Over the last few weeks, America has gotten swept up in NBA Draft fever.
Last Thursday the 2019 edition of the draft went down in New York, with Zion Williamson and a bunch of college basketball’s biggest names walking across the stage to shake Adam Silver’s hand. Then, earlier this week, the first wave of 2020 mock drafts came out, forecasting which players are projected to be in the same position next year.
In reflecting back on both things, what’s interesting to me is that there was a very important lesson to learn from the 2019 draft. And it didn’t show up at all when the 2020 mock drafts popped up.
That lesson: There is real value to being a productive college basketball player.
What do I mean by that? Well, it’s that in a sport where we spend so much time talking about the star freshmen, the 2019 draft showed that the NBA still values upperclassmen – sophomores, juniors and seniors, who have proven that they can produce at the college level. Sure, there were the Zion’s, R.J. Barrett’s, Tyler Herro’s and Darius Garland’s who heard their name called on draft night. But there were also the Ja Morant’s, P.J. Washington’s, Rui Hachimura’s and Cam Johnson’s as well. Just one year after there was only one college upperclassman taken in the Top 10 (and at ninth overall, mind you) we had four go Top 10 in 2019, six go in the lottery and 15 go in the first round.
That’s also why it was surprising to me to look at the projections for the 2020 draft. Just briefly scanning them, the one thing that jumps out is that once again, freshmen dominate the early projections. Take ESPN’s 2020 mock draft for example. ESPN projects the first 15 picks in next year’s draft to be all college freshmen or foreign players. There is only one returning college player – Duke’s Tre Jones – projected to go in the Top 20.
Now to be clear, this article isn’t intended to be critical of the people who put out mock drafts – those folks do the best they can with the information that they have at their disposal. Still, if this year – and every year – proves anything, it’s that several upperclassmen will emerge over the course of the season and turn themselves into first round NBA Draft picks.
And with all that as a (REALLY) long lead-up, it brings me to this: Why is everyone sleeping on Ashton Hagans? ESPN has him ranked as the No. 30 NBA Draft prospect going into next season, and the other mock drafts don’t have him as a first rounder at all.
Which leads me to one simple question: Wait, what am I missing? I’m not saying he should be ranked No. 1 overall or anything, but you really mean to tell me there are 20+ freshmen who will all have better seasons next year than Hagans? It’s doubtful.
And if anything, I feel like Hagans is being grossly overlooked both by the college media for the upcoming season ahead, and the NBA media projecting their 2020 draft selections. Maybe it’s just me. But I fully expect Hagans to evolve into one of the true breakout players across college basketball this coming season. And very much into a high-level NBA Draft prospect by the time the 2020 draft rolls around.
For starters, Hagans has the pedigree of someone who could make the leap next season. Remember, it was just one year ago that he was ranked as the No. 1 point guard coming into college basketball, and a player who was projected by many as a potential lottery or first round NBA Draft pick. That was due to Hagans’ mix of size for his position, athleticism, skill-set and mental toughness. None of that has disappeared from Hagans’ repertoire, even if he didn’t always show it off last year.
No, Hagans didn’t quite live up to the hype as a freshman, but there are a few things to remember. One, he could have easily been playing high school basketball last season, and instead, chose to reclassify and join Kentucky a year early. Because of the decision to reclassify he showed up late to campus while finishing his high school coursework and was behind the eight-ball with the rest of the team. And despite all that, he still managed to earn a starting job by the ninth game of the season, a spot he never gave up.
From there, there were the typical ups and downs that come with being a freshman. Especially a freshman point guard. There were the highs, like a 23-point homecoming performance against Georgia, the breakout eight-steal game versus North Carolina and a 10-point, 12 assist effort against Tennessee in the SEC Tournament. There were also lows. By the middle of the season teams figured out that they could sag off Hagans and force him to shoot threes, rather than letting him beat them with his quickness. There were also too many turnovers.
What’s crazy however is that despite a season which many viewed as “disappointing” he still managed to lead Kentucky in assists per game (4.2) and steals (1.6) while contributing 7.7 points per contest on a loaded team offensively. His assist and steal totals ranked him second and third nationally among power conference freshmen, and in the process he earned SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year alongside Tremont Waters.
To which I ask: Does that sound like a player who “struggled” as a freshman? Or one who simply went through growing pains, and could be poised for a breakout sophomore season? To me it seems like the latter.
Looking ahead to 2019-2020 there are obviously things that Hagans needs to clean up, specifically those turnovers. There are also things that he needs to improve, like the above-mentioned three-point shooting.
But can you imagine what Hagans could look like next season? Keep in mind Hagans already has NBA-level athleticism and size for the position, already did a good job of getting teammates involved last season and was already one of the best defensive guards anywhere in college basketball. If he can even incrementally improve in those categories next, he might be the best point guard in the SEC. And if he can improve in those categories and improve his jump shot and cut down on his turnovers? Now you’re talking about the potential to be one of the best point guards in all of college basketball.
Will it happen? Well, at this point it’s up to Hagans. The early returns from Kentucky’s summer workouts are good, but we’ll find out soon enough whether he was willing to put in the work or not.
Still, if Hagans does what he is capable of, look out.
We will have a breakout college basketball star. And a player the draft experts regret leaving off their 2020 mock drafts.