Five NBA Prospects to Watch in the Sweet 16
I had fun with this segment with last years’ teams, so I brought it back to look at five NBA prospects to watch in the Sweet 16. The only difference is that there is substantially more talent left in the tournament this time around. However, the majority of you have already been closely watching elite players like Lonzo Ball and Malik Monk, so I am going to try to mix it up with some new names.
Recruiters are busy this time of year looking for which college stars rise to the occasion. In the 2015 draft, 6 of the 7 top ten picks that entered from college advanced to the Sweet 16 that previous March (5 of those players made it to the Final Four), with D’Angelo Russell being the only exception. Out of the next ten draft picks, 6 more players were in the Sweet 16. With this in mind, who are some of the top players left to keep an eye on in the tournament and who do they compare to in the NBA?
Here are five recruits for the 2017 NBA draft that are still hooping in March Madness.
Caleb Swanigan, Purdue
This double-double machine out of the Big 10 used his imposing frame to bulldoze opponents all year long. At 6’9″ and 250 pounds, Swanigan is not an easy body to move in the paint. He used this to guide him to an impressive 18.5 points and 12.6 boards per game. The Boilermaker power forward has overcome a difficult background, including his fight with homelessness and obesity. It’s great to see where he is now and how hard he is working to make it to the next level.
All of that being said, I must voice some concerns about his build and his decision-making. Although it seems like Swanigan is fully capable of overcoming weight issues (he lost a ton of weight since 8th grade and even shed a decent amount since last year), he is still very big. Getting and staying in shape will be a must (more on this in the pro comparison) if he wants to make it in the pros. I also question his shot selection and decision making, as I often witness him forcing up shots and turning the ball over.
Despite my doubts, Swanigan is a driven 19-year-old who is determined to improve his body and his game.
Realistic Comparison: Jared Sullinger
I am a little biased because I was all-in on Purdue last season. I watched AJ Hammons and Swanigan cause ruckus a lot throughout the year, only to see them fall in the Round of 64. I was not impressed with Swanigan’s play at all. Since then, he has greatly improved. I just can’t get over two things: his size and his decision-making. Which literally makes Jared Sullinger the perfect comparison for him.
I know it may sound harsh considering that Sullinger hasn’t found any work in the NBA since being traded to and waived by the Phoenix Suns. Jared can actually provide some serviceable rebounding and be used as a stretch-four when he is on a squad, perhaps like what Swanigan may be capable of. Plus, the similarities are striking. For rebounding specialists, their identical 6’9″ heights are underwhelming. Both big men have concerns surrounding their mobility and weight, as Sullinger and Swanigan check in at 260 and 250 pounds, respectively.
Aside from their comparable frames, Sullinger’s stats from his second season at Ohio State look eerily similar to Swanigan this year:
The free-throw rate and percentage are nearly identical. Scoring and field goal percentage are close for both bigs. Although Swanigan put up more threes and was slightly more effective, both players were considering stretch fours. The Purdue beast has more potential as a passer compared to Sully, but again I worry about the turnovers and shot choice.
Upside Comparison: Zach Randolph
An upside comparison for the Boilermaker would be Zach Randolph, a player who dominates in the paint and rebounds effectively using his size. Randolph is also 6″9′ with a thicker body structure and uses it to pound and punish defenders. Swanigan would have to develop much more advanced post moves to get to this level.
T.J. Leaf, UCLA
The afterthought of the UCLA Bruins with Lonzo Ball under the spotlight, Leaf is a great young player who has been huge for his team throughout his freshman season. At 6’10” and 225, the California native does his best work outside of the paint and on the boards, while usually shying away from contact and physical play down low. Despite this weaker interior game, I certainly wouldn’t be labeling him as soft. Leaf plays hard every second he is on the court, making hustle plays and crashing the glass to keep possessions alive. Physicality may come with age, as Leaf is just 19 years young.
Another valuable tool this young man has is his passing. Leaf is great at making the right play and has a tremendous feel for the game on the offensive end. I say offensive end because, well, his defense needs some work. Leaf posted 16.2 points on 62% shooting from the field and 46% behind the arc, along with 8.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists for the Bruins in his sophomore campaign.
Realistic Comparison: Ryan Anderson
Anderson naturally has 15 pounds on the 19-year-old, but both stand at a solid 6’10”. Anderson’s numbers for the Rockets this season are the lowest they have been in six years, so think of the New Orleans Ryan Anderson for this comparison because I believe this kid can put up similar numbers. Here are the college comparisons:
Anderson clearly had a larger role for his Cal Golden Bears, playing three more minutes and shooting 3.3 more shots per game than Leaf which explains his higher scoring and rebounding averages. Leaf, on the other hand, was extremely efficient with his opportunities. Both players have their shooting and rebounding, but Leaf has more advanced passing skills and can provide more versatility in the NBA compared to Anderson’s exclusive role as a shooting big man.
Upside Comparison: Kevin Love
What if I told you that Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf were the next Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love? Or at least their own version of that… No one could have known back in 2008, but there were two future NBA All-Stars hooping together at UCLA. So maybe we can see it coming this time?
