Providing answers to 8 big 2019 NBA Draft questions entering the 2018-19 college basketball season
An early look at what Duke's big four might look like, which international prospect will be drafted first and more
We're roughly one month out from the start of the 2018-19 college basketball season, when the biggest questions -- of the program of your choice, or the prospects you're most intrigued by -- will be answered. Or at least satisfied to some degree.
There is always much to learn about NBA Draft hopefuls simply by watching prospects face similarly matched talent as opposed to high school stars, but for draft junkies, and for those who follow closely the draft cycle, the nation's top prospects have, by and large, been identified well in advance. As we move forward, it's about identifying which talents will -- and won't translate -- to the next level.
So who are those names to watch? What are the big storylines to track as another season soon gets underway? Let's get to that and more by diving into the eight burning NBA Draft questions I have entering the season.
1. Can Duke's Big Four co-exist?
Much has been made of Duke's star-studded incoming freshman class -- which is true of every Duke recruiting class for a decade now -- but 2018 in particular has a new level of intrigue for two reasons.
First: Three of the five incoming freshmen, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and Zion Williamson, are all 6-foot-7 or 6-8. Realistically, they could all play the same position. They won't, obviously, because they're too talented to stagger in a platoon system. And second: Four of Duke's five signees were top-15 high school prospects. It's not entirely unrealistic to think that all three -- maybe all four -- on paper, could go one-and-done and be first-round draft picks in 2019.
Which begs the question: How exactly is this going to work logistically? You have three superstar freshmen and a fringe superstar hopeful in Tre Jones, all of whom almost certainly would be the main attraction on any other team. And yet, at Duke, they will be sharing the limelight with other similarly hyped players. Can Barrett and Reddish co-exist on the wing as off-ball playmakers? Can Williamson, the rim-rocking frosh who defies gravity regularly, play power forward despite his 6-7, 285-pound jumbo frame? Can Jones, Duke's point guard, find a way to stand out with all the talent surrounding him? Will he have enough opportunities?
It will be a fascinating case study for Duke this year. There have been hyped freshman classes before at Duke -- and elsewhere -- but this class has Fab Five levels of hyperbole swirling around it. Will it live up to the expectations people have placed on the team? And more importantly, will this unique situation work?
2. Who is the best freshman NBA Draft prospect?
It's not always a guarantee that the best prospect as a freshman is always the best player as a freshman, but with Duke's R.J. Barrett, it seems more likely than not he'll check both boxes en route to becoming the No. 1 pick next June.
The 6-7 Canadian wing starred in Duke's trip abroad this preseason, showing off his versatility as a two-way player and ability to score in a number of ways, and, barring injury, he's almost certainly going to be a top-3 pick. He has great ball-handling skills, length to guard multiple positions at the next level, and an elite scoring prowess to boot. And for those who have a soft spot for lefties, you're going to love his southpaw stroke.
3. Which upperclassmen has the best shot at crashing the lottery?
In 2018, 10 of the 14 lottery selections were one-and-done prospects -- Luka Doncic (international), Mikal Bridges (junior), Miles Bridges (sophomore) and Jerome Robinson (junior) were the four players who did not enter the draft after a freshman season of college basketball/
So who will be the non one-and-doner to crash the lottery in 2019? Last year it was Mikal Bridges who was the first upperclassmen of the bunch. He was taken at No. 10 overall. 2019 figures to again be top-heavy with one-and-done talent, but international talent aside, the most likely junior or senior to hear his name called inside the top 14 is … drum roll … Rui Hachimura, a junior from Gonzaga.
Hachimura's raw talent and upside has been all the rave since he arrived at Gonzaga, and while he's not wowed statistically (7.7 points, 3.3 rebounds per game in two seasons), his physical gifts are undeniable. He's a switchy 6-8 forward whose athleticism is off the charts, and if he continues to develop at the same rate, he may be a first-round lock in 2019 if he chooses to come out. Fellow teammate Killian Tillie may also be one to watch, too.
Both Hachimura and Tillie were sub-100 recruits coming out of high school. Hard to ignore Mark Few's elite prospect development at Gonzaga.
