The NBA world is about to descend on Chicago, with G League Elite Camp starting Monday and the draft lottery on Tuesday, leading into Wednesday’s draft combine and a series of agency pro days throughout the week. Before all that takes place and the framework of draft projections inevitably shifts again, let’s dig into my sleeper picks for this year’s draft. After spending tons of time on the road during the season, reviewing film and doing the legwork on a very wide range of players, I’ve landed on five undervalued prospects, some of whom will be drafted and some won’t, who are positioned to exceed expectations and build legitimate NBA careers in the short and long term.
Last year’s edition of this piece came with some resounding successes: Jose Alvarado quickly proved to be a legit NBA player with New Orleans, and Dalano Banton was drafted 46th and emerged as a real developmental player for the Raptors. The jury is still out on the others: Jason Preston was drafted 33rd by the Clippers but missed the season with injury, while EJ Onu and RaiQuan Gray are in the G League. In a perfect world, all five of these guys pan out every year. But the draft is hard, which is why teams miss every year and why searching for talent remains such a compelling process. Anyway, here are five players I’m putting my chips on.
Terquavion Smith, G, NC State | Freshman
Height: 6′ 4″ | Weight: 160 | Age: 19 | Big Board rank: 27
For most of the season, Terquavion Smith wasn’t the most-hyped prospect on his own team. Dereon Seabron grabbed early-season headlines. And when I went to see the Wolfpack play at Notre Dame in January, I honestly came away loving neither. Admittedly, the shoot-first combo guard Smith is not the archetype of player I typically get excited about when it comes to projecting NBA success. But he ended the season on a heater, and the more I dug into his film over the past month, the more convinced I became that there’s an NBA player under the hood.
Smith was known, but didn’t have a ton of national fanfare coming into college: he was a four-star recruit out of Farmville Central High School in North Carolina (it’s not just a popular Facebook game, folks), which he led to three straight state titles. The school enrolls only 800 students, and the basketball team doesn’t play a challenging national schedule. So, considering the context, it’s a minor miracle that, as a true freshman from a small high school, coming off a year with COVID limitations, playing big minutes in the ACC and taking 29.5% of his team’s shots when on the floor, Smith averaged 16.3 points and made 36.9% of a whopping 260 three-point attempts. NC State didn’t run anything complex, and Smith was the safety valve on a lot of plays. He shot only 39% from the field on the whole, but considering all the circumstances, he was pretty efficient (and per BartTorvik, he shot 48.2% at the rim with just 18.5% of those attempts being assisted). Also consider that he turned 19 in December and was listed at 160 pounds last season.
When looking at high-usage college scorers, the types of shots they take and how they get them tend to be much more important than tangible counting stats. Simply put, Smith had to create a ton of shots, and even though his team was bad, the way he did it was unusual. The tape backs up the numbers. He changes speeds and plays with pace going downhill. He can also finish with both hands and has a lot of pop jumping off his right leg. His finishing is a real concern, but he is comfortable making floaters and has pretty good touch around the basket. It’s more likely he’s perimeter-oriented anyway: Smith can already catch and shoot at a quality rate, create space for his jumper off the dribble and knock tough shots down. The fact he’s clearly a high-level shooter and also a promising shot creator bodes well, considering prospects in his mold are typically one or the other.
Predictably, Smith is not a very disciplined defender yet. But factoring in his age and minimal experience playing high-level basketball, he’s understandably not all that disciplined at anything yet. Based on his role, it’s hard to get a grasp of what level passer he is, although he’s certainly not a true point guard. His free throw attempts and percentages were subpar, but he knows how to draw fouls, and they should probably tick up as he gets stronger and more confident. The risk here lies in all we don’t know about Smith’s game, but his lack of polish is also where the upside is. He’s arguably accomplished more than a vast many one-and-dones have over the years, and considering his background, he’s at an extremely nascent stage of growth as a player.
