We had an idea over the summer of who would draw first-round interest in the NBA draft. But there are always a handful of names that come out of nowhere to rise up boards. (Marquese Chriss, Wade Baldwin IV, DeAndre' Bembry and Malachi Richardson are just a few examples from 2016.)
We've already seen at least five 2017 prospects follow suit with surprising production that's landed them on the NBA's radar. While it's difficult to say for sure when each of the following prospects will declare, it's becoming easier to foresee where they'll go once they do.
After fast, unexpected starts, scouts have pegged these previously under-the-radar players as first-round talents.
T.J. Leaf (UCLA, PF, Freshman)
Though a consensus top-20 recruit (ESPN, Rivals, 247Sports), T.J. Leaf never jumped out as NBA material in high school. Uninspiring athleticism, short arms and boyish muscle definition were to blame. And with Lonzo Ball absorbing most of the early credit and spotlight at UCLA, Leaf's play, numbers and potential went overlooked.
Not anymore—Leaf handled Kentucky's front line to help legitimize his scorching start. He's now become a must-discuss name amid the draft chatter.
Averaging 17.2 points and 9.4 boards in 28.9 minutes, he's also one of two players in the country shooting over 65.0 percent on at least 10 field-goal attempts per game (minimum five games), per Sports-Reference.com.
"I do," one scout replied when asked if he thought Leaf had first-round potential. "He could possibly pull off a Kelly Olynyk-type game."
"Loved how aggressive he was under the boards," said another scout following Leaf's 17-point, 13-rebound line against the Wildcats. "You don't see effort like that."
He isn't fast or explosive while his posture is fairly upright, but his skills, feel and energy have earned him attention.
Leaf's shooting range extends behind the arc, having made nine of his first 18 three-point attempts. He's even flashed glimpses of one-on-one scoring with advanced footwork to create space and separate.
He's also demonstrated some ball-handling with the ability to change speed and direction off the dribble.
Inside, he's consistently shown the ability to improvise and convert at awkward angles around his defender. Minimal explosiveness and strength haven't stopped him from making 41-of-49 shots so far at the rim, per Hoop-Math.com, though it's worth remembering Kentucky has been the only notable opponent on UCLA's early schedule.
Averaging 2.8 assists, he checks off another box with impressive passing instincts: He's capable of putting the ball on the floor, drawing help and finding the open man.
Leaf doesn't appear to offer much defensive upside, but the NBA scouting lens picks up his offensive versatility, nose for the ball, IQ and motor. He's emerged as a potential first-rounder to watch during conference and postseason play.
Robert Williams (Texas A&M, PF, Freshman)
Despite playing a limited role off Texas A&M's bench, Robert Williams has managed to make noise. He's doing it with frequent activity that highlights 7'4" length, athleticism and fantastic hands.
Putting up per-40-minute averages of 21.4 points, 12.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 5.1 blocks, Williams has been highly productive without a great deal of skill.
"He's been a surprise," a scout said of Williams. "I saw Texas A&M practice, kid never stood out. But he got some minutes against USC, had some dunks, rebounds, blocks."
Ron Meikle, former longtime NBA scout and Williams' high school coach, talked to Bleacher Report about the development of the Aggies' promising new big man.
He's gained 20 pounds and improved his vertical since his senior year ended. A&M is doing a good job bringing him along offensively; I like how they run the ball through him at the elbows and allow him to use his passing skills, which along with his ability to block/change shots makes him a solid NBA prospect.
Robert is very unselfish and a total team player. He will have to improve his back-to-the-basket and face-up game to play the 3-4 at the next level, but his length is maybe 7'5", 7'6" now.
Even without much of an offensive game, it's still reasonable to think a first-round team could covet/value Williams' tools, passing, defense and room for improvement. Expect dozens of scouts to tune in when he faces Arizona on Dec. 17 and Kentucky on Jan. 3.
Alec Peters (Valparaiso, PF, Senior)
It's become impossible to ignore Alec Peters any longer: He's scored at least 20 points during each of his first nine games. The fact that he's averaging 25.1 points (second in the country)—and his No. 1 weapon hasn't been dependable—is even more encouraging.
Having made 231-of-534 career three-point attempts (43.3 percent) coming into the year, he's already established credibility as a shooter, regardless of what the early numbers (12-of-49 from three) say this season.
"Shooting is the No. 1 skill in the NBA right now; premium," said Pete Philo, former director of scouting for the Minnesota Timberwolves and Indiana Pacers. "He's tough and smart enough to play at the next level. Peters can make shots from anywhere and is very, very accurate. His misses are right on. ... He has a long road ahead but just love his toughness, and guys like him play the right way. Shot is silky. You can win with guys like him."
Peters has suddenly become a much tougher cover inside the arc, converting 2.8 more two-point field-goals per game than he did a year ago. He's also nearly doubled the rate at which he gets to the free-throw line (now 8.4 times per game), where he's shooting 94.7 percent.
Questions over his ceiling and defense are real, but they won't matter much to playoff teams selecting in the 20s.
"He's not a starter," Philo said. "More of a rotational 4 that will struggle some nights when put in pick-and-roll situations defensively, but most people don't evaluate versus backups."
Ike Anigbogu (UCLA, C, Freshman)
It's taken Anigbogu just four games and 45 total minutes to draw NBA attention. He's only scored 15 total points all season yet still has scouts buzzing over his potential.
At 6'10', 250 pounds with broad shoulders, long arms, giant hands and explosive legs, Anigbogu's physical profile is highly impressive and built for the paint. He's raw as can be without any bankable skills, but that hasn't held him back or turned scouts off.
They're mostly interested in his defensive upside, as well as his ability to clean up misses and pick up easy buckets inside.
"I've talked to the UCLA guys," said a West Coast-based NBA scout. "They love him, they love his mindset; he's a rim protector, a dunker, a baby DeAndre Jordan-type. They feel he's the anchor of that team; they think he's going to be an unbelievable player defensively, and I agree. I love what he brings to the table defensively."
Per 40 minutes, he's grabbing 12.4 rebounds and blocking 6.2 shots. And though not a realistic option to feed in the post, Anigbogu just turned 18 in October.
Given his small role and lack of polish, a return to UCLA as a sophomore is likely. But Anigbogu's tools and interior presence should earn him first-round love whenever he declares.
Tony Bradley (North Carolina, C, Freshman)
A loaded frontcourt consisting of established, upperclass bigs hasn't masked Bradley's potential. He comes off the bench for North Carolina and instantly makes his impact felt.
Averaging 21.6 points and 14.4 rebounds per 40 minutes on 60.0 percent shooting, opponents have consistently had trouble with him in the paint, where he's able to create unguardable, high-percentage shots (22-of-26 at the rim, per Hoop-Math.com) and draw fouls at a tremendous rate (10.4 free-throw attempts per 40 minutes).
His 22.4 percent offensive rebounding percentage, per Sports-Reference.com, is off the charts. Scouts are quick to point out Bradley's massive 7'4" wingspan, which helps compensate for average athleticism.
Compared to the other top center prospects—Anigbogu, Duke's Marques Bolden, Texas' Jarrett Allen, Kentucky's Bam Adebayo, North Carolina State's Omer Yurtseven—Bradley is easily the most skilled from foul line to baseline.
Still 18 years old, the low shot-blocking numbers (1.2 per 40 minutes) haven't caused panic. He'll have a better chance to dominate at the college level in 2017-18 with Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks graduating this year.
But in a draft with so few can't-miss 5 men, Bradley could look to capitalize early this upcoming June.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats accurate as of Dec. 9.