We're going to try something new here at the Box and One... a rundown of NBA prospects to watch based on college conferences. Our goal is always to add insight into the "how" and "why" of what prospects show in college -- to combine knowledge of the collegiate system with how it could help or hinder guys looking to be drafted.
These conference rundowns are a combination of highlighting prospects and discussing system from the teams in those leagues. The fifth stop on our tour is in the ACC. The conference has long been home to elite prospects and the best of the best; that perception has changed recently. Teams like Virginia and Florida State win on their team cultures and defensive identity. Up-and-down natures of places like North Carolina, Louisville and Miami make the conference hard to predict from a scouting standpoint and can lower the degree of difficulty of running through the conference gauntlet.
What are we watching for, and who might be able to separate themselves through the year? We'll give you a quick preview and go team-by-team through styles and prospects.
Quick Team Guide
Duke - Coach K always struggles out of the gate to figure out his team of one-and-dones. This year may be no exception, especially with their multi-week COVID interruption. They're long and talented as always, though the mesh of their shooters and buy-in on defense is what matters most. Might be the weakest Duke team in the low post in 25 years.
Virginia - Identity. Slow-down pack-line defense is always the biggest key for Virginia. They're perennially the best defensive team in the nation and play in the 40s or 50s. Their offensive identity has morphed the last few years -- was a Mover-Blocker offense only, has included some ball screen motion and 5-out pass-and-cut since. Guys always do better offensive in the pros than in Charlottesville; don't let their lack of numbers impact scouting.
Florida State - Unique defensive group. They switch everything on-ball and off-ball. Tenet of Leonard Hamilton's approach is to rely on depth, so they play 10-12 guys routinely. They're supremely long and athletic, using that in switches to overwhelm. Take the offense where they get it, thriving in transition and off-ball cutting.
North Carolina - Pace and offensive rebounding on offense. They crash the glass like none other and play two bigs. Gaudy numbers from bigs get put up, but guards suffer with a lack of space in the lane to create for others.
Louisville - Chris Mack has done a sensational job winning games. They run a Princeton-esque offense with cutters around the high post and lots of screen-the-screener actions. Tough defensive group.
Miami (FL) - Atrocious start to the year from a shooting perspective. Have some talent, but inability to make an open shot holds down their half-court upside. Excellent half-court defensive group who plays almost exclusively man.
Clemson - This is their year thanks to the presence of senior Aamir Simms. He unlocks them to do a lot of different things on both ends, and Brad Brownell has embraced that unique nature. Have been excellent on defense early.
Virginia Tech - High-octane offense. Shoot it really well, play with great pace in transition and make the most of their lack of talent. Not a very good defensive unit, but they play only man-to-man.
Georgia Tech - Unique defensive group who zones a ton, mostly with a 1-3-1 and 2-3. They do a lot of stuff to keep offenses off-balance and then play in transition. Combine that with solid guard play and they can create some havoc on any given night.
Notre Dame - Mike Brey doesn't give a shit about defense. They work on offense all practice and run a really nice blend of packages built around screening for shooters and spread ball screens. They mix up their defense between man and zone a ton as a way of keeping teams off-balance, but aren't good at either.
NC State - Kevin Keatts is back to pressing, the identity that got him the job for the Wolfpack. They press and play man and try to turn over their opponents. Strangely, they've been really efficient in the half-court on offense this year, which gives them a chance to rise into the top-half of the league. Very good PNR group.
Syracuse - We know the drill at this point. Jim Boeheim only plays that unique 2-3 zone. They have become more reliant on the 3-pointer on offense in recent years. There's some real talent for creators on this team, but I still believe that playing within this system and program hinders their development for the pros.
Pittsburgh - After a rough early-season loss, they've really rebounded well. Jeff Capel is a good defensive coach. The NCAA granting Nike Sibande eligibility gives them a chance to hang closer to the mid-tier than the bottom. They've won games by being a good defensive group and limiting second-chance points.
Boston College - Don't let the numbers fool you. Jim Christian and BC played a brutal schedule this year, hoping it would prepare them for ACC play. They have good guard play and a coach who runs good stuff. But they're bad defensively and outmatched skill-wise.
Wake Forest - Rebuilding year after mass exodus on transfer market following a coaching change. Don't expect much from the Demon Deacons this year with COVID interruptions and a lack of preseason for Coach Forbes to get his foundation built.
