Apr 29, 2014 1:21 AM EDT
With the deadline for declaring for this year’s draft behind us, we now know who will and who won’t be returning to school next season. As is usually the case, the vast majority of players projected to go in the first round ended up declaring. Nevertheless, there are still a number of interesting prospects left in the college game. Even in a draft like 2014, which features a loaded freshman class, there’s still plenty of room in the first round for upperclassmen.
This far out, it’s hard to make any type of comprehensive list of the best players in the 2015 draft. Instead, we’ll be going position by position, taking a look at the best prospects in the college game at each position and how they stack up against each other. This is not a list of the who the best college players are, but of who I think has the most pro potential. These guys are unfinished products - who they are today isn’t necessarily who they will be in November or next April.
We’ll start with the point guard position, which features a familiar dichotomy - the biggest PG’s struggle with their jumpers while the best shooters are undersized. The holy grail are the guys who can do both, but even in the NBA, they tend to be few and far between. The smaller guards probably aren’t going to grow much in their late teens and early 20’s, but the bigger guards can make themselves a bunch of money this summer if they can return with a three-point shot.
1) Delon Wright, Utah - One of the most underrated players in the country. The younger brother of Dorell Wright, Delon burst onto the scene this season, after a lengthy trek through the junior college ranks. At 6’5 180, he isn’t quite as big as his older brother, but he’s every bit as athletic and he has a far more well-rounded game. He was a one-man team at Utah this season, averaging 15 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 2.5 steals and 1 block a game on 56% shooting.
Wright turns 23 next season, which is a huge red flag for many NBA teams, but his combination of size, athleticism and feel for the game is pretty unique. There’s a lot of Rajon Rondo in his game - his one weakness is his lack of a three-point shot. He’s a reluctant shooter who went 12-54 from beyond the arc last season. If he could consistently make that shot, he would be a lottery pick, but even without it, he will still be a fascinating player to track as a senior.
2) Marcus Paige, UNC - It’s all set up for Paige at UNC. After two slightly down years, the Tar Heels are returning a lot of talent upfront and are bringing in a loaded recruiting class full of wing players. If Paige can be the triggerman for the secondary break offense, they should be right back in national title discussion. And when Roy Williams can put elite talent around a future NBA PG, good things tend to happen. See: Ray Felton in 2004, Ty Lawson in 2009.
At 6’1 170, Paige is undersized for the position at the next level, but he’s a very quick guard with excellent ball-handling ability who can stroke 3’s off the dribble. He averaged 17 points and 4 assists a game on 44% shooting last season, shooting 39% from 3 on 6.5 attempts a game. With a more balanced roster around him next season, he will be asked to be more of a playmaker. It’s almost impossible for a guy his size to start in the NBA and be a shoot-first player.
3) Rysheed Jordan, St. John’s - While Rysheed didn’t get a ton of press as a freshman, his size (6’4 185) and athleticism alone make him a player worth watching. He averaged only 9 points, 3 rebounds and 3 assists a game on 42% shooting, but he also didn’t get much of a chance to play with the ball in his hands. With Jakarr Sampson declaring for the draft, that should change next season. If he can come back with a three-point shot, he will start flying up draft boards.
4) Andrew Harrison, Kentucky - After one of the most up-and-down freshman seasons in recent memory, the Harrison Twins both opted to return to school, something few would have predicted nine months ago. At 6’5 210, Andrew has great size for the PG position, but his lack of athleticism puts a clear ceiling on how good he can be at the next level. If he can become a better three-point shooter he should have a chance to stick, but stardom probably isn’t in the cards.
5) Ryan Boatright, UConn - Along with Shabazz Napier, Boatright exploded at just the right time last season, carrying UConn all the way to an unlikely national championship. Generously listed at 6’0 170, Boatright is extremely undersized for the NBA game, but he has the speed and quickness to at least get a shot at the next level. As a senior, scouts will be watching to see if he can make the same type of jump Napier made, in terms of becoming a better floor general.
Other names to watch: Isaiah Taylor (Texas), Ron Baker (Wichita State), Shannon Scott (Ohio State), Yogi Ferrell (Indiana), Juwan Staten (West Virginia), Olivier Hanlan (Boston College)
Apr 24, 2014 11:38 PM EDT
Amidst one of the most disappointing rookie classes in recent memory, two bright spots have emerged from the middle of the first round - Gorgui Dieng and Mason Plumlee. Taken with the No. 21 and No. 22 picks, where an average NBA player is all you can hope for, Dieng and Plumlee have already exceeded expectations. As rookies, they are both solid NBA centers who look headed for 10+ year careers. A lot of teams should regret passing on them.
