July 19, 2024

NBA Draft Confidential: Coaches, executives, scouts on 2024 top guard prospects

Oh, stop whining. It’s not that bad.

For months, NBA types and mock drafters have lamented the supposed awfulness of the 2024 NBA Draft. With no obvious pick at one this season — no Victor Wembanyama, or Zion Williamson or Anthony Davis — people have pulled at their hair and wailed. Well, no, there isn’t a clear-cut franchise-level talent this time around. There will be a lot more big swings and misses, in all likelihood, than there normally are in, say, your garden variety top 10 picks in a given year.

But that doesn’t mean this draft is devoid of skilled players. And it’s incumbent upon teams in rebuilding mode to still hit in this draft. It’s even more egregious to miss this year, precisely because the swing-and-miss possibilities are so high. But someone will draft a future All-Star Wednesday or Thursday, maybe an All-NBA player. There are always diamonds in the rough.

May I point you to 2013, when Cleveland took Anthony Bennett at No. 1, Orlando took Victor Oladipo at two, Washington took Otto Porter Jr. at three … and Milwaukee, at No. 15, took a guy we all know now, Giannis Antetokounmpo. And at No. 27, Denver took a French center it traded to Utah in a prearranged deal. More than a decade later, Rudy Gobert is a four-time Defensive Player of the Year winner.

So despite all the handwringing, someone is going to be happy in a year. I’m sure it’s going to be your team.

Once again, for those of you sitting in the back: I’ve been doing these for more than a decade, back to when I was working for NBA.com. I have made no bones about the fact that this is a blatant rip-off of Bruce Feldman’s NFL Draft Confidential, which runs in our pixels alongside Dane Brugler’s massive Beast. Dane writes a book-length dissertation on hundreds of players; Bruce goes into great depth about the top guys.

So, too, do I try, with these Confidentials, to complement the massive, year-long work of our Sam Vecenie on the NBA Draft. Sam travels the globe looking at any and everyone who dribbles a basketball that has a chance of being taken in a given year’s draft. I watch “White Men Can’t Jump” and “Eddie” for the 1,000th or so time on cable, and keep it moving.

But I do spend some time on this. Over the last three months or so, I’ve spoken to a few dozen college head coaches, college assistants, NBA GMs and personnel folks, who have a hundred or so different views on the top prospects. Everyone from the coaches who played against them to the executives who sat in the stands watching them.

These opinions hardly provide a consensus on any prospect; there is disagreement within every team’s war room about every player on their board, so the people I talk with aren’t going to settle whether a guy is going to make it. That’s up to the players.

As ever, though, I don’t name the people who are gracious enough to speak with me. The reason is simple: if I don’t, they’ll tell me what they really think. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes it’s bad. But it’s always honest.

So my moles just give me their unvarnished thoughts on what they like and don’t like about the top prospects. Who was hard to guard, and who was easy? Who accepted coaching? I don’t expect freshmen to be great defenders, but did they at least try? Did they appear to be good teammates? Did they improve from AAU or lower levels of international competition?

And, this is my thing: I always wonder how guys play with other guys who are also high draft prospects on their teams. Do they defer because the moment or matchup requires it, or do they hunt shots with no sense of who they’re playing? Also, who took advantage of the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago, or their individual pro days, to move up the board?

We start, as ever, with the guards. Then we’ll do the wings, before finishing up with the bigs. In today’s NBA, there’s not a lot of difference between whether someone is projected as a guard or a wing in many cases. So you may not see someone today you think is a guard; in most cases, he will probably be listed among the wings next time.

Kentucky’s Reed Sheppard can shoot. (Jordan Prather / USA Today)

Beauty: It’s in the eye of the beholder

There are no standalone elite guard prospects at the top of this year’s draft, as there was last year with Scoot Henderson, 2021 (Cade Cunningham), 2020 (Anthony Edwards and LaMelo Ball), 2019 (Ja Morant) or 2018 (Luka Dončić and Trae Young).

But, this year, there are multiple strong guards – Stephon Castle from Connecticut, Kentucky’s Reed Sheppard, Providence’s Devin Carter, Duke’s Jamal McCain – with high- to mid-lottery grades from most teams.

This year, it really depends on what you need and who you like – and what shortcomings you’re willing to work with. Castle has won back-to-back national championships for UConn and projects as a legit multi-positional defender, but has looming questions about his shot.

Sheppard was a ridiculously good shooter for the Wildcats (52 percent on 3s; .699 True Shooting Percentage), but he was just 182 pounds as of the Chicago combine. He is really small.

Carter, the son of former NBA guard Anthony Carter, is also small, and doesn’t shoot it great right now, but is a great competitor at both ends of the floor. McCain hit 41 percent from deep in his freshman season for the Blue Devils and is a more than willing defender, but can he run an NBA team?

Stephon Castle | 6-6 SG/SF | 19 years old | Connecticut

Western Conference scout No. 1: He’s got great size, he’s a really good athlete, he’s strong. He does everything but shoot it really well. Played for a terrific coach, and if you don’t play the right way and hard for Danny (Hurley), you don’t play. He buries you. He did all that, a freshman on a terrific team.

He’s got upside to his game. What is he, 19? I think he’s got a really bright future. It’s just, where is it? What’s his ceiling as a shooter? … If he can get to 35, 36 (percent) from 3, you have a really good player. I don’t think he’s a stone-cold point guard, but can he be a secondary ballhandler? Absolutely. …

When you can run pick and roll on both sides of the court, you really have the defense in a tough place. Can he be your primary guy? I don’t think so, but maybe he morphs into that one day. Secondary? Yeah, absolutely. Because he wants to pass. It’s not like, hey, I want the ball to score all the time. I’m willing to make plays. I think he can handle the ball plenty. Likes (defense). He’s tough, he’s gritty. He’s got that wired right now.

