NCAA Basketball: Reflecting on the top 5 picks from last year’s NBA draft class

The 2019 NBA draft was one of the most revered events in recent sports history. The hype surrounding the potential draft selections was unlike anything anyone has ever seen. Social media platforms were constantly being taken by storm with countless highlights and show-stopping plays; something that everyone was accustomed to long before draft night. Whether it was the dominating ball handling of Ja Morant, the impossible assists from RJ Barrett or, of course, the seemingly endless reel of god-like dunks from Zion Williamson, the 2019 NBA Draft brought an elevated level of versatility, depth and a talent pool comparable to some of the best classes from previous years. 

Following the annual slate of games on Christmas Day (which didn’t feature any of the top draft choices from the past year), there was no better time to assess their progress than during the short holiday break. On this list, I take a look at how each player has adjusted to life in the NBA as well as areas for improvement moving into the new year. 

Zion Williamson

New Orleans Pelicans, Duke University

I don’t think anyone expected this. Someone who’s made headlines since high school, gone viral on countless occasions for his incredible highlights and put up impressive numbers while at Duke University; has not yet made an NBA appearance. Taken first overall by New Orleans (which I think everyone saw coming), Williamson had surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee during the preseason. He’s been sidelined since then; slowly working his way back to full health. Health has worried scouts since Zion’s debut with Duke and the fact that he hasn’t made his NBA debut yet just adds to the uncertainty. Playing at Zion’s size, longevity is a clear question mark. College competition isn’t even close to the jungle that is the NBA and if and when Zion does make his much anticipated debut, it’ll be interesting to see how the Pelicans monitor his health.

What to Like:

As a part of his rehabilitation program, Zion is learning how to walk again. Trust me, that’s not as bad as it sounds. Aside from the typical knee and leg exercises, Zion is seeing a specialist to try and determine better ways to evenly distribute the pressure created by his body. In other words, Williamson is finding new methods to move in order to reduce the strain on his legs. This could pay major dividends for Williamson himself and the Pelicans organization as this could help him effectively manage his health all while playing the same aggressive style that has brought him so much success. 

Possible Improvements:

As Williamson continues to rehab from surgery, he hasn’t had too many opportunities to retouch his overall game. During his time at Duke (where he averaged twenty-two points on sixty-eight percent shooting), Zion was able to drive the lane and postup with ease; something that teams will have solutions for when he does return to game action. Unfortunately for Williamson, his style of play is being phased out of the league. Any decent defender won’t allow him to get to the rim as often or as easily; therefore limiting his offensive potential. As he has drawn comparisons to the likes of Blake Griffin and LeBron James, Williamson should look to improve his mid-range game and three-point ability if he wants to keep his opponents guessing. 

Ja Morant

Memphis Grizzlies, Murray State University

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Morant playing for Murray State (Forbes Magazine)

In quite the opposite scenario, Murray State’s Ja Morant has hit the ground running to start his NBA career. The second overall pick has burst onto the NBA landscape and taken control of a previously dismal Memphis offense. Even though Memphis is only twelve and twenty-one (which is good for just twelfth in the Western Conference), Morant has showcased his potential to become a franchise cornerstone for years to come. Playing a starting role on a young Grizzlies team and still averaging seventeen points and nearly seven assists per game, you’d think that Morant would already be an all-star caliber player. It’s hard to fathom that he’s still a rookie, and just twenty years old to boot. 

What to Like:

Pretty much everything. Over the course of his short time in the league, Morant has lived up to and exceeded just about every expectation that he brought with him from Murray State. Whether it’s posterizing dunks (over names such as Kevin Love), acrobatic layups, or impossible assists, Morant has done it all. He’s practically carried over his college stats to the NBA as he averaged eighteen points a game while shooting nearly fifty percent from the field in the NCAA. A versatile and well rounded player, Morant has proven so far that he isn’t your everyday point guard.

Possible Improvements:

There aren’t exactly glaring areas for improvement when it comes to Morant. He’s been everything that the Grizzlies had hoped for and more. He’s become a better leader and a more fearless player. He’s made his teammates better all while speeding up Memphis’ rebuilding process. Morant could stand to become more aggressive defensively in order to round out his overall game, but his individual progress throughout his first season has been nothing short of outstanding. Keep him on your radar for rookie of the year.

RJ Barrett

New York Knicks, Duke University

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RJ Barret with Duke University (The Canadian Press)

Another fine example of a rookie establishing his presence on the NBA scene, RJ Barrett is blossoming under the bright lights of broadway. Even though the Knicks are spending yet another year in the basement of the NBA, the Duke product has been one of the few bright spots during another disappointing season. Playing big minutes in the Big Apple, Barrett has shown that he’s more than capable of becoming a franchise player; even if that means starting at the bottom. Just imagine what he could do with a decent team.

