2019 NBA Draft: Nine first-round prospects who beat the odds after being lowly rated high school players

Almost every year, without fail, the first round of the NBA Draft provides a cluster of players who overcame their initial analyses and evaluations as high school prospects. It's an annual reminder that the scouting game is imperfect -- and thank goodness for that. 

In 2018, I shed light on the seven players who were lowly rated (or not rated at all) as 17-year-olds and nevertheless wound up as first round-level draft picks. This year there are nine (!) such players

Each guy has taken a different journey to get this far; no one on the list was one-and-done. Who among the group detailed below might wind up being the next Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook or Paul George? All those guys were 2019 NBA All-Stars -- all poorly rated before ever playing a game in college. 

Understanding who these players are now, where they came from and what changed them is always interesting. The transformation can be different for every player. Who knows what kind of NBA career each will turn out, but as we stand on the doorstep of the 2019 NBA Draft, all draftees-to-be below have established themselves as top-40 prospects in this year's class after being ranked 200th or worse coming out of high school.

With the help of ever-valuable 247Sports recruiting experts Evan Daniels and Brian Snow, in addition to some of the coaches who know these men better than most, I procured intel on the reputation reconstruction these guys went through. When their names are called Thursday night, you'll know a lot more about what they vanquished to get here.

1. Ja Morant, Murray State

Norlander's mock draft projection: No. 2

Recruiting ranking: Unranked in Class of 2017

As a high schooler: "At this point, I think most are familiar with Ja Morant's story. James Kane, an assistant at Murray State at the time, took a stroll to the snack bar at an AAU tournament in 2016. He spotted Morant in layup lines, had his boss, Matt McMahon, fly in, offer and they eventually signed him. Morant played for a team in South Carolina on the AAU circuit, and the 247Sports staff never evaluated him." — Daniels

What changed: Morant got better, no doubt, but in reality everyone else caught up to see what was already largely there. Credit to Kane for identifying the spindly talent as a future pro. As a freshman, Morant wasn't a known commodity nationally for the most part, but he was on CBS Sports' radar for the top 10 freshmen in the sport. Morant showed signs then -- 12.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 6.3 apg -- and had NBA buzz by the end of his frosh year. By the time he was a month into his sophomore campaign in 2018-19, he'd rocketed his stock and was being discussed in lottery terms. With each passing game, Morant's athleticism, vision, ball control, leadership and takeover ability boosted his draft stock. 

"The athleticism, explosiveness, it's unbelievable," McMahon told CBS Sports. "But for me it's more the basketball IQ, the playmaking, the making people around him better. We were playing a game at Morehead State. It's a 5 man pin-down for the best shooter to get him a 3 or a post up for the 5. On the fly, Ja recognized how they were playing that pin-down action. Without anyone saying a word to him, he flipped our 4 and 5, he saw they were over-sending on the pin-down, ran the same play, had the 4 slip the pin-down and threw a left handed lob pass from 25 feet on the money for a dunk. Wasn't a play call, was just him seeing the game and making that read."

2. Jarrett Culver, Texas Tech 

Norlander's mock draft projectionNo. 5

Recruiting ranking: No. 312 in Class of 2017  

As a high schooler: "In 2016, I evaluated Jarrett Culver three times, once in May, June and July. Each time he piqued my interest, but never went fully in on him. My first viewing I even noted in my scout report that he was 'very intriguing.' The consistent thing in each of my three viewings was that he wasn't productive. He looked the part with plus size and length, he competed on both ends, and showed some nice tools. In my last viewing in July he played just 16 minutes and took just three shots for Nike Pro Skills at Peach Jam." — Daniels

What changed: This anecdote isn't why Culver's going to be a top-10 pick this week, but it has stuck out to me ever since I saw it happen. The scene: Boston, 2018. Texas Tech vs. Villanova in the Elite Eight. It's a long time before tip, easily more than an hour and a half. The first player out for warmups -- out at least 15 minutes before any other on both teams -- is Culver. I jotted it down in my notebook then, in the event TTU beat Nova and Culver proved pivotal in a win. Small things can lead to big things. In two years, Culver went from local Lubbock, Texas, prospect to guaranteed top-10 pick. He's nearly 6-foot-7, a big shooting guard, and led TTU in scoring, rebounds and assists as a sophomore. 