Eastern Conference executive No. 1: I don’t think Castle is a point guard, even though Connecticut played him there. He’s more off guard. Castle is a better defender (than Isaiah Collier). To me, they’re at two different positions. Because of the team they had, his development was probably hindered early, and he came on late.

College assistant coach No. 1 (his team played UConn):  He’s come a long way. … He’s kind of progressed. His shooting improved throughout the course of the year. But from the point guard standpoint, I think it’s possible for him, because he can handle the ball, he’s a talented kid. If the point guard is bringing the ball across halfcourt and throwing the ball to Devin Booker or Kevin Durant or Luka Dončić, then, sure.

He didn’t have a ton of reps at making plays for others in ball screens, and bringing the ball up and setting the table and all of that stuff. He wasn’t a guy that we just tried to attack one-on-one (defensively). … We tried to maintain and sustain our pace and movement as opposed to just going at him. And not just him. Tristen Newton was a good on-ball defender. Donovan Clingan was a monster. …

(Castle) was able to compete at the highest level because of his God-given tools, and then as the game became a little clearer for him over the course of the year, you could see him just improving on both sides of the ball.

College assistant coach No. 2 (his team played UConn): First time we played them, and I’d seen him at AAU, we were in the layup line and I told (my coach), that guy’s a pro. He’s gifted. I didn’t see the point guard thing. I’ve seen him saying that. I haven’t seen that. Obviously he didn’t play point for UConn. I don’t know. I can’t answer that. I know he’s a good player.

College assistant coach No. 3 (his team played UConn): I do love Castle. I think he’s going to be a real good pro for a long time. I just love his whole demeanor. His defensive side is so much ahead of his offensive size. Legit can guard three positions on the floor. He can get into a rotation because he can play three positions and he can guard three positions. He doesn’t shoot it great right now and it’s something he can work on. But you can put him on the floor, and he can guard.

Eastern Conference executive No. 2: They knock his shooting, and it needs to get better. But it’s not bad, and it’s gotten better. To me, he’s the best chance of any of them to be an All-Star. He can play the one. He’s got a great feel. Can handle it. He’s a really good passer.

Is he a true one right now? Probably not. But he’s still better than most of the ones in the league right now. The (shooting) mechanics are good. This year at UConn he was much improved. … He’s got a great feel, great floor game. If he drops to San Antonio (at four), oh, my God. They’re going to be a bitch.

Reed Sheppard | 6-2 guard | 20 years old | Kentucky

Eastern Conference executive No. 3: He can playmake enough, as much as T.J. McConnell can. ‘Cause you’ve got to honor his jump shot. You’ve got to at least come out and guard him, and that’s going to open the floor up. A shot fake, he can put it on the floor, and he can pass it. And he played well in big games. That bodes well.

Western Conference executive No. 1: Sheppard, he fits everywhere. Because he can pass, he can dribble, he can shoot. And if you have those three things every single night, which he’ll do, he can fluctuate. Tonight, I don’t need to shoot and score it as much; I’m going to facilitate and pass it. I’m going to get us into our stuff.

Teams are going to test him. They’re going to go at him. He blends in nice and easy, not a lot of fanfare. But you pick up the stat sheet, he had 14 or 16 (points), four or five rebounds, seven or eight assists, and he just walks out of the arena, and no one knows who he is.

Eastern Conference executive No. 1: Elite shooter. Somebody mentioned he had a workout similar to what JJ Redick had coming out. He will be a point guard. He’ll be like Steph (Curry) was when he first came in; he played more on the ball than he does now. He has to improve his ballhandling. He has to learn the intricacies of pick and roll.

Great steal rate and quick hands, but most of that is coming off ball, not on ball. I think he’s going to struggle guarding point guards when he’s out on the island. He’s going to struggle, also, in pick and roll defense. But, he will win NBA 3-point shooting contests. Shooting and IQ will keep him on the floor. Depending on where he goes, the coaches will figure out what they can do to help him defensively. His height is his height. He’s close to what Kentucky had him. His wingspan is just a plus-two.

Eastern Conference executive No. 2: He’s a very good player. He’s like (Zaccharie) Risacher. I’d love to have him. But as a top five to 10 pick? I don’t think he’s a lock to be a starter in the NBA. He might be, because he’s very good. But he’s not a true point. He’s a little undersized. He shoots the s— out of it. He does everything well, but I don’t know if he’s great at anything.

I think (Arkansas transfer) D.J. Wagner, if he has a good year next year, will be better than both of them (Rob Dillingham and Sheppard). If he goes to the right place and they put him in to score quick points, he’ll probably be pretty good. It depends.

College head coach No. 1 (his team played Kentucky): As good of a pure shooter as there was in college this year. Willing passer. Understands the offensive side of the game. Makes the right play. Unselfish. Defensively, he has a knack of anticipating passes and being able to jump passing lanes. Below average defender. Really struggled to keep good offensive players in front of him.

Devin Carter | 6-2 guard | 22 years old | Providence

Western Conference executive No. 2: He’s not a great shooter right now. But he’s so athletic and active and productive. He rebounds, he pushes the ball, he can defend. He strikes me as the kind of guy that will just get better and better in the league. And again, we have another guy who comes from the (basketball) background, with the dad. He’s been around this stuff.

Western Conference scout No. 1: He’s small. Like, 6-2 and a half. Really long, athletic. Better offensive player than we’ve given him credit for. He kind of proved that a little bit this year.

You don’t want to trust the shot, because it’s kind of funky, but he makes enough of them. He can really f—ing guard. He passes it well enough; he can make some pick and roll finds. And this motherf—er can rebound. I like him some. He’s got that blue collar ‘it’ factor s—, like his teammates will love him. You know who he’s like? He’s like Kyle Lowry. … He went into this year not on anyone’s draft board, and now he’s going first round.

