Basketball season is starting to roll around and eyes are starting to look ahead to 2022 for the next big thing who can elevate the ceiling of a losing team. It may seem early to start evaluating these prospects but games are starting to be played and data is widely available.
The U-19 FIBA World Cup was played in the summer and provided insight into where some of these players are in their development. In addition to this, the 2021-22 season has already kicked off in Europe.
Domestic leagues in Spain, Serbia and Italy have all tipped off. Information will start to flow in quickly so I thought it would be a wise to rank these young men before the season starts in anger.
The Draft is incredibly important for the Thunder next season as it will likely be the last opportunity for the Thunder to add a cost-controlled elite talent to the roster. It is important for the Thunder to nail this pick and then focus on building a roster that can legitimately contend for an NBA title.
1 ) Chet Holmgren - Gonzaga, 7’1, 190 lbs
At this moment in time, Chet Holmgren looks to be the best player in this class by far. There is no other players with his combination of sweet outside shooting, rim protection and ball-handling skills. He is a matchup nightmare in the modern NBA.
Holmgren played high school basketball in Minnesota next to Jalen Suggs. Suggs, drafted by the Orlando Magic, was Holmgren’s point guard for three seasons. Like Suggs before him, Holmgren has committed to play at Gonzaga for Coach Mark Few.
Gonzaga already have Drew Timme to play center so it seems likely Holmgren will play the 4. In my mind, it is the right role for him. Holmgren is skinny as all hell and I fear that he would not do well banging bodies down low.
He has already proved that he can be the best player in his age group, Holmgren was named MVP of the U-19 World Cup in Latvia. For me, his season at Gonzaga has to be about improving his ball-handling even further particularly when he is pressured by opposing defenses.
Holmgren’s game marries athleticism with excellent technical ability. He is 7’1 but is incredibly agile for his size. Holmgren covers ground quickly and can change direction seamlessly. His physical attributes are a core component of his interior defense.
Holmgren’s length is enhanced by the savviness with which he plays the game. Chet has great timing when it comes to rejecting shots at the rim. He could be an excellent weak-side rim protector while also being able to knock down the long ball and create off the bounce.
Regardless of position, Chet Holmgren is a top level prospect who projects to be a nightmare for opposing defenses. I struggle to think of a team who has the personnel to guard Holmgren out of the game.
2) Paolo Banchero - Duke, 6’10, 235 lbs
Paolo Banchero was the headline name recruited to what will be Coach K’s final cohort of freshmen at Duke. Coach Krzyzewski has a magic touch when it comes to attracting one and done players and it is no different for Banchero. Paolo Banchero has an NBA ready skillset before he has even played a game in college.
Banchero’s background lies in Seattle hoops. Seattle has long been a hotbed for talent and Banchero is nothing but the continuation of that proud history. He comes from a basketball family and should be well prepared for the mental rigours that come with playing professional basketball.
Banchero will have a great opportunity to solidify his status as a top-5 draft pick at Duke. Coach Krzyzewski has a lot of history when it comes to producing players that have gone within the top-5. Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson and Marvin Bagley are all notable examples of ones and dones who excelled at Duke.
In terms of environment, Duke plays in one of the most competitive conferences in America. The ACC is difficult and Banchero will be tested on a nightly basis. Fortunately, Banchero has the skill-set to perform strongly in college hoops.
Banchero’s physicality jumps off the page when he is compared to other players within his age group. Banchero looks and moves like a professional athlete even at a young age. The key difference between Banchero and someone like Bagley is his skill level.
Banchero is an ‘inside-out’ scorer; he uses his driving game to put pressure on the basket which then opens up looks from mid-range. At this moment, he is great off the drive due to the physical advantages that he possesses compared to his competition.
His mid-ranger is functional if a little stiff for my liking; I would prefer for Banchero’s jumper to be more fluid. His shooting mechanics suggest that he could be serviceable from outside.
Banchero’s game is cerebral and controlled; he already has a strong grasp of spatial awareness and uses his handle smartly when attacking the defense. I am concerned about his level of play when he plays against other strong athletes but his technical base should be able to mitigate this issue.
3) Jaden Hardy - G League Ignite, 6’4, 185 lbs
Hardy is the only player within my top-10 to play for G League Ignite in the upcoming season. Every other player has either opted to play in college or in the international leagues. Hardy has chosen to walk the trail established by Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga.
Ignite is the NBA’s pathway for blue-chip talents to make it to the league with the skills needed to survive in the modern NBA. Ignite is focused solely on basketball and winning games. In my mind, it is one of the best environments for a young player to develop. There are no distractions and plenty of opportunities to learn from experienced vets.
Ignite clearly benefitted Jalen Green; Green’s shot selection and scoring efficiency improved greatly with just one year working under Coach Brian Shaw. For someone like Hardy who is clearly committed to the sport, Ignite might be the right place for him to make exponential improvements to his game.
Hardy is a born bucket getter who can seemingly drain shots effortlessly. He is already an elite shot-maker and his game should translate nicely to the modern NBA, a league where spacing is king.
