Off-the-radar Seniors

Sam Merrill
A four-year starter at Utah State, Sam Merrill was named a first-team All-MWC selection as a junior and a senior, and in 2019, he was the conference’s Player of the Year. In Mountain West history, he ranks in the top five for career points (2,197), 3-pointers made (319), 3-point percentage (42.1), free-throw percentage (89.1), true-shooting percentage (62.4), offensive rating (126.1 — 7th best in DI history), and offensive win shares (16.6). (Photo courtesy of Utah State Athletics)

Seniors in college basketball are commonly the forgotten prospects in the NBA draft. From time to time, evaluators and fans will deem relative old age (anything above 21 years old) as a major red flag that undoubtedly predetermines how good a player will be. 

Most of the attention in the NBA draft is unquestionably given to the talented underclassmen in college and the young international players coming to the States. The excitement is warranted since there is a track record for plenty of current NBA players getting drafted without spending four years in college. Plus, who doesn’t get excited for some diaper dandies who have a figuratively deep well of potential.

On the other end of the spectrum, players 22 or older are perceived as having lower ceilings — closer to their max potential — or not as talented to begin with, since they needed more time in college. Even among the group of seniors with chances of making the NBA, there is a subtle dichotomy between them in college basketball. There are the seniors with larger spotlights after playing at big-name programs and the guys who are not household names on teams that are unlikely to be poised to make a run in the tournament. The stigma of relative old age in the NBA draft is real, but it should not lead us to assume that older prospects are very unlikely to become productive players simply because of age. The only certainty when it comes to the evaluation of basketball players is that there is no certainty when judging teens and 20-year-olds’ futures. 

With all that being said, here’s a list of seven senior prospects who can possibly make an impact in the NBA, whether they are drafted or not. Also, it is worth noting that this is not a list of the best seniors in college basketball. The bulk of these listed players are not regularly included in mainstream draft conversations and may not be considered the blue-chippers among seniors — with two possible exceptions, one from the University of Virginia and one from Seton Hall.

Sam Merrill, Shooting Guard, Utah State

Shooters shoot, that is the mantra that should be immediately thought of when a mention of Sam Merrill occurs. He is on the short list for best shooters in the 2020 draft. This season, he shot 41 percent from beyond the arc on 6.8 attempts per game, and has a convincing pump fake that barely rises above his waist. His 89.3 free throw percentage, which was 11th in the country, is another sign of the legitimacy of his outside shooting prowess. Of all of his field-goal attempts in the half court, 69.2 percent were jump shots, which often came off the dribble or via catch-and-shoot situations. Again, shooters shoot. 

With Merrill’s jumper being his best attribute, there is certainly a chance that he breaks through as a 6-foot-5 shooting guard that can keep the defense more than honest as a long-range threat on spot-ups. In an age where shooting is the premier trait sought by NBA teams, players as lethal from long range as Merrill should have a good chance of finding a home in the league. An elite spot-up shooter is enough to be a fringe NBA player because, simply put, the more shooters a team has, the merrier. 

Merrill, however, is not only a senior but also one of the oldest players in the draft at 24-plus years old. He is the ultimate example of a player some would assume doesn’t have NBA potential since he is a couple years older than the average senior. With further research, it turns out Merrill delayed his freshman year after serving a two-year LDS Church mission in Nicaragua from 2014-16. Age is the main reason that he is not as appreciated by as many NBA talent evaluators to be a late-round pick, even though he was at the 93rd percentile on jump shots in the half court, averaging 1.161 points per possession (PPP) this season. 

In addition to averaging 19.7 points per game (PPG) and having a 62.5 true-shooting percentage this season, Merrill had a low turnover percentage (nine percent) and averaged 3.9 assists. While solid, his assist numbers do not truly exemplify how exceptional he is as a decision maker, but his assist-turnover ratio of 2.5 was outstanding for a wing.  The capability that he has to calmly find his teammates while under duress with quick decisions and sharp passes is a nice additive to his overall skill set. 