College assistant coach No. 1 (his team played Providence): After Bryce (Hopkins) got hurt, he took his usage to another level, by default. They lacked scoring, and (Josh) Odoro was a five man. … I thought Devin Carter was the best player on the floor, and it wasn’t close. His ability to shoot at NBA range — now, he has that funky jump shot, it looks kind of funky — but he shoots it with deep range.

Big time, big time athlete. Incredible motor. One of those guys, the way he looks, with his hair, he looks like he’s exhausted. He always looks like he’s going. But he never stops. He competes at both ends. … he was probably one of my favorite players this year in the league, because he played both ends, incredibly hard. He made tough shots, and deep shots, and finished at the rim, and played in transition.

College assistant coach No. 2 (his team played Providence): I love him because, to me, I’m an old-school guy. He has literally done it the right way, through hard work. He’s grinded, and made himself into a pro. He just wills himself into being a player. He’s really got it through the mud. He’s worked on his shot. He’s the ultimate competitor. …

Even if he didn’t work his way into the lottery, he would be one of those guys that got into a camp and make it anyway, because he’d outwork everybody. His shot’s not perfect form, but he’s made himself this year, again, into a 3-point shooter. He’s shooting logo 3s. It doesn’t look pretty, but he makes them. Defends at a high level. I love him. Everyone was talking about Bryce Hopkins, and I love Bryce. But I said Devin Carter is the heart and soul of that team. Unfortunately, Bryce got hurt, and Devin was allowed to flourish even more.

College assistant coach No. 1: I wouldn’t be surprised, if you told me he was a top-five pick, I’d be like, yeah, makes sense, somebody should take him. And he has the pedigree, growing up around the league. He probably understands that world better than the average college kid, probably seen it, probably been in gyms with pros growing up, just by default, being around his dad. I’d imagine he’s well-equipped from a perspective and a mentality standpoint to take this next step as well.

College assistant coach No. 2: I really don’t think his size defensively is going to hurt him. He’s an elite athlete. On a scale from 1 to 10 with toughness, he’s like a 9.9. I don’t think it’s going to come into play as much, because of all the other things that he does. Is he going to have to play some point? Probably. Is he guarding those 6-8 wing guys, Jayson Tatum kind of dudes? Probably not.

This year, he handled the ball a lot more. Kim (English) put him in ball screens. He has a good IQ, because he’s been around it, because of his dad. He’s a mature dude. You can have man conversations with him. He’s ain’t a little kid. He was working out with Dwyane Wade and all them guys. So he’s been around it.

College head coach No. 2 (his team played Duke): He was a dog, man. He brought a toughness to their team. He can really, really shoot. And he knows how to play. He looks like he loves to play basketball, like there’s a joy there. There’s a competitive spirit. He’s not afraid. He’s really physical. I thought he took pride in trying to guard. He was the guard in our league that I was probably most impressed with. I thought he was (Duke’s) best pro prospect. …

They didn’t do ball screens with him as much. They ran him off of pindowns. He would get lost in transition, and when you were doubling Flip (center Kyle Filipowski), he can really shoot. He gets it off quick. And he knows he can shoot, so now he can attack the closeouts.

I thought he had really good strive. He can drive and bump you off to create space. His strength and physicality, it really showed on defense. He can really pressure you when he wanted to get after you. And he had the physicality where it’s hard to knock him off. That dude, man, is competitive. He played with an edge, but also a joy. He was like, I’m here, but I’m gonna smile, I’m gonna have fun.

College assistant coach No. 4 (his team played Duke): He’s really competitive. You know who he is? He’s the other Curry (Seth). More in that mode. But takes and makes big shots.

College assistant coach No. 5 (his team played Duke): Impressive. A lot of guys make shots when it don’t matter. He makes shots when it matters. It was my scout. He’s just a shot maker. In today’s NBA, I’m not sure, right now, if he puts it on the floor well enough to build a team around. But watching teams, right now, most teams have two stars, and you need somebody surrounding them making shots. With these great playmakers you’ve got, you need someone making shots. I think he can make an immediate impact. He did in high school. People doubted him. And he came to college and he did the exact same thing. And it’s not like he’s small. To be the best shotmaker, on a team that won the ACC? He’s a scorer.

As good as the guards (in the ACC) are, I know from myself, and talking to the other coaches in the league, he’s at the top of the scout list. He’s the NBA guy on that team. Everyone else, you had to live with one-on-one shots with their guards. … But he can take over a game. He makes four or five in a row. It’s a tie game, and before you know it, you’re down 10, 15.

I didn’t think Jalen Williams could (initiate offense). But Jalen Williams does a pretty good job, when Shai (Gilgeous-Alexander)’s not getting going, of being able to initiate the offense and make shots. (McCain’s)’s not a point guard, like Jalen Williams is not a point guard. But if you ask him to do that, yeah. I think he could develop into a poor man’s (Tyler) Herro. He’s not as crafty making shots. He’s not as crafty getting everybody else shots. But he can shoot it. And Herro developed into getting everybody else shots down the road. When he came in, it was about how do I get my shot?

College head coach No. 3 (his team played Duke): He can really shoot the ball. I thought that was the biggest thing with him. He can really defend. For me, maybe it was just against us, because when I watched against other people it was there. They say he can facilitate. I didn’t see that. I didn’t see no point guard. I saw an undersized two guard.

Well, let me say this — a positionless player, that if he plays with the right team, he’s capable of making shots, able to attack poor closeouts. Maybe in the Duke system, he wasn’t allowed to do as much dribbling. They obviously had (Jeremy) Roach and they had those guys, so it wasn’t like he was going to be the number one option. So I don’t want to take that away from him.

The thing that stuck out to me was the way he can shoot the damn ball. In transition, he was really good. I thought he did a good job of sprinting to space and attacking closeouts. And defensively, I thought he did a great job. He was good on the ball and off the ball. As we like to say, I don’t think he’s running from no competition. He came from California and went to Duke. Taking Cherokee Parks out of the equation, we’d be hard-pressed to think of the last California kid who went to Duke and had success.

