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Early season tourney takeaways: Which NBA prospects are showing out already? Which teams look legit?

Krysten Peek
·11-min read

It’s been a surprisingly good first week of college basketball with a limited amount of games being postponed or canceled due to COVID-19. The Champions Classic usually tips off the college season at the beginning of November with the same four teams playing one another every year — Michigan State, Kansas, Kentucky and Duke. The location changes every year with last year’s games being played in a sold-out Madison Square Garden in New York. This year is significantly different with Kentucky and Kansas playing in an empty arena in Indianapolis and Michigan State traveling to Durham to play Duke in an empty Cameron Indoor Stadium. Duke will return the favor and travel to East Lansing for a game next season.

The Maui Invitational also took place this week with a little twist as well. Instead of the games being played in Hawaii, teams traveled to Asheville, North Carolina, with the play-by-play and color commentary being called remotely and cardboard cutouts filled the arena in place of fans. North Carolina, Texas, Stanford, Alabama, UNLV, Providence and Davidson all participated and were able to compete.

No one knows how the college basketball season will fare, but for now basketball fans will enjoy getting a first glimpse of future NBA draft picks and an early assessment of where their team could land if there is an NCAA tournament.

NBA draft prospect tracker

Jalen Wilson (Kansas)

Wilson was the most impressive freshman on the court Tuesday, scoring 21 of his 23 points in the second half to nearly outscore the entire Kentucky team by himself. Wilson sat out and redshirted last year after suffering a broken ankle early in the season. The 6-foot-8 wing looks stronger than ever and is undoubtedly now on NBA scouts’ radar. He scored from all three levels Tuesday night, making some tough shots in the lane and hitting two 3-pointers. Wilson is the player to watch for Kansas this season.

Jalen Wilson #10 of the Kansas Jayhawks shoots the ball while defended by Isaiah Jackson #23 of the Kentucky Wildcats in the Champions Classic on Dec. 1. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Jalen Wilson of the Kansas Jayhawks shoots the ball while defended by Isaiah Jackson of the Kentucky Wildcats in the Champions Classic on Dec. 1. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Jalen Johnson (Duke)

Johnson was named the ACC Freshman of the Week after a perfect game against Coppin State (8-for-8 from the field, 1-for-1 from the 3-point line and 100 percent from the free-throw line), tallying 19 points, 19 rebounds and five assists. Johnson had an impressive block in the first possession of the Michigan State game and the Duke coaching staff has given him freedom on offense to create for others or finish at the rim. Johnson’s early NBA comparisons are Jayson Tatum and Grant Hill and he is a projected top-10 draft pick.

B.J. Boston (Kentucky)

Boston is a long shooting guard at 6-foot-7 with a 6-foot-11 wingspan. He’s long enough to guard every position on the perimeter and had the best dunk of the first half over Kansas’ Ochai Agbaji. Boston finished with 12 points and is now averaging 15.6 points in three games. His game reminds NBA scouts of Brandon Ingram with his length and shooting mechanics. Boston is a projected top-10 pick in the 2021 NBA draft.

Ziaire Williams (Stanford)

Williams is the highest-rated prospect to ever play at Stanford, so there was a lot of pressure on the 6-foot-8 freshman. Williams spent his entire summer working out in Las Vegas alongside newly drafted NBA players Tyrese Haliburton, Josh Green, Malachi Flynn and Reggie Perry. He scored 19 points in his debut game against Alabama and had some key, high-level plays in the loss against North Carolina. With under four minutes left, Williams grabbed a crucial offensive rebound for a tough put-back basket to put the Cardinal up by two points. He can sit down and guard positions one through four and had two steals off the pick-and-roll switch.

Stanford Cardinal forward Ziaire Williams (3) takes a shot against the Alabama Crimson Tide during a game on Nov. 30. (Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Stanford Cardinal forward Ziaire Williams (3) takes a shot against the Alabama Crimson Tide during a game on Nov. 30. (Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Caleb Love (North Carolina)

Love replaced Cole Anthony as the floor general this year and looked impressive against Stanford. The St. Louis native finished with 16 points, including an easy basket at the elbow to go up by two points with three minutes left in the game. He is extremely poised for being a freshman and made all the right reads when the game was on the line. If Love can stay consistent all season, North Carolina will be a dangerous team.

Isaiah Jackson (Kentucky)

The Kentucky wings get a lot of hype, but Jackson is a big-time prospect standing at 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-2 wingspan. Jackson is a little different from typical Kentucky forwards in the past. He is a little more mobile on the wing and has great timing in the lane on defense, recording eight blocks on Tuesday. The last freshmen to record eight blocks in a game this early in the season was USC’s Onyeka Okongwu, who went No. 6 to the Atlanta Hawks in the 2020 NBA draft.

Greg Brown (Texas)

The 6-foot-9, 205-pound freshman had a quiet game Tuesday with only two points and six rebounds, but there is no denying his athleticism and impact on the court. He’s added 15 pounds of muscle since high school and continues to play above the rim with ease. Brown had the best dunk of the season in his first game against UT Rio Grande Valley.

Ochai Agbaji (Kansas)

The Kansas guard tested the NBA draft waters last season and elected to return for his junior year. Agbaji led both teams in the first half Tuesday with 10 points and he also grabbed four rebounds. He uses his body well in the lane to finish at the rim and has a high enough release on his jump shot to shoot over Kentucky’s long wings. The 6-foot-5 guard is averaging 17.3 points in his first three games and is the motor to this small-ball Kansas team.

