Core Four: An Analysis of the Top 4 Likely CJBL Draft Selections
- By Michael Miller, Day 1, 2024
Now that the CJBL Tournament confetti has been cleaned up, and player sweat from team workouts has been mopped away, four prospects have separated themselves as the cream of the 2024 draft class: SF Sr. Josiah Robinson (Air Force), SF Fr. Keyshawn Benjamin (North Carolina), PF/C Fr. Colton Gregory (Duke) and SG Eric Greely (Stanford).
All four have demonstrated unique talents and concerns as they graduate into the JBL. This article intends to provide an in-depth analysis into each of these prospects, and also explain why a specific team that holds a top-4 pick would be the best home for that prospect.
SF/PF Josiah Robinson (JD.Net #1, ESPN #1, DraftExpress #1)
The consensus number one overall prospect, from Los Angeles, California, has been waiting for this moment for four-long years. He was part of the rarified air of the 2020 JBL Draft Class, which featured the likes of PG Josh Gamble, PG Devon Harrell, C/PF Quavious Williamson and SG Odell Bracey, among others. As he was pursued by some of the top CJBL teams, however, his future took a wrong turn as he was personal witness to a murder carried out by one of his close friends. It was a traumatic time for Josiah, and it caused elite programs to back away from recruiting him until he could clear his name.
On the advice of his family and advisors, Robinson elected to commit to the Air Force Falcons to rehabilitate his image. It was thought that this decision would benefit him in the long-term, as it would provide a stable environment and good examples to develop as a person. It came with cost, however, as he was obligated to complete a four-year term with Air Force before he could declare for any further opportunity, including eligibility to join the JBL.
The other cost was that, unlike other prospects who joined elite college programs, not many JBL-ready players are hungry to play basketball for Colorado Springs. The result is that Josiah was responsible to carry a heavy burden for the Falcons from an early age, and the Falcons struggled as a team without anyone there to help him. In his freshman and sophomore year, the Falcons finished 10-21 and 9-21 respectively. Josiah did all he could in both of those years, averaging 20.2 ppg, 8.3 rpg and 2.6 apg his freshman year and 20.3 ppg, 8.0 rpg and 2.4 apg his sophomore year, but it was not enough to elevate the team to a successful year.
By his junior year, however, Josiah hit a level that surpassed all of his CJBL peers, averaging 26.3 ppg, 9.5 rpg and 3.2 apg. He finished with the best PER efficiency rating (31.7) within the CJBL, and for his efforts, was rewarded with the CJBL Player of the Year award. More important to Josiah, however, was that he lifted Air Force to greater team success as the Falcons finished with a 19-13 record and stunned the conference by winning its tournament and clinching Josiah's first CJBL Tournament bid. Unfortunately, the CJBL Tournament selection committee did the Falcons no favors, giving them an impossible matchup in the first round against the defending CJBL Champion Arizona Wildcats. Predictably, Josiah's junior season ended with a 111-59 shellacking at the hands of Arizona.
The spotlight was fully on Josiah as he entered his senior season as the marquee player within the CJBL. On first glance, Josiah struggled with the pressure as he struggled out of the gate and more-hyped freshman Keyshawn Benjamin garnered early season headlines. A closer look, however, reveals that Josiah struggled early on because he was asked to play at center, a position in which he had not played for much of his earlier year. Once he got the hang of his new position, however, Josiah began to dominate once more. Predictably, Josiah surpassed Keyshawn towards the end of the conference season, and finished with 25.7 ppg, 10.0 rpg and 2.6 apg and again led the CJBL in PER efficiency rating winning a second CJBL Player of the Year award.
He also again led the Falcons to the CJBL Tournament, where the results were a lot more fortuitous. The Falcons made the CJBL Sweet 16, upsetting the New Mexico Lobos, 72-68 and the Iowa State Cyclones, 66-65 before falling to the eventual CJBL Champion Duke Blue Devils, 88-74. Against the Lobos, Josiah put up 28 points, 12 rebounds and 2 assists in a dominant performance. He struggle a bit more against the Cyclones, with 20 points on 8 of 21 shooting, but added 4 blocks and had the second best defensive efficiency of any player on the floor.
