Droves of NBA executives canvassed the college hoops circuit during Thanksgiving week to scout a loaded slate of games, with every top draft prospect in action. Friday’s Duke-Gonzaga matchup in Las Vegas served as the main attraction: 44 team representatives were officially credentialed, and more scattered the stands for a memorable game that pitted No. 1 pick contenders Paolo Banchero and Chet Holmgren head-to-head. I camped out in Vegas for a couple of days to scout that game and take the temperature of the league after the first few weeks of the college season. Here’s the latest buzz from the scouting circuit.
What we learned from Duke-Gonzaga
First of all, the hype was real. And while nothing will be decided off one game, the clear winner of the matchup was Banchero, who entered the season as SI’s top prospect. If it wasn't clear entering the game that he was the front-runner for the No. 1 pick, he left very little question about it: He scored 20 points and drained several impressive jumpers in a dominant first half, before battling severe cramps in the second that limited his minutes and effectiveness.
Banchero is looking more and more like a legit No. 1 option on offense. He banged in confident jumpers in transition that helped to assuage concerns about his becoming a consistent three-point threat. He may be a true three-level shot creator with size and strength to boot. Banchero’s polish and maturity set him apart from most college players, let alone freshmen, and he’s already figured out how to strike a balance between being a high-usage scorer without being inherently selfish. There were a number of opportunities throughout the game when Banchero could have taken on Holmgren one-on-one early in the shot clock to prove a point. I found it refreshing that he was content to play team basketball, generally avoiding shots that broke the flow of the offense.
Of course, Holmgren’s length was a factor in those decisions, too (Banchero admitted as much in the postgame press conference), but it’s highly encouraging how well Banchero seems to see and think the game in real time. He’s reputed as a hard worker, and it’s evident up close how seriously he takes his craft. He didn’t hunt shots after returning from cramps and told the media his intent was only to “be solid” in the interest of the team. At this point, other than his inconsistent defensive play, it’s hard to nitpick substantial holes in Banchero’s game. He looks like an immediate franchise cornerstone ready to make an impact as a rookie.
Holmgren was stellar against UCLA earlier in the week, but the Duke game may stand as this season’s best barometer of how he'll fare against NBA athletes. The results were mixed, as he faced off against a Blue Devils team that starts four potential first-round picks, all with better-developed bodies and NBA length. In his defense, this was his first time playing in a game with that type of physicality and it's not like he runs away from contact. But Holmgren simply wasn’t very effective or aggressive in the first half, and Banchero took over the game in the meantime.
Holmgren played much better in the second half, and it’s a good bet that he’ll gradually figure out how to be effective in the NBA. He’s always been comfortable with physical play for a guy who’s quite thin, and that’s not really the problem. Holmgren simply doesn’t wield the type of mass that allows him to consistently initiate contact and finish when he has the ball. Thankfully, he seems to know this—on the occasions where he got downhill, he tended to pivot back into fadeaway jumpers instead of attacking Duke's bigs. It was a bit troublesome that Holmgren didn’t run the floor that hard for much of the game, but more important to realize that he’s not a particularly fast north-south mover. He has a long gait, but he’s not a very explosive one-foot leaper and can’t really move defenders once they’re in position. That inhibits him from easily attacking head-on, adjusting angles off his gather, and getting extension against bigger and stronger bodies playing in traffic.
It’s important to be realistic about what Holmgren's pathway to offensive stardom actually looks like, and where the easy buckets are going to come from. Holmgren has guard-like skills, but like most 7-footers, he’s going to need advantageous opportunities created for him. When Holmgren catches the ball in a good position, he’s a very capable finisher. It’s just not as easy for him to create those opportunities on his own. Holmgren seems to grasp this: He’s a great cutter and understands how to benefit from random offense and make himself available. He didn’t shoot well from distance against Duke, but you figure he’ll at least make enough threes to keep defenders honest. He’s also not a very effective offensive rebounder in traffic, as it’s relatively easy for stronger guys to take him out of plays.
On the defensive end, I left Las Vegas encouraged about Holmgren’s rim protection translating in a real way. I don’t think his body type is necessarily going to change how effective he is on that end. If a strong player comes downhill with the ball and can initiate contact with Holmgren’s chest, they can bump him off his angle and create space to get off rim attempts. In college, most players can’t do that consistently, but NBA players are going to challenge him. Holmgren intelligently compensates by using space and his nimble feet to his advantage. He’s learned to backpedal as long as he can to avoid being hit, allowing him to better utilize his length to make plays on the ball. It's not perfect, and he may not meet people at the rim all the time, but it can work. The simple fear of him lurking makes him extremely effective, and it's hard to see that impact evaporating just because he’s thin.
