By Chris Le
My player evaluations run long so I’ll get to the point. No one wants to read a wordy introduction before ten equally verbose player breakdowns. So save the foreplay for next time. Here’s the intro: throw out team need and how this player fits into that team. This is simple and clear — these are the ten best players available in the NBA draft.
First, the players who missed the cut:
Jrue Holiday, PG, UCLA — Holiday is not a true floor general, and his problems are compounded by a disappointing freshman campaign after being the most touted guard in the 2008 recruiting class. But Holiday doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses and could be this year’s Brian Westbrook, in that his game translates better to the NBA.
DeMar DeRozan, SG, USC — The athlete of the draft. DeRozan’s vertical and prototypical size are drawing comparisons to Vince Carter and Kobe Bryant. I see the athleticism, but I don’t yet see the game. He’s a project.
Earl Clark, SF, Louisville — If Clark’s potential is realized, he could become one of the best three players in this draft. He’s that talented — and wrapped in a 6’10 body, to boot. Unselfish stat-stuffer extraordinaire.
Terrance Williams, SG, Louisville — I thought Williams was the best player on a Louisville squad crammed with NBA potential. His game is defined by versatility, nimbleness and omnipresent defense. In a system that doesn’t need him to score in isolation, he’ll be the key player who glues everyone together.
These are future All-NBA First or Second Teamers, bona fide franchise players that can anchor an offense or defense. Former six-star prospects include LeBron James, Tim Duncan, Greg Oden, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose and Michael Beasley — players a team can build around. The number of six-star players in this year’s draft?
I don’t see one player significantly changing a franchise now or in the future. There’s no sure thing like in past drafts. Every prospect seems to have question marks or a visible limit to how good they can become.
These are potential All-Stars. Not quite the cornerstones of six-star players but could develop into a solid second banana, like Pau Gasol, that can push a team already with a superstar into title contention.
1. Blake Griffin, PF, Oklahoma — The valedictorian of a class replete with mediocrity. But that’s no indictment of Griffin. He is the rare blend of athleticism and size that is worthy of a number one overall selection — in this or any other draft. Griffin’s ladder has an extra step or two, so in a jump situation he still elevates while defenders, feeble victims of gravity, are on their way down, leaving them in prime position for a facial. His cocktail of overall agility, vertical jump, motivation and — the coup de grace — willingness to pass out of a double team, all in a large body, have GMs pining like they were when scouting Amare Stoudemire and Dwight Howard.
And like those former lottery picks, Griffin does not rely on talent alone; he’s a hustler, diving for loose balls (over scorer’s tables after suffering a concussion, if need be, as he did against Texas Tech), elbowing his way through traffic and jockeying for position like a bench warmer vying for playing time. This explains Griffin’s best attribute: rebounding. He gobbles any errant shot because he wants it more than anyone and works his tail off to box out an opponent. It’s the type of work ethic you want in a top selection; hell, it’s the type of drive I wish to instill in my future child — the requisite internal motivation needed to excel in any field. In basketball, however, it’s also nice to be tall, and in a rare instance of honesty in basketball measurables Griffin measured in at his pre-combine listed height of 6’10. I always thought he was closer to 6’8 ½ – 6’9 — a common fib told by teams as a scare tactic — but he and Oklahoma were telling the truth. A welcome surprise.
But while Griffin is sufficiently tall, he comes up short in length, with a wingspan of only 6’11, which means, even with his hops, he’ll have to work to score around the rim amongst the NBA trees. Another concern is his offensive stock, or lack thereof. Other than a tomahawk dunk, and despite his 22.7 points per games, I saw in the sophomore Sooner very little scoring development. He has a decent — though not great — jump shot and displayed a nifty spin move in the post. But that’s about it. The rest of the time he’s facing up and driving towards the hoop with hopes of throwing it down. He’ll need to mix up his bag of tricks by cultivating a consistent shot, particularly at the free throw line (59 percent), improve his defense and add to his back-to-the-basket arsenal. But with proper coaching and his drive to excel these shortcomings should be remedied in no time. Griffin is a lock for the number one pick.
I think this video encapsulates my argument nicely.
NBA Comparison: Rawer, more athletic Carlos Boozer
Fringe All-Stars. These players will see playing time early, but strictly as third options at best.
