Which NBA draft prospects could fit with the Utah Jazz? Here are a few players to watch closely this March

The Tribune’s Andy Larsen takes a look at the players who might be available with the Jazz’s three first-round draft picks.

(John Locher | The Associated Press) Boulogne-Levallois Metropolitans 92's Victor Wembanyama warms up before an exhibition basketball game against the NBA G League Ignite, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022, in Henderson, Nev.

It’s now March: The Official Month Of College Basketball™.

And as you prepare to fill out your brackets, it’s also a reasonable time to evaluate the NBA draft.

As of this article’s writing, the Utah Jazz would own the No. 12, No. 15, and No. 27 picks in the draft, the latter two thanks to the trades made last summer.

But while this once looked like an ideal year to own three first-round draft picks (experts began the year believing this class was not only strong at the top but deep with great talents who would be available in the late lottery or beyond), the collegiate season has made the fate of this draft class less clear.

Some projected lottery picks have gotten hurt, while others have struggled much more than expected. Meanwhile, some sophomores, juniors, and seniors who teams were hoping would pop to some degree simply haven’t, making this draft class pretty reliant on its one-and-done freshmen.

Most still consider this to be a strong draft overall. It’s just a little disappointing in the Jazz’s current draft range compared perhaps to preseason expectations.

After talking with various league sources and draft experts — including at the FIBA/NBA Basketball Without Borders camp in Salt Lake City at All-Star Weekend — here’s a Jazz-centric list of things to know.

The top 4

First, one very clear brilliancy at the top: Victor Wembanyama. The French prospect who stands at 7-5 with an 8-foot wingspan (in a human being!) has now frequently added a very ridiculous floating 3-point shot to his game, using his absurd length to turn 23-footers into closer shots. He still scores from everywhere, passes, rebounds, blocks shots; his player comparison is still Rudy Gobert mixed with Kevin Durant. He has also stayed healthy through this season, too. I have called him the best prospect in NBA history, I stand by that, and I can’t wait until he’s in the NBA.

Scoot Henderson at No. 2 continues to do very well in the G League as a 19-year-old. An athletic guard, he’s strong at 6-2, aggressive, a huge dunker, a smooth shot-maker. I got the chance to talk to him at the G League’s All-Star game and definitely noticed the breezy confidence that NBA evaluators describe when talking about his game.

Alabama’s Brandon Miller has had a terrific freshman season as a 6-9 forward with a smooth 3-point shot and a newly aggressive driving game. He’s a good defender as well, and his role throughout the season has grown. But his talents as a prospect have been overshadowed by his alleged connection to the shooting death of a woman in Tuscaloosa. According to police, former Alabama player Darius Miles asked Miller to bring Miles’ gun to the scene of the crime, and Miller did. Prosecutors, though, have said Miller didn’t break state law and have declined to charge him.

Meanwhile, Amen Thompson gets into this top-4 because of his athleticism. He’s 6-7 and just ridiculously bouncy and smooth driving the lane. The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie argues that he’ll enter the NBA as one of its top-5 athletes. Even if he can’t shoot (and he can’t right now), and even if he’s playing against players as part of the controversial Overtime Elite program who are multiple years younger than he is, the athleticism alone provides an NBA future for him. It means All-NBA potential, too.

That’s pretty clearly the draft’s top tier, which lines up nicely with the current NBA lottery system which gives every non-playoff team a chance at getting into the top four. The worst teams in the NBA have a 52% chance at getting one of those four players, while slots 4-9 have between a 20% to 49% of a top-four pick. Right now, the Jazz would only have a 5% chance at getting one of these All-NBA potential talents.

Late lottery struggles

A number of players projected at the beginning of the year to go in the middle-to-late lottery have struggled.

• Amen Thompson’s twin, Ausar, is also a promising prospect in his own right — but he’s just slightly less athletic than his one-minute-older brother. As a result, the shot is more important for him, and it also hasn’t improved much this season.

(Vasha Hunt | AP) Arkansas guard Nick Smith Jr. (3) works past Alabama guard Mark Sears (1) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023, in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

• Nick Smith, who was projected as the draft’s No. 3 pick this summer, hurt his knee and has missed most of Arkansas’ season. The good news is that he has returned, the bad news is that he is shooting under 40% from the field for the season and has struggled to show that he’s more than a tough-shot-taker and maker. Tyler Herro is one comparison — a good player, but short of an All-Star so far.

