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Monday, May 16, 2022

NBA draft 2022: Biggest sleepers to watch

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The NBA world is about to descend on Chicago, with G League Elite Camp starting Monday and the draft lottery on Tuesday, leading into Wednesday’s draft combine and a series of agency pro days throughout the week. Before all that takes place and the framework of draft projections inevitably shifts again, let’s dig into my sleeper picks for this year’s draft. After spending tons of time on the road during the season, reviewing film and doing the legwork on a very wide range of players, I’ve landed on five undervalued prospects, some of whom will be drafted and some won’t, who are positioned to exceed expectations and build legitimate NBA careers in the short and long term.

Last year’s edition of this piece came with some resounding successes: Jose Alvarado quickly proved to be a legit NBA player with New Orleans, and Dalano Banton was drafted 46th and emerged as a real developmental player for the Raptors. The jury is still out on the others: Jason Preston was drafted 33rd by the Clippers but missed the season with injury, while EJ Onu and RaiQuan Gray are in the G League. In a perfect world, all five of these guys pan out every year. But the draft is hard, which is why teams miss every year and why searching for talent remains such a compelling process. Anyway, here are five players I’m putting my chips on.

North Carolina State Wolfpack guard Terquavion Smith (0) passes the ball in the first half against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

Terquavion Smith, G, NC State | Freshman

Height: 6′ 4″ | Weight: 160 | Age: 19 | Big Board rank: 27

For most of the season, Terquavion Smith wasn’t the most-hyped prospect on his own team. Dereon Seabron grabbed early-season headlines. And when I went to see the Wolfpack play at Notre Dame in January, I honestly came away loving neither. Admittedly, the shoot-first combo guard Smith is not the archetype of player I typically get excited about when it comes to projecting NBA success. But he ended the season on a heater, and the more I dug into his film over the past month, the more convinced I became that there’s an NBA player under the hood.

Smith was known, but didn’t have a ton of national fanfare coming into college: he was a four-star recruit out of Farmville Central High School in North Carolina (it’s not just a popular Facebook game, folks), which he led to three straight state titles. The school enrolls only 800 students, and the basketball team doesn’t play a challenging national schedule. So, considering the context, it’s a minor miracle that, as a true freshman from a small high school, coming off a year with COVID limitations, playing big minutes in the ACC and taking 29.5% of his team’s shots when on the floor, Smith averaged 16.3 points and made 36.9% of a whopping 260 three-point attempts. N.C. State didn’t run anything complex, and Smith was the safety valve on a lot of plays. He shot only 39% from the field on the whole, but considering all the circumstances, he was pretty efficient (and per BartTorvik, he shot 48.2% at the rim with just 18.5% of those attempts being assisted). Also consider that he turned 19 in December and was listed at 160 pounds last season.

When looking at high-usage college scorers, the types of shots they take and how they get them tend to be much more important than tangible counting stats. Simply put, Smith had to create a ton of shots, and even though his team was bad, the way he did it was unusual. The tape backs up the numbers. He changes speeds and plays with pace going downhill. He can also finish with both hands and has a lot of pop jumping off his right leg. His finishing is a real concern, but he is comfortable making floaters and has pretty good touch around the basket. It’s more likely he’s perimeter-oriented anyway: Smith can already catch and shoot at a quality rate, create space for his jumper off the dribble and knock tough shots down. The fact he’s clearly a high-level shooter and also a promising shot creator bodes well, considering prospects in his mold are typically one or the other.

Predictably, Smith is not a very disciplined defender yet. But factoring in his age and minimal experience playing high-level basketball, he’s understandably not all that disciplined at anything yet. Based on his role, it’s hard to get a grasp of what level passer he is, although he’s certainly not a true point guard. His free throw attempts and percentages were subpar, but he knows how to draw fouls, and they should probably tick up as he gets stronger and more confident. The risk here lies in all we don’t know about Smith’s game, but his lack of polish is also where the upside is. He’s arguably accomplished more than a vast many one-and-dones have over the years, and considering his background, he’s at an extremely nascent stage of growth as a player.

