NBA Draft: How to Rate Players who Have Generated Late Buzz

Posted: 05/29/2016 by levcohen in Basketball, Draft

Every year in college basketball, there are fringe NBA prospects who happen to have good postseason tournaments, whether in their conference tournament, the NCAA tournament, or both*. I’m not talking about guys like Buddy Hield, who was a star pegged to go in the top-10 of the draft all season long. I’m also not talking about guys like Brice Johnson, who put up great stats all year and great stats in the postseason but still doesn’t look likely to go in the lottery. Instead, I’m talking about players who, for whatever reason, went under the radar throughout the season but started getting a lot more buzz in the postseason. They didn’t necessarily improve their play in late-season action, but rather saw their stock rise due to the bigger stage. These are guys who, without a great end to the season, might not have declared for the draft. Domantas Sabonis is one of those players, but I already talked about him. There are two other prospects who clearly fit the profile: Syracuse’s Malachi Richardson and Seton Hall’s Isaiah Whitehead. Those guys are both fringe first rounders at this point and may not make my final top-30, but I think they’re important to talk about. I’m also going to throw in two other players, both of whom I think are more solidly on the first round radar.

*As you might expect, these players have had mixed success in the NBA. Kemba Walker stands out as a guy whose stock was helped in the tournament and who hasn’t looked back since. Future UConn starting point guard Shabazz Napier? He had a great tournament, but it wasn’t quite a harbinger of things to come.

Malachi Richardson was a decent but inconsistent player throughout most of the season with Syracuse. Playing on one of the worst regular season Syracuse teams in recent memory, he put up 13 points per game with four rebounds and two assists per contests. He shot just 37% from the field, 35% from three, and 72% from the line and had two more turnovers than assists. These are solid stats for a freshman wing in a tough conference, but they certainly don’t seem good enough to justify a quick jump to the next level, especially for someone who was a good-but-not-great high school recruit. But, luckily for Malachi, the Orange were gifted a spot in the NCAA tournament as the #10 seed in the midwest region. Four games later, they had shockingly reached the Final Four, where they stayed with North Carolina early before eventually losing by 17. Richardson averaged 15 points on 35% shooting, but it wasn’t the stats that pushed his stock up. It was mainly one half of basketball:

In the Elite Eight, against the #1 seed in the region, Richardson led the ‘Cuse to one of the most shocking comebacks I can remember. It’s not that they came back from 30 down or from double-digits in the last minute. Rather, it’s that they came back by speeding up a team that always played slow and making one of the least mistake-prone teams in the country look like a high school team. And most of that was because of Richardson, who made difficult shot after difficult shot against a great defensive squad and racked up 21 points in the second half. It’s that kind of heart and “clutchness” that makes a lot of NBA scouts, probably the same ones that strongly dislike Ben Simmons, so excited.

Richardson definitely has some NBA-quality features. He’s 6’6″ with a 7’0″ wingspan, so size shouldn’t be a problem. He has also shown the ability to finish very difficult shots and should develop into an adequate three point shooter in the NBA. But the reason he had to take so many tough shots is less of a positive, because it indicates that he had difficulty creating easier shots for himself. Richardson was especially poor in transition, something that’s pretty tough to improve upon against better and smarter athletes. The most worrying thing I can point to about Richardson is that he’s a score-only (i.e. no passing and inconsistent defense) guy who can’t score efficiently. In fact, he shot just 39% from two point range. The only three players in modern times who were drafted after a season in which they shot under 40% from two are Randy Livingston, Andrew Harrison, and Josh Selby. If that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about Malachi’s NBA future, I don’t know what will. He may have heart and his game might look good in pickup games, but he’s not going to find his way onto my top-30.

While Richardson improved his draft stock in the NCAA tournament, Seton Hall’s Isaiah Whitehead improved his in the Big East tournament before putting up a stinker against Gonzaga in the first round of the NCAA tourney. And by stinker, I mean STINKER. Whitehead shot 4-24 from the field and 0-10 from three. But even that performance didn’t totally wash away the games that made him the Big East Tournament MVP. In the three tournament games, he scored 70 points, including 26 in a win over Villanova, who never lost again.

He also turned the ball over eight times in that game, but nobody remembers that. Whitehead actually averaged upwards of 20 points per game from the start of Big East play through the Big East Tournament. Whereas Richardson is a wing player, Whitehead is more of a ball handler. He’s a shooting guard rather than a point guard, but he averaged five assists per game this season. Of course, those assists came along with 3.5 turnovers per game, which is only the beginning of my concern for Whitehead. You know how Richardson will likely become one of the few sub-40%-from-two shooters drafted into the NBA? Well, if Whitehead gets drafted, he’ll join that exclusive group, too. In fact, Whitehead shares a lot of Richardson’s issues. He lacks the explosiveness to get to the bucket at ease and the jump shot to make contested midrange shots regularly. Like Richardson, he’s a fine three point shooter, and he’s also proven more adept at getting to the line that Malachi. But, flashy points per game total aside, I don’t really see how Whitehead is going to be a contributor in the NBA. He shares Richardson’s problems but lacks his size and length. While Richardson and Whitehead were inarguably two of the more exciting players in college basketball this season, they are also two of the least efficient players in the draft. I think the latter is a far better predictor of NBA success than the former, and I think taking either one of these guys before the mid second round would be a big overpay. It’s very dangerous to fall in love with prospects who hit ridiculous shots but end most games shooting sub-40%, and that’s what these two guys are.