Josiah can held his head up high, even in his loss to Duke, as he finished that game with 40 points, 8 rebounds, 4 steals and 3 blocks for a 31.0 game score. The fact that Duke won by only 14 points is a testament to Josiah's performance in his final game as a Falcon.
JBL PROJECTION: Josiah is listed as a small forward, but that is misleading. His projection is that as a Playmaking 4 because he excels at getting rebounds and likes to play close to the rim. Over his 4 year tenure at Air Force, Josiah's shots at the rim increased every year from 4.4 to 5.5 to 7.0 to 8.6 shots per game. That shot distribution came without much significant change to his long range and 3-point shooting attempts, as those hovered around 9 to 10 per game in each of his four seasons.
While his assist ratio did not change significantly over his 4-year career, it hovered at around 12.5% for all four seasons, suggesting he was heavily involved when the team decided to pass. As the Falcons did not have many other offensive weapons around him, it is not that surprising that his assist numbers are low. Surrounded by better talent, I would expect Robinson's assist totals will be significantly higher in the JBL.
Moreover, at 6'11" with a 7'2" wingspan, he has the size to play at the four. While he projects as a good athlete in the CJBL, I imagine he will have a tougher time keeping up with athletic wings who play at the 3, and playing at the 4 will allow him to maximize his rebound numbers. Josiah does not appear to be a slouch playing defense at the post, so it seems like playing at the 4 would be the best fit.
If there are two concerns about Josiah, it would likely be his frame and his upside. As to the former, weighing only 223 pounds, there is a risk that Josiah will get pushed around in the post when he plays players like the Tank, Wesley Sherman and his 290 pound frame. As to the latter, Josiah will enter the league at 22 years old and there is some question as to whether his success within the CJBL was due to his playing as a "man above boys" with his advanced age.
TEAM FIT: Detroit Mustangs. Even if the Mustangs did not win the lottery, they are likely the best immediate fit for Josiah entering the league because of the surrounding talent. SG JaDante Hicks, acquired from Baltimore via Philadelphia in the PF Dameon Clarke trade, proved he could be quite a second banana playing next to SF Alonzo Weaver with the Warriors. What's more, at 23 years old, Hicks likely has another level or two to grow and develop. Hicks is the perfect type of player to put next to Josiah, as he covers some of the difficulty defending the perimeter that I antcipate Josiah will experience and also adds outside shooting to help free up Josiah in the post.
To that end, C Markese Walton, the second year player out of Georgetown, also seems to fit well with Josiah. While both Josiah and Markese like to hang out in the post, Josiah is also quite comfortable playing out in the perimeter. As such, I anticipate little spacing issues. If there is a broader concern, it is that Walton and Robinson are primarily focused on offense, and there is no rim protecting player currently on the roster. This is likely the most significant area which the Mustangs will need to fix, getting another PF who is primarily defensive focused and/or a reserve 5 who is primarily a post defender. Fortunately, this ia relatively easy problem to solve in free agency, trade or the draft. Ultimately, the trio of Hicks, Robinson and Walton fits together more than any trio the Stars, Colonels or Vipers could put together.
SF Keyshawn Benjamin (JBL.Net #3, DraftExpress #4, ESPN #3)
This could be the darkest time in young Keyshawn Benjamin's life. Coming into CJBL recruitment, Benjamin was one of the hottest names in the country. After averaging 28.0 ppg, 12.3 rpg, 4.8 apg and 3.8 spg, Benjamin was recruited hard by North Carolina, Syracuse, Kentucky and Cincinnati. Close your eyes for a minute, and imaging if Benjamin had joined PG Jamal Johnson and SG Terrell Sanford with the Syracuse Orangemen? That team could have gone undefeated in the ACC.