Duke: Fr. F Jalen Johnson, Fr. PG Jeremy Roach, Fr. CG DJ Steward, So. F Matthew Hurt, So. W Wendell Moore
Mike Krzyzewski always has talent in Durham; that'll never change. With three very good freshmen and a couple sophomore holdovers from last season, there's a ton of talent that will command scouts at every game they plan in.
I like to think of the team in terms of fit, and that requires going layer-by-layer.
First is the freshman combo of Jalen Johnson and Jeremy Roach. Roach, a game-managing point guard who has recently been moved into the starting lineup, is a great pick-and-roll playmaker who, sadly, doesn't have a PNR big to partner with. The major lottery talent is Jalen Johnson, a playmaking frontcourt athlete who thrives in transition or the ball in his hands. Think of the fit with Johnson and Roach like Ben Simmons with Ricky Rubio. There's only one ball for the two to share, and neither are especially good off-ball.
The key to unlocking their play is in the shooting of frontcourt stretch shooter Matthew Hurt. The sophomore is a really good shooter with a slower stroke. Play him and Johnson together at the 4 and 5, and Duke has their most mobile, modern, spacing-friendly lineup that benefits Johnson most.
They've gone to the 4-5 PNR in crunch time several times already this year.
From an individual level, Johnson is a clear lottery talent, combining great playmaking with size and OK scoring on the interior. But in order for him to reach his ceiling and knock on the top-five consistently, he'll need help from his teammates to shoot the ball well and give him enough space to attack the basket and be a drive-and-kick threat.
Roach and Hurt are second-round guys. Hurt will likely come out this year no matter what; he was touted last year and disappointed. He can't survive another stay in college, especially if his shooting numbers are solid. Roach it's too soon to tell what his plans are, but playing second-fiddle to Johnson as a facilitator doesn't showcase his best talents.
The other two guys are solid scorers who could be better than the opportunities they get at Duke, where the offense is (wisely) built around the first three. DJ Steward is a high-level shooting combo guard who is averaging 12.5 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.5 steals and shooting 37% from 3. I actually like Steward as a fringe first-round prospect. He's a tad undersized at only 6'2", but the guy can clearly shoot and rebounds very well for his size. I don't worry too much about him playing the 2-guard spot.
As for Moore, it's been one disappointment after another. I wasn't high on him last year as a prospect (he was in the mid-70s on our board before withdrawing from draft consideration) and not much has changed. His minutes (20.3 per game) are going to senior role player Jordan Goldwire (31.3 per game) because Moore isn't a reliable shooter or defender. As a wing, I'm not sure what he brings to the table.
There are other names worth knowing on the board, as Duke always has a super talented roster. Henry Coleman and Mark Williams are big men who were top-50 guys in this recruiting class. Neither have impressed, nor has forward Jaemyn Brakefield.
Virginia: Sr. P Jay Huff, Sr. F Sam Hauser, Jr. W Trey Murphy, Fr. CG Reece Beekman
I wouldn't be surprised if Virginia has zero guys drafted this year. I also wouldn't be surprised if Jay Huff manages to carve out a role as an NBA backup after leaving Virginia. He has most skills needed from a modern big... he shoots it well (43.8% from 3 on two attempts a game), blocks shots at a high rate (2.3 blocks) while anchoring an elite defense and is an efficient finisher (78.9% at the rim). Analytically, he'll test so well that he should sneak into the second-round, despite being a senior.
I'm not a Hauser guy. The bloom is falling off the rose, and inside-outside scoring forwards don't always have seamless transitions if they aren't great athletes. He'll get exposed on defense. But Murphy, a lightning-quick scorer who is blazing hot from 3 to start the year, has a modern appeal. He's a big wing with guard skills, shoots it and obviously plays in a system that has seen efficient offensive players explode at the next level (Klay Thompson, Joe Harris, Malcolm Brogdon).
âBeekman is a long-term guy I'm infatuated with. There are a few young guys who will need to earn their minutes and have time to develop (Beekman, Jabri Abdur-Rahim, Kadin Shedrick) that have the makings of NBA role players. As a reminder whenever watching Virginia: they play in the 40s and 50s. Raw numbers (volume of 3-pt. attempts, points per game, assists) aren't very indicative of what they can do. Per-100 possession metrics are where to look with this team.
