by Conor Gereg
The Big East has finished among the top six conferences in college basketball every year since 2013’s realignment shift. It isn’t just the cadre of accomplished coaches that fuel the league’s success; no small part of the league’s stature is due to the talent pipeline that culminates with its players entering the NBA Draft.
2021 was yet another year of talented pros within the league, highlighted by lottery pick James Bouknight selected 11th, followed by Jeremiah Robinson-Earl at 32, Marcus Zegarowksi at 49, Sandro Mamukelashvili at 54, while players like David Duke (Brooklyn Nets), Romeo Weems (Memphis Grizzlies) all joined teams as free agents.
Enter 2022 where the Big East yet again has pro-level talent at nearly every position, a talent that’s sure to appear in draft boards this winter. For insight into what these players offer, College Hoops Digest brought in Mike Gribanov of The Stepien. You can follow Mike’s work and all of the site’s content via @thestepien and www.thestepien.com.
Julian Champagnie (St. John’s – Jr. – 2021 All-Big East 1st Team)
Champagnie’s withdrawal from the 2021 NBA draft not only vaulted the Johnnie’s into the NCAA tournament conversation but also reaffirmed his place on next summer’s draft boards. “Champagnie’s development as a shooter has been impressive to watch,” Gribanov said. “[He] still needs a lot of polish on footwork but he plays hard, is a good run-jump athlete, and has a good frame for an NBA wing.” Last season, Champagnie refined a sound mechanical jump shot, converting 40% of his 3-PT attempts during conference play. The rising junior also displayed his dual-threat capabilities, serving as an adept rebounder, finishing 7th in-conference in KenPom’s Defensive Rebounding %. “His activity and St. John’s aggressive scheme allow him to create defensive events but he needs to work on his defensive fundamentals and recognition to showcase true two-way upside,” Gribanov added. “I like how young he is for his class, so I remain somewhat optimistic. Adding off-screen, movement shooting would also help his pro stock.”
Jermaine Samuels (Villanova – Sr. – 2021 Big East Honorable Mention)
Samuels will take advantage of the additional COVID year awarded by the NCAA, and in doing so, he has the chance to raise his 2022 draft odds. “Jermaine Samuels is someone who I doubted as an NBA prospect in the past but his development over the last two seasons has impressed me enough to at least consider that as a possibility now,” Gribanov said. “He should step into a bigger offensive role for Nova next season so we will see how his skill set develops and if he can take another step forward.” Villanova will most certainly integrate Samuels into a larger offensive role considering he led the conference in KemPom’s Offensive Efficiency metric, finishing 38th nationally. Should Samuels repeat his 45% 3-PT rate Jay Wright and company may have the second coming of Miles Bridges on this year’s roster—and a surefire future pro.
Adama Sanogo (UConn – So. — 2021 All-Big East Rookie Team)
Sanogo was the last player added to UConn’s 2020-2021 roster though Dan Hurley certainly made sure to integrate the 6’8” big man in as a key offensive weapon for the Huskies. Evaluators like Gribanov see Sanogo as “a big body rebounder” though it’s his offensive efficiency that makes him a prime candidate to climb draft boards. When Sanogo is on the court, he can dominate the glass on both ends of the floor, evinced by finishing in the Big East’s top 10 both offensive (7th) and defensive (1st) rebounding percentage. At 6’9” 240, Sanogo occupies a ton of space on the interior and defends the basket with the league’s best, swatting 6.8% of every shot opportunity, per KenPom, which was third-best in the league. A scan across mock drafts shows the Mali native coming in at the end of the first round, per NBADraft.net.
Aminu Mohammed (Georgetown – Fr.)
The Hoyas youth movement this season will be built around Mohammed who is the first McDonald’s All-American to go from the high school ranks directly to Georgetown since Greg Monroe (2008), Austin Freeman (2007), Chris Wright (2007), and Vernon Macklin (2006). Joshua Smith was a 2010 McDonald’s All-American who donned Hoya gray from 2013-2015 though Smith began his career with UCLA before transferring to D.C.
Patrick Ewing will get a ready-made contributor with Mohammed. “I love his cutting and functional length as a finisher,” Gribanov said. “He plays hard on both ends.”
