Despite the lack of high-end talent in this draft class, the overall strategy revolving positions on draft night won’t be a surprise. Unless a post player is of transcendent talent or projects to be a franchise cornerstone, it’s hard to see him getting drafted until late in the first round.
During the last two years, only three big men have been selected between picks 10 and 25: Goga Bitadze (Indiana Pacers), Brandon Clarke (Memphis Grizzlies) and Mortiz Wagner (Los Angeles Lakers).
The days of non-elite bigs going early in the draft are over as prioritization has been given to other, more skill-based positions.
The current consensus points to three names being head-and-shoulders above the rest: James Wiseman (Memphis), Obi Toppin (Dayton) and Onyeka Okongwu (USC). A few weeks ago, I wrote about Wiseman and how his lack of visibility due to NCAA interference has, perhaps unfairly, impacted his draft stock.
TBW colleague Dan O’Brien has also looked into all three and proclaimed Okongwu his top big in the class. Regardless of order, all three should hear their names called in the lottery.
Outside the lottery, however, many names linger anywhere from the early-20s to the mid-40s. Young bigs are less valuable these days due to the mercenary-like nature of vets and the ease of finding a replacement-caliber player.
The six players whose scouting reports are below—Vernon Carey, Zeke Nnaji, Daniel Oturu, Isaiah Stewart, Xavier Tillman and Kaleb Wesson—are all talented and fill specific niches. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and these guys just want some team to fall in love with what they have to offer.
Vernon Carey, Duke
Few college players, let alone a freshman, posted the per-40 splits that Vernon Carey did at Duke this year.
Averaging 17.8 points and 8.8 rebounds while shooting over 38 percent from 3-point range puts him in rare company. Only three other first-years have ever put up those splits, and all three were top-two picks in the draft (Kevin Durant, Marvin Bagley III and Joe Smith).
Carey played eight fewer minutes per game than the lowest on that list, making his per-minute stats simply freakish.
So why isn’t Carey getting talked about in the lottery conversation?
There was a reason he wasn’t on the floor more than 25 minutes a night. He’s a treacherous defender, found himself in foul trouble frequently and lacks lateral athleticism. Those red flags are legitimate and severe, despite all the things he does really well.
Carey doesn’t have a diverse, well-polished scoring game, but he’s damn good at what he does. With 68.1 percent scoring at the rim, a ready-made motor and physicality, plus elite rebounding chops and enough athleticism to take guys off the bounce, there are plenty of tantalizing skills here.
His shooting upside is a key skill to develop as he becomes more than a pure power player. If Carey can sustain 38 percent shooting on a higher volume, he has an NBA future ahead of him.
Unfortunately, Carey isn’t a strong rim protector, pick-and-roll defender or a switchable big. Any team that drafts him has to either get incredibly creative with how they mask his shortcomings or trust there’s a lot of teaching that can bring him up to speed.
The NBA-ready physicality and body does no good if Carey hemorrhages so many points on defense. He has to clean up his footwork on the interior, but pro spacing should alleviate some of the challenges he had with traps and collapsing defenses.
Carey’s a fringe first-rounder at best in this draft. Part of that is the glut of bigs available here, and part of it is the demand of what he does well.
Carey reminds me of former Washington Wizards lottery pick Andray Blatche a bit. He’s a bully post who can shoot when dared, but he needs the ball to be successful, and he needs it inside 12 feet. There’s so much rebounding and interior scoring potential here for someone to fall in love with, but Carey comes with real defensive warts.
Zeke Nnaji, Arizona
Forget Okongwu or Isaiah Stewart. Move over Jalen McDaniels, Nico Mannion or Tyrell Terry. Of all the stud freshmen in the Pac-12, Zeke Nnaji garnered Freshman of the Year honors from the coaches in the conference.
Averaging 16.3 points and 8.6 rebounds, Nnaji built a strong reputation among his rivals due to his motor and energetic play in a two-big system. Nanji is decently athletic, and while nothing about his playing style is eye-popping, he’s good enough in a lot of different areas to be seen as a jack-of-all-trades.
