- Trae Young has done wonders for his draft stock, but he isn't the only prospect leaping up NBA big boards. The Front Office examines 10 of the biggest risers in college basketball this season.
The non-conference portion of the college basketball season isn’t ideal for evaluating top draft prospects. Schedules are dotted with buy games against low-level Division I programs filled with players who don’t stack up favorably to the ones populating top European leagues, let alone the NBA. Certain games against similarly matched opponents are worth watching, but the disparities in schedule strength make it difficult to get a good read on guys looking to make the jump to the next level. Conference play is a different story. Over the next two-plus months, matchups pitting high-major teams should help us clarify which prospects are deserving of top standing and which ones were just taking advantage of subpar competition.
That said, a number of players have changed their draft stock, in both good and bad ways, based on their performance in November and December. Today, The Front Office is focusing on those who’ve helped themselves the most. These guys have either improved their chances of getting drafted this summer, or increased the likelihood that they’ll come off the board sooner than originally projected. To be clear, this is not a comprehensive list. An initial group of players was whittled down to 10 prospects who’ve done the most to convince us that we undervalued or overlooked them. Let's dive in. (All statistics updated through Jan. 3).
Brandon McCoy, Freshman, C, UNLV
McCoy showed up at UNLV as a well-known entity, rating No. 11 in the RSCI composite index (which aggregates recruiting service rankings) for the Class of 2017 and having played in both the McDonald’s and Jordan Brand games and with USA Basketball at the FIBA U19s. While he’s always been a productive player with impressive physical measurables, McCoy’s choice of college and the presence of several more-heralded bigs in his class, played into subdued hype going into the season. Scouts at times have questioned his competitive motor and defensive awareness, and despite a strong, mobile 7-foot frame, he lacks outlier length for his position. In spite of tempered expectations McCoy hit the ground running, with 10 double-doubles in his first 14 college games and a breakout 33-point performance against Arizona in a matchup with former AAU teammate DeAndre Ayton.
The quality and consistency of McCoy’s performance has set him apart from some of the other big men in the mid-to-late first-round conversation, as he appears to be putting things together. He’s been able to do a lot of damage operating on the right block, otherwise focusing on rim-running and the offensive glass, where his strength and agility have afforded him success. McCoy’s skill level remains relatively raw, he’s not taking jump shots and just 4% of his offense has come in pick-and-roll situations (per Synergy Sports). Still, his overall physical package and potential to protect the basket and run the floor have left a solid impression. — Jeremy Woo
Daniel Gafford, Freshman, C, Arkansas
One of college basketball’s relatively less-heralded impact freshmen, Gafford has dunked his way onto the NBA radar and put his undeniably intriguing physical gifts to good use. He rated No. 36 in the RSCI composite and has flashed the sort of potential that puts him on the draft radar immediately, filling a necessary hole in the middle for a guard-driven Razorbacks team that loves to run. Arkansas got in on his recruitment early and successfully kept Gafford in-state, but at this rate (he’s averaging 22.6 points and 11.5 rebounds per 40 minutes) it’s possible he may not be around long. Late-blooming, high-upside bigs have a way of sneaking their way into premium draft territory (i.e. Justin Patton and D.J. Wilson, and Gafford appears a candidate to fit that bill.
Although Gafford’s post skills are pretty basic, he’s actually fared quite well operating on both blocks, favoring his right hand and a go-to spin move. He’s extremely agile at 6’11” and utilizes his length and explosiveness to dunk balls most players can’t. Gafford can run the floor like a wing and soars for rebounds on both sides of the floor. Most impressive has been his potential to protect the basket, with a six-block performance against Minnesota’s experienced front line and later tallying five in the SEC opener against Tennessee. While he’s still foul-prone and has to be fit into a concept, Gafford’s ability to cover ground and nimbly switch screens at his size makes him a no-brainer developmental big man. He’d benefit from two years of school and likely won’t slide into an NBA rotation for a couple years, but Gafford has firmly established himself as someone to watch as the New Year begins. — JW
DeAndre Ayton, Freshman, C, Arizona
If you’ve just tuned in to catch one of Ayton’s games and are seeing him for the first time, you’d probably be surprised to find out that there was some degree of trepidation surrounding him going into the summer—by which I mean it wasn’t clear yet exactly where he fit into the picture when it came to the draft’s elite prospects. His professional potential has clearly been immense from the minute he arrived in the U.S. from the Bahamas. Over the course of Ayton’s high school career, he was knocked for not always playing hard, spending too much time floating on the perimeter and falling in love with his jumper. It’s increasingly clear that he’s bought into Arizona and Sean Miller, that the college game comes to him easily, and that he’s a worthy candidate to go first overall (The Front Office opened the season with Ayton as our top prospect, a status he’ll retain for the foreseeable future).
