As is usually the case when the draft is less than a week away, rumors are flying everywhere while prospects shoot up and down the board. It’s hard to know what media reports to take seriously, since there’s little reason for general managers and front office types to be honest with anyone - players, agents, the media, rival teams - at this stage in the process. For the most part, everyone is playing things as close to the vest as possible, which is how it should be.
Most of the real work in terms of player evaluation was done months and years ago, as these players first came on the radar of NBA teams. As they say in the NFL, the eye in the sky does not lie. With the exception of their medical records, everything you need to know about this year’s prospects you can find in their game film, if you know where to look and what you should be looking for. The 2014 NBA Draft has been anticipated for years and with good reason.
Even with medical issues popping up left and right in the last few weeks, this year’s draft is as stacked as any in the last generation - 2008 and 2012 are the only recent drafts where I can remember this many high-level prospects. When it’s all said and done, 2014 could end up rivaling 2003, which produced LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh. If the Top 3 players in this year’s draft ever got on the same team, it would be something.
1) Joel Embiid, Kansas
After surgeries to his back and his foot in the last few months, the main issues with Embiid are strictly medical. When it comes to ability and upside on a basketball court, there should be little doubt as to who the No. 1 prospect in this year’s draft should be. At 7’0 240 with a 7’5 wingspan, Embiid is an elite athlete who has progressed by leaps and bounds since he began playing basketball three years ago. He’s the best all-around big man prospect since Tim Duncan.
Like Duncan, Embiid is an international player who picked up the game later in his life, avoiding many of the pitfalls that happen to 7’0 teenagers who grow up playing basketball. He was constantly battling foul trouble in his freshman season at Kansas, which partially obscured how dominant he was when he was on the court. Per-40 minutes, he averaged 19 points, 14 rebounds, 4.5 blocks, 2.5 assists and 1.5 steals on 63% shooting and he had a PER of 28.2.
Embiid, as the rare 7’0 who could be a dominant offensive and defensive player, could be the best center in the NBA in 3-4 years. Of course, you could have said the same thing about Yao Ming, Andrew Bynum and Greg Oden. That’s the issue with taking a super-sized C at the top of the draft. I’m no doctor, so it’s hard for me to say how serious Embiid’s medical issues are, but they would have to be like Sam Jackson in Unbreakable for me to pass on him.
2) Dante Exum, Australia
Since he spent his high school career in Australia and passed on playing college basketball, Exum is the mystery man in this year’s draft. There isn’t much film of him out there and even hardcore fans don’t know much about him. He put himself on the map with a three-month stretch last year, when he had a standout performance in the Hoop Summit and carried Australia to the semifinals of the U19 world championships, looking like the best player there.
What makes him such an intriguing prospect are his combination of tools. Exum can do a little bit of everything - at 6’6 190 with a 6’9 wingspan, he’s an elite athlete who can create his own shot off the dribble, shoot from deep, run point, defend multiple perimeter positions and rebound the ball at a high level. As a result, he can be effective next to any type of player in the backcourt. He’s a ball-dominant player, so whether you slot him at point guard or shooting doesn’t really matter.
The lack of statistics does make projecting him to the next level a little tricky, especially when it comes to his perimeter jumper. He shot 34% on his three-pointers in eight games in Prague, which is something to track once he enters the league. Nevertheless, he’s an 18-year-old with a ton of upside and every tool you would want in a high-level NBA guard. Exum is the best of both worlds - the athleticism of an American player and the fundamentally sound game of an international.
3) Jabari Parker, Duke
Parker may not have the upside of some of the players at the top of this year’s draft, but he’s one of the safest and most NBA-ready players available. He walked into the college game as a scoring machine who could take over an offense and it shouldn’t be all that different at the next level. At 6’8 240 with a 6’11 wingspan, Parker is a mismatch nightmare with a great feel for the game who can shoot the ball and put it on the floor with the skill level of a guard.
As a freshman at Duke, he averaged 19 points and 9 rebounds a game on 47% shooting. There’s a ton of Carmelo Anthony in his game - he’s too fast and skilled for bigger defenders and he’s too strong for smaller ones. He looks the part of a big-time prospect and he will be the frontrunner for Rookie of the Year for any team that drafts him. You can see why SI put him on the cover as a high school junior and called him the best prospect since LeBron James.
