No Stone Unturned: Where Are They Now?
Last year, Maxwell embarked on an adventure, covering 25 under-the-radar prospects with varying degrees of NBA potential. So, where are they now? Come find out!
Draft SZN never ends. Last year, after the draft came and went, I had a hole in my heart. That led to the creation of the No Stone Unturned series, focusing on under-the-radar prospects who I viewed as having varying degrees of a chance at the NBA at some point in the future. For my methodology, I started by seeking out players with interesting statistical profiles or lesser-known guys who popped on film during the previous season. 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 those criteria but still seems to be generating a good deal of buzz, I tried to avoid them. In the end, I covered five big men, fifteen wings, and five guards. This year, I’m doing it again. But as my 20-month-old daughter recently yelled at an elderly woman in the grocery store, “PAUSE!”
Before we proceed, let’s take a look back at the prospects I covered last year and see where they are now! Many of them still have college eligibility remaining and are real NBA prosects. Some didn’t pan out quite how I’d hoped. Others are already off to the NBA. In doing so, I can walk you through the lessons I learned from the exercise, both good and bad!
2022-2023 Stats: 22.0 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 3.4 APG, 2.8 TOV, 2.2 BPG, 0.9 SPG
2022-2023 Shooting Splits: 55.2/40.8/82.0
Jake Stephens was one of my favorite college basketball players to watch last season. Standing 7’0” with a near-7’10” wingspan and a buttery jump shot, he simply feels like he shouldn’t exist. That’s why I wrote a column on him titled, “Jake Stephens Is Surreal.” Stephens continued his high-volume, high-efficiency ways from long range, hitting 40.8% of his threes on 5.2 attempts per game as a graduate at Chattanooga. He also looked better from a mobility standpoint. He got off the floor easier and looked more comfortable guarding in space. The highlight of his year was a 32-point, 20-rebound, five-assist, five-block outing against Belmont. These improvements helped secure him another All-Conference nod. With no collegiate eligibility remaining, Stephens made his mark during the pre-draft process. He participated in the Reese’s College All-Star Game and the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament. There, Stephens didn’t look out of place athletically, quelling those concerns while showing off his unique pairing of size and skill.
One massive factor working in Stephens’s favor is his intangibles. When I spoke with his head coach Dan Earl prior to last season, he had glowing things to say about him. “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,” Earl noted. I had the chance to speak with Jake when I wrote my feature about him, and he came across as smart, friendly, and self-aware. When you’re on the fringes of the NBA, those things matter a great deal. Teams don’t want the last guy on the bench causing issues or thinking he should be getting more touches. Stephens is a pro from an attitude standpoint, and that carries weight.
Though he didn’t hear his name called on draft night, he has since signed an Exhibit-10 Contract with the Sacramento Kings. In order to stick, he’ll have to prove that he can hang with the pace and speed of an NBA game. The big takeaway from Stephens is this—if a player produces at an astronomical clip, they won’t go ignored. Even if it looks a little funky, that’s a bet you make.
2022-2023 Stats: 20.9 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 2.3 APG, 3.4 TOV, 2.3 BPG, 0.9 SPG
2022-2023 Shooting Splits: 46.4/37.3/83.6
Drew Pember had a phenomenal year for UNC Asheville. He shot better from three, going from 35.6% to 37.3% while also increasing his volume from 3.3 3PA per game to 4.4 per game. After living at the free-throw line as a junior, he practically established a second residence there as a senior, taking 9.1 free throws per game this past season. He had two 40+ point games. He cleaned up on the awards front, capturing the titles of Big South Player of the Year, Big South Defensive Player of the Year, and Big South Tournament MVP. Pember led the Panthers to a 27-8 record, a Big South regular season championship, a conference tournament title, and a berth in the NCAA Tournament. Not only was he productive, but his production led to winning.
Pember has elected to return to UNC Asheville for a graduate season. This was a tidbit surprising at the time, given that he was consistently ranked in the Top 100 on mainstream boards. In hindsight, given the number of players who elected to return to school, perhaps it makes more sense. Pember remains a real prospect for the 2024 NBA Draft despite the fact that he’ll be older. He’s 6’10”, his feel is good, he can hold his own guarding in space, he protects the rim, and he can shoot the lights out.
The biggest thing for Pember to clean up remains his strength. He’s not averse to physicality at all—that’s why he gets to the free-throw line so much. However, he needs to deal with contact better on the inside, particularly as it pertains to turnovers. When he played a higher level of competition, bigger players could bully him around and knock the ball loose. He had six turnovers against both UCF and UCLA, and five against Dayton. I’m projecting him as more of a jumbo 4 than a 5 at this point given those issues on the interior. He needs to demonstrate better control of the ball as a graduate to improve his stock. Even if he doesn’t, he’s still a highly skilled 6’10” guy and should remain a Top 100 name.
2022-2023 Stats: 11.7 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 2.7 APG, 1.6 TOV, 0.6 BPG, 0.6 SPG
2022-2023 Shooting Splits: 51.1/38.1/74.4
Aly Khalifa had a nice, steady progression during his redshirt sophomore campaign at Charlotte. A big-bodied, 6’10” passing dynamo, his ability to create for others with dazzling passes continued to shine through. Khalifa saw a 3% uptick in three-point percentage while taking almost two more attempts per game. That’s critical for him, as the threat of him launching and connecting from distance further opens up the floor for cutters when he’s at the top of the key. He rebounded better, too.
