With more than two months left until the 2020 Draft, I somewhat hit my breaking point. Over the past few weeks I decided to dig into the 2021 class — which has far more top-end talent than the current group. Throughout the process, I found prospects that might not be in the lottery on early mainstream boards but are players I took an extreme liking to. I present, my guys.

Caleb Love, North Carolina

If you’ve been following my twitter for the past two months, this inclusion shouldn’t be any kind of surprise. Space creation, a tricky handle and elite shooting potential are the calling cards for the future UNC Tar Heel. Of course, those are extremely valuable skills when they’re tied together, but it also requires a very high end shooting outcome to make it really worthwhile. Shooting projection is never easy, but Love has a profile that makes him a very intriguing bet to become the next transcendent guard shooter.

Making the shot is ultimately what you get rewarded for, but creating the shot is the necessary predecessor. When we think of “elite shooters” names like Joe Harris, Duncan Robinson and JJ Redick often come up — pinpoint accurate gunners who provide for their family by running off pindowns and making incredibly difficult shots with flawless footwork. Those players are obviously incredible shooters and there’s no argument against that, but where is the love for James Harden? I know, he is a “scorer.” However, Harden is one of the most talented individual space-creators and shot-makers in NBA history and he probably deserves more praise as a “shooter.”

This is where Caleb Love comes in. At just 18 years old, Love is already comfortable creating his own shot with a lethal plethora of dribble moves and combos. He keeps the ball on a tight string, but more importantly, he knows how to sell his handle.

Watch him take a calm step towards the rim to get the defender on his heels before viciously snatching back. His footwork is seasoned beyond his years, despite pulling out these advanced space creation methods, Love typically ends up balanced and square to the rim.Here’s one more for you. Love does his best Tim Hardaway (Sr. of course) impression by selling his defender with the slow between dribble before — again — viciously snatching back for another three. Although it looks like Love is fading away on this shot, he’s actually perfectly square on the release.

In a world where many HS players over dribble and their combos often have no purpose, Love is the exception. Some prospects get a ton of praise for their “change of pace,” these are usually guys who are limited athletically and have to win with pace and smarts, but Love adds a different connotation to that compliment. Yes, his traditional change of pace is still impressive and his burst is often overwhelming coming out of his signature hesi. But, in this instance, I’m talking about his change of pace within his dribble combos. Players often get sped up and can’t maintain the pace and poise they rep during workouts. Love is consistently incredible at putting his defender to sleep with a slow-paced first move and then violently waking him up with the finishing move.

This clip is a personal favorite of mine. It starts with Love sending his defender into a crossover run because of his standstill burst, he then snatches back — we’ve seen this before — and despite never bringing the ball above his waist, Love watches Camron Fletcher fly by. He finishes the play with a tough floater that even brought Jayson Tatum out of his seat. Nothing about that clip was unnecessary, Love understands the nuances of leveraging his pull up and was able to create a highlight-reel-worthy play without wasting any motions. It’s crucial to remember that the “high-hands” move is far less effective without the ability to actually drill the pull-up three.

Another aspect that makes me high on Caleb Love is his ability to go off-ball in the half court and still generate real gravity as a movement shooter. I talked about how impressive his volume and comfort shooting off the bounce was, but it’s also noteworthy coming off off-ball actions.

Here are two examples of him draining threes with some movement, first, he comes off the DHO and steps into it with Chris Breezy-esque rhythm. Calm, cool and confident. (Notice the Carmelo Anthony quick trigger and backpedal before the ball even drops). I can’t believe I made it this far without mentioning his range, because Caleb Love has in-the-gym range. While the second clip isn’t exactly off a full sprint, it still showcases his ability to gather quickly and get on balanced for a deep three off the ball. At 6’3” I still picture him as a primary ball-handler, but providing value in other facets of the game — especially without the ball — is never a bad thing. Not to mention, this added layer of versatility bodes well for his shooting projection down the road.

