No Stone Unturned 2023: The Wings, Part 3
No Stone Unturned is back with five more under-the-radar wings! Plus: Insights from Tennessee's Dalton Knecht, Santa Clara Assistant Coach Ryan Madry, and Milwaukee's BJ Freeman!
Welcome back to No Stone Unturned! In this series of articles, I will be digging into five players at different positions who are flying under the radar but warrant attention. For my methodology, I started by seeking out players with interesting statistical profiles or players who had popped on film for me this past season. From there, I compiled a list, worked my way through the film and date, then chose my favorites. I avoided prospects who have received rankings on mainstream Top 100 lists and early mock drafts. I’m looking for deeper cuts who aren’t receiving much love yet but still have a real crack at making a mark in the draft space this coming season. Today, we are looking at the first group of unheralded wings who could sneak into the NBA Draft conversation by the end of this draft cycle.
The “wing” distinction is a broad one, obviously. We’re talking guys who will primarily guard positions 2 through 4, whether on the higher or lower side of that equation; 15 total wing players will be covered. They’ve been broken up into different groups based on their skill sets, so there won’t be too much overlap in terms of style, proclivities, and concerns. No matter what type of wing you’re looking for, I tried to find them! You can check out the column I did on big men here, the first group of wings here, and the second group of wings here. Also, don’t forget to follow me on Twitter!
Dalton Knecht, 6’6”, Tennessee, Graduate
2022-2023 Season Stats: 20.2 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 1.8 APG, 2.1 TOV, 0.8 SPG, 0.6 BPG
2022-2023 Shooting Splits: 47.9/38.1/77.1
Signature Performance: vs. Idaho. 34 points, seven rebounds, one assist, one steal. 14-21 FG, 3-7 3FG, 3-5 FT
Tough Test(s) (games against Quad-1 Competition):
-vs. Houston. Seven points, eight rebounds, one assist, one steal, one block, two turnovers. 3-10 FG, 0-4 3FG, 1-2 FT.
-vs. Baylor. 12 points, 11 rebounds, one steal, one block, five turnovers. 3-7 FG, 2-4 3FG, 4-6 FT.
-vs. New Mexico. 29 points, 11 rebounds, three assists, one steal, four turnovers. 12-21 FG, 4-8 3FG, 1-2 FT.
-vs. Colorado. 24 points, four rebounds, two assists, one steal, one turnover. 9-18 FG, 4-7 3FG, 2-3 FT.
It’s been a long, winding road for Dalton Knecht. In an interview with Knecht, he noted that his love of basketball came from his parents. “I was in love with football forever, but I was 5’0”, super skinny, and my parents were like, ‘you’ve got to try a different sport.’ Me and my parents, every day after school, were in the gym and working on stuff,” Knecht said. While he did eventually grow taller, it took a while. He told me, “My freshman year of high school, I was about 5’4”. My sophomore year, I grew to 5’6” or 5’7”. My junior year was when I hit my big growth spurt to 6’1”, and then senior year I was 6’3”. Before my freshman year of college, I grew to 6’6”, so yeah, I was definitely a late bloomer.”
Coming out of high school, his recruitment was light, and he went to Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, Colorado. He felt that the JuCo route was the best way to generate more exposure, and he considers it the best decision he’s ever made. After a breakout sophomore season where he averaged almost 24 points per game, he made the leap to Division I and spent the next two years at Northern Colorado. During his first season there, Knecht was an efficient role player. In his second season, he exploded. As the team’s leading scorer and facing significant defensive attention, Knecht still managed to score an efficient 20.2 PPG. He earned an All-Big Sky Second Team selection, led the conference in scoring, and also led his team in rebounds and blocks. Following the season, he announced that he would play a graduate season at Tennessee.
Do you like high levels of athleticism, size, and three-point shooting? If so, Dalton Knecht is your guy. Those three traits hold tremendous weight in the modern NBA, which is why I’ve been infatuated with his game over the last year. Let’s start with the shooting—Knecht is accurate, he takes a lot of threes, and he can hit shots in a variety of ways. His 38.1% from deep on 10.3 attempts per 100 possessions are serious numbers, and the film validates them even further. If he’s just spotting up, he’ll provide reliable spacing, having hit 41.8% of those attempts last season, per Synergy. On unguarded looks, he converted 51.1% of his threes. He’s more dynamic than that, though. Knecht thrives as a three-point shooter off the bounce. He’ll pull up from NBA range and has a few stepback moves to get himself space. This past season, he took 45 threes as a pick-and-roll ball handler, and he made an incredible 40% of them. I’ve started to put an increased value on players who consistently make tough shots from long range, as great shooters rarely get clean looks in the NBA, and Knecht has proven himself capable in that respect.
