As the 2015-16 college basketball season approaches, the 2016 NBA draft class lacks much of an identity. While the upcoming class has more talent than the 2013 class (whose perception as the worst class in years has become reality), it appears closer to the 2013 class than the 2014 slate (a highly-touted group living up more to its depth than its star power). The 2016 class is not nearly as deep on young bigs or international prospects as the 2015 class but offers a little bit of everything both in position and ability.
Many of the top-end freshmen and sophomore prospects are low-floor, high-ceiling types whose value could vary greatly depending on the college season ahead. Last season saw a fairly weak draft improve at the top as players such as D'Angelo Russell and Devin Booker rose up the rankings due to surprising production as freshmen. Some of the riskier players in this class could emerge from the crowd with similar seasons. However, many of this year's freshmen have obvious limitations and risky profiles that could lead to there being more Cliff Alexanders than Russells or Bookers.
The 2016 Peachtree Hoops Draft Rankings will be updated once the college season begins (you can check out the rankings from this summer to learn more about who to watch in the season ahead). Until more is known as play begins, here are some snippets about the best and most interesting players in this season's class:
WHO WILL GO #1
Few scouts considered D'Angelo Russell a contender for the top selection before last season began but he received reasonable consideration before going #2 to the Los Angeles Lakers. While LSU's Ben Simmons and Kentucky's Skal Labissiere are the top 2 guys going into this season, neither prospect has the credentials that Jahlil Okafor and Karl Towns carried into the tipoff of 2014. I would take Simmons or Labissiere over the rest of the field if betting on who goes first but there are other prospects that could rise to the top.
Mississippi State combo guard Malik Newman has a similar profile to Russell and could rise from the middle of the first round to the top of the draft if he can carry the Bulldogs to relevance. Cheick Diallo is a raw talent who has surprised with his productivity during prospect games. The athletic big man could emerge at Kansas in a similar fashion to former Jayhawk Joel Embiid (and Diallo could play in the NBA before his injury-prone predecessor).
While Newman and Diallo remain outside the top 10 in most rankings, consensus top-five prospect Jaylen Brown may be the third-best bet to be picked #1. The California-bound small forward is a physically mature athlete who underwhelmed at times during the all-star prospect circuit. He could very quickly return to lead prospect if he can show both efficiency and explosion for the Golden Bears. Bosnian 7-foot power forward Dragan Bender has enormous potential with moments that flash future star but his floor is a more athletic Darko Milicic. Duke's Brandon Ingram and Kentucky's Jamal Murray are a full year younger than Simmons and Labissiere and had great success on the all-star circuit. While neither profile as #1 overall franchise-leading talents, both are strong prospects with potential to land in the top 5.
THE RETURNING SOPHOMORES
There are 5-6 freshmen who would not be huge surprises to be the first player selected in the 2016 NBA Draft. The only surprise would be if a freshman was not the first player taken. The last time a returning college player went #1 overall was Blake Griffin in 2009. Beyond Dragan Bender becoming the first international player to go #1 since Andrea Bargnani, Utah sophomore Jakob Poeltl would appear to be the most likely candidate to end the freshman streak. Unlike many in the 2015 freshman class who made poor decisions to go pro and fell down draft boards, Poeltl's stock should get a bump from an additional college season.
While this year's class lacks strong sophomore prospects, Poeltl is an efficient post scorer who provides some rim protection and consistently improved throughout his freshman season. While he shot 68% from the field as a freshmen, Poeltl remains a work in progress on the offensive end. He does not have a particular skill or move that permits him to find an easy basket, yet he rebounds his position and moves without the ball to remain efficient at scoring without needing the ball. On the defensive end, he has good hands and is both a rim and lane protector. The latter is an underrated quality rarely found in younger players. Poeltl has the highest floor of the returning sophomores and should be the first one selected next June.
Maryland's Melo Trimble is my second-favorite sophomore although most scouts have him as a second-round choice. Melo needs to grow in his distribution of the basketball but his potential is enormous. Trimble is held up defensively by his lack of size but is completely unafraid of taking big shots. He projects similarly both in his strength and weaknesses to former Michigan prospect Trey Burke. While that may be scary as a top-5 selection, it could make the Maryland point guard a steal late in the first round.
Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (Kansas), Domantas Sabonis (Gonzaga), Justin Jackson (North Carolina), and Malik Pope (San Diego State) are all scout darlings who were limited in their production as freshmen but flashed various degrees of ability in their first season of college basketball. Pope could climb boards the fastest as his athleticism and shooting ability fit the Paul George/Jimmy Butler/Kawhi Leonard profile that NBA teams are now properly valuing. Sabonis needs to show more skill away from the paint on both ends of the floor and Jackson needs to play with a better motor on a very talented Tar Heel team. Mykhailiuk remains a mystery at the college level but will either be quickly exposed or wildly applauded as he gains minutes for the Jayhawks in his sophomore season.
Despite popular belief, college upperclassmen continue to make an impact in the NBA from reigning MVP and NBA champion Stephen Curry to the numerous significant role players who make a greater impact on rookie contracts than many of their more hyped freshman counterparts. The depth of upperclassmen in this group is average with no guaranteed lottery picks returning. However, there are four prospects that enter the season on the lottery radar.
Michigan shooting guard Caris LeVert was a favorite prospect of mine last season prior to an injury cutting his junior season short. He disappointed a little bit in his brief time in the leading role in Ann Arbor but could shoot and defend his way into being a top-10 selection this season. Fellow Big 10 power forward Nigel Hayes emerged from prospect obscurity last season with Wisconsin and scouts are finally evaluating him as a first-round choice. He is an ideal power forward for pace-and-space basketball who should be able to legitimately defend and rebound while knocking down open looks.
Providence's Kris Dunn is the best returning player in major college hoops that many fans do not know. He is an outstanding defender with elite hands, feet, and length for a point guard. While he needs to grow in making better decisions with the basketball, he is a talented distributor who can make open looks. Of the upperclassmen returning, Dunn has the most potential to be a star at the next level. Oklahoma shooting guard Buddy Hield is a good candidate to win the Naismith Award in his senior season but most scouts do not view him as a first-round choice. In a draft with many variables, he is a late lottery pick entering the season due to his athleticism and shooting stroke.
Other upperclassmen to keep an eye on is almost anyone playing for North Carolina, Vanderbilt center Damian Jones, and Indiana junior Troy Williams. Two players that continue to be undervalued are Louisiana-Lafayette senior Shawn Long and Villanova junior Josh Hart. Mark those down as two prospects that are off of many boards but should hear their name called on draft night. Additionally, Kentucky small forward Alex Poythress was just beginning to realize the promise of his talent before last season's ACL injury. A healthy and productive season would make him a fast-rising prospect among scouts.
THE INTERNATIONAL CONTINGENT
After the previously mentioned Dragan Bender, the international class lacks the depth of recent seasons. Every year, a couple of international players ride a wave of productivity into the first round despite being unrated at this time of year. Even with the assumption that such players should emerge, this class is not particularly strong.
Turkish shooting guard Furkan Korkmaz is the likeliest international player to be selected after Bender and a strong lottery candidate. The 6'7 shooter has length and plus athleticism to complement a strong shooting stroke. He has a strong ambition to play in the NBA but is woefully thin and struggles in action where there is not much space. In a draft weak on shooters, some team will be willing to bet on his physical development helping him develop his weaknesses as he matures.
Zhou Qi is an intriguing 7'2 Chinese center with some reasonable skill away from the basket. He has been injury prone in international events which has to be a little scary for some teams. Brazilian George de Paula is a raw point guard whose performances against other prospects has been uneven. If developed properly, he could become a strong defensive-oriented point guard with the ability to defend multiple positions. Among a pack of a dozen additional prospects that could find themselves rising into first-round selections, Russian small forward Alexsandar Vezenkov and Bosnian small forward Nedim Buza are the two that I am most interested to follow.
The 2016 NBA Draft Class lack any real identity but certainly one will emerge in the next few months. From what I have seen of the incoming freshmen class, more of them will struggle to be productive than live up to expectations. As a result, the class overall will be one of the weaker drafts of the last decade. With 12 teams having dealt (with protections in most cases) away 2016 first-round picks already, the 2016 NBA draft could have more selections made by teams who acquired a pick than those using their original pick. Unless some surprises arise early in this season, expect more picks to move as teams look to slide out of the guaranteed contracts of the late first round in order to chase 2016 free agents.