Hey, college basketball is back! Remember that? There sure is a lot of it, and sometimes it isn’t very good. Sometimes, it is, and hopefully tonight is one of those times. The Champions Classic is an event held since 2013 by four of college basketball’s most powerful programs, Duke, Kentucky, Kansas and Michigan State play one another to kick off the season. As it just so happens, these four teams are the top four ranked teams in the nation to start the 2019-20 season.
Tuesday night’s slate starts with Duke and Kansas tipping off at 7 p.m. ET, followed by Kentucky vs. Michigan State, and here we’ll look at the players to watch from an NBA fan’s perspective, as there are plenty of possible draft picks that will be in action at Madison Square Garden.
There’s a very different vibe around this Duke team entering the year, which isn’t without its fair share of talent but pales in comparison to the mega class they had coming in this time last year, as Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish are all in the NBA now. Tre Jones is still in Durham, looking to hopefully shoot even remotely decently from the perimeter this year. If he does that, the rest of his game is NBA ready. He’s likely the best point of attack defender in the entire country right now, and a great, steady passer like his brother. Joining him are a few more major recruits, starting with Matthew Hurt. Hurt is a spindly, lanky 6’8 forward out of Rochester, Minnesota. He’s not overly athletic or a defensive monster or some elite point forward type. What he is, though, is the player with possibly the best touch in the entire country, right now. An incredible shooter from every level, who already has the craft and skill level of a polished, veteran scorer. He’s my bet for the best prospect on this Duke team, because he has the best signature skill.
Wendell Moore Jr is the other candidate. His peripherals (FT and pullup percentage) were pretty strong throughout EYBL, and he’s got an NBA frame and athleticism to build off of. Right now, he’s still pretty raw, but considering he doesn’t turn 19 until September 2020, he’s got plenty of time. The other major recruits, Vernon Carey Jr and Cassius Stanley, are lesser NBA prospects to me at this stage, but both have interesting skills to build off of. Stanley is already 20, but is a pretty terrific athlete, while Carey has shooting skills that most 6’10 guys don’t have as 18 year olds. The rest of the team is filled with college role players, who rarely translate to the NBA, but might still be worth keeping an eye on. Seniors Jack White and Javin DeLaurier are both very active defenders, albeit both with major flaws (White can’t shoot and Javin can’t stop fouling to save his life).
After an off year last season, Bill Self looks to reassert his place at the top of the food chain in the Big 12. With a strong group of returning players and some interesting recruits, he’s likely to do just that. First among equals is sophomore guard Devon Dotson, who is undersized at 6’1 and change, but has elite speed and quickness. He’s a quality defender and an emerging playmaker. If NBA teams can get over his size, he could find a role fairly quickly if he enters the draft pool following this season. Next on the list are two big men in the mammothian Udoka Azubuike and the returning Silvio De Sousa. Azubuike has had a lot of injury concerns, as is to be expected from a 7’0, 280-pound man. De Sousa, meanwhile, was suspended all of last season in another fine example of the NCAA carpet bombing a player’s career for relatively minor accusations, but he’s a powerful athlete who still has time to develop as a ball-handler and decision maker. There’s also rising sophomore Ochai Agbaji, who burst onto the scene as a 3&D playmaker after being activated halfway through last season. He did end up hitting a wall late, so it’ll be interesting to see how he looks this season.
Finally, there are the newcomers like sharpshooting Iowa transfer Isaiah Moss and athletic combo forwards Tristan Enaruna and Jalen Wilson. Enaruna, a 6’8 Dutch forward, took part in the U-18 World Cup this summer, while Wilson was John Beilein’s last commit at Michigan before Beilein bolted for the Cavs and Wilson jumped ship to Bill Self’s side. As it stands, Kansas is probably the least interesting team from an NBA perspective, without a single surefire first round pick, but they’re deep, talented, and athletic and should rule the roost in the Big 12 this season.
Allow me a few minutes to extol the virtues of Tyrese Maxey. Maybe the most well rounded guard in this entire freshman class (which is very deep on guards), Maxey is an impact defender, a great shooter from range, and a hyper coordinated athlete. Throughout his four years of high school in Garland, Texas, Maxey averaged around 21 points, 6 boards, 3 assists and 2 steals per game. He only shot 35% from three and just over 80% from the line, but the way he shoots with the balance he has in his legs tells me he’s probably going to end up a plus shooter in the NBA. He’s a terrific decision maker, regularly posting sky high assist-to-turnover rates, and, as noted earlier, he’s a great defender of other guards. Right now, he’s my second-ranked player for the 2020 draft, ahead of the likes of LaMelo Ball, Anthony Edwards and James Wiseman.
The rest of Kentucky is less exciting, but as always, there’s a lot of depth. Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley will play alongside Maxey in the backcourt. Hagans is a playmaker on both ends, but hasn’t quite put it all together as a scorer and shooter. Quickley is almost the diametric opposite, an improving shooter and scorer who needs to make strides with the ball in his hands. There’s also Kahlil Whitney, a classic athletic “potential” type who as of now isn’t particularly good at anything that isn’t shooting contested jumpers. He is a pretty good athlete, however, and still has plenty of time to develop a more dynamic game as a decision maker. There’s also Keion Brooks Jr, a 6’7’’ forward from Indiana who probably would’ve been a lottery pick in 2004 but has some trouble now fitting in. As one of the few remaining actual tweeners, he’s got the offensive game of a modern 4 but the size and athleticism of a 3. There could still be a T.J. Warren type combo scoring type to be unlocked here, but I’m unsure it’s in 2020.
There’s also Nick Richards, E.J. Montgomery, Nate Sestina and Johnny Juzang to talk about. Richards I don’t think much of as a prospect, and Sestina is older and mostly a college center, but Montgomery still has some residual interest as a point center type, despite a disappointing freshman campaign. Juzang, a freshman himself, isn’t much more than a shooter as of yet.
#1 Michigan State
Now we come to the main event of the evening. Michigan State isn’t a powerhouse as far as NBA prospects, but as of now they’re far and away the best team in the country. It’s entirely possible they’ll have the best sophomore, junior and senior in the nation, and Rocket Watts isn’t a bad freshman, either. Those three players I mentioned before are, in order, Aaron Henry, Xavier Tillman and Cassius Winston.
Henry is a smooth, well rounded 6’6 wing type, who is just good enough at everything to have a real shot at developing into a pro. Tillman is an undersized but powerful big who can shoot, pass, and rebound at a high rate. He’s also one of the handful of players in the nation last year who was able to stand up to Zion physically. I have him in the late 20s, since his height and reach is probably an issue, but he’s a terrific college player. Finally, there’s Cassius Winston, the returning Big Ten player of the year and a consensus preseason All-American. Winston isn’t tall or particularly long or particularly physical, but he is hyper skilled. A terrific shooter, passer, and decision maker who is one of the most dependable scorers in college basketball for three straight seasons now. Winston is a long shot as far as first round NBA grades go, but like Monte Morris or Fred VanVleet before him, I’m fairly confident he’ll make it somehow. He’s too smart not to.
The rest of MSU’s roster has some interesting athletes, like Marcus Bingham, Gabe Brown, Malik Hall and Julius Marble, to go along with role players like Thomas Kithier, Foster Loyer and Kyle Ahrens. Maybe Joshua Langford comes back from his foot injury to be a factor as well. As it stands, this is one of the most balanced and talented rosters Tom Izzo has ever had, even more so than the one with two lottery picks on it from a couple years ago. It’s now or never for this group. My money’s on now.