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2022 NBA draft: Keegan Murray, Johnny Davis and the players who made their way onto the Top 100

Sometimes, the best draft day stories come from players we didn’t expect to be there in the first place.

Players like Jimmy Butler, Draymond Green and Desmond Bane all needed some extra time in college to fully refine their games. While they were overlooked in the lottery, the teams that eventually drafted them realized they not only had players who could immediately contribute but had the potential to be foundational contributors.

As scouts and evaluators begin ramping up for the 2022 NBA draft, which players have emerged from off the radar to atop our big board?

Keegan Murray | 6-8 | PF/C | Iowa | No. 6
Murray’s ascension from a no-name high school recruit with just one Division I offer (from Western Illinois) to an All-American might be the best story of any prospect in this draft class.

A bit player as a freshman, Murray is now college basketball’s leading scorer, shooting 69% from inside the arc while filling up the rest of the box score impressively with rebounds, blocks and steals in just 29 minutes per game.

Murray has been performing like a national player of the year candidate, and perfectly fits what the NBA is looking for with his ability to defend all over the floor, score without needing plays called for him and play a highly efficient, mistake-free style. Yet, there’s a degree of skepticism from scouts due to Iowa’s extremely weak nonconference schedule to this point, which ranks No. 345 in the country. Murray also sat out a game against No. 3 Purdue because of an ankle sprain, and had his worst game of the season in a blowout loss to in-state rivals Iowa State, one of the few real tests his team has faced thus far.

All that’s about to change as Big Ten play ramps up in the coming weeks, which should provide ample opportunity for Murray to show sustained improvement.

Shooting the ball more consistently from beyond the arc would be a welcome start — Murray has converted just 33% of his career 3-pointers at Iowa — while demonstrating some ability to convert off movement, picking and popping, coming off screens and making pull-up jumpers in small doses. His solid mechanics, excellent free throw percentage (82%) and soft touch around the basket should help his cause.

While not a brilliant ball handler, Murray is a versatile weapon on offense, from pushing the ball off the defensive glass to finding the open man and finishing explosively around the basket. He’s also turning the ball over on a microscopic 5.6% of his possessions, a testament to his feel for the game and willingness to stay within himself.

Of high interest for NBA evaluators is the way Murray alternates between anchoring the Hawkeyes’ defense from the 5-spot atop their full-court press, to showing terrific instincts in half-court defensive situations by rotating from the weak side for blocks, getting in passing lanes and locking up on switches. At 6-foot-8, he looks legitimately big enough to see minutes as a small-ball center in the NBA.

Once criticized for lacking a degree of grit earlier in his career, Murray’s ability to sustain the intensity level and aggressiveness he has demonstrated this season while leading Iowa to the NCAA tournament would go a long way in solidifying him as a top-10 pick. — Jonathan Givony

Johnny Davis | 6-5 | PG/SG | Wisconsin | No. 7

Davis had the single-most impressive performance of the season thus far — a 37-point, 14-rebound explosion — in a 74-69 road win over No. 3 Purdue.

The 19-year-old wasn’t particularly well regarded coming out of high school, and showed few signs of turning into one of the best players in college basketball as a freshman, averaging 7 points per game coming off the bench. After helping USA basketball win a gold medal at the FIBA U19 World Cup this past summer, he has progressed into a likely All-American candidate.

Davis displays an ideal combination of defensive toughness, transition scoring and playmaking ability for himself and others. He is Wisconsin’s de facto point guard and generally makes solid decisions in creating open looks for teammates while putting nonstop pressure on the defense. Davis can operate out of the post or attack out of pick-and-roll, with the ability to connect from long range, hit midrange pull-ups and finish with either hand around the basket.

While his scoring efficiency (48% from 2, 31% from 3) isn’t ideal and he is inconsistent in generating assists compared to other combo guard prospects, he plays a winning style of basketball. Being forced to play an outsized role with little help around him will benefit his long-term development. The fact that he expends as much energy on the defensive end, especially in crashing the glass, is notable.