While Ayton has always cut an imposing figure at 7’0” with a 7’5” wingspan, it’s worth noting the role his physical transformation has played in his success this season. He reportedly began lifting weights for the first time after arriving on campus over the summer, and the results are evident in his leaner, more defined physique. As he continues to put time in on his body, it’s scary to think about what it could mean for his on-court ceiling, as he’s already a freakish leaper and overpowering presence in the paint, not to mention a smooth, promising jump shot. Although concerns have been raised about his defensive play in the first half of the season, it’s clear that he should be competent based on his athletic traits and given additional coaching. He’s a marvel to watch, and his dominant play has solidified him in the mix for first overall. — JW
Jalen Hudson, Junior, SG, Florida
Hudson sat out last season in accordance with NCAA eligibility rules after playing his two seasons at Virginia Tech. The transfer has rebooted Hudson’s college career and elevated his draft trajectory. Hudson is leading the Gators in scoring on a per-40 minute basis, and he had his coming out party at the PK80 tournament in Portland in late November, putting up a combined 76 points on 26-of-49 shooting in three games against Stanford, Duke and Gonzaga. His production tailed off after that, including when he went 3-for-11 and 0-for-5 from three-point range against a mid-major defense (Loyola-Chicago) in December, but overall he’s connected on 43.7% of his trifectas this season, a major leap from the percentage (32) he put up as an underclassman with the Hokies.
Hudson’s ability to score in bunches and space the floor with his jump shot gives him the outlines of an intriguing offensive sparkplug. He can quickly set his feet and launch from distance off the catch, but he’s also capable of picking up his dribble to rise and fire. The multifaceted shotmaking could allow Hudson to transcend basic spot-ups at the next level. Hudson also offers favorable size for an NBA off-guard (6’6,’’ 192 pounds), adding to his intriguing profile. — Chris Johnson
Jarrey Foster, Junior, G/F, SMU
Let’s take a second to acknowledge SMU’s success attracting NBA-caliber talent in recent years, from Larry Brown’s brief tenure through the transition under Tim Jankovich. Last year, the Mustangs produced draft picks Semi Ojeleye and Sterling Brown and promising undrafted prospect Ben Moore. Next up are Shake Milton and Foster, who’s emerged this season as a versatile commodity (13.7 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game) given his much larger opportunity. He’s been allowed to display his two-way game in full, and in many ways has been every bit Milton's equal. Foster profiles as a terrific fit for an NBA role down the line.
Foster has a terrific build for a wing player and has been deployed in a variety of roles, where his smarts, athleticism and playmaking have stood out. While breaking people down off the bounce isn’t his forte, he doesn’t need the ball to be effective and is adept at finding space on cuts and on the offensive glass. His jump shooting (35.4% from outside this season, 44% last year and an appealing stroke) falls in line with the 3-and-D mold NBA teams favor, although his free-throw shooting leaves something to be desired at this stage and could indicate further regression. A plus defender, Foster is regularly asked to guard both wings and bigs, with the strength to body up larger players in addition to nice instincts as a shot-blocker. After an impressive start, he’s positioned himself to test the draft waters and potentially make the leap. — JW
Jevon Carter, Senior, PG, West Virginia
Before Carter opted to return for his senior season, he’d already cemented his reputation as a relentless defender with a knack for hounding backcourt players into turnovers. He’s reaffirmed that reputation by posting one of the highest steal rates in the country (5.9%) and spearheading the Mountaineers’ press-heavy defense, which ranks in the top 15 in Division I in adjusted points allowed per possession, according to Kenpom.com. Carter’s defensive tenacity could enable him to latch on to an NBA roster as a Patrick Beverley-like, low-usage rotation piece, but his rise this season owes more to what he’s done on the other end of the floor. While leading West Virginia to a 13-1 record, he’s hit 39.4% of his 71 shots from behind the three-point line, up from 34% over his first three seasons. Carter’s work at the free-throw line in 2017-18, where he’s sank 86% of his 73 attempts, lends more credence to the notion that he’s improving as a shooter. If those percentages hold up, teams may have fewer reservations about taking a flier on a 22-year-old who probably lacks the burst to consistently generate offense off the dribble. In the end, Carter’s ability to lock up opposing guards and offensive progress could make him an enticing second-round option. — CJ
Khyri Thomas, Junior, SG, Creighton
As is the case with Villanova’s Mikal Bridges (more on him below), it’s easy to envision Thomas sticking in a rotation because of his ability to stymie perimeter threats and bury shots from downtown. Long, high-energy wings who provide value on both ends of the floor typically don’t have trouble finding a home in today’s NBA, and Thomas has spent this season advancing his case that he fits that bill. Creighton lists Thomas at 6’3,’’ 210 pounds, but he has a reported 6’10’’ wingspan, which helps him harry ball handlers, generate turnovers and check bigger wings.
