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#pounditMonday, May 10, 2021

5 NBA draft prospects on the rise in college basketball

Corey Kispert

This season will prove to be one of the most difficult for NBA scouts. College teams are playing in fits and starts, with schedules constantly changing. Teams are practicing less often and playing adjusted schedules. This year’s draft class also features a healthy mix of one-and-done prospects, returning college players, international stars, and players who opted for the NBA’s new G League outlet rather than a college experience.

All of that has made ranking this year’s draft class a fool’s errand so far. But with many college teams having played double-digit games and entering the rigors of conference play, some prospects are starting to separate from the pack, or rise in the collective opinion of draft scouts.

These five players have done well for themselves, sliding up big boards across the NBA.

5. Cameron Thomas, LSU

With so much uncertainty about this college basketball season, many of the highly-touted freshmen have looked pedestrian in their first two months at the collegiate level. That has not been the case for LSU’s Cameron Thomas. Though he was ranked outside the top-20 recruits in the nation, Thomas has been one of the most impactful freshmen in the nation.

He leads all freshmen in scoring by a wide margin. Among freshmen, only Thomas and presumed top pick Cade Cunningham average more than 18 points per game. In 12 games, Thomas has posted 22.1 points per game, compared to Cunningham’s 18.0 nightly output.

Thomas is a quick-triggered, score-first guard. That has caught the attention of NBA scouts, though for him to be seriously considered near the lottery, he’ll need to show more skills. This season he has more turnovers than assists and isn’t a reliable defender.

4. Franz Wagner, Michigan

Coming into the year, Franz Wagner was the most intriguing pro prospect on Michigan’s roster. As the season got underway, that idea was called into question. The Wolverines were one of the sport’s hottest teams, winning their first 11 games, yet Wagner was not as involved as expected. His scoring and other counting stats were down in Michigan’s first chunk of games.

That’s changed over the last month. In Michigan’s six games since Christmas Day, Wagner is posting 14.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per game. Wagner has been a well-rounded and efficient piece of one of college basketball’s best teams. He comes with a strong pedigree, following his brother Moe to Michigan and hopefully the NBA. With a strong stretch run for the Wolverines, he should be a first-round pick.

3. James Bouknight, UConn

There was a ton of buzz surrounding Bouknight entering this season. He averaged 13 points and 4 assists as a freshman, and was poised to break out as a sophomore. He did so early on, posting 20.3 points and 5.3 assists per game in UConn’s first six tilts. This put him on the radar of NBA teams, likely moving his stock as high as the lottery.

Unfortunately, his momentum was halted by an elbow injury that required surgery. If Bouknight returns to the court this season, he could continue to climb draft boards.

2. Jaden Springer, Tennessee

Tennessee has two five-star rated freshmen on its roster this year, though it was Keon Johnson who was more coveted by NBA draft evaluators. That may still be true after eleven games, yet Jaden Springer has been a more reliable college player than Johnson. Springer plays like an upperclassman on both ends of the court, making the smart plays on offense and contributing heady, tough defense.

His game looks easily translatable to the pros, with a knack for the pick-and-roll and strong court vision. Springer has made 9 of his 16 attempts from outside the arc as well. He might not have the eye-popping athleticism that really attracts draft attention, but if he continues to play as smart and solid as he has, one team is going to find a gem in the late first round.

1. Corey Kispert, Gonzaga

It’s very rare for a fourth-year college player to rocket up NBA draft boards. Generally, players with three years of film established don’t develop new skills or improve to such a degree that it can dramatically change the opinion of NBA scouts. That has not been the case for Gonzaga’s Corey Kispert.

Last season, he would have been drafted in the late first or early second round. He chose to return to Gonzaga, which has proven to be a brilliant choice. He’s the most potent scorer on the nation’s best team, and his game has grown in numerous ways. His shooting is sharper, quicker, and has stretched to unlimited range. Kispert has also shown himself more adept at attacking close-outs, knifing into the lane and to the rim more effectively this season. His defense has risen a level as well, making him more than just a shooter.

NBA teams are now evaluating Kispert as a potential lottery pick, eager to locate the next JJ Redick or Joe Harris to spread their offense and provide lights out shooting.

Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, Rotoballer, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.

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