Should I Stay Or Should I Go? | The Morning Dunk
Other than the conversation about who should go first overall in the 2022 NBA Draft, the other major storyline is who should actually declare and stay in, test the waters or come back to school?
Welcome back to the last “traditional” Morning Dunk column of the year!
After this week, I’ll use this space for the remainder of March to cover prospect previews in conference tournament action, as well as “The Big Dance” itself going over major matchups to watch out for and react to the previous week that was.
That being said, I had previously stated I wanted to use last week and this as opportunities to put bows on the two biggest storylines in the draft world.
If you missed last week’s column about the race for the first overall pick in the 2022 draft, I highly recommend you go check it out as I laid out comprehensive cases for six different prospects, mainly the top three of Chet Holmgren, Jabari Smith, and Paolo Banchero.
The other captivating storyline of this cycle is who will actually declare and remain in the 2022 draft?
That question has made evaluating and plotting big boards and mock drafts so early on excruciatingly difficult at times.
Will we have a larger number of freshmen go back to school to improve their stock similar to Jaden Ivey, Bennedict Mathurin, and Johnny Davis? Or will the threat of a stronger 2023 class push more players to not only declare but remain, especially if they’re guaranteed first-round promises?
Let’s dive into that very point and evaluate a number of prospects through that lens!
Should I Stay Or Should I Go?
Before we go through this exercise, I want to make a couple of things very clear.
First, I am NOT providing ANY intel while writing this column. I don’t have connections directly to these prospects. So while I’ve certainly been able to talk to those in the industry and live vicariously through the connections of others on our No Ceilings staff, this column is purely through my eyes.
Second, I am NOT directly trying to ADVISE ANY prospects discussed in this section. There are a vast number of reasons that affect a player’s decision to declare for the draft or come back to school without even testing the waters. Some players even transfer or find alternative routes to making the NBA. I am not an agent or career coach.
But what I DO want to do here is provide my honest opinions on who in my opinion would benefit from making certain decisions.
I’ve laid out this piece with three groups of prospects: whether they should go and not look back, at least test the waters and hopefully secure a draft promise or the chance to gain valuable feedback to improve, or come back to school and reap the rewards of a focused summer with the proper coaching and personal development.
I have five prospects I’ve picked out for each category. This is such a fascinating class I could’ve chosen more. But these are the names I’ve come back to more often than not during the evaluation process, so that’s why I’ve selected these particular players.
Let’s start with who I feel should go and work our way back around shall we?
*All statistics are courtesy of Sports Reference and Synergy Sports and are accurate as of 2/27*
Max Christie, Michigan State
27 GP, 27 GS, 31.3 MPG
9.6 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 1.5 APG, 38.0/31.4/82.8 Shooting Splits, 10.6 PER, 49.3 TS%
The first two players I’m starting this exercise with have eerily similar statistical comps to each other in terms of minutes played, roles, shooting, and overall efficiencies. Both are freshmen in Max Christie and Caleb Houstan.
Each has had their own struggles this year in terms of remaining consistent within their roles that don’t necessarily play to their offensive strengths. Both have a little more creativity in their bag than given credit for, but each one has essentially been saddled into a predominantly spot-up shooting role for better or worse.
In Christie’s case, he’s been all over the place in terms of makes and misses. He’s had multiple stretches this year where he’s looked like a lottery pick and even more games where people have scratched their heads wondering if he should even be ranked in the first round.
When you strip out the makes and misses, it’s easier to put together the pro picture for Christie. A 6’6” guard who hunts for his shot, can shoot on the move, spot up, and is beginning to grow his floater game in the paint. Factor that in with some occasional pick-and-roll creativity and good positional defense, and he checks a lot of boxes the NBA is looking for from wings.
The problem is he doesn’t have the percentages and production to back up the notion he could step on the court from day one and bring those things to a team in spades.
I understand the case for Christie going back to school. While his frame offers plenty of promise to fill out, he’s still physically weak when it comes to finishing around the basket (7th percentile around the basket in half-court situations, shooting 38.2%). The outside stroke looks incredibly clean, but he still needs reps to live up to his promise of shooting 38-plus from range at the next level.
But in theory, he’ll have much more space in the NBA and will have the opportunity to play off better talents who command more gravity and attention from the defense. Giving him minutes as he grows to just gain confidence nailing open jumpers should do wonders for him as he continues to expand his game.