Of course, there’s always a high bar to clear for shoot-first guard prospects in the NBA. They come around every year, and most of them don’t make it. There are 30 NBA teams and only so many minutes and shots to go around for players who aren’t stars. In turn, the G League is littered with undersized scoring guards, many of them former high school All-Americans and/or college standouts. Smith broadly fits into this mold as a microwave scorer, and it’s not always one that accessorizes winning at a high level. Granted, not every team needs what he brings, but I’d consider Smith as a development pick if I were selecting in the 20s. He could still return to NC State, but he’s an obvious candidate to really raise his stock at the combine next week.
Keon Ellis, SG, Alabama | Senior
Height: 6′ 6″ | Weight: 175 | Age: 22 | Big Board rank: 30
Over the course of myriad Alabama viewings this season, I became increasingly convinced that Ellis was the team’s best prospect. A lot of people, including me, were generally interested in JD Davison early in the season—he was younger, more hyped and flashier. And while Davison may arguably have more upside, it’s Ellis who feels like the more interesting bet right now. After playing his first two years of college as a JUCO standout at Florida Southwestern State, Ellis broke into Alabama’s starting five at the end of his junior year, then stepped into a much bigger role with the departures of Herb Jones, Josh Primo and John Petty . He still functioned as a supporting scorer and didn’t inherit massive shot volume, but was highly efficient (57.9% on twos, 36.6% on threes, 88.1% from the line). He was also the team’s best defensive playmaker (3.4% steal rate) and a steadying force on a team that appeared to be emotionally up and down for much of the year.
You may not have heard his name all that often, but Ellis was one of the better wing defenders in college hoops. I wouldn’t say he was hiding in plain sight, because he wasn’t really hidden, but you get the point. He’s only listed at 175 pounds, but he’s wiry and muscular with quick hands and a knack for staying attached to drivers and cutters. Ellis’s slender frame actually helps him navigate screens and tight spaces in pursuit, and while he’s not all that big for an NBA wing defender, he otherwise offers most of what you want. He’ll blow up plays in his area and does a pretty good job avoiding fouls, as well. Ellis collected three steals in five different games and four steals in four different games on his way to making the SEC All-Defensive team.
While he’s not a menacing physical presence with his frame, I think it’s fair to assume the defense plays up to an above-average degree, particularly if Ellis can get a little bit stronger. I also think he’s legitimately a good shooter: his release is clean and pretty quick, he can make shots off screens and with his feet set, and his free-throw clip helps back up the percentages. Wings who guard and make shots get opportunities. His consistency is a big selling point, and, at 22 years old, Ellis is actually on the younger end of the spectrum with regard to college seniors.
If there’s something to nitpick here, it’s probably his shot distribution: Ellis shot 70% at the rim (per BartTorvik), but didn’t get there all that frequently, attempting nearly twice as many threes as he did twos. I don’t think it’s all that concerning: he can play out of closeouts and knows how to make the right pass, and he’s going to shoot well enough to keep people honest. When it comes to lower-usage role players, the results tend to matter more than the volume. Just from watching him a lot, I’m not all that worried about him continuing to score at a reasonable rate. He has a quick first step and can use both hands at the rim. Nobody is going to ask Ellis to run offense in the NBA, but he’s going to have to play off of teammates and make them better.
The whole picture here points to a mature player who can step in and help immediately. Ellis should hear his name called on draft night. Anecdotally, considering Jones’s resounding success as a rookie with the Pelicans, I’d be somewhat surprised if NBA teams fully overlooked another Alabama wing who plays both ends (granted, their games are very different). I’d look at Ellis in the late first round and sprint to draft him in the 30s. If he falls much further, it’s a pretty clear steal for whoever ends up with him.
Tyrese Martin, F, UConn | Senior
Height: 6′ 6″ | Weight: 215 | Age: 23 | Big Board rank: 45
While I try to diversify my approach to picking sleepers, if there’s a trend to how I put this column together, it’s probably that I can’t quit searching for quality glue guys. Tyrese Martin falls into that bucket: I saw him play for Rhode Island two years ago, loosely kept tabs when he transferred to UConn, and started paying closer attention after catching the Huskies at the Big East tournament in March. Though it’s fair to debate how much postseason events matter, he was arguably the best player in the Reese’s College All-Star game and the 3X3U national championship (his team won the title) at the Final Four. Martin’s competitiveness has stood out in…