Trayce Jackson-Davis (Indiana)

The sophomore forward finished with 17 points against Texas in a disappointing loss. Jackson-Davis was the only player that could get any offense going for the Hoosiers. The 6-foot-9 Indiana native looks visibly stronger in the lane and has averaged 19 points in three games, scoring 26 points against Tennessee Tech in the season opener.

Indiana Hoosiers forward Trayce Jackson-Davis (4) takes a shot against Texas Longhorns forward Kai Jones (22) during a game on Nov. 30. (Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Indiana Hoosiers forward Trayce Jackson-Davis (4) takes a shot against Texas Longhorns forward Kai Jones (22) during a game on Nov. 30. (Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

DJ Steward (Duke)

Steward struggled against Michigan State, finishing with only six points. The speedy freshman guard performed much better in his debut in which he had 24 points — including four 3-pointers. Steward scored the most points ever by a Duke freshman in a season opener. He was a five-star recruit coming out of high school and is a solid facilitator in the half-court set who can also knock it down with ease if the defender leaves space.

Honorable mention

Rocket Watts (Michigan State) - Watts had big shoes to fill with the absence of Cassius Winston. He led the Spartans with 20 points and came alive in the second half, scoring six quick points in transition to give Michigan State the biggest lead of the game. Watts is extremely quick and created chaos on defense for a young Duke team.

Matthew Hurt (Duke) - After a disappointing season last year, Hurt appears to be bouncing back in his sophomore season. The 6-foot-9 forward finished with 21 points and 13 rebounds in the loss against Michigan State. He looks stronger with the ball when he catches it on the wing and is shooting more confidently.

Garrison Brooks (North Carolina) - Brooks is a senior and was named the ACC preseason player of the year. He is the leader in one of the strongest backcourts in the nation alongside sophomore Armando Bacot and freshman Day’Ron Sharpe. Brooks has been solid and consistent in the lane, scoring double-digits in all three games this season.

Garrison Brooks of the North Carolina Tar Heels drives against Jordan Goldwire of the Duke Blue Devils during a game on March 07. (Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Garrison Brooks of the North Carolina Tar Heels drives against Jordan Goldwire of the Duke Blue Devils during a game on March 7. (Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Matt Coleman (Texas) - The point guard had 16 points (6-for-11 from the field), three assists and two steals. Coleman was the fastest guard on the court and was great reading the pick-and-roll option. He is one of the most improved guards from last season to this year.

R.J. Davis (North Carolina) - The other freshman in the backcourt for the Tar Heels, Davis has impressive speed and is showcasing a quicker release on his jump shot than he showed in high school. He finished with 11 points in a win over Stanford and is averaging 13.5 points in his first three games.

Champions Classic takeaways

No. 7 Kansas vs. No. 20 Kentucky

Both teams struggled offensively, with Kentucky only having one 3-pointer in the first half and Kansas going 2-for-10 from behind the arc. Kentucky has a brand-new starting five with four freshmen and Wake Forest transfer Olivier Sarr. The length of Kentucky was too much for Kansas on defense early and the Wildcats had seven blocks in the first half. Kansas is visibly smaller this season without Udoka Azubuike in the lane, but David McCormack looks stronger and was evenly matched with Kentucky’s young athletic forwards. Jalen Wilson was the difference-maker, scoring 21 of his 23 points in the second half. This game came down to the wire with Sarr hitting a three with 12 seconds left to cut the deficit to one, but Agbaji hit a pair of free throws to hand Kentucky its second consecutive loss.

Final score: Kansas 65, Kentucky 62

No. 8 Michigan State vs. No. 6 Duke

It was a pseudo-home game for Duke with cardboard cutouts representing the Cameron Crazies. Mike Krzyzewski has a handful of new faces, including five-star recruits Jalen Johnson, DJ Steward, Jeremy Roach and Mark Williams. Tom Izzo returned 11 players and added Marquette transfer Joey Hauser and three freshmen. Duke struggled to find a rhythm on offense in the first half, only making one 3-pointer and shooting 30 percent from the field. Michigan State led by 16 points early in the second half with Malik Hall and Julius Marble hammering the lane. Sophomore point guard Rocket Watts broke down the defense with his speed and finished with 20 points. Duke made a too-little, too-late comeback and cut it to six points with 18 seconds left, but Michigan State made free throws down the stretch to close out the win.

Final score: Michigan State 75, Duke 69

Maui Invitational takeaways

North Carolina (14) vs. Stanford

There were four potential first-round draft picks on the court in this game with Caleb Love, Day’Ron Sharpe and RJ Davis from North Carolina and Ziaire Williams from Stanford. The Tar Heels had five players finish in double-digits, with freshman Caleb Love leading with 16 points. There were 10 ties and eight lead changes in the highly competitive matchup. North Carolina and Stanford have squared off 13 times, with UNC getting the win in each outing. The officiating was questionable with 41 fouls called in the game — 24 of them coming in the second half. Regardless of all the bad calls, the game came down to the wire with junior Leaky Black securing a late basket with a minute left as North Carolina went up by three points.

Final score: North Carolina 67, Stanford 63

Texas (17) vs. Indiana

Heading into this game, Indiana was looking like a possible top-25 team. They played uptempo and were efficient on offense against Providence, winning easily 79-58. It was a completely different story 24 hours later as Texas led the whole game and walked away a 66-44 win. Texas has one of the longest and most athletic front courts in the nation, led by 6-foot-10 senior Jericho Sims, 6-foot-11 sophomore Kai Jones and 6-foot-9 freshman Greg Brown. The Longhorns held Indiana to 17 points in the first half and forced nine turnovers. This is the most athletic Texas team Shaka Smart has had in his five years as head coach and this group is reminiscent of his 2011 VCU team that made a Final Four run.

Final score: Texas 66, Indiana 44

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