Zion Williamson towered over the college basketball season until the very moment Michigan State ended Duke’s NCAA tournament run in the Elite Eight. In the process, Williamson put a cavernous amount of distance between himself and any of his peers as an NBA prospect. He will be the first-overall pick when the draft goes down on June 20.
But what if your team doesn’t get the first pick? While there’s an idea this draft class is underwhelming after Williamson, there are still a number of talented young players waiting to enter the league who can thrive under the right circumstances.
With apologies to Virginia forward De’Andre Hunter (read more on him here), Texas center Jaxson Hayes, French forward Sekou Doumbouya, and Duke’s Cam Reddish, these are the seven biggest prizes in the NBA draft after Williamson comes off the board.
7. Bol Bol, C, Oregon
Bol is the biggest boom-or-bust prospect in this draft, a status complicated by the fact he only played nine games at Oregon before a navicular fracture in his left foot prematurely ended his college career. There is a chance Bol’s injury history and athletic limitations keep him out of the lottery. There’s also a chance we look back on this draft class five years from now and wonder why a player with such a rare combination of size and shooting fell so far.
Bol is the biggest player in the draft, and he might be the best pure shooter, too. At 7’3 with a reported 7’8 wingspan, he’ll be in the elite company of Rudy Gobert and Mohamed Bamba as the NBA’s longest players from the moment he’s drafted. What makes Bol different is he’s already something close to a knockdown shooter. Bol hit 52 percent of his threes (on 2.7 attempts per game) and 75 percent of his free throws in his limited time with the Ducks. He also had a track record of being an elite shooter in high school.
There are roadblocks standing in Bol’s path to greatness. His lateral mobility is a major question mark in a league that demands its bigs defend in space. His frame also leaves a lot to be desired with skinny legs and a high center of gravity. Can Bol handle the physicality of the modern NBA? Can he keep up with a league that’s playing faster than ever? If he can hold own own defensively, his incredible shooting touch could make him a devastating offensive weapon.
6. Coby White, G, North Carolina
Coby White wasn’t considered a sure-fire one-and-done when he entered North Carolina despite carrying a fringe five-star rating as a recruit. As he inherited point guard duties from a four-year starter in Joel Berry, White spent the next five months at Chapel Hill serving as the engine of the Tar Heels’ offense and establishing himself as one of the best freshmen in America.
White’s value starts with his ability to stockpile points in a hurry. He was nearly automatic on catch-and-shoot opportunities, finishing in the 93rd percentile of such situations nationally. He also plays with great pace offensively, leading a UNC team that finished with the fastest tempo of any power conference team in the country. He worked effectively both out of pick-and-rolls and isolations, flashing an advanced step-back move that allows him to create space for his jumper.
At same time, White still needs to fine-tune his bag of tricks. He would benefit from developing a floater and learning how to find his balance shooting off the dribble. He also often got a careless with turnovers when trying to push the ball in transition. White is a shot-maker who can supercharge an offense, but he’ll need to slow down and manipulate different tempos to develop a complete scoring package in the NBA.
5. Darius Garland, PG, Vanderbilt
Is Darius Garland the Trae Young of this year’s draft, or does his rise up boards after only playing five games at Vanderbilt say more about an underwhelming class? It’s question at the heart of Garland’s draft stock after his only college season ended in November following a torn his meniscus. Garland has some clearly defined strengths and weaknesses, but the best-case scenario projects him as a point guard who feels like an ideal fit in modern NBA offenses.
The case for Garland as a top-five prospect begins with his pull-up shooting ability. Garland’s deep range and quick trigger makes it a death wish to go under a screen against him. He hit 47 percent of his threes this season and ideally profiles as a volume shooter who uses the threat of his jumper to get into the lane and make plays for teammates. His quickness and tight ball handling ability helps make that a reality.
Garland will always be among the smallest guards in the league at 6’2, 175 pounds. At best, he’ll be a one-position defender who is likely at a strength and length deficiency in most matchups. Offensively, will he be able to finish at the rim against NBA size? There’s also the issue of figuring out exactly how good Garland is as a facilitator. He finished his brief time at Vanderbilt with more turnovers (15) than assists (13). Becoming a truly elite playmaker may be the most important ingredient to unlocking his full potential.
4. Brandon Clarke, F, Gonzaga
DON’T TRY THAT ON BRANDON CLARKE pic.twitter.com/fYexzlrVmX— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) December 9, 2018
A year ago, Brandon Clarke was sitting out the season after transferring from San Jose State, just hoping to carve out minutes in a loaded Gonzaga front court. Clarke did so much more than that during his one year with the Zags, blossoming into an amazing defender and hyper-efficient finisher to soar up NBA draft boards despite the fact that he’ll turn 23 years old before his rookie season.
