Prospect Conspectus, 11/16/2021: The First Week of College Basketball Edition
The first week of college hoops is in the book! I take a look at the standout performers thus far.
It is so great to have college basketball back, especially with fans in attendance. The feel of the game that was absent last season has returned, with packed houses going bananas for games like UCLA/Villanova and Gonzaga/Texas. Heck, Bruce Pearl even started getting rowdy and instructed the crowd to get on their feet during Auburn’s route of Morehead State! The raucous environment of college basketball is what makes it so special, and it didn’t hit me how much I missed it until this week. After cramming in as many games as humanly possible, I thought I would put out my thoughts on some of the prospects I’ve been able to see so far. I’ll also be keeping a running (and expanding) big board as the season progresses in the build-up to the draft. Let’s start there!
Way Too Early Top Five Big Board:
1. Paolo Banchero
2. Jalen Duren
3. Chet Holmgren
4. Jabari Smith
5. Jaden Hardy
Top of the Class:
I don’t think Paolo Banchero could have been any more impressive in Duke’s season opener. Banchero is silky with the ball on the perimeter. He gets wherever he wants on the floor thanks to the combination of his powerful frame, dribbling skills, footwork, and quickness. He’ll be a mismatch nightmare for opposing defenses all season long. Covering Banchero is a constant conundrum, because his ability to knock down mid-range shots makes it hard to sag off him, but you also don’t want to give him a head of steam. His ability to make tough ones while smothered demonstrate his upside as a late shot clock option in the NBA. I also find a lot of appeal in his penchant for getting to the charity stripe; his physical tools will make it hard for defenders not to foul him in lieu of giving up an easy bucket. Unfortunately, his physicality will make him a target throughout the season for college referees who love to make the charge motion at every opportunity. Still, Banchero has jumped out to an early lead on my board. It’s next to impossible to find players his size who can create as lead initiators on the perimeter with such ease, and the cherry on top is that he is also a big positive on the defensive side of the ball.
Jalen Duren didn’t look like a high school age player in his debut. It’s almost unfathomable that he’s only 17 as of this writing. Duren is jacked to the gills and frighteningly mobile. You can’t force him to foul when you run into him because he’ll never cave at the chest. His rim protection skills are top notch thanks to his vertical and second-jump ability. I was impressed with how he looked on the perimeter defensively as well, though it was against Tennessee Tech. Offensively, he can slam home dunks with authority or use his soft touch a bit further away from the basket. I am constantly talking about big man passing on here, and that’s part of the appeal with Duren. He is wise beyond his years as a distributor, boasting great instincts and delivering the ball quickly when a teammate is open. I appreciated Duren’s screen setting, as he embraces the act and helps not only himself, but his teammates, by doing so. My only concern, and it’s a very small one because he is a 17 year old basketball player, is that I’ve seen him make audacious gambles for steals that weren’t ever going to happen. If he can reel that in, there’s little to complain about on that side of the ball. I’m also interested to see if he’s able to expand his shooting range over the course of the season.
I empathized with Chet Holmgren after some of the blowback to his performance against Texas. Yeah, he wasn’t being assertive on the offensive end, but I would argue he shouldn’t have been asserting himself when Drew Timme was doing whatever he wanted and getting easy buckets at every turn. Holmgren did make his impact felt on the defensive side of the ball, though. The Texas players seemed horrified by the prospect of trying to lob a ball over Holmgren’s condor-like wingspan when he patrolled the paint. His six assists against Dixie State also showed off his playmaking potential. Holmgren sees the court and can make rapid reads for easy baskets. Whether or not he can be hub for offense will depend on his playmaking, and passing seems like the easiest path to being a threat in that regard. His body was a big worry for me heading into the season, and I believe he’s been okay from a physical standpoint. At times, he’ll hold up better to being bodied than I expect, but when Texas went at him in the second half, it forced him into foul trouble. There were also a few instances where he was overeager hunting for blocks, but that’s not uncommon for young bigs. I’d like to see more out of him with the ball, but for now, his stock has held steady rather than gone up or down in my estimation.
Jabari Smith snuck up on me. I was intrigued by the idea of a lights-out shooter who stands 6’10”, but it was all of the other things that blew me away. Still, we need to start with the shot. Smith is 5-for-8 from three so far this season, and his stroke is absolutely gorgeous. That’s how he is going to butter his bread, but the other skills will determine how much butter goes onto the bread. His rebounding has looked great, but he is thin and hasn’t faced higher level competition as of yet. Smith’s passing has been nice, with basic reads in the half court and some tantalizing transition plays, too. His defensive motor is off the charts. Smith looks like he’s having the time of his life on that side of the ball, utilizing his length to block shots and nab steals with a giant smile on his face. He’s a competitor, and I’m always more willing to buy into future improvements when I see that type of fire during games.
-While he won’t be eligible for the 2022 Draft, I’m a lot less worried about Emoni Bates’ athletic testing after watching him play the sport of basketball.
-Caleb Houstan’s jumper is as beautiful as advertised. If I’d expanded my board to ten, his name would have been on it. I always also impressed by a few passes he made out of the pick-and-roll.
