One of the best parts about the NBA this season has been witnessing the emergence of a stellar rookie class. From Ben Simmons and Jayson Tatum to Kyle Kuzma and John Collins, the league is relishing the myriad strong performances from the league’s latest contributors. These rookies are gaining new fans every game, but for a lot of us draft nerds, appreciating the journey that these young players go through often starts at lower levels of the sport. And with another year comes yet another class of players worth keeping an eye on early. The college basketball season is upon us, which means it’s time for many NBA fans to start pulling double duty. The upcoming 2018 draft may lack the depth of recent years, but it’s certainly not absent of high-level talent. Now that we all know how to scout from our couches, here are some of the unquestioned stars, sleepers, and returnees to monitor over the duration of the college basketball season.
The Unquestioned Star Freshmen
These four freshmen ranked as consensus top prospects out of high school and will, in all likelihood, find themselves bidding for top pick consideration.
DeAndre Ayton, Arizona, C
What to watch for: Ayton is striking, a tantalizing prospect who has the makings of being one of the league’s next great big men. Standing at 7-foot-1 with a near 7-foot-6 wingspan, a reported 43.5-inch vertical jump, and a brawny frame, the Bahamian native already looks like a man among boys at the college level. Arizona is going to feed him buckets inside. He’s a punisher when he’s cutting to the rim, with good hands and fluid movements that enable him to score with power or finesse. Coach Sean Miller won’t hesitate to let his big man roam on the perimeter, either. Ayton has excellent shooting potential; he’s a physical specimen with the offensive skill set of the league’s prototypical big men.
Ayton’s equally enthralling on defense. He’s a fast-twitch athlete who can patrol the paint and perimeter. However, NBA scouts and executives I’ve talked to tend to end their praise of Ayton with a “but.”
What to be concerned about: Discipline is an issue for Ayton. Many of his flaws resemble those of Karl-Anthony Towns, who had “No, duh” defensive upside in college but hasn’t reached it in the NBA. Shot selection is a problem on offense (and he needs to prove his good touch inside can translate into makes from behind the 3-point line), and both his defensive effort and fundamentals leave a lot to be desired.
It’s likely his upside will be determined by his situation and environment. Will he get the right coaching he needs? Will he fall into the right system? Will he have the right veteran mentors? We’ll be able to ascertain how Ayton adapts to these types of external factors during the collegiate season; hopefully, he’ll come away from his season in Arizona with a new focus.
Marvin Bagley III, Duke, C/F
Bagley was originally in the 2018 class until he reclassified to enter college one year early. Since scouting tends to focus on only the next two upcoming draft classes, there’s not a lot of solid info on him out there. We’re about to find out who he is.
What to watch for: What we do know is that Bagley is a hyper-athletic lefty who dominates the paint. At 6-foot-11, he can flush lob dunks or finish with touch using either hand. With such an explosive first step, he’s a force attacking closeouts from the post or the 3-point line—oh, by the way, he shoots, too. His light feet translate to defense, where he flashes the ability to slide his feet on the perimeter and switch onto any position or fly in for blocks on the inside.
What to be concerned about: The key for Bagley this season is to show his jumper is for real and that he can maintain such a high motor. NBA execs I’ve talked to have compared Bagley to Kevin Garnett, Nerlens Noel, and Chris Bosh. KG seems extreme, but Noel or Bosh is an intriguing range of outcomes. Bagley could become a Bosh type if he’s able to develop his jumper, but at this stage the results aren’t there. He shot only 20.9 percent from 3 in competition last season while hitting only 62.3 percent of his free throws. His mechanics are solid, but it’s curious that he’s never shot the ball well despite shooting so frequently. It’s these types of traits that scouts want to learn more about to discover who Bagley really is.
Mohamed Bamba, Texas, C
What to watch for: Mo Bamba could be Rudy Gobert with a 3, which is just about all you need to know. Bamba’s measurements (7-foot-9 wingspan, 9-foot-6 standing reach) almost match Gobert’s (7-foot-8.5 wingspan, 9-foot-7 standing reach) exactly, and he projects similar defensive potential. He's physically gifted, moves his feet incredibly well for a player of his size, and he’s smart—much like Gobert. On offense, he’s a lob machine who also has the potential to step out and hit 3s. Bamba will need to prove he can be consistent from the perimeter during the college season, but he has good touch inside and from the line.
The funny thing is, at age 19, Bamba is a far superior prospect than Gobert was. At the same age, Gobert was still a scrawny, uncoordinated big playing in the French league. Even when Gobert was drafted 27th in 2013, there was still a serious question regarding whether his alluring physical attributes would translate into real production at the NBA level. What made Gobert what he is today is heart. He worked relentlessly to polish his balance and his body.