The single biggest reason for Culver's jump: Texas Tech had a roster reboot last season after making the 2018 Elite Eight. The Red Raiders were picked seventh in the preseason in the Big 12. Instead, TTU had an even better year despite losing top-20 pick Zhaire Smith and outgoing senior Keenan Evans, the team's MVP. Culver was largely responsible for that, and he'll be rewarded as much come Thursday night. Texas Tech making a national title game was unthinkable pre-2019. Culver made it happen.

3. Brandon Clarke, Gonzaga

Norlander's mock draft projectionNo. 10

Recruiting ranking: Unranked in Class of 2015  

As a high schooler: "Was a bit of a mystery coming out of high school, primarily due to injury. No one on the 247Sports staff saw him play. He was out for a good stretch of two years early in his career, and then San Jose State ended up offering based on a post-injury workout. They were his only offer at the time. Clarke ended up playing his senior season, but didn't draw much attention. San Jose State knew they were getting a really good athlete, but they also saw him as a project because of how raw he was and his limited offensive skill. They took a flyer on him, developed him and by his sophomore season he was averaging 17.5 points and 8.9 rebounds a game." — Daniels

What changed: Clarke started his career in total obscurity at SJSU. He was a pedestrian freshman, then popped for 17.3 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 2.6 bpg and 2.3 apg as a sophomore. When his coach resigned, Clarke left. Gonzaga, a program known for improving the careers of transfers, coveted him and turned him into a pro. But at the time, there was no delusion of grandeur for Clarke or the Zags' staff.

"We did not think of him as that," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "I don't think we spent a lot of time thinking about the NBA. At that point he was a remarkable athlete but the skill, we were worried about the shooting. It was really limited. But to his credit, by the time he got to Gonzaga for his redshirt year, he'd made a huge jump from all the tape we saw when he was at San Jose State. His last game was in March. By the time he was out our place in September he had already changed the fundamentals of his shot and all that. Once he started playing with us his redshirt year, we knew we had a high-level player and all conference-level player."

Clarke was also ridiculous in practices during his redshirt year and made significant advancement. He initially was assigned on scout teams to guard Johnathan Williams III, who was one of the better players in America as a senior. 

"He had days in practice, I remember specifically several times making him not guard [Williams] because he had this uncanny ability to block his jump hook," Few said. "Not coming over on help from the side, but guarding him one-on-one. That's hard to. I was like, 'OK, you don't get to guard J3 anymore. This isn't realistic. There's not a guy in the NCAA who can do this."

Clarke would have been an unlikely draft pick had he stayed at SJSU, toiling at the bottom of the Mountain West. Instead, last season, Clarke became arguably the best defender in college basketball and showed why he was one of the 10 best athletes in the sport as well. Gonzaga's defense had never squeezed opponents to a slower tempo than last season, with Clarke at the center of the scheme. Combo that with his soft touch from 8-12 feet out, and he's a tantalizing prospect.  

4. Cameron Johnson, North Carolina 

Norlander's mock draft projectionNo. 18

Recruiting ranking: No. 224 in Class of 2014

As a high schooler: Taking a break from Snow and Daniels to inject some info acquired on background from a few different coaches who were familiar with Johnson as a pre-college player. He was mostly ignored by power-conference schools, except for Pittsburgh, which offered him a scholarship to the surprise of some (though Johnson's father played at Pitt). Johnson was targeted by some MAC and Patriot League teams but, as one coach put it to me: "Everyone wasn't completely sold on him as a prospect because he wasn't overly athletic. People worried about mental and physical toughness." But Johnson always carried a good reputation for his intelligence and classroom work ethic. 

What changed: At Pitt, Johnson grew a couple of inches and got noticeably stronger. To Jamie Dixon's credit, the former Pitt coach made sure to spread word that he got a bargain, that Johnson was going to blossom into a very good player. This good? Nobody knew that. But while Johnson was perhaps slightly undervalued as a prospect, truth is he grew into his body and continually showed he was an ideal long-range threat as a wing. 

