Thanks for sticking with this all week, everyone. Here is the last part of this series, focusing on returning players who are under the radar. We've covered the top incoming freshmen, potential lottery picks, top returners, and freshman sleepersin previous editions.
After I took a look at the amount of change in projected draft boards between the beginning of the college season and the draft itself, I realized that there are lots of prospects who will wind up playing themselves into higher draft positions than they were expected to at the beginning of the year. Here are some returners that may do so, by exceeding personal expectations, or else finally getting the recognition they deserve.
Malik Pope, SF, San Diego State Aztecs
6'9 with shoes, 7'2 wingspan
Age: 19.1 years old
Pope has been a bit of an oddity over the last 8 months or so. Midway through the last basketball season, Chad Ford "discovered" the incredibly long, tall small forward and saw fit to promote him to the mid-lottery on his own board. No other draft site showed even a cursory interest in Pope, but Ford insisted all year long that "scouts" were drooling over his potential. This pre-season, Ford has doubled down, sticking Pope at number 6 on his Big Board, while DraftExpress and NBADraft barely consider him a first rounder.
But Pope's physical tools certainly point to an enormous amount of potential. He's absurdly long and very tall for a NBA wing, and his relative obscurity is thanks, in large part, to having missed his final two seasons in high school due to injury. Pope is still very young, shot a promising 40% on 3's last year (on a small sample), and plays for a defensive-minded coach who will teach him the fundamentals. If he breaks out at all this year, he could easily play himself into the lottery discussion as a 3-and-D wing on crack. If he does, Ford's bizarre fixation on him will be slightly justified.
Wade Baldwin, PG, Vanderbilt Commodores
6'3 with shoes, 6'10 wingspan
Age: 19.4 years old
A personal favorite of mine, the majority of Baldwin's attention last year was due to his coach cursing him out on national TV. But very quietly, Baldwin (a high school teammate of Towns) put together a solid freshman campaign that he'll be hoping to build on this year.
With a 6'10 wingspan, Baldwin has outstanding length for a point guard, and could conceivably guard 2's at the next level. At college, he has plenty of experience playing off the ball, as he shared point duties with fellow freshman Riley LaChance last year. In the process, Baldwin put up a fantastic assist rate (30%, about the equivalent of Russell and Mudiay) while shooting 44% from three on 4 attempts per 40 minutes. He has plus athleticism and is a smart player.
The biggest questions for Baldwin are whether he can take on a bigger role in the future. But as a competent, hyper efficient point guard with a high defensive upside, he may be exactly the type of player the Sixers take a flyer on with the Oklahoma City pick.
Theo Pinson, SF, North Carolina Tar Heels
6'6 with shoes, 6'11 wingspan
Age: 19.8 years old
The Tar Heels lost JP Tokoto to the draft and are likely to reallocate the majority of his minutes to Theo Pinson, a sophomore who possesses almost the exact same strengths and weaknesses as... JP Tokoto. It's like they found a Tokoto clone machine that continues to provide them with hyper-athletic wing players who are surprisingly intelligent but can't hit the broad side of a barn.
Pinson was unexpectedly well-rounded in his first season in Chapel Hill, garnering an impressive 5 assists per 40 minutes, rebounding above his position, and providing strong defense. He looks like a fantastic prospect until you get to his shooting percentages, a true black-eye on his resume. Pinson struggled to score last year and shot only 27% on threes, with a true shooting percentage of 44%. These are bad numbers. But in increased time this year, he'll have plenty of opportunities to demonstrate whether or not he has improved his stroke, as well as to show off his insane dunks and positive passing. If his shot looks at all improved, expect him to leap into the lottery conversation.
Justin Jackson, SF, North Carolina Tar Heels
6'8 with shoes, 6'10 wingspan
Age: 20.4 years old
Another promising Tar Heel wing, Jackson came into last season as a potential first rounder, but struggled to get going, and decided to return to school for a year. Billed as a great shooter, Jackson came out of the gates shooting a low 20-percentage on 3's for much of the year, and only barely bumped his 3-pt percentage over 30 after some hot games to end the year.
Jackson is a smart player, who intuitively makes great cuts off the ball, and often ends up in the right place at the right time. Unfortunately, athleticism is not a strength for him, so he'll need to for his skills to be very strong to garner great draft attention. Expect him to rise into the mid-teens if he has a stronger shooting season.
Grayson Allen, SG, Duke Blue Devils
6'5 with shoes, 6'7 wingspan
Age: 19.8 years old
The afterthought from Duke's phenomenal 2014 recruiting class, Allen is undisputedly one of the most important returners for the defending national champions. Allen had a solid season in a tertiary role last year before a breakout game in the national championship brought him national media attention. He's a plus athlete and a promising, if streaky, shooter. While a nice player, Allen doesn't have any particular skills that truly stand out. It will be interesting to see how he handles an increased role in the Blue Devils' offense this year, as well as facing opponents' starters more consistently.
Due to his average height and wingspan, Allen doesn't project as a lockdown defender. He'll need to rely on his offensive game to be overwhelmingly positive to be a productive player overall at the next level.
Daniel Hamilton, SF, UConn Huskies
6'8 with shoes, 6'8 wingspan
Age: 20 years old
Hamilton didn't have a particularly strong freshman year, but was well-rounded and promising enough that he may break out in year two. He's got great strength for a wing and NBA-level athleticism. His single best skill was probably his passing, as he garnered a 26.3% assist rate, very strong for a wing. He had a positive impact on defense and was a strong rebounder for his position. While not a knockdown shooter, he did show promise, and could be a strong primary option for the Huskies this year if he improves his scoring by 10-15%.
Watch his scoring for both volume and efficiency this year. If he does well in both, he could be a valuable pick and true sleeper to crash the lottery.
Others to consider:
PG: Monte Morris, Cat Barber, Gary Payton II, Melo Trimble, Marcus Paige
SG/SF: Taurean Prince, Troy Williams, Xavier Rathan-Mayes, DeAndre Bembry, Tim Quarterman, Devin Robinson
PF: Domantas Sabonis, James Webb III, Brice Johnson
C: Zhou Qi, Damian Jones, Mamadou Ndiaye, Daniel Ochefu, Chinanu Onuaku, Amida Brimah