For NBA fans following college basketball, the attraction is almost exclusively in identifying the next big prospect to make it to the league. Earlier this week on The Ringer, Kevin O’Connor provided fans with a blueprint of how to scout college hoops from their couches. Well, the season gets under way tonight with a slate of games highlighted by the Armed Forces Classic featuring Arizona against Michigan State and Indiana against Kansas, so it’s time to put your newfound skills to use.
Everybody knows about some of the 2017 NBA Draft’s biggest names like Markelle Fultz, Josh Jackson and Harry Giles, but who are some other prospects you should keep your eyes peeled for this season? Here are five guys worth tuning in for.
Dennis Smith Jr., PG, North Carolina State
Dennis Smith Jr. isn’t exactly an unknown quantity. He’s currently ranked as the second best player in the class according to DraftExpress’ latest big board, but Smith has still flown a bit under the radar in the buildup to the college basketball season. There are a couple of reasons but the glaring issue is he isn’t headed to a traditional blue blood program like Kansas or Duke. Smith will play his, likely one year, of college basketball at North Carolina State, the school he rooted for growing up. The second reason is Smith hasn’t played competitive basketball in a year. The 6-foot-2 point guard tore his ACL in August of 2015, wiping out his senior season of high school hoops.
The good news is that by all accounts Smith is back to his old form. According to those who saw him at Adidas Nations in August, the Wolfpack freshman showed out well against college basketball veterans like Frank Mason and Devonte Graham from Kansas. Smith is a superb athlete who should deliver more than his fair share of highlight reel plays this season. His size may keep him from being an elite NBA defender, but he has the “want to” necessary to compete against opponents who will regularly be physically bigger. How the 18-year-old’s jumper pans out in his freshman season will be something to watch. Smith was a solid shooter before his injury, but all the time off has seemingly knocked him out of rhythm. If he can shoot in the mid-30s from three this season, he’ll keep himself in the conversation to be the number one pick.
Lauri Markannen, PF, Arizona
Finnish forward Lauri Markannen is the latest foreign-born prospect to eschew money overseas in favor of the exposure of playing college basketball in the United States. The 19-year-old will spend his winter in the warm climate of Tempe where there are lingering questions on just how much he will be featured on a roster where shot attempts will be at a premium. Now, though, the Wildcats are facing a roster crunch. Guard Allonzo Trier is facing eligibility questions and forward Ray Smith suffered his third ACL tear earlier this month. Without Trier and Smith available, there will be more shots for Markannen and more opportunities for him to flash the skill that’s made him a likely lottery pick.
The 7-footer has excellent potential as a stretch power forward, one of the defining positions of modern basketball. Markannen shoots the ball well from outside. He has the height and quick release needed to get his shot off against most defenders, and can even knock down threes on the move. Defensively, he’s shown the ability to switch onto smaller opponents for stretches, a necessary skill against NBA offenses that heavily emphasize the pick-and-roll. Markannen fits the mold of a talent who could push his way into the top-10 and even as high as the top-5 if all things go right this season. Mobile power forwards who can shoot the three aren’t easy to come by, especially ones who are 7-feet tall.
OG Anunoby, SF, Indiana
In the span of about six months, Indiana’s OG Anunoby has become the darling of draft analysts across the web. While there were plenty of highlights last season, Anunoby really burst onto the national stage in the Hoosiers’ NCAA Tournament win over Kentucky last March. The 6-foot-8 wing used his massive (reported) 7-foot-6 wingspan to help bottle up future top-10 pick Jamal Murray and block a pair of his 3-point attempts. Anunoby has morphed into the posterboy for positionless basketball in college hoops. He has the size and speed to guard at least four positions and will likely be tasked with handling centers a few times this season as well.
And yet, there are still questions surrounding him that have caused DraftExpress to leave him as their 16th ranked prospect heading into the season. The unknowns largely exist on the offensive end where Anunoby only had a 17.5 percent usage rate as a freshman. His 14.2 points per 40 minutes suggests he should be able to handle a larger scoring load, but he made 44.8 percent of his 29 3-point attempts and still shot worse than 50 percent from the free throw line. Even if he can maintain something in the mid-to-high 30s, Anunoby will be a functional offensive talent. To do it, he’ll have to prove that he can handle increased attention from opponents. We’ll get a preview of that in Indiana’s opener when the draft darling goes head-to-head with one of its top prospects, Kansas’ Josh Jackson. If he handles it well, don’t be surprised if you hear him talked about as a top-10 prospect sooner rather than later.
Edmond Sumner, PG, Xavier
Xavier’s Edmond Sumner is a late bloomer, literally. As a high schooler, he grew from 5-foot-9 to 6-foot-4 as a senior. The growth spurt was reflected by his rail thin frame when he weighed in at just 149 pounds at the LeBron James Camp in 2013. His first year at Xavier, he was redshirted after just six games because he suffered from patellar tendinitis that was partially brought on by his growth spurt and a lack of rehabilitation in high school. Sumner, though, was unleashed last season as a 6-foot-6 point guard who weighed a much healthier 183 pounds.
Assuming he’s able to add some additional weight to his frame, Sumner has the potential to be another piece of the recent trend of quick, athletic point guards who are explosive in the open floor. These are not your traditional floor generals — Sumner averaged a solid 5.6 assists per 40 minutes last season — but they are capable of relentlessly attacking the rim and keeping defenses on their heels. As a redshirt freshman, he scored 17.0 points and drew 6.2 fouls per 40 minutes while taking over half of his shots at the rim.
Physically, Sumner’s length and quickness give him the potential to be a pesky defender, but scouts will want to see if he can improve his shooting (career 29.1 3-point percentage) and distribution now that he’s a year older.
Alec Peters, PF, Valparaiso
Mid-major prospects have become the elder statesmen of recent NBA draft classes, as their collegiate body of work has propelled them into first round consideration. This year, the one to keep an eye on is Valparaiso’s Alec Peters, a 6-foot-9 power forward who averaged an impressive 22.9 points and 10.5 rebounds per 40 minutes while posting a 65.1 percent true shooting percentage as a junior. Peters has already been tabbed as the Preseason Player of the Year in the Horizon League where his Crusaders are the conference favorite.
What intrigues NBA teams most about Peters is his shooting ability. The 21-year-old was recently picked as the best shooter in college basketball by two of four Sports Illustrated experts in their preseason predictions. Peters has made 43.3 percent of 534 3-point attempts in college, an exceptional mark for anyone, let alone a 6-foot-9 power forward. He is very capable in catch-and-shoot situations, but what’s impressive is his ability to run off screens and score on the move, which can put even more pressure on bigger defenders trying to keep up with him.
In order to be a first round pick, he’ll need to show that he’s improved defensively during the offseason. He’ll have a chance to do that as the Crusaders face off against a tough non-conference schedule that includes Power Five teams like Alabama, Oregon and Kentucky as well as a home matchup with a resurgent Rhode Island squad.