No Stone Unturned: The Big Men
Scouting reports and notes on intriguing under-the-radar big men, including player and coach comments!
Welcome to the first installment of 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. From there, I compiled a list, worked my way through the film, and chose my favorites. I avoided prospects who have received rankings on mainstream Top 100 lists and early mock drafts. Even if a player met that criteria but still seems to be generating a good deal of buzz, I tried to avoid them. I’m looking for deep cuts who aren’t receiving much love yet but still have a real crack at making a mark this coming season. Today, we are starting out by looking at the unheralded big men who could sneak into the NBA Draft conversation by the end of this draft cycle. Enjoy!
Drew Pember, 6’11”, UNC Asheville, Senior
2021-2022 Stats: 15.7 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 1.4 APG, 1.8 TOV, 3.0 BPG, 0.6 SPG
2021-2022 Shooting Splits: 49.5/35.6/86.3
Signature Performance: vs. Radford; 41 points, 11 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks. 11-19 FG, 4-6 3FG, 15-16 FT
Tough Test(s) (games against Quad-1 Competition):
-vs. UAB. 14 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 blocks, 1 steal. 4-9 FG, 3-5 3FG, 3-4 FT
-vs. UNC. 2 points, 3 rebounds, 5 blocks. 1-9 FG, 0-6 3FG
First and foremost, it’s important to understand the context around Drew Pember. He finished his high school career just outside of the 247Sports Top 200 for his class and was projected by their site to be a Power-5 Starter. Pember committed to Tennessee, but he didn’t see much action during his two seasons there. He then transferred to UNC Asheville to join his former high school teammate, Trent Stephney. Pember immediately popped for the Bulldogs and had a breakout season as a junior. I had the chance to speak with UNC Asheville’s head coach Mike Morrell, who elaborated on Pember’s mentality: “He was very humble in his approach. He wasn’t like, ‘I’m a high-major guy; I’m doing you a favor.’” Later in our conversation, he noted that prior to last season, he asked Pember his goals for the upcoming year, and Pember just spoke about wanting to play. Pember got that opportunity, and he siezed it. It was abundantly clear why he was a high-major target— he’s an excellent shooter (35.6% from three on 3.3/game), a reliable passer, and an outstanding rim protector (11.3 BLK %). He’s capable of stretching the court with NBA range and boasts a high release that is difficult to impede. He knows where help defenders are coming from, and he can make a quick read to find the open man. Pember possesses a nasty first step for a big man and can blaze past traditional big men who close out too hard. “He’s hard to switch for defenders,” Coach Morrell noted, as Pember can finish over smaller players inside but also pulls big men away from the basket. Pember is a conundrum in pick-and-rolls—he’s a skilled short roll passer, a knockdown shooter (91st percentile on pick-and-pops per Synergy), and a solid finisher (68th percentile on rolls to the basket per Synergy). He gets to the line frequently, too, shooting 5.4 FTA/game and knocking down a superb 86.3% of them. “The best thing he does is shoot free throws. His ability to shoot gets him to the line, and it also opens up his passing. He was second in the conference in free throw attempts and first in free throw percentage,” remarked Morrell. The fluidity that allows Pember to feast on offense makes him similarly imposing on defense. He can soft hedge and recover well, and on occasions when he gets beat on the perimeter, he doesn’t quit on plays and still has the tools to disrupt the ball handler’s shot at the rim. Not only does he move well, but he can do so with his arms fully extended over his head, making him difficult to shoot over. His best work is done around the basket, though. Even against a high-major team like North Carolina, opposing players struggled to get good looks at the basket, and he blocked five shots. “He’s one of the best shot blockers in the nation,” Coach Morrell declared, and I can’t disagree with him. He’s savvy positionally, he’s long, and his timing is outstanding.
