May 11, 2014 10:38 PM EDT
Our position-by-position look at the top NBA prospects returning to school next season concludes with the centers. There should be a bumper crop of behemoths in the college game in 2015, who will look to make their mark in a sport traditionally dominate by guards. Last season, Kentucky turned that logic on its head, riding a wave of NBA talent in their frontcourt all the way to the NCAA championship game, despite very inconsistent play from their perimeter players.
Next season will be no different, as John Calipari will have more size upfront than a lot of NBA teams. It’s not just Dakari Johnson and Willie Cauley-Stein, both of whom would have been first-round picks in 2014. Karl Towns, Trey Lyles and Marcus Lee, while natural PF’s, could all play C for most college teams. For Calipari, the trickiest part will be finding shots and touches for all his big men. Either way, Lexington will once again be a prime destination for NBA scouts.
Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky - Cauley-Stein was one of the more surprising decisions to return to school, given that he could have been a Top 15 pick and he is returning to a logjam in the Kentucky frontcourt next season. I’ve always thought he had a higher ceiling than Nerlens Noel - neither guy is all that skilled on offense, but Cauley-Stein is just as athletic and he’s much bigger (7’0 240). He can switch on the pick-and-roll and lock up guards already. If he develops a post game or a 15-foot jumper this off-season, watch out.
Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga - Karnowski hasn’t gotten a ton of publicity at Gonzaga - he backed up Kelly Olynyk as a freshman and played second fiddle to Sam Dower as a sophomore. However, despite their wealth of talent upfront, the Zags decided to run their offense through a bunch of 6’1 guards instead of the 7’0 300 monster at C. Karnowski is a massive human being with an incredible amount of skill for a guy his size. He averaged 10 points a game on 59% shooting - he needs more than 7 shots a game.
Dakari Johnson, Kentucky - Johnson is kind of the converse of Cauley-Stein. They both have the size to be NBA C’s, but while Cauley-Stein doesn’t have a ton of skill, Johnson doesn’t have a lot of athleticism. At 7’0 260, he has good touch around the rim and a decent post game, but he’s not very agile and his interior defense leaves a lot to be desired. If Johnson can cut some weight off his frame, return to school in better shape and improve as a rebounder and shot-blocker, he will be a lottery pick.
AJ Hammons, Purdue - Progress has been slow for Hammons, whose been stuck on rebuilding teams in his first two seasons in Purdue. Nevertheless, the physical tools are there - at 7’0 250, Hammons is solidly built and can move well for a player his size. He averaged 11 points, 7 rebounds and 3 blocks a game on 51% shooting as a sophomore. If he can improve those numbers as a junior and get Purdue back in the NCAA Tournament discussion, he will be a first-round pick next year.
Mamadou N’Diaye, UC-Irvine - I didn’t really know what to make of him until I saw him in person, when UC-Irvine played SMU in the NIT. I came away pretty impressed. He’s way more athletic and way more skilled than you would expect a 7’6 300 guy to be. If he was only 7’0, he would still be an NBA prospect. At 7’6, he changes the geometry of the game just by standing in front of the rim. He’s not the most compelling basketball player at this stage in his career, but neither was Roy Hibbert as a freshman.
Other names to watch:
Kaleb Tarczewski (Arizona), Joel James (UNC), Nnanna Egwu (Illinois), Nephawe Tshdizivili (New Mexico State)
May 06, 2014 8:07 PM EDT
Our position-by-position series look at the top NBA prospects coming back to college continues with the power forward position, which is annually one of the deepest in every draft. Since the physical demands for a SF (a 6’8+ wing who can shoot 3’s) and C (a 6’11+ athlete with the size and length to protect the rim) are so demanding, most forwards end up under the broad tent of PF’s, a position which encompasses 7’0 shooters like Dirk Nowitzki and 6’7 bruisers like Kenneth Faried.