"Last fall I looked at all those mock drafts and he's not listed on anybody's," UNC coach Roy Williams told me, giving all credit to Johnson. "And this year he's going to be taken in the first round." 

He blossomed into an NBA prospect at UNC. He caught Williams' eye, in fact, the season before he transferred because he scored 24 at North Carolina, including an impressive jump shot right in front of Williams during the first half of an 80-78 Tar Heels win. That lingered -- and the family reached out to UNC when it became apparent Johnson wanted to be a grad transfer. 

"He played his whole first year in pain, and yet would work and work. ...Cam's sweat, is what did this."UNC coach Roy Williams

"I was immediately impressed with the character of him, not that he was a character, but that kind of character he had, the seriousness he had, wanting to be the best player he could be," Williams said. "Our trainer, our strength and conditioning coach did a great job with his body. Last summer he had surgery on his hips. That gave him more of a pain-free workout sessions and practice sessions. Laterally moving better, more bouncy, feeling better. His work ethic is off the charts and his attention to the details made the difference."

Last season, Johnson shot 210 3-pointers and made 46% of them. He was given a green light by Williams to the point where he was allowed to take 3s on secondary-break opportunities, a rarity in Williams' system. 

"It wasn't nuclear science," Williams said. "I gave him that credit because he was making a bunch of them. We gave him a little confidence, and it helped him a little bit, because it was easy. He was the only guy on our team who had complete freedom to shoot the ball on pitch-outs."

Johnson's probably going to be an offense-first, -second and-third player in the NBA, but no matter. If we look up five years from now and Johnson is a top-five shooter in the league, it wouldn't surprise. 

5. Mfiondu KabengeleFlorida State 

Norlander's mock draft projectionNo. 19

Recruiting ranking: No. 270 in Class of 2017

As a high schooler: "Mfiondu Kabengele has one of the most unique stories in the upcoming draft. Coming out of high school in Ontario, Kabengele didn't have a single scholarship offer, so he opted to go to post-graduate school at Don Bosco Prep. Florida State assistant Dennis Gates ended up hearing about him, offering him a scholarship and eventually signing him. The 247Sports staff never evaluated him. Helping in his development was a four-inch growth spurt from his final year of high school until now."  — Daniels

What changed: The growth spurt was huge, plus he put on a lot of weight. The redshirt year Kabengele took wound up being essential, which is true of a few players on this list. Kabengele was profiled by NBA.com's Chris Dortch this week

"He got here carrying too much weight," says Stan Jones, a Florida State assistant and respected tactician who coaches the post players. "The first workout we did dunk drills. He couldn't finish. We never quit here, so we made him finish the drill with a tennis ball. But even though he had to get in elite shape and had some skill improvement to do, you could see Fi was ready to accept challenges."

Jones worked individually or had heart-to-heart conversations with Kabengele every chance he could, tweaking his jump shot mechanics, working on post moves, and perhaps most important, getting inside his head.

"We talked a lot about the mental game," Kebengele says. "Stuff some of his players had trouble with in the past. But he let me figure things out for myself. He'd tell me a story about a player's trials and tribulations and ask me, 'what do you think he did right? What do you think he did wrong? What should he have done? I learned so much."

Kabengele put up 7.2 points and 4.6 in 2017-18 and took 26 3-pointers. In 2018-19, he was a riser in a non-obvious way. Since he didn't start, and because FSU isn't a glamour power-conference program, Kabengele was arguably the least discussed viable first-rounder in the sport last season. FSU won more games last season (29) than any in its history. Kabengele led the team in scoring (13.2) and snagged 5.9 rebounds and 1.5 blocks. 

Here's my curiosity: How many players -- ever -- have played at least two years of college, never started one game, and been drafted in the first round, if at all? Kabengele is rare.

