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Five potential draft steals who could break out in the NBA

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The best players still available after NBA mock draft (1:48)

Jevon Carter and Jalen Brunson are two players who can provide value despite not being taken in the first round of ESPN's NBA mock draft. (1:48)

Every year there are a few prospects who look far better at the NBA level than they did in college because of a variety of situational factors.

Jaylen Brown, an explosive driver and streaky shooter, was rarely able to tap into his aggressive slashing ability with much success at Cal. Playing almost exclusively the 2 and the 3 with two traditional big men clogging the paint, Brown struggled and analytics models said stay away near the top of the draft. Kyle Kuzma was used as more of a roller and post-up big man in Utah's structured half-court offense, unable to regularly unleash the best aspects of his offensive game.

Where a prospect lands is an essential factor in determining what type of pro he becomes, but it's also important to dive into each prospect's NCAA situation to find the next collegiate casualty turned draft day steal. Here are the names to watch in this draft.


Robert Williams | Texas A&M | C | Age: 20.5

There's no greater collegiate casualty in the draft than Williams. While he hasn't done himself any favors with his up-and-down motor, combine no-show and the fact that he's already on his second agent, A&M also robbed him of opportunities to play to his strengths.

1. Played PF not C, with no spacing

College basketball and the NBA look like two different sports at times, and A&M was a perfect example of that with two non-floor-spacing centers in Williams and Tyler Davis playing next to each other and a prototype stretch-4 in DJ Hogg at the 3. Williams played almost exclusively power forward -- a rare position for him at the NBA level.

There's one stat in particular that tells the story of how Williams wasn't used appropriately. At 6-foot-10 with a massive catch radius, elite agility and explosive leaping ability, Williams was used in only 16 pick-and-roll possessions in 30 games, according to Synergy Sports Technology. Sixteen. That's just over one pick-and-roll possession every two games, and he rolled on only nine possessions all year. Nine rolling possessions in 30 games for the draft's best lob-catcher who finished a ridiculous 73.7 percent of his shots at the rim.

Why so few pick-and-roll opportunities? With Davis camped out in the paint and at times only one other shooter on the floor, there was no room for Williams to roll when A&M did decide to put him in ball screens. Williams didn't always screen or dive as hard as he could, but part of that is a function of him knowing it was unlikely he'd have an open lane or an accurate lob thrown his way.

The Aggies used Williams as a high-low passer or stuck him in the short corner, giving the still-raw center little opportunity to use his freakish tools. Playing him at the 4 on defense also put him out of position to protect the rim at times. Although he's the best jump-shot swatter in the draft, he didn't quite learn the ins and outs of team defense at the center spot in two years at the collegiate level.

Where does Williams see himself positionally?

"Honestly wherever I'll make money is where I see myself," Williams told ESPN during the NCAA tournament. That will certainly be at center, in the Clint Capela mold.

2. Poor guard play

"I feel like I'll do well in the NBA because you got elite passers," Williams said. "You got guys like James Harden -- great passers."

Williams didn't have that with the Aggies, as A&M's guard play was uninspiring, to put it nicely. Far too many possessions looked like this:

Eventual starting point guard TJ Starks finished the season with 72 assists and 85 turnovers, regularly breaking free of the offense to create his own. With nowhere to roll and no one to throw him lobs, Williams floated, which bled over to other aspects of his game.

"It's just all effort, man, and that's honestly what I've been trying to improve on," Williams said. "This postseason my teammates have just been telling me I've got to keep my effort up, no [slacking]. I just try to keep that up and lead them."

Over the last five games of the season -- including three in the NCAA tournament -- Williams gave scouts a glimpse of what he can be at the NBA level, as he averaged 15.2 rebounds and 4.8 blocks per 40 minutes, all while playing out of position.

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Texas A&M's Williams slams it home for alley-oop dunk

Admon Gilder lobs it up high, and Robert Williams throws it down with a two-handed jam.

How will it change in the NBA?

Situation will be key for Williams, who needs to be in a structured environment with strong vets to live up to his sky-high potential. But even outside of that, any NBA coach with a modern outlook figures to see Williams' value as a rim runner, lob catcher, switch defender, rim protector and rebounder.