The second concern that has hurt Merrill’s odds of being drafted is his below-average athleticism in college. His scoring ability is almost entirely based around skill, rather than the prerequisite athletic traits most future NBA players possess. On an NBA floor, the difference in athleticism will be even more disparate and may possibly make him unplayable when better athletes at his position step on the court. The only way that Merrill can make up for his athletic deficiencies is with savvy and anticipation — although it does help that he has solid size for a perimeter player. If his shooting and decision-making attributes translate to the NBA-level, then he should have a spot in the league as a floor spacer, who can make smart decisions when given ball-initiating duties or when running an occasional pick and roll. 

Myles Powell, Combo Guard, Seton Hall 

Myles Powell’s role throughout his collegiate career was as a fearless above-the-arc scorer. He averaged better than 21 points per game for two straight seasons, and was widely recognized as one of the better dynamic scorers in the country.  He attempted a ludicrous 9.2 three-pointers per game this season, and 7.8 for his career. It is worth mentioning that his three-point percentage drastically declined from 36.3 percent as a junior to 30.6 percent this past season — his overall field-goal percentage also dropped from 44.7 percent to 39.8 percent. It is hard to pinpoint what these massive decreases can be attributed to, though the quality of the opposition in the Big East was arguably improved this season, and opponents did have more familiarity with him as the Pirates’ go-to option. Also, Powell did shoot a ton of deep threes this season — 122 between 25 and 35 feet, making 36 (29.5 percent) — which may best explain why he missed more than usual. Despite the inefficient shooting numbers this year, he still has the hallmarks of a capable microwave scorer in the NBA.  

As a 6-foot-2 guard who did not initiate his team’s offense, Powell became adept at scoring without the ball. Coming off of screens accounted for 22 percent of his half court offense this season, and he ranked at the 77th percentile (1.063 PPP). He has nice elusiveness when trying to free himself from opponents in order to make space for his catch-and-shoot jumpers. His impact in the NBA would have to be as a secondary facilitator and as an off-the-bench microwave scorer. He definitely had some cold stretches during games, but he still displayed his tough shot-making abilities this past year. Powell has the mindset to take over when the offense is stalling and is the prototypical heat-check guy, who will have nights when he can’t miss from beyond the arc in short time spans. 

There is some value in having a player who can be the fourth guard in the rotation, yet is capable of having a night where he can light up the opposing team’s bench unit once in a while. Powell will probably find a team willing to grant him a two-way contract. It is easy to imagine him proving himself in the G-League before getting real minutes on an NBA court, similar to Carsen Edwards, who averaged 22 PPG and 9 three-point attempts for the Maine Red Claws this past season. 

Mamadi Diakite, Power Forward/Center, Virginia 

The Virginia product is known for his skills as a defender on one of the best defensive teams in college basketball, year in and year out. Mamdi Diakite is alert in space and quick to close out on shooters, and like the rest of his teammates, he is well schooled as a team defender. This season, he was at the 90th percentile for PPP allowed in spot-up situations, and averaged 1.3 blocks per game. He totaled 2.8 defensive win shares (the most in the ACC) and an 85.1 defensive rating (3rd in ACC). For the past two seasons, he finished in the top 10 of the conference for block percentage, and finished his career with a mark of 7.6 percent. However, the reason that his draft stock has improved this year is because of the impressive step forward that he took on the offensive end.

Diakite upped his per-game scoring averages from 7.4 as a junior to 13.7 as a senior. The top three scorers from the Cavaliers’ championship team in 2018-19 — Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter, and Ty Jerome — were all NBA draft picks. These players’ departures gave Diakite the opportunity to increase his offensive load. To go from the fourth option to the first option is no easy thing, yet Diakite did that better than expected. 