And for all of what he can bring to the table offensively, he’s been rock solid all year on the ball defensively. I don’t evaluate prospects too heavily in the realm of playing within team concepts off the ball, but I do want to know who you can hold your own against one-on-one. Christie projects as an above-average guard defender and as he fills out should be able to swing up and hold his own against small forwards in certain lineups.
It’s a little tricky, but sometimes you have to buy into the eye test and put trust into a prospect’s projected skill set. In terms of getting on the court during his rookie year, he won’t be a complete minus defensively and he’s capable of hitting open shots.
Christie has enough of a baseline with plenty of upside to warrant a late lottery or mid first-round selection in this draft. Coach Tom Izzo has molded sophomore talents into lottery picks in the past, but I’m not sure going back to school is necessarily what he NEEDS in terms of development. I say go the league, as I find it very hard to believe NBA teams wouldn’t be eager to take him in the first round.
Caleb Houstan, Michigan
26 GP, 26 GS, 31.8 MPG
10.3 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 1.5 APG, 39.4/35.9/76.1 Shooting Splits, 12.3 PER, 54.1 TS%
I just said some glowing words about Christie’s upside. However, I’m not in the same camp to that degree with Houstan.
While I do think he’s a better shooter than some of the numbers show and may actually buy him to do better from deep quicker than Christie, I don’t have the same confidence in his ability to convert inside the arc.
Houstan’s taller at 6’8” but I’m not sure how much bulk he’s going to add to finish through defenders in the league. Not to mention Christie has a better first step to get around his man and into the next level of the defense.
The one thing I was disappointed in with Houstan seeing him early on was his inability to turn the corner off a screen up top and get the step on his man to finish at the rim. He just doesn’t have that burst and next gear to maintain any separation off the screen. If his man gets through, or the defense switches, Houstan can be in no man’s land real quick inside the arc.
Creation won’t be a selling point for Houstan although he is an underrated passer when he can make quick decisions with the ball. He’s just not someone who will create something out of nothing.
What he is more than capable of is shooting on the move, converting on runners after he gets downhill on a hand-off, spacing to the corner in transition, and knocking down open triples.
Issues have taken place at Michigan when it seems too often plays aren’t run directly for Houstan to take advantage of some of these strengths, and instead, he’s left to bail out the offense later in the shot clock.
That’s not his game, and in my humble opinion, a big reason why he’s never quite found his rhythm over the course of the whole year.
In an NBA system that doesn’t ask too much of him, I’m confident Houstan will remind everyone why he was projected higher on draft boards at the beginning of the year.
But those strengths are not ones that he’ll refine in college necessarily. Could he come back and have a more efficient year? Sure. It likely won’t be from major steps forward in his development though as far as showing NEW things he can do.
We know the type of player Houstan can be in the league. A plus shooter from multiple levels, easy play finisher, and average level defender who can play passing lanes and create a steal every now and then.
Role players like him can develop further skills by coming back to school, I’m just not sure what else there is to tap into given some of his speed limitations. Just because he may not have more upside to tap into though, doesn’t mean he can’t help a good NBA team by hitting open shots and playing to his strengths.
Bryce McGowens, Nebraska
28 GP, 28 GS, 33.3 MPG
16.6 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.5 APG, 39.6/26.7/83.0 Shooting Splits, 16.3 PER, 52.5 TS%
I still am a huge fan of what Bryce McGowens can be at the next level.
A 6’7” wing scorer who does most of his damage inside the arc by using his quickness to get to the basket, converting on free throws from drawn fouls, and making nifty pull-ups in isolation.
While the potential is there for him to be a much better shooter off the catch from the perimeter, and I fully expect that to take shape in time, that’s not what intrigues me the most about his game.
The type of scorer that McGowens is, similar to Johnny Davis, is much rarer to find nowadays in a world hyped by the three-point shot. So many players want to spot up from deep and live or die by the results.
McGowens settles for some jumpers more often than I’d like, sure. But he TRIES to get to the basket and find more efficient ways to put up points. One can snicker at his raw percentages, but even though some of his splits don’t look great he’s still head on to a 52.5 true shooting mark because of his stroke from the charity stripe.
And he still ranks in the 62nd percentile in terms of total offense. There are no other major threats on his Cornhuskers squad offensively than himself. So factor in the load he’s had to carry as a true freshman and it’s easier to picture why the struggles are what they are.