Thomas is not Creighton’s No. 1 scoring option, but the Bluejays have upped his offensive responsibility this season—his usage rate has climbed to 23.2 from 19.3 last season—and he’s responded by raising his efficiency and taking better care of the ball. Thomas is working on his third consecutive campaign hitting in the neighborhood of 40% of his tries from behind the arc and has shown improvement at the free-throw line, a strong indicator for his three-point shooting at the next level: He’s sank 78% of his attempts from the stripe over the last two seasons after posting an ugly 52.1% make rate as a freshman. If he keeps this up, Thomas could tempt teams picking late in the first or early in the second round. — CJ
LaGerald Vick, Junior, SF, Kansas
Kansas’s thin forward depth chart has turned Vick into a pivotal piece of a guard-heavy rotation. After ranking sixth on the team in minutes per game last season, Vick is logging 83.9% of available minutes as a junior, second only to senior point guard and fellow draft prospect Devonte’ Graham, according to Kenpom.com. The playing-time bump has allowed Vick to spread his wings as a floor-spacer who can puncture defenses on basket-attacks. Vick can use his quick first step to scamper past defenders off the dribble, and he’s got the run-and-jump explosiveness to finish with verve above the rim.
He’s raised his offensive rating from 109.3 last season to 125.3 this season despite using a much higher percentage of Kansas’s possessions while he’s on the floor, according to Kenpom.com, and he’s committing fewer turnovers, assisting on a higher percentage of his teammates’ baskets and shooting more accurately from both sides of the arc (despite an ugly 1-of-9 effort against Texas Tech on Tuesday) and at the rim. An improved deep stroke, in particular, could be the difference between him needing to fight for a roster spot as an undrafted free agent and getting picked in the second round. Vick may not maintain his current long-range hit rate (44.3% on 61 attempts), but he’s connecting on a much more favorable clip than he did last season (37% on 92 attempts). — CJ
Mikal Bridges, Junior, SF, Villanova
The first round felt like a realistic possibility for Bridges before the season began. He’d already shown the defensive range and three-point shooting to profile as one of the top wing prospects in the 2018 class. But over the first two months of the 2017-18 season, Bridges may have played his way into the lottery and might hear his name called before this class’s other premium prospect surnamed Bridges (Michigan State’s Miles). Mikal Bridges has blossomed from a do-it-all role guy on the Wildcats’ 2016 national title team into one of the lead scoring options on a different Wildcats squad ranked No. 3 in the country.
He’s taken on a larger share of the shot-creation burden, but that hasn’t significantly depressed his efficiency. Bridges is getting to the free-throw line more often, committing fewer turnovers and has knocked down 45.6% of his 79 long-range attempts. It’s encouraging that Bridges has taken well to an increased offensive workload, but he almost definitely won’t be counted on as a go-to scorer in the NBA. Still, he’s so adaptable that he could bolster practically any rotation. (One sequence in Villanova’s Dec. 5 win over Gonzaga encapsulated the way Bridges can impact the game on both ends of the floor.) There’s no team for which his 3-and-D skill set wouldn’t be a snug fit. — CJ
Trae Young, Freshman, PG, Oklahoma
Last (at least alphabetically by first name) and most definitely not least is Young, college basketball’s biggest breakout star and Oklahoma’s phenomenal offensive engine. Although by watching closely, one might have predicted Young would be key in tying together a Sooners team that won just 11 games with one senior in the rotation a year ago, nobody could have predicted he’d be leading college hoops in both scoring (29.6 points per game), assists (10.7), usage rate (39.1%) and assist rate (58.4%) as 2018 begins. Young has been nothing short of prolific, and while lofty comparisons are always unfair, his historic pace has elevated him into the conversation as possibly the first guard off the board in June.
Young is shooting 41% from outside with deep range, with a quick trigger off of screens and stepbacks that opens up the floor for his preferred drive-and-kick game. How he utilizes those strengths is indeed similar to Stephen Curry in that the threat of his jumper enables his entire team to thrive and find open looks on a spread the floor. Young’s not an explosive leaper, but utilizes touch and the floater game to elude bigger defenders on his way to the basket. Defensively, Oklahoma has worked to hide him off the ball. Although he was an All-American out of high school, the lack of eye-popping physical traits had Young ranked well behind Trevon Duval and Collin Sexton in the RSCI index, sitting No. 20 in his class going into the summer. While those concerns will persist on some level, guard-needy teams atop the draft will have to give Young a long, hard look. This will be an enjoyable ride all the way to March. — JW