The consensus for the upcoming 2024 NBA Draft is that it is weaker than previous years, lacking a clear No. 1 prospect. That may be true at this point, but in every draft, some great players can change the direction of a franchise; they just have to be identified.
While there is still a long way to go this season, I wanted to highlight some of the best and most-discussed prospects around the world that Detroit Pistons fans should be keeping a close eye on throughout the year who could cement themselves among the top of draft boards with a strong season of play.
This is the second part of a multi-part series covering nearly 40 prospects. You can read the first post exploring the G League Ignite players. Today’s post looks at some of the top returning NCAA players. While they are a bit older, they come with either incredible production and growth or a history of production that is worth keeping an eye on even if they might be struggling this season.
Returning NCAA Players
My favorite prospect among the top returning college basketball players is UConn center, Donovan Clingan. At 7-foot-2, 265 pounds, Clingan has impressive mobility and athleticism for his size and is likely to be one of the best defensive players in college basketball this season. Though he plays only 20.7 minutes per game, he is a force when on the court, currently averaging 13.9 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks while shooting 63.2% from the floor. Despite being a traditional center who does not offer floor spacing, his defensive value should put him in conversations as the top center in the draft.
Kel’el Ware was an intriguing prospect last year at Oregon but opted to withdraw from the NBA draft and instead transferred to Indiana. This has proven to be the correct decision, as he has broken out and is currently averaging 14.7 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per game while sporting a much-improved 55/36/68 slash line. A 7-footer who can stretch the floor the way he has shown he is capable of while also being a strong interior defender and shot blocker makes Ware one of the top big men prospects in the draft.
Trey Alexander blossomed as a shooter from his freshman to sophomore season, going from 28.1% on 1.8 attempts per game to a very impressive 41% on 4.4 attempts per game. The concern is that he is off to a poor shooting start through the first 14 games this season, shooting only 31.6% from three which begs the question if he can get back to where he was last season. Averaging 16.8 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 4.5 assists, the 6-foot-4 shooting guard can make an impact in a variety of ways, as well as being a capable defender. His shooting returning to form is the swing skill that will determine how early he is drafted.
Another breakout candidate to pay attention to this season is Arkansas transfer, 6-foot-9 forward Trevon Brazile who played in only nine games last season before going down with an ACL tear. In those nine games, Brazile impressed with his combination of shooting and defensive potential. So far this season he looks fully recovered and is averaging 9.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per game while shooting a very impressive 42.9% from three on 2.7 attempts per game. Shaping up to be one of the better 3&D prospects in the draft.
Virginia’s Ryan Dunn has emerged as one of the best defensive prospects in the draft. In only 26 minutes per game, Dunn is averaging 2 steals and 2 blocks per game to go with nearly seven rebounds and 10 points while shooting 65% on two-point field goal attempts but only 21% from three. Though he is limited on offense as a shooter, his defensive value as a 6-foot-8 forward with long arms, great athletic ability, and versatility to guard several positions should put him into lottery consideration.
Kevin McCullar is another of college basketball’s top defensive players, leading the Big 12 conference in defensive win shares last season. A fantastic role player for Kansas who does many things well, including rebounding and passing the ball as a connector on offense. He only shot over 30% from three-point range once in his first four seasons, though is off to a great start this season. Through 14 games, McCullar is averaging 20.1 points per game on 36.2% from three, if his breakout as a scorer and shooter can be sustained over the season he will be a hard prospect to keep out of the first round.
Wooga Poplar has been off to a scorching hot start to the season shooting the ball through 12 games, knocking down 50% of his three-point attempts on 5 attempts per game on his way to scoring 16.2 points per game. The 6-foot-5 shooting guard will have to improve on the defensive end as well as clean up turnovers where he currently has a negative assist to turnover ratio. These limitations may keep him in a bench role, but players who can shoot at the level Poplar has shown to be able to will always draw NBA attention.
Tristan da Silva
Colorado forward Tristan Da Silva could be one of the better stretch four’s available in the draft. The 6-foot-9 Da Silva can play either forward spot and is a knockdown shooter, averaging 15.8 points per game while shooting 36.8% from three so far as a senior after shooting 39.4% from three as a junior. He will need to continue to improve on the defensive end and is also one of the older players in the draft class which may limit his stock to an extent but he could also be viewed as a high-floor prospect who can make an impact right away.
I have been lower on Judah Mintz than others over the last couple of seasons despite the Syracuse guard being a talented scorer and capable defender. He is off to a good start to his sophomore season, averaging 19.1 points, 3 rebounds, 3.9 assists, and 2.3 steals on 44.4/35.7/78.3 shooting. However, my concerns with Mintz are that he is a 6-foot-4 combo guard with a negative wingspan, which worries me about his defense in the NBA, he turns the ball over too much to play PG, and is only an average three-point shooter. I think these issues could limit him to a bench scorer role.
Tennessee’s Dalton Knecht erupted for 37 points against UNC on Nov. 29, knocking down 13-of-17 of his shots, including 4-of-8 from beyond the arc and 7-of-8 from the free-throw line. Though he has cooled off recently, his strong start to the season has moved him up many draft boards. Knecht is currently averaging 15.1 points on 36.1% from three after transferring from Northern Colorado where he averaged 20.2 points per game on 38.1% from three. He turns 23 before the draft, and like other older prospects this could limit his stock.
The question with Zach Edey all lingers on how he will be able to translate his game to the NBA. At 7-foot-4 and 300 pounds, Edey is an imposing force in college basketball, but his lack of foot speed and athleticism could cause issues for him on the defensive end. His conditioning has also been somewhat of a concern, similar to other players his size such as Boban. The archetype of a big man who is slow and cannot defend adequately outside of the paint, may not have the conditioning to play significant minutes, is a ball stopper and does not space the floor on offense has a very low success rate in the NBA over the last 20 years.