Shot selection as mentioned still needs to be improved, but he has clean mechanics when he’s open. With more work and repetition, he can provide spot-up value from deep in time. Until then, he can get on an NBA floor just by finishing around the basket, converting in transition, and putting up points courtesy of contact by the defense.
Where the case for him gets a little messy is actually on the defensive end. McGowens has the tools to guard multiple positions, but he is one player who has looked absolutely lost at times defending off the ball. This is where I’d want him to get to the league for better coaching on that end of the floor.
Giving him time to learn the ins and outs of defending his position in the G-League, followed by opportunities to learn his organization’s specific principles should help him make strides.
As long as he improves defensively and irons out a few things offensively, he has the chance to live up to the potential his natural talent suggests. I still believe we could look back and not be able to name 14 players in this class who are better offensively than McGowens.
Malaki Branham, Ohio State
25 GP, 24 GS, 28.4 MPG
12.6 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 1.8 APG, 49.6/46.8/83.6 Shooting Splits, 19.9 PER, 59.7 TS%
There came a point at the beginning of January when Malaki Branham emerged onto the scene as a legitimate NBA prospect.
I recall having multiple conversations with scouts, and the answers I got were that they wanted to see Branham maintain some of this consistency over the rest of the year to vault into the first round of 2022. I also wanted to see if he could continue to get buckets and maintain his shooting splits.
Well, spoiler alert, he has.
To put it simply, Branham has blown me away in conference play. Sure he’ll have a stinker every now and then as all frosh do, but it really seems like most of the time he’s getting better game by game.
Not only has he maintained his mark as a spot-up shooter, ranking in the 70th percentile, but he’s gotten the most of his scoring reps out of pick-and-roll where he rates in the 96th (!!) percentile. Factor in pick-and-rolls including passes and he still rates out in the 92nd percentile.
All of his jump shot numbers confirm the smooth stroke he deploys each night, and he’s upheld an “Average” mark finishing around the basket. There aren’t many shots Branham can’t hit, and the fact he’s also gotten better making plays for others all form the basis for his stock skyrocketing over the last month.
Truthfully, I don’t see why he would return to school at this point. He’ll continue to get stronger and bring more value defensively with coaching and maturity. Those are all things he’ll get better at in the league. From a shooting/scoring standpoint, he’s good enough to get minutes within an NBA rotation.
He’ll be a lock in the first round for me when my next board rolls around. The real question is, how high can he climb by draft night?
Harrison Ingram, Stanford
28 GP, 26 GS, 30.8 MPG
10.8 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 2.9 APG, 40.0/31.1/68.2 Shooting Splits, 16.0 PER, 49.6 TS%
Truthfully, I’m not the biggest Harrison Ingram fan as others are. Yes, he’s a 6’8” forward who possesses a very high IQ on both ends of the floor and has the playmaking chops to raise the floor of those around him.
Those types of two-way players are everything the NBA covets in order to “play small” in certain situations. At one point, I even flirted with having him closer to the late lottery than the second round.
I just haven’t been blown away by Ingram, with his lack of speed or athleticism at his position. It’s limited how he’s been able to create offense inside the arc, even though he has decent touch on hooks and floaters around the rim. His jump shot has been questionable at best all year long, and the efficiency from a scoring standpoint just hasn’t been there from any one area on the floor in particular.
But as I stated above, he has plenty of fans in other circles because of WHAT he could be, not who he is now.
If you’re willing to buy into the jumper as a long-term weapon and trust that with more space he’ll have easier opportunities to bank on his touch, then he should be one of the first 25 guys off the board come draft night. Having that outlook alone is enough to go to the league versus coming back to school, despite the questions I or others may have.
Again, this comes back to what he could gain by coming back to school. Sure, he could shoot better from deep and maybe bust out a new scoring move or two off some better-practiced footwork. But I don’t see him adding anything else to his game to propel himself up draft boards in that aspect.
He’s smart, he defends and he’s versatile. That’s plenty to warrant interest from NBA teams and regardless of where he goes, there’s zero question he’s a draftable player.
Blake Wesley, Notre Dame
29 GP, 23 GS, 29.1 MPG
14.7 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 2.5 APG, 41.1/32.7/64.7 Shooting Splits, 18.0 PER, 51.1 TS%
Blake Wesley was a hot name trending toward potential lottery status at one point this year.
Since he had a few breakout games including a buzzer-beater to add to his resume, it’s been a slippery slope to the bottom of the first round on a number of major outlet boards.