What Needs Improvement
From a technical aspect, it can be difficult to nitpick what Pember does because he’s so skilled. Where he runs into trouble most often is often with his body. When I asked Coach Morrell what Drew Pember needs to work on, he brought up this issue. “He needs to grow physically,” Morrell answered. “He doesn’t need to be 230 pounds, but he’s got to be at a weight where he can hold up and stay healthy. We’ve really targeted that with him.” As Morrell would quickly point out, Pember isn’t a soft player by any stretch of the imagination— he’s far from it. But the games where he struggled inside were against teams with physical big men, like UNC’s Armando Bacot. He won’t be facing many bigs that strong in college (no one will), but the ability to hold his own against powerful centers will be critical for him to get opportunities at the next level. Physically developed drivers can get through his chest, and he can struggle on the glass when he’s overmatched from a strength standpoint. Growing stronger would also allow him to set more meaningful screens and box out more effectively.
Drew Pember is right on the cusp. Many young big men need to add strength, so his biggest area of concern isn’t an uncommon one. Still, the swing in potential outcomes is dramatic if Pember can pull it off. Pember has good length inside, a gorgeous three-point shot, the ability to attack a closeout, a potent passing arsenal for a big man, fluidity on both sides of the ball, sublime rim protection instincts, and impressive feet for a player his size. That’s everything you could want in a modern big man. Still, at 6’11” and 190 pounds, his frame betrays him at times. If Pember can healthily add mass to better stifle penetrators and fellow big men while controlling the glass on a more consistent basis, he’ll be an intriguing NBA prospect. Given that we know he’s focusing on this element of his development, I’m intrigued to see how he looks this coming season.
Aly Khalifa, 6’10”, Charlotte, Redshirt Sophomore
2021-2022 Stats: 7.6 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 3.5 APG, 1.8 TOV 0.8 BPG, 0.5 SPG
2021-2022 Shooting Splits: 47.1/35.1/72.5
Signature Performance: vs. Marshall, 16 points, 6 rebounds, 10 assists, 1 steal. 5-8 FG, 2-2 3FG, 4-4 FT
-vs. Arkansas. 9 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks. 3-8 FG, 1-3 3FG, 2-2 FT
-vs. Wake Forest. 10 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists. 4-9 FG, 0-2 3FG, 2-6 FT
-vs. North Texas. 6 points, 0 rebounds, 2 assists. 2-4 FG, 1-1 3FG, 1-2 FT
The first thing that pops about the game of Aly Khalifa, both from a statistical standpoint and via the eye test, is his passing acumen. There was one phrase that consistently circled through my head as I watched the Conference USA Rookie of the Year in action: Trevion Williams starter kit. Khalifa is clever and creative, and, most importantly, he places the ball accurately. He can throw passes that most bigs would never see or dream of attempting, and he delivers them with precision. Combined with his physical strength and soft jump shooting touch (35.1% from three on 1.8/attempts per game), he’s a nightmare for defenses when he operates out of handoff sets. Khalifa bodies up on screens to create space for his guards and reliably finds cutters when he’s positioned at the top of the key. Even against high-level opponents with better, faster athletes, he didn’t struggle with the speed of the game, and defenders weren’t able to intercept his reads.
What Needs Improvement
In the previous paragraph, I noted some similarities between Khalifa’s game and that of Trevion Williams. Over the years, Trevion Williams transformed his body, and Aly Khalifa will need to do the same. At 255 pounds, he’s heavy up top, and his lack of quickness can be exploited by faster guards. Changes in direction give him headaches defensively, he gives up easy buckets in semi-transition when beat down the court, and he can’t stay on the floor for prolonged periods of time. While he knows where to be on defense, he’s slow to rotate out to the perimeter. His rebounding and shotblocking are also hindered by his speed off the floor. This lack of elevation showed up on film offensively against Arkansas when early in the game, he forced a hook shot right into the hands of Connor Vanover because he couldn’t launch over him. It will be interesting to monitor Jaylin Williams at the next level, as Khalifa took a charge against North Texas that got my gears turning— that tactic may be a nice stopgap for the time being while he works to improve his athleticism.
