CJ Elleby - Washington State: 18.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 1.8 steals on 40% from the field and 34% from 3 on 6.8 attempts per game
When I looked through various top-100 NBA Draft prospect lists to craft the group of mid- and high major players that I was going to take a look at for this series, CJ Elleby is honestly a player that I overlooked. Although him being a long-armed 6’6, 185 pound wing allows him to be the type of player that Magic GM John Hammond has drooled over for more than a decade, his ineficiency as a perimeter threat and less than eye-popping assist numbers made me understand why he was lower on some of those lists.
However once my eyes transitioned from the numbers to his actual on-court play, my mind made a 180-degree shift. That change of thought came after seeing him just being an incredibly hard-working player that was looking to make an impact on both ends whenever he steps on the court.
That’s most evident on the defensive end as he’s incredibly active when it comes to working on the help side and trying to force a turnover whenever that opportunity arises. Along with averaging a conference-best 1.8 steals per game, that off-ball effort also included him drawing charges like Kyle Lowry or cutting off passing lanes when the opposing team are desperate for an open look. Despite all of those factors, he wasn’t named to the Pac 12’s All-Defensive team.
Due his status as the 4th highest scorer in the conference, the sophomore wing received accolades for his performance in the 2010-20 season, he was one of the ten players featured on their All-Conference First Team. What makes his status as one of the conference’s top scoring threat really impressive is that he really didn’t seem comfortable with taking the ball to the rim.
Although Elleby does a really good job of using his handles to break down the opposition, his struggles from this perspective come through him not having a quick first step or the athleticism or strength to really finish at the rim. Despite that, he doing something productive once getting to the paint as he averaged 4.9 free throw attempts per game as a sophomore.
While he’s struggled with getting to the rim within half-court sets and his inconsistent perimeter shooting numbers, I still have a lot of faith with his potential on the offensive end. Now Dakota, why would you say that when his three-point percentage was low and he didn’t put up good assist numbers? Well, that’s a good question random question asking person!
Despite the less than stellar numbers that you may see on his stat line, he shows more promise than what those statistics might show. For example, his 33% 3-point percentage is a little misleading as a lot of those misses came when he was working off-the-dribble due to being Washington State’s #1 scoring threat. According to Synergy Sports, the young sophomore shot 38% on a total of 153 guarded and unguarded catch-and-shoot shots. That solid percentage makes you think believe that Elleby can be a reliable perimeter if he’s used more as a off-ball threat when he joins the NBA, G League, or an overseas squad
While on the topic of skills that he’s better at than what the numbers showed, Elleby actually shows upside as a facilitator. That confidence comes from how he really does a great job of using his height to spot teammates that may be cutting to the rim or open on the perimeter. Unfortunately for him, the team didn’t have any non-Elleby player besides Jervae Robinson that shot better than 33% from beyond the arc. Also as a team, the Cougars only shot 32 % on open catch-and-shoot chances. Those numbers point to the fact that the wing really wasn’t able to put up the assist numbers that he would’ve been able to on another team.
Zavier Simpson - Michigan: 12.9 points, 7.9 assists, 4.5 rebounds, and a steal on 48% from the field and 36% from 3 on 2.9 attempts per game
While on the topic of prospects that have definitely been overlooked during this extended NBA Draft process, let’s go to a player that deserves a lot more attention from folks that break down prospects on a more frequent and thorough basis than I do with the pieces that are posted here during each off-season as I wait for the G League to return from its summer vacation.
Although Simpson is being overlooked in favor for Isaiah Livers and/or Jon Teske from NBA Draft twitter or writers, it doesn’t meant that the senior didn’t accomplish a lot during his college career. Despite averaging less than 13 points per game, he played well enough on both ends of the court to be named to the All-Big Ten Second Team in both 2019 and 2020. On the latest edition, he joined likely NBA Draft picks Daniel Oturo from Minnesota and Xavier Tillman from Michigan State.
Simpson’s status as one of the best player sin the Big Ten is largely due to him being a great facilitator that really made his teammates better and was a huge contributor behind Michigan being an elite offense that averaged 113.2 points per 100 possessions, which placed them 20th in the country, according to KenPom. From an individual perspective, that impact shouldn’t be surprising as he averaged a conference-best 7.9 assists per game with a stellar 2.5 Ast/TO ratio.
Simpson’s incredible assist numbers are due to him being able to find teammates in a plethora of different ways, whether it be drive-and-kick, working with his roll man, or doing his best Patrick Mahomes impression to sling it into the hands of teammates that are cutting to the rim. Due to Juwan Howard’s offensive gameplan that revolved around off-ball screens and back cuts, he definitely became confident with quickly finding teammates once they started to maneuver to the basket.
