The greatest month in American sports is nearly upon us. Expect even more madness than usual with no team a dominant favorite and college hoops riding an influx of ultra-talented yet fascinatingly erratic freshmen. Anything could happen, and probably will.
Even dedicated NBA fans have reason to stay glued to their television throughout the tournament as possibly the best draft class since 2003 largely sorts itself out elimination style. This class is deep and talented, yet more and more grumbles are sounding that there is no true standout, no obvious number one who can deliver both elite upside and (of paramount importance to team front office personnel) little risk.
The class is a high stakes crap shoot, and people will largely lay down their bets based on what they see players do in the bright lights of the tournament.
So in my rankings this month I include both a tiered ranking of which players I group together as prospects and things to watch for from each player in the NCAA Tournament.1
My top tier consists of the two players I see as all-league prospects on both ends of the court, true franchise centerpiece talents.
Joel Embiid, C — 7’0″ and 240 lbs; 19 years old; Freshman, Kansas. Comp. David Robinson.
My rank: 1st; Draft Express rank: 1st; NBADraft.net rank: 1st
2013-2014 Stats: 11.2 pts, 8.1 rbs, 1.4 asts, 0.9 stls, 2.6 blks, 2.4 tos, 62.6% FG, 20% 3P, 68.5% FT
To understand why Embiid sits atop nearly every big board at this point, simply add together several numbers: seven feet tall; he has only played organized basketball since 20112; and per 40 production of 19.4 points, 14 rebounds, and 4.5 blocks.
What to watch for in the tournament: Can Embiid manage his fouls and his temper, and most of all, will his recent back injury linger into the tournament?
Andrew Wiggins, SF — 6’8” and 197 lbs; 19 years old; Freshman, Kansas. Comp: Kobe Bryant.
My rank: 2nd; Draft Express rank: 2nd; NBADraft.net rank: 3rd
2013-2014 Stats: 16.3 pts, 5.9 rbs, 1.6 asts, 1.0 stls, 0.9 blks, 2.1 tos, 44.1% FG, 34.3% 3P, 76% FT
While I put Embiid slightly above Wiggins as an overall prospect at this moment, were the Jazz to somehow end up with the first overall pick, I’d advise them to select the Great Canadian Hope and twice on Sundays. He has the tools to be an elite NBA wing at nearly every aspect of the game. As for those complaining about his lack of assertiveness, consider his stats against teams ranked in the top 25 of college basketball: 17.8 points and 7.5 rebounds while shooting 45.6% from the field, 42.9% from three, and 83.6% from the line on 5.5 free throw attempts.3 Kansas is 7 and 3 in those games.
What to watch for: Impact. Wiggins has proven prone to disappearing acts in the regular season, and that can’t happen in the tournament.
This pair of players lacks the potential to dominate a game on the defensive side of the ball, which results in a lower ranking than Embiid or Wiggins. But when it comes to pure scoring potency, you find the best prospects by a large margin here.
Jabari Parker, SF/PF — 6’8″ and 241 lbs; 18 years old; Freshman, Duke. Comp: Carmelo Anthony.
My rank: 3rd; Draft Express rank: 3rd; NBADraft.net rank: 2nd
2013-2014 Stats: 18.8 pts, 8.9 rbs, 1.3 asts, 1.1 stls, 1.4 blks, 2.4 tos, 47.8% FG, 37% 3P, 73.1% FT
After a fairly dramatic slump (that happened to coincide with the death of Coach K’s brother and, by the Duke leader’s own admission, a spate of poor coaching), Parker is back to torturing opposing defenses. Notably, while his shooting from distance has fallen somewhat, he’s attacking the hoop with far greater determination. A team looking for instant impact and dynamic scoring would take Parker first overall.
What to look for: Can the ultimate offensive option diversify his impact by dishing assists and holding his own on the defensive end? If that doesn’t happen, Duke won’t threaten the Final Four.
