March Madness, NBA-Style

Ink on Indy
Next Sunday, the NCAA will announce the brackets for March Madness, and within moments, millions of people who enjoy having reasons to gamble will start discussing how much they love college hoops.  How disingenuous it is to make such statements is a topic for another day.  I've always enjoyed the NCAA Tourney for a variety of reasons: the format (and the gambling that it easily enables), the close contests, and the general concentration of hoops goodness in such a small timeframe. 

The added benefit of the NCAA Tournament, as an NBA fan, is that it gives me a chance to see a large number of NBA prospects playing against high-level competition in high-leverage situations, all contained within a compact schedule.  I absolutely love trying to determine how college players project to the pros, so that's today's topic.  While the tourney will provide some important info about the future of these players, it's also a good idea not to overrate the tourney's small sample size, regardless of its visibility and/or import.  I've seen enough of the players I'm about to discuss to form some early opinions of their potential; the tournament will really just provide some supplemental data to support my thoughts (or render them incredibly stupid). 

Here's what I know/suspect about some of the top NBA prospects that we're likely to see in the tournament, and how I see things playing out for them in the Association.  Trying to project where these guys will go in the draft (and to whom) is a pointless exercise at this point, since we don't know how the lottery will play out.  Obviously, the team that a guy joins will have a huge effect on his development (both in terms of the culture of that organization and the opportunities/minutes that the guy gets on that team), but we'll have to fudge that factor for now and just focus on potential.  I'll break it down by the type of role I expect each guy to fill in the league.  Here we go.


Ben McLemore, G/F, Kansas: One of the themes I've seen with this crop of young, athletic super-freaks is that they all tend to be wildly inconsistent, which, while certainly understandable since we're dealing with 19-20 year olds, is something of an important factor in why I feel that we're dealing mainly with a non-star group of prospects.  Even at the college level, even as freshmen/sophomores, top-level talent tends to shine through on a game-to-game basis.  There are some good NBA players in this draft, and when it's all said and done, probably an All Star or two, but this is by no means a monster draft.

Which brings us to McLemore, widely considered the favorite to go #1 at present.  In the games I've watched him, there has been some definite inconsistency, but the tools are all there.  He's got the body of an NBA wing, with the strength to defend 3's and the quickness to stick with 2's.  His athleticism at the rim is occasionally jaw-dropping, though he has a tendency to settle for jumpers in scenarios where he could probably get to the rim.  He has a sweet shooting stroke that looks very repeatable and should translate well to the NBA 3-point line. 

Everything about him looks like a top-10 or better shooting guard.  But is that good enough to be a #1 overall pick?  What is his ceiling?  Can he be James Harden?  The shooting ability and athleticism are there (which portend Harden-like efficiency at the rim and from deep, the two most efficient spots on the floor), and he seems very confident in his abilities, but the basketball IQ and shot selection will need improvement if he's going to be more than a second or third option on a good team.  I see him as a terrific building block, but not necessarily a cornerstone or a max player. 

Otto Porter, F, Georgetown: This guy is finally starting to move up draft boards, and with good reason.  I actually got a chance to watch Porter play live against Louisville a few weeks ago, and came away tremendously impressed with his game.  The thing that stood out the most to me (besides his seemingly enormous wingspan) was his control and feel for the game.  There is nothing rushed about his play.  He has above average athleticism, but nothing that wows you.  He just makes hay by consistently being positioned properly (both on defense and rebounding) and combining proper shot selection with strong shooting and finishing ability.  He has the body and mind to be a top-notch wing defender, with ideal length and quickness to defend multiple positions, and Chad Ford has gone so far as to compare him to Scottie Pippen.  I'm not sure I'd go that far, but he also looks like a foundational piece for a team that will need one in the top-5 (if they're smart enough to choose him there).

Victor Oladipo, G, Indiana: Another player shooting up the "experts'" draft boards.  This guy is a truly intriguing prospect.  Everything about him screams "better in the pros than in college."  He's listed at 6'5" (not sure he's actually that tall), with eye-popping athleticism (see here for the best missed dunk of the year), solid shooting ability (49% 3pt FG% this year), and long-armed, tenacious defensive ability and motor.  There is some definite Dwyane Wade in him, though his offensive game isn't as smooth or polished yet.  He is tremendously under-utilized at Indiana (Tom Crean doesn't seem to realize that he has a matchup advantage on, well, everyone) and I just can't see the more open NBA style being bad for him.  He's a quick and explosive leaper (which is never bad), and he really seems to give a shit, especially on defense.  Maybe he doesn't turn out to be D-Wade, but I can't see any way he that he's anything worse than an above average starting SG in the league.  I would take him top-3 if I were an NBA GM, but I seriously doubt he'll go that high.


Nerlens Noel, PF/C, Kentucky:  I don't think the ACL tear is that big a deal in terms of his long-term potential.  Players now are recovering from the injury without much impact to their athleticism and productivity (Chicago fans are praying I'm right).  My concern is with offensive ability.  Noel looks like a guy who will be a prototype center for today's NBA: bouncy, athletic, with strong rebounding and shot-blocking ability.  He will probably be an aggressive roll man on pick and rolls, and he has good instincts on the offensive glass (to go along with his obvious athleticism).  If a team has the personnel to play him in the Tyson Chandler/DeAndre Jordan role, then he should be wildly successful. 

