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NBA Draft Notebook: Duke's Paolo Banchero Strengthens Case for No. 1 Pick

Breaking down the most intriguing NBA draft prospects from the Champions Classic.

NEW YORK—The Champions Classic serves as an annual benchmark on the scouting calendar, with NBA executives convening at Madison Square Garden to assess the talent level of four storied college programs ahead of the 2022 draft. This year, a matchup between Duke and Kentucky was the primary draw, with Michigan State and Kansas facing off beforehand as an appetizer.

Projected No. 1 pick Paolo Banchero was making his much-anticipated college debut for Duke. But Banchero's teammate Trevor Keels turned out to be the night's major revelation

While it's not good to overreact to one game, events like these with the entire league in attendance tend to hold a bit more sway when it comes to NBA prospects and their expectations moving forward. With an eye toward the 2022 draft, here were my takeaways on a range of players who took the court Tuesday night.

Duke forward Paolo Banchero

Paolo Banchero, PF, Duke | Freshman

Height: 6' 10" | Weight: 250 | Age: 18

Banchero opened the season as our projected No. 1 pick and did nothing to change my opinion in his debut against Kentucky, finishing with 22 points on 7-of-11 shooting, seven rebounds and two steals and setting the tone for the Blue Devils throughout. He turns 19 later this week, but was far and away the most polished player in either of Tuesday night's games. There are simply not many players of Banchero's size who can do as many things as he can offensively: he can initiate offense with the ball in his hands, play as the handler or screen-setter in the two-man game, and operate comfortably at the elbows, the baseline and on the block. He’s a mismatch creator by nature, which will be exacerbated by the types of bigs he’ll face in college.

Banchero compares favorably to bigger-bodied playmaking bigs like Julius Randle at the same stage. It’s easy to see him evolving into a similar type of All-Star caliber forward, with a chance to be better than that due to his advanced skillset and the innate versatility he supplies. Banchero changes direction and handles the ball exceptionally well for someone his size, operating with some ambidexterity. 

A heavier-set player earlier in high school, he's clearly gotten in great shape and looked more athletic than advertised (certainly more than I remembered from watching him extensively at USA Basketball camp two summers ago). He’s so fluid, coordinated and comfortable with the ball in his hands that he can facilitate offense in isolation when needed. Banchero asked out of the game early in the second half while battling cramps and wasn’t quite the same after returning, but carried Duke at various points in the game and was clearly prepared for the moment. His passing skills weren’t overtly on display in terms of assists, but there’s latent playmaking ability there that should manifest over the course of the season as he inevitably navigates double teams and junk defenses. While not a remarkable leaper, Banchero is also a willing and capable defensive rebounder.

It’s the job of NBA front offices to nitpick elements of Banchero’s game, and while he doesn’t have any pronounced holes at the college level, his defensive impact and three-point shooting are the key areas for improvement. He’s not a natural rim protector, and while he may be able to center small-ball lineups down the line, he doesn’t profile as a five defensively for long stretches. He’s smart enough to be a great team defender, but not an elite shot-blocking prospect in terms of his leaping and spatial coverage. Duke has made a point of having one of Mark Williams and Theo John on the court at all times to handle those defensive responsibilities. As far as the jumper was concerned, Banchero made several convincing mid-range shots and went 8-of-9 from the line, which is highly encouraging in terms of his eventual progression to NBA range. He did miss all three of his three-point attempts.

Overall it would have been hard to ask for more from Banchero on Tuesday night, and his performance should strengthen his case as the No. 1 pick, with Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren viewed as his primary competition. Personally, I lean Banchero in this debate right now. But it’s still close enough that it will require a bit of time to play out. It will be appointment viewing when the two of them play head-to-head on Nov. 26

Trevor Keels, G, Duke | Freshman

Height: 6' 4" | Weight: 220 | Age: 18

Keels was one of Tuesday’s unexpected stars, pouring in 25 points on 10-of-18 shooting to go with three steals in a combo-guard role for Duke, while showcasing an intriguing mix of physicality and scoring acumen. Known as a quality jump shooter coming out of high school with five-star pedigree, Keels flashed a versatile offensive skill set and was highly impactful, helping to keep Duke’s offense rolling while outplaying Kentucky freshman TyTy Washington. He’s going to be crucial as a floor-spacer on a Duke team that doesn’t appear to have much reliable three-point shooting, but will also be a primary ballhandler, particularly in lineups where nominal point guard Jeremy Roach isn’t in the game. 

While Keels isn’t exceptionally flashy, he has a huge frame for his position and looked fully capable of shouldering a decent load for the Blue Devils, particularly early in the second half when Banchero sat for a long stretch. He made good choices while running Duke’s offense and showed some impressive ball-screen acumen, as well.

