NBA Draft Watch: Five Freshmen Flying Under the Radar
No NBA draft prospect can ever truly cement their worth overnight, but the first two months of college basketball season are crucial for aspiring pros to establish some type of footing in the minds of evaluators. One key early-season item is getting a look at the incoming freshman class—there are always guys who slip through the cracks in terms of hype and exposure, and always players who creep into the big picture rather quickly. November and December are key when it comes to establishing some type of baseline list to start critically evaluating prospects.
Draft ‘stock’ is more or less a fallacy: different teams value different types of players, game-to-game performance is only part of the big picture, it only takes one interested team to make someone a first-round pick. These factors are constantly shifting, and so the process of sifting through talent to begin the season is extremely relative and somewhat arbitrary, particularly early in the season. Some players will improve, others will regress. The five prospects on this list may not all end up one-and-done, but after coming in as lesser-known quantities, they’ve already begun to set themselves apart.
Luguentz Dort, Arizona State
Ranked No. 23 on our preseason Big Board, Dort has been a revelation through his first five college games while immediately cementing his place as the lead dog for the undefeated Sun Devils. Dort’s name began quietly circling in conversations with scouts last spring, when there were rumors he was considering reclassifying to enter the 2018 draft (he turned 19 back in April, and could have been eligible). A native of Montreal who finished his prep career at Athlete Institute in the Toronto area, Dort was absent from some sites’ Top 100 rankings because he played high school ball in Canada. NBA types who had seen him firsthand spoke glowingly of his potential. Teams have been well aware of him following his appearances at Basketball Without Borders, Adidas Eurocamp and the Nike Hoop Summit. With the context of his apparent improvement and what might be a relatively thinner draft, particularly when it comes to guards, Dort’s initial impressions have him on track to be a first-round selection.
Dort was stellar in Arizona State's five-point win against Utah State last week, scoring 33 points while effectively running the show and showcasing an array of plus physical tools. For a guy who stands 6’4” and is listed at 215 pounds, the fluidity of his movement is eye-popping, and keeping him out of the paint has proven a major hassle for opposing defenses. He’s more of a straight-line attacker than dribble-creator, but looks to be in great shape and has demonstrated enough of a feel for playing on the ball, whether driving and kicking or using ball screens. Due to his size, burst, and willingness to attack downhill, he does a nice job of finishing around the basket and getting to the foul line. Dort’s athleticism should also translate on the defensive end, where he moves well laterally, makes an effort to rebound, and has the strength to harass taller wings. Simply put, big, athletic guards with diverse toolboxes are in high demand right now.
Some scouts have expressed a degree of trepidation as far as long-term upside goes, but Dort has been fairly compared to Marcus Smart, another strong combo guard who can play both sides of the ball while applying distinct physical strengths. He’s shooting 10–23 from beyond the arc to start the season, but the quality of his jumper is often nitpicked—Dort shoots a soft ball that can arc almost uncomfortably high, and was not known as a major deep threat during his high school days. He needs to apply himself defensively on a more regular basis, and we’ll learn more about his consistency, creativity and ability to stay efficient as the season goes on. He will be 20 years old on on draft night. But given Dort’s early play and the current shape of the 2019 draft, it’s easy to envision an ostensibly higher-floor prospect like him cementing himself in the mix in the middle of the first round.
Jaxson Hayes, Texas
Hayes began the season as a somewhat anonymous name and was not rated as a Top 100 prospect by any major recruiting website before arriving at Texas. It’s taken him just six games to pique NBA interest, surpassing teammate Jericho Sims (who he’s been backing up at center) in the eyes of some scouts thanks to his mobility, size and defensive instincts. A late-bloomer from Ohio who underwent a major growth spurt in the middle of his high school career, the 6’11” Hayes didn’t receive any scholarship offers until his senior year, drew late interest from Kentucky and made what seems like a smart choice to attend Texas, where he’s handing in productive minutes out of the gate.
The son of Cincinnati Bengals tight ends coach Jonathan Hayes, who played that position the NFL at 6’5” for a decade, the younger Hayes ultimately chose basketball, and his game has begun to take off. He was instrumental in Texas’ 92–89 upset of North Carolina on Thanksgiving, contesting shots, dominating the glass and converting well around the basket. His game is unflashy and fundamental, and his 220-pound frame, measured 7’3” wingspan and football genetics project well as far as layering on muscle. As a mobile, athletic big with significant promise covering ground vertically and laterally, Hayes is an automatic person of interest, and continued growth as the season goes on seems sure to accelerate his draft timetable, potentially into the first round in 2019 based on his upside.
At present, Hayes appears to lack elite vertical explosiveness, but he compensates by being extremely coordinated and light on his feet. Defensively, he’s been able to switch onto smaller players effectively and generally does a good job of positioning himself to contest vertically. On offense, Hayes slips screens instinctively, has shown soft hands and solid anticipation, and generally makes intelligent moves to free himself for easy baskets. He’s shown no semblance of a jumper yet, which is something to monitor, but there’s more than enough here for NBA teams to work with whenever he’s ready.
