Every year, the Champions Classic ushers in the college basketball season to NBA fans, as its four participants — Kentucky, Duke, Kansas and Michigan State — are often loaded with NBA Draft prospects worth evaluating on the same night in the same location. It is often the first big collegiate scouting event of the season, featuring a number of NBA general managers.
This year is no different in some respects, but very different in others. NBA personnel flocked to Chicago for the event, and five players I projected in the first round of my most recent mock draft were in attendance, including four lottery players.
Where this year differs is that the 2024 NBA Draft is seen as one of the weakest at the top of the class in a long time. Few players have stood out to assure themselves of being first-round picks. For reference, last season by this point, I already had 20 of the 30 players that ended up being first-round picks in my top-30, and 11 of the 14 lottery picks in my top 23. That will not be the case this season, and scouts will need to use a wider lens to find intriguing long-term prospects.
In that vein, these two games showed scouts a lot. A few names off the radar emerged as interesting players, and a couple of players initially high on the draft board posted disappointing performances that sent off alarm bells for scouts.
Kansas versus Kentucky was by far the better of the two contests in Chicago. The two teams played a fun, uptempo game that was tight until the final seconds. Kansas’ experience ultimately won out over the Wildcats’ talented young players in an 89-94 Jayhawks victory, with Kansas senior center Hunter Dickinson dropping 27 points and 21 rebounds on a Wildcats front line missing three seven-footers due to injuries. Still, it felt like Kentucky exceeded expectations, only lost by five points despite those injuries, and poor performances from its two highest-ranked recruits, Justin Edwards and D.J. Wagner. It’s also worth noting that, per The Athletic’s Kyle Tucker, Kentucky took more 3s in this game than in any other game in John Calipari’s 14-year tenure. The reports of a new era in Lexington offensively under Calipari do not seem to be exaggerated.
Michigan State versus Duke, on the other hand, was largely hideous. The first half was atrocious, with the teams combining for 19 turnovers and 5-of-26 on their 3s. It sped up a bit in the second half, with the two teams combining for 88 points and playing a bit more of a free-flowing affair, but it turned into something of a post-up fest that wasn’t all that indicative of the style of play its potential prospects will see in the NBA. Ultimately, Duke skated away with a nine-point win on the back of big second halves from Caleb Foster, Kyle Filipowski and Tyrese Proctor. Foster had 16 points in the second half, Filipowski had 10 points and five rebounds and Proctor chipped in eight points and five assists.
Let’s dive deeper into each of the key players in these matchups, starting with the most impressive players of the group.
NBA Mock Draft: Alexandre Sarr leads uncertain class; Blue Devils, Huskies near top
Reed Sheppard | 6-3 guard | freshman | Kentucky
All things being equal, Sheppard is the Kentucky player who has most impressed me in the first three games of their season. He’s been the best player on the team to this point and, at the very least, should start moving forward.
As the son of two Kentucky basketball legends (Jeff, who won Most Outstanding Player at the 1998 NCAA Tournament, and Stacey, who is still in the top-10 all-time in school history in several statistical categories), it’s no surprise Sheppard’s most elite skill is his feel for the game. Defensively, he has exceptional hand-eye coordination, allowing him to create a bevy of deflections to disrupt opposing team’s offenses. He had four steals against Duke and has racked up 13 steals and four blocks through his first three games. Beyond that, he navigates screens well at the point of attack. There was a play early in the first half where Sheppard guarded Kansas’ Nick Timberlake as he ran through an action when Dickinson had the ball at the elbow. When Dickinson surprised his own man by driving, Sheppard immediately peeled off of Timberlake and helped to contest Dickinson at the basket with perfect verticality.
Two possessions later, he created another deflection and steal by being the first man back in transition defense on a potential early seal mismatch involving Dickinson. The refs took Sheppard off the court shortly thereafter with a horrendous second foul call, but he was also quite good in the second half as a ball mover.
