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Players to Watch: West

by Ed Isaacson
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:09 pm ET

Players to watch by region: South | East | Midwest | West

The West Region has an interesting group of prospects, including some of the nation’s top scorers and some of the best sophomore prospects in the country. Arizona leads the way as the No. 1 seed, but some strong offenses sit at No. 2 and No. 3 with Wisconsin and Creighton. There is also a good chance of some head-to-head matchups among prospects with the way this region is set up. Here is a look at the prospects to watch out west:

(Players are listed in order of team’s seed)

Aaron Gordon, Arizona, Fr., Forward – Gordon put together a nice season for the Wildcats, though expectations for him may have been a bit optimistic. Extremely athletic, with a nice feel for the game, Gordon is an offensive threat when he sticks to what he does well. He is a very good offensive rebounder, and he is capable of finishing at the basket in some spectacular ways. Gordon also sees the floor well and makes some surprising passes for a young forward. When he tries to expand his offensive game beyond that, the results are mixed, but not encouraging. Gordon doesn’t shoot the ball well, and his ballhandling skills can vary from impressive to so-so on consecutive plays. He doesn’t shy from contact when he has the ball, but he is an awful free-throw shooter (43.5% on 168 attempts). On the defensive side, Gordon is very impressive, showing the ability to guard multiple positions well and providing some strong rebounding and occasional shot-blocking. While he may head to the NBA after this season, his game is still very raw in many areas, and teams will need to be patient to reap some rewards. 

Nick Johnson, Arizona, Jr., Guard – Johnson emerged as the leader of a young Arizona team this season, and his steady play on both sides of the floor allowed his teammates to come into their own as the season progressed. Johnson handles the ball well and provides the team with a second playmaker alongside TJ McConnell. He has had some shooting woes in the second half of the season, but Johnson is a threat to knock down shots consistently in the mid- and long-range areas. Where Johnson really impresses is on the defensive side, where he plays strong on- and off-ball defense, as well as adding some solid rebounding from his position. 

Sam Dekker, Wisconsin, Soph., Forward – There were high hopes for Dekker heading into this season, and while he didn’t have the kind of season many had hoped, he still showed a lot of things that have people considering him as a solid NBA prospect. An athletic wing who can attack the basket or knock down jumpers, Dekker’s inconsistent play can be attributed in many ways to his lack of aggressiveness on the offensive end. He seems to pass up a few good looks in every game, and instead will often settle for a tougher shot later in a possession. Dekker has become a more aggressive rebounder on both ends of the floor this year. He has also improved some on the defensive end, and he is starting to show some of the strong defensive traits that Wisconsin players have over the last decade. There is plenty of next-level potential here, but becoming consistent will be important going forward.

Doug McDermott, Creighton, Sr., Forward – There isn’t much else to say about McDermott that hasn’t been said. The nation’s leading scorer is a joy to watch on the offensive end. McDermott will score from the low post, the high post, mid-range and long-range. Teams know he is going to look to shoot and still have trouble stopping him. Besides having a shooting stroke that looks effortless, McDermott’s ability to move without the ball is the best I can remember in the college game, and he is ready to shoot as soon as he touches the ball. McDermott is also a solid rebounder, and he has no problem mixing it up around the basket to get a rebound. There are legitimate concerns about McDermott’s ability to defend at the NBA level, but I think in time he’ll adjust. He may not become a good defender, but he’ll figure out ways to minimize the damage.

Xavier Thames, San Diego State, Sr., Guard – Thames moved into a prominent role for the Aztecs after the loss of Chase Tapley and Jamaal Franklin at the end of last season. Chances are that any expectations people had for Thames were surpassed by a great deal. He was the only consistent offensive threat in an offense that struggled plenty of times to score points, as well as being a strong facilitator of the offense and protector of the ball. Shot selection was spotty at times, but that was often because he was the only Aztec who could get a shot. Thames also leads the strong Aztec defense, and his ability to keep the ball out of the lane allows the rest of the defense to settle in and focus on not letting teams get good looks. He may not get to the NBA right away, but teams will be interested in seeing what he can do this spring.

Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State, Soph., Guard – Smart shocked many when he chose to come back to school for his sophomore season, and though the season had some low points, Smart still put together a very impressive season. Offensively, he is at his best when he looks to attack the basket, where he can score or make some nice passes to his teammates. He has a body that allows him to protect the ball and take some hits as he looks to get a shot off, and he is strong enough to finish through contact. The big knock against Smart last season was his perimeter shooting, and though he looked better at times this year, the problem still plagued him. Smart can shoot the ball, but he makes poor choices on his shots. Smart is one of the better defensive guards in college basketball, and his ability to defend on and off the ball effectively will likely translate to the NBA. He has quick hands and feet, but he can also play physical defense when needed. His instincts are as good as any player the last few years, and he can legitimately disrupt a team’s offense in seconds. NBA teams are still excited to get a chance at Smart, even if it is a year later than they thought.

Tyler Haws, BYU, Jr., Guard – Haws is another in a strong group of scorers in this region. He is an efficient scorer who finds ways to score from anywhere on the court but prefers the mid-range jumper and getting hit on cuts to the basket. He moves very well without the ball and is a big threat when coming off of screens to get a quick shot off. Haws does a tremendous job drawing contact when he has the ball, and being an almost 90% free throw shooter adds up quickly. He isn’t much of a defender, but neither are most of his teammates. He has a good understanding of the game, though, and he’ll still make a play or two on defense just by being in the right place. However, he still has a lot of work on some basic defensive concepts. His scoring ability will intrigue NBA teams, but he’ll need to show that he has what it takes to be at least an average defender.

Elfrid Payton, Louisiana-Lafayette, Jr., Guard – Payton was a surprise member of the Under-19 USA team that won a gold medal in the FIBA World Championship this past summer. Though many may not of have known about him, his performance in that tournament raised expectations for this season. Payton is both a capable scorer and distributor, and one of the toughest guards in college basketball to keep out of the lane. He isn’t a very strong perimeter shooter, and that could lead him to trying to force action towards the basket, but he seems to find ways to get good shots off in the lane area. Payton is also a strong rebounder for his size, and he has no problem getting in among much bigger players to get the ball. Payton can play tough perimeter defense, though he still takes too many chances at times. If he comes out of school this season, expect a lot of NBA teams to be interested in getting a closer look at him.

Others to Watch
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Kaleb Tarczewski - Arizona
Cory Jefferson, Isaiah Austin - Baylor
Kevin Pangos - Gonzaga
Le’Bryan Nash, Markel Brown – Oklahoma State
Joseph Young - Oregon
Terran Petteway - Nebraska
Sim Bhullar – New Mexico State

Ed Isaacson
Ed Isaacson is in his second year of covering the NBA Draft for Rotoworld.com, while his work can also be found at NBADraftblog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @nbadraftblog.