Editor's Notes: Volume Four
Some breakdowns of prospects who have not gotten as much time in the No Ceilings spotlight this season: Kevin McCullar, Adem Bona, Julian Strawther, Andre Jackson Jr., and D'Moi Hodge.
With the second round of the NBA Playoffs underway and with the 2023 NBA Draft next month, the buzz surrounding the prospects in the 2023 NBA Draft is reaching a fever pitch. Fans of recently-eliminated teams have started to turn their eyes to the offseason, while the teams that were already sitting on the sidelines are looking ahead to the rapidly-approaching lottery night.
We here at No Ceilings have been covering these prospects for many months now, and we’ve written in-depth profiles on nearly everyone in this draft class. While we’ve made sure to highlight every player from the anticipated top picks to players who have already chosen to stay out of this year’s draft, though, there are always a few players who could use a bit more time under the sun.
Earlier this season, I tried out something slightly different from my usual Sleeper Deep Dives articles, covering some prospects who haven’t gotten much time in the spotlight on No Ceilings in Volume One of Editor’s Notes, and I followed that up earlier this year with Volume Two and Volume Three.
Today, I’m back to write about five more prospects who we haven’t highlighted as much on the written side. Some of these players will be potential first round prospects who we’ve only written about a few times, while other players will be more infrequently-discussed players who are further down most draft boards but are still worthy of discussion (at least in my mind).
Simply put: I have some notes. Let’s start by talking about one of the best defensive wings in the class who could easily see his stock skyrocket with a few good workouts.
Kevin McCullar was on the radar for the 2022 NBA Draft before he decided to transfer from Texas Tech to the Kansas Jayhawks for one more year of college basketball. While he might not have taken some of the offensive strides forward that some might have hoped for, and while the Jayhawks failed to make much noise in March Madness after winning it all last year, McCullar further solidified his case as a draft pick with his play at Kansas this season. Despite not winning a national title with the Jayhawks, McCullar certainly added to his trophy case, earning a Big 12 All-Defense nod and a berth on the All-Big 12 Third Team.
Let’s start with the areas for improvement, as Evan did in his excellent article on Maxwell Lewis yesterday. Part of the case for McCullar as a possible first round pick heading into the season was rooted in the hopes that he could show a bit more as a long-range shooting threat to add the “3” to his potential 3-and-D profile. Unfortunately, his three-point percentage dipped to 29.6% this season after he knocked down 31.1% of his look from deep the year before on essentially the same volume of attempts.
That being said, the long-range shooting was just the easiest way that McCullar could have made his case on the offensive end. Although he didn’t show obvious improvement as a shooter from beyond the arc, he showed clear offensive improvements inside the arc. He converted 52.5% of his looks from two-point range this season, and many of those looks came from McCullar taking advantage of the defensive attention paid to other Jayhawks players. This was especially easy to see on cuts—McCullar ranked in the 82nd percentile as a cutter this past season, per Synergy, averaging an elite 1.388 points per possession on those looks.
McCullar also boosted his free-throw percentage to 76.1% this season while getting to the line more often than he ever did at Texas Tech. The improved free-throw percentage is an encouraging sign of his improved touch in terms of his long-term shooting development, and it makes it easier to project him as someone who can get to at least being average as an outside shooter in the long run.
Any scoring that McCullar generates, though, is in many ways icing on the cake. It was hard not to notice McCullar on almost every play while watching Kansas tape; he would go from diving for a loose ball on one end to filling the lane in transition on the other with no pause in between. When Gradey Dick was struggling with his shot or was trying to handle a double-team, Kevin McCullar was often the one slipping to the basket for lay-ups or trying to create something with the ball in his hands. Even if he wasn’t always the one finishing the play, he was usually the one trying to create something out of nothing when the Kansas offense stalled out.
That energy and understanding on the offensive end might not have quite reached the heights of what some were hoping to see from him on that end as a Jayhawk, but it’s ultimately enough. Kevin McCullar will not be drafted on the strength of his offensive game. His job on that end in the NBA will be essentially what his offensive role was at Kansas this past season: fill gaps and do enough on that end to justify your minutes with your play on the other end.
On the defensive end, McCullar is special. At 6’6” and with his 205-pound frame, McCullar will be able to stand up to even the biggest wings at the NBA level. He moves his feet exceptionally well on that end, and he is an absolute menace in the passing lanes. Some players average two steals per game by gambling and letting guys past them when their gamble fails. Kevin McCullar averaged 2.0 steals per game by making well-timed jumps into passing lanes and by straight-up ripping the ball from players who wanted it less than he did:
A huge part of Kevin McCullar’s eventual draft position will be determined by how well he does in workouts; a lights-out shooting performance in front of the right team could lead to him being an early second round pick, or maybe even a late first round pick. Still, there’s a chance that he might not hear his name called at all on draft night, with teams possibly looking to select younger players with higher perceived upsides. If that does happen, look for Kevin McCullar to show up on someone’s Summer League team as an undrafted free agent and make life miserable for every wing drafted ahead of him.
