Cam Whitmore's Promising Debut | The Morning Dunk
After a long-awaited debut, Cam Whitmore helped spark Villanova in a win against Oklahoma. Our own Nathan Grubel explains what Whitmore's early play could mean for the top of the 2023 NBA Draft.
College basketball is truly beginning to deliver on the front of the 2023 NBA Draft.
Meaningful debuts have occurred all year long for one of the more highly touted freshmen classes in recent memory. In an early stretch where few have struggled to find some sort of footing around the country, there were still a handful of names who either were coming back from injury or had yet to set foot on the court.
Dariq Whitehead and Dereck Lively have been up and down at Duke, Nick Smith Jr. only had played but a few minutes in his “debut,” and Cam Whitmore had yet to lace them up after a thumb injury left him sidelined to start the season.
The storylines for the draft cycle are all coming into place, Whitmore and Smith being the latest to grace the beautiful landscape that is college basketball.
Top-shelf performances, big names, and big stages. Basketball fans live for these moments. In a way, scouts do as well. The NBA is filled with drama and suspense on a nightly basis, and its top performers have to be able to live up to the hype and shine under the spotlight.
It’s too early in the process to write any definitive conclusions on prospects, but I’m thankful that the best players are starting to craft their own narratives on the court, not off it.
So with that being said, it’s time for me to move around the scouting world and give an update on the best stories and insights from the last week. And there’s nowhere to start but with the thrilling debut of Mr. Whitmore.
Cam Whitmore’s Promising Debut
Never judge a statistical performance by its cover.
Because if one were to draw conclusions simply from the 19-minute box score reading, it might be taken that Cam Whitmore’s debut was slightly underwhelming in relation to expectations of a potential top pick in the draft.
But context is always key, and with this being Whitmore’s first action after being sidelined for a few months due to a preseason injury, it was important to see a few things in his game that extend beyond what kind of stats he was able to pile up.
In Villanova’s 70-66 win against Oklahoma, Whitmore finally got the opportunity to suit up and show the world why he was a highly touted recruit capable of potentially turning the season around for the Wildcats.
Were his minutes limited? Yes. Did he score in double figures? No. But did he look the part of a prospect who’s more likely to find his footing sooner rather than later on both ends of the floor? Absolutely.
Let’s get those numbers out of the way so we can talk about some specifics. Whitmore posted seven points and three rebounds; he shot 3-for-7 from the field, including 1-for-4 from three. Those are rather pedestrian statistics if only taken at face value, but I saw plenty of encouraging signs with how he looked on the court.
First of all, Whitmore looked HUGE out there on the floor. Listed at 6’7” and weighing in at 232 pounds, Whitmore is a combo forward in every sense of the phrase. He has the explosive first step to create from the wing, while also having the toughness and brute force to post up or guard other forwards around the basket. He’s one of those athletes you can watch for 30 seconds and just chuckle, knowing that he belongs playing a level up from where he is in college.
But it wasn’t just about the power with Whitmore. As a matter of fact, there were a few missed shots where he was able to get into the body of the defender but couldn’t finish the shot. There’s a little more to say about his touch in relation to the shooting, but offensively he wasn’t quite the battering ram we’d expect him to be, at least not out of the gate.
What really separated him at different points in the game was his speed. Breaking down the floor in transition and getting the step on his man on a baseline drive, Whitmore has talent that can’t be taught when it comes to explosiveness.
In the NBA, it’s hard to create for oneself or for others without the ability to break down the man in front and get to the next level of the defense. Asking someone to do that from the wing, rather than in a ball screen-centric offense, is even more of a tall order because guys aren’t pushovers in the league. Defenders can keep their man in front, and they know what angles to take away from opposing drivers.
With a prospect like Whitmore, however, that’s easier said than done. Guys bounce off him because of how strong he is, and that will continue to be the case at the college level and likely as he continues to improve his body in the pros. Factor in his speed, footwork, and body control on drives, and it’s difficult to keep Whitmore in front or from finishing once he gets to the basket.
And that’s why yesterday’s driving game was the only real disappointment to me when putting everything together. Physically he looked excellent, and from the high school tape, I know enough of the handle is there. But Whitmore didn’t take more opportunities to drive and get downhill. He was much more content to pull up for jumpers, which leaves me unsure if there was possible hesitation due to this being his first game back or more of an open willingness to try and prove he can shoot the ball.
Nevertheless, I want Whitmore to USE his physical gifts to his advantage: leverage his size and explosiveness to hunt for contact, get to the line, and establish physicality around the rim. I saw too little of that against the Sooners, and scouts are likely to call for that part of his game to emerge much more often moving forward. Because when he’s aggressive, he quite literally can change the game for his respective team.
