- They might not be playing at premier schools like Duke or Kentucky, but these mid-major prospects could make a big impact at the next level. The Crossover's Front Ooffice names five risers to watch.
It goes without saying by now that every year, NBA draft prospects emerge from unexpected places. It’s why scouts travel to small college towns, why the Portsmouth Invitational exists, and why high school recruiting rankings are never perfect. Identifying players who are off the high major grid but in position to thrive at the next level is part of the fun of evaluation.
The wealth of statistical information available has made parsing through a massive pool of college players and separating the wheat from chaff a little easier. On teams without a wealth of scorers or elite supporting talent, prospects who combine high offensive usage and high efficiency across a range of scoring situations are generally a good place to start. Generally speaking, these are guys who will evolve into NBA role players in their best-case scenarios, and so it’s not only a matter of projecting talent, but also envisioning adaptability and fit. Part of why events like Portsmouth, the draft combine and even summer shoe camps are great evaluation tools that you can take the best guys, remove the context of their team and see what happens.
Equally important is understanding why mid-major star X or surprisingly good player Y ended up in college situation Z. Sometimes it’s a late growth spurt or a high school injury that set back a prospect’s recruitment in the first place. Some guys need to transfer before finding a situation where they can thrive, and sometimes it’s something else entirely. NBA teams are impeccably thorough in gathering this type of contextual data, and it’s helpful when trying to determine what you’re looking at.
If you missed them, we’ve run features on a trio of less-heralded players: Chandler Hutchison (Boise State), Tyler Hall (Montana State) and Jordan Howard (Central Arkansas). As the second half gets underway, here are five mid-major stars drawing serious NBA attention and worth your time.
Alize Johnson | Missouri State | Senior | Forward
Johnson is a late bloomer whose skill level and production have made him a person of interest for NBA teams over the course of the past year. A native of Williamsport, Pa., Johnson was not a D-I qualifier out of high school, which led him to Frank Phillips Community College in Texas. While there, he shot up from 6’5” to 6’9” and retained his guard skills, transforming him into a legitimate point-forward type and placing him squarely in the draft conversation. Johnson averaged a double-double last season as a junior, tested the draft to get feedback and left an impression on scouts while winning MVP at Adidas Nations over the summer.
Through 17 games, Johnson’s production has remained mostly in line with last year, averaging 15.1 points and 11.2 rebounds per game to anchor Missouri State. He has eight double-doubles in his last nine games and per KenPom.com, Johnson’s defensive rebound rate (30.1%) is on track to rank Top 10 nationally for a second straight year. He’s adept at grabbing the ball off the glass and pushing in transition, allowing his teammates to run the floor as he initiates. Johnson’s ability to attack the basket in space and make the right pass shines in the open floor, and that’s where much of his intrigue stems from. He’s laterally quick and competes in a low stance on the defensive end, able to switch on the perimeter and defend wings and bigs. That kind of versatility has obvious appeal for teams.
It’s worth noting that Johnson’s shooting percentages have dipped as his offensive responsibility has increased this season. While some of that may be circumstantial, how well he can space the floor long term will be particularly crucial to his success. Having guard skills and being a guard aren’t the same thing, and Johnson may struggle to consistently create his own shot in the halfcourt. He’ll benefit from a situation where he can play alongside quality playmakers and shooters. His overall range of desirable strengths is difficult to find, and will force teams to think long and hard in the middle of the draft.
Kevin Hervey | UT-Arlington | Senior | Forward
Hervey checks all the right boxes when it comes to size and skill, and was on the draft radar last season after winning Sun Belt Player of the Year. That honor came as he continued to shake off the rust from a torn left ACL suffered in January 2016 (to boot, he previously tore the right one in high school). Though his medical situation could prove pertinent down the line, Hervey is in midst of his best season yet, averaging 21.2 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.6 steals over his first 16 games. Assuming 35.4% of his team’s shots while on the floor, he’s shouldered a greater load than ever and continued to efficiently anchor a quality UT-Arlington team. He’s trending the right direction at the right time.
Standing 6’9” with a 7’3” wingspan, Hervey is an excellent rebounder and can match up ably with taller players. He’s a legitimate perimeter threat, shooting 36.1% percent on nearly seven attempts per game this season. Hervey can get to his shot via screens or off the bounce and should be able to space the floor in a stretch-four role. He’s doing damage in a range of ways, finding success off spot-ups (where Synergy puts him in the 90th percentile of scorers nationally), the offensive glass (76th percentile) and cutting into space (87th percentile). Hervey can attack off one or two dribbles around the basket and has also been effectively used as a roll man and post-up threat. It’s a highly unique offensive profile that points to a good chance of adaptability at the NBA level.
There’s some risk Hervey ends up stuck between positions—he doesn’t create much off the dribble, often settles for jumpers and isn’t the most physical player inside. He’s not a great leaper and doesn’t block a ton of shots (just a 2% block rate is a little concerning). It’s worth wondering how much his injury history factors in with those tendencies. There’s certainly enough to Hervey’s game to warrant an opportunity here: while bigs who shoot threes are highly valuable as a specialist archetype, the ones who succeed at the next level tend to be multidimensional. He fits that bill nicely.