Jaden has legitimate deep range and is in many ways a four level scorer. Damian Lillard and Trae Young are two players who have turned that fourth level into one of the most potent tools in a guard’s bag. Young’s ability to pull up from the logo completely changes how the defense has to guard him.
The opposing defense has to step out high, past their comfort zone, to deny the deep pull-up. The threat of this shot isolates the defender at the point of attack and creates a situation that can be ruthlessly exploited by smart teams.
Hardy has also proven in the past that he is capable of draining high-difficulty looks with relative ease. Jaden can flat out score the ball efficiently which is always valuable for an NBA team.
My concerns with Hardy relate to his shot selection and defense. At this moment in time, Jaden takes a fair few ill-advised shots that do not benefit his offensive output. He has to learn how to maximise the number of good shots that he takes.
Hardy also lacks effort on the defensive end of the floor outside of ‘glamour defense’. He will happily attempt to rake the ball away from opponents but he rarely puts in consistent, persistent work on defense.
Jaden Hardy has to prove that he can be a productive player in a grown man’s league. The G League is a tough league but it is up to Jaden to thrive in that environment.
4) Yannick Nzosa - 6'10, Unicaja Malaga
Nzosa's game was detailed in an article written a few weeks ago and it is evident why he could be valuable in the NBA. A player like him who can defend the rim straight up and as a weak-side roamer does not come around every year.
The only real debate was where Nzosa would fit into my Big Board. Jalen Duren, the Memphis freshman, was a strong case to be slotted into #4 but in the end Nzosa's case was stronger.
Duren's a tantalising prospect with incredible potential but Nzosa's more of a sure thing. He is already performing strongly in a grown man's league. I feel more comfortable suggesting that Nzosa’ potential of developing into a star level player is more tangible.
Oklahoma City seem to have a positional need at the center spot and Nzosa would be a decent candidate to fill that role. At this point in time, the Thunder seem to be moving forward with Isaiah Roby at center but I do believe that someone like Nzosa could have a transformative effect on the Thunder’s defense.
5) Jalen Duren - 6’10, 228 lbs, Memphis
Jalen Duren was one of the best centers in high school and was expected to declare for the Draft in 2023. However, Duren reclassified and made himself eligible to play college basketball this season. It is a bold move on his part but his background as a basketball player has likely played into his decision.
Duren transferred to Montverde before his junior season. Montverde is one of the powerhouses of high school basketball along with schools like Oak Hill and Sierra Canyon. Montverde boasts a list of notable alumni including Joel Embiid, Cade Cunningham, RJ Barrett and Ben Simmons. It is a school that has produced ingot after ingot when it comes to turning out NBA talents.
Duren’s potential is strong; he is fleet-footed and agile for his position. He uses that speed to good effect on the defensive end of the floor, Duren is very good dealing with mismatches whenever he guards smalls. Jalen is comfortable guarding in space but his greatest strength is his interior defense.
Duren uses his 7’5 wingspan to alter shots consistently and his high motor means that effort does not diminish as the game goes on. Duren is a great leaper and he is capable of getting vertical quickly whenever the opposing team attempts a shot at the rim.
That being said, Duren’s potential is still all theoretical. The projection for his future is based on the fact that Duren is really young, 17-years old, and therefore should grow a lot in the next year or so. I do expect Penny Hardaway and Rasheed Wallace to put a lot of time in Duren’s technical base but I still have my concerns about Duren’s potential.
During his time in high school, Duren has been able to dominate due to his physical advantages. Nobody could guard Duren in high school ball as he was simply more athletic and bigger than the competition. He will not enjoy the same sort of advantage in college or the pros.
My worry is that Duren’s productivity declines significantly as the athletic level improves. It might be irrational and Duren might prove me wrong but it is a concern that I have.
6) Nikola Jovic - 6’10, 209 lbs, Mega Basket
I went deep into Jovic a few weeks back and he certainly seems like the sort of player that Sam Presti would like. Presti has recently acquired two highly skilled forwards in Pokusevski and Giddey, Jovic would be simply be another player in that mould. The difference is that Jovic is much more of scorer than the other two.
There are more athletic players in this draft class but it is difficult to think of many players who have the same sort of polish that Jovic possesses. Nikola can score from all three levels and facilitate offense but his control sets him apart from others. Jovic plays at his own speed and does not make rash decisions with the ball.
For Jovic to rise up my Big Board, he has to improve as a playmaker. Nikola will find the smart pass and will find teammates in good positions but he rarely hits the advanced read. I would love to see him run some pick and roll action just to get a feel of how he operates as the lead ball-handler in a half court setting.
7) Caleb Houstan - 6’8, 205 lbs, Michigan
Caleb Houstan slots in at #7 on my Big Board and could rise even further if he has a good season at Michigan. He is another athlete to reclassify and enter college ball a year early. Houstan also played at Montverde like Jalen Duren and Cade Cunningham before him.
Houstan’s game seems to be tailor-made for the modern NBA; he is a sweet-shooting forward who can also create off the bounce. It is not an exaggeration to say that Caleb is one of the best marksman in his class and should profile to be a knockdown shooter at the NBA level.
