(B/R) — NBA scouts start the season with rough watch lists, ideas of different tiers and sleepers to track. And then a month of basketball finishes, and new names appear or move up the rankings.
We have identified five prospects who have surprised scouts with the type of games they could see translating to the next level.
There has been a nice mix of unexpected freshmen outperforming their recruiting ranks and breakout upperclassmen who have clearly made improvements during the offseason.
These players were either viewed as borderline prospects or completely off the radar just a month ago. But they’re now hot topics and heavily involved in the 2024 NBA draft discussion.
Size: 6-foot-5, 190 lbs
Early notable numbers: 1.27 PPP pick-and-roll ball-handling, 45.0% pull-ups, 34.3 assist percentage
Scouts are still processing Carrington’s start and its legitimacy, but he’s instantly got their attention.
Most hadn’t seen much of him coming into the season, but he’s now a top priority to monitor after his debut triple-double and persuasive highlights of shotmaking and passing.
Looking like a true point guard with 6-foot-5 size, Carrington has demonstrated good pacing and patience handling the ball, snaking it in ball-screen situations until he finds space to pull up or he sees a teammate get free. He’s totaled 37 assists to 10 turnovers while making 45% of his dribble jumpers, numbers that highlight his on-ball strengths as a passer, decision-maker and scoring threat.
Carrington isn’t the most explosive, so he’ll need to continue shooting well to offset his lack of rim pressure. But his comfort level separating in the mid-range and launching from NBA range (43.2% on 6.3 3PTA) have been evident early.
The athletic question marks figure to be the biggest, as scouts wait to form more confident takes on the former four-star recruit. He’s struggled to finish in transition and has just one steal and zero blocks through six games.
Scouts are looking for surprise breakouts with NBA G League Ignite struggling and the lack of freshmen star power compared to years past. Positional tools, three-level scoring and efficient playmaking have propelled Carrington’s name to the top of watch lists.
Conference matchups with Duke’s Tyrese Proctor, Syracuse’s Judah Mintz, Louisville’s Skyy Clark, Virginia’s Reece Beekman, Wake Forest’s Hunter Sallis and North Carolina’s RJ Davis/Elliot Cadeau duo will be key for Carrington’s draft stock.
Size: 6-foot-3, 176 lbs
Early notable numbers: 27.6 points per 40 minutes, 37.9 assist percentage, 3.5 steal percentage, 67.0 true shooting
After shooting just 33.3% overall with Overtime Elite, scouts have been surprised by Dillingham’s efficiency.
Kentucky’s structure and the program’s visibility may have helped the 18-year-old cut down on some bad habits.
Spotting up more than he ever has, Dillingham is making quick decisions off the catch that are creating advantages. He’s also looked more willing to move the ball, totaling 31 assists (to just nine turnovers).
Regardless, creativity and shotmaking have always been his signature strengths, and they’ve consistently popped through six games. He’s shifty off the bounce, changing speed and direction to separate into pull-ups or get to spots as a driver.
Converting 44.4% on dribble jumpers, 50% on catch-and-shoots and 50% on 3-pointers, his shooting versatility and overall accuracy have been lethal early. And despite limited physical tools and athleticism — questions that previously kept scouts hesitant about his NBA upside — he’s making 62.9% of layups, demonstrating effective mid-air adjustments, body control and touch from tough angles.
Aside from his 54.7 field-goal percentage, it’s still the playmaking that has been most surprising and promising. It was always important he looked like a capable point guard, rather than an undersized 2 or combo.
Dillingham making an obvious effort to find teammates early in transition or off his own penetration has been highly encouraging.
Size: 6-foot-8, 216 lbs
Notable early numbers: 85.7% at the rim, 7.1 steal percentage, 11.6 block percentage
Dunn is trending toward outlier status with defensive potential that could create enough value to offset his scoring limitations.
After playing just 12.9 minutes last year, he’s building a reputation as the most impactful non-center defender in the country, currently ranked No. 2 nationally in defensive box plus-minus, No. 4 in defensive win shares and No. 6 in steal percentage. He’s even blocking 2.5 shots per game with mostly a wing’s body, though NBA coaches willing to think out of the box could envision him playing stretches as a small-ball 5.
The eye test backs up the numbers. Scouts love how many different ways he can influence possessions with either ball pressure, court coverage, reaction time or playmaking.