It will help to feed Williams a few lob attempts per game to keep him engaged on the defensive end of the floor, where he has the potential to be elite. Williams also has quite a bit of untapped potential as a passer, which could manifest itself in short roll situations when surrounded by shooters. While not every big man projected in the lottery fits where the NBA is headed, Williams is the ideal type of modern center that shines when surrounded by shooters and quick decision makers. He is loaded with tools and natural talent, and a playoff team with a winning culture would be smart to jump into the back end of the lottery to steal the center, who is without a doubt a top-10 talent.


Wendell Carter Jr. | Duke | C | Age: 19.0

Few players in the 2018 draft have a higher floor than Carter, and we'd likely be talking more about his potential upside if he were the focal point of a high-major team other than Duke. Playing next to Marvin Bagley III, Carter wasn't always able to show what he was fully capable of on the offensive end of the floor. While it's long been Carter's inclination to defer and operate more as a second or third option, playing next to Bagley and even offensively limited bigs such as Marques Bolden and Javin Delaurier didn't always bring out the best in the 19-year-old.

At 6-foot-10, 251 pounds with soft touch and impressive footwork, Carter has always been at his best on the block. He has quick spins, turnarounds and jump hooks in his arsenal, and the vision to kick out to open shooters. With Bagley operating mostly on the interior and Carter sometimes functioning as a power forward next to Bolden/Delaurier, and a non-shooter like Trevon Duval, he rarely had the ideal spacing to go to work on the block, which is part of the reason he committed a turnover on 24 percent of his post-ups. He does play a tense game and put a lot of pressure on himself, but it's clear the lack of offensive flow led to some of his empty-handed post-ups.

Bagley regularly dove right into the paint mid-post up, killing spacing. Teams also helped off Duval completely:

On top of that, Carter attempted only 27 unguarded catch-and-shoot jumpers in 37 games, cashing in on 14 of them. Carter has far more stretch ability than he showed at Duke. Carter also has more short-roll game than we saw in college, where he used only 25 pick-and-roll possessions. His feel should allow him to play out of pocket passes while also offering some finishing ability in space. Although he's not an elite lob-catcher, he's bouncy enough off two feet to finish above the rim with space, which he didn't always have the spacing to do:

On the defensive end, Carter also got the short end of the stick. Playing mostly in the middle of Duke's zone, he was regularly left on an island in the paint, facing 2-on-1 situations after opponents zipped past the Blue Devils' first line of defense:

How will it change in the NBA?

Ideally Carter will be surrounded by shooters and playmakers at the NBA level, allowing him to function as a post scorer and passer against switches, a pick-and-pop threat, diver or a short-roller with no other big lurking in the dunker spot. Defensively, he doesn't project as a switch big, but Carter has excellent verticality at the rim with his 7-foot-4½ wingspan (3.0 blocks per 40), and he rebounds for his position as well (13.4 per 40).

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Duke's Carter dominates the paint in crunch time

Wendell Carter Jr. hits his defender with a turnaround jumper in the paint to seal it for the Blue Devils.


Miles Bridges | Michigan State | F | Age: 20.1

Bridges didn't quite make the statistical jump most had expected after he elected to spurn a 2017 lottery selection to return for his sophomore season. But the similar level of productivity was more a product of how he was used than anything, with coach Tom Izzo regularly forcing him into the small forward spot with offensive rebounder Nick Ward at the 5 and modern center Jaren Jackson Jr. at the 4.

This was clearly an inopportune situation for Bridges, who is much more interesting as a small-ball 4 who can use his explosiveness and versatility in space. You can see the lack of spacing here, and the fact that Bridges attempted 98 pull-up jumpers in 37 games speaks to how he was used with the Spartans -- as a primary shot-creating wing with minimal room to operate:

How will it change in the NBA?

Expect Bridges to look much more comfortable playing the 4 with NBA spacing, potentially unlocking some passing ability that he showed flashes of at Michigan State. He played far too much catch-and-hold basketball in college and figures to spend much more of his time hammering home lobs in transition, knocking down spot-up jumpers after popping to space and attacking on the catch against a scrambling defense. Bridges can play some pick-and-roll, but it's likely to come as a mismatch small-ball 4 to force switches.

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Nairn feeds Bridges for vicious alley-oop slam

Lourawls Nairn Jr. passes to Miles Bridges, who rises up and attacks the rim with a nasty slam dunk in the first half.

Although he did slim down to 220 pounds at the combine, Bridges' offensive versatility along with his ability to defend both big wings and small-ball forwards thanks to his frame and competitiveness makes him an intriguing two-way option in the mid-to-late lottery. While maybe never a first or second option, Bridges figures to look better offensively in the NBA than he did with the Spartans.


