Unsurprisingly, the 2016 NBA Draft will be dominated by the glorification and lofty valuation of one-and-done prospects.
While the NCAA’s fabulous freshman soak up the lion’s share of attention — deservedly so, for the most part — don’t sleep on this year’s crop of sophomores. The group isn’t stacked with firepower, but there are some intriguing youngsters who still possess a boatload of untapped riches.
We assembled our top five sophomore prospects based on their 2014-15 skills and stats, but more importantly, their tangible NBA potential. Who made the cut?
5. Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, Kansas G (6’8″)
We only saw a small sample of Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk at Kansas last year, and it wasn’t particularly impressive (31 percent shooting, including 29 percent from three-point range). The good news is that the Ukrainian sophomore is exceptionally young, having just turned 18 in June.
Want even better news? He’s a 6’8″ 2-guard with great handles, passing vision and perimeter scoring skills. Mykhailiuk can create shots off the bounce with either hand and finish acrobatically at the rim.
With a larger role in 2015-16, he’ll be able to showcase his true shooting rhythm and long-term potential. There’s a great chance the shifty European could become a valuable NBA combo guard three or four years from now.
4. Justin Jackson, North Carolina SF (6’8″)
Justin Jackson is rail-thin and his freshman year at UNC was mostly underwhelming. But his length, feel for the game and scoring touch flourished toward the end of the season. Jackson scored in double figures in 11 of the Tar Heels’ last 12 games, and the party continued into the summer. Mike Schmitz of DraftExpress.com lauded Jackson’s efforts at the Nike Skills Academy in July:
(Jackson) proved to be the most offensively polished small forward out of a very talented group of wings. Jackson has excellent natural scoring instincts and is capable of getting buckets from all over the floor…He showed his high basketball IQ with his passing ability, fluidity with the basketball driving in a straight line and attacking closeouts, and lethal mid-range pull up/floater game off the dribble.
One of the biggest questions surrounding Jackson’s game is his three-point consistency. His form is a bit rigid and he shot just 30 percent from distance as a freshman. However, Jackson finished the season on a 13-of-26 (50 percent) tear, proving he has some long-range potential.
If he can churn out better efficiency from deep along with improved defense, Jackson could win over several mid-first-round suitors.
3. Domantas Sabonis, Gonzaga PF (6’10”)
With a nose for the rock and an insatiable motor, Lithuanian import Domantas Sabonis is poised for another strong campaign at Gonzaga.
Considering his fairly limited skill set, Sabonis projects to be an energy big man in the Association. It’s a good thing he’s relentless around the bucket, defending stingily while snagging 13.0 rebounds per 40 minutes and converting 77 percent of his attempts at the rim (per hoop-math.com). It won’t be easy for Sabonis to score in the NBA, but it’s promising that he shot 44 percent on two-point jumpers last year.
Sabonis is part of a well-oiled machine at Gonzaga, so there’s no doubt he’ll have a productive year. Scouts won’t be looking for statistics as much as skills, so his draft placement will depend largely on what tasks he executes.
2. Malik Pope, San Diego State SF (6’9″)
This selection is based largely off glimpses of potential. Although Malik Pope didn’t have a substantial role last year, he offers tantalizing physical tools and shooting skills as a 6’9″ wing. Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman took notice:
“He didn’t get much freshman burn, but when he did, Malik Pope’s physical tools, athleticism and ball skills stood out under the NBA lens…Pope shot 40.8 percent from deep and 41.5 percent on two-point jumpers, per Hoop-Math.com. He looked confident spotting up and comfortable shooting off screens and step-backs. Pope also created numerous highlights above the rim with open-floor dunks and backdoor alley-oops.
Pope still has a lot to prove, especially when it comes to generating his own shot in half-court scenarios. But if he shows a bit of improvement in Year 2 at San Diego State, it’ll be tough for late-lottery teams to pass on him.
1. Jakob Poeltl, Utah C (7’0″)
While he doesn’t have dynamic explosiveness or superstar skills, Jakob Poeltl’s value as a role player in the NBA could be immense.
The Austria native delivered a rock-solid freshman season for Utah in 2014-15. He protected the rim (3.2 blocks per 40 minutes), executed pick-and-rolls and dominated the offensive glass. Poeltl led the Pac-12 and ranked seventh nationally in offensive rebounding percentage (16.0), constantly battling for position underneath the hoop. He rarely missed an opportunity to put himself in prime position to rebound or catch and score.
Poeltl’s size, mobility and feel for the game were recently on full display during a 27-point game (in 28 minutes) against the Lithuanian National Team on Aug. 12. While he’s not a high-flyer who will bounce over people, he can run end-to-end better than most 7-footers. Don’t be surprised if Poeltl’s interior command translates to an early first-round selection.