Of course, there’s always a high bar to clear for shoot-first guard prospects in the NBA. They come around every year, and most of them don’t make it. There are 30 NBA teams and only so many minutes and shots to go around for players who aren’t stars. In turn, the G League is littered with undersized scoring guards, many of them former high school All-Americans and/or college standouts. Smith broadly fits into this mold as a microwave scorer, and it’s not always one that accessorizes winning at a high level. Granted, not every team needs what he brings, but I’d consider Smith as a development pick if I were selecting in the 20s. He could still return to N.C. State, but he’s an obvious candidate to really raise his stock at the combine next week.

Keon Ellis, SG, Alabama | Senior

Height: 6′ 6″ | Weight: 175 | Age: 22 | Big Board rank: 30

Over the course of myriad Alabama viewings this season, I became increasingly convinced that Ellis was the team’s best prospect. A lot of people, including me, were generally interested in J.D. Davison early in the season—he was younger, more hyped and flashier. And while Davison may arguably have more upside, it’s Ellis who feels like the more interesting bet right now. After playing his first two years of college as a JUCO standout at Florida Southwestern State, Ellis broke into Alabama’s starting five at the end of his junior year, then stepped into a much bigger role with the departures of Herb Jones, Josh Primo and John Petty. He still functioned as a supporting scorer and didn’t inherit massive shot volume, but was highly efficient (57.9% on twos, 36.6% on threes, 88.1% from the line). He was also the team’s best defensive playmaker (3.4% steal rate) and a steadying force on a team that appeared to be emotionally up and down for much of the year.

You may not have heard his name all that often, but Ellis was one of the better wing defenders in college hoops. I wouldn’t say he was hiding in plain sight, because he wasn’t really hidden, but you get the point. He’s only listed at 175 pounds, but he’s wiry and muscular with quick hands and a knack for staying attached to drivers and cutters. Ellis’s slender frame actually helps him navigate screens and tight spaces in pursuit, and while he’s not all that big for an NBA wing defender, he otherwise offers most of what you want. He’ll blow up plays in his area and does a pretty good job avoiding fouls, as well. Ellis collected three steals in five different games and four steals in four different games on his way to making the SEC All-Defensive team.

While he’s not a menacing physical presence with his frame, I think it’s fair to assume the defense plays up to an above-average degree, particularly if Ellis can get a little bit stronger. I also think he’s legitimately a good shooter: his release is clean and pretty quick, he can make shots off screens and with his feet set, and his free-throw clip helps back up the percentages. Wings who guard and make shots get opportunities. His consistency is a big selling point, and, at 22 years old, Ellis is actually on the younger end of the spectrum with regard to college seniors.

If there’s something to nitpick here, it’s probably his shot distribution: Ellis shot 70% at the rim (per BartTorvik), but didn’t get there all that frequently, attempting nearly twice as many threes as he did twos. I don’t think it’s all that concerning: he can play out of closeouts and knows how to make the right pass, and he’s going to shoot well enough to keep people honest. When it comes to lower-usage role players, the results tend to matter more than the volume. Just from watching him a lot, I’m not all that worried about him continuing to score at a reasonable rate. He has a quick first step and can use both hands at the rim. Nobody is going to ask Ellis to run offense in the NBA, but he’s going to have to play off of teammates and make them better.

The whole picture here points to a mature player who can step in and help immediately. Ellis should hear his name called on draft night. Anecdotally, considering Jones’s resounding success as a rookie with the Pelicans, I’d be somewhat surprised if NBA teams fully overlooked another Alabama wing who plays both ends (granted, their games are very different). I’d look at Ellis in the late first round and sprint to draft him in the 30s. If he falls much further, it’s a pretty clear steal for whoever ends up with him.

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tyrese-martin-uconn

Tyrese Martin, F, UConn | Senior

Height: 6′ 6″ | Weight: 215 | Age: 23 | Big Board rank: 45

While I try to diversify my approach to picking sleepers, if there’s a trend to how I put this column together, it’s probably that I can’t quit searching for quality glue guys. Tyrese Martin falls into that bucket: I saw him play for Rhode Island two years ago, loosely kept tabs when he transferred to UConn, and started paying closer attention after catching the Huskies at the Big East tournament in March. Though it’s fair to debate how much postseason events matter, he was arguably the best player in the Reese’s College All-Star game and the 3X3U national championship (his team won the title) at the Final Four. Martin’s competitiveness has stood out in every setting—he’s strong, likes contact, and sometimes borders on nasty—and he offers enough in other key facets of the game to project as a viable role player worth prioritizing on a two-way deal.

If Martin has an elite skill, it’s that edge and willingness to mix it up at his size: he rebounds well for his position, wins 50-50 balls, sets hard screens and plays bigger than 6′ 6″ in the flow of the game. It’s kind of a cliché at this point, but he excels at the things stats don’t really quantify. In college, his energy was often contagious. And while other players got the accolades, for my money, he was among the most impactful players in the Big East. Martin’s numbers are good, but don’t scream special, and he turned 23 this year, which limits the chance he actually gets drafted next month. But the small things he does are intrinsic to his identity as a player, and teams aren’t going to have to worry about effort.

The other key piece of the sell here is that Martin brings some versatility at his size: he’s sturdily built and defends with good lateral balance, which helps cover for the fact his length is about average (he measured with a 6′ 8″ wingspan at Portsmouth). He’s fast and sneakily explosive off the floor. He’s someone who seems to embrace difficult matchups and won’t get punked switching onto bigger forwards or small guards. Martin likely won’t make an all-defensive team or anything, but he should be a net positive. Even the best defenders in the NBA get burned a lot of the time, and at some point it’s about versatility and embracing the job. It might be enough to get him on the floor, in conjunction with some continued offensive growth.

Although Martin has never been a superbly efficient scorer—he shot a career-best 44.9% from the field last season—some of that is based more on role and shot diet than any major lack of ability. Per BartTorvik data, he shot an acceptable 55.9% at the rim, but just 31.9% on non-rim twos, which are the type of shots NBA teams won’t ask him to take all that often. He has pretty good scoring instincts and had a slightly outsized role on a UConn team that really only had two reliable ball-handlers, the other being R.J. Cole. Martin can play off the drive and convert random offense by dint of being opportunistic. He won’t have to bring the ball up in the NBA, but it’s nice that he’s not a zero as a ball-handler and is comfortable pushing in transition, taking care of the ball and attacking space off the dribble. He does have experience in a range of roles, which doesn’t hurt, and he’s a solid enough passer who can make simple plays and improvise a bit.

The biggest determinant in Martin’s success may be his jumper, which seemed to take a big step forward as a senior: he doubled his three-point attempts from 50 to 100, and raised his clip from 32% to a stellar 43%. He turned himself into a capable catch-and-shoot player, has fairly good balance and footwork getting to his jumper, and can make them off the dribble in a pinch. On the other hand, he’s a career 67% shooter from the foul line over four college seasons, and he never markedly improved (albeit it’s not a massive sample). The odds are he’s probably an average NBA shooter at best, but at least there’s some semblance of growth. He’ll functionally be more of a three/four in the league, playing out of the slot and along the baseline, which puts emphasis on making open shots. At the end of the day, Martin is good at enough things—and so consistent in his approach—that he’s someone I’d bet on figuring things out. There are plenty of teams who should value what he brings to the table.

