Every year around this time, with the NBA playoffs underway and the draft looming, a debate begins about whether a team should draft a player with tremendous promise or opt for someone who already seems to be developed. Is it wise to use a high lottery pick on a guy who will come in as a clearly defined role-player, or go for the home run selection that, if he reaches his ceiling, could become a franchise leader but who could also wind up as another over-hyped draft bust?
With the popularity of college players foregoing two or even three years of NCAA eligibility to declare for the NBA draft, there are a number of players who could be deemed "projects", or who are believed to show untapped potential if they end up with the right coach and teammates or a part of the right system. Though they may have raw offensive games, be prone to making bad decisions, or have yet to mature physically, these kinds of players are often the ones who end up being stars in the league when all is said and done.
The 2012 draft class is no exception, as it comes chock-full of prospects that could very well emerge as studs in the next few years if they can continue to grow as players. From lightening quick point guards to bruising, defensive centers and everything in between, this year's crop of talent has a chance to radically alter the NBA landscape if it can live up to its potential.
UConn center Andre Drummond managed to have a very solid freshman season in the face of controversy. The 6'10" big man proved to be exactly as advertised; a dominant defensive center with a tremendous motor who lacked much of an offensive game but had elite athleticism for someone his size. Drummond was the anchor of the Huskies' defense and is considered to be a consensus top-five selection in this year's draft.
With the need for size in the NBA, and the lack of quality, durable centers that have emerged from the college game over the past few years, a player like Drummond could not have come along at a better time. Drummond has as a body that is ready to play the five position professionally, he is not the kind of player who will need some time to get in the weight room and bulk up. He is a very willing banger in the paint and makes the kind of defensive plays that can help his team win games.
Although he wasn't a scorer during his time in college, Drummond did manage to average 10 points per game on 53.8 percent shooting and finished with authority around the rim. He ran the floor as hard as any big man in college, and at the NBA level it is very important for bigs to establish position near the basket. He is surprisingly quick for a player his size and has the ability to put in multiple efforts to keep a possession alive for his team.
Drummond was a rock solid defender and rebounder for UConn last season as well. He used his strength and nose for the ball to grab 7.6 boards per game. As his team's most important defensive player, he averaged 2.7 blocks per game while also providing excellent help defense. He was an imposing presence in the paint and showed a good knowledge of when to rotate over or when to come from the weak side for a stuff.
The biggest knocks on Drummond are his poor shooting, especially from the foul line, as well as his offensive repertoire beyond simply overpowering his defender. Drummond does not have to be a lights out shooter, but if he can make defenses pay for fouling him and develop a few go-to moves in the post then we may be looking at the next great center in the NBA.
The 2012 Big East Rookie of the Year, Moe Harkless shot up draft boards with a very impressive freshman campaign that showed he could be an extremely effective scorer at the NBA level, while also attacking the glass and playing solid defense. Though the St. John's program experienced a down year, Harkless was instrumental in what little success the Red Storm had, as he averaged 15.3 points, 8.6 rebounds with 1.4 blocks and 1.6 steals during the season.
Harkless showed he could score in a myriad of ways; he was able to hit his midrange jump shot consistently while also being extremely dangerous slashing without the ball and getting to the rim. He wasn't a stellar three-point shooter at just 20.2 percent, but if he can add that shot to his game he will be a nightmare to guard during his time in the league.
He showed a great feel and understanding for the game in his one season of college basketball as well. He seemed to play very naturally and rarely seemed harried or like he was forcing the issue. He knew when to use his athleticism to get to the basket and when to make defenses respect this jumper. At 6'8" and very quick, he is an ideal size to play the small forward spot, but could also provide match-up problems at the two-guard if he improves his distance shooting and ballhandling.
Another major asset of Harkless' was his activity on defense, something that will serve him very well in the NBA if his shot isn't falling. He was able to assert himself on the boards and rip down the ball in traffic thanks to his leaping ability and timing. He also had very good hands defensively, reading passing lanes in order to get steals while also altering his opponents' shots thanks to his blocking ability.