Clarke was thoroughly dominant on both ends at Gonzaga by every conceivable metric. His box score plus-minus was the second highest of any DI player since the 2010-11 season behind only Zion Williamson. At 6’8, 220 pounds, Clarke is a nuclear athlete who can block shots at the rim and stay with guards on the perimeter because of his quickness. He finished with an incredible 70 percent true shooting percentage on offense by sticking to what he’s good at: putbacks, scoring off short rolls to the basket, and finishing above the rim with a dunk.
Despite spellbinding athleticism and even more impressive stats, Clarke still has his question marks. Despite making some progress this season, he is still basically a non-shooter by NBA standards. He also lacks the bulk to play center against traditional bigs despite that position being best tailored for his skill set. Ideally, Clarke finds himself next to a stretch five like Karl-Antony Towns or Kristaps Porzingis and can focus on doing all the little things that help teams win.
3. Jarrett Culver, G/F, Texas Tech
Recruits like Jarrett Culver are not supposed to be potential top-five NBA Draft picks and programs like Texas Tech aren’t supposed to go all the way to the national title game, but both became a reality during a charmed season for the Red Raiders this year. Culver was ranked outside of the top-300 of his class coming out of high school before blossoming into all-around stud during his sophomore season, carrying the offense all year and acting as a key cog in a historically good defense for a team that came within seconds of winning the national championship.
Versatility is Culver’s calling card. He’s a long and strong wing (around 6’6, 200 pounds) with the ability to defend multiple positions at the next level. He does a little bit of everything offensively, developing into a quality pick-and-roll ball decision-maker, a skilled finisher at the rim, and a smart cutter who always seems to find the open space in the defense.
The question with Culver is just how high his ceiling is. His jump shot is his main weakness after making only 30 percent of his threes and 70 percent of his free throws this season. He also lacks the takeover scoring ability typically associated with top-five picks. What Culver does have going for him is a high-IQ, two-way game that can be deployed in a variety of ways. In a changing NBA, players with Culver’s adaptability are more valuable than ever.
2. R.J. Barrett, G, Duke
Barrett was the front-runner to go No. 1-overall in this draft at the onset of this season before Williamson left him and everyone in the dust. Even as the rest of the world was captivated by his teammate, Barrett rarely played like a sidekick. He was incredibly productive (22.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, 4.3 assists) as a freshman in the toughest conference in America, though Duke’s biggest games exposed some questions that will linger for NBA scouts.
Barrett’s defining quality is his relentlessness. He plays with rare physicality for a young player, attacking the rim with abandon and welcoming contact as he does it. He can score in isolation or run a pick-and-roll as the ball handler. While he’s not a great shooter, he performed adequately both on spot-ups and off-the-dribble scenarios, giving him the potential to attack closeouts at the next level. He also deserves credit for putting up such impressive numbers despite not turning 19 years old until June, making one of the youngest freshmen in college hoops.
The biggest issue with Barrett is he often gets tunnel vision as a scorer. He averaged five more field goal attempts per game than Williamson despite everyone agreeing Williamson was the superior talent. His shot selection was frustrating at times for a team with so many other good players. He also failed to use his physicality too often on defense and had lapses on that end. Barrett remains a fine prospect even if he’s no longer No. 1, but he’ll have to learn how to make his teammates better and improve his jump shot to hit his full potential in the NBA.
1. Ja Morant, PG, Murray State
Ja Morant’s breakout sophomore season was first documented on social media, with every poster-worthy dunk and amazing stat line telling the story of a mid-major guard who was blossoming into a special talent. The entire country got to witness his brilliance during the NCAA tournament, when Morant put up the first March Madness triple-double in seven years to power an upset against Marquette. His tournament run would end the next game against Florida State, but not before he hit 5-of-6 three-pointers to further cement his status as the possible No. 2-overall pick in the draft.
Blazing speed and stunning leaping ability act as the foundation of Morant’s game, but it’s not the most impressive thing about him. When defenses collapses to contain Morant’s dribble penetration, he’s able to burn them with his gifted passing ability. Blessed with tremendous vision and creativity, Morant led college basketball in assist rate this season. When he wasn’t getting his teammates open, Morant was finishing possessions himself: his 24.5 points per game finished top-10 in the country.
Morant’s defense is less refined, both because he lacks strength (175 pounds) and nuance. His three-point shot improved from 30 percent to 36 percent this season, but it also remains a question mark as he enters the pros. Defenses will go under screens early in his career and prove his can beat them from the NBA line. Morant will fit best with a team that is willing to put the ball in his hands and let him make plays in transition and out of the spread pick-and-roll. Holes can be poked in his skill set, but no player in this draft after Zion Williamson offers more star power than Morant.