The 2013 NBA Draft resembled a game of king of the hill played on a pitchers mound. In a down class with no clear franchise prospects, a slew of players scaled what passed for the peak only to be displaced by a prospect little or no better than his predecessor. The presumed #1 prospect, Nerlens Noel, was drafted 6th while the player residing back at 8th on Draft Express’s mock, Anthony Bennett, somehow seduced Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and has since been putting up historically embarrassing numbers and staking an early claim to worst first overall pick in history. Were the draft to be redone today, the first pick would probably be Giannis Antetokounmpo, the 19-year-old Greek Freak taken 15th last summer by the Bucks.
The upcoming 2014 Draft, with both prodigious talent and anticipated depth, will be so very different — except, perhaps, in the difficulty of selecting the first player overall. This year the contest is being waged atop a true mountain of talent, but at this moment, none of the best prospects have yet shown the strength to cast off their top competitors. Should this continue, we might see a March Madness with more draft implications than any previous.
But in the muddle of mid-January, here are my rankings, along with a short explanation for my player comparisons.
*All statistics accurate as of Jan. 15th, 2014.
Andrew Wiggins, SF — 6’8″ and 197 lbs; 18 years old; Freshman, Kansas. Comp: Kobe Bryant.
My rank: 1st; Draft Express rank: 1st; NBADraft.net rank: 3rd
2013-14 Stats: 15.8 pts, 6.3 rbs, 1.5 asts, 1.0 stls, 0.9 blks, 2.0 tos, 45% FG, 33% 3P, 76% FT
If I could rank three players all #1, I would, because right now there is plenty to argue for or against Jabari Parker or Joel Embiid being here in Wiggins’ place. But of the three, I put Wiggins at 1A for the same reasons he’s topped my rankings all season: potential and no one has unseated him. He’s inconsistent and disappears from games, and watching him can make you legitimately mad that NBA teams would consider tanking just to get the guy on the roster. Then he has a game like the one he put up against 25th ranked Kansas State, 22 points and 5 rebounds while moving faster and jumping higher than anyone else, and putting in four of nine from three for good measure. Before his next game, his father suggests he get to work on the boards, so he puts up 17 points and 19 rebounds (!) against Iowa State, showing that he just might be able to do anything on the court he really sets his mind to. Wiggins has all-NBA and all-defensive upside, and I’ve yet to see the NBA team who can resist upside.
Wiggins reminds me of a young Kobe Bryant because of his combination of length, speed, athleticism, and surprising skill give his age. He isn’t LeBron, who was so much bigger and stronger. But he gets to the hoop quickly and with agility, using tornado-fast spins and slicing by defenders who manage to get in his way, and combines that with a silky step back jumper.
Jabari Parker, SF/PF — 6’8″ and 241 lbs; 18 years old; Freshman, Duke. Comp: Carmelo Anthony.
My rank: 2nd; Draft Express rank: 2nd; NBADraft.net rank: 2nd
2013-14 Stats: 18.8 pts, 7.3 rbs, 1.5 asts, 0.8 stls, 1.2 blks, 2.2 tos, 49% FG, 39% 3P, 75% FT
Parker is in a slump. There’s no other way to say it, especially given his torrid start to the season (seven straight 20+ point games), which had many drawing parallels to Kevin Durant’s lone year at Texas. Five straight games under 16 points, including a 2 of 10, 7 point night against Notre Dame that got Parker benched, has ended such comparisons and started excuses. “He’s a little bit out of position,” Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski admits of Parker, “because if I had a bigger team, I’d be playing him on the wing.” Playing power forward and center in college, Parker has proven unable to match the strength and size of his collegiate counterparts. But in the NBA I think his most likely position will be at power forward, as he lacks the speed to stay with the supreme athletes that roam the wings of NBA sidelines. Whether playing the three position or the four, by NBA standards, he’s going to offer excellent offensive skill from all over the floor, but that will come with some defensive liability that can’t be hidden.
I’ve heard Glenn Robinson’s name tossed around as a comparison for Parker, but I think the young man can be a better scorer than that, particularly from the three point line. Like Anthony, his well rounded scoring ability could challenge for scoring titles, but that elite ability will not extend to as many aspects of the game as a LeBron James, Kevin Durant, or even Paul George.
Joel Embiid, C — 7’0″ and 240 lbs; 19 years old; Freshman, Kansas. Comp: David Robinson.
