NBA Player Comparisons for the Top Players in the Sweet 16
The Sweet 16 of the NCAA Division I men's college basketball tournament is set to begin Thursday, and many of the most highly touted NBA draft prospects—such as Arizona's Deandre Ayton and Missouri's Michael Porter Jr.—have already seen their seasons come to an end. But there are plenty of projected high draft picks left in the tournament.
Comparisons between draft prospects and established pros are never perfect, and at times they can place unfair expectations on a player before they play a game in the NBA. But they're useful in providing a point of reference for a player's skill set and the kind of impact they have the potential to make at the next level.
Here are our best guesses at pro comparisons for the best prospects left in the NCAA tournament.
Marvin Bagley III, PF/C, Duke
Pro comparison: Kevin Garnett
Like a young Garnett, Bagley is an incredible athlete at his size with an overwhelming physical presence and a versatile skill set. He's struggled defensively at Duke, but the tools are there to improve at that end to become a two-way impact player, which will be how he reaches his full potential.
Bagley isn't a knockdown jump-shooter like Garnett yet, but he's already making shots at a respectable rate, in addition to his devastating ability to score around the basket and post up.
Any comparison to Garnett is a lofty one, but Bagley has the physical tools and instincts to have a similar impact on the game at both ends of the floor if he gets more polish at the NBA level.
Wendell Carter Jr., C, Duke
Pro comparison: Al Horford
In contrast to Bagley, his Duke frontcourt mate is much less flashy and more polished in his skill set, with solid ability at both ends of the floor and a variety of ways he can make an impact, just like Horford.
Both Horford and Carter are solid, versatile defenders who don't make highlight blocks but can stop other players from scoring at the rim and in the post. They mostly score in the paint but are capable of stepping out and hitting an outside shot, even if neither is considered a conventional stretch big man.
Both are solid passers with high basketball IQ and good fundamentals in all aspects of the game. Carter doesn't grab headlines, but, like Horford, he's poised to carve out a long pro career as an effective two-way big man.
Mikal Bridges, F, Villanova
Pro comparison: Nicolas Batum
Before his career was hampered by injuries in Charlotte, the Portland version of Batum was widely respected as a three-and-D wing who could guard multiple positions and fit into different systems. That's what Bridges projects to do in the league, making him an enticing prospect as the tournament progresses and draft talk heats up.
Like Batum, Bridges' length makes him versatile defensively, and he can play small forward or power forward in different lineups. Both improved offensively as their careers wore on, and thrive on spot-ups created in a movement-heavy offense, just like many NBA teams use.
Bridges doesn't project to be a star at the NBA level, but he has a high floor and will likely find success as a valuable three-and-D wing no matter where he's drafted.
Robert Williams, C, Texas A&M
Pro comparison: Clint Capela
Just like Capela, Williams doesn't have much shooting range, but he's effective in all of the traditional ways a big man can be. He's athletic, blocks shots, finishes pick-and-rolls and grabs rebounds.
Williams' rim protection will be valuable to an NBA team, coupled with his rebounding—he put up 14.6 boards per 40 minutes in his sophomore season. His offensive game, at this point, is limited to finishing around the basket, but his physical tools make him able to do that so effectively it makes up for his lack of a jump shot.
Capela has proved himself to be a valuable starting center for a title contender in Houston, and Williams has many of the traits that will give him that ceiling at the pro level as well.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, PG, Kentucky
Pro comparison: Jrue Holiday
Over the course of the season, the Wildcats' freshman point guard has risen in prospect rankings and is now getting lottery (top-14) buzz, per ESPN draft analyst Mike Schmitz (h/t Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post). Point guard is the deepest position in the NBA, and it's hard to stand out, but Gilgeous-Alexander figures to be a useful, malleable guard in the Holiday mold.
Both are solid, tenacious defenders who can defend both guard positions, and Gilgeous-Alexander has improved his offense throughout the year, shooting 41.8 percent from three-point range. Crucially, like Holiday, Gilgeous-Alexander has been willing to take an offensive back seat at times to Kevin Knox and be a role player, just as Holiday has done in New Orleans alongside Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins.
