Discover more from No Ceilings
Five Burning Questions For College Basketball's First Week | The Morning Dunk
Our own Nathan Grubel goes through five burning questions he has relating to what he wants to see from the first week of action in college basketball in relation to top NBA Draft prospects.
Now I really feel like The Morning Dunk is back in full swing!
The whole purpose behind starting this Monday column was to cover what happened the week prior in college hoops that related to the world of scouting and to set the audience up for what’s coming in the week to follow.
While I can’t quite share what has happened before just yet, the good news is college basketball is back as of the publishing of this piece!
So that means fresh evaluations come back with a vengeance, as top freshmen get set to make their debuts while returning players have a chance to settle in and show scouts what they’ve been working on all summer to help boost their stock.
Yes, first action means a “cupcake” slate of games for some teams, which can equal blowouts. Garbage time is never a safe space to determine a prospect’s strengths and weaknesses, but I’m a firm believer in the idea that one can ALWAYS learn from the tape, no matter the context.
Maybe the questions that are answered during those one-sided contests aren’t mind-blowing and transformative regarding the grade of a player, but a keen eye can take in the sharpest of details and store them for later use. Therefore, I’m still watching the opening slate of games as I would any other contest.
With that being said, there’s still an opportunity to see some real action, and a handful of the games before the Champions Classic have the chance to start the season off with a bang.
So let’s walk through five burning questions that I have for this first slate of games and what I’m looking forward to seeing from the prospects who are participating early on.
1. How much of a role will Keyonte George have for Baylor out of the gate?
I love this question because I’ve said from the beginning that Keyonte George will be one of the most fascinating evaluations of this entire draft cycle.
It’s not because I have serious questions about how his game will translate to the college or pro level. Yes, I want to see George defend at a high enough level to command a starting guard spot in the NBA. I also want to see continued strides made in his playmaking ability, particularly out of the pick-and-roll.
But before I can even begin to hunt for a few of those answers, especially anything that has to do with on-ball reps offensively, there’s a major factor at play—namely, what George’s role will be on the team.
Ahead of George on the depth chart by default are Adam Flagler and LJ Cryer, two guards who will command a heavy split of the usage and can both initiate as well as play off other aspects of the offense. Let’s also not forget that Langston Love is coming off a season-long injury and seems to be ready to go for the Bears.
George is, at best, the third man on the totem pole in the backcourt, not factoring in the Love equation; guys like Jalen Bridges, Flo Thamba, and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchuoa will also get their touches.
So what George has to do in order to potentially earn a role similar to what he’s had in high school and previous is a tall order for a freshman guard, even one that has pedigree.
To continue his growth and command more of a role early on, George has to start off the season by defending within the team construct, keeping the ball moving, making smart decisions, and moving without the rock to find open cuts and spot-up looks.
I think George has it in him to embrace an off-ball two-way role, and if he aces that test, then I could walk away even higher on his pro prospects.
We all know he’s a shooter first, a scorer second, and a passer third. That’s George’s most familiar order of operations. Should he balance that load more and continue to add interesting wrinkles to his game that I believe he can add because of his footwork, build, and toughness, George won’t be far from rising up my rankings to where he sits on other boards kept by scouts who are higher on him out of the gate than I am.
Two early season games against Mississippi Valley State on Monday and Norfolk State on Friday should be exactly what the doctor ordered for someone like George to get more familiar with the speed of the college game and how the Baylor offense operates. I’m excited to see the results.
2. Is Nolan Hickman ready to lead the Gonzaga offense?
Gonzaga’s offensive balance will be an interesting study early on.
The team transferred in Malachi Smith to help run the point in the absence of Andrew Nembhard, and Rasir Bolton also remains on the roster as an experienced upperclassman capable of hitting big shots and orchestrating the offense in a secondary role.
Hunter Sallis is another fun sophomore name to keep an eye on for potential growth, and we all know who the fulcrum of this offense is at the end of the day. This team, for better or worse, lives and dies by the Drew Timme post game.
BUT… I think there will have to be another X-factor who emerges for the Bulldogs to live up to any sort of championship potential.
Nolan Hickman is that X-factor.
Coming out of high school, the 6’2” guard was seen as a shooting combo who could get his own offense as well as he could for everyone else. Balanced, poised, and crafty, Hickman has some real stuff in his bag that he didn’t get to show in spades last year for Gonzaga.
Nembhard was the lead guy in the backcourt, Julian Strawther started to emerge as a perimeter shot maker, and it was hard to take the ball out of Timme’s hands when he had it cooking in the paint.