Dieng, taken by the Minnesota Timberwolves with the second of their two first round picks, didn’t play much for the first four months of the season. With Minnesota making a desperate playoff push to keep Kevin Love in town, Rick Adelman stuck with his veterans, giving Dante Cunningham and Ronny Turiaf minutes behind Nikola Pekovic at center. It wasn’t until Pekovic went down with an ankle injury in mid-March that Dieng got a chance to show what he could do.
Because he wasn’t playing much, the feeling around the league was that Dieng was a raw player, years away from being ready to be a contributor. The reality was somewhat different - just because a young player doesn’t get minutes doesn’t necessarily mean he can’t play, particularly guys who aren't drafted in the lottery. The NBA, like most workplaces, is not really a meritocracy. On many teams, years of experience and the size of your paycheck determine playing time.
Dieng, a 24-year old coming off an NCAA championship season, was one of the most NBA-ready players in this year’s draft. At 6’11 240 with a 7’4 wingspan, he already had an NBA body, with the size to hold his own in the paint. Coming out of college, he was uncommonly skilled for a center, with the ability to hit a 20-foot jumper as well as a dissect a defense from the high post. Dieng shot 65 percent from the free-throw line and averaged two assists a game at Louisville.
Dieng started producing as soon as he got into the rotation. He averaged 12 points and 11 rebounds on 45% shooting over the last month of the season, including multiple games where he grabbed more than 15 rebounds. More importantly, from the Wolves perspective, Dieng showed the ability to protect the rim, something neither Love nor Pekovic can do. He averaged 0.8 blocks in only 13 minutes a game - he should have played more.
Plumlee, like Dieng, struggled to get minutes early in his rookie season. When the Brooklyn Nets season began, not only was he behind Brook Lopez and Kevin Garnett, he was also losing minutes to guys like Reggie Evans. Many old-school coaches won't give a rookie a chance over a veteran, but Jason Kidd eventually went with the best player. It was an easy call - Plumlee is longer, more athletic and more skilled than Evans and he does more to help his team win.
After Lopez went down for the season, Plumlee took advantage of the opportunities he was given. Like Dieng, Plumlee is an older prospect, a 24-year old center who played four seasons at Duke and left with a body ready for the rigors of the NBA paint. Per-36 minutes as a rookie, he averaged 15 points, 9 rebounds, 2 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks a game. Not only could he protect the rim in the Nets small-ball switch-heavy scheme, he could also make plays for his teammates.
In the first two games of their first-round series against the Toronto Raptors, Plumlee has shown his worth to the Nets. He’s the perfect complement to the older players in front of him - a ball of energy who can finish above the rim as well as add a needed boost of speed to their line-up. In their Game 1 victory over Toronto, Brooklyn was +13 in his 12 minutes on the floor. Plumlee gives them a live body who can match-up with the size and athleticism of Jonas Valanciunas.
Plumlee is the only pick from the back half of the first round with a big role on a playoff team. The Atlanta Hawks took Dennis Schroeder and Lucas Nogueira, two European teenagers at No. 16 and No. 17. Schroeder is good, but Nogueira is a project whose best-case scenario is Plumlee. The Dallas Mavericks took Shane Larkin at No. 18, a smaller PG who hasn’t cracked their rotation. The Chicago Bulls took Tony Snell at No. 20, who has a PER of 8.0 this season.
All three of those teams desperately need help in the middle. Atlanta is using Elton Brand, an undersized 35-year old PF, as their backup C. Dallas has been making do with a platoon of Sam Dalembert, Brandan Wright and Dejuan Blair at the position all season. Tom Thibodeau is having to roll out 36-year old Nazr Mohammed to backup Joakim Noah in the playoffs. Most of those guys are barely NBA-caliber players at this point in their careers.
You can always find a good perimeter player in the D-League, but the best 6’10+ players in the world are pretty much spoken for. Larkin’s predicament in Dallas is the perfect example of the fungibility of PG’s - the Mavs picked up Jose Calderon, Devin Harris and Monta Ellis in free agency and don’t need another small guard. Snell could stick in the NBA, but will he be better than Xavier Henry or Wesley Johnson, two players the Bulls could have had for nothing in the off-season?
Nogueira went higher than Dieng and Plumlee because he was perceived to have a higher ceiling, but that had more to do with his age than anything he showed on the floor. At 7’0 220, Nogueira is a painfully skinny 21-year-old who is averaging six points and four rebounds a game in Europe this season. In many ways, he was where Dieng and Plumlee were as college underclassmen. The problem is most raw young big men never improve as much as those two did.