After the last few NBA Drafts, I am largely uncomfortable betting against skilled, high-feel players with size. That’s what Aly Khalifa is. With three seasons of college ball still in front of him, I fully anticipate a multi-year trajectory for Khalifa. But if he can make improvements to his cardio and athleticism, there is a lot to like. He’s a savvy player who reads the game quickly, he’s going to provide spacing, and there are few bigs who can find teammates the way he does. Khalifa will require patience, but he’s absolutely a player to monitor.
Neal Quinn, 7’0”, Richmond, Senior
2021-2022 Stats: 14.7 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 4.0 APG, 2.2 TOV, 1.4 BPG, 0.9 SPG
2021-2022 Shooting Splits: 54.5/40/70.9
Signature Performance: vs. Bucknell, 24 points, 4 rebounds, 9 assists, 1 block, 1 steal.
-vs. Duke, 4 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal, 4 turnovers. 1-6 FG, 2-6 FT
-vs. Syracuse, 0 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 1 block, 1 turnover. 0-2 FG
After three seasons at Lafayette, Neal Quinn is headed to Richmond this season. Everyone on this list can pass, but Neal Quinn might be the best at it. His vision is outrageous, and he gets the ball to his teammates at warp speed. “I grew up playing sort of a European style of basketball. I’m a pass-first big,” Quinn told me. Quinn noted that he watches a lot of Nikola Jokic currently, and that influence is easily identifiable on film. He’s an exceptional passer out of the high post, finding open teammates on the perimeter for threes or cutters who exploit holes in the defense. Few big men can read back-line defenders from the top of the key like Quinn. “I always did guard workouts as well as big workouts. I wanted to be able to know how to play the game everywhere on the floor,” he noted. Even in the games against Syracuse and Duke, his passing reads were still spot on, leading me to believe this is a scalable skillset. He’s a budding three-point shooter, too. Though he only knocked down two on a total of five attempts last season, it has been a point of emphasis for him recently. When I asked about his expanded range each season, Quinn remarked, “You’re going to see a lot more threes out of me. I’ve been working on that a lot.” Quinn uses his large frame to set great screens. He visibly communicates with his teammates on a consistent basis on both ends of the floor. This paid dividends in transition and semi-transition defense in particular, as he talked and pointed out spots on the floor while getting back to prevent easy buckets. Though he has a big body, Quinn is more nimble than he looks. Solely based on appearance, I anticipated him to be a drop-only big, but he did well on possessions where hedged-and-recovered. While his numbers against Duke and Syracuse appear rough, the performances didn’t look as bad on film. In the Duke game, in particular, many of his shots looked good but simply rimmed out.
What Needs Improvement
Quinn will need to continue to expand his range as a shooter. If he can’t consistently earn respect from the top of the key and the three-point line and garner the respect of defenses at the next level, his impact will be greatly diminished. The other thing holding Quinn back is his body. While strong and long, he’s not the fastest off the floor and doesn’t have much of a second jump. These issues prevent him from being as impactful as he’ll need to be around the rim. Mark Williams was able to get around him and get a few easy ones due to the quickness gap between them. The good news is that Quinn is aware of this issue, and he’s already taken steps to address it. It’s also part of why he chose Richmond as his transfer destination. “I wanted to get my body better and get a more NBA-ready body,” he noted. “When I got on campus, within the first two weeks, I had a body composition test and was set up with a nutritionist.” He’s already seen his body fat decrease from 12.7% to 10.9% this summer, and he wants to see under 10% to have an NBA-style body.
Neal Quinn’s offensive skillset is enticing. His feel, passing, touch, and burgeoning jumper give him a complete, modern game on that side of the floor. Defensively, he’ll need to be a more consistent force. With two years of college eligibility left, how he develops physically will determine his fate. If Quinn can become a solid rim protector with more springiness, and he’s putting in the work to become that, there is a path for him to land on NBA radars.
