How do unranked high school prospects become NBA draft candidates? The numbers are not in their favor, but history has shown it will happen. There are many reasons players hit or miss on the draft board. It is the responsibility of NBA scouts and decision-makers to know why.
When it comes to unranked high school prospects, it’s imperative to track and monitor their improvement and impact in college. There is plenty to evaluate: skill level (shooting in particular), physical growth and athleticism, as well as leadership qualities and maturity.
In the past two drafts based on the ESPN 100 rankings, there have been 13 lottery picks, 32 first-round picks and 28 selections taken in the second round, according to ESPN Stats & Information. For unranked players, seven were lottery picks, 14 were first-rounders and 12 were second-rounders. This excludes international and G League selections.
The 2023 draft is littered with former ESPN top 100 talents: 12 of the 14 projected lottery picks were evaluated as five-star prospects in our high school database (international players are not ranked).
The NBA draft is all about acquiring assets. Decision-makers assess physical measurables, athletic ability, game skills, on-court traits and analytics.
This year’s draft is loaded with prospects who first made their way onto the national radar as high school All-Americans and were ranked among the ESPN 100’s top prospects.
Others whose profile and skills were lesser known will be selected Thursday. Let’s take an in-depth look at the development of five such players who were unranked as high school prospects and their path to the next level.
The Murray twins were thin 6-foot-4 sophomores but grew to 6-8 as seniors and had outstanding careers at Prairie High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Neither brother pursued high-profile AAU basketball and decided to attend DME Academy in Daytona, Florida, for a postgraduate year to work on all facets of their game and body.
Kenyon Murray, the twins’ father, was a four-year starter for Iowa from 1992 to 1996 and had an impressive career, scoring 1,230 points with 200 steals for the Hawkeyes. After college, he tried out for the Quad City Thunder of the CBA and the coach at the time was Dan Panaggio, who now is one of the owners of DME Academy.
“Kenyon Murray trusted my uncle Dan and sent the twins here,” Matt Panaggio, head coach at DME, said. “Both Keegan and Kris were pros in how they approached everything. They were serious about their weight training and nutrition. … They each gained 15 pounds of muscle at DME.”
Neither player ranked nor graded in the ESPN database (which ranks the top 100 prospects in the country and grades out the top 250 players). Kris was ranked No. 359 by 247 Sports Composite.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery and staff followed the path and progress of the twins and with Kenyon’s connection as a former Hawkeye, the twins were bound for Iowa City.
“When Keegan and Kris stepped on campus, I thought they would be very good four-year players because of their size, length, ball skills and basketball IQ with a chance of being an NBA prospect after their time at Iowa,” McCaffrey said.
Kris made huge strides each season under McCaffrey. In his first season, with only 13 games to play because of COVID-19, he played 41 minutes and averaged less than a point per game. He jumped to 9.7 PPG in his sophomore year and last year led Iowa in scoring (20.2 PPG), rebounding (8.0 RPG) and blocks (1.5 per game). He shot 33.5% on 3-pointers in 197 attempts.
“We took advantage of Kris’ skill level, which is the ability to drive, pass and shoot with a high basketball IQ,” McCaffery said. “The plan was to put Kris in position to be successful. I have the utmost belief in him as a player and a person and he went out and played with supreme confidence. We had the same plan for Keegan, and it worked.”
NBA scouts love his scoring versatility, which includes screening and spacing to shoot 3s or a short roll to score or be a playmaker. And McCaffery expressed his love for Kris on a personal level.
“He has no ego or entitlement, but he plays with an ego. He is a better person than he is a player. A worker and a coach’s dream.” McCaffery said.
Murray is projected to be drafted in the middle of the first round. He will turn 23 before the start of the 2023-24 season. Taking a fifth year of high school, producing at Iowa and being diligent with his work habits have him ready and mature to contribute right away on any team.
Colby Jones throws down an emphatic two-hand slam
Colby Jones splits through the defense and drops a big-time dunk for Xavier.
Jones played for Bucky McMillian, now the coach at Samford, his junior and senior seasons at Mountain Brook High School. He transferred in averaging 22 points per game as a sophomore, but 13 points per game as a junior playing alongside Trendon Watford. Watford, a five-star recruit who went undrafted, now is with the Portland Trail Blazers. For some, scoring fewer points would not translate to improvement, but Jones was more efficient and effective with his game.