My rank: 3rd; Draft Express rank: 3rd; NBADraft.net rank: 1st
2013-14 Stats: 10.9 pts, 7.5 rbs, 1.4 asts, 0.9 stls, 2.6 blks, 2.1 tos, 68% FG, 25% 3P, 67% FT
While I’m ranking Embiid 1C here, if I had to predict the player actually taken first in the draft (team need not withstanding), at this point, I’d say the big man from Cameroon. Along with Wiggins, he strikes me as the only player available with both all-league and all-defensive potential. However, where expectations for Wiggins this season were so high he was doomed to under-perform them, the bar for Embiid was surprisingly low because he’s only played basketball since he was 16. He offers all the tantalization of Wiggins (or Dante Exum) without enough familiarity to breed contempt. Since breaking into the starting lineup, he’s averaging 12.5 pts, 8.4 rbs, and 3 blks a game while shooting 70% from the field and 74% from the free throw line and playing only 25 minutes a night. He is a medium risk, sky-high reward big who will demand development by an NBA team, but after passing on Antetokounmpo last year, and possibly Andre Drummond the year before, I expect it will be extremely difficult for many teams to pass on the player with perhaps the highest ceiling in the draft, particularly because he’s a true seven footer.
The most common parallel for Embiid is Hakeem Olajuwon. While Embiid has clearly watched the Dream’s game and does indeed bust out a Dream Shake every now and then, he doesn’t have the balance Olajuwon had. At this point, he reminds me more of David Robinson, whose height and athleticism made it look like he dunked on a Nerf hoop. Like a young Robinson, Embiid can run like a deer and jump like a player a foot shorter while flashing the beginnings of a technically sound game.
Julius Randle, PF — 6’9″ and 248 lbs; 19 years old; Freshman, Kentucky. Comp: Chris Webber.
My rank: 4th; Draft Express rank: 4th; NBADraft.net rank: 5th
2013-14 Stats: 16.9 pts, 11.0 rbs, 1.4 asts, 0.2 stls, 0.7 blks, 3.3 tos, 54% FG, 0% 3P, 71% FT
Like the other super freshmen who gunned it out of the gate, Randle has come down to earth since. He’s still a double double machine who eats glass as consistently as any player in the nation, and only five games ago he put up 29 and 10 while shooting 13 of 19 from the stripe. But two of his three most recent games were his first scoring below ten points, and scouts noticed (though he did grab 14 and 11 rebounds in those games respectively while playing an average of only 23 minutes). His decreasing scoring is as much about his teammates on the talent-glutted Kentucky team finally rounding into shape as his own cooling game. I find it amusing that Randle is now getting criticism for his insistence upon staying in the post and beasting college basketball. Coming out of high school the knock was he was too perimeter oriented, relying on his jump shot and speed too frequently. Show us you’ve got a post game, was the complaint. Go figure.
Zach Randolph’s name is frequently associated with Randle, and I admit, in college it looks like a great comp. But the college game really compresses the paint, minimizing the value of a fast big skilled with the ball in his hands. I expect Randle to be a better fit for the NBA game, where he will more often face up and abuse players with his speed and skill. People have quickly forgotten how athletic Randle really is. In the NBA, I expect him to remind everyone quickly, and look a lot like Webber as he does so.
For those who have forgotten:
Marcus Smart, PG — 6’4″ and 226 lbs; 19 years old; Sophomore, Oklahoma State. Comp: Somewhere between Joe Dumars and Jason Kidd.
My rank: 5th; Draft Express rank: 6th; NBADraft.net rank: 4th
2013-14 Stats: 17.9 pts, 5.5 rbs, 4.2 asts, 2.5 stls, 0.6 blks, 2.6 tos, 46% FG, 35% 3P, 71% FT
I am convinced that Marcus Smart will be a huge problem for teams drafting in the top five come June 26th. Of the top five, maybe even seven, prospects, he is the one hardest to project as a franchise centerpiece. He just isn’t a great enough playmaker (4.2 assists per game) to safely project as an elite point guard, nor is he a deadly enough outside shooter (35% from three) to trust him to become one of the rare dominant shooting guards. In a draft where fans of teams with top five picks will be thinking ***SUPERSTAR***, Smart’s unique all-around greatness may not be great enough. But every team with a top pick will know that following OK State’s opening conference loss to Kansas State, Smart punished Texas for 24 points, 11 rebounds, five assists, six steals, one block, and zero turnovers while going 16 of 20 from the free throw line. His next outing at West Virginia, he settled for 22 points, 13 rebounds, five assists, one steal, and one block while shooting three of five from downtown. Next victim, Texas Christian: 20 points, eight rebounds, five assists, two steals, three of five from deep, and seven of nine from the line. No player in college basketball can do more on the court than Smart (the acknowledged best leader in the game as well), and the same may well be true in the NBA. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if at least a few management teams with top five picks are torn between shooting for the stars as their fans desire or getting the “safe” star they so desperately want in Smart.
