8 NBA Draft Prospects Shooting Up Scouts' Boards

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterDecember 2, 2018

8 NBA Draft Prospects Shooting Up Scouts' Boards

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    A month ago, we wondered who'd emerge as early risers in the 2019 NBA draft discussion. Five freshmen, two sophomores and a junior have answered the call through November. 

    Scouts should have been aware of the talent of each of these prospects, but they needed a wait-and-see approach before moving them up or onto their boards. 

    It's time. These prospects have shown enough to be taken seriously, whether it's as first-round candidates or lottery picks. Hop on their bandwagons while there is still room.  

Ja Morant, Murray State PG, Sophomore

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    Current draft projection: Lottery

    Preseason B/R Ranking: No. 17

    Key per-game stats: 27.8 points, 9.0 assists, 7.5 rebounds, 2.0 steals, 57.5 percent FG

    On breakout watch to start the year, Ja Morant is converting those eyeballs into interest, most recently capitalizing on an opportunity to move the needle with dozens of scouts on hand for Murray State at Alabama. 

    Just two days after triple-doubling with 29 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists against Missouri State, Morant erupted for 38 points Monday night, keeping the Racers afloat until the end against a more athletic SEC opponent. 

    His explosiveness pops and points to his upside, and he's using his burst effectively to blow by and set the table for teammates or to create layup, dunk and free-throw chances. Morant has defenses looking silly with his ability to go from zero to 100. Alabama was eventually forced to throw double-teams his way 30 feet from the basket.

    Morant has been equally effective with his playmaking. He's been scoring and dishing out high-level passes off his own penetration and dribble manipulation. Fourteen of the 26 shots he's created out of pick-and-rolls have been converted (93rd percentile).

    Whether Morant continues to climb the prospect ladder will come down to his development as a shooter and decision maker. His shot mechanics aren't the smoothest, and he missed all four of his threes Monday while committing 10 turnovers in 40 minutes.

    On the other hand, he knocked down six triples Saturday, and Murray State relies on him to carry an enormous work load.

    With Vanderbilt's Darius Garland lost for the season to a knee injury, the debate for the top point guard prospect has opened up. Signs indicate that Morant will steal support and drop an anchor into the 2019 lottery discussion.

Luguentz Dort, Arizona State PG/SG, Freshman

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    Current draft projection: First round

    Preseason B/R Ranking: Outside top 50

    Key per-game stats: 22.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 43.7 percent FG, 34.5 percent 3PT

    Luguentz Dort played in Canada last year, which helps explain the current lack of national recognition. He's come out firing at Arizona State, drawing attention for his mix of athleticism and standout physical strength, as well as his unique production across the board.

    Adding finesse to his game must become a priority (17-of-36 at the rim), but at 6'4", 215 pounds, he enjoys initiating contact and shows a willingness to play through it. 

    He finished with 33 points last week against Utah State, marking the second time in four games he had 10 made field goals. Dort puts pressure on defenses with his handle, his change of speed and his power. He's already totaled 44 points as a pick-and-roll scorer.

    He's also off to a promising start from outside. He's converted at least two threes in four of six games, including five off the dribble. It's worth mentioning, however, he's shooting 65.4 percent from the line, so scouts will presumably be closely monitoring his jump-shot results and development.

    Otherwise, his tools and foot speed point to defensive potential and the versatility to guard both guard spots, but he'll need to improve on his discipline and team concepts.

    Dort lacks polish at both ends—he often plows into traffic, and he lost track of his man on multiple occasions against Utah State. But he's coupled his NBA body and explosion with early, successful flashes of shot-making, driving and passing. 

    The 19-year-old combo guard figures to emerge as a first-round name across the league.  

Jarrett Culver, Texas Tech SG, Sophomore

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Current draft projection: Top 20

    Preseason B/R Ranking: No. 16

    Key per-game stats: 18.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 54.1 percent FG, 50.0 percent 3PT

    The departures of Keenan Evans and Zhaire Smith helped set up Jarrett Culver, who's capitalizing as Texas Tech's new top option.

    He made scouting watch lists last year by standing out with 6'5" size, length and a smooth shooting stroke. This year, he's expanded his offense and improved his strengths.

    Culver has already generated 31 points as a pick-and-roll ball-handler after totaling 28 his entire freshman season. He's made six of nine shots out of isolation (7-of-31 last year) and is looking sharper creating his own shot and hitting pull-ups and step-back jumpers. And he's practically doubled his assist rate to 27.2 percent from 13.7 percent, showing more playmaking and vision off the dribble.

    Culver continues to shoot the three with convincing comfort, making 10 of his first 20 attempts.

    His defensive tools and his shooting create a promising foundation, but his blossoming offensive-skill package could propel him into 2019's lottery.

    Last week's second-half takeover in a 70-52 win against Nebraska could be the first of many throughout the season. 

Talen Horton-Tucker, Iowa State SF, Freshman

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Current draft projection: First round, 2019/2020

    Preseason B/R Ranking: Outside top 50

    Key per-game stats: 14.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 2.3 steals, 0.6 blocks

    Talen Horton-Tucker doesn't fit inside the box, but his early success should influence scouts to expand their imaginations.

    Today's positionless game will also benefit the unusually shaped 6'4", 238-pound freshman. Despite his wide frame and lack of height and athleticism, Horton-Tucker possesses a tremendous skill level that fuels unique offensive versatility.

    He was captivating during his 26-point, 14-rebound, six-assist effort in an 84-68 win over Illinois last week.

