The 2022 Next Star Review
Assessing the performance of the NBL's most recent crop of Next Star players.
As we roll into the final rounds of the NBL 2021-22 regular season, many teams’ seasons are drawing to a close. With it, we may be seeing the last of some of the league’s Next Star prospects, as they either forge forward to the NBA or return home to Europe. With the league’s biggest crop of international Next Stars to date, we managed to see a full spectrum of outcomes, both good and bad.
Here’s how they stacked up.
Eighteen year old Ousmane Dieng is the perfect example of the disparity between a good player and a good prospect.
As a 6’10, multi-positional forward with guard skills, Dieng is a rare commodity that had NBA assessors salivating well before he stepped foot in an NBL arena. His lottery stock prior to this season was based off showings at the 2019 Under 16 European Championships and play in the French NM1, Belgrade and Kaunas leagues for Centre Federal Du Basket-Ball.
Dieng was not an obviously dominant product in these earlier showings. For France in the European Championships, Dieng averaged 8.9 points on 33.3% from the field and 32.4% from three as the teams third top scorer. Across 21 games in the 2020-2021 NM1 season, he also shot 33.7% from the field and 27.3% from three, albeit on a youth filled team destined to lose almost all their games in the competition.
His appeal instead lied in his projection. With a strong free throw percentage, solid mechanics and impressive footwork, Dieng passed the eye test as a future shot maker, and his comfort as a ball handler and passer laid the foundation for a potential offensive initiator from the forward spot.
For those expecting Dieng to step up into the strongest competition of his young career and come storming out the gates, they would have found themselves sorely disappointed. Over his first eight regular season appearances, Dieng averaged 4.4 points on 21.7% from the field (18/83 FG) and 15.4% from three (6/39 3PT), and getting to the line only 4 times (2/4, 50%). For those appreciative of his background, it would have been an expected struggle.
And yet, that is why Dieng’s latest stretch of play is so encouraging. Scoring 13.1 points a game on 44.4% from the field (40/90 FG), 31% from three (13/42 3PT), and a higher volume 12/18 FT (66.6%) from the free throw line is an insurmountable improvement from his wobbly start. More than the stats, there is a visible increase in confidence and a growing comfort with physicality, and his serviceable defensive efforts and increased rebounding output have added to his impact.
This latest stretch in his career represents the first steps of him ‘putting it all together’, and these recent efficiency marks are the best of his career at any step thus far.
Speaking to The Pick and Roll yesterday, New Zealand Breakers assistant coach Jacob Mooallem said, “Ous is playing with a lot more confidence and being way more aggressive driving to the basket. His shot has also improved and that's a testament to the hard work that he has put in over the course of his time here.”
Whilst his numbers have improved, his efficiency even over this most recent stretch have been well below league average, rendering him an overall liability to a team not short on hardship as it is.
Yet, in spite of his struggles, Mike Schmitz was unwavering in declaring Dieng the best internationally based prospect in the draft. Drawing a comparison to veteran Frenchman Nicolas Batum, his comments demonstrate the power of an attractive archetype.
An exceptional generosity in minutes granted can be attributed to his improvement, and whilst it’s certainly a win for Dieng, the same may not be said for the impact on the Breakers success this season. However, with his unproven background and youth clear, one would imagine the Breakers were willing to compromise on productivity upon his signing, and would see his resurgent stock as a win in relation to his budget boosting buyout chances.
While it appears a likelihood that Dieng will enter and be drafted in the first round of the 2022 draft, consideration of a draft and stash situation back in the NBL would be an alluring proposition and realistic given his nature as a long term project. Any such expectations would be hopeful, but given his improvement to date, a second year of Dieng in the NBL would likely look much more successful.
Though Besson is, by technicality, an import, it felt appropriate to include him in this conversation. In stark comparison to his fellow Frenchman and Breaker, Hugo Besson proved himself NBL ready from the jump. Coming off a season as the second top scorer in the entirety of the French LNB Pro B’s 2020-2021 season, Besson’s ability to apply his skillset to a professional level was already relatively proven.
Whilst his efficiency has also been uninspiring on paper (39.9% FG, 32.5% from three) this NBL season, the demands of offensive volume on the guard require his percentages to be viewed in a totally different light. With a 5-17 record, the struggling Breakers have leaned on the 21 year old Besson as their primary perimeter shot creator, with a team-leading 12.5 shot attempts per game, requiring him to consistently dive into his bag of self creation tricks to generate a bucket. As an isolation scorer, Besson ranks in the 91st percentile of all NBL players, scoring 1.118 points per isolation possession, per Synergy.
