NBA Draft Scouting Reports, NCAA Basketball

NBA Draft Primer: The best prospects in the Big Ten Tournament

As the college basketball season enters its home stretch, analysts and fans alike will begin looking ahead to the draft and evaluating players within that framework (in addition to enjoying the chaos of March). This past weekend, fans, media, scouts and front office members converged in Chicago for the Big Ten Tournament, which lacked the allure and future NBA star power of the ACC or SEC Tournaments, but featured several future pros nonetheless.

Here is a primer on some of the Big Ten standouts that could be headed for the league this year or sometime down the line:

Romeo Langford, G, Indiana

Langford, a likely lottery pick, struggled to assert himself in IU’s loss to Ohio State, who bottled up his drives and forced him into difficult shots. The freshman finished with just nine points on 4-of-12 shooting and struggled on defense against Ohio State’s big, physical guards. He did grab six rebounds and hand out a career-high five assists, but Langford’s weaknesses stood out far more prominently than his strengths in this game. His jumper has been inaccurate and inconsistent all year, and while Langford has proven his ability to hit mid-rangers off the dribble and finish at the rim, his NBA upside will depend heavily on his jumpshot, which features an unusually low hand placement and inconsistent release point.

Langford has the tools to defend passably at the NBA level, but will need to add both strength and investment on that end of the floor. He often stands upright when defending the ball, which leads to blow-bys and needless fouls, and doesn’t use his frame as well as he could in the post and when denying his man the ball. His steady demeanor, at times, comes off as aloofness or indifference, and while that may have little bearing on his NBA future, there were times this season when more engagement and intensity would have been welcome.

Bruno Fernando, C, Maryland

Fernando is an imposing, physical presence on both ends of the floor, but struggled to assert himself against Nebraska as Maryland got bounced in its first game of the tournament. The Angolan big man combines impressive size and build with above-average athleticism, and protects the rim as well as nearly any center in the Big Ten. He has the tools to defend in space, as evidenced when Maryland resorted to a high-pressure defense to try and claw back into the game late, and should improve his lateral quickness as he puts it to use more often.

Fernando could likely be an NBA-level rim-runner from the jump, but will need to improve his jumper in order to convince teams to spend a mid-first-round pick on him. He’s attempted only 11 total 3-pointers in two years at Maryland, and while he has generated efficient offense, Fernando won’t be asked to bring his bruising inside game to the NBA, where he’ll be surrounded by superior offensive options. He has shot an impressive 75 percent from the foul line in his career, which suggests that he could eventually develop an outside shot, but will need to prove it in workouts and the early stages of his NBA career.

Cassius Winston, G, Michigan State

Having now followed Big Ten Player of the Year honors with a Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player award, Winston has unequivocally been the best player in the conference this season. Michigan’s fourth-ranked offense is such almost entirely because of Winston, who orchestrates possessions with the assurance and savvy of an NBA veteran. Squint a bit, and it’s easy to see shades of Kyle Lowry in the way the 6-foot-1 Winston shoots off the dribble, runs the break, facilitates in the pick-and-roll and interacts with his teammates. Over the last two seasons, he has shot 44.6 percent from deep — largely on pull-up and step-back jumpers — and dished over seven assists per game. It speaks volumes to the command Winston has over the game that, as a pass-first point guard, he finished fourth in the Big Ten scoring this season. His ability to make the right decision on nearly every play is uncanny and unlike anything else the Big Ten has to offer.

In the title game against Michigan, Winston found Matt McQuaid time and again for 3s on one-handed, cross-court dimes — the result of Michigan’s weak-side defenders sinking in to contain Winston pick-and-rolls. When the Wolverines stayed home, Winston found the roll man or snuck crafty one-handed scoop layups past would-be shot blockers.

And yet, his viability as an NBA point guard isn’t totally clear. Already hobbled by a slight limp, Winston is an average athlete who could have trouble keeping up with waterbug point guards and challenging larger guards. Lowry, after all, is an exception, not a template, and Winston doesn’t have nearly the same strength or instincts on defense. His low release point could leave his shot vulnerable against long, athletic defenders, though Winston excels at creating space in the pick-and-roll. He is undoubtedly good enough to play in the league — only the impact remains in question.

Ayo Dosunmu, G, Illinois

The 19-year-old Dosunmu will likely be the first player out of Illinois to be drafted since Meyers Leonard in 2012, though it remains unclear whether that will happen this year or next. While capable with the ball in his hands and as a spot-up shooter, Dosunmu’s best attribute is his defense, which has a chance to be elite with the right amount of effort and refinement. He may be the quickest on-ball defender in the Big Ten, with quick hands and good instincts to boot. He disrupted passing lanes and pestered ball-handlers in the Illini’s loss to Iowa, but seemed reticent at times to ramp up his ball pressure.