Like Carmelo, the questions about Parker revolve around his commitment to the other parts of the game. He had a bit of a tunnel vision problem at Duke, averaging 1.3 assists on 2.3 turnovers, and he didn’t play an awful lot of defense. While he could play as either a SF or a PF on offense, he’s probably best suited to playing as a small-ball PF and taking advantage of the extra space to drive to the rim. Either way, he’s going to need to be protected on defense.
4) Noah Vonleh, Indiana
If 2014 is a repeat of 2003, Vonleh is this year’s version of Chris Bosh. Like Bosh, he spent his only season in college playing on a young team that was a year away from the NCAA Tournament and didn’t have the talent to put their star big man in a position to succeed. When teams played Indiana, they came into the game with the idea of taking away Vonleh and the Hoosiers didn’t have many counters. They had 5 perimeter players who shot worse than 24% from 3.
From a tools perspective, Vonleh is up there with any player in this year’s draft. At 6’10 240 with a 7’4 wingspan, he’s an excellent athlete with prototype size for the PF position who can also slide over and play as a small-ball C. He’s an elite rebounder with a fundamentally sound post game who can protect the rim and step out and knock down the perimeter jumper. He shot 15-25 from 3 this season - if he can expand his range and add that shot to his game, watch out.
He averaged 11 points, 9 rebounds and 1.5 blocks a game on 53% shooting, but his stats were diminished by constant foul trouble and Indiana’s difficulty in spacing the floor. Vonleh is a player who should have a better career in the NBA than he did in college. Before a non-conference game against Indiana, Jim Boeheim said he was as good as any freshman in the country and I’m not sure he’s wrong. He should be a high-level big man on both sides of the ball for a long time.
5) Aaron Gordon, Arizona
Gordon is one of my favorite players in this year’s draft. He has Blake Griffin’s passing, ball-handling and athleticism, and Shawn Marion’s defensive versatility in one player. Gordon is the ultimate teammate who makes everyone around him better. At 6’9 220 with a 6’11 wingspan, he’s an elite athlete with a high basketball IQ who puts his fingerprints on every game he’s in and can impact the game as a scorer, rebounder, passer and defender.
The big question about Gordon is his outside shot - he lost confidence in it as the season progressed and he shot only 42% from the free-throw line. It’s definitely a concern, but he doesn’t have a broken shot ala Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and he knows how to move without the ball and not destroy his team’s spacing. A consistent jumper is the only thing holding him back from stardom, but he’s a good enough athlete and all-around player to be effective without it.
Neither Marion nor Andrei Kirilenko ever became a great three-point shooter and both had long and successful careers in the NBA. Gordon is that type of player - he can defend four positions at the next level and he has the length and athleticism to switch any pick-and-roll. On the other side of the ball, he’s the rare player who can set up the lob as easy as he can finish it himself. He just finds a way to contribute, whether it’s points, rebounds, assists, steals or blocks.
6) Zach LaVine, UCLA
LaVine is the ultimate eye test guy. He didn’t have a big freshman season at UCLA, but he has a world of talent and as much upside as any player in this year’s draft. Your eye is just naturally drawn to him when he’s on the court - he’s 6’5 180 with a 6’8 wingspan, he has an effortless looking three-point shot, he can handle and pass the ball like a PG and he has a 45’ max vertical. There are not many guys at any level of the game who can do things he can do.
So much of a player’s situation in college is out of his control. LaVine was on a team with two other first-round picks (Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson) who dominated the ball and were ahead of him in the pecking order as well as three upperclassmen (Norman Powell and the Wear Twins) who had proven themselves at the college level. He also shared time off the bench with the coach’s son, so there was little chance he was going to put up big numbers.
My guess is that wherever he goes in this year’s draft, it’s going to be too low. Once you enter the league, it doesn’t matter where you are picked and what you did at the college level - talent eventually wins out. If he had stayed in school, he would have been in line to be a lottery pick in 2015. As is, he represents a huge roll of the dice for a team in the middle of the first round who can look beyond his statistics and get a chance to grab a player with star potential.
7) Andrew Wiggins, Kansas
It’s not that I don’t think Wiggins is an excellent prospect - I just think the six guys ahead of him are really good at basketball too. Wiggins has the chance to be a really good NBA player for a long time and he’s as good an athlete as has come in the league in awhile. At 6’8 200 with a 7’0 wingspan, he has all the tools to be an excellent defender at all three perimeter positions. My question is how good he will end up being on the offensive end of the ball.