In contrast to small forward and center, where very few players can fit the prototype of size, athleticism and skill, there are usually too many power forward to go around. The competition to get drafted and secure a spot in a starting line-up is as intense as any position in the league, which gives NBA teams a lot of leeway in terms of what they are looking for. There is usually a trade-off between shooting and defense, so the holy grail is a guy like LaMarcus Aldridge, a 6’11+ shooter who can protect the rim.
Top 5 Power Forwards
Jarrell Martin, LSU - A 5-star freshman who was not in a position to put up big stats last year - he was playing out of position as a small forward next to two guys who are also NBA prospects (Jordan Mickey, Johnny O’Bryant III). In terms of talent, though, not much separates him from guys like Jabari Parker and Julius Randle. Martin is 6’9 240 and he can handle the ball, shoot the 3 and play above the rim. If he was taking 14-15 shots a game like Jabari, he would have nice stats too.
Bobby Portis, Arkansas - Portis started coming on strong towards the tail end of his freshman season. He’s a lottery pick talent who should only need one more year of school. Arkansas beat Kentucky twice and Portis didn’t look outmatched by Randle or any of their other lottery picks. He’s really big (6’10 240), he moves well for a guy his size, he’s a good outside shooter and he’s pretty comfortable with the ball in his hands. As the main option on an improving Arkansas team, Portis could be the SEC POY.
Jordan Mickey, LSU - LSU is stacked. They will be a better team next season even without Johnny O’Bryant, a second-round pick in this year’s draft. Mickey is 6’8 220 and he averaged three blocks a game as a freshman in the SEC. The main thing for him this off-season is putting on some weight - at 235, 240, he would be a Top 15 pick. He’s very athletic, he’s pretty skilled and he plays bigger than his size. With Mickey at the 5 and Martin at the 4, watch for LSU to be one of the surprise teams in the country next season.
Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin - I have Kaminsky as a PF and not a C because I don’t think he has the strength (at 235 pounds) or the athleticism to protect the rim or wrestle with some of the Goliaths at the next level. He’s a very skilled 7’0 who can shoot, put the ball on the floor and post up smaller players, but I think he’s better in an Andrea Bargnani role playing off a C. You saw that against Kentucky in the Final Four - he really couldn’t handle the size of Julius Randle or Dakari Johnson in the post.
Chris Walker, Florida - This is a bit of a placeholder for Walker, since I didn’t get a real good feel for his game as a freshman. He was ineligible for the first half of the season and by the time he was able to play, Florida was pretty set in their big man rotation and he only got a few minutes coming off the bench. At 6’11 220 with elite athleticism, he’s clearly got the physical tools for the next level, but he didn’t show a whole lot when it came to skills and feel for the game in his limited time last season.
Other names to watch:
Brandon Ashley (Arizona), Robert Carter Jr. (Georgia Tech), Montrezl Harrell (Louisville), Brice Johnson (UNC), Shaq Goodwin (Memphis), Marcus Lee (Kentucky)
May 05, 2014 1:04 PM EDT
Our position-by-position look at the top NBA prospects coming back to school next season continues with the small forward position, a position which has become increasingly difficult in recent years. With floor spacing the name of the game in the NBA, it’s very hard to hide a small forward who can’t shoot 3’s. The problem is there just aren’t many 6’7+ players with the length and athleticism to match up with NBA small forwards who also have the skill-set to drain 25+ foot shots.
A small forward who can’t shoot 3’s has to have the game to be a primary offensive option at the next level, since the ball will naturally wind up in their hands. As a result, it’s become a bit of an all-or-nothing position - there’s no such thing as a role playing SF who can’t stretch the floor at the next level. Going into next season, there aren’t many players coming back to the college game who can play the SF position in the NBA, but there are even fewer who can shoot 3’s.