Holmgren doesn’t move and cover ground like Evan Mobley; that comparison has been thrown around and feels lazy. But Holmgren is so big, instinctive and smart that he should offer teams a legitimate defensive backbone, particularly if he’s able to add the right type of weight to his frame. Retaining his mobility over the long haul is going to be more important than getting huge. The evaluation is complicated by the fact he’s so unconventional, and teams are trying to deduce whether Holmgren is really a stretch five, or whether he can moonlight as a supersized wing in a role that could better play to his strengths. Holmgren doesn’t need to be the No. 1 pick to deliver on his promise, but his pathway to hitting that ceiling is murkier than that of Banchero or Jabari Smith Jr., and more convoluted than that of your typical top-three pick.
While the Banchero-Holmgren matchup delivered, there was quite a bit to pay attention to in this game. The fully rejuvenated Wendell Moore (20 points, six rebounds, six assists, four steals) is making a compelling first-round case and has been Duke’s most consistent player in all facets to start the season. Duke center Mark Williams (29th on last week’s mock draft) was arguably the best player on the floor, making a massive impact with his length, positioning and effort beneath the basket, taking away opportunities for Drew Timme and Holmgren more often than not. That duo carried the Blue Devils in the second half, with Banchero less than 100%. Trevor Keels didn’t play especially well and seems to be losing a bit of the buzz that stemmed from his strong debut. And Gonzaga’s Julian Strawther has begun to make a statement as a draftable prospect, though it’s early to say whether he should turn pro yet.
Jabari Smith gains traction as a top-two pick
The major subplot to everything happening in Vegas last week was the continued emergence of Auburn’s Jabari Smith, who put together a trio of strong performances at the Battle 4 Atlantis and is building a legitimate argument as a potential No. 1 pick. While I wouldn’t venture to label anything as a consensus right now, I do think there’s increasing steam behind Smith's taking his place as the No. 2 prospect in the minds of many of the league’s decision-makers, which was reflected in his placement in last week’s mock draft. Based on the buzz in Vegas and what we saw in the Duke-Gonzaga game, the prospect with the best chance to usurp Banchero at No. 1 is Smith, not Holmgren.
Smith is an entire year younger than Holmgren. He’s big and skilled. And he plays both ends. The composure and competitiveness Smith has displayed through his first six college games is an extremely positive indicator for what may be coming. I thought Smith’s 22-point performance in Auburn’s double-overtime loss to UConn last week spoke volumes. He played a poor first half and picked up his third foul on a mental mistake in the closing seconds. He bounced back with an admirable performance the rest of the way, finishing 12-of-12 from the foul line and contributing heavily to his team’s efforts. The Tigers fell short, but most teenagers playing under the type of microscope Smith has on him would have a difficult time bouncing back like that.
The level of focus and competitive intensity he’s brought to every game has won him a lot of fans in front offices. It’s easy to nitpick his shot selection, but I’m not all that concerned yet—not only is he shooting 43% from three and 84% from the line, but he’s made the most of a situation where his guards tend to be a bit sticky with the basketball. He's also been so much better defensively than expected.
The smart money remains on Banchero going first—the odds are he’ll offer whoever wins the lottery far too much star upside and bankable floor to pass on. Still, I’ve spoken to a number of high-ranking individuals around the league who think Smith offers the most upside of any player in the draft, Banchero included. Imagining scenarios where a GM with tons of job security—say, Sam Presti—wins the draft lottery, it’s not out of the question that Smith could be the guy.
Can Jaden Ivey be the first guard drafted?
Suffice it to say that not every widely predicted prospect breakout comes true—nevertheless, Jaden Ivey appears to have made the leap we hoped for. His strong finish to his freshman year led into a big showing at the FIBA U19 World Championships over the summer, and through his first six games, the question appears to be not whether he lands in the lottery, but how high he can rise. Ivey has started to prove he can play a pass-first style and led Purdue to an undefeated start, including last week’s signature neutral-site wins against North Carolina and Villanova.
There’s always been a lot to like with Ivey: He’s a stellar defender and great all-around athlete who plays a high-energy style and covers a ton of ground both operating and guarding in space. But as he continues to prove he can function as a lead playmaker, the perception surrounding his upside has gone from high-level glue guy to potentially more than that. He shoots a low-release push shot that gives scouts pause but has made 37% of his threes so far this season, owns a 60.4% true shooting percentage and has been efficient on the whole. I’ve gathered some mixed optimism amongst front-office personnel surrounding the jumper, but simply making enough threes to keep people honest elevates Ivey’s ceiling substantially. There’s not usually a ton of risk with high-motor, athletic guards with size who play both ends, but making shots consistently tends to be the difference between that type of player being a legitimate starter versus a high-end reserve.
