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The Casual Fan’s Guide to Learning About the 2017 NBA Draft Class, Part II

Which prospects boosted their stock at the combine? Which tweeners are best positioned to shoot up draft boards? And what the hell does Frank Mason III have to do to get some NBA love?

Kennedy Meeks (Getty Images)

The only NBA draft guide that promises little to no discussion of Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball is back with Part II! I have to say, it was refreshing not having to break down Fultz and Ball in much detail in Part I. Both players are super talented and deserving of everything coming their way, so I don’t blame people for wanting to focus on them as much as they do. I just get fatigued by the endless talk about how the Celtics should handle Fultz, whether the Lakers should trade D’Angelo Russell or even take Ball second overall, if the mechanics of Ball’s jump shot will be an issue in the NBA, or how Fultz was a late bloomer in high school. And that’s to say nothing of the never-ending LaVar Ball saga, which wore out its welcome six months ago but somehow keeps — ah, shit. I’m getting sucked into the Fultz-Ball vortex, aren’t I? Sorry about that.

Let’s just jump right into it. As a reminder, I’m not hitting every prospect that’s expected to be drafted in this file because, well, frankly, I just don’t want to. Instead, I’m using a tiered approach to look at the guys who I find most interesting and/or who aren’t going to be talked about ad nauseam for the next month. If you want more in-depth analysis of all the top names in this year’s class, check out The Ringer’s comprehensive draft guide.

The "I Still Can’t Believe Cody Zeller Had the Highest Vertical in 2013" Combine All-Stars

Donovan Mitchell, Louisville

Louisville head coach Rick Pitino employs a unique system that no NBA coach in his right mind would use, so it’s always difficult to evaluate the pro potential of his guards. Pitino places such a strong emphasis on defense that his teams can often endure abysmal offensive stretches and still win, which explains how a coach who has won at least 25 games in eight of the last 10 seasons has featured only one player (Kyle Kuric) who averaged 10-plus points per game and shot better than 40 percent from the 3-point line in that span. That’s why I’d caution against making too much of Mitchell’s shooting numbers — 35.4 percent from beyond the arc, 40.8 percent from the field — or his tendency to be inconsistent as a scorer.

After all, Mitchell showed that he could fill up the stat sheet when called upon; he dropped 20 points nine times in 2016–17, including his 29-point outburst on 9-of-13 shooting (6-of-8 from deep) in a win over Pittsburgh in January. And he proved at the combine what most of us who followed Louisville closely already knew: He is a phenomenal athlete with incredibly long arms. Mitchell, who stands just 6-foot-3 in shoes, posted the combine’s highest vertical leap (36.5 inches) and the fastest three-quarter court sprint (3.01 seconds), and his wingspan was measured at 6-foot-10. He’s stuck in a weird spot right now, as he’s considered short for a shooting guard yet isn’t a good enough creator to inspire faith in his point guard abilities at the next level. But he can be disruptive as hell on defense and he can jump out of the gym, qualities that have propelled him into the lottery in some mocks.

Frank Jackson, Duke

Speaking of combo guards who are athletic freaks, Jackson finished among the top five in all but one athletic measurement at the combine. (To be fair, most of the top prospects in this draft didn’t participate in the combine.) He recorded the fastest shuttle-run (2.7 seconds), the second-best multistep vertical (42 inches), tied for the fourth-best standing vertical (34.5 inches), and the fifth-best three-quarter court sprint (3.14 seconds). All that’s left now is for Jackson to awkwardly rock back and forth on a mat 50 times in a minute as some 8-year-old holds his ankles, and I think he’ll have done enough to earn the Presidential Physical Fitness Award.