Diakite is a better shooter than he gets credit for. He shot 36.4 percent from the three-point line on 1.8 attempts per game this season, was at the 67th percentile (1.07 PPP) on catch-and-shoot jump shots in the half court, and at the 77th percentile (1.111 PPP) on three-pointers in the half court. 

Diakite’s NBA potential is limited by his poor ball skills, as well as his lack of size in terms of being a true center. He has lackluster control of the ball, which is a critical weakness since he will be playing on the perimeter more often due to his shooting ability and the style of play in the NBA. He will be expected to be able to make basic drives and kicks if forced off the three-point line. At this stage, there isn’t a reason to be confident in his ability to do that. Diakite was anything but an effective passer, averaging 2.1 turnovers and 0.8 assists per game. He is also a relatively small front-court player (a slight 6-foot-9 with a 228-pound frame) who cannot overpower his competition. He would have more value if his skill level was higher. 

As a prospect who has a chance to work his way into the NBA on a two-way deal, his saving grace, from an offensive-skill perspective, is his shooting ability. Diakite will have to be a stretch-four and small-ball five in the league, who can consistently hit threes at a 37 percent clip in a variety of situations — pick and pop, on the move, etc. He also will have to become proficient at hindering perimeter players on switches and protecting the rim. His defensive instincts and 7-foot-2 wingspan should assist him on defense. 

Kristian Doolittle, Combo Forward, Oklahoma 

Kristian Doolittle is not the best player on this list but is the most fascinating. He is a 6-foot-7 front-court player with a solid 232-pound frame, who can soar for defensive rebounds and fluidly bring the ball up in transition. His pacing in transition is very controlled and translatable to the next level. He also can score at all levels, from the post to the three-point line, can be used on either end of the pick and roll, and excels on cuts and pick-and-pop plays. Similar to Diakite, Doolittle’s shooting ability is his most promising trait, yet it was not a consistent part of his scoring repertoire until his final year at OU.  

The most puzzling part of Doolittle’s statistical profile is his total three-point shots made in each of his four college seasons. As a freshman, he shot 39.5 percent from beyond the arc on 43 attempts — a reasonable sample size for a first-year big man. However, in his sophomore and junior season, he attempted only four three-pointers both years in 22 games and 34 games, respectively. For whatever reason, his confidence as a shooter was severely lacking for those two seasons. Conversely, as a senior, he finally let the shot fly — for his standards. He attempted 80 total three-pointers (2.8 per game) and had a 37.5 three-point percentage. Doolittle was at the 92nd percentile (1.241 PPP) for three-point shots in the half court on 58 attempts.

Another layer to Dootlittle’s intriguing shooting ability is that he does really well on pull-ups but not as well on catch-and-shoot jumpers. On catch-and-shoot jumpers in the half court this season, he was a measly 6 for 18. Yet, he was at the 78th percentile on all jump shots off-the-dribble in the half court, making 60 for 146. He is most comfortable dribbling one or two times and rising up into his shot, and over the past two seasons, he has excelled in the mid-range area, making 91 of his 203 jumpers (45 percent) between 10 and 20 feet. Besides the pull-up jumper, his go-to move is the spin move, which he employs when the defender stays with him on drives. He should look to vary his moves because the spin can be stopped when properly scouted by the opposition. 

The final layer of the phenomenon that is Doolittle’s shooting is that, amazingly, his mechanics look pure. This factor puts the intrigue-level over the top since his jumper was so scarcely used prior to his senior season. His form is clean, featuring a one-motion stroke, with a high release and zero unnecessary movements. His jumper is by no means perfect, but it definitely looks better than most players at his position. It can’t be emphasized enough how shocking it is for Doolittle to possess such a fine shooting form but barely use it for two of the four years that he was in school. 

On defense, Doolittle can slide his feet well and is a solid athlete — but not well above average. Although he isn’t a liability on defense, his effectiveness on that end is pretty underwhelming. He is not a difference maker, and can occasionally suffer from a lack of awareness away from the ball. He is a solid athlete with positional strength. His best asset is that he can be switchable and possibly not get beat easily by guards.

