By Max Feldman
FOG has consistently preached the heightened value of highly skilled, high IQ prospects in the Pre-Draft evaluation system, but there will always be a place in the NBA for premier athletes who make their presence felt because of their speed, vertical ability and power. At the wing spots, athleticism is extremely sought after because of how it can quickly translate on the defensive end and how productive shooting coaches continue to prove to be with young players. Essentially, shooting can be taught later, whereas athleticism can not. For big men, the value of rim runners continues to increase. Vertical floor spacers and strong, physical screen setters who can dive to the rim provide a safety net for easy dump offs. In a space and pace modern NBA, rim defense is a pre-requisite for any competing roster. The following group of six is the next influx of elite athletes on the wing and the front court.
Jalen Green is a generational athlete and potentially one of the most talented prospects to enter the NBA in recent years. Green opted for the G-League route, and we will likely never see him play in a minute of competitive action prior to his NBA debut. The 6-5 and 180 pound scorer is a consensus top five prospect and if he does choose to participate in the combine next off-season, he will be a competitor for the 46 inch record. Green is the most impressive high school prospect I have seen in the person outside of Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram largely due to due his extraordinarily unique combination of skill and athleticism. He thrives as a slasher, rising up and slithering around big men to finish with elite touch. Green’s body control and ability to hit a launch pad when attacking the rim bode well for his long term scoring outlook. Long arms, strong lateral quickness and massive strides provide optimism for Green’s defensive potential, but he still has plenty of work to do there. Jalen Green’s athletic ability is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of his skillset for FOG. He will be one of the premier athletes in the entire NBA from the minute he steps on the court.
Far too many people still do not know who Keon Johnson is, but they will. The Freshman has an abrupt, powerful athletic ability that does not stand out as much as others because of his tendency to lean on his craftiness. At 6-5 and 190 pounds, Johnson uses massive strides to finish with his head above the rim in transition. A major swing trait that I am watching for all season long is Johnson’s ability to hit perimeter shots simply due to the uncapped potential he has a closeout attacker. A smooth, fluid athlete who uses his power when needed creates the necessary blend for NBA execs to trust his development as a starting level, two-way combo guard. His explosive ability off drives and potential defensive versatility make him a top 10 prospect for FOG.
The 6-5 and 185 Frenchman is more raw than the previously mentioned combo guards, but might be the most hard-nosed of the bunch. At this point, Begarin is essentially a non-shooter, but remains in the top 15 for FOG because of his body of work as a versatile, athletic defender and powerful slashing ability. Begarin is the prime example of how execs will trust his athletic ability and consequently trust their developmental staff to figure out the shot later on. There are hints of Emmanuel Mudiay, but it is a gamble that plenty of execs will be willing to take in the top 20 because of the rare athletic ability. Teams with flexibility and patience will find a ton of appeal in Begarin’s athleticism.
There is no hiding that Greg Brown has struggled thus far. Texas appears to be deeper and more talented than any roster yet under Shaka Smart, and while Greg Brown has had strong volume and remains a key piece, he has a long ways to go become a productive, two-way piece. Shooting 33% from the field through 5 games is woeful, but Brown remains one of the most explosive athletes in the 2021 Draft by a fair margin. Poster slams, high rising rebounds and flair in transition should be staples throughout the season giving him enough juice to be an eventual first round pick. The transition from high school ball to high major NCAA competition is a large obstacle for a wiry, 6-9 and 205 pound Freshman who relies heavily on his athletic ability. His speed, verticality and motor made him a 5 star prospect in the class of 2020, but when he’s on the court with other elite athletes, he does not stick out nearly as much. He’s not the first case of this scenario, and will not be the last. Nassir Little, Andrew Wiggins, Ben McLemore and Kahlil Whitney all stick out as similar stories in the previous few seasons. The key developmental points for Greg Brown are obvious, and it might take a few years of polishing before he becomes more than just an athletic, vertical threat.
Hunt is a FOG favorite. I absolutely love this kids athletic ability, body control, defensive versatility, pogo stick jumping ability and overall grit on both ends. At 6-8 and 200 pounds, Hunt would have been in FOG’s Top 50 on the 2020 Big Board had he kept his name in the field. 2021 is a far stronger field, and he will likely be a part of the top 40. The SMU Mustang is Derrick Jones Jr with solid touch out to the arc to me. He is a prototypical four man in the modern NBA because his ability to guard all five positions and bring rebounding production due to his relentless motor. As a Junior now, Hunt is a high IQ cutter who makes defenses pay for collapsing too aggressively on ball handlers with a high volume of back door lob finishes. He could use more strength and more proof of development as a shooter, but is one of the AAC’s best players and one of the most slept on prospects in the 2021 Draft.
Jones has made a massive jump in year two under Shaka Smart. When evaluating Texas as a whole thus far, two things stand out. Kai Jones might just be the strongest NBA prospect on the roster at this point. Kai Jones does not play like a 6-11 big man. Quick feet, improved touch and a thickened frame making Jones a strong bet to land in the first round in 2021. A ridiculous 94% from the field and 3 for 3 from deep has brought some rapid attention to the Bahamian big man. Jarrett Allen and Jaxson Hayes stayed pretty under the radar and had limited production during their collegiate careers, but ended up as top 25 selections. Hayes was a more impressive athlete and Allen had more impressive measurements, but Kai Jones might be the most collectively talented prospect of the three.
Since his days at Spire Academy, Isaiah Jackson has always been an eye catching talent with his athleticism. When talking rim runners, Jackson’s skillset and physicality as a rim defending presence and vertical floor spacer, or lob finisher, make him an interesting prospect in the 2021 Draft. At this point, he heavily leans on his athletic ability on both ends, and that is about it. Is that enough? Potentially, because he will debut in the top 50 of the 2021 Big Board. At 6-10 and 206 pounds, he plays much bigger than he is and is extremely mobile on PnR coverages. Wrapping his head around defensive schemes and putting himself in the right place to clean up misses offensively will be the keys to making him a one and done, because no one doubts his extreme athletic ability.
The Florida Sophomore opted to return for another year because evaluators saw him as purely an athlete, rather than collective wing talent. He has work to do as a shot maker and ball handler, but his gargantuan wingspan and explosive athletic ability have been and will be the mainstays of his NBA Draft stock. There are a ton of players alike Lewis in the NBA who have been drafted because of their athleticism like Terrence Ferguson, Hamidou Diallo and Cassius Stanley, but what will elevate him into the first round is an improved jumper and proven scoring ability. With all that, it is impossible to keep an athlete like Scottie Lewis off this list regardless of his skillset flaws.