The 6’5” guard has shown some brilliant flashes of self-creation this year, and he’s slowly figured out how to operate both scoring and distributing out of pick-and-roll sets.
But the jump shot mechanics aren’t the cleanest and leave plenty of room for work, especially given the numbers.
Over the last month, he’s had five games shooting 20% or less from the field on 10 or more field goal attempts. Those are certainly some “freshman moments” but thankfully has had some over impressive performances over that same stretch to go along with what propelled him into the conversation in the first place.
If he were to come back to school, he could capitalize on more reps as the lead ball-handler and continue to showcase his defensive activity in the backcourt. Should he improve some of the raw numbers and percentages in a big way, he could emerge as a potential top 10 pick in 2023.
That being said, he rates out in the 50th percentile or better on nearly every offensive play type on the ball. He’s struggled to finish around the basket at a high level, something he could also improve on in college or with developmental time in the G-League.
At the very least, it’s smart for Wesley to declare and test the waters. He’s a bouncy combo guard with upside as a do-it-all ball handler if everything breaks right for him. Worst-case scenarios could slot him closer to the end of a team’s rotation than the top, but high-end outcomes exist where he’s a starter-level guard or the first off the bench for a good NBA team.
Peyton Watson, UCLA
25 GP, 0 GS, 14.1 MPG
3.4 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 0.9 APG, 29.5/18.5/64.3 Shooting Splits, 9.6 PER, 35.9 TS%
Out of all the freshmen discussed in this piece, Peyton Watson has had the most disappointing year of them all. Billed as a likely lottery pick preseason, the 6’9” wing was supposed to offer versatility on both ends of the floor to pair with his smooth transition game and verticality to finish lobs or block shots from the weak side.
While he’s had moments shooting the ball and showing some shot-making off the bounce in conference play, the overall picture doesn’t bode well for an immediate impact in the NBA.
Any team willing to take him in the draft must be patient to yield the best results. Without a plan in place to develop Watson properly, a team could see him never quite break through and showcase the talent that hyped his stock in the first place.
It’s far too early to call anyone a bust in any capacity. Watson has played the least amount of minutes of anyone I’m referring to. But when looking to draft and capitalize on long-term value ALONG with immediate impact, there are better options to gamble on at this current moment in the first round than Watson.
That being said, should he declare and test the waters it could provide multiple opportunities. Watson could get the chance to show his talents in front of staff in workouts where he doesn’t have the pressure of needing to contribute to winning on the court to match current expectations at UCLA. Teams could sell themselves on his athletic upside and budding perimeter skill set at his size.
Watson could also get excellent feedback to propel a breakout sophomore campaign either back with the Bruins or for another school. As Corey Taluba mentioned on an episode of The DraftDaq Pod, Watson could even go somewhere like G-League Ignite to better maximize his skill set while continuing to learn in a pro-style system.
Point is, Watson has options for his future. It’s far from over for him and he still has plenty of talent to one day live up to the original promise of his preseason expectations.
Jaylin Williams, Arkansas
29 GP, 27 GS, 31.1 MPG
10.6 PPG, 9.7 RPG, 2.7 APG, 48.0/25.0/71.2 Shooting Splits, 20.0 PER, 55.5 TS%
What? A sophomore?? Yes I actually have another sophomore I’ll talk about later on in this piece. The draft is about more than freshmen!!
But back to our regularly scheduled programming. I’m throwing in Jaylin Williams here because I could absolutely see outcomes where he returns to school and massively improves his draft stock next year.
The 6’10” big man has captured the attention of the draft community because of his inventive playmaking off a live dribble or out of the post for someone his size. Williams is a really good passer for a center, and a great playmaker overall when you factor in how he reads the game defensively.
Averaging over a steal and a block per game, Williams loves to get his hands on the ball and be disruptive all over the court. He’s mobile and can cover so much ground which only feeds into his versatility and sells him as the new-age big every NBA team covets.
However, there’s plenty more room for him to continue to grow. While he has potential in the post, he’s much more of a face-up weapon at this point in his career. Continuing to put on bulk and adding strength should help him to work more with his back to the basket and build out that dimension of his game.
Not only that, but his shooting could also serve as an intriguing weapon for him in time. He rates out as “Below Average” in regards to jump shooting, but he has a workable stroke and likely can iron out some mechanical flaws with enough work and repetition.