Best of the next

Serbian guard Nikola Topić was a potential top-five pick before suffering a partial ACL tear in the Adriatic League playoffs. It was his second injury to that knee this past year; he injured it previously in January at the start of his stint with top team Red Star Belgrade. At 6-6, with detailed passing and ballhandling skills, Topić looks the part of an NBA point guard — with one big exception: the 18-year-old has never shot the ball consistently well from 3 at any level yet.

Pittsburgh’s Bub Carrington has a lot of supporters on both the college and pro sides, and has been steadily moving up potential draft boards for weeks. Kentucky’s Rob Dillingham is a blur with the ball, and is pegged by many teams as the latest Kentucky guard from now-former Wildcats coach John Calipari’s program to excel in the pros. But, weighing in at 164 pounds at the combine, Dillingham’s Iversonian build gives some teams pause.

Baylor’s Ja’Kobe Walter was Big 12 Freshman of the Year and comes from a program where not playing defense isn’t an option. But he’ll probably have to bulk up some to handle the pounding he’ll get in the NBA as a two guard/wing.

Illinois’ Terrence Shannon, Jr., had a much more serious issue: he had been charged with rape in connection with an alleged incident in September 2023, at a bar in Lawrence, Kan. Shannon vociferously denied touching the woman. Illinois suspended him indefinitely after the incident was disclosed, but he only missed six games before returning to the team after being granted a temporary restraining order. The university dropped its investigation of Shannon in April. And earlier this month, a Kansas jury deliberated 90 minutes before acquitting Shannon on both charges, allowing teams that had red-flagged him while his case was being adjudicated to put him back on their boards.

Nikola Topić | 6-6 lead guard | 18 years old | Crvena zvezda

Eastern Conference executive No. 4: He was having a great season. He had the knee injury. But, while having that great season, he was a European player who played with a very high IQ. Had the ball in his hands. Was a downhill guard that finishes in traffic, and was crafty and heady. But he wasn’t shooting the ball well. I’m trying to think of how Europeans of have succeeded, of late, that couldn’t shoot the 3.

I don’t want to call him a non-shooter, but was like more trending toward not shooting well. Everybody is going to defend him and say, “Look at the free throw percentage.” I’ve watched this kid for a while. He doesn’t shoot the 3 at a high rate. … But, he’s a big guard. He’s very heady. He has a knack for finishing at the rim off of different feet, different hands. Can play through contact. Draws fouls at a high rate, makes free throws.

I’m not discounting him. Again, top five for a European guard that doesn’t shoot the ball? That’s tough. You go in an NBA locker room, and you’re the guy from Europe, and then we get on the floor and you can’t shoot? They’re going to be like, “I thought that’s what they brought you here for”

And “can’t shoot” is a little harsh. But he trends more toward, he’s an offensive prober. He shoots the jumper as a last ditch (resort). He’s a guy that puts it on the deck, and he probes, and gets downhill, and will create body contact and finish. He’s a great finisher. And he’s really smart in terms of letting offense run, and picking out moments when to dart to the basket, and cut. He’s a smart player. It’s just that the shooting, there’s something to be desired.

Eastern Conference scout: I don’t know that he’s injury-prone; he just has this injury. He’s interesting. Great size, can pass, improved shooter.

Western Conference executive No. 1: The medical we’ve gotten is, they don’t seem that concerned. They think it’s good stuff. It seems like it’s just a kindling with this. This doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a chronic thing. It isn’t like he went to UNC, and you know their medical staff. He’s playing in Europe, and he’s out of sight, out of mind. He’s represented by one of the most powerful agents in Europe (Miško Ražnatović), and Miško has been able to manipulate what he needs. …

If he starts dropping, it’s not because of his size, his age, and his skill; it’s going to be because of something else, and that’s going to be the knee. But it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a wildfire, where this is legitimately a concern. Right now, when we break him down, how can we add a non-shooter to what we have? You put so much pressure on your player development area — guys, we have to make him to be a respectable shooter. And what that means is, 38 percent, 39 percent from 3. And he’s never done that in his career. But, you guys have to make him that. You can love his size and you love his passing ability and you can love his basketball IQ, but at the end of the day, in the league, you have to be able to make a shot.

Pitt’s Bub Carrington is a taller guard who can play both guard posistions. (Geoff Burke / USA Today)

Bub Carrington | 6-4 guard | 18 years old | Pittsburgh

College assistant coach No. 4 (his team played Pitt): I love him. I know him well. Recruited him a little bit. Works his ass off. Gotten taller. Not the best athlete, but the skill set — ballhandling, shooting. I bet some of that athleticism, quick-twitch stuff improves. And he’s young for his grade. Grew late. Dad had a plan. He wasn’t sending him to anybody; he was going to send him to good people. But the kid can play. Nickeil Alexander-Walker is a good comp for him, and Nickeil was (17th, in 2019). That kind of big guard, can play both positions, shoots the 3.

Western Conference scout No. 1: Not a great athlete, but he has size. He’s 18 years old. Can dribble, pass. He shoots it will enough. People think he doesn’t shoot well enough. I do. He’s going to get better. He’s got a feel. He cuts hard. Someone’s going to get a good player.

College assistant coach No. 5 (his team played Pitt): Long, makes shots, tough. Just a prototypical NBA guard. Can come off the ball screen, got the floater. Can defend. But more than anything, he’s got that ball-to-ball toughness. He’s tough. The right team, that’s used to big guards, he’s going to have a long career in the NBA. Other than McCain, who’s been doing this longer, I don’t see them having a different career when it’s all said and done. What they do right away may be different, but down the road, you may be talking about similar players. And Bub can play some point, too. He’s the one that can definitely bring it up the floor and do all that.

College head coach No. 3 (his team played Pitt): To me, he’s somebody who (you) can conjecture, people will say down the line that he’s one of the best players to come out of this draft. His upside is tremendous. And his body of work, in a short period of time, he put in work. He’s versatile. He can make shots. I think his versatility as a guard will be seen as he goes along.

