INDIANAPOLIS – Greetings from a Champions classic that traditionally ended very late at night. The annual, unofficial start of the college basketball season – which is always a combination of duke, Kentucky, Kansas and State of Michigan— was well attended by the NBA, as usual, with most teams sending in several senior decision-makers.
While blue-blood programs have lost years, this event is often viewed as a litmus test of the overall level of talent in college basketball in any given season — always showing up hoping to see prospects and expecting just as much from these particular programs . But due to the emergence of alternative routes to the NBA, as well as the broader trend of top players graduating from non-traditional college hoop powers, the Champions Classic is no longer a one-stop destination for elite prospects — at least not always. Regardless, we’ve got an interesting pair of games with a handful of potential first-round picks on the pitch. Here are some early takeaways.
Cason Wallace from Kentucky is a star
I was among those who had very high expectations for the start of the season from Kentucky’s Cason Wallace, and he announced himself as a true college star Tuesday night. Wallace dominated defensively in a marathon doubles loss to Michigan State, finishing with 14 points, five rebounds, five assists, eight(!) steals and a highlight reel block. The list of freshman guards who can actually take over a game on defense over the past decade is rather short. Wallace did his best.
The way I see it, the top three freshman guard prospects are Arkansas’s Nick Smith, Wallace and Baylor’s Keyonte George: They play different styles but are willing to make the difference for their respective teams. Wallace is perhaps already the best defenseman in college basketball, with an intellectual but uninterrupted approach that almost never lets him out of the game. He’s quite capable of defending the ball and is also good at getting away from it. There are rarely guys who defend like he do and who can also master a game as a point guard. It’s a winning combination.
Wallace might get a little picky about his measured, generally risk-averse offensive style – he’s a talented goalscorer with a consistent swimmer and good catch-and-shoot skills who knows where his strengths lie. You won’t see him abort a lot of plays or hit a lot of flashy jumpers, but he’s efficient and effective. He’s not the same level of self-creator as some of his peers, which will likely keep some of the upside debate focused, but Wallace is someone who will be winning games in the NBA for a long time to come. He’ll probably hear his name called out in some pretty profound lottery – it’s just a matter of location.
Oscar Tshiebwe could be Kentucky’s second-best candidate
There will be some debate over who the second best prospect in Kentucky is, and it may take a while to settle. But I’m starting to wonder if it’s actually Oscar Tshiebwe, who has returned to school to make big bucks this season but continues to build a pretty decent case as a potential NBA roleplayer. He’s not drafted high and plays a position that’s been devalued, but you can’t question his engine, he’s producing at a high level and he’s quite agile for his listed 6′ 9″ and 260 pounds. Tshiebwe won quite a bit a lot of accolades in the last year, and while he turns 23 in a couple of weeks, you can throw him in an NBA game next year from a physical standpoint.
Granted, this isn’t a particularly sexy argument for an undersized center that doesn’t clear the ground or protect the basket at a super high level by NBA standards. But Tshiebwe made his season debut after knee surgery and has done very well – Kentucky only lost control of the game after fouling – and there is more to come. He finished with 22 points, 18 rebounds, four blocks and an unlucky five turnovers in 34 minutes. How high he gets ultimately depends on the depth of this draft on his position, but I’m looking at this situation with fresh eyes after Tuesday. I bet he gets drafted and ends up in a two way deal. If he can reduce his unnecessary mistakes then his mentality and dedication will probably play a part in some way.
Duke’s Tyrese Proctor deserves patience
The second game featured Duke and Kansas and ended after 10:00 p.m. Eastern Time. Predictably, it was pretty sloppy. It was also a better watch from an NBA perspective, with more legitimate prospects on the ground, despite the absence of Duke’s proposed lottery winner Dariq Whitehead, who could be back in time for next week’s PK85 tournament in Portland (where much of the NBA front office community will descend again).
The prospect I most wanted to check out was Duke’s Tyrese Proctor, an Australian import through the NBA’s Global Academy program, which had received rave reviews from scouts who had seen him practice recently. The problem with this was that Proctor had surprisingly given up two dud games to start his college career. There were some confused executives on Tuesday curious to find out what the problem was, and Proctor more or less passed the eye test, albeit not with flying colors and not in a way that necessarily convinced of his status as a prospective lottery winner. Thankfully he’ll be judged after more than a few games but he’s not on the right track just yet and expectations may need to be tempered a little.
Proctor didn’t play particularly well in the first half of Tuesday’s game, which Duke lost 69-64, but he played much better in the second half, showing some shooting ability and playing with more confidence as a playmaker. Proctor is of incredible size for a lead guard and of course is quite selfless, and Duke’s distance didn’t help him, but his struggles with efficiency and getting to the edge are notable. Still, Proctor deserves some patience and should eventually shore up the buzz. Whether he wins the lottery or not is more semantics than anything at the moment – he’s a first-round talent I guess doesn’t matter.
Wait for Duke’s other prospects
As for the other Duke boys, it was also a pretty mixed bag – projected first-rounder Dereck Lively, a 7’1″ mobile rim protector, suffered a minor injury and didn’t affect the game at all. That was a bit disappointing seen since he was considered one of the top contenders in the incoming high school class and doesn’t seem to have made much progress in the physicality or ability department. Still, it’s early days and there aren’t many guys that match Lively’s size with his movement skills , but if he’s projecting as a more traditional center, it certainly limits how high you can realistically pull him. As in most of these situations where young people are adjusting, it’s better to wait and see.
Kyle Filipowski finished the tournament with 17 points and 14 rebounds and was Duke’s most productive player, but he has a bit of taste for his height despite his impressive ball skills. He’s not particularly efficient or physically dominant, but he’s had some nice moments and changed the game. Duke’s other key freshman, Mark Mitchell, is more of a multi-year project but has excellent physical tools for an NBA forward, is playing hard and could eventually turn the tide. I never like to glean much from preseason games, but it’s fair to say the five-star list didn’t really impress anyone at this stage. Jon Scheyer continues to recruit well, but there are always growth issues with a young team, and the approach here seems more ball-moving than the occasionally lumbering, star-driven offenses of years past. This will take some time to implement.
Keep an eye on Gradey Dick
Kansas prefers to build its roster over time and has made a point of not loading up with one-and-dones in recent years, but it’s possible that freshman Gradey Dick will end up as the exception to that rule. Dick came up with some important late-game buckets and was extremely balanced for most of the night to show off his skill and feel for the game on the edge. He scored 14 points but had only one rebound and no assists and this wasn’t a game to get carried away in, but he seems poised to make a big contribution as a freshman and should have something to say as a possible first-round contender Gaining momentum he keeps playing well. He’s got just enough defense, quick, clean release on his shot, and good frame to play on the wing in the NBA. Whether or not Dick makes the one-time jump is less of a point here than the fact that he seems to be settling in pretty well. I left the building more convinced of his ingenuity than in previous visits.
Also keep an eye on Jayhawks forward Jalen Wilson, who scored 25 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and assisted with five baskets — he missed all seven of his three-point attempts, but I think he’s making progress toward draftability. The junior is a crucial component for Kansas and had a pretty good run late in the season as the Jayhawks rolled to last season’s title. He is of a legitimate size and looked quite agile on Tuesday. The main issue was whether he could place the ground and defense at a high enough level to play a useful supporting role. I think he can work his way into draftability, but I’m not entirely convinced yet.
Anyway, it’s a long season. Nothing sweeping or conclusive needs to be said. Sometimes it’s good to just sit and watch the games. There is much more to come. Stay tuned for SI’s first mock draft of the season tomorrow.
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