Aside from being the best facilitator in Big Ten hoops, Simpson’s great play on the offensive end is seen through his ability to drive to the rim with both hands and becoming a more efficient perimeter threat. In terms of that first skill, the young guard was solid for Michigan despite not really having a quick first step.
He was able to make up for that by doing an amazing job of utilizing off-ball screens to his advantage. Whether that is going from left to right to make sure that the perimeter defender is trapped, or getting the opposition on his back on the drive to the rim, the young guard is extremely smart with the task of using screens. After getting an advantage on his original defender, Simpson becomes even more entertaining to watch as he can use change-of-speed moves, fakes, or even bending his 5’11 frame a bit to make him even smaller so it’s tougher for a big to stop him on the path to the rim.
Over the course of his four-year career with the University of Michigan, the 5’11 guard slowly made strides as a perimeter threat as his three-point percentage grew from 26% as a freshman, 29% as a sophomore, 31% as a junior, and then finally 36% as a senior. That progression came despite the fact that his jumper looks unorthodox as this clip makes it seem like he brings the ball low, and then goes up with the ball by his right ear.
However, that approach seemed to work pretty well no matter if he’s working in catch-and-shoot (37% according to Synergy) or off-the-dribble (35% according to Synergy). Despite that steady progression though, it wouldn’t be wrong to be skeptical about his ability to carry over that jumper to the NBA or G League as shot just 57% from the free throw line during his senior season.
Despite standing at 5’11, 190 pounds, Simpson stood as a really solid defender for Michigan. A lot of that deals with having quick feet, quick hands, and solid defensive fundamentals that prevented opposing guards from being able to drive past him. In addition to that, he also really knows his surroundings as he can go from playing man-to-man against the ball-handler to intercepting a pass or handoff that player is trying to make.
Those great defensive fundamentals and sheer hard work on that end are going to be his calling cards as he makes the step to the pros as he’ll be working against guards that are bigger, faster, and more athletic that the dudes he was matched up against when he was going against Wisconsin, Minnesota, or Rutgers.
Although he won’t be going against NBA or G League guards any time soon, Simpson will have an opportunity to prove himself against pros as he recently signed a deal with Science City Jena of the German Pro A league, which is at a tier below the Basketball Bundesliga (BBL). While he’s going to be playing some basketball in Germany, I’m going to keep Simpson on this list because there’s definitely a chance that an NBA team offers him a two-way or exhibit 10 between now and when the G League season starts in a few months.
Skylar Mays - LSU: 16.7 points, 5 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 1.8 steals on 49% from the field and 39% from 3 on 11.1 attempts per game
Transitioning from a guard that will be starting his pro career in Germany, we go to a player that is 100% focused on being on an NBA roster after the draft, whether that comes from being selected or getting signed to a two-way deal immediately after the 60th pick is called. Honestly, it feels like there’s an 50%/50% chance that either of those can happen as he’s currently ranked 48th on the consensus big board, which includes the rankings from various NBA Draft experts.
While that ranking would seem to lean towards him in the mid to late 2nd round, he could easily not get selected if he’s lower on some team’s big boards or his agent pushes the guard to not get selected so they have the freedom to decide which team to sign with like Luguentz Dort in last year’s draft.
When it comes to Mays, there’s numerous reasons why teams would be intrigued by the LSU alum. Standing at 6’4, 205 pounds, the senior guard stood as a tremendous offensive weapon that maintained a 62% True Shooting Percentage while also getting named by the coaches to First Team All-SEC.
That mix of efficiency and volume comes from him being an incredibly well-rounded and unselfish player that can move around a defender before driving with both his left and right hand, facilitating, and excelling as a shooter whether he’s working off-the-dribble or catch-and-shoot. Although he’s not a lights-out shooter like Devin Vassell or phenomenal athlete like potential #1 overall pick Anthony Edwards, Mays’ well-rounded nature still allowed him to be a consistent scoring threat at LSU and gives him a strong base to build upon if/when he makes his way to the G League as either a two-way player or assignee.
Moving over to other end of the floor, Mays was able to shine as a fantastic on-ball defender. Through quick feet and great defensive fundamentals, the 6’3 guard did a great job of keeping most SEC guards in front of him on the perimeter rather than letting them get an open jumper or let them dash towards the paint. A great example of that work is seen in the clip below where he sticks with the Texas A&M guard like velcro before switching onto the forward that’s trying to finish at the rim.
Kaleb Wesson - Ohio State: 14 points, 9.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists and a block on 44% from the field and 42% from 3 on 3.4 attempts per game
After looking at three straight games, let’s take a break by looking at a talented 6’10, 270 pound big that will be entering the NBA Draft after three years with Ohio State. His best year at the school came during his third and final year where he flirted with a double-double despite only playing 29 minutes per game. That volume in addition to maintaining a 57% True Shooting Percentage pushed him to stand as one of the best bigs in the conference. That statement is shown by how Wesson was part of the All-Big Ten Second Team by both the media and coaches.