Houstan is not simply a 3&D wing, he has real touch in the mid-range and has the makings of being a three-level scorer in the pros. The mid-range area is not the most fashionable shot in the NBA but it is a valuable tool for a player to have particularly against good defenses.
Kevin Durant proved the value of the mid-ranger against the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The Bucks were stout defensively at the point of attack and at the rim. Coach Budenholzer had one of the best drop coverages in the league with Jrue Holiday haranguing the attacking player and Brook Lopez anchoring the defense.
Durant was able to keep the Nets’ offense alive by draining timely jumpers in the non-painted area. It is not the best shot in basketball by any means but the mid-range game is a necessity in the postseason.
A forward like Houstan who can hit from three levels is a nightmare in triple threat situations and should create a lot of space for his teammates to operate. His defense and rebounding is a weak area right now but there is certainly a lot to like about Caleb Houstan’s fit on the offensive end for the Thunder.
8) Jaden Ivey - 6’4, 200 lb, Purdue
I know what everybody is thinking about this pick, the Thunder do not need any more guards. In most cases, I would agree with you but the Thunder’s situations feels different. Oklahoma City have a crop of really good guards that has either been drafted or acquired via trade.
Theo Maledon and Ty Jerome have both matured nicely into solid role players who can feasibly contribute for good teams. Jerome is further along in his development and it is easy to envisage Ty running highly productive bench units.
Tre Mann is not proven at the NBA level yet but he is a highly intriguing prospect with a lot of the skills that teams want nowadays. Mann can get buckets with his twitchy, frenetic drives and collected makes from downtown.
Whenever the Thunder come round to making a trade for an All-Star level talent, it is highly likely that one of these guards will be traded as well. Playmakers are always valuable in a league that is about shot creation.
The Thunder run a system that is designed for multiple shot creators to share the load and dissect defenses. It makes some sense to take someone like Jaden Ivey if the Thunder end up trading one of Mann, Jerome or Maledon.
Ivey is an excellent finisher around the rim and he uses his athleticism to good effect whenever he attacks the basket. Ivey can go vertical and stay vertical whenever he faces taller, stronger defenders. He shot something like 50% on two-pointers last season despite being a rookie in college.
The other aspect of Ivey’s game that I like is his defense. Ivey has quick hands and long arms that he uses very well. Jaden rarely gets separated from his assignment and is pesky at the point of attack. He plays bothersome defense all the time and forces his man towards the help defender.
Ivey could feasibly guard three positions in the NBA pretty well and his fit with the Thunder is nice on the less glamorous end of the floor. Luguentz Dort and Jaden Ivey would be a fierce duo when it comes to pressing and harrying the opposing team.
9) AJ Griffin - 6’6, 210 lbs, Duke
AJ Griffin is the one to watch in this draft class, he’s a big wing who has a lot of technical ability but has not played much basketball at all. The only really why Griffin has not been ranked higher is because there is very little information to go off except for scouting reports written by other people.
Griffin’s technical base is incredibly strong and that strength comes from his family’s history with basketball. AJ Griffin is the son of Adrian Griffin, a former NBA journeyman and current assistant coach for the Toronto Raptors. AJ has an excellent understanding of the game and his spatial awareness is impressive in part due to his dad’s time in the league.
He has great fundamentals to go along with his size. AJ is not the best run-jump athlete around but I believe that he will have more than enough skill to compensate for that slight concern.
The other interesting point worth noting about Griffin is that he spent the whole of last season in Tampa training with his father. The Toronto Raptors spent a hellish year in Tampa Bay and all of the coaching staff had to relocate for the season. AJ went with the Raptors and spent a year developing his craft. It is difficult to say what sort of leap he has made; the tangible gains will only become evident when he suits up for Duke.
10) Ousmane Dieng - 6’7, NZ Breakers
Ousmane Dieng is the latest in a long line of young talented French players who have come from INSEP. INSEP is one of the hubs of French athletics and the school is well known for producing NBA names. Tony Parker, Boris Diaw and Clint Capela are the most notable names to come out of INSEP.
The Thunder roster have two players last season who played for INSEP during their junior careers, Theo Maledon and Jaylen Hoard. Dieng’s path to the NBA is different to those who have gone before. He has chosen to play in the NBL, one of the most physical leagues in the world.
The majority of young French players choose to stay in their home country and play in LNB Pro A. Maledon played professional ball for ASVEL before being drafted by the Thunder in 2020. Dieng has chosen an environment where his silky smooth game will be tested.
Dieng is already a smooth, polished scorer who can comfortably drain pull-up jumpers and orchestrate the offense. His technical level is strong for a wing and he projects to be a versatile point forward in the NBA. In short, he is the sort of player that Sam Presti has chosen to draft recently.
He has shown flashes of real ability as a playmaker particularly in the pick and roll over the last year or so. Dieng is comfortable managing space and moving the defense around to create a bucket for his teammate. I would prefer a more balanced approach to scoring and passing on his part but that is a minor detail that will come with time.