Collin Gillespie (Villanova – Sr. – 2021 Big East Co-POY)
Returning the conference’s co-Player of the Year makes Villanova a league favorite but also gives Gillespie an additional senior season where he can garner attention from pro scouts. “Gillespie is another guy who really impressed me with his development,” Gribanov said. “I never in a million years thought he had a shot at the league when I first watched him at Nova but he has continued to improve as a shooter and playmaker to the point where he has a legitimate chance.” A memorable final year may very well put Gillespie into the pro ranks much like his point guard predecessors, Jalen Brunson (2018) and Ryan Arcidiacono (2016).
Colby Jones (Xavier – So. – 2021 All-Big East Rookie Team)
A noteworthy freshman year is a large reason why the Musketeers find themselves at the periphery of many preseason top-25 lists. “I’m a big Colby Jones fan,” Gribanov said. “Shooting is his way to the league. I love his feel for the game and toughness but he lacks the physical talent to not be a serious perimeter threat. He didn’t take very many as a freshman but has shown solid touch on short-range jumpers and decent mechanics. If he can extend range beyond the arch and make various minor improvements across the rest of his game, he may be able to carve his way into the 2022 draft.” Jones’ versatility will serve him well this year on a loaded Xavier roster since the Birmingham native will see minutes in both the backcourt and on the wing.
Zach Freemantle (Xavier – Jr. – 2021 All-Big East 2nd Team)
UConn’s Dan Hurley called Freemantle a “butt-kicker, tough as nails” simply due to Freemantle’s strength and interior force. Hurley wasn’t the only one to take notice. Freemantle’s defensive rebounding percentage per KenPom was 2nd in the Big East. Complementing the rising junior’s dogged interior skill is his willingness to extend himself offensively, shooting 78 3-PT last year versus only 34 as a freshman. “Outside shooting seems like the most likely way into the draft conversation,” Gribanov said. “If he starts taking and making a lot more threes, he may be able to garner some interest.”
On the Radar & On the Horizon
The following players may not be on draft boards (yet) but their talent is undeniable. Keep an eye on some of these names through the 2021-2022 season and beyond.
Akok Akok (UConn – Jr.)
Had a season-ending Achilles injury not truncated Akok’s freshman season, he may already be in the professional ranks. The UConn staff managed Akok’s sophomore minutes judiciously; typically an 18-month recovery timeline, Akok only logged more than five minutes just twice over his seven appearances in 2020-2021. Reports out of Storrs this summer are positive and it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see the former top-50 recruit appear in mock drafts in 2022 or 2023.
Posh Alexander (St. John’s – So. – 2021 All-Big East Rookie Team – Co-Defensive POY)
Last time a freshman was Big East Defensive Player of the Year? Georgetown’s Allen Iverson in 1995. Alexander may not have Iverson’s offensive repertoire, but the tenacious lead guard in Queens has a nose for the ball, posting the 14th best steal percentage in the nation, per KenPom. Look for Posh to refine his skill on the offensive side of the ball this winter and launch his talent into the national spotlight.
Chuck Harris (Butler – So. – 2021 All-Big East Rookie Team)
Harris got plenty of volume in the Butler offensive scheme, taking a team-high 26% of Butler’s shots. Expect the rising sophomore to get another healthy serving of looks in 2021-2022 albeit scouts will expect his efficiency numbers to climb in Year 2. There will be no shortage of opportunities for Harris in 2021-2022.
Andre Jackson (UConn – So.)
Jackson is a trendy breakout candidate for 2022 considering the Albany native was the second-highest rated freshman in the league last season, trailing behind Marquette’s Dawson Garcia per 247 Sports. Jackson’s athleticism is undeniable and the UConn staff raves about his leadership and work ethic, but Jackson’s shooting stroke in where the issue lies and overcoming a 12% 3-PT (2-17) would be a testament to his work this summer. In fairness to Jackson, a season marked by a wrist injury and multiple COVID interruptions is an incomplete—and unfair—lens to evaluate one of the nation’s most tantalizing raw talents.
Arthur Kaluma (Creighton – Fr.)
