After the first two years of the one-and-done era of college basketball brought such superstar talents as Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook into the league, the one constant in subsequent drafts has been complaining. With little data to evaluate unpolished prospects, league executives and scouts often whine and pan the draft as weak, leading teams to make pre-emptive decisions to avoid possibly blundering by investing in an expensive, high lottery pick.
Two years ago, the Los Angeles Clippers traded their pick before the draft lottery to Cleveland to dump Baron Davis’s exorbitant contract and weren’t immediately criticized because the 2011 draft was perceived as lacking any true impact players. Turned out, the Clippers dealt the No. 1 overall pick, which became Kyrie Irving, who has already made the all-star team.
In 2009, Blake Griffin was considered the only lock for success at the next level, and the Washington Wizards, in win-now mode, swapped the No. 5 pick to Minnesota to get Randy Foye and Mike Miller but wound up passing on potential stars Ricky Rubio and Stephen Curry. In addition to Griffin, that draft has also already produced all-stars in James Harden and Jrue Holiday.
This year, the crop of talent in college and European ranks, has been rather underwhelming, with no consensus top overall choice emerging through the regular season or first two weekends of the NCAA tournament. But according to one Eastern Conference talent evaluator, it would be unfair to classify this draft as “weak.”
“I think a more accurate statement would be that we’ve only had a few drafts over the last 10 to 15 years that have had a number of franchise players in them,” the Eastern Conference executive said on condition of anonymity because of NBA policy prohibiting teams from commenting on players that haven’t declared for the draft. “For the most part, the rest of them have had a good, solid amount of starters and/or future all-stars. And I think this draft is going to be no different.”
A freshman or sophomore has gone No. 1 overall in each of the past five seasons and that will continue this season. Freshmen Nerlens Noel of Kentucky, shooting guard Ben McLemore of Kansas and point guard Marcus Smart of Oklahoma State are in contention for the top spot, while UNLV freshman big man Anthony Bennett and UCLA freshman swingman Shabazz Muhammad are also expected to go high.
Sophomores Otto Porter of Georgetown, Cody Zeller of Indiana, Alex Len of Maryland and national player of the year Trey Burke of Michigan are also considered lottery picks. Indiana’s Victor Oladipo is the only junior considered a top 10 pick. None of those players has declared for the draft but the challenge to project what they will become is more difficult based on such a small sample size.
“I don’t know if you can necessarily identify a future all-star right now in this draft, or stars,” the executive said, while singling out McLemore as having the most upside. “But I will also say that in years past, the all-stars that have come out of the draft have not all come out of the top three or four. Some have come out farther down and that’s very possible in this draft, too. I think this draft has some solid starters and some possible all-stars.”
In previous years, usually one or two players have emerged as the front runner to go first, but with no clear-cut top choice, the teams picking will determine the draft order perhaps more than the available talent.
The 6-foot-11 Noel sits atop most draft boards but probably wouldn’t go first if Detroit – which already has Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe – wins the lottery. Noel also comes with considerable risk since he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee last February and only had his knee surgery a few weeks ago. The executive felt that Noel still has a chance to go first, using the example of Kenyon Martin, who went No. 1 overall out of Cincinnati in 2000 after breaking his leg in the conference tournament.
McLemore, a former AAU teammate of Wizards rookie Bradley Beal, would be an attractive option for Charlotte or Orlando but the Wizards – with John Wall and Beal – or Cavaliers – with Irving and Dion Waiters – wouldn’t need to take a backcourt player with the top pick. Washington and Cleveland also would probably not need Smart, which would mean that teams could look to trade down if a team has fallen for a particular talent.
This draft also gets demerits for being sandwiched in between two drafts that were special for different reasons. Last season, the draft was one of the deepest in years, as several talented players elected to stick around for an extra year because of the lockout. So, while freshmen Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Bradley Beal went first, second and third, other talents were pushed back because Damian Lillard, Harrison Barnes and Jared Sullinger elected to stay an extra year. The 2014 draft will potentially feature swingmen Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker, who are both already being touted as superstars.
“I don’t see that in this draft,” the executive said. “This is a draft that is going to really be team need and I think part of that is, I don’t think there is a franchise-changing player in this draft.”
The situation would be different, the executive said, if a player with the potential of Durant, LeBron James, Chris Paul or Dwight Howard were available, but “I don’t see that.”