He needs to become a better facilitator to succeed at the next level, because he won't be the first option on offense no matter where he gets drafted, but he has all the tools to be a very productive professional basketball player. A team will get tremendous value snagging Harkless in the mid-first round and if he lives up to his potential he could be filling up baskets for years to come.
Washington's Tony Wroten had a very solid year for the Huskies as he proved to be an excellent scoring and slashing guard, who was a nightmare in transition. The 6'5" point guard averaged 16.7 points, five rebounds and 3.7 assists per game along with a pair of steals and was Washington's primary playmaker in his freshman season.
In one season of college basketball, Wroten demonstrated the skill set to be an effective guard in the league, especially if he continues to diligently work on his perimeter shooting, the one major hole in his game. Wroten had an excellent handle and could break down defenses off the dribble with ease. He had one of the most devastating crossover moves in college this year and defenders often struggled simply to stay in front of him.
Despite his scoring talent, Wroten was able to impact the game in other ways as well. He was a willing passer and could read the floor well and find open teammates. He did have a troubling tendency to try for the highlight play instead of simply play, but time with a quality NBA coaching staff should help with that habit and he has the talent to be a very dangerous passing floor general. Wroten used his size advantage over most other point guards very well, he was an active rebounder and would use his height to shoot over his opponent or back them into his spots.
As a lefty, Wroten showed a willingness to drive hard to the basket at every available opportunity, he did not merely camp out on the perimeter or defer to his teammates and could finish as well as any guard once he got the basket. Wroten's length will help him as a defender as well, and with his lateral quickness he could become an extremely capable defensive point guard if he can commit to it.
Wroten definitely has some question marks as far as his overall shooting and his decision-making on the court, but if he approaches the NBA game with a willingness to work and improve he could be a starting point guard sooner rather than later.
Iowa State's Royce White is one of the most intriguing prospects available in this year's draft. He led the Cyclones to an NCAA tournament bid and a win in the first round over an incredibly talented UConn squad. He has the combination of size and skills to be a threat as a forward in the paint but also to bring the ball up the court and initiate the offense in a guard role. White's versatility is something no one else in this class has, and it is a major part of why he has such potential in the NBA.
For the season, White averaged 13.1 points, 9.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists, numbers that attest to his ability to impact all facets of a basketball game. He was extremely unselfish and always looked to make the right play, whether it was looking for his own shot or setting up a teammate. White was not simply a passing threat out of the post, but could also facilitate 30 feet from the basket and run plays effectively.
He used his 6'8" frame to assert himself on the glass and could also take the ball coast-to-coast thanks to phenomenal ball handling for someone of his size. Often a player that has as many skills as White would not be willing to be aggressive in the paint, but White can be a threat close to the basket thanks to his speed and his strength. He has a nice arsenal of moves in the post and solid footwork so that he can create an easy look at the basket. Because his jump shot is still developing it is important that White not be content to linger on the perimeter and take the ball inside where he can be utilized as a scorer.
He is not a great shot blocker or pickpocket, but can competently guard both forward positions as well as smaller centers, a plus for an interested NBA team. Because he so often shuffles between positions, it is important that he can defend whoever he is matched up with, which he seems capable of doing.
White needs to improve his overall shooting, as he shot a mere 49.8 percent from the foul line, but the real issue is how far removed the promising young player is from the anxiety disorder that has haunted his early life. If his illness won't hinder his progress on the court and he can develop a more reliable outside shot the sky is the limit for a multifaceted player like Royce White.
UNC's Kendall Marshall was one of the best pure point guards in the country, averaging 9.8 assists per game and running the offense on a team with several potent scorers on the roster. Marshall ran the pick-and-roll very effectively, but also was able to penetrate in the paint and kick the ball out to open shooters on the wing. Simply put, he had unparalleled vision and was truly the engine of a very impressive Tar Heels team.
