Cerebro NCAA Roundtable
Discussing intriguing players and storylines for the start of the NCAAM season.
Chad Graham, City of Basketball Love + Prep Hoops, (@CGraham_Sports)
Derek Murray, Head of Basketball at Cerebro Sports (@DMurrayHoops)
Kellen Buffington, TB5 Reports (@TheTB5Reports)
Mark Schindler, Writer, WNBA.com, DimeUproxx.com, (@MG_Schindler)
PD Web, Writer, Cerebro Sports (@abovethebreak3)
Zach Milner, NBA Draft Scout, Writer (@ZachMilner13)
1. Freshman of interest?
PD: Recently did a piece about this, but picking some names that I just barely had to cut: JJ Starling, Bruce Thornton & Tyrell Ward. Starling comes in a bit under the radar, a scoring guard with a pretty jumper that is going to slide effectively into the Blake Wesley-shaped usage hole in the Notre Dame lineup. Thornton is a winner, a stout (read: has the center of gravity of a fire hydrant) point guard who is an extremely versatile shooter on a lower volume of attempts. If Thorton can keep doing the little things and raise the 3-point rate, look out. Tyrell Ward is the biggest recruit of the LSU rebuild - hailing from DeMatha, the slender wing is gonna bring POA defense and self-created shot-making to a roster that is in need of both.
Derek: Tarris Reed (Michigan), Terrance Arceneaux (Houston), Kamari Lands (Louisville), Skyy Clark (Illinois) - Hearing quite a bit of buzz around Clark coming out of Illinois, really interested to track him early as a potential 1&D guy. Likely not a 1&D, Lands is interesting with great length and a frame to add good weight. Has the potential to be versatile on both ends so I’m curious to see how much burn he gets at L’Ville early.
Buff: Cason Wallace (Kentucky) Wallace will get an opportunity to play on the ball more than many thought he would. He gets a lot of credit for being tough, but he’s a polished decision-maker in ball screen action that can make all the reads. He will restore the winning ways of that program with several talented finishers around him.
Chad: Otega Oweh, Oklahoma
Oweh did connector-y things for Team Final’s 2021 squad that won Peach Jam, finishing lobs/cuts to the rim, rebounding, and being a ball-stopper defensively. Then his senior season came and he developed into this slasher who could counter with pull-up jumpers. Though he may not ever carry that same usage at OU, his mature build and increased ability to put the ball on the floor bode well for his chances to contribute to winning early in his career as a dribble/pass/shoot wing. Daniel Skillings (Cincinnati), Rodney Rice Virginia Tech, and Felix Okpara (Ohio St) are others outside the consensus top 50 I’m interested in.
Zach: Nick Smith Jr. (Arkansas) - Arkansas is going to be a must-watch this year with a bunch of highlight plays and talented players, but Nick Smith Jr. is the freshman I’m most excited to see. Smith plays at a really nice pace and is an impressive 3-level scorer who can also make a wide variety of passes to create offense for himself and for teammates. His touch around the basket should be in the running for best in the class.
Mark: Jett Howard (Michigan). With 4 starters gone from last season’s squad, Howard steps in right away as a starter. By all accounts, has really impressed in camp and exhibition showings. Good athlete, but one that goes underrated because his higher-end athletic traits are flexibility and body control at his size. Really fits the mold of dribble, pass, shoot, and plus decision-making that the NBA level is looking for. Howard is really enticing.
Is it too much to say the entire Ohio State 22 recruiting class??? Felix Okpara, Brice Sensabaugh, Roddy Gayle, Bruce Thornton.
This is a fun group that’s coming into a team in flux, entering a new era, as 4 starters and last year’s sixth man are gone. Chris Holtmann brought in transfers to stem the tide, but there’s a real opportunity for these guys to pop early.
Especially with some of their main guard depth a little ways out of returning from injury, Jaden Bradley has a real chance to pop early at Alabama. I expect them to play a lot of three-guard lineups, and Bradley brings an ability to thrive on and off the ball while bringing plus defensive ability on a team looking to improve on that end.
2. Who is an off-the-radar player you are interested in for draft purposes?
Zach: James White, Ole Miss - White only played 123 minutes as a freshman, but he stood out in a couple of the games where he actually got enough minutes to have an impact. He does a good job getting to his spots in the midrange. Expecting White to have a larger role this season after an impressive summer when Ole Miss played in the Bahamas. Was also able to show some nice defensive plays this summer and gave a lot of effort on that end. I’m interested to see if the midrange shotmaking can expand to 3 and if he can make an impact defensively this season.
