Between LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton, it's going to be hard to top this year's crop of young talent, both in terms of ability and entertainment value. Unfortunately for the NBL, top Australian prospect Makur Maker ruled out the Next Star option as a possible route, declaring his intention to declare for the 2020 draft if deemed eligible, and if not, go to college. However, there's been other top prospects who are potentially considering professional options.
1. Jalen Green
Jalen Green is the #1 name you can hang your hopes on for next year's Next Stars program. Green is an explosive shooting guard that could be an NBA star for years to come, and amongst rumors of NBL interest, he has been coy in discussing his future.
Rod Hampton, father of RJ, said earlier this year on NBL Overtime that he's been speaking to Green and his family, encouraging the option as well. Green is a legitimate top 5 pick candidate in a stronger draft class than RJ and LaMelo's - he has a high flying game that provides as much style and substance, and could be a star in his lone season in the league. Earlier this month, Green quelled the rumors of his professional interest in an interview with 247 Sports.“I think I want to go to college right now. It could be up there in the air, but I think college is my best option.”
He did leave the possibility open though, and acknowledged in talking with RJ Hampton, that “he tells me how different it is and how he likes it."
For now, Green appears, at least publicly, to be leaning towards college, but having pushed back his college decision to March, alongside the many rumors acknowledging its possibility, don't be surprised if the option is still in play later this year when he announces his decision.
2. Jalen Suggs
Beyond Green, Jalen Suggs is another name that has been linked to considering foregoing college for professional opportunities. Suggs is a physical, 6'4 point guard who plays with a great deal of aggression on both ends of the floor. While he is more limited offensively than Ball or Hampton, Suggs is a dog of a defender who should manage to contribute positively on that end of the floor at the NBL level in spite of his age.
Interviewed by 247 Sports, Grassroots Sizzle Director Brian Sandife confirmed the consideration of professional options. “Right now they’ve fielded interest from the top teams in Melbourne and China and are seriously considering that, if it makes sense to financially go that route.”
Suggs projects as a mid-first rounder in the 2021 draft on early boards and would be a valuable contributor for an NBL team if signed. He is currently tossing up a myriad of options including college football, so we could see a number of different outcomes for Suggs - let's hope the NBL wins out.
Suggs has announced he will be making a decision on ESPN on Friday evening, US time. Expect it to be an intention to sign with Gonzaga, given how early it would be to announce a Next Stars decision, but that doesn't mean that he can't or won't rescind such intent at a later date for the pro route. As of today, Evan Daniels of 247 Sports is reporting that Suggs is still considering the professional route.
3. Isaiah Todd
Whilst he is currently committed to Michigan, keep an eye on Isaiah Todd. The 13th ranked prospect on ESPN's 2020 Top 100, Todd is a super athletic, 6'10 power forward who has not ruled out the NBL as an option ahead of his official college signing next year. In an interview earlier this month with Basketball Recruiting, Todd said his options are "still open right now".
"I am keeping tabs on RJ and LaMelo," Todd said. "I see that they are doing their thing over there. I have talked to RJ about how he likes it over there and how things are like off of the floor and what the differences would be compared to that and college. He said he loves it."
Given all of this year's Next Star recruits have been perimeter players, it would be interesting to see how 'league ready' a big man prospect like Todd would fare in a setting such as the NBL. Whilst Todd has plenty of upside due to his elite physical tools and modern, budding perimeter skillset, he has been critiqued for his poor decision making and lack of quality interior play, and these deficiencies could limit his role on an NBL team.
4. MarJon Beauchamp
Another high level recruit linked to the professional route is wing MarJon Beauchamp. Beauchamp already confirmed that he would pass on all college offers back in August, declaring his choice to instead work with trainers to prepare for the draft, in the same vein of similar prep to pro prospects as Anfernee Simons and Darius Bazley. While he has not as yet been linked to any NBL offers, the option to play overseas would appeal to his desires to work on his body over the next twelve months, whilst making money in the process.
