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UConn's Castle, Kentucky duo, Tennessee's Knecht headline the list of top guards in the NBA draft

John Calipari turned Kentucky into a factory for NBA talent, including 28 one-and-done players becoming first-round picks.

Now at Arkansas, Calipari's last crop with the Wildcats features two headlining guards in the NBA draft next week in Reed Sheppard and Rob Dillingham.

They're lottery prospects in the AP NBA Mock draft. They're part of a top tier featuring UConn's Stephon Castle, Tennessee's Dalton Knecht and international prospect Nikola Topic.

Here’s a look at the position:

Stephon Castle, UConn

STRENGTHS: The top-10 national recruit thrived as a combo guard with size for two-time reigning national champion UConn. The 6-foot-6, 210-pound freshman showed potential as a defender and with passing ability that could allow him to play some point. He can overpower smaller guards and he's a proven winner, content to work as a complementary fit (11.1 points per game) who didn't need shots to make an impact (fifth-most attempts for the Huskies) despite that lofty recruiting ranking.

“It's just been the perfect situation for him because his draft stock is right where they want it to be right now and he's won big,” coach Dan Hurley said before the title game. “You can still do both and everyone can win.”

CONCERNS: The jumper needs work. He made 20 of 75 3-pointers (.267) and must enhance his range to pull defenders outside.

Sheppard and Dillingham, Kentucky

STRENGTHS: When it comes to Sheppard, his shooting stroke stands out. He shot 52.1% from 3-point range while taking nearly 55% of his 263 shots from behind the arc. He made 83% of free throws and averaged 4.5 assists for potential at both guard spots. His elite potential as a catch-and-shoot threat fits today's game that values floor spacing and 3-point efficiency.

As for Dillingham, he's a quality scorer (15.2) and shooter (44.4% from 3) capable of creating for himself or for others with his quick first step and nifty ballhandling.

CONCERNS: Both are undersized, notably Dillingham — who doesn't turn 20 until January — checking in at 6-1 and 164 pounds at the combine.

Dalton Knecht, Tennessee

STRENGTHS: The first-team Associated Press All-American ranked eighth in Division I in scoring (21.7) and shot 45.8%, proving reliable off the bounce, on the move and from behind the arc (39.7%) at Tennessee. He got to the line (5.7 per game) and tested well at the combine on the shuttle run (No. 1 at 2.79 seconds) and lane agility (No. 2, 10.56).

The 6-5, 212-pound fifth-year player performed well in big games, including 37 points in a loss to eventual finalist Purdue in the NCAA Elite Eight — with coach Rick Barnes calling him afterward "a flamethrower."

“He loves the game. He works at it," Barnes said. "It’s going to be fun going forward to watch how much he improves.”

CONCERNS: It’s unclear whether his one season under Barnes to work on his defense answered questions about his athleticism and mobility. Now 23, he's old by NBA rookie standards.

Nikola Topic, Serbia

STRENGTHS: The 18-year-old has size (6-6, 203) and playmaking ability with vision to set up teammates and create his own shots. He can finish at the rim and is comfortable attacking the paint off the dribble, as well as pushing the ball in transition. He’s also a terrific passer who can find teammates in tight spots.

CONCERNS: Shooting range is a question. Topic is shooting roughly 30% on 3s in stints with two Adriatic league teams for the 2023-24 season. There’s also health concerns after he injured his left knee twice, with ESPN reporting earlier this month that he has a partially torn anterior cruciate ligament.

OTHERS OF NOTE:

—DEVIN CARTER: The 6-2, 193-pound first-round prospect averaged 19.7 points while shooting 47.3%, including 37.7% on 3s, for Providence. He tied for the best max vertical leap (42 inches) and standing vertical (35) at the combine.

—ISAIAH COLLIER: The 6-3, 205-pound Collier proved capable of attacking the rim with a strong frame and quickness in one season at USC, though the Trojans finished 15-18. He'll be one of the first point guards picked in this draft.

—JA’KOBE WALTER: The one-and-done Baylor guard and first-round prospect is a fearless launcher from behind the arc (57% of his 383 shots were 3s). He had 13 games with at least three made 3s but made just 34% for the season.

—JARED MCCAIN: The 6-2 freshman was Duke's toughest competitor and a quality shooter, shooting 41% on 3-pointers and nearly 89% on free throws. The first-round prospect had two 30-point showings in the NCAA Tournament.

—CARLTON “BUB” CARRINGTON: The 6-4, 195-pound freshman thrived at Pittsburgh, starting with an opening-night triple-double. The first-round prospect averaged 13.8 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.1 assists as a floor leader with all-around potential, particularly if he can improve his outside shot (32% on 3s).

—TYLER KOLEK: The 6-1, 197-pound point guard from Marquette is a steady floor leader and first-round prospect. He shot 39.3% from 3-point range and averaged 7.6 assists with 1.7 steals over the last two seasons.

—TERRENCE SHANNON JR.: The 6-6, 219-pound transfer (Texas Tech) blossomed as a scorer in two seasons at Illinois, ranking No. 3 scorer (23.0) last year. He is a downhill attacker who shot 36% on 3s and be a late first-rounder. He was recently found not guilty on a rape charge to resolve a legal case closely watched by scouts.

—BRONNY JAMES: There has been plenty of questions about the son of NBA icon LeBron James. Bronny was a McDonald's All-American who suffered cardiac arrest last July, though he returned to play one season at USC (averaging 4.8 points). There's potential and the name, though uncertainty about his draft spot and long-term future.

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AP NBA: https://apnews.com/hub/NBA

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