Florida State - Fr. ATH Scottie Barnes, Jr. F Raiquan Gray
Barnes is a lottery talent. His natural athleticism and playmaking are a unique combo for frontcourt guys. But the lack of shooting is a concern. I won't rehash things here that I've already written about in longform. Read my whole piece on Barnes here.
The major takeaway is that, in the Seminoles attack, we'll see Barnes play elite defense and prove his value as a switchable defender. Regardless of how the jumper and self-creation goes, he's a beast defensively that should be considered in similar ways Isaac Okoro was in 2020.
The other freak athlete here is Baby Zion, aka Jr. F Raiquan Gray. Gray is 6'8", 260 pounds and is what you get when you limit Zion's vertical. He's not a very good shooter, but averages 2.7 slocks and rebounds it well. I don't really have him in draft territory at the moment, but a few solid performances could make him a physical specimen some team is willing to take a chance on.
North Carolina - Fr. CG Caleb Love, Fr. PG RJ Davis, Fr. P Day'Ron Sharpe, Sr. P Garrison Brooks, So. P Armando Bacot, Jr. W Leaky Black
What do you get when your three most productive players are big men?
A horrid offense. The Tar Heels lead the ACC in many categories like blocks, offensive rebounds, two-point attempts and overall FGA. But it's all a mirage, a product of their horrible spacing and constant two-big lineups. As a result, I'm super skeptical of guys like Sharpe, Bacot and Brooks. Sharpe is the youngest (and most raw offensively) to the point where I haven't seen many skills that would lend him to translate to the modern NBA. Sharpe's motor is pretty insane, though.
The tough part is in what this does for NBA lotto talent Caleb Love. Love is the latest in a recent string of Tar Heels point guards who have dealt with the poor spacing, seen their lotto talents get held back, and then explode after a year or two in the NBA. The recent success of Coby White, and the positive rookie experience of Cole Anthony in Orlando, are leading me to believe that Love shouldn't be penalized for the circumstances he plays in.
Love is shooting it really, really poorly and has recently been demoted to a bench role. He's also high on turnovers -- again, if you ask me, it's a product of the system. But the kid is shooting 27.6% from the field, so it's hard not to be skeptical of the lottery fit. He's falling down boards.
RJ Davis is one of the most prolific scorers in New York high school history. He's small and thin, but it's no surprise to me that he's taking over in a positive way while Love struggles. Davis (8.3 points, 2.4 assists) hasn't shot it better or avoided turnovers that much better than Love, but the thrives in transition. He'll likely be a multi-year college player.
Leaky Black starts on the wing. He's long and intriguing, runs the wings hard and is a great help defender. He's more of a strong defensive prospect than anything else; the fact he's playing a large role at Carolina and is being counted upon says more about where the team is at than Black as a legitimate prospect. He's got all the tools to be a great, great wing defender.
Louisville: So. PG David Johnson, So. W Samuell Williamson
Perhaps no prospect was more disappointing last year than David Johnson. Highly hyped as a big, facilitating point guard, he struggled as a freshman on a top-10 team. His decision-making, off-ball shooting and turnovers were all off. Way off. He was benched and played a minor role on an experienced team.
Year Two has brought similar lows but much higher highs. The inconsistency is maddening, though you can still see the positives shine through. After a poor start, Johnson is shooting 45.7% from 3 and is in the midst of an incredibly hot streak. His assist-to-turnover is even, but solid finishing and shooting upside are really intriguing.
He showed both against Boston College, comfortably pulling from deep when they zoned the Cardinals:
His lows are... pretty low. He shot it horribly, without confidence and had seven turnovers against a Wisconsin team whose talent level and size mimic what they'll see routinely in the ACC. It was a major red flag game that showed a lot of the same issues from last year:
The point here: it will take a full year for the field to really level out on Johnson. I'm thinking the shooting comes back down to earth. I'm anticipating he has some really good performances that show lottery upside and intrigue. But it will take a while before I trust who he is, one way or the other.
Williamson is a long, slashing wing who brings much of their toughness and defensive identity to the table. He's a really good finishing and rebounding wing, but not too high on my prospect database.