Derek: Boogie Ellis, USC - Bronze C-RAM guy in EYBL, 2020 at Memphis, and 2021 with USC. Quick, can facilitate, and career 36.5% from 3PT. Worth keeping an eye on as a mid/late 2nd this year.
Chad: Nisine “Wooga” Poplar, Miami. I have more questions than answers here as Poplar enters his 5th season of organized basketball. In his second, he led his high school team to a Philadelphia Public League championship. His third was during the height of a pandemic and the 4th was last season. As one who has resigned from the “If he shoots…” all-stars, I want to know: how will he and Miami leverage his s-class agility and flexibility? What did last year’s ATR numbers look like? Yes, I want to see his explosiveness unlocked in their half-court offense. More importantly, I’m interested in where he makes his mark defensively - POA on big guards & small wings, locking and trailing on a shooter, off-ball havoc creator? Even if the shot is slow to come along, his drastic increase in minutes will help give form to this 6’5, dynamic ball of clay.
PD: Tucker DeVries, Drake. 6’7 Dribble-pass-shoot wings are an extremely valuable archetype, but calling DeVries a shooter sells him quite short. DeVries is a SHOOTER, a pull from wherever, off whatever action, from whatever coverage without a shred of fear type shooter. I’m really interested to see how he continues to round out his game in his second year after producing a really interesting statline as a freshman. Last season DeVries was 1 of 3 6’7+ freshmen who had a 25+ usage, 75+ 3PE & 75 DSI (our metric to quantify defensive havoc creation compared fouls), the other 2: Jabari Smith of Auburn & Maxwell Lewis of Pepperdine.
Mark: Julian Phillips (Tennessee) really intrigues me. Not someone who is getting a ton of buzz as a 1 & D, which makes sense given that he was still pretty raw physically the last time we saw him. Yet, he’s the exact kind of guy I could see really flourishing, showing more polish after the summer, maybe a little more flexible, more comfortable in his body. He’s long and profiles as an off-ball scoring combo forward with some defensive versatility. If the shot really pops and he continues to show flashes of handle and scoring upside, I think he could really surprise some people.
3. What returner are you looking forward to taking a leap?
Zach: Adama Bal, Arizona.
There are plenty of returners that I’m looking forward to watching this year, so I wanted to throw in an under-the-radar returner that has some potential. Adama Bal didn’t really have a role on the Arizona team last year, but when Kriisa got hurt in the Pac-12 tourney, he had a chance to showcase what he can bring to the table. That carried over into this summer when he played with the France U20s team. We’re still dealing with a small sample size, but throughout his freshman season and his FIBA play, Bal is shooting 41.3% (19-46) from 3. If he can continue to have that efficiency from deep, as well as show he can have an impact on the defensive end, he’s someone that should be on more draft radars. My biggest question about Bal’s game is his vertical explosiveness. Improving his vertical explosiveness will help him become a better finisher (he already has good touch).
Chad: Nolan Hickman, Gonzaga
After two successful seasons/cycles of Gonzaga dabbling in the high-end blue chip market, Mark Few now turns to Hickman to run the show. Not counting Andrew Nembhard who transferred in, Hickman is the highest-ranked point guard prospect Few has signed out of high school…ever. Their system and talent should have them relatively unscathed in the non-con before they enter WCC play. But their issues have been most in the tournament when/where they struggled to counter what teams threw at them and didn’t have anyone who could bend the defense. Hickman has shown the capacity to do some of that at lower levels as a modern guard and floor general. And he was solid as a backup his freshman year (6.0 C-RAM). With 5-7 ranked games in the first month, Hickman will have ample opportunities to answer the question: can he be a different kind of dog in the kennel for the Zags? I think so.
PD: Andre Jackson, UConn.
Andre Jackson is one of the 10 best run and jump athletes in the NCAA & is, in my opinion, the best passer of the tier of elite-level athletes. These two things together have kept me interested in his NBA prospecthood for a number of years, and the 6’6 time in Storrs has not gone entirely to my vision. There has been slow and steady progress on the shooting (36.1% in 21-22, 33.3 3pr, 69 3PE as a soph after a poor freshman season from deep), but the usage and efficiency have not risen at the same rate. In both seasons, Jackson has been below 15% usage (14 as a soph, 12 as a freshman) and been below average TS% (52.5, 49.5) despite his opportunistic role. If we see a rise as a scoring threat, esp in the halfcourt, & the absurd athletic stuff stays steady…
Derek: Matthew Cleveland, Florida State
Give this dude some minutes and let him play his game. 6’7, 200, and versatile - think he can make a decent jump.
