Isaiah Roby jumps up to dunk over defender in basketball game
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

What This Year’s Draft Tell Us About Huskers’ Pro Prospects

June 22, 2018

Nebraska basketball’s drought of NBA Draft selections is as long as Nebraska football’s drought of conference titles. The last Husker drafted into the NBA came in 1999 when the Houston Rockets took Venson Hamilton, a 6-10, 240-pound senior forward.

In what could be a watered down 2019 draft class, Nebraska could have as many as three guys taken and maybe even threaten to break into the draft’s top 30.

So, armed with some info from Thursday night’s 2018 NBA Draft, let’s look at those three players and what they need to do in 2019 to hear their names called out on the big stage.

James Palmer Jr.

Position: Guard | Height: 6-foot-6 | Class: Senior

Palmer has a tremendous NBA frame for a two-guard. His long arms up his potential on the defensive end and his strength gives him, theoretically, the ability to guard multiple positions at the next level.

On the offensive end, he has a strong, slashing game predicated on getting a head of steam and using his upper-body strength to finish through contact. The problem is he’s not as explosive with his first step as scouts would probably like and he’s not going to blow by his defender with fancy dribbling. 

After finishing inside the conference’s top-five in scoring a season ago (17.2 points a night), Palmer actually still has quite a bit of work to do to get up into the first round. It begins with consistency. Whether his conditioning wasn’t where it needed to be or his body just wasn’t used to carrying the workload it did for as long as it did — understandable given his usage rate went from 18.8 at Miami to 29 percent at Nebraska — Palmer’s game started to break down a little bit during the closing stretch of 2017-18.

From January 15 through Feb. 13, Palmer averaged 23.4 points a game, shot above 50 percent from the floor five times out of nine and buried 18 3-pointers. Over the final five games (three regular, one Big Ten tournament game, one NIT game), Palmer averaged 13.6 points on an average of 12.4 shots a night. He was below 40 percent from the field in three of five and only connected on three of 20 from long range.

The senior will be asked to lead the way again for Nebraska this season with raised expectations; his game can’t slow down again when the stakes get higher.

The second (and probably most important) thing that needs to happen is diversification. Palmer is a gifted and instinctual scorer. Near the painted area he’s comfortable and knows where to get his shots. But only being a great scorer won’t get you very far in the league. There are three areas of his game lacking when it comes to consistency: 3-point shooting, playmaking and defending. Ideally, two of those three need to improve.

There were 15 twos or threes drafted Thursday evening. Their average 3-point percentage was 36.9 percent. At 30.9 percent a season ago, Palmer falls well below the average. If you throw out Michael Porter Jr.’s three-game, 53-minute season, Palmer has the second-lowest percentage of the group. At exactly three assists a night, Palmer doesn’t scream playmaker when he’s on-ball and if he can’t consistently knock down 3s when he’s playing off the ball, it puts teams in a hard position when trying to slot him into a lineup. 

On the other end, Palmer was well worse than average (98.5) in defensive rating with a 103.3 mark and a virtual wash when it came to defensive box plus/minus. Again, if you think Porter’s sample size isn’t large enough and want to throw his numbers out (-0.8 in this instance), Palmer’s 0.8 ranks dead last amongst the group.

The positives here come from the fact all three areas addressed can be improved with some time in the lab. You can learn to be a better 3-point shooter. It takes repetition. One of the things Palmer is universally praised for is his work ethic and dedication to the gym. 

He is also a willing passer and defensively, as mentioned at the start of this section, Palmer has all the tools. It’s just about committing to that end.

Let’s say the defense improves and the 3-point percentage comes up to 35 percent. Palmer likely becomes a favorite to go in the first round. Instead of a scorer that doesn’t give you much else, he’s a big-bodied guard with legit two-way potential that also has the seasoning to step in and contribute right away. That’s enticing to a lot of teams. But if those things don’t happen and it’s another subpar defensive season with points but shaky outside shooting, Palmer is likely still a second-round selection but he’d be hard-pressed to break into the first.

Isaiah Roby

Position: Forward/Center | Height: 6-foot-8 | Class: Junior

Roby took a major step forward in 2017-18 and head coach Tim Miles submitted his name to the NBA Draft Undergraduate Advisory Committee to get some feedback on the budding center.

It had to be good. Roby might have the most potential of any Husker on the roster. Opposing coaches last season lamented the match-up problems he creates, broadcasters gushed over the ceiling and occasionally defenders had to hide away from being immortalized on posters. 

