This year’s Wisconsin Badgers basketball senior class has the opportunity to become one of the most accomplished in school history, if they are not already. Over the last three years, the Badgers have made three Sweet Sixteen’s, two Final Four’s, and one NCAA championship game. Of course, with on-court success comes off-court success, and some Badgers seniors have an opportunity to further their careers in the NBA after this season is finished. Three stand out as offering tools and skill sets that could offer benefits to NBA teams: forward Nigel Hayes, forward Vitto Brown, and guard Bronson Koenig. Let’s take a look at how each of them could find their way onto an NBA roster come next November.
Nigel Hayes, F
Nigel Hayes has become a university icon in Madison. Since he stepped on campus his freshman year, Nigel’s combination of personality and talent have entertained the Badgers faithful, and he has been an integral part of the team’s success over the last three years.
In his freshman year, Nigel operated almost exclusively out of the low post in a sixth man role. While he played a modest 17.4 minutes per game, he averaged 7.7 points and 2.8 rebounds on 51% shooting en route to being named the Big Ten’s Sixth Man of the Year. Nigel expanded on this success by developing a three-point jump shot heading into his sophomore year, and upon being inserted into the starting line-up, he posted averages of 12.4 points per game, 6.2 rebounds per game, and 2.0 assists per game on 49.7% shooting from the field and 39.6% from three-point land.
After his sophomore season, many viewed Hayes as a future lottery pick, as his newfound versatility led to him being exactly the type of player that thrives into today’s NBA. However, Nigel hit a bump in the road during his junior year, as he now was expected to be Wisconsin’s main offensive threat and drew the majority of attention from opposing defenses. In addition, he moved from the post to the wing, which did not do him any favors. While his points per game increased to 15.7, his shooting percentages decreased to 36.8% from the field and 29.3% from three, both a far cry from his impressive sophomore year numbers.
Thus far in his senior season, Nigel has focused much more on playing off of his strengths. This has led to him working much more as a facilitator of the offense, in addition to playing more out of the post. The results have generally been positive, and if Nigel can finish the season strong, he is in good position to be on an NBA roster.
Nigel offers NBA teams the most value through his versatility. He is a gifted passer, but also can use a bevy of shifty moves to score on the block. His skillset seems to be a lite version of Draymond Green. While he doesn’t excel overwhelmingly in any one area, he is good at a little bit of everything. He will need to continue to develop his outside shot, because without this, defenses will lay off him on the perimeter and he will not be able to get to the rim and draw fouls as he does so effectively. Don’t expect Nigel to be a first round pick unless he absolutely goes off down the stretch, but he should get his shot in the second round.
Bronson Koenig, G
Koenig has faced an uphill battle to the NBA during his time at Wisconsin. While he has been a significant contributor and has taken on the role as the Badgers’ go-to scorer over the last two seasons, he still lacks the athleticism and quickness that the majority of NBA guards possess. This puts him at a big disadvantage. However, I believe there still is a path to “the league” for Koenig. It will require finding the perfect fit for his specific skill-set.
Koenig offers superior shooting ability, which gives him value in today’s NBA as it gravitates more and more towards relying on the three-point shot. Over the last three seasons (starting with his sophomore year), Koenig has shot 40.5%. 39.0%, and 40.3% from three-point range. After seeing some of the deep threes he has hit with consistency this year, I believe that his shot will translate well to the NBA. Furthermore, Koenig is great at creating his own shot, and has an uncanny ability to knock down shots off the dribble. Any team looking for an offensive spark off the bench could find that in Koenig.
The areas where Koenig will need to improve the most are his defense and his ability to penetrate off the dribble. While Koenig is great from outside, he still rarely drives to the hoop, and this could put him at a disadvantage compared to his competition for a roster spot. Koenig is a prolific free throw shooter (currently shooting 87.9% on the year), and if he does not get inside and draw fouls, that aspect of his game goes to waste. On defense, Koenig needs to work on his lateral quickness. Guards are only going to get quicker in the NBA, and Koenig cannot afford to be a defensive liability.
If Koenig can work on these weaknesses, I think he could carve out a niche on an NBA roster. It will take a combination of luck and hard work, but I believe he will get his shot to become an NBA player.
Vitto Brown, F
As crazy as it sounds, I think that out of these three players, Vitto Brown possesses the best chance at sticking on an NBA roster. After reading that sentence that must be shocking to some of you, I assure you that I came upon this conclusion logically, and I will show you why.
From a statistical perspective, Brown will not jump out at you as an NBA player. After averaging 9.7 points per game and 5.0 rebounds in his junior season, Brown is only averaging 7.9 points and 3.9 rebounds in his senior year thus far. Additionally, Brown is shooting 33.8% this year from three-point range, compared to his 40.0% clip last year.
However, Brown possesses the skill-set that many NBA teams are now looking for in a big man off the bench. Brown stands at 6’8”, 235 lbs., so he could hold his own as a power forward in the NBA. Brown also has improved his athleticism, and has begun to attack the rim off the dribble. Most importantly, Brown has a pure three point shooting stroke. While his decreased shooting percentage may not seem like a plus, he actually is shooting at a better clip at this point in the season than he was last year, when he was shooting 25.5% as of January 21st. As the Badgers offense continues to develop, more open looks will begin to surface for Brown, and that shooting percentage will climb much like it did last year.
Some NBA Draft analysts were predicting Brown to be a second round pick in this year’s draft prior to the season starting; however, none of them list him there now. While I doubt he will go in the NBA Draft, I think that there is almost a 100% chance an NBA team adds him to their summer league roster, and when they do, I believe they will like what they see enough to keep him, much like the Sacramento Kings with former Badgers’ bench player Duje Dukan.