Mark: Matthew Cleveland, Florida State. Tyrese Hunter, Texas. Jalen Wilson, Kansas.
4. Mid-Major program or player you are most interested in
Mark: Jamarion Sharp, Western Kentucky. Sharp is one of those players that kind of breaks the game for me mentally. The 2022 C-USA DPOY after transferring in from John A. Logan College, the 7’5 Sharp finished with a 107 DSI per our Cerebro database while playing 32 games last season. For reference, there are 18 recorded players in the NCAA D1 database that have played at least 20 games and finished above 105 in DSI; Anthony Davis, Hassan Whiteside, Nerlens Noel, Walker Kessler, Matisse Thybulle, and Sharp amongst them.
That’s not to say he’s the same caliber of prospect. He has the lowest usage of the group by a substantial amount (13%) and struggles at the free-throw line.
He doesn’t foul much, especially relative to his block rate, he’s more mobile than you’d imagine. If there’s any jump in offensive production or trajectory, it’s worth noting.
Derek: Jordan ‘Jelly’ Walker, UAB
Knocked down 116 3PM last year. May only be 5’11 but he finished 9.0 (silver) C-RAM last season with some strong 5MS metrics. Jelly can fill it up and has a great chance to be a guy who ends up hearing his name in June.
Buff: Oral Roberts’ Max Abmas. ORU is primed for a Summit League championship again this year. ALL eyes will be on one of college basketball’s top guards Abmas. He had a SPECIAL run in the tourney a few years ago. If he can lead Oral Roberts back, they will be a scary first-round draw for anybody with Abmas at the helm.
PD: Saint Thomas
Houston is the darling of the AAC, and rightfully so. But the Owls should be right there at the top of the league this season. Khalif Battle is back healthy and ready to be their primary on offense. The cat is already out of the bag on Zach Hicks as an NBA prospect with his 3-ball and defensive impact. Damian Dunn will be crucial for them too as a ball-handler and defender. Coach McKie has the right mix of tough and talented veterans with some young guys who can go. Now it’s time to see if they can take that next step.
Zach: The Pepperdine duo of Houston Mallette and Maxwell Lewis. Both Mallette and Lewis make Pepperdine a really intriguing team to watch, although it might not necessarily result in winning games. Mallette is a ridiculous shotmaker who has shown his shooting versatility making shots off-the-dribble, off-movement, and spotting up. Lewis is an athletic wing who can shoot the 3, and uses his length well on defense to get into the passing lanes. Additionally, Lewis will give some highlight dunks as well Seeing both of them match up against Gonzaga in the WCC this year will be a must-watch.
5. What transfer are you looking to have an outsized impact this season?
Derek: Tyrese Hunter, Texas
Chad: Kevin McCullar Jr, Kansas
Coming over from Texas Tech, McCullar Jr was more of a point-forward last season. But lacking experienced ball handlers and trying to replace the mother-load of shooting from Braun & Agbaji, the Jayhawks will likely deploy him as a secondary creator and two-way guard or connector. His passing ability will be accentuated by him being 6’5/6’6 at the two. Even as his 3.1 3PA/g has to go up, he might compliment Dajuan Harris perfectly on the defensive end. His frame and plus 2-3 wingspan will let him take on the conference’s bigger initiators and wing scorers.
Zach: Nijel Pack, Miami
Nijel Pack has been one of the best shooters in college basketball, and adding a nuclear shooter like Pack to this Miami team will just make them really tough to defend. Starting Pack and Isaiah Wong next to each other will have opposing guards having to bring their best defense every game. Miami also brought in Norchad Omier from Arkansas State who deserves a quick shoutout as well.
Mark: Pete Nance, North Carolina.
6. With all the upperclassmen returning to college basketball, which junior or senior do you think has the best chance to develop into a (different player) & boost their stock?
Chad: Steve Settle III, Howard
Settle III is one of the top statistical returners in the MEAC (9.0 C-RAM) for a Bison squad that finished second in the conference. The 6’10 late-bloomer fell into Cerebro’s 3 and D archetype as mostly a stand-still shooter (34% on 3.1 attempts/g) with a DSI of 84. He shows good mobility when he has to stunt and recover or change direction on hard closeouts. Despite being light in the pants (180 lbs), a concern mitigated by the fact of his extreme growth spurt in high school, Settle III doesn’t shy away from physicality. You can see his embrace of contact when he plays through ball screens and attacks closeouts. Not only am I intrigued to see how added strength/weight aids him as a driver, but I also look forward to seeing how they help him when protecting the rim.
