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Jarrett Culver’s NBA draft stock is soaring — maybe into the top five

Jarrett Culver torched Isaiah Livers, in back, Charles Matthews and Michigan for 22 points in the Sweet 16. (Harry How/Getty Images)
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ANAHEIM, Calif. — The basketball scouting industrial complex is so far-reaching that it has unearthed NBA all-stars everywhere from the minor leagues of Greece to a Basketball Without Borders camp in South Africa.

No system is perfect, though, and occasionally overlooked prospects manage to burst onto the scene in the run-up to the draft. Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver, one of the fastest-rising 2019 lottery prospects, fits that bill to a tee.

The 20-year-old guard hails from Lubbock, a northwest Texas city whose most accomplished NBA product is Craig Ehlo, the famed Michael Jordan foil. Texas Tech, the hometown university, has produced just two first-round picks in the past 50 years. Meanwhile, Culver’s personal story is similarly nondescript: The pastor’s son was a three-star high school prospect and was deployed as a complementary player during his freshman season.

While not a blue blood program, Texas Tech has been an ideal proving ground. Coach Chris Beard has filled out an experienced roster by aggressively pursuing transfers, a strategy that has delivered the country’s top-ranked defense and the first Final Four trip in school history.

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Culver has flourished as the younger brother in the locker room. His senior teammates have delighted in schooling him in shooting competitions, and Beard joked that he “made Culver go to bed when we got back” from an evening practice in between tournament games.

The ribbing comes from a place of affection and respect. Culver has emerged as the Red Raiders’ leading scorer during his breakout sophomore season, leading the team in points (18.9), rebounds (6.4) and assists (3.8) to earn Big 12 player of the year honors.

Few, if any, projected lottery picks have aided their stock during March Madness as much as Culver, who joins Duke’s R.J. Barrett in the top tier of wing prospects. After scoring 29 points in the opening round against North Kentucky, he rebounded from an off shooting night against Buffalo to drop 22 points against Michigan in the Sweet 16. Then, in a tense Elite Eight victory over Gonzaga, Culver posted a team-high 19 points, six rebounds and three steals.

Come June, Culver’s NBA-ready frame and knack for creative finishes could make him a top-five pick. “He has a pro body and he’s spent a lot of time in the weight room,” Beard said. “He can beat you with the pass, shot or rebound. And he studies the game, both his opponents and what’s going on in the NBA. It wouldn’t surprise me if he’s seen Gonzaga play 10 or 15 times this year.”

The Wolverines got an up-close view of Culver’s potential Thursday. He powered through defenders for tough finishes, knocked down faceup jumpers, flipped in reverse layups and found seams for controlled drives. Although not known as the most explosive athlete, Culver sealed the blowout with a crowd-pleasing two-handed dunk.

Two days later, Culver acquitted himself well in head-to-head matchups with Gonzaga’s lottery prospects, Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke. While he struggled at times from the field, Culver regularly attacked the hoop out of isolation situations and converted clutch free throws down the stretch. Afterward, he giddily bounced as Beard cut down the net.

“Watching some of the greatest players has improved my game a lot,” said Culver, who was named the West Region’s most outstanding player. “I added my midrange, post-up game, jabs and stuff this year. That’s from watching a lot of Jayson Tatum, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan. There’s a lot to improve on.”

Of course, NBA scouts have a list of nitpicks. Given that his game is predicated more on craft than raw athleticism, they worry about his propensity for committing turnovers. Culver is also a less advanced ballhandler and a less effective shot-creator than Barrett, who was a blue-chip prospect in high school.

Yet there is a school of thought that suggests Culver’s narrow offensive game could be a feature rather than a flaw. Because Culver isn’t accustomed to dominating, he might be headed for a smoother transition to the NBA. “He will fit better [than Barrett] next to a young point guard because he won’t be playing tug-of-war for control of the offense,” one scout said.

That logic could appeal to projected top-five lottery teams who already have lead guards, such as the Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks. Culver’s fans in the scouting community picture him functioning as a supporting scorer and quality defender, a la Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton.

In the afterglow of the win over Michigan, Beard cheekily asked Culver whether he was having fun. The future pro replied in the affirmative, prompting one more recruiting pitch on behalf of his hometown. “Then we should do this again next year,” Beard said, flashing a self-deprecating smile to the media.

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