Fourth in a five part series. Come back daily to see which other players to check out this year.
I've written already this summer about the inexact science that is handicapping the draft. Every year, there many players who were not projected to be picked in the first round who wind up playing themselves into that position. More often than not, these players aren't rising from the ranks of obscurity, but merely overachieve vis-a-vis their expectations, and were highly recruited players with strong physical tools. Here are some incoming freshmen who could very easily fit that mold. All were celebrated as high school players, seen as 5-star recruits, and are currently not projected to be drafted at all according to DraftExpress.
Stephen Zimmerman, PF/C, UNLV Running Rebels
7'0 with shoes, 7'3 wingspan
Age: 18.9 years old
Zimmerman has been one of my favorite players in the class since I saw him at the Hoop Summit last March. He has legitimate center size, at 7'0 with a 7'3 wingspan, but is quick and agile enough that, to my eye, he looks capable of guarding 4's. For a player lacking any sort of promotion, he's very skilled-- he has a solid mid-range jumper that could conceivably be extended out to the 3-point line; he's a smart passer and can make reads on the roll; he's a strong rebounder and protects the rim. If i were to bet money on one player rising from an undrafted projection to a top 10 selection, it would be Zimmerman.
That said, I still have concerns about his game. Chief among them is his school; he opted to remain close to home and attend UNLV, but he'll be playing for one of the very worst coaches in college basketball. Dave Rice can only hurt Zimmerman's growth as a player. Additionally, Zimmerman is a very left-handed player. He rarely does anything with his right hand, and it makes him very predictable and easy to lock down. Like many of his peers, Zimmerman is old for his class.
Thomas Bryant, PF/C, Indiana Hoosiers
6'11 with shoes, 7'6 wingspan
Age: 18 years old
If Zimmerman is the player I find most likely to jump into the top 10 conversation, Bryant is the one whose absence from mock drafts most makes me scratch my head. He has legitimate center size with an absurd 7'6 wingspan, and is a positive contributor on both sides of the ball. Bryant grew two inches between his junior and senior year of high school, allowing him to go from "undersized" to "properly sized," and perhaps that's why evaluators are behind on him. They should readjust their assessments of this young man.
Bryant is a true center who makes his living under the hoop. He's a strong rebounder, and dunks anything he catches within a few feet of the rim. But he also has some skills. He has shown an ability to step out and knock down some threes, and continuing to expand his face up game will help him to become a formidable presence on the offensive end. And most importantly, Bryant is genuinely very young. He only just turned 18, and won't see his 19th birthday until just before training camp next year. Look for him to have a bigger impact than anticipated at Indiana.
Ivan Rabb, PF/C, California Golden Bears
6'10 with shoes, 7'2 wingspan
Age: 18.5 years old
Rabb came into last season as one of the highest ranked seniors, but failed to live up to his projection, dropping on draft sites in the process. He's a strong athlete, but he appears to play more as a center than a power forward at the moment. Given his physical tools, that's a problem, as he is decidedly undersized for a center.
The good news is that he has shown flashes of power forward ability in the past, and if he can put it together this year, he'll leap right back into the conversation for the top 10. He has a promising shooting stroke, that was inconsistent this past year, but could become a genuine weapon for him at Cal when defenses can no longer focus solely on him. Beyond that, he's a fantastic rebounder on both ends and has a nice touch around the rim.
If Rabb doesn't show improved skills this year, it may be worth it to return to school.
Jalen Brunson, PG, Villanova Wildcats
6'2 with shoes, 6'4 wingspan
Age: 18.99 years old (19)
Brunson is a point guard with a very good feel for the game. His biggest obstacle will be his physical tools, which are pretty pedestrian compared to NBA point guards. In that way, he may have a season similar to Tyus Jones last year, in that he impresses in all aspects of the college game, but scouts and draftniks worry whether he'll be able to reproduce it at the next level. Brunson has had wonderful assist to turnover ratios through high school and especially at the FIBA U-19 tournament this summer, where he was voted the MVP. His smart understanding of the game is also evident in his high steal percentage.
Expect Brunson to have a good year for Villanova this year, where Jay Wright has plenty of experience with top flight point guards. The extent of his success may determine whether he can be the Ennis or Jones of this year and potentially go in the mid-teens to early 20's in next year's draft.
Justin Simon, PG/SG, Arizona Wildcats
6'5 with shoes, 6'11 wingspan
Age: 19.3 years old
Simon looks like a potential high upside point guard, given his insane physical tools. Not only does he have legitimate 6'5 size, but he has plus athleticism as well. Following the departures of TJ McConnell, Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Brandon Ashley, Arizona is in a bit of a rebuilding year. If Simon can take the reins and put the Wildcats back into the national title conversation, he could see an enormous leap up draft boards.
Dwayne Bacon, SG/SF, Florida State Seminoles
6'6 with shoes, 6'8 wingspan
Age: 19.99 years old (20)
Bacon was the best player on an Oak Hill team that went undefeated into the National Championship game against Ben Simmons and Montverde. He has legitimate NBA athleticism and prototypical 2-guard size, at 6'6 with a 6'8 wingspan. Bacon's shot appears to need serious work, as he was inefficient in the few high-profile performances I have seen of him. If he shows a considerably improvement in skill level this year, he could play himself into the late lottery conversation.
Of all the perimeter players, Bacon was the most surprising prospect who is consistently ignored by draft boards. It's now clear to me why that is the case - he will be 20 before even stepping foot on a college campus. Simmons and Labissiere are both old for their draft classes, but Bacon is almost a year older than Simmons and 6 months older than Skal. If he were a truly strong NBA candidate, he would have dominated high school basketball to a much higher degree than he did.
Others to consider--
PG: Derryck Thornton, JaQuan Lyle, PJ Dozier, Jalen Adams, Jawun Evans
SG: Antonio Blakeney, Allonzo Trier, Malachi Richardson, Charles Matthews, Tyler Dorsey
SF: Ray Smith, Derrick Jones, Maverick Rowan
PF: Carlton Bragg
C: Chase Jeter