Last week in Atlanta, NBA front office personnel got eyes on many of the top high school prospects in the country at the McDonald’s All-American Game. The event featured a number of practices, a scrimmage and the game itself as evaluation points for the players, some of whom figure to be one-and-done freshmen ahead of the 2019 NBA Draft.
The excitement over the top of the 2019 class, however, seems muted, as there are significant questions about how much superstar upside actually exists within this group of prospects. It’s an underwhelming scenario following what could be a star-laden 2018 NBA Draft.
Still, there’s plenty of talent in the prospect pool. Given the college basketball season wrapped up on Monday with Villanova’s win over Michigan, now seems like a good time to dive into some of the freshman who will use next season to make their NBA cases to front offices around the league.
Here’s a look at some of the standout performers from the McDonald’s All-American Game festivities.
R.J. Barrett, G/F, Duke
Age: 17.8 | Height: 6-7 | Weight: 200
Asked what he showed NBA personnel sitting courtside for the McDonald’s All-American Game practices, Duke-bound wing R.J. Barrett replied, “I play to win.”
Indeed, the 17-year-old’s resume is littered with Ws. He delivered 38 points, 13 rebounds and five assists in a semifinal win over Team USA in the 2017 FIBA U19 World Cup en route to a gold medal, and just last weekend, he won GEICO Nationals with Montverde Academy.
Barrett doesn’t always win, obviously. Still, his comment reflects a refreshing level of competitiveness borne out at the end of last Wednesday’s contest. Down the stretch of his East Team’s defeat, Barrett consistently looked for his shot in an effort to lead them to victory. He finished with 26 points on 10-of-14 shooting.
The 6-7 wing knows he has room to improve. “I’m not perfect at any one area of the game,” Barrett said, but he’s got a great baseline to work from. Barrett is an NBA-level athlete and a quality playmaker on the perimeter. He seeks to emulate LeBron James’ versatility and James Harden’s ability to both score and facilitate.
Barrett generates separation going to the basket with changes of pace, and once he gets to the rim, he has the body control to contort himself for finishes. He’s not an elite passer, but he’s capable of making the simple reads out of the pick-and-roll.
While he is an NBA athlete, his lack of elite athleticism raises questions about his ultimate upside. For now, the attraction to Barrett lies in the reasonably high nature of his ceiling and the better than average chance he’ll reach it.
Cameron Reddish, G, Duke
Age: 18.6 | Height: 6-8 | Weight: 205
Duke-bound Cameron Reddish is viewed as a consensus top-three prospect in the high school class of 2018 for good reason — 6-8 wings who flash point guard skills don’t grow on trees. Upsized primary initiators are the most valuable commodities in the modern NBA. Their ability to create offense from the wing position introduces a significant amount of roster and lineup flexibility.
“I like having the ball in my hands,” Reddish said, something evidenced by the frequency with which he grabs defensive boards and pushes in transition. Although he didn’t regularly act as a primary ball-handler for the West Team, the 18-year-old did occasionally get to operate in ball screens where he showed the ability to make simple passing reads — “I can see things before they happen,” he told Sporting News — and attack the basket. Reddish flashed advanced ball-handling mechanics, including a nice spin move and Eurostep, to create space at the rim.
On the outside, his jumper remains a work in progress, an almost constant with this class. Reddish’s shooting form is inconsistent, and he made just 29.7 percent of his 3-point attempts during last summer’s Nike EYBL run.
The future Blue Devil will start next season as arguably the highest upside play in the class, and he fits the profile of the most coveted NBA archetype, so why isn’t he universally regarded as the 2019 NBA Draft’s top prospect?
Because he has a tendency to fade in and out of games. Reddish is often talented enough to get by without really exerting himself. Flipping the mental switch and more regularly imposing himself on the game is the fastest way to unlock his immense skill set.
Zion Williamson, G/F, Duke
Age: 17.7 | Height: 6-7 | Weight: 250
The attractiveness of Williamson’s potential is obvious. Everyone’s seen the mixtapes and the highlight clips at this point, but when the 17-year-old uncorked one of his patented tomahawks for the first time in last Monday’s practice, some of the NBA personnel in attendance couldn’t help but chuckle at its ridiculousness.
Williamson floats in ways that others don’t and dunks with power that others can’t. His athleticism is second to none in the class. That alone, of course, doesn’t make an NBA player.
Williamson faces questions about his physique and positional fit. Back in October, he measured 6-5 barefoot at a USA Basketball Junior National Team minicamp and clocked in at 272 pounds. Listed at 250 pounds this week, he looked trimmer and more in shape. Concerns about Williamson’s body persist because his athleticism puts intense pressure on it. Staying in shape will be a key part of him staying on the floor.
The positional uncertainty stems from a combination of size and skill. Williamson isn’t an outside threat. His release is often inconsistent, as he’ll occasionally finish his shot with a bit of a flick rather than a full follow through. In 19 games tracked by MaxPreps last season, he made just seven of his 35 3-point attempts and shot only 60.7 percent from the foul line.
The shooting concerns stem not only from a lack of accuracy, but a lack of volume. It’s tough to imagine Williamson playing on the wing right now, and using him in other ways requires tailoring a team’s roster and schemes around his weaknesses.
Worrying about Williamson’s position rather than his skill set might be overthinking things, though.
“I was always trained to be a point guard,” Williamson said. “But due to my size and my athleticism, I guess the stereotype is for me to be at the three and four and not be able to handle the ball.”
