Since our last Mock Draft, UConn emerged from the field of 64 to claim the national championship. This adds more fodder to the notion that parity is on the rise in college basketball (UConn was a #7 seed, and Kentucky and #8 seed). More relevantly for our purposes, the NBA draft die is now cast until the combine and workouts provide new material to evaluate.
Tournament performances often significantly impact teams’ perceptions – perhaps even unduly so. It’s at least questionable whether that’ll happen this year. A few players ended on a high note. Shabazz Napier, Aaron Gordon, Ronde Hollis-Jefferson, Gary Harris, T.J. Warren, and the Harrison boys all helped themselves to varying degrees. Wiggins and Parker were abjectly awful, while McDermott, Ennis, Grant, and Hood weren’t much better.
In the wake of those developments, our board remains largely in tact. No one broke into what I would characterize as the “Elite 3″ prospects in this year’s draft (Wiggins, Parker, Embiid), and perhaps only Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis played his way out of the top 10. While lacking a true shake-up, several players now appear capable of delivering just that should their momentum hold.
2. Jabari Parker. Serious questions have begun to emerge about Parker’s ability to defend in the NBA. If Parker doesn’t show up to workouts in better shape, with improved lateral agility, he begins to look at lot more like Glenn Robinson than a franchise player.
3. Joel Embiid. At this stage, no one has any clue where Embiid will go. If he gets a clean bill of health, he could be back on top. If concerns continue to grow, his stock could tumble. Too many good players remain on the board to risk Greg Oden 2.0 here. If doubts merely linger, however, and produce diverging opinions, someone will take him no later than 3. His ceiling simply is too high.
4. Aaron Gordon. No question, Shabaaz is the tournament’s darling. But no top-level prospect emerged from the tournament with more momentum than Gordon. Doubts about his position that came up so often a few months ago have been replaced by the sentiment that he’s such a good athlete as to make the argument over his fit at the 3 or the 4 relatively meaningless. Gordon looks more and more like Shawn Marion. And that’s a damn good thing. Right now, star potential separates him from Parker and Wiggins. Should one of those two fall farther and/or Gordon can show an improved shooting stroke, don’t be surprised if he hasn’t reached his ceiling here just yet.
Everything but a point guard is on Boston’s shopping list. And if Ainge moves Rondo, he’ll enter the draft looking for one of those too. In that case, Exum and Smart become intriguing options at #4 too. But if Rondo stays, Ainge would be hard pressed to find a better running mate than Gordon, who also provides the versatility every GM could use to rebuild a roster.
5. Marcus Smart. Despite his team’s woes, Smart played his ass off in the tournament. He’s a tough, furious competitor who possesses the highest floor of any player in the draft. No, he’s probably not going to be Rose or Westbrook. But even if he never improves his shot, it’s hard to envision him becoming anything less than a top 15 floor general and an imposing, impactful defensive force in the backcourt.
Is Exum potentially a better fit next to Burke? Ya, he does. If the early rumblings are any indication, however, Exum is more likely to be playing in Australia than Salt Lake City next season.
6. LAL Dante Exum. We know he’s hired Kobe’s agent. And we know that in certain circles, it’s thought that he has a short list of teams that could entice him to leave Australia. To my recollection, Steve Francis was the last player to force his way to a desired draft destination. We may find out if the league has changed.
Randle and Vonleh merit mention here too. If either demonstrates upside roughly comparable to Exum’s, LA’s need for bigs might be more compelling than Exum’s intrigue.
7. Noah Vonleh. Who is Noah Vonleh? The more I attempt to answer that question (at least in terms of an NBA prospect), the more I like what I see. Vonleh flew under the radar on a sub-par Indiana squad this season. He shouldn’t have. Equip a 6’11, well-developed frame with NBA level atheleticism, reliable perimeter shooting, prolific rebounding, and disruptive defense, and you have Noah Vonleh. What he lacks in post-polish relative to Randle, he makes up with a balanced floor game that seems well-suited to prevailing dynamics in the NBA. Like Gordon’s, Vonleh’s rise might not end here.