He was a threat out on the fast break as well as in the half court, showing the ability to dissect any look an opposing defense throws at him. Marshall has an unteachable feel for the game and a high basketball IQ, both of which will help him adjust to the faster pace and tougher defenses of the NBA. His unselfishness will help him acclimate to the league in a way that pure scorers often struggle with during their rookie seasons.
Marshall had one of the best handles in college basketball, turning the ball over very infrequently for the amount of time he had it in his hands. Marshall was able to dictate the pace of the game with ease, never seeming rushed or slowed down, and being able to establish tempo is a crucial part of the point guard's role.
The obvious knock on his game is his scoring and while 8.1 points per game is nothing to rave about, it was an improvement from 6.2 points the season prior, and his shooting percentage jumped from 41.8 percent to 46.7 percent. Down the stretch of the season he showed more confidence in his shot, hitting from mid range, taking the ball to the basket and even occasionally drilling shots from beyond the arc. His 18 point, four rebound, 11 assist performance against Creighton in the NCAA tournament was one of the most impressive of the year as he only took eight shots in the ball game. He also dropped 22 on North Carolina State, and 20 on Duke, proving that he can be more than just a facilitator.
Obviously Marshall needs to continue to work on his offensive game, struggling to score in college isn't a great sign for someone moving on to the pros, but if he can work on his shot as well as his on-ball defensive pressure, Marshall will hit the ground running in the NBA. It wouldn't be surprising to see him averaging double digit assists in the near future.
The second fiddle to Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist proved in his year with the Wildcats to be the kind of player NBA scouts and coaches salivate over. Despite not having the most refined offensive game, Kidd-Gilchrist was the epitome of a hustle player, always willing to scrap and dive for loose balls, and showed the kind of intangibles that you need to be a successful pro player. Considered a surefire top-three selection, Kidd-Gilchrist had moments of absolute dominance that proved he could become a star in the league.
Playing both the three and four spots, he was absolutely unstoppable in transition. At 6'7" he could handle the ball well, run the break by himself and finish with authority against anyone who got in his way. This kind of open court speed and control at such a young age is rare and is the kind of thing that players struggle to develop over their entire careers. Defensively he can shuffle between both forward spots and even some shooting guard thanks to his quickness, ability to react and intelligence on the court. Davis may have been the best defensive player on Kentucky, but MKG wasn't too far behind.
Offensively, his jump shot could use some work, but he averaged 11.9 points on 49.1 percent shooting from the floor. He was very active on the court, always moving around and trying to catch the defense sleeping. He was a great slasher and always seemed to find a way to get to the rim. He also shot well from the foul line, at 74.5 percent, something that benefits him because of his very physical style of play.
His grit was also commendable, few players were as physical and relentless as Kidd-Gilchrist over the course of a season. He averaged 7.4 rebounds per game, and a lot of those came from simply wanting the ball more and being able to carve out space within the paint against larger opponents. His 24-point, 19-rebound day against Louisville is considered by many to be the best individual performance of the regular season. His intensity can be used to take control of a game, as well as his shutdown defense.
He was a decent passer last season and rarely stopped the ball, an important trait to have when coming into the NBA as a small forward. Averaging a pair of assists per game, MKG simply understands the right way to play basketball and does so every time he steps onto the court. As long as he isn't content to stay at this level, Kidd-Gilchrist is an All-NBA player in the making.
Although Illinois had a very disappointing season their star center Meyers Leonard had a year that impressed scouts and analysts enough for the seven-footer to declare early for the NBA draft. Leonard comes in as an intriguing big man prospect due to his athleticism and his size. If he can add a little bulk once he joins the league he has all the physical tools necessary to be a brutally efficient player on both ends of the court.
Leonard averaged 13.6 points last season and his post-moves have been improving during his time in college. He has a reliable hook shot and can use his height and length to overwhelm an opponent and establish good position. He has a few more moves that have been effective and seems capable of developing a bevy of ways to score around the basket. His mid range jump shot is improving and is a shot that he would benefit greatly from being able to knock down. Being able to hit shots from 17-18 feet would really open up the floor for him and his teammates.