I like him. I think he’s got a shot. And, he’s young. He’s a good player. I thought he was one of the best players in the conference as a freshman. To me, he was a seasoned offensive player. He can play with it and without it. He can play in ball screens, he can get DHO, make the play. He made good reads. And he’s got good size.

He hit a lull, I think, early ACC. But he made up for that. He had a good disposition as well. It isn’t easy to come as a freshman from day one. He wasn’t highly recruited. That meant he had some good coaching, and you can tell by the way he plays. He plays the right way. He was seasoned. That s— means something to me. It wasn’t just about scoring the ball; he was filling the whole stat sheet. As he gets stronger, he’ll get better (defensively).

College head coach No. 4 (his team played Pitt): The thing that was really impressive about Bub, to me, was he can go get his own shot. It wasn’t like he had to have his feet set, catch and make a shot. He can get it off the dribble. I mean, he can shoot it off the catch. The most impressive thing for me was his size, and his ability to create a shot off the dribble. In that league, that’s probably paramount, right; having guys that can create and make shots.

And, he’s young. I know the NBA is all caught up in that. I like Bub. Not a great athlete, but good enough. Not a high flier. But just an old-school, East Coast, Baltimore, tough-ass guard. I think he passes it OK. For Jeff (Capel) and their team, it was about scoring. I saw him in high school, and I didn’t envision him having that kind of impact as a freshman. I think he’s a tough kid. So I’m not surprised he’s a first-round pick.

Rob Dillingham | 6-1 guard | 19 years old | Kentucky

Eastern Conference executive No. 3: He’s kind of like the Tyrese Maxey of this draft. ‘Cause if you look at his Kentucky numbers, his stats are way better than Maxey’s were coming out of Kentucky. Guys like that, in that combo box, that can score, they stay around. And that’s what they do — they score. Dillingham is 6-1, 6-2. When everybody kept saying he’s little, I was saying ‘he ain’t Isiah Thomas little, or Nate Robinson little.’ They’re like, ‘I worry about his size.’ I’m like, he’s probably bigger than f——  Maxey. When he came out, everybody was talking about size, and what position can he play. When a guy can hoop, let him hoop and put him out there and leave him alone. That’s Dillingham. Let’s not overthink it too much. He’s got short arms, so he doesn’t look tall.

Western Conference executive No. 1: When he’s on the floor, he has the free pass card. You’re not putting him in the corner and watching him stand. He has the ball, and he is doing his thing. And if he has it going, you’re letting him get loose. And he may not have it that night where he doesn’t and then he’s sitting. But he changes the speed, the offensive flow. Cat-quick. You let him do his thing. Dillingham is going to become a crowd favorite for whatever team he plays for, because he’s just electric. He’s going to have his jersey sell out with kids, because (they’ll think) ‘I can be like him.’

Eastern Conference executive No. 1: As we say, he’s a bucket getter. He knows how to create off the dribble with his game, where he can get to spots, even though he’s very thin and not very strong. But he can get to his spots and get his shot off. He may struggle early with getting to the basket. More of what you call a scoring point than a true point. He would be, whereas Reed could be a starter, Robert may be more valuable as a sixth man. That’s not to say he can’t start. But his importance to a team may be more coming off the bench. When Maxey came out, Cal had him at more of a two than the point. Maxey played (point guard) in high school, whereas this guy was a scorer with the ball in his hands. Defensively, he’s going to struggle to stay in front of people. He was in foul trouble a lot this season, because he was out of position, or he was reaching to steal the ball. I don’t see that changing in the NBA until he gets the defensive discipline to keep his hands in front of him.

Eastern Conference executive No. 2: You’re going to think I’m crazy, but Dillingham scares me. He’s an explosive scorer, and he’s tough. But he’s the worst defender. And he does not have a great feel as a point guard. Those kind of guys scare me. It may work out, but he’s a bad defensive player. He’s small and doesn’t defend. Look at Bones Hyland, who I like. Very good on offense. He struggled in Denver because he couldn’t defend. Gets to L.A. (with the Clippers), same thing. With NBA coaches, if you can’t defend, it’s hard to get on the floor. (Dillingham) is an elite scorer. I’ll give him that. And he’s tough as nails. It’s not that I hate him. But they’re talking about top 10. I wouldn’t do it.

College head coach No. 1 (his coach played Kentucky): Explosive speed and quickness. Unlimited range. Can shoot you out of games or shoot you back into games. Has good offensive basketball IQ with his passing ability. Needs to add weight and get stronger. Very slight and will get pushed around.

Eastern Conference scout: I think he’s going to be really good. He’s going to be a good value pick in the teens.

College assistant coach No. 7 (his team played Baylor): Not as high on him as others. We pressure the ball, and to me, he’s not great with the ball in his hands, creating for himself. He can really stretch the floor, shoot it on the move, great size, and he competed defensively, especially for a freshman. He was locked in, even if he was missing shots. The one thing he has to continue to develop is he has to be able to put the ball on the floor at some point, a couple of dribbles. I know there’s specialized situations for the NBA, where he can just be a 3 and D guy, which I’m sure his projection is. He can really shoot it and do all that. But I did think the physicality bothered him a little bit. When he played us, when he wasn’t about to just be free in space, it was like, okay, these are big boys, here. But obviously a first-round talent. The size, strength, athleticism, shot-making, it’s just hard to find.