2. Tyreke Evans, PG/SG, Memphis — I’ve been high on Evans since his junior year of high school, when he was the top prospect in the nation, and he carried this success into college winning Freshman of the Year honors. But the problem isn’t his credentials; it’s that he’s stuck in no-man’s land between point guard and shooting guard. Pundits groan that he’s too selfish and turnover prone to play the point, while lacking the efficiency and range desired in a lottery two-guard. It’s a valid criticism. I myself don’t know which position fits him best.
But what I do know is this: Evans can flat out play the game. I sound like a simpleton, but I can’t think of a more apt or eloquent description. When the game is on the line, put the rock in Tyreke’s hands and he’ll win it. He has an innate understanding of how to get to the basket, and with his physique (6’5, 220 pounds, a freakish 6’10 ½ wingspan) and ballerina-like body control, he can finish in a crowd. I see in ‘Reke the ability to routinely get in “the zone” where, no matter the defense, he can’t be denied points. Every draft or two, there’s only one player who qualifies as a natural scorer. Michael Beasley was last year’s, and it was Kevin Durant in 2007. Evans is this year’s natural scorer. As I wrote in a blog about Evans before his freshman year at Memphis, he “has the requisite swagger and lack of conscience needed in a go-to scorer.” And I stand by that statement.
NBA Comparison: OJ Mayo
3. Ricky Rubio, PG, Italy — Caveat: I’ve only seen Ricky Rubio in the Olympics and in YouTube mixes (which always have horribly mismatching background music. My favorite is this Tim Duncan highlight set to a track usually reserved for eurotrash discotheques). YouTube mixes, I realize, amount to nothing. If I made a highlight reel of myself nailing the one in 15 shots I attempt, or show an isolated Magic Johnson-like dime, weeding out the seven accompanying turnovers in my assist-to-turnover ratio, I bet I could look like a top-10 prospect. But what’s a draft discussion without Ricky Rubio? So humor me, and let it seem like I know what I’m talking about.
If one word describes Rubio, it’s playmaker. If I had two more words, I’d choose crafty and exhilarating. And no, they are not oxymorons. He’s crafty in that he lacks physical gifts — you won’t see him posterize anyone or exhibit Jeff Teague-like speed — but he’ll still manipulate the basketball like a yo-yo; pull off double-pump shots at the rim from awkward body positions; and split double-teams while dribbling, in one swift move, behind his back and between his legs. That makes Rubio exhilarating. He’s a magician on the court. He executes maneuvers you think he is incapable of doing. And adding to the aesthetics of his game, his moves border on wild and at times look mechanical, but his basketball IQ and flair for theatrics leave your jaw near your feet. I feel the same way watching Steve Nash.
Passing, for Rubio, is an art form, the court his exhibit and the fast break his medium of choice. You name it, he can do it: one-handers, no-looks, bounce passes from unfathomable angles or a combination of all three. And he executes it all with élan. Nice word, huh? Gotta love that dictionary.com word of the day.
But the Spaniard is not without flaws. Like most point guard prospects, he needs a better jump shot. And he’s weak. There doesn’t seem to be an ounce of muscle on him, which gives the impression he’ll be bounced when finishing in the paint, or even when trying to turn the corner on a pick-and-roll. But did I mention he’s only 18? He’s obviously going to be weak but will fill out with age and some sweat in the weight room.
Rubio can be special. Considering his age and accomplishments, he already is. He’s a left-handed prodigy who has been playing against fully-matured men in an international league five times tougher than the Big East Conference. The roster of whichever team picks Rubio should sleep with smiling faces on draft night because he will be a joy to play with. If the Oklahoma City Thunder nab him, look out.
NBA Comparison: A weaker Jason Kidd and without the rebounding
4. James Harden, SG, ASU — Outside of Griffin, Harden is the most ready to contribute prospect. Teams know what they’re getting in Harden: a fundamentally solid, well-rounded and safe pick, but without much potential or zest. He’s the minivan of this draft — and there’s nothing wrong with that at all.
The 19-year-old lefty can score every which way but does so with purpose; rarely does he display off-the-cuff, mid-air creativity. This could be viewed as a good or bad thing. His limited hops don’t allow him time to be imaginative off his feet. But he knows this and caters to his strengths. He acts only after pinpointing weakness in a defender, and then exploits it with a plan. He doesn’t force anything. He sees a defender playing off and it results in a shot from deep; a smaller man is on him and Harden sets up in the post; a slower opponent bodies him up and Harden attacks. He has a solution for any situation. The best way to explain Harden’s feel for offense is that he’s in-tune with the game. He’s a thinker on offense, calculating where and how to break down a defense, and at a sturdy 6’5, 222 pounds, there isn’t much anyone can do to stop him.