-How fun is Jaime Jaquez Jr.? While his stat-line against Villanova ended up looking stellar, there were times earlier in the game when Jaquez struggled. But you know what? He has what I call, “The Jrue Holiday Factor.” Even when he plays “bad” by his standard, I still want him on the court for my team. Jaquez does so many different things that even the worst version of him is valuable. He’s more comfortable putting it on the floor, he’s a superb positional rebounder, and he looks bigger. He was a favorite of mine coming into the year, and I like him even more after his start to the season.
-Johnny Juzang also looked bigger. As someone who went through a massive physical transformation myself, I feel that critics often overlook the possibilities of athletic improvement through proper training and nutrition. Juzang looked stronger and more mobile as an on-ball defender. There were still some of the same concerns from last season, namely his tendency to over-dribble and to let his handle get away from him.
-I was sky high on Jermaine Samuels heading into the season, labeling him as the 18th best returning prospect in college basketball. I don’t think anyone else had him that high, and through a whopping two game sample I have been *Dashboard Confessional voice* VINDICATED! Jermaine Samuels has done Jermaine Samuels things; he hits open shots, defends up and down the positional spectrum, and rebounds better than his height would indicate. I truly see an NBA player here, and with a hot start from three, he’s got a shot.
-Collin Gillespie still doesn’t look like he’ll be able to break down NBA players off the dribble or be able to create without a screen. However, his three point shooting arsenal appears strong enough that it may not matter. He’s hitting them from deeper, and he’s doing so off the dribble and off relocation. I think he hears his name called on draft night.
-Ochai Agbaji seems to have taken his game to another level. I’d honestly started to give up on him as an attacker/driving threat. If you look back at my Returning Prospects column, I was more focused on him continuing to legitimize his jumper. Instead, Agbaji looked more confident putting the ball on the floor and he wasn’t intimidated by the opposing defense. If he stays aggressive, it’s hard to see him outside of the first round right now, even as an older prospect.
-Going into the year, I thought a handful of Memphis players had golden opportunities to excel as “star in their role” players. In doing so, they could find themselves in the draft conversation. So far, both Lester Quinones and Landers Nolley II look up to the task. Quinones put on a few much-needed pounds, his first step is better, and he appears more reliable as an on-ball defender. Nolley is still stick thin, but his “quicker than a hiccup” release paired with his enhanced passing portfolio could make him an enticing connector piece role player to NBA front offices. I also love that he was willing to embrace a bench role for a loaded squad despite being Memphis’ leading scorer last season. That type of selflessness shows that he’s more concerned about the team than his numbers, and evaluators will eat that up.
-Trevor Keels was an opening night standout, putting up 25 points against Kentucky. Doubters pointed to concerns surrounding his shot and encouraged those “lost in the sauce” not to buy in too much. They may have been right, as he followed up that performance by going 4-for-14 against Army and 2-for-9 against Campbell. Still, I like some of the things I’ve seen out of Keels, and I’m not ready to write him off as a one-and-done prospect. The way he cradles the ball like a running back while driving is an elite ball-protection trait that limits his turnovers, he’s shown impressive passing flashes as the ball handler off screens, and his body is NBA ready. Still, he’s 26.7% from three and a 62.5% free throw shooter through three games, and this is the easy part of the schedule. Those are fair reasons to have doubts, but his frame, physicality, and instincts have me holding stock rather than selling.
-I find myself in a somewhat similar predicament with Wendell Moore. His three point shooting was going to be his swing skill, and though it’s still not falling, I’m higher on him now than I was before the start of the season. Moore’s decision making and passing ability have both taken another step forward, and he looks smoother getting into his shot off the bounce. His athleticism feels more functional now too, as he’s attacking with more bounce and soaring in for rebounds.
-Moussa Diabate is interesting! He’s a defensive havoc-inciter, and his passing out of the post and short-roll have caught my eye.
-It was exciting to see Walker Kessler play more minutes and keep the same level of defensive production. I still don’t buy him as a floor stretching threat, though. He’s 0-for-5 from deep and has a “Sloth from Zootopia” speed release.
-Drew Timme is primed to be the driver of this year’s “IT DOESN’T MATTER HOW OLD HE IS, IT DOESN’T MATTER IF HE’S NOT THE FASTEST, HE CAN PLAY THE GAME, DAMN IT! ISN’T THAT WHAT THIS IS ALL ABOUT?!” rants from college basketball analysts. I thought his foot speed legitimately looked much better on offense and defense. His post counter bag is deep, but Timme got a few easy points from quick spin moves that weren’t as prevalent in his game last year. He survived guarding in space against a Texas team with a slew of respectable ball handlers. If he can look that serviceable over the course of the season, I think a team taking a second round swing on him is a justifiable decision.
-I wanted to give a big tip of the hat to Kenneth Lofton Jr. His conditioning looked tremendous against an Alabama team that plays a fast pace, and he stayed on the floor for longer stretches than I’ve seen from him. Improvements like that are what make player evaluation so fun and rewarding.
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