Who are the best basketball prospects that have yet to play in the NBA?

Rob Dauster
NBC Sports

Over the course of the next two weeks, Pro Basketball Talk will be rolling out a project that we have been working on for the last month: Ranking the top 50 players five years from now.

Players ranked 46-50 were unveiled today.

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You can find that list here.

In the meantime, since it is relevant, here at College Basketball Talk we are going to take a look at the guys that, in 2024, may actually deserve a spot on a top 50 players list that you may not know about just yet.

So without further ado, here are the ten best prospects that have yet to play a game in the professional ranks.

1. Emoni Bates, Class of 2022

Bates is the shoe-in at No. 1 on this list. Over the years I’ve gotten to know quite a few of the scouts that do recruiting rankings and cover the sport at the high school level. These guys have been in the business for a long time – some for decades – and every single one of them rave about Bates in a way that you don’t often see players get talked about. One called him the best freshman he’s ever scouted. One called him as good as any prospect that he’s scouted in more than 20 years in the business. One called him the best prospect in high school hoops, which is exactly where I have him on this list. Personally, I think that he’s the closest thing that we’ve seen to Kevin Durant since Kevin Durant.

I wrote a story on Bates from Peach Jam back in July, and one of the things that I made sure to note in that story is the danger that comes with this level of hype at this age. Many of the things that are being said about Bates were said about Renardo Sidney at the same age, and we know how that turned out. Part of the reason I’m a little less-hesitant to make such proclamations with Bates is that he has an alpha mentality and competitive streak that you don’t see all that often. So not only does he have the physical tools as a super-skilled, 6-foot-9 scorer with range out to the NBA three-point line, but once he gets on the court, he’s an a–hole in all of the best ways.

2. Cade Cunningham, Class of 2020

Cunningham is tailor-made for modern basketball. He’s a 6-foot-7, 220 pound point forward. He’s a tough, physical and athletic wing that, two years ago, made the transition to playing the point full time. He has the savvy, the maturity and the polish of an NBA veteran. He doesn’t have the highlight reel athleticism of guys like Zion Williamson or Ja Morant, but he has the kind of functional athleticism that will allow him to split the defense, avoid the charge, absorb the contact and finish in traffic. He was the MVP of the EYBL circuit this past season, and if he continues to improve his shooting stroke, there’s a very real chance that he gets picked with the No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft.

I think the best way to phrase it is this: He will likely be the first player to ever get compared to Luka Doncic, and I’m not sure how much more complimentary you can get.

3. James Wiseman, Memphis

4. Evan Mobley, Class of 2020

I’m listing these two together because they really are quite similar prospects. Both stand 7-foot. Both have the kind of length, mobility and athleticism that should allow them to thrive at the five in the modern NBA. Both of them are capable defenders with the potential to be very, very good with some added strength and a bit of motivation. And both of them are skilled enough where they have the potential of one day doing all four things modern fives are asked to do – protect the rim, switch ball-screens, space the floor to the three-point line, be a lob target as a roll-man in ball-screens.

Now, there are some differences. Wiseman, at this point, is probably more physically developed – he is a year older – while Mobley, at 6-foot-11 and 200 pounds, is going to have to make the absolute most of the meal plan USC gets him on. Mobley, on the other hand, seems to be more accepting of the fact that he’s destined to be a five in the NBA while Wiseman, in the words of one NBA draftnik, “thinks he’s Giannis when in reality he’s a lot closer to Myles Turner.”

There is nothing wrong with being Myles Turner. He just turned 23 years old and he is coming off of a season where he averaged 13.3 points, 7.2 boards and an NBA-best 2.7 blocks while shooting 38.8 percent from three. He’s really good. But he also knows what he is and what he isn’t, and he isn’t Giannis.

5. Jonathan Kuminga, Class of 2021

Kuminga is a super-explosive, 6-foot-8 wing that is just now starting to figure out how good he has the chance to be. He has all the physical tools that you want out of a wing – height, length, athleticism, versatility – and he has shown that he is willing and able to defend multiple positions. The big thing with him in the long-term is going to be how well his jumpshot develops, and if that comes along, his upside is as high as anyone on this list. I do think it’s worth noting that at Peach Jam, he was in the same group as Terrence Clarke and Patrick Baldwin Jr. and justified his spot on this list.

