Conference Rundown: SEC
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. Next up for us is the SEC, a topsy-turvy league this year while bluebloods Kentucky and Florida struggle. Over the last few years, I've felt the SEC has produced more NBA-caliber talent than before, particularly last year. With a lot of great athletes and a league on the upswing in terms of recruiting, mastering the landscape of the conference is required for scouts.
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
Tennessee - Rick Barnes is the most underrated coach in America. They run a true motion style similar to Davidson, with hi-lo passing, butt screens in transition and tons of off-ball motion. They are an awesome defensive group that plays only man and toggles between switching and being aggressive.
Kentucky - The most talented team in the conference... but they cannot shoot. Calipari usually has one guard in the shooter role darting off baseline screens and using their gravity to create space elsewhere. Without someone functional there, the offense has really struggled. They're deep, play a few true bigs and are trying to figure out how to balance their size (with no shooting) and athleticism by playing a little smaller (still with little shooting).
Florida - Top-30 offense and defense in the country. The Keyontae Johnson thing really is a heartbreaker, both for him and for them. Have enough talent, but a few guys who haven't panned out individually. Still keep winning games; tough, aggressive man-to-man on defense.
Alabama - Pace, pace, pace. Nate Oats likes to play fast. They have a few shooters surrounding true point guards. The offensive numbers may be a tad inflated if they play the way they want. Below-average defensive group, mainly due to lack of rim protector and porous at the point.
Arkansas - Live in transition and take a ton of threes. More balanced this year than last; they stretch the floor very well. Been surprisingly strong on D to start the year thanks to their length. Pressing a fair amount in full-court to create transition/ turnovers
LSU - Unique team running lots of Horns sets and facilitating through frontcourt. Disappointing start defensively with as much length as they have; playing a TON of zone. Playing through their two best players a lot on offense.
Auburn - Most balanced offensive group in the league, which could change if Sharife Cooper becomes eligible. Mixing defenses to try and gain an advantage, likely because they're not great at one type of defense. Really young team that is missing their veterans from last year.
Missouri - Great start to the year but very little top-tier talent; might come down to earth in conference play. Have good wins under belt, playing really, really terrific defense. Great test for prospects to play against them to see who pops off.
South Carolina - Zone-heavy defense a bit of a surprise under Frank Martin. Haven't played many games yet due to COVID so still trying to get a feel for how they play. Can't read into the numbers too heavily only four games in.
Texas A&M - Buzz Williams always has his teams playing tough defense, and this is no exception. They have to in order to stay in games -- not a ton of offensive talent. Mix in some different zones to keep teams off-balance. Buzz teams can always pull off an upset; good mental test for top-tier teams.
Mississippi - Despite few high-caliber prospects, will be a tough out in the SEC. Playing elite defense right now. Very poor shooting team, which may impact their ability to pull off many upsets.
Mississippi State - Led on offense by one or two guys; lost quite a bit last year when Reggie Perry and Robert Woodard left for NBA. Struggle a bit on defense, but can hang in games thanks to some strong individual performances.
Vanderbilt - NBA-style scheme under Jerry Stackhouse. Lots of great screening actions and reliant on their guard play to create. Up-tempo group relying on the threat of the 3-ball. Really bad defensive group, though... might struggle to hold anyone below 75. Part of that is the emphasis of the staff.
Georgia - Tom Crean can recruit and has developed some good NBA talent through the years. But this team lacks that top star power and is filled with a lot of non-shooters. Playing in transition as best they can because they struggle to manufacture points in the half-court.
Players to Know
Tennessee - Sr. ATH Yves Pons, Fr. CG Jaden Springer, Fr. W Keon Johnson, Fr. PG Santiago Vescovi
Four NBA guys on Tennessee this year, with two first-round talent one-and-dones, a unique senior prospect and a pass-first point guard. Starting with Pons there has been some intrigue for over a year. His body is insane. He's a 6'6" power 4 with a legitimate seven-foot wingspan. Defensively, Pons is an absolute freak show. He blocks shots at a high rate for someone only 6'6" and plays as a switchable 4 or 5. His instincts are strong, too:
As you can see from the thumbnail above, the senior is a pretty well-rounded guy and human being, the type of kid you'd want to welcome in your locker room. As an aside, Rick Barnes always recruits great character kids who end up being fantastic pros. Because Pons is an undersized switchable forward coached by Barnes, Pons can draw some fringe PJ Tucker comparisons. Like Tucker, it may take Pons a few years to work on his shot or find a true NBA role. He's a career 33% 3-point shooter on low sample, and as a senior that is somewhat worrisome.
