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Preps to Pros 2.0?: NBA Scouts Worry Insane Hype Could Impact HS Hoop Megastars

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterOctober 8, 2021

Prep star Mikey Williams and his AAU team Vertical Academy face off against California Basketball Club's Amari Bailey, Bronny James and Kijani Wright this weekend.
Prep star Mikey Williams and his AAU team Vertical Academy face off against California Basketball Club's Amari Bailey, Bronny James and Kijani Wright this weekend.B/R Hoops

NBA scouts all know the name and star power of Mikey Williams, a precocious showman who landed the first NIL agency deal with Excel Sports, a first among prep basketball athletes. We know how popular he is—3.3 million people follow him on Instagram—but with his junior season of high school basketball approaching, the question becomes exactly how good of a pro prospect is Williams? 

This weekend should offer NBA scouts an illuminating glimpse when Williams and his squad, Vertical Academy, face off against California Basketball Club's Amari Bailey, Bronny James and Kijani Wright.

Williams has already created a brand that's led to money-making opportunities, but nothing will compare with future NBA paydays if he can become an NBA lottery pick when he's draft eligible in 2023. 

Williams is a quick-twitch athlete with outstanding bounce for finishing and putting back misses. Shot-creation footwork, smooth rhythm and shot-making skill with his pull-up and floater fuel exciting scoring potential. And he's already off to a scorching start this season, having erupted for 50 points Wednesday in a win over Word of God.  

Still, scouts aren't super familiar with the details about Williams' skill level, feel or on-court habits. He's only entering his junior year and NBA personnel are prohibited from attending the majority of his games.

Williams' game didn't make a big jump in 2021. The 6'2" combo guard may be the most hyped prospect in his class, but he's currently No. 10 in 247 Sports' 2023 rankings.

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He hasn't always shown a good feel for when to shoot, and his lowlights typically include forced or poorly timed shots. Decision-making concerns and turnovers against pressure have also made it difficult to picture a full-time point guard, despite his flashy passing.

Demonstrating more maturity with his shot selection and having a greater impact on winning will be obvious priorities with scouts ready to pay closer attention. He's older for his class, too—only four months younger than his upcoming opponent Amari Bailey, a senior who steadily improved at Sierra Canyon.

Bailey averaged 29.2 points and 6.5 assists last season, blossoming into a lead guard after playing more of a supporting role alongside recent draft picks like Ziaire Williams, Brandon Boston Jr., KJ Martin and Cassius Stanley. 

Though Bailey opted not to play in the big AAU tournaments over the summer due to a knee injury, there has been enough evidence of growth from his 2019 U16 Americas Championship play and leading Sierra Canyon to a 16-2 record last season.

A crafty scorer inside the arc, three-point threat and willing passer, Bailey has also added a takeover option. He demonstrated it in a 38-point effort during a comeback playoff win over Ribet Academy last June. He's not overwhelmingly strong or explosive, and he'll likely be viewed more as a 2 than a point guard at the college and pro levels. But another season of improvement puts Bailey on the one-and-done track into the 2023 lottery after a year at UCLA. 

For obvious reasons, eyes always gravitate toward Bailey's teammate (and Williams' former AAU teammate) James, the No. 32-ranked player by 247 Sports. 

Bronny James just turned 17 on Wednesday and scouts are eager to see if his development mirrors that of his father LeBron James.
Bronny James just turned 17 on Wednesday and scouts are eager to see if his development mirrors that of his father LeBron James.B/R Hoops

After undergoing surgery last February to repair a torn meniscus, James returned in June and played over the summer with Strive For Greatness.

At 6'3", he's not the same physical talent as his father, LeBron. But James unsurprisingly has an excellent basketball IQ that shows on passes and defense. His unselfishness and team-first approach are always evident, while his shooting and pull-up game are on the right track. 

James can have trouble exploding by or around the rim in traffic, which so far has made it tougher to picture star upside at the highest level. But he just turned 17 on Wednesday, and his body filling out and added burst could really help elevate what's already a fundamentally sound skill set and feel for the game. 

Saturday's matchup should be a tougher test for Williams, James and Bailey, and a more useful, foundational evaluation opportunity for scouts, even if they're only limited to watching on tape.

Scouts' take on new era

Now that there are multiple ways for 16- and 17-year-olds to earn money through basketball, scouts see pros and cons, both to prospects' potential habits and NBA teams' abilities to conduct the best possible evaluations.

