After approximately one month of the college season, there are several players who have already improved their NBA draft stock.
Every year, there are players who are not rated highly on preseason NBA draft big boards but end up making a name for themselves with their play on the court. Last season, for example, few spoke about Murray State guard Ja Morant prior to the season but he ended up becoming the No. 2 overall pick.
Based on their performances thus far, here are some players who are helping themselves and who should be monitored as the season continues.
Tyrese Haliburton, Iowa State
Iowa State guard Tyrese Haliburton led Team USA to the gold medal at the 2019 U19 World Cup and he also earned All-Tournament honors at the event.
His assist-to-turnover ratio during those games was 6.9-to-one and he led the team in both two-point and three-point field goal percentage. He has continued that productivity this season for Iowa State, where he ranks second in the country in assists per game (8.9) so far this season.
Jonathan Tjarks recently wrote about why Haliburton might be the best-kept secret in college basketball (via The Ringer):
“Haliburton is the poster child for the type of player who might have slipped through the cracks a generation ago. The advanced numbers tell a very different story about him than his relatively pedestrian traditional stats. Calling him undervalued only scratches the surface. He might have been one of the most valuable players in the country last season. The analytical model developed by ESPN’s Kevin Pelton rated Haliburton as the no. 6 prospect in college basketball last season, and the no. 2 prospect this year, behind only UNC freshman Cole Anthony.”
The guard was being projected as a Top 20 pick before the season, but now he is getting buzz as a lottery pick. He currently ranks No. 10 overall on ESPN’s Top 100 big board for the 2020 NBA Draft.
Jordan Nwora, Louisville
Behind the strong play of junior Jordan Nwora, Louisville is undefeated through seven games and have the No. 1 AP ranking in the NCAA.
Coming off a season in which he won the ACC’s Most Improved Player award, the 6-foot-7 wing has been one of the best players in college basketball this year. For example, Nwora is currently No. 1 overall in Kenpom Player of the Year Standings.
Here is what Sam Vecenie wrote about Nwora in a recent mock draft (via The Athletic):
“He’s an elite catch-and-shoot guy with smooth mechanics and a lightning-quick release. The big leap last year came in attacking closeouts, though, where Nwora is now capable of getting into the teeth of the defense and using his underrated leaping ability to finish.”
Last season, we listed Nwora as one of the top prospects to return to school after withdrawing from the 2019 NBA Draft.
While he ranked No. 45 overall in our aggregate mock draft last season and as a late first-rounder in our first two editions of the 2020 AMD, now he may resemble a Top-20 pick. In fact, Kyle Boone of CBS Sports recently put him at No. 18 overall.
Obi Toppin, Dayton
If you want to know why Dayton ranks No. 9 in the recent Top 25 from CBS Sports, look no further than the production from sophomore Obi Toppin.
Jonathan Wasserman recently wrote about why Toppin projects as a lottery pick in the 2020 NBA Draft (via Bleacher Report):
“No opponent has had an answer for Toppin so far. Georgia and Virginia Tech looked helpless in Maui. He’s returned a more decisive scorer and passer from the post and a confident three-point shooter. Between his power and athleticism, back-to-the-basket game and projectable jump shot, Toppin has quickly developed into one of the draft’s most convincing offensive big men.”
According to Barttorvik.com, the forward has had the best season of anyone in college basketball thus far. He also leads all players in their advanced measurement for points over replacement, adjusted per games played at their usage rate.
Most impressive is that Toppin is shooting 88.9 percent at the rim, per Hoop-Math. But he has also made more than half of his jump shots from two-point or three-point range, which have accounted for about a third of his attempts.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC
Onyeka Okongwu is a former high school teammate of Lonzo Ball, LiAngelo Ball and LaMelo Ball at Chino Hills. Their team won 60 consecutive games when he was a freshman, including the national title.
But even after the brothers all left the school, Okongwu ended up as a three-time state champion and two-time California Mr. Basketball. As a senior, the big man was able to record 4.3 blocks per game.
Ricky O’Donnell explained why the 18-year-old is a prospect well worth watching (via SB Nation):
“Okongwu has perhaps been the biggest early-season revelation for NBA scouts so far. The USC center is long and strong at 6’9, 245 pounds, with a quick second jump, impressive agility, and refined rim-protecting instincts… Okongwu has an obvious fit in the NBA as a bouncy dive man who dunks everything on offense and can block shots and rebound on defense.”
During his collegiate debut for USC, he nearly put up a triple-double but with blocks (he had eight) instead of assists. Later last month, he scored 33 points in a game against Pepperdine.
These types of performances have helped Okongwu catapult to No. 6 overall in Wasserman’s recent mock draft for Bleacher Report.
Zeke Nnaji, Arizona
While fellow Wildcats freshmen Nico Mannion and Josh Green have received more attention, 6-foot-11 forward Zeke Nnaji has quickly become one of the biggest surprises in college basketball.
“Nnaji brings a great blend of mobility on both sides of the ball, can hit a midrange shot, and has been able to alter shots thus far with his activity, despite a lack of plus length. He’s produced due in large part to his competitive motor and being opportunistic around the ball, playing physically and proving a tricky matchup.”
He is averaging 18.6 points per game including a dominant 26-point, 11-rebound performance on November 14 in which he did not miss a single attempt from the floor.
Nnaji is producing 1.37 points per possession on offense during the regular season, which currently ranks second-best among all D1 players (minimum: 50 possessions) thus far.
Aaron Henry, Michigan State — He is averaging more points per possession on catch-and-shoot attempts than anyone else in the NCAA.
Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt — The 6-foot-6 wing is averaging 23.7 points with 4.9 three-pointers per game, shooting 54.0 percent from beyond the arc.
Myles Powell, Seton Hall — The senior guard currently ranks Top 10 in points produced among all college basketball players.
Cassius Stanley, Duke — Before his recent injury, the freshman had been one of the most electrifying prospects due to his insane leaping ability.
Other names to know: Paul Reed (DePaul), Devin Vassell (Florida State), Trevelin Queen (New Mexico State), Desmond Bane (TCU), Kaleb Wesson (Ohio State)