The Big East is in a rebuilding year. On a lower level, so is the Atlantic 10.
But come hell or high water – it’s a Western phrase, so maybe it doesn’t matter – a handful of players who competed locally over the weekend will find themselves in and or around the NBA. Having the best training facility in the city, the Brooklyn Nets had the pleasure of hosting some of the esteemed programs in their Sunset Park based training facility at HSS this past week.
Also, the Atlantic 10 actually took place in Barclays Center, returning for the first time since 2016. The conference has a deal to host their tournament at Barclays every year through 2024, except for 2022, when the ACC returns. (The A-10 was at Barclays from 2013 to 2016.)
As for the Big East, their playoffs are always at Madison Square Garden. There weren’t many NBA level prospects competing, but after all, the Nets likely won’t add more than three or four rookies.
We’ve just gotta prepare.
F Obadiah (Obi) Toppin, Dayton
Many of you haven’t heard of Toppin, so we’ll start there. The recently turned 21-year-old redshirt freshman was the Atlantic 10’s Rookie of the Year. He averaged 14.4 points on 67% shooting, 5.6 rebounds and he made 11-of-21 from three this season. Small sample but promising.
The 6’9” forward’s made a name for himself due to his freakish athleticism and productivity for one of the A-10’s best teams. Although they lost to Colorado – shoutout to Spencer Dinwiddie – in round one of the N.I.T. on Tuesday, he’s on NBA teams’ draft boards. (He had 21 points in the loss.)
He was an academic redshirt last season after spending a prep year in Baltimore at Mount Zion Prep. Toppin is a product of Ossining High School in Westchester County and played his AAU ball with the New York Lightning and the Queens-based New York Jayhawks locally. He also played in the Brooklyn-based Unsigned Hype Senior Showcase before college.
Will he enter? That is unknown for now.
But here he is scrimmaging with Carmelo Anthony, CJ McCollum, Enes Kanter, JR Smith and others in New York City. His presence is felt at the 1:00 mark.
Now for the Big East.
F Eric Paschall, Villanova
(And a note on Phil Booth)
Currently, Paschall is the highest regarded prospect in the Big East. Winning the Big East Title and being named to the All-Tournament team.
Paschall is pegged as a late first on Draft Express and an early second on nbadraft.net. The Sleepy Hollow, New York native, who played at Fordham before transferring to Villanova after one season, has improved tremendously, going from 7.2 points as a sophomore to 16.5 as a senior
Don’t just take it from the numbers, take it from Jay Wright.
“He has really improved in each area of the game, but mostly in being a playmaker, where he was always a great scorer and always a great defensive player, great rebounder. We now put the ball in his hands to be a playmaker, where he can score, he can get to the foul line, and he can get other people shots,” he said of Paschall, who averages over two assists per game as a big, after beating Xavier in the semis.
“So the ability to do everything. He can guard every position. You know, I think his game actually fits the NBA game better than college. I think he’s probably going to be a better NBA player than college, and he’s a hell of a college player.”
And from Xavier head coach Travis Steele, who also credits Big East Tournament MVP and fellow senior Phil Booth, ‘Nova’s starting point guard who averages nearly 19 points per game.
“They’re well coached,” Steele said. “Phil Booth and Eric Paschall are First Team All-League guys. They have an ability to make tough shots, make plays. Those guys are hard to handle. Starts with their leadership. You can tell on the floor. They’re winners. They’re used to winning, right? They’ve been in positions like this a lot during their career.”
Booth isn’t viewed as an NBA prospect yet, but a continued run could help. He turns 24 on New Year’s Eve, but his experience makes him a prime candidate for a potential two-way or exhibit 10 spot in the NBA.
Paschall, Booth and the Wildcats enter the NCAA Tournament as a number-six seed in the South Region, and will host number-11 Saint Mary’s, who defeated Gonzaga to win the West Coast Conference.
G Markus Howard, Marquette
The Big East Player of the Year is not even 6-feet tall, but he’s averaging a league-best 25 points per game, and he’s a career 43.6% three-point shooter from deep.
Howard is gaining more national acclaim, and has a highly anticipated duel with expected top-three draft selection Ja Morant of Murray State in a classc 5-12 NCAA Tournament bout on Thursday afternoon.
Nbadraft.net recently moved Howard into 40th overall in their mock, and into the top-40 on their big board. This season, Howard has hung 30 or more points on 10 occasions, including three games of 45 or more and a 53-point showing at Creighton on January 9.
In the Big East semis – where Marquette fell to Seton Hall – Howard was held to a season worst 1-of-15 shooting, but managed to earn 24 free throw attempts, converting 18, and still finishing with 21 points in the 81-79 loss.
“Markus is a phenomenal player, can hurt you in so many different ways,” offered Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard. “You can tell by how many times he gets to the free-throw line. He uses his body great off pick-and-rolls.”
As expected, coach Steve Wojciechowski had some high praise for his team leader as well.
“Markus is Big East Player of the Year for a reason and it’s not just because he can score. You’re talking about a complete player who every team’s game plan is geared to stop him. What he’s been able to do this year is fantastic. It’s hard when you command that much attention from a defense to make a great decision every time, especially when the ball is in your hand a lot, but he’s done that more times than not. I mean, the vast majority of the time, or else he wouldn’t be Big East Player of the Year,” he said.
“I always expect to see the best of Markus because I have an incredible amount of belief in him, but I’ve also been in the game of college basketball long enough to know you’re not going to pitch a perfect game every time you step on the mound. Cy Young winners don’t go undefeated. So you’re going to have games where you’re not at your best. But, I mean, there’s nobody I’d trade him for. Come on, this kid’s a great player, and he’s a great teammate, and his teammates are great with him.”