6. Nicolas Claxton, Georgia 

Norlander's mock draft projectionNo. 26

Recruiting ranking: No. 231 in Class of 2017

As a high schooler: "Coming out of the state of South Carolina, as a junior, Claxton was viewed as a potential breakout player during the high school year. He was long, athletic and had some skill, but he was also very raw. When it got to the spring and summer, quite honestly, Claxton really struggled. I believe he went to NBA Players Association Top 100 Camp, and really struggled there, and it always seemed like when he went against top competition, he would struggle. Ultimately, Claxton was probably just too thin and inexperienced with the game to be consistent. Jonas Hayes and Mark Fox (former Georgia coaches) felt the upside play was worth it and got Claxton to commit early, even when others doubted he would excel at the high-major level." — Snow

What changed: Claxton was put on a path to being drafted a year ahead of time by Tom Crean and his Georgia staff. Crean said his second workout with Claxton in the spring of 2018 -- after Crean got the Georgia job -- showed versatility and mobility that had an NBA ceiling. When Crean ran Claxton through myriad offensive drills, he saw a special player. And despite Claxton's 6-11 frame, Crean made up his mind that they were going to train him as though he was a guard. This was done to strengthen his core and his base, to round out his body, because Claxton was a wanting defender already. 

"Basically he was a backup 5 man early on and did some good things, but at the same time, getting him on the court and seeing the ability he had to create for himself, create for others, drive the ball and then eventually score, were really good," Crean said. "When we started to play, now you could see, if you could get him to play in a lower base and lower stance, he was going to be a fantastic defender and the strength would come accordingly. So many times you have to coach people ahead of where they're going to be strength-wise, game-wise, so it's not a shock to their system once you get there." 

Claxton is ahead of his clock, really. He had 21 double-digit scoring games last season after having only one as a freshman. He was also the primary ball handler in a dozen-plus screen-action plays ... yet had the fewest turnovers on the team. Had he opted to return to Georgia, it's feasible he would've been a lottery pick in a year had he stayed on his current trajectory. But Crean coached him to this moment, wanting him to leave if it was viable after his sophomore season. 

"His confidence grew because his game grew," Crean said. "He started to see how many ways he could impact the game. His defensive versatility and defensive mindset are really, really impressive and going to carry him a long way. He'll be a 12-year-plus pro in my mind, easy, if he stays on this development track." 

Chances are good you saw little of Claxton because Georgia wasn't relevant the two years he was on campus. Here's a look.

7. Admiral SchofieldTennessee 

Norlander's mock draft projectionNo. 31

Recruiting ranking: No. 251 in Class of 2015

As a high schooler: "Sometimes in this business you just flat out screw up, and I am not afraid to admit I couldn't have been more wrong on Admiral. I viewed Admiral as an early physically developed forward who was more likely to play power forward than on the wing, but he wasn't a greatly skilled player, and I didn't believe in his outside shot at all. Also, while he obviously was built like a greek god, he was a little stiff athletically, and quite honestly, thought he should be playing tight end instead of basketball. Donnie Tyndall did a fantastic scouting job here, and Admiral picked Tennessee. The local Big Ten schools showed some interest in him, but not a ton, and most viewed him as more of a mid-major type prospect. Clearly I wasn't alone in being totally wrong on this eval, but none the less, wrong I was." — Snow

What changed: There is not a lot of mystery here. Schofield is a throwback NBA Draft pick. He stayed four years in college, discernibly got better every year in almost every major category, kept a great reputation about him and was vital to his team's mainstream success. His 42.2% 3-point shooting last season is encouraging considering how many minutes he played -- Schofield never takes a play even half-off -- and how his role offensively was so flexible depending on Tennessee's opponent. 

Though Tennessee was upset in the Sweet 16 by Purdue this past March, the Volunteers' season in total was the best in school history. Schofield told me in March that he didn't debate leaving Tennessee after Tyndall, who recruited him, was fired before his freshman season. But he did reveal to me that debated transferring from Tennessee after his first season due to frustration and failure to effectively adapt. He was convinced by his parents to stay the course. Schofield's progression was obvious. The only way he doesn't go in the first round is if his age (22) his held against him. He has the tools and attitude to play a long time at the highest level. 

8. Dylan Windler, Belmont 

Norlander's mock draft projectionNo. 32

Recruiting ranking: Unranked in Class of 2015

As a high schooler: "To be honest, Windler is a bit of an embarrassing situation for me. I live in Indianapolis, and Windler is from there. As a junior in high school I began hearing some buzz about him, but never in a million years did I think he'd be a first round NBA Draft pick potentially. In fact, his AAU coaches with Indiana Elite, who are friends of mine, didn't even give me crap for not ranking Windler or talking much about him. Windler played on a loaded AAU team as well, one in which he didn't shine especially bright. Kyle Guy played up on that team, Ryan Cline joined them as well, and actually the most highly recruited player going into their 17 and under summer was Hyron Edwards, who has bounced from junior college, to Texas Tech, and most recently Colorado State.