As it is, Benjamin decided to join the Tarheels and join up with fellow top prospect SG Spencer Allen. Expectations were high for the Tarheels, especially after North Carolina had a disappointing end to their sterling 2022 campaign following an 84-80 loss to Juwan Hughes, Keyon Barber and the Louisville Cardinals in the second round of the CJBL Tournament. Replacing PG Isiah Evans, Benjamin was counted on to take the Tarheels to the CJBL National Championship.
Early on, Benjamin seemed ready to live up to that promise. He started off his year hot, and at the close of the non-conference seasons, Benjamin was leading all players in points per game and had a 30+ PER Efficiency Rating. Not only was Benjamin considered to be the odds-on favorite for CJBL Player of the Year as the newer flavor of Josiah Robinson, but many were touting Benjamin should be the first overall draft pick above Robinson in the upcoming JBL Draft. It continued through midseason, as Keyshawn was selected to the JBL Rookie/CJBL All-Star classic, and put on quite a solid performance, putting up 20 points, 11 rebounds and 6 steals.
Once ACC conference season started, however, it was a challenging game for the Tarheels every night. After a 13-0 start to the regular season, the Tarheels finished 14-7 within their conference. Keyshawn's production also started to decline, especially as SG Spencer Allen became much more involved within the offense. Ultimately, the 2023 Tarheels were a 2-man team, as Allen and Benjamin dominated more than 70% of the team's usage on all possessions. The two-man wrecking crew was susceptible to defeat by more balanced teams, as shown by the Tarheels 1-point heartbreaking loss to the Duke Blue Devils in the ACC Conference Championship game, 86-85. Benjamin tried to take over that game, and while he put up 27 points, he was woefully inefficient scoring on 11 of 25 shooting and was a -11 on the floor.
All eyes were on Benjamin as he entered the CJBL tournament, and frankly, he seemed to falter under the pressure. Although the Tarheels did satisfy their beginning of season promise, it was largely due to the efficient play of Spencer Allen and not Benjamin. For the CJBL Tournament, Benjamin had a +23 plus/minus, compared to Allen who was a +43. In the Tarheels 100-80 loss to Stanford in the Final Four, Benjamin scored only 16 points on 9 shots. The suggestion is that Benjamin may not be ready for the limelight. Truthfully, however, that may be a bit harsh, as North Carolina would never have gotten to this point had Benjamin not been on the team. As a result of the "only" above-average performance in the tournament, Benjamin's stock slipped in some peoples eyes.
That perception only increased after Benjamin declared and started working out for JBL teams. Noise out of those workouts suggested that Benjamin was not motivated and had a generally bad shooting performance. Off the record, some teams mentioned that Benjamin was "immature" and may have a rocky entrance into the JBL. Some of that might be teams outside of the Top 3 hoping Benjamin will fall, however, because he may have the most potential of any prospect within this draft class.
JBL PROJECTION: Of the top 4 prospects discussed in this article, Benjamin has the most "unicorn" like potential. There are not many small forwards in the league with a 7'5" wing span and Benjamin's athleticism. He could be an absolute force on the defensive end. On the offensive end, we already know what kind of player we can be. Although some in the JBL are questioning his work ethic, Benjamin has rare offensive awareness and ability that you just do not see in many players his age. Additionally, for a player who handles the ball so much, his 2.53 turnover percentage is relatively low.
Benjamin will need to have the ball in his hands, and is a slasher in the mold of a Lamar Francis. Approximately 35% of his shots have come around the rim. Indeed, if there is any question about his game, it is that the three-point shooting is not quite there. Keyshawn shot only 33.7 from beyond the 3 point arc on 4.9 attempts. He may need to work on his mechanics, but his vision and playmaking skills suggest that he will develop into quite a formidable force within the JBL. It's just that, with his age and personality, it may take a patient team to reach that level.
