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Jay Bilas: My 10 favorite players in this NBA draft, and how each could be stars

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If you listen to analysts, pundits, observers and NBA personnel talking about the 2024 draft, you will get the distinct impression that this is a “weak draft” or a “bad draft.”

Granted, there isn’t a “no-brainer” selection at the very top and there aren’t any surefire All-Stars in the lottery, as we have seen in past drafts, but there is still talent and value. Look at it this way: If Jalen Brunson (Villanova) and Tyrese Haliburton (Iowa State) were coming out of college this year instead of a few years ago, people would still call this a weak draft.

The draft, which will take place Wednesday and Thursday (ABC, ESPN, ESPN+), is not as sexy or powerful at the top as last year’s Victor Wembanyama draft or next year’s Cooper Flagg draft. But there is a lot to like about the prospects who will be in the green room and beyond this year. Remember, the draft is a two-day event for the first time this year, with the first round on Wednesday and the second round on Thursday, giving teams more time to select and to make trades.

This year marks my 22nd straight NBA draft sitting at the main desk.

My first NBA draft for ESPN was in 2003, when LeBron James was the No. 1 selection — and I had hair to comb before we went on the air. Over that time period, there have been great drafts and less-than-great drafts, but quality talent has always been found every year.

While I cannot argue persuasively with those who say this is not a red-carpet, marquee-name draft, here are 10 prospects I really like, and why:

ESPN’s Top 100 ranking: No. 1
Latest mock draft projection: No. 1, Atlanta Hawks

At just 19 years old, Risacher is a lengthy 3-and-D prospect with very good shooting ability and ball skills. He is confident shooting from beyond the arc, takes smart shots and has hit over 40% of his catch-and-shoot deep balls. While not primarily a playmaker, averaging less than one assist per game, Risacher is a low-turnover wing who was named this year’s EuroCup Rising Star. (Previous recipients include the Boston CelticsKristaps Porzingis and the New Orleans PelicansJonas Valanciunas.) Risacher has the length to be a capable defender but does not have jaw-dropping athletic skills, finishing in the bottom quartile of the sprint and vertical leap at this year’s draft combine. Still, Risacher has a ton of ability as a long wing with floor-spacing prowess and will be a high lottery selection, if not the No. 1 pick by the Hawks.

ESPN’s Top 100 ranking: No. 2
Latest mock draft projection: No. 2, Washington Wizards

Sarr is another French prospect, and he exhibits high-level defensive ability. At 7 feet tall with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, Sarr is mobile and impacts shots around the rim. He has the tools and aptitude on the defensive end to be an NBA All-Defensive Team player in the future. Whether on the ball or off, Sarr rates high as a defender and conjures up thoughts of Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert. On the offensive side, Sarr is still a work in progress but has shown the ability to step away and hit a deep shot. As the 19-year-old matures and develops, his offensive game and rebounding should evolve and improve. There is a lot to like about Sarr, whose older brother, Olivier Sarr, played at Wake Forest and Kentucky before joining the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2021.

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See for yourself why Reed Sheppard is a top NBA prospect

Check out some of the best highlights that make Kentucky’s Reed Sheppard a top prospect in the 2024 NBA draft.

ESPN’s Top 100 ranking: No. 4
Latest mock draft projection: No. 3, Houston Rockets

The best shooter in this draft — and one of the best shooters in recent memory — Sheppard knows how to play and is very efficient. The son of basketball royalty in Kentucky (both of his parents starred for the Wildcats in college), Sheppard shot over 52% from deep last season, hitting 75 3-pointers, and he is an automatic free throw shooter. He is an excellent pick-and-roll handler and passer, averaging close to five assists per game with over a 2-to-1 assist-turnover ratio. While undersized at 6-foot-2 and 187 pounds, Sheppard surprised at the NBA draft combine by posting the fourth-best standing vertical and the best max vertical leap. On the defensive end, Sheppard has a great feel for getting steals and deflections, but he often was a target for switches to attack him individually. Still, his deep shooting range, shooting accuracy, ballhandling ability and feel for the game make Sheppard a high lottery selection.


ESPN’s Top 100 ranking: No. 6
Latest mock draft projection: No. 4, San Antonio Spurs

Castle is a fearless competitor who proved to be a lockdown defender for a championship UConn team. He was a point guard in high school and a top prospect before playing the wing for coach Dan Hurley’s Huskies. Early in the season, after Castle returned from an injury, UConn took off — and it was not a coincidence. Castle and Donovan Clingan made UConn an elite defensive team. Just 19 years old, Castle is 6-foot-5 with a powerful frame and the length of a player who is 6-foot-9. Opponents shot 35% when guarded by Castle and just 25% out of pick-and-roll situations. Castle, while competitive and fierce, is a downhill driver and a strong finisher who operates well in transition, and he also is an excellent cutter. But he has not yet figured out the shooting piece. Castle shot 27% from 3 and 24% on unguarded catch-and-shoot 3s, and he hit only 13% on his non-paint 2-pointers. Still, Castle has tremendous upside, and I believe he will improve as a shooter. He is a worker and a winner.


