As the college basketball season heads into tournament mode, it’s inevitable to have the NBA Draft discussion, too: Which players will go pro? And if so, when and where will they be drafted? How do they translate as prospects?
The ACC is, unsurprisingly, loaded with talent. Here’s a look at the league’s eight best NBA prospects. It’s stacked, to say the least.
1. Dennis Smith Jr., NC State
There’s really too much to say about this guy in such a tight space, but it was a pleasure getting to watch him up close this season. NC State melted on defense this season, but on offense, on all roads ran through I-4, and Smith invariably delivered.
When State deviated from its UCLA high-post offense, it was up to Smith, and he emerged as one of the best pick-and-roll players in the ACC, which should have pro scouts giddy with joy. As a ball-handler, Smith shot 44.4 percent and the ball over 16.1 percent of the time, according to Synergy Sports — both of which are pretty good. DSJ used 355 possessions as a ball-handler in PNR action; only Matt Farrell and JaQuan Newton used more.
Modern NBA offenses are predicted on high ball screens; Smith has proven more than capable of running this show. The final four minutes of the win at Duke were the high-water mark of Smith’s season as he dominated the Blue Devils off an endless stream of stacked double screens at the top of the key.
DSJ ran 153 isolation possessions this season, per Synergy. On 113 of those possessions, he either shot ball (36.6 FG%), got fouled (19.5% free throw rate) or turned it over (7.1% TO rate). He scored 0.99 points per possession out of isolations, which ranked fourth in the ACC. Smith draws a ton of fouls, and that ability will serve him well on the next level, too.
DSJ joins Lonzo Ball, Markelle Fultz and De’Aaron Fox as four stud point guards who will go in the top 10 of the draft.
2. Jayson Tatum, Duke
Oh, hey, another top 10 pick. Early on in Tatum’s career, the ball stuck a little too much with the ubiquitous forward; he’d catch the rock on the wing, size up the defense, and then make his move. Invariably, he is the best athlete of the floor, so he could usually get to his spots, but the second half of his freshman season, the floor has opened up as the ball has hooped around a little bit more.
His second half against North Carolina in Durham was a masterpiece — 19 points (5-10 shooting), and proof that when he’s cooking, there isn’t a more complete player in the conference. Over the final eight games of the regular season, the rookie threw up this ridiculous stat line:
16.3 points, 8.1 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 0.9 blocks, 41 3P%, 93 FT%
Concerns exist over his ability to finish at the rim; Tatum, according to Synergy, shot just 37 percent (0.88 points per possession) on cuts and 45.8 percent in transition. Both of those figures are average, and surprising for someone as gifted as Tatum.
Quelling some of those concerns: As a driver this season, Tatum shot 55.6 percent on possessions finished at the basket, per Synergy.
Regardless, Tatum has a great chance to be the first non-guard taken off the board, and could go as high as No. 3. He flashed a savvy post game, which will be a boon for his pro prospects. Of ACC players to use at least 20 post-up possessions this season, Tatum ranks No. 1 in points per possession: 1.13 (58.8 FG%).
3. Jonathan Isaac, Florida State
So yeah, about that top 10 pick thing — here’s another. Isaac, who has the chance to be the second non-guard selected after Tatum, is jarring to watch in person; he’s so damn long, and it looks a little ridiculous watching him float around the perimeter, wrecking havoc.
Isaac can do a little bit of everything, but he is especially dangerous moving without the basketball. The freshman is an elite cutter: 1.44 points per possession (No. 146 in the nation) and 69 field goal percentage. Isaac also shot 37 percent on catch-and-shoots this season, and he proved to be a menace around the basket, too: 1.4 points per possession on put backs (77.8 FG%). For the season, Isaac shot 60.6 percent on two-point field goals, which helped lead to his ridiculous true shooting rate of 63.4 percent — a top 70 number nationally, per KenPom.
The Kevin Durant comparisons are probably a bit trite — lanky wing dude who can shoot threes — but it’s fun so let’s roll with it. That’s what this guy looks like roaming the court. To be honest, I actually would’ve liked to see FSU get him moving off the ball more; he scored just one point in the second half at Duke, and that just can’t happen. Run some pindowns and split action with Dwayne Bacon for this dude.
Isaac also rejected 1.5 shots per game, and blocked 6.1 percent of opposing two-point field goal attempts while on the court, which is good for No. 4 in the ACC. A big area of improvement for Isaac: running pick-and-rolls…
(Note: Let’s take a brief moment to acknowledge how bonkers it is that 30 percent of the top 10 selections in the 2017 NBA will hail from the ACC. We run this.)
4. Justin Jackson, North Carolina
It took Jackson two full seasons, but as a junior, the 6-8 Texan has figured everything out. Jackson upped his usage — 23.6% usage rage, second on the team — and saw his efficiency skyrocket, too. That’s not an easy combination to pull off.
Jackson’s shooting percentages from beyond the arc (38.5%) and free throw line (75.5%) are improvements of nearly 10 percent over last season. He evolved into one of the best catch-and-shoot bombers in the league: 38.3 percent, according to Synergy. UNC looked invincible at times this season, when Jackson hunted three-pointers in transition.
He’s stingy with the ball — a turnover rate of just 11.7 percent, which ranks No. 152 nationally, per KenPom — and that served him well in both pick-and-rolls and isolations. Jackson really stepped up his performance running PNR; the junior shot 38.5 percent as a ball-handler in the action (0.94 points per possession). When Jackson has passed it out of pick-and-rolls, his teammates have shot a combined 59.3 percent, which is very impressive.
Personally, I love when UNC involves him as a screener in an effort to pop him open for his own shots. That may seem counterintuitive, but watch Golden State play, and take note of how many times Steve Kerr involves Stephen Curry as a screener.
The Tar Heels’ All-American will enter the league with plenty of seasoning, too. He has the look of a player who can contribute immediately. Jackson has played in 110 games at UNC, including a variety of high-leverage situations. Jackson has size, handles, and can bang threes from NBA-range. Whatever team lands him in the back-third of the draft, gets a steal.
Make sure to check back here for Part 2 tomorrow!