2023 NBA Draft on B/R

Bleacher Report: Under-the-radar prospects to watch in 2023

These 9 players are worth keeping track of as the college basketball season rolls along.

FSU guard Matthew Cleveland is 1 of several lesser-hyped Draft prospects to keep tabs on in 2023.

Editor’s Note: For More of Jonathan Wasserman’s coverage of the 2023 Draft on Bleacher Report or to read this article on BleacherReport.com, click here.

(B/R) — When Notre Dame opened ACC play with back-to-back one-point losses to Syracuse and Florida State — unless you went to one of those schools (or had a few jelly beans on the line) — you probably didn’t watch either game, right? After all, each of those teams kind of stinks this year.

And if you didn’t watch, you missed an opportunity to catch under-the-radar NBA draft prospects JJ Starling (Notre Dame), Judah Mintz (Syracuse) and Matthew Cleveland (Florida State).

Calling any NBA draft prospect “under-the-radar” is a bit disrespectful, as we’re talking about guys who legitimately could play in the NBA as soon as next season. But we’re classifying each of these players as under-the-radar because:

  • He doesn’t appear in the top 30 (first-round pick) on the consensus big board on NBAmockdraftdatabase.com
  • He does appear in the top 75 (a viable draft pick) on that big board, and
  • He plays for a team that does not currently rank in the top 75 on KenPom.com

Thus, each of these players is off the radar in an NBA mock draft community that predominantly focuses on projected first-round picks and is also off the radar on the college basketball front, playing for teams with little to no hope for an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament.

Players are listed in alphabetical order by last name. Statistics are current through the start of play on Tuesday, Jan. 10.

Taran Armstrong, Cal Baptist

Consensus Big Board Rank: 68

Nine games into his freshman season in 2021-22, Taran Armstrong was averaging 12.3 points, 8.8 assists and 7.7 rebounds per game. He had one triple-double and came mighty close to several others. There was an outside chance he could be a one-and-done, but he missed almost all of January and opted for (at least) one more year with the Lancers.

Thus far this season, he hasn’t been quite the same stat-sheet stuffer, maxing out at nine rebounds and seven assists. But at least he has fared much better against major-conference competition, averaging 21.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg and 4.0 apg against Washington and Minnesota.

(Granted, those aren’t quality major-conference foes, but it’s something. And it’s way better than the poor showings he had last year against Arizona and Texas.)

Armstrong still has two years of eligibility remaining and is nowhere close to a sure thing to get drafted this summer. He’s a below-average shooter (career 31% on 3-pointers and 64% on free throws) who has committed more than three turnovers per game in each season at Cal Baptist.

If he does leave CBU after this season, it would more likely be for the transfer portal than for the Draft combine.

Still, there’s a chance this Australian point guard from the WAC makes the leap to the pros.

Eastern Michigan forward Emoni Bates has improved his game vastly this season.

Emoni Bates, Eastern Michigan

Consensus Big Board Rank: 35

Emoni Bates was the No. 5 overall recruit in the 2021 class. Classifying him as an “under-the-radar” Draft prospect feels particularly disingenuous. But he meets the criteria as a projected second-round pick, playing for a bad Eastern Michigan team that ranks well outside the top 300 on KenPom.

Though the team stinks, Bates has looked a whole lot better at EMU than he did last year at Memphis.

There were certainly flashes of greatness when he was with the Tigers. However, he was wildly inconsistent and painfully turnover-prone while playing in just 18 games. And it didn’t help his Draft stock that Memphis was pretty clearly better when he wasn’t on the floor.

Classic case of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

He has been much, much better in his hometown of Ypsilanti, averaging 24.7 ppg and 2.7 turnovers per 40 minutes compared to 16.5 and 4.0 one year ago. He’s making 36.4% of his 7.9 3-point attempts per game, but also slashing and finishing through contact at a higher level than he did at Memphis.

Perhaps most importantly, Bates has shined brightest against the best competition. He put up 30 points in his season debut as EMU nearly upset Michigan. He scored 29 against a deserves-way-more-national-attention Florida Atlantic squad. And then he put up 36 against South Carolina in what was effectively a Bates vs. GG Jackson draft showcase.

Bates is still very young, too, turning 19 later this month. If he actually lasts until the second round, some NBA franchise is going to get quite a steal.

Seminoles guard Matthew Cleveland is showing improvement as a scorer and rebounder.

Matthew Cleveland, Florida State

Consensus Big Board Rank: 60

Like Emoni Bates, Matthew Cleveland was a 5-star recruit in last year’s class, rated No. 25 overall by the 247 Sports consensus. The previous year, Sharife Cooper, Cam Thomas and DJ Steward were Nos. 24-26 in the 247 Sports consensus, and they all took the one-and-done route to the pros.

Cleveland needed a second year of seasoning, though, if only to improve his shooting.

