December 2014 NBA Draft Rankings: Things Muddy

December 12th, 2013 | by Clint Johnson
Kentucky's Andrew Harrison (#5) is the first elite prospect to drop out of top prospect contention on my list.  Hopefully, John Calipari can coach him back up my and others' boards. (Photo by Andy Lyons_Getty Images)

Kentucky’s Andrew Harrison (#5) is the first elite prospect to drop substantially in my rankings. Hopefully, John Calipari can coach him back up my and others’ boards. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

For the anticipated top prospects in the draft, particularly the handful of “franchise” freshmen, the college basketball season started with all the tumult and glamour of a NASA launch.  The top hoops talent outside the NBA blew the doors off from the get go.

Then came December, and its drifts of snow, and its shrill meandering winds, turning a race that had been a record-paced sprint into a muddy slog.  We learned quickly just how good many of these players can be when things are going well.  Going forward, its time to see how many will keep pace even when they stumble, and competition ratchets up, and opponents scheme more avidly and aptly to stop them.

Thus far, here are those churning through the slog (all statistics current as of Dec. 8th):

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

2013-2014 Stats: 15.3 pts, 5.5 rbs, 1.4 asts, 1.1 stls, 0.6 blks, 1.4 tos, 51% FG, 33% 3P, 66% FT

The rumblings are starting to get louder.  Parker is just so good and so polished and so NBA ready now!  Embiid is just so freakishly big and athletic at the same time!  Exum is so tall and long and, well, he just looked great that time at the place where some guys saw him play!  There’s even some anonymous NBA scout griping Wiggins is “Kansas’s third-best freshman.”  I don’t buy it. To be clear: right now, Wiggins is not the best college player in the nation.  He isn’t top five, or even close, in my opinion.  He does disappear in games.  His jump shot isn’t consistent.  He hasn’t frequently taken control of games, even when it is clear he has the ability to do so.  That doesn’t matter a lick.  Five years from now, he is not only likely to be the best player in this draft, but possibly a top ten player in the NBA.  His numbers thus far are comparable to Ben McLemore’s as a freshman and Wiggins looks like he has yet to really start trying.  The anonymous NBA whisperers questioning Wiggins as the first overall pick have only one motive: to do anything possible to increase the chance their team gets a chance to grab him.  It will take a lot to unseat Wiggins in this race; it hasn’t happened yet.

Jabari Parker, SF/PF — 6’8” and 241 lbs; 18 years old; Freshman, Duke.  Comp: Carmelo Anthony.

Clint’s rank: 2nd; Draft Express rank: 3rd; NBADraft.net rank: 1st

2013-2014 Stats: 22.1 pts, 7.8 rebs, 1.8 asts, 1.1 stls, 1.6 blks, 2.9 tos, 54.8% FG, 46.7% 3P, 72.5% FT

A month into the season has produced a near consensus: Jabari Parker is the most NBA ready of all the top prospects.  One anonymous NBA assistant coach told SNY.tv’s Adam Zagoria, “If he left Duke right now and said, ‘I’m leaving,’ he would be Utah’s best player.  He would be a lot of teams’ best player.”  Parker isn’t a perfect prospect.  His shooting has leveled off from constantly otherworldly to consistently exceptional, and he’s struggling to defend throughout an entire game (as are the rest of his teammates).  But the team that drafts Parker will likely start designing Rookie of the Year promotional materials that day.  He’s still a bit of a puzzle position wise, particularly on the defensive end; however, offensively, whether a big small forward or stretch power forward, he’s an elite talent by NBA standards right now.

Julius Randle, PF — 6’9” and 248 lbs; 19 years old; Freshman, Kentucky.  Comp: Chris Webber.

Clint’s rank: 3rd; Draft Express rank: 2nd; NBADraft.net rank 5th

2013-2014 Stats: 17.9 pts, 12.1 rebs, 2.3 asts, 0.1 stls, 0.7 blks, 3.4 tos, 52.6% FG, 0% 3P, 73.5 FT

Apparently, even Randle can’t wreckingball his way through the NCAA against constant double and triple teams.  But even on nights when he struggles (making Kentucky look more than vulnerable), he contributes both points and especially rebounds in chunks.  That rebounding will translate to the NBA, as will another facet of Randle’s game: getting to the stripe.  He’s taking over nine free throws a contest!  More, he’s shooting better than 73% on those opportunities, a very respectable percentage for a prototypical NBA power forward, especially as a 19-year-old freshman.  Randle will be a nightly double double threat from the moment he steps into the NBA.  He needs to cut down his turnovers and apply his prodigious talents more consistently on the defensive end, but he’s as can’t miss a prospect big as Anthony Davis, only with a disproportionate offensive game to Davis’s defense.

