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 final place on our tour is the Big Twelve, arguably the best conference in the country and a common home for NBA scouts to live. The consensus top prospect, two elite programs, five top-20 teams and so many really good coaches highlight this league that's strong throughout.
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
Baylor - Second-straight year as a top-5 program. Change came through shift from multiple zone looks (including 1-3-1) to a fierce "no-middle" defense. Have best backcourt combo in the conference, perhaps in the nation. Poised group that doesn't make many errors and flies around on D.
Kansas - Bill Self has embraced modern ball a bit more, moving from a 3-around-2 hi-lo offense to 4-out. They play more switchable wings 2 thru 4 and pressure, shoot it and spread teams out. Lack a rim protector who is elite for the first time in a decade, and don't have their typical top-tier NBA lottery talent/ heady game-manager at the point.
West Virginia - Oscar Tshiebwe's mid-season transfer is major news; WVU might be better. Their spacing was zapped playing Big O and Derek Culver together. Not a "press Virginia" team who picks up full all game, but are still hard-nosed on D and can apply smart pressure in the half-court.
Texas - Deepest team in the nation. Playing up-tempo basketball thanks to offensive influences from former G-League head coach Nevada Smith. Balancing three big men in meaningful way since two can shoot it. Experienced backcourt who create their own shots. Lots of ball screens on offense, terrific man-to-man team defensive unit.
Texas Tech - Always will be an elite defense under Chris Beard. Play that hard "no middle" scheme and are pretty long on the wings. Lack great offensive talent, and even further lack a game plan to highlight their best players -- run true off-ball screening motion despite few knockdown movement shooters. Play games in 50s and 60s.
Oklahoma State - It's the Cade show; they have solid talent around him at the guard spot. Good athleticism but don't use it a ton -- lots of zone in the half-court. With one elite player, you'd expect them to have better shooting around him, but are making the pieces work regardless. Top-tier talent keeps them in any game they play.
Oklahoma - Really good, well-rounded offensive group. Terrific shooting unit, and Lon Kruger always has fantastic spacing in his sets. What they lack in top-tier talent they make up for with experienced frontcourt production and balanced offense where everyone shoots. Austin Reaves might be most underrated college player in the nation.
TCU - Big drop-off follows Oklahoma to the league's bottom three. Fairly mundane production from a decently talented group that fits. More of an offensive group than a defensive one.
Iowa State - Really rough start for the Cyclones. Shooting the ball okay and been okay on offense, but not very good on defense. Do not have a rim protector and hemorrhage points at the bucket.
Kansas State - Lost a few games to D2 teams and struggle with their overall talent level. Have a one-man show in freshman PG Nijel Pack but nothing else around him.
Prospects to Know
Baylor: So. CG Jared Butler, Jr. CG Davion Mitchell
Baylor's backcourt is extremely potent. Jared Butler is a top-20 guy in this class for me, and his fit at Baylor is perfect. He shoots it and can play with another guard like Mitchell. He's a great on-ball creator who sees the game well and always finds open guys. Both he and Mitchell are fairly turnover-averse.
Best of all, both can guard and pick up pressure. They toggle between point and secondary guards, proving they can defend guys they'll see at the next level. Just a huge fan of this tandem.
Butler is the superior pro prospect due to his shooting, self-creation and slight size advantages. But Mitchell has potential as a disruptor, almost a Patrick Beverley-like role where he is out there to drill open shots in the corners and pester his man.
I think Butler is the perfect secondary playmaker for the next level and a guy who pairs well with a primary creator on the wing. His ability to make sound decisions at a controlled pace in the PNR while shooting is key. But what I love most is that he has his eyes on the rim to hit open teammates when standing on the perimeter:
Kansas: So. F Jalen Wilson, Jr. W Ochai Agbaji, So. W Christian Braun, Fr. W Bryce Thompson
The order of these guys has flip-flopped from the preseason to now. We'll start with the middle two in Agbaji and Braun. Both are shooting the ball pretty well this year. Braun is a shooting specialist who takes 65% of his attempts from 3. He's got solid size, is at 37.5% on the year and has been a solid playmaker in some instances.
Agbaji is much higher on my list than Braun simply because he's a multi-positional defender, great athlete and combines that with shooting 42.7% from 3 (on more attempts per game than Braun). The two have different roles and styles, though I definitely favor Agbaji's fit. He's not young, so he likely can't crack the first-round.
