Scotty Hopson, 6-6, Junior, Shooting Guard/Small Forward, Tennessee
16.5 points, 3.6 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 2.9 turnovers, .6 steals, 47% FG, 73% FT, 37% 3P
Junior Scotty Hopson was instrumental in the Tennessee Volunteers getting off to a somewhat surprising 7-0 start, with big wins against highly ranked squads in Villanova and Pittsburgh. Often looking like the top 10 recruit he was billed as coming out of high school, Hopson's talent is undeniable, and there's no doubt he's caught the eye of NBA scouts with some of his early season performances.
As good as Hopson has been in a few games, he's still shown many of the qualities that we touched on in the preseason that likely leave scouts frustrated on occasion when watching him play. While he possesses outstanding physical tools for an NBA wing prospect, and shows flashes of a nice skill set as well, Hopson still seems to lack the polish, consistent mental approach and overall feel for the game to contribute efficiently on a game-to-game basis.
One area where Hopson has certainly stepped up as a junior is scoring the basketball. Though he's still using roughly the same amount of possessions as he did last season, he's increased his scoring numbers to 22.4 points per forty minutes pace adjusted, up from 16.9 as a sophomore. Much of this can be attributed to his ability to draw fouls and get to the free throw line. He seems to be more focused on using his quick first step, rangy strides, and excellent body control to attack the basket, and he's been able to get to the free throw line at a much higher rate this season, more than twice as often as he did last year.
While Hopson's increased focus on using his athleticism to get the rim is encouraging, his overall efficiency numbers on the offensive end still aren't anything to get excited about. He sports a mediocre 16.2 PER, and he's turning the ball over on more than a quarter of his used possessions, which is even more than his first two seasons at Tennessee. While his attacking mentality has helped him get to the free throw line, his poor ball-handling in traffic and his lack of passing instincts on dribble penetration have also led to turnovers.
Hopson does seem more comfortable handling the ball in space and in transition, and he's also displayed some nice change of pace and direction moves, as well as a step-back dribble to create separation for his jumper. So far though, he hasn't really showed anything in terms on playmaking for others. This isn't to say that he's playing selfishly, as he still makes the easy pass within the flow of the team's offense, but once he's in attack mode or looking to score, he lacks the instincts and passing skills to find teammates, unless it's a last resort. This is evidenced by his extremely poor pure point rating and the fact that he has nearly twice as many turnovers this season as he does assists.
As a shooter, although his numbers so far only show slight improvements, he looks to have made some really nice strides in the offseason. His mechanics look better and much more consistent, and he looks to have the potential to become a solid perimeter shooter with more time and repetition. He's also managed to become much more effective shooting the ball off the dribble, an area we noted in the preseason where he really struggled as a sophomore, nearly doubling his points per shot attempt compared to last season.
Hopson has also shown some encouraging improvements on the defensive end, where he seems to be more focused and more consistent with his energy level when guarding the ball. He has all of the physical tools to excel on the end of the floor, but continuing to give maximum effort (a consistent issue with him) and learning to play smarter will be keys for him going forward. He could also probably utilize his length and athleticism to play the passing lanes and create more turnovers, as he's averaging less than a steal per forty minutes pace adjusted, which is poor for a player with his physical profile at the college level.
Overall, Hopson is still a bit of an enigma. For every game he has like the one at Pittsburgh where he put up 27 points on 10 of 13 shots in a win against a top 5 team, he has another like the 1 for 7 performance against Oakland in a loss. While there is no denying his talent and upside, and it's clear that he's made improvements in certain areas, there will likely be mixed opinions on whether or not he'll ever be able to put all of his tools and skills together to be an efficient contributor at the NBA level, as he tends to coast far more than scouts would like to see.
With that said, Hopson is clearly an NBA caliber athlete with a skill set that has room for improvement. His draft stock is still pretty much all over the board, but if he continues to grow throughout the season and can string together more good games on a consistent basis, he won't have to wait long to hear his name called this June.
Rick Jackson, 6'9, Senior, Power Forward, Syracuse
14.0 Points, 12.5 Rebounds, 2.1 Assists, 1.7 Turnovers, 1.4 Steals, 1.9 Blocks, 58.8% FG, 54.1% FT
Much like Demetri McCamey at Illinois, Syracuse's Rick Jackson put in the work last summer to dramatically improve his pro prospects and maximize his opportunity to have a breakout year by shedding a few pounds. Jackson's skill set hasn't changed too much, but his new physique has allowed him to be more aggressive and look like a radically different player because of that.
From a NBA perspective, Jackson's weight loss can't be discounted, as it has allowed him to climb back onto the radar. Standing 6'9 with a frame that would benefit from additional work in the future, Jackson is a solid athlete in the college game who wouldn't stand out at the NBA. However, on the college level, the trimmed-down Jackson plays with an excellent energy level that was severely lacking from his game early in his career.
