Is Alabama’s Brandon Miller a Lottery Lock? Who Is Duke’s Best Prospect?
The latest draft intel from a busy Thanksgiving week watching top prospects.
November and December are always huge intervals for prospect evaluation, as college teams play high-profile nonconference games and front offices hit the road for efficient, time-friendly scouting opportunities. I followed suit, spending Thanksgiving week scouting college games on the West Coast, beginning with a high-profile matchup between Houston and Oregon, followed by a quick trip to Los Angeles to see Pepperdine in a nonconference test at UCLA, and finishing with three days of games in Portland at the expansive, 16-team PK85 tournament.
Here’s what I learned and observed from that trip, including some scouting notes and intel on a wide range of prospects.
The Brandon Miller Watch continues
Miller’s arrival on the national scene is more or less cemented after this week. The Alabama forward has essentially firmed up lottery-level status due to the very obvious gifts that have begun to separate him from his freshman peers. Relying on a strong combination of ballhandling ability, shooting stroke and body control, Miller is a gifted shot-maker at his listed 6'9″, 200 pounds, capable of creating for himself off the dribble and scoring over defenders with relative ease. He plays with an appealing degree of calm as he goes about his business, and his length and instincts make him a plus defender at this level. He’s been generally quite good to start the season, he’s shooting 48% on 50 total three-point attempts, and it’s easy to see where the upside lies.
What’s yet to be determined is exactly how Miller stacks up relative to a slew of lottery-level wing prospects in this draft class, a plot line NBA teams are eager to watch play out in the coming months. There are a few holes in the profile here: Miller is not particularly good around the rim yet, as he is built narrowly in his torso and struggles playing through contact, and he’s closer in age to a sophomore than a true freshman, having turned 20 last week. He struggled greatly in the final game of the PK85 against North Carolina, facing more experienced and physical defenders, and he left Portland shooting a meager 32.7% on two-point attempts this season. That said, if you grade Miller on a curve with sophomores, his skill level and scoring touch are still quite impressive. Historically, physical strength questions surrounding lanky, finesse-oriented perimeter players can be mitigated as players mature and enter NBA-quality strength programs. The upside tied to what he does is substantial, and Miller has squarely entered lottery discussions around the league.
Duke’s prospects are still a work in progress
The Blue Devils boasted more NBA prospects than any team in the PK85 field—all of them freshmen— but Duke was a bit of a mixed bag over the course of the week. While Jon Scheyer’s first team isn’t quite as loaded with bona fide one-and-done talent relative to past years, this is the type of group that demands scouts check back in around February as they work through some early-season self-discovery. It hasn’t necessarily been pretty, but it’ll be intriguing to see how they evolve.
In what can be described as somewhat of a surprise twist, freshman Kyle Filipowski has emerged as Duke’s best player through eight games and legitimized himself as a one-and-done candidate in the process. I was in wait-and-see mode with Filipowski after not being wowed by him in the spring, but it’s hard to ignore his productivity, competitiveness and skill level at his listed 7'0”. Having now seen him play four times, I’m still not 100 percent sure where I’d place him in the hierarchy of this draft, but I do buy his ability to handle the ball, space the floor and pick his spots as a scorer.
I think there are still some pretty big questions about Filipowski’s rebounding (he struggled on the glass against Xavier and Purdue’s super-sized front lines) and defensive shortcomings, due to the fact he’s not super long nor very quick laterally or leaping off the floor. Still, he is in pretty good shape and moves his feet better than expected, which will help teams talk themselves into his potential survival on that end at power forward. I’d probably pencil him into the first round somewhere, but team fit is going to play a huge role in where he goes. He’ll be more valuable to halfcourt-oriented teams that are comfortable playing two bigs, but there aren’t a lot of 7-foot teenagers with Filipowski’s type of offensive skill.
Dariq Whitehead is the player who’s generally been billed as Duke’s best prospect, and while that’s still likely the case, it’s been a lukewarm start for the freshman wing. To be fair, Whitehead has been on a minutes limit coming off a recent foot surgery and is still catching a rhythm working off the bench, which is a caveat that hangs over everything else. It’s obvious the circumstances demand patience, the hope being that Whitehead will start to move a bit more comfortably and create more offense for himself. But it’s been a slow start to the season, and scouts I’ve spoken with don’t seem overly impressed with his frame, as he appears smaller than his listed 6'7″ and looks close to maxed out in terms of adding muscle. Whitehead’s floor remains pretty high, to me, as a future high-level contributor. But again, this is a wait-and-see situation.
As for the other Duke guys, there’s some real concern among scouts surrounding freshman center Dereck Lively, who hasn’t been very impactful at all and has yet to score more than five points in a game. It can take bigs a long time to adjust to college basketball, but it’s almost more concerning that Lively just hasn’t looked extremely engaged in most games. He did show some mettle battling against Purdue’s gargantuan star Zach Edey. But for a player once viewed as a first-round lock, Lively stands on shaky ground in the early going. He’s got size, mobility and rim protection chops, but his play has to improve.
