Three months of speculation remain before the 2019 NBA Draft arrives and, until the draft lottery commences, there is even more uncertainty with regard to how the Atlanta Hawks will approach the festivities. However, the 2019 NCAA Tournament gets underway this week and, on the eve of that always entertaining event, it is time to check in on some players to (closely) monitor before their collegiate careers come to an end.
During the NBA All-Star Break, we put together a quick list of college games to consume with an eye toward draft night and, this time around, the vast majority of first-round caliber prospects will be in action within the confines of one of the great American sporting events. Let’s enjoy this one together, even as the Hawks are still playing real, live basketball games in the coming days.
The World’s Most Obvious List
At this juncture, the Hawks don’t know where they will be selecting in the first round of the draft but, in general, the team’s own pick projects to be somewhere in the top eight and, if a second pick conveys from the Dallas Mavericks, that is also likely to be a top ten selection. With that in mind, here is an alphabetical list of players (we’ll have more on these guys later) taking part in March Madness that could be in play with either of those choices.
- RJ Barrett, Duke
- Jarrett Culver, Texas Tech
- Rui Hachimura, Gonzaga
- De’Andre Hunter, Virginia
- Keldon Johnson, Kentucky
- Nassir Little, North Carolina
- Ja Morant, Murray State
- Cameron Reddish, Duke
- PJ Washington, Kentucky
- Zion Williamson, Duke
For each region, we will highlight anyone that is currently in my personal top 75 (i.e. draftable players in a 60-pick draft) for 2019. Keep in mind that the Hawks also have a trio of second-round selections to deploy in June, so there are story lines to monitor outside of the lottery.
- Nickeil Alexander-Walker (G, Virginia Tech) - Given where the Hawks are likely to be drafted, Alexander-Walker doesn’t seem to be an option. He projects (at least for me) as a mid-to-late first rounder but he’s talented enough for a team to fall in love in the late lottery.
- R.J Barrett (F/G, Duke) - After entering the season at No. 1 on a lot of draft boards, Barrett isn’t the best prospect on his own team. That isn’t a slight on its own (we’ll get to Zion momentarily) but there is some reason to believe that Barrett’s playing style isn’t conducive to ultra-high upside when translating to the NBA. He’s still a top-five pick in this class but fit may be an issue.
- Bruno Fernando (C, Maryland) - I’ve come around on Fernando, to the point where he is a definite first-round pick after not being in that category a few months ago. Still, it will be interesting to see how he fares in March, with some viewing him as a potential lottery pick if everything falls into place.
- Tre Jones (G, Duke) - Jones has to be able to shoot and that is the biggest question mark. That’s common knowledge at this point but, even as the No. 4 prospect on his own team, he should be a first-rounder on the strength of his defense and overall acumen. From a Hawks’ standpoint, he wouldn’t be in play unless things got weird and he fell outside the top 30 but, if that were to happen, he’d be a potential fit as a backup point guard type.
- Jordan Nwora (F, Louisville) - Scouts are split on Nwora, with some viewing him as a potential first-rounder and others seeing him as a prospect outside the top 50. I tend to lean toward the skeptical side but, considering Atlanta’s trio of second round picks, he’d be an interesting player to follow. Nwora has an interesting offensive skill set and the potential for versatility.
- Miye Oni (G/F, Yale) - A prospect from Yale? A prospect from Yale! Oni is a legitimately impressive athlete, with real length and a strong physical profile. He can also really play and the only big question is his shooting. That isn’t a unique setup for a prospect worthy of second-round consideration but he’d actually make sense in Atlanta in a lot of ways.
- Cameron Reddish (F, Duke) - We’ve discussed Reddish quite a bit in this space. In short, he’s an exceptionally talented forward prospect with great tools and the potential for two-way impact. He’s also someone that struggled mightily at times during his freshman season and red flags appear when the production is as underwhelming as it was for Reddish. He’s still a top-10 guy, to be sure, but there is fluidity in that range.
- Naz Reid (C, LSU) - Reid is really talented but in a way that doesn’t necessarily translate beautifully to the NBA game. Beyond that, he’d be a clunky fit in Atlanta with his limitations, but there is still some intrigue about what he could be if the pieces fall in place.
- Jalen Smith (C/F, Maryland) - Maryland’s “other” big man prospect isn’t as good as Fernando but he’s quite talented. There are some tweener vibes and, well, he may not declare for the draft. If he does, he’s worth a second-round investment somewhere.
- Zion Williamson (F, Duke) - We don’t need to waste much time here. He’s the best player in this class by a lot and should be the No. 1 pick no matter which team wins the draft lottery. Done and done.
- Dylan Windler (F, Belmont) - I’m not sure Windler can guard anyone but he can really shoot it and there’s enough size involved to make him a second-round option.
- Tyus Battle (G/F, Syracuse) - Battle missed two games in the ACC Tournament with a back injury but he’s rumored to be on track to play when the bright lights come on. For me, he’s a fringe second-rounder but some are much higher on the productive wing.
- Ignas Brazdeikis (F, Michigan) - If you think Brazdeikis can defend, he’s a top-35 or 40 prospect in this class. If you don’t, he may not be in the top 60.