The disappointment of the group has been Thompson, who was a top-30 recruit coming into Kansas and was high on my preseason board. An injury has kept him out of the lineup lately, though when he's played he's been very pedestrian. He struggles to shoot, isn't a great finisher, has some mental lapses on the other end and has a negative assist to turnover ratio. It's looking like he definitely needs another year at Kansas.
The pleasant surprise comes from Jalen Wilson, all the makings of a modern stretch-4. He combines all the things I like in a 4-man: shooting, rebounding, solid auxiliary playmaking and PNR ability, interior and perimeter defense and long arms. He's shooting 36% from 3 and starting to cool after a hot start; if he dips below 33% the shooting may not be as secure to translate.
âBut he's a really good passer off the bounce. There's rebound-and-run potential, as well as some PNR playmaking, to go with his big frame:
He's an NBA 4 who played like a big win. I like that, and I like him, as a fringe first-round guy.
Texas: Fr. ATH Greg Brown, So. P Kai Jones, Sr. CG Matt Coleman, Sr. P Jericho Sims, Jr. PG Andrew Jones
The Longhorns are deeper than people think, especially in the frontcourt. Their backcourt is controlled by Coleman, Courtney Ramey and Andrew Jones, three stellar upperclassmen. No one really stands out; Coleman has thrived in the spotlight more, Jones was initially the best prospect and has had an unbelievable journey as a cancer survivor, and Ramey is leading the team in 3-point shooting at the moment.
The focus on this team, and why they are must-see TV for scouts, is on their stable of bigs. Jericho Sims is a serviceable big; given the program's history of success with rim-running bigs, there's a chance he sticks as a 10-Day or training camp invitee.
Brown is a freak athlete who is drilling threes and jumpers right now. When he's hot, he's hot. Combine that with flashes of unreal athletic versatility and there's a ton to like about him. He's a bit of what I think many online draft pundits thought Patrick Williams would be.
With one big exception: Williams shares the ball. Brown's assist metrics are at record lows, and his lack of willingness to share or use his athleticism to create for others scares me a bit. He's a lottery talent with what he can do naturally, though still needs to learn consistency and how to play his game.
Jones is the mild-mannered but vital cog in their wheel. He averages 2.6 slocks per 40 minutes, shoots 44% from 3 and finishes 69% of his shots inside the arc. While that's nice, the improvement from freshman year to sophomore season makes him really intriguing. There's a bit of Zach Collins backup mystique around him, but if there's one thing I will say about Jones, it's that he impacts the game without having to stuff the stat sheet or have a single play run for him. NBA teams will fall in love with this combo of size and shooting (and perhaps in the first round):
West Virginia: So. CG Miles McBride, Sr. P Derek Culver
We could talk about the departed Oscar Tshiebwe here, but with recent news that he's committed to Kentucky, it seems like he won't be entering the 2021 NBA Draft. His scouting points become somewhat moot in the interim, at least for the focus of this piece.
The two remaining NBA prospects for this year greatly benefit from his departure. One is Derek Culver, a skilled scoring big who operates really well within ten feet. He's a walking double-double, a good defender and a tough matchup. As a senior, I'm not sure what he'll do. The extra year of eligibility in Morgantown, and the chance to be really good as the focal point now that Oscar is gone, might be more appealing than trying to scrap and claw his way to an NBA contract.
McBride is a guy I've long been high on. He's so active defensively in the typical West Virginia way that, at the very least, he has a role as a perimeter disruptor. His wingspan isn't officially measured, but could be north of 6'10". His multi-positional defense, strength, freakish athleticism and drive to be an asshole to anyone with the ball makes him easy to fall in love with.
He's also going to see a huge leap forward thanks to the departure of Tshiebwe. Gone are closed driving lanes, two bigs trying to post or hi-lo on each other, and plethora of tough-twos. He should get to the rim more, or find more kicks to shooters. He's averaging 15 points and 4 assists right now; those numbers could rise.
If they do and his shooting stays high (43.2% from deep) then he's a first-round pick. I don't see too many holes in his game. He's not the polished PNR player many guards are coming out of college, but he scores and finds a way to impact the game on almost every possession. I'll take a chance on him.
Texas Tech: Jr. CG Mac McClung, So. W Terrence Shannon
Speaking of impactful transfers, Nimari Burnett recently left Lubbock and won't look back. What's next for Burnett remains a mystery, but an attempt to jump pro isn't out of the question. That would be a mistake in my mind. The 6'4" 5-star combo guard was a disaster on offense, showing just how far away he would be from making an impact at the next level. He could be one of those highly touted recruits who always looks the part but doesn't produce like it.