It is certainly challenging to project what Doolittle can be in the NBA. It would serve him to improve his ball handling a bit so it is translatable in half-court playmaking situations instead of solely during fast-break scoring sequences. He can easily be a small forward if that was an improvement made. Secondly, his mindset and confidence is worrying for the future. It is already shown that he can go years without shooting from beyond the arc, even though he has a good-looking form at his disposal. As the sole senior for Oklahoma, he was way more aggressive and confident in his skills, likely because his mindset was instilled with four years of support and coaching. In the NBA, he will presumably not be groomed as carefully since he will be just another guy trying to stay on a roster. It is reasonable to question if confidence will be a concern for him when around the most talented basketball players in the world. 

The hope is that with enhanced ball-handling skills, Doolittle can fully unlock his offensive talent as a pull-up shooting practitioner, with more moves to rely on besides his spin. Some may think this outcome is a bit quixotic, but in the right development system and with sustained confidence in his shooting from the three-point line, he can potentially be a switchable spark-plug scorer for a second unit or a low-end starting forward. 

Jordan Ford, Point Guard, Saint Mary’s

For the Gaels this season, Jordan Ford was a highly effective score-first point guard, averaging 21.9 PPG on 49.2 field-goal percentage. He also shot 41 percent from beyond the arc and nailed 2.5 threes per game, while leading the NCAA in offensive win shares with 5.9. 

Ford is a very good shooter from a standstill as well as off-the-dribble, ranking above the 93rd percentile for PPP in both departments this season. He has straight-line speed that allows him to sprint to spots on the court where he has room to operate. He possesses craftiness that allows him to maneuver around defenders who, more often than not, have a size advantage. Ford’s skills as a scorer are superb because they must be. He has very limited room for error as a player who is 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds. In the NBA, he is going to be a defensive liability practically every night. He will have a tough time guarding even mediocre players at his position, and will be mercilessly taken advantage of on switches. On offense, his quickness, trickery, and shooting must remain at a high level for him to overcome his diminutive NBA-size.  

Ford would best fit on an NBA court with a taller ball-dominant player, who can take away the facilitating responsibilities (similar to Powell), and allow Ford to focus on putting the ball in the basket. 

The most interesting area that will give him a shot to make it on a NBA floor is his elite floater-game. For players who had attempted at least 50 runners this season, Ford ranked fifth in Division I with an average of 1.022 PPP. However, to better contextualize how great he was at that shot, consider that he made 51.1 percent of his 135 attempts, averaging about four runners per game.  The most runners attempted from anyone who had a higher PPP average than Ford was 77; in other words, the St. Mary’s senior is not only elite in this area, but is also probably the best in this draft class with runners and floaters. Ford’s touch on these difficult shots gives him a chance at finding success in the league. His awesome floater game adds to his already impressive shot-making ability, and that combination makes him a possible late second-round pick.

Lamar Stevens, Wing/Forward, Penn State

For players at the end of the rotation, it is great for them to have one high-level skill for teams to depend on. If the player doesn’t have that one skill, then the next best thing (especially for wings) is to have positional versatility — the capacity to play different positions in a variety of situations. Lamar Stevens (6’8”) fits that bill.

Stevens has a solid 225-pound frame to be a potential big wing or small-ball power forward, with some ball-handling ability. For the Nittany Lions, he would routinely guard big men, while on offense, he’d play like a shot-creating wing, mainly scoring from midrange and around the basket. His per-game stats this season were 17.6 points, 6.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists and about one block and steal each. At the NBA-level, he will be valued for his defense and his ability to match up with a variety of players because of his athleticism rather than his scoring ability.