Playing in the brutal Big Ten will test Davis, while also providing an ideal platform for scouts to evaluate him against a slew of projected draft picks. The fact that he doesn’t turn 20 until the end of the college season will help his cause, as he will be one of the youngest sophomores projected to be drafted this summer. — Givony

Bryce McGowens | 6-7 | SG | Nebraska | No. 24

The leading scorer on a 6-8 Cornhuskers team, McGowens has proven to be one of the NCAA’s more polarizing freshmen through his first 14 games. He can look like a surefire lottery pick some nights and a potential second-rounder on others. What will McGowens need to do to prove he belongs in the lottery conversation to scouts?

Upping his offensive efficiency against sturdier defenses while playing with more urgency defensively are the immediate challenges for the 19-year-old. In eight games against teams with a winning record, McGowens is averaging 14.6 points, 0.9 assists and 1.1 turnovers on 40% from 2 and 17% from 3 in 35.5 minutes. In six games against teams with losing records, McGowens is averaging 17.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.7 turnovers while shooting 70% from 2 and 37% from 3 in 30.4 minutes.

Scouts saw the good and the bad during Nebraska’s overtime loss to Ohio State on Sunday, arguably McGowen’s toughest test of the season so far. The South Carolina native scored 18 points on 19 shots, knocking down a pair of deep 3s while showing his ability to change pace and get downhill to the rim and make a heady read out of pick-and-roll. But he also played a big role in Ohio State freshman Malaki Branham exploding for a career-best 35 points with his lackluster defense and had issues separating and finishing over 6-foot-7 forward E.J. Liddell.

When McGowens gets going, it’s easy to compare him to guards like Dejounte Murray of the San Antonio Spurs and Bones Hyland of the Denver Nuggets. He shoots it from well beyond the NBA line like Hyland, mixing in step-backs and hesitations to get into his pull-up. He’s also capable of playing off hang dribbles to get into the paint, striding into slow-down floaters, unraveling his 6-9 wingspan into finesse finishes with either hand.

But against more competitive teams, McGowens — weighing in at 179 pounds — has struggled to play through contact as a driver and finisher. When his early-clock deep 3s don’t fall, he lacks other ways to consistently impact the game. Scouts will want to see McGowens defend more physically and with urgency.

Looking forward, there’s no easy out in the Big Ten. How will McGowens fare against other rising stars like Max Christie, Jaden Ivey and the aforementioned Davis? If McGowens can prove he’s a better shooter than his 25% 3-point clip suggests (81% on free throws), take better shots, flash some semblance of point guard potential and show he’s a willing defender, he’ll have no shortage of suitors, even in the lottery. If the struggles against top-tier teams continue, his naysayers will view him as a volume scorer who needs time before he can help an NBA team. — Mike Schmitz

​​A.J. Griffin | 6-6 | SF/PF | Duke | No. 29
After an underwhelming preseason and a slow start to his freshman campaign, Griffin, an 18-year-old forward, has a lot of positive momentum as Duke moves deeper into conference play, looking like the Blue Devils’ second-best NBA prospect in the process. Since playing just 1 minute and 59 seconds in a loss to Ohio State, Griffin has hit his stride, averaging 12 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.0 blocks in 21.1 minutes over the past five games while shooting a scorching 12-for-15 from 2 and 8-for-16 from 3.

It’s no surprise to see Griffin go for 19-4-4 in a 41-point win over South Carolina State or score 11 points in 19 minutes in a drubbing of Appalachian State. But Griffin’s 13-point, 4-rebound performance in a win over a competitive Virginia Tech team and 12-point, 6-rebound showing against Georgia Tech last night are significant signs of growth, setting the blueprint for the impact he can have this season and in the NBA. Griffin was one of coach Mike Krzyzewski’s most reliable players against Georgia Tech, finishing with a team-best plus-18 while helping ice the game with a heady cut and slam as well as a smart kickout for an open 3 that perfectly illustrated his steadily improving feel.