8. Gary Harris. He’s a 6’4″ elite athlete with a money (if streaky) quick release from long range, and a dogged defender to boot. What’s not to like? Are we sure that Harris isn’t a better prospect than Bradley Beal? Compare their college stats, and you’ll see comparable production. Given the structure of its roster, Detroit all-but must take a guard with this pick.
Depending on how they feel about Jennings moving forward, Ennis carries a certain appeal here too. It’d be great to pick up a floor leader. With pedestrian athleticism and a still developing frame, however, it’s hard to feel confident that Ennis can be that guy.
To some extent, need trumps talent here. Julius Randle’s almost universally regarded as the better prospect. But with Drummond, Monroe, and Smith already squabbling over minutes, adding Randle is out of the question. Detroit needs shooting, and Harris has few, if any, legitimate question marks. That makes him the pick here.
9. Julius Randle. Randle’s a tremendous player. Next to Smart, he’s as close as it gets a sure thing in this draft. You know what you’re getting: Randle has an NBA ready physique and a post game that promises to make him one of the league’s most effective scorers in the paint from day one. His scoring explosions, however, tapered off as the season progressed. It’s only fair to note that triple teams played a significant role in his diminished output. Nonetheless, Randle consistently struggled to get the shot he wanted against long, athletic defenders. Since there are quite a few of those in the NBA, that’s a bad omen. But it’s not a fatal flaw.
Charles Barkely is quick to admit that he struggled most against the likes of Kevin McHale and Kevin Garnett, the long arms of whom even his considerable heft couldn’t prevent from bothering his shot. Of course, Barkely had a prolific career in spite of those struggles. That’s not to say Randle’s going to be Chuck, but it is to point out that almost every NBA player has his Kryptonite.
Forced into a comparison, Randle seems destined for a career arc like that of Carlos Boozer, which really isn’t half bad. Athletically, Randle falls somewhere between the ground bound Boozer/David West variety and the freakish David Lee/Blake Griffin brand of power forward. That makes his ceiling higher than those of the former two, but unless he entirely transforms his approach to defense, Randle’s unlikely to become much more than a millennial man’s Boozer. And that’s mostly why he slips — NBA GMs love upside. Randle’s more or less of a known quantity, which makes it harder for a lottery GM to fall in love with the idea of selecting him.
As for Randle to Cleveland, it’s tough to argue that he’d be a great fit on a roster with Tristian Thompson and Anthony Bennett. But, at #9, it’s even more difficult to find a player who makes more sense. Don’t be surprised if Cleveland moves this pick, perhaps in a package with Dion Waiters.
10. Montrezz Harrell. Dude’s a beast. Why he’s fluttered somewhere between the late teens and twenties on most draft boards continues to elude me. Sure, ideally he’d be 6’10″/250 instead of 6’8″/235. Repeatedly, however, we’ve seen that guys his size – especially those with long arms, like Harrell’s – prove that prototypical size is just that – a prototype, not a prerequisite for success. Blake Griffin, Paul Milsap, Antawn Jamison, Elton Brand, Larry Johnson, and even Karl Malone – in addition to the names referenced above – all are/were highly productive post players. There’s no reason Harrell follow the blueprint they’ve left for him.
Philly gets a gifted scorer at the four who won’t need to be a formidable rim protector next to Nerlens Noel. Sixers fans would have to feel pretty good about the young front court of Noel, Harrell, and Parker.
11. P.J. Hairston. The D-League’s poster-child continues to build momentum as the draft approaches. What a tremendous story of redemption. It’s almost unthinkable that a guy, who by many estimates possesses the talent of a top 5 pick, could more or less be written off due to issues off the court, and then scrap and claw his way back to the lottery. We’re pulling for ya, P.J., and not just because the compelling narrative — kid’s the most lethal perimeter scorer in this draft not named Jabari.
Denver’s been burned before by questionable character guys (see, e.g., J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin, Birdman, and now Javale McGee and his outsized contract combine with nagging rumors about the Manimal’s mental makeup to give the Nuggets what may well be the league’s most combustible frontcourt). So maybe Denver passes on P.J. in favor of one of several more or less comparable perimeter talents still on the board. They shouldn’t. The Nuggets roster’s long on mediocre wings, none of which have the potential to become an all-star. Hairston has that kind of upside, and at #11, few, if any others possess.