What makes Knecht so difficult to scheme against is that he is absolutely not a “you can just run him off the line” player. Knecht is a dynamite athlete. His first step is potent, allowing him to blow by opponents to get inside. Even high-level athletes like Grant Nelson found themselves left in the dust by Knecht on the perimeter. Even better, he can play at different speeds, using hesitation and dribble moves to keep defenders off balance. When he has to settle for a mid-range jumper or take a shot out of the mid-post, he’s reliable, converting 42.6% of his pull-up twos last season. What makes Knecht really pop, though, is how good he is at the basket. Despite his shooting prowess, almost 28.3% of his shots in the halfcourt came at the rim, where he made an outstanding 62.6% of his attempts. His bounce is captivating, and he can put anybody on a poster. Contact doesn’t bother him, and he goes up with intent to finish. Knecht gets to the rim off the ball, too. He’s a smart cutter and a genuine lob threat with sharp timing, allowing him to get easy ones inside whenever the opportunity opens up. “It’s another option out there. I can space the floor out for my teammates to drive or for a big man to post up, but I can be a threat to drive the ball as well. It’s another skill that I developed coming out of JuCo. I was a really good catch-and-shoot player, but working on my pull-ups, stepbacks, off-the-dribble shooting, and working on moves to get to the rim and finish through contact was a big step for me,” Knecht noted.
The odd-and-ends are solid, too. Knecht takes good care of the ball and rarely commits frustrating turnovers. Though he carried a large scoring load, it never felt like the ball “stuck” with Knecht. He’s capable of swinging the rock and keeping it moving. As a passer, he’s capable of making basic reads to find the open man. These traits should help him as he eventually scales into a more complementary role. His impact on the defensive glass (21.5 DREB%) made a big difference for a team that tended to play on the smaller side. Defensively, he can play long and slide his feet to contain players at the point of attack.
What Needs Improvement
The biggest thing I’d like to see from Knecht this year is a greater defensive impact. His STL% of 1.3 and BLK% of 1.6 are on the low end for a wing prospect. Considering that he played in a low-major conference, it’s even more concerning. This has been a big focal point for Knecht this off-season, and it played a part in his decision to go to Tennessee. “I felt like it (attending Tennessee) was the best option for me to become a pro. I need to work on playing defense, so why not go to a team that’s Top Three on defense every year? Coach Barnes has a great history of sending players to the NBA, he coached my favorite NBA player of all time in Kevin Durant, and Gene the strength coach was a big part of it. It felt like a no-brainer.” Working in Knecht’s favor here is that he’s not inept on this end; he just doesn’t make a ton of plays, and much of that can be attributed to his offensive workload. His team needed him to save his energy and stay out of foul trouble. Being able to read the floor more consistently and make more advanced passing reads on offense would also be a nice “icing on the cake” type addition to his game.
One of the most basic types of queries I like to run when evaluating prospects involves looking at their three-point shooting and number of dunks. Shooting is one of the easiest paths to a complementary role, and how often a player dunks tends to be a good indicator of athleticism. Knecht’s combination of size, shooting volume, accuracy, dunks, and overall productivity is nothing to sneeze at. The query below lists players 6’5” and above who had a BPM over 4, made over 75 threes in a season while shooting over 38%, and also dunked at least 25 times. It’s Mikal Bridges, Lonzo Ball, Dylan Windler, Ochai Agbaji, and Dalton Knecht. That’s great company! Granted, Knecht played in a smaller conference; he’ll have another season to acclimate to high-level competition this year. Regardless of where he played, Knecht has proven to be good at the important stuff for role players. Plus, on Tennessee’s recent overseas tour, he led the team in scoring, so I’m optimistic about him scaling up against better opposition.
There are some concerns. He’ll need to make a bigger impact on the defensive end, and he knows it. It would be nice if he were a more dynamic creator for others. Knecht will also be older as a graduate player, but he’s not an archaic prospect, as he’ll only be turning 23 in April. Coming out of our conversation, I had a real appreciation for how self-aware Knecht is as a prospect. He understands the adjustments he needs to make not just for his professional development, but for the season directly in front of him. On his off-season improvements, he noted, “Playing defense is going to stand out the most. I’m going to show that I’m a two-way guy and a better overall player. Being with the strength coach here, my body is looking different. I'm getting my shot off quicker, and I'm learning how to play lower and faster.”
If Knecht had entered the draft last year and stayed in, he would’ve likely had a draftable grade from me. As such, I’m entering the year with him in that same category on my initial board. Even in a worse-case scenario type situation, he’ll should receive a Portsmouth invite based on his prior production, in my book. Size and shooting are always valuable, but it’s Knecht’s athleticism and dynamism that truly makes those traits sing. He’s a threat to score at every level on the floor. From a physicality and speed standpoint, he won’t be out of place in the NBA. I’m buying stock in his defense improving in a new role. He knows what he needs to improve, and he’s determined to do it. Knecht has an evident love of the game, an appreciation for his coaches past and present, and consistently gave credit to his teammates throughout our discussion. I’m betting that teams like Denver, who went into the draft seeking experienced players ready to play a complimentary role, will have eyes on Knecht come draft night next year.
