(B/R) — With conference play underway, we’re bound to see a handful of under-the-radar NBA prospects start to creep their way up Draft boards.
These prospects have already caught scouts’ attention, but a strong January and February should solidify interest for this upcoming June.
We’re looking at a mix of breakout returners and freshmen who didn’t receive much one-and-done hype entering the season.
Rising prospects such as Pepperdine’s Maxwell Lewis, Ohio State’s Brice Sensabaugh and Illinois’ Coleman Hawkins have ultimately become too well known to be considered sleepers anymore.
The following prospects are still in the early stages of their potential rises and aren’t considered lottery picks or necessarily top-20 prospects.
Jaylen Clark (UCLA, Wing, Junior)
Overlooked because of: Limited creation, shooting struggles, average wing size
Undervalued because of: Easy-fit versatility/adaptability, defensive impact, projectable role
Jaylen Clark should be playing himself onto Draft boards, more so with versatility and consistent impact plays than his 14.1 points per game.
Still a limited creator and shooter, his game doesn’t scream upside, which is helping him look like a 2023 value pick who’ll be available to Draft in the late first or second round.
Outstanding defensive instincts pop first when watching Clark, who’s averaging 2.7 steals per game by reading plays from off the ball. He’s shown an unteachable feel for anticipating and reacting as a help defender, jumping passing lanes or blowing up screens to force turnovers and often turn them into fast-break points.
Offensively, while he doesn’t offer much one-on-one firepower, he’s demonstrated a knack for capitalizing on what the defense gives up by either improvising with various touch shots, driving past closeouts or timing his cuts. He’s shooting 70.8% at the rim and 19-of-37 on one-handers around the key.
He also ranks as one of the nation’s most efficient pick-and-roll playmakers, grading in the 99th percentile with teammates converting 64.3% of their shot attempts off Clark’s ball-screen passes.
He currently has the third-highest box plus-minus in the country, and the eye test backs up the analytics that show he’s regularly influencing games with efficient offense and defensive IQ.
His shooting development is starting to look like a gamble worth taking, based on his 11-of-31 start on 3-pointers and the likelihood that his off-ball finishing, on-ball decision-making and defense can translate in a supporting role.
Noah Clowney (Alabama, PF, Freshman)
Overlooked because of: Lack of production, limited creation skill, shooting numbers, average athleticism
Undervalued because of: Physical tools, shot-making potential, valued archetype
Despite taking just 6.8 shots per game, Noah Clowney is building a strong NBA case with a valued mix of shooting, defense and finishing efficiency.
Still 18 years old, the flashes of shot-making, drives past closeouts and screener baskets outweigh his suspect 28.2% shooting on 3-pointers and clear lack of polish.
He’s up to eight 3-point makes over Alabama’s last five games, appearing more confident in his release, which is quick and concise with minimal dip. He appears on the right path toward developing into a stretch-4, pick-and-pop big man.
Though limited offensively in terms of ball-handling, self-creation and post play, Clowney does find ways to score off the ball, showing good timing/awareness slipping screens and rolling or getting to the dunker’s spot (68.3% at the rim).
On the ball, we’ve seen a few sequences of him identifying space, putting the ball down, attacking in a straight line and finishing with body control.
His 14.6 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per 40 minutes highlight NBA physical tools and activity. Clowney projects as a plus rebounder who adds value defensively with his mobility, motor and length.
A lack of perceived scoring upside could ultimately allow the freshman to be on the board for teams in the 20s. That’s steal territory for a 6-foot-10, three-and-D forward with room to add more shot versatility.
Jordan Hawkins (Connecticut, SG/SF, Sophomore)
Overlooked because of: Limited creation or versatility
Undervalued because of: Translatable/valued shot-making
Though Jordan Hawkins hasn’t taken a step forward with his creation and off-the-dribble play, NBA teams should start to picture his shot-making translating to off-ball scoring.
He’s averaging three made 3-pointers in just 26 minutes per game, burying jumpers off spot-ups (47.1%) and screens (43.6 percent). Hawkins’ shooting has been convincing from an NBA scouting standpoint, given the elevation he gets on his shot and no hesitation. A quick trigger shows in transition as well (10 3-pointers made), as Hawkins needs little time or space when catching, squaring and loading up.
Though clearly most comfortable/dangerous releasing off the catch, he’s flashed enough promise with his pull-up (36%), separating by rising with abrupt decisiveness and height over the contest.
Otherwise, he relies on functional athleticism, mostly for transition finishing and defensive playmaking.
He doesn’t offer too much versatility, but Hawkins has a plug-and-play skill set with a valuable specialty that should continue to be effective in a catch-and-shoot role alongside NBA creators and passers. He’s averaging 14.6 ppg (and 22.5 points per 40 minutes) despite receiving a combined 14 ball-screen and isolation possessions all season.
Taylor Hendricks (UCF, PF, Freshman)
Overlooked because of: Scouts’ unfamiliarity, limited creation
Undervalued because of: NBA tools, valued archetype
Taylor Hendricks is starting to generate NBA attention by checking a valued mix of boxes with his shot-making, defense and tools/athleticism.
He’s the nation’s only player with at least 25 3-pointers, 15 dunks and a block rate over 5%.