Dosunmu also flashed his ability as a passer with 10 assists in two games, and while he shot just 1-of-7 in the tournament, he canned over 35 percent of his 3s as a freshman. Even when he reaches his prime, he may need to share a backcourt with another playmaker, but Dosunmu is ahead of the curve as a creator given his age.

James Palmer Jr., G, Nebraska

As a senior this season, Palmer developed into one of the most prodigious scorers in the Big Ten, though that production has always come at the expense of efficiency. While Palmer was one of the most impactful players in the conference and the catalyst of Nebraska’s offense, his true shooting percentage barely climbed above 50 percent this season, and he’s shot under 32 percent from deep in his career. His efficiency was buoyed almost entirely by his ability to get to and convert at the free-throw line.

His penchant for tough, long 2-pointers and relative inability to play without the ball in his hands makes his NBA fit a tricky one, and without a reliable jumper, Palmer may struggle to stick at the next level. He has a pronounced hitch in his shot and doesn’t have a particularly quick release off the catch. There is quite a bit to iron out in Palmer’s game before he becomes a rotation-level NBA player, but his size, scoring instincts and ball-handling ability give him the tools to make those adjustments.

Jordan Poole, G, Michigan

The supremely confident Poole can be inconsistent, and his standing on draft boards varies depending on the evaluator. But his combination of shooting, slashing and playmaking makes him an alluring prospect nonetheless. The sophomore is a scorer first, but over the last year has developed a tight, shifty handle and solid vision for a secondary — and often tertiary — ball-handler. In Michigan’s semifinal win over Minnesota, Poole dished seven assists, including several sly kickouts to shooters out of the pick-and-roll. He creates space off the bounce and finishes at the rim well, though his lack of vertical explosion leaves him vulnerable against thirsty shot-blockers.

He also tends to force shots in the halfcourt, and though John Beilein’s offense allows for individual playmaking and team continuity, often hijacks sets to the detriment of the team. Beilein rebuked Poole several times in the championship game for this sort of recklessness. Defensively, Poole has major room for improvement, primarily in the effort and discipline departments. He tends to gamble for steals and bite on pump fakes, leaving him and his teammates out of position until he recovers. He lost McQuaid on the perimeter several times on Sunday before Michigan’s coaching staff reworked the matchups.

Still, Poole might have one of the highest offensive ceilings of any perimeter player in the conference due to his combination of shooting, passing and ball-handling. His entire game still needs refinement, and Poole must decide this summer whether that development will come at the college or professional level.

Josh Reaves, G, Penn State

After being named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Reaves delivered another impressive defensive performance in a loss to Minnesota Thursday night. While most impact wing defenders make their marks on the ball, Reaves provides smart, disruptive defense from the weak side, jumping passing lanes for steals, tagging roll men from the opposite corner and contesting shots at the rim. He is both strong and quick, though not overly so in either area, his discipline and combination of so many positive attributes make up for any relative physical disadvantages.

His prowess as a pure on-ball defender isn’t totally clear, as Reaves spent most of the game at the top of a matchup zone, though he did a solid job preventing penetration and reading passing lanes, grabbing three steals. His game should translate to being able to defend ball screens and isolations, but those abilities haven’t been fully tested yet.

Though Reaves isn’t a primary ball-handler, he did more facilitating than most wings in the tournament, running pick-and-rolls, slashing to the basket and setting up 3s and layups for teammates. Should he ever make it to the NBA, he should be able to capably attack closeouts at the very least. He shot 36.6 percent from distance over his final two years at Penn State and his stroke looks noticeably smoother than it did in his first two seasons.

Carsen Edwards, G, Purdue

Along with Winston, Edwards was a unanimous selection to the All-Big Ten First Team and served as the lifeblood of one of the best offenses in college basketball this year. Matt Painter runs one of the sharpest and most crisp systems in the conference, but Edwards is its engine. He possesses a gravity unlike that of any other player in the Big Ten and while not a great distributor, unlocks opportunity for teammates with his constant motion and deadly jumper. Most every one of Edwards’ shots is contested, and his athleticism and strength allow him to create space from deep or at the rim despite his minute stature.