Unfortunately, athleticism and fitness levels remain a major question. His block rate actually dropped from 3.5 to 2.8. Khalifa clearly dropped some weight, and I would say that he moved better laterally. Still, his lack of foot speed and slow, choppy strides when covering ground limit him. His strength and instincts help him some, as opponents shot only 40.7% at the rim against him. But his lack of lift and ability to contain smaller players likely prevents a substantial NBA future at this point. His difficulties turning that corner aren’t shocking—athleticism leaps are rare, and increasingly so as a player gets older. With plenty of eligibility still remaining, Khalifa cannot be written off yet. His skill package is uncommon in such a big player, and if his physical trajectory continues to improve, he’ll have a shot.
2022-2023 Stats: 9.5 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 2.9 APG, 1.5 TOV, 0.7 BPG, 0.3 SPG
2022-2023 Shooting Splits: 56.0/18.2/64.4
Neal Quinn transferred up from Lafayette to Richmond last season. While he didn’t light the world on fire, he performed admirably given the step up in competition. He held down the starting center spot for the entirety of the season, and his skills scaled up nicely. Quinn continued to be a savvy passer capable of slinging creative dishes while limiting his mistakes. He looks leaner and moved better. Despite facing better, more athletic opposing, he fared better inside the arc in the Atlantic-10 than he did in the Patriot League.
Quinn is slated to return to Richmond for a graduate season. The hope here is that now that he’s adjusted to the tempo and pace of a better league, the leap will come this year. His paltry block rate will have to improve in order to gain the attention of NBA front offices. That said, another former Richmond big man, Grant Golden, also had low block rates throughout his college career, in part due to his exceptional feel and passing proficiency. What helped move the needle for Golden was shooting a few threes per game during his final college season, even if he only made 28% of them. If Quinn can knock down the occasional triple, it will give him more gravity and create more intrigue around his future offensive profile.
PAUSE! This stone needs to be unturned one more time. Come back next week for more on one of the most underrated big men in college hoops for the second year in a row, this time with insights from Drexel Head Coach Zach Spiker! Williams will be the only “second stone” in the group, and it’s because he’s earned it.
2022-2023 Stats: 16.1 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 2.3 APG, 2.1 TOV, 1.1 SPG, 0.3 BPG
2022-2023 Shooting Splits: 43.3/27.0/79.4
Going into the series, Ricky Council IV was far and away the most known commodity that I covered. Despite transferring up from Wichita State to Arkansas, he improved his point and assist totals without sacrificing much in terms of his true shooting percentage or turnover rate. There was tangible playmaking growth. As a sophomore, Council began to do a much better job of using his footwork and counters to get inside as opposed to simply attacking in a straight line. As a junior, he continued to do that, but he also kept his head up for teammates more often, punishing the defense once he collapsed it. Council felt like an emotional leader on the floor at times, with a positive, upbeat energy that would ignite his teammates. From a physicality standpoint, he looked the part of an NBA wing, and he got to the charity stripe a lot, taking over 10 free throws per 100 possessions.
The big disappointment here was that rather than bouncing back to his freshman form from three-point range (44.4%), Council’s percentage dropped again from 30.6% to 27%. He continued to utilize his unorthodox “across the body” shooting motion. At this point, he’s far more comfortable dribbling into the mid-range and shooting from there than taking an open three. Defensively, he could play well when engaged, but he drifted at times off the ball.
Council entered the 2023 NBA Draft but went undrafted. Shortly afterward, he signed a two-way contract with the Philadelphia 76ers. In some ways, Council is a classic “everything but the jump shot” proposition. His demeanor and attitude rock, he’s in a great place physically, and he knows how to create for himself and others. Without a three-ball, though, his offensive strengths become greatly diminished. If Council can clean up his mechanics, which is entirely conceivable given how polished his pull-up shot looks and his free throw percentage, the Sixers will have made a great find on the margins.
2022-2023 Stats: 16.7 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 3.8 APG, 3.4 TOV, 1.6 SPG, 0.1 BPG
2022-2023 Shooting Splits: 46.2/30.3/81.3
Dillon Jones had a whirlwind of a year. Playing as a junior at Weber State, he scored more, continued to rebound at a monstrous clip, and took another step forward as a creator in all regards. Jones faced even more defensive attention than he did as a sophomore. Where that hurt him most was as a shooter, as he went a deceptive 30.3% from distance. He rarely got clean looks, but he did flash NBA range at times. Still, despite all of that, I was a little disappointed. I’d knocked Jones for his athleticism, motor, and fitness prior to the year. He came into the season largely looking the same from a physical perspective.
Then, the pre-draft process happened. Jones looked lean. His movement and motor were tremendous at G League Elite Camp and the NBA Combine. His newfound quickness made him look right at home guarding some great wing players. His high levels of mental processing became more meaningful, as he was able to make plays off the ball and better punish lazy passes. At no point was he lumbering up and down the floor like a big man. Dillon Jones looked like a real NBA wing. Measuring with a near-6’11” wingspan didn’t hurt, either. He’d launched himself into a draftable range.