What to Like:

While Barrett has since cooled off from his hot start, he has remained consistent throughout his rookie season. Averaging thirty plus minutes and posting double digit point totals in his last ten games has put the league on notice; despite being drafted by one of the worst teams in the league. While averaging twenty-two points in college, Barrett’s transition into the NBA has been seamless; demonstrating that the third overall selection will be a model player for years to come. 

Possible Improvements:

Ever since college, Barrett has wanted the ball in his hands; which was hard when you’re on a team with Zion Williamson. Now that Barrett is seen as an emerging star on his own team, making his teammates better should be a priority. When crunch time came, Barrett often elected to drive into traffic and look off teammates. Even though he wants to be a clutch performer, becoming an effective distributor can be just as valuable as a dominating offensive force.

De’Andre Hunter

Atlanta Hawks, University of Virginia

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Hunter with the Atlanta Hawks (Getty Images)

Seen as a versatile, two-way player, De’Andre Hunter has gotten off to a modest start with the Atlanta Hawks. After wowing scouts during his time at the University of Virginia, where he averaged twelve points a game and dominated defensively, Hunter skyrocketed up draft rankings and was eventually selected fourth overall. This season, Hunter is logging big minutes on a struggling Hawks team which isn’t the ideal situation by any means. Posting twelve point seven points and nearly four rebounds a night, Hunter is experiencing a more “average” start for a top pick. But keep in mind, he’s young (just twenty-two years old) and on a team that’s currently last in the Eastern Conference.

What to Like:

De’Andre Hunter has arguably the most potential out of any of these top picks. During his last season at Virginia, Hunter proved that he can attack the rim, defend all five positions and be relied upon as a consistent scorer. In his last ten games alone, he’s averaging thirty plus minutes and nearly fourteen points. As a rookie, these stats look very promising. Shooting over forty percent from the field, Hunter has had the pleasure of playing alongside another young star in Trae Young. Once he fully adjusts to the NBA lifestyle, expect him to be one of the best players in the league. The Hawks are asking a lot from their top prospect and so far, he’s been doing just fine.

Possible Improvements:

Part of the reason Hunter was taken fourth overall was because of his two-way mentality. In college, he dominated defensively while simultaneously developing his offensive game. While his short stint in the NBA hasn’t been disappointing, Hunter’s defensive ability hasn’t panned out so far. Averaging less than a block and a steal per game, the Hawks’ small forward has been almost invisible on the other end of the court. But, there is no doubt in my mind that he’ll turn things around once he gets more experience. 

Darius Garland

Cleveland Cavaliers, Vanderbilt University

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Garland in 2018 with Vanderbilt (Vanderbilt Athletics)

The Cavs took Vanderbilt point guard Darius Garland with the fifth overall pick. This was an interesting choice mainly due to the fact that trade talk intensified as soon as he was chosen. Nonetheless, Garland is starting on a Cavaliers squad that currently sits twelfth in the Eastern Conference. Drafted for his offensive poise and shot making ability, the Nashville, Tennessee native has been averaging just over eleven points and two assists per game. Another rookie off to an “average” start to his NBA career, Garland has shown flashes of brilliance but has yet to establish his offensive presence. 

What to Like:

Garland has responded well to playing big minutes on the Cavs. He’s been able to shoot close to forty percent from the field and from beyond the arc at a consistent rate. When Garland is creating space and knocking down shots, he’s at his best. He has shown that he can become an efficient scorer off the dribble and pull up from just about anywhere on the floor. Notching double-digit point totals in the majority of his games this season, his style of play is similar to his game when he was at Vanderbilt. Averaging just over sixteen points in the NCAA, Garland definitely possesses the capability to become a number one scorer on any team. 

Possible Improvements:

Yes, Garland has shown flashes of being an elite scorer at the NBA level. However, his focus and decision making have been subjects of concern early on. While he has the ability to shoot the lights out, he can also disappear offensively for stretches of games and become careless with his ball movements. Being a number one point guard on a team means remaining consistent and avoiding stretches where your offensive game just “isn’t there”. Limiting turnovers and becoming more patient should be a main point of focus for Garland; once his shooting game fully develops. 

With the NBA heading into a new calendar year, the next generation of players looks more than promising. Each of the top five picks (with the exception of Zion, obviously), have gotten off to great starts in their first pro season. Despite the Grizzlies, Knicks, Hawks and Cavaliers still taking residency in the basement of the NBA, all of these franchises now have a legitimate franchise leader for years to come.

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