Jackson's new approach to the game has paid big dividends for him so far, especially on the glass. An oft-maligned rebounder for his position in the past, Jackson is averaging an exceptional 12.5 rebounds per-game. While those numbers will likely level off when Syracuse enters conference play, Jackson has been impressive on both ends of the floor thus far and it will be important to his draft stock to continue to rebound the ball at a high rate as the season progresses.
Offensively, Jackson is playing a very similar role to the one he's played in previous seasons, but is now able to do a better job taking advantage of his aggressiveness in the post thanks to his improved stamina, putting himself in position for easy catch and finish opportunities, and passing the ball in Jim Boeheim's offense. Though he hasn't been the most productive scorer, he's finished at a very good rate, is getting to the free throw line more often, and has been a big part of Syracuse's hot start. His physical presence down low will be essential to their success this season.
Moving better without the ball and earning a ton of easy put-backs, Jackson still isn't a terribly consistent one-on-one scorer in the post and lacks an effective jump shot. According to Synergy Sports Technology, nearly one-third of his possessions come in the post, but the senior is shooting converting just 33.3% of his back-to-the-basket shots. He's heavily reliant on his left handed hook shot and turnaround jumper, both of which are very much a work in progress in terms of consistency. Looking forward, it will be important for Jackson to improve his offensive skill-level to project as more than a role-player on the next level.
Though Jackson has his shortcomings offensively, he's done a solid job protecting the wings and a tremendous job rebounding from the weak-side in Syracuse's zone thus far. Keeping his feet active and making some plays because of it, Jackson shows solid awareness, and makes a concerted effort to track the ball off the rim. While he may not project as a great defender at the next level, his lateral quickness has improved, and if he continues maximizing his frame, he could ease a transition to a man-to-man heavy system.
A single piece of the puzzle for a terrific Syracuse team, Jackson's value on the NBA level, at least at this point, would be as a high-energy rebounder. Considering his limitations offensively, inexperience in man-to-man systems, and that this is his first season producing at a high level, Jackson is going to have to continue proving his mettle throughout Big East play and is a likely candidate to earn an invitation to the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament. If he can dominate the glass there like he has early this season, he could do a lot of good for his draft stock.
Festus Ezeli, 6'11, Junior, Center, Vanderbilt
22.6 Minutes, 13.6 Points, 7.9 Rebounds, 2.4 Blocks, 1.7 Turnovers, 3.6 Fouls, 68.8% FG, 59.6% FT
A player we had high expectations for last season, Festus Ezeli's numbers as a sophomore were eerily similar to those that he posted as a freshman. Seeming to stagnate behind A.J. Ogilvy at that point, Ezeli took one season longer than we expected to emerge as a prospect. With Ogilvy out of the picture, Ezeli has taken a huge step forward, improving his efficiency by leaps and bounds and flashing a budding skill-set, improved hands, and providing a looming defensive presence. While he's definitely gained a better grasp of how to utilize the intriguing set of tools he possesses both offensively and as a shot blocker, he still has a considerable amount of room for growth.
As we noted back in the fall of 2009, Ezeli's NBA potential revolves around his tremendous physical profile. He unquestionably looks the part of a NBA center, and has for some time. Though he'll need to continue working to maximize his frame, his athleticism is not going to be a limiting factor on his career long-term.
The difference for Ezeli this season versus his first two at Vanderbilt has been his ability to utilize his excellent athletic tools on the offensive end. Ezeli currently has the top field goal percentage in our database at nearly 70%, an interesting development considering Ezeli is taking almost three times as many shots as he did last season. Some of Ezeli's efficiency stems from his ability to create easy second chance points by crashing the offensive glass. He indeed ranks second in our database in offensive rebounds per-40 minutes pace-adjusted, though his most significant development in the past year has come in the form of a useful post repertoire.
Ezeli has always been a tremendous catch-and-finish option thanks to his excellent length and athleticism, but his biggest weakness in the past was his lack of polish in post-up situations. While he's still a work in progress, his 70% shooting in post-up situations is a far cry from the 44% he shot last season according to Synergy Sports Technology and is indicative of a pair of major improvements. First, Ezeli has developed a go-to-move in his reliable right-handed hook shot, so he is longer reliant on getting an angle to use the glass to score. That dependence was partially responsible for how turnover prone he was last season, since he often forced the issue with his dribble instead of being able to score right over the top of his defender. Second, Ezeli has been exponentially more aggressive when establishing position, earning some easy looks for himself by simply being assertive when going to work down low.