If there’s a role model for these guys, it’s Kawhi Leonard, who went from a 29% three-point shooter at San Diego State to 38% with the San Antonio Spurs. You just don’t see a player make that transition too often. For every Leonard or Lance Stephenson who become better shooters, there are a dozen D-League wing players who are a three-point shot from making millions of dollars in the NBA. If there is another Chip Engelland out there, he could be a very rich man.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona - RHJ started to come on strong towards the end of last season, moving into the starting line-up when Brandon Ashley went down with a foot injury. Arizona had some floor spacing issues playing him with Aaron Gordon together, so he should have a much bigger role as a sophomore, with Gordon off to the NBA. From a physical standpoint, RHJ is as talented a player as any in the country - a 6’7 215 ball of fast twitch muscles with a long wingspan.
The most intriguing thing about his game is his passing ability, which he didn’t always get to showcase as a freshman, when he was more of a secondary option. However, he’s an excellent ball-handler with a great feel for the game, who had 6 assists against UNLV and 5 against Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament. If he can develop a three-point shot over the summer, he could be a Top 5 pick. Even without one, RHJ could have a long career as an Andre Iguodala type player.
Sam Dekker, Wisconsin - Dekker, like most of Bo Ryan’s players at Wisconsin, passed up a chance to be a first-round pick to come back to school as an upperclassmen. As a junior, he will be expected to team with Frank Kaminsky and lead the Badgers to a Big Ten title. NBA scouts have little patience for older players who stay in school and plateau - to remain in the first-round pick conversation, Dekker will need to have a Big Ten POY caliber season next year.
At 6’7 220, he is a solid all-around player with surprising athleticism, who averaged 12 points and 6 rebounds a game on 47% shooting as a sophomore. While he doesn’t have ideal size for an NBA SF, he should have a long career at the next level as a versatile player who can swing between both wing positions. After playing off the ball in his first two seasons, Dekker should be given the opportunity to create more shots for himself and others as a junior.
Alex Poythress, Kentucky - At 6’8 240, Poythress projects as more of a PF, but there won’t be many minutes for him at the position at Kentucky, where he will have to fight for playing time with Karl Towns, Trey Lyles and Marcus Lee. Poythress has the athleticism and shooting stroke to play on the perimeter, but he has the tendency to float and not impact the game when he’s playing too far from the basket. He’s still only a junior, which makes him an old man in Lexington.
Branden Dawsen, Michigan State - At 6’6 225, Dawsen is a freak athlete who plays much bigger than his size. If the NBA doesn’t work out for him, he might want to think about the NFL. The question for him is simple - he doesn’t have the size to play in the post in the NBA, like he does in college as an undersized 4, and he doesn’t have the skill-set to score on the perimeter. If Dawsen could shoot 3’s, he would be a first-round pick. Without a jumper, though, it will be difficult.
LeBryan Nash, Oklahoma State - After being seen as a possible one-and-done player coming out of high school, Nash has turned in a solid college career at OSU. With Marcus Smart and Markel Brown gone, Nash will have to carry a huge offensive load as a senior. At 6’7 215, he has an elite first step that makes him a very difficult cover as a stretch 4 in college. However, to play in the NBA, Nash will need to develop a three-point shot in his final season in Stillwater.
Other names to watch: Troy Williams (Indiana)
May 01, 2014
There is no shortage of big, athletic guards who can shoot the ball - what separates the best SG prospects is the ability to attack the rim and create shots for their teammates.
Apr 30, 2014
The Pacers are one of the biggest teams in the NBA, with a 7’2 Goliath standing in front of the rim next to another 6’9 bruiser and three of the longest and most athletic perimeter players in the NBA in front of them. They were built to beat the Heat, a team full of slashers, but they have no answer for an Atlanta offense that plays five out.
Apr 29, 2014
Delon Wright, Marcus Paige, Rysheed Jordan, Andrew Harrison and Ryan Boatright are returning to college, but are the most intriguing point guard prospects for the NBA.
Apr 24, 2014
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. Mason Plumlee and Dieng had turned themselves into effective centers in college, but they slipped in the draft because of concerns about their age and ceiling.
Apr 23, 2014
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. 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.
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.
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