At his absolute best, Besson has looked like an established star.
The most typifying example of Besson’s qualities was his 23 point outburst in a thrilling overtime battle against the Perth Wildcats, single handedly keeping the Breakers in the contest on a diet of deep threes and off the dribble creation. Though it would end in heartbreak via a Bryce Cotton game winner, Besson’s unwavering confidence and offensive talent to match would be the lasting takeaway for evaluators.
Beyond his established scoring prowess, Besson has demonstrated growth as a passer, making complex reads out of pick and roll ball handling situations, making him a more well rounded offensive contributor.
“Hugo has never been short on confidence,” Mooallem observed. “He has added a couple of really useful skills to his repertoire, particularly in areas that relate to passing. He's always been a skilled passer, but he's reading defences quicker and completing passes that have a really high degree of difficulty. He's also really made strides defensively in a lot of areas.”
Whilst his defence remains of relative concern, and his physical tools will always be suboptimal for the NBA, Besson’s form this NBL season will have only affirmed his world class skill level as a scorer. As an absolute floor, Besson appears primed to be one of international basketball’s more prolific scorers over the next decade.
He currently sits at a justifiable #32 on ESPN’s 2022 big board - his limitations beyond scoring are clearly the only thing holding him back from a first round appearance. It’s an understandable stance, with NBA teams looking for well rounded, two-way role players beyond the draft’s lottery, but sitting as the NBL’s second highest scoring Next Star in league history behind LaMelo Ball, it could be argued that his offensive proclivity is being underrated. For me, his ultimate and realistic ceiling looks something like Tyler Herro - an undersized but overqualified off-guard shot maker with limited physical tools but a high skill level and audacious level of confidence to compensate.
An argument could be made that, winning considered (and Jessup excluded), Ariel Hukporti has been the biggest contributor to his team this season.
Despite his 19 years of age, Hukporti entered the league with all the ability to make an impact, thanks in part to his Herculean physical tools and pro ready frame. Having been awarded MVP at the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders event that also featured Australia’s own Josh Giddey back in 2020, that talent was always clear.
Question marks did arise, however, regarding his on-court discipline, motor, and ability to focus on his role. Across his 2020-2021 season with Kedainiai Nevezis of the Lithuanian LKL, Hukporti produced (10.4ppg, 7.4rpg), but displayed a green light to experiment with his skill-set, including taking over 2 three point shots a game at 27.7%, creating difficult shots in the post and turning the ball over at a high rate (3 turnovers per game). At 41.7% from the field, it would prove to be difficult to evaluate his play given how far removed what he was doing would be to his NBA projection.
“I was out in Lithuania with him last year and watched a lot of his tape, and his motor was really up and down, and sometimes he’d run the floor really hard, and sometimes he wouldn’t. Sometimes he’d defend with a lot of energy, and sometimes he wouldn’t,” ESPN analyst Mike Schmitz said in an interview with Melbourne United media earlier in the week.
Fortunately, Hukporti’s situation with Melbourne United has allowed him to be challenged whilst helping him focus in on a role that can be forecast to the NBA level. In great shape, Hukporti’s energy is consistent game to game, coming in off the bench to monster the glass and protect the paint defensively. Per 36 minutes, Hukporti is averaging 11.7 rebounds per game, and his 24% DREB% is 6th in the league amongst players that have played over 200 minutes. Likewise, Hukporti’s prolific 3.1 blocks per 36 is second only to Zhou Qi.
Though his 7.1 fouls per 36 demonstrate his defence is a work in progress, as is generally the case for bigs his age, the potential is immense. Likewise, his offensive role has been refined down to finishes in the paint, along with the occasional post up against weaker matchups, and his efficiency has thanked him for it, skyrocketing up to 56% from the floor.
Synergy Sports tells an interesting tale regarding Hukporti’s offensive usage. Of Hukporti’s most common play types, ‘post-ups’ and ‘pick and roll roll-man’, Hukporti ranks poorly, in the 43rd and 14th percentiles respectively. Hukporti’s activity as a cutter, offensive rebounder and rim running in transition make up for such deficiencies, but it shows the big man’s room for improvement. It should be noted that United’s lack of gravity from their pick and roll ball handler’s likely contributes to Hukporti’s abysmal roll man numbers, further indicated by starting centre Jo Lual-Acuil’s disappointing roll man numbers also (35th percentile).
