The Step Back

NCAA sophomores could swing the 2018 NBA Draft

It’s summer — popsicles, beaches, campfires and summer love. As the heat rises, time slows and crushes develop. We’re leaning into that amorous mood this week at The Step Back, sharing our sophomore crushes. Last year may have given us an uninspiring rookie class, but we’re feeling pretty enamored with the future.

Our My Sophomore Crush series has focused mostly to date on the 2016 NBA Draft class. It’s an interesting class that was short on impact but has some fun players who may break out in year two. This year could end up proving that the class’s rookie struggles were a blip. However, the class could also be overshadowed by a rookie class with much more star power. The 2016 class looks to have a decent number of quality role players, but in terms of star power, the 2017 class blows it out of the water. It may not have as much depth, but the top end of the class looks much more promising than the group of Brandon Ingram, Dragan Bender, Jaylen Brown, and Kris Dunn showed to be last season.

The 2016 class isn’t the only group of sophomores that is worth watching, however. That lack of depth in the 2017 class is partly because a trio of potential high-level role players stayed behind to return for their sophomore college seasons. Robert Williams of Texas A&M, Miles Bridges of Michigan State, and Bruce Brown of Miami returned to the college game to varying levels of shock. These weren’t your run-of-the-mill fringe guys coming back to become sure first-rounders — each player has solid NBA potential that should make them sure picks in the 2018 draft. Each has definite improvements to make — but if they are made, this is the group that could move 2018 from a solid class to the level of a 1984, 1996, or 2003 NBA Draft.

Miles Bridges is the headliner. The Michigan State sophomore was penciled in as a top-10 pick in 2017 before returning to school, and early on looks to have top-5 potential this year. An incredible athlete, Bridges represents a fun interpretation of the modern NBA four. At 6-foot-6, Bridges seems undersized, but his athleticism and intensity help him compensate. He’s like a modern version of Charles Barkley — a small, high-level four who dabbles with a perimeter game, despite that part of his game not being well-developed. He’s an elite finisher, and his baseline is as an Andre Iguodala-type slasher/finisher along the baseline.

Bridges has real initiator potential, but struggles with court vision and a lack of shake. Those are what separate him from the back half of the lottery and joining the mix with Luka Doncic, DeAndre Ayton, and Michael Porter in the top 5. If he can evolve offensively the way many Michigan State wings do as they grow in Tom Izzo’s system, he can become one of this class’s most important players.

Robert Williams, on the other hand, doesn’t really have much growing to do to become a valuable player in the class. He has the perfect profile for a potential pick in the back half of the lottery — a low-ceiling, high-floor two-way center with strong defensive potential. Williams is a great rebounder and shot-blocker, and his athleticism allows him to out-battle bigger opponents, both on the glass and at the rim. He has absolutely fantastic instincts on the defensive end, and his mobility allows him to be both a solid perimeter defender at the college level and a developing rim protector.

His offensive game is where development needs to occur in this season. He lacks polish, struggling to shoot from outside the restricted area, and lacking advanced feel for the game. As more of a focal point on what should be a solid Texas A&M team, he should take a small leap as an offensive player. That’ll be enough to solidify him as a lottery talent, because his defensive equity as a four/five hybrid is immense.

Bruce Brown is the wild card of the class. He was probably a fringe first-rounder in 2017, but he was a favorite of the draft community. A long, 6-foot-5 scorer with potential as a primary creator, Brown supplemented new Phoenix Sun Davon Reed to create one of the toughest defensive backcourts in the major conferences last season. While Brown was more potential than results in his freshman season, the NBA draw is pretty obvious as a two-way combo guard.

Brown’s court vision and defensive instincts are impressive, and he has shown solid ability as an off-ball slasher and catch-and-shoot weapon. Consistency is an issue though, and that’s what he has to prove as he heads into 2017-2018. He’s a favorite of the draft community, but NBA teams didn’t see him in the same positive light. Now, as the primary option for the Hurricanes, he gets a chance to prove the NBA scouts wrong.

These three college sophomores graded out as first-round picks in 2017, but returned to school to improve their stock. With another year of college under their belts, these players get the chance to improve their weaknesses and solidify the lottery position that they hinted at in their freshman year. Each player represents a must-have archetype in the modern NBA — Bridges as a two-way stretch four, Williams as a rim protecting small-ball five, and Brown as a two-guard that can defend and take over offensive initiation on occasion. This is a trio of extremely valuable potential NBA players, and their continued development could take the 2018 draft class from great to all-time loaded.

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