After that showing, Keels is part of the early one-and-done conversation at this point, considering his pedigree and platform, and the overall poise he showed Tuesday. He’s not exceptionally quick or explosive, but he is strong, has length and plays with enough pace off the dribble that you can see him as a functional ball-handler in the NBA. Keels was also pretty solid defensively, moving his feet well and wielding enough physical bulk to post smaller guards and defend bigger wings. He’s not a great weak-hand finisher yet and doesn’t get great extension or elevation around the rim, and he shot just 1-of-4 from distance in this game. But he’s looking like Duke’s second-best player and a first-round type talent, and as teams get a better feel for his full range of skills, the lottery could be within reach.

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Max Christie, Michigan State | Freshman

Height: 6' 6" | Weight: 190 | Age: 18

Christie didn’t fill up the box score in his Spartans debut but wasted no time getting acclimated to the college game, looking smooth and comfortable getting to his shot and carrying himself like an experienced player. He finished with nine points on 10 shot attempts and showed little hesitation hoisting jumpers and playing to his strengths. Although it’s easy to see him struggling a bit with efficiency this season—he struggles to attack the paint off the dribble and has a tendency to settle for shots—Christie wasn’t tentative, played through his misses, and drew positive reviews from scouts in attendance. He’s a clear one-and-done candidate at this stage, albeit with an entire season left to play. An excellent jump shooter with smooth mechanics, Christie was the clear top long-term prospect in the first game, which was otherwise a tad thin on surefire NBA talent.

The league’s premium on high-level three-point shooters, coupled with Christie’s huge role on a Michigan State team that will sorely need him to score this season, makes him an immediate prospect, although he’s clearly a ways from being ready to help an NBA team. He’s already added some good weight to his frame and moves fluidly, although he’s not an explosive or quick mover yet. There were a few freshman moments where he got mixed up defensively, and he may not be a high-level performer on that end, but the effort level was there. He’ll need to gradually quicken his release, which should come in time, but he certainly fits the bill in terms of what scouts are hoping to find in a wing. Christie’s box-score line wasn’t surface-level excellent, but he showed plenty of interesting stuff on Tuesday, with first-round potential provided his season goes well.

TyTy Washington, G, Kentucky | Freshman

Height: 6' 3" | Weight: 200 | Age: 19

Tuesday night proved a rough introduction to college hoops for Washington, who scored nine points on just 3-of-14 shooting and recorded just three assists, with little to offer Kentucky in the way of efficient shot-creation. Too many of his forays into the paint resulted in tough mid-range attempts and subsequent misses, and it was ultimately hard for him to buy a bucket against an athletic and fairly sound Duke defense. On the positive end, he didn’t have any turnovers, and the results seem likely to improve moving forward. But his shot selection and overall tendencies, at least at a glance, weren’t particularly endearing from an NBA perspective.

A smooth mover with some shiftiness playing off the bounce, Washington gradually built up buzz over the summer as Kentucky’s most promising player, headlining a roster primarily made up of transfers who don’t immediately profile as top-flight NBA prospects. (Brief aside: sometimes what gets lost in the buzz surrounding said transfers is that there’s generally a reason they’re still in college and not the NBA). I’d expect Washington’s role to keep expanding for the Wildcats, who will sorely need his shooting and playmaking on the floor most of the time to help take pressure off Sahvir Wheeler, who was solid but overtaxed by his 38 minutes on Tuesday night. He remains a player of interest, but didn’t set the world on fire, particularly in comparison to touted Kentucky guards of years past who have played in this event.

Duke's Wendell Moore dunks against the Kentucky Wildcats at the Champions Classic

Wendell Moore, F, Duke | Junior

Height: 6' 5" | Weight: 215 | Age: 20

Moore entered this season with positive buzz and delivered with a strong performance and what appeared to be a renewed sense of confidence, spurring Duke with 12 points, four rebounds and three assists while playing a variety of roles over the course of the game. Moore’s Duke career to date has fallen short of expectations, but he’s always had the type of frame and versatile skill set to eventually succeed as a utility-type wing in the NBA. It looks like he may be turning the corner, and he looked more lithe and agile in his movements and far more sure of his own decisions on the floor. Though he stands just 6' 5”, he may profile best at the four long-term, where his length, defensive versatility and offensive toolbox could make him an unorthodox role player.

Moore shot 46% from the field and just 28% from three in his first two seasons, which wasn’t good enough to make him draftable, and he missed both his three-point attempts on Tuesday. He has work to do in order to adequately address that in the eyes of the NBA. But he does have passing skills and defensive acumen, a strong build, and has measured with a nearly 7-foot wingspan, which will continue to prop up his candidacy as a pro prospect, provided his scoring efficiency trends up. He’s a critical piece for Duke, capable of running some offense with the ball in his hands and picking up various matchups on the other end, and may be on his way to renewing steam as a draftable prospect if things keep going this direction.