But Harden is crafty for a reason — he needs to make up for pedestrian athleticism. His first step is as explosive as a cap gun, and I rarely see him finish above the rim. He can’t overwhelm foes with speed or power, so he does it with guile. And though he can contribute immediately, as is often the case with polished prospects, he doesn’t have much potential. Despite being only 19, is he close to his ceiling?
NBA Comparison: Smaller, poor man’s Paul Pierce
This is where the wheat separates from chaff — where the draft really shows its shallow well of talent. In a typical draft, I don’t think any of these players are taken in the top 10. This draft is that bad. Anyhow, three-star prospects are either projects that will need years to make an impact or those who will be role players.
5. Hasheem Thabeet, C, UConn — A dominating defensive force packaged in a mobile 7’1, 267 pound frame. If that’s not a prospect, then I don’t know what is. Thabeet’s allure is his defense, but I specifically love this kid’s timing. He’s patient and doesn’t bite on pump fakes, which is a pet peeve of mine. But even if Thabeet does jump at feints, his second best trait is his recovery, which I’m sure moistens scouts’ underwear every time they witness it. Thabeet’s second jump is a quick bounce, as if he were on a trampoline, nearly reaching the apex of his standstill vertical. It’s a shocking feat of athleticism by a lanky, yet weighty body. It’s this athleticism that also allows Thabeet to be a multi-faceted defender. He’s equally adept at blocking shots in help- or on-ball scenarios and is comfortable manning up all the way out to the three-point line. This resulted in 4.4 blocks per game and countless altered attempts.
Thabeet’s offense, however, is another story. For his size, he runs the floor well, resulting in easy baskets, and he mainly feeds off teammates’ scraps, with the majority of his points coming from alley-oops and put-backs. But he’s not the type of player you dedicate a play to. You can’t dump the ball to him deep in the post and let him go to work. He’ll end up looking like Dwight Howard against the Lakers — confused and likely to commit a turnover. At this point in Thabeet’s development, he is not looking to score, and he shouldn’t. He’s being drafted to defend, and that he can do. But he has displayed a soft touch, which is a hopeful sign he could develop a consistent jump shot. It’s just a matter of fine-tuning his mechanics and thousands of repetitions in the gym.
But the beating he received courtesy of Pittsburgh’s DeJuan Blair gives me some concern. Thabeet was bullied on both ends of the floor by a wide and lower-center body commonly seen in the league. If Thabeet wants to make a career of basketball, adding mass to his spindly frame is a must.
NBA Comparison: Samuel Dalembert
6. Brandon Jennings, PG, Italy — Malcolm Gladwell postulates in Blink that our first impressions are oftentimes the truest — that instinct is more valuable than hours of dissection and study. Seems legit to me because in sports predictions I’m often torn between what is said by my gut and what is said by my head. And my gut — my initial feelings — turn out to be correct 65 percent of the time (I totally pulled that number out of my ass). Brandon Jennings is my gut pick.
Both my mind and my gut really like Jennings’s breathtaking athleticism. His quickness, no joke, rivals Allen Iverson, but he can get up about half a foot higher than the Answer to perform some YouTube worthy dunks. He’s like a crotch rocket in the open field and has panache that’s up there with Ricky Rubio. And anyone who rocks hair like this, I like.
My main gripe is an absent outside shot. But from his workout reports, he nailed nearly every shot he attempted. Okay, I hear you: making shots in an empty gym is different from drilling shots with Chauncey Billups in your grill. But the workouts show Jennings has consistent and nicely groomed mechanics.
His international campaign was less than stellar, but I admire how he persevered through a tough situation of fluctuating playing time and having to acclimate to a new culture. Hearing recent interviews with Jennings, he comes off as matured and humbled. From day one, it’ll be evident that going overseas was a good life choice as well as a sound basketball decision.
NBA Comparison: A more athletic version of the Tony Parker that first entered the draft. You know, the one who was blazing fast but couldn’t make a jumper to save his life.
7. Stephen Curry, PG/SG, Davidson — The Kobe Bryant of college basketball. He’s not Kobe in terms of talent, but Curry is the most polarizing player in this draft — not even Tyler Hansbrough is as divisive. I’m in the camp of Curry believers. With a pure stroke like he has, he’ll find a roster spot on any team.