Speaking of jump shooting, I mentioned that was a part of his game that was on display and evident. Whitmore’s first make of the day was a step-back three that he connected on after a few misses beforehand from range. He looked good making it, as he was balanced and square, and the release was in line and with a clean motion. Mechanically, I’m buying Whitmore’s jumper more than the numbers would indicate from his debut. But settling less for those shots and focusing more on being a bully at the forward spot will set him up for success as he builds his game (hopefully) inside-out, not the other way around.
Passing-wise, there’s not much I can dissect from one game to determine just how good of a playmaker he can be off quick actions. From what I saw in the high school film, I think the ability is there, but it will be up to Kyle Neptune and the coaching staff to put Whitmore in sets where he can make a decision off the initial drive.
Defensively, I was actually really pleased with what I saw from Whitmore yesterday. It’s difficult to score through and over him as it is, but Oklahoma wasn’t able to take advantage of him away from the ball, either. Whitmore’s help defense and instincts were incredibly well-timed, and he forced a number of turnovers (three steals) and missed shots to get his team going in the right direction.
If Whitmore can play passing lanes as he did against the Sooners, that’s a major boon to a team that already plays a close-knit, communication-oriented scheme. An athletic playmaker who can actually execute, handle, and finish on the break is just what the doctor ordered for the Wildcats, especially when he’s so aggressive to hunt for any opportunity where he can come up with the ball.
On the ball, Whitmore has the size and recovery ability to play against ball handlers in pick-and-roll. When Oklahoma tried to put him in a ball screen, he could get through and react to contests and make life difficult for the opposing guard. Also, should Villanova want to switch those actions, Whitmore can play the roll and shut off any easy looks around the basket.
Versatility is king in the NBA, and on both ends, Whitmore has the tools to contribute in a number of key ways, especially if the shot is falling. Three-level scoring potential, switchability, rebounding, and playmaking instincts. That entire package is on the table for one of the more powerful players in the country at his size.
Yes, I was able to take away ALL OF THAT from 19 minutes of action. Always watch closely and never assume a player can’t prove potential just from the box score alone. Whitmore’s debut was as promising as I could’ve hoped for, and as he gets acclimated to college basketball, I can’t wait to see how he continues to grow and expand his game moving forward.
He looked the part of arguably the best NBA prospect in college, and he has the tools to separate himself from the rest of the pack.
Nick Smith Jr. Adding Much More Than Depth
Arkansas is one of the most talented teams in college basketball, with size, speed, and defensive ability all over the place.
Anthony Black, Jordan Walsh, Ricky Council IV, and Trevon Brazile are all legitimate candidates to be drafted in the first round in 2023, should everything break right with their respective games. Outside of that quadruple threat, there’s even more size and experience at multiple positions.
So what could the Razorbacks possibly need more of to contend for a national championship?
Well, every great team can always use more depth. However, getting Nick Smith Jr. in the mix isn’t just “adding depth” to help the starters; Smith is a starter himself. As a matter of fact, he’s very much so in the mix with guys like Cam Whitmore, Jarace Walker, and Brandon Miller as the best pro prospect in college basketball.
Adding a potential star is an incredibly scary proposition for the SEC and every team that could stand in the way of the Razorbacks come March.
And boy, did he show why in the Arkansas win against San Jose State.
After playing only a few minutes against Troy, Smith got much more of a green light in game two for him, scoring 16 points in 24 minutes. It wasn’t just the fact that he took 14 shots and looked comfortable doing so, though.
As was the case with Whitmore, it’s all about what we can find on the tape to justify any sort of statistical case. And believe me, there’s a lot to like.
Before the year started, Smith was pegged as a top pick candidate because of his 6’5” size at the guard spot, along with his bounce, shifty nature, and pull-up scoring capability. Teams are always in need of big shot-makers who can create separation against pro-level defenders. In high school, Smith put those abilities on display and then some, leaving scouts wondering just how high his ceiling could be.
We saw some of that ceiling on Saturday, as Smith wasn’t shy to let everyone know he is healthy and ready to help his team pile up wins like no tomorrow.
What I’m sure a lot of folks were hoping to see from Smith was him dancing with the basketball, pulling up out of isolations, and showing off the type of isolation scoring that was referenced prior. I, however, was delighted to see that the damage was done by Smith off a lot of catch-and-shoot reps.