Jackson was a slightly surprising entrant in this draft given that he was overshadowed and somewhat out of place during his lone season at Duke, and he could have been a sophomore star for the Blue Devils had he opted to return to campus. Duke lacked a true point guard on its roster in 2016–17, so Jackson, a natural shooting guard, was forced to step into the role — a responsibility that grew especially crucial when Grayson Allen’s campaign self-destructed as a byproduct of drama and injuries. As frustrating as this experience probably was for Jackson, it could benefit his development. The 6-foot-4 Jackson has the skill set to play point guard in the league, yet if his freshman season at Duke is any indication — he averaged 1.7 assists and 10.9 points while shooting 47.3 percent from the field — the man has more of a mind for getting buckets than setting up teammates.

Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina

The starting center for national champion North Carolina almost certainly isn’t going to get drafted and will likely never wear an NBA uniform, but he nonetheless deserves a shout-out here for showing up at the combine with 11.5 percent body fat. Sure, that’s not exactly bodybuilder material, but it’s decent enough for a big man, and more importantly, it wasn’t even close to the worst body-fat percentage at the combine. That’s right, folks. The same guy featured in the below photo from four years ago wasn’t among the three prospects with the highest body-fat percentage at the NBA combine and wouldn’t have been one of the top 20 prospects at the 2001 combine.

Kennedy Meeks (Getty Images)
Kennedy Meeks (Getty Images)

North Carolina should hang a "Kennedy Meeks did not have the highest body-fat percentage at the 2017 NBA combine" banner in the Dean Dome. It is a miracle.

The "Almost As Bad As Kevin Durant Not Being Able to Bench 185 Pounds" Combine Disasters

Tyler Lydon, Syracuse

No great win comes without there being a loser. In the case of Meeks’s improbable body transformation, Lydon is that guy.

The breakout star of the 2016 NCAA tournament who led no. 10 seed Syracuse to the Final Four behind his shot-blocking, rain-making, and general versatility turned down NBA riches a year ago to come back to school for his sophomore season. And while Lydon wasn’t necessarily bad for the Orange last season and still has a decent chance to be a first-round pick, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who thinks that a second year at Syracuse helped him in any significant way, especially now that he registered the worst body-fat percentage (13.6 percent) at the 2017 combine.

To be fair, the only reason I noticed Lydon’s body-fat percentage was because I was shocked to see that someone had posted a higher number than Meeks. If Meeks hadn’t been tested, there’s no way I’d care about Lydon’s result. And besides, it’s not like 13.6 percent is an embarrassing figure, and body-fat percentage isn’t a proven indicator of future success. DeMarcus Cousins had 16.4 percent body fat at the 2010 combine; Kyrie Irving had the highest percentage among guards at the 2011 combine; and Draymond Green tied for the third-highest percentage at the 2012 combine.

Then again: How in God’s name does this guy end up with a higher body-fat percentage than this guy? It makes no damn sense.

Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina

Thornwell was the Kawhi Leonard of college basketball last season, in the sense that he was a devastating defender who also frequently carried his team on his back offensively. His methodical and consistent approach on both ends of the floor earned him SEC Player of the Year honors, as he averaged 21.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists, and 2.1 steals for a South Carolina team that went 22–10 before eventually reaching its first Final Four in school history. In short, Thornwell was the epitome of a player that college basketball fans love: He stayed in school for four years, worked his ass off to develop his game, cared about the little things, and led his defensive-minded squad to the sport’s biggest stage as a senior.

Sadly, all of that means jack shit to NBA scouts on the hunt for young, dynamic athletes whom they can build a franchise around. Thornwell’s showing at the combine proved that he far from fits that description. His first mistake was showing up as someone who is 22 and a half years old, which is ancient by NBA draft standards. More damning, though, was the fact that Thornwell stands 6-foot-5 and isn’t particularly great at any one skill, has only a 27-inch vertical, and performed worse than a handful of big men in agility drills. He is smart and hardworking enough to maintain a shot at cracking an NBA roster, but the mind can take a player only so far in a league that seems to get bigger, faster, stronger, younger, and more talented with each passing year.

Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State

If you’d never seen Evans play and I told you that he’s a 6-foot point guard who averaged 19.2 points and 6.4 assists for Oklahoma State as a sophomore, you’d probably feel comfortable making assumptions about his game. Chances are you’d picture a dynamic guard who uses a tight handle and quick first step to create separation from defenders. You would likely envision someone who can change directions on a dime and elevate at the rim to finish through or around bigger defenders, in the mold of a slightly bigger version of Isaiah Thomas.

And you’d be wrong. Evans, it turns out, is not an exceptional athlete, nor is he in great shape. He finished between the middle and bottom of the pack in every athletic test at the combine, and he was measured as having 9.1 percent body fat (third-highest among point guards). Through exhaustive research I’ve discovered that most NBA players are either tall, athletic, or in ridiculous shape (some are all three!). So being the opposite of all those things doesn’t exactly bode well for his NBA future.

The Charles Barkley Tweener Disciples

Semi Ojeleye, SMU

Ojeleye stands 6-foot-7 and 241 pounds with less than 6 percent body fat. If you aren’t great at deciphering those numbers, allow me to help: They mean that he’s built like a Greek god who could probably get drafted as an NFL tight end, even if he hasn’t played a single snap of football in his life. Ojeleye has a tremendous work ethic and can guard at least four positions, and after deciding to transfer to SMU in 2014 because he barely saw the court during his first two seasons at Duke, he expanded his offensive game and became a reliable and versatile scorer.

Speaking of which: Isn’t it kinda interesting how "tweener" used to be a degrading term used by scouts to describe a guy who didn’t have a natural position and would always feel out of place on the court, yet now it’s a term of endearment that’s synonymous with versatility? Ten years ago Ojeleye would have been dismissed as someone too short to play power forward and not skilled enough to play small forward. Now, though, scouts and fans have the smarts to see him for who he is: a damn good basketball player who could help any NBA roster in a variety of ways. I’m not sure what the best use of Ojeleye will be, although I suspect his destiny is to be a 3-and-D guy. I just know that if I were a general manager, I’d do what I could to get him on my team and then figure the rest out later.

Jaron Blossomgame, Clemson

Blossomgame will be 24 years old by the first time he could take the court for an NBA team, which is another way of saying he’s six months younger than Anthony Davis, three months younger than Bradley Beal, and more than a full year older than Andrew Wiggins. For a prospect in the 2017 draft, that isn’t ideal. Also not helping his cause: shooting 25.5 percent from the 3-point line at Clemson last season, not being particularly great at any one skill, and making only one postseason of any kind during the three years in which he was Clemson’s best player (a 2017 NIT appearance that promptly ended with a first-round home loss to Oakland).

What Blossomgame does have going for him, though, is he’s got a perfect body to be a forward in today’s NBA. He is 6-foot-7 and 219 pounds, and has a ton of muscle on his frame that should allow him to hold his own underneath the basket at the next level. And while his skill set may not be mind-blowing, he has proved over the years that he has the talent to do a little bit of everything and find ways to put the ball in the basket. He has also mastered the art of hanging on the rim with one hand following a dunk, which isn’t relevant to his draft stock but is badass nonetheless.

Dillon Brooks, Oregon

Brooks is such a tweener that it’s not only difficult to determine what position he plays, but it’s also hard to nail down which two positions he falls in between. The answer is probably small forward and power forward, but throughout Brooks’s Oregon career he served as everything from a point forward to a shooting center to a power guard, and sometimes all of those things rolled into one. I guess the logical move would be to just average the positions out and call him a small forward? I don’t know. The point is that no prospect better represents this era of positionless basketball, as Brooks can do everything there is to do on a basketball court.

The downside, of course, is that he’s a less than exceptional athlete, his defense leaves much to be desired, and his final college game — when he went 2-for-11 from the field and fouled out with more than a minute remaining in a 77–76 loss to North Carolina in the Final Four — was the opposite of sprinting through the finish line. But he was also named the player of the year in the same conference that the guys who will likely be the top two picks played in, and he’s proved he has the all-important clutch gene. All things considered, I’m confident Brooks will carve out a niche in the league and piss off NBA fans with his demonstrative persona and ridiculous haircut for years to come.