Those defensive skills come on top of the real reason Sheppard is on the court: his shooting and offensive intelligence. He’s a lights out shooter from distance with pristine mechanics and a high release point, and he’s wholly unselfish as a playmaker, moving the ball quickly and decisively to keep defenses scrambling. There’s a kinetic energy to his game as he moves off the ball to find open areas or create space for his teammates. Yet he also can create offense himself with the ball. With D.J. Wagner struggling and Rob Dillingham in foul trouble, Sheppard moved to point guard in the second half and steadied the ship after a furious Kansas run. In total, Sheppard went for 13 points and consistently made the right plays outside of two moments — a first-half pass to the corner on a drive that got stolen and the wild air-ball 3 in the closing seconds that would have tied the game.
A cursory survey of scouts and executives came back with significant disparity on whether Sheppard could be a surprise one-and-done, but no one ruled it out. Clearly, he’s won himself some fans with his play early on. If he keeps playing like this, he’ll be one of the tougher evaluations of this class. His skill and basketball IQ are incredibly high, but he’s also a 6-foot-2 or so combo guard, a player type not seen much in today’s NBA.
Rob Dillingham | 6-1 guard | freshman | Kentucky
Dillingham stood out most for Kentucky in the first half, dropping 18 points and carrying the Wildcats back into the game after a sluggish first five minutes. I was most impressed by Dillingham’s ability to dictate the tempo of the game with his speed. I wasn’t sure about Dillingham’s fit at Kentucky because Calipari-coached teams tend to play slowly and operate more in the half court. But with this Kentucky team’s early willingness to play five-out basketball and allow its guards to push in transition at a breakneck pace, it’s clear Calipari’s evolution fits better with the style Dillingham played throughout his prep career.
Dillingham thrives in those chaotic full-court situations because he’s the fastest player with the ball and seems to make decisions quicker than everyone else on the floor. He made four 3s in the first half, but his more impressive flashes to me were his passes. In the second half, he made a killer transition pass where he drove the ball down Kansas’ throat, stopped to survey at the foul line and drilled a sharp lookaway backdoor pass to Antonio Reeves.
I want to see a bit of a bigger sample before totally buying into his shot. His form looks clean at the top, with a good release that creates a soft trajectory on the ball, but there are also a lot of moving parts elsewhere, including a leg sweep that often flies his momentum forward. Still, his three self-created 3s in this game translate well to NBA settings. He made back-to-back 3s off double-drag screens in transition, when two players screen sequentially in the open floor for a ball-handler. One came after he ran his man into the screens, and the other came because he rejected them to go to the other way.
There were question marks that came with Dillingham’s excellence. He did not make a field goal in the second half and ultimately fouled out after 16 minutes. His second and fourth fouls in particular were needless attempts at steals. Defense was an issue for Dillingham; he sagged too far off his man multiple times and gave up two enormous 3s to Kansas’ Dajuan Harris late.
Still, the degree to which Dillingham had more off-the-bounce juice than Wagner was staggering. Kansas struggled to stay in front of him, and Kentucky’s offense was far more difficult to stop with his ability to push the ball. Given Dillingham’s poor second half and defensive concerns, I’d understand Kentucky using him more as a bench sparkplug at the moment. But Dillingham has at least entered the one-and-done conversation.
Kentucky fell short against No. 1 Kansas, but the long view is promising
Caleb Foster | 6-5 guard | freshman | Duke
Foster won Duke the game in the second half with several huge 3-pointers. He got started when he drilled a jab step into a one-dribble contested pull-up 3 that hit nothing but net. From that point forward, Foster started to seek out the ball. He drilled another catch-and-shoot 3 about 90 seconds later, then had what I believe was his most impressive moment of the night on the next possession. He took a Ryan Young ball screen, strung out Cooper as the drop coverage big, crossed over left to right to cut off the angle of the guard fighting to get back into the play, then stopped and popped for a pull-up 15-footer. That shot and the one-dribble pull-up 3 were his only two self-created looks of the half.