Jones opted to return to Weber State for his senior year. I haven’t made my 2024 Board yet (I know, I know, I’m slacking), but I’d imagine that he’ll be somewhere in the 25-40 range. I get it, that may seem high. But Jones has the body of an NBA wing, I buy the shot, and I love his feel on both ends. That’s the combination of a long-term NBA player that can hang in the playoffs. How he comes into the year from a fitness standpoint could sway things one way or another. He’s another case for the theory of buying into high levels of production, even at lower levels.
2022-2023 Stats: 16.6 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 1.6 APG, 2.2 TOV, 1.8 SPG, 0.7 BPG
2022-2023 Shooting Splits: 45.6/30.1/68.5
Jace Carter took some big steps forward as a sophomore at UIC. Two key developments were his willingness to embrace physicality on offense and his improved decision-making on the ball. Carter’s a strong dude for 6’5”, checking in at 215 pounds. As a freshman, he used his body well to convert inside, but only got to the free-throw line 3.5 times per 100 possessions. This year, that number rocketed up to 8.2. He’s better playing to his strength when he gets inside the paint, and it’s allowing him to rack up easy points while getting his opponents in foul trouble. Contact is more than welcome here. Carter kept his turnover rate flat while improving his assist percentage from 4.2 to 11.1. He did a better job of keeping the ball moving, and he also showed a bit more acumen in terms of looking off the occasional pass to make rotations more difficult. He’s still not as skilled with the ball as he’ll need to be as a modern wing, but the leap he made was sizeable and encouraging for what his future could hold. He was already an awesome rebounder for his position, and he got better in that respect, too.
Carter saw his three-point percentage drop from 38.2% to 30.1%. I’m not totally worried about his shot, even with a suboptimal free throw percentage. He only got to take 39 unguarded threes against 103 guarded looks, per Synergy. His offensive role also forced him to take a few tough ones off the dribble late in the clock, which isn’t a great role for him. The good news is that Carter’s form looks fine, and his confidence never wavered. He took 68 threes as a freshman and 176 as a sophomore. Carter believes in his shot, and that makes me believe in it, too. Defensively, he needs to do better at the point of attack. The metrics are great and he makes a ton of plays, as evident in his 2.9 STL% and 2.2 BLK%. However, guys get by him too easily. When I watched him in person against Drake, the Bulldogs worked to get him switched onto Tucker DeVries late in the game. He can play too narrow and doesn’t always sit down in his stance, leading to struggles keeping players in front of him. From a tools standpoint, he should be fine if he buys in and gets coached up on this front.
After the season, Carter transferred to Texas A&M. I cannot wait to see him in the SEC. I love the fit given that A&M was a little thin on wing-sized players, especially ones that are willing shooters. Carter’s toughness and tenacity will have him right at home in their system, and his skill improvements should bode well for him as he gets ready to play a faster game on a night-to-night basis. He was a prospect I projected as being in the NBA mix further down the road, and he’s still headed down that path. I remain intrigued by Carter long-term but think of him as more of a 2025 prospect than a 2024 guy.
2022-2023 Stats: 9.6 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 1.6 APG, 1.4 TOV, 0.7 SPG, 0.6 BPG
2022-2023 Shooting Splits: 34.8/35.6/68.8
Zach Hicks didn’t quite make the sophomore leap I’d anticipated. For the second year in a row, he shot under 40% on a low volume of twos, struggling to generate much for himself at the rim and deal with contact inside the arc. My takeaway here is that while length, shooting, and defense are all substantially important, the connective tissue of a player’s game and how they respond when chased off the line can matter just as much. He still got better in some respects. Namely, he showed more as a passer and ball-handler. His decision-making is rock solid and he knows how to keep the ball moving. Plus, he’s still a 6’7” guy with long arms and a gorgeous three-point shot. Hicks remained an impactful, disruptive defender.
In the wake of a coaching change at Temple, Hicks will be transferring to Penn State this coming season. I’m hoping that the new scenery will help him put everything together. He’ll have a high-end set-up man in Ace Baldwin. If Hicks can figure some things out inside the arc, there will be a lot to like. He has NBA length, he has a pretty jumper, he plays selflessly, and he knows how to defend. To make a leap, Hicks needs an answer for when he’s forced to attack, and he needs to be more physical in general.
2022-2023 Stats: 12.8 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 1.2 APG, 1.6 TOV, 1.0 SPG, 0.8 BPG
2022-2023 Shooting Splits: 49.1/38.5/72.3
Francis Nwaokorie’s sophomore numbers were a modest improvement upon last year’s statistics. When looking closer, though, there’s a greater leap than what may be initially indicated. After dealing with some injuries early in the year, Nwaokorie finished strong. Over his last 15 games, he averaged 16.3 PPG on 52.1/41.9/77.4 splits. He was letting it fly from deep, too. In his first 14 games, he took 2.5 threes per game, but that number jumped to 4.9 per game later in the year.
Nwaokorie remains a long-term name to watch for me. He’ll be returning to UC San Diego for his junior season. At 6’8” with a strong body and loads of intelligence, Nwaokorie has a lot in his corner. He moves the ball quickly, knows where to be on defense, and his jump shot continues to improve. I’d like to see him be a little more mobile laterally and vertically this coming season. He often gets to operate as a big in his current team, but he’ll need to be more comfortable against quicker opponents at the next level.