Love isn’t exactly the most advanced passer yet, but I’m not sure he has to be. He’s flashed the occasional throwback to the shake shooter out of PnR and has definitely thrown some eye-opening drop offs, but Love isn’t the lead guard who manipulates tag defenders with no looks and live dribble darts. Instead, he thrives off advantages created from his handle, burst and shooting gravity — often making the simple but usually effective pass. While that approach certainly puts more pressure on the level of shooting outcome he has to hit, if he does reach the level I’d expect, it makes him a capable reactive passer instead of a black hole.

This is an example of his off-ball prowess and quick decision-making coming together. He gets a good screen from his teammate and Love’s shooting ability forces the defender to step out, which opens up a window for him to lay down the bounce pass. I know it’s only one play, but it’s not difficult to see how these actions could become a real part of Love’s usage.

Up to this point you probably think Caleb Love is the next Damian Lillard. While it is in his range of outcomes (like 99th percentile) every prospect has their flaws, and it’s time to talk about his. When he decides to get downhill, Love is hard to keep out of the paint because of all the positives I mentioned above, however, he still has ways to go as a finisher.

He suffers from Kira Lewis-syndrome. For those who don’t know, the diagnosis for that is as follows: Attempting to get to the rim like you get a reward for every shot Synergy classifies as a “HC Rim Attempt” while also taking off from the free throw line. If he was MJ in the ‘88 dunk contest then this wouldn’t be a problem — spoiler: he’s not. Taking off from so far away with rim intentions often leaves Love in a near-impossible situation when airborne. The fix for this is adding upper body strength so you can have crafty extension finishes as an alternative, instead of relying on them. If Love can become more efficient around the rim, then we’re talking about a very real offensive engine.

Keon Johnson, Tennessee

When scouting prospects before college, I’ve mentioned how important it is to watch players in different settings. Roles and expectations change with wind and it’s critical see it all and then widdle it down to what matters. Keon Johnson has limited tape available, he only played four games as a senior and he suits up on the Adidas Gauntlet — where film is a needle in a haystack. I was finally able to get my hands on some games, and let’s just say, he didn’t disappoint. In AAU, you saw a top tier athlete with incredible explosion, instincts and aggressiveness, which are all noteworthy for a 6’5” guard. However, when you turn on the high school film, that’s when we start cooking. You saw those athletic traits result in easy buckets and ferocious put-back dunks at the rim and while also showcasing more genuine basketball skills. Instead of being pigeonholed into the block in a 4-out offense — yes, that actually happened — Keon was able to rock out with Webb School.

I want to start with his most translatable skill — slashing. I touched on Keon’s burst but it’s hard to articulate how overwhelming of an athlete he actually is without seeing it with your own eyes.

I’m hoping this clip can do some justice. Yes, the competition isn’t exactly great and it also shows Keon’s biggest flaw — which we’ll hit on later — but that’s besides the point. The sheer speed to accelerate through an entire defense like Sonic on a retro SEGA Genesis, and then the body control and balance on the euro-step-and-one. Wow. Keon made it look very easy so it probably looks like I’m exaggerating, but folks, that is very impressive. Friend of the program and basketball genius, PD Web, recently wrote about his “easy buckets” heuristic when evaluating guards and Keon checks that box emphatically. His motor is constantly running and he never settles. In one of the games I watched, Keon probably had 30, and at least 70% of his buckets came at the rim. While most five-star prospects develop bad-habits and try to impress baseline cameras with five-dribble-combos and contested stepbacks, Keon keeps his foot on the gas. His wiring and bulldog mentality will be a legitimate plus for him on both ends.

One of Keon’s more improved traits is his playmaking. If you even listen to 25% of the things I say — I don’t blame you if that number is on the high end — then you know how much I value advantage creation. I’m all for intelligent connecting pieces that always make the right play at the right time, but in order for them to be effective, someone has to shift the defense. Keon absolutely carves up defenses in the purest way possible — straight line drives. Because of his ability to get downhill so quickly, Keon draws multiple defenders with ease. When the defense is scrambling, the reads get easier. He isn’t a manipulative passer, but it’s very functional because of his awareness and quick decision-making. Keon excels as a drive and kick passer, which is extremely valuable when intertwined with his slashing prowess.

This clip epitomizes Keon. He puts his motor on display by getting back into the play with a purposeful cut that draws two defenders and clears a lane for this drop off, which he takes advantage of rather quickly. It’s unclear how much we’ll see Keon on the ball next year, but I know he’ll find a way to make a positive impact regardless.