— Duke Men’s Basketball (@DukeMBB) November 15, 2023
On the flip side, Foster did struggle to separate from his man when he drove to the rim and had a couple of rough turnovers in the first half in ball-screen situations. He did not look ready to play point guard in the ACC this season, as most of his success came off of the ball. That’s OK — it’ll take a minute for him to understand how to best attack out of those situations, and he can lean on Proctor to handle that distribution load early on — but it’s worth noting. Foster is not an explosive athlete, so he must use his feel and frame to maintain advantages. The good news is while Foster has a funky release on his jumper, the shot always went in at a high clip throughout his prep career.
Duke does not win this game without Foster, which counts for a lot. A lot of other prospects would not have made the shots he made in this game. But while Foster, a five-star recruit, is certainly on the radar of NBA teams as a potential one-and-done, he’ll need to showcase more with the ball in his hands as the season progresses to make the NBA leap.
Adou Thiero | 6-8 wing | sophomore | Kentucky
Thiero was all over the place, hitting a 3 early and then playing actively on the defensive end. He was all over the glass, handling things on the defensive end and then crashing the offensive boards to generate six extra possessions for his team. He finished with 16 points and 13 rebounds, including 13 and nine, respectively, in the first half.
— Kentucky Men’s Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) November 15, 2023
Thiero is a fighter. I’ve been a fan since he first got some time last year and thought he had a real shot to fit in the NBA with his 6-foot-6 frame, athleticism and length. Now, he’s being used as a hybrid 3/4 man, playing the kind of tough basketball that will endear himself to Calipari. He could end up being the glue on the wing that holds all of their lineups together, especially if he can knock down shots. That will ultimately hold the cards for Thiero’s professional prospects. He went 1-of-3 from distance in this game after hitting 33 percent last season.
Thiero is more likely to be a 2025 prospect than this season, since he needs a little bit more seasoning with his game off the bounce and must develop more comfort as a shooter. But teams are constantly on the lookout for athletic, aggressive wings with size, as mentioned above with Edwards. I’d bet Thiero ends up playing in the NBA at some point.
Caleb Foster had ‘that look.’ And now Duke might have another star freshman
A mixed bag
Tyrese Proctor | 6-5 guard | sophomore | Duke
As was the case in Duke’s game against Arizona, I thought Proctor played much better than his final box score numbers (13 points, six assists, six rebounds on 4-of-12 shooting) indicated.
It again felt like Proctor lost out on a significant number of potential assists because of his teammates. He made a beautiful driving dump off pass to Sean Stewart, only to have Stewart travel before going up for the shot. He hit Mark Mitchell on an empty side ball-screen slip, only for Mitchell to get fouled on the shot. He delivered a sharp drive and kick pass for an open corner 3 that Jeremy Roach missed. In transition, he drew three defenders toward him and hit Kyle Filipowski for another open 3 that didn’t go down. In total, I counted 12 potential assists for Proctor, with only half of them getting finished. Duke gets good looks when it runs its offense through Proctor.
The bigger issue is Proctor hasn’t demonstrated an ability to beat anyone off the bounce to get all the way to the rim on his own. He needs a ball screen, a head start off of a cut or a defender’s heavy closeout to generate the type of penetration that forces help defenders to collapse. That’s why his shooting percentage is low, as he’s often stuck taking midrange jumpers that often feature funky footwork. However, Proctor is sublime with the ball when he gets that penetration. He makes one-handed, live-dribble passes with ease across the court.
Life will be easier if Proctor can make defenses guard him outside of the 3-point line. Aesthetically, Proctor looks like an effective scorer, but the results aren’t there yet. His jumper off the catch or the dribble looks clean enough, with the former often coming off the hop. His pull-up looks good. But the results have to be there at some point. In 16 games against Tier A competition so far (as defined by KenPom), Proctor has made just 25.4 percent of his 3s.
At least Proctor was a monster defensively in this game, blowing up everything Michigan State wanted to run when asked to defend in ball-screens against A.J. Hoggard and Tyson Walker. He was also a menace off the ball with his length and anticipation.
But if Proctor’s shot remains this inefficient, he runs the risk of entering the Killian Hayes zone. The current Detroit Pistons guard and former No. 7 overall pick is a terrific defender and makes extremely high-level passes regularly, but he’s so deficient as a scorer that NBA teams choose not to guard him, which bogs down his team’s offense. Proctor has more upside as a shooter than Hayes did, but he must prove it before teams get particularly excited about him.