Spotting up, catching, and finishing with a floater: Smith showed a number of examples of touch, with his buckets coming within the flow of the offense. Hunting for easy opportunities is one thing, but Smith was ready when the ball swung around to him. He didn’t try and assert himself within the offense. He took what was provided and what the defense gave him. Sometimes, that’s all a scorer has to do, and Smith looked damn smooth letting it happen.
A true combo guard, Smith can also make plays for others and did so yesterday with five assists to ZERO turnovers.
If Smith wasn’t immediately shooting the ball, he was stepping up and driving to set up his teammates. Naturally, defenses have to respect Smith’s scoring ability because he has a floater and pull-up package. The threat of the score pulled the defense towards him, leaving opportunities for teammates like Brazile and Black.
Eventually, we will see Smith get his dose of pick-and-roll offense; for now, as he’s getting acclimated with his teammates, it’s nice to see him fit around what everyone else is doing well. That’s something that NBA teams will want to see as well, as rookies are generally asked to complement others before taking on more of the lion’s share of the reps on offense.
Smith’s even-keeled, selfless nature on Saturday speaks to one hell of an upside. That performance was one that could allow him to fit in anywhere on any team, and I certainly don’t think this was the last time I’ll utter a sentence like that about Smith.
Again, Smith isn’t just adding depth to an already good team. He’s bringing qualities that can fit in with any lineup that’s out on the floor. Complementary players are fun, but potential stars mean much more. Smith is that good, with plenty of room for improvement and added responsibility in the games to come.
Kris Murray Making Keegan Proud
The Keegan Murray train was quite the thrilling ride to be a part of during last year’s draft cycle.
If you thought that was a one-time deal, buckle up.
Keegan’s twin brother Kris Murray has made his mark on college basketball, leading the Iowa Hawkeyes in many of the same categories that Keegan did just a year ago.
Averaging 21.0 PPG and 10.6 RPG, Murray has cemented himself as an incredibly productive and effective wing for a good Big Ten program.
His 31.3 PER, with shooting splits of 51.4/40.5/84.6, has gotten the attention of many scouts, myself included. But there were some signs of a potential breakout last year, which left some to question if he should’ve just declared for the 2022 draft as opposed to coming back for another season.
Murray is an older prospect, after all, as he’s already 22 years old as a junior. But his age shouldn’t hinder his prospect case too much, as he’s ready to step in and play a role NBA teams are always looking to fill.
Offensively, Murray is a play finisher first and foremost. While talent scouts always want to see wings be able to generate their own offense at a high level, that’s not the case with Murray unless he has a clear line drive to the basket.
While he’s not the greatest at creating space, just like Keegan, Kris is confident in what he knows he does best, and he doesn’t waste time making decisions with the basketball. Whether it’s shooting immediately off the catch or ripping and driving downhill, Murray sees the floor on offense and always has a plan for how he can score effectively.
Shooting-wise, his mechanics are consistent and leave me with zero questions as to how good of a shot-maker he can be in the NBA. Murray’s release point and follow-through are always on line, and he squares his body well off the move. Also, when he’s looking to shoot from a spot-up, Murray’s feet and hands are always set and ready to give himself a chance to make it regardless of the distance.
Is he one of those guys who can serve as a hub on offense? No, but sometimes it’s harsh to knock a prospect too hard for what they aren’t. More often than not, players are tasked with playing a role offensively, not taking over and doing whatever they please within the flow of the game.
Murray’s job is to catch the ball or move without it to position for easy, efficient offense. And he does that as well as a number of other wings who will be evaluated for the upcoming draft. I do still want to see further development from a passing perspective when he’s run off a spot, but Murray had a few nice flashes of ball movement in Iowa’s win against Georgia Tech, where he dropped 31 points and 20 rebounds. Murray’s four assists in that contest should be a great place to start for teams looking for better playmaking from the 6’8” shooting machine.
Capable of backdooring defenses, posting up in similar ways to Keegan, and shooting a confident ball whenever he touches it, Kris has all of the tools to keep filling up the box score for Iowa. I love his willingness to get after the boards on both ends; if there was one main similarity between the two brothers, it would be their nose on the glass.
Defensively, Murray’s outlook is a bit more of a mixed bag. I still don’t think he’s terrible on the ball, or off it, for that matter. However, he doesn’t have quite the same playmaking capabilities as Keegan that helped to mask some of the slower lateral mobility in terms of individual man defense.
And just like his brother, Kris isn’t the fleetest of foot. He can be beat off the bounce, and he isn’t always guaranteed to recover well and still make a play on the ball. I do like his ability to read, react, and rotate to help contest shots around the basket, but he’ll have to be better defending on the ball at the NBA level if he wants to consistently play a starting role.
