College hoops is underway! A few upsets, some cancellations and changes are already happening. We'll have to keep rolling with the punches. Have been fortunate to watch about 12-15 full games since Wednesday, as well as clips and extended segments from over a dozen more. We'll throw in some thoughts from guys who have been able to play in more than one game, so these reactions aren't to a singular performance.
Let's dive right in...
Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga
Plays w/ great pace in PNR. Has 11 half-court assists in 2 games, but only a few PNR opportunities. The ones he's gotten to, he has perfect hesitation, bounce, change of elevation of his hips to manipulate the hedge defender, and always has his eyes in the right place. Phenomenal finding cutters to basket vs. Kansas, but the pace and movement of defenders with his eyes was what stood out most. He knows how to change speeds and hit the hole hard when he's open.
We'll see if the shooting holds up off the bounce. He nailed one from deep range when Kansas left him. Flashes like that will make him borderline impossible to guard in ball screens and, with his size, turn him into a great offensive piece as a pro. Suggs was the top gainer of lottery prospects during opening week. His efficiency numbers will tell the story, but he's playing in an historic offense surrounded by shooting. There will be plenty of opportunities for gaudy assist numbers.
My one worry was that Suggs is a little bit square at times. He doesn't turn his hips east-west when making crossover moves or explosions. His handle is tight and frame long enough to get around a lot of guys, but he's not exactly shifty laterally. He just accelerates and decelerates really, really well.
Corey Kispert, Gonzaga
Let's stick with the 'Zags while we're on the topic. Their offense looked like a well-oiled machine, and Kispert was impressive. We know he can hit shots at above a 40% clip, so overreacting to a two game sample where he was 5-14 from three doesn't do anyone good.
For Kispert, it was impressive gains in his finishing around the basket, use of his body to shield defenders and some unique wrong-foot takeoffs that impressed most. He went 5-for-5 at the rim, with a couple of naked attempts on great backdoor cuts. If he's an above-average finisher and is willing to use his shoulder and big frame to chuck defenders out of the way, he'll get a first-round grade from me.
Jalen Johnson, Duke
The Coppin State game was a bit of an outlier due to how overwhelmed the competition was athletically. But he looked the part on the floor with a bunch of studs against Michigan State on Dec. 1st. He impressed me a ton as a passer and great rebound-and-run threat. He's already an elite rebounder and has the change of speeds to be great in the open floor. There's a Ben Simmonsy feel to his game as a non-shooting forward who is best with the ball in his hands.
His feel in transition is impressive, with great timing, spatial awareness and a trust in his off-hand:
My worry with Johnson will remain his willingness and ability to knock down jumpers. Such a gifted frontcourt passer may not need it to be great, but it certainly would help. In such a stocked top of the class with talent, that shooting (or lack thereof) could make or break if he's a top-three guy or in the five-to-seven area. Johnson needs to be solid hitting pull-ups and/or out-length his guy to get to the rim. He's been inconsistent as a finisher.
Duke lost to Michigan State last night due to their poor shooting performances. Johnson only had one assist, and his teammates were 5-21 from deep around him. Having DJ Steward and Wendell Moore Jr. go 0-9 from three destroyed the spacing and limited what Johnson could do as a creator. One theme throughout my scouting reports you might find: I try not to punish facilitators for the lack of spacing around them.
To compensate, Duke defaulted to their 4-5 pick-and-roll with Johnson and fellow prospect Matthew Hurt. Hurt, a pick-and-pop big, was supposed to give Johnson more room to get into the room and make accurate reads. It was a cheap way to generate spacing, but surprisingly created zero points for Duke. Hurt missed a gimme layup gift-wrapped from Johnson, and Jalen was unable to find the balance between attacking the rim and converting when he got there.
Johnson is a solidly top-ten prospect when taking the long view. He's not a great scorer in the half-court yet and, without elite shooting around him, might have some nights like the Spartans game where his scoring numbers are pretty poor. He kept attacking (took six free throws) and did what he could. It wasn't a poor performance, though it did reveal his improvement areas.
BJ Boston and Terrence Clarke, Kentucky Wildcats
Kentucky started the season 7-41 (17%) from 3. That includes dreadful output from BJ Boston (0-11) and Terrence Clarke (0-7). Individually, both are lottery talents. Clarke popped early in the year and their Blue-White scrimmage. Boston has all the makings of a great, lanky wing who finishes and facilitates. Neither are poor defenders and are better than expected on a freshman-heavy Kentucky team. Their team defense and collective rim protection against Kansas was really impressive.
But through three games, the Wildcats are struggling to generate points. Those are indictments on both Boston and Clarke. Without an elite shooting threat, the John Calipari offense predicated on floppy actions, screens for his guards and off-ball movement while the handler stays in place, the Wildcats look far different than the pace we're used to seeing in Dribble Drive motion. The methodical nature of those possessions, and how many end up in the final seconds of possessions, is staggering.
We'll see if Calipari adjusts a bit and tries to manufacture offense through pace. Both would be great benefits for Boston and Clarke. For Boston in particular, whose appeal and intrigue came in the minutes when he was de facto point guard while Devin Askew sat, the spacing issue is a major concern.
