8 Players Who've Emerged as Must-Follow Prospects in the NBA Draft Conversation
After a few weeks of college basketball, we've already seen a handful of players get off to notable starts and create intrigue regarding possible NBA potential.
I'm talking about potential we didn't necessarily detect prior to the season. We already knew about the projected top picks like LSU's Ben Simmons and Kentucky's Skal Labissiere.
These are breakout prospects who weren't likely on NBA scouting lists a month ago but should be today.
Wade Baldwin IV (Vanderbilt, PG, Sophomore)
Damian Jones isn't the only attraction at Vanderbilt for NBA scouts. The bar was raised for Wade Baldwin IV over the summer, and so far, he appears on track to meet it.
Compared to last year, he's making three more field goals per 40 minutes on 50.9 percent shooting. And though the sample size is small, he continues to sell himself as a trustworthy outside threat, having hit nine of his first 18 threes after converting 43.9 percent of them as a freshman.
Baldwin shares the ball with a few other guards, which ultimately limits his playmaking opportunities. But that hasn't masked his high-IQ passing, particularly in the drive-and-kick game. Baldwin has a solid first step and strong vision on the move, as well as the ability to play through contact on the way to the rack.
But Baldwin's value doesn't just show in Vanderbilt's offense, where he can spread the floor or make plays off penetration. He's building his credibility as a plus defender. Baldwin has quick feet, 6'3" size and an incredible 6'10" wingspan for a point guard. Though he fouled out, Baldwin did an excellent job against Kansas, particularly on the shifty senior Frank Mason III.
The engine for a strong Commodores squad that can do some damage in the SEC, Baldwin will have a real shot to make a statement and ultimately build an NBA case. Keep an eye on his big matchups with Kentucky (two games), Texas A&M (two games), Purdue and LSU.
Denzel Valentine (Michigan State, PG/SG, Senior)
Though arguably the early favorite for National Player of the Year, Denzel Valentine's emergence should shake more than just college hoops. His first triple-double against Kansas (29 points, 12 rebounds, 12 assists) was likely seen live by 50-plus NBA scouts.
Valentine hasn't slowed down much from there—he triple-doubled again against Boston College last week before dropping 32 points, nine boards and six assists on Boise State. He even went for 17 points and five dimes during an off night in a win over Kris Dunn and Providence this Sunday.
Despite a strong junior year, it didn't seem like enough to compensate for below-average quickness and athleticism relative to NBA standards. But Valentine has ultimately taken his shooting, passing and all-around versatility to a whole new level. Plus, he isn't exactly a stiff out there, and though not your traditional breakdown point guard, his 6'5", 220-pound size and lethal spot-up stroke should allow him to work off the ball in the pros as a shot-maker and ball-mover.
The numbers have obviously been ridiculous: 19.9 points, 8.9 rebounds and 8.6 assists per game. He's making 3.3 threes per contest at a 42.6 percent clip.
The flashy stats are bound to die down eventually, but you get the impression that none of this has been fluky. In what could be somewhat of a subpar year in terms of first-round depth, Valentine appears to have a legitimate shot to capitalize and fly up draft boards as a senior.
Patrick McCaw (UNLV, SG, Sophomore)
After a freshman year spent under the radar, it only took about two weeks for Patrick McCaw to find it as a sophomore.
McCaw's blend of 6'7" size, athleticism and versatility, which was merely intriguing a season ago, when he averaged 9.6 points and 2.7 assists, has ultimately looked a lot more convincing early on.
He's averaging 19 points and 4.4 assists on 46.7 percent shooting from deep. His first big statement: a 20-point, six-assist, five-steal showing in a win over Indiana last week. McCaw, who's been on fire to start the year, having made 21 threes in just seven games on 45 attempts, has flashed dangerous shooting potential, as well as the ability to create and find teammates off the dribble.
He's also been active and disruptive on defense with a tremendous 5.6 percent steal percentage (3.3 steals per game), per Sports-Reference.com.
The early numbers might not be sustainable, but the NBA draft buzz should be. Keep an eye on McCaw as a breakout 2-guard prospect from the Mountain West Conference.
Deyonta Davis (Michigan State, PF, Freshman)
Though the story for Michigan State has been the emergence of senior Denzel Valentine, Deyonta Davis' play—as well as the long-term potential he's flashed—has been impossible to miss.
Davis naturally stands out under the NBA lens with 6'10" size, a 7'1½" wingspan, a 245-pound frame and some bounce. And he's been consistently active and effective for the Spartans off the bench, having put up per-40-minutes averages of 22.4 points, 11.5 rebounds and 4.8 blocks on a ridiculous 66.7 percent shooting.
For the most part, he's played to his strengths as a finisher around the rim, where he's made 26 of his 34 field goals early on, according to Hoop-Math.com. He's done a nice job of picking up easy buckets in dunking position along the baseline. And he already has eight putbacks on the offensive glass to lead the team.