The exact opposite is McClung, a short but bursty straight-line athlete. McClung's shot-making on the perimeter and in isolations has improved a great deal. He trusts his off-hand, is a solidly capable creator and can get after it a bit on defense. Side note: you can't play at Texas Tech if you don't.
But McClung is still stuck in that tweener territory since he is more of a scoring point and might not guard up reliably. He's a really, really fascinating draft case and someone I like more than most.
Shannon is the opposite. The appeal is that he's long, incredibly disruptive defensively and very good in the open floor. He's a great rebounder on the wing and shoots it fine. What he has offensively is straight-line burst where he gets past his man with ease. It's the kind of first step that can't be taught.
The additions of strength to his profile and improving perimeter game makes him a fast riser up many draft boards. I definitely think he's draft-worthy as a sophomore, though I'm not completely sold on the perimeter skill being where it should be. As a raw athlete and defender, he's comparable to where Kentucky's Terrence Clarke is. Clarke is bigger and younger, but Shannon is more skilled and impactful. I'm really curious to watch how the two are compared, contrasted or slotted on other boards throughout the pre-draft process.
Oklahoma State: Fr. CG Cade Cunningham, Jr. CG Isaac Likekele
As Cade's jump shot has proven consistent and his defensive effort translatably polished, there are pretty few holes in his game. Some of the discourse revolves around the lack of elite athleticism. But his IQ, manipulation of defense, shot-making, crafty mid-range arsenal, fantastic footwork, passing with either hand, size, strength and proven takeovers in late games all negate any fear that the athleticism will hold him back.
Quite frankly, he's the top pick in a lock. I love Suggs at Gonzaga, but this Cade kid is special. Really, really special.
Overshadowed by Cade's presence is Isaac Likekele, an athletic, burly and strong combo who should be on top-100 fringe lists. He's a big 6'5" guard averaging 12, 8 and 4 playing second-fiddle. He doesn't take a ton of jumpers, so his off-ball upside is somewhat limited. But there's a bowling ball combo in there who intrigues me a lot. Don't overlook him through this whole process.
Oklahoma: Sr. CG Austin Reaves
Lon Kruger's Sooners only have one former top-100 recruit on their roster (De'Vion Harmon) but are still chugging their way towards the middle of the pack in a top-tier league. That speaks to Kruger's style and emphasis on shooting from his frontcourt, both of which have come out in recruiting the last few years.
The engine on this roster is Reaves, a really good senior slasher who finishes at an elite level on the interior. His shot is a little off and was last year as well; he was really good at Wichita State before transferring to Norman. He's not really much of a pro prospect, but is the best guy they have and pops off the screen as a tough bucket when you watch the Sooners do battle with another top team in-league.
TCU: Fr. CG Mike Miles, So. F Kevin Easley
It's likely that neither of these underclassmen are threats to declare next year. But they're names for scouts to know going into the future. Easley is a long, athletic swing forward from Indiana. He's an active defender and a good creator from the wing spot. Kind of a Swiss Army Knife of a player, I'd put him on fringe lists for 2022.
As for Mike Miles, he's got deep range and a sweet stroke. He's undersized to be a full-time 2, so teams will likely want to see him return to school and build multiple seasons with 3-point accuracy. He's just north of 40% right now; if he can stay there for two years in college, he has some staying power.
Iowa State: None
Kansas State: Fr. PG Nijel Pack
These bottom two teams are going to struggle this year. For the Wildcats, that may benefit the long-term trajectory of Nijel Pack, a big time playmaker who can run the show. Pack has little to no help, though a few high-profile performances against Big Twelve competition will be great for him. He's another 2022 guy more than a 2021. He's a little small at 6'0" and does better on a team filled with shooters/ scorers next to him.
As for the Cyclones, they're the opposite. There were a ton of fringe guys I liked coming into this season. The collective failure to win games or play well has damaged the reputation of all of them. If there was this much fringe NBA talent, they'd be better than 2-7.
Sr. G Jalen Coleman-Lands (DePaul transfer), Jr. CG Rasir Bolton (Penn State transfer) lead the way there, and 5'9" point guard Tyler Harris (Memphis transfer) had hopes to be impactful as well. It's not been pretty in Ames.