This is the third part of my 2021 Draft Series. In this section, we’ll be looking at some underrated draft prospects that everyone needs to start taking note of. This isn’t a full list, so expect coverage on some more slept-on prospects in the future!
There are players who outperform their draft position every year. OG Anunoby is an example of this; a lottery talent who fell to the 23rd pick on draft day due to injury concerns. Norman Powell is another example; a high energy, experienced college player who managed to secure a selection in the second round due to strong workouts, and later used his talents to become an incredibly efficient scorer in the NBA. Today, we’ll be looking at cases similar to Norm’s.
Most fans who don’t pay much attention to college ball or the draft likely haven’t heard of these players, but they’ll all have a legitimate shot at making some noise in the league — provided they’re given a chance. Hitting on some players who overperform relative to their pick will be key for the Raptors’ retooling/rebuilding process going forward.
Arguments could be made for all of these players to be selected in the first round. However, it’s feasible that all or most of them could stick in the second round. Due to not much chatter about them and consistently low media rankings, I think more attention should be brought to these particular talents. It’ll also be good for Raptors fans to learn more about some lesser known prospects in the draft. We can’t talk about Cade Cunningham all the time (as much as I’d like to). The Raptors will have picks #46 and #47 in the second round, so a couple of these players should be on their minds as July 29th creeps ever closer.
You know the drill by now.
Prospects to Watch
Kessler Edwards | 20.8 y/o | SF/PF | 6’8 | Pepperdine | Archetype: Two-Way Forward
ESPN: #48 | Bleacher Report: #28 | CBS: #39 | The Athletic: #24 | The Ringer: Outside Top 30 | Sports Illustrated: #52
I don’t usually take away much from their big boards, but Bleacher Report’s Jon Wasserman recently bumped the talented forward into first round range based on rave reviews from scouts and coaches, so this could be a sign that Kessler’s stock is on fire heading into the Draft Combine. With good reason; Kessler is a top 20 talent in the draft, and it’s amazing that it’s taken this long for him to start getting on some radars. There’s been some uncertainty about whether or not he’d stay in the draft, but it looks like he’s going to, and that’s a wise decision for a player who will be a day 1 contributor in the NBA. The team that drafts Edwards is going to be very happy.
Kessler is a top 5 defender in the class. I’ve mentioned this before in my previous piece, but to refresh some memories, he rounds out that elite group with Scottie Barnes, Evan Mobley, Herb Jones, and Usman Garuba. His long arms combined with his defensive IQ makes him an imposing presence, and he’s very good at staying in position off-ball. He can slide his feet quite well — and his athleticism allows him to quickly rotate and even match up with bigs on occasion. If he’s ever in a situation where he has to overhelp on the PNR, he can recover pretty effectively using his length. He’s also great at sticking with his defensive assignment and not fouling. His block and steal numbers are impressive, and that should translate to the NBA. Overall quickness could use some work and he’s going to need to continue to get stronger if he wants to match up against bigger NBA forwards.
As an off-ball player, Kessler remains in that conversation with other elite players from the class. He’s able to relocate effectively and find open spots where he can quickly fire a shot or cut in for an easy finish at the rim. His situational awareness is high on this side of the floor as well. Kessler has improved as a shooter and scorer every year of his college career, to a point where he’s one of the best shooters in the NCAA while remaining efficient at the rim and from mid-range. He’s got a weird form on his shot, he kind of lurches forward on his release, but it works. Kessler ranks in the 94th percentile of pick and pop situations, and there was a point in January where he ranked above the 95th percentile in paint efficiency, three point efficiency, and blocks. He’s not a playmaker, but he isn’t selfish either. He’ll know when to move the ball, though he does have his moments of tunnel vision. Becoming a more consistent on-ball threat will be a major developmental milestone for Kessler, so he needs to work on developing a bag of moves. He’s capable of making shots from deep and from the midrange after a couple dribbles, and his touch at the rim is impressive as well. There’s no worries with his free throw shooting.