What to be concerned about: Bamba can play. He’s going to have a long career. But Bamba has been a top-ranked high school prospect for years, and there is a complacency that manifests during games. When you watch Bamba, don’t fall too in love with the highlights. He has a tendency to drift during games, so it’s more important to watch for the little moments, like how he focuses off the ball, runs back in transition, or sets screens. These are the moments that can make him stand out. For Bamba to be a serious contender for the no. 1 pick—and to reach his upside long-term—he’ll need to show the same type of commitment to the game that Gobert did and still does today.
Michael Porter Jr., Missouri, F
What to watch for: Porter will get buckets playing in the SEC. He comes to college with a ready-made offensive skill set. Porter can shoot better than any of the players discussed so far. He’s athletic. He knows how and when to cut. He can handle the ball in transition and fly in for putback dunks. Porter is going to score a lot of points, and that’ll keep him fixed near the top of the class.
What to be concerned about: Porter often gets compared to Kevin Durant, which is asinine. He doesn’t have the same fluidity, handle, or knack for scoring against a set defense as Durant. The real question is whether Porter is more Otto Porter or Paul George. The answer rests in how the 6-foot-10 freshman creates off the dribble and gets to the rim against top-tier college defenders. Michael Porter’s handle is extremely weak, and he’s often caught settling for deep-midrange jumpers. Developing the ability to extend his shot to the 3-point line should be a priority, but it’s equally important he develop the ability to get to the rim and draw more fouls by developing more advanced ballhandling maneuvers and by learning to absorb contact.
These three sophomores passed on the chance to go one-and-done and are dark horses entering the upper echelon of the draft class.
Miles Bridges, Michigan State, Soph., F
The aforementioned prospects (and international sensation Luka Doncic) currently make up the draft’s top five. Bridges has the best chance of breaking into the conversation. After shockingly returning for his sophomore season, the 6-foot-7 forward has the chance to prove himself as a complete player.
What to watch for: Bridges is arguably both the best athlete and most resilient player in college basketball. He plays hard, complementary basketball as a cutter, rebounder, and defender. He’s a lefty shooter, yet finishes beautifully against contact with either hand at the rim. Bridges does all the little things. Spartans head coach Tom Izzo loves Bridges, and so will whatever NBA coach he ends up playing for.
What to be concerned about: There’s little doubt as to whether Bridges will carve out an NBA career. The real question is whether he’ll be a glue guy or a superstar. He reminds me of Aaron Gordon in that sense. I loved Gordon as a prospect, and still do. But Gordon’s shot, prior to his current season-long hot streak, had been slow to develop, and it wasn’t until this season that he’s showed regular flashes of stardom. Michigan State is loaded with bigs, including lottery pick freshman Jaren Jackson Jr., so Bridges will be asked to play a lot of 3, meaning he’ll get the opportunity to prove he can score and create from the perimeter. If Bridges’s improved spot-up shooting starts translating to off-the-dribble scoring, he could be quite special.
Robert Williams, Texas A&M, Soph., C/F
It can be a mistake for players to return to school. California’s Ivan Rabb would’ve been a borderline lottery pick in 2016, but slipped to no. 35 in 2017; Thomas Bryant would’ve been a late first-rounder, but fell to no. 42. Though Williams hasn’t gotten off to a great start after earning a two-game suspension for undisclosed reasons, the A&M product has a chance to break the chain established by Rabb and Bryant because, more so than either of those prospects, his abilities as a big man are fully aligned with what’s in demand in today’s league.
What to watch for: Williams was the 2016–17 SEC Defensive Player of the Year: He’s a highlight machine with his explosive blocks, and he recovers smoothly in the pick-and-roll after stepping out to the perimeter. Offensively, he’s a mean finisher around the paint who won’t hesitate to bury defenders alive.
What to be concerned about: He has some fixable flaws. He lacks discipline on both ends as a screener and defender. He’s conditioned to swat everything in his sight, so he’ll need to demonstrate an ability to play sound positional defense. On offense, his off-hand must improve. If his fundamentals improve, terrific! Williams could rise or maintain his spot in the top half of the draft lottery. If not, well, let’s hope it goes better for him than it did for Rabb.