The stereotyping misses out on other aspects of his game.
Williamson is a comfortable passer — something he defined as his most underrated skill — from the top of the key and on the low block. His short-roll playmaking on post-ups has the potential to bring an interesting wrinkle to an offense at the next level. He whipped a one-handed crosscourt pass to a shooter, for example, at one point during practice.
Williamson’s not a refined product, but few of the prospects in this 2019 class are, so while he’s got things to work on, it’s important to remember he’s more than just the dunks.
Keldon Johnson, G/F, Kentucky
Age: 18.5 | Height: 6-6 | Weight: 205
One of the breakout performers last week was Kentucky-bound Keldon Johnson. The 18-year-old wing started Monday morning practice with a bang. He was an active and vocal leader from the jump while playing with great effort. “That’s just me,” he told Sporting News.
Johnson’s primarily known for his scoring ability, but he flashed a more well-rounded game at McDonald’s. He featured his athleticism and hustle on a putback dunk during the opening practice. He also handled himself well during drills and in scrimmages operating out of ball screens and dribble handoffs.
The future Wildcat took advantage of every seam in the defense to get to the basket. However, he also moves the ball well.
“Everybody thinks it’s just straight to the bucket,” Johnson said. “But I make the right play most of the time.”
Johnson needs to build out his jump shot repertoire to become a more consistent scorer from the shooting guard spot. His slashing skills provide a nice baseline to develop from. He’ll presumably have plenty of chances to show his improvement at Kentucky, where he’ll likely be one of the team’s top scoring options.
Nassir Little, G/F, North Carolina
Age: 18.1 | Height: 6-7 | Weight: 215
While many of the top wings eligible for the 2019 NBA Draft are headed to Duke, Nassir Little will travel just a few miles down the road to rival North Carolina, where he figures to slot in immediately to replace senior Theo Pinson. The 18-year-old gave Tar Heels’ fans a taste of what they can expect during McDonald’s week with an excellent set of practices and a 28-point outburst to win MVP honors in the game itself.
Little was one of the more active players on both ends of the floor during the week, chasing down offensive rebounds and locking in defensively at times. His best moment came against Williamson during the game on Wednesday night. On the offensive end, Little nailed a midrange stepback over Williamson before swiping the ball away from him twice on defense.
That stepback was one of several pull-up jumpers Little knocked down during the week. He shot a nice ball with good rotation and excellent lift on his shot. Little looks comfortable attacking closeouts in straight lines and can elevate above the rim easily when he gets to load up off two feet.
At 6-7 and 215 pounds, Little also looks like the type of prospect who could eventually play either forward slot, sliding up and down the lineup as the situation calls for it. His frame already looks more developed than most of his counterparts in the class.
The Duke trio may currently have a stranglehold on the top spots on 2019 NBA Draft boards, but it won’t be surprising if Little is able to knock one or more of them from their perch. The future Tar Heel fits the mold as a versatile wing with upside.
Romeo Langford, G/F, Undecided
Age: 18.4 | Height: 6-6 | Weight: 200
During a one-on-one drill in practice, Romeo Langford, an undecided 6-6 wing out of Indiana, left future North Carolina guard Coby White with nothing to do but laugh. The 18-year-old Langford dribbled his way to his left side before stepping back and knocking down a tough jumper over White’s outstretched hand.
The Tar Heel shrugged and let out a chuckle. He never had a chance. The moment typified Langford’s game, as he looks like the best pure scoring prospect in the class with the ability to knock down tough shots at range.
Still considering Indiana, Kansas and Vanderbilt, Langford is a legitimate three-level scorer. He has 3-point range out beyond the college line, is comfortable hitting midrange jumpers off the bounce and is an explosive finisher at the rim.
His offensive game features a tight, low-to-the-ground handle and the maturity to keep defenders on his hip in ball screens. Wherever he ends up for his presumed one year of college development, expect him to operate as a primary offensive option.
The concern with Langford is what else he brings to the table. He didn’t pop as a passer during McDonald’s week, and his defensive engagement waxed and waned despite a nice moment or two breaking up passing lanes.
Scoring wings who don’t bring other box score value can be complicated prospects. It’s difficult to project them as high-end starters on good teams if they’re unable to contribute in other ways.
Langford needs to show he’s more than just a scorer at whichever school he chooses.
Quentin Grimes, G, Kansas
Age: 17.9 | Height: 6-5 | Weight: 200
Quentin Grimes is a true combo guard who likes to have the ball in his hands and will presumably feature as one of two the two ball-handlers in Bill Self’s backcourt next season. Grimes will bring a nice blend of athleticism and shooting to the Jayhawks.
The 6-5 guard showed off his bounce at the POWERADE Jam Fest and while throwing down an alley-oop in transition during the game. He’s a fluid leaper in space, but he needs to add strength to more consistently challenge the rim in traffic.
On the outside, Grimes is a capable as a catch-and-shoot threat. He knocked down a pair of 3s during the contest and shot 38.6 percent on 223 3-point attempts during his senior season, per MaxPreps.
NBA personnel didn’t get to see Grimes handle the ball a ton during the McDonald’s practices, as he was often slotted out on the wing, but that was beneficial for the 17-year-old in some ways. He frequently did battle with bigger, stronger wings on the defensive end. “I can guard multiple positions out there,” Grimes told Sporting News.
In a more organized setting, Grimes should get more chances to handle the ball. How he performs will influence front office thoughts about where he fits positionally on the floor.