Roby is a springy, switchy, athletic big man that can block shots (third in the Big Ten last year, two a night) and knock down 3s (41 percent). He’s quick enough laterally to switch onto smaller players on the perimeter and hold his own. He was ninth in the Big Ten in defensive rating (95.6) and third in defensive box plus/minus (6.4). Thanks to a move toward positionless basketball and spread-the-floor shooting, teams have grown more and more desperate to find a player with Roby’s exact skillset. 

If we look again at the draftees from Thursday night, this time focusing only on the eight big men, Roby fits in pretty nicely in a few areas. His 3-point clip is better than all but two players, his block percentage better than all but three, his defensive box plus/minus would have sat fifth in the group and his defensive rating would have been sixth. So when it comes to averages, Roby was pretty comparable to most of the bigs drafted when it comes to the defensive side of the ball. 

Where the next jump in his game will need to occur in 2018 in order to establish himself as a first-round talent will be on the offensive end.

Roby’s 3-point stroke is statistically great. His shooting mechanics are nice. What needs to improve is his comfort level on that end. Just from a talent standpoint, Roby could probably be the Huskers’ No. 2 option on offense. The 8.7 points he scored a year ago just has to improve. Per 40 minutes, he averaged 14.5 points, lower than any of the eight bigs drafted.

That starts with growing more comfortable with the ball in his hands. In the pick-and-roll game when he either catches it and takes one or two dribbles towards the basket or the pick-and-pop game where he’s just playing catch-and-shoot, Roby looks confident. But there are a handful of possessions each game where the ball gets kicked to Roby in the corner, he jab-steps and starts to drive. If that doesn’t beat his man, he’ll usually give one crossover dribble and if that doesn’t work either, he picks up his dribble and tries to pass it.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with saying “Okay, I didn’t beat my guy, find the open man,” but in most instances, Roby has an athleticism advantage over the guy guarding him. He should be able to consistently beat his man. Whether that means boosting the confidence to take one more dribble into a hook shot or an up-and-under near the hoop or adding a few dribble-drive moves to his game, Roby needs to work on his ability to separate. 

He’s already a not-so-fun matchup for opposing defenses with his 3-point shooting and athleticism to finish around the basket. If he can keep knocking down outside shots and start attacking closeouts to him, it’ll go a long way toward upping that point average. Now add that to an already steady defensive presence and scouts will be around plenty. If things work out and the opportunity is there, no one would blame the young man for testing the draft waters.

Isaac Copeland

Position: Forward | Height: 6-foot-9 | Class: Senior

Of the three Huskers, Copeland needs the biggest season to break into first-round territory. He is really good for Nebraska in a lot of areas, but there isn’t one thing he’s great at and his numbers just don’t reach the same realm as the guys taken this season.

Add him to the list of eight guys and Copeland would rank: last in rebound percentage, last in defensive rating, last in net rating, last in box plus-minus and second-to-last in offensive rating. And remember, half of the bigs taken went within the first five picks so this is really elite territory here, but best-case comparison for the big man would be to someone like Villanova’s Omari Spellman, the final pick of the first round, and even then, Copeland’s defensive metrics don’t match up.

The offensive output is similar but the efficiency is lower, the defensive metrics are worse and the rebounding isn’t at the same level. 

So let’s talk about the offensive output because Copeland’s biggest asset is his ability to put the ball in the basket. He averaged almost 17 points per-40 last season and shot a shade under 37 percent from beyond the arc. He scored 15 or more on 11 different occasions and had random scoring explosions where he popped off for 30 and 23 twice. The problem was he was off almost as often as he was on. Ten times he scored in double-digits. Good, not great.

The former Hoya looks fluid and comfortable on offense too, especially in the elbow-extended area where he’s really solid rising over the top of his defender and knocking down mid-range jumpshots. He was a safety valve for the Huskers on multiple occasions last year when the offense needed a bucket. But when your biggest asset is your scoring, you just can’t fade away as much as Copeland did. 

He wasn’t 100 percent healthy going through last offseason and that doesn’t appear to be the case again for this year, so maybe Copeland can improve on 2017’s output. Perhaps the up-and-down play can be attributed to conditioning the same way Palmer’s close was and if that’s the case, Copeland becoming a nightly scoring threat would do wonders for his draft stock. Anything close to a 20-10 season from him likely changes the narrative a bit but if his 13-and-6 junior year bumps up to, say, a 15-and-7 senior year, it’s probably not moving the needle much.

The other factor working against the stretch big is his age. Copeland will be a fifth-year senior for Nebraska in 2018 and most NBA scouts probably aren’t going to see a ton of upward mobility in his game.

We still have a long way to go before the new college basketball season gets underway and though each guy listed here has areas they need to improve, Nebraska is in a good spot to end a nearly two-decades-long draft drought next season.

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