Marcus Smart, PG — 6’4” and 226 lbs; 19 years old; Sophomore, Oklahoma State.  Comp: Somewhere between Joe Dumars and Jason Kidd.

Clint’s rank: 4th; Draft Express rank: 5th; NBADraft. net rank: 4th

2013-2014 Stats: 19.7 pts, 4.9 rbs, 3.8 asts, 2.9 stls, 0.6 blks, 2.9 tos, 46.3% FG, 34.6% 3P, 67.1% FT

Smart can be summed up by looking at his two games against Memphis.  Game one: 39 points, 11 of 21 from the field, six of 11 from three, four rebounds, four assists, five steals, two blocks, utter domination of the first half (halftime score = Memphis 32, Smart 26), a big win against a good team, and a public endorsement as NBA ready by Kevin Durant.  Game two: 12 points, four of 13 from the field, zero of five from three, eight rebounds, four assists, one steal, five turnovers, and a loss.  When he’s good, he’s excellent and the Cowboys may be unbeatable.  When he’s “bad,” he’s okay and the Cowboys struggle.  But keep in mind, that second game against Memphis was the product of arguably the best and most experienced guard rotation in the nation targeting Smart on both ends of the floor in a revenge game.  I could also mention Smart being sick enough that night to run behind his team’s bench to vomit before heading back on the floor.  Yeah, even when he plays beneath his standard, I love this kid as a future NBA star.

Joel Embiid, C — 7’0” and 240 lbs; 19 years old; Freshman, Kansas.  Comp: David Robinson.

Clint’s rank: 5th; Draft Express rank: 7th; NBADraft.net rank: 2nd

2013-2014 Stats: 9.3 pts, 6.6 rbs, 1.3 asts, 0.9 stls, 2.1 blks, 1.8 tos, 66% FG, 0% 3P, 57% FT

I’ve been slower onto the bandwagon for the big man from Cameroon than most, but after seeing more of him recently, he’s cracked into the potential franchise player category in my rankings.  Drafting raw bigs on potential still gives me pause, but Embiid’s potential is enormous while his rawness is already eroding.  The true seven footer is even getting a few parallels with Hakeem Olajuwon.  I didn’t go that far, as the Dream possessed maybe the most exquisite footwork of any post player in basketball history, but Embiid does remind me of a slightly shorter David Robinson: rangy and long, both strong and fast, with the makings of a surprisingly soft jump shot.  He moves like an NBA power forward but has the size of a true NBA center.  I think there’s substantially more risk with Embiid than any of the above picks, but watching how he blocked seven shots in 21 minutes against Texas-El Paso made the upside here undeniable.

Aaron Gordon, PF — 6’9” and 212 lbs; 18 years old; Freshman, Arizona.  Comp: Shawn Kemp.

Clint’s rank: 6th; Draft Express rank: 6th; NBADraft.net rank: 18th

2013-2014 Stats: 12 pts, 8.9 reb, 1.4 asts, 0.3 stls, 1.3 blks, 1.6 tos, 47.7% FG, 46.2% 3P, 48.8% FT

Gordon suffered his worst game of the season in his last outing against UNLV, shooting a putrid two of ten.  That said, it is undeniable that Gordon’s energy and overall play have played a large role in Arizona riding its complete game to the number one ranking in the nation.  To me, Gordon represents the best-quantified of three fringe franchise prospects: an elite athlete by even NBA standards with a non-stop motor, high basketball IQ, and almost no ego.  His absolute floor is a Kenneth Faried type.  But watching his game makes me confident he will be better than that, quite possibly much better.  He has a developing handle that would make him near unguardable as a power forward in the NBA, and his solid three point shooting percentage (in an admittedly small sample size) suggests a developing foundation for a jump shot.  He also shows flashes of surprisingly good vision and ability as a passer.  On a team as balanced as Arizona, it isn’t Gordon’s role to dominate a game.  But watch as they face stiff competition throughout the season.  If they want to win a national title, Gordon will have to rise to a position of greater prominence as the most gifted player on the floor against even the most talented competition.