- Jordan Caroline (F, Nevada) - The Martin twins get the headlines for Nevada but Caroline is their best prospect. He’s a modern player in that he can defend multiple positions, rebound and score when needed. He’s old (for a draft prospect), which is a drawback, but there’s something to like after pick No. 40.
- Brandon Clarke (F/C, Gonzaga) - Speaking of old prospects, Clarke has been one of the five best players in the country this season. That isn’t an overstatement. He isn’t seen on that level as a prospect, though, which makes sense given his age and shooting questions. At the very least, he’d be a heck of a fit in Atlanta with his defensive profile and is still undervalued nationally.
- Jarrett Culver (G/F, Texas Tech) - Culver isn’t a nuclear athlete and, if you want to penalize him for that, I understand it. What he is, though, is a prospect that does a ton of things well and that complete package is worthy of a top-eight pick in this class. He’s very good.
- Luguentz Dort (G, Arizona State) - After a hot start, some were calling for Dort to get lottery consideration. I never really saw that but he might be a late first-rounder anyway. That would basically take him off the table for the Hawks (barring trade) but he’s still an interesting prospect to monitor.
- Rui Hachimura (F, Gonzaga) - Hachimura will probably be the first Gonzaga player taken in the draft and, from a raw production standpoint, I’d understand that. Clarke is the better player right now and, for me, the better prospect, largely because defense still matters. Still, Hachimura is a lottery talent if he can figure out the defensive end. That is a big “if” but there’s still time.
- Markus Howard (G, Marquette) - Howard is really small and he’s a bit of a one-trick pony. It is nice to have that trick be perimeter shooting, where he can get his own shot and knock it down, but he’s probably a late second-round investment or nothing, and makes even less sense in Atlanta given the team’s current roster needs.
- Charles Matthews (G/F, Michigan) - Matthews is one of the best wing defenders in the country and the former Kentucky recruit is a tremendous athlete. He also has an intriguing offensive skill set that could unlock in small doses. The overarching question is his shooting and that is the difference between him being a top-25 prospect and a top-55 prospect. Best of luck.
- Ja Morant (G, Murray State) - At this point, there is a growing consensus that Morant could be the No. 2 pick overall and, at the very least, he’s a no-doubt top-five pick in June. He wouldn’t be a fit in Atlanta with his position (point guard) and defensive questions, but take advantage of Morant’s time in the tournament. It might be short, but it’ll be fun.
- Zach Norvell (G, Gonzaga) - Shooting is the calling card here and, even if Norvell probably shouldn’t declare for the draft, I think he’d get picked if he did.
- Shamorie Ponds (G, St. John’s) - The Hawks aren’t really in the market for a ball-dominant, scoring point guard, but Ponds is a draftable prospect. He’s also a lot of fun to watch.
- Jordan Poole (G, Michigan) - Poole probably needs another year in college but he’s also the kind of prospect that could go nuclear in the tournament and bump himself into the first round discussion. At the moment, he doesn’t do much outside of shoot/score, and that isn’t appealing to everyone.
- Killian Tillie (F, Gonzaga) - I wish Tillie would stay healthy because he’s really good. His versatility, rebounding and shooting would be a great mix as a pure role player on an NBA team but, at this point, I just don’t know if it will happen.
- Devon Dotson (G, Kansas) - I don’t think Dotson will necessarily declare this year but he could be a first rounder (probably on the later side) in the future. I’d be a little surprised if he made the leap to the lottery, simply due to lack of theoretical upside, but Dotson might be a long-term NBA backup and there is value in that.
- Quentin Grimes (G, Kansas) - Remember when Grimes was a projected lottery pick? Well, I do. He just hasn’t been very good at Kansas and, while other players can claim that same distinction, Grimes has been even worse and without the flash plays you would typically associate with a first-round pick. Given his pedigree and talent, there is reason to believe in him but for 2019 purposes, he’d be a second-rounder if he declared.
- Ashton Hagans (G, Kentucky) - It’s easy to love Hagans’ defense and that brings a higher floor than you might think. The other end is an adventure, though, and I think he’ll be back at Kentucky as a result.
- Tyrese Haliburton (G, Iowa State) - Casual fans don’t always notice Haliburton, particularly in the sea of perimeter talent at Iowa State. He’s an intriguing player, though, and one that plays with high basketball IQ on both ends. I’m not sure he should declare but, if he did, he’s a top-40 guy.
- Tyler Herro (G, Kentucky) - I didn’t think Herro was a first-rounder early in the season and I’m not convinced that he is now, but it’s definitely a possible outcome. His shooting is really valuable and, if you believe that his effort on defense will translate into effectiveness, you can see the two-way path in the league.
- Talen Horton-Tucker (G/F, Iowa State) - Scouts are all over the place on Horton-Tucker, with people I trust having him in the lottery (!) and others having him in the 40’s. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle but he’s arguably the most polarizing prospect in the class. It’s best to take a look for yourself.