Plumlee and Dieng had turned themselves into effective centers, but they slipped in the draft because of concerns about their age and ceiling. Instead of focusing on what they could do, NBA teams worried too much about what they couldn’t. When picking in the latter half of the first round, you should think hard about passing on an NBA-caliber big man, no matter what his upside. Ask the Mavericks, Hawks and Bulls, who will once again be looking for big men this offseason.
Apr 23, 2014 2:15 PM EDT
In a Game 1 victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday, Tim Duncan had 27 points and 7 rebounds on 12-20 shooting. The San Antonio Spurs won by five points and Duncan was +24 in his 38 minutes on the floor. Even at 37, the Mavericks have no answer for him in their frontcourt. He has long since lost the athleticism of his youth, but his size and skill have allowed him to remain a great player while his peers faded away. He's one of two players left from the 1997 NBA Draft.
There have been a ton of articles marveling about the Spurs longevity atop the NBA, but there's no real mystery to what's going on. San Antonio had Tim Duncan on their roster for the last 16 teams - if they weren't an elite team in that span, something went terribly wrong. Shaquille O'Neal didn't play on a lot of bad teams either and he was in his fair share of dysfunctional situations. When you have one of the 10 greatest players off all-time on your roster, it's pretty easy.
Duncan did things in a more understated fashion, but in his prime, he was every bit as dominant as Shaq. He was a fundamentally sound 7'0 250 big man with elite athleticism - about as good at basketball as any one player could be. He was a Defensive Player of the Year type player who commanded a double team in the low post. Having Tim Duncan meant your team had a great offense and a great defense. There are not many players in the history of basketball you can say that about.
Like Shaq, he wasted little time making his mark in the NBA. In his rookie season, the Spurs went from 20 to 56 wins and made it to the second round. In his second season, he was the NBA Finals MVP. Over the next 14, despite the roster turning over around him several times, San Antonio was always an elite team. Winning 50 games is the mark of a good team and Duncan has never played on a below 50-win team. In 16 seasons, the Spurs have missed the second round three times.
After Michael Jordan's retirement, Shaq and Duncan carved up the league between them. From 1999-2007, the titles went Duncan, Shaq, Shaq, Shaq, Duncan, the Detroit Pistons, Duncan, Shaq, Duncan. Those two would have been successful in any era of basketball. There's not much the other team can do against an elite 7'0 center who can play on both sides of the ball. The team with the biggest, most skilled and most athletic player on the floor usually wins.
When you look at Duncan's career in total, it's remarkable how many more championships he could have won, were it not for a few bounces of the ball. Derek Fisher's 0.4 shot in 2004, Dirk Nowitzki's and-1 in 2006, Ray Allen's three in 2013 - there isn't much separating Duncan from seven rings. That's what happens when you carry your team deep into the playoffs for almost two decades. When it comes to longevity, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is Duncan's only peer.
That's what separates Duncan from Shaq. Shaq never took great care of his body. By the end of his career, he had ballooned well past the 300 pounds he was listed at. Duncan has kept himself in excellent shape, looking like a slightly weathered version of his younger self in his late 30's. Shaq was still an extremely effective player in his last two seasons in Cleveland and Boston. The problem was that he could no longer stay on the floor - injuries are what end great players careers.
Just as important, Duncan never let his ego get in the way of winning. There was never anything like Shaq's feud with Kobe Bryant. Instead of feeling threatened by the emergence of Tony Parker, Duncan welcomed it and gladly gave him the ball. Shaq knew he was a great enough player that the normal rules didn't apply to him - he was never afraid of burning bridges on his way out of town. Duncan could have acted the same way. He just choose not to.
It seems a little weird to praise someone for not being an asshole, but it can be a vanishingly rare quality in the world of NBA superstardom. When a player starts racking up championships, a whole cottage industry of people spring up around them, willing to excuse anything they do. Jordan would berate his teammates and punch them in the face and everyone acted like it was cool because he won a lot of championships and that's what it took to be great.
Tim Duncan treated everyone like a normal person and it seems to have worked out OK for him. There's no great mystery to what he does or some secret aspect of his character that accounts for his success. Duncan is no different than anyone else - he's just a little taller and more athletic. He was blessed with tremendous gifts and he has worked hard not to waste them. He seems to have more perspective on what being a great athlete actually means than most of our society.
If he played in a major media market, we would never hear the end of his selflessness and what a great winner he is. As is, he seems likely to fade from public consciousness once he retires. Duncan will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but he probably won't be on too many player's Mt. Rushmores in 20 years. The secret to his success, though, has come in recognizing how meaningless that stuff is. Hard work is its in own reward - better to play at 38 than have people talk about you at 58.
