NBA scouts should already have a good sense of the premier prospects at each position. But it's inevitable: We're going to see under-the-radar players at basically every spot rise up the ranks during the year.
Based on each player's summer and previous season, I pegged five sleepers who are expected to creep quietly up boards and emerge as quality options at their respective positions. Three of the following could surprise by launching themselves into the lottery. Two won't play college basketball in 2016-17.
These aren't the headliners of the current draft discussion, but NBA teams will regard them as desirable options come June.
Center: Chimezie Metu (USC, 6'11", Sophomore)
Draft Ceiling: Late first round
|Elite center prospects||Notable centers Metu can pass on draft boards|
|Marques Bolden, Duke, Freshman||Thomas Bryant, Indiana, Sophomore|
|Jarrett Allen, Texas, Freshman||Omer Yurtseven, N.C. State, Freshman|
Outside of Jarrett Allen and Marques Bolden, there aren't many obvious pros at center in college basketball right now. But Chimezie Metu is a breakout 5-man to watch. He's a project with enough upside to surge past Thomas Bryant and Omer Yurtseven on draft boards—if he can convert freshman flashes into steady production his sophomore year.
Following an offseason that's included Adidas Nations, Drew League games and prospect workouts, Metu should return as a more confident player with a bigger role at USC.
Size, athleticism, line-drive ball-handling and mid-range touch highlight his intriguing NBA potential. At 6'11" and 215 pounds, he's skinny but explosive around the basket, where he does most of his damage as a finisher off lobs, putbacks and dump-off passes.
This year, we should see a more aggressive Metu capable of attacking his man from the shorter corners and making plays out of the post. Having averaged 3.4 blocks per 40 minutes, his rim-protection ability is another appealing piece of the pie. The 19-year-old's bounce and 7'2" wingspan translate to weak-side rejections and defensive upside.
Though raw without much bulk, polish or feel for the game, Metu's can't-teach tools and athleticism help buy him time. He'll be a sharper, more versatile scoring threat in 2017. In turn, expect the NBA buzz to build.
Power Forward: Isaiah Hartenstein (Germany, 6'11", 1998)
Draft Ceiling: Top 10
|Power forward prospects|
|Elite PF prospects||Notable PFs Hartenstein can pass on draft boards|
|Harry Giles, Duke, Freshman||Ivan Rabb, California, Sophomore|
|Bam Adebayo, Kentucky, Freshman|
|Lauri Markkanen, Arizona, Freshman|
|Tyler Lydon, Syracuse, Sophomore|
Isaiah Hartenstein packs the most upside among our top-ranked sleepers. He's earned a lot more recognition within scouting departments than he has from media outlets, but we wou have heard more about Germany's next big prospect had back issues not sidelined him over the summer.
One NBA general manager raved to Bleacher Report about Hartenstein's potential and draft outlook:
A late riser who I think will look better as teams get individual workouts and see this kid at the combine is Isaiah Hartenstein. I am anxious to see how he does this year in his development and against the physicality of the combine.
It is easy to compare him to Dirk [Nowitzki] with his German nationality, but he looks the part of a prototypical stretch 4 that is becoming increasingly important in today's game. If Hartenstein can buckle down on defense and continue his offensive development, I expect him to go in the top five.
At 6'11", 230 pounds, his size, strength and destructive athleticism blend with a face-up scoring attack and terrific skill. He's flashed everything from three-point range (40.7 percent on 54 attempts in 2015-16), penetrating off the dribble and post moves to savvy passing and dominant rebounding (14.8 boards per 40 minutes through three FIBA tournaments from 2013 to 2015).
During what's expected to be his first full season with Zalgiris in Lithuania, all it's going to take is regular flashes against grown-men pros for him to keep interest alive. He won't have a featured role but has obvious talent, which scouts have been watching since the 2014 Jordan Brand Classic and U16 European Championships. Hartenstein's projected NBA fit should outweigh questions over his 2016-17 production, shot selection and awareness.
In terms of a future transition to the NBA, the fact that he's lived in the United States and speaks perfect English will also sit well with coaches and executives.
There are some concerns related to Hartenstein's intangibles, but by June there should be a lottery team willing to reach and chase the upside. He's a highly skilled, inside-out big with offensive mismatch written all over him.
Small Forward: Jaron Blossomgame (Clemson, 6'7", Senior)
Draft Ceiling: Late lottery
|Small forward prospects|
|Elite small forward prospects||Notable SFs Blossomgame can pass on draft boards|
|Josh Jackson, Kansas, Freshman||OG Anunoby, Indiana, Sophomore|
|Jayson Tatum, Duke, Freshman||Miles Bridges, Michigan State, Freshman|
|Jonathan Isaac, Florida State, Freshman||Rodions Kurucs, Latvia, 1998|
He'll be viewed as one of the top returning players in the country, but you won't find Jaron Blossomgame ranked highly on preseason NBA mock draft boards.
He should be—Blossomgame looks poised to take the final step that turns fringe first-rounders into locks.