Lastly, teams will continue to keep an eye on freshmen Tyrese Proctor and Mark Mitchell, both of whom seem to be on the multiyear track at the moment. Some around the NBA were raving about Proctor, an Australian product of the NBA Global Academy, after seeing him in early season practices, but his adjustment hasn’t been smooth. He had his best game of the season against Purdue, and there seemed to be more of a pronounced effort to let him use ball screens with a spaced floor. I’m still interested in his long-term prospects, but he isn’t shooting the ball well from distance, hasn’t been consistently impactful and isn’t a clear-cut, one-and-done case.
Mitchell’s immense physical tools at 6'8″ with NBA proportions place him squarely on the draft radar now, but his actual feel for the game suggests two years in college might be prudent. He has the length and agility to be a monstrous, switchable perimeter defender, yet his offensive game is still coming together. He may be best suited to play the four, run the baseline and impact games with energy. He’s grown on me already, and I wouldn’t write him off for 2023 yet—steady improvement over the course of the season, particularly as a shooter, could force the issue.
Colby Jones: sleeper no more
A popular preseason breakout pick for many observers, Jones had an overall strong showing in Portland and continues to solidify his appeal as a future NBA role player. It was hard not to walk away impressed with his improved shot-making prowess and stronger frame, while his excellent feel for moving the ball and team defense make him a valuable cog for Xavier. Jones offers quite a bit of functional versatility and has enough size to defend multiple positions away from the ball, giving him a pretty clear pathway to a pro career. He should be able to fit into different types of lineups and add value without needing a ton of offensive usage.
Jones is not an isolation player by trade and needs to either improve his finishing at the rim or develop a more consistent midrange game. But he takes the right shots, and his value will come more from what he does to help teammates. He’s looking like a potential late first-round pick at this early juncture of the season.
Kel’el Ware has work to do
The surface numbers don’t look bad at all on Ware, Oregon’s touted freshman center, through seven games—he’s shooting 57% from the field and rebounding well with an 8.7% block rate—but the overall vibe I get from scouts on him has been lukewarm at the moment. Oregon hasn’t been winning much at all, and while the team fit is a little weird (the Ducks effectively play with two centers on the court at all times), Ware has sleepwalked his way through stretches of games and large chunks of his production have come in garbage time. He was unimpressive in last week’s game against Houston, scoring two points in 20 minutes in a game Oregon lost by 10.
Suffice it to say that a lot of scouts have been turned off by Ware’s languid approach to the game—there are times he looks downright disinterested—and in order to maximize his draft stock, he’s going to have to shift that narrative with his body language and effort level. He has obvious first-round talent as a rim-protecting, agile 7-footer with excellent physical gifts, and the fact he can space the floor a little bit also helps. But it’s often difficult for teams to go all-in on prospects who tend to tease you with their ability while often leaving production on the table and losing games. Ware doesn’t turn 19 until April, so there’s a lot of time for him to figure it out, but he can really help himself by simply shifting his approach moving forward. He may wind up in the first round regardless, but he’s an acquired taste for some.
Keep an eye on Terrance Arceneaux
Let’s wrap with some quick notes from the other games I saw. First of all, Houston was thoroughly impressive in a road game at Oregon and remains my favorite to win the NCAA title. There may be three first-round picks on their team. Freshman forward Jarace Walker and senior guard Marcus Sasser are well-established in early conversations I’ve had with teams. Then there’s freshman wing Terrance Arceneaux, who could be on the verge of breaking out and sits somewhere on the cusp of one-and-done versus needing a second year.
I was excited about Arceneaux coming into the season. He has been up and down through the early part of the schedule but had his best game at Oregon, scoring 15 points in 19 minutes with three steals, three made threes and five rebounds. He made a huge impact on the game with his activity and shooting, and he’s a good athlete who has the right makeup to be an excellent glue guy as he matures. NBA teams will want to see more consistency, but I think it’ll be harder and harder for Houston to keep Arcenaux off the floor if he can bring that type of energy every night. He’s certainly not a secret to scouts.
Prospect of interest: Maxwell Lewis
Lastly, I was enthused by what I saw from Pepperdine’s Maxwell Lewis, who didn’t have an immense game in a 47-point road loss to UCLA (whose prospects I’ll discuss at some later date), but has quite a bit of appeal as a long-term project and has been heavily monitored by NBA teams in the early going. Lewis has a ton of room to add strength to his 6'7″ frame and a soft shooting touch, but he’s behind his peers in terms of feel and game experience due in part to his previous participation in the Chameleon BX program (which also helped produce 2022 first-rounder MarJon Beauchamp), forgoing high school court time for personalized training.
Lewis showed flashes as a freshman last season and has the platform to break out in full this year. He’s not far enough along that Pepperdine can fully play through him, but his physical talent and shot-making ability are impressive up close. I’d like to see him become a more active rebounder and cutter and use his size better defensively, but he doesn’t have a ton of bad habits and seems to be trending in a positive direction. Moldable, athletic wings tend to be worthwhile development plays for teams, and Lewis falls in that bucket.
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