So given the options in front of him, along with inconsistencies scoring overall, it just wasn’t Hickman’s time to step in and take the reigns of one of the best programs in the entire country.
Now returning for his second season, he’s in a similar struggle given Smith’s arrival and the mainstays of Bolton, Strawther, and Timme.
Teams found success against Gonzaga when they neutralized the post-up game and limited the off-ball creativity of the Bulldogs’ other wings and forwards. Too often in the NCAA Tournament, it was up to Nembhard to step up as a tough shot-maker and put the team on his shoulders.
Now that there’s no more Nembhard, who was experienced and mature beyond his years, I’m struggling to piece together who could step up and take on that mantle.
There are fans of Sallis in the draft community, but I wouldn’t consider myself one of them. And as much as I like Strawther as a prospect, he’s much better suited off the catch and coming off movement, as opposed to creating something from nothing at the top of the key.
Smith has a chance to bring some juice to the offense, but I’m not sold on him as that kind of offensive player, either. And Bolton is at his best as a microwave spot-up shooter.
Hickman could break out in a big way by being that Nembhard replacement late in games. When the play breaks down, he’s capable of getting his own from any spot on the floor, and I’ve seen the creativity and sound decision-making in his prior tape to suggest he can grow as a clutch initiator at the college level and beyond.
Right now, I’d have Hickman in the late first or early second round conversation on my board. But he could answer some real questions early on and rise fast in my eyes.
Out of the gate, Gonzaga gets Michigan State, who has a number of interesting options in the backcourt looking to make names for themselves. AJ Hoggard, Jaden Akins, and Tyson Walker will give the Bulldogs fits if they aren’t on their A-game.
Can Hickman help contain the pressure on the perimeter and match them shot for shot when his number is called? We’ll see, as Gonzaga only gets one tune-up game against North Florida before the showdown against the Spartans on Friday for what is seemingly the best game on paper of the first week’s schedule.
3. How much can Jalen Hood-Schifino handle offensively?
If you’re a follower of No Ceilings, you’re probably sick and tired of hearing and reading our thoughts on Indiana’s top prospect Jalen Hood-Schifino.
Well guess what: get used to it!
We’re all excited about this young man as he has the chance to be the star of the Big Ten, and it looks as though he may have more help on his team than I initially thought, given intel coming out of practices and scrimmages.
Fellow freshman Malik Reneau is getting rave reviews out of exhibitions and early time as a power forward who can handle a little bit and pass for others, as well as establish himself on the block and hit some fallaway shots. As for the rest of the load on the inside, Trayce Jackson-Davis is back to man the middle and possibly continue extending his outside jumper out to the foul line.
Tamar Bates is another guard to keep an eye on, but with some of the other upperclassmen in the mix, Hood-Schifino may not have conventional spacing to work with as a 6’6” primary ball handler, but he has weapons to play off in Indiana.
Two of the biggest things that stood out to me regarding my preseason film study were his pick-and-roll poise and his tough shot-making just inside the arc.
If the Hoosiers can’t space effectively for Hood-Schifino to run any sort of spread pick-and-roll action, they’ll have to get a little more creative in working him off DHOs up top to get him moving downhill toward the basket where he can do some damage.
When he does decide to pull up, defenders will play him tight off that rub, so he won’t have a lot of room to operate with when he does pull up. If Hood-Schifino can nail those difficult jumpers with limited space, that will only continue to build his confidence moving forward.
And one of the biggest things everyone is watching for early on, when he does get those screens and the defense goes under, can he knock down the open three and force defenses to come up to him?
In different exhibition events and all-star games last spring, I saw Hood-Schifino nail pull-up threes with confidence at good volume for someone who wasn’t known to live outside the arc. The more he can do that for Indiana, the better they’ll be as a team.
And don’t forget, having a tall guard who can see over defenders and find the correct windows and angles to throw entry passes into Reneau and Davis when they establish their position on the low block is also key. I can’t count how many times I’ve watched guards in college who can’t execute the entry pass. Those concerns are nonexistent with Hood-Schifino, so I’m confident he’ll get his guys the ball where they need it to succeed.
There aren’t any major games for Indiana in the first week, so consider that a good chance for Hood-Schifino to continue working with his guys and figuring out what works best for them. The more they can click as a unit on both ends, the more I know we’ll see the other parts of JHS’s game that always pop on the tape. His transition flair, high motor, and defensive impact are just what the doctor ordered alongside Bates. Consider me incredibly excited to soak in Hoosiers basketball this year.