Beauchamp is a big, lengthy wing with good athleticism who could play either the two or three positions. His stock on early boards projects closer to the second round, as he appears more of a raw, toolsy prospect, and his shooting and ball handling could stand to improve. Though reports are he has a solid feel for the game, these under-developed skillsets could mean he ends up playing little, like Terry Armstrong has done this year.
Still, it never hurts to take a flyer on a Next Star, as it does not count against the roster count, nor does it hurt the pockets of interested teams. While a player not ready to contribute is one possible outcome, they may also surprise and be able to make a great impact, and Beauchamp certainly has NBA potential if he pans out successfully.
It should be noted that Beauchamp is of higher pedigree than Armstrong also. In August, when he announced his decision to forgo college, he was ranked 24th in the class of 2020. He certainly has the means to provide a handy bench role for an NBL team next season.
5. Kyree Walker
Walker, a 4-star recruit from Arizona, had committed to Arizona State in 2017, but a year later decommitted. Now assessing his options, the professional route is an avenue with plenty of momentum behind it for the wing ranked 26th on composite national rankings.
At 6'4 with a 6'6 wingspan, projects as a two guard at the professional level, measuring in marginally smaller than current Next Star Didi Louzada, who has seen time at both the two and three during his time in the NBL. Walker is a strong, physically mature player who plays with a high motor, rebounding at a high level and using his build to score at the rim.
Everywhere you look, chatter of turning pro follows Walker, but the number one destination at this point in time appears to be China. According to Adam Zagoria, Walker met with three Chinese professional teams back in July, but Walker denies the rumors, with his father saying, "It's not definite. We are looking at all options". Later reports in September suggested the forward was considering going to college after all. Last week, Corey Evans suggested that the overseas boat has gone. "While there was a belief that he was going to play overseas this winter, that opportunity has come and gone".
However you read into the countless speculation regarding Walker's future, it appears clear that multiple options have been considered. While Australia has not been explicitly mentioned, and China now also sounds like a diminishing chance, it would seem likely the NBL would have reached out, given their recent success in luring draft prospects wanting to go pro.
6. Ziaire Williams
At #6 on the 2020 ESPN Top 100, Ziaire Williams would be an exceptional target for the NBL next season.
While Arizona is said to be the leading college chasing the 5-star recruit, recent buzz has suggested that overseas opportunities could be an increasing possibility.
In Corey Evans of Basketball Recruiting's recent article last week, he notes to "keep an eye on Williams and the overseas path as the professional route has become a bit more intriguing for the five-star."
Listed at 6'8 with a 6'10.5 wingspan along with high level athleticism, Williams projects as a small forward who could slide up to the four in smaller lineups. Williams is considered to have a well-rounded skillset offensively, and whilst noted as a talent scorer and facilitator, is an unselfish and high IQ player. On the other end, he's a high effort, versatile defender. What Williams will need to develop is his body, as he will need to develop his body, and he has shot sub 30% from 3 in multiple environments. Overall, he is believed to have a high NBA ceiling and would undoubtedly be a difference maker for an NBL club next season.
7. Kai Sotto
Kai Sotto is another potential 2021 prospect looking at professional options. A four star prospect out of the Phillipines, Sotto could qualify as either a Next Star or local, whether in a development or full roster role, through the Asian player rule exception. Given his current ranking of 76th on the 'ESPN 100' High School rankings, the latter may be a more likely path to the NBL, and it could mean seeing him in the league for multiple seasons.
Sotto is currently fielding offers from both pro teams and college, including European powerhouses Barcelona and Real Madrid, and is said currently to be preferencing the European route. These will be hard offers for the the NBL to compete with, but a potential selling point could be that Sotto may struggle to acquire minutes at such a high level and may find a better opportunity for minutes and development on an NBL roster.
While his current ranking reflects his raw nature, at 7'2 and of a high skill level, Sotto has plenty of NBA level potential long term. Sotto has impressive mobility for his size, and has shown a knack for passing, a soft touch, and some long term shooting potential. Satto would also provide plenty of eyes on the NBL, as he is arguably the best Phillipino-born NBA prospect in history. The country is basketball-crazed, and with the hopes of a nation on his back, the many clicks that Sotto's online footprint carries with him (some videos of his play have hit millions of YouTube views) would surely carry over to the NBL.
