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Draft Deeper's Top Risers: Post NBA Draft Combine Edition
Our own Nathan Grubel goes through the top prospects who have risen the most in his eye after NBA Draft Combine performances as well as through his own personal deep dives.
After a fun month of action between the Portsmouth Invitational, G-League Elite Camp, and the NBA Draft Combine, we’re buckling in for one hell of a stretch till June 22nd.
We’ve reached the portion of the year where pro days, workouts, and ultimately the intel that comes from said events are vital to the scouting process. A few prospects have already benefited greatly within the public space from exposure during the aforementioned pro days, and draft ranges for the majority of guys feel predictable after the combine.
So this is generally a great time for scouts to look over their big boards and finalize evaluations and grades on players if they haven’t done so already. Again, intel will dictate placements up until a certain point, as players can still withdraw from the draft. But with workouts and interviews well underway, teams and executives are narrowing down the players on their boards who they’d wish to select with their respective draft picks.
With that being said, I’ve also come to conclusions on my own personal board, meaning my rankings are done. The No Ceilings crew at large is still making sure they’ve scouted every last ounce of tape and have talked to their fair share of personnel, but I feel set in where I’m at with the 2023 draft class.
That means it’s time to share who the players are who have risen up my board the most over the last few months. In previous editions of this column, I’ve highlighted some of my personal favorites, and have covered a large number of prospects in general.
This isn’t to be mistaken with the piece I will release next week detailing “my guys” for this cycle. Rather, this is the collection of players who helped themselves the most at the end of the season and through the pre-draft process so far.
Let’s start with a player who has the entire draft space buzzing given the fireworks display he put on in his pro day.
Dereck Lively II, Duke
5.2 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 1.1 APG, 2.4 BPG
65.8/15.4/60.0 Shooting Splits, 22.6 PER, 66.2 TS%
If you purely take a look at Dereck Lively’s counting stats, there isn’t a ton to point to outside of his blocks per game that stands out amongst his peers.
But scouting is about far more than just the surface-level numbers. When watching back the tape, seeing what he’s accomplishing at the combine and from his pro day workouts, and talking to other scouts and personnel about him, it’s clear Lively has folks captivated regarding his potential.
And I’m in full agreement.
At the beginning of the season, Lively wasn’t getting the types of opportunities his top ranking in his high school class would’ve dictated. Lively looked out of place from a strength perspective and struggled to defend at a high level on the interior against other bigs. He wasn’t rebounding, scoring, or playing aggressively up to the standards he set prior to Duke, leading to many evaluators rocketing Lively down their respective boards.
No Ceilings didn’t take so kindly to his play early on either, as he also fell in our composite rankings.
So what changed for Lively as the year went on? When did he flip the switch and prove to scouts he deserves a shot at the lottery?
February 4th. Duke against their bitter rival North Carolina. Lively showed EVERYTHING he was capable of as a player: rolls to the basket on offense, quick decision-making, passing off offensive rebounds, strong effort on the glass on both ends, and a RIDICULOUS display of shot blocking with eight (!!) swats in ONE GAME.
Lively’s size at 7’1” with his bounce, second jump quickness, passing instincts, and rim protection give him advantages over a large number of other centers in this draft class outside of Victor Wembanyama.
When comparing him to players like James Nnaji and Adem Bona, both have excellent physical tools, motors, and toughness of their own to point to. They don’t have the vision and anticipatory skills that Lively does, and neither are QUITE as vertical as him even though they have more strength than he does.
But the most impactful reason as to why he has vaulted right back into the lottery conversation is the outside shooting display that he’s put on over the last month.
In workouts and combine settings, Lively has drilled jumper after jumper from distance. He attempted a few for the Blue Devils, but only converted at a 15% clip. Given how fluid he looks just a few months later, it’s clear he should’ve been given the green light on more of those attempts as it could’ve drastically changed his draft outlook much sooner than the month of May.
Lively’s baseline production is already impressive given his physical tools. He can run the floor in transition, roll to the basket, make plays off rebounds and in short roll situations, and cut for easy finishes. The ground he can cover defensively along with his recovery and verticality on block attempts give him natural talent advantages over a number of other big men in his archetype. Throw in the potential to space the floor from range or knock down jump shots off those short rolls? Lively’s staring at a different type of upside offensively if that happens.
