Givony picks six sleeper NBA draft prospects: Why I like these players more than most (2024)

  • Givony picks six sleeper NBA draft prospects: Why I like these players more than most (1)

    Jonathan Givony, ESPNJun 22, 2024, 07:19 AM ET

We've talked and written ad nauseum about the top of the 2024 NBA draft class -- Reed Sheppard's status as the best shooter, Donovan Clingan's shot-blocking, Alex Sarr's defensive versatility and Zaccharie Risacher's 3-and-D prowess.

But what about the less obvious draft prospects, unheralded late first round, second round or undrafted players who might one day impact an NBA Finals series -- much like Boston Celtics players Derrick White (No. 29 pick in 2017) and Sam Hauser (undrafted in 2021) and Dallas Mavericks forward Derrick Jones Jr. (undrafted in 2016) did this past season?

What follows is not a list of the best players in the 2024 class or even the elite at each position, but rather a group of sleepers, by position, who we think could exceed expectations for where they might be drafted. We're ignoring the obvious and ruling out any player who is currently projected to go in the first round based on our most recent mock draft.

The six players chosen all have first-round grades on my personal board, which differs slightly from ESPN's Top 100 Big Board because those rankings account for how prospects are perceived around the NBA.

Round 1 begins Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN, ABC, ESPN+ and the ESPN App.

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Givony picks six sleeper NBA draft prospects: Why I like these players more than most (3)

Point guard

Juan Nunez | Ratiopharm Ulm (Germany)

6-foot-4 | Age: 20.0 | Top 100 ranking: 36

When Nunez's name comes up among teams, you often hear a list of things he can't do: He's not a great shooter (32% on 3-pointers, 61% on free throws this season), athlete or defender, making it murky to project his exact fit at the NBA level. Will he be able to create separation, finish in traffic, punish unders and avoid getting picked on defensively one-on-one with his stumpy frame and lack of urgency? How much does he even really want to play in the NBA? Some teams say their intel indicates he might be content spending the rest of his career as a Euroleague star at home in Spain, where he could live a comfortable life. His aloof, at-times disinterested body language certainly doesn't help perceptions in that regard.

These are all valid arguments, but there simply aren't many players outside the NBA with his combination of size (over 6-foot-5 in shoes), ball-handling ability, creativity, and processing speed dissecting pick-and-roll defenses and making pinpoint passes while dishing the ball all over the floor. Nunez just turned 20, but is already one of the best playmakers in international basketball, starting for FIBA Eurobasket defending champions Spain as a teenager at the World Cup last summer (which is nearly unheard of). Simply put, he's a basketball genius who is a magician with the ball, which counts for quite a bit in today's fast-paced, pick-and-roll heavy NBA.

Nunez averaged 2.8 steals and 6 rebounds per 40 minutes, bringing inconsistent play defensively this season in the EuroCup and BBL -- imagine what he could do if he bought in on that end of the floor? When the stakes were highest this season, for example against Euroleague teams Alba Berlin or Bayern Munich, or the best competition Ratiopharm Ulm faced in the EuroCup, Nunez had phenomenal performances on both ends of the floor, something you don't see very often from teenagers. He's also big enough to guard wings with his 206-pound frame and near 6-foot-7 wingspan (New York Knicks shooting guard Donte DiVincenzo is one of his physical comps), making it easier to hide him on that end of the court than smaller players with similar defensive questions.

Players such as Tyrese Haliburton, T.J. McConnell and Ricky Rubio overcame varying degrees of comparable limitations to emerge as impactful NBA players thanks in large part to their elite feel for the game. Can Nunez do the same, even in a backup role?

Projection: Nunez is bound for the draft's second round, possibly sliding into the 40s, as he was only able to conduct two workouts, with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Milwaukee Bucks, prior to joining the Spanish national team's preparations for the FIBA Olympic qualifiers.

While a NBA team could elect to pay his buyout and bring him over immediately, he's almost certainly going to be stashed in Europe by the team that drafts him, with reports in Spain linking him to Euroleague squad Barcelona. Nunez's draft rights could be quite valuable in a year or two if he emerges as one of the best point guards in European basketball as many expect he will, and he'll certainly be pushed to improve on his weaknesses in the meantime playing competitive games at the highest level of the sport outside the NBA.