2022-2023 Stats: 18.6 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 1.8 APG, 1.5 TOV, 1.1 SPG, 0.2 BPG
2022-2023 Shooting Splits: 44.6/37.3/83.8
Tucker DeVries was one of the players I was most confident in coming out of the No Stone Unturned exercise. In fact, I had him ranked 45th on my preseason board. DeVries stayed in that range for a majority of the season for me.
As a freshman, DeVries shot 33.9% from three, but the eye test, shooting volume, and degree of difficulty on his attempts made it abundantly clear that he was capable of more. It was an easy jump to project. As a sophomore, he shot 37.3% from long range while taking just under seven attempts per game. It was an impressive feat given that he was the leading man in the Drake offense and received a great deal of defensive attention. He was better inside the arc, too, with a deeper counter game, faster first step, and a more athletic frame. Defensively, he looked solid and moved better laterally. His block rate dropped, but at least part of that should be attributed to a change in scheme and role. Big man Darnell Brodie was on the floor a lot more, and DeVries was tasked with fewer responsibilities as a weakside rim protector. His handle, connective passing, and vision were still impressive for a 6’7” wing.
I believe DeVries’s momentum as a 2023 prospect was halted by having his worst game of the season at the worst possible time. In Drake’s first-round tournament match-up against Miami, DeVries scored three points and went 1-13 from the floor. His shot looked sped up, and he seemed a little uncomfortable against his bigger, faster opponents. Still, the non-shooting elements of his game were good! DeVries had eight rebounds, two assists, two steals, and a block. Everyone remembered the misses, and that’s understandable, but he still found ways to impact the game, especially on defense. He didn’t test the draft waters or enter the transfer portal (which is understandable, given that his father is the head coach at Drake).
I’m going to have Tucker DeVries in a similar range on my first 2024 board. One bad game doesn’t sway me. He’s going to have to get used to playing against better athletes, but I think he will. In both games against high-major opposition last season (Miami and Mississippi State), DeVries rebounded well, moved the ball, and made plays on defense. He can do some stuff other than just shoot, and I don’t think he’s going to be toast on defense given his strength and feel. He’s a big, smart shooter, and the playoffs tell us every year that those guys have value.
2022-2023 Stats: 13.1 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 1.3 APG, 1.1 SPG, 1.1 BPG
2022-2023 Shooting Splits: 57.4/31.3/73.6
So, if you’re wondering “why on earth was Norchad Omier in the wing category?” that’s fair. A transfer up from Arkansas State to Miami, my theory before the season was that in order for Omier to catch the eyes of pro evaluators and better adapt to the size of the ACC, he would need to add more “wing” components to his game. That wasn’t entirely wrong, but it wasn’t entirely right, either. Omier continued to act as an undersized big at Miami, and he did a tremendous job in that role. He started in almost every game and the Hurricanes made it to the Final Four. His tenaciousness on the glass made him an absolute headache for opposing big men, even when they were bigger than him. Omier also cut his turnovers, made some enticing passes, and took open jumpers. After taking six threes in his first two college seasons, he took 16 last year. The fact that he averaged a double-double as a 6’7” guy in a high-major conference turned heads, and despite his limitations, he earned an invitation to the NBA’s G League Elite Camp.
Omier did pretty well at Elite Camp. His athleticism and awareness allowed him to cover smaller players well while his grit and determination helped him against opposing bigs. Ultimately, he didn’t get called up to the NBA Combine, and he elected to return to Miami for his senior season. He’ll always have doubters due to his lack of positional size. Still, he’s further proof that rebounding (almost) always scales up. In order to gain better standing, he’ll just need to keep doing what he did last year—clean up his ball skills, take and make open jumpers, and continue to be one of the most relentless competitors in the sport of basketball. He’s deserving of Top 100 consideration heading into the year.
2022-2023 Stats: 15.6 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 5.3 APG, 3.0 TOV, 0.8 SPG, 0.3 BPG
2022-2023 Shooting Splits: 39.8/32.8/78.4
Robertson had about as well-rounded of an offensive statistical output as you can find anywhere. As a 6’6” point-forward of sorts, he facilitated the offense for the Pilots, leading the team in both scoring and assists. His passing ability is the biggest thing that pops on film. Unfortunately, after a breakout junior season, teams were locked onto him more than they had been previously. Given that Robertson isn’t the quickest player and already lived on a tough, mid-range heavy shot diet, nothing came easy for him, leading to a dip in efficiency. Considering his struggles to separate and his high percentage in the mid-range last season, I should have better anticipated him coming back down to earth in some sense. The increased usage load also likely stifled his defensive efforts, where he looked a step slow at times.
While he didn’t explode onto the scene in 2023, I think Robertson still has the potential to sneak up on people as a graduate player in 2024. Portland is going to return a solid amount of talent, and that continuity paired with improvements across the board should alleviate some of the offensive pressure off him. Robertson will need to be quicker and more engaged on defense and more efficient as a scorer. He’s still tall(ish), strong, and supremely skilled. Don’t be surprised to see Robertson stuff the stat sheet again and earn himself a Portsmouth Invitational roster spot.
2022-2023 Stats: 8.3 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.0 TOV, 1.7 SPG, 0.8 BPG.