At 6-6 with a strong 222-pound frame and a 7-foot wingspan, Griffin played with excellent defensive energy against both the Hokies and Yellow Jackets. He stood up bigs in the post with his sturdy base, denied wing entries, blew up dribble handoffs for steals, boxed out with physicality and covered ground on closeouts. Duke even used him to try to slow ACC leading scorer Michael Devoe. He’ll still take bad angles on the ball and get beat to the rim or lose focus off the ball and commit freshman fouls. But the defensive glimpses are plentiful, and he’s also showing promise as a floor-spacer, knocking down spot and step-back 3s, cashing a midrange pull-up going left, and looking much more comfortable as a ball handler and facilitator.

Griffin is keeping the game simple, moving the ball and thriving as a key cog in Duke’s death lineup as a small-ball 4 next to potential top pick Paolo Banchero at the 5 — a position we’ve seen occupied by the likes of Jayson Tatum, Justise Winslow and Brandon Ingram. It’s that lineup that closed the game for the Blue Devils against Georgia Tech and could take Duke deep into March, helping Griffin work his way back into the good graces of NBA scouts along the way.

While Griffin’s comfortability, confidence and winning impact are major positives, the 18-year-old still has a lot to prove, especially with the less than stellar first impression he made on evaluators in the preseason. The ACC doesn’t have its usual depth of prospects, but scouts will still keep a close eye on Griffin, particularly whether his shooting, improving decision-making and uptick in defensive activity can carry over. If it does, it’s not out of the question that Griffin reemerges as a potential lottery pick, especially given his coveted role, age and long-term outlook. — Schmitz

Peyton Watson | 6-8 | SF | UCLA | No. 30

It’s no surprise that Watson hasn’t been overly productive through the first nine games of his NCAA career. Watson’s a late-bloomer who didn’t play varsity basketball until his junior year at Long Beach Poly, arrived in Westwood with UCLA’s best players — Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez Jr. — playing his position. Moreover, upperclassmen Tyger Campbell and Jules Bernard generally have the ball when the Bruins’ sophomore wing tandem doesn’t. That quartet accounts for over 70% of UCLA’s scoring.

But even with modest stats anticipated, few expected to see Watson, shooting just 35.1% from 2 and 10% from 3 through his first two months and ranking last in our top-100 in true shooting percentage while struggling to log double-digit minutes against competitive teams like Villanova and Marquette. UCLA hasn’t played since Dec. 11 due to a three-week COVID-19 pause and will start conference play against Stanford on Jan. 6. If Watson wants to hold the interest of NBA scouts as a 2022 prospect, it’s vital that he starts showing signs of growth.

That growth doesn’t have to come by scoring, as Watson is at his best when he’s keeping it simple and putting less pressure on himself. The 19-year-old wasn’t slotted as a potential lottery pick because he was projected as a go-to scorer or dynamic shot creator, it was his combination of physical tools (6-8 with a 7-1 wingspan) along with his fluidity and defensive energy. Plus, the glimpses he showed as a passer and midrange shooter — he averaged 11.1 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 3.7 blocks and 1.8 steals per 40 minutes off the bench on the USA U19 gold-medal team — also helped.

While Watson is playing hard within his role under coach Mick Cronin — 11.6 rebounds, 1.9 steals and 1.6 blocks per 40 minutes — scouts will want to see the game start to slow down for him, as he has had his fair share of “deer in headlights” moments. He has missed his past 12 shots from the field over his past four games, misfiring on short pull-ups and finishes around the rim, while turning down catch-and-shoot 3s. Continuing to run the floor hard, staying active as a cutter and rebounder, drawing fouls, showing more glimpses as a passer and staying spaced to the corners for open 3s will be key. Defensively, picking up team concepts and evolving into a one-on-one stopper will help him stay on the floor.

He has an excellent opportunity to show his defensive worth on Thursday against Stanford freshman wing Harrison Ingram, and two meetings against Ben Mathurin and Arizona are still on the schedule. Watson is known as a great teammate, and continuing to buy into Cronin’s vision and becoming a valuable player on a winning UCLA team will go a long way for NBA scouts, whether he’s playing five minutes a night or 20. — Schmitz

Caleb Houstan | 6-8 | SF | Michigan | No. 31
Coming off an outstanding showing at this summer’s FIBA U19 World Cup by leading Canada to a bronze medal while ranking as one of the best scorers at the event, Houstan, a top-10 recruit and two-time high school national champion, looked like a likely candidate to emerge as a one-and-done lottery pick.