TEAM FIT: Nashville Stars. Rumors are that the Stars were scared off of Benjamin because of his poor workout. In my mind, they shouldn't be. Of any of the top 4 teams, Benjamin fits the best on the Stars because they need a true #1 scoring option with the remaining players already on that team. There may not be a better running mate for Benjamin that SG/PG Jordan Timberlake, who is a good shooter and defender but likely does not have the temperament to be a true #1 scorer. Additionally, Mohammad Shakur is a good table-setter to play with Benjamin, and C/PF Brandon Weir a defensive force to back him up. Although the Stars may have questions about his personality, especially following the Tezele Craig fiasco, the remaining core players they have are good personalities that should welcome Benjamin on the team.
C/PF Colton Gregory (JBL.Net #2, DraftExpress #2, ESPN #4)
Finish Strong. That was the team motto of the Duke Blue Devils 2023 campaign and also appropriately explains Colton Gregory's rise up the prospect rankings. Considered one of the elite front-court prospects in the country, Colton was heavily courted by many top programs but wanted to win a championship. The Duke Blue Devils lost a heartbreaker in the 2022 CJBL Tournament Championship game to the UConn Huskies, 87-84. Watching from his Sacramento, California home, Colton felt the punch in his stomach when the Huskies' game winner at the buzzer went in. It was at that moment that Gregory knew he was destined to be a Blue Devil, and emboldened to assist Duke in reaching that goal.
As JBL teams started scouting the upcoming prospects, I believe it is fair to say that Colton was overlooked in the Josiah vs. Keyshawn debate. After all, he was not a 20 ppg scorer, and his rebounding and assist totals were nothing flashy. Colton was not undaunted, he kept working and pushing. He knew that his time would come when the spotlight was right. To that end, Duke continued to keep winning and eventually supplanted North Carolina at the top of the conference. Colton deferred to PG Marcus Richardson and SG Scottie Hartman in the ACC Conference Championship game, only scoring 16 points on 15 attempts, as compared to 33 points by Hartman and Richardson. Colton did the dirty work, however, getting 7 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals within the effort.
Colton's moment came within the CJBL Tournament, as he grew stronger as the stakes got higher. When matched up with his fellow Core 4 prospect Josiah Robinson in the CJBL Tournament Sweet 16, Colton did not back down, putting up 22 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists in the 88-74 win. Next, Colton vanquished lottery prospect SG Kendall Love and the Michigan Wolverines in the CJBL Tournament Elite Eight, putting up another 20 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists in the Blue Devils 87-84 win over the Wolverines. Against USC, with their duo of elite 5* forward prospects in Keiron Worthington and Kenny Robertson, Colton put up 29 points, 5 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 blocks in the narrow 76-74 win over the Trojans. Finally, on the brightest stage of all, and signifying his journey from the couch in Sacramento to the court in the CJBL Championship Game, Colton delivered on his promise, scoring 26 points, 13 rebounds and 3 steals in the Blue Devils 82-80 win over the heavily favored Kentucky Wildcats.
Colton received the CJBL Player of the Tournament award, and the lifelong adulation of Duke fans worldwide for delivering the team their first CJBL National Championship. At that point, JBL scouts had caught on and elevated Colton up their draft boards. Once workouts started, Colton demonstrated his abilities by dominating other prospects on the court and reports are that he had stellar workouts all around. Gregory may never win a scoring title, but as a defensive anchor, he may have few peers once he fully develops.
JBL Projection: At only 17 years old, Colton is the youngest of the core four prospects and, as such, suggests that he may have the highest ceiling of said prospects. It is quite impressive how well he performed against his peers. You can see a glimpse of the player he could be within the CJBL All Star/JBL Rookie game, where he scored 16 points on 6 of 9 shooting, adding 6 rebounds and 2 blocks.
Colton seems like a best fit to play at the 5, but if he does, he is likely going to need to put on weight. He has almost identical height, weight wingspan as Josiah Robinson. Unlike Robinson, however, Colton does not present much ability to stretch the floor, as almost 70% of his attempts come around the rim.