2022-2023 Shooting Splits: 34.8/31.6/78.6
I want to start off by highlighting some of the things Jadon Jones did well this past year. After being a mundane ball-handler and frustrating passer as a sophomore, he looked markedly better putting the ball on the deck as a junior. His vision blossomed, too, finding the open man and placing the ball where it should go. That led to his going from a 1:1 assist-to-turnover ratio to a 2:1 mark. It’s pretty uncommon to see that type of leap, and Jones should be commended for it. Jones also posted both a STL% and BLK% over 3.0 for the first time in his career. His length, speed, and effort on the defensive end are all top-of-the-line, and he’s always going to be one of the better defenders out there.
Unfortunately, the ball just didn’t go through the basket for Jones this year. He didn’t make teams pay when they chased him off the line, shooting 41.9% on twos. His three-point percentage fell from 37.1% to 31.6%. Players who shoot those marks at the Big West level don’t tend to get NBA consideration.
Here’s the good news: Jones still has two years of college eligibility left. His defense is stellar, and his tools make it seem like it will carry over against better opposition. He also never lost confidence in his shot, and he didn’t play tentatively or scared when he wasn’t getting the results he wanted. The playmaking leap he took was genuinely impressive. All Jones needs to get onto radars is for the shot to go in again. If he bounces back this year, he could be in great position to either explore professional options or head into a grad year with heaps of momentum behind him.
2022-2023 Stats: 3.1 PPG, 1.3 RPG, 0.6 APG, 0.7 TOV, 0.4 SPG, 0.0 BPG
2022-2023 Shooting Splits: 42.4/35.9/79.2
It bums me out to write this one. Williams had a stellar sophomore season at Gardner-Webb. He looked like a dribble-pass-shoot 2-guard. His three-point shooting was off the charts, connecting on 39.3% of his long-range bombs. He could pull off the dribble, and he was a master screen navigator when running around off the ball. Williams knew how to make his man hit the pick while also getting himself as much separation as possible. Sure, he struggled inside and was on the skinny side, but I didn’t think he would have a major adjustment transferring up to the high-major level.
Sadly, Williams didn’t get to see the floor much at Texas Tech. He only started once and averaged 10.1 MPG. His shots went in at a respectable clip, but he largely felt unmemorable. Physicality matters substantially, and even more so for guards and wings than in years past. I believe that played a big part in his struggles this year and overlooking that was a whiff on my end. He’s going to return to Texas Tech for his senior season, and I’m hoping that with a new regime at the helm, maybe he’ll get more of an opportunity.
2022-2023 Stats: 18.8 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 2.9 APG, 2.2 TOV, 1.4 SPG, 0.2 BPG
2022-2023 Shooting Splits: 47.5/41.5/68.4
In this column, I went out on a bit of a limb and noted that Ben Sheppard would be in the back end of my Top 60 heading into the season. In hindsight, a team getting him in that range would have been a massive bargain.
There was a lot to like about Ben Sheppard before his senior season. He was a non-stop mover who could shoot the three and cut to get easy looks inside. Sheppard also loved competing on the defensive end. Still, as a largely off-ball player, questions remained about how much on-ball equity he could carry. During his senior season, Sheppard proved effective in that capacity. He ranked in the 89th percentile on pick-and-roll possessions including passes. His jumper took another leap, with his three-point percentage increasing from 37.1% to 41.5%. Even though he didn’t get to show off his cutting as much, that was still in his fabric, and he showcased it at the NBA Combine. At that same event, his new ball skills and improved passing acumen popped. This catapulted Sheppard, who had been largely out of mainstream Top 60s. He would hear his name called in the first round by the Indiana Pacers with the 26th overall pick on draft night.
Excessive victory lapping for the sake of it doesn’t help anyone learn. Still, this was my biggest hit of the series, and it’s important to learn from your hits as well as your misses. Let’s break down what I saw in Sheppard and how he came to a greater level of prominence:
1. Sheppard was an efficient half-court scorer with size.
As a junior, he’d made 38.1% of his catch-and-shoot threes on high volume. His “never stop moving” approach also helped him get easy looks at the basket, and he was successful there. Per Synergy, he’d converted 63.3% of his halfcourt shots at the rim. He’s also 6’5” barefoot.
2. Sheppard had proven he could thrive in a complementary role.
There is no shortage of players who can and do post gaudy counting numbers at the mid-major level. However, it was the way Sheppard got to those numbers that mattered. He wasn’t going to have to change how he played much at all scaling up in competition. Never did he feel like a guy who was going to pound the air out of the ball or jack up shots that made his teammates waive their hands in frustration.
3. Despite a heavier offensive workload, he still cared about defense.
Sheppard is still on the slimmer side for a wing and he can be too upright at times. Despite that, he gets after at the point of attack, and he knows how to use his length to contain smaller players. His junior year outing against Scotty Pippen Jr. was stellar. Pippen was an electric scorer for Vanderbilt that season, but Sheppard’s work rate, size, and tenacity gave him fits. He only got off seven shots and was held to 10 points, one of his lowest totals of the season. It’s important to be able to give something on that end of the floor when your shot isn’t falling, which tends to happen from time to time when you live on a tougher shot diet as a movement shooter.