Western Conference scout No. 2: His best basketball is ahead of him. He needs player development. He can be a good player in the league, especially if he wants to be. Sometimes he’ll defend and you say, ‘Damn.’ And then sometimes he slides (and doesn’t). But all of these young dudes are like that. You have to tell them what you want. He got it off the bounce pretty well in high school and this year. He was running a system (at Baylor), but when he needed to, he got it off the dribble. That’s something he has to get better at at the next level, because they’re bigger, stronger, and just as athletic. So all of that is gonna come. What’s going to happen is at Summer League, you’re going to get a good test. Then he’s going to see ‘that’s what I need to work on.’ And he’s doing it at the agent workouts. Everybody picks up the shooting once they get in the building. Take Lu Dort. They killed him in college: ‘Yeah, he can defend, but he can’t shoot.’ I said once he gets in the building, he gets his first check, he’s gonna see how much money he got, he’s gonna be like, oh, s—, let me come back the next day and start (shooting).’ Now he’s an $85 million player. And just a couple of years ago, he couldn’t shoot. If they love the game, the shooting is gonna come.

Western Conference executive No. 1: Initially, a nice rotational piece every night in the regular season. He’s going to get buckets. There’s going to be some nights where you scratch your head and say ‘Did he just shoot that?’ And then there’s going to be other nights when he goes for 25, 28, and you’re like, wow. He’s a man. He should be able to step in next year, because he can compete athletically, he can compete physically. And, when he wants to defend, he can. Offensively, he can go get it. I truly believe he will be, at this time next year, in the conversation for First Team All-Rookie. At worst, second team. In most cases, he will be drafted by a pretty good team. I think he’s going to be late teens at best, 20s and worst. And those are playoff teams. They have guys that know how to play. Their roles are already defined.

Is it going to take a while? Yes. But he knows the landscape of what’s in front of him. He is not a consistent defender. His role at Illinois the past two years has been, it’s fallen on his shoulders to do so much scoring, and creating offensively. But when he wanted to lock in, he can get into guys. He can get into people. Is he a Herb Jones? No. Herb is an every possession guy. Terrence, there’s going to be some times when there’s some mental lapses. But then usually, he’s going to make it up for you and will get it back with a steal three or four possessions later.

College assistant coach No. 6 (his team played Illinois): He is a good player. Really good player. He’s the best player in college that I saw last year driving the ball in transition. It’s like LeBron in his heyday — those Miami days where he would just drive the ball as hard as he could, and run right into you. That’s what Shannon did. We’d have two guys standing there, locked arms, and he would run right into you. He’s a decent 3-point shooter. I question his character a little. They say he’s a hard worker, though. He prides himself, (Illinois coach) Brad Underwood swears he’s one of the best defenders in the country. But he played us and he could not wait for somebody to come up and set a screen so he could switch. But the kid is fearless. He’s got an incredible, athletic body. And he can run. He is a very, very talented player.

College Assistant coach No. 3 (his team played Illinois): Love him. He’s one of the guys that, he has gotten better since he’s transferred to Illinois from Texas Tech. He’s definitely been in the gym working on his game. Tough, competitor. Shot has gotten a lot better. Competes on both ends. Very fast with the ball. What it will look like at the next level, I’m not sure. He has good positional size, and he’s just tough and he competes. He’s a better player than (Cam) Christie, and I think he’ll be a better pro than Christie as well. … He’s a little older. I liked him as a kid. I didn’t see him as being a guy that was a locker room guy. From what I know, teammates, (and) our guys got along with him. Inner city Chicago. Always a tough kid. I don’t think he had any underlying issues, if that makes sense. I don’t see him as being that type of kid.

Eastern Conference executive No 2: He’s a damn good defender. Shooting is a little sporadic, but it’s gotten better. You talk about tough, now. He’s tough as s—. If he goes to a certain team, I could see him starting next year. He could start for us, probably.

Eastern Conference executive No. 5: As early as late lottery (post-dismissal). His age (23) may be a factor for rebuilding teams.

One Eastern Conference exec thought USC’s Isaiah Collier was better than he showed this past season. (James Snook / USA Today)

The Best of the Rest

Southern California’s Isaiah Collier was a projected top-10 pick early in the college season, but his stock slipped as the Trojans stumbled to a 15-18 record despite having high preseason expectations. He led the team in assists per game (4.3) and was second in scoring (16.3). Marquette’s Tyler Kolek had a sensational season, leading the country in assists (7.7) and leading the Golden Eagles to a Sweet 16 berth. Eighteen-year-old A.J. Johnson opted to play overseas for Illawarra in Australia’s National Basketball League after initially committing to go to Texas, and is hoping to follow in the footsteps of LaMelo Ball, who turned a year at Illawarra into getting picked third in the 2020 draft by Charlotte.

Minnesota’s Cam Christie, the younger brother of former Michigan State guard Max Christie, made the Big 10’s all-Freshman team. Houston’s Jamal Shead, a ballhawking pest, was both first team all-Big 12 and the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year, and hopes to be the latest Cougars player to make the NBA out of the Kelvin Sampson program, one of the best in the country.

Eastern Conference scout: I think the guy that’s going to be (Tyrese) Maxey, this year’s Cam Whitmore, this year, is Isaiah Collier. I’m betting on what I saw before he went to USC. He just can’t go to a dysfunctional team. It’s like Whitmore. If he goes to a team where there’s guys that are ahead of him, and he has to work his way into it, and he’s not in a dysfunctional program, I think he’s got a chance to be pretty darn good. Especially if he falls like Cam and Maxey (did) to the 20s, or the late teens. Like Whitmore (at Villanova), their team didn’t do well, and there’s not a touchy-feely love story to them. Isaiah’s obviously got a few issues here and there. We all make excuses for the guys we like, and we do the opposite as well. It’s easy to dismiss those guys because of their persona.

Eastern Conference executive No. 1: Football body that he can bully people with. I think Collier is a lot better than he showed this season. His decision making has to improve, because he was throwing some passes he shouldn’t have thrown, getting into the lane, making decisions. He got hurt, also, so that hindered him a little bit. He struggled early because he couldn’t shoot the ball well. You also had Boogie Ellis on that team, who was trying to get his.

