Giannis Antetokounmpo bucked the trend of exclusively high draft picks winning NBA MVP before Nikola Jokic took it to an entirely different level this past season.
As the 41st overall selection in 2014, Jokic became by far the lowest draft pick ever to win the award, surpassing Antetokoumpo and Steve Nash, who were both chosen 15th overall. Prior to Jokic and Antetokoumpo, the previous 10 MVPs were won by players picked between first overall (LeBron James, Derrick Rose) and seventh (Stephen Curry).
Jokic's MVP serves to further illustrate that big-time NBA talent can be found lower in the draft, and while most second round and undrafted players may not win any MVPs, they can still become regulars that make major contributions in the right situations.
This year's draft class has an elite first tier with the likes of Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley and Jalen Suggs, yet it also boasts some solid depth, with potential gems lurking into the second round or later.
Here's a look at five players that could outperform pre-draft expectations:
KESSLER EDWARDS - Pepperdine
One look at Edwards' statistics during his three seasons at Pepperdine and improvement and versatility jump off the page. After averaging 10 points and 5.6 rebounds in his 2018-19 freshman season, Edwards went up to 13.8 with 7.5 boards the following year, followed by a breakout campaign with 17.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and a career-best 49.1 field-goal percentage in 2020-21. That also included an 87.6 free-throw percentage that ranked among the best in the nation.
He earned first-team all-WCC honours and was named CBI Tournament MVP after Pepperdine defeated Coastal Carolina for the title. Edwards was one of six Division I players this past season to average at least 17 points and 6.5 rebounds while also making 45 three-pointers.
Edwards proved to be consistent from deep with a 38.7 percentage (148-for-378) during his time with the Waves, and any 6ft 8" player that can score, rebound and connect from long range will draw the interest of NBA teams. Add in Edwards' length and high-level defence and a first-round pick would seem to be a guarantee, but he's expected to drop into the second round or possibly go undrafted, mainly because he didn't play at a Power Six school and the long-held belief is that facing lesser competition in college is a detriment at the next level.
One of the knocks on Edwards is a funky hitch in his shot that makes him look as if he's almost shot-putting the ball toward the basket. Maybe a team could alter his shooting style at some point but that should not prevent him from being drafted.
Even if his offensive game fails to develop - and that seems unlikely - Edwards shouldn't have a problem guarding multiple positions in the NBA. He is quick enough to stick with smaller guards and forwards and is lanky enough to cope with bigger post players as well.
A minimal contributor off the bench would likely be where Edwards finds himself early in his NBA career, but he has enough upside as an on-ball defender with a developing perimeter game to potentially excel as a starter or regular rotation player in time.
JEREMIAH ROBINSON-EARL - Villanova
Robinson-Earl only spent two seasons at Villanova but received plenty of accolades in his brief tenure with the Wildcats. He was named Big East Freshman of the Year in 2019-20 and captured co-Big East Player of the Year honours this past season, leading the team with 15.7 points and 8.5 rebounds.
Jay Wright's program has produced a considerable amount of pro talent lately in Josh Hart, Saddiq Bey, Eric Paschall, Mikal Bridges and Donte DiVincenzo, with Robinson-Earl having an excellent opportunity to continue the Wildcats' success in the NBA.
While he does not project as a future All-Star due to average athletic ability, Robinson-Earl can do a lot of different things well and is a smart player with intangibles that NBA teams love to have on their roster. There may be other players with higher upsides that get drafted in the second round, but Robinson-Earl can score, rebound, guard multiple positions and plays with a relentless motor.
A more refined offensive game and the ability to shoot from long range more consistently would make Robinson-Earl a more appealing prospect, but he does have a soft touch and a smooth release from mid-range. He is comfortable playing low in the post, does not shy away from the physical side of the game and has great court vision with a knack for making the right play.
Much in the way that Draymond Green - a second-round pick himself - is utilised by the Warriors, Robinson-Earl could eventually fill a similar role for a team that has stars occupying other positions on the court.