• Dillon Mitchell, another former top-5 recruit, has simply had such a bad season at Texas that he’s not currently considered a first-round prospect by most teams. He may stay another year to try to work it out.

• Kel’el Ware is a bouncy 7-footer at Oregon but also hasn’t produced very much. He looks more likely to be drafted in the bottom 10 of the first round than the top 10 right now. He’s a project big that could work out, but it’s a gamble.

(Ethan Hyman | The News & Observer via AP) Duke's Dereck Lively II reacts during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against North Carolina State, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023 in Durham, N.C.

• Three Duke prospects were projected by most to go in the lottery this season, but two have significantly struggled more than expected. The center Dereck Lively hasn’t shown any versatility offensively, while Dariq Whitehead first got hurt and then hasn’t been able to reliably contribute. His lack of elite burst has cost him against college opposition. Kyle Filipowski has been about as expected, though — a versatile 7-footer who can shoot and dunk. ESPN had a notable stat: Filipowski joins Utah’s Lauri Markkanen and No. 2 pick Chet Holmgren as only four freshmen 7-footers who have made 20 threes in NCAA history.

• Keyonte George from Baylor may still end up in the lottery, but he just hasn’t been able to score as easily as hoped, either. Instead, he’s shooting under 40% from the floor and not getting to the free-throw line too often. The 6-4 guard takes on a big role, to his credit, and has good shooting form — but just hasn’t popped off the screen on the floor.

• Nick Smith’s Arkansas teammate Anthony Black is a big 6-7 point guard who makes good decisions, plays hard, solid defense, and always makes the right play. He also is an awful outside shooter right now.

• GG Jackson was a highly touted high school prospect, but decided to graduate school early and head to South Carolina. They put the ball in his hands ... and they’ve scuffled to the 250th-ranked offense in college basketball.

The hope was that at least a few of these guys would dominate more in their freshman seasons, clearly demonstrating All-Star potential. Instead, teams will be hoping to significantly develop them as projects who are currently well short of that.

Mid-teens shooters

What this means is that, if their picks stay at their currently projected No. 12 and No. 15, the Jazz will probably have to choose between gambling on upside ... or taking those useful role players who can shoot with relatively limited ceilings in other aspects of their game. To be honest, I might like these guys better than those who need to learn a shooting stroke.

• Jett Howard, son of Juwan Howard, is a killer 6-8 shooter, who can also score and play-make off of closeouts. He has two big problems: he struggles to keep players in front on defense, and he has one of the worst rebounding percentages in recorded history for a 6-8 guy.

(Reed Hoffmann | AP) Kansas guard Gradey Dick (4) looks to pass the ball against Texas Tech during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Lawrence, Kan., Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023.

• Kansas’ Gradey Dick, whose floppy hair reminds one of early-career Kyle Korver, also mirrors Korver’s ability to shoot. He also echoes Korver in another way: teams try to attack him on defense, but he competes and does well enough to make college athletes usually regret that decision. Will that hold in the NBA? He’s had a great season.

• Ohio State’s Brice Sensabaugh has actually been awesome: lighting up the scoresheet with efficiency in a variety of different ways as a 6-6 two-guard. He wasn’t projected to be a one-and-done player, but he’s been that good for the Buckeyes. On the other hand, he’s been bad defensively, and the shots he’s making are tough, contested ones — what if the heat-check stops, or what if NBA defenders turn those makes into misses?

• Pepperdine is a woeful 9-21 in the WCC, but Maxwell Lewis is a 6-7 wing who can shoot in all sorts of different situations and tries hard defensively.

In all, five recent mock drafts have the Jazz taking Black and Howard, Lewis and Jackson, Howard and Sensabaugh, Jackson and Whitehead, and George and Dick with their mid-teens selections.

Finally, the Jazz have one final pick to consider: the one acquired in last year’s Royce O’Neale trade that gives them the worst selection between Houston, Brooklyn and Philadelphia. The 76ers currently have the league’s 4th-best record, so that pick is slated to be No. 27.

And unfortunately, most draft observers agree there’s a significant drop-off before that range. As Vecenie said on a recent podcast, “I think there’s maybe only 22 or 23 guys that are staring at me right now as obvious first-round picks. That may change ... But at this point, that last six or seven slots in the first round is going to be a really challenging area for me.”

The Jazz, though, were said to be willing to trade that pick in trade conversations last summer and at the deadline. They may well take up some of those conversations again as the June 22 draft nears.

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