With the 2021 NBA Draft getting closer to approaching, BasketballNews.com is breaking down the best prospects from its Big Board. The Big Ten was one of the top conferences in college basketball last season, and it has a number of pro hopefuls that could make a significant impact the the next level.
Here are five players from the Big Ten that have the potential to stand out in the NBA in 2021-22.
Franz Wagner, Michigan
STATS: 12.5 PTS, 6.5 REB, 3.0 AST, 1.3 STL
With versatility being the name of the NBA game, Franz Wagner is the archetype many NBA teams covet in 2021. The 6-foot-9, 220-pound forward makes his presence felt by being a menace on the defensive end, using strong lateral ability and a long wingspan to defend up to four positions on the floor. An intriguing point of emphasis for Wagner is his projection as a secondary ball-handler/facilitator, as there were many times he was operating on the wing and finding his teammates in scoring positions.
While his three-point shooting numbers leave something to be desired in today’s NBA at 34%, the positives come from his shooting form not being broken. It will need some tweaks to be ironed out, but his 83% from the free-throw line has been consistent over his two college seasons, and it suggests that the touch is there to become a league average shooter from beyond the arc.
Wagner has times where he looks brilliant and times that leave you scratching your head. He’s had notable trouble when driving with his non-dominant hand, and essentially looks like a less confident player when attacking that side of the floor. If a team puts time into developing him over the course of his first years in the league, it’s not difficult to see a time where those moments of trouble will be few and far between.
The best part about Wagner is his willingness to do what’s needed for the team to be successful. On-ball, he creates opportunities through his facilitating, or by using his size and length to get past defenders and to the rim. Off-ball, his movement keeps the offense flowing, and he finds many easy baskets as a result. Defensively, he is always willing to get down in a stance and lock-in or provide weakside rim protection. He’s the ultimate glue guy that you can stick into an NBA lineup and he’ll find his way to fit in. Just as Wagner was a great player on one of the best teams in the nation, it’s very easy to see Wagner as a high impact role player/starter on a championship contender in the future.
Franz Wagner is currently projected as the No. 12 pick to the San Antonio Spurs in BasketballNews.com's Mock Draft.
Ayo Dosunmu, Illinois
STATS: 20.1 PTS 6.3 REB 5.3 AST 48.8% FG
Ayo Dosunmu was the engine that ran one of the top teams in the nation, the Illinois Fighting Illini. A combo guard with elite size -- standing at 6-foot-5 and weighing in at 200 pounds -- Dosunmu can affect the game in multiple ways, and proved that as a triple-double threat for most of the season. Described as a “gym rat” by scouts, Dosunmu has shown improvement in each of his collegiate seasons. As he transitions into the NBA, he projects as a real bucket-getter with secondary playmaking abilities that can defend up to three positions.
As a scorer, he has potential to fill it up from all three levels, but his strengths lay specifically with attacking the rim and mid-range scoring. Although he’s not a freak athlete, Dosunmu has a fluid athleticism to showcase tremendous body control and touch to convert around the basket or over the top of the defense. In isolation, he deploys a bag of crossovers and hesitations to beat his defender to the rim, or to get into comfortable spots in the mid-range to unleash a pull-up jump shot that he seems to favor. Dosunmu shot above 48% from within the arc in each of his three college seasons, and finished this past season at 51% on more than 12 attempts per game.
One of Dosunmu’s swing skills will be his three-point shooting. While his percentage improved to 39% on the season, this result came on the lowest volume of three-point attempts in his collegiate career, as it’s clear he relied on those aforementioned strengths to score. While not a natural shooter, if Dosunmu can prove to scouts he has more consistency in his release and can hit spot-up threes, his projections to play consistent NBA minutes will rise.
Billed as a point guard coming into college and playing many lead guard minutes for the Illini during his career, Ayo Dosunmu’s scoring abilities have outshined his ability as a primary facilitator to the point that he would be better weaponized as a shooting/combo guard in the NBA. Dosunmu was able to create a lot of opportunities out of pick-and-roll situations for himself and his teammates, which should warrant some possessions as a facilitator on the next level. However, he struggled with turnovers at times from forced passes and poor ball security.
If Dosunmu can improve his shooting, handling and ability to read defenses on the offensive end, his ceiling as a player will continue to rise through the early years of his NBA career. Defensively, his elite size and wingspan paired together will allow him to guard both backcourt positions and some bigger wings. With the rate he’s improved since high school, it is not out of the realm of possibility he could be one of the best two-way role players to contribute to winning basketball in the future.
Ayo Dosunmu is currently projected as the No. 37 pick to the Detroit Pistons in BasketballNews.com's Mock Draft.
Aaron Henry, Michigan State
STATS: 15.4 PTS 5.6 REB 3.6 AST 45% FG
Aaron Henry is a 6-foot-6 junior wing from the college basketball powerhouse of Michigan State. While the Spartans ended an uncharacteristic year with an early exit in the NCAA Tournament, Henry wanted to use this year to solidify himself as an NBA Draft pick after testing the waters in last year's draft cycle. His role expanded after Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman’s departure for the NBA, and Henry was able to show some improvements to his game that continued to intrigue scouts. However, MSU’s bumpy year may have hindered him from reaching a late first-round grade as some scouts may have expected.