Finding a comparison for Smart is extremely difficult due to his unique game. Some say Dwyane Wade, but despite some similarities, Smart lacks Wade’s unreal explosiveness at the hoop as well as his otherworldly long arms. When I watch Smart, I see Joe Dumars’ sturdiness and presence, the ability — and willingness! — to guard anyone without fear because of his mentality and strength. But Smart is a superior athlete to Dumars, and while on the court, he works on his team like nitrous oxide. Like Jason Kidd, Smart single handedly ups the pace of the game on both ends of the floor, particularly when he’s getting steals and rebounds and sprinting up the court to lead the fast break, where his passing is at its best.
And just for the record, anyone who can jump to block a shot and go completely over the shooter in the process is a world class athlete, despite what some claim of Smart.
Aaron Gordon, PF — 6’9″ and 212 lbs; 18 years old; Freshman, Arizona. Comp: Shawn Kemp.
My rank: 6th; Draft Express rank: 7th; NBADraft.net rank: 20th
2013-14 Stats:12.2 pts, 7.9 rbs, 1.4 asts, 0.6 stls, 1.0 blks, 1.5 tos, 50% FG, 33% 3P, 47% FT
I’ve been critical of NBADraft.net’s low ranking of Gordon all year, but I do agree with them on one point: Gordon would benefit from another year in college. In an era of young, raw prospects, he’s both young for his class and raw, and compounds these factors by possessing such elite athleticism as to be able to make a career off of it even in the NBA, in a worst case scenario. Don’t think I’m down on Gordon as a player, as I’m not at all. He’s a coach’s dream as he impacts all aspects of a game while paring his otherworldly athleticism with a team-first mentality and intense motor. He was even named USA Basketball’s male athlete of the year. But, like many, I see NBA star potential in him, and he’s not yet ready to meet such expectations. Barring another year in college to build his foundational skills, I hope whatever teams picks him in the draft is capable of both teaching and being patient. He’ll need several years of careful, considerate shaping to become the player he can be.
Those expecting Gordon to be a second coming of Blake Griffin need to pay attention to the scales. Griffin was 40 pounds heavier than Gordon is now when he came out as a sophomore. I expect Gordon to bulk up, but not by 40 pounds. Instead, I foresee a modern version of Shawn Kemp, a pogo-stick of a player who uses speed and athleticism to contribute on both ends of the court while delivering dunks with epic style.
Dante Exum, PG/SG — 6’6″ and 188 lbs; 18 years old; Australian Institute of Sport. Comp: Derrick Rose.
My rank: 7th; Draft Express rank: 5th; NBADraft.net rank: 6th
2013-14 Stats: Not applicable
The only real news on the Dante “the Unicorn” Exum front is the obvious: he’s turning pro. In the words of Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski, “Dante Exum has completed meetings with eight powerhouse player representation agencies and left them a strong impression that he plans to enter the June NBA draft.” No kidding. His little dalliances with Indiana, North Carolina, Kentucky, Michigan, and Oregon never struck me as likely options for the Australian wunderkind. He’s been formally schooled to be an NBA star for the better part of his adolescence, and the chance to be a likely top five pick is simply too tempting for a player with little to gain from giving NBA teams an additional year of college film to assess. I expect the official announcement will come before I next update my rankings. The day people will start testing the unicorn’s horn is nearing.
It’s hard to comp a player based on little more than highlights, but that’s what we’re left with in the case of Dante Exum. From what I’ve seen, largely from his all-tournament level play at the Under 19 World Championships, he strikes me as a taller Derrick Rose. He has a very quick first step and can jump, and he accents these advantages by sudden stops, changes of direction, and using his long arms to release the ball at uncommon angles.
Noah Vonleh, PF/C — 6’9″ and 242 lbs; 18 years old; Freshman, Indiana. Comp: A more powerful Chris Bosh.
My rank: 8th; Draft Express rank: 8th; NBADraft.net rank: 16th
2013-14 Stats: 12.1 pts, 9.0 rbs, 0.5 asts, 1.0 stls, 1.3 blks, 2.1 tos, 56% FG, 54% 3P, 73% FT
Vonleh is the third player in my lowest tier of potential stars coming out of this draft. Everything I said of Aaron Gordon in terms of the benefits of another year of school apply to an even greater degree to Vonleh. (It may well apply to Exum too, for all I know.) Plus, where Gordon has the freak athleticism and motor to make an impact in the NBA regardless of his skill level, Vonleh strikes me as a young man who could end up in a bad professional situation and have it cost him his career. So much of his appeal is his passion for the game that killing that would strip away much of his value as a prospect. All that said, if he comes out, he has too much talent to escape the top ten. While his rebounding has dipped from a Randle-esque rate early in the year, his offense is starting to gain some polish. He’s shot 50% or better from the field in eight of his last nine games, is making free throws at a 73% clip, and has even hit seven of the 13 threes he’s taken. Add in his blocking four shots in two of his last four games, and he’s worthy of concluding this impressive list of prospects.
