Turning the page to 2022, the pandemic still hangs over this crop of talent like a storm cloud. Last season's pandemic-shortened season stifled the results from many young players who were robbed of a traditional preseason process. Others took the opportunity to get an extra year of eligibility and open transfer rules to find an advantageous home that could more readily prepare them for professional waters.
The major theme either way: this is a fairly depleted class of returners when it comes to high-end pro talent. There were very few with first-round likelihood who came back to school. But that doesn't mean the ripple effects of the pandemic stop there. The incoming freshman class, for as highly touted as the elite talents are, remain underscouted by NBA teams due to the cancellation of their final AAU seasons en masse and the lack of in-person scouting as a result of COVID. For those who don't quite reach first round status as freshmen, many could be looking to return to school in 2022-23 to increase their stock.
What does that mean? Expect a decidedly older flavor to the second round next year. As we preview the best returning prospects in college basketball, the shortage of first-round alphas gives way to a field chocked full with second-round hopefuls. As we've always seen, preseason perceptions often get shattered and guys rise or fall with regularity.
The previous ten prospects we looked at had very wide draft ranges. Not to say that the next ten we'll breakdown here do not, but I have much more confidence that these will either end up drafted or are fairly known commodities that cede the surprise factor and are able to withstand a tough performance or two. A few guys with first-round talent and upside, but this is a tier with some solid role players or guys who I really believe in based on their prior collegiate performances.
20. Hyunjung Lee, Davidson
I'm not sure there's a more consistent shooter in the college realm right now than Lee, a sniper out of Davidson. Playing in the oft-overlooked Atlantic 10 for a legendary coach in Bob McKillop, Lee gets a great deal of reps as a movement shooter off screens or a spot-up threat on the perimeter. As he projects to the league or professional ranks, he'll be a shooting specialist.
Last year, my affinity for Mitch Ballock lead him to garnering a top-50 ranking on my big board. Why? Shooting specialists have a role in the NBA to fill out rosters; they're incredibly useful end-of-bench pieces in case injuries strike the top of the order and offensive production goes down.
âEnter Lee, this year's version of the specialty shooter. He's going to finish this upcoming year, his junior season, with three year's worth of data to show his consistency. If the numbers are about where they have been, he'll be a tremendous second-round prospect.
Watching him play in the FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers solidified that what he does is more than just scheme at Davidson:
Lee will be a sleeper, and not receive the critical acclaim of guys he's ahead of on this list, such as Andre Curbelo, Hunter Dickinson, Drew Timme or Max Abmas. But Lee offers a clear NBA-caliber skill with solid size. Keep an eye on him.
19. Julian Champagnie, St. John's
There are a lot of people out there really high on Champagnie. A good shooter who put together some solid performances at St. John's, Champagnie decided to withdraw from the 2021 draft and return to Jamaica, NY for another season despite his brother leaving college (and signing with the Toronto Raptors). While Justin, Julian's brother, was a sleeper favorite of mine, Julian has some work to do to win me over.
He really isn't that impressive of an athlete. He shot 37.7% from 3 on really high volume, stuffed the stat sheet effectively and rebounded the ball very well for a wing. But his turnover rate was really high and he doesn't look like a massive NBA athlete to me.
Improved burst and quickness would propel him safely into the second round for me. He was somewhere in the 70s on this year's big board had he stayed in the draft. A year of improvement would move him up into the second.
18. Isaiah Mobley, USC
A year without playing in his younger brother's shadow should improve his draft stock, but Isaiah Mobley tipped us off that he's more than just second-fiddle to the newest Cleveland Cavalier with his play during the pre-draft circuit. He looked like he could turn into a highly skilled 4-man with craft, size and enough athleticism to make it, and was very impressive during the NBA Draft Combine scrimmages.
Isaiah is nowhere near as mobile or bursty as his brother, nor as dominant of a defender. But there's enough skill to accompany a solid 6'10" frame to bet on him. The issue for Isaiah is that he isn't that young: he'll turn 22 in September and that will lose some of the luster that other, younger guys have on this list.
Still, Mobley was 17-39 from 3 this year, has the size to play the 4 or the 5 and is a pretty good rebounder. He's a former top-20 recruit in his own right who could blossom with a larger role at USC this upcoming year. I like Mobley as a late-2nd round guy and think he should be pretty comfortably within that range next year.
17. Efe Abogidi, Washington State
Another one of my favorite sleepers, Efe Abogidi caught my attention this year and stands out as the typical big man prospect who doesn't go undrafted. Raw but blessed with great mobility, Abogidi is a shot-blocking natural. Give him a few years to develop and he's the right type of upside swing. The Nigerian is a strong 6'10" for a freshman, and shot an impressive 59.6% from inside the arc. While he wasn't very effective from downtown (15-55, 27.3%), his willingness to take them on volume is what is really appealing.
Essentially, Abogidi is the really raw rim-protecting stretch-5 that can hold a ton of appeal. Another year of development for a coaching staff that is really good with internal growth should place him firmly into the second-round tier. I'm not sure if his offense pops enough or the polish develops quickly to push him higher, though building on a freshman campaign of 9, 7 and 1.3 blocks is a great place to start.
16. Mark Williams, Duke
Over the final six games of the year, Mark Williams finally started to break out for Duke. During that six game span, Williams averaged 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.7 blocks per game while shooting 75% from the field. That streak was capped off by a 23 point, 19 rebound performance in the ACC Tournament against Louisville, before Duke's run in the tourney (and season) was cut short due to a COVID pause. One more win, or stellar performance from Williams, and he'd likely be getting lottery discussions.