When I study Lively’s early-season production, he fell short in areas in which he either showed improvement (court awareness, timing, and flow within the offense) or he’s likely to add to at the next level in terms of his size and strength. His build suggests he could fill out in a similar manner to Anthony Davis, even if his shoulders aren’t quite as broad.
The sky could very well be the limit for Lively. Before the year started, I pointed to his movement and fluidity and said if he is able to develop in a number of areas from a skill perspective he could rival the package of an Evan Mobley in time. After reviewing his tape, even though he likely won’t develop the same handle or ability to make plays off a live dribble, there are so many elements to his game in which he could become just as impactful.
I fully believe he deserves to be drafted in the lottery, and if all the recent buzz is to be trusted, it’s becoming more clear that’s where his stock is headed.
Kobe Bufkin, Michigan
14.0 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 2.9 APG
48.2/35.5/84.9 Shooting Splits, 19.2 PER, 57.8 TS%
Perhaps no player has captivated more of my interest after a recent deep dive than Kobe Bufkin.
There’s a large contingent of draft fans who have begun to fiddle through all of the declared prospects in hopes to build boards for their favorite teams that have dubbed themselves the “Bufkin Boyz.”
I am putting in an application to join said membership group, as I too am enamored with what Bufkin can do on both ends of the floor.
For starters, his measurements at the combine were a plus in his favor, as he stands over 6’5” in shoes. Even though he’s not the longest point guard prospect in his class, he does have the size to play both guard positions in the NBA, and his game does speak to him having true combo ability.
But evaluating a prospect is more than just soaking up any combine data available, the tape has to be up to snuff in order for me to move someone up my board at this stage.
The word around Bufkin’s game is that he doesn’t have any GLARING weaknesses to point to that will hold him back from developing into a starter-level or greater backcourt threat in the league. That sentiment became truer the more I watched.
Starting with his game in the pick-and-roll, Bufkin took over more of the offensive responsibility after Jett Howard’s ankle injuries took a toll on the type of role he was able to have. Bufkin eventually stepped into a higher scoring role, and did a lot of damage playing in ball screen offense. His timing coming off of picks, sound decision-making on when to accept or reject the screen, and understanding the cadence that needs to occur within that play type to deceive defenders is excellent for someone who is likely to play in a similar role at the NBA level.
Knowing when to snake, blow by, stop and pop are all important to making the most out of the pick-and-roll set as a lead ball handler. Hunting for mismatches, exploiting switches, and knowing not only HOW to take space but what to do WITH it are all things Bufkin has in his bag. His pull-up jumper is legit, he can convert on tough floaters in the lane, and the angles he’s able to create and utilize given his proficiency of getting his defender on his hip and shielding the ball on rim finishes are exactly what guards need to take over games at a high level.
Bufkin isn’t a high-flying finisher, but his craft and awareness give him advantages still as a below-the-rim finisher. He has a better handle than given credit for, and his first step is better upon review than I initially thought.
Able to knock down spot-up looks from the wings, corners, and elbow areas, Bufkin’s shot variety plays well into the type of upside he could have as a primary, secondary, or tertiary option within an NBA offense. He’s shown capability from all levels, and his knack for playing passing windows correctly in terms of the types of passes he can throw and placement allows him to keep the offense moving when defenders collapse and put him in a tough spot from a scoring standpoint.
Defensively, Bufkin has the chops to defend in screening actions, as he gets low in a stance, flips his hips well to contain drivers, and recovers well if he’s blown by off the bounce. Generally, he’s not put into a ton of those situations though, as he understands when it’s best to stop crashing through and take the switch to play a different angle.
Not to mention his awareness away from the play to jump passing lanes or rotate to help his teammates contain penetration. There are some plays where Bufkin isn’t quite as locked in as he could be, leading him to play defense from an inopportune position, but I didn’t come across too many of those moments on tape. He’s an aware defender in the backcourt, and given how he’s able to cover ground, defend in pick-and-roll, and contest and close out on shooters, I’m buying he will be able to defend both guard spots at the next level.
Bufkin will have to continue to get stronger to finish through defenders given he won’t finish over them, and he still needs to prove the shooting he’s shown is a consistent improvement across the board. But his COMFORT level in operating from all different areas of the floor offensively, on top of his instincts and awareness on both sides of the ball separates him from the rest of his peers.