Johnny O’Neil, 6’10”, Santa Clara, Redshirt Junior
2022-2023 Season Stats: 11.3 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 1.4 APG, 1.8 TOV, 1.7 BPG, 0.9 SPG
2022-2023 Shooting Splits: 44.7/39.2/61.4
Signature Performance: vs. Loyola. 21 points, eight rebounds, two assists, one steal, three blocks. 9-12 FG, 3-5 3FG.
Tough Test(s) (games against Quad-1 Competition):
Johnny O’Neil played high school ball for Chaminade-Madonna College Prep. There, he was a First Team All-County selection and helped lead his school to a state championship. In grassroots play, he competed for Team Florida on the Adidas Circuit alongside current Auburn big man Johni Broome. His size and shooting earned him Division-1 offers from USC Upstate, Florida Southern, and American University. He enrolled at American and spent three seasons there. During his first season, he won Patriot League Freshman of the Year. This past year, O’Neil led the conference in blocks and made the Patriot League’s All-Defense Team. At the conclusion of the season, he entered the transfer portal.
O’Neil committed to Santa Clara for the upcoming season. I had the pleasure of speaking with Ryan Madry, an assistant coach for the Broncos who is going into his sixth season with the team. The coaching staff was immediately enticed by O’Neil’s film, with Madry noting, “When we saw the way that he played, we thought he would be a perfect fit for our style of play. More up-tempo, fast pace, he could help us, and we could help him fully develop as a player. We were drawn in by his offensive skill set at his size, and not to mention what he does on defense. We thought he would be a phenomenal fit…He has the skill set to play anywhere in the country.” As an added bonus, O’Neil, who had previously been listed at 6’9”, measured in at 6’10.5” in shoes when he got to campus.
Johnny O’Neil is really tall, really long, and he can really shoot the basketball. This past season, he hit 39.2% of his shots from downtown on 10.2 attempts per 100 possessions. It’s not like he had an outlier shooting season, either. Over his three college seasons, O’Neil’s lowest mark from distance is 37.7%, and he’s always taken over eight attempts per 100 possessions. “He’s a tremendous shooter and he’s a guy that works at it really hard,” Madry noted, “Some guys are gifted as shooters, but he works at it and loves the game. He’s constantly in the gym trying to improve that shot. He has an extremely high release; he doesn’t even see a contest. He can rise up and shoot it above his head, and he’s effortless from deep range.” O’Neil can hit from beyond the NBA line and he’s comfortable moving into his jumper. Using Synergy to track his movement threes (attempts stemming from handoff, transition, off-screen, and pop-man possessions), O’Neil hit 44.2% of those attempts, giving him pro functionality. He’s not just a stand-and-wait-for-an-open-look shooter, he’s versatile. O’Neil also drained 8-of-18 pull-up threes, too.
When he goes downhill, it doesn’t get much easier for the defense. Despite having a thinner build, O’Neil has a real nastiness to him as an attacker, and he posterized a few opposing big men this past season. He’s determined to get to the rim and he’s good when he gets there—he made 65.2% of his halfcourt shots at the basket last season. When he goes inside, O’Neil still keeps a good view of the floor and avoids tunnel vision scenarios. He can make good passes from under the basket if he doesn’t like his look at the rim. This processing ability, combined with his finishing acumen and shooting, allowed him to excel as a pick-and-roll ball handler, where he ranked in the 81st percentile on possessions including assists last season, per Synergy. Madry explained, “He’s not one-dimensional, not just a catch-and-shoot guy. He can do that at a high level, but he has more to him than that. He can finish at the rim with both hands. He’s a good athlete in small spaces, he can explode up well. He can put it on the floor and make passes…he’s not ‘all or nothing.’ He has the feel to make the right read.” O’Neil has an in-between game, too, having hit 43% of his jumpers inside the arch last year according to Synergy. Without the ball, O’Neil does everything a coach would want—he cuts, screens, and moves. He’s also capable of making quick decisions to keep the rock moving and prevent the defense from recovering when the offense has them scrambled.
Now, we get to the defense. And folks, the defense is fun. It’s important to note that in addition to being long, O’Neil is a quick, effortless mover. He slides his feet well, he rotates to the next spot in a hurry, and he gets off the floor with ease. He’s hyper-aware off the ball and does a phenomenal job of turning the ball away as a weakside rim protector. O’Neil gets into position at the basket warp speed. His 6.2 BLK% is an incredible number for a wing, in line with the marks Jonathan Isaac and Derrick Jones Jr. produced during their pre-draft college seasons. I beat this drum constantly, but I believe having more rim protectors on the floor will become increasingly valuable as the shooting evolution continues. His burst and motor help him to jump passing lanes. He’ll do little things, like always swarming his man when they pick up their dribble. Even on film, he’s a visible communicator, always talking and pointing on that side of the floor. On his talking, Madry commented, “It’s been great having him, having his voice. He’s been in college for three years. We have a lot of new pieces, so he’s been a big part of helping everybody mesh together. He supports his teammates, talks to them on both ends of the floor, and he wants to win. That competitive spirit stands out. Having that voice helps us, and the more that he learns what we want to do, the more vocal he’s becoming.”
