Welcome to the return of my feature centering on the picks and players that could be a part of the lottery selections in the 2014 NBA Draft. After a year of largely disappointing prospects, this should be a stacked class even if a few players elect to stay in school for another season or two.
To make sure everyone starts at the same place, the lottery covers the first 14 picks of the first round, which represent the fourteen teams that did not make the playoffs that season. Naturally, these picks can be traded just like any other selections so the teams choosing can absolutely be ones who made the postseason.
The Teams: Who Has What
I like to start with the franchises that would not possess their first round pick if they miss the playoffs. Fortunately, this process gets simplified by the fact that many teams put full top-14 protection on their picks and thus will not be included on this list for 2014. Some are more likely than others to be in the lottery but all are included below:
New Orleans Pelicans: The other major part of the Jrue Holiday / Nerlens Noel trade only has top-5 protection. While they could make the playoffs, there are enough teams worse than the Pelicans (especially with Anthony Davis playing well) to make finishing worse than the sixth pick an unlikely scenario. [Likelihood of losing their lottery pick: Somewhat high]
Detroit Pistons: Joe Dumars and the Pistons have only top-8 protection on their pick going to the Charlotte Bobcats to finish out the Ben Gordon / Corey Maggette trade. Adding Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings makes a total failure of a season unlikely, though a playoff run would also take the pick out of the lottery. [Likelihood of losing their lottery pick: Moderate]
Portland Trail Blazers: The Blazers send their first rounder to Charlotte if it is 13th or worse. While Charlotte has a reasonable chance of getting the pick, there are only two potential slots where that would be a lottery selection. [Likelihood of losing their lottery pick: Somewhat low]
New York Knicks: The Knicks are shipping their first round pick to Denver regardless of finish, so it will be a lottery pick if New York misses the playoffs. [Likelihood of losing their lottery pick: Somewhat low but rising]
Denver Nuggets: A year and a half after making the trade with the Knicks discussed above, the Nuggets agreed to trade the less favorable of their own pick and New York’s selection to Orlando. As such, both Denver and New York would need to miss the playoffs and Denver would have to finish with a better record in order for them to move their own lottery pick to the Magic. [Likelihood of losing their lottery pick: Pretty low]
Minnesota Timberwolves: While the Suns can only get a lottery pick from the Wolves if they end up with the best record of a team that misses the playoffs (due to top-13 protection), that absolutely could happen this year. [Likelihood of losing their lottery pick: Low]
Golden State Warriors: In order to shed salary to sign Andre Iguodala, the Warriors dumped expiring contracts on Utah at the expense of their unprotected picks in 2014 and 2017. As a team expected to make the playoffs, the pick should be worse than 14th. [Likelihood of losing their lottery pick: Low]
Charlotte Bobcats: The Bobcats send their pick to Chicago if it is 11th or worse. Considering that means they would have to finish with one of the four best records of non-playoff teams in order for them to lose a lottery pick, the chances are incredibly low. [Likelihood of losing their lottery pick: Very low]
Washington Wizards: As a part of the Marcin Gortat trade, the Wizards send their pick to Phoenix if it is 13th or worse. Since the 9th place team in the East should be outpaced by at least a few Western Conference teams that miss the playoffs, Washington should not lose a lottery pick this year. [Likelihood of losing their lottery pick: Very low]
Brooklyn Nets: Since Atlanta can swap picks with the Nets, they could lose their own lottery selection if they miss the playoffs and finish with a worse record than the Hawks. [Likelihood of losing their lottery pick: Extremely low]
Sacramento Kings: With top-12 protection for this season, the Cavs do not appear likely to get the Kings’ pick for 2014. [Likelihood of losing their lottery pick: Extremely low]
Other than those moves, all other teams would retain their lottery picks as of this writing.
The Player Pool: BPA
While each draft class ends up incredibly different, this potential group stands out for one key reason: it has so many interesting commodities that competent management can go the entire way through the lottery by picking the best player available. While BPA generally proves to be the best path anyway, we often see general managers pass on or reach for players because of current talent.
This year’s group should be different because the highest-echelon players are too good to factor in existing talent (you do not pass on Julius Randle because you have a power forward- trust me) while the lower end of the lottery guys work well in a variety of circumstances. The best example of this situation at the present is Mario Hezonja. A quality swingman prospect from Croatia, Hezonia could step right in as a contributor and supporting scorer at a weak shooting guard position, but his best role early on would be coming off the bench. His ability to defend either shooting guards or small forwards means that teams can manage him well in either a bigger or smaller role and that versatility also makes drafting or having a similar talent a less challenging problem.