Kessler’s immediate fit on the Raptors would be that of a two-way presence off the bench. Given his skills, he’d be a contributor from day 1. It’s realistic that he could carve a path towards being a starter after one or two seasons. Everyone should be high on Kessler, he does everything you want from a modern NBA forward with plenty of room to grow. Given his consistent track record of improvement, there’s no reason to believe he won’t continue on that trajectory after he’s been drafted.
A fun game of Kessler’s to watch is his 37 point showcase against Pacific:
JT Thor | 19.8 y/o | PF | 6’10 | Auburn | Archetype: Two-Way Big
ESPN: #66 | Bleacher Report: #46 | CBS: #61 | The Athletic: #75 | The Ringer: Outside Top 30 | Sports Illustrated: #76
Whole lotta disrespect towards the God of Thunder.
Getting the overused and predictable namesake joke out of the way, Thor is my pick for the most unfairly rated player in this draft. He’s most commonly ranked as an undrafted player, and for someone with his age, build, and skillset, that’s honestly just silly. Thor is another player, like Kessler Edwards, who I believe should be a first round lock. From what we’ve seen, several outlets seem to disagree with that. Let’s look at why they’re wrong…
An incredibly fluid athlete with length and an impressive frame. For a raw player, you’re getting a gold-standard physical blueprint. He’s excellent at running the floor and completing plays off-ball, though it’s hard to envision him as someone who can handle the ball in transition due to his high dribble and tendency to turn the ball over. He is an excellent cutter, however, and he’s shown consistency as the roll man in the PNR. There’s no concerns about his finishing ability on the interior and he can also attack closeouts quite well. Thor’s shooting is hit or miss, but it’s something that could push him towards being a very good talent if he can become consistent. He’s capable of hitting threes as a trailer and has shown promise of shooting off the dribble on relatively low attempts. His form looks a little funky, and his elbow flares out a bit, so he’ll need to iron out the kinks as he develops. The shooting motion is fast though and he has a high release, he just needs to get reps in.
Thor is capable of guarding 3-5 and, thanks to his length and mobility, has the potential to be one of the best defenders from this class. His lateral quickness allows him to switch on smaller players, and his long arms will allow him to recover for blocks and pick lanes for steals. He’s going to need to bulk if he wants to be able to defend the post in the league, as he was bullied inside on occasion by other college bigs. He’s a capable rebounder on both ends of the floor, and it’s easy to see that continuing at the next level thanks to his measurements and hustle.
On the Raptors, Thor may be a bit of a project. I’d be willing to bet that he could contribute off the bench in his rookie season, but he’d more than likely be a 905 assignee. That said, Thor’s combination of athleticism, stretch big potential, and mobility are an exciting set of skills for a young big to have. If he can keep his jumper development on the same trajectory, he’ll have teams wishing that they took him in the first round. On the other hand, there is a bit of risk with selecting Thor. He may never figure out his shot and he could also struggle at developing his strength, which would make it hard for him to be an impactful player. Regardless, he should be rated way higher than where most boards currently have him.
Watch Thor’s performance against Kentucky to get a better sense of his playstyle, he’s a very interesting player:
Roko Prkačin | 18.5 y/o | PF/SF | 6’9 | Cibona (Croatia) | Archetype: All-Around Forward
ESPN: #40 | Bleacher Report: #30 | CBS: #38 | The Athletic: #25 | The Ringer: Outside Top 30 | Sports Illustrated: #25
Roko is someone I’ve seen mentioned as both a lottery pick and a potential second rounder. Seems like most analysts are either hot or cold on him, but there’s actually a lot to like. Roko is one of the youngest players in the draft, and he’s a prospect with a solid all-around skillset.
Defensively he has room to grow — to be expected of an 18 year old prospect. In spite of his age, he shows encouraging signs in most areas. He hustles hard and tends to stick to his man, but he makes mistakes often typical of younger players and is obviously going to need to add strength if he wants to be able to play the 4 in the NBA. He’s a hard nosed rebounder (7.1 per game) and doesn’t take possessions off. His hustle play is inspiring, but he can commit careless fouls at times. Roko’s foot speed is okay, but he’s going to need to improve in that area as well if he wants to stay in front of faster players.