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: 4th
2013-2014 Stats: 15.5 pts, 10.4 rbs, 1.4 asts, 0.4 stls, 0.9 blks, 2.8 tos, 51.8% FG, 23.1% 3P, 72.8% FT
Randle has become a less dominant post presence as the season has progressed and other Kentucky players have absorbed some of that load. He’s still dominating the glass, however, and if the Wildcats advance deep into the tournament it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Randle reverts to the unguardable force he was earlier. No player has seen more double and triple teams this season, and if that changes in the tournament, Randle could be the breakout player of March.
What to watch for: Randle will never be a defensive stopper, but he has both the agility and strength to be a good positional defender — if he’s energetic and invested. He needs to be better in March. Just check out his coach’s response to Randle’s recent defensive effort.
Talent-wise and in the long term, these players belong with the top tier prospects — perhaps even above some. But where the top two tiers strike me as being relatively low risk picks, the same can’t be said for these players. They might become superstars or, if put in the wrong situation with unrealistic developmental expectations, be seen as gross busts.
Noah Vonleh, PF/C — 6’10″ and 242 lbs; 18 years old; Freshman, Indiana. Comp: A stronger Chris Bosh.
My rank: 5th; Draft Express rank: 7th; NBADraft rank: 5th
2013-2014 Stats: 11.6 pts, 9.1 rbs, 0.6 asts, 0.9 stls, 1.3 blks, 2.2 tos, 53.5% FG, 55.6% 3P, 71.8% FT
It’s hard to imagine a top ten prospect for the NBA draft being hidden while playing at Indiana, but that’s largely what Vonleh has done. He may not even have a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament, his team is so bad. But that, combined with the existence of more media friendly prospects, has obscured a truly elite combination of skill and physical ability in Vonleh. What other player with a 7’4″ wingspan can hit the college three at a 56% clip?4 Vonleh’s one of the youngest freshmen in the country, and his upside is in the borderline tier one atmosphere.
What to watch for: The Big Ten tournament, because they’d better win to make sure we see more.
Dante Exum, PG/PG — 6’6″ and 188 lbs; 18 years old; Australian Institute of Sport. Comp: Derrick Rose.
My rank: 6th; Draft Express rank: 5th; NBADraft.net rank: 7th
2013-2014 Stats: NA
Exum’s move above Smart has more to do with Smart’s decent into personal basketball hell5 than a change in my estimation of what the Aussie offers as a prospect. Until I see more of him on the court, he isn’t approaching the top four prospects. Period. One interesting note: I’m starting to hear a few more people voicing agreement with me that Exum’s future lies at shooting guard in the NBA, not the point. To me, this has always lowered the value of his physical tools.
What to watch for: NA
While I love both these players6, there is no denying their shooting is a substantial negative given the standards of each’s position. They are also both caught somewhat between positions, so it’s hard to see either matching the overall upside of players ranked above them.
Marcus Smart, PG/SG — 6’4″ and 200 lbs; 19 years old; Sophomore, Oklahoma State. Comp: A hybrid of Jason Kidd and Joe Dumars.
My rank: 7th; Draft Express rank: 6th; NBADraft.net rank: 6th
2013-2014 Stats: 17.6 pts, 5.7 rbs, 4.7 asts, 2.6 stls, 0.5 blks, 2.7 tos, 41.8% FG, 29.3% 3P, 73.4% FT
Marcus Smart’s 2014 has been a story worthy of Dante Alighieri.7 First, starting forward Michael Cobbins went down for the year with a torn Achilles. Then, backup guard Stephen Clark was dismissed from the program for his second arrest. The Cowboys then proceeded to lose four straight conference games, dropping out of the top 25. It all became too much for Smart, who after hustling into the stands and falling was seduced by an idiot fan of Texas Tech into a confrontation. He shoved the heckler in response to an insult that Smart originally claimed to be racist but has since been asserted to have been much less inflammatory. After a three game suspension, (all losses) Smart is left with a climb out of the pit and back to his former reputation, on and off the court. His first steps: averaging 18 points, 5.7 rebounds, 7.3 assists, and 5 steals a game in his first three games back from suspension, including a home victory against the top two prospects in the draft and Kansas.