Later lottery players like Noah Vonleh and the bigs (McGary, Austin, and Cauley-Stein) all fit into a variety of systems and will need time to develop, meaning even teams with starters in place can justify taking the player they feel is most talented long-term.
Despite that positive for general managers, the fact remains that this class should also produce dramatic differences of opinions on prospects throughout the first round. Wiggins vs. Randle has already received plenty of attention but players like Marcus Smart, Hezonja, Semaj Christon, Dario Saric and Kyle Anderson are incredibly divisive as well so we could see some weird reaches and falls on draft night. Taking the BPA will be easily justified while identifying him could be a major challenge.
Preliminary Player Rankings of Draft-Eligible Players
Here is where the players stand as of now.
[NOTE: I include all draft-eligible players regardless of their likelihood to declare for the 2014 Draft. This provides a better measuring stick for everyone and also explains why the list runs to 20 rather than 14.]
1. Andrew Wiggins, SF, Kansas: I do not have Wiggins as the next LeBron and he most certainly should not be described as a can’t miss prospect, at least right now. That said, he has considerable potential as both a scorer and defender along with the physical profile to contribute in a significant way even if he never becomes elite on either side of the court. He goes above Randle because his ceiling would be as a much more valuable player- the type of guy that becomes nearly impossible to get without drafting them unless you are in a major market.
2. Julius Randle, PF/SF, Kentucky: I have had a great deal of trouble figuring out a comparable prospect for Randle. He has an NBA body at 18 and should not have any trouble playing power forward from a size/athleticism standpoint even if he does not get taller. What makes Randle special for his position is how that athleticism and effort combine with a high degree of skill, particularly for someone so young. If he can develop a reliable shot out to three like Kevin Love, he could end up being the best pure power forward in the entire league at his peak.
3. Dante Exum, PG/SG, Australia: Likely due to a love for watching Magic Johnson play, my favorite niche for a prospect has always been a player who can be a high-level primary ballhandler while defending at least one other position. That kind of versatility allows teams to have players who should not handle the ball as much but make more sense guarding opposing PG’s (think Monta Ellis and Avery Bradley, among others) without any of the downsides. Exum has athleticism to burn and the ability to play well on and off the ball- it was fun to see him play with 2013 PG Dennis Schroder at the Nike Hoop Summit in April. Improving his jumper and strength could make him a special player with plenty of room to grow for a player who will not turn 19 until after the Draft.
4. Joel Embiid, C, Kansas: An absolutely incredible story as Embiid picked up the game in early 2011 in his native Cameroon and then made his way over to the United States to play high school basketball. You can learn more from his interview posted on DraftExpress. Embiid was not even in ESPN’s Top 100 college recruits until January of this year but his physical potential cannot be denied. Already an impactful defensive player with a 7’5” wingspan, Joel should be a factor in college despite having so much room to improve in every facet of the game.
5. Andrew Harrison, PG, Kentucky: Like Exum, Andrew Harrison has the potential to be the primary ballhandler for a team with the capability of defending NBA shooting guards. He falls a little behind Exum because he is a less complete player at this point and does not have the same PG instincts, particularly in half-court sets. Incredibly variable draft stock due to his high expectations on a stacked team.
6. Jabari Parker, PF/SF, Duke: Nearly the polar opposite of Embiid since his skill level continues to be incredibly strong while his body needs plenty of work. While Parker has the offensive game to drive opposing PF’s crazy, I worry about his ability to handle the new freakish players manning the spot in the pros. That said, he has a high basketball IQ on offense and plenty of incentive to maximize his physical attributes. Competently defending opposing SF’s would be huge for his stock since Parker’s combination of size and skill would make him a brutal cover for smaller players.
7. Mario Hezonja, SG/SF, Croatia: A fascinating young talent that I compare to JR Smith for both the positives and negatives even though the athleticism is not at the same level. Hezonia has the ability to score all over the court and has a respectable handle for a swingman but does not play as well on defense or in a team offense as he should considering his athletic gifts and skill set. Fortunately, those flaws can be more easily corrected than issues like height or athleticism and Hezonja should be able to contribute while he figures it all out.
8. Glenn Robinson III, SF, Michigan: The son of the Big Dog, Glen III does not have his father’s scoring dominance but has the potential to be a perimeter stopper at the next level. Most of the players with that type of potential are on the shorter end of perimeter players (like Victor Oladipo) but Robinson could very well end up able to handle both SF’s and SG’s with some success. If he can build on his positive play in transition offensively and become a half-court threat as a set shooter or opportunistic cutter, his value to NBA teams would skyrocket.
