20 Storylines to Follow in the 2016 NBA Draft Conversation

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterSeptember 10, 2015

20 Storylines to Follow in the 2016 NBA Draft Conversation

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    The NBA draft conversation covers a ton of ground, from breakout prospects and fringe first-rounders to No. 1 overall contenders and sleepers. 

    There are freshmen under the radar and big names who are still ineligible to play. We have a point guard who gambled on himself after passing on the draft for another year in college. 

    Some prospects will see their roles expand, raising expectations surrounding their draft stock. And as usual, an international player is expected to steal some of the spotlight in this year's discussion.

    Here are the top NBA draft storylines, questions and talking points that will arise in 2015-16.

Ben Simmons' Quest to Become the Next Great NBA Superstar

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    The hype surrounding Ben Simmons has been pumping for more than a year. Many have him projected as the 2016 No. 1 overall favorite. The expectations are enormous—nobody in the country has more to deal with and rightfully so. Simmons has the game and look to go with the high school national championships and MVP trophies. 

    He's loaded with upside and versatility fueled by 6'9" size, above-the-rim burst and the ball skills and vision of a point guard. 

    Simmons is a mismatch at multiple positions, as well as a player whom coaches can run their offense through. 

    He still has to fine-tune a few areas of his game, but the star potential is undeniable. 

    Will Simmons live up to the hype, go No. 1 and become the NBA's next big ticket? It's a storyline that will ultimately take years to develop, but all eyes will be locked onto its first chapter, which starts in November at LSU.

Will Kentucky's Skal Labissiere Emerge as the Favorite to Go No. 1 Overall?

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    After going for 21 points and six blocks at the Nike Hoop Summit and then double-doubling at the Jordan Brand Classic, Skal Labissiere has positioned himself in the No. 1 overall conversation. 

    A couple of recruiting services (Rivals, Scout.com) even launched him to the top of their ranks ahead of Ben Simmons. 

    With 7'0" size, athleticism, mobility and a gradually developing offensive arsenal, Labissiere's ceiling could eventually be tough to pass on—especially if Simmons takes his foot off the gas at some point during the year.

    Labissiere will ultimately absorb all of the touches left behind by Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles and Dakari Johnson. He should end up having production to show for his potential, thanks to available minutes, above-the-rim finishing ability, sweet mid-range touch and an effective over-the-shoulder game. 

    However, it's his rim protection that could move the needle and separate him from Simmons. Labissiere has strong shot-blocking instincts, as well as the foot speed to switch on pick-and-rolls and close out on the perimeter. 

    By the end of the season, Labissiere will likely build a strong case for himself as the top prospect in the country. He already has some believing he's this year's early No. 1 overall favorite.

The Rise of Kentucky Freshman Guard Jamal Murray

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    Jamal Murray is on the rise, even before his first college action. He went from winning MVP of April's Nike Hoop Summit, to reclassifying and enrolling at Kentucky, to averaging 16 points during the Pan American Games. 

    So how high will Murray continue to soar?

    He's a dangerous scoring playmaker with a point guard's handle and 2-guard size. And though he's not a jump-out-of-the-gym high-flyer, Murray is a fine athlete and exceptionally skilled. 

    Outside of Ben Simmons and Skal Labissiere, who seem like the early top two favorites, the rest of the lottery looks wide open. 

    Could Murray charge up boards all the way to No. 3? 

    He'll be one of the top prospects to watch—and potentially one of the most polarizing—in 2015-16. 

Does Kris Dunn Make the Necessary Adjustments and Become Top-10 Worthy?

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    Providence's Kris Dunn chose to return for his junior year despite a breakout sophomore season. He'd averaged 15.6 points and led the country in assist percentage, per Sports-Reference.com, having showcased an eye-opening blend of size, athleticism and playmaking skills. 

    Dunn would have seemed like a late lottery to mid-first-round option in 2014-15. But to jump up a tier and really generate top-10 consideration next June, he'll have to close obvious holes in his game. 

    Nobody in the country racked up more turnovers: He finished with 138 through 33 games. He also made less than one three per contest and 70 percent of his free throws—potentially worrisome numbers for a 21-year-old. 

    Failing to show improvement in these two areas could raise skepticism about his ability to become a better decision-maker and shooter. But coughing it up less and making more jumpers might launch him straight into the top 10.

Battle of the Wings: California's Jaylen Brown Versus Duke's Brandon Ingram

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    California's Jaylen Brown and Duke's Brandon Ingram represent two premier prospects projected to follow the one-and-done route. 

    And they're both small forwards, which should make for some great debate throughout the year. 

    Brown already looks the part of an NBA wing with 6'7", 222-pound size and above-the-rim athleticism. He's a beast while attacking the rim, a developing mid-range scorer and a potential lockdown defender.