Nnaji plays hard but under control, which is an important distinction to make. He can run in the open floor and play with aggression in transition, or he can come to a jump stop in the lane to let defenders fly past him. He’s a fine defender, an above-average rebounder and has more skill than most of his competitors in this class.
Speaking of those competitors, Nnaji is the second-best shooter of the group in my eyes. His stroke is fairly clean, and I believe success in the mid-range and needing to move back a few feet is more encouraging than mediocre-results-but-erratic-form when shooting threes.
The biggest question around Nnaji is whether he’s truly a 5.
More lanky and athletic than chiseled, he played a hybrid 4/5 at Arizona in their two-big system. That has hidden Nnaji’s rim protection and brought his ability to defend the basket to the forefront of his evaluation.
He’s also not a guy that easily projects to run an offense from the perimeter, and being able to make reads off the short roll or pick-and-pop when defense commits is essential for stretch bigs. Even if his jumper develops beyond the 3-point line, he’ll need to add polish in other areas to be more dependable.
Because what Nnaji does well isn’t eye-popping and is heavily intangible, it’s easy to overlook him in this group. Yet, the modern NBA is predicated on mobility, stretch-shooting ability, defensive versatility and effective finishing.
Of this group, Nnaji is the closest to checking off all those boxes. He may not crack the first round, but he’s a good value rotation big for a team in need.
Daniel Oturu, Minnesota
There are a lot of folks who love Daniel Oturu, and he’s one guy I find myself going back-and-forth on regularly.
On the one hand, he’s a long, fluid athlete with inside-outside skill that averaged 20 and 11 with 2.5 blocks. On the other, Oturu may not be good enough to earn the focal point role he enjoyed at Minnesota.
And a lot of the things he’s good at are predicated on volume. Thus, Oturu’s upside is largely dependent on how he adds strength and becomes a consistent performer.
Oturu’s projection follows a simple yet vital concept: be good at what you do frequently.
Bigs need to be adept finishers around the bucket, and Oturu shot over 70 percent there. Bigs need to clean the glass, and Oturu led the Big Ten in rebounding. Bigs also need to be strong rim protectors. And while Daniel’s block numbers are nice, a strangely high amount of them came from guarding post-ups and not swatting drivers.
Shooting potential exists, though I’m not sure if it’s fair to say his shooting is a strength. Oturu’s 19 3-point makes is decent enough volume to be comfortable knowing some shooting ability exists, but the 5-for-20 mark on pick-and-pop jumpers can bring pause for functionality in NBA actions.
Strength is an easy fix, and while it’s vital to Oturu filling out, it’s absence shouldn’t scare any prudent franchise from drafting a 20-year-old.
The other tweaks will either be cured by a decreased role or made more apparent without the opportunity to play through them. Oturu was pretty mid-range-heavy and relied on face-up scoring out of the post, he wasn’t a good creator for others and isn’t a refined ball handler.
The post-up isn’t a huge part of the NBA right now, so Oturu must adjust. Nonetheless, his shot and mobility are attractive enough that he should be a top-35 pick, regardless of how much he’s placed in familiar territory.
I’m a believer in Oturu’s defense,, and for those reasons I’d feel more comfortable with him than a few other bigs on this list.
Isaiah Stewart, Washington
Energy, energy, energy.
Isaiah Stewart plays hard and possesses a freakish wingspan for his height. His infectious energy makes him easy to love: He’s a real throwback to the 1980s brutish, physical style.
But for all those intangibles, the functionality of what Stewart does well is fairly low. There are big questions about his offense (shooting consistency) and defense (lack of playing in man-to-man at Washington) that leave me worried about his NBA role.
A lot of what Stewart does translated well to the college game. He was a bully with his back-to-the-basket, thrived on the offensive glass, sprinted the floor for early position and used both hands effectively around the rim.
That motor is difficult to teach, but combine that with a 7’4″ wingspan and it’s easy to see Stewart being an elite rebounder and even a solid shot blocker. The rotations will be different than Washington’s 2-3 zone, but his defensive upside is tantalizing.
