Questions for Top Prospects Heading Into Stretch Run
Will Cam Whitmore pass it? Can Nick Smith stay healthy? Are we underrating Dariq Whitehead? We dive into some key questions on the top prospects in college hoops
Before you know it, the college basketball season will be over. We’re only guaranteed a few weeks left of the regular season, a week of conference tournament action, and for a few players on good teams, some postseason tournament play. That’s right, we could have a handful of games or fewer remaining for legitimate NBA draft picks.
To leave a positive impression on the draft community and for draft scouts, some players simply must show some growth down the stretch. Whether needing more production, addressing parts of their game, or simply helping their team win games, several players can adjust their own stock (by raising it or by slipping it) these next two weeks.
What are we watching for? Which prospects are the ones with the biggest questions remaining? Who are the hardest ones for us to get a feel for at this juncture? We dive into a few players as we sit only 19 days away from Selection Sunday.
Does Cam Whitmore have a concerning lack of creation for others?
The following is a list of players 6’7” or shorter with an AST rate of 7% or lower during their freshman seasons who have eventually gotten drafted (dating back to 2008).
There are several one-and-done guys on here, but the only ones to go in the top-20 were AJ Griffin, Shabazz Muhammad, and Josh Primo. Villanova freshman Cam Whitmore (6.6% AST rate) is on pace to join them. With a 26% usage rate, his statistical profile is really different than everyone but Muhammad on the list. All the numbers reinforce what we’re seeing on film: Whitmore has tunnel vision.
I’ve discussed Whitmore’s passing before with Sam Vecenie on The Game Theory Podcast. In trying to diagnose the why for his numbers, a lot of it has to do (in my opinion) with Whitmore being a bit of a ball stop right now. He catches and holds, surveys the defense, and then makes his move against five set defenders. If he did more decisively off the catch, he could play through less contact and force more rotations that open up his teammates.
(Fast forward to the 20:26 mark for Cam Whitmore commentary)
The Wildcats need Whitmore to be a creator, too. There isn’t enough offensive firepower on the roster, further compounding issues: because nobody else creates, teams load up on Whitmore, thus making his scoring load a lot more difficult. When Cam has 2 or more assists, Villanova is 4-1. When he has no assists, they’re 6-5.
You can see several trends pop up on many of the negative plays that Whitmore makes in the lane (missed shots/ poor shot selection and turnovers). He isn’t quick or decisive enough off the catch most times. He tries to force in traffic when two or three defenders collapse on him — missing key dump downs, kickouts, or getting stuck in the lane. When he’s stuck, he plays off two feet and stride stops, killing some of his burst.
The idea of stride stops and playing off two feet is to keep options open as a passer in the lane. When teams collapse on a drive, a controlled player off two feet can find open teammates. Because Cam doesn’t look to pass very often, all he’s doing is grounding himself near the rim and raising the degree of difficulty on those shots he’s inevitably taking.
Whitmore is really young and missed a fair amount of time in his high school career (sadly, my team contributed to that as he sprained his ankle on one of our players’ ankles as a senior). He can develop this feel and shouldn’t necessarily be penalized for not having an advanced passing game right now. The tools are legitimate. But the metrics are concerning, and in-season growth would go a long way in making us feel better about Cam long-term. Villanova is on the outside looking in for a tourney berth, so the clock is ticking on that whole in-season improvement thing.
Will the Lack of Efficiency Catch Up to GG Jackson?
The difficulty of the draft is in evaluating where talent and upside meet production. Several freshmen in college basketball possess major long-term upside and have the skills that NBA teams look for. But if they aren’t producing at an efficient level in college, it’s difficult to know if they ever will.