    Meanwhile, Ingram stands 6'9" and has mismatch written all over him. He's silky-smooth on the perimeter, where he can separate into step-backs and pull-ups or beat his man off the bounce. 

    Expect Brown versus Ingram to emerge as last year's Stanley Johnson versus Justise Winslow—only this year's freshmen might be battling for top-five position.

    The real question is, who goes first?

Mississippi State Guard Malik Newman's NBA Outlook

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    Malik Newman should remain a consistent talking point in this year's draft conversation. There is no question he's a phenomenal talent—a strong, athletic ball-handling combo who can score in bunches on demand. 

    Lightning in transition and dangerous one-on-one, he's constantly putting pressure on the defense. 

    But at 6'4", he lacks traditional 2-guard size, and he isn't a natural facilitator. Newman's shot selection and decision-making will be under the microscope.

    It's probably not going to stop him from lighting it up at Mississippi State. Newman is going to produce and flash his potent offensive attack consisting of pull-ups, step-backs, runners and nifty drives.

    The question is how he'll be valued if he puts up points but does so inefficiently. Newman could be looking at Monta Ellis comparisons if he's able to properly balance his scoring with playmaking. Low shooting percentages and too much dancing could result in whispers of Dion Waiters.

Demetrius Jackson's Potential to Break out as Notre Dame's New Lead Guard

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    Demetrius Jackson played the sidekick role alongside Jerian Grant as a sophomore. But now Grant is with the New York Knicks, and the Irish offense is Jackson's to run. 

    Jackson—a 6'1", 198-pound high-flyer—shot 50.8 percent from the floor in 2014 and over 40 percent from three for the second consecutive year.

    With such a potent blend of quickness, athleticism, strength and playmaking, he makes it easy to think about Eric Bledsoe.

    This will be the first year Jackson is called on to actually run a team. If he can do so efficiently while racking up wins and production, we could be talking about a legitimate lottery threat. 

    Jackson ultimately looks poised to emerge as one of this year's big risers. He's a must-watch prospect on scouting lists to start the season.

Does Vanderbilt's Damian Jones Take the Next Step and Find the 2016 Lottery?

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    After a strong sophomore year that saw him average 14.5 points, Damian Jones measured in two inches taller this summer at the LeBron James Nike Skills Academy. 

    He's now listed as a 7-footer, which is key, given his limitations on the perimeter and the fact he can sell himself as a center.

    Still, to generate serious lottery interest, Jones must take that next step offensively. 

    He has tremendous physical tools and athleticism for a big, as well as impressive instincts and finishing ability around the basket. And though it's not consistent, he's flashed some touch and moves at the high post. 

    Showcasing a more polished back-to-the-basket game and jumper could ultimately do wonders for his stock. 

    He'll be a candidate to soar up draft boards if he sharpens his scoring repertoire in the half court. 

Breakout Prospects

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    Every year we see breakout prospects, from Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton to Cameron Payne and Jerian Grant. 

    Baylor's Taurean Prince looks like a strong candidate to shoot up boards. He's coming off a solid summer after a sneaky good junior year (13.9 points per game, 39.5 percent from three). Prince generated some nice buzz for at the LeBron James Nike Skills Academy and looked sharp during the Pan American Games.

    LSU's Tim Quarterman is another name to watch. A 6'6" athletic ball-handler, Quarterman averaged 5.7 assists over the Tigers' final 11 games after being named the starting point guard. He then made noise at Adidas Nations and averaged 16.4 points, 4.6 assists and 5.2 rebounds during LSU's recent trip to Australia. 

    San Diego State's Malik Pope flashed impressive upside as a freshman, thanks to 6'10" size and big-time hops for a wing who shot 20-of-49 from three. He'll see his minutes jump up significantly after playing just 14.8 per game last year. 

    Kentucky's Marcus Lee will also get his first real shot at regular playing time as a junior, after being stuck behind Julius Randle, Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, Trey Lyles and Dakari Johnson the past two years. Lee's motor and bounce translate to finishes, putbacks, blocks and all sorts of activity around the rim.

Cheick Diallo's Eligibility at Kansas and How It Affects His NBA Draft Stock

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    The excitement surrounding Cheick Diallo had been building. He'd won MVP of the McDonald's All-American Game and co-MVP of the Jordan Brand Classic. 

    Diallo should be considered a must-watch prospect at Kansas. Unfortunately, he isn't eligible, and it's unclear when or if that will change. 

    From an NBA draft standpoint, it raises a number of hypothetical questions.

    What happens if he gets the green light midseason but struggles to find a rhythm? Does he return as a sophomore with something to prove or get out early despite low stock?

