The NCAA regular season has ended and March Madness begins soon. We have only a few games left to watch out favorite NBA draft prospects play real basketball before the hype builds toward the draft. Normally in this space, we take a look at rising and falling draft stock from players around the country. We’ve seen Romeo Langford and Keldon Johnson struggle while Nickeil Alexander-Walker and DeAndre Hunter have risen into the lottery.
Today we’re focusing on just one player, one you might not have heard of previously: Utah State Freshman of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, Neemias Queta. Queta is a mammoth center for the Aggies, and he absolutely transformed his team’s season. Utah State went 8–10 in the Mountain West last season and returned mostly the same roster. They were picked to finish 9th in conference. Instead, they beat preseason darling Nevada in the final week to win the conference. The big difference from last year’s product on the court to this year? Neemias Queta.
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Queta is a defensive wrecking ball, especially in a mid-major conference where size and athleticism are at a premium. He leaps off the screen, a man among boys. With Queta protecting the paint, Utah State ranked top five in two-point percentage all season. Queta has six games with 4+ blocks. He set the all-time Utah State record for blocks in a season — on February 5th, over a month ago. Queta held opponents to 37% from the field and 42% around the basket. According to Basketball Reference, Queta ranks top five among qualified freshmen in block percentage, defensive rating, defensive win shares, and defensive box plus-minus. There’s only one other freshman that ranks top-five in even three of those categories, and his name is Zion.
Queta stands 6'11 with a 7'4 wingspan and a mammoth 9'6 standing reach. That puts him about the same size as DeAndre Jordan and Andre Drummond, longer than Clint Capela or Joel Embiid, short of only the true giants, Boban Marjanovic and Rudy Gobert. Take a look at how he absolutely swallows this opponent who had the audacity to try to dunk over Queta. This dude is 6'9 and Queta meets him almost 11 feet into the air and just ends him.
On offense, Queta is very active and tends toward a more traditional big man role in that he likes to post up and demand the ball. It’s a role he obviously won’t have much in the modern NBA, but Quta has a useful drop stop, soft hands, and a nice right hand hook finish, and he looks skilled enough to punish smaller players on a mismatch. I like that Queta constantly makes himself available on offense. Even if he doesn’t get the ball, he makes the defense work hard and occupies their rim protector. Queta is also an improving and willing passer out of the post. He can see over any opponent and has shown nice improvement as a passer in conference, making quick, comfortable reads. He can also dribble a little, enough. He has nice timing on tip-ins, and he looks like a rim wrecker who should be useful rolling to the rim on lobs, even if his teammates don’t seem to find him very often. I don’t love Queta’s free throw stroke, all legs really, but he’s made a couple threes this year so perhaps the shot can improve. It probably won’t be a feature.
In 2019, Queta’s offensive role will be to set screens, roll to the rim, and finish there and get offensive rebounds. He looks more than capable. He’s not going to be a unicorn offensively like Karl-Anthony Towns or Kristaps Porzingis, hitting from outside with regularity, but those guys are called unicorns for a reason. Obviously, defense is the real story here.
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I really like Queta’s defensive instincts. He typically does a good job going straight up on rebounds and defense and doesn’t often go for the pump fake, instead using length and verticality to bother shots. That’s helped Queta stay out of foul trouble more as the season has gone on, too. Queta has nice reaction instincts, timing his jumps well on blocks. He rarely chases blocks and does a great job both blocking shots and affecting the ones he doesn’t get to. Again, opponents shot 42% at the rim against Queta and 37% from the field, absurd numbers. Many opponents aren’t even getting those shots up, intimidated by Queta’s presence, and sometimes that’s just as important.
That’s one area where I like Neemias Queta more than fellow freshman big man prospect Jaxson Hayes of Texas. Hayes is the far more-heralded prospect, but I’m not so sure Queta isn’t as good a prospect — maybe even better. Queta has the better raw defensive numbers, and the gap gets even bigger looking at advanced statistics. Hayes does well taking players on but doesn’t do as well eliminating the attempts altogether, like Queta. Hayes does get into foul trouble and does chase blocks and boards, getting himself out of position at times where Queta is better at staying home and anchoring the defense. Hayes has become a popular lottery pick among draftniks, while Queta remains a second-round prospect for most. But let’s compare the two head-to-head by the numbers:
- Age — Hayes. Almost a full year younger than Queta.