Things haven’t been nearly as smooth as expected two months into the season. Houstan has struggled to score with consistency or efficiency, alternating between looking passive and forcing the issue inside and outside the arc, while looking physically overwhelmed.

I sat courtside this past weekend in Orlando, Florida, as Houstan had his worst game thus far in a blowout loss to UCF, scoring just one point in 25 minutes while shooting 0-for-7 from the field. Michigan has been one of the biggest disappointments of the season, a preseason top-five team that’s now 7-6 and without any wins over projected NCAA tournament teams.

Houstan looked like a completely different player in high school and this past summer with the Canadian national team, playing with confidence and showing versatility as a ball handler, passer, defender and shooter, while playing through contact effectively and putting his teams on his back in clutch moments. NBA scouts will want to see a lot more of that in Big Ten play, as he has lacked burst, explosiveness and aggressiveness while having his shot blocked frequently.

Houstan will need to be much more like the 41% 3-point shooter he was in high school than the 31% he has converted thus far in college, while also doing a much better job defensively, something that used to be his calling card.

Houstan isn’t the first blue-chip prospect to need more time to adjust to the college game. Still only 18, Houstan could benefit from another year at Michigan to add bulk, regain his confidence and find more consistency on both ends of the floor, but the next few months could still give us a better gauge on his potential. — Givony

Tari Eason | 6-8 | PF/C | LSU | No. 36

Despite moving up in level from Cincinnati to LSU last summer, the sophomore has been one of the breakout performers of the season thus far, averaging a remarkable 25.9 points, 12.1 rebounds, 2.5 steals and 2.3 blocks per 40 minutes on excellent efficiency (60% TS%).

Coming off the bench as an undersized center for an LSU team that faced a weak non-conference schedule (zero top-50 opponents) and relies heavily on smothering opponents with its full-court press, it’s easy to see why scouts have registered a degree of skepticism about Eason’s numbers.

Still, there’s a lot to like about the Seattle native. Most of his offense comes by hustle and instincts, be it leaking out in transition, crashing the offensive glass or ducking into the paint off cuts or as a pick-and-roll finisher. He draws plenty of fouls thanks to his intensity and by moving at a different speed than most players, and has converted 79% of his free throw attempts this season (up from 57% last year) despite his awkward shooting mechanics. His 25% career 3-point percentage is something he’ll have to improve on moving forward.

Eason shows some ability to beat slower opponents off the bounce with long, powerful strides, solid ball-handling and interesting footwork as a finisher. He alternates between playing wild and sped-up versus making notable passes that find teammates with more creativity than you’d expect.

Defensively, there’s a lot to like about the quick hands and feet he shows generating turnovers, his ability to cover ground to protect the basket and the way he switches on the perimeter with his length and intensity. There are some questions about whether he has the size and bulk needed to play as much small-ball center in the NBA as he currently does, or whether he can improve his offensive polish and shooting to transition into a wing player.

After he fouled out and struggled against possibly the best frontcourt in the country in Auburn’s Walker Kessler and Jabari Smith, NBA scouts will be closely monitoring how Eason looks against the best of the SEC to better gauge his merits as a first-round pick. — Givony

Harrison Ingram | 6-8 | SF | Stanford | No. 37
Scouts will be monitoring Ingram, a 19-year-old Texas native, as Stanford enters conference play. Watching Ingram at preseason practice and up close in Las Vegas against Texas, there’s plenty to like about him long term, especially given the NBA’s need for two-way forwards with length, strength and feel — like second-round steals Herb Jones and Dalano Banton. Ingram is every bit of 230 pounds with a powerful frame and a 7-foot wingspan, comparing physically to wings like Stanley Johnson and Harrison Barnes.

Ingram is a bit of a throwback player, regularly using a football-like frame to take smalls into the post (15% of his offense) to either score or facilitate. Stanford plays at the 115th-slowest pace in the country according to Kenpom.com, allowing Ingram the time to get to his spots and unleash one of his best skills — his passing. He’s comfortable finding cutters or weak side shooters out of the post and can hit the roll man over the top in pick-and-roll.

