It’s rare for college juniors to enter the NBA Draft. More often than not, prospects will either spend just one or two years before turning pro early, or stay in school for the long haul.
However, when juniors decide to make the jump, it’s usually because their value climbed so high in Year 3 that they opted to cash in. A recent example is Elfrid Payton from Louisiana-Lafayette, who was the only junior drafted in the first round in 2014.
Like most classes, the 2016 crop doesn’t hold a ton of third-year prospects. But there are a couple of electrifying, speedy point guards to keep an eye on, as well as some versatile forwards and athletic bigs.
Our upper echelon of juniors was selected based on skill demonstrations, statistics and projected NBA potential.
5. Troy Williams, Indiana SF (6’7″)
Although he’s not as polished as some fellow upperclassmen, Troy Williams has garnered first-round attention due to his explosiveness and glimpses of versatility. The 6’7″ high-flyer is a nightmare to contain in the open floor, eluding stoppers nimbly and scoring way above the rim. However, Williams needs to improve his non-dunk finishes, as he’s somewhat sloppy in that area.
Williams hasn’t churned out much perimeter prowess, but he went 6-of-13 (46 percent) from three-point range and hit 42 percent on two-point jumpers last year (per Hoop-math.com). He’ll need to streamline his shooting motion and expand his range this season if he wants to crack the top 20.
He offers much more than slashing and transition fireworks, however. Williams is an underrated passer (2.9 assists per 40 minutes), and he has the quickness to compete as a wing defender in the Association.
4. Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin SF/PF (6’8″)
Nigel Hayes’s NBA potential hinges on his three-point proficiency. He’s a skilled forward, but he’s not athletic or creative enough to hang with every 4-man in the NBA. Hayes will have to spend some time on the perimeter in order to earn a substantial role.
He went from zero triple-tries in 2013-14 to 2.5 attempts per game in 2014-15 for Wisconsin. If his 40 percent clip isn’t a fluke, but rather a sign of things to come, he’ll be in great shape. Hayes’s NBA coach will be able to count on him to convert efficiently from almost any spot.
— Daniel O'Brien (@DanO_Bball) August 20, 2015
Despite his mediocre athleticism and less-than-dazzling scoring repertoire, Hayes has drawn comparisons to studs like Draymond Green. Why? Because he smartly impacts the game in several areas: straight line drives, key passes, post-ups and timely defensive stops.
3. Damian Jones, Vanderbilt PF/C (7’0″)
NBA decision-makers will always be interested in youngsters with size, athleticism and budding skills. That’s what Vandy’s Damian Jones brings to the table.
With a 7’0″, 245-pound frame and ample springs, Jones is a tough assignment in the open floor and in the post. Early in his career, he feasted primarily off his physical tools, but now we’re seeing more skill. Jones shows some promising samples of interior footwork, and his mid-range jumper has been dependable (45 percent on two-point jumpers, per Hoop-math.com).
ESPN.com’s Chad Ford explained Jones’s rising value in draft circles:
Jones drew looks from NBA teams as a potential first-rounder after his sophomore season, but his stock improved after a strong performance at the Nike Basketball Academy this summer. Jones has the size, athletic ability and skill set to be a terrific NBA center. With so few 7-footers on the board, there’s an expectation that he should end up somewhere in the lottery to mid-first round if he continues to show progress.
Jones must improve his fundamentals, especially as a rebounder and low-post defender. But his physical tools and offensive ceiling alone should garner strong consideration in the late-lottery range.
2. Demetrius Jackson, Notre Dame PG (6’1″)
When scouts visited Notre Dame to check out Jerian Grant last year, they were also treated to a shifty blur called Demetrius Jackson. The undersized playmaker consistently blew past opponents and made plays in traffic, and he also shot efficiently from the outside. When he wasn’t busy weaving his way to the rim, Jackson hit 42 percent from three in 2013-14 and 43 percent in 2014-15.
His size isn’t ideal for defending NBA point guards, but he’s lightning quick and relishes aggressive on-ball defense. Jackson should be able to hold his own on that end due to his athleticism.
With Grant NBA-bound, Jackson will enjoy a more featured role for the Irish this season. Let’s see whether he boosts his assist numbers while maintaining a healthy turnover rate and scoring balance. If Jackson can step up and command the role, his name will be called early on June 23.
1. Kris Dunn, Providence PG (6’4″)
Kris Dunn was projected as a late-lottery prospect for last year’s draft, so returning to school was a risk. However, he has a chance to emerge as the top playmaker in the 2016 class, so the decision may work out in his favor.
After shoulder surgery sidelined him for nearly all of 2013-14 (his would-be sophomore season), he returned to Providence with a vengeance in 2014-15, slicing up the Big East Conference for 15.6 points and 7.5 assists per game. Dunn has proven to be a dynamic pick-and-roll creator, and he has a knack for slashing into the paint and generating tons of opportunities for teammates. He continued to wow onlookers at the 2015 Nike Basketball Academy:
Kris Dunn is a pick and roll maestro. Great pace. Keeps the defender on his back and delivers the pass right on time. Good showing today.
— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) June 28, 2015
Dunn also has lofty potential on the defensive side, where his 6’9″ wingspan and bursts of speed enable him to challenge shifty attackers. With the right coaching, he should be more than capable of playing above-average isolation defense in the NBA.
The two factors that’ll determine his ceiling are outside shooting and turnovers. While Dunn hit 42 percent of two-point jumpers in 2014-15 (per Hoop-math.com), he shot 35 percent from the college arc and made less than one triple per night. The turnovers should wane with time and experience, but his erratic play should nevertheless be closely monitored.