6. Jalen Green, Class of 2020

Green has all the makings of a future top five pick. At 6-foot-5, he’s a naturally gifted scorer that makes the game look easy. He’s at his best when he’s slashing to the bucket, where he can finish above the rim and also has a shiftiness about him in the lane. He’s a capable ball-handler and passer, but he’s going to make his money as a bucket-getter. If his jumper catches up to the rest of his game, look out.

7. Anthony Edwards, Georgia

Edwards is a big time scorer and athlete that has the ideal physical tools for a combo-guard. He’s a sturdy 6-foot-5 with length and explosive athleticism. His game is well-rounded. He’s a good shooter that can also operate in ball-screens, create for his teammates and shoot off the dribble. In theory, he’s an ideal fit for a sport that is becoming more and more reliant on scorers that can create in isolation with shooters spacing the court. Part of the reason he stayed home to play for Georgia is that Tom Crean coached both Victor Oladipo and Dwyane Wade in college, and those two are what Edwards has the potential to be at the next level.

8. Cole Anthony, North Carolina

Anthony is going to get a lot of hype heading into the 2020 draft. Beyond the simple fact that he is the son of UNLV legend and NBA journeyman Greg Anthony, Cole Anthony is headed to North Carolina, where Roy Williams is going to slot him into the same role that he used Coby White in last year. He is going to get a lot of shots, he’s going to score a lot of points and he’s going to have a lot of highlight reel plays in the process. My big question with Cole longterm is that I’m not convinced that he is big enough to play off the ball, I’m not sure he is a natural point guard and I don’t know if he is quite good enough to be allowed to play the way he has throughout his career at the NBA level. There is definitely some potential here, but I think the fit at the NBA level makes more sense with Green and Edwards than it does with Anthony.

RISING SON: Cole Anthony remains grounded while following his father’s footsteps

9. Terrence Clarke, Class of 2021

Clarke is a wiry-strong, 6-foot-6 off-guard from Boston that has the potential to be the No. 1 pick in whatever draft he ends up in. (There’s a chance he can reclassify into 2020.) He’s an explosive athlete that can finish in traffic while also displaying a high-level feel for the game. He’s an improving shooter that can create off the bounce in isolation, and his court vision and passing gives him the upside of having some positional versatility down the road.

10. Patrick Baldwin Jr., Class of 2021

As one coach at a top ten program told me this summer, Patrick Baldwin Jr. “is the best shooting big man I’ve ever scouted.” Still just heading into his junior year in high school, Baldwin recently went through a growth spurt that saw him sprout up to 6-foot-10. He needs to add some strength and weight to his frame (what 16 year old doesn’t?) but that size and shooting ability is not something that we see all that often. The big question for Baldwin is how well the rest of his game develops. Is he simply a pick-and-pop five, or will he continue to develop a floor game and the physical tools that will allow him to be a plus-defender in the NBA?

THREE THAT JUST MISSED THIS LIST

Jaden McDaniels, Washington: McDaniels’ upside is as high as anyone on this list save for Bates and Cunningham. At 6-foot-10, he’s a skilled wing with a perimeter game and a developing shooting stroke. It’s not hard to watch him play and see what he can be if he continues to put in the work, but he has a ways to go to get there. He’s still just 190 pounds and, at this point, more of a prospect that a producer.

Paolo Banchero, Class of 2021: Banchero is a tough prospect to gauge the ceiling of. He’s already 6-foot-9 and 230 pounds with a frame that should easily be able to hold more muscle, but without the kind of physical tools that will set him apart from the field. I think it’s also fair to say that his best skill at this point is how well-rounded he is. Put another way, he’s one of those guys that can do everything well – he can shoot it, he can pass, he can beat bigger defenders facing up, he can hold his own defending the paint, etc. – with an exceedingly high basketball IQ. Put another way, outside of continuing to stretch out his shooting range, I’m not sure just how much better he’s going to end up getting.

Jalen Johnson, Class of 2020: Johnson’s biggest strength at this point is probably his basketball IQ and passing ability at this size. He’s a 6-foot-9 lefty with a complete skillset and the kind of floor vision at this size that will make you think Ben Simmons lost his Aussie accent. Already committed to Duke, Johnson will likely continue to generate buzz as his defense and perimeter stroke improve.

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