4. The creation flashes were there.
Sheppard’s 1.2 to 1.3 AST:TO ratio wasn’t compelling on paper, but the moments of ingenuity were present on film. Namely, a behind-the-head whip pass against SIU-Edwardsville. This area needed work, but that brings us to our last point…
5. I bought into the human being.
This can be exceptionally difficult to do, especially from the outside. But it’s also part of why I began to reach out for interviews on nearly every single piece I write. Getting to speak to coaches and players can help paint a much clearer picture of a prospect. When I spoke to Ben Sheppard, he was polished, professional, and most importantly, self-aware. He knew what areas of his game needed work, and he was able to illustrate how he was working on those issues. Sheppard pointed out his shot creation in general as an area that needed development while also touching on how he enjoyed using his gravity to set up others. He wanted to get better, he knew what he needed to do to get better, and he did it.
As I said previously, there is no shortage of “hidden gems” who can score points efficiently. But these were the things that helped me separate Ben Sheppard from the others when it came to selecting him for this series and seeing him as a draftable prospect before the season started. I’m far from perfect as an evaluator (see: the multiple prospects in this same series who had down years last season), but these were the things that helped me get this one right.
2022-2023 Stats: 15.3 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.9 TOV, 0.8 SPG, 0.4 BPG
2022-2023 Shooting Splits: 45.7/37.1/84.5
Steele Venters had another strong season at Eastern Washington. The continued emergence of Angelo Allegri stifled his counting numbers a bit, but Venters still led the team in scoring and shot the ball well. He’s a polished three-level shotmaker who doesn’t force much but can still bail his team out when needed. Even though the counting numbers don’t bare it out, I thought his handle and passing improved a tad, and he was seeing things for teammates quicker.
There were two hang-ups for Venters. The first was that he shot 37.1% from three, which is a great number on 6.2 per game. But after hitting 43.4% the year before on a similar number of attempts, it was a step back. Given his defensive issues, he likely needs to be closer to or in the 40s to generate NBA traction. The defense is indeed the second issue, to be clear. He simply doesn’t contain the ball much at the point of attack. He’ll be too upright and too content to get beat. That has to come around.
Still, there remains a level of interest in Venters. He transferred up to Gonzaga, and they don’t bring in bad players. In fact, Venters is damn good. There aren’t a lot of 6’7” dudes with his shooting credentials, and despite his on-ball defensive shortcomings, he knows how to play off of it as a helper. This year, he’ll have a bigger spotlight. If he can tighten up his defense and hit threes at a better clip, don’t be surprised to see him in Top 100s come draft time.
2022-2023 Stats: 13.2 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 1.6 APG, 1.9 TOV, 1.3 SPG, 0.4 BPG
2022-2023 Shooting Splits: 39.2/29.4/78.5
This one was a letdown, as I thought Jones had a strong chance to emerge as a draftable prospect in 2023. He was coming off a breakout sophomore campaign at DePaul, where despite shooting a poor percentage from three, I was convinced that improved shot selection and a year of development could get him where he needed to be. Add in an NBA body type, defensive disruptiveness, and some strides as a playmaker, and it was easy to get excited. As a junior, things didn’t click, and it wasn’t for unforeseeable reasons. Here’s what I wrote at the time:
"Now, Jones is off to St. John’s. I’d love to see him take a similar leap, but I have some real concerns about the Red Storm’s roster construction. They’ll have two ball-dominant guards with questionable jump shots in Posh Alexander and Andre Curbelo. When Jones does get to drive to the bucket, teams will be able to swarm him with little fear of consequences due to the lack of Red Storm floor spacers. While his situation at DePaul wasn’t perfect, I’m uncertain if things will be easier at St. John’s. Ultimately, I’m encouraged by the giant step he took during his first off-season. His physical tools, defense, and upward trajectory as a shooter make him worth monitoring. If it all comes together, Jones could warrant consideration as early as the back-end of the first round. He’s a “wait-and-see” prospect for now, and how things click for his team could wildly sling his trajectory in either direction.
I don’t think I was off base there. A good shooting year, paired with his defensive tools and physical profile would have certainly landed him in that range. Sadly, that didn’t happen. The spacing issues were real, with St. John’s ranking 315th in Division I for made threes last year. Jones was much worse at the rim in a cramped halfcourt setting. As far as maybe being too high on the prospects of his shooting improving, that’s on me. I should’ve leaned more heavily on his free throw percentage (69.2% as a sophomore) and poor unguarded three-pointer numbers (26.3% that same year). Knowing what I know now, even a leap to respectability was something of a long shot. This is why you spend time on your misses, folks. You either win or you learn.
Jones is now set to transfer to Memphis. I don’t want to slam the book shut on his NBA chances, but it’s going to be more of an uphill battle. His shot has to get on track. If it does, he’s a powerful 6’6” plus-athlete who can really defend up and down the line-up, and that is going to generate serious appeal. He’ll still get some looks even if he just remains productive given those factors.
2022-2023 Stats: 11.1 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 1.1 APG, 2.1 TOV, 1.2 SPG, 0.9 BPG
2022-2023 Shooting Splits: 42.2/30.3/80.9
Settle was one of the players from this series I was most looking forward to seeing this past year. At 6’10” with loads of lateral agility and coming off a 35.3% year from distance, he was intriguing. Unfortunately, he largely looked the same as he did the year prior. Howard was a better team, had the best record in their conference, and made the NCAA Tournament. That matters—Settle played well and was conducive to winning. In an early season outing against Kentucky, he guarded the whole positional spectrum well. The same can be said when he squared off against Kansas in the NCAA Tournament. Howard got crushed, but Settle had 13 points on 10 shots, with two steals and a block.