As a freshman, he went 6-of-34 (17.6 percent) from three-point range and shot 55.5 percent from the free-throw line. For a 6-foot-7 wing-forward who was neither an elite defender nor a relentless rebounder, numbers like those were going to be a deal-breaker if he had declared for the Draft.

And the good news is he has improved by leaps and bounds. Through 15 games, he’s 9-of-21 (42.9%) from downtown and is making 74.3% of his free throws. He started a bit slow in both departments, but he made 3-of-4 3-point attempts in a Dec. 21 win over Notre Dame before going a perfect 10-of-10 from the stripe against Duke on New Year’s Eve.

Cleveland has also taken a big step forward as a rebounder, racking up six double-doubles in in his past seven games. Although, it’s tough to say how much of that improvement is just a product of him typically being the second-tallest Seminole on the court this season — last year he was often the second-shortest.

Either way, he has embraced that power-forward role, averaging 17.1 ppg and 10.7 rpg since the beginning of December. He would climb up the Draft boards if he keeps that going in January and February.

Tucker DeVries, Drake

Consensus Big Board Rank: 71

The biggest strength of the Drake Bulldogs is veteran leadership. Five of the six team leaders in minutes played are either fifth- or sixth-year seniors, and they are looking like one of the best teams in the Missouri Valley Conference because of it.

But the brightest star for Drake is 6-foot-7 sophomore Tucker DeVries.

DeVries is averaging 17.8 ppg and doing so with an impressive degree of efficiency, shooting 52.5% inside the arc, 36.7% on 3-pointers and 79.2% on free throws. He also has a remarkably low turnover rate for a guy who handles the ball as often as he does.

DeVries’ ceiling as far as an NBA comp goes is probably Kyle Korver, which is a pretty nice ceiling. Korver lasted 17 seasons in the NBA, scoring nearly 12,000 career points. DeVries also has a bit of a mini-Dirk Nowitzki to his game, able to consistently hit the off-one-foot, mid-range fadeaways Nowitzki practically trademarked.

In terms of height, build and the ability to square up and drain a bucket from basically anywhere within 30 feet, this MVC star is quite similar to the aforementioned MVC star from two decades ago. But also like Korver, DeVries is neither an elite athlete nor a three-and-D wing.

Someone will take a late second-round or undrafted flyer on his shooting stroke, but we shall see if DeVries’ range is sufficient enough to make the NBA.

Harrison Ingram, Stanford

Harrison Ingram hasn’t taken a big step forward in his game so far this season.

Consensus Big Board Rank: 51

In Harrison Ingram, we find yet another player who was a 5-star recruit in the 2021 class. Emoni Bates was No. 5, Matthew Cleveland was No. 25 and Ingram was No. 19, choosing Stanford over offers from Kansas, North Carolina, Texas, UCLA and about two dozen other schools.

And, to be frank, his Draft stock seems to be almost entirely based on the potential he showcased prior to arriving in Palo Alto, because he has struggled at the college level.

Ingram started almost every game as a freshman, averaging 10.5 ppg, 6.7 rpg and 3.0 apg. Those aren’t terrible numbers, but taken in conjunction with 2.3 turnovers per game, a 38.8% shooting and 66.3% on free throws, Ingram was pretty much the definition of an average college basketball player. His 14.9 player efficiency rating was good for 50th out of the 102 Pac-12 players who logged at least 300 minutes.

Unfortunately, he has gotten even worse as a sophomore. He presently has a PER of 12.4, both shooting worse and grabbing fewer rebounds than last year.

A solid 15-point, five-rebound, three-assist performance against Loyola-Chicago was immediately followed by one point, two rebounds and three turnovers in 24 minutes in a home loss to Colorado. Per KenPom, Ingram has posted an O-rating of 100 or better in just three of 15 games.

Maybe it’s just the system and/or the lack of talent around him — Stanford legitimately might be the worst major-conference team in the country this season — and he’ll make a much better impression at the Draft combine. But this 6-foot-8 wing once billed as a do-it-all star hasn’t done a whole lot of anything this season.

Maxwell Lewis, Pepperdine

Consensus Big Board Rank: 48

Maxwell Lewis originally planned to skip college entirely.

In July 2020, after his junior year of high school, he announced his intention to attend Frank Matrisciano’s Chameleon BX program to train for the 2021 NBA draft. But that plan was one of many to fall apart during the pandemic, and he ended up back on the AAU circuit before landing at Pepperdine the following summer.

Because he did spend some time working with Matrisciano, Lewis was ineligible for the first six games of last season and subsequently missed the final five games with a wrist injury.

Perhaps because of that missed time, he returned for another season and is finally showcasing the talent that led to his “none-and-done” belief from several years ago.

Lewis put up 29 points in the season opener against Rice and had seven 20-point performances in December alone, including a strong 20 points, five rebounds and five assists against Gonzaga.