It's likely that Sotto entertains the idea of declaring straight out of high school, or indeed looks to Europe, but his situation seems to lend itself to the predraft development the NBL can afford to offer, and it would make sense for the NBL to make a push for him.
8. Greg Brown
Brown, currently 9th on ESPN's Top 100 for 2020, is one of the few other uncommitted draft prospects remaining. It's still expected that he makes a college decision soon, overseas options have not been ruled out.
Rivals.com's Corey Evans said that Brown could skip college, but believes that he "will be on a college campus next year”. Should he surprise and go pro, he would provide the NBL with a big, ultra athletic small forward that plays both ends of the floor.
It's also possible that we see players from the projected 2022 draft class join the NBL as soon as next season, or that players are again draft and stashed through the program, as Didi Louzada, Devon Hall and Marcus Thornton have been previously. Such circumstances are hard to predict predraft, as especially the latter, where roster depth, cap considerations, and player situations are all potential factors, but history suggests that there are consistent second round stashes the NBL can capitalize on. While two-way contracts have lessened these situations, it would not surprise anyone for the NBL to find at least one draft and stash candidate that they can provide for next season.
Locally speaking, next year is an important time for some of Australia's brightest young players to make a decision on their futures. While our top prospects sound likely to head overseas and ply their skills in the NCAA, there is certainly a chance we could see some elite local talent on an NBL court next season.
9. Josh Giddey
Giddey, a 6'7 point guard, possesses exceptional feel for the game and passing, and the value of sizeable initiators has been a growing trend for NBA evaluators. Giddey has absolutely dominated junior FIBA events, and has many high level college offers from the likes of Arizona and TCU that he would have to pass on to take up a NBL opportunity. Whilst still relatively unknown, Giddey has turned plenty of heads in the last 12 months and has first round potential. It's worth noting that Giddey made an appearance for Melbourne United in this year's NBL Blitz, and it would make sense for the Melbourne native to prefer staying close to home if he indeed decided to take up professional opportunities before the NBA draft.
This week the point guard said that he's "more than likely" going to go the college route, but has not ruled out professional options at this stage.
10. Mojave King
King is an explosive two guard who shoots the ball at a high level. He has similarly turned heads over the last 12 months, and has already appeared on DraftExpress' mock at #31, despite his relative lack of exposure. King is a fantastic prospect with NBA tools, and while it's always hard to project teenagers into roles on professional mens teams, both King and Giddey have the talent to make contributions next NBL season.
Per Basketball Recruiting: "There had been some speculation that King could either enroll as a member of the class of 2020 or that he may choose to explore professional opportunities when his high school days are done. King said that's all bad info and that he's hoping to take some more visits in February and that college is his plan.
“I think college is pretty much where I’m looking to go," said King. "I don’t have a time set for making a decision.”
While he sounds determined to pursue college options at this time, be sure the NBL has kicked the tires, so don't rule out a change of heart.
11. Tamuri Wigness
A more realistic local option is Tamuri Wigness, a 17 year old, 6'0 point guard who has trained with both Cairns and Brisbane over previous years. Wigness needs to develop his shooting and off hand, but posssesses a dynamic floor game with blistering, NBA level speed, high level ball handling and good vision. Wigness has already committed to the pro route, and will likely be looking for an NBL home next season. Wigness played for the Bullets in this year NBL Blitz and looked productive - next year he could be worth a roster spot.
Given his limitations in terms of size and utility as a shooter, Wigness' NBA draft stock seems limited, but he has consistently produced at FIBA events for Australia, as well as with the NBA Academy. The NBL is the next step for Wigness, and if he can overcome certain hesitations scouts have about his game, he could have a bright future ahead of him.
It remains to be seen whether Wigness would qualify with a Next Star slot or whether he would be brought in to a team as a standard Development Player. According to Josh Garlepp of Fox Sports Australia, two teams had a desire to sign Wigness through the Next Star program for NBL 20, but the NBL deemed him ineligible at this stage, as he did not possess the prerequisite draft stock to warrant inclusion.
