here’s the thing about Kris Murray. He’s had a similar story to his brother. Kris averaged 9.7 points per game during his sophomore season in 17.9 minutes. After his brother Keegan left for the NBA, it was Kris’s time to shine. He went on to finish the 2022-23 season with averages of 20.2 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks per game, all while shooting 47.6% from the field and 33.5% from three-point range.
Kris is an intelligent player who projects to be a heck of an addition for an NBA roster. His feel stood out this year, especially when it came to his touch around the basket. He projects to be an intelligent complimentary piece at the next level that has the tools to carve out a lengthy career. While Kris Murray might not project as a potential swing-for-the-fences upside pick, he might be a “double” that helps a roster on the rise get even stronger.
Dereck Lively II, Center, Duke
The fascination with Dereck Lively continues to build, especially after his recent showing during his Klutch Pro Day. Lively came into the 2022-23 season as one of the top high school basketball recruits in the country. He was projected to be a lottery pick heading into his freshman year with the Blue Devils.
It took some time for Lively to find his groove this year. After a preseason injury to his calf, Lively had to attempt to make up for lost time. The offensive game has often been teased when it comes to Lively. In Raleigh, the athletic big man was primarily used as a lob threat, despite the idea that Lively could start to sprinkle in a little bit of floor spacing upside. After a sensational second half of the season, Lively finished the year with averages of 5.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks per game in 20.6 minutes.
When you read those stats at first glance, you start to wonder why Lively would be considered “safe.” That’s because I believe there are a number of interesting factors here. This big man class is going to have plenty scratching their heads, especially after the French alien of Victor Wembanyama. Any time a prospect has the lofty expectation of being “the guy” in the high school rankings, it’s a weighted vest to carry around before your freshman year. Lively might not live up to the lofty expectations of being the top recruit in the country. But throughout his freshman year, I believe that evaluators and NBA scouts quickly realized something about Lively.
Maybe he’s just perfect for the type of role he can thrive in at the NBA level.
Lively isn’t going to be this big man talent that you slowly develop and force-feed in the post. But how many of those are even around in the modern NBA?
Instead, he’s going to be a big-bodied center with athleticism that has superior shot-blocking instincts and scary defensive versatility. That alone should put him in the conversation to get the curiosity of plenty of NBA front offices.
Julian Strawther, Wing, Gonzaga
As a sophomore at Gonzaga, Julian Strawther put up impressive numbers on a stacked Bulldogs team that featured the likes of Chet Holmgren and Andrew Nembhard. During the 2021-22 season, Strawther finished with averages of 11.8 points and 5.4 rebounds with shooting splits of 49.8/36.5/70.5.
Strawther decided to return for his junior season and took another step forward in his development. The 6’7” wing is a competitive grinder on the court who has a desire to make his impact on the glass on a regular basis. Strawther took another step forward with his outside shooting this year, extending his range to well beyond the parking lot. He finished his junior season with averages of 15.2 points and 6.2 rebounds on shooting splits of 46.9/40.8/77.6.
The talented junior has now become a serious potential weapon on the perimeter. Strawther ranked in the 92nd percentile on jump shots, the 93rd percentile on catch-and-shoot looks, and the 97th percentile on spot-ups.
We always seem to see an interesting run of types of players near the end of the first round. Some NBA teams look at the idea of adding a developmental project moving forward, especially if they have a deep roster as is. Others might look to add a stash candidate. But then there are the teams that look to attack the value on the board and add another serious piece to their rotation. That could be just what Julian Strawther turns out to be at some point on draft night.
Trayce Jackson-Davis, Center, Indiana
This is going to be an underrated storyline on the night of the NBA Draft.
After Wembanyama and Lively…who is the next big to go?
If someone is in love with Jackson-Davis, could he go earlier than expected?
On one hand, folks are going to look at Trayce Jackson-Davis and wonder if this can really work.
Personally, I would be shocked if it DIDN’T WORK.
The first cause for concern when it comes to TJD has been the lack of an outside shot. It’s been that way for years. Coming into his senior year, TJD looked to be a potential Player of the Year candidate. He was a productive force who did most of his damage around the basket. “If only the shot could just start to come around…” was a phrase many of us said at random hours in the night.
But that’s when another dimension was unlocked for TJD this year: his playmaking.
Trayce was an absolutely dominant force during the 2022-23 season, averaging 20.9 points, 10.8 rebounds, 4.0 assists, and 2.9 blocks per game. But it’s the leap he took as a playmaker that suddenly has him looking like a potential first round selection. With the dominance that TJD showed offensively around the basket with his feel and footwork, as well as some jaw-dropping shot-blocking ability, there’s a chance that some NBA team could be all-in on Trayce as a unique weapon. He ranked in the 90th percentile in halfcourt offense and 88th percentile in transition offense.
While TJD will have the “upperclassmen” tag, he’s also got the versatility on both sides of the floor to make him a heck of an asset.
Jaime Jaquez Jr., Wing, UCLA
While the love in the draft community has been quiet for UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr., you can bet that there will be plenty of NBA organizations intrigued with the skills.
Jaquez is an old-school type of hooper. He’s got some of the best footwork in this entire class and is a mid-range assassin. When you pair that with a strong basketball IQ and two-way feel for the game, you got something to work with. But Jaquez also has the mentality you want from a wing preparing for the next level. He’s an intelligent player who is willing to work to get to his spots or create opportunities for his teammates. He’s also not afraid of the dirty work, as he will battle in the trenches for rebounds at any given opportunity.
He’s been a consistent force for the Bruins throughout his collegiate career and is coming off a 2022-23 season in which he averaged 17.6 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. Jaquez is trending as the ever-popular “oh gosh, what a great pick” on draft night. That’s also the same situation in which we look back in two years and realize he skyrockets up the ranks in a “re-draft.”
Ben Sheppard, Guard, Belmont
I wanted to add a little bit of a “bonus” name here for fun. Belmont’s Ben Sheppard is coming off an impressive stretch. After a strong 2022-23 season, Sheppard stepped up with his showing at the NBA Draft Combine and was buzzing in NBA circles.
But how high can that buzz trend towards?
Sheppard is going to become a fascinating name now, as teams will be curious to get him in for workouts. But here’s an important reminder when it comes to the NBA Draft. Organizations will obsess with the buzz and idea of a player. For that reason, Sheppard could become a surprise name.
Let’s think about it like this. Today’s NBA is a flamethrower of offensive nirvana. Teams are hunting for floor spacing and microwave scorers who can come in and light it up from all over the floor.
Ben Sheppard During the 2022-23 season:
80th Percentile Spot Up Shooting
84th Percentile Pick & Roll Ball Handler
76th Percentile Transition
76th Percentile Off Screens
85th Percentile Catch and Shoot
92nd Percentile Jump Shots
Those are all VERY important categories in the eyes of NBA teams—especially teams looking for a potential “steal” of a player that could come in and improve their depth immediately. Sheppard checks the physicality boxes as well, as he measured in at the NBA Draft Combine at 6’5.25” without shoes.
Sheppard is coming off a year that saw him average 18.8 points and 5.2 rebounds, while shooting 47.5% from the field and 41.5% from three-point range. The upperclassman tag will once again scare some teams, but you should know exactly what you’re getting with Ben Sheppard. That realization, and the direction of today’s game, should make Sheppard a wildcard to continue to rise up boards.
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