The NBA draft will begin later today, and Xavier’s Naji Marshall is likely to hear his name called. This isn’t a comprehensive breakdown of where he’s projected to land, but NBC has him going to the Pacers at 54, CBS has him going 57th to the Clippers, NBA Draft Room places him at 51 to the Warriors, and the handsome and intelligent Matt Babcock - a credit to every demographic he represents - says Naji will head to New Orleans with the 39th pick.
Naji’s physical talents are evident, but not every 6’7” guy with a good wingspan is going to get drafted tonight. There’s a sense in which college basketball is an extended interview or audition for the next level, and Naji made three distinct cases for his future in the league in the three years he spent at Xavier. Here they are.
Freshman season: three-and-D guy
Naji came onto the scene as a role player in a stacked Xavier side, and he played that role to perfection. Without the responsibility of having to carry the load himself, he posted his most efficient offensive season, with an EFG% of 57.2% and an ORtg of 110.7. A lot of that came from being able to pick his own shots and get into spaces without the ball. Half of his made two-point jumpers and all of his made threes were off of assists; he demonstrated that he can be a viable catch-and-shoot threat if that’s the role he’s given.
Defensively, he already showed his versatility. He rebounded well on the defensive end and posted a career-high block rate to go with his always excellent steal percentage. He managed to stay out of foul trouble (3.1 fouls per 40 minutes) in a way that often eludes freshmen. Surrounded by players who had the skill set to free him up to do what he does well, he did exactly that.
Sophomore season: workhorse
Without reliable shooters around him to open up space on the floor, there’s no question Naji took a step back as a sophomore. One of the main results of this was that Naji had to dribble into a lot more shots; just a season after having three quarters of his jumpers assisted, he received assists on just 41% of them as a sophomore. His assist rate jumped from 12.7% to 18.5% (foreshadowing), but his EFG% dropped to 45.1%.
Despite his inconsistent offensive output, he showed he could carry a load while doing a lot of the dirty work for the team. His ability to crush the defensive glass (19.9% DReb%) and take on the opposing team’s best player on defense almost regardless of position allowed Xavier to run big or small lineups and force matchups on one end without losing anything on the other. He was able to handle all of that while still landing in the top ten in the Big East in minutes percentage, which is no mean feat.
Junior season: point forward
Naji took a good deal of flack last year, but... his final line looks pretty darn good. He posted a game line of 16.8/6.3/4.0. His ORtg was 100.6 and his EFG% was 49.6%, both of which were hovering right around national average. To be able to do that with a usage rate of 26.7% in one of the toughest leagues in the nation is not unimpressive, especially when you consider he’s a guy who thrives on having space on the floor but was surrounded by the 282-best three-point shooting team in the country.
With Quentin Goodin fighting through injuries that hampered his ability to consistently perform, Naji was asked to spend a lot more time with the ball in his hands. He responded by leading the team with an assist rate of 24.1%, placing him 223rd in the country. In the Big East he stepped it up to 24.9%, which was 6th in the league. Again, this is from a guy who boards like a decent power forward and can defend any spot on the floor. You can see what NBA GMs might find appealing by that package.
I don’t pretend to have my ear to the ground on what each NBA team needs, but it seems obvious to me that Naji has a role in the league. A lot of the scouting reports I’ve seen have said he’s a consistent jumper away from a long career, and I don’t think that jump is as insurmountable as some of the ink spilled regarding him might lead one to believe. He racked 35% of his threes as a freshman on a team that allowed him to catch and shoot. He is a career 72.5% free throw shooter, so his stroke isn’t some irretrievably broken mess. Given a little more room on the floor than the last two Xavier rosters afforded him, I think you’ll see him thrive.
Even if he doesn’t suddenly turn into Steph Curry, I think he’ll find a fit in the league. Trevon Bluiett has shown how hard it can be for a scorer - even an elite one - to find his way onto an NBA roster. On the other hand, Naji has a skill in his ability to defend hard against a variety of positions that is always in high demand and short supply.
Over his three years at Xavier, Naj laid out the case(s) for him getting to hear his name called tonight. He deserves it, and I hope it comes to fruition for him.