Miami (FL) - Fr. ATH Earl Timberlake, So. W Harlond Beverly, So. CG Isaiah Wong
The Hurricanes don't shoot the ball well. But they make up for it with unique length and athleticism. Wong is the team's most consistent scorer, averaging 17.5 per game and hitting 58% of his twos. He's not an efficient 3-point threat, and his volume is higher than it should be. There's not a ton of buzz around Wong as a draft pick, but I do have some fascination with how he might pop in a system with more shooting. He's a really good athlete, a Philly tough point guard and knows how to attack the lane. I'm shooting this kid far up my boards.
Beverly is another big, physical wing. His shooting (21.2% on 3 attempts per game) is pretty poor and his finishing far below par. He has all the tools to be great on defense, though I'm seeing an early-season surge of play when Timberlake was out as more of a flash in the pan than sustainable.
As for Timberlake, he's the most intriguing guy here with the rare combination of athleticism and passing. He's a strong 6'6" who can play the 3 or the 4, blades teams up as a playmaker and makes plays happen on defense (2.6 slocks per game). I had Timberlake as a fringe first-rounder coming into the season, dependent on his shooting. It hasn't looked great, either in spot-ups or off the dribble. But Timberlake is still intriguing because of how well he passes it:
Clemson: Sr. ATH Aamir Simms
Every once in a blue moon, Clemson gets a really good player who turns into a pro prospect. When they do, everything is built around him as a means of cashing in and promoting their success. Simms is the guy this year, a returning All-ACC performer from last season who is monstrous, well-rounded and a good fit for the NBA game.
Simms is averaging 12.6 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.7 blocks. The 6'8" power 4 is also shooting 35% from 3 on a couple attempts a night, and converts his free throws north of 80%.
Functionality is a big piece for me, and Simms shows some really, really good short roll playmaking, open floor facilitating and skills that allow him to be used in so many ways:
I don't think Simms is more than a second-round prospect, but I do find his game intriguing. What the ACC lacks in consistent shooting they make up for with size and playmaking combos. Simms is the most polished of these guys with little risk. He may never score 20 points in an NBA game, though -- he's a role player and garbage man in the frontcourt.
Virginia Tech: None
Notre Dame: None
NC State: None
Three teams with good talent in the conference but lacking true pro prospects. Virginia Tech and NC State are balanced attacks with coaches who need to get the most out of their groups to compete. No single player takes the spotlight there. NC State senior Devon Daniels is a big scoring guard, but is too old for draft circles to pay much note.
Notre Dame has a few guys who are well outside the top-100 but will have professional careers somewhere. Prentiss Hubb and Nate Laszewski can score it, and shooting combo Cormac Ryan is a sniper. The Irish aren't interested in playing defense, which is typical for a Mike Brey team, and hurts their overall upside for the NBA.
Syracuse: Fr. W Kadary Richmond
When I was in graduate school, I did a study on Syracuse player success rates in the NBA based on relativity to draft position and relativity to staying power in the NBA for second contracts based on their role. No major college program who sent at least ten players pro since 2000 had a worse score than the Orange.
The 2-3 zone is legitimately damaging, not as much for the lack of defensive instincts as how they do so little to play against good man-to-man in practice every day. It sets guys back for when they enter the NBA, and because they teach zone so much and are unique, the skill development side drops. Guys who come out of there continually disappoint.
âThat's why Kadary Richmond isn't high on my list. He's a fascinating point-wing with 3.4 assists per game, but there are legitimate concerns about his jumper (15.4%) being the one skill that holds him back. Too many red flags for me in areas that I'm simply more drawn to.
Pittsburgh: So. F Justin Champagnie
Pittsburgh freshman William Jeffress could be a pro guy and is definitely worth following, but not in the class of 2021. Nike Sibande is a freak athlete but doesn't quite have the polish yet.
The guy who is bursting onto the scene is Justin Champagnie. It's only been six games for the Panthers, who are now on pause, but he's put up 17.8 points and 12.3 rebounds per game, while shooting 57% inside the arc. The shot needs to start falling, but he's got all the makings of a competitive, brutish, undersized 4-man. I'm not sure he's a legitimate draft prospect through only six games, but he's caught my eye.
Boston College: None
Wake Forest: None
At the bottom of the ACC are teams building solid rosters of college guys but lacking in that elite potential.
Boston College has a ton of guard play that's pretty good, though no individual stands out. Wake Forest is entering a total rebuild.