A lot of Wesson’s points on the offensive end came through three different methods: perimeter shooting, post-ups, and snagging offensive rebounds. Without a doubt, that first trait stands as the most intriguing one as he stood as one of the best catch-and-shoot threats in college basketball last year through shooting 43% on those looks, according to Synergy Sports. That efficiency makes sense when you look at his jumper as its smooth from the time he captures the pass to when he throws up the smooth jumper.
Now moving from the perimeter to paint, Wesson is able to shine as a solid low-post threat no matter if he’s working on the left or right block. On either end, the 21-year-old shows the arsenal of tools that you usually see from veterans through how he can hit you with the side-step, spin move, use his 270 pound frame to push down low, hit a fadeaway, or use his great touch to put in a little hook shot.
Although those two traits were the keys behind him being one of the best front-court players in the Big 10 last year, you shouldn’t surprised for me to say that the 21-year-old is still a work in progress. A lot of that has to do with mobility on both ends. On the defensive end, he isn’t exactly the type of player that you want to go hedge on pick-and-rolls or switch onto guards. In addition to that, he can tend to lose his man due to ball watching.
Moving back to the offense, the big didn’t really show much in terms of rolling to the basket or taking the ball to the paint. While those could be blamed on his role within Ohio State’s offense, him showing more of an ability as a roll man or on-ball driver can really help his potential as an NBA prospect.
Saben Lee - Vanderbilt: 18.6 points, 4.2 assists, 3.5 rebounds, and 1.5 steals on 48% from the field and 32% from 3 on 3.8 attempts per game
Last but certainly not least, we finish this piece by returning to the backcourt by taking a look at the first point guard that former Raptors 905 head coach has had an opportunity to work with since becoming taking the same role with Vanderbilt. Although Stackhouse’s Commodores are definitely a work-in-progress as they went 3-15 in SEC play, those tribulations definitely can’t be blamed on Lee as he stood as one of the best backcourt players in the conference. That isn’t just my personal opinion as he joined future NBA Draft picks Isaac Okoro and Tyrese Maxey on the second team All-SEC squad.
In a similar way to those two players, Lee is more than capable of bringing you out of your seat by throwing down some thunderous slams that you really don’t expect to see from someone that’s only 6’2. In addition to that explosiveness, Lee is also an incredibly quick guard that can really motor his way past opponents in transition before finishing strong at the rim.
However, the interesting thing about Lee is that he knows when to use his quickness and explosiveness or when to just work within the flow of an offense. That dynamic can lead to someone having two totally different perspectives depending on if he went skying to the rim or just working within the flow of an offense and pushing the ball around.
Despite what 4.2 assists per game with a 1.3 Ast/TO ratio might tell you, the 21-year-old guard is a pretty solid facilitator that can both drive-and-kick it to an open man or exhibit the patience needed to find the perfect opportunity to dish it to the roll man. Those traits make me positive that Lee could become a more statistically impressive facilitator once he’s surrounded by better offensive weapons.
While on the topic of skills that the young guard is already pretty good at, Lee has shown himself to be impressive with driving to the rim with his right hand. That knack is helped by him just having an incredibly quick first step that allowed him to blow by some great on-ball defenders like the aforementioned Skylar Mays. Once he gets a clear path to the rim, he’s obviously able to use his athleticism to wow the audience.
Although his dunks are definitely good, I’m more impressed with the ways that he’s able to get around his opponent when he’s unable to use his natural gifts. A really great example of that is seen in the clip below as Lee does a nice job of putting his opponent to sleep with his handles and ultimately catching him in the screen before starting to drive towards the paint. On his path there, he lays a pretty slick sidestep on the big before finishing with a right-handed layup. That ability to change direction and speed on a dime allows him to be someone to direct your attention towards whenever he has the ball in his hands.
While his upside as a facilitator and knack as an on-ball driver is definitely impressive, the young prospect definitely has some flaws that he has to iron out. The biggest of those deals with his struggles as a perimeter shooter. In 265 total three-point attempts during his career, Lee only shot 33%.
His work from the charity stripe really don’t raise the hope as his career free-throw percentage at Vanderbilt was only at 72%, which is just two percentage points above the 70% line where you really have to start to worry. The biggest area that Lee will need to show progression at is as a catch-and-shoot threat, where he shot 31% on 58 attempts during his junior season.
While he’ll need to continue growing as a perimeter threat and on-ball defender, Saben Lee is still an extremely intriguing prospect that you shouldn’t be surprised get signed to a two-way deal whenever the off-season arrives.