Regardless of how many minutes he plays or if he’s a starter or high-level bench asset, Murray’s case as a draft prospect is starting to look as clear as Keegan’s, even if he doesn’t end up going in the lottery.
NBA teams want big wings who can shoot and learn to play defense within a team construct. Murray’s floor feels like a fairly high one, and I wouldn’t rule out more playmaking developments in his offensive game. To me, Murray looks the part of a Top 20 pick come June.
Marcus Sasser, Houston: Despite a rough outing on Saturday against Saint Mary’s (really, the entire Houston team struggled), Sasser did have one heck of a performance earlier in the week, scoring 25 points and hitting seven (!!) threes in a big win for the Cougars against Norfolk State. From an efficiency standpoint, Sasser’s season has been hit-and-miss. But looking at his overall production, impact, and leadership, it’s hard to deny that Sasser has been one of the best guards in the country, supporting one of the best teams in the nation. From an NBA perspective, there aren’t too many other backcourt threats in this class who can defend their position like Sasser can while also having the microwave ability to drop 30 on any given night.
Bruce Thornton, Ohio State: Speaking of guards, Thornton is standing out as a possible one-and-done candidate, which is more than I would’ve said about him before the year kicked off. While only taking just under seven shots per contest, Thornton has splits of 51.9/50.0/100 for Ohio State as a freshman floor general. Even though Thornton shares the playmaking duties with Isaac Likekele, he’s made the most of his opportunities which speaks heavily to his character and maturity to take the reigns of those responsibilities so early in his career. The 6’2” prospect reminds me a lot of Raymond Felton given his poise, pace, and built frame to withstand contact on both ends of the floor. If his shooting keeps up at this rate, you’ll hear his name start to come up as a guy for the 2023 draft.
Tucker DeVries, Drake: I take zero credit for any shoutouts regarding DeVries, as I wouldn’t have known about him if it wasn’t for my Draft Deeper co-host Maxwell Baumbach. Before I put together my first big board, Maxwell said he had a draftable grade on a guard from Drake with one of the best shooting strokes in the nation. Athletic concerns set aside, DeVries has shot the hell out of the ball this year, posting 55.1/44.9/83.3 splits while scoring 21.3 PPG. His deep range, supreme confidence, and undeniable swagger have made this mid-major darling a threat to not only go in the second round in 2023, but to also potentially challenge for a first-round pick depending on how many names stay in the draft as we continue to move towards May and June.
Coleman Hawkins, Illinois: Another No Stone Unturned darling in the country, Maxwell’s main man Coleman Hawkins posted a triple-double earlier in the week in Illinois’ win over Syracuse. And despite it being in a losing effort, Hawkins followed up that performance with an efficient 16 points and seven rebounds against Maryland in the upset. Hawkins looked as though he was the only player for the Fighting Illini who could generate looks for himself or others in the upset loss to the Terapins, adding credibility to his draft case. Outlets such as ESPN have Hawkins as a first round talent as recently as the prior week. I’m not as high on Hawkins just yet, but he’s absolutely a real NBA prospect who deserves attention.
Reece Beekman, Virginia: Beekman is a known commodity among draft enthusiasts, as the 6’3” junior guard got preseason buzz as a potential draft candidate, but I for one didn’t see the sizzling stock coming on at least this early in the process. Craft, confidence, and efficiency are the pillars of Beekman’s case as a draftable backcourt playmaker. But forget draftable, as much of the same attention Coleman Hawkins has gotten over the last few weeks Beekman has also seen in spades. There is a fairly sizeable contingent of scouts and evaluators who see Beekman as a real threat to go in the first round. Again, there are a number of prospects at this stage I would rather still take a flyer on than Beekman, but the similarities are there between him and another player I was fond of, Jared Butler. No, Beekman doesn’t have the same elite handle, and not everyone is a fan of his shot mechanics. But Butler won big games at Baylor because of his patience, footwork, touch, and hellish point-of-attack defense. Beekman has those same traits, and he is also helping a good program in Virginia live up to any and all expectations as an undefeated team in the country.
Amari Bailey, UCLA: After struggling to start the year in relation to expectations, Bailey has come on strong after a good week scoring the basketball. Pouring in 19 points in two of UCLA’s last three games, Bailey has found his touch from the outside as well as around the basket. He plays with good paces, changes speeds, and can hit a variety of floaters and runners. Bailey even has size at 6’5” to take smaller guards into the post. The lefty point guard looks much more comfortable overall and should be right back in conversations as one of the better PG prospects in the nation.