A great athlete who’s capable of exploding to the rim. If he’s making a backdoor cut or running in transition, expect him to dunk it. Roko’s also a capable slasher who can finish with either hand and take his opponent off the dribble. His handle is going to need work, but the fact that he’s already showing scoring ability off the dribble bodes well for his offensive ceiling. If he can turn that aspect of his game into a reliable pull-up shot, watch out. Arguably the most intriguing part about Roko is his playmaking. He’s a high IQ passer who can make most reads in an offence. Cross-court and outlet passes are his specialty, and he shows flashes of playmaking IQ that several players don’t develop until later in their careers. He’s likely going to top out as a secondary playmaker in the NBA, but that’s incredibly valuable for a player of his size anyway, and you can expect many offences to run through him if the team’s primary playmaker winds up doubled or frozen out. Think something similar to Gasol’s playmaking role on the 2019 Raptors.
His shooting is inconsistent at this point, and his form is pretty stiff and mechanical. Much like many other prospects, Roko would unlock so much of his offensive potential by becoming a reliable three point shooter. Roko’s free throw shooting is also sitting around 65%, which is something else he’ll need to improve for a player who slashes to the rim as much as he does. Generating more contact and getting to the line more would also make sense if he’s going to continue slashing in the NBA, since he’s going to be met at the rim far more than he was in Europe.
I think Roko would be ready to come over right away, though the Raptors would likely want to see him with the 905 before bringing him up to the main team. His higher end outcome would place him as a starter who can be an athletic force and excellent playmaker. If the shot comes along, you might be looking at a role similar to that of Joe Ingles. Even at his lower end outcomes, I would imagine Roko sticks in the league as a solid bench player who provides defence and playmaking to go along with his overall intelligent play. For one of the youngest players in the draft, Roko shows a lot of promise.
Roko had a near-triple double that I’d recommend watching, as it showcases a lot of his skills:
Charles Bassey | 20.6 y/o | C | 6’10 | Western Kentucky | Archetype: Two-Way Big
ESPN: #26 | Bleacher Report: #36 | CBS: #28 | The Athletic: #66 | The Ringer: Outside Top 30 | Sports Illustrated: #43
I’ve wanted Bassey on the Raptors for years, and it’s exciting that they may finally get a chance to draft him this year assuming he’s at their range in the second round. I wouldn’t rule him out as a trade-up target near the end of the first round, either. Back in the 2018-19 season when he was a freshman, he averaged 14.6 points per game to go with 10 rebounds and 2.4 blocks, while showcasing a solid post game and flashes of a deep range stroke (only 0.6 attempts per game from three but on a 45% split). An injury to his leg in 2019 caused him to miss most of the season, but since returning as a junior he’s barely missed a beat. He’s improved in practically every area, with more points, rebounds, blocks, and averaging 2 threes per game. His percentages from deep have gone down (31% as a junior), but he’s going to be able to keep defences honest in the NBA since he now has the confidence and ability to take those shots. Bassey is a solid blueprint for a modern NBA big.
Bassey is a fantastic athlete, he’s very quick laterally and he can regularly beat other bigs in the open floor. He’s pretty explosive and plays above the rim. Combined with his jacked 235lb frame, strength and speed aren’t going to be a concern for him. His length and jumping ability make him a great target for lobs and rolls in the PNR, so playing him in a system that lets him roll to the basket will benefit him a lot, as he knows where to cut to get easy baskets. His handle isn’t a lost cause yet, but coaches are rarely going to want Bassey to be in a position of pushing the offence or trying to drive in a half-court set. Because of that, he’ll be delegated to mainly playing off ball on offence. There’s a lot of optimism for Bassey’s shooting, as he’s become more confident with his shot every year of his career at WKU. He’s become a steady shooter as a trailing big when defences sag off of him, and he’s capable of making the occasional pick and pop shot, but he will need to improve his consistency as he grows in the league. He’s not a threat to be shooting off the dribble just yet, and he has a semi-slow release.
