We’ve all seen the Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson highlights. Everyone knows about the Thompson twins, and the analysts will tell you all about the next NBA-ready Duke product. It seems like the mid-to-late first and second rounds are never touched until about a month before the NBA Draft, but it makes sense; you never know what will happen over the course of the next seven months.
It’s too early to tell where players will fall because we haven’t seen where players will move on big boards and how they’ll perform on their respective teams, whether it be in college or the pros outside of the NBA. We can certainly make some predictions, but only time will tell. Some of the prospects mentioned in this list may very well end up as a high-lottery pick by June. Nevertheless, here are some early sleepers to watch out for if your favorite team isn’t tanking for that top spot:
Jordan Walsh (Arkansas)
Jordan Walsh is a part of the extremely talented Arkansas recruiting class, highlighted by himself, Nick Smith, and Anthony Black, all five-star players. Walsh’s frame adds so much to his game, and he easily passes the eye test if you watch his highlights at Link Academy.
Walsh reminds me of Jayson Tatum with his frame. He’s 6’7’’, 190 pounds, and he’s lengthy with a 7-foot-3 wingspan. He has a smooth touch at the rim and his ability to attack downhill from the wing makes him so special. The only criticism is his ability to knock down shots. The jumper looks clean, but it’s not totally efficient yet.
Failed players like Thon Maker will tell you that frame isn’t everything in the NBA, but Giannis Anteotkounmpo will show you that that isn’t totally true, and that the skill will come. I don’t think Walsh the next Giannis, but I think he leans toward the latter.
This polarized view of athletic prospects is why Walsh is projected in the late-lottery on some big boards, and in others towards the late-first round. Walsh will shock a lot of people this season because he’s more than a power-five starter. What people underestimate is that his teammate at Arkansas is Nick Smith, the number one-ranked point guard in the class of 2022. Smith is not just known for his scoring, but for premier playmaking as well.
Smith will get Walsh the ball in his spots, and there’s no doubt that Walsh can polish his game with his incredible work ethic. Walsh is already carried by his ability to push ahead in the open floor, and if he can develop his jumpshot and add offensive IQ to his perimeter game with his already-spectacular transition IQ, he can be scary.
Caleb Love (North Carolina)
Everyone remembers Caleb Love’s shot to send North Carolina past Duke in the 2022 NCAA Final Four. The second-year guard had a chance to enter his name in this past year’s NBA Draft but ultimately decided to return to Chapel Hill after losing to Kansas in the National Championship.
Love is a standout defender. He has a knack for getting into the passing lane and disrupting the wing. But it’s not just the defense that will catch your eye, as Love displays sneaky athleticism. He has the ability to knock down tough jumpers, but don’t fall for his shot fake, because there’s no stopping him when he gets to the rim.
A criticism is Love’s shot IQ; at times he can try to impersonate Stephen Curry with his deep selection of threes. Don’t get me wrong, he can knock them down, but that isn’t necessarily going to translate in the NBA.
Experience comes to mind when you argue to take Love. He’s been on the biggest stage in college sports, and he’s hit the big shots. When Love takes over, it’s like he’s in his own world. He scored 28 points on 11-20 shooting in the Final Four against Duke, outplaying the 2022 number-one overall pick Paolo Banchero.
There are definitely guards in this draft that are better or have more potential than Caleb Love, but he can definitely be seen as a late-first-round prize and turn into a nice score-first starter in the NBA.
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Chris Livingston (Kentucky)
Chris Livingston to me is Caleb Love with a better shot. The Kentucky freshman was a catch-and-shoot machine at Oak Hill Academy, and he’s projected as a mid-to-late-first-round player in most mock drafts.
The fact that Livingston went to Oak Hill Academy alone should be a major benefit for him. Located in Virginia, the school has produced over 30 NBA players, the most of any high school ever.
It certainly won’t be easy for Livingston to carve out a role in this year’s Kentucky squad. Returners like Sahvir Wheeler, Jacob Toppin, and Oscar Tshiebwe have starting roles on lock to start the season, and Livingston joins a recruiting class not just highlighted by himself, but also by five-star Carson Wallace and seven-foot center Ugonna Kingsley Onyenso.
Livingston has the athleticism, but his highlights more often than not are his ability to create and knock down jumpers. He likes to rise as high as he can on his midrange shots, and he has a smooth stroke from the three.
Armando Bacot (North Carolina)
The NBA Draft hasn’t been very favorable of favor multi-year college centers in recent years. In fact, we see first-year guards and forwards at the top now more than ever (with of course the exception of Victor Wembanyama). Armando Bacot looks to challenge that perspective. The 6’10” soon-to-be senior is the leader of a Tar Heel squad looking for redemption.
Bacot is so special because of his IQ as a center. He can certainly rebound, averaging 13.1 boards in 2022, good for third in the nation. If you watch Bacot, his hustle and ability to fit in his role at center, yet be the best player on the floor should catch your eye. His athleticism won’t wow you; he’s not the type to throw down a thunderous dunk over another center or send a shot into the third row. What Bacot can do best is post up and shake the defender off of him, display a smooth touch at the rim, and feed his teammates if he’s doubled.
Bacot’s story of injuries is a bit of a red flag when looking at his durability. He most recently suffered back-to-back injuries in the Final Four matchup against Duke and the championship game against Kansas. He is fully healthy this season, however, and his ability to come back year after year with better stats is a testament to his mental strength.
Combine the IQ with the experience and toughness, and there’s a recipe for Bacot to carve out a long career in the NBA. He’ll certainly reinforce the argument in what looks to be his final year at Chapel Hill.
Amari Bailey (UCLA)
Amari Bailey is used to the spotlight. He is definitely the most well-known high school player on this list. Attending Sierra Canyon with basketball prodigies like Bronny James, Cassius Stanley, and KJ Martin, Bailey was still the best player in three out of his four years in Chatsworth, CA.
If Julius Randle was 6’5’’ and twice as athletic, you’d have Amari Bailey. He’s so shifty from the top of the key, and his speed in transition is unmatched. The jumpshot, like many of the players on this list, needs a bit of work. It’s not totally there, and Bailey’s finishing ability definitely catches the eye first.
I can’t see why Bailey is projected as a late-first-round or early-secound-round player given his abilities. Yes, he needs to work on the three, but his NBA-level ability to work around defenders and finish with ease outweighs that. He can certainly create shots for himself, as his ball handling isn’t going to wow you like Kyrie Irving, but he has the speed and he picks his spots so perfectly.
What will be Bailey’s biggest challenge at UCLA is similar to Chris Livingston’s: carving out a big role. UCLA is just under two years removed from its incredible NCAA tournament run, and the Bruins have returners like Jaylen Clark, Jaime Jaquez Jr., and Tyger Campbell locking up starting spots.
I can see Bailey taking the starting spot that former UCLA star Johnny Juzang had at the small forward position. Bailey can fill in that three-spot well as a score-first transition machine. There’s no doubting his confidence, and he has all the tools to prove why the lottery teams should take a chance on him.