Two particularly interesting scouting matchups went down Tuesday at Madison Square Garden, with Texas and Illinois followed by Duke and Iowa squaring off in one of the better nonconference matchup settings of the year so far. All four teams featured at least one potential first-round pick, and the event was well attended by NBA execs, as one might imagine. Without overreacting too much to one game for any player, here’s who and what stood out most to me from each side by the end of the night.
Coleman Hawkins begins to enter the picture
Much was made of Illinois’s Terrence Shannon Jr. squaring off against his former Texas Tech coach, Chris Beard (who now coaches Texas), but Shannon was quiet and not particularly impactful until he stepped up to help swing the 85–78 Illinois comeback win in overtime. Shannon has started the season well and played his way into late-first-round discussions, but the more interesting Illinois story line at the moment may be the growth of junior forward Hawkins, who is arguably the team’s best long-term prospect and has become a player of interest for scouts.
Hawkins had a somewhat modest box score line of nine points, seven rebounds, four assists and three blocks, but left a positive impression with his energy. He continues to turn a corner in terms of his approach and focus. I was somewhat unimpressed with him last season but have shifted my stance based on what we’ve seen so far. At 6’10”, 225 pounds, Hawkins has the physical tools to survive in an NBA frontcourt, as he is fairly light on his feet, can switch onto guards without being embarrassed and, while not a menacing presence around the rim, has good enough timing to block shots in pursuit and make an impact. While Hawkins can still be an erratic decision-maker on offense, he thinks through the game like a perimeter player, has shooting touch and has demonstrated plus passing ability at his size. He should be watching film of Larry Nance Jr. every night before he goes to bed.
Dillon Mitchell’s situation worth monitoring
On the other end of the first game was Mitchell, a Texas freshman who is a potential lottery pick. He has seen his stock go into flux a bit, as he’s been minimally impactful to start the season. He scored just four points Tuesday night and grabbed just three rebounds in 24 minutes. A highly touted high school recruit and excellent run-jump athlete, Mitchell hasn’t scored more than 10 in any of his first seven college games, raising some real questions from an evaluation standpoint as teams continue to try to make sense of his situation.
Some of these struggles can be attributed to a subpar situational fit: The Longhorns rely on ball-dominant guards, close games with their older forwards and run little offense that caters to Mitchell’s strengths as a lob catcher and finisher. His offense is very service-dependent due to his lack of creative ability on the ball, and there hasn’t been regular service. Texas doesn’t play as much in transition as would likely suit him. But he’s also been a bit out of his depth defensively at times, occasionally having to defend as a nominal center and looking a bit lost guarding in space. Illinois successfully targeted Mitchell a few times in isolation situations. He should be a much more productive rebounder based on his physical gifts, and an uptick on the offensive glass would presumably lead to a few more easy buckets a game. Some of these things are within his control.
Mitchell figures to eventually help himself quite a bit in workout situations, as he is an excellent athlete and should have more to show in other settings. But right now, it would be hard to make assumptions about how high he’d be drafted if teams had to choose today.
Dariq Whitehead shows some positive signs
This was already my fifth Duke game of the season, and I’ve written quite a bit about the various Blue Devils prospects. To keep the focus a bit narrower here, what stood out Tuesday was the most encouraging showing so far for freshman wing Whitehead, whose start to the season was hampered in part by a late-August foot injury that required surgery. He had yet to score in double figures heading into Tuesday. Jon Scheyer has kept Whitehead in a smaller role off the bench and limited his minutes due in part to his recovery, but his on-court impact has been pretty minimal, and he failed to leave a strong impression on scouts over the course of three high-profile games in Portland at the PK85.
Whitehead looked much more explosive and confident playing off the dribble in Duke’s 74–62 win over Iowa, finishing with eight points, five rebounds and three assists. His minutes crept over 20 for the first time this season, and he played more than usual in the second half. It’s worth noting that Iowa’s personnel is not the fleetest of foot, nor the most adept at containing drivers on the perimeter, so a tougher matchup might be more telling. But Whitehead’s small positive signs should hopefully indicate bigger games to come. He should be afforded patience as he adjusts to college games and gets healthy but is also too decorated a high school prospect to satisfy scouts with limited production like this, some of whom have begun to question his upside and lofty preseason projection. We’ll see whether Whitehead’s role grows as Duke approaches ACC play and whether an eventual move into the starting lineup is in the cards for the potential lottery pick, who won’t turn 19 until August.
Kris Murray has an off night
Iowa’s team struggles came in concert with a difficult game for Murray, who has been in the midst of a breakout season as he attempts to fill the shoes of twin brother and former teammate Keegan. Squaring off against more athletic Duke opponents for much of the night, particularly Mark Mitchell, Murray struggled to make shots from outside and wasn’t very impactful in what was a bit of a low-energy effort from Iowa as a whole. He scored just eight points on 3-of-9 shooting, with seven rebounds, three assists and no blocks or steals. This type of game shouldn’t really shift the conversation much with Murray, who projects best as a potentially steady role player and will have to deal with defenses keying in on him the rest of the season. But it did highlight some of his weaknesses that teams will comparatively nitpick moving forward.
Murray is more of a standstill player than one who operates on the move, as he’s a very strong-hand dominant finisher and not super crafty attacking off the dribble. He is a smart cutter and can get himself open, but also isn’t an above-the-rim player. Despite the fact that he’s 22, Murray isn’t as filled out physically as some of Duke’s much younger guys, which also stood out. He just isn’t a naturally creative player—but that shouldn’t stop him from spacing the floor and making enough shots and small plays in the long run to earn minutes. It’s key to remember that he’ll be easy to optimize in theory, as a forward with some size who makes open shots and can play off teammates. Murray remains a projected first-round pick, but this certainly wasn’t his finest hour.