Rim protection and rebounding are without a doubt key components of Bassey’s arsenal. His timing on his swats is elite, and he can use his 7’4 wingspan to get up and reject most high shots. His abilities are noticeable in drop coverage, or when a guard beats him on a drive. He’s able to recover quickly and reject smaller/faster players without fouling. Obviously you want him defending other bigs, but he’s switchable on the perimeter if needed to a point where he won’t be a liability defending five-out. He’s got excellent foot speed and can turn his hips pretty well, so there’s not much concern with how his defensive ability will translate.
For a team needing depth in the big man department, Bassey would fit like a glove. Assuming the Raptors’ big man rotation next year consists of Birch, Bassey, and Gillespie, Toronto would still be left without a starting level big, but Bassey would provide an intriguing developmental stepping stone in the interim.
Bassey’s performance against Gardner Webb shows off the athletic big man’s two-way abilities:
Max Abmas | 20.2 y/o | PG | 6’1 | Oral Roberts | Archetype: Scoring Point
ESPN: #29 | Bleacher Report: Outside Top 50 | CBS: #48 | The Athletic: #55 | The Ringer: Outside Top 30 | Sports Illustrated: #48
I know you’ve read the height, and I can hear your eyes rolling. “Another small guard?”, I know. I agree, the Raptors need to start adding guards with size at some point.
Hear me out.
The reason why I’m including Abmas in this list is simply due to how talented of a scorer he is. Abmas was the NCAA’s leading scorer with 24.6 points per game, and he did it with a stellar 63% TS. Abmas isn’t a player who hogs the ball and throws up bad shots all day, he’s a crafty finisher inside (52% on 2-point field goals) to a point where I don’t believe his interior scoring will be a liability like most other short guards. At this point in time I’d also call him the best shooter in the draft. His pull-up shooting in particular is very impressive. His shot making is his greatest weapon and he’s able to score at all three levels.
NBA prospects, pull-up shooting pic.twitter.com/pmgyiL25C0
— Jonathan Wasserman (@NBADraftWass) March 26, 2021
Abmas operates with remarkable quickness. His acceleration and deceleration are tools that most other great scorers use in the NBA, and he uses that to beat defenders off the dribble with ease. Combined with his handle, it’s easy to see his shot creation skills translating to the next level. He averaged 3.8 assists as a sophomore, double that of his freshman averages, so while he’s not a high end playmaker, he can be relied on to be a ball handler and to move the ball within the offence. He’s showing a nice track record of improvement in this area, so becoming a more advanced playmaker would bring along his offensive game nicely.
Despite his strengths on offence, Abmas isn’t a good defender. That’s largely due to his size and strength. He’s relatively smart and isn’t a traffic cone on the defensive end, but it’s still likely that he’s going to get bullied by bigger and stronger players in the NBA. There isn’t really much else to say about him defensively. Hopefully he can bulk a bit and work on containing his opponents on the perimeter, but he’s going to be a liability on the defensive end for a while. Thankfully, he’d be matched up with other bench players.
Abmas would fit on most NBA rosters as a microwave scorer off the bench, utilized to keep the offence afloat while the starters rest. This would be his role on the Raptors as well, and he’d likely compete for minutes with Malachi Flynn. Abmas is already a more talented offensive player, but his lack of size and strength on the defensive end would probably lead to Nick Nurse using the two guards on a situational basis. They could play together if need be, since Abmas is a capable off-ball player on the offensive end, but then you’re stuck with another short backcourt. Regardless, his scoring would be a welcome addition. There might be room for him to grow into a starter in the future, but his size is going to limit him and he’s going to need to improve his playmaking. Focus on value when you’re picking in the 40’s — for a second round pick, Abmas’ scoring package would be worth a flier. After a Sweet 16 run with Oral Roberts, Abmas also showed that he can perform well in the big moments.
Abmas dropped 29 in Oral Roberts’ first round March Madness upset over the 2nd seeded Ohio State Buckeyes: