Last March I wrote an article examining the apparent weakness of the 2024 draft class. At the time I viewed this class as potentially weak but with plenty of time for prospects to improve and for new names to rise up boards and strengthen the class. In short, I had a decent amount of optimism about this class, despite the consensus view.
Now in late December, with just about six months to go until draft day my view is about the same, although with slightly less optimism. This does appear to be a weak draft class, with no consensus Tier 1 player and questionable depth. Some of the top incoming freshmen have disappointed so far and a clear no.1-worthy pick has yet to emerge. But there are plenty of solid NBA starters in this class and some intriguing long-term guys. There is also a very strong international class that adds a ton of depth and talent to this class. Below I’ll look into all this in more detail and discuss a few themes that are likely to play out on draft night in June but first let’s look at some of the top prospects that have been playing well and living up to expectations.
Freshmen Living Up To The Hype
While there have been plenty of disappointments there have also been a few star freshmen who are living up to the hype. Baylor guard Ja’Kobe Walter has been a scoring machine so far and Colorado guard/wing Cody Williams is coming on very strong after a slow start. Both are looking like top 10 picks and could go in the top 5.
Walter has ideal size for a SG and a really smooth offensive game. While he might not be the primary initiator type that’s so valuable at the next level I believe that this part of his game will continue to develop and he’ll see more ball handling and play-making duties as his career progresses. Cody Williams (younger brother of JDub) has been flashing his elite potential as a 6-8 ball handling guard/wing. He’s far from a finished product but his natural ability to drive the lane, finish in traffic and make plays for teammates, at that size, is impressive.
UConn guard Stephon Castle is back in action after missing some time with an injury and is showing really intriguing flashes (although is still looking to put it all together). If his 3pt shot comes around the sky is the limit for him. His role could be somewhat limited on this deep UConn team but that won’t stop NBA scouts from having him very high on their boards.
These three big guards are a big glimmer of hope in a mostly underwhelming draft class. Add in the two Ignite forwards Ron Holland and Matas Buzelis and there’s a lot of reason for optimism for teams drafting in the top 10.
Two other freshmen who have so far exceeded expectations are Kentucky guards Reed Shepard and Rob Dillingham. Both are off to exceptionally fast starts and, while their shooting numbers might come back down to earth, they both look like first round talents. Shepard has always been a great shooter but he’s also been really impressive on the defensive end and is playing a great floor game as well. Dillingham has transformed his game, harnessing his raw scoring ability to become more of a set-up man and much more efficient on the offensive end. He’s undersized but changes the pace of the game when he’s on the court. I’m not yet convinced he’s a starter at the next level but he looks like a player who will bring value to a NBA team.
There are three themes that I think we’ll see on draft night: NBA-ready upperclassmen going higher than they might in other (stronger) draft classes, some very non-NBA-ready but high upside players going in the first round, with teams drafting with an eye on the future and finally, a high number of international prospects getting drafted.
Theme 1: NBA Ready Players
Some of the more NBA –ready guys include Creighton guard Trey Alexander, Tennessee wing Dalton Knecht, UCLA center Adem Bona, Clemson big PJ Hall, Marquette guard Tyler Kolek, Marquette forward Oso Ighodaro, Colorado forward Tristan da Silva, Virginia wing Ryan Dunn, Duke PF/C Kyle Filipowski, Kansas guard Kevin McCullar and Kansas center Hunter Dickenson, among others. In recent years we’ve seen more of an emphasis on NBA-ready (and lower risk) players getting drafted in the first round. I think that theme will accelerate this year.
Could we see a guy like Trey Alexander keep improving over the coming years and have a Haliburton-esque rise to stardom? Could Adem Bona be the next Bam Adabayo? Is Dalton Knecht ready to be a starter from day 1? Some of the players who appear to have less high-end upside will just keep getting better and better and become stars; the task of figuring out which player(s) that will be is why NBA execs get paid the big bucks. Whether they become stars or not, this group of experienced players provide a solid floor for this draft class.
Theme 2: Intriguing Upside
As for the second theme (the raw but talented upside players) there are a dozen or so players who look like they would be high daft picks if they were to stay in school for another year but in this less than stellar draft class they could jump into the draft this year and give an added dose of upside to this class.
Yves Missi tops the list. The hyper-mobile 6-11 center from Baylor is quickly becoming one of my favorite upside prospects in this class. He’s got all the tools and is just starting to figure out how good he can be. He’s mainly a rim-running, rim-protecting and rebounding big at this point but he’s got good hands, a good feel for rolling to the rim and plenty of untapped offensive potential. He’s far from a sure thing but the upside is very intriguing.
Players like Johnny Furphy, KyShawn George, Caleb Foster, Jared McCain and others could continue to emerge and become legit 2024 draft prospects. And some of the 5-star freshmen who have disappointed early (see below) could find their footing and have big second half’s of the season, regaining their draft momentum. And then there’s the emergence of Pittsburgh point guard Carlton Carrington, who has looked like a potential first rounder.
Theme 3: International Depth
While there may be weakness at the top of this draft there is a good amount of international talent that provides depth to this otherwise lackluster class. This international group greatly strengthens both the first and second rounds of the draft and it starts right at the top with potential no.1 pick Alexandre Sarr (PF/C – Perth/France). Sarr isn’t in the same echelon as last year’s top pick, Wembanyama, but still is an intriguing prospect who has star potential. You don’t find many 7-footers with such fluid open court ability and flashes of offensive talent.
Then there’s Nikola Topic, a sturdy 6-7 point guard from Serbia who has a crafty game and an uncanny ability to get into the lane, score over length and make plays for teammates. He’s a good 3pt shooter, solid defender and is emerging as a potential top 5 pick.
France continues to pump out talent (as I examined here) and could have as many as 5 first rounder’s in this draft including Sarr, potential top five pick Zaccharie Risacher, high upside forward Tidjane Salaun, fast rising Pacome Dadiet and high energy wing Melvin Ajinca.
Other potential first rounder’s from the international group include: Bobi Klintman (Cairns, NBL/Sweden) and Alex Toohey (Australia). Plus there are another dozen or so international prospects with second round potential. And that’s not to mention the many international players already playing ball in the U.S.
The college basketball season is still young but so far we’ve had a number of slow starts to prospects widely considered to be lottery to mid first round prospects. These players still have a chance to regain draft momentum, not to mention develop over the course of a few NBA seasons into high level players, but so far the results have been disappointing. Many of these top recruits could end up spending two or three years in school before jumping to the draft.
Justin Edwards was widely considered a top 5 NBA prospect coming into the season but so far he looks more like a complimentary wing rather than a dynamic first or second option. I still see him as a potential one and done, possibly even a lottery pick, but it’s time to temper the expectations. He’s talented and is likely to be a high level contributor to a NBA team in time but probably not the player many once projected him to be.
I was way too optimistic about the talents of Aday Mara and how he’d adjust to the college game. It has quickly become apparent to me that he’s not as mobile or capable on the defensive end as I had projected and I now see his draft range more in the second round than the lottery. He’s a skilled passer and has awesome size but it’s hard to imagine him holding his own defensively in the NBA. He could be a multi-year college player.
I had McKenzie Mgbako projected as a one and done first rounder but after a slow start he appears to be more of a multi-year college player. He could be in for a big second season at Indiana, if he chooses to stay.
Omaha Biliew looks like he’s going to take longer than expected to be ready to enter the draft. The athletic 6-8 forward could be at least a two-year college player and more of a long-term prospect than an instant impact guy. His teammate and fellow freshmen Milan Momcilovic has looked like the better prospect (or at least more NBA ready) and is one to watch.
Xavier Booker had a meteoric rise in the 2023 recruit rankings and garnered a lot of first round buzz over the past year but it’s clear that he’s far from NBA ready and might even be far from being a major contributor in the Big 10. He still has plenty of upside potential but isn’t likely to be a 2024 draft guy.
DJ Wanger has been a big name in recruiting and draft circles for a long time but as an undersized and not very efficient scoring guard his NBA future is a bit murky. There’s even a chance he’s not a one and done player (although I think he’ll be in this draft). While he might be a solid scorer at the next level it remains to be seen if he can bring enough value to warrant being a fist round pick.
Isaiah Collier has had a lot of bright moments but for those considering him a potential no.1 overall player there are some major question marks to consider. For one, he’s not much of a shooter and we all know how important a skill that is at the next level. He’s also been woefully careless with the basketball, averaging over 4 turnovers a game so far. He very much looks like a top 10 talent but comes with limitations.
Players Returning From Injury
Another source of added talent to this class will come from a few high level prospects that are just coming back from being sidelined by injuries including two Kentucky centers, Aaron Bradshaw and Ugonna Kingsley Onyenso. Bradshaw was a 5-star McDonald’s All American who missed the first month of the season with a foot injury. I’m a big Bradshaw fan and think he should be getting more first round consideration. Onyenso is more of a raw talent with big upside who could be back in action at some point mid season. He might not be a 2024 draft prospect but could surprise to the upside either later this year or next.
G League Ignite wing Thierry Darlan is another potential draft pick who could regain draft momentum later in the season after suffering a serious ankle injury a few months ago. He’s now back in action and looking to find his rhythm.
After recovering from a health scare this summer Bronny is back in action and looking to prove that he deserves the talk of him being a high draft pick. He’s an interesting case study of hype and talent. He’s the biggest name in the draft for obvious reasons and has had to handle enormous expectations throughout his young life. But he also has the talent to make it in the league and perhaps even be a star player. He plays more of a complementary game, rather than being an on-the-ball creator but he’s very good in his role, has really high-level athleticism, basketball IQ and versatility.
A So Called “Weak Draft Class”
We’ve seen it before where a draft class appears to be underwhelming only to have a handful of players develop into star players in the NBA. It isn’t always the top 5 picks, or even the lottery picks that end up being stars. Drafting players and evaluating draft classes is as much of an art as a science. We know for certain there is no Victor Wembanyama-level player this year but that doesn’t mean we won’t see a lot of value come from this draft class.
This is a draft class that will take some time to play out. There’s valid reason for the skepticism but history shows us that the development of basketball prospects is non-linear and that we could still see major leaps from the players in this draft class.
As I write this article I find my pessimism starting to fade, and a little bit of renewed optimism for this draft class starting to grow.