His defensive ceiling appears to be higher than his offensive ceiling, but that is not a demerit, because his defensive ceiling could be a CJBL Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Additionally, unlike Keyshawn Benjamin, there seems to be little doubt that Gregory will eventually develop into his maximum potential, whatever that potential is. Gregory is a rare combination of grit and work ethic that not many players his age will have.
BEST TEAM FIT: Louisville Colonels: As the Colonels are determined to play SF Uman Akele at PG, it seems like the best way for that to work is to get a defensive-focused 5 who can play the fulcrum for the teams defense, then surround those two players with shooters who can help stretch the floor. Akele and Gregory, while both like to play at the rim, can likely work if spaced with other shooters.
Moreover, even if Akele cannot play at the 1 and his more natural position is at Playmaking 4, that could still work with Gregory because Gregory is a defensive focused player. As such, a frontcourt pairing of Akele and Gregory would appear to present balance for the roster.
SG Eric Greely (JD.Net #4, DraftExpress #3, ESPN #2)
In California, chicks dig the long ball. As such, there is little surprise that Eric Greely was attracted to relocate across the country, from Virginia to sunny California, to put his talents on display. Greely was an electric three-point scorer in high school, and his surfer-boy persona is a perfect fit for the Bay.
While a 5* prospect, Greely was not well respected by most JBL scouts when the first rankings were published, as he was originally considered not to be a lottery pick. Once the three point shots starting falling, however, many JBL scouts started re-evaluating their convictions and Greely made a slow steady climb up the rankings. By the end of the season, Greely was connecting on over 50% of his three points attempts, and finished 4th in the entire CJBL in PER efficiency rating.
Perhaps most surprising was Greely's innate passing ability, as he put forward 3.9 assists per game on a relatively low 27.1% usage rate. Additionally, Greely put up strong rebounding numbers for a guard, leveraging his 6'9" height into 7.5 rebounds per game by the end of the season. Still, as the CJBL regular season came to a close, there was some question as to whether Greely had the killer instinct to take over a game and be the leader when it counted.
He put some of those doubts to rest with a fantastic CJBL tournament performance. In the first two rounds of the CJBL tournament, Greely put up a combined 50 points, 17 rebounds, 7 assists and 4 blocks in wins over North-Carolina-Wilmington and UCLA. Greely continued his performance by being the leading scorer in the Sweet 16 88-73 win over the Villanova Wildcats, putting up 24 points, 9 rebounds and 4 assists in the victory. His breakout performance, however, was in the Elite Eight performance over the North Carolina Tarheels and their two elite prospects SF Keyshawn Benjamin and SG Spencer Allen. Against North Carolina, Greely dropped 34 points (5 of 11 from beyond the arc), 14 rebounds and 8 assists. That performance suggested that Greely may have another level within him, at least on offense.
Greely put forward a similar performance in the Final Four loss to the Kentucky Wildcats, putting forward 32 points, 4 assists and 5 steals in the losing effort. Despite the loss, Greely answered significant questions about his laid-back attitude. While Greely is not likely someone who will lead the locker-room with fire-and-brimstone speeches or demonstrations, he can come through in the clutch and rise when the moment is right.
JBL Projection: Players who can shoot, pass and defend tend to be good basketball players. Duh. Of the 4 core prospects, Greely offers the most versatility. He has the size and athleticism to play either of the wing positions, shooting ability to stretch the floor and is likely to be a defensive plus player on the court. Despite his CJBL performance, however, there are questions whether he has the aptitude to take over a game if need be. Perhaps more concerning, there is question whether Greely will have the ability to create on his own or whether he is destined to be a spot up shooter who needs to be involved in the offense to produce. Ultimately, I do not believe Greely can be the best player on a CJBL Championship team, but he certainly has the skills to be a #2 or #3 player on said team.
Team Fit: Pittsburgh Vipers. This is somewhat by process of elimination, but on the other hand, the match does seem to fit of the other four teams because Pittsburgh does not know what it is yet. Greely has the skills to fit within a variety of systems, and without a true alpha on the team, Greely can shift roles and responsibilities when and if the Vipers land a true alpha.