- Cam Johnson (F, North Carolina) - Johnson is relatively ancient in draft terms (23 years old) after transferring from Pittsburgh and that will take away some of the shine. With that out of the way, he can really shoot it and he knows what he’s doing. Defense has been an issue but he doesn’t have a complete lack of tools and a late first round slot may be appropriate.
- Keldon Johnson (G/F, Kentucky) - This is a weird evaluation. Almost no one sees stardom in Johnson’s future, but almost everyone agrees he’s a lottery pick. It’s about floor and the fact that he plays a valuable (and crucial) position in the NBA, but it’s difficult to get overly excited. I understand that.
- Dedric Lawson (F, Kansas) - Lawson is a tremendously productive college player and that will earn him the benefit of the doubt to some degree. In contrast, I’m not really sure what role he fills in the NBA and I can’t see him being a top-40 pick without some growth as a shooter or on the defensive end.
- Nassir Little (F, North Carolina) - Little has been on the radar for quite some time but, at North Carolina, he’s been a pure supporting piece behind Cam Johnson and Luke Maye. As a result, many are skeptical of the freshman, simply because he didn’t play all that much and wasn’t insanely productive. I still maintain that he has real two-way upside, though, and he’s a lottery pick given the tools.
- Chuma Okeke (F, Auburn) - He’s not a high-usage type in the NBA but Okeke can do a lot of things and he benefits from where the game is going. At 6’8, he can defend multiple positions with force and I like his shooting stroke. He’d be an intriguing fit in Atlanta with a second round investment.
- Neemias Queta (C, Utah State) - You probably haven’t seen Queta play but, in short, he is 6’11 with a 7’5 wingspan and all kinds of defensive tools. He’s exceptionally raw right now but, quite honestly, he’d be worth a second-round flyer in 2019 and would be a potential first round prospect for 2020.
- Marial Shayok (G, Iowa State) - Shayok will be 24 (!) in July after a transfer from Virginia and that is something you just have to acknowledge. He’s a fun offensive prospect but there are defensive questions and, again, he’ll be 24 in July. He’s a late second-rounder.
- Matisse Thybulle (F/G, Washington) - Defense is undervalued and Thybulle is an elite defensive prospect. He’s quick, he’s long, he’s active and he’s productive on that end. Washington’s scheme can make it tough to gauge certain aspects but I have little doubt about Thybulle on that end. Can he make enough shots to be passable on offense? I think so, and he’s a first-rounder if that happens.
- P.J. Washington (F, Kentucky) - Washington has been insanely productive this year and you have to love his motor and rebounding. I’m a little bit skeptical of his offensive upside but, with where he’s likely to be drafted, the talented power forward doesn’t really have to bring all that much offensively. He won’t be available in Atlanta’s range but there is a lot to like.
- Coby White (G, North Carolina) - While I’m not quite on board with the rising notion that White is a top-10 pick, it is easy to see the talent. He’s explosive with the ball and, when his shot is falling, there isn’t much the opposition can do to stop him. From a Hawks perspective, though, the fit wouldn’t be great and I can’t see a scenario where I’d endorse Atlanta taking him with either of their projected lottery picks. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the ride.
- Carsen Edwards (G, Purdue) - Edwards can really score but he’s also 6’1 and needs the ball to be at peak effectiveness. That isn’t perfect but he’ll latch on somewhere and you can see a “microwave” role for him in the NBA if things go well.
- Ethan Happ (C, Wisconsin) - Earlier, I said I would highlight top-75 prospects in this space. Well, Happ is at No. 75. He probably isn’t an NBA player but he’ll be terrific in Europe and he’s been an excellent college player.
- De’Andre Hunter (F, Virginia) - Hunter might be the only first round pick in this entire region, which is kind of wild. He is a no-doubt top 10 guy for me, though, with defensive versatility, a good face-up game and the ability to make threes. He’s a role player, no doubt, but a high-level one that fits the modern game.
- Ty Jerome (G, Virginia) - It would’ve been unthinkable to me two years ago to consider Jerome as a top-40 prospect but that’s where he is for me. Some of that is underwhelming draft class but he can shoot and create with good size at a lead guard spot.
- Louis King (F, Oregon) - At 6’9 with a 7’1 wingspan, King has an intriguing profile and he could be a dangerous scorer at the next level. Beyond that, I’m not sure there is much to love but, in the absence of the injured Bol Bol, he is easily the guy to watch with Oregon in the tournament.
- Eric Paschall (F, Villanova) - With his lack of upside, I don’t see Paschall as a top-25 pick but he does fit the mold of a player that could be legitimately helpful right away in the NBA. He does a lot of things well, including shooting and defense, and only age and a lack of explosiveness really holds him back from a higher perch on prospect lists.
- Admiral Schofield (F/G, Tennessee) - We’ll get to his more publicized teammate in a moment but Schofield might actually be the better NBA prospect. It comes down to shooting, where Schofield is legitimately effective and, while I wish he was taller, his length should help to make up for some of that.
- Grant Williams (F, Tennessee) - Williams is an excellent college basketball player and I actually think he can stick in the NBA. He absolutely has to make jumpers, though, and that is the pivot point for him as a prospect.