He put up good numbers as a freshman at Kansas - 17 points, 6 rebounds and 1.5 assists on 44% shooting - but they weren’t anything better than what Ben McLemore did the year before. Bill Self knows how to put his players in a position to succeed on offense and doesn’t ask them to do more than they can. Wiggins is an average shooter, ball-handler and passer. At the next level, he’s not going to be able to blow by people based purely on athleticism.
The big red flag for me is his assist-to-turnover ratio - I’m just not a fan of perimeter players who average more turnovers (2.3) than assists (1.5). That’s a canary in the coal mine for bad decision-making with the ball in your hands and a perimeter player who doesn’t make his teammates better can only be so valuable. Paul George is probably his ceiling, but it’s just as likely he becomes Rudy Gay with better defense. That’s a really good player, but not great.
8) Jusuf Nurkic, Bosnia
Nurkic has slipped under the radar for most of the pre-draft process, but he’s clearly the second-best C prospect on the board and he’s one of the safer picks available. He has elite size for the position - 6’11 280 with a 7’2 wingspan - and he’s a better athlete than he’s given credit for. There’s a lot of Nikola Pekovic in his game - Nurkic has an advanced post game and he knows how to leverage his size in order to get good position around the basket.
To be sure, a young center like Nurkic requires a commitment from the team that drafts him, in terms of style of play. You don’t draft a 280 pounder and expect him to thrive on an uptempo team that has him running 94-feet sprints constantly. He needs to be on a team that can play at a slower pace, pound the ball inside and spread the floor with shooters. Like most young big men, if he gets too sped up, his game on both ends of the floor suffers.
There are just not many avenues for teams to acquire a high-level center, particularly who can command a double team in the low post. When Nurkic is finishing up his second contract in the league, he will be in his late 20’s and just starting to enter into his prime. For a team whose willing to be patient and develop him and go against the grain of a perimeter-oriented league, he could be a franchise-changing force at the center position for the next decade and a half.
9) Julius Randle, Kentucky
10) Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State
11) Kyle Anderson, UCLA
12) TJ Warren, NC State
Over the last two seasons, TJ Warren getting buckets has been one of the only constants at NC State. As a freshman, he played with three older NBA prospects on a wildly underachieving team. He was the fourth or fifth option, but he still managed to score 12 points on 61% shooting. As a sophomore, he was the only reliable offensive player on a young and inexperienced team, scoring 25 points on 53% shooting and carrying the Wolfpack to the NCAA Tournament.
Warren is an offensive machine and as a good a scorer as there in this draft. He’s an athletic 6’8 230 wing who can handle the ball like a PG, run off screens like a SG and crash the offensive glass like a PF. His main weapon is the floater, a shot he can use almost as well as Tony Parker. He has a nose for the basketball and he is practically automatic within 15 feet of the basket. Warren just knows how to get points - he can roll out off bed and get 15 like it’s nothing.
His ceiling at the next level will depend on the rest of his game. Warren is a good athlete with good length (6’11 wingspan) for the SF position and he averaged 1.8 steals a game over the course of his college career. If he can lock in on defense, he will be a very interesting two-way player in the frontcourt. Like Antawn Jamison, he would be an ideal sixth man - he can match up with multiple positions on a second unit and he would soak up a lot of otherwise inefficient possessions.
13) Adreian Payne, Michigan State
Payne is coming off a dominant season at Michigan State, where he averaged 16 points, 7 rebounds and 1 block a game on 50% shooting. He was their best player on both sides of the ball - a defensive anchor in their frontcourt who could draw a double-team in the post and shoot the ball out to the three-point line. At 6’10 240 with a 7’4 wingspan, Payne is a stretch 4 with elite athleticism and prototype size for the position. He has a lot of Serge Ibaka in his game.
Payne’s ability to play defense and shoot 3’s at 6’10 will improve any team he is on. Like Gorgui Dieng and Mason Plumlee in 2013, he’s slipping in the pre-draft process because of concerns about his age, but the rules for evaluating players have to be a little different for guys with their size. Imagine how effective Dieng and Plumlee would have been as rookies if they could stroke 3’s - Payne shot 42% from beyond the arc on 3 attempts a game last season.
A player with Payne’s length, athleticism and shooting ability is inherently valuable. In the modern NBA, teams have to decide whether they will play 4-out or with two post players. Payne gives his team the best both of both worlds - the floor spacing of a 4-out offense and the interior defense of a two-post team. Upside isn’t everything, especially for teams looking to win now. If he doesn’t get any better, Payne will still have a 10-year career as a starter on a good team.