Defensively Leonard was very aggressive, averaging 8.2 rebounds per game and 1.9 blocks. Leonard had good timing for coming over to contest shots and had a nose for the ball that helped him make his presence felt on the boards. Obviously some of this has to do with his big height advantage, but he has the instincts to be an impact defender which is extremely important.
He needs to become a bit more of a banger to succeed at the NBA level, but he has a great mix of skills and size that should yield success for a team that drafts him in the late lottery. Leonard has size and that can't be taught, but he also has room to improve and become a force on both ends of the court.
When players began to declare their intentions to leave college early for the draft, Duke's Austin Rivers was one of the more surprising players to throw himself into the ring. Many thought that the combo-guard could use another year in school, and while that may be true, he certainly has the talent to succeed in the NBA.
In a system that depended on shooting three-pointers for much of their offense, Rivers hit at 36.5 percent and could drill them from well beyond the arc. This kind of range is integral for a successful two-guard, because they will often be counted on to keep defenses honest and space the floor with their perimeter shooting. Rivers' mid range shot is effective as well and he has the ability to get to his spots on the floor when he needs to.
He is not merely a jump shooter though, Rivers has an excellent handle and often was the one initiating the team's offense at the top of the key. Though he called his own number a bit too often, there were moments when his passing talent was definitely on display. He averaged 2.1 assists on the season, not a stellar amount but as long as he can get used to sharing the rock it shouldn't be a problem.
Rivers may not be the fastest player on the draft board, but he has the quickness to blow by his defender and the ability to finish at the rim. His movement without the ball could stand for some improvement, but having a player like him that can take his defender in isolation and consistently put up points would be a luxury for many NBA teams.
One aspect of Rivers' game that can't be undervalued is his heart and sheer determination. Once he really committed himself to defense towards the end of the season he proved to be a pretty decent defender, and for a guard he was willing to crash the glass frequently and compete with players much larger than him.
Rivers will make for great value in the mid-first round as a player who could contribute right away as a scorer, but has the potential to become a truly dominant player as long as he keeps working diligently.
Anthony Davis, the consensus first overall pick and NCAA tournament Most Outstanding Player, is also one of the players with the most potential at the NBA level. He was one of, if not the most dominant big men in college basketball based almost entirely on his size, timing and basketball IQ, so if he can continue to develop his game during his time in the league there's no telling just how dominant of a career he could end up having.
Davis led the country in blocks by a wide margin last season at 4.7 per game. Davis was the key to Kentucky's ferocious defense that would simply overwhelm opponents for long stretches and leave them incapable of putting points on the board. Whether denying another big man trying to score on him in the post, coming over as a help defender and contesting or serving as rim protection on a driving guard or forward, Davis' activity on defense was unmatched. His presence alone was enough to deter opponents from attacking the basket and that talent is something that will serve him very well during his professional career.
Davis was not merely a contributor on defense, he ran the floor very well and could finish with ease around the rim. His post-scoring could still use work, but given his youth and his willingness to learn that is something that should come in time. Davis was scoring 14.3 points per game last season essentially off of his strength and size, but if he can develop a nice drop-step or continue to improve his hook shot he could truly become a scoring threat. After all, he did shoot a blistering 62.3 percent from the field during his time in college.
Faced with frequent double teams and hounding defense, Davis showed he was an unselfish player and more than willing to give the ball up to a teammate for a better shot than the one he had. Many centers and power forwards struggle to adjust to the pressure of two defenders, but Davis' feel for the game is another part of his huge upside.
His face-up game is still shaky, but he shot 70.9 percent from the free-throw line, and will likely be spending plenty of time at the charity stripe over his basketball career. Being able to hit the 17 foot jump shot is not essential for his development, but it would be a nice bonus and force defenses to guard him outside the paint.
By now every aspect of Davis' game has been dissected to death, but if he can continue honing his game and maybe add a few pounds of muscle, there's no doubt Anthony Davis can be a franchise-changing player.