Then again, McCullar might just make life miserable for the wings drafted ahead of him even if he does get drafted. He certainly has the defensive chops to do so, and any semblance of a chip on his shoulder would spell trouble for whoever was unfortunate enough to be tasked with being McCullar’s matchup for the night.
I apologized to Metcalf in Volume Three of this series for not buying into Kobe Bufkin early enough. I owe him another apology here, so I’ll get it out of the way as quickly as I can: Adem Bona is really good.
I’m sure that all of you are astounded by the depth of that analysis, but let’s actually break down his game a bit as supporting evidence for that brilliant bit of draft discussion.
The place to start with Bona is on the defensive end. As Metcalf wrote about earlier this year, Bona has already shown game-breaking potential as a defensive force. There are certainly still some rough edges to be polished, but Bona’s high motor and switchability at his size are already NBA-caliber. He is already a shot-blocking menace, and his defensive prowess carried him to a well-deserved nod as PAC-12 Rookie of the Year. When you see him turning back shots, it’s really easy to see why he earned that trophy:
While Bona is much more likely to hear his name called in the first round than McCullar, their draft cases are oddly very similar. Both players are defense-first game-wreckers who can do enough on the other end to keep earning minutes via their defense. Bona will get the vast majority of his offense—at least early in his career—through lobs, putbacks, and running out in transition; given that he averaged a truly ridiculous 1.682 points per possession in transition at UCLA, per Synergy, (putting him in the 99th percentile overall) and 1.45 points per shot at the rim (putting him in the 94th percentile), he should be just fine as a fifth option for a team offensively.
There’s not much to work with in terms of projecting him for a larger role offensively; he shot just 57.2% from the free-throw line, missed all five of his jumpers this season, and is not a game-breaker from the post as either a scorer or a passer. The good news for Bona, though, is that he doesn’t need to have a crazy-high offensive floor to be worth it as a first round pick. Just like with McCullar, the defense is special, and the offense is good enough to justify their playing time. Since Bona is a one-and-done and McCullar is a four-year player, and since Bona plays a much more valuable defensive position, Bona has a much better chance at going in the first round. As different as the two players might be, though, the fundamental case for them is actually quite similar.
I wrote about Julian Strawther earlier this season, but I wanted to circle back and talk about him again here. This class has a ton of fascinating wing talents, and it’s difficult for Strawther not to get lost in the shuffle sometimes.
Strawther might have heard his name called in the 2022 NBA Draft if he had left Gonzaga for the NBA, but he decided to stick around for one more season in Spokane. While there was certainly plenty of competition among the many talented guards on the roster, Strawther quickly solidified himself as the second option on offense behind Drew Timme. Even with Timme often sucking the oxygen out of the offense to strangle the opposing team in the post, Strawther still managed to thrive as a scoring threat in his junior year.
Strawther managed to pull off a rare combination this season—he upped his volume from long-range (from 4.6 3PA per game last year to 5.3 3PA per game this year) while also boosting his percentage (from 36.5% last year to 40.8% this year). He did the same thing from the charity stripe, upping his free-throw volume (from 2.4 FTA per game last year to 3.6 FTA per game this year) while also improving his percentage (from 70.5% last year to 77.6% this year).
His case defensively, oddly enough, is almost a mirror of Kevin McCullar’s draft case. With Strawther, he won’t jump off the page with crazy block or steal numbers, but he does enough on the defensive end to make the case for himself with his offense. He has solid size on the wing at 6’7” and 205 pounds, and he often took the toughest defensive assignment for Gonzaga over the past two seasons. Strawther’s effort level on defense is clear to see, especially when it comes to his rebounding; Strawther averaged 5.4 RPG last season while playing with a frontcourt of Timme and Chet Holmgren; even with Holmgren out of the picture, Strawther’s 6.2 RPG this season with Timme squatting in the paint all year was an impressive display of glass-eating.
Strawther’s draft situation is still a bit up in the air—he was 33rd on the most recent $DRFT rankings, but I wouldn’t be shocked at all if a team with a late first round pick gets Strawther in for a workout and falls in love with his game. He’ll enter the league as an elite long-range shooter who has already proven that he can work well as a secondary or tertiary option around players who absorb more of their team’s touches. He might not have the superstar upside of some of the wings ahead of him, but Strawther’s shooting and solid enough defense give him a pretty high floor. Plenty of playoff teams could use Strawther as a rotation piece as he is right now; if he continues to improve at attacking the basket and getting himself to the line, though, he could easily make teams regret not taking him off the board sooner.
Stephen wrote an excellent piece a couple of months ago about D’Moi Hodge, who has had one of the craziest journeys of any prospect in college basketball—Hodge spent two years as a JUCO player for the State College of Florida, then transferred up to Cleveland State for two years before finally landing at Missouri for this past season and proving his worth there as a potential draft pick.