    How would scouts view Diallo if he declared after an entire year of ineligibility? The Utah Jazz didn't hesitate to take Enes Kanter No. 3 overall after he was held out every game his freshman year at Kentucky. 

    Whether he plays or not, the Diallo storyline will be worth monitoring from now until June. 

Nigel Hayes Is Now the Man in Wisconsin

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    Nigel Hayes experienced a mini-breakout last season. The full one will likely come in 2015-16, when he'll be the top option at Wisconsin following the departure of Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky. 

    Super efficient as the team's No. 3, Hayes shot 49.7 percent and turned the ball over just 51 times in 1,319 minutes. He even added a three-ball to the repertoire, having hit 40 of them as a sophomore after failing to attempt one as a freshman.

    With a back-to-the-basket game and a quick, first step while facing up, Hayes' versatility and motor look fairly attractive for a projected NBA role player. 

    Demonstrating a more threatening one-on-one attack could really help launch his name up draft boards. But if he continues to knock down jumpers and outwork opponents in the paint, he shouldn't have too much trouble drawing first-round interest. 

Will Croatia's Dragan Bender Emerge as an Elite 2016 Prospect?

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    A strong showing at Eurocamp helped Dragan Bender validate the hype. Now, the question is just how far the hype will push him up draft boards.

    He's the No. 1 international prospect expected to declare in June. Bender blends 7'1" size with perimeter ball skills consisting of a handle, passing ability and a jumper out to the arc. 

    His size, length and mobility also translate to blocked shots and rebounds.

    With the NBA really coveting stretch bigs and rim protection, Bender's versatility should attract plenty of attention. And a lack of can't-miss NCAA stars should only benefit his stock. 

    Could the next Croatian sensation threaten for a spot in the 2016 top three? He'll certainly get looks in the lottery, regardless of how his season plays out with Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Rising Expectations for Kansas' Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk

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    Only 17 years old as a freshman, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk didn't get much burn in 2014-15. But he had come to Kansas highly regarded from his play in FIBA overseas. 

    He'll now enter his sophomore year with some legitimate expectations.

    “There are guys out there that are about ready to be seniors in high school that are older than him,” coach Bill Self told the Kansas City Star's Rustin Dodd. “And he’s getting ready to be a sophomore in college. So he’s still got some growing up to do physically and obviously through the maturation process. But I think he’s right on track.

    He’s had a very good spring, and I think he’s going to have a terrific year.”

    At 6'8", Mykhailiuk has excellent size for a 2-guard or wing, along with a dangerous three-point stroke and mid-range scoring arsenal. 

    Scouts should be looking at their first real opportunity to study Mykhailiuk in a regular role. We could find out that he's lottery worthy or far from ready to declare in 2016. 

How Does Michigan's Caris LeVert Bounce Back from Second Foot Surgery?

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    Coming off back-to-back foot surgeries, Caris LeVert will be playing his senior year on some pretty thin ice. Another injury could be catastrophic for his draft stock. 

    But when healthy, there is clearly a lot to like about LeVert's game. 

    At 6'7", he has excellent size and athleticism for a 2-guard, as well as some unique versatility fueled by ball-handling, passing skills and shot-making ability.

    Michigan uses LeVert out of pick-and-rolls, where he can create, attack or find the open teammate. And he's shot at least 40 percent from three in consecutive seasons. 

    However, before going down last January, he'd been notably erratic.

    To get back into the lottery conversation, LeVert must overcome both consistency and durability issues in his final year at Michigan. 

Surprise Freshmen

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    D'Angelo Russell came out of nowhere within the first few weeks last season. Coming in, nobody had him pegged as a one-and-done No. 2 pick.

    Devin Booker, Zach LaVine and Tyler Ennis are other first-rounders who'd been slept on as NBA prospects out of high school.

    We're going to see a few surprise freshmen emerge in the 2016 draft conversation. 

    Villanova's Jalen Brunson could be one of them. He doesn't scream NBA upside, but Brunson—who earned MVP of this summer's FIBA World Championships—is sharp with the ball as a scorer and passer. He's an early candidate to find the radar if he can guide the Wildcats to wins. 

    Arizona's Ray Smith is another possibility. Now fully recovered from a torn ACL, his 6'8" size and athleticism for a wing are bound to turn some heads.

    Florida State's Dwayne Bacon has the look and skill set of an NBA 2-guard. At 6'6", he can handle the ball and separate into jumpers off the dribble. 

    Duke's Derryck Thornton hasn't received much love in the early draft discussion. Though not the most explosive athlete, he blends ball skills and mid-range scoring ability with a floor game and strong vision. 

    UNLV's Stephen Zimmerman will also be worth monitoring. He isn't ready to bang inside, but Zimmerman's face-up versatility and shooting stroke are certainly NBA-friendly strengths. 