Ingram doesn’t have much juice off the dribble or pop around the rim as a leaper, forcing him to rely on his strength and handle. While he makes up for those shortcomings with his size at the collegiate level, he’ll have to prove himself as a shooter (31% from 3) and add more finesse around the rim (47% from 2) to evolve into an NBA-caliber scoring threat. With a somewhat slow and flat-footed release, spacing the floor will be imperative for Ingram, especially because he’ll likely be in an off-ball role versus isolating out of the post.

There aren’t many holes in Ingram’s game besides shooting, as he does the little things teams look for in a role player. He crashes the offensive and defensive glass, talks defensively and plays with toughness and spirit, even at times embracing the role as Stanford’s leader despite his age. Although he’s not all that quick in a sit and slide sense and isn’t immune to lapses on occasion, Ingram’s combination of strength, length and smarts make him switchable and an overall plus defensively.

How Ingram fares against top competition will help determine whether he’s ready to emerge as a true 2022 draftee with first-round potential, or more of a two-and-done whose skill set isn’t quite polished enough yet to make up for his physical limitations. Will his power-reliant offensive attack translate against a physical forward like UCLA’s Jaquez? Can he chase around wing scorers like UCLA’s Juzang and Arizona’s Mathurin? Can he finish over an NBA-level shot-blocker like Arizona’s Christian Koloko? That’s what scouts will be watching for. — Schmitz

Walker Kessler | 7-1 | C | Auburn Tigers | No. 39

Sparsely used as a freshman at North Carolina, Kessler transferred to Auburn where he has turned into one of the better bigs in college. Now paired up with potential No. 1 pick Jabari Smith, the Tigers have one of the best frontcourts in the country and are sitting pretty with a 13-1 record.

Kessler has improved throughout the year, recording the first points-rebounds-blocks triple-double against a ranked opponent in more than 15 years. Kessler finished with 16 points, 10 rebounds and 11 blocks in a win over LSU.

Kessler’s appeal starts with his dimensions, weighing 245 pounds with a 7-5 wingspan and a 9-3 standing reach. He towers over opponents, making him an outstanding target for pick-and-roll lobs, and shows reliable hands while catching pocket passes. He’s able to knock down turnaround jumpers and hook shots while demonstrating polished footwork around the basket or attacking closeouts from the perimeter with both hands. He also shows potential with his passing, especially out of high-low and short rolls where he has mostly made good decisions while flashing a feel for cutting to open spots.

Known for his shooting prowess in high school, he’s just a 19.2% shooter from 3 and 56% from the free throw line in his college career. Rediscovering his stroke would be notable; there are questions about whether he has the run-jump quickness and explosiveness to emerge as a major scorer at the NBA level, as there’s a bit of a robotic quality to his game in that he relies on his size to find advantages.

Where NBA teams will find Kessler most appealing is on defense, where he’s the No. 1 shot-blocker in the college game according to several metrics. He’s agile, slides his feet laterally and has proven capable of staying in front of smaller players with quick hip turns to contain opponents without fouling and then erase shots at the rim with timing and instincts. His mobility and smarts give Auburn flexibility covering pick-and-rolls depending on the opponent’s personnel, as he’s proven capable of handling hard hedges, drops and switches, or downing to the baseline. Naturally right-handed, most of Kessler’s blocks come with his left, as his hand-eye coordination and reaction time allow him to stay down on fakes and keep rejections in bounds, often recovering at the rim after initially appearing to get beat.

Entering SEC play, which features seven top-25 teams according to the ESPN BPI, will be a major opportunity for Kessler to solidify himself as a first-round prospect. Auburn’s only loss, and one of Kessler’s worst games of the season, came against a physical frontcourt opponent in UConn’s Adama Sanogo, which will make matchups with Kentucky, Florida, Tennessee and Alabama intriguing.

With a great deal of NBA talent and a roster that looks capable of making a Final Four run, Auburn will be one of the most closely scouted teams in the country over the next three months. — Givony

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