The great lie we tell young players is they need to develop a persona to sell themselves to fans, as if their career wouldn't be complete unless they were constantly on TV trying to sell people stuff they don't need. Tim Duncan has made over $225 million dollars in the NBA. Play the game unselfishly, never put yourself above your teammates and treat everyone around you the right way and you can make more money playing basketball than you could ever possibly need.
Apr 21, 2014
When you are evaluating young players, the statistics can only tell you so much. That's why there are still ways to find steals in the draft - look for the tallest, longest and most athletic guys at each position. It’s really that simple.
Apr 15, 2014
While Dante Exum isn’t quite as long and athletic as Andrew Wiggins, he’s far more skilled. He’s an elite athlete in his own right and plays with more poise. You have to play Trading Places with these guys - what would have happened if Exum was on the AAU circuit every summer and Wiggins was in the AIS?
Apr 12, 2014
It’s easy to forget how young some of the players in the league are - freshmen drafted in 2011 would have been college seniors this season. You have to judge young players against guys their age not against the guys in their draft class.
Apr 08, 2014
John Calipari is 18-3 in the NCAA Tournament at Kentucky. Even more remarkable, he compiled that number with four completely different teams, sending upwards of 15 players to the NBA. It’s a vindication not only of how he built his program, but of the entire “one and done” model.
Apr 07, 2014
The crucial earning years for a basketball player aren't their early 20's but their late 20's, when they are in the prime physically. At that point, it's not about whether they maximized their draft position but whether they developed their game and maximized their earning potential before they start to decline.
Apr 03, 2014
The programs who reel in multiple players from the McDonald’s game are the sport’s blue bloods. There were 13 schools represented at the game, but only five with multiple recruits - Duke and Kentucky with 4, UNC with 3, Kansas and UCLA with 2.
Apr 02, 2014
Jahlil Okafor, for all his skills, plays more like the No. 1 overall pick in 1994 than 2014. For a glimpse at where the game is going, you have to look at Karl Towns and Myles Turner, two of the other top big men in the class of 2014.
Mar 31, 2014
In a tourney filled with unlikely stories, none is more unlikely than John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats becoming a Cinderella. Rather than 2-3 guys emerging as stars, everyone on has shared the burden, with each member of their rotation coming up big at a different time.
Mar 28, 2014
While UCLA could only beat you with offense and San Diego State could only beat you with defense, Arizona and Florida could beat you with both. An elite team can beat you in multiple ways.
Mar 21, 2014
One of the most common misnomers about the NCAA Tournament is that it’s a “guard’s game." While it is very hard to win games in March without quality backcourt play, it is just as hard to win them without quality play in the frontcourt. The best teams have good players at each of the five positions on the floor, which allows them to match-up with any opponent.
Mar 18, 2014
When their five starters are in, Michigan State has an NBA prospect at every position who can impact the game on offense and defense. Unlike the rest of the field of 68, they don’t have an exploitable weakness on either side of the ball.
Mar 11, 2014
Wichita State has become one of the best programs in the country, regardless of conference affiliation. They want to get the game going up-and-down, where they have the advantage in terms of taking care of the ball and knocking down transition 3’s.
Mar 05, 2014
No one was winning a title with Dwight Howard’s supporting cast in either Orlando or Los Angeles. He’s in a better situation with the Rockets, with a shrewd front office and a talented young core around him.
Feb 11, 2014
It would be easy for the Blazers to stand pat at the deadline, as they’ve already done more than enough to clinch their first playoff appearance since 2011. At the same time, their core is firmly in their 20s and the long-term status of LaMarcus Aldridge hasn't been resolved.
Feb 01, 2014
Over the last generation, many of the league’s best shooting guard prospects have been undone by getting too much too soon. Terrence Ross has been the exact opposite, an All-NBA talent forced to pay his dues and learn the game at every stop of the way.
Jan 07, 2014
The logic of the Cavaliers trading for Luol Deng is entirely backwards. Cleveland seems to think making the playoffs proves they are a legitimate NBA franchise. The reality is you can miss the playoffs and be a legit franchise and you can make the playoffs and not be one.
Dec 13, 2013
Eric Bledsoe has played only 15 games in a Suns' uniform, but the trade already looks like a massive heist. His 20.95 PER is sixth among PG’s, one spot ahead of his former Kentucky teammate John Wall. Wall is a No. 1 overall pick who received an $80 million extension; Bledsoe has been every bit as good.
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