9. Semaj Christon, PG, Xavier: I am not sure anyone is as high on Christon as I am at this juncture. Christon has the size and quickness to handle professional lead guards on defense and get separation with the ball in his hands. Christon needs to put work in on his jumper but it does not appear to be beyond repair so improvement should be expected.
10. Nikola Milutinov, C, Serbia: I really liked what I saw out of him in the FIBA Under 19 tournament where Serbia got a surprising silver medal. An absolute project to be sure but one with the potential to be a quality player.
11. Rasheed Suliamon, SG, Duke: My favorite returning guard this season should be a fascinating NBA player because of how well he can pair with a true primary ballhandler. He can initiate pretty well and create scoring opportunities for himself and others but will be better suited to causing matchup problems with an even better lead guard. He has a nice jumper that should improve over the next few years and the tools to be a good defender at his position. Considering how weak the crop at shooting guard has become, Suliamon’s value has actually increased due to positional scarcity.
12. Aaron Harrison, SG, Kentucky: Without some of the ball skills that make his brother such a special prospect, Harrison should be a quality NBA player with the scoring ability to be a nice cog as a second scorer and competent defender. It will be fun to see how he develops and whether he can explode in John Calipari’s system during his (likely) only year in college. Harrison may actually benefit from falling a little in the draft since he fits better as a lower option on a strong team, sort of like what happened to Harrison Barnes two years ago or Eric Bledsoe with the Clippers.
13. James Young, SF, Kentucky: Like so many players on this Kentucky team, Young makes the list on potential more than what he has done on the floor thus far. A high-level athlete who should have no problems defending a challenging position in today’s NBA, Young needs to show that he can score enough to keep teams honest. That offense could come from deep (making him a 3-D guy) or as a slasher/penetrator.
14. Noah Vonleh, PF/SF, Indiana: While still pretty far off his peak talent-wise, Vonleh’s potential cannot be ignored even as his NBA position remains unclear. Measuring in at a hair under 6’10” before his 18th birthday, Noah could become a pure power forward which may help cover up some of his limitations in terms of getting his shot on the perimeter.
15. Mitch McGary, C/PF, Michigan: Like so many players in previous draft classes, McGary’s value depends on what positions he can handle defensively as a professional. He seems a little small for a true center right now and, at 21, it’s not like we can expect a growth spurt though it certainly could come. Despite that, his motor may help allow him to defend centers that are less physically imposing. Offensively, I want to see more depth and variety to his game and he will get opportunities to show it since Trey Burke will not be feeding Mitch the ball this season. His back issue is scary of course and that drops him down a little bit.
16. Willie Cauley-Stein, C, Kentucky: Ceiling, ceiling, ceiling. Cauley-Stein has the benefit of having legit size for the NBA’s most valuable position while also possessing pretty good but not elite athleticism. His offense still needs plenty of work and his defensive potential must turn into more tangible effects on the court than they did last season. Cauley-Stein could benefit greatly from getting time and coaching before being expected to meaningfully contribute to an NBA team.
17. Isaiah Austin, C/PF, Baylor: It feels like Austin has been a prospect forever despite playing in the McDonald’s game just a year and a half ago. Austin needs to decide his offensive role since he looks like a center physically, but seems to like jump shooting more than banging in the post. Even with some frustration due to his lack of dominance despite physical advantages, Austin makes sense on a ton of different teams since his physical potential is so tantalizing even though it has not turned into impact yet.
18. Wayne Selden, SG, Kansas: While there is plenty to like about Selden, we will have to see if he can produce against collegiate talent at a level that indicates he will do similarly well in the pros. Like Jabari Parker, Selden can score despite non-elite athleticism but I worry about him defensively even in college. A fun player and a useful piece in all likelihood.
19. Aaron Gordon, PF/SF, Arizona: For Aaron Gordon it all comes down to one question: what position can he play in the NBA? His offensive game fits far better at power forward with a limited handle and shaky shot, but I am concerned that he does not have the height and strength to thrive against the beasts manning that spot now. A move to small forward would magnify his weaknesses and sacrifice some of the advantages in terms of quickness and leaping that have helped make him so successful thus far.
20. Marcus Smart, SG/PG, Oklahoma State: While there are many things to like about Smart, I worry that he will have a ton of trouble making it as a lead guard in today’s NBA. He has nice size for the position but does not have the speed or shot to make teams pay at this point. If Smart makes it work as a lead guard, it may look more like Baron Davis’ tenure on the Warriors where he used leverage and size to create mismatches while making it work on defense. Otherwise, Smart ends up defending SG’s while needing plenty of work on his jumper, a much less valuable commodity.
Others considered: Dario Saric (PF, Croatia), Montrezl Harrell (PF, Lousiville), and Sam Dekker (SF, Wisconsin)