It’s not only his quick draw that would have even Doc Holiday envious, it’s his offensive awareness. He understands spacing — the shortest distance needed to get off a shot — which he can create with a toolbox of hesitation moves and pump fakes. He just knows how to put a defender in a position of vulnerability. And I think this makes up for his underwhelming size and speed.
His offensive wherewithal will also lend to his future as a point guard. I thought he played well at the helm in his junior season at Davidson, displaying clutchness and stouthearted leadership that will translate into the NBA. And while he won’t be the preferred penetrate-and-kick-out type point, he’ll be serviceable. At worst, he’ll be instant offense off the bench, but a complete liability on defense. At best, he’ll be a game-changing playmaker.
NBA Comparison: Smaller Kevin Martin/Mike Bibby
8. Jonny Flynn, PG, Syracuse — I became a believer after his 34-point, 11-assist, 67-minute (!), 6-overtime victory against UConn. Anyone with that stew of ability and heart is, in my book, a gamer who I’d want beside me in a war. The mental resoluteness to withstand burning lungs and cramping legs is an indication of a winner. A willingness to sacrifice the body is a side effect of the desire to be better. And with Flynn’s talent, he can be great. First of all, talk about a freak athlete: at six feet, Flynn has a 40-inch vertical! So you can double-check that box in your evaluation sheet. He’s also fleet-footed and can handle the ball so I have little doubt he can penetrate and create for teammates.
Creating for himself, though, may be the problem. As I wrote before, he’s undersized at 6’0 and, while at Syracuse, didn’t showcase a dependable outside game. But he plays long due to a 6’4 wingspan, and with such volatile talent, he’ll be a fine scorer.
NBA Comparison: Damon Stoudamire
9. Jordan Hill, PF, ASU — Hill is a pick of pure potential. He’s tall at 6’10 with long arms and good upward burst. But there’s nothing more pathetic than a lazy talent (Oh, hi, Darius Miles!). Good thing Hill is the exact opposite. He is a scrapper and very active in the paint. High-energy guys of his ilk flourish in high-octane offenses (as I think Hill would in the Golden State system) but fall short in the half-court game.
Hill began playing basketball late in high school so he’s still rough around the edges, particularly in the post. He’s clumsy when his initial attack fails, and he has a tendency before making a move, like Dwight Howard, to bring the ball low in position to be stripped.
Hill is a project and will require a season or two before becoming a valuable part of a team. His bad fundamentals and low basketball IQ, particularly on defense, will keep Hill from significant minutes. But like I said, he has that ever-attractive potential.
NBA Comparison: Wannabe Chris Bosh / Better Ronny Turiaf
10. Gerald Henderson, SG, Duke — I’ve seen 99 percent of Henderson’s career games, and while his first two and half seasons at Duke were a bigger disappointment than the Cleveland Cavaliers’ playoffs, Henderson improved across the board each year, culminating in the player we saw during the 2009 ACC play. That late version of Henderson was the best player in the conference — better than Jeff Teague, Tyler Hansbrough and even Ty Lawson. Okay, maybe not Lawson, but the fact is Henderson ripened into an elite performer.
With Henderson, you first notice how powerfully he glides across the floor and then through the air. God bestowed upon him the quickness of foot to stay in front of any slashing player, and the ups to attack the rim against any obstacle. Henderson skyrockets with the best of them and utilizes his leap equally well on both halves of the court; he had as many sky-scraping blocks as he did dunks. Every Duke game I waited for G to make a play worthy of rewinding my DVR, and he never let me down.
But it was his dramatically improved mid-range game that pushed him into All-American territory. Every time he pulled up to elevate after a hard dribble, or when he received a pass for an open corner three, or when he turned around for a fadeaway, I expected to hear the clang of the rim. But I didn’t. Instead, I heard a swoosh. I was shocked. This all-around offensive game and his defensive mindset should ensure him a nice career much like his father’s.
A few hiccups in his game, however, give me pause. He has no left hand, whatsoever. If defenses force Henderson to his off-hand, he’s not a threat to score, and in fact, often looks out of control, much like he did against Villanova in the NCAA Tournament. And despite blossoming into a dangerous scorer, he still seems hesitant to let it rip. He must be more aggressive and demand the ball when his team is in need of a bucket.
NBA Comparison: Dahntay Jones