The starkest change in his game from AAU to High School was the fluidity of his jumper — in the best way possible.

As someone who really values concrete mechanical improvement, this is as good as it gets (shoutout to Ben Pfeifer for the clips). The HS pull-up is much quicker, smoother and less hitchy. While it’s still not perfect and sometimes gives me Kawhi robot-repped-out vibes, he practically eliminated the set point prior to his release, which is very encouraging for his shooting versatility and consistency. The walk in pull-up three was impressive and best showcased his improvement, but I’m most intrigued with the mid-range pull-up. Considering how bursty he is, the ability to stop on a dime and flow into a pull-up that smoothly is the real deal. Personally, I wouldn’t be shocked if Keon was able to develop into a reliable three-level scorer. Because of his strength, Keon often found himself in the post against smaller defenders. While most out-of-this-world athletes would be uncomfortable playing anything other than bully ball, he showed off some serious touch by consistently draining a baby hook over his left shoulder. I’m not sure how much stock to put into that in terms of shooting projection, but it certainly seems noteworthy. Although I don’t expect to see this much in the SEC, why not have some fun? You can always count me in to watch Keon Johnson do his best JJ Reddick impression.

So far, I’ve written 834 words on Keon and haven’t touched on his defense, let’s change that. On this side of the ball, Keon Johnson is a bad m**********r. He uses otherworldly quickness and strength to dismantle opponents at the point of attack (it should be illegal for any team to have Jaden Springer and Keon in the same recruiting class). However, I was blown away by his off-ball defense — rim-protection in particular. At just 6’5”, Keon is far from your typical secondary rim protector, but here we are. His combination of vertical athleticism, instincts and consistent engagement made him an absolute eraser for a HS guard. While his production in that aspect will almost certainly take a dip against better basketball players and more gifted athletes, I still think it can be a part of his identity in the league.

No running start, just two-foot explosion and “meet me at the rim” mentality — resulting in a volleyball spike. This play ended in a goaltend, but check out where Keon’s head is when he makes the block, watch your head young fella!

There’s one facet of the game that brings Keon Johnson back down to earth — ball-handling. He was able to win with speed and strength against lesser competition, but his loose handle and lack of shake could hinder his on-ball equity moving forward. Ball handling is generally viewed as one of the hardest skills to improve on, making this “one flaw” pretty significant. Keon has been on a very impressive developmental track so it’s not out of the realm of possibilities that he tightens this up, but as I said, there’s a very short list (if any list at all) of guys that have massively improved their handle.

Moses Moody, Arkansas

The phrase “3&D wing” gets tossed around every level of basketball far too freely. What most pitch as a floor outcome is actually one of the rarest and most valuable archetypes in the league. Another basketball genius, Todd Whitehead (@CrumpledJumper), recently wrote about which player types are oversaturated or underappreciated in the NBA market. According to Todd, in order to earn the 3&D title, a player had to shoot at least 35% in Ben Taylor’s shooting proficiency metric (formula is (2/(1+EXP(-3PA)) -1)*3P%) and grade out as either an A or B in perimeter defense, per Bball Index’s talent grades. For those who aren’t familiar with Todd, Ben or Tim’s work, I can hear you saying “Where the f**k did those come from?” But, these are reliable benchmarks, not handpicked goalposts. Only 21 wings met that criteria. Seems a little low for how often we hear 3&D, right? The main idea of that spiel is to not underrate players who have real 3&D potential — let alone prospects who already excel in both fields as an 18 year-old. With all that in mind, meet Moses Moody.

I want to start with Moody’s shooting. At 6’5” with approximately a +8 wingspan, Moody has no problem getting clean looks over defenders. Let’s just preface this paragraph by stating that he shot 43.1% (43.1!!!) from deep on 72 attempts this past year. Moody’s mechanics — similar to Devin Vassell — also allow his length to be that much more enabling as a shooter.