12. Tyler Ennis. After landing Embiid, Magic fans will be clamoring for a natural point guard. As the self-dubbed resident expert on all things Cuse, I’m not quite sure what to tell you about Ennis. Before the season, I’d heard about a talented point with good size who the Orange would rely upon to orchestrate Boeheim’s attack. During the first two or three games, I wondered what all the buzz had been about. Ennis had none of the qualities that jump off the screen. His middling athleticism, average shooting, sound fundamentals, and Duncan-like stoic demeanor weren’t quick to make Cuse fans forget about MCW.
He grew on me. The more I watched, the more I saw the nation’s most poised freshman, always in control, steadily guiding Cuse to a 25-0 start and the #1 ranking. With each passing game, it seemed that his confidence – and mine in him – grew. Even if it wasn’t Sportscenter material, he got to the basket at will, and displayed a deft touch to finish over bigs lurking near the rim. Suddenly, he was ice-cold clutch too – his mid-court heave to sink Pitt just the most notorious example of his lethal, late game daggers.
When the Orange began to collapse in February, many of the same questions about Ennis resurfaced. It wasn’t so much that he catalyzed Cuse’s demise, but rather that he proved incapable of preventing it. On a team that struggled to score, Ennis too often languished on the perimeter, settling for jump shots or moving the ball without an evident purpose. He became error prone on defense, and while it’s difficult to gauge an individual’s effectiveness on defense in Syracuse’s zone, it’s safe to say that he will not be a plus, let alone a lock-down defender at the next level.
Those concerns only grew during the tournament. When Ennis’s shot betrayed him, he seemed content to coast on offense rather than force his way to the rim. And once it struck him that his team needed his penetration, Ennis couldn’t always deliver. In several instances, he appeared to lack the strength necessary to finish through contact.
So where does all of this leave us heading into the draft? If I’m a GM, I’m not convinced that Ennis is anything more than a young Steve Blake or a latter day Howard Eisley, i.e., a career backup who can play 12 years in the league and become a valuable contributor to a winning team. In the lottery, you’d hope for better.
Maybe Ennis is a starting point guard in the NBA. But finding a comp. is no simple task. The uberathletes are out (so long Russ, Rose, Wall, Rondo, Lillard, and Bledsoe). So too are the speed-deamons (Ty Lawson, Monta Ellis, Isaiah Thomas, and a younger Tony Parker) transcendent passers (CP3 and Rubio), prolific scorers (Curry, Kyrie, Dragic, Jennings, and Kemba), and big-bodied floor generals (Kyle Lowry, Deron Williams, Jrue Holiday, George Hill.)
Scour the league for Ennis’s predecessor, and you’ll find that his best case scenario lies somewhere between Kirk Hinrich and Mike Conley. Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe Ennis develops a bit of Dragic’s creativity, Paul’s feistiness, and a dangerous jumpshot. I just wouldn’t bet on it.
13. Zach Lavine. The Wolves need instant impact. They need more backcourt production, and reliable shooting to offset Rubio’s increasingly horrific stroke. So why not take Nick Stauskas or Doug McDermmott here? Each wields an advanced offensive repetoire, and both are dangerous enough from outside to fully occupy a defender. And critically, those guys are ready to play tomorrow.
Thing is, Minny needs a game changer to keep Kevin Love in the Twin Cities. Stauskus and McDermott may be nice pieces, but they’re not that. Hence, the Wolves may be willing to roll the dice on a player whose upside is matched by no more than five players in this draft. Lavine’s an electric athlete with the size to play both guard spots, and has shown glimpses of a sweet shooting stroke that seems likely to improve. He’s the sort of talent that changes minds, and even with other pressing needs, transforming Love’s perception of the team’s future has to come first.
14. Jerami Grant. In Memphis, it’s time to move on from Zach Randolph. He’s on the decline, and we’ve seen where a team led by Z-Bo and Gasol ends up: the Grizzlies always come up a bit short. Memphis would do well to snag Grant here. The son of Harvey and nephew of Horace is just the sort of specimen you’d expect with that lineage. A long 6’10″, Grant has the explosion and body control to rival the league’s best 3s. If he didn’t shoot like a raw 5, he’d have been long gone by now.