His range is wide until he proves that point. Some evaluators see him as a top-10 guy in this weak class. Others view him more as a later first-rounder.
Kyle Filipowski | 6-11 big | sophomore | Duke
Filipowski remains one of the best offensive players in college basketball, and went for 15 points and eight rebounds against Michigan State. He continues to be the central force for Duke’s offense; the Blue Devils run a lot of actions through him on the block or the high post, allowing him to drive to finish, shoot or make plays as a passer. Michigan State was quite physical, with one of the better defensive center duos in the country in Mady Sissoko and Carson Cooper, as well as Coen Carr rotating from the opposite side in his 12 minutes. Filipowski should be commended for producing what he did in a tough spot.
Having said that, I don’t think this game was all that indicative of Filipowski’s NBA role. Duke rarely used him in pick-and-pops, instead deploying him closer to the basket. We saw flashes of Filipowski’s ability to handle the ball in those high-post chances and when he received the ball in spot-up situations behind the 3-point line, but he has some room to improve in finding open teammates based on his performance when Michigan State collapsed down on him. Filipowski can get tunnel vision — he’s only had one game in his career with more than the three assists he posted last night. He made a couple of impressive reads — including an enormous one with three minutes to go when he made a corner kickout pass from the left block to Caleb Foster for a back-breaking 3 just when Michigan State pulled the game to within two possessions — but scouts will be looking to see how he continues to react as teams crowd him on the block.
Filipowski was able to change direction sliding his feet a few times this game defensively, indicating the hip surgery he had last offseason may have opened more flexibility and mobility. He’s unlikely to be a plus NBA defender, but he needs to show that he can be passable.
In general, NBA scouts still see Filipowski as a first-round pick. But as with Proctor, they’re all over the map on Filipowski’s range, with some seeing lottery upside and others seeing him more as a late first-rounder.
Justin Edwards | 6-8 wing | freshman | Kentucky
The highest-ranked prospect on my board entering the Champions Classic struggled to get anything going on offense, missing all six of the shots he took from the field. He was good in the team’s first two games, averaging 14 points and six rebounds while shooting 52 percent from the field, but it was a slog against Kansas. He couldn’t get by anyone off the bounce, took a few contested pull-ups, and even air-balled a 3. His jumper looks fine mechanically, but he’s only made two of his 11 3s so far this season.
I didn’t think Edwards’ performance was all bad. He was active on defense, using his length to cover ground across the court in help situations and when guarding the ball. I don’t think it’s an accident Kentucky beat Kansas by four in Edwards’ minutes in a game the Wildcats lost by five. He made the right decisions, outside of a pair of moments where he got stuck picking up his dribble and didn’t force the issue at all.
Still, you would hope to see a little more production from a potential top-five pick, even in a game that was not his best. He was invisible for a large portion of the game. That’s not the worst thing sometimes, as it means you’re not making many mistakes, but he didn’t stand out, either. Edwards didn’t collapse the defense when driving hard closeouts and didn’t find many opportunities to put pressure on the defense with cuts toward the rim.
But while this wasn’t Edwards’ best night, he at least didn’t compound the issue by making things worse.
D.J. Wagner | 6-3 guard | freshman | Kentucky
Every preseason, I talk NBA scouts who have been in closed-door practices to gauge what they’re seeing. That feedback continues to be extremely hit or miss when the bright lights come on. Sometimes, the scouts are right — Brandon Miller was the talk of college draft prospects last preseason and went on to break out and become the No. 2 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft. Sometimes they’re wrong, like when I was repeatedly told Duke’s Tyrese Proctor was going to be a one-and-done lottery pick last season. But I always respect their opinions. So when I heard from several scouts that Wagner looked terrific in the practices they’d seen, I slid him up into the late lottery range in Monday’s mock draft, even though I’d been much lower on his pro prospects than anyone else in the public sphere throughout his high school career.