Talen Horton-Tucker, Iowa State
Rating as a middle-of-the-pack Top 100 recruit who was not named to any of high school basketball’s prestigious calendar events, Horton-Tucker began the season as more of a curiosity than a commodity in the eyes of scouts who had actually heard of him. That conversation shifted a bit last week as he erupted at the Maui Invitational in a win over Illinois (the school he very nearly attended), posting an absurd line of 26 points (4-of-7 from three), 14 rebounds, six assists, three blocks and a steal in 35 minutes. He followed that up with a four-point, 1-of-11 stinker against San Diego State (he still had seven rebounds and five assists), but growing pains are to be expected. Horton-Tucker has work to do to evolve into a bonafide first-round prospect, but his talent level has always been evident, dating back to his high school days leading powerhouse Simeon Career Academy on the South Side of Chicago.
For a player who just turned 18 on Nov. 25, Horton-Tucker brings a lot to the table. His skill set was described by one executive as ‘unorthodox,’ but given how much the NBA’s positional spectrum has blurred in recent years, it may not be a bad thing. Standing 6’4” with a wingspan that has measured at over 7-feet, Horton-Tucker has enough size to play on the ball, on the wing, or slide onto bigger opponents and uses his length to make plays defensively. He’s impressively active around the ball for a young player and is unafraid to mix it up inside, fighting for rebounds and loose balls, contesting shots and creating opportunities going the other way in transition. Horton-Tucker’s ability to score and pass on the move and his overall feel for the game have manifested early in his college career, and while he’s a bit of a streaky jump shooter, he’s a factor from beyond the arc.
While Horton-Tucker’s decision-making and shot selection can be a bit of a mixed bag, that’s probably to be expected as he transitions into his role at Iowa State. Primary ball-handler Lindell Wigginton has missed the last five games with a foot issue, which has led to added responsibility for everyone else. One of Horton-Tucker’s long-term priorities will be trimming down his 230-pound frame, a process that could unlock his athleticism further and create another level of upside. Right now he lacks one elite skill, but his all-around contributions are fascinating. He opened the season at No. 36 on our Big Board. A second year in school might make sense, but Horton-Tucker could legitimize himself as a first-round prospect in the eyes of teams sooner than later.
Ignas Brazdeikis, Michigan
It hasn’t taken long for Brazdeikis to distinguish himself as more than Mo Wagner’s replacement in Michigan’s rotation: his versatility and competitive fire have made him an instrumental part of Michigan’s early success. He’s made a pretty strong case as the Wolverines’ best long-term prospect in the process. Like Dort, Brazdeikis hails from Canada (his parents are Lithuanian), is a year old for his class (he turns 20 in January) and was left off of the majority of Top 100 rankings given he didn’t play high school ball in the United States. He did play at this year’s Hoop Summit, and he’s begun to build some buzz for himself with his early play.
The Front Office was in attendance as Michigan blew out Villanova earlier in November, a game in which Brazdeikis more or less dominated his matchup against Eric Paschall, scoring 18 points and grabbing seven rebounds. At 6’8”, 200 pounds, Brazdeikis has begun to improve his physique and can slide down to play as a nominal four-man or spend time at the three. That versatility, enabled by his shooting ability and size, allows Michigan to play big or small and have success. The lefthander has a nice stroke from outside, can finish with either hand, and take advantage of mismatches when he has them. His toughness, consistent intensity and how much his teammates seem to love playing with him are all positive intangibles. Crucially, Brazdeikis is a player who can be successful without needing touches designed for him—he’s been good in the open floor, shooting with his feet set, and attacking the glass.
Brazdeikis’s all-around game carries a lot of intrigue as long as his three-point shooting holds up consistently at the NBA level. Though he’s not a great perimeter defender, nor is he an outstanding athlete, he’s strong and motivated enough to at least be passable matched up onto guys his size. He’s probably best viewed as a combo forward who can fit into a variety of lineups and should be able to maximize his ability long-term. If he continues to look like Michigan’s best guy over the course of the season, which is distinctly possible, he may not be there long.
A.J. Lawson, South Carolina
There is a general sense that Lawson may be a year away from fully blossoming, but he’s created a good bit of intrigue at the outset of his college career. Lawson also prepped in the Toronto area, but reclassified to start school early, which now places him toward the younger end of the draft-eligible spectrum. Scouts have been intrigued with him for a while (he played pretty well at Basketball Without Borders in February) and his size/shooting/playmaking mix is legitimately interesting for the long term. If he can tune up the rough edges of his game a bit and slow things down for himself mentally, there’s a lot of potential here.
A wiry, rangy athlete at 6’7” (he’s been measured with a 6’10” wingspan), Lawson can keep up in transition with his ability to see the floor and space it. Factoring in his combination of passing, handling and an inconsistent but dangerous three-point shot, and with a bit of polish he may be able to develop the requisite versatility to play in an NBA rotation. He has some issues finishing in traffic at times due to a lack of top-end explosiveness—adding muscle as he matures should help him play through contact a bit better. For Lawson to force the issue as a prospect for this season, making better decisions and displaying more consistency as a jump shooter is paramount. But a lot can happen between now and the spring, and he should get a lot of opportunities at South Carolina to catch some attention.