St. Joseph’s DeAndre Bembry is certainly a more interesting prospect. I actually think he’s one of the more intriguing prospects outside of the lottery conversation. Bembry had a solid postseason, but I can’t point to any single game being his “coming out party” a la Villanova for Whitehead and Virginia for Richardson. I’m including him here because I think he was one of the more underrated players in college basketball over the last two seasons and because he opened some eyes in both the A-10 tournament and the NCAA tourney. The reason Bembry interests me so much is because he does a different thing well every night. In the A-10 semifinal against Dayton, he scored just nine points on 12 shots but added seven rebounds and eight assists. The next game, he poured in 30 points on 16 shots against VCU. It’s that versatility that will be Bembry’s calling card at the next level. Bembry was the A-10 Player of the Year, as he played more than 37 minutes per game and averaged 17/8/5 on 48% shooting. He was the offensive focal point, touching the ball on nearly every possession and finding open teammates at will. For a guy who was almost always the best player on the floor, Bembry is incredibly unselfish. That should serve him well at the next level, where I think he’ll fit in a lot better than a lot of draftees who go late in the first round. Bembry can work in the post, but he’s best in the open court, where he uses his passing ability, basketball IQ, and almost preternatural ability to shift speeds (a skill that is vital and very under appreciated). He’s also a good defender, with great instincts, quick feet, and a 6’9″ wingspan to go along with his good size (6’6″) for a shooting guard. Bembry has one real big weakness and one smaller one, and they both just so happen to be the same as Ben Simmons’s. His big weakness is a lack of shooting ability. While his shot doesn’t look broken, a 27% mark from beyond the arc and 66% rate from the line argue otherwise. Unfortunately, Bembry is a poor man’s Simmons across the board, so he can’t really afford to be a terrible shooter if he wants to be more than a role player. His smaller weakness goes along with his selflessness; he doesn’t really take over games or have the star mentality. But for a guy who won’t be expected to do as much as Simmons, that’s much less of a concern. I really like Bembry, because I think he’s a shot away from being a really good player. If his shot never develops, he’s a fine role player who is a good pick outside the top-20. If it does develop, he can be a quality sixth man who has the ability to start. That’s pretty valuable. I didn’t know where to put this, but here’s a good compilation of some of the things Bembry can do:

I knew about Taurean Prince before the Baylor forward made a mockery of a terrible question after Baylor’s loss to Yale in the NCAA tournament, but I wanted to know much more about him afterwards. That’s entirely the reason I’m putting him into this post. Just watch this interview exchange:


Don’t you love Taurean Prince now too??? Everything about that exchange makes me want Prince on my team. Oh, and he’s also a pretty good basketball player. Prince, the lone senior on this list (Richardson’s a freshman, Whitehead a sophomore, and Bembry a junior) was not anywhere near a top recruit coming out of high school. In fact, he was committed to LIU-Brooklyn before a coaching change enabled him to go to Baylor. He only started for one year in Waco and never averaged more than 16 points per game, but the small forward could still easily be drafted in the lottery. Why? Because he seems like he could be the perfect small-ball four, especially defensively. If you’re looking for a 6’8″ athletic 3-and-D guy to bring off the bench and play 25 minutes per game, this is your man. Prince is strong enough to defend most power forwards without problems and certainly quick enough to switch onto more guards without making himself look silly. He averaged 1.3 steals and .7 blocks per game and was often tasked with guarding the opponent’s best player in a tough Big 12. The result? A successful regular season for a team without the talent that a lot of their competition had. On the offensive side of the ball, Prince is a 37% career three point shooter who is fairly dynamic in transition if not a great creator in the half court. I love that he improved his free throw shooting from 64% last season to 74% and that he also nearly doubled his assist rate. He still turns it over more than he gets assists and is only a solid rebounder, but his improvements off the dribble and his catch-and-shoot game along with his ability to get to the rim and use both hands should make him a solid offensive player. When you pair that with versatile defense, you get a player who can play valuable minutes for a championship team.

Ranking of the four:
1. Bembry
1a. Prince – I love both Bembry and Prince, and they’ll be pretty high up in my top-30 compared to most lists.

(big gap)

3. Richardson- he trumps Whitehead because of his superior length and defensive potential
4. Whitehead- he scored a lot in college but was so inefficient that I can’t imagine him being productive at the next level.

  1. dpcathena says:

    Always wondered what a rebound was. Thanks, Taurean.

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