ESPN’s Top 100 ranking: No. 5
Latest mock draft projection: No. 5, Detroit Pistons

Buzelis is an interesting prospect with a great story. Perhaps because he represents Lithuania on its national team, some fans believe he is an international prospect, but he was born in Chicago and grew up there. He was highly recruited but chose to play in the G League rather than go to college. Both of his parents played professional basketball in Lithuania before moving to Illinois, and the 19-year-old Buzelis played basketball growing up and was a competitive swimmer and gymnast. He is a solid 6-foot-8 with length and has excellent offensive tools and a scoring feel. He can rebound and defend multiple positions, and he has very good mobility and agility. Some consider him to be like the Orlando Magic‘s Franz Wagner, and as Buzelis develops and gets stronger, that might be a fair comparison. Buzelis still needs to sharpen his shooting consistency, but the ability is there. He could very well be a top-five pick.


ESPN’s Top 100 ranking: No. 7
Latest mock draft projection: No. 6, Charlotte Hornets

The Roy Hobbs of college basketball, Knecht came to Tennessee as a 20-point-per-game scorer for Northern Colorado that few had heard of or seen. Yet, after a stellar performance against Michigan State in a preseason game, it was clear coach Rick Barnes had a lottery pick. Knecht is a 6-6 wing with a 6-9 wingspan, and put up the most points in a season at Tennessee since Allan Houston. Knecht is a three-level bucket getter that has textbook form and a high release on his jumper. He is long and athletic, and he can move his feet. Knecht averaged almost 22 points per game on almost 46% shooting, including 93 3s at a 40% rate. Knecht is the best pure scorer in this draft. The question for Knecht is on the defensive end, where he has improved, but he has the tools to be a much better and more impactful defender. Knecht has a very high floor as an NBA prospect.


ESPN’s Top 100 ranking: No. 3
Latest mock draft projection: No. 7, Portland Trail Blazers

Clingan, 20, is a rim-protecting big with a 7-6 wingspan and a championship pedigree. A gifted paint presence, Clingan alters and blocks shots both on the ball and off, and he defends post-ups well, limiting opponents to 25% shooting in such situations. Clingan is not a perimeter shooting threat and hits under 60% of his free throws, but his value is on the defensive end and on the glass. A good passer that can operate as a pick-and-roll lob threat, Clingan is not the most agile laterally, but he runs the floor well and is a worker. There is a lot to like about Clingan, and if he works on his shooting consistency, he can be an excellent NBA player.


ESPN’s Top 100 ranking: No. 13
Latest mock draft projection: No. 11, Chicago Bulls

Carter is a 22-year-old guard from Miami who started his career at South Carolina before transferring to Providence, where he was the Friars’ first Big East Player of the Year since Kris Dunn. Carter is a long-armed, speedy and tenacious guard that impacts the game defensively with his length, quickness, grit and toughness. He gets steals, loose balls, and blocks shots as a guard. Carter is the best guard rebounder in this draft class, averaging almost nine rebounds per game. On the offensive end, Carter has improved as a shooter, hitting almost 38% from 3 last year with a high usage rate. While not a mid-range threat, Carter is excellent in transition, and he goes after the ball with ferocity. This guy plays hard all the time, and he can be a valuable player to a winning NBA team.


ESPN’s Top 100 ranking: No. 11
Latest mock draft projection: No. 13, Sacramento Kings

One of the youngest prospects in this draft, the Duncanville, Texas native is a superior athlete with great length and an aggressive mindset. Holland is a driver and slasher that scored off cuts, in transition and finishes with authority around the rim. Defensively, Holland has all of the tools, but needs to be more consistent with his effort and concentration, which is not uncommon for young prospects. Holland was a McDonald’s All American who chose the G League route and averaged almost 18 points and seven rebounds per game, but he struggled with turnovers and perimeter shooting consistency. Still, Holland has the talent and considerable potential to succeed in the NBA.


ESPN’s Top 100 ranking: No. 14
Latest mock draft projection: No. 14, Portland Trail Blazers

Walter is one of the most intriguing prospects in this draft – along with Colorado’s Cody Williams – in my judgment. At 6-5 with a 6-10 wingspan, Walter is an excellent perimeter shooter who has a high release, smooth jumper, and is very good at drawing fouls. While Walter had a tough stretch shooting the ball early in Big 12 play, he has excellent potential as a floor-spacing wing. As the 19-year-old gets stronger and matures, he should become a better finisher and defender. Walter shot 47% at the rim, which must — and should — improve as he gets stronger. With his length, Walter can also be a good defender. Whether spotting up, shooting off screens, or generating looks for himself, Walter can shoot the ball.

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