Zion, Zion, Zion.
With a splash of Ja Morant and R.J. Barrett mixed in for good measure, this college basketball season has been all about Duke’s Zion Williamson. The flash card-worthy facts are astonishing — 18 years-old, 6-foot-7, 285 pounds — but his highlight reel moves, both offensively and defensively, have everybody drooling. And although collegiate and professional onlookers alike wait to hear news of a potential Williamson return — or lack thereof — most franchises won’t have a shot at adding the prodigal teenager during draft season. For others, even picking in the lottery isn’t possible and, for a rare few, selecting at all in the first round is entirely off the table — looking at you, for now, Toronto, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Denver and Dallas.
In those cases, they’ll look for uncut gems and low-profile lottery tickets to take a swing on in picks past No. 30 overall. Recent years have brought renewed plaudits to the second round steal, most notably in regards to Isaiah Thomas’ rise to prominence (No. 60), Malcolm Brogdon’s Rookie of the Year campaign (No. 36) and Nikola Jokić’s MVP-worthy efforts in Denver (No. 41). Still, Thomas was a standout at Washington for three seasons, Brogdon the same over four at Virginia, while Jokić — albeit passed upon by every team in the 2014 NBA Draft at least once — averaged 15.4 points and 9.3 rebounds per game and earned Adriatic League MVP before he even joined the Nuggets.
Nowadays, there’s Rodions Kurucs. Everybody wants their own Rodions Kurucs.
For those somehow still under a rock, Kurucs has been a welcomed revelation for the Brooklyn Nets in their surprisingly win-laden campaign thus far. The Latvian-born baller was once-hyped as high as a potential lottery selection back in early 2017 before withdrawing from that season’s draft. But as his on-court time waned with Barcelona, his stock dropped so harshly that he would’ve likely gone undrafted just one year later if not for previous scouting by the Nets. Thankfully, the Nets snagged Kurucs at No. 40 overall and expected him to play an entire season with Brooklyn’s G League affiliate on Long Island.
Kurucs, of course, had other plans.
Through an aggressive, fast-paced style of play, Kurucs has been a massive bright spot for the Nets through their first 60 games. After an injury bug hit Brooklyn hard, Kurucs joined the starting lineup and the Nets instantly rattled off 13 wins in their next 18 contests. All in all, he’s averaged 8.8 points and 3.6 rebounds in 20.9 minutes per game, including a breakout 24-point performance on 5-for-8 from three-point range against the rival Celtics in January. Those unexpected contributions led Kurucs to a well-deserved spot in All-Star Weekend’s Rising Stars competition, where the 21-year-old finished with 10 points, five assists and four rebounds — and, most importantly, looked the part.
As of today, Kurucs has outside odds on reaching the 2018-19 All-Rookie Second Team and the playoff-hopeful Nets look infinitely more athletic and modern game-ready with the forward on the floor. Perhaps in the know about Kurucs from the get-go, the Brooklyn gave him a fully guaranteed four-year contract, with a team option on that final season, shortly after he was drafted. In no uncertain terms, Kurucs is one of the biggest victories of the 2018 class so far. Kurucs was cheap, young and ready to chip in from opening night, a rarity from second-rounders with very little overseas achievements.
Which is all to pose one simple question: Who is the next Rodions Kurucs?
In order to answer that, there are three important pieces of criteria to hit upon before creating such a list of candidates. First and foremost, the player must be a projected second-rounder — if he’s locked into a guaranteed contract, that’s not a draft day steal, that’s a commitment. Building on that, the player must be a relative unknown to some extent. For instance, everybody knew Thomas’ name after he averaged 16.8 points and 6.1 assists, led the Huskies to the Pac-10 tournament championship and then the NCAA’s bracket-busting second-round back in 2010-11.
Ultimately, Thomas slipped to No. 60 because of concerns over his height — not because he was under-scouted or off radars altogether.
Finally, the next Kurucs must be a natural fit in today’s NBA landscape. Jokić was a unicorn-in-waiting, whereas Kurucs is a 6-foot-9 uber-athletic floor-runner that can provide on both sides of the ball. If Kurucs adds a consistent three-point shot to his repertoire, something he’s focused on all season long, he’ll be a lock in Brooklyn’s young rotation for the foreseeable future.
With that in mind, here’s a short-list of contenders that could have a Kurucs-level breakout in 2019-20: Abdoulaye N’Doye, Cholet; Brian Bowen, Sydney Kings; and Darius Bazley, USA.
More popular names like Sekou Doumbouya, Luka Šamanić and Goga Bitadze will continue to garner buzz — particularly following the instant adjustments made by Luka Dončić this season — but all three international prospects have been ranked as a potential first-rounder in the early editions of draft boards, so they don’t qualify for now. Which leaves us with three options — one genuine overseas prospect and two Americans with a couple of unique circumstances.