What scouts liked about Henry in 2020 was his major two-way potential as a long, athletic wing that is active on both ends of the floor and willing to do what it takes to win. Playing with Winston kept him off the ball, but it displayed his cutting and ability to attack close-outs to finish at the rim. This season, Henry was given more on-ball opportunities, with his usage jumping from 19.7% to 27.2%, as it seemed he was probably the most trusted with the ball in his hands this year. Part of this is because he developed a herky-jerk style of handle during the last three years that allowed him to flash some off-the-dribble creativity in his expanded role.
Similar to Dosunmu, Henry relies on getting to the rim and pull-up mid-range jump shots to do his damage on offense, but right now almost exclusively converts on the left side of the court -- aligning with this dominant hand. His long-range jump shot is his swing skill that could still use some work (especially to quicken the release), but the evidence in his improved mid range jump shot and free-throw percentage do provide optimism that he’ll improve his three-point shot over time.
Henry still holds intrigue as a valuable role player who is a plus athlete that can play off of a primary creator, but this season showed that he has the ability to leverage his own strengths on the ball at times. Also, with increasing his steal and block rate to 2.4% and 4.1%, respectively, during his junior season, Henry has doubled down on scouts' confidence that he will make an impact on the defensive end, as he projects to guard up to three perimeter positions on the next level.
Aaron Henry is currently projected as the No. 51 pick to the Detroit Pistons in BasketballNews.com's Mock Draft.
Luka Garza, Iowa
STATS: 24.1 PTS 8.7 REB 1.6 BLK 55% FG
Luka Garza was one of the most prolific and accomplished players in all of college basketball who is now looking to prove he belongs in the NBA. His track record speaks for itself, earning various honors, including the Wooden and Naismith awards, All-American status and multiple Big Ten awards to go along with his Iowa Hawkeyes team finishing as the No. 8 team in the country with a 22-9 record. Garza’s blend of size and touch are reflected by his impressive 55% from the field and 44% from three this past season. However, scouts have concerns about Garza’s adjustments to the quicker, faster and more athletic play of the NBA.
Offensively, there are things to like with his projections as a stretch five. At 6-foot-11 and 265 pounds with a career average of 37% from three, Garza could be a strong pick-and-pop threat, as he possesses a sturdy frame that allows him to set strong screens. As a roller, he has the touch around the rim to convert open looks.
Where he may have issues is going against the best interior defenders in the league, as many of them will be quicker, longer, and stronger than many of the defenders he faced in college. Garza could be a situational weapon if the team that drafts him wants to play with a change of pace or "four-out, one-in" for parts of a game to take advantage of the more wiry centers around the league. Garza also takes advantage of his large frame on the boards, as he uses his size and strength well to create the space to get rebounds.
On the defensive side of the ball, the same concerns are apparent, though. Garza’s physical attributes could be limiting, as his lack of verticality wouldn’t provide tremendous resistance against better athletes at the rim. He also has a slower footspeed than most successful NBA big men that could give him trouble when he’s put on an island in switches. NBA spacing will do him a disservice on how he can impact the game defensively.
A strength for Garza is the motor that he plays with throughout the course of a game. He runs the floor, never seems to take plays off and always looks to go through defenders in the paint. Even with his physical attributes possibly limiting his translation to the NBA, what could help him see the floor is his work ethic. To this point, Garza’s pedigree as a college basketball player does deserve attention on the NBA level, and it is tough to see him not selected come July 29.
Luka Garza is projected as the No. 57 pick to the Charlotte Hornets in BasketballNews.com's Mock Draft.
Isaiah Livers, Michigan
STATS: 13.1 PTS 6.0 REB 2.0 AST 43% 3PTFG
After testing the draft waters in 2020, Isaiah Livers returned to campus with some additional confidence about his potential in the NBA. However, an unfortunate foot injury that required surgery ended his campaign before a deep postseason run for the Michigan Wolverines. Throughout this year’s draft process, Livers will need to ease the injury concern of scouts, especially after two seasons of missing fairly significant time.
Fitting the modern combo forward archetype, Livers (6-foot-7, 230 pounds) has what it takes to step in on day one and provide immediate floor spacing and defense. Before his injury, he was seen as effective in catch-and-shoot situations, averaging 41% from beyond the arc over his four-year career. While his release could be quicker, his form is fluid, and he shoots an easy ball that projects well to deeper range.
With Michigan’s pro-style of play, Livers will have one of the smoother transitions to finding open spaces on the floor. Pre-injury, Livers was also a sneaky athlete, and if he had space to take off, highlight dunks or chasedown blocks would follow. He also showed some flashes of off-the-dribble skills, but he's not a guy you want with the ball in his hands for too long since his jump shot off the catch is his greatest weapon. In addition, he could improve his finishing at the rim, as he’s not the strongest at converting in traffic. However, he takes contact very well.
On the defensive end, Livers has been effective on the perimeter and in the paint at times. He had strong sequences of locking down guards in one-on-one situations, and chasing wings around the screens with good contests to force tough shots. He’s also been able to use his 230-pound frame to body up 4's and 5’s when needed. While he’s not the quickest player laterally, he moves very well to stay in front of smaller players, and uses his length to gather blocks and deflections. Ultimately, he projects to guard big wings while having the potential to not lose ground on quicker guards when switched.
A lot will be riding on Isaiah Livers’ health going into the draft process, and scouts will want to know how he’s progressing. Losing lateral quickness or athleticism could be a major hindrance to his NBA future.
Isaiah Livers is projected as the No. 60 pick to the Indiana Pacers in BasketballNews.com's Mock Draft.