A perfectly capable transition finisher and lob threat in the halfcourt along with his short roll playmaking all paint Williams as a serious prospect to evaluate. He should at least declare and test to see how high an NBA team would consider taking him, before possibly coming back alongside some talented perimeter teammates contending for a national championship and ensuring his stock blows up to lottery status.
Josh Minott, Memphis
25 GP, 5 GS, 15.7 MPG
7.0 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 1.1 APG, 51.9/16.7/75.5 Shooting Splits, 24.0 PER, 57.1 TS%
Great minds think alike when it comes to Matt Pennie and I talking about Josh Minott.
Pennie has been much more vocal about the frosh than I have, although I made similar proclamations early on that he would be my choice to go earlier than I thought was possible in the 2022 draft.
While there are plenty of selling points for Minott to come back and showcase his offensive talent with more creative freedom, he may have already done enough to show scouts and executives what could happen for their team if he’s on the court.
Minott just plays winning basketball. He does all of the little things, gets dirty, and thrives on finishing easy plays around the basket. Defensively he’s shown potential as both a playmaker and on-ball defender. In a more limited role, he’s been incredibly efficient with one of the better freshman PER ratings of 24.
The swing skill for him is obviously the jump shot, as it’s not the prettiest looking stroke and the numbers speak for themselves as far as how inconsistent it’s been.
Even so, he’s an excellent cutter and lob threat in the halfcourt and brings that same ability on the break either acting as the beneficiary or even getting the break started for his team.
Grab-and-go forwards who can get buckets inside, guard multiple positions, and offer promise from the perimeter bring massive value to NBA lineups and scale incredibly well come playoff time. Again, his success in the league will be tied to open spot-up shooting to an extent, but every team needs a glue guy who contributes by doing the little things.
I’m not quite sure how much potential Minott has on both ends, but there’s definitely more to tap into. It wouldn’t shock me if he declared, stayed in the draft, and went in the first round. Reasonable cases can be made though for staying in school to build to a certain skill level which makes it easier to actually earn developmental minutes once he sets foot in the league.
Terquavion Smith, NC State
29 GP, 22 GS, 31.1 MPG
15.9 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 4.0 APG, 40.4/36.9/71.0 Shooting Splits, 20.1 PER, 52.9 TS%
Terquavion Smith is that name that bubbles up on Twitter every now and then and has even started to get love from big-time scouts in the draft space.
6’4” shot-making guards in the mold of a Josh Primo offer plenty of intrigue at the NBA level, a big reason why Primo himself shocked the world on draft night by going in the lottery.
While Primo is a little bigger and offers length Smith doesn’t match, their games are similar in that they’re largely perimeter scorers with a smooth stroke. Smith’s shooting sets up every other part of his offensive game. Add in that he would be one of the younger entrants in the 2022 class, and you can start talking yourself into drafting him now and giving him an opportunity to grow similar to Primo now and Anfernee Simons previously.
Smith caught my attention when I turned on North Carolina State film to scout Dereon Seabron for the first time. Smith has plus size as a lead guard in the backcourt, and the way he sets up his shots and knocks them down from virtually anywhere on the floor offers up great potential as a shot-maker for a pro team.
I don’t see the same “wiggle” as I’ve seen from someone like Primo in Smith’s game, and he doesn’t have the touch on his floater or around the rim quite yet to build off of. And similar to Primo, he’s shown the ability to pull up out of pick-and-roll but no one would consider him a maestro playmaker in the halfcourt off that initial screen.
Smith can build as a passer and finisher, and his defense can use work as well. But NBA teams, should Smith declare and test the waters, could very well talk themselves into offering him a draft promise in either round should he come out. It’s also very possible Smith returns to school, breaks out in a big way, and ends up contending for lottery status. I love his upside as a shooter and the type of guard who can offer a change of pace off the bench.
There’s also room for growth in terms of him one day leading the charge as a point for an NBA squad. Whichever happens, he’s worthy of a draft pick either now or in 2023. At least test the waters, get some feedback or a promise and continue to build on what he’s already shown this year.
JD Davison, Alabama
29 GP, 4 GS, 24.7 MPG
8.6 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 4.0 APG, 47.5/29.2/72.7 Shooting Splits, 16.6 PER, 57.2 TS%
There’s no denying his natural talent. One of the quickest guards in the country, the 6’3” speedster can put pressure on the rim in transition in a hurry. His leaping ability also lets him finish over the defense if he attacks at the right angle.