Over the last 15 years, there have only been 21 seasons on record where a player posted a 47.5% true shooting percentage as a freshman and then eventually got drafted. Not drafted that year, but eventually drafted. Only Ziaire Williams (10th overall in 2021) and Brandon Boston (51st in 2021) were drafted as one-and-dones while achieving under that mark:
Right now, GG Jackson has a 47.5% TS%. He combines that with a 6.3% assist rate and a 13.9% turnover rate, a negative defensive box plus-minus, and is shooting a mere 42.3% from two-point range at his size. The tools are noteworthy, and the circumstances at South Carolina certainly not to his advantage. But a bet on Jackson is a bet against the history of freshmen failing to rebound from such a season.
How Much Does Great Shooting Raise A Prospect’s Floor?
*cue game show music and crowd to start clapping wildly*
Good afternoon everyone, I’m Coach Spins. Are you ready? Arrrree youuuuuuu rrrrready?! It’s time to play America’s favorite game: Guess! That! Player!
That’s right folks, it’s the blind resume game, where we put two statistical profiles side-by-side and ask you to identify which player you’d rather have going forward. Bonus points are award to anyone who can correctly identify the players in question.
(Per 100 minutes)
Player A: 25.2 PTS, 6.0 REB, 4.0 AST. 44.9% FG, 50% 3FG on 11.2 attempts.
Player B: 26.7 PTS, 9.6 REB, 2.4 AST. 50.6% FG, 48.9% 3FG on 10 attempts.
If anyone found me on Twitter this weekend, you might have an indication of what these numbers are about and who the prospects are. Player A is Dariq Whitehead in ACC contests this year, while Player B is AJ Griffin in ACC contests last year.
Those numbers are about as similar as it gets, though Griffin and Whitehead are drastically different players. Griffin had insane shooting touch and potential dating back to high school. Whitehead strikes us as a more well-rounded scorer with truer self-creation in the mid-range and a much better defender.
Griffin’s upside was always built around the shot, and those who championed him pre-draft saw a guy whose floor was incredibly high thanks to that jumper. He could turn into a better, more well-rounded scorer eventually, but the shot felt like a certainty to translate. Griffin suffered injuries heading into his freshman season at Duke, came off the bench right away, then forced his way into the starting group while still not looking 100% athletically.
Whitehead’s freshman season has followed a similar narrative. He’s been riddled with injuries and doesn’t look like the same level of athlete we saw pre-draft. He’s been brought along slowly by the Blue Devils but is hitting his stride at the right time. While Dariq doesn’t have the same pre-college shooting sample to rely on, the touch and consistency he’s displayed at Duke should raise his floor as a prospect. There are still questions about how his athleticism will pop in the NBA and if he can regain the burst he’s lost coming into the season. Despite those questions, reliable 3-point shooting at his size will help him carve out an NBA role even if the athleticism doesn’t fully return.
So my question is this: why not consider Whitehead for a top-ten selection?
There are a few regular season games left for the Blue Devils, the ACC Tournament, and the Big Dance. The shooting splits could change and he could cool off, coming back down to earth. Or he could stay hot and really force some difficult questions heading into draft season.
Coming into this cycle, Whitehead was the #3 prospect on our preseason board. The injuries and what we’ve seen athletically make it really unlikely we can trust his body over a few other risers on this cycle. But there isn’t enough buzz about his play of late, how consistent he’s been, and what it means for his long-term upside.
Can Emoni Bates Help Winning?
The former high school sensation has a major following and a groundswell of internet support hoping he can be an impactful NBA player. Emoni can really shoot the ball, and at 6’8” has some workable tools that he brings to the table. Eastern Michigan has been a much more comfortable environment for him this year.
But Eastern Michigan has lost 10 of their last 12 games. Bates has had a few stinkers in that time, where the Eagles have no offensive chance when he’s woefully inefficient. Emoni went 1-12 for 3 points against Akron, 2-9 in 17 minutes vs. Northern Illinois before exiting with an injury, and 4 points on 2-17 shooting against Toledo. He’s shooting only 28% from the field and 16% from 3 over his last four games, and they’ve lost all four contests — two by 25 or more.