Early Returns: The Surprising (Too Early) Pick For College's Top Prospect

  • By Joe Simpson, Day 80, 2022

Last year’s draft class was considered deep, though there was a clear mountaintop. Two players, Latrell Mason and Victor Olojakpoke, sat atop the rest of the field. Cincinnati grabbed them both, and now sit in contention for a division crown.

This year, many think there’s a similar two-player debate for the #1 spot for the Barons Jaguars, Bullets, Blizzards or Drones to take. The debate has seemed to settle around freshman PG Isiah Evans, leading an underachieving North Carolina squad, and junior Air Force SF Josiah Robinson, who has broken out after two years of being underrated in obscurity.

Evans has been a dominant scorer for the Tar Heels, posting 26.1 ppg on 54% shooting as a freshman. He has posted 56% from beyond the arc, which is absolutely absurd. Robinson, meanwhile, is posting 27.7 points, 9.9 boards, 3.5 assists, 1.2 blocks, and 1.2 steals a game for the Falcons.

So, as these two battle for the king of the media mountain, the choice is abundantly clear.

Neither of them.

The pick for the top pick is Louisville SF Juwan Hughes.

Hughes, a 6’7 freshman, is far below the aforementioned players in virtually all statistical. His PER is 21.18, which sits ten points below either Evans or Robinson. He is averaging 16.1 points on 45% shooting, 5.4 rebounds, and 3.3 assists a game.

These are fine stats for a freshman. But a top pick? When the other two players in consideration are leading the nation in scoring? When his efficiency pales in comparison to several players, including the two aforementioned players?

For starters, collegiate statistics are not an absolute indicator of professional statistics. It is a solid indicator, but not the end-all-be-all. Hughes’ stats are solid on a young team, one that starts two sophomores and three freshmen. The youthful transgressions of the Cardinals—the team has just three seniors who average a 3.7 points per game—are not to be held against Hughes.

The biggest indicator, though, is what scouts say…not just about Hughes, but Evans and Robinson.

“Evans is a supreme shooter,” according to a scout who has seen him multiple times this year. “He is viewed as a playmaker. But he is weak up top, and not as solid driving with the ball as teams would like. Of course, he should get stronger. He is an average ballhandler, at best. He is weak defensively, and projects as average, at best. For his size at the point, he is a terrible rebounder.

“The reality is, he projects as a two-guard. And twos do not go number one.”

On the surface, Robinson looks like a generational talent.

“The kid can score on anyone,” said another scout, who has seen Robinson play multiple games, including one in which he scored 43…on 42 shots…in a 98-92 loss to Army. “He can be inconsistent though, which is in part due to junk defenses. But he can be inconsistent on his own, too. He was 8-23 against Wyoming (83-44 loss). Colorado held him to 15 in a loss at home. He put up 39 against Utah, but on 29 shots.

“The basics: He’s a volume scorer, but he needs the ball in his hands. Now, Air Force is not good. And he has been a scorer his entire career, one who has raised his overall game this year. But his game is inside. He is going to get post guys in the league. How is he going to score on (Kelvin) Hawes? Or on Mark Hunter? Robinson does not like getting pushed around. That’s how Wyoming was able to get him off his game. You don’t think the book won’t be out on him by the time he gets here?

“Robinson is 33% from deep in college. His shot does not project to the pro game. His handle is suspect, and his grasp on the game is, too. I imagine JBL coaches would help there, but what if it doesn’t? It appears as though he’s a kid who has gotten by on high school instincts in a bad conference and height. He can be good, but wow, he’s a project. You’re looking at 3-5 seasons before you see a return.

“He’s going to be a kid that gets a staff fired.”

Hughes, meanwhile, has wowed scouts who have seen him.

“He is the most well-rounded player in this class,” said a scout who is well-versed in ACC ball. “He can do it all. He is likely a 23-25 point scorer in the league, one who can beat you in many ways. He can be a major playmaker at the next level. His handle isn’t great, but for someone with such long arms (6’11 wingspan), he keeps the ball low. The key with Hughes is, his defense is considered elite. He can defend multiple position, including point guards. That kind of versatility is going to be difficult to pass up. He also has a great IQ for someone so young. I’d put him over Evans and Robinson, for sure.”

This draft is considered deep in guards and wings. It is possible, though, that the two getting the attention the most are not the two that will be the foundation of the franchises that take them. It is possible that Hughes is not that, either.

In the race for the top overall pick, however, there are the favorites…but the smart money might be on the dark horse.