In a grind-out win over Providence Sunday night, scouts saw a second-half sequence that started with a jump hook made from Davis, who then forced a miss from the Friars' top big man in the post before sprinting down the floor, making a catch in traffic and converting a difficult layup on the move.
He's even flashed some touch with a good-looking mid-range stroke. Meanwhile, his block rate is just another plus and possible strength worth monitoring.
Still 18 years old, Davis has quietly emerged as a must-follow prospect in the draft discussion, even if he winds up staying in school. Chances are, he'll be able to attract first-round attention whenever he chooses to declare.
Dwayne Bacon (Florida State, SG, Freshman)
Dwayne Bacon's reputation as a scorer at Oak Hill Academy has carried over to Florida State, where he's averaging 20.6 points in 27.6 minutes on 57.8 percent from the floor.
He looked the part of an NBA 2-guard coming in with 6'6", 210-pound size and smooth athleticism. And though the five-game sample size is tiny, his offensive attack has been fairly convincing.
He's also established himself as an open-floor weapon early on, having already picked up 18 field goals in transition.
Scouts will zoom in further with their microscopes once Florida State starts facing noteworthy competition during ACC play. But Bacon is clearly a name to follow after the hot start, especially given the lack of recent talent at the off-guard position.
David Walker (Northeastern, PG/SG, Senior)
Northeastern probably isn't used to seeing many NBA scouts. That should change this year with the emergence of David Walker, who's erupted early after last season's flashes of potential.
Though his 13.4-point-per-game average as a junior wasn't overwhelming, Walker was noticeably impressive against Notre Dame during the 2015 NCAA tournament, when he went for 15 points and seven assists in a four-point loss.
He's returned to average 20.8 points on 52.7 percent through his first six games. Walker's latest work came in a statement, buzzer-beating win over No. 15 Miami—he went for 21 points on 10 shots, continuing to show off impressive athleticism and change of speed off the dribble (took 11 free throws, as well as lethal shooting touch and range.
Walker's absurd 73.6 percent true shooting percentage will come down, but his ability to knock down contested jumpers with confidence is awfully convincing. His handle and passing should also both hold value when discussing a possible transition to the pros, especially given the questions likely to arise from his skinny 196-pound frame, which could limit his scoring inside the arc.
A matchup with Michigan State on December 19 ultimately represents a major opportunity for Walker. Another strong showing against a quality opponent could move his draft-stock needle in the right direction. He's become a second-round prospect to watch.
Tyrone Wallace (California, PG, Senior)
With all eyes on the projected one-and-done freshmen at California (Jaylen Brown, Ivan Rabb), it's been Tyrone Wallace's play and improvement that have been the story.
It's only six games, so we're still in wait-and-monitor mode. But so far, so good for Wallace, who's cut down his turnovers, increased his assist rate and shot the ball well early on.
The big knock on Wallace has ultimately always been his shaky jumper, considering he finished last year with a 48.4 percent true shooting percentage and a 31.8 percent three-point mark—the third season he's shot below 33 percent. Plus, Wallace isn't an explosive leaper, making his perimeter game that much more important.
He's hit eight of his first 20 (40 percent) from deep, and he hasn't shied away from taking them (3.3 attempts per game), showing some renewed confidence behind the arc.
Wallace has also done an admirable job running California's offense by balancing scoring and attacking with distributing (18.7 points, 4.3 assists per game).
At 6'6", he sports mismatch size and quickness to match crafty playmaking and finishing skills in the lane. The ingredients are there—if Wallace can continue making outside shots while keeping California's offense flowing, it's not crazy to think he can still generate interest in the 20-30 range of 2016's first round.
Tyler Lydon (Syracuse, PF, Freshman)
I"m not sure he falls under the one-and-done category, but Tyler Lydon's early-season production, efficiency and inside-out game should have landed him on the long-term watch lists for scouts.
Lydon quietly emerged as a must-play option for head coach Jim Boeheim during Syracuse's Battle 4 Atlantis championship run last week. A factor in both Orange wins over Connecticut (16 points, 12 rebounds) and Texas A&M (13 points, eight rebounds), Lydon flashed shooting range, interior activity and high basketball IQ.
Though not explosive or jump-out-of-the-gym athletic, he's mobile and coordinated. And chances are, he's bigger than the 6'8" Syracuse lists him at, considering he measured 6'8½" in socks back in 2014 for U.S.A. at the FIBA Americas Championships.
With power forward size, Lydon offers stretch-4 potential (10-of-17 from three), as well as the ability to come up with 50-50 balls in traffic and rise up for blocks (three per 40 minutes) around the rim.
It's too early to throw Lydon's name into this year's first-round mix, and at 205 pounds, he could obviously use a few years to build his body. But if he continues to shoot the lights out and win his battles under the boards, the NBA buzz should pick up at some point during the year.
For what it's worth, SNY's Adam Zagoria reported teams already began looking at Lydon at the "beginning of the season."