Stewart is the worst shooter on this list, going 5-for-20 from 3-point range as a freshman. The video above points out some concerns with his mechanics, and while some of what he shows in the mid-range is encouraging, there appears to be a disconnect between his lower body and follow-through.
Stewart isn’t great off the bounce, nor does he possess much of said bounce on the inside. Those limit his offensive upside in other areas that put a ton of pressure on the jump shot to progress.
Stewart is a fringe first-round pick according to most intel, but I really struggle to see it. He would have been a lottery pick twenty years ago, but the game isn’t played the same way.
His work ethic makes you want to root for him and will entice some team to take the chance and roll with the great person. But based on his skill and body of work, I’d struggle to justify taking him before the 40s.
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State
An analytics darling and a winner, Xavier Tillman guarded some of the best bigs in the country at Michigan State while standing 6’8″. He’s the smallest, and most versatile, player on this group and boasts some elite metrics as far as defensive impact.
Tillman is also a gifted passer who has one elite skill: distributing out of the pick-and-roll. In the latter portion of the first round and into the second, finding an elite skill is rare, especially when it comes within a polished, concern-free person who has built a track record of success.
Man, Tillman’s short roll passing is exquisite. How important of a skill is that? Just ask fellow Spartan Draymond Green, who has made a career out of this.
Tillman likely will never be more than a fourth option on offense, but he finds value in how he finishes with efficiency and can get teammates involved from the screen-and-roll.
Defensively, Tillman is ready to play today. He’s always engaged, understands help and emergency rotations, and uses his length well. He moves his feet to the point where he can guard on the perimeter or the interior. He makes noticeable highlight plays or subtle winning plays.
When in doubt, trust Tom Izzo’s guys to be prepared on defense.
Being a pick-and-roll-based 4-man means one of two things for Tillman: Spacing will be cramped a bit with a lane-bound 5, or the team needs a stretch frontcourt guy to go alongside him.
I’m really not comfortable with Tillman’s shooting stroke yet. His hand placement and release varies, and making only 22 percent of his uncontested shots doesn’t bode well for postseason success when defenses can leave him out there.
But shooting is a skill that can improve. If it does, Tillman becomes a pretty complete role player.
Tillman’s draft range is likely wider than most guys on this list simply because of his analytic testing. If a front office buys into what the numbers say about his game moving forward, he could crack the top 20 and we shouldn’t bat an eye.
But Tillman is already 21 and has the lowest offensive upside of this group. Seeing him go in the middle of the second round wouldn’t be shocking either.
I’m a fan of what he provides functionally and think his ability to be elite as a passer and reliable as a defender makes him the best of the lot.
Kaleb Wesson, Ohio State
Of all the names on this list, Kaleb Wesson is likely the least-discussed. He also may be the easiest to project: a strong-bodied, pick-and-pop big.
I went into the evaluation process expecting to give Wesson a late 2nd round projection but came away surprisingly inspired by his rebounding skill and a short roll playmaking ability only rivaled by Tillman.
Wesson may not garner the same attention or be a first-round candidate, but he fills a role coveted by NBA teams without sacrificing other aspects in a drastic way.
Wesson’s frame is NBA-ready, and that makes him a decent plug-and-play option to bump with opposing bigs and snag rebounds. He can come in now and be an effective shooting big, which is a borderline elite skill.
Beyond the sweet-shooting, Wesson surprised me with how good of a passer he is and the high level of decision-making off pick-and-pops. He’s not a primary creator that an offense can run through, but he will make the right play and should function in a variety of perimeter roles.
Defensively, Wesson isn’t bad by any means, but he isn’t really versatile, either. He’ll be best-served as a grounded rim protector in drop coverage. He’ll struggle on switches or having to guard mobile bigs, so some level of catering to his physical restrictions will be required.
The poor finishing is also troubling, as bigs who struggle at the basket rarely make long careers for themselves.
Wesson likely won’t crack the top-35 and isn’t someone I’d depend upon for more than 18-20 minutes in a game throughout his career.
Shooting bigs serve a really important role, however, due to how they open up the floor for the rest of the team. Wesson is a guy I’d want available on my roster for those reasons.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of Sports-Reference or Synergy Sports Tech.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.