What to look for: The Cowboys will most likely make the tournament with Smart back, but to advance as far as his ambitions he will have to facilitate like a true point guard. He’ll also have to play his famed defense even if the referees limit his physicality or allow opponents to be extremely physical with him.
Aaron Gordon, SF/PF — 6’9″ and 212 lbs; 18 years old; Freshman, Arizona. Comp: Shawn Kemp meets a young Dennis Rodman.
My rank: 8th; Draft Express rank: 8th; NBADraft.net rank: 21st
2013-2014 Stats:12.2 pts, 8.0 rbs, 1.6 asts, 0.7 stls, 0.9 blks, 1.4 tos, 49.5% FG, 32.3% 3P, 43.4% FT
Any coach in the world would love to have Gordon on his team — but not necessarily under the expectation the Arizona star would be the centerpiece of his NBA squad. Gordon does so much well, including many things far too many players don’t do8, but that can’t erase the fact he has an largely ineffective shot due to temperamental mechanics. The expectations for Gordon may simply be beyond a wonderful, unique, but at this point complementary player.
What to watch for: Gordon always contributes in multiple ways, but in the tournament he will need to be a major asset on the offensive end, which he heretofore has not been consistently. Also, look to see if Gordon can use his intangibles to make game defining plays when his team needs them.
After the top eight, I see a substantial drop off in talent. While this is a deep draft, I think these top eight prospects are a clear class above the rest when it comes to potential. Though some teams see realistic star potential in some of the following players, personally, I think from this point on teams will be picking from a host of role players to fit nearly any need — but no one’s desire for a star.
Dario Saric, SF/PF — 6’10″ and 223 lbs; 19 years old; Cibona Zagreb. Comp: Boris Diaw.
My rank: 9th; Draft Express rank: 12th; NBADraft.net rank: 15th
2013-2014 Stats (Adriatic League): 16.3 pts, 9.1 rbs, 2.9 asts, 1.5 stls, 0.5 blks, 3.0 tos, 50.8% FG, 30.5% 3P, 70.3% FT
Saric is the best international prospect in this class after Exum. He may be the best passer in the draft regardless of position, and his knowledge of how to play the game offensively is incredibly advanced for his age. Improved scoring and assertiveness within the last year has some believing he just might be one of the international stars who manages to transition to NBA stardom. I’m not quite that optimistic. Without NBA-caliber athleticism and as a minus defender, I see Saric as a quality addition for a team capable of using his skill set but not a future star.
What to watch for: NA
Tyler Ennis, PG — 6’2″ and 180 lbs; 19 years old; Freshman, Syracuse. Comp: A slightly more athletic Luke Ridnour.
My rank: 10th; Draft Express rank: 9th; NBADraft.net rank: 13th
2013-2014 Stats: 12 pts, 3.4 rbs, 5.5 asts, 2.0 stls, 0.2 blks, 1.7 tos, 41.2% FG, 36.5% 3P, 75.2% FT
Ennis is a very good player, especially given his age. That said, I think the talk of him coming off the board before Marcus Smart is ludicrous. His strength is orchestrating a team: controlling the ball and the pace, making the right pass at the right time, old-fashioned leadership qualities. But he lacks that one definable NBA skill. Ennis is perhaps a generation late. Twenty years ago, a young point guard with his skill set would not have been hurt by good but not great athleticism and no exceptional single skill. Now, it’s hard for me to project him as anything better than an average starter in the NBA unless he shows the ability to take over games as a shooter.
What to watch for: Ennis will have to show the ability to take more of the scoring load in the tournament – either that or uncover a turbo button he’s kept secret all this time.
James Young, SG/SF — 6’7″ and 202 lbs; 18 years old; Freshman, Kentucky. Comp: Richard Jefferson.
