NEW YORK — College basketball season, and by direct association, NBA draft season, began in full on Tuesday, with the annual Champions Classic pitting blue blood programs head to head at Madison Square Garden. It’s a high-profile, TV-friendly setup, pitting Duke against Kansas and Michigan State against Kentucky, and has come to double as an unofficial summit for high-ranking team executives, a one-stop shop for a decent chunk of high-priority, draft-eligible talent, and thus a useful platform for hopeful prospects to leave early impressions.
The caveat this season is that the talent level across the college game is inarguably down, which isn’t necessarily the most fun truth. But a large exodus of underclassmen, many of whom went undrafted, coupled with a freshman class that’s widely seen across the basketball industry as underwhelming, has led us, well, to here. You would not have shown either of Tuesday night’s games to an extraterrestrial visitor on a voyage to Earth seeking to learn the game of basketball. Teams were widely left hoping for more from four programs that traditionally house high-level talent. But there were still plenty of NBA prospects on display, some meaningful performances, and some worthwhile takeaways as the first leg of the season gets going.
Tyrese Maxey, on schedule
Without question, Maxey was the prospect who left the most positive impression on teams as he anchored Kentucky’s 69–62 win over Michigan State in the second game. Maxey turned in a workmanlike 26 points on 13 field goal attempts (3-of-8 from three), managed a good effort on the defensive end, and came up big multiple times in the final minutes of the game, nailing a key runner, a huge three-pointer, and putting a bow on things with a decisive rebound in traffic that effectively ended Michigan State’s chances. He opened the season at No. 8 in our mock draft, in a range that feels appropriate moving forward, particularly with how valuable he very clearly is to his team.
Maxey plays with a natural pace and quickness that enables him to stay on the attack, and a thick upper body helps compensate for a lack of great positional size. He’s already capable of tough finishes and hitting threes off the dribble, but has room to improve in all areas, and he’s physical enough getting into the paint that you can expect him to live at the foul line. Also a capable passer, Maxey profiles well as a combo guard who can contribute on either end, and without overreacting to one game, he should end up being good enough already that there will be some built-in floor as he eventually enters the NBA. He’s polished, has improved his game off the bounce, and has the most legit one-and-done case of Kentucky’s freshmen. Given he’s set to be the bell cow moving forward as the Wildcats sort out roles for the rest of their guys, the draft lottery is squarely within reach.
While we’re here, Maxey’s backcourt-mate Ashton Hagans looks to have made a mini-leap, coupling his disruptive defense with a new level of poise and frenetic energy. His on-ball pressure has always been an attractive NBA skill As he figures out his jump shot (which is not a given, but a possibility), Kentucky might wind up boasting the top backcourt in the country.
Be patient, Duke
In the first game, Duke topped Kansas 68–66 in what you could generously call a disastrous game, with the two teams combining for 44 turnovers, 37 fouls and 19 missed free throws over the course of 40 minutes of basketball. Duke won, but didn’t necessarily earn it. It’s evident that the program is in midst of what looks like a transition phase, with no clear-cut one-and-done guys and a gifted, deep recruiting class inbound next year. They’ll surely evolve and have success together, but from a talent evaluation standpoint, this is a group teams will have to check back on over the course of the season to properly grasp.
Moving forward, expect Wendell Moore to be the guy teams will focus on, as he offers an attractive blank slate on the wing, and room for growth across the board as one of the youngest players in this draft class. In flashes, you can see Moore’s feel and athleticism working for him, and despite playing just 12 minutes and scoring two points off the bench, I’d expect his role to increase. Tre Jones has improved tangibly from last season when it comes to confidence and is one of the best college point guards around, but if he can’t get results with his jumper, he becomes a difficult NBA sell, even as a quality backup, given the matchup limitations posed by his size. Matthew Hurt is a forward with a pedigree who can shoot, but it’s hard to say anything else with confidence moving forward given a concerning lack of physicality and strength. Safe to say, right now he profiles much better as a multi-year guy than as a one-and-done talent. Vernon Carey had a solid showing but lacks NBA-caliber lift beneath the basket.
After all that, Duke’s most notable standout Tuesday was less-heralded freshman Cassius Stanley, who got the start, played a high-energy 30 minutes, and had some nice flashes, including a pair of transition dunks and a catch and shoot three. Stanley’s star has dimmed somewhat from an NBA perspective given he’s already 20 years old and came in not known as a particularly confident shooter. He had four turnovers and remains a work in progress at the two, but if he continues to compete and get results as a key role player, he has the type of toolbox that could land him in the 2020 draft. He was a pleasant surprise, to say the least.
Kansas buries the lede
It’s hard to be too dismissive of anything that happened for Kansas on Tuesday—they turned it over 28 times and have to iron some stuff out. Devon Dotson was not great, Ochai Agbaji had flashes, and it’s otherwise clear that Bill Self is fully content allowing his bigs to beat other teams up. He’s essentially rotating three centers right now. Clearly, this is not the NBA game, but it’s a keen, ugly strategy. It was not fun to watch, but Dotson will have better games, and it’s still Kansas basketball.
Anyway, the name you’ll want to file away is Tristan Enaruna, who played just 16 minutes for the Jayhawks and scored five points, but had a couple of flashes that doubled as cries for a bigger role on a team that can’t replicate his skill set in any other way. Enaruna just moves differently. He’s long, agile, and smooth, with the capacity to score at all three levels and the type of talent profile teams traditionally to take chances developing. The 6’8” Dutch freshman entered college without much hype, but it doesn’t take much to recognize the long-term potential and hope for more. How much Kansas actually decides to play him and what sort of production it might take for him to work his way into the one-and-done landscape will be a notable subplot going forward.
Cassius Winston, unchanging
After spending a lot of time around Michigan State in March, I was won over by Cassius Winston’s consistency, toughness, and winning proclivities as the Spartans mounted a Final Four run that fell just short. By now everyone knows exactly what he brings to the table as a passer, game manager, and sneakily potent scorer when the moment calls for it. Many scouts still can’t get over his stocky body type, which, to be fair, has not improved much since the spring.
Winston will never be an eye-test guy, and his value to a team will have a strong intrinsic basis on whether their schemes and personnel favor his playmaking chops, and more glaringly, whether they can harbor him defensively. Winston was clearly bothered by the bigger Ashton Hagans at times, and didn’t have his best game, albeit his team was in foul trouble most of the night and had to manage with less-optimal lineups for a lot of the game.
He’s going to be polarizing moving forward in a point guard-heavy draft, but expect his chops and savvy to get him drafted and groomed as someone’s backup. This is not to say Winston has plateaued, but it’s crystal clear what interested parties will get from him at the next level. Another big year will help his case.