While he doesn’t have Vassell’s overhead release point, Moody has an extremely quick one-motion release that he gets off in the snap-of-a-finger. He is super comfortable with multiple footwork approaches, which allows for more versatility and a consistently quick release time. Because of his patented experience with all types of three point shots, I feel even more confident projecting him forward as a potential elite shooter. Even if his game off the bounce doesn’t fully come around, I trust that Moody will be very valuable as a spot-up and movement shooter. He is very intelligent on both ends of the floor, great shooters are often great relocators and that holds true for Moody. Although it’s just a simple lift, those few steps open up a window for Cade to find him. Moody still has improvements to make on this side of the floor, but I have no doubt about his ability to pressure a defense with shooting versatility and volume from day one. It’s worth mentioning that he has a habit of falling down on a fair amount of his three point attempts. Sometimes this is due to a leg-kick (which often earns him three free throws) but on other occasions he simply falls down. As of now, I don’t think it *really* impacts the result of the shot, but it’s certainly something to monitor moving forward.

I’ve already talked about how important it is to watch prospects in different settings while evaluating Keon Johnson, now let’s shift that same lens over to Moody. He spent two years playing a crucial linking piece for Montverde. The Eagles have been one of the nation’s top teams throughout his entire tenure, his role was valuable and by no means a slight to his game. On the EYBL circuit with Brad Beal Elite, it was a different story. Moody saw a significant jump in on-ball reps as both a shooter and creator. It showed his lack of burst and loose handle at times, but for the most part, it was an extremely refreshing and encouraging look into what his offensive ceiling actually looks like. Because of the flaws I just mentioned, I don’t think Moody is the next big wing creator (he’ll still be really damn good) but due to his shooting ability, he’s going to draw closeouts.

That’s where I picture pull-ups like these coming into play. We rarely saw Moody take pull-ups with MVA so it was awesome to see him comfortable in the in-between area. His mechanics are very fluid so it’s not a surprise that he flows from dribble to shot seamlessly — but it’s still good to see it. Moody has had success as a tough shot-maker off the catch, but before this EYBL season, we haven’t seen him give it a go off the bounce. He might struggle early on to create good looks, but I definitely think Moody has some untapped potential as a pull-up shooter, and I expect that to come along as he develops physically.

I don’t have access to Moody’s finishing numbers but anecdotally, it seems like an area where he can and likely will improve.

Moody’s two biggest strengths around the rim are touch and length — he’s pretty outlier in both areas. This and-one is a perfect example of his elite touch. However, his extremely slender frame and lack of vertical pop make things harder than they have to be at the rim. When attempting to get downhill, Moody sometimes gets bumped off his spot by a stronger defender. When attempting to elevate above the rim, Moody’s explosion — or lack thereof — will sometimes betray him. He is limited as a physical athlete at the moment, but he has all the basketball skills necessary for a solid foundation. Moody can still be an effective finisher, using his length to compensate for athletic deficiencies. He is creative around the basket and as I said above, he really has incredible touch. He can still be a very solid piece without a ton of rim pressure, but adding that third level to his scoring repertoire would be a huge boost.

Now, we finally get to talk about what makes Moses Moody special. He is a defensive monster, plain and simple. While he isn’t your typical 99th percentile athlete wing stopper, Moody overwhelms with never-ending arms, out-of-this-world instincts and Ed Reed range. He might not be the Pat Bev pest-type, but I can assure you, opponents hate playing against Moses Moody. When I was younger — and in my Michigan fandom — I had a shirt that said “water covers 70% of the earth and Charles Woodson covers the rest.” If anyone reading this has a T-shirt store in Fayetteville, well, you’re welcome, because it legitimately seems like Moody covers the entire earth in help defense. This can’t be attributed to just positioning, instincts or length, but rather a combination of all three. His smarts, reactivity and tools all enhance each other on the defensive end.

The first play is one of my favorite clips in a very long time, it’s absolutely perfect. Moody realizes no one picks up the big so he slides onto him, when the ball is swung he gets around the big with perfect footwork and uses his length to take away any entry pass, as the handler starts to drive he gets off the post-front and finally steps in to take the charge. That’s flawless.