12. Taine Murray
Another player that would be highly sought after is New Zealander Taine Murray. The 17 year old is a shifty 6'4 guard with a great stroke and a quick first step.
Murray was selected to the Tall Black's World Cup squad of 14 after impressing in camp, and is garnering high level college and some NBA attention. Murray was the only selection in the squad not currently playing in either the NBL or Europe.
Coach Paul Henare said of Murray, "Taine has impressed us all these past few days and quite simply played his way into the 14.
"He has a composure beyond his years and is going to develop into a very good player, but already at 17 has shown that he feels at home at this level."
While it appears Murray may ultimately pursue college opportunities, Murray sounds ready to contribute at an NBL level, and should have a bunch of teams, in particular his hometown Breakers (of which he is currently part of their junior academy), that should be interested in reaching out to him.
It's fair to see Terry Armstrong hasn't done much to give NBA evaluators any reason to draft him. It's hard to speak of his game at this point due to the sheer lack of opportunity he has been afforded out on the floor (Armstrong has played seven minutes this season), but it is indicative of his lack of NBL readiness.
When I spoke to Mitch Creek earlier this season, he had this to say on Armstrong's development.
"The hardest thing for Terry at the moment is he's in a developmental stage, where his body needs the time."
This physical refinement comes hand in hand with further skill and decision making development. While his physical tools are obvious, assessments could be made from his minutes in the NBL Blitz that Armstrong was a raw athlete, with little shooting touch, a low feel for the game, and a lack of nuance in the half-court.
With this all in mind, it's all but a certainty Armstrong would go undrafted if he was to declare, but that doesn't mean he's a dud of a prospect. As like many highly touted freshman coming in to college, some just have a longer learning curve to flesh out before reaching their ceiling.
Armstrong has many options in place going forward beyond this season, but if he has made strides as the season has progressed, and there is a mutual interest in an NBL club continuing to develop him, whether it be the South East Melbourne Phoenix or another NBL team, Armstrong would certainly stand to gain from another year developing his game in the league - hopefully providing a more notable on court role in the next go around.
Pipe Dream: Cade Cunningham
Cade Cunningham is a bona fide stud - the current Montverde point forward is the likely first pick in the 2021 NBA draft, and a potential NBA superstar. At 6'7, with an elite feel for the game and minimal weaknesses on either end, Cunningham is the rare prospect that could be a net positive playing a starring role for a professional club, in the vein of Luka Doncic at Real Madrid.
In November, Cunningham committed, and signed, to Oklahoma State, seemingly ending what slim hopes could be had for Cunningham going pro, but on December 11, Corey Evans declared that "Cunningham could surprise the nation and try his own hand at [the pro] path, but I still expect him to be with Mike Boynton's program next fall".
The quote offers a slim chance of hope, but given the potential returns, it's a hope worth clinging to. Cunningham, in my opinion, is a tier above both LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton as a prospect, and would be the talk of NBL 2021 if he had a change of heart and decided to try his hand down under. All it takes is a change of coaching staff or other circumstances for things to change.
At the end of the day, the NBL is only one of many appealing options for most of the players listed. For some, it is considered an unlikely, if possible, outcome. But, there is something to be said for the sheer number of players considering professional options - a group that extends beyond the players listed here.
The noise, and subsequent success, of RJ Hampton and LaMelo Ball's experiences playing in the NBL thus far, as well as the debacle of James Wiseman's suspension, have not gone unnoticed, and even those committed to NCAA programs have acknowledged the increasing viability of routes such as the NBL's Next Stars program.
Official noise has been minimal so far, and it's in line with NBL comissioner Jeremy Loeliger's comments back in November. “People won’t sign up and play their cards too soon I would imagine. Certainly, there are a lot of conversations being had and it’s playing out the way we hoped that it would with some really significant talent who are prospective 2021 draft picks expressing a lot of interest."
While nothing is imminent this early in the process, it's hard to imagine any less than a few of the aforementioned names taking their talents to our league next year. Of American names listed, I would consider Jalen Green the most likely, closely followed by Jalen Suggs and Isaiah Todd. If the league can land even those three, it would be a highly successful follow up to the Ball, Hampton and Louzada pickups of last year.