Milik Yarbrough | Illinois State | Junior | Forward
Yarbrough went head-to-head with Johnson and Missouri State on Sunday and was terrific in a 72–68 win, tallying 23 points, four assists and four steals. The 6’6” wing has largely been stellar for Illinois State (where his late father starred in the 1970s) after transferring from Saint Louis and sitting out last season. It hasn’t taken long for Yarbrough to emerge as one of the Missouri Valley’s most talented players and a legitimate NBA prospect. He’ll turn 23 in October, and given how impactful he’s been, it will make sense for him to test the draft waters in the spring. Per KenPom data, Yarbrough is one of two players who rank Top Five nationally in usage rate (36.5%) and assist rate (43.5%) and Top 10 in fouls drawn per 40 minutes (8.2), and the other is Trae Young.
With strong physical tools and playmaking ability, Yarbrough has successfully handled that absurd large amount of responsibility for the Redbirds, averaging 17.6 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.6 assists through 15 games. He’s shown high-level feel for the game and is an outstanding passer, although he can be turnover-prone as a result of the volume of decisions put on his plate. Yarbrough displays creativity attacking off the dribble and uses his body to draw contact and get to the line. He’s a heady defender, with the length and wherewithal to poke the ball loose and be disruptive. NBA teams have been intrigued by his all-around game.
It’s unlikely Yarbrough will be tasked with carrying an offense at the next level, which does raise questions about his eventual role. He does most of his damage with the ball in his hands and has been afforded tons of freedom he may not find again. He’ll have to get used to playing away from the ball, and while his 34.7% clip from three-point range is a small sample, continuing to shoot effectively will be particularly important. Given his physicality, toughness and smarts, Yarbrough will have a chance to succeed as a grinder-style wing who can contribute across the board.
Kendrick Nunn | Oakland | Senior | Guard
Once a coveted recruit out of Chicago where he won four state titles alongside Jabari Parker at Simeon Career Academy, Nunn was a three-year starter at Illinois, where he averaged 15.5 points per game as a junior. He was dismissed from the program in May 2016 after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor battery charge that stemmed from a domestic violence arrest involving his then-girlfriend. Nunn was handed another chance in the Horizon League at Oakland, where he’s scored 20-plus points in 11 of his first 14 games and 30-plus on six occasions. The quality of his play has put him back on the map as an NBA prospect.
A well-built 6’3” slasher, Nunn leans heavily on a consistent left-handed stroke. He’s shooting 40.8% from outside and attempting double-digit threes per game after making them at a 36% clip or better in all three years at Illinois. He’s taking an absurd amount of Oakland’s shots while on the floor (a 37% rate that puts him in the Top 10 nationally according to KenPom) but has largely been efficient with his opportunities. He’s more of a straight-line driver when attacking the basket, with a strong upper body and some explosiveness off the dribble in space. Nunn’s game has become more perimeter-focused over time, but he can give defenses problems in a variety of areas.
Nunn is also a capable playmaker, with a 26.6% assist rate that’s especially impressive for a player known chiefly as a scorer for most of his career. He’s averaging 4.2 assists per game and has some secondary playmaking potential that helps mitigate the fact he’s undersized to be purely a two-guard. Nunn has the physical tools to cut it defensively when applying his energy, and because he won’t be faced with as hefty an offensive workload as a pro, making an impact on both sides of the ball will be imperative. He’ll turn 23 over the summer and teams will do their background work, but scouts have been impressed by his play and he appears bound for a chance to prove himself.
Mike Daum | South Dakota State | Junior | Forward
A wide-set 6’9” with a reported 7’3” wingspan, Daum combines NBA size with one of the more impressive scoring résumés of any prospect in college basketball. Daum was raised on a farm in Nebraska and learned the game from his mother, who was an All-American player at Wyoming in the 1980s, where his father (who had a brief stint with the Houston Oilers) played tight end. He redshirted on arrival at South Dakota State and has worked hard on his body over the course of the last few years, positioning himself to test and get feedback from teams in the spring.
By now, Daum’s ruthlessly efficient scoring is far from a secret. Averaging 22.7 points and 8.6 rebounds, Daum’s skill level as an inside-out scorer pops. He’s on course for a third straight season in the Top 20 nationally when it comes to usage rate, according to KenPom.com, a third straight season with a true shooting mark of more than 60% and with a three-point clip above 40%. While his efficiency is actually slightly down from last season, the track record holds up well. And to be fair, Daum’s 2016-17 was a truly remarkable campaign: he rated in the 85th percentile or above as a scorer in every single one of Synergy Sports’ offensive play type except for isolation. Good with either hand and dangerous on the block, spotting up and as a screener, Daum hung 31 points on Wichita State and 21 on Kansas this season and should have South Dakota State in position to return to the NCAA tournament.
While Daum’s significant length will help him match up with bigger players, he’s not a shot-blocker by trade. He’s not a great defender and will continue to face scrutiny as a defender and athlete as the NBA game skews smaller and faster at his position. It’s hard to doubt how great he’s been, but his offensive impact may have to outweigh what could amount to a defensive minus regardless of personnel and scheme. If he stays in school, Daum will have the chance to play his final year as a grad transfer, in which case he’d be a hot commodity for high-level programs. Regardless, he may not have much left to prove at the college level.