As a key piece for the league’s ladder leaders, Hukporti has demonstrated his ability to contribute in a clearly defined role, in a manner that should translate to the highest level. A rim running defensive big may not illicit the same exciting upside as some of the NBL’s other Next Stars, but his floor may be one of the highest.
Hukporti currently sits at 71 on ESPN’s 2022 big board, but draft analyst had positive words to say about the big man during his visit down under.
“I’ve been watching his film all year, and the energy he’s been playing with.. anytime you can be 19 years old and have a real role on the best team in an entire league, that’s really impressive.
“I think that’s going to be his best skill at the next level, as you look forward to the NBA, is not just his size, his strength and his athleticism, but the energy that he plays with because that can really be infectious.
“The thing I like is that that’s going to be his role in the NBA, he’s going to be probably the fifth option offensively and he’s probably going to have to make his mark by playing really hard.”
It’s very easy to forget that Justinian Jessup is a Next Star signee. Turning 24 next month, ‘current’ star feels like a more apt description. Therein lies a cold hard truth from an NBL team’s perspective. The Next Stars have been marketed as a developmental pathway, but as far as on court impact, finding older, draft and stash professionals is the most optimal way to utilise the program, effectively creating what some may perceive as a loophole to an extra import slot.
For the most part, Jessup’s production is as it was last year. On paper, the stats are nearly identical. Jessup remains a highly versatile shooter/scorer that utilises relentless off-ball movement and advanced shooting footwork and mechanics to work as a versatile off-ball scoring threat who can heat up in a hurry.
Jessup has also made some subtle improvements to his game, however. His two-point percentage is markedly improved (54%, up from 48.6%), and he’s displaying more consistent effort and intelligence on the defensive end of the floor, at times matching up with some of the opposition’s best perimeter threats. They may seem like insignificant nuances for a player that is largely baked and set in his skillset, but these small gains in previous weak points in Jessup’s game will maximise his chances of sticking at the NBA level, should he get a real opportunity there.
If there’s one deterrent for NBA teams on paper, it’s efficiency. Jessup’s name will be called, whether by the Golden State Warriors or another team later in his career, by need of a situational sharpshooter, yet Jessup’s three-point percentage sits at an unremarkable 34.2% across his two seasons in the NBL. The eye test is an easy pass, and some consideration needs to be given for the nature and volume of his attempts from behind the arc, but one would ideally like to have seen that figure rise into the 35-40% range for him to consider himself one of international basketball’s best specialist shooters.
It goes without saying that Jessup’s addition to the Hawks both this year and last has been a massive boost, with the wing commanding a team second-high 31.7 minutes per game as a key contributor on a team destined for finals basketball.
Whether —given his age and physical limitations— that parlays itself into genuine interest from NBA teams, remains to be seen. Through the lens of production, Jessup may be the league’s ‘best’ Next Star, but his ceiling professionally could be capped to international play for his career.
Up until last month, there hadn’t been much to report on Kings Next Star Makur Maker. As has been the case so often thus far in his short career, Maker bounced in and out of the lineup with injuries, and had yet to find a consistent role for Sydney despite their need for another competent big in lieu of Jordan Hunter’s absence.
However, over his past couple of performances, Maker has started showing some of the skillset that made him a highly coveted college prospect once upon a time, with two consecutive double digit performances.
Several key attributes have stood out in his most recent run of play - his activity on the boards, his fluid stroke in pick and pop situations, and his activity as a cutter. Even better, Maker flashed several unselfish and intuitive passers to cutters from out on the perimeter as well. An inefficient 35% from the field on the season, Makur will need to focus on getting his simple, floor stretching pick and pop threes up to a consistent standard, and finding ways to finish efficiently around the rim to become an effective offensive big. Given his propensity to play around the perimeter, it may appear long term that Maker’s natural position may well be at the four.
As is typical of all the Makers, Makur’s motor runs high, and his 12.7 rebounds per 36 sits only behind Stephen Zimmerman and Cameron Bairstow.
Where Maker needs to improve the most, however, is on the other end of the floor.
“I think for him it’s defensively. He struggles a bit to guard in space and protect the rim consistently. He’s had some injuries, so he’s still gaining his wind, looked a bit out of shape at times,” ESPN’s Mike Schmitz shared in late March.