This year, Settle will be playing for Temple, and I’m fascinated to see how it plays out. Few players have his length, mobility, and defensive capability. There are two things Settle needs to display to get on draft radars. The first is a consistent jump shot. He’s historically been a good free throw shooter, going 79.3% across three college seasons. His three-ball has lagged behind, though—he’s at a career 31.7% from distance. The second thing I want to see is an increased level of assertiveness on both ends of the floor. At the college level, and particularly when he was competing in a smaller conference, his game went way too quiet at times. Someone with his frame and skills should be reminding me that he’s on the court at all times.
2022-2023 Stats: 11.1 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 1.9 APG, 0.8 TOV, 1.0 SPG, 0.3 BPG
2022-2023 Shooting Splits: 44.0/38.5/66.7
I included Michael Moreno in the series in part because he was one of my favorite college players to watch. He’s a tremendous shooter, intelligent defender, and sharp mental processer of the game. The counting numbers may be a tad deceiving here, but I thought Moreno actually looked quite a bit better during his senior season. Eastern Kentucky brought in some high-quality freshmen guards and generally stayed healthier across the board, which perhaps stifled a scoring leap from Moreno. The team performed better, going from 13-18 to 23-14. Moreno’s quick-release, high-efficiency jump shot, and laser-sharp decision-making were a key part of that equation. He also looked lighter, moved better laterally, and had a slightly better first step when chased off the line.
Moreno is slated to return to EKU for his graduate year. If we’re talking NBA projection, he needs to continue to get into better shape and look more athletic. Front offices will want to see a high PPG total given the league he’s playing in, but Moreno isn’t the type to force that issue, and he frankly, he shouldn’t. He’s poised and intelligent, but he needs a more explosive step when teams chase him off the line. Still, I think Moreno is going to be a professional basketball player somewhere for some time. He’s 6’7”, strong, one of the smarter/most trustworthy decision-makers out there, a good rebounder, and a true sniper from deep.
2022-2023 Stats: 19.0 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 5.4 APG, 2.7 TOV, 1.6 SPG, 0.3 BPG
2022-2023 Shooting Splits: 43.9/35.7/83.0
Trenton Massner had a phenomenal season for Western Illinois. The Leathernecks had experienced significant roster turnover, and heading into the year, BartTorvik projected them to be the 346th-best team in the country. That means only 17 teams were ranked behind them. Yikes! Massner put the squad on his back and exceeded expectations, leading them to a 16-14 record and fourth place in the Summit League. He looked as bursty and athletic as ever, his passing took a step forward in terms of accuracy and creativity, and he took and made more threes on more attempts. Massner went from 34.9% on 5.4 threes per game to 35.7% on 8.2 per game. That’s a serious volume uptick. He was more consistent in hitting his deep ones, too.
During the season, I’d noted in my weekly Prospect Overview column that I’d wanted to see him get an invite to the Portsmouth Invitational. Sadly, that didn’t come to fruition. Still, Massner had front office attention, and he signed a Summer League deal with the Miami Heat. With real NBA shooting range, legitimate athleticism, and the ability to make plays on both sides of the floor, this underdog still has a chance. Similar to Jake Stephens, he shows that outrageous levels of production will always give a prospect an opportunity to get their foot in the door of the NBA.
2022-2023 Stats: 9.3 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.2 TOV, 1.5 SPG, 0.5 BPG
2022-2023 Shooting Splits: 43.3/40.4/70.0
I’d named Jayden Nunn as a 2023 breakout target, and he was in my pre-season Top 60. He didn’t have the production explosion I’d hoped for/anticipated, but he made modest improvements in key areas. Part of the issue for Nunn was that he happened to be on the same team as Ace Baldwin, who had a phenomenal season for VCU. Baldwin’s emergence as THE GUY, paired with the fact that he’s a more reliable decision-maker and table-setter, limited Nunn’s on-ball opportunities. Nunn is the better pro prospect due to his size, athleticism, and defense, but for VCU, strictly from a winning games perspective, playing through Baldwin was the move.
As I said, though—Nunn still got better, and I still believe him to be a long-term NBA prospect. His three-point volume stayed relatively modest, but he went from 36.0% to 40.4%. Crucially, he became even better off the dribble from long range, going 46.3% on his 41 pull-up threes. His ability to convert from deep in those settings keeps defenses honest. Perhaps more importantly, Nunn got substantially better at the basket. As a freshman, he only made 40.9% of his shots at the basket in the halfcourt. This year, he played tougher and took better angles, and it paid off—he improved to 52.9% on similar volume. He’s now a real multi-level proposition rather than a guy who teams are content to let get in the paint. His defensive efforts were still out of this world, too. Nunn is an utter pest who covers his man the whole length of the floor and doesn’t let anything come easy. His 3.0 STL% and 2.1 BLK% are both great marks for a guard prospect.