Dante Exum, PG/SG — 6’6” and 188 lbs; 18 years old; Australian Institute of Sport.  Comp: Derrick Rose.

Clint’s rank: 7th; Draft Express rank: 4th; NBADraft.net rank: 6th

2013-2014 Stats: NA

The day is coming when the majority of the world will get a chance to determine whether the great foreign unicorn really has a horn or if there’s more horse there than hoped.  In the Australian schools championship round, which he won for Ginninderra College, Exum may well have played his last official game before stepping onto an NBA floor.  There is no secret that Exum and his family are agent shopping in advance of a likely declaration for the draft, which is expected to happen by February.  That championship game won’t change anyone’s mind when it comes to Exum as a prospect.  Those who love him will see 20 points and 16 assists coming from a 6’6” guard.  The doubters will see six of 23 from the field in a win over Scots College (that’s right, who?).  As the draft process gets into full swing, there will be enough tape of Exum against well-regarded competition to make a more educated judgment on his potential as a prospect.  But that day hasn’t come yet, so he’s at the tail end of my franchise prospects based predominantly on his measurements, impressive if limited performance internationally, and the testimonials of others.

Noah Vonleh, PF — 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: 9th

2013-2014 Stats: 13.3 pts, 9.9 rebs, 0.8 asts, 1.0 stls, 1.1 blks, 2.5 tos, 52.2% FG, 16.7% 3P, 70% FT

Vonleh has been often ignored given the hype around the Wiggins/Parker/Randle/Gordon quartet of freshmen, but he was already a fine prospect heading into the college season, and his play thus far has supported that.  All things considered, I think highly enough of him to make him an 8th possible franchise level prospect in this draft at this point.  I don’t see him becoming a top ten player in the league, but I can see him going to multiple All-Star games.  While not as tall as Chris Bosh, Vonleh uses his 7’4” wingspan and greater bulk to good use both facing up and with his back to the basket.  In addition, he is rebounding at a rate of 18 rebounds per 40 minutes of play.  (To put that in perspective, Julius Randle is putting up 15.5 per 40 min.)  Vonleh doesn’t have as diverse a game as those I have ranked ahead of him, and his play in the post is sometimes methodical to the point of being predictable.  But by NBA standards, he looks like a double double player with defensive ability and some diversity on the offensive end.  I felt some qualms about putting him with the previous seven players, but his attitude decided me.  By all accounts, he is as obsessive about the game and as frequently in the gym as any player in the nation.

Rising Prospects

Willie Cauley-Stein, C — 7’0″ and 244lbs; 20 years old; Sophomore, Kentucky.

Interest in Cauley-Stein hasn’t been this high since the first few games he filled in for Nerlens Noel after the presumptive number one pick (that sure didn’t work out) tore his ACL.  He’s actually blocking shots with greater frequency given opportunity than Anthony Davis or Noel, but if he doesn’t keep that up (and it’ll be tough) some of the enthusiasm he’s generating will quiet.

Doug McDermott, PF — 6’8″ and 223 lbs; 21 years old; Senior, Creighton.

Sometimes the guy who wasn’t born to play professional basketball will because he simply has world-class skill.  McDermott is scoring 25.3 points a game on 50.3% from the field, 45.3% from three, and 86.7% from the line.  Some still say he’s Adam Morrison 2.0, but with the spread of the stretch power forward throughout the NBA, more teams may strongly consider a prospect as legitimately good at what he does as McDermott.

Jahii Carson, PG — 5’11” and 167 lbs; 21 years old; Sophomore, Arizona State.

Carson is playing like a College Player of the Year candidate as he produces 20.5 points and 5.1 assists while moving faster than anyone else in the nation and shooting better than 50% from everywhere on the floor.  While I am not a fan of small, fast, scoring point guards in the NBA, others are starting to see a legitimate role for Carson in the league.

