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5 players poised to outperform projected NBA draft slot

Julian Catalfo / theScore

The NBA draft can be a crapshoot. While teams hope to hit the jackpot and change the course of their futures, there's always an inherent risk of selecting a bust.

With that in mind, here's are five prospects who are on track to blow past their projected draft position by fitting into a mold or breaking through their expected archetype.

Reed Sheppard - Guard (Kentucky)

Every draft seems to have an anomaly, but Sheppard is one of the hardest to peg of any lottery pick in recent memory. He had one of the most efficient freshmen seasons of all time on both ends of the floor but is one of the shortest combo guards to enter the draft in years.

Sheppard became just the second freshman in the 21st century to average at least 12 points, four assists, and two steals a game while making 40% of his threes, joining future Hall of Famer Chris Paul. And Sheppard actually shot an astounding 52.1%.

The Kentucky native's 72.3% effective field-goal percentage on jump shots is nearly unmatched, with William & Mary's Connor Burchfield (2017-18) and Ohio State's Jon Diebler (2010-11) the only two to top his mark on over 175 attempts, per Synergy Sports' 17-year database.

That's before mentioning his defense - he became the first freshman in Basketball Reference's database to accumulate both a 4.5% steal rate and a 2.5% block rate in 900-plus minutes. His passing is also noteworthy - his 24.2% assist rate sits higher than every guard drafted in the top five since Ja Morant in 2019.

The only reason Sheppard isn't a surefire top-three pick is his size. The last player drafted who measured a standing reach shorter than 7-foot-9.5 was Tyler Ulis, the No. 34 pick in 2016. An All-Star hasn't measured that small since Isaiah Thomas and Kemba Walker were picked in 2012.

While Sheppard isn't a true point guard, his mix of elite shooting, tremendous defensive instincts, and potential on-ball growth should outweigh his noticeable negative. Especially on a team that can supply length on the court around him, Sheppard has the chance to become the draft's best player.

Isaiah Collier - Guard (USC)

Expectations were high for Collier, who entered last season as ESPN's No. 1-ranked high school recruit. But USC stumbled to a 15-18 record, and Collier struggled with shooting inefficiency and defensive effort, sinking his NBA draft stock. But previous highly touted players who were as productive in college didn't suffer:

Collier is far from a perfect prospect. He lacks off-ball activity on both ends of the floor, turned it over far too often, and only hit 67.3% of his free throws. USC's struggles raised questions over Collier's ability to impact winning. But his ability to make plays for himself and others with the ball in his hands is a highly coveted skill in today's NBA.

With good size, fantastic strength, and pro-level body control when contorting himself around the basket, Collier has a solid floor and will be able to keep defenses honest from Day 1. Turning into a more consistent shooter and more enthusiastic defender will allow him to blossom into the player that many of the previous highly touted recruits eventually became.

Zach Edey - Center (Purdue)

It's not necessary to use stats to make a case for Edey's college success. Few debate the two-time National Player of the Year's status as one of the greatest NCAA hoopers in the 21st century. However, there have been endless discussions about how the 7-foot-4 center will adapt to the next level.

Concerns always start with Edey's lack of foot speed and nonexistent 3-point shot. These are hallmarks of the modern NBA, which has moved away from traditional post-up big men.

Edey is by no means fast or quick, but he's made larger strides on that end than given credit for. He finished 44th out of 77 combine participants in the lane agility drill and 40th in the shuttle run, proving he's able to move his monstrous frame at a decent pace in quick bursts. His improved mobility showed out defensively at Purdue this season.

The shooting could also be heavily understated. Edey's utter dominance on the inside against college opponents meant he played almost strictly in the paint. Last year alone, he took 366 attempts on post-ups, versus two 3-pointers. But his 71.1% free-throw mark bodes well for his potential to hit outside jumpers at the pro level based on recent examples.

If Edey is even just passable defensively in space and can keep opponents honest with an occasional open 3-point make, he could be a highly effective role player for years in the NBA.

Tristen Newton - Guard (UConn)

After UConn's dominant run through the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row, starting center Donovan Clingan is touted as a top-five pick, wing Stephon Castle is a near-lock in the top 10, forward Alex Karaban spurned a likely selection to return to school, and sharpshooter Cam Spencer is climbing up draft boards. But what about the starting point guard for both of the Huskies' title runs who was the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player?

Newton's game isn't flashy, but he has few holes. He has a solid frame at 6-foot-3 with a 6-foot-7 wingspan, was one of the most prolific passers in college basketball, and is an effective rebounder and defender. Though his 32.1% mark from deep isn't eye-popping, his 44.1% clip on unguarded threes shows he's a more-than-capable shooter on a more spaced-out floor.

Newton's NBA niche could look similar to Indiana Pacers guard Andrew Nembhard, who was a second-round pick after two successful seasons as Gonzaga's point guard. Both have enough size to allow them to guard up, enough on-ball pop to be a lead playmaker, and are good enough shooters to keep defenses honest when playing alongside high-usage stars. Nembhard's success both with and without Tyrese Haliburton in the playoffs paints a picture of Newton's ceiling.

Pelle Larsson - Guard (Arizona)

Every franchise is looking for the next Derrick White this summer: a big guard who can handle the rock, is positionally versatile in defense, and is an elite shooter from long range. The answer to that conundrum is an underrated, potential second-rounder in Larsson, who's already spent the last three seasons playing that role with the Wildcats.

Larsson's greatest strength is his consistent shooting. He reached a career-high 42.6% mark from beyond the arc this season but also tallied at least a 60% true shooting clip for his fourth straight campaign. Josh Hart, Doug McDermott, and Steve Novak are the only drafted players in the last 20 years to do that four times. He's also grown leaps and bounds as a passer and as one of the bests testers at the combine in the speed drills. His 6-foot-8 wingspan gives him added defensive potential.

Larsson's lack of counting stats in a complementary role on nationally ranked Arizona teams shouldn't dissuade scouts. He's the perfect archetype for a successful role player in an ever-changing NBA that rewards offensive versatility and shooting.

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