Stevens is a nice shot blocker for his position — 14th in block percentage in the Big Ten and the only non-big man to be ranked that high in the conference. He gets his share of chase-down blocks in the half court when an opponent gets a half step past him, and makes the occasional finger-tip block on jump shots when he recovers hard on an open shooter. He gives effort on the defensive end, and displays very good leaping ability when grabbing contested defensive rebounds as well. 

The main con that nullifies his effectiveness as a player was his subpar shooting numbers. This season, he shot 26.3 percent from three-point range on 3.1 attempts per game, 72 percent from the free-throw line, and ranked at the 27th percentile for PPP on jump shots in the half court. There is also a lack of improvement in this area, as he finished below 50 percent for true-shooting percentage in his junior and senior years. These shooting numbers for a 22-year-old are discouraging and a clear indicator that the potential to make outside shots consistently and score efficiently is limited, to put it nicely. 

The last compelling trait about Stevens is his passion. He is noticeably a fiery player. Stevens’ blend of intensity and athleticism should lend itself well for him to be an energy guy capable of getting weak-side blocks and defending at least three positions in one-on-one situations. 

Tres Tinkle, Small Forward, Oregon State

Another player that lacks one elite skill but has versatility in his favor is Tres Tinkle. Unlike Stevens, his versatility appears more in his skill set rather than his physical tools. 

In the lefty’s senior season, he was very adept in three fundamental aspects of basketball: passing, dribbling, and shooting. He is not great at any one of these things but was competent enough to average 18.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game, and shoot 34.5 percent from three. Part of Tinkle’s scoring ability comes from frequent appearances on the free-throw line, where he averaged 5.8 attempts per game and shot 81 percent from the line. 

Tinkle’s shortcomings come in his lack of elite shooting, especially as a 6-foot-7 wing with a 225-pound frame, coupled with his ordinary athleticism. It is unlikely that his passing and dribbling abilities will be relied upon if he makes an NBA roster since he can not easily maneuver around an opponent to score for himself or create for someone else. This reality puts a bigger emphasis on him having to be a threat as an off-ball scorer —  specifically his catch-and-shoot ability. 

On jump shots in the half court this season, Tinkle was at the 40th percentile for PPP, shooting 28.8 percent on 156 total attempts. However, he ranked no worse than the 67th percentile as a spot-up shooter for the past two seasons, partially due to his ability to effectively attack hard closeouts.  Also, he is a smart cutter, who is slick in baiting defenders into relaxing when guarding him without the ball. He also has a knack for back-cutting when the defender’s head is turned. The Oregon State-product will seem to appear uninterested in having the ball and then will suddenly dive towards the rim. Cutting accounted for 12.8 percent of his half-court offense this season, and he ranked at at the 72nd percentile for PPP.

Defensively, Tinkle is adept at getting steals in the passing lanes; he averaged 1.7 steals per game this season. However, he does suffer some lapses when guarding players off-the-ball. He definitely has some skills that will intrigue at least a few teams, but he will only get on the floor at the next level if he evolves from a reasonable shooter to a very good one. It is worrisome that as a relatively old prospect (24 years old), his long-range ability from the college line is pedestrian — at the 50th percentile on three-pointers in the half court in 2020 and a career 33-percent shooter from deep. Regardless, Tinkle has shown that he can cut, make simple reads with the ball, and get to the line nearly six times per game, and with those skills and at 6-foot-7, he will have value in today’s NBA as a low-usage guy. 

Sources, Credits, and Acknowledgements:  Stats used in our scouting reports come from Synergy Sports Technology, RealGM.com, and Sports-Reference.com.  Other outside sources are noted with links to the source. 

About Toyloy Brown III 7 Articles
Toyloy is a contributing writer at Hoops Prospects. He is also currently a student majoring in journalism at Quinnipiac University. He is the opinion editor of his school’s newspaper, The Chronicle, and has contributed to other sites, including NYChoops.rivals.com, YCteenmag.org, and hayesathletics.org.