Hollinger’s NBA Draft talk: Henderson vs. Miller, NCAA Tournament players to watch and more

When it comes to the NBA Draft, some folks are just getting started while many others are nearly done.

With the NCAA Tournament starting this week, a lot of fans will be getting their first looks at some of the main players in this upcoming draft. So will some of the league’s owners and high-level executives, who tend to parachute into the process late once the work of the trade deadline is done.

This is interesting because the work of the league’s scouts is mostly done at this point. NBA teams typically have their entire staffs fan out to the various conference tournaments, which enables one-stop shopping to see nearly every team in a given league. (Some execs will turn this into an endurance event, stacking one-day trips to see, say, the ACC quarterfinals one day, the SEC quarterfinals the next and the Big Ten semifinals the day after. Let’s just say I did this once … and only once.)

As for the NCAA Tournament? Scouting staffs often watch that in takeout-littered conference rooms, channel surfing from game to game. The seats and access for pro teams at these events aren’t very good (the media seats, on the other hand, are amazing), so instead, this week becomes a time for everyone to retreat and compare notes.

The focal point for much of the NBA last weekend was the SEC, the league that most consider having the best draft talent this season by a wide margin. While the SEC’s domination of football is well known, don’t sleep on them in hoops either.

Yes, the Big 12 is still the best league, for now, and the SEC still has a few too many doormats not pulling their weight (hi, Georgia). But the Big 12 is more of a, shall we say, “veteran” league. In terms of the one-and-dones and sophomores who garner the most NBA attention, the SEC dominates. That pattern may only increase as the league’s football riches flow into basketball NIL deals and as Oklahoma and Texas move to the league in 2024.

I spent this past weekend at the SEC tournament in Nashville, Tenn., checking out the action, talking to scouts and coaches and filling in what I’ve seen on TV with some more in-person observations. Additionally, I’ve been making the rounds all season checking in on draft talent in between NBA stops.

At this point, I’ve seen 22 of the top 29 players on Sam Vecenie’s latest board play in person and will be redoubling my efforts this week to catch a couple more. (Sadly, a trip to New Zealand to see Rayan Rupert is not in the cards.)

Here are some key thoughts as we head into the NCAA Tournament, focusing on players we will be watching during March Madness, and some takeaways from the SEC tournament:

Is there a race for No. 2?

I alluded to this in my column Monday when I wrote about Scoot Henderson’s somewhat disappointing season with G League Ignite, but Alabama’s Brandon Miller is making the No. 2 spot on draft boards a competition.

Teams are going to have a lot of questions about Miller. A police investigator testified in court last month that Miller brought then-teammate Darius Miles a gun that was used in the Jan. 15 fatal shooting of 23-year-old Jamea Jonae Harris. Miller’s attorney rebutted the report, and Miller has remained an active member of the Crimson Tide. Teams are doing extensive due diligence on Miller and his background.

On the court, Miller has made an impression. A 6-foot-9 wing who can handle the ball, shoot with range and defend on the perimeter, Miller is the prototype for the positionless league of big, skilled wings. While his shot can come out a bit flat, he has shot 40.1 percent from the 3-point arc on massive volume (12.6 attempts per 100 possessions) and 85.6 percent from the line. I’d say he’s a plus-shooter. Miller also offers rebounding from the small forward spot, secondary rim protection and passes the ball well enough in the pick-and-roll to serve as a primary initiator.

I tend to put more weight on conference games than the rest of the season because the teams are better and heavily scouted. Several games also are rematches.

And in conference games, Miller was even better, with a 28.1 PER and some excellent point efficiency — 61.6 percent on 2s with a high free-throw rate and 63.5 percent true shooting overall.

Are there warts here? Sure, but you have to stare hard. Despite his size, Miller isn’t a particularly explosive or instinctive finisher around the rim. He’s also not a disruptive defender with low rates of stocks for this archetype. Finally, he’s an “old” freshman who will turn 21 in November — Henderson is 16 months younger, which is a big deal when you’re plotting out potential development growth.

But this isn’t some kind of foggy upside play — Miller might be the best perimeter player in college basketball right now. Between his positional value and immediate dividends, it no longer seems zany to talk about him going second.

SEC’s one-and-done dilemma

Perhaps no league has as many potential one-and-dones as the SEC, with nearly every decent team (and one or two indecent ones) having at least one such player on its roster. While high-level talent like Miller and Arkansas’ guards (more on them below) were the main attraction, a lot of evaluators also were in Nashville doubling down on some freshmen who weren’t necessarily in the limelight but could be in the draft.