The Kansas game, however, offered a window into every single concern I (and other NBA scouts) had about Wagner in high school and entering this college season. He was the worst player on the court in this game, ending up with four points and one assist in 25 minutes while going 1-12 from the field. Kentucky was outscored by 23 points when he was on the court and was +18 with him on the bench. His jumper continues to look quite flat, a significant issue considering the rest of his decision-making looks quite rushed by the speed of the college game.
Additionally, Wagner did not seem all that shifty through his hips. He didn’t separate from his man particularly well on drives and struggled to find any room to finish around the rim. Whereas Dillingham had no issues collapsing the defense, Wagner’s man was constantly able to stay in front of him. He didn’t create any easy shots for himself, with many of them falling away from the rim.
It’s worth noting Wagner had a difficult matchup with Dajuan Harris, last season’s Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. At the very least, Wagner didn’t back down in his first big college game. But, it will be Wagner’s shooting ability from distance, finishing creativity around the rim, ability to separate from his man and his drive-and-kick capabilities that will matter to pro scouts, not his mindset. He has a lot of time to work through those weaknesses, but this was a rough bit of tape to put into the world.
Upperclassmen we can’t forget
Kevin McCullar | 6-6 wing | senior | Kansas
It was a classic Kevin McCullar game. It didn’t exactly look pretty, as he went 3-of-11 from the field, including a couple of missed layups and an 0-of-3 mark from 3. But he ended up posting a 12-point, 10-rebound, 10-assist triple-double, only the second one in Champions Classic history. Even with the shot not falling, he found a way to impact the game positively, which is why I’ve considered McCullar a draft-worthy prospect for the last two years.
It was his passing that stood out against Kentucky, as he only posted one turnover while consistently putting his teammates in great spots in transition or off his drives. Few of the passes will make his end-of-season highlight reel, but he did have a couple of solid kickouts and a halfcourt lob to K.J. Adams in transition that showcased his ability to process the game around him. On top of that, he brought his trademark tenacious defense, spending a large portion of his night on Antonio Reeves, who shot 7-of-25 from the field, and the rest on the aforementioned Edwards.
McCullar’s pro prospects come down to his shot. If you believe he can improve it, you should have him in the ballpark of a late first-round pick. If you think it’s broken, he’s probably a second-round flier at best. Scouts know everything else about McCullar’s game after he declared for the draft in each of the last two seasons and strongly debated staying in before pulling his name out. Really, the jumper is the only thing at this stage that will swing his stock substantially.
Dajuan Harris | 6-0 guard | senior | Kansas
Harris is another one of my personal favorites in college basketball. He’s aggressive and tough at the point-of-attack, making life miserable for opposing ballhandlers with his tenacity and disruptively quick hands. On offense, his brand is unselfish, all about putting his teammates in the best position to succeed. He was the starting point guard on a championship team in 2022 for a reason.
He ended up dropping a career-high 24 points in this game, largely because Kentucky seemed to dare him to beat them. They were comfortable giving Harris time to shoot from the perimeter, and he made them pay by making all five of his 3-point attempts. Two of those 3-pointers came during a crucial one-minute stretch late, where he scored eight points in three possessions to bring the Jayhawks back from a six-point deficit to tie the game. He pushed in transition at the right times, created drive-and-kick chances right when Kansas needed buckets and stepped up to hit important shots himself when the moment called. for it.
— Kansas Men’s Basketball (@KUHoops) November 15, 2023
Many NBA scouts do not see Harris as a real prospect, but there are quite a few players in the league who exhibit similar characteristics. The two who stand out most to me are the Timberwolves’ Jordan McLaughlin and the Pacers’ T.J. McConnell, who have combined to play nearly 750 games since entering the league in 2018 and 2015, respectively. Both are well-rounded players in spite of their size. They’re good defenders who provide real toughness, buzz in and out of the paint and constantly make great decisions. While neither is a particularly high-level shooter, both will make you pay if you leave them wide open.
Much like those two, Harris may have to take the hard road to make it in the NBA. But I’m not ruling it out. I’d love to have him on a two-way contract whenever he decides to enter the league.