The G League Ignite route has drawn all positive reviews. Scouts thought last year worked out well for them and the prospects. Some have mentioned that for top prospects, playing for NBA coaches and trainers will be more beneficial than going to certain colleges with outdated offenses and poor player development. 

WALNUT CREEK, CA - SEPTEMBER 15:  Jason Hart of Team Ignite looks on during an NBA G League Practice and Scrimmage on September 15, 2021 at Ultimate Fieldhouse in Walnut Creek, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by down
Noah Graham/Getty Images

There have been more shoulder shrugs toward the Overtime Elite startup, considering it's not NBA-run and we're mostly still in the dark about scheduling and opponents. There is also some concern about the ability of scouts to collect valid intel within the program.

These new pathways, along with the more-established overseas route, also mean more responsibilities and ground for NBA teams to cover. There is a belief that scouting departments will need to evolve during this new era.

As for the new NIL rules, some worry that prospects may focus more on creating viral highlights, which can translate to social media followers and possible endorsement deals the way they have for Mikey Williams. The fear is that certain prospects may become more interested in becoming paid, teenage celebrities than winning team members. 


Monitoring new pathways to the draft

Multiple developmental experiments will be taking place in 2021-22. If you're a touted high school sophomore with NBA dreams, you're paying attention to Scoot Henderson with the G League, plus the handful of prospects taking a chance in the newly launched Overtime Elite and Emoni Bates' time at Memphis.

Unlike Jalen Green, Jonathan Kuminga, Daishen Nix and Isaiah Todd, Henderson joined the Ignite after his sophomore year without the ability to declare for the draft after a year. He's committed to two years with the program, instead of playing another season of high school and then making the jump for his predraft season. 

Henderson, who would have been preparing to star for his high school in Georgia, is now on the verge of playing a lesser role on a squad with draft-eligible, potential 2022 lottery picks Jaden Hardy and Dyson Daniels, as well as whatever veterans the team adds to the roster. 

However, compared to the high schoolers, he'll get to perform in front of NBA scouts more often while receiving guidance from NBA staff. By his second season with the team under coach Jason Hart, Henderson figures to be more prepared and confident with a lead-role waiting. 

There seems to be more certainty with the G League program than Overtime Elite, which will attempt to offer both classes and a pro's experience. Five-star twins Amen and Ausar Thompson and Matt and Ryan Bewley committed and left their high school two years early for this new venture. More followed.

Successful outcomes—positive exposure, clear development, strong draft stock—will presumably result in more high schoolers looking to leave after their sophomore years for paychecks and "pro experience."

And then there's Bates, considered an elite prospect who reclassified to become eligible for college (Memphis) despite the fact he won't be eligible for the 2022 draft. He'll have the option of playing two seasons at Memphis or leaving after one and either spending the next year training, joining the Ignite or Overtime Elite or heading overseas.

Will other elite high school prospects follow the path of Emoni Bates, who reclassified to become eligible for college despite the fact he won't be eligible for the 2022 draft?
Will other elite high school prospects follow the path of Emoni Bates, who reclassified to become eligible for college despite the fact he won't be eligible for the 2022 draft?B/R Hoops

The outcome of his unique decision could influence the next batch of up-and-coming prospects who could be looking to escape high school earlier. 

The next generation of elite NBA prospects

A breakout season at Dream City Christian and monster summer in EYBL lifted Shaedon Sharpe to the top of recruiting rankings. After recently committing to Kentucky, the three-level scoring wing has become one of the biggest names scouts will now track for the 2023 draft, along with another riser in Duke commit Dereck Lively, a 7'1" big whose finishing, defensive mobility and shooting stroke helped Team Final win the Peach Jam.

It's already easy to picture both near the top of 2023 mock draft boards. Bailey, Keyonte George, Nick Smith and Dariq Whitehead seem like safe bets to be there as well. Who's next to blow up and join them? Yohan Traore has become a good candidate following his play on the Adidas circuit and NBA Top 100 Camp. 

For the 2023 class, we just saw Ron Holland and Robert Dillingham emerge as the best two players during USA's gold-medal run at the U16 Americas Championship. They aren't at the same level yet as Dajuan Wagner Jr., the perceived prize of 2023's class for almost two years now. 

The current high school sophomores will be interesting to track, now that pro options are becoming available to the juniors. This is a key season to build up their images for paying leagues to extend offers. Look out for big names like Isaiah Elohim, Derik Queen, Naasir Cunningham and Tre Johnson, as well as USA's U16 participants Ian Jackson, Liam McNeely and David Castillo.

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