The NBA Draft is covered voraciously year-round, and yet every year on draft night, we're hit with a surprise. A wait, he went how high?! moment. Sometimes two or three of them happen within the first round in the same year.
Cameron Johnson going 11th overall last year, for instance, was a genuine stunner. Just Coby White. Jordan Poole surfacing as a first-rounder and going 27th overall to the Warriors last year was unexpected as well. The year prior gave us another example as Jerome Robinson surprisingly went 13th overall -- and ahead of Michael Porter Jr., no less!
Each example brings its own varying level of shock, some more than others. And yet without fail, there seems to be prospects every year considered to be second-rounders who manage to sneak into the first round higher than we expect.
The term "sleeper" may aptly describe these players who fly under the radar and emerge late to go higher than expected. Players who may be higher on team boards than initially suspected or projected. They're out there every year, lurking. And considering recent history, there's bound to be a few that surprise us this year, too.
So I will do my best to try and predict those that may come next in that category below. These are players who are generally viewed as second-rounders who may fit the profile of a prospect who goes higher than expected. Therefore, you can't act surprised on draft night when I'm inevitably correct on all five. You have been warned.
1. Malachi Flynn, San Diego State
Junior | PG | 6-1 | 185 pounds
San Diego State went 30-2 last season with Malachi Flynn guiding its ship. A 6-foot-1 lead guard, he gets overlooked in part because of his size and lack of athletic pop, but the crafty upperclassman has a knack for compensating those deficiencies in his game.
Flynn can peel off screens and knock down shots, create offense for himself off the dribble, and is comfortable facilitating in the pick-and-roll, showing good touch both as a passer and as a scorer around the rim on floaters.
What I like about Flynn's game is how he gets downhill in a hurry. His smaller frame coupled with his lack of strength could be a problem at the next level if he doesn't bulk up, but the way he can herky-jerky his way into quality production should be of interest for teams looking to solidify point guard depth or add another scoring option in the backcourt.
Flynn's ideal role in the NBA may be as a second-unit initiator -- someone who plays with confidence on both ends of the court -- but his scoring versatility is a facet of his game that could really thrive in a more open offensive ecosystem the NBA can offer.
2. Killian Tillie, Gonzaga
Senior | PF | 6-10 | 220 pounds
If teams were to take a fresh look at this class and make assessments strictly on talent, production and projectability, Killian Tillie would be a no-doubt-about-it first-rounder. The 6-10 big man from Gonzaga has a game custom-fit to excel in the NBA, with deep range and a reliable release that makes him one of the most potent offensive bigs in this class.
Gonzaga often ran its offense through him, running set plays designed to get him sprinting off screens to get him clean looks outside. And even when he was not involved in the primary action he set screens hard, cut to the hoop, and shown an ability to read defenses and react quickly. The type of big man who does all the little things at a high level.
But it's also hard to ignore Tillie's injury history -- a huge reason why he may be an X-factor on draft night. He had nagging pains ranging from a hip pointer to ankle sprains, a partially torn plantar fascia, and a knee procedure just in the last three seasons. If a team bets on talent alone he may well wind up inside the top-30 -- but that lengthy list of dings could sabotage his stock.
3. Aleksej Pokusevski, Serbia
18 years old | C | 7-0 | 225 pounds
Picture a 7-footer who can run the floor with great fluidity, defend the rim like a big, shoot from the outside like a wing and has guard skills with the ball in his hands.
Now picture that 7-footer playing internationally in the second division of a Greek league for a B team, weighing just over 200 pounds and having virtually no exposure to teams in a predraft process that's been ground to a halt amidst a pandemic.
Therein lies the struggle of how to properly evaluate Serbian star Aleksej Pokusevski. He's an undeniable talent, but raw physically and in need of serious development to make an impact at the NBA level. What he can be in five years may trump what other lottery prospects in this class may be, but are teams willing to invest draft capital and be patient for a payoff that far down the road?
It may be worth the risk, particularly for playoff teams who can afford to take a big swing. The body control he possesses at his size is unnatural to the untrained eye, and that's compounded by the fact that many of his games look like they're taped from a mom in the stands.
To be clear: this is a gamble. Pokusevski's physically raw but also pretty undeveloped from a basketball IQ perspective, too. He's able to cruise with his size and 7-3 wingspan against lesser opponents, but his lack of feel for the game, his costly -- sometimes boneheaded -- passes, stand out as much as the flashes of brilliance.
Nonetheless, a team betting on upside is going to be hard-pressed to find someone more intriguing than Pokusevski in this draft -- and I find it hard to think he'll be available in the second round.
4. Paul Reed, DePaul
Junior | PF | 6-9 | 220 pounds
It's quite possible the draft's most versatile defender hails from DePaul. Despite the team playing plenty of zone defense last season, Paul Reed really flashed on tape with his 6-9 frame and ability to guard up and down positions, from wings to bigs. He moves well laterally, has good instincts, doesn't bite easily up-fakes and closes out with a purpose. Just an absolute monster in man-to-man settings and a heady team defender.
There's some untapped offensive potential for Reed as well, who was miscast last season as a No. 2 option on a bad DePaul team. If you go back to 2018-19 that may be where his value truly lies: as a disruptive defender who can knock down 3-pointers and impact winning in myriad ways. He shot 40.5% from 3-point range that season before dive-bombing to 30.8% last season. If you combine that offensive production with his defensive production from last season (2.6 blocks and 1.9 steals per game) you have a really interesting player who should be able to contribute early.
5. Grant Riller, College of Charleston
Senior | PG | 6-3 | 190 pounds
Grant Riller the shot-maker is absolutely absurd. Comical, even. The senior point guard from College of Charleston is flying well below the radar because of his small school upbringing, but his game is big-time. He can knock down shots from deep off the catch, get to the rim and finish while pinballing off defenders, and pull up on a dime. Or for good measure, he can sprint off a catch and nail a 25-foot jumper just to show he can.
The number of point guards who can make shots standing upright and also sideways in this class is basically non-existent, but Riller's on the shortlist.
Riller comes at you quickly with his tight handle and isn't afraid to challenge bigger defenders on the perimeter or in the post. He's got the skills to back up that confidence, too. If he wants to find the rim he'll keep the ball on a string and can operate in tight spaces to get there. If he wants a fadeaway, he'll back you down and pull it effortlessly.
The competition level is a legitimate question that, unfortunately, will go unanswered as he transitions to the next level. He rarely faced power opponents, and only four times did he play teams ranked in the AP Top 25 in his four college seasons.
But the shot-making alone is a skill that can and should translate. He can carve out space to get his shot at a high level, and his quick release allows for him to do so before a defender can close. Riller ranks 37th in our updated Big Board but could be a sleeper that teams may target in the back-end of the first round if the fit makes sense.