Extremely tough and capable of getting up and down the floor in a hurry in transition, some of the weaknesses Ezeli showed last season do continue to be a problem for him this year. Ranking amongst the worst players in our database in assists-to-turnover ratio Ezeli is not a natural passer, and doesn't have a great feel for the game when he steps away from the rim. His free throw percentages (60%, up from 37% last year) are indicative of his questionable jump shooting ability, another area he could continue to work on. Though the athletic center has some deficiencies, he's made a very positive impression on the offensive end this season and could become an extremely interesting prospect if he develops further.
Ezeli's biggest weakness at this point is his inability to stay out of foul trouble. A physical and aggressive defender, Ezeli is amongst the top pace-adjusted shot blockers in our database, but ranks as the most foul prone player as well. Ezeli is only averaging 22.6 minutes per-game this season because of his lack of discipline defensively. A terrific interior presence on the defensive end, even if he's still learning the fundamentals of defending away from the basket, Ezeli has improved his awareness, but needs to do a better job going straight up on shooters. His ability to cut down on his fouls would be a big a huge boost for Vanderbilt, who would benefit immensely from having him on the floor for more minutes.
Considering where Ezeli was around this time last season, it is not unreasonable to call him one of the most improved prospects in the NCAA ranks. With his blend of size and athleticism, Ezeli is definitely a player to keep an eye on. If he continues to produce as the season moves on, manages to cut down on his fouling, and develops more diversity in is offensive repertoire, he could garner considerable attention from scouts.
Brad Wanamaker, 6-4, PG/SG, Senior, Pittsburgh
13.5 points, 6.0 assists, 5.3 rebounds, 1.8 steals, 2.5 turnovers, 51% FG, 76% FT, 39% 3PT
After steadily improving his production all four of his seasons in college, Brad Wanamaker has established himself as a key cog in Pittsburgh's offensive attack, while developing his passing game to the point where he now ranks fourth in our database in assists per-40 minutes pace adjusted.
A 6'4 guard with a strong frame and not much in terms of quickness or explosiveness, Wanamaker gets the job done with a game focused on skills that don't require much athleticism.
In spite of his gaudy assist numbers, Wanamaker is still very much a combo guard as opposed to a true point guard, spending a good chunk of his time playing off the ball in Pittsburgh's highly unselfish system. The vast majority of Wanamaker's assists come off passes from a static position, usually hitting open shooters but also cutters on occasion as well. The fact that he gets as many assists as he does is a testament to his superb court vision and quick decision-making, as he shows no hesitation in threading the ball through open windows when opportunities present themselves.
Wanamaker will occasionally pick up an assist in transition or running a simple pick-and-roll, but pretty much none of his assists come off dribble penetration from isolation situations, as he's not one to break a defense down in the conventional sense. Not possessing a great first step and rarely exhibiting much in terms of advanced ball-handling, Wanamaker struggles to penetrate into the lane in general, whether it's looking to set up teammates or score on his own.
Where Wanamaker does most of his damage is from the perimeter, where he's a good jump shooter with NBA three-point range capable of hitting shots every which way: spotting up, coming off screens, or pulling up off the dribble. While Wanamaker is very efficient when left open and is capable of hitting tough shots in crucial situations, he's not without his flaws, as his mechanics are prone to break down when he's pulling up off the dribble, and he can even get sloppy with his form on spot-up shots as well. His lack of balance on many shots is his biggest problem, a big reason why he's averaging only a solid 39% from three as opposed to better.
Wanamaker also brings a solid mid-range game to the table on the offensive end, having a nice array of floaters and runners from the 10-15 foot range, which compensates well for his lack of ability to finish at the rim. On the rare occasion Wanamaker does find himself shooting around the basket, it's always the result of an off-ball cut or offensive rebound as opposed to any sort of dribble penetration. Wanamaker also does a good job moving off the ball in Pittsburgh's offense, running around screens to get open and helping his team maintain good spacing and run their plays.
On the defensive end, Wanamaker shows a good stance, focus, and has good fundamentals in general, usually playing up on his man and using his arms and hands well to contest shots and cut off passing lanes. Unfortunately, however, Wanamaker's lateral quickness is quite underwhelming, making him prone to being beat off the dribble in isolation, though he somewhat compensates for it with good positioning. Wanamaker likewise has trouble staying with shooters running around screens, just not having the quickness to consistently keep up.
Looking forward, Wanamaker has some nice skills in his shooting and superb passing ability, while his solid frame and high basketball IQ don't hurt either. His skill set would seem to lend itself well towards the back-up point guard spot in the NBA, but his liabilities defensively and with dribble penetration won't be easy to overcome. Players with this type of skill set usually don't last long unless they're elite shooters, and it's hard to put Wanamaker on that level at this stage, though it's certainly within his abilities to improve in that area, and it could be crucial for his future stock. He's made some very steady improvements over the last few years, and will be interesting to monitor to see how he continues to progress.