They’re not necessarily projected as lottery picks (or even as first-rounders in several cases), but that hasn’t stopped people before. Players such as Tennessee’s Julian Phillips, Alabama’s Noah Clowney and Jaden Bradley, Arkansas’ Jordan Walsh, South Carolina’s GG Jackson, Kentucky’s Chris Livingston and Florida’s Riley Kugel all warranted a “watch” tag at the tournament in case they decide to turn pro later this spring. (You also could throw Ole Miss sophomore Matthew Murrell and Florida sophomore Will Richard into this discussion.)

Gregory “GG” Jackson (Steve Roberts / USA Today)

In nearly every case, I came away thinking the steak wasn’t quite fully cooked yet. Any team drafting one of these players is committing to a development project on a set of mostly unrefined tools largely centered around, “Hey, he looks pretty athletic.” Given the relatively weak 2024 class and floor-leveler of NIL money, most or all of these guys would probably be better off staying another season.

One player who made the strongest impression was Clowney, a 6-10 slender, stretch-four candidate who is still just 18. While he shoots 28.6 percent from 3, watching him shoot before warmups gives a different impression. He doesn’t shoot like a 28 percent shooter — the ball comes off his hand in one clean, smooth motion on his catch-and-shoots.

Nobody was shocked to see him knock down three catch-and-shoot triples in the semifinal against Missouri. Clowney already has size for an NBA four (if not a five) and is still likely growing into his body and seems to have enough mobility to be credible defending the perimeter.

Even he needs some developmental work before he’s viable in a real NBA game. Clowney doesn’t offer much shot creation and adds little spice as a defensive disruptor. But the scouts crowding into Alabama games to watch Miller have certainly taken note of Clowney as well. Of all the players I listed above, he seems the most likely to be a late riser come June.

All eyes on Arkansas

If there’s one team for draftniks to keep a close eye on, it’s probably Arkansas. The Razorbacks play Illinois in a coin-flip No. 8 versus No. 9 game to open the tournament and then face the huge task of top-seeded Kansas if they advance. The Illinois game should be popular in NBA conference rooms, a mid-afternoon tilt against an Illini team that also has three potential draftees in forwards Coleman Hawkins, Terrence Shannon Jr. and Matthew Mayer.

Arkansas could have five players drafted in June if they all declare. In addition to Walsh (above), guards Anthony Black and Nick Smith are likely lottery picks, and leading scorer Ricky Council IV is projected as an early-to-mid second-rounder. A fifth player, forward Trevon Brazile, also could end up being a second-rounder, but he hasn’t played a game since tearing his ACL in December.

Smith came into the year with the most hype as a high-scoring guard in the Malik Monk mold, but at the SEC tournament, Black made the biggest impression. The 6-7 point guard is a skillful passer and playmaker who showed some real craft operating out of pick-and-rolls and also has the dexterity and feel to be a major disruptor at the defensive end. His size should allow him to switch across positions as well.

That could push him as high as No. 4 on some draft boards, but there are shortcomings to consider. Black is a shaky outside shooter with a push set shot from distance that requires time and space to get away. He’s a 31.0 percent 3-point shooter on the season and struggles to punish opponents who go under screens against him. And while he moves well and gets off the floor quickly, you wouldn’t call him a freak athlete. He’d be depending on continued skill development to hit on a Lonzo Ball-ish upside.

Smith has only played 14 games this season, so some scouts are still catching up on him. He is quick and bouncy, but most of that athletic pop right now is channeled toward difficult pull-ups and floaters. Off the bounce, he’s mostly a one-move, one-direction player who rarely gets to the cup.

Smith shot just 41.7 percent on 2s this season. Optimistically listed at 6-5 with a thin frame, Smith also may be better off checking point guards on defense. Since he’s wired as a pure scorer and would likely play off the ball on offense, this cross-matching could limit his utility at the next level.

Council had a rough SEC tournament but led Arkansas in scoring. He’s an athletic shot creator who can beat defenders with his first step and rise for pull-ups but has a contorted shot release that sprays oddly spinning line drives. He’s only at 27.2 percent from 3 this season and 30.5 percent across three college seasons and would likely need to revamp his shot to succeed as a bench scorer in the pros.


Hey, remember the NIT? You might be ignoring it, but the NBA’s scouts aren’t. It’s a great opportunity to do some final homework on a player who slipped through the cracks in-season, especially since these games are usually much more hospitable to scouts than the NCAAs.

As luck would have it, several draftable players will be competing this week like Villanova’s Cam Whitmore, UCF’s Taylor Hendricks, Michigan’s Jett Howard and Kobe Bufkin, Santa Clara’s Brandin Podziemski, Washington State’s Mouhamed Gueye, Cincinnati’s Landers Nolley, Oregon’s Kel’El Ware and Florida’s Kugel and Richard. Wednesday’s matchup between Florida and UCF could draw a lot of NBA eyeballs … certainly more than the First Four games in Dayton, Ohio.