What Needs Improvement
The thing that gives me the most pause with O’Neil is his physical strength. He’s skinny, listed at 205 pounds, which is comfortably below the weight of your average small forward in the NBA. Right now, he’s too easy to move, and he was often bumped off his spot while playing in a smaller league. His downhill attacking, ability to finish through contact, and knack for walling off opponents could potentially take a step back if he doesn’t catch up at least a little bit before heading into a tougher conference. I’m a believer that everyone can get stronger, so this isn’t a dealbreaker by any stretch, but if he has a tougher year, I’m betting physicality plays a part. Further adding to his passing repertoire and adding more counters off the dribble would also help shore up his driving arsenal. Coach Madry noted those departments as a place where O’Neil has made strides. “He’s improved his ball handling; he’s cleaned that up and gotten that better. He’s working on making all of the reads we want him to see out of the ball screen. We’re excited about the growth that he’s made in both of those areas.” O’Neil has also been a strangely poor free throw shooter, with a career 60.4% conversion rate from the charity stripe. That has to come around.
Johnny O’Neil is a player that I liked on film. But when I think about him from a philosophical standpoint…I like him even more. He’s 6’10”, he’s quick, he has outstanding defensive instincts, and if he can fill out his frame, he’ll be able to cover multiple positions. On offense, he’s capable of thriving in a complementary role. He’ll screen and cut, and he has an outstanding track record as an outside shooter off movement. When he has to drive, he can make the right pass or finish at the rim. On paper, there aren’t a lot of teams who wouldn’t want a player like that. Coach Madry laid out a similar case, saying, “He covers ground, he’s long, he’s bouncy, and he has great timing. When he comes over, he’s a really good weakside shot blocker. He has a nose for the ball. For somebody with his size and quickness, and then his IQ and feel to make the read and get there…that’s another thing that separates him. He’s 6’10”, he can shoot it at a high level, defend his position, put it on the deck, and he has a competitive spirit about him.”
So, why isn’t Johnny O’Neil the talk of the town? Part of it is that his counting numbers, while impressive on defense, don’t totally fly off the page. Patriot League guys generally need to post gaudy point totals to warrant NBA consideration. American played one of the slowest paces in the country, so that didn’t do him many favors, but a greater level of dominance would have been appreciated. NBA teams will also want to see him add size and further develop his playmaking portfolio. His frame could make scaling up to a bigger conference a tough adjustment. There are also his bizarre struggles at the free-throw line.
Those are all fair criticisms. That said, I’m going to lay down a bet on Johnny O’Neil. Whenever he goes into the draft, I think he will at least be a Portsmouth/Elite Camp type prospect. Size, shooting, and defensive impact are simply too valuable, even if he’s skinny. In a faster-paced system led by a Santa Clara staff that has enabled several players to make large leaps in production, O’Neil is in prime position to take a big step forward this year. O’Neil is a Top 75 player for me heading into the year. He may struggle in a new environment, but I think it’s more likely that he goes in the opposite direction and plants himself firmly on the map of NBA front offices.
Jamir Watkins, 6’7”, Florida State, Redshirt Junior
2022-2023 Season Stats: 9.5 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.7 TOV, 1.2 SPG, 0.7 BPG
2022-2023 Shooting Splits: 41.3/34.0/72.1
Signature Performance: vs. Northern Illinois. 22 points, seven rebounds, three assists, one steal, one block. 8-12 FG, 2-5 3FG, 4-4 FT.
Tough Test(s) (games against Quad-1 Competition):
-vs. Memphis. 14 points, 10 rebounds, three assists, four steals, one block. 5-11 FG, 2-5 3FG, 2-4 FT.
-vs. Saint Mary’s. Seven points, five rebounds, two assists, one steal. 1-3 FG, 1-2 3FG, 4-4 FT.
Jamir Watkins attended Trenton Catholic High School in New Jersey, where he had an illustrious prep career. He was named his area’s Player of the Year and led the team to three straight Mercer County Championships. On the EYBL Circuit, he competed for Team Final. Watkins received offers from West Virginia, Seton Hall, St. John’s, and Virginia Tech, but decided to accept a scholarship from VCU. He had a solid freshman season, mostly coming off the bench to bring energy and defense. A knee injury held him out of play the following year. As a redshirt sophomore, Watkins stuffed the stat sheet and played a key role for a VCU team that would earn an NCAA Tournament bid after winning the Atlantic-10 tournament. Speaking of the Atlantic-10 tournament, Watkins was named to the All-Tournament team, averaging 13 PPG on 50/55.3/71.4 splits along with 6.3 RPG, 1.7 BPG, and 1.0 SPG over a three-game stretch. Following the conclusion of the season, he announced that he would transfer to Florida State, a program that has done an excellent job with long, multi-faceted players.
