Amid murmurs that the Big East – once the embodiment of the college basketball elite – may never recapture its former glory [post conference realignment], the stage was set for Saturday’s Big East final between Villanova and Seton Hall. And while this contest may not silence pundits who [correctly] believe that the conference has been surpassed by the likes of the ACC and Big 12, the level of play Saturday certainly harkened back to the Big East of yesteryears.
Ultimately, in this ‘tit for tat’ chess match between the class of the Big East, Seton Hall emerged victorious. But, the real story underlying not only the Pirates’ improbable run, but the overall quality of basketball on display for much of this tournament, was the significant improvements made by some of the conference’s elite players. As such, I deemed it worthwhile to highlight who did the most for their NBA draft stock [or professional exposure] in this tournament.
Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall: When talking about players who boosted their draft stock, the conversation has to start with the Big East Tournament’s MVP. After a disappointing freshman season, which included rumblings of locker room issues with some of his now former teammates, Whitehead has turned a corner in 2015-16, cementing himself as one of the premier all around players in the conference. Not coincidently, Seton Hall just capped off its first Big East title in 23 years. In terms of his core competencies on the court, Whitehead thrives slashing to the rim, be it in transition or off the bounce. Replete with a New York City playground handle and the characteristic swagger to boot, Whitehead regularly attacks the rim with reckless abandon. His 6.1 fouls drawn per 40 minutes were the third best in the conference this season, and indicate how difficult he is to contain off the bounce. In addition to his strong handle and quick first step, Whitehead has continued to improve his strength, enabling him to finish through an exceptional amount of contact. This was particularly evident late in the Pirates’ matchup with Villanova, as Whitehead finished several acrobatic shots through contact. Given his penchant for beating his man off the dribble, Whitehead has made some strides as a passer, either dumping the ball down to his big when drawing a double team or kicking it out to an open three point shooter.
With that said, his passing ability is highly dependent on his ability to attract multiple defenders. In addition, despite some improvement from a season ago, Whitehead continues to have tunnel vision at times, which leads to a lot of difficult, contested shots. To put this into perspective, his 39.5% 2pt % was the fifth worst in the Big East this year, and he was nearly as efficient from beyond the arc (38.2% 3pt %). Whitehead has definitely made strides as a three point shooter, even progressing as the season has moved along, connecting on a solid 42.6% of his shots from three point range in conference play. While Whitehead continues to make questionable decisions with the ball in his hands at times, he has arguably improved more on the defensive side of the ball. Whitehead regularly utilizes his strength to ball deny and prevent dribble penetration, staying in front of his man with decent lateral quickness. And while he is not picking the pockets of opponents as frequently as he was during his freshman campaign, he is playing more sound positional defense and has reduced the number of fouls he commits (per 40 mins) by 17%. He is also one of the best shot blocking guards 6’5 and under in the nation. All in all, it appears that Whitehead has a bright future ahead of him, and will only have more opportunity to shine in the NCAA tournament.
Kris Jenkins, Villanova: Arguably the most important offensive weapon on a very dangerous Nova team, Kris Jenkins has made significant strides from a season ago. First, looking to his physique, Jenkins has completely transformed his body and is now more mobile and active than ever. The difference is most evident on the defensive side of the ball, where Jenkins regularly plays sound positional defense, stepping in to take charges at critical junctures in games. He has more active hands and is even blocking shots (20th best in blocks % in Big East conference play), despite his initial billing as a ‘below the rim’ player. On the offensive side of the ball, Jenkins is a deadly stretch four at the collegiate level, connecting on 43.0% of his three point shots in conference games. While in previous years, he was simply a standstill, catch-and-shoot weapon, Jenkins is now much more versatile with the ball in his hands. He regularly implements shot fakes and is able to step up and dial in from the midrange as well.
Jenkins also has a strong back-to-the-basket game and is capable of taking his man into the post, using his body to create enough space for an easy turnaround jumper. Despite his increased offensive duties this year (24% of Nova’s shots vs. 18% usage last year), Jenkins has retained his accuracy from the floor, connecting on an impressive 58.3% of his 2pt attempts. In his matchups in the Big East tournament, Jenkins demonstrated all of these wrinkles in his offensive game. With all of that said, Jenkins’ lack of a clear defensive position at the next level will likely limit his draft potential to 2nd round at best. While the stretch four is certainly en vogue after what the Warriors have accomplished this season, Jenkins will likely have to convert to either a two or a three at the next level, where he would be a liability on defense due to his below average footspeed for those positions.
It is unlikely that Jenkins will be able to serve as a stretch four due to his average length and below average rebounding ability for his height, compared to peers who have made this transition (Draymond Green for example). However, it is highly conceivable that a team at the next level may be willing to accept some of his defensive limitations, due to the premium now being placed on shooting.