Western Conference scout No. 1: If he was at pick 20 or something, he would get my interest a little bit. He gets on the rim. He gets to the basket. Is he a great shooter? No, he’s not. If he was a great shooter, we’d be talking about him in the top five. But he’s talented, and he’s 19. Don’t ask me all these inane, stupid questions. He’s talented. They’ll figure it out. Don’t give me these bums that can’t play. That’s what this is about.

Tyler Kolek | 6-1 guard | 23 years old | Marquette

College assistant coach No. 1 (his team played Marquette): Unbelievable worker. I did not know he would turn out like this. I think the stars aligned, getting a guy like Oso (Ighadaro) next to him, and a coach like Shaka (Smart). He’s been incredible.

College assistant coach No. 2 (his team played Marquette): Obviously he’s smart, sees the play before the play. He’s not a great shooter, I don’t care what they say. He’s not a great shooter. But he can run a team. I don’t get the Steve Nash comparisons. But, good player. Tough, one of those tough White guys that can hoop with the brothers all day. He’s just smart. Heady. Not overly athletic. But he’s tough. Good player.

Eastern Conference executive No. 2: I’m not as high on him as others. But I see what they see. You can’t count him out. It’s like TJ (McConnell). Nobody thought he’d make the league, and he made the league. And Kolek is the same type of guy. But the difference is, TJ is quick, and Kolek is not quick. I wouldn’t bet against him, but I’m not as high on him.

A.J. Johnson | 6-4 guard | 19 years old | Illawarra

Western Conference executive No. 1: I was impressed with the tape that we got. I was really, and it’s such a small sample size. But I thought the way he played in Chicago was pretty darn good for a youngster. He didn’t back down to anybody, and he made plays. Defensively, he is, right now, completely lost. But how many 6-4, 6-5, legitimate point guards, that can make a play, seize it, can deliver it, have some imagination, and are 18, 19 years old? What does this kid look like in three years? If you do it the right way, he on (G League) assignment, he’s in the weight room, he’s with your strength and conditioning, he’s with your dietician. You may have the makings, at worst, of a reliable backup? That’s not a bad swing. If this kid was in college, and he was a freshman, and he went back to school, he’d be one of the top returners in the country. And I doubt you could, in next year’s draft, that you could get him where you can get him in this year’s draft.

Cam Christie | 6-5 SG/SF | 18 years old | Minnesota

College assistant coach No. 6 (his team played Minnesota): What the kid can do is he can elevate on his jump shot and do it off the dribble. Dribble into 3s. … I think his lack of strength is gonna hurt him. Who’s he gonna guard is gonna hurt him. Is the team going to be patient enough? But the kid does have skill. He doesn’t look tough, but he’s tougher than he looks. Great family. His mom played at Northwestern. His Dad played Division II. For one family to have two players, potentially, in the NBA is a hell of a deal. I still don’t know how good Max is. Max is never gonna play for the Lakers, I don’t think. How good is Cam gonna be? Can he be a rotational player? That remains to be seen. He definitely needed another year of school. He was either gonna go in the draft or to a (college) blueblood. But he’s rolling the dice. He probably would have made more money in college than in the second round. Somebody would have given that kid $500,000. Somebody’s gonna take him.

College assistant coach No. 3 (his team played Minnesota): People say it every year, like this is a bad draft. It’s a bad class. There’s always going to be players in every class. Christie, he’s going to be a good player, hopefully. He’s got the tools to be. He’s not ready right now. He’s not ready to be in the league right now. Good shooter, great size. Sneaky athleticism. Doesn’t really guard, but you can say that about all these kids. I don’t know what makes a pro now. The last two years, I’ve seen things I’ve never seen, ever. Lottery picks playing in the G League. Up until a few years ago, lottery picks were expected to be part of a rotation. I think he’s a young kid (will turn 19 in July), actually. Spitting image of his brother, similar player. He’s going to be a good player, but it’s going to take time for him to mature. His body needs to fill out. He comes from a good family.

Eastern Conference executive No. 6: Probably the best on-ball defender, perimeter wise, in the draft. Super tough, high character, big-time leader. He’s a little small, and his offense has to improve. It’s hard to play at that size if they don’t have to respect your jump shot. That’s something he has to continue to work on. He would, I guess, get drafted in the second round and he’ll probably, depending on where he goes, play a lot in the G League the first year. At the first game in the combine, he hit some jumpers. He was pretty effective offensively. It showed kind of a glimpse into maybe what he could be. But that’s not who he’s been. So he’s got to get closer to that level. But, defensively, just as a guy on your team, you couldn’t go wrong with him. He’s as solid as they come.

College assistant coach No. 7 (his team played Houston): Absolutely love him. Coach Sampson is just a monster. Those guys are on another level. He’s such a dynamic player, obviously, on both sides on the floor, but probably the best on-ball defender in the draft. He was the one guy we played that you talked more about his defensive effort and defensive impact than offense. … To me, he just elicits winning. He’s going to find a way to make them win the possession. Make them win this, make them win that. Clearly, the best player in our league. We talk about him all the time: ‘That’s what you’re trying to get to.’ I think he’s going to be successful, whether it’s a backup point guard, third-string point guard, whatever it may be. I think he’ll play in the NBA for a while. He shoots it fine, too. It gradually got better. He was such a guy that could just dominate the paint, so he didn’t have to utilize it. But he’d make one out of three, just enough to keep you honorable.

And still more

Santa Barbara junior guard Ajay Mitchell was a first-team All-Big West selection this past season and was second in the conference in scoring (20 points per game), shooting better than 39 percent on 3s. UConn grad senior Cam Spencer capped off a strong college career in his one season in Storrs, providing a spark for the Huskies as they successfully defended their national championship. Spencer fit right in with a veteran team featuring Castle, center Donovan Clingan and fellow draft hopeful Tristen Newton. Kentucky’s Antonio Reeves shot the lights out his senior season, making almost 45 percent (!) on 3s, was first team All-SEC and averaged 20.2 points per game, the most anyone in John Calipari’s storied history in Lexington ever averaged. Colorado junior KJ Simpson led a very talented Buffalo team in scoring (19.7) and assists (4.9).