Jamir Watkins is a modern Swiss army knife wing. He’s big, long, moves like a pro, and has a number of ways to impact the game. Offensively, he can make his mark with or without the ball. He thinks like an NBA player, seeing developments in a timely manner and making fast decisions in response. Watkins can put the ball on the deck, and when he attacks, he takes huge strides to get to the rim as briskly as possible. His first step is exactly what front offices will want. There’s vision to him as a passer, reading the help to find the open man. After flying for a defensive rebound, he has the playmaking chops to lead the break. His 12.8 AST% is a rock-solid number for a player with his tools. Watkins can shoot off the dribble a little bit, too, hitting a respectable 30.4% of his threes off the dribble. His abilities to attack the rim, pull up from deep, and make the right pass give him pick-and-roll upside, as he ranked in the 67th percentile on those possessions including passes last season per Synergy. With a full season under his belt after a serious injury, the only way to go is up.
He’s an active off-ball player, too. His instincts allow him to cut, and while he struggled at the rim this season, he eats up contact. Watkins had an impressive .42 free throw rate last season, demonstrating a willingness to engage in physicality at the basket and get to the free-throw line. He’s a willing shooter off the catch, hitting 36.6% of his catch-and-shoot threes last year. It’s not a dead-eye sniper type of percentage, but it’s over a 10% improvement from where he was as a freshman on those shots despite missing a full year of live games. With a full runway into the next season, another step forward appears to be on the horizon.
His defense is what stands out the most. Watkins often took the toughest wing assignments for VCU. He posted a 2.9 STL% and 3.1 BLK%, both strong figures for a 3/4 type player. His awareness shines on this end, too. He punishes lazy behavior like looping skip passes or post players not accounting for his presence. Even before teams can set up their half-court offense, he’ll generate steals in gray areas if the opposing squad’s communication isn’t sharp. Watkins’s rotations are a thing of beauty, covering heaps of ground with a high level of speed. At the point of attack, he’s long, balanced, and slides his feet easily, walling off penetration against players of different sizes. He’s imposing, and he knows that he can move with anyone to keep them out of the paint. In 20 isolation possessions tracked by Synergy, opponents scored a meager five points in comparison to six turnovers. When guarding pick-and-rolls, he smothers effectively, leading to sloppy play. In situations where he covered the pick-and-roll ball handler, opponents were held to 0.529 points per possession and turned it over 26.5% of the time, per Synergy. He blocks a ton of shots when players don’t go up fast enough for a put-back. Turning your back to Watkins in any scenario is a big mistake if you have the ball. In summary, he has what NBA teams want on defense—he’s big, he plays like he’s big, he’ll be able to cover multiple positions, he’s devastating when he’s guarding the ball, and he has the awareness to make plays off of it.
What Needs Improvement
The biggest thing Jamir Watkins can do to build his draft stock is to keep making more threes. His three-point shooting volume of 8.2 per 100 possessions through two college seasons isn’t spectacular, but it’s not bad, either. If he can get into the 36-39% range and increase his overall scoring output, especially playing in a bigger conference, he could find himself in the mix next year. He’s always been a respectable free throw shooter (72.9% through two seasons), and he’s shown that he can hit off pull-ups and with a hand in his face, so there’s real hope. Mechanically, it looks like his shooting hand can be too far to the right side of the ball. He shoots with a wide base and his knees bent inward, then brings his feet together at the top of his motion. In order to find greater consistency, that may need to be cleaned up. Watkins can also dribble into trouble and struggle to get out of it as a playmaker when things don’t open up for him.
Jamir Watkins is right on the cusp. He’s going to bring real value on the defensive end of the floor due to his versatility, playmaking, and savvy. On that side of the ball, you could put him on an NBA floor and he’d be able to hang. The questions come on offense. Namely, he’ll have to show that he can bring enough firepower to carve out a rotation spot. During his time at VCU, he showed that he’s a steady, reliable decision-maker. His willingness to embrace physicality, first step, and nose for the rim help him generate high-percentage shots for both himself and his teammates. But without a consistent jump shot or go-to, efficient way to score, it’s tough for anybody who isn’t 6’10” or above to earn minutes. If teams don’t respect him from beyond the arc, it will sap power away from the rest of his game. As he heads into the ACC, Watkins will need to prove more efficient inside the arc, and especially beyond it. Similar to Zack Austin in my last column, he’s more of a “watchlist” guy than a player I have in a particular tier of my board. But whenever he comes out, it’s hard to imagine him being outside my Top 100. He’s exactly the type of player NBA teams should be looking to roll the dice on—someone who has size, smarts, and athleticism with only one real primary area of his game that needs to be developed. A shooting leap in a high-major league could propel Jamir Watkins into a draftable territory.