It’s obviously important for the shooting to continue, though the early consistency remains promising, as he’s at 41% from deep on 4.4 attempts per game while converting 79.1% of his free throws. Hendricks has done most of his damage spotting up, but a small sample size shows Hendricks is also comfortable off the dribble (6-of-14), slowing down before pulling up or using touch on runners (6-of-10).
He does remain limited in creation situations, but he’s ultraefficient when converting in transition (99th percentile), and he’s produced by mostly playing to his strengths, play-finishing fast-breaks, rolls, cuts and catch-and-shoot chances.
Early on, NBA coaches may find more use for his defensive tools and activity, given his 6-foot-9, 210-pound frame, mobility, motor and ability to contest shots at the rim and away from it. Hendricks combines both fearlessness challenging finishes and impressive foot speed guarding in space.
Between his body type and shot, teams are beginning to see translatable three-and-D — and that’s a floor projection for a freshman who turned 19 years old in November. Continuing to produce during conference play should help Hendricks secure a spot on team’s first-round boards.
Colby Jones (Xavier, SG/SF, Junior)
Overlooked because of: athletic limitations, lack of self-creation, low-volume shooting
Undervalued because of: versatility/projected fit, two-way tools, improving shooting
Already deserving of NBA attention thanks to early signs of 3-point improvement (18-for-40), Colby Jones made another strong statement to scouts with 16 points, five assists and two steals in a win over No. 2 Connecticut.
It’s becoming easy to picture an NBA fit in a 6-foot-6 interchangeable guard or wing who is a standout passer, versatile defender and suddenly a dangerous catch-and-shoot threat (48.3%).
Jones feels highly adaptable for the next level with his ball-screen play and passing IQ (5.6 apg), improving shot-making and physical tools for driving, finishing and defending multiple positions.
Jones isn’t the sharpest creator off the dribble, and a limited pull-up game and low volume of 3-point attempts suggest he doesn’t project as a high-upside scorer. But he shows excellent patience, timing and cleverness for making plays within a half-court offensive set. He picks his spots well to attack, and he uses his strength and off hand to convert around the basket.
Jones is also tough and alert on defense and on pace to finish with a 2.5 steal percentage for the third consecutive season.
NBA coaches can think about using him on the ball to facilitate or off the ball as a cutter and dribble-handoff weapon.
The longer this streak of consistent shooting lasts, the more convincing he’s going to look as a Swiss army knife prospect.
Judah Mintz (Syracuse, PG/SG, Freshman)
Overlooked because of: Syracuse’s record, shooting numbers, physical tools
Undervalued because of: creativity, versatility, shot-making, energy
Judah Mintz’s poor 3-point numbers and Syracuse’s bad losses have kept his Draft buzz in check. Teams may be wise to invest early and remain patient with the freshman guard, whose two-point shot-making and free-throw percentages (77.3) hint at room for shooting improvement and whose creativity and playmaking are already pluses.
Fourth among freshman in scoring despite making five threes all season, Mintz gets to his spots off ball-handling moves, change of speed and long strides, and he finishes plays off the dribble with a knack for elevating into mid-range shots or hanging in the air on layups.
He creates separation for himself with counters, timing and bounce. Despite weighing just 172 pounds, he takes contact well. Mintz is crafty in the lane, where he uses pivots, fakes, patience and touch (14-of-28 runners).
With 59 assists to 29 turnovers, he’s done an admirable job running the point. While it’s more reasonable to project him as a combo, he has shown enough playmaking feel for coaches to use him for creation in ball-screen situations.
His defensive activity and energy have been selling points as well, as Mintz is averaging 2.3 spg off ball pressure, happy feet and good intensity.
Mintz isn’t a likely rookie contributor in 2023-24, and there is also a decent chance he’ll be back at Syracuse for his sophomore season. He’s still an underrated prospect with his wiggle, off-the-dribble shooting, rim pressure, passing, defensive motor and improvable shooting range.
Jordan Walsh (Arkansas, SF/PF, Freshman)
Overlooked because of: self-creation limitations, 3-point shooting, production
Undervalued because of: Fit/versatility, translatable defense/hustle, correctable shooting
Trevon Brazile’s season-ending injury opened a door for Jordan Walsh to showcase more scoring versatility and defense that form an archetype forward NBA teams value.
General managers can safely ignore the lack of production and percentages for an 18-year-old with a 16.3% usage rate. Thinking long term, it should be worth betting on Walsh’s shooting development and what it could do for a 6-foot-7 high-energy defender who can score by attacking closeouts and making pull-ups or runners in the mid-range.
Walsh has flashed enough shooting mechanics plus off-the-dribble maneuvering, touch shots, physical finishes (64.9% at rim), effort and foot speed for teams to bet on off-ball scoring and defense from the 3 or 4 position. Scouts should see translatable defense tied to his tools, foot speed, IQ, concentration, motor, recoveries and playmaking (3.2 steal percentage).
The smart passing and hustle plays only strengthen Walsh’s role-player profile and potential to impact games without needing to make shots.
There have been questionable sequences when he struggles to separate offensively, but realistically one-on-one scoring won’t be a big part of his job description at the next level.
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Jonathan Wasserman is the lead scout and NBA Draft analyst for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter.
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