Of the three freshmen, Santiago Vescovi is the most likely to spend multiple years in Knoxville. He makes a lot of instinctual plays and has an edge to him while knocking down shots (44% on 5 attempts per game to start the year). But he's a really poor finisher (37.5% inside the line) and that's not great for a point guard. Would want to see him add more size and finishing before declaring.
As for Springer and Johnson, they are two guys I want to watch more closely. Neither start, and both play less than 20 minutes a game. It's understandable since Barnes has a team competing for a national championship that is already so deep. And there's plenty of hoops left to play. Both guys have looked really good offensively in their minutes, though I still struggle to think they're lottery guys if they aren't impacting more minutes for the Volunteers through SEC play.
Kentucky: Fr. CG BJ Boston, Fr. W Terrence Clarke, Fr. P Isaiah Jackson, Fr. PG Devin Askew, So. W Keion Brooks Jr.
Woof. Calipari is still a great coach and has produced far too many elite pro players to be doubted. But this season is different, whether it's due to the lack of time to develop these guys on-court thanks to Covid or an ill-fitting group that cannot shoot. But this team is really, really bad at spacing the floor and it's lost them a ton of games early. None of the guys listed above are over 30% from 3. It makes it harder to evaluate any of them since the spacing is gone from all of them.
Brooks isn't playing, and the young Askew isn't impressive since he is more of a facilitator that's out of room to create for others. Brooks may enter Kahlil Whitney territory and is in danger of falling off the map, while Askew would be best-served playing with spacing. He'll have an interesting choice after this year.
The other three freshmen are trending in different directions. First, there's Jackson, the only stock riser in the group. He has all the makings of a supremely athletic, talented rim protector who is mobile and can run the floor. His shot blocking could make him a first-round prospect if it holds up through SEC play, especially in a class that's somewhat thin of young rim protectors:
Teenage bigs like him will be excused the most for the team's lack of spacing. It's really easy to believe that he can crack the first-round if he's blocking shots and rebounding like this. His finishing numbers are pretty poor, but that speaks to how raw of a prospect he is.
Boston is a different case altogether. He's a tough bucket-maker, but hasn't seen many go in. He doesn't manufacture easy looks, compounded at Kentucky with defenses that collapse on his drives. Adding strength will help; he's really thin. But he relies on his craftiness, use of the backboard and long strides to create shots. It won't fly in the NBA. He's shooting a putrid 15.9% from 3, and that is by far the most damaging part of his draft projection right now. Without consistent off-ball shooting, there's a lot of risk to taking him in the lottery.
But if you ask me, Clarke is the one whose stock is most volatile. His shooting numbers are a little better than BJ's (22.7%) but his 3.0 turnovers a game are incredibly concerning. Calipari seems to trust him more than most, likely due to his on-ball defense and how he can guard smaller guys. I feel like his best NBA role might be Kelly Oubre-lite, hounding other combo guards in the full court and letting his athleticism shine in the open floor.
The flashes of defense might keep Clarke in first-round conversations, but the complete inability to shoot it has taken him out of lottery range. He's already been surpassed by too many folks in this class.
Kentucky is such an enigmatic place right now, and I'm not sure how to purely evaluate anyone given the context surrounding everyone. They may be susceptible to a lot of late-season change on our boards as a result.
Florida - So. W Scottie Lewis, So. CG Tre Mann, Jr. F Keyontae Johnson
Let's set aside Keyontae Johnson for a second because, with the myocarditis diagnosis, it's hard to believe he'll ever play again. Heartbreaking for him, though I'm not sure it's worth trying to rehash what he is/ could be.
Outside of Kentucky, I'm not sure there's a program in the SEC who has continually disappointed with their pro prospects. Guys who play under Mike White who I've liked before (Kenneth Smith, Michael Frazier, Jalen Hudson) never panned out. The lack of guard development is worrisome, though it seems the start to this year has seen two key returners make major leaps.
I'm torn on Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann as a result. Lewis was supposed to be a one-and-done a season ago; he's taken a good step forward this year. His scoring and playmaking numbers have both taken big leaps while his 3-point shooting is above 40%. That's the player he needs to be; a slightly undersized wing. He's getting to the free throw line a ton, too.