He’s shooting 42.2% from 3-point range on nearly five attempts per game. He’s also averaging roughly one steal and one block per game, reinforcing the notion that this 6-foot-7 sophomore could be an ideal three-and-D wing at the next level.

Kessler Edwards got drafted out of Pepperdine two years ago, and Lewis is going to make it two Waves in the NBA in short order. It’s really just a question of if he can do so as a first-round pick.

Judah Mintz could be Syracuse’s first high-level Draft prospect since the 2010s.

Judah Mintz, Syracuse

Consensus Big Board Rank: 58

For a while in the mid-2010s, Syracuse was putting underclassmen into the first round of the NBA draft on an annual basis. It was both Dion Waiters and Fab Melo as sophomores in 2012, Michael Carter-Williams as a sophomore in ’13, Tyler Ennis, Chris McCullough and Malachi Richardson as freshmen in 2014, ’15 and ’16, respectively, and then Tyler Lydon as a sophomore in ’17.

Since then?

Nothing. Just Elijah Hughes in the second round in 2020 after his junior season.

But Judah Mintz could be on the verge of ending that drought for the Orange.

The 6-foot-3 freshman point guard has struggled mightily from the perimeter, hitting just 6-of-30 (20%) from 3-point range. However, he more than makes up for it with his slashing, his vision and his defense.

Mintz is averaging 15.9 points, 4.1 assists and 2.2 steals per game for the season, but that includes a few mediocre outings over the first month. Dating back to Dec. 10, he’s averaging a much more impressive 18.6 points, 5.3 assists and 3.1 steals — and with a modest 2.7 turnovers per game, to boot.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you he’s the second coming of Rajon Rondo, but it is possible for a small guard devoid of any perimeter threat to have a nice, long run in the NBA provided he can do everything else at a high level. And thus far, Mintz has.

Brandin Podziemski, Santa Clara

Consensus Big Board Rank: 168

We’re making an exception to the “must be top 75 on the consensus big board” criteria here to include another fast-rising star from the West Coast Conference.

Brandin Podziemski was a 4-star recruit in the 2021 class, holding offers from Kansas, Kentucky and others before choosing Illinois. However, he was under-utilized by the Illini, scoring just 22 points in his entire freshman season.

So he hopped in the transfer portal, landed at Santa Clara and promptly served up a pair of 30-burgers in his first two games with the Broncos.

While he hasn’t had any other 30-point performances since then, he hasn’t slowed down much. Podziemski has scored at least 16 points in 14 of 19 games played. That includes 27 against Iona in Santa Clara’s best win of the season, as well as 27 points, 10 rebounds and six assists at Pepperdine, winning a head-to-head prospect battle with Maxwell Lewis.

Though only listed at 6-foot-5, Podziemski has been relentless on the glass, averaging 8.5 rebounds. He’s also a 40% 3-point shooter and is accumulating 3.5 assists and 2.1 steals per game.

He’s leading the 14-5 Broncos in points, rebounds, assists and steals. He has been a total-package type of player that, frankly, Illinois could desperately use right now.

If he were to maintain his current averages, Podziemski would be the first player with at least 18.5 points, eight rebounds, three assists and two steals per game since VMI’s Reggie Williams in 2007-08.

Jan. 21 and Feb. 2 are the rematches with Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga, respectively, while Feb. 23 marks the rematch with Lewis and Pepperdine. Those should be big ones to help determine whether Podziemski might get drafted or whether he’ll merely return as the 2023-24 preseason WCC POY.

JJ Starling may be a draft-and-stash type player in the 2023 NBA draft.

JJ Starling, Notre Dame

Consensus Big Board Rank: 46

Aside from Emoni Bates, JJ Starling is probably the least under-the-radar player on this list, considering he was a 5-star recruit in this year’s class.

However, things have not gone according to design, neither for him nor for the Fighting Irish, who are 8-8 and nowhere near the at-large conversation after opening the season ranked 43rd on KenPom.

Starling is averaging 12.4 ppg, but it’s taking him 11.3 field-goal attempts to get there. And with little else in his arsenal (3.1 RPG, 1.3 APG), 1.1 points per shot just isn’t cutting it.

Watch him play, though, and you can understand the hype.

Starling can create separation off the dribble like few others via a step-back, a side-step or a blow-by drive to the rim. And he can score at all three levels, though he has done so with modest percentages thus far.

It’s really just a question of where/whether he fits at the next level.

At 6-foot-4 with a poor assist rate and 33.9% shooting on 3-pointers, Starling is a combo guard who has been the best of neither world. He certainly hasn’t shown himself to be a lockdown defender, either. So if he goes pro after one season, he’s likely a “draft-and-stash” guy who hopefully emerges as either a legitimate option at point guard or a knockdown shooter in the NBA G League.

Or perhaps he’ll start taking over games on occasion over the latter half of this season in South Bend. The Duke-Virginia-North Carolina three-game stretch in mid-February would be a fantastic time for Starling to blossom into a star.

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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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