Lucas Williamson, SG, Loyola Chicago | Senior

Height: 6′ 4″ | Weight: 205 | Age: 23 | Big Board rank: 68

Lucas Williamson received little prospect fanfare playing at Loyola the last five years, but the Ramblers won quite a bit in his time there and he played a significant part in that. As a freshman, he was a key reserve on a team that made a stunning Final Four run. He stepped into the starting lineup after that and never came out, and Loyola became one of the most successful mid-major programs in the country. Williamson was unheralded and under-recruited out of high school in Chicago and has been on a pretty steady trajectory since, taking a step forward as a scorer as a fifth-year senior. It helps that he’s another player who’s universally lauded for his maturity and intangibles. He’s already 23.

Williamson’s NBA calling card is going to be his defense: despite minimal national attention, he’s actually one of the better guard defenders in the draft, with four years of quality steal rates under his belt, good anticipation skills, and standing a little over 6′ 4″ in shoes with a 6′ 7.5″ wingspan (as measured at Portsmouth). He takes calculated risks and uses his length and hands effectively in the passing lanes, equally adept defending on and off the ball, and making it difficult for opponents to get where they want to go. He’s a tad undersized for an NBA wing defender, and he may not be quick enough for every guard matchup, but suffice it to say that Williamson is pretty hard to score on. He relishes stops and disruptive plays. A big part of being a good defender has to do with mentality and habits—it’s why even players with incredible defensive tools don’t always make substantial role leaps in the NBA —and Williamson already has that piece taken care of.

So, projecting Williamson as a plus defender feels pretty safe—the matter of level playing at Loyola shouldn’t be a big issue, and there’s enough evidence on film from over the years to support it. As potentially relevant evidence: he was the primary defender on Ayo Dosunmu during Loyola’s 2021 NCAA tournament upset of Illinois and helped hold the future draft pick to nine points (he also committed six turnovers in that game). The bigger question here is going to be whether he can cut it on offense. While he ideally doesn’t need to be more than a fifth option, he’s going to have to make the most of his opportunities and knock down open shots. Williamson took on a bigger offensive role this season after standout big Cam Krutwig graduated and had six 20-point games, but it’s fair to say he’s never been a scorer by trade.

On the positive side, the way Loyola ran its offense over the years—an egalitarian, ball-movement heavy style—is pretty conducive to developing good role-player habits. Williamson’s best offensive skill is his jumper: he’s a career 36.8% three-point shooter, is comfortable letting it fly off the catch, and can knock down shots on the move in transition. He’s not super creative, but he’s efficient and takes the right shots, and shot 38.7% this year on a career-high 186 three-point attempts. The shooting is trending in a good direction. Williamson also posted a career-best assist rate this season and proved he could toggle over to handling the ball when needed. While not much of an on-ball creator, he’s comfortable making simple plays, understands the value of the next pass, and generally limits his own mistakes. He didn’t get to the rim a whole lot, but he’s a competent finisher despite his lack of vertical explosiveness. There’s no elite offensive skill here, but it’s hard to say there’s a massive hole in his profile, either.

As with all role players, a lot of this will come down to fit: Williamson will probably have to go through the G League, and he’ll benefit from playing alongside multiple perimeter creators, which will limit him from looking over-stretched offensively. He’s going to need to knock down shots, take advantage of opportunities, and keep pushing himself to expand his offense. But if you look at the recent history of unheralded guard prospects who have wound up sticking and contributing to winning teams, a lot of the time, they’re in the game because of their defense, above all else. Williamson is well-suited to follow that path if things come together for him. He’s an excellent two-way contract candidate who might help sooner than later, and you could argue for him in the second round.

Bryson Williams, PF, Texas Tech | Senior

Height: 6′ 8″ | Weight: 240 | Age: 24 | Big Board rank: 75

Due to the NCAA granting college players an extra COVID year, there’s a wave of outgoing college prospects who are, frankly, way too old to be in college. Most of those guys aren’t going to make it long-term. In order to have a legit chance when you’re the same age as players who have already been in the league for four or five years, you have to have some obvious plug-and-play utility, and you have to come into the NBA with NBA-caliber work habits. There’s already limited patience for most undrafted players, but basically, guys who have been in college for five or six years need to act like it to win the job interview. And of course, you also need to be good enough at basketball.