I was lucky enough to have Stephen on the Deep Dives podcast to talk about Hodge, and I admitted the truth of how I felt about Hodge and players like him. Simply put, I am a sucker for efficient guards with crazy steals numbers, and Hodge fits that description to a T.
Hodge’s 48/40/73 shooting splits are impressive on the surface, and they just become crazier the more you break them down. Hodge chucked up 7.1 3PA per game this season, and he knocked down 40% of them. His 62.6% True Shooting Percentage is elite, and his 63.4% shooting inside the arc is absolutely ludicrous for a 6’4” guard. He averaged 1.181 points per possession this season on offense overall, putting him in the 98th percentile offensively while playing in one of the toughest conferences in college basketball in the SEC.
Somehow, though, his offense isn’t what has me the most excited about D’Moi Hodge’s future. In addition to his ridiculously efficient offense, Hodge is one of the best defensive playmakers in college basketball. He nabbed 91 steals this past season—leading the SEC by a sizable margin and good enough for fourth in all of college basketball. He also ranked in the 97th percentile at defending pick-and-roll ball-handlers this past season, per Synergy. While there is some noise in some of those defensive metrics, there is plenty of evidence on film to back up Hodge’s exceptional defensive bona fides:
There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about Hodge. He’s nowhere near good enough as an offensive playmaker to run the point, and at 6’4”, he’ll be a bit undersized as essentially a pure shooting guard. Plenty of teams will also be scared off by the fact that Hodge is already 24 years old.
If I were in an NBA front office, I would not be one of those people. Even if he has reached the peak of his developmental curve, he is an excellent high-volume three-point shooter who is efficient inside the arc and refuses to turn the ball over (his 6.2% Turnover Percentage was tops in the SEC) while also providing incredible defensive value with his steals and pick-and-roll defense. He has already showcased his work ethic and ability to improve just by making it as far as he has, though, so I wouldn’t want to bet against him continuing to improve his game at the NBA level. If Hodge gets a chance to show an NBA team what he can do, I sincerely doubt that they will be disappointed by the results.
Andre Jackson Jr.
The UConn Huskies emerged on top in the Men’s NCAA Tournament this season, but they had a bit of a rollercoaster ride to get there, starting the season with a 14-game winning streak before dropping five of their next six, only to heat up at the best possible time. No player on the UConn squad was more indicative of that rollercoaster run than Andre Jackson Jr.
Jackson started off the year hot, putting up some crazy highlight-reel dunks and defensive hustle plays in the first couple of months and earning some buzz as a potential first round pick to start the season. Then, Jackson went painfully cold in January, when UConn had their worst month of the season by far. Finally, Jackson and UConn got hot at the best possible time; March was his best offensive month of the season, both in terms of his own scoring and his generating good looks for others, and he and UConn emerged victorious in both of their April games.
All five of the players I’m covering today have at least one elite-level skill: help defense for McCullar and Bona, shooting for Strawther, and defensive playmaking for Hodge. For Jackson, that skill is athleticism; he has some of the wildest vertical pop in this draft class, and his exceptional foot speed enables him to cover a ton of ground on defense.
There is one big difference between Jackson and the other four prospects in this article, though. The other four have pretty clearly defined NBA roles: McCullar as a defense-first wing, Bona as a defense-first center, Strawther as a floor-spacing wing, and Hodge as a 3-and-D guard.
Jackson is much more of an enigma. He has clear tools on defense (stellar athleticism and high effort) and clear tools on offense (one of the best passing wings in the class), without quite having enough connecting tools to be a clear fit on either end. He could have a role as a connector and secondary ball-handler on offense—if he didn’t rank in the 23rd percentile pick-and-roll ball-handler, per Synergy, or if he shot better than 28.1% from deep. He could have a role as a defensive gam-wrecker and weakside shot-blocker—if he wasn’t a foul magnet (third in the Big East in personal fouls this season) who didn’t actually block as many shots as his ridiculous hops might indicate.
Jackson declared for the draft while retaining his college eligibility, so he could certainly decide to withdraw his name from the 2023 NBA Draft if he doesn’t get the interest that he’s hoping for from NBA teams. With Jordan Hawkins and Adama Sanogo making the leap to the NBA, there will be more minutes and more offensive opportunities open for Andre Jackson Jr. if he does end up returning to school.
Still, Jackson might be better served by staying in the draft this season—there’s no guarantee that he will improve as a scoring threat, and the odds are pretty decent that his best offensive skill (his passing) will look decidedly less impressive with Hawkins and Sanogo no longer in the mix. There’s definitely an NBA player buried within Jackson’s mix of tools; the real question will be which NBA team can unlock those tools and make the most of what he can do. It might not be his first team, and it might not even be an NBA team; if some team can solve the Andre Jackson Jr. enigma, though, they might end up with one of the biggest steals of the 2023 NBA Draft.