4. Who will be this year's Trae Young?
Coming into the 2017-18 season, Norman, Oklahoma product Trae Young was a hyped freshman getting talk about being a two-and-through. But a magical freshman year that saw him rise to stardom on the strength of his dazzling passes and 3-point range rivaled only by Stephen Curry left him no choice but to make the leap as a one-and-done. So who might fit that mold in 2018-19?
Realistically, there's not going to be another Trae Young anytime soon. He led the NCAA in both scoring and assists, despite being tabbed as the No. 30 overall prospect nationally by 247Sports. But a name to keep in mind is Kentucky freshman Tyler Herro, who signed with UK as the No. 38 overall player in 2018.
Herro had a phenomenal showing in Kentucky's exhibition tour in the Bahamas, averaging a team-high 17.3 points per game on 44.4 percent shooting from beyond the 3-point line. And despite being the lowest-ranked signee of Kentucky's No. 2 recruiting class in 2018, he showed star potential on a team that is loaded with NBA talent. Among a star-studded freshman class that includes five-star talents in EJ Montgomery, Ashton Hagans, Keldon Johnson and Immanuel Quickley, it seems unlikely he continues his meteoric rise, in part because of lacking opportunity, and also because other players will likely emerge. But if he does track towards a top option at UK, it shouldn't come as a surprise. He's already proven, at least in a small sample like the Bahamas tour, that he can be a lead man.
5. Which sophomores are primed to shine?
The list of potential breakout stars is a long one, but there are a few I'm convinced are bound to bounce onto the 2019 NBA Draft radar as first-rounders. Virginia's De'Andre Hunter, Missouri's Jontay Porter, Arkansas's Daniel Gafford, Kentucky's PJ Washington, and Texas Tech's Jarrett Culver are all names I'd keep heavy tabs on this season. All of them are either wings or bigs who have ideal length and size defensively that should translate to the NBA in some form or fashion.
6. What position does Zion Williamson play, and will it be the same in the NBA?
Ahead of preseason play, I was eager to see if Duke would use Zion Williamson as a small forward to learn if he was as smooth a player on the perimeter as he was in the post in high school. But after seeing him crush international competition from the post, where he used his mobility, versatility and size to step out and hit 3-pointers, move off the ball to collect dunks, and take opponents to the rim off the dribble, I'm convinced it probably doesn't matter how Duke uses him.
Williamson is going to do what he always does: Destroy rims with reckless abandon and sprinkle in breathtaking feats of athleticism on a nightly basis.
Because of the presence of Reddish and Barrett, I suspect Williamson will be utilized most as a four-man, where he was featured prominently in the preseason. Despite his 6-7 frame, he wielded his 285-pounds comfortably and didn't get bullied by other bigs. That may not translate to the NBA, but I'm not totally convinced it won't, either. There's a world in which he could become a more athletic version of Draymond Green in the NBA, so consider me interested to see how he matches up against ACC competition. His shooting has been a knock as a prospect, but he showed flashes of potentially developing in that area in Canada.
7. Will an international prospect be a top-10 pick?
There doesn't appear to be a Luke Doncic-level prospect internationally in 2019, but France's Sekou Doumbouya seems destined for lottery territory come draft time. Doumbouya is a 6-9 forward who is a great perimeter shooter with sound mechanics. He has proven capable of being a multi-positional defender with his above average agility and size, and he possesses the length and strength NBA teams covet in the modern NBA. Probably not a top-5 lock, but I'd wager he'll be lottery (top-14) by June. Maybe even top-10.
8. Who is the most underappreciated one-and-done hopeful that will surprise?
Realistically, almost all freshman are one-and-done hopefuls. So for clarity in answering this question, I'm going to use only the top-40 players to pick from in the 247Sports composite rankings from 2018.
And for my money, I'm rolling with Villanova's Jahvon Quinerly. I'm going Quinerly because choosing him is as much about opportunity as it is about talent, and in Quinerly, you have a five-star talent succeeding a legend in Jalen Brunson with talent around him to ensure a smooth transition into the rugged Big East. He'll put up numbers for the Wildcats almost immediately, and while he may not be the first option, he's going to prove himself a dynamic ball-handler for a Villanova team that will be the favorite to win the conference after winning the national title last season.
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