The Guys Your Grandpa Can’t Believe Aren’t Top-Five Picks

Justin Jackson, North Carolina

Jackson was the player of the year in a loaded ACC, in part because he was the best player on the conference’s best team, but mostly because nobody in all of college basketball created more matchup headaches for opponents. Although Jackson was listed at small forward, he was essentially a 6-foot-8 shooting guard for the Heels who had a quick trigger from deep and could heat up at a moment’s notice. That he was also able to shut down opposing shooting guards — as evidenced by the clamps he put on Kentucky’s Malik Monk in the Elite Eight — afforded UNC head coach Roy Williams the luxury of relying on his stable of big guys to do the dirty work down low so that Jackson could play exclusively on the perimeter. Jackson never could have pulled this off during his sophomore season, when he made his living on offense by making putbacks and throwing up floaters. To his credit, though, he worked on his jumper last summer, came into the 2016–17 season as a completely different player, and led the Heels to a national title largely because nobody had an answer for him.

Justin Jackson (Getty Images)
Justin Jackson (Getty Images)

This progression is why I believe Jackson’s NBA future will come as a shooting guard, even though his height suggests that he should be a small forward. He just never looked comfortable as a true forward during his first two seasons at Carolina, which I guess doesn’t make him all that different from countless other underclassmen who tried to find their way on super-talented teams. Still, once Jackson added that smooth stroke to his game, everything clicked. It’s like he realized that his destiny as a basketball player is to curl off screens and rise above defenders to knock down jumpers and then use his length on the other end of the floor to bottle up smaller guards, not to fight for rebounds or try to body guys in the post with his frail frame. If Jackson continues to make strides over the offseason and tries to model his game after Klay Thompson instead of working to become a prototypical small forward, there’s no telling how good he could be.

Caleb Swanigan, Purdue

Swanigan waited to make his decision official until the 11th hour of the NBA draft process, eventually breaking my heart on Wednesday by announcing that he will, in fact, remain in the draft. As an Ohio State alum who grew up rooting for Indiana, I should have felt weird pulling so hard for Swanigan to succeed at Purdue. Yet nothing felt more natural. His incredible backstory certainly helped, but even if I didn’t know a single thing about Swanigan, he still would have been my favorite player in the country last season. He is a relentless workhorse every second that he’s on the court, fighting for post position and grabbing rebounds like his life depends on it. I couldn’t be happier to see him pursue his lifelong dream of getting paid millions of dollars to throw his ass into grown men, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t bummed that he won’t be destroying college basketball again in 2017–18.

Still, leaving college was a decision Swanigan had to make given that he achieved everything there is for a Purdue basketball player to achieve: He was named Big Ten Player of the Year and a first-team All-American; he won a Big Ten title; and he led the Boilermakers to the Sweet 16. So even though he likely won’t be a first-round pick because of the concerns about his game at the next level — he’s a defensive liability, he’s far from a top-tier athlete, and his frame is a bit short for his skill set — another year in West Lafayette wouldn’t have helped his draft stock.

As he continues to put in the work to shed weight and expand his game like he has for each of the past seven years, I see no reason Swanigan can’t develop into a serious contributor for a title contender. But if this is the end of his relevance to the average basketball fan, I just want to say — nah, you know what, screw that. Swanigan is getting drafted, making a roster, and kicking ass in the NBA. I’m not even going to acknowledge the alternative.

