2019 NBA Draft: Eight prospects building their stock early in the college basketball season
Zion and Hachimura have their stock on the rise, but these other players are working their way up draft boards too
Duke's Zion Williamson entered the season considered by some to be the No. 2 (or No. 3) draft prospect on his own team. There were questions about his overall skill level, how his overpowering style of play would translate against college athletes (and later to the NBA), and even about which position he might play considering Duke signed two top-two small forward recruits that theoretically could have grabbed some of his minutes.
How crazy does this all sound now?
Williamson has not only answered almost all of those questions, he's swatted them into the second level of the concern bleachers just as he's done on the court. He has emerged quite clearly as the consensus No. 1 prospect in next year's draft-eligible crop in the early going this season, and question marks about his game now only consist of his long-term prospects. Will he develop a consistent perimeter game? Will he be able to extend the range of his jump shot?
Turns out, though, when the majority of your shots consist of banging the ball through the rim with Monstar-like force, those concerns become far less relevant.
Zion's meteoric, somewhat expected, rise has been among the most well-known NBA Draft storylines to track this college hoops season. However there are other prospects -- some who were on the draft radar, others who were maybe just off it -- who have significantly improved their stock this season. Let's take a look at eight of the most notable.
1. Zion Williamson, Duke
Freshman | PF | 6-7 | 285
Zion Williamson is more than the rim-rocking dunks that have sent him into a perpetual viral cycle. But it's important we not overlook his jumbo jams, either, because they serve as proof of his NBA abilities. He's a gifted athlete who can slice through the air effortlessly and his dunks provide pretty good tangible examples of that. We've seen that athleticism manifest itself on the defensive end of the floor too, where he's used his leaping talents to block an average of 2.0 shots per game through 10 games. That ranks 52nd nationally.
Williamson also plays really, really hard. His steals per game -- 2.1 -- rank 58th in the country and he has a 4.2 percent steal rate according to KenPom.com, which ranks 57th. It's not only the metrics that favor him, either. Whether Duke is playing Kentucky or Army, he's always competing at a consistently high level and his motor always runs hot. His 3-point shot isn't quite there yet -- he's made only two but only attempted 14 thus far -- but it seems to be one of the only questions about his game that may linger as he prepares to leap to the pro level. Everything else he does suggests he can develop into a superstar in the NBA.
2. Ja Morant, Murray State
Sophomore | PG | 6-3 | 175
Speaking of freakish athletes … Ja Morant belongs in the conversation as one of the A-listers in that category within next year's draft eligible class.
The Murray State point guard popped as a freshman last season and showed flashes of NBA potential, but as a sophomore he's fully exploded onto the mainstream radar. Despite playing almost the exact amount of minutes per game, Morant has managed to essentially double his points per game production. He's averaging 24.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 8.9 assists per game, all sizable increases from last season. He does everything really well and his passing and vision is among the best in this class.
Morant is a tough scout because of not only the level of competition he plays against, but the level of competition he plays with. He's a nifty forward-thinking passer who frequently no-looks opponents to find open teammates, and uses the added attention he gets from opposing teams to make smart passing plays. But his assist/turnover ratio is still hideous overall. While his 5.3 turnovers-per-game stat line may be worrisome, it's important to consider that number could -- and maybe will -- drop with a better overall talent pool surrounding him in the NBA.
Nonetheless, his turnovers are only a small concern of his game which has drawn exceedingly positive reviews. He turned it over 10 times against Alabama on Nov. 26, and yet his 38-point, five-assist outing against the Tide was perhaps his boldest bullet point on his college resume to date.
3. Rui Hachimura, Gonzaga
Junior | PF | 6-8 | 230
Rui Hachimura only began playing basketball at age 13, and at 20, he's already a projected first-rounder. The 6-foot-8 junior is finally turning his otherwordly potential into quality All-America level production, averaging 22.2 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game for the Bulldogs. He brings a rare versatility to both ends of the court. His offense is still evolving, but 21 and 20-point outings against No. 7 Tennessee and No. 1 Duke over the last month, respectively, prove he's no slouch -- and that his ceiling is, as Michael Jordan might say, "the roof." His stock is soaking into lottery discussion and may reach the top 10 by season's end.
Hachimura is playing with an increased workload as a junior for the Zags, but also with an increased sense of urgency and aggressiveness. He has a really explosive first step that he's using this season consistently to punish defenders off the dribble as he makes his way to the basket, and his size and strength help him bully his way to buckets. He's a really fluid athlete overall and, no, I'm not comparing him to Giannis Antetokounmpo, but he has some freaky long strides that help him race up and down the floor with ease.