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Villanova
I'm on Team JRE. He's the ultimate mismatch, well-rounded 4-man. I'm not so sure he can guard all five positions at the next level, but he can definitely be fine 2 thru 4. The lack of true vertical athleticism was on display as a flaw in his game; he gets shots blocked and doesn't have the bounce to yam on guys in traffic. But he's so fully embraced the Villanova fundamentals principles and is a long, crafty finisher that it doesn't really diminish his impact, just changes how he has to score.
I'm actually surprised he only has six assists through four games. Those numbers I expected to be higher. He's an automatic mid-range shooter, and is less consistent from 3 (2-9 to start the year). The two air balls against Hartford (one short, one long) bring about some concern, but he's also one impractical in-and-out away from being 33%, and he's not immune from heavy legs from playing his fourth game in six days.
What do we need to see more of? Facilitation and perimeter shooting on offense, lateral quickness to lockdown wing scorers on the other end. JRE has the full sample of last year to compare, so nobody will overreact too positively or negatively through his first four contests.
Marcus Bagley, Arizona State
I'm glad Bagley snuck into my top-25 preseason rankings because he hasn't disappointed. The evidence of movement shooting and willingness to take over 6 treys a night is incredibly encouraging. His shooting stroke is incredibly rhythmic, with great pre-catch hop to get his feet set and a solid dip. He could speed it up a smidge, but with a high release and long arms, it's not a concern by any means.
The polish in his footwork as a movement shooter is tantalizing. At 6'8" and with impressive athleticism, there aren't many guys who can combine all those traits. The volume needs to stay high, and if he's above 35% while hitting treys in different ways, he could sneak into the lottery. His pedigree and name recognition is an unfair advantage he boasts, though I love his game far more than that of his older brother.
Be weary of the Sun Devils, though. They're notoriously erratic, and Remy Martin is known to have legendary irrational confidence. Between Martin, Joshua Christopher and a schedule that will get much more difficult soon, don't anoint Bagley as an arrived guy yet. There could be some trying days on the horizon.
Miles McBride, West Virginia
Another mid-to-late first-rounder in my book, McBride played much like the preseason report on him stated. He defends his ass off and has a bit of motherfucker to him on that end. He gets into the ball in the full-court, has the length to guard up but should be best matching up with opposing guards. He showed that off against Western Kentucky. The wingspan is so impressive, and I'd feel comfortable with his defensive role being akin to Josh Richardson's at the next level.
Offensively, McBride is so-so as a catch-and-shoot guy. He continues to make some of the most difficult shots off the bounce, with weirdly lateral pull-ups, frequent jab steps into jumpers and a love of the mid-range that most late-clock scorers have. It's a difficult combination to fall in love with. On one hand, you need tough shot-makers. On the other, he's not good enough from 3 to have a great deal of confidence in.
Man, what I'd give to see him play in a game where the lane isn't clogged by two teammates at all times. Which reminds me...
Caleb Love, North Carolina
The two best shooting freshman point guards, Caleb Love and RJ Davis, share a backcourt in Chapel Hill. That combination allows the two to play together, making the Tar Heels dynamic off the bounce since they space for each other and are both savvy handlers at heart.
It doesn't matter. Roy Williams is intent on pounding the ball inside through his upperclassmen frontcourt. They rotate in and out of the low and high post all night while Davis and Love have nowhere to guard. It's a solid way to win games with their advantage up front, and a frustrating recurrence of the nightmares Cole Anthony had a season ago in terms of playmaking evals.
Right now, Davis has lived up to the hype for the 3-0 Tar Heels with his shooting. Love is struggling a bit more, starting 3-15 from deep. The five turnover game against Stanford brought flashbacks to a season ago with Anthony and the desire not to blame a kid for having nowhere to drive. We need to see more as the season progresses, and I'm sure the shooting numbers will raise to where they should be. I'm just consistently frustrated that Love won't get to show off what he does best in the spread pick-and-roll.
Trayce Jackson-Davis, Indiana
The one team I've seen every game live of this year is the Hoosiers. The numbers for big man Trayce Jackson-Davis look solid on the surface: 18.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 46.5% shooting from the field. He's 15-22 (68.1%) from the charity stripe and has flashed his open floor athleticism on a couple of occasions.
But Indiana really struggles to shoot around him, and as a result he faces digs in the post heavily. He's also so left-hand dominant that teams who play him well pretty much neutralize his scoring impact. Several of his rebounds are from putbacks of his own misses and second or third-effort attempts. He's a 5-man averaging a low amount of defensive rebounds, shooting less than stellar numbers from the interior and doesn't have faith in his jumper to 3 (he hasn't attempted one yet). I'm struggling to see where his NBA role is if he's not a great shot blocker (5 blocks in 3 games) and the rest of those facets hold up. There are just a few too many "needs to improve" areas for me to feel comfortable banking on TJD to be a draft pick right now.
Now, a few short tidbits and parting shots on some other players...