2018 NBA Draft: Top Upperclassmen to Watch This Season

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterOctober 19, 2017

2018 NBA Draft: Top Upperclassmen to Watch This Season

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Juniors and seniors don't have it easy when it comes to NBA draft stock. With teams more intrigued by youth and potential, only five NCAA upperclassmen were taken in last year's first round.

    But every season, we see an older prospect slip through the cracks, from Malcolm Brogdon and Josh Richardson to Norman Powell and Jordan Clarkson.

    It's important not to write off a player just because he hasn't created NBA buzz through two or three years in college. The following are our top juniors and seniors to put on your scouting watch lists entering 2017-18.

10. Moritz Wagner (Michigan, C, Junior)

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Wagner's name hadn't been mentioned by scouts until last year's NCAA tournament when he scored 26 points against Louisville. It earned him an invite to the NBA combine, though scouts still weren't sold on his small sample size of takeover offense.

    He played well over the summer during the FIBA U20 European Championship, where he averaged 16.1 points on 50.6 percent shooting.

    Fundamentally, Wagner has some skills the NBA looks for in centers, including three-point range, post footwork and the ability to put the ball on the floor and improvise/finish on the move. Last season, the 6'11", 245-pound big made 45 threes and flashed glimpses of back-to-the-basket spins and counters.

         

    Areas to improve

    Wagner's strength highlights didn't paint the most accurate picture. We didn't see them every game. He finished with single digits in scoring 15 times.

    In 38 games, he also totaled just 20 assists, 14 blocks and 39 steals. Those poor numbers put extra pressure on Wagner's scoring skills. To draw first-round interest, scouts will want to see more toughness inside and consistent domination offensively, assuming he'll never be a plus passer.

9. Vince Edwards (Purdue, F, Senior)

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Edwards worked out for teams and declared for the draft before withdrawing his name. For three years, he's flashed potential in multiple areas. He has one more season to tie everything together.

    With Caleb Swanigan gone, Edwards appeared to take a step forward over the summer during the World University Games, where he averaged 19.2 points and made 15-of-28 threes against international competition.

    Coming in, Edwards shot at least 40 percent from deep in consecutive seasons, and he continues to grow as a passer (3.2 assists per game).

         

    Areas to improve

    Can Edwards become a dependable scoring option in the half court? He showed signs down the stretch last season with two 21-point games in the NCAA tournament after he'd gone for 25 points in the regular-season finale.

    Scouts will want to see him build on his off-the-dribble game, as well as his rebounding (4.9 per game) and defense, which hasn't been consistent.

8. Bonzie Colson (Notre Dame, PF/C, Senior)

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    Robert Franklin/Associated Press

    Positonless NBA basketball favors Colson, who wouldn't have been taken as seriously if this were 10 or even five years ago. But now, for the right team and coach, he's worth looking at as a 6'6" small 4 or 5.

    Colson, who's thick at 224 pounds, averaged a double-double last season with 17.8 points and 10.1 rebounds per game. Tough and active around the basket, he moves people and earned himself 44 putback opportunities.

    He's also developed into a versatile scorer with three-point range (26-of-60) and improving shot creation out of the post or even off the dribble.

         

    Areas to improve

    Colson put up big numbers as a junior—can he now be one of college basketball's most dominant players?

    Given his physical and athletic limitations, he must be extra sharp and advanced when it comes to his skills. Doubling his average of three-point makes per game (0.7) would be huge.

    Strengthening his defensive projection is the other big priority. He'll have to show he has a chance at guarding around the perimeter and that he can be disruptive enough inside despite his small forward height.

7. Jacob Evans (Cincinnati, SG, Junior)

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    Evans is flying under the radar entering his junior year after elevating his game as a sophomore.

    With solid 6'6", 210-pound size for an NBA 2-guard, he's a strong athlete and suddenly well-rounded.

    Looking tougher finishing inside the arc and more comfortable behind it, Evans shot 47.3 percent from the floor and 41.8 percent from three. Mechanically, his jumper is easy to believe in, and more flashes of pull-ups and floaters point to potential with his in-between scoring.

    His 3.4 assists per 40 minutes won't wow, but they show he isn't a black hole. He can attack a closeout and make a play for teammates off the dribble. His 9.9 turnover percentage is also tough to beat.

    A physical perimeter defender who can guard three positions, Evans is an intriguing three-and-D breakout candidate.

         

    Areas to improve

    He'd benefit from becoming a bigger threat off the dribble. Rarely does Evans shake free one-on-one. He only attempted 3.9 free throws per 40 minutes and was vulnerable to putting up a dud (zero points against Connecticut, two points versus SMU).

6. Shake Milton (SMU, PG/SG, Junior)

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Positional size, passing and shooting earn Milton a spot on the scouts' watch list.

    At 6'6" with terrific 6'11 ½" length for a ball-handler, he runs the point and pick-and-rolls as a setup man. With some feel as a facilitator, he also made at least 42 percent of his threes for the second straight season.

    Milton isn't considered a scorer, but he can generate offense by pulling up or stepping back into a balanced mid-range jumper.

    He offers NBA teams the versatility to play either backcourt position, on or off the ball for his ability to create using ball screens and spot up from three.

         

    Areas to improve

    Milton's 14.7 points and 5.1 assists per 40 minutes aren't enough. He needs to build on his scoring attack and playmaking in a lead guard role as an upperclassman.

    He shot just 43.7 percent from the floor and 45.5 percent on two-point attempts, weak numbers for a skilled sophomore combo.