When I watch Vonleh, I imagine a young Chris Bosh playing the day after Thanksgiving. He’s 20 plus pounds bigger than Bosh and thus stronger yet not so quick, but the likeness is all in the arms. Both players make plays both offensively and defensively based on sheer length, often finishing an awkward looking move because they have an extra half foot of arm over their opponent.
Zach LaVine, PG/SG — 6’5″ and 180 lbs; 18 years old; Freshman, UCLA.
LaVine is an interesting prospect who shot up many boards like a rocket in November and early December but has since dropped back down considerably in the estimation of many. He may be the only player in college basketball who can jump as high as Aaron Gordon, and that combined with a hot shooting start and (dubious) belief he may play the point in the NBA saw him in top ten territory. (NBADraft.net loves the kid and still has him at #9.) His stroke has since cooled and his passing isn’t any more plentiful, and the buzz is starting to subside. I think he’s an NBA shooting guard who needs at least one more year, not the next Russell Westbrook.
Gary Harris, SG — 6’4″ and 210 lbs; 19 years old; Sophomore, Michigan State.
I include Harris less because he’s climbed many spots up boards recently than because he’s only recently started to justify the position most gave him at the start of the year based on his fine freshman season. Harris is a clear product of Tom Izzo, a tough competitor who gets after it defensively and contributes an all around game. He’s shorter than the prototypical NBA shooting guard but has the athleticism and length to make it work, as long as he shoots as well from range as people believe he can. He really struggled from deep to start the year but a recent four-game stretch where he rang up 14 of 29 attempts has optimists hoping he’s turning a corner after ankle problems early in the year.
Jerami Grant, SF — 6’8″ and 196 lbs; 19 years old; Sophomore, Syracuse.
Grant has two things going for him now: his body and his team hasn’t lost a game. He has a 7’2″ wingspan and is an excellent all-around athlete, giving him the NBA’s favorite term, potential, in spades. But he’s extremely raw, especially for a sophomore, and has only started four games for the #2 ranked Orange. On draft day, lingering regret on the part of some teams over not taking the Greek Freak, who had a similar profile, may well work in Grant’s favor.
Isaiah Austin, C — 7’1″ and 220 lbs; 20 years old; Sophomore, Baylor.
If there’s one player who can compete with Alex Poythress for most frustrating physical talent, it’s Isaiah Austin. Since last season many have waited anxiously for Austin to become a newly minted Marcus Camby, but it just is not going to happen. Austin is playing fewer minutes and scoring and rebounding at a lower per 40 rate than as a freshman and, to top it off, he just delivered a monumental stinker (4 points, 2 rebounds in 22 minutes) in a bad loss against Texas Tech. He may end up being picked in the first round just on his raw parts, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Austin is out of the league when his rookie contract is up.
Montrezl Harrell, PF/C — 6’8″ and 230 lbs; 19 years old; Sophomore, Louisville.
Harrell started out the year just outside the top six or seven all-world prospects, so expectations were high. Now, he’s out of the lottery. It isn’t so much that he’s performed poorly (his per 40 averages of 18.3 points and 12.9 rebounds while shooting 64% from the field are really strong). Rather, he simply hasn’t moved much beyond putting his physical talent to good use. If he develops a respectable post game, his stock could rise quickly, but there have been too few signs of that thus far.
Spencer Dinwiddie, SG — 6’6″ and 200 lbs; 20 years old; Junior, Colorado.
Dinwiddie’s slide down draft boards is of the worst sort: induced by major injury. Colorado’s best player tore his ACL in a loss against Washington and will miss the remainder of the season, and likely any opportunity he had at a first round selection this year. Dinwiddie has only been in the first round conversation because of his impressive sophomore campaign, and I anticipate he will need a second breakout college season as a senior to regain a real shot at an NBA career.
The Jazz have the third worst record in the league, after only the Bucks and Magic. If the Jazz were in the same position on June 26th, I predict: With the third pick in 2014 NBA Draft, the Utah Jazz select…
Joel Embiid from Kansas.