Zach: Julian Strawther, Gonzaga
After seeing how Corey Kispert improved at Gonzaga after returning for another year, it’s pretty easy to see the path for Strawther. There are some clear differences between the two, but a lot of similarities as well. Strawther should have a chance to take on more of a responsibility on offense this year, whether that’s taking more 3s, attacking closeouts more often, getting occasional side pick & roll opportunities, etc. If Strawther can take advantage of getting more opportunities this year, there’s a real chance he’ll be drafted in the first round this year.
PD: Trayce Jackson-Davis, Indiana.
This may be the year that Trayce Jackson-Davis takes the leap. He is a strong and steady 6’9 post presence, but that’s not been enough to get him onto draft boards. Jackson-Davis has to shoot to rise further. There are some positive indicators, the form looks cleaner on midrange attempts, and he has shown more willingness to take tougher shots, but he hasn’t yet expanded his range. In his 94-game career at Indiana, TJD has taken 3 total 3s. He will be given a ton of opportunities as teams try to pack the paint to slow down newcomers Jalen Hood-Schifino & Malik Reneau, It’s just a matter of taking advantage & taking a real volume of open looks from deep.
Mark: Colin Castleton (Florida) kind of flew under the radar as much as you can as an All-SEC player last season. The Gators missed the tournament, and they got chewed up by conference play, but Castleton took the leap from good to elite college player last season. I’m interested to see how he can continue to round out as a roll threat, hand-off hub, as he’s already an excellent screener. He has some fluidity off the catch, but want to see more from him as a pick-and-pop threat and face-up driver to open up that aspect. He’s fairly below the rim but smooths that over with solid footwork. Good team defender, but interested to see if he can make that extra 10% leap where he becomes a player that can plaster over teammate mistakes.
Derek: Jalen Wilson, Kansas
Had some significant buzz around him among some NBA circles last year. A big, talented kid who can take a leap forward.
Buff: Mike Miles, TCU
The Pre-Season Big 12 POY had TCU one possession away from a Sweet 16 appearance last year. TCU returns all five starters this year for a Pre-Season Top 10 team. Miles averaged 15, 4, and 4 last year. When TCU was on the bubble Miles had a two-game stretch against Kansas and Texas where he went 16-29 from the field, 5-8 from three, and averaged 5 assists. Look for him to be closer to those numbers throughout the season this year.
7. What game in the first week do readers need to tune into? (Nov 7th-13th)
PD: Many of the prospect-laden programs are lined up in buy games & I do not think there is much to gain from watching a 50-piece blowout, regardless of how many cool dunks happen. Top 5 picks:
Nov 7th, Mason vs Auburn - A good look at Yohan Traore and co against Mason’s interesting freshman, Justyn Fernandez
Nov 11th, Liberty vs Bama - Darius McGhee, Brandon Miller, but more than anything, it’s the offensive design. Get your notebooks ready, there’s gonna a few ideas worth stealing.
Nov 11th, Gonzaga vs Michigan State - Gonzaga is stacked and the Spartans have some fun young pieces to challenge the Zags.
Nov 11th, Clemson vs SCAR - GG Jackson’s first challenge is an in-state showdown.
Nov 11th, FSU vs UCF - dampened a bit by Baba Miller’s (deeply unjust) suspension, but FSU has its usual gaggle of interesting toolsy defensive-minded wings & UCF has a freshman worth getting eyes on early in Taylor Hendricks.
Derek: George Mason vs. Auburn, MSU vs. Gonzaga, Colorado vs. Tennessee
Chad: Howard vs UK (11/8)
The Bison tip off their loaded non-con stretch while the Wildcats ramp up theirs. Hawkins and Settle III will get to test their metal against a Kentucky team with an assortment of wings and forwards still figuring each other out.
Villanova vs Temple (11/11)
What does Nova look like post-Jay Wright and in the Kyle Neptune era? No Colin Gillespie means someone new will take the reins at PG. Even though the Wildcats are still trying to get healthy, this game still means a lot locally for the Owls who look to add parity to Philly’s Big 5.
Zach: Gonzaga vs MSU, SDSU vs BYU, Ole Miss vs Florida Atlantic, Long Beach State vs Cal Baptist
Mark: George Mason and Auburn (7th), Houston and St Joe’s (11th), FSU and UCF (11th), Stanford and Wisconsin (11th), Villanova and Temple (11th)