He’s not talked about enough with Anthony Black and Cason Wallace as options for lottery teams in need of floor generals like the Washington Wizards or Utah Jazz, but he absolutely should be in play. Bufkin has one of the higher upsides at his position if he hits, and compares favorably to a cross between Mike Conley and D’Angelo Russell at his peak.
Do yourself a favor and go back to study the Bufkin tape if you’re on the fence about where to rank him. He’s among the Top 15 guys on my personal board, and I have a feeling he’ll continue to rank favorably at No Ceilings as well.
Leonard Miller, G-League Ignite
16.9 PPG, 10.1 RPG, 1.7 APG, 1.0 SPG
53.6/30.4/79.2 Shooting Splits, 19.8 PER, 63.2 TS%
From preseason up to now, there haven’t been too many players who have risen up my board quite like Leonard Miller.
Miller declared for the 2022 NBA Draft despite not having a ton of exposure. He elected to play at the combine, and unfortunately didn’t live up to expectations as a 6’10” playmaking forward who could space the floor and score off the bounce. Miller was clumsy with the ball in his hands, wasn’t ready to shoot at the level he needed to, and struggled to defend due to lack of strength.
From that point, it was clear to me that I wasn’t buying in at that moment in time, and I elected to rank him just outside the Top 45 prospects on my board before he withdrew his name and signed with G-League Ignite.
And boy, was that the BEST thing he could’ve done to enhance his resume and build on important skills for his future in the NBA.
In joining a team like Ignite with real competition in front of him in the G-League, Miller embraced a role that was much different than the one he played in high school.
Gone were the countless number of possessions ending with him making decisions with the ball in his hands, as he was a secondary creator playing off capable guards at the top of the floor. Miller became a roll threat, cutter, offensive rebounder, and spot-up player who thrived in a lesser role.
Even though Miller wasn’t tasked with doing everything within the offense by himself, he still found plenty of opportunities to score, crash the glass, and produce for his teammates.
Averaging a double-double against professionals, Miller turned out one of the most productive stat lines amongst his current draft peers this past season. And even though some still have questions about the jump shot and his position, I’ve come away not nearly as concerned about his NBA fit as I once was.
To start, I’m buying into his jumper continuing to improve because of the touch he displayed on baseline looks, floaters, and from the free throw line.
In recent workouts and at the combine, Miller showcased an improved base and follow through on his shot leading to cleaner makes. He’s still figuring out the best release point for his shot, but he’s bringing the ball up at a better angle and squaring himself to the basket more consistently than I’ve seen in the past.
As a roller or ball handler in pick-and-roll, Miller has untapped upside as a creator. He’s able to take larger matchups off the bounce, and face up against and score over smaller guards and wings. As a distributor, Miller has underrated vision to find guys in halfcourt settings. Once he gets up to speed with the pace of the NBA game and develops a better balance between when to score vs. when to pass, Miller could eventually walk into the league as a triple-double threat nightly, because his rebounding ability is arguably his best skill currently.
On both sides of the floor, Miller is vicious on the glass. His unquestionable motor, leaping ability, and length help him track down rebounds that other guys either can’t get to or won’t put forth the effort to get them before Miller. And given that he’s proficient in grab-and-go transition offense, racking up defensive boards only fuels his strengths and makes his team that much more dangerous.
Speaking to what he can do defensively, Miller could serve to be a real problem on that end for opposing teams. While not the primary rim protector one wants to guard around the basket for 40 minutes a night, Miller gets his hand on shots and plays passing lanes to force turnovers. His lateral mobility allows him to keep up with guards and wings, and he competes against other players his size and larger. Sure, there are centers that can score over him but Miller improved mightily at standing his ground and contesting looks, not just giving up fouls because he was eager to try and make a play on the ball.
As he fills out the rest of his large frame, and refines his ball handling, decision-making, and shooting mechanics, Miller has one of the highest ceilings of any forward or big man in this entire draft class. Given that he’s found a way to impact the game as a glue guy, Miller will earn the playing time needed to round out the rest of his skill set.