Bruce Brown, Miami, Soph., G/W
What to watch for: Bruce Brown is a baller who, at worst, will carve out a role as defensive stopper on the perimeter. At 6-foot-5 with a thick frame and long wingspan, Brown has both the physical attributes and the tough-minded attitude necessary to lock down multiple positions. Watch Brown put the clamps on speedy guards and bulky forwards this season. He brings the same bulldog mentality to the offensive end, where he attacks with high energy.
What to be concerned about: It’s a matter of Brown building on top of his foundation. So far this season, he’s racked up assists, which bodes well for his combo-guard potential. But his ballhandling must develop significantly. He’s primarily a straight-line driver since he lacks advanced moves and the ability to score off the bounce. Brown is like 2017 prospect Donovan Mitchell in that sense. As as a sophomore at Louisville, Mitchell needed to prove his shooting and passing could improve. He did. Now it’s Brown’s chance to do the same and make a push for the 2018 draft’s top 10.
In every draft there’s a surprise prospect that catapults from the second round into the first round. These two players are receiving little hype but could quickly rise up the ranks.
Rui Hachimura, Gonzaga, Soph., F
What to watch for: Yuta Tabuse was the first Japanese-born NBA player to enter the league; there hasn’t been a second. Hachimura will likely break the 12-year gap if he’s drafted. Hachimura was a lousy freshman, but had a fantastic summer playing internationally for Japan’s under-19 team, a hopeful sign for his sophomore campaign. Six-foot-8 with a long wingspan and solid athleticism, Hachimura looks the part of a player tailor-made for today’s positionless league.
What to be concerned about: His jumper was falling this summer, and if it translates, it’ll only open up driving lanes. It’s possible that Hachimura is merely a theoretical prospect—he hasn’t displayed much of a feel for the game beyond his physical talent. But it’s exactly his raw tools that warrant close monitoring; time will tell if he’s more OG Anunoby or Bruno Caboclo.
Jarred Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Fresh., F
What to watch for: Vanderbilt is the new Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. He’s a hard-nosed rebounder and a versatile defender who can handle the rock and make plays in the open floor.
What to be concerned about: Like Hollis-Jefferson when he first entered the NBA in 2015, Vanderbilt doesn’t score well in the half court. He doesn’t space the floor and his perimeter scoring skills limit his ability to create off the dribble. It’s possible Vanderbilt gets lost in Kentucky’s rotation shuffle since he’s out to start the season with a left foot injury, but if he comes back with a tweaked jumper, he will solidify his place in the first round. If not, his collection of intriguing traits for a forward still might be enough for a team looking to take a swing for the fences.
Unless someone surprisingly develops like Buddy Hield, the 2018 senior class is relatively weak. These three players have a shot to sneak into the first round.
Grayson Allen, Duke, G
Grayson Allen’s three years at Duke have felt longer than Coach K’s entire stint as head coach. He went from a bona fide first-rounder as a sophomore to a second-round afterthought as a junior. Now it’s his chance to bounce back and show that he’s the type of combo guard valued by the NBA.
What to watch for: Allen made strides as a ball handler and passer last season, but needs to return to his sophomore scoring levels. Allen was a gunslinger as a sophomore, hitting 41.7 percent of his 3s, with a large chunk coming off screens and against longer defenders. If he can hit 3s and attack the rim against a rotating defense, Allen will find himself in the conversation as a late first-rounder.
What to be concerned about: Defense is still an issue. Even if Allen’s offense reaches prior levels, he’s been a turnstile on defense over three seasons at Duke. It’s critical that he show signs of improvement, particularly when moving laterally, or else his chances may be slim in the NBA.
Vince Edwards, Purdue, F
What to watch for: Edwards is an incredibly versatile defender and an efficient spot-up 3-point shooter. He has all the makings of a terrific 3-and-D role player, and this is the year for him to prove he can do it consistently.
What to be concerned about: Edwards is fun, but too frequently he disappears like he’s wearing a ghillie suit. He falls into spurts where he’s lackadaisical and doesn’t fight over screens, or goes through stretches of games where he floats on the perimeter without making plays.
Devonte' Graham, Kansas, PG
What to watch for: Graham will fill the Jayhawks’ primary facilitator role previously occupied by Frank Mason III, which is good news for him. Much like Mason, Graham is a high-energy, hard-nosed defender and he hits a high volume of 3s both off the catch and off the dribble.
What to be concerned about: Graham will need to make strides as a passer in the same way that Mason did in his Wooden Award–winning season, but the reps will be there for Graham to take a huge step in that direction. A lack of physical tools may limit both Mason and Graham's upside, but it might not matter if he can produce the numbers. Mason was drafted no. 34, and Graham could find himself in a similar range in what is a relatively shallow point-guard draft.