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Cam Christie's NBA draft profile

Check out some of Cam Christie's best highlights while at Minnesota.

Shooting guard

Cam Christie | Minnesota Golden Gophers

6-4½ | Age: 18.9 | Top 100 ranking: 32

Christie, who turns 19 on July 24, is one of the youngest players in this class. He's a late bloomer who was typically deemed the less talented of the Christie brothers (his brother Max was a McDonald's All-American and now plays for the Los Angeles Lakers), tucked under the radar at Rolling Meadows High School in suburban Chicago while competing on the Under Armour circuit with the Illinois Wolves.

Christie missed the beginning of the season while recovering from mononucleosis, but stood out during Big Ten action, playing outstanding basketball over the final two months of the season. He was likely overlooked to an extent as few projected the skinny, three-star recruit to emerge as a possible one-and-done first-rounder, despite establishing himself as one of the best freshman shooters in college basketball while also playing top-notch defenses on a nightly basis.

At 6-foot-6 in shoes and with an impressive 190-pound frame that should carry bulk nicely in the long term, Christie's dynamic shot-making stands out for his age. He ranks as one of the best off-the-dribble shooters in this class, converting 39% of his pull-ups on the season. He also showed some ability initiating out of pick-and-roll, being tasked with more ballhandling responsibility this season than one might expect, helping him develop into more than just a big-time shooter.

Projection: Christie is getting looks from almost every team drafting in the 20s, but there are scenarios in which he falls into the 30s (or the second round) because of concerns about his readiness to help a team early in his NBA career, especially on the defensive end where he struggles with his thin frame. Whichever team drafts him will need to take a long-term view of his development in the next three to five years, and not necessarily what he is right now -- which is, in many ways, the essence of the draft.

Small forward

Kevin McCullar Jr. | Kansas Jayhawks

6-5¼ | Age: 23.2 | Top 100 ranking: 37

McCullar was one of the best players in college basketball in the first 2½ months of the season until a knee injury derailed both his and the Jayhawks' seasons. He tried to return from the injury a few times, but was ruled out of the NCAA tournament when it was clear he was far from fully healthy. He was shooting the ball as well as he ever had in his college career prior to getting hurt, while shouldering significant offensive responsibility, which allowed him to show new facets to his game as a scorer and facilitator.

Already known as an elite defender, McCullar's ability to keep opponents honest with his improved slashing, passing and spot-shooting made him a strong first-round candidate as a plug-and-play, 3-and-D wing with playmaking chops, but perhaps not as long in duration as NBA teams would have liked to see. The Jayhawks' on/off splits with McCullar healthy and either injured or out were stark, as the offense fell off once he got hurt. They were 10.3 points worse per 100 possessions over the final 16 games of the season and lost to Gonzaga in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

McCullar had a knee procedure this offseason and was seen walking with crutches at the draft combine and his agency's pro day. The health setback was not ideal for teams in evaluating McCullar because some already had concerns about his age (23) and poor 3-point shooting (career 31%) prior to his hot start to the Jayhawks' season.

Projection: McCullar looks headed for the second round, as his inability to conduct workouts or participate in summer league in July has put a damper on his draft stock. As long as he'll be healthy in time for training camp and there are not any lingering medical concerns, it feels like somewhat of an overreaction to see him slide so drastically when he has the makings of a viable rotation player at a position of significant need. With his readiness to help out a team, he could end up being a major draft steal, one who is locked in for several years on a minimum contract.

Power forward

Keshad Johnson | Arizona Wildcats

6-6¼ | Age: 22.9 | Top 100 ranking: 49

Fresh off helping San Diego State make the NCAA tournament's national championship game in 2023, Johnson showcased different facets of his game upon transferring to Arizona last summer. He played a different role in a far more up-tempo, wide-open style of play and saw his productivity increase in several key categories.