The size and skill are there for Gilgeous-Alexander to be a successful lead guard or second guard at the NBA level, even though he won't overwhelm with flash.
Kevin Knox, F, Kentucky
Pro comparison: Shawn Marion
Knox is young and raw at this point, but his size and versatility on the defensive end make him a tantalizing wing prospect with some similarities to Marion.
Knox played out of position at power forward much of his freshman season at Kentucky, which could prepare him to move up a position in the NBA when necessary. Over his career, Marion developed the ability to play as a small-ball power forward and even as a center at times, which made him one of the most valuable defenders of his generation.
Knox's offensive game is still developing—he's not a knockdown shooter by any stretch, but he can hit a jumper well enough that his shot needs to be respected, just like Marion.
Zhaire Smith, F, Texas Tech
Pro comparison: KJ McDaniels
Smith's draft prospects could be better served by staying in school another year, but he's projected to go in the first round if he declares this year, per Jonathan Givony of ESPN.com. Right now, he's all athleticism and physical tools without much in the way of refined NBA skills, calling to mind the 25-year-old McDaniels, whose explosiveness jumped off the page at the beginning of his career but hasn't translated to effectiveness at the pro level.
Smith needs to hone his offensive game. He's not much of a playmaker or ball-handler and doesn't take many outside shots (he has averaged just one attempt per game at Texas Tech). But his athleticism makes him an explosive finisher, just like McDaniels, and both have the tools to be solid defenders.
If Smith decides to turn pro, any team selecting him will be taking a gamble on physical upside. Sometimes, those picks work out. It's more likely he will carve out a multiyear career without developing any one skill enough to make a major impact.
Tyus Battle, G, Syracuse
Pro comparison: Donovan Mitchell
Battle has increased his stock as Syracuse has continued its unlikely run from a play-in team to the Sweet 16. As the draft gets closer, he could be this year's big first-round riser, like Mitchell was last year as the No. 13 overall pick.
At 6'6", Battle is a little bigger than Mitchell, but they share a dynamic offensive game. Both are natural shooting guards but have the ability to function as playmakers in the halfcourt. Both are great athletes who can finish. Neither is much in the way of outside shooters at this point.
Mitchell has flashed star potential in his rookie season in Utah, which was unexpected this early. Battle has the tools and skill set for a similar rapid upward trajectory if he lands on the right team.
Grayson Allen, G, Duke
Pro comparison: Courtney Lee
Allen's two chief attributes as an NBA prospect are his athleticism and his shooting. Lee has been able to build an effective NBA career for himself with those same traits and an ability to fit into different systems.
Both are solid defenders who don't get pushed around by bigger guards and can more than hold their own on that end. Both can use their athleticism to finish around the basket.
Shooting is their main calling card. Lee is a career 38.8 percent shooter from long range in nine NBA seasons; Allen has shot 38.3 percent from deep in his senior season at Duke on 7.2 attempts per game.
Lee, a former late first-round pick, has built himself into a valuable role player by knowing what his strengths are and honing them. Allen figures to carve out a similar niche for himself at the pro level as a projected late first- or early second-round pick, per DraftExpress.
Jalen Brunson, G, Villanova
Pro comparison: Malcolm Brogdon
Like Brogdon, Brunson is more known for his basketball IQ and steadiness than he is for explosive athleticism. Both are solid outside shooters with good playmaking ability who don't demand the ball too much but are capable scorers.
If there are questions about Brunson at the pro level, they're largely about his ability to stay in front of more athletic guards on the defensive end—the same sorts of questions that surrounded Brogdon during the 2016 draft. Both have the pedigree of playing three-plus years at a major program, and Brunson shares Brogdon's great feel for the game, which suggests he'll find a way to be successful at the next level.
Brogdon provides a template for a player like Brunson without the flash of some of the other guard prospects in the draft. If he lands in the right situation, he could have a similar trajectory and go from being a potential second-round pick to a starter in the NBA.