4. Luguentz Dort, Arizona State
Freshman | SG | 6-4 | 215
Maybe it's because he entered college as only a four-star prospect and perhaps just off the one-and-done radar, or maybe it's because he's playing at Arizona State and not at Kentucky, Kansas or one of college basketball's traditional powers. Whatever the case, Luguentz Dort has quietly flown way below the radar this season.
He leads Arizona State in scoring this season with 22 points per game, better than Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish, two projected top-5 picks, and he is already proving to be a Swiss Army Knife for Bobby Hurley and the Sun Devils. Against ranked opponents in two contests thus far this season, he's averaged 20.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game. Dort does a lot of things for Arizona State and does almost all of them really well. He's an energy guy who busts his butt on defense, moves well without the ball on offense, and can seamlessly get to the bucket in a pinch. His shot-creation and all-around impact has him into first-round discussions.
5. Brandon Clarke, Gonzaga
Redshirt Junior | PF | 6-8 | 215
Brandon Clarke was off the NBA Draft radar last year. Only because this time last year, he was sitting on Gonzaga's bench biding his time after transferring from San Jose State. But boy oh boy has he been excellent. When you talk about breakout stars in the sport, Clarke's name has to be at or near the top of the list.
He's averaging 16.9 points, 8.2 rebounds and 3.3 blocks (!) per game this season. His swats per game ranks fifth nationally; three of the players ahead of him are 6-11 or taller. He's an active defender and rim protector, and a still-developing weapon on offense who has room to grow -- and already plenty efficient. His eFG% this season of 72.5 ranks 11th nationally and first among players out of the WCC.
6. Talen Horton-Tucker, Iowa State
Freshman | SG | 6-4 | 238
Talen Horton-Tucker doesn't fit the mold of any traditional NBA guard, but that doesn't mean he won't be one -- and perhaps sooner than expected. Standing at 6-4, he has a 7-foot-plus wingspan, innate defensive instincts, and an impressive competitive streak that has seen him go toe-to-toe with guards, forwards and bigs for loose balls and rebounds. He's a unique prospect with a unique skill set.
To this point, Horton-Tucker's been a bit of a streaky shooter on the whole. But he's still averaging 15.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game for the surprisingly successful Cyclones who have been without Lindell Wigginton. He'll need to improve his jump shot and overall decision-making with the ball in his hands, but he's a fascinating prospect that continues to rise with the impact he makes in every aspect of the game on a nightly basis.
7. Grant Williams, Tennessee
Junior | PF | 6-7 | 236
Grant Williams was the SEC Player of the Year last season. He may be the SEC Player of the Year again this season. He owns team-highs in points (19.9 per game) and rebounds (9.3 per game), and is second on the team in blocks (1.5 per game) and assists (4.6 per game).
Oh, and by the way, Tennessee is a legitimate national championship contender.
The Vols are off to a 7-1 start with wins over Gonzaga, Louisville and Georgia Tech, with their lone loss coming in overtime vs. Kansas. Arguably his most complete performance of the season -- and maybe his young college career -- came when the Vols knocked off No. 1 Gonzaga. He had 16 points, 12 rebounds, 7 assists and one block in the win.
Williams has improved his game and efficiency in virtually every aspect since his breakout sophomore campaign. He's pulling down more rebounds, making 46.2 percent of his 3-pointers (compared to 12 percent last season) and is showing himself to be a legitimate playmaker. He's nearly doubled his assist rate from last season while managing to keep his turnover rate at roughly the same spot. With average to slightly above average athletic abilities, Williams can overcome it at the NBA level if he continues to do the things he's doing at Tennessee well in the NBA.
8. Jaxson Hayes, Texas
Freshman | C | 6-11 | 220
A 6-11 center with a 7-4 wingspan is almost always going to get some attention, but Hayes has earned it because of his hot start to the season. He's playing only 21 minutes per game for Texas this season, but in that short span he's averaging 10.3 points, 2.6 blocks and 4.9 rebounds per game. His 13.7 percent block rate ranks 13th in the country, according to KenPom.
Hayes plays like he just slurped down a Red Bull, charging up and down the court with energy and enthusiasm and he blocks baskets at the rim with the same spirit. At his size, an ideal version of Hayes brings down more rebounds and has a more diverse skill set on offense, but he's still raw physically and learning the intricacies of the game in terms of overall feel. Still yet, there's a world in which he's a first-round talent if he can improve in some of those areas. His rim protection alone is extremely valuable, and energy guys who can block shots and slam lobs have plenty of usefulness in the NBA.
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