- Size — Queta. Both 6'11 with plenty of length. Queta has an inch or two on Hayes in wingspan and reach. Queta is stronger with a sturdier frame.
- Rebounding — Queta. He averages four more boards and doubles Hayes in defensive rebounds per game, 6.4 to just 3.3. Hayes has five games with 8+ rebounds. Queta has 21, including 15-, 16-, and 19-rebound games.
- Shooting touch — Hayes? Hayes is at 73% field goals to Queta’s 64%, but Queta has a bigger offensive role while Jaxson’s shots are almost all at the rim, so not apples-to-apples. Hayes has made 75% of his free throws versus 54% for Queta, but Queta’s made 2-of-5 threes. Hayes basically has not attempted a jumper all season.
- Passing — Queta by a mile. Hayes has nine assists all year. Queta had six in one game and recently averaged 3.4apg over a five-game stretch.
- Turnovers — Hayes. He doesn’t have the ball enough to have many, while Queta has a more traditional post role and almost 2.5x as many TOs.
- Foul trouble — Queta. Hayes has 3+ fouls all but four games. Queta has 3 or fewer in 20 games. Hayes fouls almost 1.5x as often as Queta and is seemingly in constant foul trouble.
- Defense — Queta, by the numbers. Queta rates well ahead of Hayes by defensive rating and DBPM and just ahead in blocks per game. Utah State ranks 3rd in the nation in two-point percentage allowed; Texas ranks 40th, allowing a full 5% higher.
The numbers can’t tell us everything, but Queta has many advantages on Hayes. Jaxson is younger and more efficient, but Queta is bigger, stronger, and far better right now passing and rebounding. Queta also has the better defensive numbers. Of course, Hayes is facing stiffer competition in the Big 12, but Queta looks more ready physically for the NBA. Again, the numbers can’t tell everything, but they should make us take a good, hard look at Queta.
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One especially impressive thing about Queta is that he’s shown outstanding improvement over the season. He had 3+ fouls in 10 of his first 11 games and struggled to stay on the court, but he’s only been in foul trouble three of his past 16 games, and nine of his 12 double-digit rebound games have come the last five weeks. He also had the best four passing games of his career in February, and his free throw rate is up in conference. Queta may be raw, but he is showing clear and steady improvement.
So where does Queta need to improve?
I wish he’d attack the boards more, even though he’s been a good rebounder. Queta has a tendency to rely on his size on the boards when he should get a body on someone and box out. The rebounding is good but could be better. That’s the case with Queta’s emotion, too. He talks a big game and is the heart and soul of the team, often setting the tone early and firing up the crowd. I like all that about Queta, who has no shortage of confidence, but it sometimes leads to him playing with too much emotion and he often picks up cheap, frustrated fouls after missing a bucket or making a mistake.
Athletically, Queta is good for his size but not great. He’s not an explosive athlete or leaper like Jaxson Hayes, though he has good conditioning and athleticism for a player of his girth. Queta’s not as quite as quick or nimble as Hayes on the perimeter (though few big men are), but I do think he’s solid in that area. He moves his feet comfortably on defense for a player of his size and I’m fairly impressed with his perimeter defense overall. The bigger problem is that we haven’t seen him tested as much there in the Mountain West. Against Nevada, Queta was tasked with guarding a smaller center and struggled getting out to the perimeter to take away the three, then got beat to the rim if he did. He had nine fouls in two games against Nevada and was a no-show against Houston, the two best opponents he faced by far. Those things are certainly concerning.
Neemias Queta is not a perfect prospect, but few players are, this side of Zion. Queta is closer to sophomore age than freshman but he’ll still be 19 on draft day, and that extra year was spent developing his talents overseas. Queta will be the first Portuguese player in the NBA if and when he declares. Jaxson Hayes will continue to get the hype, and Bol Bol will always tantalize. But Queta may be more ready to make an NBA impact than either of them, and his size and frame give him a clearer path to full-time starter minutes, too.
Neemias Queta may not be a first-round pick on many draft boards, but he’s a clear first rounder for me. I wonder if he could end up a Clint Capela or Rudy Gobert type steal for a contender in the back half of the first round, taking a few years to develop but ultimately becoming a defensive anchor for a top team. He’s an intriguing name to watch as we head toward draft day.