Therein lies the reality of Makur Maker’s situation right now - we’re only really scratching the surface of his what he can be. With barely any basketball played since high school, Maker has much to improve upon, but the underlying tools are there for him to develop into an impactful player. Once his conditioning improves and he gets more minutes under him, Maker can start to make strides figuring out his offensive role at the professional level and improving towards competency on the other end of the floor. It’s only been glimpses so far, but for a prospect that has been an enigma for so long, it’s more than we’ve been afforded from him over recent years.
Tom Digbeu came to the Bullets with relatively small fanfare, and whilst his opportunity has been minimal for Brisbane this season, his time on the court has produced some electric highlights.
In line with his reputation preceding the NBL, Digbeu possesses a major limitation for a perimeter player - he cannot shoot from three. Though he’s shot his free throws respectably (12/17, 70.6%), he’s stuck to his strengths from the floor, attempting only one three-pointer this season.
With recent minutes, Digbeu’s strengths have been easy to notice. The French/Spanish wing has exceptionally functional athleticism in almost every aspect, from high flying hops to blistering open court speed and quick twitch lateral movement and mobility. Last night, Digbeu excelled in his biggest opportunity of the season, scoring 12 first half points through some decisive slashing.
Though he’s been too flawed to command a major role for the Bullets this season, Digbeu is a great example of a player that would benefit from exercising the Next Star contract’s mutual second year option. With a year of maturity and experience under his belt, not to mention familiarity with the league, country and franchise, Digbeu could prove to be a handy athletic punch next season.
We weren’t left with much to analyse of Nikita Mikhailovskii’s season down under. Despite coming in with significant reputation as an experienced, slightly older Next Star candidate, the Russian was shunned from the JackJumpers rotation early by Head Coach Scott Roth, receiving a total of six game minutes before parting ways in early March.
Much could be speculated about the situation - on behalf of Mikhailovskii, it could easily be appealed that he fell under the unfair scrutiny of an old school coach, left in the doghouse without a chance to play through mistakes despite his clear potential to alleviate some of Tasmania’s offensive deficiencies if given the right freedom.
To the contrary, Scott Roth has built a rock solid case for Coach of the Year through his commitment to culture and defensive grittiness, two aspects to Mikhailovskii’s game that have been questioned in the past, and to play Mikhailovskii in spite of such concerns would have undermined a process which has so clearly brought upon an unforeseen level of success for the club.
Two things is for certain. For one, Scott Roth is not the type of coach to play anyone entitlement minutes. For two, this unfortunate parting of ways was to the detriment to all parties involved, including the NBL as a whole who have to wear this mistake as a mark on an otherwise highly successful Next Star program.
Much was made about the Adelaide 36er’s being a much better situation for Mojave King to thrive this past offseason. In retrospect, Mike Kelly probably deserves a repentance from those crying over his lack of opportunity last season; myself included.
In Cairns, King benefitted from a weak wing rotation, numerous injuries to players ahead of him in the depth chart, and a high tempo team led by a masterful setup man in Scott Machado. In many ways, it was tailor made for King to step up to the plate and play ample minutes to his strengths.
It’s easy to take a number of those factors for granted until you see King hit the floor with Adelaide this season. The 36er’s season has been an all-around disappointment, with many players experiencing a dip from their career production, trying to figure out their roles on a largely dysfunctional and ill-fitting roster. For King, the lack of on-ball initiators and transition play has meant less open floor opportunities and a lower shot quality playing off the ball in the half court. With his on-ball creation abilities still limited, it’s been a crippling influence on King’s offensive game, dropping down to a woeful percentages of 36.2% from the field, with his minutes per game dropping down to 9.2 a game along with it, down from 16.2 in his rookie season for the Taipans.
King has show flashes of late - he’s starting to use his tools to effect defensively from time to time, and his spot up three remains a notable threat, shooting 40.2% from behind the arc this season, albeit on less attempts. An increase in assist rate from 1.0 to 2.7 per 36 also suggests a slowing down of the game and some smarter processing and decision making.
Gone are the days where King’s prospects are a hot commodity - every bit of hype will have to be earned from now on. The tools remain - King is an explosively athletic 6’6 wing with a smooth outside stroke. Remove the Next Star hype and he remains a promising young 19 year old athlete with an exciting NBL career ahead. However, even that projection will require hard fought steps in the right direction going forward.