NBA Draft Preview: Keyontae Johnson and Markquis Nowell

Senior guard Markquis Nowell celebrates the victory over the Oklahoma Sooners on senior night. Nowell recorded a double-double with 11 points and 10 assists in his final game in Bramlage Coliseum. (Archive photo by Avery Johnson | Collegian Media Group)

On Thursday night, 58 names will be called at Barclays Center in Brooklyn for NBA Draft selection. There’s a chance two Kansas State Wildcats, Keyontae Johnson and Markquis Nowell, will be among those selected. 

Keyontae Johnson

Kansas State forward Keyontae Johnson battles for the ball against Texas Christian University at Bramlage Coliseum on Feb. 7, 2023. Kansas State won 82-61. (Nichole Maryse Harris | Collegian Media Group)

Johnson’s draft stock looks to be the highest between the two Wildcat stars. After his one season at K-State, Johnson declared for the draft and was fit to play at the NBA Combine. At the combine, Johnson measured in at 6-foot-4 with a 7-foot wingspan. The height measurement likely hurt his stock as he likes to play around the basket. On the other hand, there may be some who place more emphasis on his impressive wingspan. Arkansas’s Jordan Walsh and Overtime Elite’s highly-touted twins, Amen and Ausar Thompson — all 6-foot-5 ¾ — were the only other players under 6-foot-6 to measure with a wingspan of at least seven feet.

With his medical clearance, the only other noticeable negative for Johnson’s stock is his age. Entering the draft as a 23-year old, Johnson is one of the oldest players looking to have their name called. This likely pushes Johnson outside of the first round and places him as a “low-ceiling, high-floor” prospect. His draft rankings from experts follow that thought process. ESPN ranks Johnson as the 45th prospect in the draft and the 11th-ranked small forward. The Ringer’s Draft Expert, Kevin O’Connor, ranks Johnson as his 44th prospect on his Big Board and has him selected at the 45th pick to the Memphis Grizzlies.

In his evaluation, O’Connor explains Johnson’s strengths and weaknesses as a prospect. He describes him as a “burly wing with the baseline skills to be a solid role player, plus a wiggly game off the dribble.” In greater detail, O’Connor highlights his strengths as a driver and weaknesses in decision making with the ball. He also points out that Johnson shot 45.2% on catch-and-shoot 3’s but only 29.6% of his dribble jumpers according to Synergy Sports

That shooting statistic greatly helps explain Johnson’s future NBA role. Johnson will be drafted to serve as a role-player who plays in a system where he will likely be given simple decisions to make and won’t have the ball in his hands often, a role similar to former Kansas Jayhawk and newly-crowned NBA Champion Denver Nugget Christian Braun. In the end, Johnson will likely be called late into Thursday night. Look for Johnson to be drafted into a ready-made situation by a team looking to contend for the 2024 NBA Championship with just a piece or two missing.

Markquis Nowell

Kansas State guard Markquis Nowell drives towards the hoop against Texas Christian University at Bramlage Coliseum on Feb. 7. K-State won 82-61. (Archive photo by Nichole Maryse Harris | Collegian Media Group)

Nowell’s stock falls way short of his Wildcat teammate. Nowell’s name is omitted from nearly every single NBA mock draft by experts covering the draft. ESPN ranks Nowell as its 81st prospect and the 16th ranked point guard in the draft.

The reason for Nowell’s low ranking is quite obvious and continues to be something that follows him: his height. Nowell was not invited to the NBA Draft Combine but did participate at the G League Elite Camp where he measured at 5-foot-6 ¾ with just over a six foot wingspan. While that may have further hurt his draft stock, just like during the season, Nowell’s play stood out over his height. Sports Illustrated’s Kevin Sweeny named Nowell as a standout in five-on-five at the camp. Nowell recorded a statline of 11 points and 8 assists, again catching eyes with his highlight-reel performance.

Nowell has been busy after the camp. He worked out or had scheduled workouts with at least nine teams, including the Phoenix Suns and the Los Angeles Clippers, both of whom have been in title contention in recent years.

Nowell’s hypothetical role on these teams or any other teams would be simple to figure out but hard to produce. Multiple small guards with college success have succeeded in finding an NBA role in recent years, but none with the height of Nowell. Former Purder Boilermaker Carsen Edwards serves as the best comparison. Edwards’ build is similar to Nowell, standing at 5-foot-11 with a similar frame. Edwards was a star at Purdue, leading the team to the 2019 Elite Eight, averaging 34.75 points in the four games. After his run, Edwards played three years in the NBA and is now playing in Europe. 

Nowell would look to have a similar role to Edwards’ short stint in the NBA but would need to surpass him. His shooting and flashy passing make him a switch-of-pace guard off the bench who puts defenses in different situations. Even as a known hard-nosed defender, Nowell’s largest obstacle will be on the defensive end, guarding much bigger competition with a substantial skill gap compared to those Nowell guarded in college.

Even with his in-season performance and his G League Elite Camp performance, Nowell will likely not have his name called in Brooklyn with obvious limitations of his size and similarly being one of the oldest players in the draft alongside Johnson at 23 years old. Nowell’s chance to shine can come at the NBA Summer League. He will receive the opportunity to play among other young NBA players/prospects in hopes of catching the eye of a team looking for a distributing point guard and a pesky perimeter defender.