In 2020, he earned the Alabama Class 7A player of the year, averaged 25.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game and led his team to a 32-3 record. His recruiting varied — from Yale and Harvard to offers from Auburn, Iowa State, Georgia, Stanford, Xavier and Alabama. He eventually picked Xavier.
Jones, who was a four-star prospect, comes from a basketball family. His father Chad played at UAB and his brother C.J. played at Arkansas and Middle Tennessee. A grade of 80 to 84 translates into a prospect with a résumé and potential to significantly contribute or lead a major conference program, or one that is on the cusp over the course of four years.
“He is all about making the right play, being in the right spot and impacting his team in a positive fashion,” McMillan said. “His mentality reminds me of Shane Battier. He does not try to be someone he is not. He is the humblest person I have ever met with that type of talent.”
Jones had a strong year in the 2019 EYBL but was basically a non-shooter. In the summer leading into his senior year, he was 2-for-16 shooting from beyond the arc over 18 appearances with the Alabama Fusion, according to Synergy Sports. However, at Xavier, his 3-point shooting took incremental steps. Shooting 9-for-27 (33.3%) his freshman year, 21-for-72 (29.1%) as a sophomore and up to 45-for-119 (37.8%) as a junior. He evolved as a shot-creator to complement his defense and versatility.
“People say trust the process. Well, it is a lengthy process,” Jones said. “Coach [Sean] Miller really helped me develop a more aggressive mindset, taught me to be a better defender and his terminology developed my IQ for the game.”
Georgetown coach Ed Cooley said Jones is a great two-way player.
“He is tough and can guard any position 1 to 4,” Cooley said. “He really worked on his shooting and ability to impact the game. … Most underrated player in draft in my thoughts.”
Jones’ draft range, according to NBA intel, is toward the end of the first round or early in the second. He knows how to fit on a winning team and into any offense or defense. Off the court, he was an honor roll student at one of the top public schools in Alabama and played saxophone. Jones is wired to be successful.
Brandin Podziemski rocks the rim with powerful flush
Brandin Podziemski rocks the rim with powerful flush.
Podziemski is one of the biggest transfer portal success stories from last season and should be drafted in the first round.
In high school, he lost the opportunity to play a full summer in the Nike EYBL because of the pandemic. He scored only 1.4 points per game over 16 appearances as a freshman at Illinois.
After being limited to 69 minutes at Illinois, Podziemski transferred to Santa Clara.
“We had high expectations for Brandin based on the film we watched from high school. But for him to be where he is at this point is a surprise,” Santa Clara coach Herb Sendek said.
The 20-year-old lefty posted one of the largest scoring increases in NCAA history from one year to the next — from 1.4 to 19.9. He shot 43.8% on 3-pointers this past season. He did so while creating almost half of his shot attempts out of ball screens, isolation and handoffs, according to Synergy Sports.
“He has two X factors outside of his ability which makes him great: his toughness and basketball IQ,” Sendek said. “He is the first player to hit the floor for a loose ball, a committed rebounder who anticipates the miss and is a charge taker. It is hard to believe there is someone tougher in the draft. He is consumed and obsessed in studying the game.”
Podziemski played and tested well at the NBA combine in Chicago. His standing vertical jump was nearly 40 inches, and he almost had a triple-double in one game with 10 points, eight assists and seven rebounds. His game and mindset scream versatility and focus.
He’s an efficient scorer even though defense was the focal point of his scouting report. He made a huge leap showing pro-caliber shot-making prowess as a sophomore after struggling to carve out a role as a freshman. Pulling down 8.8 rebounds per game with a wingspan close to 7 feet, the 6-foot-5 Podziemski ranks among the better guards in the country on the boards as he seized on a big opportunity at the mid-major level.
Podziemski is a prime example where the right fit and a better opportunity is greater than level of a conference to develop your game if all else is equal. Last year, Santa Clara’s Jalen Williams was drafted No. 12 by the Oklahoma City Thunder.
If Podziemski lands in the first round, which many believe he will, it will be back-to-back first round NBA draft picks for Sendek and the Broncos.
Seth Lundy’s clutch OT 3 proves the difference in PSU’s win
Seth Lundy knocks down the 3-pointer with under a minute left in overtime proving to be the winning shot vs. Northwestern.
Lundy played at Roman Catholic High School, a storied program from the Philadelphia Catholic League with a tradition of winning. He graded as a four-star prospect who could overpower his peers in high school but also had the ability as a spot-up shooter.