Williams turned 24 in April and graduated high school in 2016, the same year as Jayson Tatum and Lonzo Ball. He wasn’t heavily recruited and started his college career close to home at Fresno State, where he quickly became a starter. After two seasons, he transferred to UTEP, where he sat out a year and played two. He then spent his COVID year at Texas Tech, where he led a 27-win Red Raiders team in scoring, shot 41% from three and was part of the most efficient defense in the country (per KenPom). Often noted by his coaches for his work ethic, toughness and motor, Williams is turning pro on an upward trajectory and fits the bill physically as a long, reasonably versatile four-man who’s willing to do the dirty work despite being undersized. (Think somewhere in the vein of JaMychal Green). He earned an invite to next week’s G League Elite Camp, and the more I dig into the tape and background on Williams, the more convinced I am he might be able to offer someone minutes in the NBA next season. Williams should be able to land on a two-way contract or exhibit-10 and work upward.

There’s some skepticism tied to pretty much all prospects who enter the NBA at his age, but he fits into a pretty useful role mold and offers enough positive things on both ends to add value to the back end of a roster. He’s an above-average athlete, plays extremely hard and makes multiple efforts on the defensive end, where he’s pretty quick and has plus length for his size (I’m told, unofficially, a 7′ 2″ wingspan). That lets him rotate and close out onto shooters effectively, cover for teammates’ mistakes and bother opponents when guarding the ball. He should be able to defend smaller bigs and slower wings. While not a rim protector, elite rebounder or ball thief, Williams’s ability to simply stay solid and offer cover at both forward spots gives him one foot in the door to playing time in a pinch. He’s agile enough and wired the right way to win some battles against bigger players.

The bigger question here is probably whether Williams will give teams quite enough on offense, where he has an array of strengths and was efficient this season (61% TS) but doesn’t have an elite, surefire translatable skill. As is the case with most fringy role players, shooting is a critical item, and while it’s great that he shot so well from long distance last year, making a career-best 40 of 96 threes, Williams still has to extend that to the NBA line and be able to keep opponents honest. It doesn’t hurt that he turned himself into a respectable free throw shooter each of the last two seasons, showing the capacity for real improvement. I don’t think he’ll be a truly high level catch and shoot guy, but there’s a reasonable chance he’ll make enough open shots. There’s sometimes a little extra arm action and not enough wrist on his shot, which slows down his release a bit. (This is your annual reminder that I am not a shooting coach.) But his shot prep doesn’t look all that bad otherwise, and he made 39.5% of all jumpers last season, per Synergy. The chances we’re looking at a roughly league-average skill that’s trending in the right direction are arguably better than the odds he’s a complete non-shooter, which is good enough for me on an undrafted deal.

The other thing I dig here is that Williams relies on an unflashy but highly effective interior game. He’s a right-handed shooter but finishes just as well if not better with his left, relying mostly on an array of baby hook shots that he’s comfortable taking out to six or seven feet. He gets good extension with his length and has excellent touch as a finisher, which allows him to functionally play inside at 6′ 8”. While nobody is going to draw up post-ups for him in the NBA, what it does mean is that Williams should be able to punish smaller players on switches and out-quick slower bigs, giving him some degree of mismatch value. His ambidexterity extends a bit to his pass delivery and handle, and he has enough comfort with the ball to dribble into post-ups and functionally play on the perimeter. Williams shouldn’t be totally marooned playing in space, which might be enough. At the end of the day, he’s a broadly useful player with a productive history and strong intangibles. It won’t surprise me at all if he finds his way onto a roster.

More NBA Coverage:

  • Ranking the Top 100 Prospects in the 2022 NBA Draft
  • NBA Draft Lottery Simulation: Five Scenarios to Watch
  • NBA Mock Draft: Biggest Risers and Fallers
  • Five Returning NBA Draft Prospects to Watch in 2023

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