G Myles Powell, Seton Hall
Powell just balls, and he’s a pain in the ass for everyone guarding him. He is not yet surfacing in many NBA talks, but Seton Hall’s current run to the NCAA Tournament, fresh off a Big East Championship appearance, will only help.
The Trenton, New Jersey native continues to progress and terrorize the conference.
Patrick Ewing – now the head coach at Georgetown – spoke glowingly of the 6’2” junior after Seton Hall blew out his Hoyas in the quarterfinals.
“He’s a very good player,” Ewing said. “This is the second time he’s had a great game -- the third time he’s had a good game against us. He got hot in the first half. We did everything. We tried to trap him. It didn’t work. He was able to drive away from the trap. In the second half, we switched it a little bit, and that kind of slowed him down a little bit. He got hot in the first half, and everything he shot, he made.”
Powell and Seton Hall – a 10-seed – will play Wofford in round one of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday. A win could pit the Pirates against number-two seed Kentucky, whom they defeated at Madison Square Garden on December 8 of 2018, behind Powell’s 28 points, in many ways, his introduction nationally.
“I think the country already knows him, but I think they’re going to get an even bigger taste next week on the national stage,” said Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard. “It’s more fun being around him to be honest with you, than watching him play because he’s a better kid off the court than he is – well, most of the times. Better kid off the court than he is on. He’s such a pleasure to be around. He’s such a pleasure to coach. He listens. And I think that’s why he’s come from a good player to a great player.”
G Shamorie Ponds, St. John’s
We touched on Ponds and teammate Mustapha Heron in November after the Legends Classic at Barclays Center.
What’s new? Not a ton, to be honest. Ponds is now No. 44 on ESPN/Draft Express’ mock, and No. 59 on nbadraft.net. He’s also generally viewed as a possible second rounder if he decides to leave before his senior season. (He did enter the draft last season, and worked out with the Nets, among other teams.)
The 6’1” Brooklynite was the Preseason Player of the Year in the Big East. He finished with 31 points and nine assists across two games in the Big East Tournament, including a win over DePaul and a blowout loss to Marquette.
His scoring is down, but he’s improved as a floor general.
“First and foremost, you’re looking at one of the most, for three years as a St. John’s player, maybe the best across the board,” said head coach and former NBA star Chris Mullin. “Each and every year, he’s gotten much better. He’s got a lot of God-given instincts and ability, but he works hard at his game. I think his defense has improved. I know for sure his playmaking and his ability to affect the game not just by scoring. I was always told good players do for themselves and great ones do for others. He’s making players around him better, which is a compliment to him and his teammates are feeding off of him.”
Marquette’s Wojciechowski said much of the same, and spoke of the importance of trying to limit him in space, where he is one of college basketball’s best.
“I thought we didn’t allow him to play in space because, when he’s allowed to play in space, obviously, he’s a great player. He hurt us, but I think he’s averaging 22 points a game. So he must have hurt more than just us,” said Wojo.
G/F Justin Simon, St. John’s
Simon’s name isn’t brought up a ton regarding the NBA, but he was recently named the Big East’s Defensive Player of the Year, which is good for his pro prospects. The 6’5” guard is a St. John’s staple, even though his numbers have dipped – which could be attributed to the additions of Heron and L.J. Figueroa.
Sure, his steals are down, but defense is measured beyond steals and blocks. It’s uncommon but not impossible for defensive specialists to find a way into the NBA despite having college numbers that cause hyperventilation, like Patrick Beverley, Danny Green, Avery Bradley and Bruce Bowen.
Simon – a P.R.H.J. (Post Rondae Hollis-Jefferson) University of Arizona transfer – also earned high praise for high Big East Tournament work on DePaul guard Max Strus, who averages 19 points per game as a sophomore.
Strus was 10 days removed from dropping 43 on St. John’s, and finished with 14 on 4-of-12 shooting, scoring only eight when guarded by Simon.
“I just told Justin ‘last game (Strus) had seven at halftime,’ said Mullin on what he told Simon ahead of the Big East Tournament opener. “Justin picked up a few fouls. When he came out, (Strus) got going.
“I was running him off the line just trying to make him uncomfortable,” added Simon.
On his defensive performances overall, Mullin insists that Simon’s ‘had some great ones,’ and put the effort against Strus and DePaul right up there.
“To maintain that type of mental focus, physical exertion, that’s why he’s the Defensive Player of the Year. I was telling you guys that a little bit here and there, how good he had been playing. I think it shows up when you play against a guy like Strus and Markus Howard and things like that, but he’s done stuff, you know, in games where maybe he didn’t shine as much,” he said.
“But he’s a typical lockdown defender. When you think of a long athletic guy that can run guys off screens, take away the catch and shoot, play guys off the dribble, play guys in the post. So, I mean, it’s a well-deserved reward, and we rely on him a lot.”
St. John’s, an 11-seed in the NCAA Tournament, will face fellow 11-seed Arizona State in a West Region play-in game, which will take place on Wednesday night at 9:10 p.m. in Dayton, Ohio.
Other names to keep in mind: Both Georgetown center Jessie Govan and DePaul’s Max Strus entered the NBA Draft last season before returning to school. Govan, a senior, and Strus, a sophomore, both project as undrafted, though, Govan did workout with NBA teams last year, including the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks. Govan will play in the NIT with the Hoyas, beginning with Harvard on Wednesday.