According to Synergy Sports, opponents are shooting 3-of-27 on Dunn when he’s considered the primary defender. Nobody has yet to convert a field goal on him at the rim.
Scouts are starting to see a potential defensive difference-maker for the next level, particularly in ball-screen situations, where he’s shown an outrageous mix of foot speed to hedge and awareness/speed to recover back to roll men and contest around the basket.
Offensively, despite showing little dribble creativity, he’s still giving Virginia 10.3 points per game, mostly by tapping into his explosiveness for play-finishing off transition, cuts, rolls and putbacks.
Scouts still want to see some signs of shooting potential, even if the most realistic, hopeful outcome will be for Dunn to reach Herb Jones’ level of capability. Just posing a threat to hit a catch-and-shoot three will affect spacing, as we’ve already seen instances of opposing defenses leaving Dunn open to help elsewhere.
The fact that he’s taking twice as many threes per 40 minutes (3.4, up from 1.6) is encouraging, as is his decent start from the free-throw line (69%). Regardless, the combination of age (20), 6’8″ size, special athleticism and elite defense should ultimately buy Dunn extra time with scouts.
Kevin McCullar Jr.
Size: 6-foot-7, 212 lbs
Early notable numbers: 64.6% 2PT, 8.0 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.44 PPP spot-ups
It feels as if Kevin McCullar Jr. has a different level of aggression and command/influence on the game this season. And he’s still generating most of his offense from off the ball, a good thing when assessing NBA translatability and fit.
His scoring and playmaking numbers are up significantly, and he’s seen far fewer ball-screen possessions per game compared to last year.
Shooting 64.6% inside the arc and 75% around the basket, McCullar has been highly efficient by making the right reads as a driver, cutter and transition ball-handler while demonstrating an effective combination of physicality, body control and touch on finishes.
While a 31.0 assist percentage doesn’t seem sustainable, it highlights high passing IQ when he’s skipping it to shooters, recognizing Hunter Dickinson in strong post positions or seeing down the floor and hitting a streaking teammate off a defensive rebound. He’s processing the game quickly.
His defense continues to be a real selling point on the scouting report, with the 6-foot-7, 212-pound McCullar possessing excellent tools, instincts and focus.
Shooting remains the obvious swing skill when evaluating the 22-year-old. This season, we’ve seen much of the same with McCullar, a capable shotmaker off the catch and dribble who just struggles with consistency. But capable may be good enough, considering how well-rounded he’s becoming at both ends. He struggled with his shot against Kentucky but still managed to make a substantial impact in the win, recording a triple-double and playing tough defense.
In a draft that may lack the typical amount of perceived high-upside 18-to-20-year-olds, teams may look to a higher-floor prospect like McCullar early. His versatility and maturity scream adaptable and plug-and-play for the next level.
Size: 6-foot-3, 187 lbs
Notable early numbers: 66.7 3PT percentage, 89.5 true shooting percentage, 7.2 steal percentage
Sheppard was not expected to be a part of the draft discussion that swirls around Kentucky prospects. But with an adaptable skill set, he’s just been too impactful for scouts to write him off due to his questionable body type and measurements.
The combination of shooting, passing IQ and defensive instincts creates a connector archetype and easy fit for any setting.
He’s made 14-of-21 threes, converting 11-of-17 off the catch and three-of-four pull-ups from behind the arc. A 21.4 assist percentage highlights secondary playmaking and ball-moving value. He sees the floor well and makes quick decisions, traits that improve lineups, even if his off-the-dribble creativity doesn’t fully translate. His 16.9 box plus-minus leads Kentucky by a sizable margin, and this is with a 15% usage.
Per Synergy, he currently grades in the 100th percentile in half-court offensive efficiency.
And though his outrageous 7.2 steal percentage doesn’t tell the whole story when projecting Sheppard’s frame to defending NBA wings, he still demonstrates outstanding foot speed, fast hands and anticipation. He has a knack for annoying opposing ball-handlers with his relentless pressure and desire to force turnovers.
Scouts still want to be sure his listed 6-foot-3, 187-pound size is accurate. It’s always going to raise some skepticism over what can carry over and how much upside he really offers. Regardless, he’s showing the type of shooting versatility and intangibles at both ends to compensate for below-average positional tools if we lower the bar to a role-player projection.
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Jonathan Wasserman is the lead scout and NBA Draft analyst for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on X, formerly known as Twitter.