N’Doye is a 6-foot-6 guard from Dunkirk, France, a 21-year-old that sports a strong physical stature already. Coincidently, he’s garnered comparisons to Frank Ntilikina, another French-born defensive-minded and similarly-sized point guard. Although he’s struggled to find his footing under two different head coaches in two years, Ntilikina still went No. 8 overall not too long ago and N’Doye could project on the same wavelength.
For Cholet of the LNB Pro A, N’Doye has averaged 6.1 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.5 steals per game on 43.8 percent from three-point range. And for an athlete that puts up a little less than five shots every contest, N’Doye’s jumper looks sturdy, all things considered. Physically, N’Doye frequently appears as if he’s in an entirely different stratosphere against his competition, often using his quick hands and ridiculously adapt wingspan to spring one-man fastbreaks.
Even if it takes a few seasons for the offense to catch up with the rest of his body, envisioning N’Doye as a day one asset on defense doesn’t feel like a major stretch. The French circuit isn’t as competitive as Spain or Turkey, for example, but it’s still the league where Tony Parker, Boris Diaw, Nicolas Batum, Evan Fournier and Clint Capela all earned their stripes before heading stateside — in fact, Cholet was the team that birthed the early beginnings of Rudy Gobert from 2010-13.
For Brian Bowen, however, his long-winding journey is far from over, it appears.
Bowen, best known for his involvement in Louisville‘s recent scandal, is trying to claw his way back into draft contention. The quick-fire SparkNotes for the uninitiated: After Bowen was deemed ineligible to play for the Cardinals in 2017-18, the talented scorer tried to transfer to the University of South Caroline, where, following a two-semester NCAA transfer sit-out policy, he could begin rebuilding his NBA resume in early 2019. Instead, Bowen declared for the 2018 NBA Draft despite not participating in any collegiate games, went to the combine, didn’t sign an agent and eventually withdrew before the international deadline.
While this move effectively killed any lingering NCAA dreams, it left the G League and overseas route open as well as his NBA Draft eligibility. So, long story short, Bowen then signed with the Sydney Kings of the Australian NBL and has been working there since August in hopes of jumping back on front office radars with a full season of experience under his belt. Bowen may not have become the breakout star the Kings expected, but the 20-year-old has held his own in a decently competitive league.
The 6-foot-7 forward has tallied just 6.5 points and 3.1 rebounds over 28 games for Sydney — still, it’s far too early to give up on Bowen. Remember, it’s only a few years removed from Bowen being ranked as ESPN’s 14th-best high schooler in an absolutely stacked class that once included Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III, Michael Porter Jr. and more.
Or, in other words, if Bowen declares for the 2019 NBA Draft and sticks with it this time, he’s got the makings of a perfect second-round homerun swing.
Lastly, there’s Darius Bazley, perhaps one of the most interesting cases in recent draft memory. Bazley, 18, was a former five-star recruit and a McDonald’s All-American that originally committed to play for Syracuse in 2018-19. At the last moment, Bazley decided to skip college altogether with plans to head to the G League for a season before jumping to the NBA. Before long, the 6-foot-9 southpaw forewent that intermediary league too, announcing that he’d spend the entire year training for the draft instead. And… that’s pretty much where things stand in early January.
Bazley has some impressive high school-level highlights that exhibit his above-average court-running abilities and slender frame — but, as always, those clips can be incredibly deceiving. For now, Bazley has taken up a million-dollar internship at New Balance but he’ll certainly land somewhere in second round come draft season. Of course, this path is close to that of the New York Knicks’ Mitchell Robinson, a ceilingless rookie that withdrew from Western Kentucky to train in private for the draft just last year. In order to keep the air of mysteriousness surrounding his on-court talents, Robinson dropped out of the NBA Draft Combine as well.
Ultimately, Robinson fell to No. 36th overall, where the Knicks were more than happy to grab the potential-laden center. If Robinson hadn’t missed a 14-game chunk already — and stayed out of foul trouble a bit better — he’d be spoken of as highly as Kurucs has been so far. Of note, over Robinson’s 43 appearances, he’s already brought in 26 multi-block efforts — for a second-rounder, that’s playing with house money. Naturally, Bazley has a tremendous distance to go before he even reaches Robinson territory, but even this path to the NBA has found recent triumphs — he’ll just need to land in the right spot.
Zion Williamson is an otherworldly, once-in-a-generation prospect, just like Luka Dončić was before him. But while fans and general managers deservedly salivate over those teenagers, most franchises must dig far deeper to unearth under-the-radar contributors. Kurucs’ immediate accomplishments will bode well for front offices that continue to do their due diligence on late-round rookies. The Nets’ savviness has landed them a talented youngster at a multi-year cost-controlled price — but now it’s an outcome that the other 29 other teams will all look to replicate come June.
Between now and the NBA Draft, it’s all about uncovering the next Rodions Kurucs or Mitchell Robinson — but who will it be?