That jumper, however, tailed off down the stretch of the season and failed him almost entirely in Purdue’s loss to Minnesota. The junior was just 1-of-8 in the Boilermakers’ only game of the tournament and saw his 3-point percentage dip under 34 percent by the end of the season. He can occasionally get tunnel vision and likely doesn’t have the size or vision to be a great passer, and his defensive intensity comes and goes. When dialed in, he can slide step-for-step with most guards and avoid being moved on the block, but his size will prevent him from being more than a two-position defender.

Ignas Brazdeikis, F, Michigan

Brazdeikis has risen on draft boards since the start of the season, when he forced his way into Michigan’s starting lineup with multiple breakout performances in November. By the end of the year, he’d beaten out Langford for Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. The freshman has undeniable scoring instincts, a steady lefty jumpshot and fits nicely as a slasher in Beilein’s equal-opportunity offense. He struggles to create separation against and get by athletic defenders, but his ability to slide between either forward spot gives him a size or speed mismatch against most defenders in the Big Ten.

In the NBA, however, his lack of elite athleticism could be more limiting. His lumbering gait and relatively slow release give him a smaller margin for error than a scorer like Langford or Poole, and his post game won’t be much of an advantage at the next level. But shooting tends to translate, and Brazdeikis, who was a key part of an elite defense, can improve his athleticism over time and may well end up on a competitive team that allows him to do so.

Ethan Happ, F, Wisconsin

Happ is one of the most polished offensive bigs in college basketball, but because he won’t be a primary scorer at the next level, his lack of a jumper complicates his NBA fit. He is an elite passer, solid rebounder and capable defender who makes teammates better to a degree few big men can, but simply never developed much of a shot from the perimeter or the foul line, which will scare teams away from drafting him. Happ has added strength in the last year, which could help him play the five in the NBA, but may not be quick enough to defend NBA athletes on the perimeter. He still has a chance to carve out a role at the next level, but will have to do so with a glaring weakness that would cripple lesser players.

Jalen Smith, F, Maryland

Nebraska held Smith to just eight points and five rebounds in Maryland’s lone game in Chicago, but the freshman has nearly every tool required of a modern NBA big man. He combines endless length with bouncy athleticism, and while he only dabbled with a 3-point shot this season, his stroke should be conducive to an uptick in volume and percentage over the next year. The 6-foot-10 Smith needs to add weight to his 215-pound frame and will likely return to Maryland for another year of seasoning, but in the wake of Fernando’s likely departure, should have all the opportunity he needs next season.

Vic Law, G, Northwestern

Law didn’t play in Northwestern’s first-round overtime loss to Illinois due to leg injury, but should garner attention from NBA scouts as a versatile 3-D wing. The senior was a career 38.4 percent 3-point shooter entering this season, when his percentage dipped to under a heavier offensive burden. Still, Law is a proven catch-and-shoot threat and a supremely long and active defender. Law took on more ball-handling duty for the Wildcats this season, and while he doesn’t project as a lead ball-handler at the next level, it should allow him to attack closeouts and create offense in a pinch should a situation call for it. His upside is limited relative to most wings in the 2019 draft class, but Law’s understated and translatable game should fit on any team that takes a chance on him.

Juwan Morgan, F, Indiana

Morgan struggled in his final Big Ten Tournament game, posting just 12 points and seven rebounds in a loss to Ohio State. A long season of playing up a position appeared to have him worn down against the massive Kaleb Wesson, and Morgan was left on the bench during IU’s late push down the stretch. That stretch belies Morgan’s true value to Indiana, though. He is a talented and crafty scorer from the post and a cagey defender when he cares to be, and did the best work on the glass of his career in the second half of this season. His assist numbers have never adequately captured his ability as a passer, and while most of his passes came out of the post in college, he could have some untapped potential making plays as a roll man.

Morgan’s lateral quickness has likely worsened since his freshman year, when he primarily played on the wing (and occasionally as a point-forward), but Indiana’s scheme didn’t allow him to show much of his perimeter defense. Defensive discipline was often a source of trouble for Morgan, who tends to reach for steals and sell out for blocks, which led to seemingly constant foul trouble this season. His jumper comes and goes (in the latter portion of the season, it mostly went), but he has a workable stroke and has put together stretches of consistent shooting. NBA teams will need to see more, but Morgan has the makings of a useful NBA role player.

Nojel Eastern, G, Purdue

Already a sophomore, Eastern is likely a four-year college player who may not even be drafted. But his defensive ability may be tantalizing enough to put him on the radar of fans and coaches alike. The 6-foot-6 Eastern imposes his will on the defensive end with an elite combination of strength, quickness and instincts, and may be the best individual wing defender in the Big Ten. Like Reaves, the 6-foot-6, 220-pound Eastern provides value as a help defender, but is longer, stronger and more versatile on the perimeter. With supreme size and athleticism, Eastern can capably defend both wings and point guards, as well as hold up in the post against bigger players.

