The NBA Fan’s Guide To College Basketball’s Opening Marquee Doubleheader

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For those that are not die-hard college basketball fans, Tuesday, Nov. 6 is likely recognized as Election Day in the United States. Obviously, there are real-life ramifications to those visiting their ballot boxes on Tuesday and, less seriously, there happens to be an interesting NBA slate to monitor in the sports world.

However, Nov. 6 also happens to mark the opening of the 2018-19 college basketball season and, as tradition dictates, there is a marquee doubleheader in the sport. This year, the State Farm Champions Classic features four of the top ten teams in the country (at least according to preseason polls) and, as you may expect, that means a lot of NBA Draft prospects in one place.

To that end, we will glance at the future NBA players in action, with an eye toward informing professional-focused fans on the upcoming young talent gathering in Indianapolis. Of course, there are other games worth monitoring, with Indiana’s Romeo Langford, UNC’s Nassir Little, Oregon’s Bol Bol, and Virginia’s DeAndre Hunter (among others) also in action from coast to coast. Still, the showcase takes place with four “blue blood” programs facing off and here is a look at the prospects involved.

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Michigan State vs. Kansas – 7:00 pm ET – ESPN

  • Udoka Azubuike (C, Kansas) – Traditional big men aren’t always sexy in today’s NBA Draft landscape but Azubuike is at least mildly intriguing. He considered staying in the 2018 draft after shooting 77 percent (not a misprint) from the floor last year and there’s a chance he could slip into the second round in June.
  • Devon Dotson (PG, Kansas) – It wouldn’t be a surprise if Dotson stayed in Lawrence for more than one year but, if he pops, it’s possible he enters the 2019 draft. Dotson has a good motor and strong defensive tools at the point of attack but, at this point, his offense is an unfinished product.
  • Quentin Grimes (SG, Kansas) – Grimes is, by far, the best prospect in the early game. He is a consensus lottery pick at this moment and, even if the 6’5 guard isn’t quite a “lock” to finish in the top ten, it does seem likely. He has an intriguing offensive skill set as a creator and potential finisher, though questions about Grimes’ jump shot need to be answered. There may not be full-fledged star upside here (although it would be a lot of fun if he leaned into the possibility that he could be a point guard long-term) but his versatility and skill level are impressive and he’s the player to watch here.
  • Dedric Lawson (PF, Kansas) – Lawson transferred from Memphis and sat out the 2017-18 season. As a result, he’s older than your traditional draft prospect but there is a lot to like here after he effectively averaged 20 and 10 in his sophomore season. That production may overstate his potential NBA impact but Lawson does a lot of things well and he might be the best college player for Kansas this season.
  • Nick Ward (C, Michigan State) and Cassius Winston (PG, Michigan State) – Michigan State is a top-shelf college basketball program and the Spartans produced two lottery picks last season in Jaren Jackson Jr. and Miles Bridges. However, the 2018-19 edition doesn’t boast a single top-60 prospect and that makes things a bit weird for the purposes of this game. Ward and Winston are probably the best and it wouldn’t stun me if either was drafted, albeit in the second round. Ward is a physical beast that produces with efficiency, while Winston shot 49.7 percent from three last year and has impressive pedigree. They are at least worth monitoring with an eye toward the next level.

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Duke vs. Kentucky – 9:30 pm ET – ESPN

  • R.J. Barrett (SF/SG, Duke) – Both lists are in alphabetical order but, in this case, Barrett might be the prospect in action on Tuesday. Many scouts project him as the default No. 1 entering the season, as Barrett has been incredibly productive to this point and he brings a well-rounded and polished skill set to the table. There are questions about his ultimate upside as a full-fledged No. 1 option but there is a lot to like about him, including his motor and overall make-up.
  • Ashton Hagans (PG, Kentucky) – Hagans is easy to like. He’s already an NBA athlete with defensive potential and a quality motor that you would want to see at this juncture. His jump shot is in question, however, and that could be the swing skill when attempting to evaluate him as a potential first round prospect. It would also help if Hagans added some bulk/strength to his profile.
  • Tyler Herro (SG, Kentucky) – Shooting is important and Tyler Herro is good at it. He’s only 6’4 and that might be a problem in the future, but it helps that Herro is one of the best shooters in the incoming freshman class. In addition, his jumper is very functional and, perhaps as importantly, Herro can also use the dribble to put himself in more favorable positions. He’ll be an important piece for Kentucky, both in this game and moving forward.
  • Keldon Johnson (SF, Kentucky) – Johnson is a projected lottery pick for a reason, even if he could get lost a bit in the sea of Kentucky’s depth. He’s 6’6 with a 6’9 wingspan and does a lot of things well. Like many prospects (both in this game and otherwise), his jumper will dictate just how high Johnson’s upside actually is, but he profiles as someone who can defend, make plays and do it without taking much off the table. That is a nice package on the wing.
  • Tre Jones (PG, Duke) – Jones is in a weird position this season. He’s a legitimate top-40 prospect but, as a pure point guard, the younger brother of Timberwolves guard Tyus Jones isn’t likely to “run the show” in a way that you might think in Durham. The presence of top prospects up and down the roster might help Jones maximize his talents at times but it isn’t clear if his game will shine through, particularly given his lack of size and athletic burst. Still, Jones is a fun player and he should have moments of glory.
  • Cam Reddish (SF, Duke) – It is almost common knowledge at this point that Reddish boasts a ridiculous level of talent and athleticism, to the point that no one would be surprised if he’s the best player in the class. On the flip side, he has an earned reputation for being wildly inconsistent and it remains to be seen as to whether the light will come on for Reddish at the college level. It really comes down to his motor and will because, as noted previously, he has everything you’d want in a modern NBA wing.
  • Nick Richards (C, Kentucky) – Richards barely makes the cut for this list, especially after an ugly season in 2017-18. With that said, he was better for Kentucky on the team’s off-season journey to the Bahamas and that keeps him in the mix. Richards is not a top-60 prospect for me but he is a legitimate 7-footer with the pedigree of being a high-end prospect. We’ll see how he fares this time around.
  • P.J. Washington (PF, Kentucky) – Washington is a stud, albeit one that may be overlooked at times in the NBA Draft process. He’s only about 6’7 but Washington has good length and plays hard. It will be interesting to see how he progresses offensively, particularly as a shooter, but if Washington can flash something there to go along with his rebounding and defensive profile, he’s a mid-first round pick.
  • Zion Williamson (PF, Duke) – The most famous prospect in the class is also perhaps the most intriguing. Williamson is the best athlete in the country and, quite honestly, he might be the best pure athlete playing basketball at any level. Beyond that, he is unique in that Williamson weighs 270-plus pounds, bringing a ridiculous combination of power and burst. As a prospect, it is unclear as to what Williamson will do in the NBA from a position/role perspective, but he assuaged some doubt about his perimeter game over the summer and everyone is looking forward to see how he fares for a full college season.