Hunter Dickinson | 7-1 center | senior | Kansas
Yeah, 27 points and 21 rebounds is a pretty good night. Dickinson was superb against Kentucky’s depleted frontline, which was missing three seven-footers in Aaron Bradshaw, Ugonna Onyenso and Zvonimir Ivisic. Tre Mitchell, not exactly a strong defensive player, was the only Wildcat over 6-foot-8 to play in this game. That provided Dickinson a license to feast against the Wildcats. Kansas could throw the ball down onto the block about any time it wanted, using Dickinson as a regular bail-out option. Dickinson and super-athlete K.J. Adams dominated on seals, rolls to the rim and back-cuts, knowing the Wildcats didn’t have much off-ball rim protection available.
An instant classic performance from the #Big12MBB Preseason Player of the Year 🏀@H_Dickinson24 recorded the first 2⃣0⃣-2⃣0⃣ game in @championclassic history versus No. 17 Kentucky on Tuesday night. pic.twitter.com/hVcGMTNcvb
— Big 12 Conference (@Big12Conference) November 15, 2023
Dickinson certainly deserves his flowers for doing what he was supposed to do against that frontcourt, and he’ll get an opportunity in the NBA because of his pedigree and production. But he has obvious limitations with his lateral movement and agility on defense. The one play that encapsulated those weaknesses occurred when Sheppard, not the fleetest of foot, blew by him with relative ease in a cross-match in transition. The college court is not as widely spaced as it will be in the NBA, so Dickinson will need to cover even more room. His draft stock is severely limited by his foot speed.
Dickinson deserves credit for continually adding to his game as a shooter and becoming a more sound drop coverage pick-and-roll defender throughout his career. My guess is he eventually ends up on a two-way contract.
Ones for the future
Elmarko Jackson | 6-3 guard | freshman | Kansas
Johnny Furphy | 6-8 wing | freshman | Kansas
These two players, particularly Jackson, have received some real draft buzz, but I thought both looked like freshmen playing in their first big game. Jackson had seven points, two assists, and three turnovers while going 1-of-4 from the field. Furphy went 0-of-2 in 12 minutes, missing a pair of 3s. Both looked sped up throughout the night playing mostly off-ball roles, blending into the fabric of the game and not providing much of an impact.
Jackson did have nine points and 10 assists in the team’s recent game against Manhattan, so the Kentucky game may have been a one-off struggle. He’s certainly in the one-and-done mix, although he did not play at a particularly high-level prep school. His games could be a bit more all over the map this season as he adjusts to the college level. Furphy will likely require multiple years in college at this point, which was the expectation when he committed to Kansas.
Jared McCain | 6-3 guard | freshman | Duke
I received strong feedback from scouts who watched McCain in the preseason. They loved McCain not just at Duke practices, but also at other events such as Chris Paul’s camp and the Nike Academy over the summer.
But the Michigan State game was a struggle for him. After he missed a few shots in the first quarter, he never got into a rhythm. He was often invisible in his minutes on the court, beyond just acting as a floor-spacer for Michigan State to respect.
So far, McCain has made 27.3 percent of his 3-point attempts and only three of his nine inside the arc. McCain is still adjusting to college basketball’s increased athleticism. But he’ll eventually figure it out and the shots will start falling. He’s a great shooter who is just missing shots early on, many of which are open catch-and-shoot chances. It’s unlikely that will continue to occur.
Xavier Booker | 6-11 big | freshman | Michigan State
Coen Carr | 6-6 wing | freshman | Michigan State
Carr and Booker are Michigan State’s two best long-term NBA prospects. Booker is a project who only played five minutes against Duke and seems to be behind Sissoko and Cooper in the rotation. It’s worth checking in with him later in the season, but it wouldn’t be surprising if he played multiple seasons in college.
Carr also seems like a multi-year player as he continues to work on his overall skill, but there might not be a better athlete in all of college basketball. In this game, that resulted in a big-time dunk, three blocks and an offensive rebound in 12 minutes. Much like Booker, I think Carr plays in the NBA at some point. It’s just a matter of when his skills catch up.
(Top photo of Rob Dillingham and several Kansas players: David Banks / USA Today)