Western Conference scout No. 2: He was really good. I saw him in their tournament. He got hurt in that game. Maybe all 30 (NBA) teams were there, so it was a great night for him to have a breakout game. He was spectacular in the first half, and then he got hurt. … you can tell (he’s smart). Just seeing him in that one game, he’s definitely a kid you can put in an NBA game.

Cam Spencer | 6-3 guard | 24 years old | Connecticut

College assistant coach No. 1 (his team played UConn): I thought he was the ultimate kind of glue guy winner that really put the pieces of their puzzle together. Obviously, they were talented. … but his shooting ability, his feel and IQ, his toughness and competitive spirit, he was always jawing, always talking, always kind of revving his guys up. Not afraid to confront his guys. I remember sitting on the bench. We were playing well against them, and he was really getting on their ass. For a new guy, coming into a national championship team, I mean, (Alex) Karaban had been there, Newton had been there, Clingan had been there, and for him to be that demonstrative, kind of grabbing guys by the jersey and all that, I was really impressed by him and his demeanor. He obviously is a talented kid and can really shoot it and all that stuff, but I thought the intangibles and what he brought to their team holistically was incredible.

I don’t know if he’s going to be able to play at that (pro) level, but I’d take him on my team any day of the week. Obviously, he can shoot. … in the NBA, they’ve become so creative at evaluating shooting. Even if you don’t guard incredibly well, if you’re a good shooter, there’s so many ways to hide guys. Every team is trying to mismatch hunt. You saw this with (Tyrese) Haliburton. They were running Haliburton at the ball, double-teaming it, getting the ball out of the best player’s hands, and he’ll stay on that guy so he doesn’t have to be in rotations, and attacked on closeouts. If (Spencer) can give you something conceptually (on defense), because of what he brings on the other side, all the intangibles and obviously the shooting, I think it could work out.

Antonio Reeves | 6-5 | SG/SF | 23 years old | Kentucky

College head coach No. 1 (his team played Kentucky): Can make an NBA roster and stick. Has an incredible scoring knack being able to score the ball at 3 levels. Hit several big shots in clutch situations. Really improved his rebounding during his final year at Kentucky. Can get to the free throw line and draw free throw attempts.

K.J. Simpson | 6-0 guard | 21 years old | Colorado

College assistant coach No. 8 (his team played Colorado): EM: Man, he’s a killer. He’s little, little dude, but dog, he killed the Pac 12. And that’s just about every year. His freshman year, we beat them, and he was crying after the game. He just loves to win. That dude’s a winner. Takes tough shots and make them. He can play. He can pass. He can do it all. He’s just little. We were trying to post him up. He wasn’t playing no defense. But he came back the second half and lit us up. I love him. But you’ve got these bigger guards in the NBA. Size is important.

And … Bronny

Few freshmen who averaged 4.8 points per game in 19 minutes of action per game have garnered as much attention as Bronny James. The son of LeBron James had a terrifying start to his lone season at USC, going into cardiac arrest during summer practice in L.A. and needing surgery to correct a congenital heart defect. Thankfully, Bronny was able to return to play in December, and wound up playing in 25 games. But on a team with Isaiah Collier and Boogie Ellis, James couldn’t be the force he might have been at another school where he was the focal point. He declared for the draft after the season, and that candidacy was bolstered by a solid performance at the Chicago NBA Draft Combine last month. James has only worked out for the Lakers and Suns, fueling speculation L.A. will take him with the 55th pick overall, late in the second round. No matter the outcome of the draft, hopefully, Bronny James will get the chance to write his own story in the NBA.

Bronny James | 6-1 guard | 19 years old | USC

Western Conference scout No. 1: I like Bronny. I saw him at (the) McDonald’s (All American Game), and I think he played really well. The public forgets the guy had open heart surgery. He was out for, what, seven months, six months? That’s real. He didn’t train, he didn’t lift, he didn’t shoot. Was it life-threatening? I don’t know. But when I hear ‘heart,’ and I know that’s not good. He got way, way behind. And then he did have to play with Collier and Boogie Ellis. So he deferred. To his credit. I saw USC play three times. He plays the right way. He can really pass. He cuts hard. He’s got some of his father’s basketball IQ. He can make open shots. He’s a way better shooter than his dad at the same age. Now, he’s smaller. He’s not an electrical athlete. He’s not broken. I just think he’s a year behind, because he didn’t play. He comes off the bench, he’s just trying to fit in. He took like four shots a game. But there were things that he did that I was like, ‘F—, that’s the right play.’ Like, he, instead of dribbling it up the court, he advanced the ball with the pass. It’s really small and subtle. But it’s the right basketball play. If the pass was to the wing, he would cut. Not, like, jog through. Like, whoa, I get it. And he can pass. I think it’s a mistake (coming out). But I think if he went to school this year and they handed him the ball and he played 34 minutes a night, you’d go, okay, he’s averaging 16 and 6? He’s pretty good.

Western Conference scout No. 2: You know what? He knows how to play basketball. They’ve got him playing two. I think he’s better on the ball, because he plays the right way. And he knows how to pass. The boy will make the right play, every time. I thought he should have gone back for one more year and proved it, because he don’t need the money. Just go back and have fun. But, I think the dad kind of wanted to play with him. (Bronny) made McDonald’s All American. Let’s see. He does know how to play. I think he’s playing the wrong position. At the (Chicago) pre-draft camp, he’s checking twos and threes, and they’re overpowering him. He’s strong enough, but let him guard the ones and play the one. If he was 6-5 (James measured 6-1.5 with a 6-7.25 wingspan in Chicago), we ain’t having this conversation; now he can play the two, and I think he’d be good enough. Because he does know how to play. That’s half of it.

(Photo of Cam Spencer and Stephon Castle: G Fiume / Getty Images)