    Horton-Tucker has demonstrated the ability to shake defenders and shoot off the dribble, as well as attack closeouts in the half court or handle the ball in transition. He's made some high-level passes that highlight a strong feel for the game. And despite a body that suggests he should be slower than guards and wings, he's already totaled 16 steals through seven games.

    A lack of explosion has shown up inside the arc, where he's only shooting 44.4 percent. And though he's confident from three, he doesn't appear to be ready to shoot a high percentage (13-of-41). 

    Still, Horton-Tucker turned 18 years old last Sunday and he appears to be more advanced than most players. There will be questions about his NBA fit, but assuming he continues to produce across the board, he'll remain a hot topic within the scouting conversation.

Coby White, North Carolina PG/SG, Freshman

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    Current draft projection: Fringe first round, 2019/Nos. 15-30, 2020

    Preseason B/R Ranking: No. 15

    Key per-game stats: 15.3 points, 3.6 assists, 45.3 percent FG, 41.9 percent 3PT

    Coby White kicked off his NBA draft sales pitch with a 33-point effort against Texas last week.

    North Carolina's leading scorer through November, the freshman has had to carry his team for stretches, particularly with Luke Maye off his game early. 

    White, who's 6'5" and shifty, changes speeds and direction off quick ball-handling maneuvers to create. He's already demonstrated a knack for converting contested pull-ups and step-backs, even behind the arc. He's made 18 of 43 threes.

    Despite his pedestrian assist rate (24.5), White is dishing out high-level passes each game, whether they're in transition or through tighter windows in the half court.

    He's also been difficult to shake on defense, doing an excellent job of sliding his feet, anticipating moves and screens and staying attached to opposing ball-handlers.

    White lacks strength (185 lbs) and explosion, which shows up on tougher finishes around the trees at the rim. But he's going to erupt from time to time with outbursts of scoring and shotmaking. And given his size, speed, on-ball creation and defense, he should have enough to warrant a late first-round grade.

Brandon Clarke, Gonzaga PF, Junior

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    Marco Garcia/Associated Press

    Current draft projection: Fringe first round

    Preseason B/R Ranking: Outside top 50

    Key per-game stats: 15.9 points, 7.4 rebounds, 4.1 blocks, 77.8 percent FG

    After transferring from St. Jose State, Brandon Clarke has resurfaced with the nation's top team, which has helped enhance and bring light to his admirable role-player potential and mentality.

    Matchups don't receive more NBA attention than Duke-Gonzaga did. And though Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish and Rui Hachimura were the main attractions, no prospect helped himself more than Clarke.

    After watching his obvious impact in the win over Duke, it seemed easier to picture him occupying and thriving in the same low-usage energy role at the next level—particularly given his 6'8", 215-pound frame, mobility and motor. 

    Highly active, Clarke consistently positioned himself for easy baskets (7-of-10 FGM-A), switched all over defensively and flashed his special timing, instincts and athleticism on six blocked shots. His three-point make was a bonus that could help fuel optimism over his shooting development.

    Already 22 years old with limited scoring ability, Clarke will only rise so high on draft boards. But two weeks ago, he wasn't likely on many at all.

    With Tennessee and North Carolina on Gonzaga's December schedule, NBA teams will have their eyes on the Bulldogs' newest X-factor. 

Jaxson Hayes, Texas C, Freshman

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    Current draft projection: Fringe first round, 2019/Nos. 15-30, 2020

    Preseason B/R Ranking: Outside top 50

    Key per-game stats: 10.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, 2.3 blocks, 68.6 percent FG

    Jericho Sims and Kerwin Roach started the year as Texas' big draws for NBA scouts. But after six games, Jaxson Hayes has emerged as the prospect to monitor and potentially someone who could make enough noise to generate first-round interest in 2019.

    His 15-point, nine-board, three-block effort in last week's win over North Carolina was a needle-mover.

    Hayes is 6'11", 220 pounds, and his size and mobility have stood out and translated to easy baskets, rebounds and rim protection.

    Though he's not a skill player, he's impacting games with his physical tools and run-and-jump athleticism, beating defenses down the floor, scoring off pick-and-rolls (9-of-10), crashing the offensive glass—he leads Big 12 players with 14.3 offensive rebound percentage—and challenging shots around the basket.

    Averaging 5.8 fouls per 40 minutes without an offensive game, Hayes may need multiple years with the Longhorns. But he's quickly made the NBA radar. Depending on his individual goals, it may make sense for him to capitalize on any interest this June and sell teams on his long-term potential. 

Ignas Brazdeikis, Michigan PF, Freshman

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Current draft projection: Fringe first round, 2019/2020

    Preseason B/R Ranking: Outside top 50

    Key per-game stats: 16.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, 0.9 steals, 54.9 percent FG

    Off the scouting radar in October, Ignas Brazdeikis has quickly inserted himself into the draft conversation, leading 7-0 Michigan in scoring after three consecutive games with at least 20 points.

    His toughness and competitiveness stood out first and work toward his appeal, but Brazdeikis' offensive versatility has been the main draw early on.

    At 6'7", 215 pounds, he combines skill and hustle, generating offense with dribble moves, shotmaking and off-ball effort and activity. He's kept defenders honest by hitting seven of 18 threes, which has opened up his driving game and ability to score on the move with crafty runners and improvised layups.

    Brazdeikis has even earned the freedom to initiate offense off defensive rebounds and handle it in ball-screen situations.

    There will be debate regarding his NBA potential, with questions over his perimeter quickness and his size inside. But Brazdeikis figures to be a focal point of one of the nation's premier teams and a hot topic for scouts.

                                                                           

    Stats courtesy of Synergy Sports, Basketball-Reference.com.