California's NBA Talent

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    East Coast scouts won't be getting as much sleep in 2015-16. The California Bears are loaded with NBA talent, having landed McDonald's All-Americans Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb—two high-profile recruits with obvious pro potential. 

    Brown—an athletic two-way wing who might resemble Jimmy Butler—could eventually compete for top-five consideration next June. Rabb isn't as polished, but with terrific size, bounce and hands for a 6'10" big, there is legitimate talent to build on. 

    But the Bears also get back floor general Tyrone Wallace, another promising prospect who's been forced to carry the load. 

    Wallace, whose shot selection and shooting have been questioned, should be expecting easier looks as a senior. Otherwise, he's a smooth 6'5" point guard who can get in the lane and make things happen. 

    Junior Jabari Bird will also be worth watching. A 6'6" perimeter scorer, Bird has the tools—he just hasn't put everything together.

    Our early guess: California sends Brown, Rabb and Wallace into the 2016 first round. 

Kentucky's Three-Guard Rotation and Its Effect on Each Prospect's Stock

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    Somehow, sophomore Tyler Ulis and freshmen Isaiah Briscoe and Jamal Murray will have to share the ball. And they're each better when it's in their hands than they are without it on the wings. 

    For the most part, all three are point guards. Adjustments will be necessary. 

    You could argue it's Briscoe who's in the toughest spot. Coach John Calipari will likely trust Ulis first to run the offense. And between Briscoe and Murray, it's the latter who offers more firepower.

    Still, remaining patient and consistent will be a challenge for all three guards, as well as scouts who must consider the difficult and unfamiliar setting.

    For what it's worth, we don't anticipate the versatile Murray to struggle, and Ulis is more of a second-round option, regardless of how the situation plays out. If anyone's stock will be negatively affected by the backcourt crowding, it should be Briscoe's. 

How Does Utah's Jakob Poeltl Follow His Surprisingly Strong Freshman Season?

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    It took about two weeks for Jakob Poeltl to start generating buzz in 2014-15. His 7'0" size, athleticism and rim protection quickly stood out under the NBA lens. 

    He'd actually gone quiet midway through his freshman season before finishing strong. Poeltl averaged 13.5 points over his final six games and limited Jahlil Okafor to eight points in one of them. 

    But instead of looking to capitalize on what appeared to be rising stock, Poeltl chose to return to Utah, where he'll now have expectations to meet. 

    Moving from one year to the next, scouts will naturally want to see some progression. Despite his efficiency as a finisher and presence in the paint, Poeltl lacked offensive polish, from his post game to his jumper.

    Will the same Poeltl be enough to justify lottery consideration? Or will he need to show more than just finishing, rebounding and shot-blocking? 

The Emergence of Marquette's Henry Ellenson

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    Henry Ellenson just might be the Big East's top NBA prospect. He hasn't quite received the attention as most of the other projected one-and-done freshmen, having sat out a good portion of the summer recovering from a broken wrist.

    But if Ellenson's performance during Marquette's recent trip to Italy was any indication of what we'll see this year, the draft buzz is going to strengthen. He averaged 21 points through four games, and though the competition wasn't up to par, his skills and versatility were convincing.

    At 6'10", Ellenson handles the ball like a guard, with the ability to initiate the break or face up and score one-on-one.

    He hit four threes as well, flashing some pick-and-pop stretch-4 potential. 

    Assuming Italy wasn't a fluke, look for Ellenson to remain a regular in this year's lottery conversation.

Maryland's NBA Talent

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    With a strong 2015-16 roster, Maryland looks like it will be in the spotlight throughout the season. Naturally, the NBA draft chatter will likely follow the team's key players: sophomore Melo Trimble, senior Jake Layman and freshman Diamond Stone. 

    Trimble is coming off a productive freshman season in which he averaged 16.2 points and finished third in the country in free throws made. But his scoring attack looked far ahead of his floor game, and at 6'2" without much explosiveness, there are questions surrounding his NBA outlook. 

    He'll be a player likely to generate plenty of offense but also tons of debate within this year's draft conversation. 

    Layman isn't as flashy or exciting as Trimble, but his game might be better suited for the pros. At 6'9", he's flashed the athleticism and versatility to play either forward position. If Layman shoots above 36 percent from three for the third straight year, it could really enhance his image as a potential role-playing stretch 4. 

    But the top prospect to watch for Maryland will be its new freshman center. Stone, listed at 6'11", 255 pounds, is a monster down low, where he takes up space and scores over his shoulders. I'm not sure he's built to dominate right away, but with eye-opening physical tools and a post game in the works, the long-term upside is tough to miss.