Next season, Nunn will be playing for the Baylor Bears. It’s a great fit for him, even if their backcourt is stacked with him, Rayj Dennis, Ja’Kobe Walter, and Langston Love. Scott Drew knows how to balance a loaded guard rotation, and he’s never shied away from playing three guards at the same time. Plus, guards who bring defensive intensity like Davion Mitchell and Dale Bonner have always managed to secure playing time under his watch. Nunn still needs to fill out his frame and get stronger. I also want to see him use his vision and passing more consistently. Outside of that, though, he looks a lot like a modern combo guard—he can score off the dribble, he’s finishing inside, he has plenty of length, and he’ll make life a living hell for his man on the defensive end. I still see what I saw in Nunn, and it wouldn’t stun me in the least if he’s drafted in 2024. If it takes him some more time, though, that’s totally fine. Ultimately, I believe he’ll be at worst a G League Elite Camp invite at some point in the future.
2022-2023 Season Stats: 9.7 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 3.4 APG, 1.2 TOV, 2.0 SPG, 0.8 BPG
2022-2023 Shooting Splits: 48.3/31.7/71.0
Sion James made another set of solid, stair-step improvements this season. He continued to be one of the best defenders at the guard spot out there. At 6’5” and 205 pounds, he’s built like an NBA wing and he can guard multiple positions. His feet are quick enough to stay in front of anybody, and even bigger opponents aren’t able to power their way through him because he’s so damn strong. James’ intellect and feel for the game make him an impactful off-ball defender, too. He’s probably the “toughest to move” player that consistently orchestrated offense as a guard in college basketball last season. Let’s talk about those guard skills, too! James is a clever passer who takes excellent care of the ball, as evidenced by his near 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He uses his physical gifts to get inside the paint, and he’s a trustworthy operator once he’s there. His pairing of strength and savvy is tough to match. Because of his tools, he’s also consistently providing plus-rebounding for his position.
James tested the draft waters but ultimately opted to return to Tulane for his senior season. The situation isn’t too dissimilar from last season—the Green Wave have a talented roster, and James will be set to play a more complimentary role. His biggest question mark, his jump shot, remains the same as well. There was a minor uptick in his volume, going from 3.2 attempts per 100 possessions to 3.9 attempts per 100 possessions. Unfortunately, 31.7% on that volume isn’t going to cut it. Teams largely ignore him on the perimeter, and he has to find a way to change that. If he ultimately goes pro after the 23-24 season, there will still be a level of interest. He’s big, smart, plays hard, takes care of the ball, makes plays on defense, and can guard a wide spectrum of players. His three-ball will determine just how much interest there is.
2022-2023 Stats: 10.7 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 2.7 APG, 2.0 TOV, 1.5 SPG, 0.2 BPG
2022-2023 Shooting Splits: 41.6/32.3/76.7
Jaeden Zackery’s stats as a third-year player were nearly identical to the ones he posted as a second-year player. Unfortunately, the only real deviation came in his shooting splits, which were down from the year before, when he was 46.3/47.7/71.2. He looked the part of a knockdown shooter during his first season at Boston College, but I fell too hard into the “low volume trap” given that he only took 3.3 per game. His interior numbers dipped in large part due to the poor spacing on his team. For the second year in a row, the Eagles were a poor shooting team, ranking 336th in made threes per game. This allowed defenses to crowd Zackery when he got inside the paint.
Zackery is set to return to Boston College next year, and I’m uncertain of what to make of him at this stage. He’s physically strong and plays without fear of contact on both ends. While he’s not a 47.7% three-point shooter, I certainly don’t think he’s a low-30s guy either. It’s hard to know where his finishing stands—he can plow his way inside, but he’s a below-the-rim leaper, and playing with loads of non-shooters didn’t help him. He has two years of eligibility left, and a few leaps need to be made for him to get onto NBA radars. Namely, he has to show improved creativity with his handle and passing, and he needs the jumper to start falling again.
2022-2023 Season Stats: 11.8 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 2.8 APG, 1.8 TOV, 2.4 SPG, 0.3 BPG
2022-2023 Shooting Splits: 39.9/32.2/69.4
Sam Vinson was someone I projected as a multi-year, long-term prospect. The 6’5” guard had just won the Horizon League’s Freshman of the Year Award, and deservedly so. During his sophomore campaign, there was still a lot to like. Playing in Northern Kentucky’s zone defense, he has a wonderful nose for the ball and knows how to muck things up. He’s constantly knocking the rock loose, generating 50-50 balls, and straight up stealing it from the other team. Vinson has good size for a guard paired with a calculated defensive aggressiveness. Offensively, I like his herky-jerky attacking game, ambidexterity as a passer, and use of misdirection. Where I missed was on his jumper. He shot 35.2% from three and 67.7% from the charity stripe as a freshman. I bought his three-ball, as he’d hit some difficult shots from NBA range. I probably should’ve yielded my excitement a bit and given the free throw percentage more weight. Sometimes, flashes are just flashes and not a guarantee of a skill become fully fleshed out in the near future.
Where Vinson’s shot settles in the future will determine where he lands in the grand scheme of things. If his best moments become a more consistent occurrence, he’ll be in business. He generates turnovers, takes care of the ball, and grew as an interior scorer this past season. He still needs to gain weight and become a more consistent outside shooter. If he does, he’ll likely find himself in that Portsmouth-type mix by the time he comes out.