Amari Williams, 6’10”, Drexel, Junior
2021-2022 Stats: 9.5 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 1.1 APG, 1.8 TOV, 2.0 BPG, 0.6 SPG
2021-2022 Shooting Splits: 52.1/50/63.2
Signature Performance: vs. James Madison, 21 points, 12 rebounds, 2 assists, 4 blocks, 1 steal. 6-10 FG, 1-1 3FG, 8-10 FT
-vs. Syracuse: 8 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 block, 3 turnovers. 1-3 FG, 6-6 FT
Amari Williams is the best athlete in this group. He’s got good size, he’s strong, and he moves well. Williams holds up well physically when matched with players his size. He always gets up and down the floor, and he’s not an easy target for perimeter players. His defensive stance is sublime, and he has great balance when switched onto smaller players. Williams has a tremendous understanding of defensive positioning, whether it be how to body up on the block or where to get on the floor when a driver has penetrated the defense. Paired with his physical profile and long arms, he’s a menacing rim protector who can switch when needed. Williams is a ferocious rebounder. I can count on one hand the number of players who show his level of viciousness when it comes to securing a ball on the glass. Simply, he plays with intent. If he goes up for a board, he doesn’t leave any chance for someone to knock it out of his grasp. If he throws a pass, he’s putting zip on the ball so it reaches his target quickly. If he goes up to finish, he’s finishing hard. Williams doesn’t leave low-hanging fruit out there for the opposition. His three-point percentage looks gaudy, but he only took six threes all season. Against James Madison, he hit a mesmerizing step-back three late in the shot clock, and his touch looks fantastic from the elbow on in. He also ranked in the 77th percentile per Synergy on jump shots in the halfcourt. Still, on free throws and certain shots, he displays a low release, launching the ball from directly in front of his face. The ball can come out of his hands hard in a line drive as a result. Given his sizeable improvement from year one to year two (only appeared in 15 games, playing 4.0 MPG in year one), I’m going to ultimately rule his budding jumper as a positive, and I’m buying that there is room for upside.
What Needs Improvement
We still need to see more out of Williams offensively. Right now, he’s a good play finisher who can sling passes when needed. Given that he plays in a smaller conference, he will need to be more dominant in order to stand out to NBA front offices. Increased production is the name of the game. Straight up, guys who don’t put up large counting numbers in small conferences don’t get NBA consideration. His post game will need to become more sophisticated, he’ll need to make better reads as a passer, and he’ll need to continue expanding his range. Against Syracuse, he wasn’t able to generate much offense for himself, and their complicated zone defense gave him headaches when trying to move the ball. He won’t play against zones much at the next level, but it did raise some red flags about what he can do against tougher opposition. Drexel’s defensive scheme also sees him often play in a deep drop, so while I like what I’ve seen from his perimeter defense, we still need to see a larger sample of it.
With Amari Williams, it’s a matter of continuing down his current path of rapid improvement. He barely played as a freshman, but as a sophomore, he was a viable offensive option who won his conference’s defensive player of the year award. Between his defense and physical profile, he already checks a few boxes off the list. If he can continue to make free throws and expand his range, he’ll look the part of the modern big man every NBA desires. Drexel had a lot of roster turnover this off-season, so a larger role is there for the taking. Given that we’ve already seen a propensity to get better from Williams, I am bullish on his potential future outcomes.
Jake Stephens, 7’0”, Graduate, Chattanooga
2021-2022 Stats: 19.6 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 3.3 APG, 2.5 TOV, 2.0 BPG, 0.5 SPG
2021-2022 Shooting Splits: 55.1/49.0/80.4
Signature Performance: vs. Samford, 39 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 blocks, 1 steal. 12-19 FG, 7-8 3FG, 8-11 FT
-vs. Wake Forest, 12 points, 10 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 block, 1 turnover. 4-10 FG, 2-5 3FG, 2-2 FT
Before we get into his journey, let me make a quick sales pitch: Jake Stephens is one of the best shooters in college basketball, and he’s an absolutely enormous human being. Chattanooga Basketball’s Twitter account recently shared his measurements: 7’0” with a 7’10” wingspan. Stephens is a late bloomer. He went under the radar as a high schooler and ended up committing to Virginia Military Institute. His coach there, Dan Earl, recently left VMI to take the head coaching job at Chattanooga, and Jake Stephens followed him there. I had the pleasure of speaking with Coach Earl, and he noted that Stephens impressed him as a recruit as much due to his off-the-court qualities as his basketball skills: “Recruiting him, he was obviously tall, but he was only 6’8” or 6’9”. He had good hands, good feel, and a good looking stroke. He was a skilled guy with long arms…part of the reason we took him is because he’s a wonderful young man who’s in the gym all the time,” said Earl. Though he had a quiet first two seasons, he emerged as a junior and then put together a monstrous senior campaign. Asked about what led to his breakthrough, Coach Earl noted Stephens’s physical development: “It was changing his body. His stamina was much better. He can dive and score on guys his own height, and smaller guys can’t switch onto him.”