LJ Peak, Georgetown: While the Hoyas continued to disappoint [as they have all season], falling to Villanova in their second round matchup, this was not due to the play of LJ Peak. Peak did a little bit of everything for his team in this year’s Big East tournament, and has certainly improved his NBA draft stock. And while his first season and a half were marred by inconsistency, Peak really solidified himself as a legitimate NBA prospect down the stretch [from February on]. To start, LJ Peak is a wing with decent size and a long, 6’9.5’’ wingspan. In his two contests at MSG, Peak was dynamic with the ball in his hands, penetrating in the lane with a quick first step and either attacking the rim or kicking it out to a teammate for an open jumper. Peak utilizes his length, athleticism, and sheer physical strength to his advantage when attacking the basket. Even when he takes contact, LJ Peak does a remarkable job of staying focused and finishing off plays, as evinced by his 57.3% 2pt % in Big East play (11th best in conference). Peak has a decent floater in his arsenal and the raw athletic tools to exploit this strength by either blowing by his man or Euro stepping around him. With that said, Peak continues to turn the ball over at times when he gets a head of steam driving in the lane. But, as the Big East season wore on, Peak became more of a shot creator for teammates and sported a positive assist to turnover ratio, despite his increased usage [February on]. While he has the physical gifts to excel as a shot creator in the NBA, Peak must refine his handle and become more of a dynamic threat off the bounce, rather than simply a straight line driver. In terms of his most notable sophomore leap from a pro perspective, Peak established himself as one of the most accurate marksmen in the Big East this season, shooting 43.1% from 3-point range in conference (40.9% overall) and improving his consistency. Against Villanova, he buried several momentum-altering three point shots and the threat of his shot opened up the driving lanes. On the defensive side of the ball, Peak has the length and lateral quickness to become a ball hawk down the road. He competes with a good intensity level and does a nice job closing out on shooters. Despite his productivity getting in the passing lanes and blocking shots, Peak must do a better job contesting without fouling so that he can stay on the floor. Overall, LJ Peak is a solid NBA prospect who continues to refine his game and should receive many looks either this season or next.
Other Players of Note
Henry Ellenson, Marquette: While Ellenson is arguably the best prospect listed here and did put in a solid effort in the Big East tournament, he didn’t really demonstrate anything beyond what scouts already understand about his game. Standing at 6’10 with a 7’2’’ wingspan, Ellenson definitely looks the part of an NBA big man. He is also a fairly fluid athlete for his size and can finish in transition or attack the basket facing up. Ellenson has a serviceable handle and the offensive repertoire to opt for a floater or embrace contact at the rim. While his shot selection could use some work, given that he settled for some difficult shots [in the Big East tournament] even by NBA standards, he proved that he is capable of finishing these types of plays. Ellenson also showed that he can step out and keep defenses honest from three point range. While he sports good shooting mechanics, he was fairly inconsistent from beyond the arc this year, hitting 28.8% of his attempts. In terms of his weaknesses, while he doesn’t typically shy away from contact, Ellenson could struggle as a back to the basket option at the next level if he doesn’t continue to develop his lower body strength. With that said, he likely projects as a faceup, stretch four. In terms of rebounding, Ellenson has decent fundamentals, but can struggle with the physicality of players with similar length and size. On the defensive end, he puts in good effort, but his mediocre lateral quickness hurts him against quicker, undersized weapons. Overall, Ellenson has the skillset and physical profile that NBA scouts are looking for and will likely be a first round selection in this year’s draft.
Ben Bentil, Providence: This was truthfully a tale of two games for Bentil. While his matchup with Villanova couldn’t have been any more cataclysmic for his NBA draft hopes, Bentil was so good in the first game with Butler that his draft prospects are worth mentioning. Against Butler, not only was Bentil able to demonstrate his strength backing down his man in the post, but he also stepped out and hit five three pointers, looking very comfortable in the process. In terms of his NBA prospects, Bentil is very underrated at this point in time. Bentil is not only efficient as a back to the basket player, but possesses the requisite strength to finish through contact against bigger players. He does an excellent job drawing contact, to the tune of 7.1 fouls drawn per 40 minutes in Big East play (top mark in the conference). Bentil is also deadly from the mid range and is capable as an offensive rebounder. Although Providence has significantly increased Bentil’s usage in his second season, he appears to be making better decisions with the ball in his hands, even if he is still turnover prone when doubled in the post. In terms of his outside shooting, Bentil is shooting a respectable 33.3% from three point range, suggesting that his performance against Butler wasn’t entirely an aberration. On the defensive end, Bentil is much more productive as a help defender in his second season, blocking shots from the weakside and serving as a paint enforcer. Bentil does a good job holding his position in the post and is considerably less foul prone than last season (33% less fouls committed per 40 mins). While Bentil still has an uphill battle in convincing professional scouts that he will be able to make the right decisions with the ball in his hands at the next level, he has ample opportunity to showcase his talent in the NCAA tournament.
Cole Huff, Creighton: While Huff is not really on the radar as much of an NBA prospect, he likely earned a chance at a summer league roster after next season with his performance in the Big East tournament. In engineering Creighton’s comeback against Seton Hall, Huff was lights out from the floor, connecting on seven three point shots, some difficult and contested. Huff played with remarkable poise throughout, utilizing shot fakes to draw his defender off guard. He appeared very comfortable taking what the defense gave him, stepping in for a mid range jumper as well if overplayed. At this stage, Huff is predominantly a spot up shooter, who puts in decent effort defensively. Huff does a nice job closing out on shooters quickly, and getting his hands in passing lanes. Further, Huff is a good defensive rebounder, despite projecting as a professional wing player.