Offensively, Eastern is a major work in progress, and will likely need all four years of his college career to round into an NBA-level offensive player — if he gets there at all. His jumper is nearly broken and Eastern entirely avoids launching from outside the paint if he can help it. Purdue uses him to initiate offense to mitigate the effect of defenders ignoring him — Eastern brought the ball up on roughly 60 percent of the team’s possessions against Minnesota — and he crashes the offensive boards for garbage buckets inside. But without any semblance of a jump shot, Eastern will have a difficult time surviving in an NBA that places increasing emphasis on shooting.

Charles Matthews, G, Michigan

At 6-foot-6 with an excellent frame and length, Matthews looks the part of an NBA wing. He can handle the ball, create offense for himself and others, and defend four positions at the college level, while his understated game and presence makes him a seamless and versatile gap-filler for Michigan. That doesn’t always translate to efficient production, however, and Matthews too often floated through portions of games without asserting himself on either end.

The redshirt junior was coming off of an ankle injury that kept him out of three games and his minutes gradually decreased over Michigan’s three games in the tournament. He was absent from the Wolverines’ closing lineup in the title game against Michigan State, and clearly struggled to find his way back into the flow of the team, forcing tough mid-range jumpers and lacking the explosion to get to and finish at the rim consistently.

As is the case with most wings in this conference, the biggest determinant of Matthews’ NBA success will be his jumper. A career 31.5 percent 3-point shooter, Matthews has never shot above 32 percent from deep in any year of his college career, and as his 2-point shooting and free-throw rate dipped this season, so too did his overall efficiency. There is reason to believe he could refine his stroke and become a passable shooter, especially given that most of his looks in the NBA would be set up by others. But for someone who so often looks like he should dominate, Matthews too often underwhelms.

Isaiah Roby, F, Nebraska

Were it not for his poor decision-making, Roby might have been one of the more intriguing prospects in the Big Ten. For two years, he has been one of the conference’s most impressive interior defenders, protecting the rim at a high level while holding his own on the perimeter against guards and stretchy bigs. He can play either frontcourt position and has shown flashes of a 3-point shot (35.5 percent over the last two seasons). In the right circumstances, he can grab rebounds and lead the break for a Nebraska team that makes plays by committee.

Roby’s biggest challenge, however, is discerning when to press an advantage and when to make the simple play. Many of his turnovers and offensive fouls stem from holding the ball a dribble too long or ignoring an open man with a better look. He has tunnel vision around the basket and too great a liking for attempting ambitious plays. Some of his decisions over the Cornhuskers’ three tournament games were legitimately baffling.

If Roby can iron out some of those mental lapses, refine his handle and hone his jumper, he could be worth a late-first to mid-second-round pick in the 2020 Draft and possibly make an impact early in his career (by which point he’d be 22 years old).

Lamar Stevens, F, Penn State

Stevens was dubiously named to the All-Big Ten First Team despite a true shooting percentage under 50, but the tools of a versatile scorer and defender are present enough to keep scouts paying attention. The mid-range-obsessed junior needs another year at Penn State and a major overhaul to his shot profile, but his impressive athleticism and 6-foot-8, 230-pound frame make him an intriguing prospect that can theoretically play three positions at the next level.

Tyler Cook, F, Iowa

Cook provides for Iowa a more efficient version of what Stevens does for Penn State, but poses even less of a threat from deep. He is just 3-of-21 and a 64 percent free-throw shooter in his three-year college career and, like Happ, needs to be able to shoot it to succeed. Still, Cook is too physically overwhelming to ignore. At 6-foot-9, 250 pounds, he is an explosive vertical athlete with decent lateral quickness that, despite the fact that he’s best suited at the five, allows him to play power forward next to Luka Garza.

Against college defenders, Cook can work around his absence of a jumper by blowing by slower defenders and bullying smaller ones on the block. In the NBA, however, that may not be enough given how much less often he’ll have the ball in his hands.

Jordan Murphy, F, Minnesota

Murphy is an old-school power forward who subtly and methodically batters his way to double-doubles most every night. The senior never quite found a jumper at in four years at Minnesota, and with few weapons around him this season, couldn’t quite carry the Golden Gophers’ offense efficiently enough. Murphy plays far bigger than his listed height of 6-foot-6, but that makes it difficult to see how or where he fits in the NBA. He rarely had to defend in space in college, and NBA teams would have to play him next to a shooting big man.

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