"Belmont was able to lock in on Windler before the month of July, I believe they saw him in April, and got the commitment done fairly quickly. Purdue, Indiana and Butler, were all schools that saw Windler. He definitely wasn't a secret in the the spring with Indiana Elite or anything like that, but none of those schools really showed him much interest before his Belmont commitment. To be honest, I don't even think Windler started a game during his AAU spring and summer." — Snow

What changed: Belmont coaching legend Rick Byrd, whose retirement dovetailed with the end of Windler's college career, had never gone through something like this before. He and the staff didn't think they had a pro when they recruited him, and it wasn't until the offseason between Windler's junior and senior years that it became obvious that he was likely to be drafted. 

"The lack of ranking wasn't reflective with his ability or potential," Byrd said. "He's really good at golf and played serious junior golf tour stuff until the July before his senior year."

That's right: Windler wasn't even sure about his basketball future until he was about 17 years old. He could play, but he was a better golfer than a hooper even through his first season on the court at Belmont. 

"He was already plenty good enough," Byrd said. "I don't know about the whole ranking thing. We would almost never have a chance at someone who had a number by their name. What can't be measured is the intangible things, like one of Dylan's greatest strengths, any game you play, if he was playing on our baseball team he'd throw to the right base or he would run bases correctly. He played soccer, golf very, very well, tennis. He can play any game and he gets it. You can I could invent a game, show him the rules, and he'd beat anyone in that game almost immediately."

Windler's aggressiveness is what turned him into a pro. Through two seasons at Belmont, he wasn't as commanding as the staff wanted him to be. He got better with that -- and then his shooting went way up. He had what the staff thought was a too high of an arc on his shot; it led to some inconsistency. He brought that down to a proper level and release and with that became a more reliable shot-maker. Windler led the Ohio Valley in shooting percentage last season (66% from 2-point range, 42.5%  from 3-point range) as a guy constantly draped by opposing defenses.

9. Eric Paschall, Villanova

Norlander's mock draft projectionNo. 35

Recruiting ranking: No. 210 in Class of 2014

As a high schooler: "This is an interesting case. Paschall was actually on the same AAU team as Donovan Mitchell. The team got a shoe deal, I believe with Under Armour, and you did see him, and as funny as this is to say now, Paschall was a fairly skinny player in high school. He was always a very good athlete, but he never truly stood out on the summer circuit. Mitchell was the dominant force on that team, and ultimately Paschall became a late bloomer. He did a prep school year St. Thomas More (in Connecticut), and had a really good year. Honestly, we probably didn't adjust our thinking like we should have during his prep year, because he took a huge jump forward with his game." — Snow

What changed: Paschall and Johnson are the oldest players among the group listed here -- and reminders that transferring and staying five years in college doesn't preclude you from being a first-round pick. Paschall began his career at Fordham, where he started every game in he played in and averaged 13 shots per game. Fordham was bad, fired Tom Pecora, and so Paschall transferred to Villanova. He sat a year -- that season wound up being the season Jay Wright won his first national title -- and by the time he was a 20-year-old sophomore, was arguably the best combination of athleticism and strength on the team. His physical transformation between the ages of 18 and 20 is what set him on the path to being drafted. Being a cog on the 2018 title-winning team only strengthened his chances of being picked. 

"He added a whole ton of muscle, and the rest of his game took off, especially his shooting, which was always a weakness for him in high school," Snow also notes. Paschall took 302 3-pointers his final two years of college, making 35% of those attempts. That's a respectable rate for a player of his size and style. The Villanova style also was NBA-esque in its pace and space. Like his former teammate, Jalen Brunson, he's probably going to be drafted a few spots too low and then make NBA decision-makers look silly by the end of his rookie season.

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning senior writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his ninth season reporting on college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics... Full Bio

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