Stephens also emerged as not just a great shooter, but an elite one. His jumper is astoundingly pure for a man his size, and he’s beyond comfortable from long range. He knocked down 49.0% of his threes on five attempts per game this past year. Per Synergy, he ranked in the 99th percentile as a jump shooter and 98th percentile on catch-and-shoot attempts and no-dribble jumpers. “I was super proud of him because we had a meeting after the end of his junior year, and I asked him if he was a better shooter than his 32%, 33%. He told me he was, I told him to prove it, and he did. He took that challenge and worked very hard on it,” Coach Earl remarked. Stephens progressed inside the paint, too. His added strength helped him around the basket, where he made 64.2% of his attempts in the halfcourt. He’s a gifted passer, too, and froze defenses in handoff situations more consistently than any player on this list. Stephens is comfortable with the ball in his hands, and you can run the offense through him because of his floor vision. He’s good without the ball, too, and knows how to position himself to get open on the perimeter. Stephens looks like a wing in the way he prepares his feet before catching the ball and going into his shooting motion. Defensively, he can wreak havoc with his long arms. Per Synergy, opponents shot a meager 37.9% around the basket with him at the rim. He’s an intimidating force, too— beyond altering shots, he scares off potential drivers and forces ball handlers to either dribble back out, force longer shots, or pass it off. Coach Earl also raved about Stephens’ character every chance he got: “He’s a great young man. People listen to him. He’s smart, he’s a leader, and he gets in the gym. Other players follow that example. He’s always in the training room and improving things, and he can fit in with anybody.”
What Needs Improvement
Jake Stephens has come a long way from a physicality and athleticism standpoint, but there is still work to be done. His length does him a ton of favors, there’s no question about that, but he still tells on himself with his positioning on the perimeter. In instances where he ends up switched onto smaller players, he plays way far off them. Perhaps it’s a tactic to goad them to the rim, but it gives me concerns about his ability to guard in space at the next level. Coach Earl noted that Stephens’ athleticism has been a primary focus of his development, saying: “We are really continuing to work on his body. Getting stronger, fast, and more explosive.” Earl noted plays later in the season where Stephens turned the corner after keeping the ball in handoffs to get to the rim for dunks, and he wants to see more of that. He’s also anticipating that Stephens will be faster in ball screen scenarios as a defender, too. “He’s put the work in, and that’s what people need to know,” he added. I’d also like to see this explosiveness come into play with his leaping. Stephens is a proven rim protector, but often, he doesn’t even leave his feet. He’s not springy off the floor, and it takes him time to load up. When he’s facing better competition, this will need to change. He’ll also need to add more of a second jump element to his shot-blocking arsenal in time as well.
I was a tiny bit surprised to see Jake Stephens return to school for another year, but in many ways, I’m glad that he did. He probably would’ve gotten a Portsmouth invite or something along those lines and might have gotten a few looks. Still, we’ve seen year-over-year growth from him at VMI, and him spending another year with much of that same staff at Chattanooga makes sense. Stephens is a reliable decision maker, an awesome shooter, and a gigantic human being. This graduate season will be a matter of rounding out his game and proving he can take another step forward athletically. If Stephens can hold up a little better on the perimeter and look more vertically explosive, it’s easy to see NBA interest coming his way.
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