Ochai Agbaji, G/F, Kansas | Senior

Height: 6' 5" | Weight: 215 | Age: 21

Despite not having many offensive actions run for him, Agbaji was the primary catalyst for the Jayhawks, showcasing his shot-making skills and athletic ability in space. Agbaji has been on the NBA radar for some time, but hasn’t quite put together a fully reliable offensive skill set to this point, and will need to convince scouts he can be a consistent play finisher and plus defender at the NBA level. Tonight was a positive step in that direction: he finished with 29 points on 17 shots, went 8-8 from the foul line and 3-of-6 from three, and made a number of quality plays on both ends of the floor. He’s not flashy, but pencils in neatly into a 3-and-D off-ball role that won’t expose his struggles as a playmaker. Kansas won’t necessarily ask this much of him in every game, but Agbaji was more aggressive than usual, which was a notable development.

Agbaji wound up back at Kansas after a somewhat underwhelming pre-draft process, but has been a steady hand for the Jayhawks for the past three seasons and will soak up a ton of wing minutes once again. To improve his candidacy as a draftable prospect, Agbaji needs to show some signs of diversifying his skill set—he has a good frame for a 3-and-D wing, but isn’t a dynamic playmaker or ballhandler at his size, and isn’t especially tall for a role player in that profile. He shot a career-best 37% from three last season, but is a career 68% free throw shooter, and doesn’t create great shots for himself or for others. But an uptick in his shooting splits should be enough to get him drafted next year. He has the chance to be a useful complementary player at the NBA level if things break right, and has a clear opportunity to improve his stock as a senior. He’s still squarely on the radar.

Mark Williams, C, Duke | Sophomore

Height: 7' 0" | Weight: 240 | Age: 19

After a quiet first half, Williams surfaced late in the game and made a couple of key blocks for Duke, finishing with a modest line of five points, seven rebounds and three blocks, but managing to leave an imprint on the game nonetheless. However Williams’s reputation as a prospect evolves this season, it will be yet another referendum on how the NBA values centers who don’t shoot jumpers. He shot 66% from the field as a freshman and ended last season on a strong note, building some buzz as a breakout candidate this season. 

Williams was a late bloomer in high school and looks much more comfortable with his body at this stage of his development. He’s an excellent rebounder with legit size for his position, but at this point in time, his offense is purely derived from finishing in the paint. Williams remains a questionable foul shooter without demonstrable ability to space the floor, which should cast some aspersions as to his long-term upside in a league full of skill-oriented bigs. There’s still a place for bigs like him in the NBA, but it tends to be a bit of an antiquated value proposition as far as drafting is concerned.

AJ Griffin, F, Duke | Freshman

Height: 6' 6" | Weight: 220 | Age: 18

Griffin sprained his right knee in early October but made his return Tuesday night, chipping in just 11 minutes off the bench and making minimal impact on the game. Billed as an athletic slasher and potential lottery pick, this is obviously the ground floor for Griffin, who figures to play a larger role as his health and conditioning improves. 

It’s hard to draw any worthwhile conclusions from what we saw Tuesday other than the fact Keels and Moore look to be entrenched in starting roles, at least for now. That means Griffin could wind up sticking in some form of a sixth man role, speculatively, which still shouldn’t matter all that much in terms of how the NBA views him. The son of Raptors assistant and longtime NBA veteran Adrian Griffin, the younger Griffin was a touted prep prospect but missed varying amounts of time in high school with scattered injuries. He won’t turn 19 until August, which leaves some added room for optimism despite the time he’s missed.

Daimion Collins, F/C, Kentucky | Freshman

Height: 6' 9" | Weight: 200 | Age: 19

Collins got a quick hook from John Calipari and logged just two minutes in a game that was played a bit too fast for him, so this was more or less a wash that illustrated his reputation as a serious project. It’s generally agreed upon that Collins has NBA potential—the question among scouts is how far away he is from actually contributing, with attitudes generally ranging from “far” to “extremely far.” 

Collins is a beanpole, but physically gifted with a 7' 5" wingspan and quick-twitch leaping ability. He’s been compared aesthetically to former Wildcat Isaiah Jackson, who was the 22nd pick in last year’s draft and had a similar profile as a raw one-and-done big. Collins’s frame isn’t as naturally strong as Jackson’s, but if he can effectively showcase his tools over the course of the season, there’s a pathway for him to land in the first round (though he’ll almost certainly spend time in the G League). But again, how much appetite the league has for non-jump-shooting bigs (and the actual upside of young players in that profile) is worth questioning. We’ll see how his role evolves as Calipari figures out his rotation, but I'd pump the brakes on the first-round talk until he starts to produce.

Oscar Tshiebwe, C, Kentucky | Senior

Height: 6' 9" | Weight: 255 | Age: 21

Though not a spectacular NBA prospect by nature, Tshiebwe deserves mention here after scoring 17 points and grabbing 19 rebounds (12 of them on the offensive glass) against Duke’s front line. In the postgame press conference, Calipari insisted Tshiebwe is a good jump shooter, and if that begins to take shape as an element of his game, it’ll certainly help. Tshiebwe’s lack of ball skills and limited mobility and feel make it hard to project him with a ton of optimism as an NBA player, but he’s a terrific rebounder with length, and plays hard. A huge statistical year will give him a better case as a draft pick, but as a center with a somewhat replaceable skill set, it still may not necessarily mean much.

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