I want to buy Lewis, but am shaken by the burns from Gators before. It will take some time to really buy in that he's better, especially after last year's poor start from Lewis.
Mann is more of a long-term or second-round prospect. He leads the team in assists and is more of a big guard than a wing. I'm intrigued. His leap has been much more noticeable and he might be the Gators' best player.
Alabama - Sr. W John Petty, Fr. PG Josh Primo
I've written about a few Alabama guys before. I really like a couple of them as college players, specifically point guard Jahvon Quinerly and Senior forward Herb Jones. Even sophomore shooter Jaden Shackelford is a fringe guy who I really, really like.
But when it boils down to it, the Crimson Tide have two guys on NBA radars. The first is John Petty, a senior wing who has been a consistent shooter his whole career. That shooting should garner him some pre-draft workouts and, at 6'5", maybe even higher. I like him and know we'll see him at least in the G-League next year.
Freshman guard Primo is playing behind Jahvon Quinerly right now. He's full of intrigue as a big 6'6" lead guard; he can score it on all levels and is a really good finisher. It seems like Nate Oats doesn't trust him as a facilitator quite yet, so a one-and-done season may not be in his future.
Keep an eye on Alabama. They are a team made up of a ton of fringe guys who fit together. If one take a giant step forward or emerges to lead the Crimson Tide deep into March (specifically Primo) it will be nice to have background on them.
Arkansas - Fr. W Moses Moody
If you ask me, the best prospect in the SEC is Moses Moody. It's due in large part to his off-ball utility. We'll have a longform piece on him up in the near future, but it comes down to this: he's a high-volume 40% 3-point shooter who is impactful off screens, spot-up or off the dribble. He knows how to get himself open and use his gravity. But he's not just a shooting specialist who comes off screens like a Duncan Robinson (and no, he's not that elite at it).
Moody is great at drawing contact and getting to the free throw line. He has size and can rebound and run in transition. He finishes really, really well at the rim. He's a stout defender, too.
The shooting is real, though, and he has too many games with multiple makes and enough confidence on his attempts to be doubted there.
Moody is knocking on the door of being a top-ten pick. He's a name everyone should know, especially in an NBA where spacing and shooting is the most important commodity.
LSU - Fr. CG Cam Thomas, So. F Trendon Watford, Jr. F Darius Days, Jr. CG Javonte Smart
Four pro prospects in Baton Rouge? Will Wade must be paying these guys...
All half-kidding jokes aside, there's a lot of mixed response to these guys. The two lower prospects, Darius Days and Javonte Smart, are more fringe guys whose clocks are ticking. Smart functions as the team's point guard and shoots the lights out of it right now. He's got some staying power to be better than what he shows; both this year and last year, with Watford and Skylar Mays, Smart isn't playing with the ball in his hands a ton. There could be an opportunity for him to showcase those skills in pre-draft workouts that get a team really intrigued by him. His ability to shoot it will open that door, so for his sake, let's hope he doesn't have a major regression from 3.
Days is very interesting as an NBA 4-man. He shoots it well (37% on good volume) and is finishing inside the arc above 70%. He takes the right ones, defends well, rebounds and has some fluidity. He won't be an offensive focal point here and is more of a play finisher, but if he shows a little more creation on the perimeter we could be in for finding a unique piece. He and Smart are potential steals and are opening eyes with really efficient play to start the year.
Watford and Thomas get most of the praise since they put up numbers and clearly lead the show. Unlike the other two, both have one major concern which gives scouts pause.
Watford's statline is absurd through 8 games -- 17.4 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.3 steals while shooting 35.7% from 3 on two attempts a game and 78% from the line on 7.1 attempts. He impacts the game in a ton of ways as a facilitating 4-man; he and Days are as versatile and interchangeable a 4-5 combo and that can mask some of his deficiencies if he gets pegged as either. As a 5, Watford isn't really a rim protector. His block numbers are low and he doesn't have great athleticism to leap off the ground against bigger guys.
As a 4, Watford is a tad slow laterally. He'll struggle in some areas defensively, so playing against smaller teams is super intriguing for his draft stock. Will Wade may blanket him to put him on the 5 in those situations, which is a move made to protect his draft stock more than anything. Some folks may like him as a first-round guy, and with those monstrous numbers it makes sense. But I see Watford as a second-rounder in the 35-50 range.