    Milton isn't explosive and needs to show he can be more effective inside the arc against college competition if he wants to avoid scouts' questioning whether he's athletic enough for the NBA.

5. Allonzo Trier (Arizona, SG, Junior)

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    Alex Caparros/Getty Images

    With Rawle Alkins out two to three months, Trier could challenge for the Pac-12 scoring title.

    He averaged 17.2 points last year, putting up similar per-40 minutes numbers as his freshman season, but showed improvement in key areas: shooting and playmaking. Trier hit 1.9 threes per game at a 39.1 percent clip and doubled his assist rate (16.6 percent from 7.6 percent).

    Always known strictly as a bucket-getter, he expanded his versatility in 18 games last season.

         

    Areas to improve

    Teams will ultimately covet Trier's scoring ability, but at 6'5" with no length (6'6"), scouts will want to see him build on the progress he made as a passer and decision-maker.

    His defensive development is also must-watch for scouts. He's not always locked, in and he put up scary-low numbers with totals of seven steals and two blocks in 575 minutes as a sophomore.

    If it turns out Trier isn't a plus defender or distributor, he'll have little margin for error as a scorer, particularly one who requires a high usage rate (25.6 percent).

4. Alize Johnson (Missouri State, PF)

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    From junior college to All-Missouri Valley Conference first team to MVP of Adidas Nations, Johnson won't stop rising.

    He's fascinating because of not only his journey but also his unique versatility. Johnson started high school as a 5'9" point guard. He's now a 6'9" combo forward who just averaged a double-double with 14.8 points and 10.6 rebounds.

    A smooth athlete with wing-like mobility, he shows a strong motor and nose around the basket. But he can also handle the ball and initiate the offense (1.9 assists per game), as well as spot up off the ball, having sunk 40 threes at a 38.8 percent clip.

    With playmaking and shooting ability valued strengths at the NBA 4 spot, scouts will be making frequent visits to Missouri State games.

         

    Areas to improve

    Johnson hasn't played against high-level competition and won't this year, either, unless Missouri State makes the NCAA tournament. Now 21 years old, against weaker opponents, scouts will raise the bar for Johnson.

    They'll want to see him play with more physicality in the post at both ends, as a scorer and defender. He tends to forget he's actually a big man and will settle for tough jumpers. Plus, Johnson only blocked six shots all season last year, an unsettling number when considering his tools and coordination.

3. Chimezie Metu (USC, C, Junior)

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Standing 6'11" with light feet, Metu looks the part of an NBA center. And over the past two seasons, he's made impressive strides in his offensive skills, particularly his post game and mid-range jumper.

    Metu improved his footwork, shot-making ability in the paint and mid-range touch (74.1 FT%), leading to 14.8 points per game on 55.2 percent shooting. A lob, pick-and-roll and finishing target, he also flashed potential as a legit scoring option in the half court.

         

    Areas to improve

    Now an upperclassmen, Metu needs to dominate more than he has. He gets his points, but they're randomly sprayed throughout a game. Scouts will want to see him put USC on his back for longer stretches.

    Bringing more toughness to the paint would be a start. Despite his size and athleticism, he only averaged 9.9 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per 40 minutes.

2. Grayson Allen (Duke, SG, Senior)

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Antics aside, Allen potentially has something to offer NBA teams. In a down year for him last season, he still drilled 81 three-pointers and led Duke in assists with 3.5 per game in 29.6 minutes.

    He's also one of the draft's most explosive athletes. His ability to fly in transition and turn the corner off hesitation isn't going anywhere. After three years, scouts should still be intrigued by Allen's ability to put pressure on defenses with transition offense, shot-making and playmaking off closeouts.

         

    Areas to improve

    All eyes will be on Allen's behavior first. Another tripping incident or meltdown will draw red flags if some teams haven't internally wiped him off their boards already. But since there is value tied to his athleticism and offense, a setback-free year may also help certain teams write off Allen's previous mistakes as correctable immaturity.

    In terms of basketball-skill improvement needed, he consistently struggles with the in-between scoring game, having shot below 37 percent on two-point jumpers in all three seasons at Duke. Adding a pull-up and floater would serve him well against set defenses.

    Allen will also want to show he's gotten over his problems finishing against length. Despite explosive jets, he shot a poor 48.9 percent at the rim in the half court last season.

1. Mikal Bridges (Villanova, SF, Junior)

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    Steven Ryan/Getty Images

    Bridges is on the must-watch list for athleticism and effectiveness in key areas, specifically shooting and defense. They create a three-and-D floor and appealing foundation to build on.

    He's already established himself as a compelling defensive prospect with quickness and tools that fuel versatility and playmaking (1.7 steals per game). But Bridges shot 39.3 percent from three last year and 91.1 percent from the free-throw line, leading to a terrific 67.6 true shooting percentage.

    In between, Bridges works opportunistically, capitalizing (69.4 2P%) on the quality shots that find him as a slasher and cutter within the offense. Everything about his strengths, style and efficiency points to NBA role-player potential.

         

    Areas to improve

    Can Bridges improve as a playmaker and shot-creator? He's only scored 20 points once in 76 career games. How high is the ceiling for a wing who doesn't score?

    To maximize his potential, scouts will need to see a more aggressive, capable one-on-one player with Josh Hart now a Los Angeles Laker. Continuing to shoot and defend—while showcasing improved offensive ball skills—could carry Bridges into the lottery mix.

         

    Advanced stats courtesy of Sports Reference, Hoop-Math.com. Measurements courtesy of DraftExpress.