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NEW YORK — This time last year, Tari Eason was in the middle of making a decision that would change the trajectory of his career. After a disappointing freshman season at Cincinnati, where he averaged only 7.3 points and 5.9 rebounds in 18 minutes, Eason decided to enter the transfer portal and eventually landed at LSU.
At the time, Will Wade had sent only three players to the NBA draft (most notably Cam Thomas to the Brooklyn Nets at No. 27 in 2021), but Eason liked the freedom the offense provided and the idea of playing in a new conference.
"There was a learning curve and it was a new team, new season, new league and I was just adjusting to everything," Eason told Yahoo Sports. "Through that, I just got more comfortable in the game and that's when things just started to open up."
Halfway through the season, Eason emerged as one of the best defenders in college basketball with his 6-foot-8 frame and 7-foot-2 wingspan and his ability to effectively guard all five positions. NBA scouts started taking note. During the second half of the season, Eason began to consistently show up as a first-round prospect in mock drafts.
"To be honest, I couldn't imagine I'd be here a year ago," Eason told Yahoo Sports. "I envisioned myself getting drafted and having my dreams come true. I just didn't know when. So for me to put a date on it, or think a year later I'd be in this position, I definitely didn't think that would happen."
It did happen, and Eason is a few short hours from realizing his dream.
The 2022 NBA draft is top heavy with the same four players projected at the top all season long: Jabari Smith, Chet Holmgren, Paolo Banchero and Jaden Ivey. Picks five through nine have some stability and value in them, mixed with a few players with high upside and others who have played consistently.
Starting at pick No. 10 is where it turns into the Wild Wild West. After watching Eason all season and seeing his measurements and how he projects at the next level (numbers and tangibles that are very similar to 2021-22 Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes), it's hard to imagine a player like Eason falling out of the lottery.
During his one year at Florida State, Barnes averaged 10.3 points, four rebounds and 4.1 assists in 24 games off the bench. Eason, in his sophomore season, averaged 16.9 points, 6.6 rebounds and shot 52% from the field.
"I definitely see the comparisons in our games," Eason told Yahoo Sports. "Scottie [Barnes] is a great player in his own right, but we have a similar height, similar wingspan, similar playing style. Anytime you can be compared to a Rookie of the Year is a blessing, and I guess one of the differences scouts are looking at is I'm a little older. That's it."
One of the biggest knocks and an area for concern for scouts in Eason's game is his 3-point shot and creating for himself off the dribble. The 6-foot-8 wing averaged only 36% from 3-point range, attempting 2.4 threes per game. There were similar concerns surrounding Barnes, who connected on only 27.5% of his 3-point attempts during his freshman season.
It's obvious Eason is tremendous in transition, ranking in the 90th percentile and averaging 1.4 points per possession in the open court, according to Synergy Sports. And, no surprise here, Barnes had similar numbers in transition, averaging 1.3 points per possession two seasons ago.
On the defensive side, Eason was one of the best rim protectors coming off the wing. He would do it all from chasing down blocks from behind in transition, going toe-to-toe with players bigger off the switch, and sliding with guards in the lane when attempting to blow by him. Eason averaged over one block per game, but the defensive impact he had every night with his 7-foot-2 wingspan gave a glimpse of what he could be at the next level.
"Blocking shots has always been a part of my game and I've always been someone that's prided myself in my defense and playing hard," Eason told Yahoo Sports. "Even when I wasn't super athletic, I always played hard and as I got athletic and as I got taller, all these things began to grow."
The way Eason played his sophomore year and the athletic upside he showed late in the season is on par with where Barnes was projected before the draft. However, Eason, two years older than where Barnes was at this point last year, isn't getting the same hype or buzz. Barnes was a projected top-five pick; Eason is slated in the late teens to early 20s.
"I definitely think I'm a sleeper in this draft and only time will tell," Eason told Yahoo Sports. "I can only control the things I can control, and there are certain things that go into every decision in the draft."
Eason understands that his 3-point shot is giving teams pause and the way he can create for others off the wing in the offense, but he's using all feedback as motivation to get better.
"I've improved my 3-point shooting, as scouts have seen, from last year to this year and I've gotten better year over year," Eason told Yahoo Sports. "It's a part of my game I've continued to work on and develop, and if it's the biggest concern that people have then let me say this, every player has to have a thing so I'm just going to keep working."
For his part, Eason did everything he could to prove what kind of player he is and earn his spot on a roster, working out for 12 teams during the pre-draft process: Atlanta, Minnesota, Charlotte, New York, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Washington, Chicago, Portland, San Antonio, Memphis and Houston. His draft range Thursday night is anywhere from six to 22.
"The feedback I got during workouts was great," Eason told Yahoo Sports. "They definitely see my ability to guard and switch on every player, whether that's the smaller guards or bigger players. I think my versatility shines through and they see my length and what I'm able to do to contain the ball on the defensive end and guard every position."
There's a lot that goes into team's draft boards and who they like, but there's always one player in the draft who falls a little bit and is a star one or two years later. With Eason's size, athleticism and untapped potential, he could be the hidden gem in the draft and, if history repeats itself with a player we saw rise this year in Barnes, Eason could be in the conversation for Rookie of the Year with his knack for creating defense into offense.
"I really try to not let anyone outwork me," Eason told Yahoo Sports. "Anyone who's ever been around me knows my work ethic is always something I take pride in. Thursday night, I'm going to be ready to apply that work ethic to any team that drafts me, no matter where I land. Friday morning, it's an even playing field. Zero-zero between everyone. And that's when the real work begins."