That level of team defense can be so valuable to a team, Moody not only has the ability to create events himself but he can also consistently clean up others’ mistakes. The second clip is just a lol moment. Literally, I laughed out loud watching this play live. Moody plays both players perfectly and baits Nimari Burnett into throwing an ill-advised entry pass. He then looks like Wilt Chamberlain while apple-picking with the way he effortlessly uses length to intercept the pass — it must be nice to play basketball with a wingspan above -3 (I wonder what 5’9” blogboy has those alligator arms).

Despite only being 6’5”, Moody also showed some rim-protection chops. All three of these blocks are patient rotations finished with textbook verticality. Again, Moody is only 6’5” without incredible vertical athleticism. He practically has zero room for error as a shot-blocker, yet he made BJ Boston look like an amateur around the rim — which doesn’t happen often, if ever.

Last but certainly not least, Moody is a coach’s dream. He consistently does all the little things that don’t show up on the box score but play a vital role in the end result.

I had to find a way to insert this play into the piece, because I was smiling from ear-to-ear while watching. Loose ball on the ground, he locates it and then fully lays out like Reggie Bush diving for the pylon in ‘09. He won’t get the bucket, or even an assist, but it’s a play that makes a difference down the stretch. In a class with multiple primary initiator bets, Moody brings value as a safe option in a depleted but coveted archetype. For all those reasons, Moses Moody is a top 10 prospect to me.

DJ Steward, Duke

DJ Steward is a sharpshooting combo guard with seasoned pace, endless range and incredible positional length, why does he remain underrated amongst national recruiting services? I wish I knew the answer. The Chicago native has been on my radar since he was a freshman at Fenwick High School — but my introduction to Steward was rather unique. I was at NikeTown during McDonald’s All-American week and I started telling one employee about my blog (I was 15 at the time and it’s pretty crazy that he took me seriously), he told me there was a young killer by the name of DJ Steward that I had to keep tabs on, so I did. I don’t think either of us knew I’d be writing about him as one of “my guys” through the 2021 draft lens, but that’s the beauty of the game.

It takes one look at Steward for his frame to absolutely jump off the page. Unfortunately, he’s still rail thin, but he has good height for a guard at 6’4” and even though I couldn’t find an exact measurement, I’m very confident saying he has an impressive wingspan. The reason I’m so high Steward’s pure tools is that they fully coincide with his skillset and already further his abilities on the court. This isn’t a tools projection, this is a tools evaluation. Even though Steward might not blow by you with De’Aaron Fox full court speed, his pace and ability to change speeds can be lethal. Even though Steward might not posterize the seven footer that slides over in help, he’ll have no problem laying him with a crafty reverse finish. You see where I’m going with this? Every prospect has flaws, no one is perfect. But, flaws only become crippling when you’re unable to compensate for them, and so far, Steward has met every challenge head on and passed with flying colors.

This clip shows exactly what I’m raving about. Steward patiently (you’re going to hear that a lot) comes off the ball screen, hits the drop big with not one but two hesi’s, before finishing with the goofiest of goofy leg layups. He never showcased blow-by straight line speed, but he didn’t have to. Steward’s pace created the look and his length and creativity finished it. It might be atypical but his game is silky smooth.

Some might say Steward’s game is predicated around his jumper, but I’d argue it’s actually centered around his touch. He is a legitimate three level scorer — with an extremely developed mid range game — and a lot of that can be attributed to his buttery touch from everywhere on the court. Around a year ago this time I was raving about Tyrese Maxey’s otherworldly touch, and that certainly did not betray him at Kentucky. Steward might not have the footwork versatility that Maxey had, but the pure touch flashes are pretty similar.

These two baseline floaters are absolutely nuts. The first one legitimely looks like a horse shot in your friend’s driveway, Steward is practically behind the basket when he effortlessly flips it up with one hand. The second one is equally impressive, he puts his length on full display by just getting it over the help side defender, and again, the touch is elite. Despite being limited as a vertical athlete, we saw Maxey become one of the best guard finishers in the class with his combination of touch, creativity and strength. Steward doesn’t have Maxey’s strength, but he certainly has the length. It’s a shakier projection because Steward will likely get bumped off his spot in scenarios where Maxey could recover with his balance and body control, however, there’s something to be said for Steward’s touch, creativity and length combination. This looks like your regular layup line finish, but it’s actually very nuanced. Steward sees the athletic big trailing for the chasedown block, instead of meeting him straight up, he uses his length to get to the other side of the basket, using the rim to protect him from the shot-blocker. Yes, this is only one play in transition, but I think it’s a pretty good glimpse into how Steward can win around the rim.