Considering his tools, makeup and dynamic athleticism, Ivey’s future may fall somewhere along the lines of a Jalen Suggs– or Marcus Smart–type of all-around useful support guard. For what it’s worth, those guys went No. 5 and No. 6 in their respective drafts. While scouts will want to see him keep proving it and will watch his shooting splits carefully, it’s certainly not out of the question Ivey could wind up the first guard drafted in June. Purdue draws another pair of good tests this week with home games against Florida State (the most athletic opponent it's faced so far) and Iowa in the conference opener. With the Boilermakers looking like favorites to win the Big Ten and Ivey’s stock soaring, NBA teams will closely monitor how he handles the rising pressure moving forward.
Scoot Henderson's arrival sparks Ignite
Hopefully you read Howard Beck’s recent feature on top prospect Scoot Henderson, who joined the G League Ignite this season as a 17-year-old who’s not even eligible for the draft until 2023. The 6' 2" Henderson made his debut for Ignite Nov. 17, helping lead them to their first win. It’s not a coincidence that their team has been much more competitive ever since. As it turns out, Henderson is not only precocious, but he’s ready to be a difference-maker: There was chatter that he was Ignite’s best long-term prospect, but it looks like he’s already the team’s best player. He posted a remarkable 31-point performance on Nov. 26 in an overtime loss to a Santa Cruz Warriors team that included rookies Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody on assignment. The NBA has been buzzing about Henderson behind the scenes for the past several days, and Ignite picked up its second win Sunday. Henderson scored 22 points with 10 rebounds and eight assists.
Let’s frame it this way: Ignite has three projected 2022 first-rounders on the roster in Jaden Hardy, Dyson Daniels and MarJon Beauchamp. Henderson is a year younger than Daniels, about 15 months younger than Hardy and more than two years younger than Beauchamp, and he’s already clearly on a different level athletically than all of them. He looks like the type of player where the hyperbole actually matches what you’re seeing: Henderson has grown-man speed and explosiveness and a handle to match, allowing him to get downhill with velocity and finish. He doesn’t make a ton of mistakes with the ball and is showing signs of improvement with his jumper. And there’s a distinct level of cool to the way he carries himself. Ignite has been bringing him off the bench, but it doesn’t matter: They badly need him to be competitive.
Henderson looks like an unusually complete prospect for someone his age, and the upside here is immense. I sat in on one of his workouts while in Las Vegas back in the spring and was impressed with his physicality, but seeing him put it to use in game action has been eye-opening. He doesn’t play much defense yet and has much more to add in terms of polish, but expect the hype around him to grow in a real way as Ignite’s season rolls on. France’s Victor Wembanyama remains the firmly projected top pick for 2023, but Henderson may be right behind him.
Three prospects to watch
Johnny Davis, Wisconsin | Sophomore
Davis has been on the NBA’s radar for a couple of years and was clearly Wisconsin’s top prospect as a freshman. He announced himself as someone who warrants immediate interest last week with a series of strong performances, leading his team to the Maui Invitational title in front of a host of NBA scouts who spent the week in Vegas. Long reputed as a terrific jump shooter, Davis actually attempted only 36 long balls as a freshman, taking a backseat on a senior-heavy team. He is the man now and has the green light, and so far that approach is working for everyone. In addition to his scoring prowess, Davis drew praise from scouts for his defensive mettle, and while he’s not overly tall for a wing at 6' 5", he certainly fits the bill as a two guard who can add value on both ends and grow into a role. He doesn’t turn 20 until February and is tracking as a potential first-round pick.
Tyrese Hunter, Iowa State | Freshman
Believe it or not, there’s another Tyrese H. from Wisconsin sniffing stardom at Iowa State: The Cyclones are unexpectedly 6–0 to start the year, and their freshman point guard has been the primary catalyst. Hunter has been a bit inefficient scoring the ball, but he plays with a lot of poise for someone who doesn’t turn 19 until August. He’s been able to limit mistakes and change games defensively and in transition with his incredible closing speed and burst. Just watching him operate and read opponents, it’s almost a certainty he’s going to be a positive NBA defender in spite of standing 6' 0"—he can get into ballhandlers and jump passing lanes. Hunter’s shooting percentages need to level out in a positive way as the season goes on, but he looks like a first-round-type talent and is arguably the most intriguing freshman true point guard in college hoops.
John Butler, Florida State | Freshman
File Butler’s name away for the long term—right now, he’s more of a curiosity than anything—but he’s a lesser-known prospect who has piqued the interest of NBA scouts in his limited but regular early minutes at Florida State. Listed at 7' 1", 190, with a substantial wingspan, Butler is uniquely skilled for his size and moves unbelievably well for someone that tall. While he hasn’t been very productive and isn’t necessarily on track for the 2022 draft, his rare athletic toolbox has put teams on notice, given he came in with minimal national fanfare as a four-star recruit from a small high school in South Carolina. Butler has legitimate guard-like mobility, shoots the ball naturally from distance, and has shown the ability to alter shots. He looks like a fascinating long-term sleeper. He turns 19 this week, and it may be a while before he arrives as a legitimate prospect. Whenever that happens, the NBA will be watching closely.