With 6'7", 220-pound size and explosive athleticism, the NBA physical profile is there: He looks the part of a pro wing or small-ball 4, and after averaging 18.7 points (20.7 during ACC play), he's consistently found ways to score against quality college competition.
With Blossomgame's tools to guard both forward positions and natural finishing ability off drives, cuts and putbacks, shooting becomes the obvious key to unlock his NBA potential.
He even shot 44.1 percent on threes his junior season, a big improvement from 28.8 percent the year before. Unconvincing mechanics and a small sample size provide reasons for scouts to hesitate. But repeat accuracy from deep, as well as a sharper mid-range game (36.3 percent on two-point jumpers, per Hoop-Math.com), boosts his scoring average near the 20s and strengthens his credibility and upside as a shooter.
After going through the 2016 predraft process, which included working out with NBA teams and attending the combine, Blossomgame should be smarter and more confident in 2017. Look for the 22-year-old to move the needle with big conference games against higher-upside freshmen wings like Duke's Jayson Tatum and Florida State's Jonathan Isaac.
Shooting Guard: Terrance Ferguson (Adelaide 36ers, 6'7", SG)
Draft Ceiling: Late lottery
|Shooting guard prospects|
|Elite SG prospects||Notable SGs Ferguson can pass on draft boards|
|N/A||Malik Monk, Kentucky, Freshman|
|Grayson Allen, Duke, Junior|
|Allonzo Trier, Arizona, Sophomore|
|Rawle Alkins, Arizona, Freshman|
We won't hear Terrance Ferguson's name much in 2016-17, after his decision to pass on Arizona for a year of pro ball in Australia. Yet he's still a sleeper to emerge as the first shooting guard called in the 2017 NBA draft.
Scouts have already seen plenty of the McDonald's All-American and consensus top-20 recruit (ESPN, Rivals, Scout), who lit up the Nike Hoop Summit in April with 21 points on 7-of-11 shooting from three.
At 6'7", he mixes pro size and athleticism with a confident long-range stroke, a blend that creates coveted three-and-D potential. Ferguson gets his shot off quickly and can connect with hands in his face. In 27 games dating back to 2013, he's shot 39.7 percent from downtown between FIBA play, Adidas Nations and this year's high school showcase events.
We could be talking about a special shot-maker, even if he looks streaky early in his career.
Excellent lateral quickness hints at promising defensive potential as well. Light on his feet with the height to cover either wing position, the 18-year-old can guard and shoot, giving him a terrific foundation. He'll have a few years to develop an off-the-dribble game and shot creativity while his defense and jumper do his talking.
Nobody on the 36ers can match Ferguson's size and stroke on the wing; He'll have a chance to play and produce. Low numbers won't deflate his stock, but big ones will ignite it. An impact season abroad will launch Ferguson into the 2017 lottery ahead of Malik Monk, Grayson Allen and other first-round 2-guard candidates.
Point Guard: Devonte' Graham (Kansas, 6'2", Junior)
Draft Ceiling: Mid-first round
|Point guard prospects|
|Elite PG prospects||Notable PGs Graham can pass on draft boards|
|Markelle Fultz, Washington, Freshman||Edmond Sumner, Xavier, Sophomore|
|Dennis Smith, N.C. State, Freshman||Monte Morris, Iowa State, Senior|
|Frank Ntilikina, France, 1998||Melo Trimble, Maryland, Junior|
|De'Aaron Fox, Kentucky, Freshman|
|Lonzo Ball, UCLA, Freshman|
Devonte' Graham isn't a sleeper among college basketball fans, but he hasn't received much love within the NBA draft conversation. That will change in 2016-17.
Perry Ellis (16.9 points per game) and Wayne Selden's (13.8 points per game) departures will result in a heavier workload for Graham, giving him a better shot to build an NBA case.
Despite ranking low in the Jayhawk pecking order as a sophomore (16.9 percent usage rate, per Sports-Reference.com), he bailed out Kansas a few times late during the year, specifically with 27-point games during wins over Oklahoma and West Virginia.
More freedom and confidence should only lead to more frequent outbursts in 2016-17, and they should ping the NBA radar. The 21-year-old already passes the eye test with enough size (6'2"), plenty of quickness and dangerous change-of-speed ability.
Extra flashes of playmaking and defense—plus a third straight season of accurate shooting—should lead to first-round interest by June.
Graham has now shot at least 42 percent from deep in each season at Kansas. This past one, he showed off a better stop-and-pop game (42.9 percent on two-point jumpers, per Hoop-Math.com), making him a triple-threat off ball screens as a pull-up shooter, driver or passer. A legitimate two-way player, Graham digs in defensively as well. Along with a tested jumper and some promising facilitating instincts, toughness will earn him support within NBA scouting departments.
Age and lack of upside will prevent Graham from leapfrogging teenage studs like Markelle Fultz, Dennis Smith, Frank Ntilikina, De'Aaron Fox and Lonzo Ball. However, some team will get solid value if they land Graham in the 20s.
All quotes gathered firsthand unless noted otherwise.