This year’s Creighton team will look dramatically different in contrast to last year’s pre-season top-10 group though the Blue Jays won’t be short on talent, integrating one of the league’s best recruiting classes headlined by 6”8” Kaluma. Kaluma is the Big East’s top-rated incoming recruit, per 247 Sports, rated at the 48th best prospect, just ahead of a triumvirate of UConn talents, Jordan Hawkins (50th), Samson Johnson (54th), and Rahsool Diggins (57th). Scouts rave about Kaluma’s defensive instincts, though as national recruiting analyst Josh Gershon noted, “[Kaluma’s] NBA stock will be determined by how much his offense catches up to his defense.” The Jays offer a bevy of young freshmen that will demand attention in future seasons, names like Ryan Nembhard (65th), Mason Miller (72nd), and Trey Alexander (74th) are all top-100 recruits who, like Kalluma, have worlds of potential.
Justin Lewis (Marquette – So.)
Lewis sputtered down the stretch, shooting just 4-13 over Marquette’s final three games. A capable rebounder, Lewis reeled in 5 or more rebounds on seven occasions so more consistency and continued growth as a scorer will help Lewis take the next step under Shaka Smart. Lewis has all the tools for a major step forward as a sophomore and a potential pro down the road.
Tyrese Martin (UConn – Sr.)
Martin was granted immediate eligibility last season following his transfer from Rhode Island and what a major addition it was. During the 8 games UConn missed James Bouknight, Martin stepped in averaging nearly 14 PPG though the beauty of Martin’s game is that he so often contributes offensively without set plays being run for him, attacking the offensive glass with prowess (4th in the Big East in Offensive Rebounding Percentage, per KenPom).
Kadary Richmond (Seton Hall – So. – transfer from Syracuse)
Richmond’s name has surfaced on a handful of draft boards, not for what he accomplished during his debut season in Syracuse but for his potential for a breakout sophomore season in South Orange. The early mock drafts on Tankathon.com have Richmond going 27th in the 2022 draft which speaks to the universal belief in Richmond’s talent. At 6’5”, Richmond has incredible length at the point guard spot, an asset that allowed him to lead the ACC in KenPom’s steal percentage. On the offensive side of the ball, Richmond finished 5th in the conference in assist rate. Kevin Willard has a surefire pro leading his offense this season; it’s just a matter of how long he’ll be able to keep him before he becomes a pro.
Paul Scruggs (Xavier – Sr. – 2021 2nd Team All-Big East)
Scruggs has started every game since his sophomore year and though he won’t be joining Trevon Bluiett (2018) as the program’s most recent 2,000 point scorer, Scruggs contributes in many other ways. Since being installed as a starter three years ago, Scruggs has finished in the Big East’s top-20 each season in KenPom’s assist rate, topping out at 4th overall last year while leading the league in assists per contest (5.7 APG). A capable scorer, 17.1 points per 40 minutes, Scruggs refined his dynamic passing ability, going from 5 assists per 100 possessions to 10 per 100 possessions. A big guard at 6’5”, Scruggs has the prerequisites to earn looks at the next level.
Nate Watson (Providence – Sr. – 2021 2nd Team All-Big East)
It didn’t take long for Watson to wipe away the memory of a disappointing junior season, bouncing back with a senior year that saw the 6’10” center achieve career bests in scoring (16.9 PPG) and rebounding (6.7 RPG). Much like Gillespie and Samuels of Villanova, and Scruggs of Xavier, Watson will take advantage of the extra eligibility and he’ll most certainly be a focal point for the Friars.
Isaiah Whaley (UConn – Sr. – 2021 co-Defensive Player of the Year)
Whaley became part of some hallowed UConn company last season in earning the league’s top defensive accolade, joining the likes of fellow Huskies to win the award: Hasheem Thabeet (2009 & 2008), Hilton Armstrong (2006), Josh Boone (2005), Emeka Okafor (2004 & 2003), and Donyell Marshall (1994). In short, no UConn player who has won the Big East Defensive Player of the Year Award has been drafted later than 23rd overall. Whaley doesn’t profile like the names of former UConn draftees but Whaley’s efforts will be rewarded somewhere, whether it’s in the NBA or internationally, as his shot-blocking skill (2nd in Big East in KenPom’s Block Percentage) and rebounding resolve (top-10 in conference Rebounding Percentage in 2021 in both 2020 & 2021) are both elite-level skills.