Johnson hit 39% of his 3-pointers, flashed intriguing passing ability and was a force at the rim pushing in the open court, crashing the offensive glass and breaking free for highlight-reel finishes. He also showcased his trademark versatile and intense defense all season long, sliding his feet versus guards on switches, putting a body on big men inside, rotating to protect the rim from the weak side, and playing with nonstop physicality while covering ground all over the floor. His coaches at both Arizona and San Diego State rave about the way he impacts winning on the court and the way he leads off it, as well as the toughness he brings and his intangibles.

Johnson won't be a fit for every team. He stands 6-foot-7½ in shoes with a just-decent 6-foot-10 ¼ wingspan. He has been an inconsistent shooter and rebounder for much of his career. In the right role, however, he could exceed expectations with his plug-and-play, two-way versatility, provided he can make enough shots to keep defenders honest.

Projection: Johnson is likely looking at a two-way contract, and he might not be a lock to get drafted depending on how things shape up on Thursday, the second day of the draft. He has done 14 private workouts and is probably someone teams are more likely to gravitate to in a 5-on-5 setting. Playoff teams with existing star power that are looking for quality role players should be attracted to him regardless.

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Adem Bona's NBA draft profile

Check out some of the top highlights from NBA draft prospect Adem Bona.

Center

Adem Bona | UCLA Bruins

6-8¼ | Age: 21.2 | Top 100 ranking: 33

One could make a case for ranking Bona as the No. 1 player in this draft class in several categories: explosiveness, ground coverage, intensity and defensive versatility -- all related but valuable traits that could help him carve out a role early on in his NBA career. Most importantly, Bona knows what he is, and is comfortable being a high-level role player who brings incredible energy every time he steps on the court.

His team context at UCLA -- with its snail's pace offense, and little semblance of shooting or passing surrounding him -- didn't do him any favors. He amassed more post-up possessions (288 in 33 games) in one season than he might for his entire NBA career, something that hampered him from showing his potential as a rim-running, pick-and-roll finishing, offensive rebounder, which we'll surely see a lot more of at his next stop. That doesn't excuse his lack of shooting range, high turnover and foul rates, and disappointing defensive rebounding figures, which are all connected to his average skill level and feel for the game -- skills that will need to improve to reach his significant potential.

NBA teams, nevertheless, have been raving about Bona's performances in the private workout setting, saying his combination of mobility, power and energy has been a sight to behold in 3-on-3 group settings. He could likely help a team defensively with the way he hedges ball screens, flips his hips to recover back and protect the rim and flies around with his 7-foot-4 wingspan and 40-inch vertical leap.

Projection: Bona has some suitors in the 20s and is unlikely to be on the board long once the second round starts Thursday -- that is if he makes it to the second day. He has conducted 18 workouts, perhaps more than any other prospect in this draft, as more and more teams have requested to see him once word got out about how well he has handled himself in the pre-draft process.

Sixth man

Cam Spencer | UConn Huskies

6-3 | Age: 24.2 | Top 100 ranking: 42

Spencer is another prospect who is easy to talk yourself out of ranking very high because of his age, a bad body, limited length and poor athletic ability: Who is he going to guard? Can he get by anyone? Does he get his jumper off fast enough? Why did he struggle so much at the draft combine?

But there's very little chance UConn wins a national championship without Spencer's dynamic, prolific shot-making, playmaking ability, competitiveness and feel for the game. He thinks he's the best player every time he steps on the court, is incredibly unselfish and never turns the ball over. He brings nonstop hustle on defense, which then compensates for his shortcomings on that end of the court because of his elite instincts and toughness. He is often the first one off the ground for rebounds and has jumped passing lanes prolifically his entire career.

Spencer made 90% of his free throws and 44% of his 3-pointers during the past two seasons at Rutgers and UConn, many of which came running off screens or pulling up off the dribble from difficult vantage points. He was also a deadly shooter when his feet were set.

Projection: Spencer is vying to be drafted anywhere in the second round, hunting for a situation where a real roster spot will be available, as opposed to a two-way contract. He earned quite a few NBA fans in UConn's national championship run and will certainly have an opportunity to show how his game translates to the pro setting. He was having outstanding pre-draft workouts before a minor ankle sprain caused him to miss some time, but he's already back on the road and will end up conducting close to a dozen workouts.

Givony picks six sleeper NBA draft prospects: Why I like these players more than most (2024)
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