Kevin Knox | Kentucky | F | Age: 18.7

Save Michael Porter Jr., Knox is arguably the most talented combo forward in this draft in terms of sheer ability and upside as one of this class' youngest players. While he needs to get tougher and play with assertiveness for longer, Knox wasn't able to fully show off his abilities. Though Knox is seen as more of a modern forward, the majority of Kentucky's offense was based around running him around screens to get an open look with the paint clogged:

While this is certainly a developed skill that will serve him well as a potential on-the-move shooter, it led to some inefficient play with a reliance on far too many contested jumpers. Part of the off-screen volume is likely by design, as Knox was regularly out to prove that he can play the small forward spot when he was in high school. With that said, having one or two non-spacing bigs on the floor at all times along with struggling shooters like Hamidou Diallo didn't help Knox's case. Already playing a bit upright naturally, Knox was regularly knocked off his spots on the way to the rim. He struggled to play in a crowd and converted fewer than one shot at the rim per game in the half court (excluding floaters, where he was outstanding).

Should he embrace shifting his 6-foot-9 frame and 9-foot standing reach up to the modern power forward spot, Knox's game could blossom.

How will it change in the NBA?

Expect Knox to spend the majority of his time at the 4 in the NBA with teams using him as a lane-filler or trail 3 threat in transition, while picking and popping him to space in the half court. Knox shoots an easy ball and has more shooting potential than combo forward foes Miles and Mikal Bridges, which will allow him to play off closeouts and rely more on his length and fluidity as opposed to fighting the lack of spacing we too often see in college. The fact that he doesn't need many dribbles to get to his spots bodes well for Knox, who can take advantage of slower-footed defenders checking him in the NBA.

The key will be whether he can survive on the backboards and defensively against more physical forwards long enough to take advantage of the edge he'll have at the 4 offensively. Knox was more of an energy defender when we first started evaluating him at age 15, so it's not out of the question that he can recapture some of that effort once his role changes in the NBA.

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Gilgeous-Alexander sets up Knox's open 3-pointer

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander spins around a defender and then kicks it out to Kevin Knox who drains an open 3-pointer for Kentucky.


Lonnie Walker IV | Miami | G | Age: 19.4

One of the most physically gifted guards in the draft, Walker struggled to find consistency with Miami in part because of the mix of personnel. Walker isn't the most natural ball handler, playmaker or decision maker on the floor, so the fact that he spent a large portion of the season next to shoot-first, dribble-happy guards like Ja'Quan Newton and Chris Lykes didn't help his case.

He was able to play next to the unselfish Bruce Brown for the first 19 games before Brown's injury, but Walker was still working toward 100 percent after tearing his MCL in the summer. Not the most dominant personality, Walker struggled to find his way next to Lykes and Newton, and he was tasked with a lot of late-clock, shot-creation situations. Walker's confidence dips at times, as he's prone to going long stretches without having an impact.

The fact that Walker attempted only 21 unguarded catch-and-shoot jumpers in 32 games (scoring 1.714 points per possessions on those shots, per Synergy) speaks volumes in regard to how he was used. For comparison's sake, Walker hoisted 61 guarded catch-and-shoot jumpers and 70 pull-ups. Nothing came easily for Walker and Miami last season, which played a big role in his up-and-down freshman year.

How will it change in the NBA?

Walker figures to play alongside guards with better feel in the NBA, allowing him to focus on being a transition athlete, on-the-move shooter, straight-line slasher and defender, while gradually growing the rest of his game. Ideally, Walker can function more as a spot shooter next to a savvy point guard as a rookie, with his future club eventually using him more in second-side ball-screen situations as he progresses.

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Miami's Walker hits the trey

Chris Lykes drives into traffic, then finds Lonnie Walker wide open for the deep 3-pointer.

If he maximizes his potential long-term, it will be because he develops into a ball-screen shot creator, but it's important that -- given his occasional dips in confidence and consistency -- his future team keeps things simple early in his career. Think of a similar trajectory to how Jaylen Brown progressed with the Celtics -- find a role as a pseudo 3-and-D player on a winning team, and add more to his shot-creation arsenal incrementally. Although his no-show games are certainly partially his own doing, expect Walker to be put in a more advantageous situation in the NBA than he was at Miami, and he could end up developing into one of the draft's biggest steals, depending on where he lands.