Josh Hart, Villanova

Hart was a do-everything guard for a Villanova team that had about four and a half healthy players last season and won 32 games despite dealing with all the pressure that comes with being the defending national champ. He averaged 18.7 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 2.9 assists for the Wildcats and would have been the national player of the year if he hadn’t made the fatal mistake of being too good from Villanova’s opening game, which put him on the predictably dumb college basketball trajectory of having fans and media members fatigued by his greatness by the time February rolled around. Still, Hart’s performance in a December victory over Notre Dame — when he finished with 37 points, 11 boards, and four assists and scored 16 of his team’s 22 points during a pivotal second-half run that started with Villanova down nine — is something I’ll never forget.

There simply isn’t a superlative you could think of that wouldn’t apply to how great Hart was as a senior. I don’t even care that his age (22) and lack of upside and athleticism make him an NBA draft afterthought, projected to go around the middle of the second round (if he’s even picked at all). I’m not dumb enough to count out a guy who went from ESPN’s 92nd-ranked recruit in the 2013 class (three spots behind Mark Donnal!) to the best player on a national champion and a consensus first-team All-American.

Frank Mason III, Kansas

Speaking of improbable rises to college basketball stardom, I think I speak for all of Middle America when I say that every NBA GM should be drawn and quartered if Mason’s name isn’t called on draft night. I just don’t think I can handle living in a world where the national player of the year is not even considered one of the 60 best NBA prospects. I’d take it personally, as if the entire NBA community was throwing double middle fingers at all of us who lead simple lives and like to pass the time by tweeting at recruits, blindly defending any scumbag who represents our favorite program, and reminding people that we had to pay to go to college as though that’s in any way relevant to the discussion about whether student-athletes should be adequately compensated for their labor.

Frank Mason III (Getty Images)
Frank Mason III (Getty Images)

Anyway, it’s no secret that there’s friction between the NBA and the NCAA when it comes to the NBA’s draft policies, as every decision that the league makes has a ripple effect (usually for the worse) on the college game. Nearly every college program in the country (including Kentucky!) wants to get rid of the one-and-done rule because it completely undermines what the NCAA pretends to stand for, but it’s not going anywhere because NBA teams want to eliminate the temptation for front offices to draft guys straight from the womb like they did with increasing frequency from the late 1990s through 2006. Now, on top of this one-and-done tug of war, college fans might have to endure seeing the best player in their sport get tossed to the curb by the league? Can we please reach a truce here? My heart can’t take it anymore.

Here’s my solution to all of the aforementioned problems: The NBA changes the one-and-done rule to a two-year thing (two-and-through?) in which prospects must be two years removed from high school before they’re eligible to enter the draft … with two crucial exceptions. First, if a freshman player is named a college first-, second-, or third-team All-American, he can jump straight to the NBA like he would in the current system. That way the guys who are ready for the next level don’t have to waste an additional year in college; the NBA doesn’t have to bother trying to make sense of a chaotic revolving door of talent; and the freshmen who get bad advice from people in their inner circles don’t keep shooting themselves in the foot and ending up in places like Poland when they could’ve become college stars if they had simply been more patient.

My second exception is this: Whoever is named the AP national player of the year in college MUST be the no. 1 pick in the subsequent NBA draft. Boom — I just solved the NBA’s tanking problem, too. Who the hell is going to lose games on purpose to increase their chances of drafting Jimmer Fredette? But then again, Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis were also national players of the year during their respective college seasons, so maybe tanking would be the smart move in a particular year! There’s no way of knowing until the award is announced, though, and that’s precisely the point. College players who are in the running would go into full Russell Westbrook mode trying to win the award, as it’d literally mean a difference of millions of dollars. In turn, NBA fans would become more interested in college basketball (imagine how ridiculous Villanova and Kansas games would have been this past March if this rule were in effect), college fans would get more interested in the draft, and NBA team representatives would have better reactions when the lottery order is revealed (although it’s going to be tough to top Joel Embiid’s reactions at this year’s lottery).

Most importantly, this move would give sportswriters a reckless amount of power to forever alter the lives of 19-year-old kids, and I think we can all agree that’s exactly what we need more of in the sports world.

This is Part II of Titus’s NBA draft guide. To read Part I, click here.