Whether it’s as a small-ball center, complimentary forward, or tertiary creator, Miller’s versatile game will find a home at the next level. At some point in the lottery, teams are going to give him a long look as a piece to build with for the future. Organizations like the Dallas Mavericks, Oklahoma City Thunder, New Orleans Pelicans, and Utah Jazz make a ton of sense at picks 10, 12, 14, and 16 respectively.
That’s the range he currently sits in on my personal board, and I have a feeling he’s not done climbing up the No Ceilings composite rankings either.
Sidy Cissoko, G-League Ignite
11.6 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.0 SPG
43.5/31.4/64.6 Shooting Splits, 10.8 PER, 57.4 TS%
Speaking of prospects who really helped themselves within the Ignite program, Sidy Cissoko also showed some great improvements as the season went on.
Initially, the 6’7” forward came in with a lot of promise as a big wing who could create offense and defend multiple positions. While he lived up to some of those premises early on in terms of consistent defensive intensity, Cissoko wasn’t the type of scorer and shooter he needed to be in order to take full advantage of his passing gift.
And believe me when I call it a gift. Cissoko’s live-dribble passing is up there with some of the best playmakers in the class regardless of position. His timing, delivery, and velocity on his passes opened the eyes of plenty of scouts during the G-League season and helped his teammates convert on a number of different opportunities.
Whether it’s at full speed in the open court, or off baseline drives and ball screen actions in the halfcourt, Cissoko found ways to keep the ball moving and dish some flashy assists. While I wouldn’t say he’s ready to come in and play a full-time role in pick-and-roll sets, as someone who can bring the ball up the floor and make plays when his own offense breaks down, Cissoko is still a valuable wing to have on the floor in that regard.
So if he can dribble, navigate traffic, and pass through tight windows, how is he not a stronger pick-and-roll operator? Because his scoring is still behind the other parts of his game.
Unable to convert efficiently from a number of areas on the floor, some of Cissoko’s shot attempts were well off the mark on runners, rim finishes, and jumpers. Cissoko does have touch as was indicated by the fact he still managed to hit on 30% of his threes on the year. But his approach to taking shots and the angles he took to the basket could stand to be improved upon.
The good news for Cissoko in that regard is the fact that a lot of players coming into the league have to improve their jumpers, especially from distance. Over the last five seasons, rookies who have played at least 100 minutes have shot the ball at a 29% clip from deep, meaning that few are actually setting the nets on fire on those looks. Cissoko’s spot-up jumper already looks better from recent workouts in terms of his release point and follow through, so as long as he continues to work on keeping his elbow in and releasing from the same point consistently, that catch-and-shoot element to his game should help him play the minutes he deserves to play given his other strengths.
There just aren’t many wings in this class who can potentially defend 1-4 while also doing a little bit of everything on the offensive end. His ceiling as a two-way talent is fairly high so long as he can iron out his efficiency as a scorer. While I have him one spot outside of my personal Top 20, Cissoko has an argument to go higher, and there are some fits in particular like the Miami Heat (pick 18) where I could see him thriving in the long term.
Cissoko is a fascinating NBA prospect and one who has stood out to me as someone who belongs in the pros.
Ben Sheppard, Belmont
18.8 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 2.9 APG
47.5/41.5/68.4 Shooting Splits, 21.8 PER, 58.2 TS%
A month ago, if someone would’ve said Ben Sheppard could go in the first round of the 2023 NBA Draft, that person might’ve gotten a side eye from the rest of the community.
That premise is no longer as unlikely as it once was, as Sheppard turned many heads at the combine for the better.
In his second game, Sheppard dropped a cool 25 points, scoring nearly everything he looked at while hitting on a variety of shots. It wasn’t just that the jumper was on though. Sheppard converted at the basket, made plays out of pick-and-roll, and defended multiple backcourt positions.
At 6’6”, Sheppard has real size as an off-guard. Given that he has the speed and movement patterns of a lead playmaker, Sheppard’s skills as a secondary creator are very useful for a team that requires a little juice next to its lead ball-handler. That part of his game was something that was under-explored by many in the community before the combine, but for those who paid attention to Sheppard’s draft prospects all cycle long, those flashes didn’t come as a surprise.
On the year at Belmont, Sheppard rated out in the 84th percentile scoring out of screen-and-roll sets, and his effectiveness only went up when throwing in passes, as that rating scored in the 89th percentile. Able to deliver pocket passes and lobs coming off screens and working out of handoffs, Sheppard’s vision is the perfect complement to any guard who also thrives spotting up and nailing shots off the catch or cutting to the basket.