My rank: 11th; Draft Express rank: 10th; NBADraft.net rank: 22nd
2013-2014 Stats: 14.4 pts, 5.1 rbs, 2.3 asts, 1.0 stls, 0.2 blks, 2.4 tos, 39.7% FG, 32.8% 3P, 67.2% FT
The solid mechanics of his shot, improved performance as the season has gone along, and a prototypical build for an NBA wing (he has a 6’11″ wingspan) are all appealing. This said, just about everything in Young’s favor is implication of future ability rather than present capability. At this point, he’s a good but not exceptional athlete; he has a pretty shot but isn’t even a good and consistent shooter; he whips out the occasional crisp, perfect pass, but not enough of them. The NBA is loaded with such players high on talent and erratic skill but without any foundational area to build from. A team that takes Young could end up with anything five years from now, which includes nothing.
What to watch for: With Julius Randle drawing double and triple teams regularly, Young will have the opportunity for big scoring nights if he shoots well, and he’d better. He also needs to find other ways to contribute given his physical ability.
Clint Capela, PF — 6’10″ and 211 lbs; 19 years old; Chalon, Intl. Comp: Noah Vonleh without a jumper.
My rank: 12th; Draft Express rank: 16; NBADraft.net rank: 26
2013-2014 Stats (French League): 8.3 pts, 4.2 rbs, 1.3 asts, 0.6 stls, 1.9 blks, 1.3 tos, 65.6% FG, – 3p, 52.8% FT
For a team that loves but misses out on Noah Vonleh, Capela is a strangely similar consolation prize in terms of physical tools.9 Capela may be even a tad more athletic, and he recently outdid Tony Parker for the most outstanding single-game performance in French league history. That said, his skill level is nowhere as advanced or diverse as Vonleh’s, and there are questions about his work ethic and IQ for the game where there are none such about Vonleh. But in possibly the best draft in a generation, front offices are going to be eager to land a future star, and Capela’s upside may be top ten in this class if you’re willing to accept substantial risk.
What to watch for: NA
Gary Harris, SG — 6’4″ and 210 lbs; 19 years old; Sophomore, Michigan State. Comp: O.J. Mayo-lite.
My rank: 13th; Draft Express rank: 11th; NBADraft.net rank: 8th
2013-2014 Stats: 17.9 pts, 4.3 rbs, 2.7 asts, 2.0 stls, 0.3 blks, 1.8 tos, 41.7% FG, 34.7% 3P, 80.2% FT
It’s hard to hide the fact that Harris’ season has been a disappointment for NBA scouts. Yes, he still defends well and with dedication, plays with heart and a willingness to step up in big moments, and has improved as a passer from a year ago. But going into this season his prime value lay in the belief that he was a dead-eye shooter and that’s simply been proven untrue. I expect him to be a good sixth to eighth player on an NBA team, a balanced guy who won’t hurt you anywhere, but the combination of his size and mediocre shooting make it hard for me to project him as even a good NBA starter.
What to watch for: Can he get hot from three to cover up some of his inconsistency this season or make huge plays to highlight his intangibles?
P. J. Hairston, SG — 6’5″ and 227 lbs; 21 years old; Junior, Texas Legends, NBDL. Comp: Aaron Afflalo.
My rank: 14th; Draft Express rank: 19th; NBADraft.net rank: 38th
2013-2014 Stats: 22.2 pts, 3.9 rbs, 0.9 asts, 1.7 stls, 0.4 blks, 1.9 tos, 44.9% FG, 36.9% 3P, 87.9% FT
I’m going out on a limb a little pegging Hairston as a lottery candidate. But I have serious questions about all the other potential players at this slot, including Doug McDermott, Willie Cauley-Stein, Rodney Hood, and Zach LaVine. Hairston has looked dynamic in the D-League, including two 40 point games. While history shows that D-League performance is far from a dependable indicator of NBA success,10 the team at the end of the lottery this season will be pretty good already and looking to win immediately. I suspect Hairston will be drafted as a guy who can fill a role immediately without giving up a ton of upside.
What to look for: NA
The Jazz have continued to better the expectations of most by playing .500 ball and, thanks to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse riding through New York recently, find themselves with the eighth worst record in the league. I still think they fall a few slots by the end of the season. However, if the season were to end now, I believe: with the eighth pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, the Utah Jazz select…
Aaron Gordon from Arizona.