Champions Classic Quick Reactions
Our own Corey Tulaba was at Madison Square Garden scouting the event up close, so Nathan Grubel from Draft Deeper asked him to help give some quick thoughts on opening night's main event.
As I wrote about in the first edition of The Morning Dunk, there’s no better event to bear witness to on opening night than the Champions Classic.
The set of games that rotate each year between Duke, Kentucky, Kansas and Michigan State are naturally loaded with NBA caliber prospects so it’s mandatory to tune in.
But even better than flipping on the TV, No Ceilings’ resident expert of The DraftDaq Corey Tulaba was there scouting the event up close to get a feel for the physicality and emotions of top talents like Paolo Banchero and TyTy Washington.
Professor Tulaba and I wanted to give our reactions to the event and what to take away from a draft perspective, so we answered the questions below. One thing though is for certain: New York’s primetime showcase didn’t disappoint.
1. Across all four teams, which projected first-round pick impressed the most last night?
Corey: Banchero had me hooked from the jump. His first isolation spin move to draw a foul early in the game almost made me keel over. It was apparent from the opening tip that Banchero is one of those special upper echelon prospects. He had the aura ya know?
Guys his size aren’t supposed to be as fluid as he looks on the floor. And the versatility! One minute he’s bringing the ball up the floor, the next he’s posting up on the block, then he’s facing you up and knocking down a step back. While his contemporaries were beating up on lower level competition, he was giving a team like Kentucky that work. The kid looked like the goods.
Nate: Easily Banchero. I’ve struggled with definitely considering him a “Tier 1” prospect before the 2022 draft cycle, but a lot of those concerns were wiped away completely with tonight’s performance against Kentucky. The raw stats of 21 points and 7 rebounds were good, but it’s how he generated those points and bent the defense to his will possession by possession. The spin moves to get inside, his navigation of double teams, the shot making from the elbow. Banchero did so much to separate himself on a big stage offensively, but even defensively he had some great stands and showed flashes of legitimate instincts and awareness as a rim protector. When Banchero gets more minutes as a center for Duke, college basketball should be very afraid.
2. On that same notion, which projected first-round pick didn’t live up to expectations?
Corey: I guess I’ll go with AJ Griffin. It’s not that he had some terrible game that left me rethinking my position on him as a prospect. He was completely fine in his very limited minutes. His raw box score numbers obviously don’t stand out, but he’s coming back from his injury, Duke looks loaded, and it was game one. I just expected a little more from him, as he’s a projected top 10 pick and I really believe in him as a prospect. The good news is that other guys had it going and he didn’t break out of the offense to try and get his. I think it was just one of those “500 Days of Summer” expectations vs reality moments for me.
Nate: Washington certainly didn’t have a great night shooting the basketball, and was off the court for long stretches in the second half when Kentucky actually made a run to claw back from being completely blown out. Overall he shot 3-14 from the field and had some lapses making decisions with the ball in his hands as well. I’m not going to hold a ton against him as he’s so used to creating freely and not playing next to another lead guard who needs the ball like Sahvir Wheeler, but not the debut the scouting community was hoping for. I’ll throw Mark Williams on this answer as well because he was a non-factor for the majority of the game outside of a few nice blocks near the end. Williams was in foul trouble almost from the start, and never got it going offensively while letting Oscar Tshiebwe out muscle him on the glass on both ends of the floor. Hopefully he’ll bounce back in a big way, but tonight he didn’t look like a first rounder in 2022.
3. Which prospect emerged on the big stage last night that you didn’t expect to be talking about this early on?
Corey: Trevor Keels man. I know that Banchero was the story but Keels really stole the show. Rising to the occasion under the bright lights of the Garden is no joke and the dude went out and truly had himself a game...a moment. What really really stood out so much was his pace and patience. He was always in control. Any time he had the ball in a decision making situation, the Kentucky fans near me were nervous. There’s something special about this kid, I can’t wait to see more.
Nate: I’m also going with Keels on this one. We’re coining the phrase “All The Keels” over here at No Ceilings, and for good reason. The powerful guard had his way inside the arc, bullying Kentucky’s guards every trip down the floor. His frame is stacked, one of those guys whose muscles have muscles. I would pay a handsome amount of money to see him and his “brother” Luguentz Dort on the same team. His defensive impact on the perimeter combined with his willingness to score and create down the stretch have me wanting to see more. One of the best plays I saw him make was when Kentucky doubled him at the free throw line and he passed over both defenders to the cutting big down low for the easy deuce. If Keels keeps playing like this he’ll skyrocket up boards well into first round consideration.
4. Who will you be most eager to watch closely as the season progresses based on insights gained from last night’s action?
Corey: I’ll be monitoring Washington. I was a little bit iffy on him coming in for a few reasons. First, UK guards have mostly been mediocre at best in Cal’s system in recent years. Second, I don’t believe in his handle at all. This is seemingly a not so minor problem because he struggles to create space. When he does create a little space it turns into a dribble jumper. I do buy the shot making to an extent, but can he leverage that shot making ability to get some paint touches when it’s not dropping? That’s what I need to see the rest of the way.
Nate: Max Christie. The Michigan State wing didn’t burst onto the scene like either of Duke’s physically gifted freshmen, but the 6’6” shooter didn’t disappoint on multiple fronts. Christie was willing to move and get himself open for perimeter shots, and he sat down in a stance for the majority of the contest and guarded to the best of his ability. His game isn’t “sexy” because he didn’t flash any high-level creation ability, but when he got free along the baseline and almost floated the ball in I was left curious with what he could potentially do with more opportunity as the season goes along. I’m in on him being worthy of first round consideration despite only shooting 3-10 and will anxiously await more signs of progression from him in the games to come. Other names that I want to see more of moving forward include Kansas’ Dajuan Harris, Bobby Pettiford and Christian Braun as well as Michigan State’s Marcus Bingham and Duke’s Griffin.
5. Was there any specific performance last night that you’d point to and say this is “fool’s gold” for better or worse?
Corey: I thought the way that most of the NBA prospects played tonight was fairly sustainable actually. Williams blocked shots, Christie knocked down some shots, Paolo was a destroyer, and Keels and Ochai Agbaji got buckets. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Keels or Agbaji are going to be guys who drop twenty-five plus points consistently, but it’s also not like they were just out of their minds hot either. They played within themselves and made the most out of their opportunities. That’s what good players do.
Nate: Maybe I’m just a massive skeptic, but I’ve always had questions about Agbaji and exactly what he can handle at the NBA level. Is he capable of volume shooting from the wing? Can he create for himself off the bounce and reliably get to the rim? What happens if he diligently works on his handle to help him on the path to better success in both of those areas? We got a sneak preview of that against Michigan State. Yes Agbaji put up a career-high 29 points on 9-17 shooting from the field, but it was how he did it that really got me wondering if this is what we can expect moving forward or if he feasted on a Michigan State defense that communicated poorly and wasn’t up to the challenge of opening night in Madison Square Garden. Agbaji’s highlight play for me wasn’t even a bucket. When he made a move around the back to keep his dribble alive and get to the basket to draw a foul, I was left wanting so much more. He had multiple drives where he clearly was more comfortable with his handle, and if that wasn’t “fool’s gold” then he could very well climb into first round territory in 2022.
BONUS QUESTION: Being at the Champions Classic in person, were there any other takeaways you have seeing some of these prospects up close?
Banchero believes that he’s THAT dude. His facial expressions and body language after some of his offensive possessions gave off some major alpha vibes. He’s not gonna be intimidated by any situation and he’s always gonna think that he’s the best player on the floor. Banchero walked into a hostile Garden crowd and owned it.