And when Sheppard doesn’t have the ball in his hands, he’s an excellent threat at relocating, squaring up, and firing as soon as he gets the rock. His movement shooting is up there with some of the best in this class, meaning he has versatility offensively that few guards can boast.
Sheppard is an older player who hasn’t converted looks at a high level in the painted area both off runners and when he gets all the way to the basket, but everything outside of the paint is well in his wheelhouse. Given his combine performance though, Sheppard proved he can make baskets around the rim when he has an open runway. Given that he hasn’t played with the same level of spacing as he got to at the combine, that part of his game may still have some untapped potential to work with.
As a team’s fourth or fifth option offensively with some secondary or tertiary playmaking responsibilities, Sheppard could thrive in a movement-oriented system which is what a lot of high-level teams want to play because it’s harder to scout a limited number of sets going into the playoffs.
Any contending team should give Sheppard a long look, even if that means taking him over some higher-upside prospects late in the first round. I currently have an early second-round grade on him, and it’s likely not long before that kind of rise is reflected in the No Ceilings composite rankings.
Adama Sanogo, UConn
17.2 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 1.3 APG
60.6/36.5/76.6 Shooting Splits, 30.0 PER, 64.8 TS%
Last but certainly not least in this column is a big man who I previously didn’t expect to keep his name in the 2023 draft, yet that seems to be where we’re headed as we march closer to June.
Adama Sanogo is an accomplished winner in this field of players coming off a national championship at UConn. The 6’9” center had a spectacular season as a scorer, rebounder, and overall interior presence for the Huskies, but I had real questions about what he could bring to an NBA team.
His rebounding rate isn’t quite where I’d want it to be for a true big man, his block rate compares with that of a smaller forward, and even though he’s improved at the charity stripe, we still don’t have the largest sample size suggesting that Sanogo will be a consistent threat to space the floor. There are a number of parts to Sanogo’s game that felt like too much of a “bet” a month ago.
Then some of the workout rumors started leaking out about what Sanogo has been determined to prove to scouts. Factor in how he played at the combine, and it’s clear to me Sanogo can in fact find a home in the league as a stretch 4/5 in the mold of an Isaiah Stewart.
While not the greatest shot blocker in the world, Sanogo does contest shots and throw guys off in the post because of how strong he is. Factor in how he’s always quick to turn, adjust, and box out opponents to clean the glass defensively, and Sanogo should still have value defending at the rim. Away from the basket, one of the things mentioned regarding Sanogo’s primary focus was his ability to defend in space. Sanogo’s mobility, awareness, and competitiveness were on full display in Chicago, as well as on the tape when I went back and watched more carefully.
Sure, one would prefer Sanogo to be more of a protector around the rim, but given how he can keep up with different matchups and wall off/deter certain drivers from finishing at the basket, Sanogo checks multiple boxes as someone who can play next to a primary shot blocker, especially given that he’s continued to show sign’s he’s going to shoot it at the next level.
Put a bigger matchup on Sanogo, and he can space you out from three. Find someone who is a little more mobile who can close out on those looks, and Sanogo can pump fake, put it on the floor, and post up said defender if he’s able to recover. There’s more polish and finesse to Sanogo’s game than I initially gave him credit for given his feet, meaning he has tools in his bag to score at multiple levels.
While I wish I saw more evidence of playmaking feel at a higher level, Sanogo isn’t a bad passer by any means. He wasn’t asked to make a ton of plays for the Huskies, as when he got the ball in the post usually his job was to turn and convert over his left shoulder. But in handoff situations, I’m buying Sanogo’s ability to play a two-man game and make teams pay out of the short roll in time.
There are certain matchups in which Sanogo could be played off the floor. I’m not projecting him to start full-time and be a major steal in the draft. But he’s proven to me that there likely aren’t 60 guys in this class better than him, meaning he’s worth a swing in the second round by a team that needs additional size and spacing in the frontcourt.
And at the end of the day, it’s always smart to choose winners in the draft. Sanogo has found great success at UConn, and I would expect that same attitude and willingness to do the little things to carry over to wherever he finds himself next in the pros. He’s moved into a very draftable range on my personal big board.