The first weekend of the NCAA tournament ended the college careers of many top prospects in this year’s NBA draft. An elite recruit might be able to carry a team into the field of 68, but there’s only so much he can do once his team gets there. Most of the best freshmen in the nation will not be coming back to school. There is too much money to be made in the NBA, and their draft stock is more likely to drop than rise after another year in college. Here’s a look at three of the most interesting prospects who lost last weekend, and where they stand as the pre-draft process begins:
Trae Young is ahead of schedule.
The Oklahoma freshman’s spectacular season ended in fitting fashion in the Sooners’ 83–78 OT loss to Rhode Island on Thursday. Young was swarmed by an aggressive defense determined not to let him beat them, and his response was equally captivating and maddening. He hit pull-up 3s with defenders draped all over him and zipped beautiful cross-court passes on the move, but he also bricked shots off the side of the backboard and regularly coughed up the ball in traffic. On the whole, Young played as well as could be expected given all he was asked to do for a team without much talent around him.
What makes Young so difficult to evaluate is that he should not be in this position in the first place. Undersized guards (he is generously listed at 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds with a 6-foot-4 wingspan) with average athleticism are not supposed to be one-and-done players. Steph Curry stayed three years in school. C.J. McCollum and Seth Curry stayed four. Young would probably have been on a similar path if he had gone to a more balanced team. There was nothing unusual about his efficiency numbers for a freshman point guard: He shot 42.3 percent from a field and 36.1 percent from 3, and had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.67-to-1. He was a national sensation because he maintained those efficiency numbers while leading the country in scoring (27.4 points per game) and passing (8.7 assists).
Young looked like the best player in college basketball when he led Oklahoma to a 10–1 record at the start of the season. However, there was little chance that a one-man team like the Sooners would be able to maintain that pace once the Big 12 schedule began. College teams do much more scouting and game-planning for conference games than nonconference ones, and Young is a unique player who is almost impossible to prepare for. The Big 12 is the only Power Five conference in the country with a true round-robin schedule, so every team in the conference got to face Young twice. Oklahoma was 6–3 in its first nine Big 12 games, and 2–7 in its second.
The Sooners’ loss to Rhode Island was their season condensed into one game. Young started off scoring 10 points on 4-of-4 shooting, as it took the Rams some time to understand just how little space they could give him. Once they started picking him up at half court and doubling him off ball screens, he mostly accepted the defensive attention and made the right pass, only to watch his teammates miss open shots and make the wrong reads in four-on-three situations. He wound up turning the ball over six times, but he would have had a lot more than seven assists if he had been playing with more capable finishers. Young’s passing ability is where the comparisons to NCAA gunners like Jimmer Fredette and Buddy Hield fall short. Even as a freshman, he’s already a well-rounded offensive player.
His defense is another matter. Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger did everything he could to hide Young. Rhode Island played four guards for most of the game, and he would start most possessions on whichever one was in the corner. If the Rams tried to give that player the ball, Oklahoma would immediately switch the action to keep Young far away from guarding the point of attack. When he was involved in the pick-and-roll, they would usually trap the ball handler to get it out of his hands. The defensive strategy made sense considering all that Young was asked to do on offense, but it raises legitimate questions about whether he can even be an average defender at the next level.
Young is smaller than guys like Steph and McCollum, and he could use more time in school to work on his body. He’ll need to get stronger to finish through traffic and absorb punishment on offense in the NBA, much less fight through screens on defense and not get eaten alive on switches. Given how much he wore down physically over the course of the college season, it’s hard to imagine an NBA team being willing to give him anything similar to the type of offensive role he had at Oklahoma right away.
Lowered initial expectations could be the best thing that happens to Young. If he were drafted by an NBA team with other ball-dominant players he could play off of, he wouldn’t be guarded like he was in college, where he never got an inch of daylight. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Young took only 58 catch-and-shoot jumpers all season, compared to 177 off the dribble. He also caught the ball coming off a screen on only 2.5 percent of his offensive possessions. He’s a great shooter with unlimited range and a quick trigger: He would really threaten the defense moving without the ball.
Young’s combination of skills give him a high floor in the NBA. He’s an elite shooter with high-level passing and ballhandling ability, and he has a great feel for the game. Maybe the most interesting number from his freshman season is that he attempted 8.6 free throws per game. He keeps defenders off-balance and creates contact in that split second when they are helpless, almost forcing the referees to make a call. The threat of his 3-point shot opens up the rest of his game, and Young already knows how to take advantage. There were times this season when he tried to do too much, but that’s part of being a freshman point guard.
What people don’t realize when they say Young is more Seth Curry than Steph Curry is that Seth is a good NBA player in his own right. The Mavs guard didn’t play this season because of a stress fracture in his leg, but he was great when he was finally given the opportunity to play meaningful minutes in Dallas last season, averaging 12.8 points and 2.7 assists a game on 48.1 percent shooting. Young is too dynamic offensively not to help the team that drafts him. He’ll need to get stronger, but there’s a good chance he’ll develop into a high-level starting point guard by the time his rookie contract is up, which is about the same age he would have been had he had stayed four years in school.
How much rope will an NBA team give Collin Sexton?