4. Who will step up offensively for Duke without Dariq Whitehead?
I’m not typing these words to suggest that Duke is in danger of losing its opening week contests ahead of the Champions Classic. I doubt that they fall to Jacksonville or South Carolina Upstate, more likely than not blowing both of them out.
But I do want to see the construct of the offense without a go-to shot-maker on the wing.
Jeremy Roach will run the offense for the Blue Devils as the experienced point guard really came on at the end of last year more than he has at any other moment in his career thus far. Right alongside him will be some highly touted freshmen in Dereck Lively, Kyle Filipowski, and Mark Mitchell.
Outside of that main group, they could also get some offensive firepower from the young duo of Tyrese Proctor and Jaden Schutt.
Both backcourt threats hadn’t gotten a ton of preseason buzz before the last two weeks, in which they got great reviews from Jonathan Givony from behind-the-scenes practice viewings, and even Jeff Goodman came out and said that he heard really good things about Proctor.
Then the scrimmage tape started leaking out on social media, and it was once again Proctor asserting himself within the offense by distributing in transition and helping his team remain incredibly effective in the open court.
I’m very interested to see if Proctor can emerge as the main orchestrator for the Blue Devils, even with Roach playing heavy minutes. Proctor’s slick ball control, change of pace, and creativity in transition at 6’5” have helped him stand out as a prospect from his home country of Australia for a while now, and there’s no better place to exhibit his game than Duke.
He has the big to throw down lobs in Lively, and Filipowski has some nice touch outside of the paint as well as a good arsenal on the block. Mitchell will run the floor with Proctor every chance he gets along with Roach, so there’s no shortage of guys to distribute the ball to on offense.
As for Schutt, he’ll benefit from Proctor’s vision out of the pick-and-roll as a great spot-up threat. He’s one of the better shooters coming into college basketball, and our own Stephen Gillespie and Maxwell Baumbach have already expressed how they think Schutt can get it going offensively in a hurry on recent Draft Deeper podcast episodes.
Time will tell how the team gets acclimated without a true go-to wing threat who can get his own bucket when the rest of the offense breaks down. But if Proctor can help balance the playmaking duties with Roach, and the other top recruits can come in and make an impact, then I expect some clean results from week one with a major contest against Kansas looming.
5. Will Jett Howard immediately become the most underrated freshman wing in the country?
I’ve seen a number of draft analysts talking about a few wings and forwards lately as exhibitions and preseason practices have come and gone.
Luckily for us at No Ceilings, we’ve been on the Jarace Walker and Brandon Miller trains early, so hearing what we have about those guys doesn’t surprise us in the slightest.
But there’s another prospect who came out in a big way the other day, as Jett Howard dropped a hyper-efficient 30 points in Michigan’s win against Ferris State on November 4th.
Howard took it at the defense one-on-one, created open threes for himself, and wasted no time staying shot-ready and knocking down any passes that were kicked to him.
He came into that game ready to put the ball in the basket, and he did.
No, we can’t overreact and put an incredible amount of stock into an exhibition game. But I was impressed with just how well he looked playing off the ball and how ready he was to do something with the rock as soon as he caught it.
Enough times, you’ll see freshmen come in and look a little hesitant in their first few games. They’re still trying to adjust to the speed of the college game, trying to figure out where they’re supposed to be on the floor, and trying to deal with balancing when to take over or when to pass. These are all common for any young player, so it’s understandable to see first-month box scores not always pop in a big way like we’d want to see from top draft prospects.
So seeing a 30-piece from Howard put social media on notice that he’s ready to come in and contribute right away under his father.
I’d say the vast majority of scouts have Howard anywhere from 20-45 on their big boards. Our own Tyler Metcalf has been positively discussing Howard’s game with us and how he could be underrated as a wing talent heading into the year, and after this performance, he may be right.
All eyes will be pointing towards the Wolverines’ game this Friday against Eastern Michigan, as it’s a chance for Howard to go right up against former top prospect Emoni Bates. If Howard continues to play as well as this through the first week of action and dominates against Bates on both ends of the floor, the narrative will shift rapidly to exactly what Metcalf proposed far before the exhibition tape got out to the public.
Get ready to add Howard to the underrated list before yanking him right back off of it and putting him firmly into first round territory. He’s ready to make some noise, and I have a feeling that’s exactly what he’ll continue to do.
Thanks for reading No Ceilings! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.