He was a four-year player at Penn State who started 96 games and scored more than 1,200 points. He played for multiple coaches in State College and could have transferred, but stayed and put it all together as a senior under former Penn State coach Micah Shrewsbury (now at Notre Dame).
Lundy averaged 5.3 points as a freshman but had some big shooting games. In a win against Purdue that year, he played 34 minutes and went 6-for-9 from 3-point range.
Shrewsbury saw Lundy’s potential up close when Penn State went into Mackey Arena at Purdue and came out with a win. He was an assistant for the Boilermakers at the time.
“I thought that he could be an NBA player when he was a freshman at Penn State,” Shrewsbury said. “You could see his ability back then.”
As a senior, Lundy’s shooting numbers jumped from 34.8% to 40% behind the 3-point arc. Beyond the numbers, he displayed the ability to impact every game playing off Jalen Pickett in one of the most efficient offenses in college basketball.
He possesses an elevation to rise and shoot over defenders before a rotation closeout arrives. As a spot-up shooter, he has demonstrated the all-important shot fake and sidestep against a charging defender, which is another layer of being a great shot-maker. He can make shots coming off screens and is an active cutter.
“He is one of the hardest workers that we had at Penn State, constantly trying to improve, and is a big-time competitor.” Shrewsbury said.
Lundy will not create space or scoring opportunities off the dribble or be a high-level finisher. Many will overthink what he cannot do. One thing is for sure — Lundy is a sure shooter with range and accuracy.
“He is an attractive draft pick to the NBA because of his senior year shooting at 40% from 3 on six-plus 3-point attempts per game,” Shrewsbury said.
“His shot is real. It’s what he does and it is what we look for,” an NBA scout said.
Lundy might not pass the test in terms of speed and quickness, but he stands 6-foot-6 with a wingspan of 6-10 and weighs 220 pounds.
The steady climb and solid progress each season combined with his shooting prowess of 36.8% career 3-point shooting and 81% from the free throw line has opened eyes among scouts.
He clearly helped himself at the combine in front of decision-makers. Surrounding him with talent and having him as a trusted role player who can make an open shot is essential in today’s game. He can deliver as good as most in this class from deep.
Sheppard has been below the radar. Coming out of high school, his recruiting was between Lipscomb and Belmont. Sheppard committed to Belmont. Casey Alexander, Lipscomb’s coach, found himself at Belmont a year later, coaching Sheppard.
His growth in high school and at Belmont had been incremental until his junior year, when his scoring rose from 10.5 points to 16.2 points per game for the Bruins. He averaged 18.8 points last season, when Belmont joined the Missouri Valley Conference.
Belmont returned 97% of its roster in 2021-2022, Sheppard’s junior year, which included fifth-year seniors and 1,000-point scorers.
“Ben emerged as a leader, scorer and defender with that group,” Alexander said. “He competes with confidence because of his preparation. He is well-prepared in the fundamentals. He has great habits. Everything he does has a purpose, and it transfers.”
Sheppard is durable — he did not miss a game or a practice at Belmont except during COVID-19 isolation or quarantine.
The Belmont star possesses the tools suited for the pro game because he is a well-rounded movement shot-maker. Almost half (47%) of his shots at Belmont were from behind the arc, and he made 41.5% of those 3-point attempts. His ability to make deep shots in transition for baskets before a defense can get set is attractive to scouts. In the half court, Sheppard is comfortable and dangerous shooting from dribble handoffs, spot-up movement and reading screens. For those who point out his below average free throw shooting at 68%, he did shoot 82% in the last 14 games of the season.
Sheppard’s quick decisions with the ball, constant movement, shooting accuracy and defensive mindset shined at the combine in Chicago. He also scored high in the shuttle run and possibly solidified and elevated him into a first-round selection, according to many scouts.
NBA scouts who went to see Ja Morant (Murray State) and Dylan Windler (Belmont) in the Ohio Valley Conference have watched Sheppard. They certainty knew of him before the season. But he was just a name in a database of thousands.
“He was not a first-round pick on my board before the season. A potential second-rounder,” an NBA scout said. “That was based on his body of work and who else is in the draft. It is fluid. We track performances and our analytics department keeps us updated then we prioritize who to see.”
Sheppard plays unafraid and understands how to play off the talent around him. Both are vital when transitioning from a centerpiece of a college program to a player of an NBA roster.