Falling Prospects

Andrew Harrison, PG/SG –6’5″ and 207 lbs; 19 years old; Freshman, Kentucky.

Harrison started the year in my (and many people’s) list of top seven prospects.  While I expected him to struggle early as a facilitator on a stacked Kentucky roster — and he has — his persistent discomfort in that role, contrasted with bursts of much stronger play as a ball-dominant scorer, call into his question his ability to run the point in the NBA.  He’s a talented young man either way, but he’s far less enticing as an athletic 6’5″ shooting guard with a questionable jumper than as a physically superior point guard.  Thus far, he’s looking like the former.

Glenn Robinson, SF — 6’6″ and 210 lbs; 19 years old; Sophomore, Michigan.

Without Trey Burke driving the Wolverines, Robinson was expected to break out as a legitimate elite prospect this season.  It hasn’t happened.  He’s scoring only 12.2 points and not really doing anything truly well.  He very much needs to improve his overall game and show at least one NBA caliber skill to pair with his athleticism and stature.

Alex Poythress, SF/PF — 6’8″ and 239 lbs; 20 years old; Sophomore, Kentucky.

If Doug McDermott is a guy perhaps not meant to go pro who successfully will, Poythress is the opposite.  He looks like an NBA star when he runs and jumps; unfortunately, that hasn’t translated with any consistency to the court.  With the talent glut at Kentucky, at least one player is almost certain to be left in Calipari’s dog house at all times.  Historically, that has too often been Poythress, and it doesn’t appear that is changing this season.

James McAdoo, PF — 6’9″ and 226 lbs; 20 years old; Junior, North Carolina.

It’s been a rough year for relatives of former NBA greats, with both Glenn Robinson III and McAdoo falling down draft boards.  McAdoo is scoring 13 points on 40.4% shooting and 57.1% from the line, and a player once ranked as a top three prospect in high school is now trending toward the second round.

As of Right Now…

At the time I write this, the Jazz have outfought the downright awful Milwaukee Bucks for last in the league with a .174 winning percentage.  (If the Bucks played in the West, I doubt they’d have two wins yet.)  Thus, if the season were to finish right now, I believe: with the first pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, the Utah Jazz select…

Andrew Wiggins from Kansas.

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson is a professional author, writing educator, and editor. In addition to his writing center work at Salt Lake Community College, he designed, coordinates, and teaches in an experimental author residency program for a West Valley City public charter school. A frequent presenter at both writing and educational conferences, he writes about the Jazz as a break from his other writing work.

13 Comments

  1. Laura Thompson says:

    Great stuff, as always, Clint!

  2. LarryMillersGhost says:

    This was as good as anything you would read by the national media. Excellent work.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      Thank you very much. I appreciate the kind words. We try very hard to provide the best content at Salt City Hoops.

      • LarryMillersGhost says:

        Absolutely, I enjoy nearly everything here on Salt City Hoops. If I could file one complaint… Post the Saturday Shows more often! I enjoy them. Best bloggers in Jazzdom. I dont think I have read once that someone should be fired here at Salt City Hoops. I like that.

  3. cw says:

    What about Zach LaVine?

    • Clint Johnson says:

      NBADraft.net loves him more than Julius Randle at the moment. That said, he isn’t generating the universal buzz of an Embiid, or a Vonleh, or even a Rodney Hood. At this point, LaVine seems to have a few utterly sold, many more starting to take a fresh look, and still more all but indifferent.

      Personally, I’ve seen his highlights in college and high school but I haven’t seen much film of him beyond that. I don’t feel he’s rising up boards in the manner of the three I included (perhaps because there is a lot of speculation he’ll stay in school one more year), but he’s certainly a prospect I’ll make a point of following in advance of my next update.

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  5. BM says:

    No mention of Gary Harris?

    • Clint Johnson says:

      Harris is a very good college player who will be a solid NBA player, but he has a relatively modest ceiling. That combined with how well understood his game is already means he hasn’t moved much on most boards, including mine. I fully expect him to be drafted at the tail end of the lottery. Due to length considerations, my posts focus on the top prospects this season (in whom most Jazz fans have the most interest) as well as major movers up or down. Harris isn’t good enough for the first group, and he’s far to stable for the second.

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