De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky
Teammate Malik Monk has gotten more hype this season, but Fox has just as much responsibility in Kentucky’s Sweet 16 appearance. The 6’3″, 187-pound freshman out of Houston, Texas is super shifty. His smooth ability to change speeds on a dime allows for effective transition play and half-court maneuvering. Fox is a capable passer and an underrated rebounder for his size, averaging 4.6 assists and 4.0 rebounds in what will likely be his lone year at UK.
His speed and finesse are attractive to NBA teams. However, the 19-year-old doesn’t have much of a perimeter shot right now. He shot 23% from three on the year while taking nearly two attempts per game. His decent 73% free-throw shooting may suggest that he can develop to be more of an outside threat, but it’s somewhat of a concern for scouts. Jaylen Brown has already improved immensely after struggling with his shot in college last year, so you never know how Fox will develop over time or how long it will take.
Realistic Comparison: Dennis Schroder
Like Schroder, Fox is a good but limited scorer who relies on attacking the paint and mid-range to score. They are crafty players who both rely on their impressive quickness to make things happen on the court. Also, Fox has great potential as a perimeter defender who can contain opponents, just like Schroder. Here is how Fox compares to the numbers that the Hawks starting point guard has been putting up this season:
Fox has a better build and may be a bit quicker than Schroder, however, this is their best skill set that they rely heavily on to create for themselves and their teammates. Fox has more upside potential than Schroder, so that is another thing that NBA teams will be considering.
Upside Comparison: Kemba Walker
We all remember Kemba putting in work at UConn during March Madness in 2011, hitting opponents with deadly crossovers and quick bursts of speed. That’s exactly Fox’s bread and butter in college. Similar to Walker, Fox is a streaky shooter. If he can find a shooting touch in the future like Kemba has over the past two seasons with the Hornets, then Fox could meet this level of play.
Dillon Brooks, Oregon
Brooks has a little bit of a Buddy Hield vibe going on this year. He is as clutch of a player as it gets in the NCAA this season, continuing to make huge plays for his Ducks in March. The 6’7″ junior is already at a disadvantage due to his “old” age for NBA Draft standards. The 21-year-old deserves a spot on an NBA roster this summer — that is if he even decides to leave Oregan after three seasons. I guess either way, he will be a future NBA player so it still counts for this segment.
His 16.4/3.1/2.7 stat line this year may not jump off the page. It has more value when you consider that he played just 24.4 minutes per game and his shooting splits were 50/40/74. The size and athleticism aren’t anything to write home about. The shooting, vision, and versatility should give him the opportunity to prove himself on the next level.
Realistic Comparison: Otto Porter
Even Otto Porter Jr’s potential is unknown right now. At just 23, Porter’s best days are ahead of him. Yet, the Wahington wing player has made a huge leap in his fourth year in the NBA. He’s now shooting 44.5% from downtown which is the second best mark in the whole league. Brooks has a similar upside in the shooting department and although he hasn’t shown Porter’s rebounding or athleticism, he could provide a very similar role. Both players showed their sharpshooting in college:
Overall incredibly similar numbers here. However, if you were to adjust it to per 4o minutes, there would be a huge edge for Brooks since he played 10 fewer minutes per game.
Upside Comparison: Harrison Barnes
Honestly, I think Otto Porter Jr. could be considered Brook’s upside comparison as well since he is already very good and still has room to grow. And again like Porter, Barnes hasn’t even reached his prime yet. While the Mavs small forward is probably a better scorer than Brooks will be he could potentially get there if everything goes right. Brooks is a more capable passer and playmaker than Barnes which attest to his versatility.
D.J. Wilson, Michigan
There haven’t been too many players who have been boosting their NBA stock more in this March Madness tournament than Michigan power forward D.J. Wilson has. After hardly getting into games his freshman year and averaging just six minutes over 26 games during his sophomore campaign, Wilson has hit a groove in his third year. His 11 points and 5.3 rebounds averages do not illustrate how talented this 6’10” 21-year-old is — his tournament stats do, however. The junior had 17 points, five boards, and four blocks against Oklahoma State to advance to the Round of 32. He followed that up with 17 points and three blocked shots – one of which was the game-clinching denial – to help power Michigan into the Sweet 16.
I know you are sick of me talking about versatility, but this is another prospect that has a ton of it with his size and mobility, defensive skills, outside shooting ability, and inside game. His rebounding and physicality are what he will really need to work on if he wants to climb draft big boards. What he currently brings to the table should be enough to make some NBA teams bite in the late first or second round.
Realistic Comparison: Terrence Jones
I am not thrilled with this comparison. Wilson is much more mobile, lanky, and athletic than Jones was, and Jones was much more established on the boards compared to the Michigan Wolverine. Yet, they have quite a few similarities. Their college stats are fairly consistent with each other:
Jones and Wilson are limited scorers, versatile defenders, and provide as a decent option to stretch the floor. This can be seen in their stats above and serves as the main reasoning for this comparison. I actually like this upside comparison better…
Upside Comparison: Markieff Morris
Markieff Morris is 6’10” but can play anywhere on the court, much like emerging prospect D.J. Wilson. Morris has much more grit and grind in his DNA. His size, mobility, athleticism, versatility, and shooting touch fits the potential mold that Wilson could become much better than Jones, though.
Back to the Madness we go! Which of these players can guide their squads into the Elite Eight?
Photo via Flickr