BJ Freeman, 6’6”, Milwaukee, Junior
2022-2023 Season Stats: 18.2 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 2.9 APG, 3.2 TOV, 0.8 SPG, 0.3 BPG
2022-2023 Shooting Splits: 40.6/33.6/83.1
Signature Performance: vs. Stetson. 43 points, seven rebounds, one assist. 10-20 FG, 3-9 3FG, 20-22 FT.
Tough Test(s) (games against Quad-1 Competition):
-vs. Purdue. 19 points, four rebounds, one steal, one block, five turnovers. 7-16 FG, 3-8 3FG, 2-3 FT.
-vs. Iowa State. 11 points, two rebounds, one assist, six turnovers. 3-7 FG, 1-3 3FG, 4-5 FT.
BJ Freeman played both football and basketball growing up. In a conversation with Freeman, he noted that as he grew older, he didn’t like football as much, but that he fell in love with basketball. He played high school ball for Clayton High School in North Carolina, and then at the highly regarded Moravian Prep. On the grassroots circuit, he competed for Team Loaded. Freeman received interest from programs like Virginia Tech, Penn State, and Purdue. Unfortunately, that wasn’t meant to be. “I fell short due to some academic problems,” Freeman noted. “I was getting everything sorted out and the coaches couldn’t wait, but Jake Williams at Dodge City [Community College] gave me a chance, and I took a lot from it.” That Dodge City squad was jam-packed with talent and went on to have an excellent 30-5 season. From there, Freeman transferred up to Milwaukee. “First off, I just love the city. [Head Coach] Bart Lundy was a big part of me going here. He’s from the same city as me and knew my background. He knew my coach at Moravian Prep and had a good feel for me. He told me what to expect, and he gave me a big role.” Freeman had an excellent first year at Milwaukee, earning a Second-Team All-Horizon League selection while leading his team in scoring and rebounding. After speculation that he may transfer up, Freeman announced that he would return to Milwaukee for his junior season.
First off, it seems as if BJ Freeman is only starting to scratch the surface. His numbers can be deceiving, as he turned the corner in a big way around the start of the calendar year.
BJ Freeman’s first 12 games:
24.0 MPG, 11.1 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 1.5 APG, 2.8 TOV, 0.7 SPG, 0.3 BPG
BJ Freeman’s next 20 games:
34.0 MPG, 22.4 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 3.8 APG, 3.4 TOV, 0.9 SPG, 0.4 BPG
After a slow start, Freeman kicked it into high gear, solidifying not just more minutes, but the leading man role for the Panthers. “For me, it was just getting the comfortability at the D-I level. It also had to do with the mental part, I was going through a lot. Coach Lundy coached me through that a lot and helped me through things off the court. It finally clicked, I went back to being a dog, and stayed on point…Going back to my dog mentality and putting in that work, not letting distractions get to me. Coach Lundy helped me a lot.”
BJ Freeman’s offense starts on the perimeter, where he’s a much better shooter than his baseline statistics might indicate. A hefty majority of Freeman’s looks are heavily contested and he takes a lot of them—12.5 threes per 100 possessions. If teams give Freeman space, he’ll make them pay, whether it’s off the catch or off the dribble. He’s able to get to his shots in a variety of ways, using step-backs and off-the-bounce combinations to generate space. A hand in his face doesn’t bother him in the slightest, as he still hit 35.7% of his guarded attempts off the catch, per Synergy. Freeman gets his shot off quickly, too. Combining the degree of difficulty on his shots, the quick release, his shooting volume, and his confidence, and I’m buying that we’ll see a percentage uptick from Freeman next year. He attributes his shooting success to replicating in-game scenarios. “I knew going into D-1, I needed more kick to my game. Playing a lot of scrimmages, pick-ups, and live situations, knowing how the defender is guarding me, and having different ways to get my shots off…I developed my shot playing in game-like situations,” Freeman noted.