The excitement and energy he brings on any given night can impact the flow of a game. Davison has been the Crimson Tide’s first option off the bench though, as Jaden Shackelford and Jahvon Quinerly have dominated backcourt minutes as the veterans on the team.
Plenty of questions still need answers in regards to Davison’s playmaking ability as a floor general, as well as his outside shooting. He’s been inconsistent from all over the floor and hasn’t been the best decision-maker or ball-handler. Davison’s turnovers have piled up all year, leaving scouts to question if he’s actually a point or an undersized shooting guard.
It’s been my belief the best outcomes for Davison lie in the realm of a Collin Sexton or Coby White. Both aren’t traditional lead guards and are at their best when they have the ball in their hands and can score freely within the flow of the offense. Not to mention both have improved as catch-and-shoot threats since they entered the league.
The difference is both of them can reliably shoot from NBA range. Davison has struggled to maintain a certain level of efficiency on threes, making his transition to the league more difficult.
NBA teams will see him in workouts and talk themselves into betting on his speed, length, and overall physical package. I think it would be better for him to come back to school when he would be “the man” in the backcourt and work on actually being a point guard.
That path could yield the best results in terms of him starting than coming out now and being shoehorned into a transition scorer and tempo pusher off the bench.
It’s still very likely he’ll declare and stay in the draft. With more polish though, his stock could climb back to where it was preseason and justify those initial expectations. Because at the moment, I struggle to see him as a first-round pick in 2022 let alone someone who I would feel comfortable drafting and developing.
Again, HAVE A PLAN TO DEVELOP!
Daimion Collins, Kentucky
25 GP, 1 GS, 7.7 MPG
3.1 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 0.2 APG, 57.7/0.0/89.5 Shooting Splits, 21.7 PER, 63.1 TS%
When Daimion Collins has actually been on the floor, he’s shown a few things in terms of his athletic pop and finishing. What intrigues me the most, however, is his free throw percentage.
Shooting almost 90% from the line is no joke for a college freshman. I understand the attempts are few and far between, but even in workouts before the year Collins’s name was mentioned a lot because of a developing stroke.
He hasn’t been asked to shoot from the outside during his limited run at Kentucky, but that skill set along with his physical gifts could propel his stock to crazy heights if he came back and showcased more in a sophomore campaign.
There’s the aspect of pre-draft workouts where prospects can all of a sudden jump multiple tiers out of nowhere because team personnel can actually work them out and get their eyes on them in private settings. Collins not playing a ton this year doesn’t allow scouts to get the visibility they need to reasonably make a decision on where to draft him without checking multiple boxes in private workouts.
I would love to see Collins come back next year with more opportunity within the offense. With more chances to roll, pop and finish lobs his stock could soar, and I’m still curious about how versatile he could be on the defensive end as long as his frame continues to fill out.
John Calipari has helped a number of players get drafted as sophomores, not all of his draft picks are one-and-dones. I had no idea what PJ Washington could be after his freshman year, but he came back and showed improvements in a number of areas as a sophomore.
I could see a similar outcome for Collins even though I’m not comparing the two as players.
Nolan Hickman, Gonzaga
27 GP, 0 GS, 18.2 MPG
5.8 PPG, 1.6 RPG, 1.4 APG, 45.5/32.9/66.7 Shooting Splits, 12.6 PER, 55.3 TS%
I have two Gonzaga players here for a reason. The Bulldogs are always so loaded to the point where some players just don’t get enough opportunities until they’re past their freshman season.
Hickman to me has more upside because I enjoy his combination of ball handling and deep shooting. He’s a composed guard who can make things happen off the bounce, and the range on some of his jumpers I’ve seen have left me foaming at the mouth for more.
Chad Ford gushed about him on multiple podcasts of his toward the start of the year, along with the next name on my list when he was on my show. Hickman stood out to him as the type of combo guard that NBA teams love to roster in a league that’s become more about shooting by the day.
Hopefully with more opportunity, his free throw numbers and overall shooting from deep could come up, but I’m intrigued. With another year of college ball under his belt coached by one of the best in Mark Few, Hickman could jump not just into the first round in 2023 but break out and crack the top 20.
Julian Strawther, Gonzaga
27 GP, 26 GS, 26.3 MPG
12.5 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 1.0 APG, 51.9/38.5/70.7 Shooting Splits, 20.5 PER, 63.7 TS%
Albert Ghim and I were two of the first to want to talk about Julian Strawther early on in the year along with Chad. Strawther’s game stood out to me because he just looks like a pro-level shooter and scorer.