Try to mold him into a 3 and you’ll be disappointed. Think he’s the next prolific stretch-4? Better have a backup plan. On the right team, however, Grant could be devastating. And Memphis is an ideal home. Gasol’s incomparable post-passing and deep range would empower Grant, allowing him to do what he does best – slash to the rim, crash the offensive board’s, cover large swaths of the court, and harass defenders with arms that just don’t end.
15. James Young. A 6’8″, bouncy wing who can fill it up from all over the court and make the spectacular finish at the rim: you know of anyone on the Hawks roster who fits that description? Neither do we. Oh, and he’s an improving shooter from range too. At #15, it doesn’t get much better.
16. Clint Capella. With time rapidly eating away at the albatross that is Carlos Boozer’s contract,the time is ripe to draft his replacement. That’s not to say Capella’s game remotely resembles his predecessor’s. At 6’10, 219, he’s taller, longer, and more explosive, albeit perhaps 15 pounds too thin to avoid getting pushed around on the block. Knowing they pick at #19 too, Chicago can afford to roll the dice on the draft’s mystery man from Switzerland.
17. Nick Stauskas. A luxury pick for Phoenix, Stauskas is ready to step in and step up what is already a high octane offense. With Dragic and Bledsoe creating havoc all over the floor, the Michigan phenom is poised to see plenty of good looks to show off his elite distance shooting. An underrated ball-handler, Stauskas could develop into an ideal 6th man.
18. Willie Cauley Stein. It’s boom or bust for Danny at this point. And if he hits with this pick, the dividends will be considerable. Cauley-Stein oozes potential, with an athletic 7′ foot frame that appears well suited to carry at least 30 more pounds to take him from a toothpick at 220 to an imposing 250. If that were the whole story, he wouldn’t be available at #18. Kentucky’s giant produced very little, and never really looked like a man amongst boys.
19. Doug McDermott. McBuckets falls victim to the four year curse: stick around that long, and you become a known entity, which most GMs avoid like the plague. While Doug’s unlikely to fill it up like he did in college, he’s still the draft’s best shooter and a creative scorer. He’s a rich man’s Kyle Korver, and that makes him a perfect candidate to join the Bulls, which have yet to fill the former Bulls marksmen’s shoes.
20. Rondae Hollis Jefferson. Here’s one vote for ditching the Hollis to make our lives simpler. Jefferson just might be the bestathlete in this class. We’re not totally sure how that’ll translate, but it’s certainly never a bad thing.
21. Rodney Hood. Once considered a lottery lock, Hood’s now thought to be somewhat of a one trick pony. To compound theproblem, his trick – long range shooting – faltered as the season progressed. Nonetheless, don’t be surprised if workouts move this stellar athlete back up on the draft board.
22. Cleanthony Early. There’s good reason for optimism in Memphis, as the Grizzlies add some much needed perimeter punch inthe form of the crafty wing from Wichita.
23. K.J. McDaniels. With a roster stocked with young talent, the Jazz take a flier on a wing whose considerable upside is just beginning to garner attention.
24. T.J. Warren. He may struggle defensively, but at this point in the draft. every prospect has his flaws. Warren can score in bunches, and will make an immediate impact off the bench in Charlotte.
25. Kyle Anderson. UCLA’s skilled power forward generated a lot of buzz as he propelled the Bruins to a strong showing in the tournament. He’s not much a defender, but that’ll matter less next to Dwight Howard.
26. Dario Saric. Flush with young talent, expect Phoenix to jump at the chance to stash a premier talent overseas for a year or two.
27. Adrienne Paine. Miami has to be thrilled to see this bruiser fall into its lap here. He’d fit nicely next to Bosh, and immediately upgrade Miami’s cast of castoff bigs.
28. Patrick Young. The Clips are desperate for a capable third big man, and Young fits the bill.
29. Shabazz Napier. With Reggie Jackson potentially packing his bags this summer, OKC could use to bolster its backcourt with the tournament darling.
30. SA Jarnell Stokes. Tim Duncan isn’t getting any younger, and the Spurs have to be disappointed after signing Splitter to a lucrative deal last summer. Stokes’s motor will be a welcome addition to SA’s aging front court.