His overall efficiency is boosted by his ability to get to the free-throw line and shoot a high percentage from the charity stripe. During that 20-game breakout stretch, Freeman shot 6.6 free throw attempts per game. Even better, he made 84.1% of them. It starts with his ability to get inside. He has a nice first step, he uses fakes well to get to his spots, and he has some shiftiness to him. Freeman is comfortable putting the ball on the deck for prolonged periods of time when needed and he keeps his handle tight even when he’s operating in heavy traffic. Regardless of who is guarding him, he’ll make his man uncomfortable. He’ll take smaller players on the block (he ranked in the 89th percentile of Division I as a post-up scorer last season, per Synergy) or make slower players dance east-west and north-south on the perimeter. The biggest factor in getting to the line, though, is how much he enjoys contact. “I like playing really aggressively and heading straight through my man’s chest. I really like playing physical and can create off that. It's been a gift of mine—if things aren’t going my way, I can try to draw a foul and get to the free throw line,” Freeman explained. This ability prevents Freeman from having uneven, poor performances as a scorer. Even when his jump shot isn’t falling, he’ll find a way to score points for his team. At his best, it makes him an outrageous, nearly unstoppable scorer. He scored 20 points or more in 14 games, including three games with 30 points or more, and one with 43 points.
Freeman isn’t just a scorer, though. He’s also a talented playmaker for others who posted an AST% of 19.7. “During AAU and in high school, I had the ball in my hands a lot playing the 1. I’ve always liked seeing my teammates eat before I eat. I've always been unselfish, and I like seeing my guys eat. It brings more joy to me than me just going for 30 every time. I try to impact the game in more ways than just scoring,” he told me. When Freeman attacks the basket, he isn’t just looking for his own shot. He has good eyes for the corner and does an excellent job of punishing interior defenders who over-help and leave him an open man under the basket. There are some encouraging flashes of live dribble passing, too. As the year progressed, Freeman better controlled his turnovers and found his teammates more often.
Freeman brings some other positives to the table, too. He’ll use his body to make a mark on the glass. When he’s engaged defensively, he’ll do a nice job of containing drives with his length and toughness. His awareness on that end is good, too, and Freeman takes a large number of charges. “I'm in love with taking charges,” he noted. He’ll slide in to help, bring his body to a halt, and welcome all contact just like he does when he’s driving to the basket on offense.
What Needs Improvement
There needs to be a greater level of effort on the defensive end. Freeman can be too content to get beat off the dribble and he doesn’t often look to make plays off the ball. His 1.4 STL% and 1.1 BLK% are on the low end for a wing prospect, and much like with Dalton Knecht, it’s frustrating to see that for a player in a small conference. Again, like with Knecht, it can be tricky to balance for a player who carries a large offensive burden. Freeman is focused on developing this part of his game. “I need to improve my man-to-man defense,” he said, “not giving up those baseline and middle drives. It's not my lateral quickness, I'm just going to start taking more pride in locking up my man.” Offensively, Freeman needs to continue to tighten things up the way he did down the stretch, taking better shots and playing with more control as a passer. Improving his vertical explosiveness would also do wonders for him at the rim. He gets there a lot and faces a ton of contact on the interior, but his 43.5% at the basket in the halfcourt will have to improve.
For a long time, there was this idea of a bench scorer archetype. It was often a combo guard, a player a too small to play the 2, but someone that didn’t quite have the playmaking chops to be a full-time 1. Those players seem to be facing an uphill battle as the game becomes bigger, often finding themselves exploited on the defensive end while their offensive efficiency doesn’t hold up as well in a playoff setting. I’ve spent the last few years wondering if we would see a shift to a bigger version of that player to better fit the modern NBA. Someone who has the length and physical tools to prevent mismatches on defense, while bringing more size and optionality on the offensive side of the ball. A player who can get hot and fill it up, but someone who still has some juice to make plays for others. Perhaps a player like BJ Freeman.
Freeman is 6’6”, loves physicality, can get his own shot, score it from NBA range, and create for his teammates. His closing stretch to the season was as productive as anyone else in the country, even if he did it in a smaller conference. At a certain point, a player like this can’t be ignored. Tevian Jones parlayed a high-scoring college career into an Exhibit-10 contract with the Pelicans despite having defensive limitations. While Jones may be a better athlete than Freeman, he’s not anywhere close to being able to fit into a team construct the way Freeman can. During our interview, it became evident that he’s locked in on becoming the best basketball player that he can be. Whether it’s on or off the court, he’s already shown the ability to overcome adversity and work through the challenges presented to him. For Freeman, the battle will be continuing to produce, doing so more efficiently, and showing that he can be a consistent, capable defender. If he does those things, he’s a player who could hear his name called on draft night, whether it’s this year or next.
Josh Uduje, 6’5”, Utah State, Junior
2022-2023 Season Stats: 13.3 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 1.2 APG, 1.6 TOV, 1.3 SPG, 0.4 BPG
2022-2023 Shooting Splits: 42.1/31.6/90.5
Signature Performance: vs. South Alabama. 33 points, four rebounds, one assist, one steal. 13-21 FG, 3-5 3FG, 4-4 FT.
Tough Test(s) (games against Quad-1 Competition):
-vs. Missouri. Eight points, three rebounds, one assist, two steals, five turnovers. 1-12 FG, 0-8 3FG, 5-6 FT.