The energy and offensive rebounding is his meal ticket to an NBA role. He's not got great touch, but at his size (a true 7'0") and mobility, the motor and movement are the obvious comparative advantages he'll have at the 5. The defensive activity and upside is encouraging, and there's enough here to suggest Williams can be switchable in the right situation. Lots of defensive aptitude raising his ceiling and giving me hope that he can be an NBA prospect.
Still, without the offensive glass his offense is far from generational. I'd expect Williams to be more of a fringe first-round guy, but someone who could easily establish himself as the best domestic big man outside the fab freshmen of Chet Holmgren and Duke teammate Paolo Banchero.
15. Allen Flanigan, Auburn
Going into his junior near now, we've bee able to see plenty of Allen Flanigan. He made major strides last year at Auburn, averaging 14.3 points and 2.9 assists per game while shooting 34% from 3. Those numbers are sturdy, though they do little to get me excited for the pros.
What Auburn offers Flanigan is consistently being flanked by top-tier NBA talent where eyeballs will find their way to his game. He won't slip through the cracks. Additionally, the extra year will allow scouts to see him in many different settings. Last year, next to Sharife Cooper, Flanigan was an auxiliary threat and secondary playmaker; his spot-up game needed to be his bread-and-butter. This year, while Auburn is still filled with talented freshmen, the toolsy wing will have opportunities to diversify his game.
Put the two years together and we should have a fairly complete portfolio on Flanigan. Second round seems to be firmly in play, and if the shooting continues to increase, he'd be a tough guy to pass up on. There's a ton of athleticism here, great defensive potential: if the shooting comes, he's a fringe first-round 3-and-D guy. So many tools.
14. Scotty Pippen Jr., Vanderbilt
Here's a decision to return to school that I was surprised by. Scotty Pippen Jr. averaged 21 points per game at Vanderbilt last year, was efficient from the field, had a positive A:TO and poached 1.8 steals per game. He was one of my favorite sleepers entering the 2021 cycle, but he chose to return to Vanderbilt and play for embattled coach Jerry Stackhouse.
I thought Pippen was good, but not great, in the draft combine scrimmages. He looked the part of an aggressive scorer, which we saw at Vandy. But he wasn't great as a passer and does play a tad slower than you'd like to see from a point guard without elite size.
In his two collegiate seasons, Pippen has shot over 35% from 3 on good volume each year, and is very consistent off the dribble. He has those traits we look for in a scoring guard. Now it comes down to speeding up the release a bit and diversifying his ability to make plays for others.
At Vandy, a team vastly underskilled in the SEC, we might not get that -- and for good reason. The Commodores are likely best-served with Pippen creating for himself more than others. That's what's head-scratching about the decision to return... I'm not sure the environment he's coming back to will be conducive to increasing his draft stock.
I remain high on SPJ as a prospect, though am certainly aware that his draft stock isn't very likely to skyrocket with another year in the SEC.
13. EJ Liddell, Ohio State
At 6'7" and 240 pounds, Liddell is an absolute hoss. He moves well, plays physically and has the inside-outside game to be a versatile piece for the Buckeyes. Shooting 34% from 3 on 80 attempts last year, there's enough perimeter prowess to view him as a guy who can be the stocky, stronger 4-man at the NBA level. Right now, I seem to have a love for guys who have the frame to be a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency small-ball 5 but are smaller, quicker and more apt to be a full-time 4 who can handle guarding 3s. Yes, that's a mouthful, but the league trending towards a blended 3 and 4 spot means small-ball 5s are guys who essentially defend three positions and can play on the perimeter offensively.
Liddell isn't just a big body. He's a really good defender, an underrated passer and gets to the free throw line a shit ton. Those qualities are ones that win my heart over. Good friend Dakota Schmidt wrote a fantastic piece on Liddell's defensive upside, honing in on Liddell he strikes me as the perfect versatile frontcourt piece for the next generation of basketball. A lot of folks may see him as someone without a true position, but I see the blend of what he can do as incredibly valuable when thinking about filling out a bench with a versatile piece.
12. Tyson Etienne, Wichita State
Meet the Tre Mann of the 2022 draft cycle, the one guy that trendy Twitter scouts will champion and casual fans will love for his highlights. Etienne a sniper with insane amounts of confidence, the keys to an offense and enough competition in-league for him to not be written off as a guy who can't hold up in the NBA.
The range off the dribble is pretty damn attractive:
The frontrunner for AAC Player of the Year, Etienne will put up numbers and continue to drop bombs from far beyond the arc.
Now the grievances: the kid simply doesn't finish at the rim very well. It's a baseline NBA skill that is hard to succeed without. He made only 43.5% of his finishes at the basket, and doesn't have a reliable floater game to compensate: 2-12 on runners.
That's what we'll be watching for him in Wichita next year: improvement on the interior. There's little doubt he can score and is a score-first guy in the same mold as Mann or Bones Hyland. I love that particular skill, but want to see it combined with defense, playmaking or finishing first.
11. Marcus Bagley, Arizona State
Bagley has everything you'd want on paper from a modern scoring wing. Good size, smooth shooting, enough athleticism to get by, length, handling and fluidity on the move. He's a legitimate 6'8", comes from a hoops family and is still young.
The practice of last season was tough. Bagley only played in 12 games, and he was really inefficient scoring the ball within them. To be fair, playing next to scoring-minded guards like Josh Christopher and Remy Martin make it tough to find shots, and there were periods of time when he was pretty good off screens.
But the finishing has to improve. The defensive buy-in has to improve. As of now, Bagley isn't really a threat to go in the first round for me; he'll have to prove his way into the mix, shoot better than 16-34 from two-point range and thrive in a system more designed for his success.
âArizona State should provide that now. Christopher is in the NBA and Remy Martin left for Kansas. That's why Bagley is still top-15 on this list, but not quite a guy I have circled as a threat for the first.