However, I also think that the team that drafts him will be disappointed if they are expecting him to be an impact scorer on offense.  Again, I realize that he's only 18 years old, but with most top-end players, even at that age, you see some kind of glimpse of offensive polish, and I've seen none of that with Noel.  He is purely reliant on athleticism to create offense, and that just isn't enough in the NBA.  He certainly isn't Anthony Davis (the comparison everyone wants to make), and it's possible he isn't even Larry Sanders.  The talent around him is going to determine a lot (the Wizards make a ton of sense), but in the right environment, he can develop into a quality defensive stopper and offensive space eater.

Marcus Smart, PG, Oklahoma State: Another guy who has shown flashes of brilliance combined with some complete disappearing acts.  He seems to have good point guard chops at this early stage in his development, especially for a guy who could easily rely on pure size and athleticism to get by.  He fits the profile of the prototype NBA PG, with strength and bounce that bring Derrick Rose to mind.  He'll probably fall somewhere below that level, but if he develops his outside shooting over time (like D-Rose and Westbrook), he has a ton of upside.

Anthony Bennett, F, UNLV: Has all the physical skills to be a high-end starter in the NBA, but what will he be?  The way I look at it, there are a lot of tremendous tweeners in the league, and they provide a lot of value and versatility to their teams.  However, most times those guys find their NBA destiny as bench players (think Antawn Jamison back with Dallas or Jamal Crawford with the Clippers). 

So back to the question: what is Bennett in the NBA?  If he turns out to be a super 6th man as a small-ball PF that can stretch the floor and rebound, there's certainly no shame in that.  But if you draft a guy in the top 5, that's not usually what you're looking for in a player.  Just ask Derrick Williams.  They seem similar in a lot of ways, and Williams is still struggling to figure out how he fits in the league.  Ultimately, the question is: can you start Bennett at SF or PF and get away with it defensively?  If yes to either position, congratulations.  You have an awesome NBA player.  If the answer to both is no, then his upside is limited. 

Trey Burke, PG, Michigan:  His draft stock will fall because of his lack of size, which will obscure the fact that he has one signature skill that will carry his NBA career - he is a dynamite pick and roll player.  Most college PG's basically dribble the ball up the court and then enter into some sort of motion offense, but Burke is different.  Michigan's offense looks much more "pro style" (to steal the phrase from football), and this will be a huge advantage for him coming into the league.  He's also a solid shooter and deceptively quick.  Remember that Ty Lawson got drafted outside the lottery, so teams will always rate small PG's lower than they should.  Burke will be a similarly tremendous value for whichever team is wise enough to invest in him.  He also has a great basketball name, which shouldn't be discounted when evaluating prospects (I'm only half kidding).


Alex Len, C, Maryland: We don't really know exactly what he's capable of offensively because the guards he plays with are unconscionably bad, but we know this: he is enormous, and he has some degree of touch around the hoop.  Could he be a Brook Lopez-type in the right environment?  Sure.  Do I think that's likely?  Not at all.  There is some serious "big white stiff" potential with him, and we won't really know until we see him play with guys who can get him the ball in a position to succeed.  I'm not convinced he'll be able to take advantage of the opportunity, but he can definitely be a guy that can soak up 15-20 minutes for a decent team and not be a net negative.

Gary Harris, G, Michigan State: A young guy that projects as a bench combo guard with a lot of upside.  The all-around talent is there, but he needs a lot of physical development still.  He's one of those guys who has the skill level to dominate college players, but still looks like a child physically.  He won't be able to hang with grown-ass NBA men early on, but he could be a nice late bloomer as his body catches up to his mind and his game. 

Shabazz Muhammad, SF, UCLA: There is the possibility that Ben Howland's system at UCLA has smothered his talents a bit, but I haven't seen enough from him to feel confident in saying that.  He can definitely score and he has an NBA body, but will the more open NBA floor give him room to flourish offensively, or will the bigger, stronger NBA 3's neutralize him?  The shot-making ability and the motor are there, but will he be able and/or willing to guard?  That will ultimately determine his value, which I see as a borderline starter or a strong bench player.

These are the guys I see being most successful, but I've studied enough drafts to know that at least 15-20 players in any given draft usually stick in the league, at least to some degree.  With that said, here are ten more guys likely to be drafted who I could see having NBA careers of varying levels of success, presented without commentary:
1. Cody Zeller, PF/C, Indiana
2. Alex Poythress, F, Kentucky
3. CJ McCollum, G, Lehigh
4. Jamaal Franklin, G San Diego St
5. Adreian Payne, PF, Michigan State
6. Ryan Kelly, PF, Duke
7. Patric Young, PF/C, Florida
8. Rasheed Sulaimon, G, Duke
9. Kelly Olynyk, C, Gonzaga
10. Willie Cauley-Stein, C, Kentucky