In the words of general manager Mitch Kupchak, the Charlotte Hornets “scrambled” to trade the 45th pick along with a newly-acquired future second and move up to select Nebraska guard Bryce McGowens 40th overall in the 2022 NBA Draft.
McGowens was 25th in the high school class of 2021 RSCI rankings and spent one year at Nebraska before turning pro. Playing alongside his older brother, Trey, he led the Cornhuskers in scoring at 16.8 points per game while hauling in 5.2 rebounds, though the team was light on supporting talent and finished 13th in the Big Ten with a record of 10-22 (4-16 in conference play).
Ahead of his summer league debut this evening, which Jon has previewed, we’re going to highlight the discussion with some McGowens film from the Rutgers-Nebraska game on Jan. 29 in which he shot 14-18 from the line and 3-7 from deep on the way to 29 points.
Even as a thin, 179-pound freshman in a major conference, McGowens lived at the free throw line. Frequently utilizing his length and change-of-pace speed as a ball-handler along with smooth gather steps and footwork while navigating traffic in the paint, McGowens ranked 15th in the country with 162 made free throws (second in the Big Ten). He attempted 7.6 free throws per-40 and converted on 83.1 percent of his 195 total attempts. That’s an impressive level of savviness and aggression for a teenager and it resulted in a lot of easy looks or bailout free throws following poor offensive possessions.
Acceleration and deceleration are the athletic traits that make McGowens’ game pop, but he’s still pretty explosive and is very coordinated as a ball-handler and finisher, showing the ability to adjust to contests at the last moment and finish layups over and around defenders. Standing 6-foot-7 with nearly a 6-foot-9 wingspan, McGowens has an intriguing package of size, athleticism, rim pressure and contact finishing to build off of as a scorer in the NBA.
McGowens uses that stop-and-go speed well when he rises up above contests at the second level, but the finishing efficiency wasn’t there in college. He shot 32.6 percent on two-point jumpers and 27.4 percent from three, but the bright side is that his mechanics don’t need work on the surface. The jumper has a solid base even off the bounce, and he looks balanced and upright at the point of release. There’s some sort of disconnect between his jumper and set shots like free throws and open catch-and-shoot threes though, as he shot a high percentage at the line and deep threes look pretty clean when he’s given space.
It’s tough not to believe a finisher, free throw shooter and shot creator of his caliber won’t become at least an average floor-spacer in due time. To go with the solid mechanics, the space he creates for himself on mid-range pull-ups is promising.
The team context McGowens played in at Nebraska was among the worst of the consensus first-round prospects in this class, which exacerbated his underwhelming passing ability. He totaled 43 assists and 65 turnovers in 31 games, though the Cornhuskers had little shooting around him with only two teammates shooting above 36 percent from downtown on the season. To boot, there wasn’t really a true point guard on the roster and McGowens was at the top of the scouting report each night. Defenses keyed on him and he wasn’t able to punish them with efficient scoring or playmaking. Summer league could be a great venue to let him work through more on-ball reps.
Defense is an issue right now for McGowens, but it’s not often are thin teenagers consistently good defenders in the Big Ten these days. He has the size, verticality and lateral mobility to develop into a plus defender at his position once he adds strength with the potential to switch down and ensnare smaller guards with his long arms.
The motor was a bit inconsistent throughout the year and even within the game we’re using for film, but as he began to heat up in the second half, the defensive effort ticked up. Some scorers’ defense heats up in tune with their offense, and I think McGowens has a bit of that in him right now. It’ll be interesting to monitor his performance as a defender this season given that he’s still thin and doesn’t generate a ton of steals or blocks. Bigs in the NBA and G League are going to be able to crush him with hard screens in the early-going.
I wanted to save this take for the end in case nobody was reading anymore, but McGowens has surpassed James Bouknight in the Hornets prospect rankings for me. If both were in the 2022 draft class, McGowens would’ve ranked higher on my big board for a few reasons. As prospects, they have a lot of the same pros and cons — clear NBA athleticism, slashing and finishing potential that are held back by an inefficient jumper despite solid form, subpar playmaking and inconsistent defense. But McGowens has a noticable size advantage, and if his frame fills out he’s going to be more positionally versatile than his backcourt mate. It’s tough to believe in either player as a shooter outside of flashes, and regardless of how they develop as playmakers their role in that regard will be diminished when next to LaMelo Ball. Bouknight will be 22 coming off of an underwhelming rookie season (though not entirely his fault) on opening night while McGowens will not have turned 20 yet. If he strings together a few impressive summer league games, it wouldn’t surprise me to see McGowens quickly graduate from the Two-Way deal and earn one of the currently open roster spots.
It’s going to be crucial to pair Ball with a guard that can put pressure on the rim and open up pockets in the defense for him to attack with his jumper or generational passing ability, and McGowens has that in droves, along with equal potential to shoot or defend as Charlotte’s other young guard. If development continues to be a focus, young players pan out and the front office can plug the holes on the wing in upcoming drafts and offseasons, McGowens is the best fit for the backcourt of the future.