Young wasn’t the only one-man band in college basketball. Sexton spent most of the season in the shadow of his more celebrated peer, but he had his own moment in the sun the past few weeks, almost single-handedly powering Alabama to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Sexton got the Crimson Tide into the field of 68 by dropping 27 points and five assists on Texas A&M, a team now in the Sweet 16, in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament. He had 25 points and six assists in their 86–83 first-round victory over Virginia Tech before running out of steam against Villanova in the second round.
Sexton is an easy player to fall in love with. At 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds with a 6-foot-7 wingspan, he’s a relentless player who never stops attacking. He wasn’t playing with much 3-point shooting at Alabama (it was tied for 297th in the country in 3-point percentage), so opposing defenses built a wall to stop him from getting to the paint. Sexton just lowered his shoulder and powered through it. Alabama head coach Avery Johnson gave his star point guard the freedom to pound the ball into the ground and probe for openings in the defense. Sexton was essentially used as a college version of Russell Westbrook, and it’s unclear how he would fare if forced to tone down his game at the next level.
Unlike the other top point guards in this year’s draft, Sexton can thrive in only one role. He doesn’t have the offensive versatility of Young, one of the best shooters to come out of college in recent memory, or the defensive versatility of Kentucky freshman Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a 6-foot-6 point guard with a 7-foot wingspan. He’s an average shooter (33.6 percent from 3 on four attempts per game this season) who won’t be comfortable playing off the ball, and he’s not big enough to be a multipositional defender. The team that drafts Sexton will have to give him the keys to its offense immediately and live with the growing pains that come with that.
What happened to the point guards taken in the top 10 of last year’s draft is a good measuring stick for him. Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, and Frank Ntilikina all have the size and shooting ability (at least in theory in Fultz’s case) to play a number of different roles early in their career. Sexton is much closer to De’Aaron Fox and Dennis Smith Jr., who are running the show for the Kings and the Mavs, respectively. The results have not been pretty. They are two of the worst teams in the NBA, and they have both been significantly more effective with their rookie point guards on the bench. Sacramento’s net rating is 6.5 points higher without Fox, and Dallas’s net rating is 14.9 points higher without Smith. That’s the price of letting a teenager run the show in the NBA.
The question is whether Sexton has the same type of upside as either Smith or Fox. He’s a good athlete, but he’s not on the same level as either of his predecessors. Nor is he nearly as polished offensively. Sexton is more of a pure scorer than Smith or Fox, who both showed the ability to run a team at the college level and make every pass in the book. There are a few interesting stats from their lone college seasons that show the disparities in athleticism and floor vision:
Fox vs. Smith vs. Sexton
|Percentile scoring at the rim
|Percentile scoring at the rim
|Dennis Smith Jr.
Sexton might develop into a lead ball handler who can consistently collapse the defense in time, but does he have the ceiling to be a top-five point guard in the league? And if he doesn’t, should an NBA team be willing to live with the learning curve that comes from developing him into an even average starting point guard? Sexton will need thousands of reps in the pick-and-roll against NBA defenses, and he will need to learn through trial and error. Alabama hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament in five seasons. It had nothing to lose by empowering Sexton. The equation won’t be as simple at the next level.
Michael Porter Jr. didn’t answer any of the questions about him.
Few NBA observers were expecting much from Porter in the NCAA tournament. He was in an almost impossible situation. Integrating a high-volume scorer like Porter into a team’s offense would be difficult even if he were completely healthy, which he clearly wasn’t. Porter looked like someone coming off back surgery in Missouri’s 67–54 first-round loss to Florida State. He seemed a little stiff, he had trouble exploding off the ground, and he clearly ran out of steam toward the end of the game. The hope is that he will start to look more like himself in workouts leading up to the NBA draft.
Missouri needed more from Porter than he could give. The Tigers haven’t had a true point guard all season, and their leading scorer on the wing, senior Jordan Barnett, was suspended for the game because of a DUI. The strength of their team is the interior scoring of freshmen Jontay Porter (Michael’s little brother) and Jeremiah Tilmon, but they struggled against the overwhelming length and athleticism of Florida State’s front line. Missouri head coach Cuonzo Martin had little choice but to hope Porter could carry them.
The disappointing part about Porter’s performance was how rarely he looked to involve his teammates. He played 51 minutes in their final two games against Georgia and Florida State and took 29 shots, which is not a ratio that makes much sense for a guy who admitted he wasn’t near full strength. There were questions about whether Porter was capable or willing to facilitate at the high school level, and he didn’t answer any of them in his limited amount of time at Missouri. He drew plenty of defensive attention, and the Tigers would have been better off if he had trusted his teammates and played in more of a point forward role. Instead, he had one assist on three turnovers and an eye-popping 36.5 usage rate.
Porter’s floor in the NBA will depend on how his back checks out in medical reports. There’s still plenty to like if he’s healthy: At 6-foot-10 and 215 pounds with a 7-foot wingspan, Porter is a prototypical small-ball power forward who should provide defensive versatility, 3-point range, and shot-making ability. At the same time, Kentucky freshman Kevin Knox has almost the exact same profile, and he’s projected to be a late lottery pick. NBA scouts question how Knox compares athletically to the elite players at his position at the next level, as well as his overall feel for the game. They are starting to ask the same questions about Porter.