At the moment, Steward’s best skill is his pull-up shooting. His transition from dribble to shot is extremely smooth — and mechanically advantageous. Unlike the aforementioned Caleb Love, Steward doesn’t rely on wicked space creation combos to get his shots off. Instead, Steward plays at his controlled pace, constantly looking for the tiny window he needs.

While rewatching some of his clips, I noticed something in his pull-up mechanics that will serve as a huge benefit to him going forward. Steward has a one motion release, but take a close look at his set point on pull-ups. He is still gathering momentum on the downswing, but the ball is already at his forehead, creating a very clean look at 6’4”.

Now, I’m not discounting the difficulty of this shot by any means. But, it’s likely that this bucket looks harder than it really is for Steward — which is only a good thing. I mentioned that Steward is an effective three level scorer, and I’d be crazy not to praise his game behind the arc. He is an absolute gunner the second he crosses half court. Even though this shot is from the hash mark, you can tell Caleb Houstan is getting an earful from Coach Boyle in the next film session for letting Steward get this off. Let’s set the record straight, Coach Boyle is not overreacting, Steward is that dangerous. In a league where rangy pull-up shooters are stretching bigs and punishing drop coverages, Steward fits like a glove.

I’ve talked about how Steward doesn’t carve up defenses the flashy way, he won’t put you on skates with a Tim Hardaway combo or Harden stepback, but he is extremely effective playing his way. He wins with change of speeds, some standstill burst and shooting, which brings us to his most ideal play type — the pick and roll handler. If Duke wants to be at their best, they will let Steward have a steady diet of PnR reps.

The main thing that stands out in Steward’s PnR game is his patience. He isn’t afraid to go back for a re-screen, or even a re-re-screen. Keep Steward’s quick trigger pull-up in mind, and then think about how frustrating it must be to defend Steward in this action. On the pull-up three, he rejects the screen, goes back over it, and then finally cuts back to his spot and rises up. In this action, Steward can leverage his pull-up to create an advantage in ways he otherwise might not be able to on the ball. Another huge positive with Steward’s game off the bounce is his confidence shooting with forward momentum. Whether it’s from deep or in the mid-range, he is comfortable exploding out of the PnR and flowing seamlessly into a pull-up. This bodes well for his effectiveness as a scorer and his long term projection as a versatile shooter.

He has been making real progress as a passer, and I noticed that most of Steward’s noteworthy passes came out of the PnR. Take the plays above for example, Steward shows the same patience to draw out the hedge and get the tag defender to commit, before firing live dribble passes — with both hands — to the opposite corners. Not only is the PnR an easy way for Steward to be an effective passer early on in his career, I also think it’s a great way for him to get substantive reps as a playmaker.

He has been consistently throwing this drop off to the roll man in every game I’ve seen. No, it’s not the most complicated read, but it’s still a layup pass and concrete progress. Steward’s growth as a playmaker — especially out of the PnR — will be one of my favorite things to monitor next year.

What makes Steward such an offensive weapon is his game off the ball. His projection as a valuable off-ball movement shooter is far less ambitious than it is for Love, given Steward’s reps, footwork and size. With Whitney Young, he was able to showcase his polished movement shooting through creative sets and unique screens.

This is a simple pindown, but Steward’s footwork and energy transformation are anything but that. He is basically facing the opposite baseline on the catch, and is able to turn his entire body on the rise-up to get square to knock down the deep two. He does all this while keeping the ball high and away from his defender, creating a relatively easy look on a play where the word “easy” should probably be forbidden. This is Duncan Robinson stuff right here. Steward comes off the double screen on a full sprint, gathers with a hop and rises straight into a deep three. Nothing but the bottom of the net. When you take Steward’s full arsenal and potential into account, I think it’s pretty easy to see a lottery pick.

LaMelo Ball Is Just Different

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