As it is, he ranks in the 98th percentile in terms of total offense and fits in perfectly as a role player at Gonzaga. Strawther rates no lower than the 73rd percentile on any offensive play type he’s registered enough possessions in, and his low point of shooting off the dribble is even at a “Good” mark sitting in the 54th percentile.
So why isn’t he more of a threat as a draft prospect in 2022?
I actually think he still is, and after a big tournament run for the Bulldogs it wouldn’t shock me if he declared and an NBA team scooped him up in the late first/early second round.
But what if he came back to school and was able to showcase more of his shot-making off the bounce? I think there are areas to improve his shot selection, and I already buy heavily into his mechanics as a spot-up threat. An efficient finisher on the break, multi-positional defender, and capable passer on the move, Strawther checks a lot of boxes as a role player at the next level.
If there’s more that he can showcase with higher usage though while maintaining similar percentile rankings, his stock could soar well past what it currently sits at now.
Alex Fudge, LSU
26 GP, 1 GS, 15.2 MPG
3.7 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 0.3 APG, 42.4/28.6/56.8 Shooting Splits, 13.7 PER, 47.3 TS%
Tyler Rucker wrote a beautiful piece on Alex Fudge earlier this year aptly titled “Go Fudge Yourself”. After hearing about him from some respected names in the draft community and reading Rucker’s piece, I did just that. I Fudged myself.
And man, did I fall in love with that I saw defensively. As I said on multiple podcasts, the way he plays defense is special. His body is reactionary to everything going on around him to the point it looks instinctual. That’s how Matisse Thybulle operates on the court when he’s able to defend in space. When he can roam and play passing lanes, it looks as if his body is just moving on its own.
Yes, Fudge needs to get stronger and fill out to actually defend the number of positions he may be capable of guarding in time. He’s taller and longer than Thybulle, so playing up on power forwards more often depending on the lineup may not be out of the question for him.
What really needs work is his offensive game. People have talked about Kendall Brown’s unwillingness to look at the rim at times, but Fudge is the same way. He’s just not wired to score yet unless he’s out on the break or has a wide-open backdoor cut in front of him.
When he does shoot the ball, I actually agree with Rucker in that the stroke is repeatable and will likely get better over time. He just needs to get comfortable going right up with his shot and not thinking twice about it.
If he can stretch the floor from distance, finish easy looks and bring that ridiculous level of instinctual defense to the NBA, he could be one valuable weapon to have in a rotation. As it stands now though, he’s just not ready to contribute offensively in the league.
With an offseason to continue refining his mechanics and approach, Fudge could have a massive year for the Tigers. I’m still all-in on his potential as a pro, he’s just a year away from boosting his stock to where it deserves to be.
5 Games To Watch This Week
3/1, 7pm EST: Nebraska @ Ohio State: In case you haven’t had the chance to see either Bryce McGowens or Malaki Branham in action, this is a great matchup of the two. EJ Liddell has also been rocketing up draft boards as a potential mismatch forward at the next level.
3/1, 8:30pm EST: Michigan State @ Michigan: Similar to the game above, Max Christie against Caleb Houstan is a fascinating matchup of two prospects featured in this column. Both are at their best as spot-up shooters but have found grooves in different games operating off the dribble.
3/1, 11pm EST: Arizona @ USC: Despite losing a tough game against Colorado, the Wildcats are still a major threat to do serious damage in the NCAA Tournament. Going up against USC is another great test, as Isaiah Mobley and crew have been a tough out all year in the Pac-12. Bennedict Mathurin has quietly maintained lottery status for a good portion of the year.
3/5, 4pm EST: Texas @ Kansas: What a way to close out the Big 12 season. Both teams have their strengths and weaknesses, but the Jayhawks should have the edge in this one not only for homecourt but also due to their size advantage. Once again Ochai Agbaji and Christian Braun are the callouts here prospect wise, but possible future candidates on Texas include Tre Mitchell and Dylan Disu.
3/5, 6pm EST: North Carolina @ Duke: Let’s be honest, we all know why we’re watching this one. Coach K’s last regular-season game against the arch-rival in the Tar Heels. No more needs to be said. You know the prospects, I know the prospects. Let’s all watch and enjoy this game for what it is while celebrating the legacy of one of the greatest to ever coach in college basketball.