Cam Thomas is a really prolific scorer. He's averaging 24.6 points as a freshman. High-level scoring. Great, impressive shot-making. A high enough volume where he's both efficient that it's tantalizing and proof that he's not a flash in the pan. He did this at Oak Hill, too.
While Thomas is a prolific shot-maker off the bounce who has a funky but high jumper, the complaints center around his inability to take guys off the bounce and get past them to the rim. He's a slow first step (albeit a really long one) and isn't incredibly fast. He's reliant on those isolations and jumpers... especially when guys cut him off as a driver. Those even happen against bigs.
Through eight games, Thomas only has ten attempts at the rim in the half-court. He's great at drawing contact in transition but struggles a bit in the half-court. Part of the limit on his draft stock, despite the unreal scoring potential, is if he can create separation 1v1 at the next level. I'm willing to bet on him right now, though as time goes on the evidence begins to mount that he's going to struggle to get to the rim.
Auburn: Fr. PG Sharife Cooper, So. CG Allen Flanigan, So. CG Devan Cambridge
This is the youngest team Bruce Pearl has coached in a while. Much like Kentucky, there are growing pains associated with a young group in a Covid-interrupted year. The biggest disappointment has been not being able to see Sharife Cooper, a point guard who I have on the fringes of the first-round as a shot-maker who has deep, deep range.
The other two guys are late-risers who are worth monitoring. They've looked solid as sohpomores. Flanigan is leading the team in scoring and putting together a solid year. Cambridge is a physical 6'6" wing. Monitor both but don't fall in love; I don't see either making a big impression to rise far enough off draft boards to be tantalized by the draft.
Missouri: Sr. PG Dru Smith
Niche draft fringe guy alert here. Smith is a senior with very little upside to actually get selected in the top-60 picks. But what he does well is defend, facilitate, make shots and be solid. He's a ball-hawking defensive player who is one of the best in the SEC at creating plays in transition. He can shoot off screens. He's a solid all-around player who I hope gets a camp invite to try and earn his way onto a roster.
I like guys like Xavier Pinson and Mark Smith, though I'm not sure I see them as NBA guys.
South Carolina: Jr. CG AJ Lawson
AJ Lawson flirted with declaring last year before deciding to return to school. He was unlikely to be selected, and with the uncertainty in the G-League, it seems like a good move.
That said, the Gamecocks are disappointing through four games even. I had them ready to make a surprise run up the SEC and they don't really look like it will happen. Lawson, the 6'6" Canadian guard, is their main target on offense. I'm not sure it's worth talking about a four-game sample too heavily, though.
Texas A&M: None
Mississippi State: None
These three teams all have solid college guys but nobody who has quite risen to pro prospect level. At Texas A&M, So. F Emmanuel Miller has some intrigue if he keeps leading them in scoring. His lack of shooting at 6'7" precludes him from a lot of consideration. Big senior Romello White at Ole Miss is a good finisher who is too old for draft circles to pay much attention to. Sophomore wing DJ Stewart at Mississippi State has impressed thus far with his scoring; he may be the only one out of these three with a legitimate shot to crack a top-100 board this year.
Vanderbilt: So. PG Scotty Pippen Jr.
Buy Scotty Pippen stock while you still can. He's a contact-magnet and a pretty good offensive player thriving in a pro system. There are games where he flashes so much talent that I have a difficult time imagining him not being highly considered on many draft radars.
Vanderbilt's track record has been spotty the last few years. They've finally produced elite-caliber talent, but none of them have proven worthy of their draft position in the pros. Worst of all, none win in Nashville.
Pippen is a solid second-round prospect and a guy I'll keep my eyes on. The defense absolutely has to improve for him to become a major player, though. Things are bad on that end of the floor, and unfortunately that's where both other guys have really struggled in the pros, too.
Georgia: So. PG Shavir Wheeler
Last year, the fit of Wheeler with Anthony Edwards was disastrous for the Bulldogs offense. I was looking forward to seeing Wheeler be handed the keys with more of a shooting, spacing set around him. But Georgia still can't really make a shot.
It says a lot about Wheeler that he's still averaging 12.8 points and 7.5 assists despite the lack of spacing. But what's costing him serious consideration is the fact he's shooting only 18.5% from 3 on his own. Keep an eye on him, but without the shooting and standing only 5'10", there's a lot to worry about.
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Adam Spinella, Head Boys Basketball Coach at Boys' Latin School (MD)