JOE WIESKAMP - Iowa
Every year there are a few players that get a huge boost from the draft combine and chief among that group this season is Wieskamp. Before an impressive showing in Chicago, the Iowa sharpshooter was facing the possibility of going undrafted despite a stellar college career.
He averaged 14.8 points and 6.6 rebounds this past season and led all players in three-point accuracy, making 49.5 percent (51-for-103) of his attempts in Big Ten play in earning all-conference second team honours. Wieskamp was the only Division I player in the nation to total at least 400 points, 200 rebounds 70 three-pointers and 25 steals. He also made five three-pointers in six games in 2020-21, second most of any player from a major conference.
More than ever, teams are putting a premium on perimeter shooting and Wieskamp is among the best available in that department, as evidenced by his 41.2 percentage (184-for-447) from deep during his time at Iowa. At 6ft 7", he can use his size to take advantage of smaller defenders that get switched onto him and his mechanics are near flawless with a high release.
One knock on Wieskamp is his relative inability to create his own shot but as a good athlete with surprising jumping ability, he should be able to overcome that with experience at the next level.
Wieskamp has the skills and ability to provide instant offense off the bench and is the perfect floor spacer for today's game. His pure shooting stroke, combined with rebounding and defensive ability should make him a valuable contributor in the NBA for years to come.
JOSH CHRISTOPHER - Arizona State
Christopher is the classic story of a player whose stock drops due to an injury. Limited to just 15 games in his only season for Arizona State in 2020-21, the 6-foot 5, 215-pound guard is a high-risk, high-reward pick that has NBA athleticism with the ability to excel at both ends of the court.
A likely first-round selection before injuries and COVID protocols ended his season in February, Christopher's value took a hit, and he could fall into the middle part of the second round. That range is often the perfect time to take a gamble on an athletic player with skills that match well in the NBA, even if other parts of his game need work.
Christopher had a few exceptional games in his one college season, including a 28-point, 11-for-17 performance against then-No. 3 Villanova on November 26 in the championship game of the Empire Classic. That 28-point display was tied for the most points allowed by the Wildcats all season. Christopher ended up averaging 14.3 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.5 steals, and while he only shot 30.5 percent (18-for-59) from 3-point range, he did connect on 12-of-27 over his final seven games.
Guards with size that can get to the basket are always in demand and that's what Christopher does best. He is quick with excellent jumping ability and doesn't have a problem finishing through contact. Whether in transition or a half-court offense, Christopher is always a threat to soar to the hoop and create space for himself and his teammates. His defence may not be NBA-ready just yet, but his quickness and athleticism should in time make him a very good on-ball defender.
It's difficult to be a starting guard in today's pro game unless the 3-point shot is a big part of your arsenal and Christopher would need to work on that aspect of his game from the start. His mid-range shot is solid, but NBA defenders are far more difficult to overcome than those in college. He will also need to improve his shot selection and decision-making but that comes with experience and maturity.
AARON HENRY - Michigan State
Henry is arguably the best defender available in this class with his 6-foot 10 wingspan, instincts and versatility. His ability at that end of the court alone could make him a valuable piece, but he has the necessary skills to contribute on the offensive end as well.
Henry was named to the All-Big Ten third team after averaging 15.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks as a junior. He was the first Michigan State player to lead a team in points, rebounds and assists since assists were first recorded in 1975.
As the focal point, Henry basically dragged the Spartans into their 23rd straight NCAA Tournament with limited help from his team-mates this past season. Henry is excellent in the mid-range and his 3-point shot is better than he gets credit for. After shooting 9-for-43 (20 percent) from long range in the first 14 game of the 2020-21 season, Henry knocked down 39.5 percent (15-for-38) over the last 14 games.
While he is unlikely to wow anyone with his physical skills and is not yet a polished offensive player, Henry is more than capable of holding his own against NBA competition. His ball-handling, passing and shot creation are very good and his mid-range output compares favorably to current NBA players Khris Middleton and Jamal Murray when they were coming out of college.
A smart and unselfish player, Henry is an excellent value pick in the second round and projects as a rotation player in the NBA.