Riley Kugel (Dale Zanine / USA Today)

Potential movers to watch

Some of the top prospects in this draft either aren’t playing in the NCAA Tournament or are such known quantities that their stock probably won’t move much either way. On the other hand, some players could have a lot riding on this event. In no particular order, here are a few that come to mind:

Jalen Hood-Schifino, 6-6 freshman PG, Indiana: A late riser who wasn’t thought of as a one-and-done for much of the season, Hood-Schifino has made an impression with his ability to get to midrange pull-ups and his size for a combo guard at 6-6. For somebody whose shooting was a question mark, it also hasn’t been all that bad — 34.7 percent from 3, albeit on low volume, and 77.6 percent from the line.

On the other hand, Hood-Schifino specializes in basketball’s least valuable shot, and the rest of his résumé isn’t that special. He’s a good on-ball defender, but his rather low rates of blocks and steals won’t impress analytics models, and he rarely draws fouls or gets to the rim.

At his best, he can look special, such as a 35-point outburst in an upset of Purdue. At his worst, he can barf up tough middies and shoot 1 of 6 or 1 of 8 or 1 of 9 or 1 of 14 … all of which he did this season.

Hood-Schifino closed the season on something of an uptick, with double figures in eight of his last nine games, but the last impression may matter more here than for some others.

Kobe Brown, 6-8 senior PF, Missouri: Brown had one of the most impressive games of the SEC tournament in a quarterfinal win over Tennessee, scoring 24 points against one of the nation’s best defenses, before Alabama’s stifling size cooled him off in the semis.

Brown has become an interesting player to watch for teams picking in the second round, with some obvious negative flags — he’s already 23, might measure shorter than his listed height and might not be a good defender in space. However, those are offset by genuine NBA-level skill as a shooter and passer and enough quick hops to sneak home dunks on unsuspecting bigs.

Dariq Whitehead, 6-7 freshman SF, Duke: Whitehead came into the season with lottery hype but struggled early and was injured in mid-December. That led to him falling down draft boards and brought some speculation that he might not be a one-and-done at all.

However, his play since returning on New Year’s Eve has caused scouts to circle back and re-evaluate. In particular, his shooting has been a revelation: Whitehead has taken more than half his shots from 3 in conference play and knocked down 46.7 percent of them. He was already regarded as a good athlete with prototype wing size at 6-7, and he won’t turn 19 until August. His other numbers are respectable for a freshman prospect. If he’s a knockdown shooter, the case for him in the top 15 becomes strong.

I’ll be in Orlando on Thursday to see Duke, who have four other freshmen who could impact their draft stock with a good tournament. (Forward Kyle Filipowski and center Dereck Lively II are viewed as mid-to-late first-rounders, while guard Tyrese Proctor and forward Mark Mitchell are probably more “next year” guys unless either blows up in the tournament). But Whitehead is the one I’ll be watching the closest.

Julian Strawther, 6-7 junior SF, Gonzaga: Everyone is looking for 3-and-D wings, and Strawther is a 6-7 wing who shot 42.6 percent from 3 this year. That’s his prima facie case for getting into the back end of the first round, but the scouting cycle for Gonzaga players may work against him.

The Zags tend to get big audiences for their early-season showdown games against non-conference powers, then everybody forgets about them for two months while they beat up Pepperdine and Pacific in WCC play. That was by far Strawther’s best stretch of the season, including a 40-point outburst against Portland.

Alas, he cooled off in the WCC tournament — right when the scouts showed up again — and his low rates of steals and assists will hurt him in analytic models. Thus, there’s a need for a standout tournament game or two to leave an impression. The good news is that, as a wing shooter, scouts are generally looking for reasons to rule him in rather than reasons to rule him out, so a hot tournament run could help Strawther as much as anybody.

Isaiah Wong, 6-3 junior SG, Miami (Fla.): Will we have an undrafted ACC Player of the Year for a third straight season? It seems unbelievable that a conference with bluebloods like Duke and North Carolina and academic heavyweight Virginia could be on such a streak, but Moses Wright and Alondes Williams weren’t selected either of the past two years, and Wong projects as a fringe draft selection despite winning those honors this season. (While we’re here: I thought Filipowski was the POY, but he only made second-team All-ACC, so what do I know?)

Wong’s calling card is the first-step quickness to get downhill. However, he plays more as a scorer and might be a bit undersized to play shooting guard at the NBA level. But he made some real progress as a distributor this season — he nearly doubled his assist rate! He also shot 37.8 percent from 3 and 83.6 percent from the line, a more respectable showing than his previous seasons. Is that enough to get him into the second round?

Maybe with a good tournament, but the deck might be stacked against Wong. Hurricanes big man Norchad Omier is likely to miss the opening round and should Miami survive against upset-minded Drake, a second-round meeting against Hood-Schifino’s Indiana team awaits.

(Top photo of Scoot Henderson: Adam Hagy / NBAE via Getty Images)

2023-03-15 09:07:29