Hailing from London, England, Josh Uduje represented Great Britain during the FIBA U16 World Championships in 2018 and in the FIBA U18 World Championships in 2019. He played high school ball at AZ Compass Prep during the 2020-2021 season, scoring 7.1 PPG on 41.9/37.8/62.5 splits. Per VerbalCommits, Uduje received Division I offers from Middle Tennessee, Central Connecticut State, and Coastal Carolina (where he would ultimately enroll). After a solid freshman season, Uduje played a larger role as a sophomore, leading the team in scoring. During the off-season, he entered the transfer portal and announced he would attend Utah State for his junior year.
The first time I watched Josh Uduje, he immediately stood out on film because of how he moves on the basketball court. He looked much more like an NBA player from a physical build and athleticism standpoint than he did a standard mid-major wing player. It benefits him tremendously as an off-ball player on offense. His speed makes him difficult to track and contain. His burst shines when he flashes to the top of the key or corner before reversing course and burning his man with a cut. He’ll utilize misdirection to get himself more space, and it’s hard to recover against him given how fast he can play. This allowed him to get to the basket, where he made 63.4% of his shots in the halfcourt, per Synergy. Many of those are assisted, yes, but that in and of itself is a testament to how Uduje manages to get himself open. He has a good sense of the floor, understanding where the gaps are and where he should be relocating or cutting. His effort doesn’t fade either, putting full intent into his actions to keep the defense on their toes and helping open up plays for his teammates.
These physical traits and instincts pop on the defensive side of the ball for Uduje, too. As a sophomore, he posted a 2.5 STL% and 1.4 BLK%, good marks for a 2/3 type wing. Uduje is an excellent thief, darting into passing lanes to pick off perimeter skips and timing his help-swipes well against attackers. On occasion, he’ll bust out a two-handed dig to knock the ball loose from a post player. He’s tougher to finish against than most players his height given his length and ability to elevate. In fact, opponents shot a meager 39.4% at the basket against Uduje. Between his lateral agility, size, and recovery speed, testing him on an island often proves to be a foolish endeavor. In an NBA context, he should be able to cover 1 through 3 pretty well, and he won’t be easy to exploit via mismatches in any context.
I saved the most exciting aspect of Uduje’s game for last—his pull-up scoring in the mid-range. Few players in college hoops have the bucket-getting prowess that Udeje brings to the table. He’s a polished scorer in that part of the floor. He displays craft operating out of a ball screen, he uses pass and shot fakes to get himself clean looks, and he has a bit of shiftiness to generate space. Even when he’s heavily contested, his high release and soft touch give every shot a chance. The makes are soft, too, often swishing through the net and leading me to believe that he’s a genuinely talented scorer rather than someone who had luck with shot variance this past year. This past season, he hit 51.0% of his pull-up twos. Generally, shooting from that area of the floor is considered inefficient and more of a necessary evil, but for Uduje, they’re good shots. His mid-range scoring, paired with his 90.5% free-throw percentage, is encouraging when it comes to projecting him to become a more reliable three-point shooter in the future.
What Needs Improvement
Well, I just hinted at it, but the three-point shooting is a big part of the equation. To be clear, Uduje isn’t a non-shooter. He 31.6% from three, which is lower than it needs to be, but he took 9.8 per 100 possessions, so he’s at least willing to let it fly. Unfortunately, there are still moments where he can appear tentative and pass up open looks. There’s also a fair question to be asked if Uduje’s mid-range talent is indicative of a future shooting leap, or if he’s just a guy who is content to live off a tough shot diet. If it’s the latter, he’ll have to be beyond great at the college level to generate NBA interest. Lastly, Uduje has to make plays for others on a more consistent basis. His 8.2 AST% and negative assist-to-turnover ratio are concerning for a player his size, especially given how often he operates with the ball (23.2 USG%). He can over-dribble, miss the open man, and get stuck in bad positions on the court because of his tunnel vision. A questionable shot paired with decision-making concerns is a scary pairing that makes for a tough NBA projection if improvement doesn’t come.
Josh Uduje might be the biggest longshot in this group of wings, but he’s still an intriguing prospect, and I keep finding myself drawn to him. It goes without saying that if he can’t become a better three-point shooter and a more consistent creator for others that NBA consideration will be difficult to come by. But his shot-making dominance in the mid-range, free-throw percentage, and willingness to shoot have me optimistic about him getting there as a jump shooter by the time he leaves school. On the playmaking front, I believe role plays a part—at Sunrise, Uduje was far from “the guy.” It was his first year as a leading man, and his struggles to see the floor make sense within that context. I’m hoping that things can slow down for Uduje and that the reps as a focal point will help him find his teammates more often. Plus, Uduje’s length and speed can’t be taught. Add in his off-ball instincts, and there are worlds where these skills and potential improvements come together to form an impactful, low-maintenance player who gets an NBA opportunity. He’s a player I’ll be monitoring as he adapts to a new environment this season.