Olivier-Maxence Prosper, Marquette: Two Marquette prospects really caught my eye in the team’s game against Baylor earlier last week, starting with Prosper. The 6’8” forward has a number of interesting tools in his bag from an offensive perspective, but there’s no question he’s a defensive-minded player. Prosper was everywhere against the Bears, constantly switching and handling all sorts of different matchups. He’s rangy, long, and moves his feet quickly. Prosper’s draft stock comes back to how well he can shoot and score it to justify the minutes at the next level, but he’s found ways to face up his man and get downhill for efficient offense. He’s a sleeper name to keep an eye on throughout the draft process.
David Joplin, Marquette: Another much less heralded name for the Golden Eagles, Joplin popped off the screen for me with his picturesque shooting stroke. Joplin’s mechanics are consistent and smooth, even if they’re a tad slow at times, with perfect arc on every shot. That being said, though, depending on how much space he has or if he needs to stop and shoot it off the bounce, Joplin has shown the ability to change his release speed and still knock down a variety of shots. While he’s not an above-average defender, the 6’7” wing is still a big body to contend with and can make plays within a team scheme. And even though he’s not a self-creator or high-level passer, NBA teams are always looking for wings with size who can shoot the heck out of the ball. Joplin fits the bill, and his efficiency across the board should be noted by other scouts and executives.
Jalen Pickett, Penn State: Last but not least, Pickett fits the bill as a deeper-cut prospect to monitor in the Big Ten. The 6’4” guard for Penn State is averaging 16.1 PPG, 6.6 RPG, and 7.6 APG, sporting an assist-to-turnover ratio better than 4:1. Pickett takes care of the ball, limits mistakes, takes good shots, and plays within himself offensively. Even in two games where he hasn’t shot the ball well enough from the field, he’s been able to drop dimes and keep the offense moving for the Nittany Lions. A fifth-year senior, Pickett won’t be a name too high on draft boards BUT is a candidate to get plenty of looks for Summer League and training camp opportunities.
5 Games To Watch This Week
12/6, 7pm EST: Texas vs. Illinois - Fewer guards have looked better at their peak so far than Tyrese Hunter. When his game is on, he’s hitting pro-level shots, navigating off screens, and finding teammates all over the floor while playing impressive defense in the backcourt. There’s no question he’ll spend time on Terrence Shannon Jr.—someone who has also had a great start to the year. As he’s been in recent games, Coleman Hawkins could be the difference maker against a patchwork Texas frontcourt.
12/6, 9:30pm EST: Duke vs. Iowa - I’ll be incredibly interested to see if Kris Murray can keep the hot start rolling against a Duke team with multiple bodies to throw at him at the forward spots. Even if Kyle Filipowski and Mark Mitchell aren’t lighting the world on fire defensively, their offensive skill sets will make Murray work on defense, so we’ll see how much he has in the tank as the main threat for Iowa. Tyrese Proctor is still a good name to watch, as he looks more comfortable each time he steps on the floor. And the Blue Devils are still waiting on Dariq Whitehead to put everything together offensively.
12/7, 9pm EST: Florida vs. UConn - The Connecticut Huskies have been superb in the early going, looking like a complete two-way team to contend with. Between the surprising shooting stroke of Adama Sanogo to complement his efficient post game, and Jordan Hawkins surging from deep, UConn has one of the better one-two punches in the nation. However, Florida has a number of defense-first wings and forwards that will be raring to go in a tough matchup. Alex Fudge is as versatile as they come defensively, not to mention a capable playmaker. Will Richard has quietly had a pretty good two-way season as a name to keep track of for the 2023 draft. I would expect both of them to get time on Hawkins and look to shut down his perimeter attack.
12/10, 3pm EST: Houston vs. Alabama - I have this game circled twice on my calendar, as it’s one of the better prospect matchups in the non-conference slate. Jarace Walker and Brandon Miller seem to be two sure-fire lottery picks in June, yet both have different strengths. Walker is one of the better defensive forwards who uses his brute force and athleticism to his advantage. Miller has taken a liking to long-distance offense, as his shooting has helped build out the other parts of his offensive game, including some playmaking flashes. Both will have to have significant impacts to help their teams pull out a win. Two other names to watch in this one: Marcus Sasser and Noah Clowney.
12/11, 4pm EST: Notre Dame vs. Marquette - “Sleeper City” is my name for Marquette, as not only does the team have two prospects I wrote about earlier in Prosper and Joplin, but Kam Jones has also been one of the better stories at the guard spot. The 6’4” scorer has been on a HEATER of late, with seven straight games of scoring in double figures. He has a tough test against freshman standout JJ Starling and the Fighting Irish. Both teams have the talent to get a win, but it will be determined from the play of those two backcourt talents.