Top Three NBA Prospects in the Big Ten: Conference Play Changing Draft Status

Nick JuskewyczContributor IIIJanuary 21, 2013

Top Three NBA Prospects in the Big Ten: Conference Play Changing Draft Status

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    With three weeks of Big Ten conference games in the books, it’s time to evaluate how the greatest talent in the league is progressing toward their goal of playing in the NBA.

    The Big Ten has emerged from being just one of the power conferences to arguably the best. How these young stars perform down the stretch will play a significant role in determining their draft stock. Not only does the conference have many potential NBA players, but they range from point guard all the way up to center.

    Here is a look at the three best NBA prospects from the Big Ten.

3. Brandon Paul: Illinois

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    As a talented but inconsistent incoming senior, one of the biggest question marks for Brandon Paul this season, according to Derek Bodner at DraftExpress.com, was first-year head coach John Groce.

    Paul seemed to end that question with his new mentor in non-conference action, as he led the Fighting Illini to a Maui Invitational title and proceeded to drop 35 points at 10th-ranked Gonzaga in an 85-74 victory.

    He dominated November and December with his NBA-caliber combination of athleticism and being a great scorer. On the defensive end, Paul has made progress each season in locking defenders down with his quickness and agility.

    Even though Paul does have a tremendous upside and potential for the NBA, Illinois is in the middle of a funk, and he is one of many responsible for it. The Illini have lost their last three games by an average of 18 points (two at home), and Paul has recorded zero assists in that stretch.

    Granted, he is a shooting guard, but Illinois' leading scorer is only shooting 35.6 percent in the last three games, has 3.4 turnovers per game in Big Ten action and has struggled to get others involved when the shots are not falling. As a senior with a 1-4 record in the Big Ten, the last thing Paul needs is a team collapse like last season.

    Nonetheless, Illinois has outstanding talent, and I expect Brandon Paul’s leadership will end this slump very shortly. He should go in the early second round.

2. Trey Burke: Michigan

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    While Trey Burke has progressed from his freshman to sophomore year, his developments might be more impressive than people realize.

    Burke’s minutes per game are down from 36.1 to 33.6, and he has improved in almost every statistical category. His scoring average is up to 18 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting including 40 percent from behind the arc. Also contributing to the Wolverines 17-1 start is Burke’s skill in the pick-and-roll while increasing his assist count to 7.2 and reducing turnovers to 1.9 a game.

    It certainly helps that he is surrounded with superb talent like Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III to make this team possibly the best Michigan squad since the Fab Five, but Burke is the engine that makes the team run in both the half court and full court.

    How good could the Wolverine point guard be? Some people, like Jonathan Tjarks at SB Nation, have gone as far to compare Burke to Los Angeles Clippers star Chris Paul.

    The downside for Burke is his small size at 6'0", 190 pounds, which could potentially hurt him at the next level against a Russell Westbrook or Deron Williams. He has improved from a numbers perspective, but he struggled recently at Ohio State against Aaron Craft and will need to step up against the better competition on the road.

    Thus far, it appears Trey Burke made an excellent decision staying at Michigan for at least one more season. Reaching the level of Chris Paul is a long shot for almost anyone, but I expect a team to select Burke in the mid-to-late first round.

    He is certainly a future starting point guard in the NBA.

1. Cody Zeller: Indiana

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    There have been some concerns about Cody Zeller’s production in his sophomore year, such as the ones presented by Terry Hutchens of USA TODAY Sports, but I’m not one to buy into them.

    Zeller averaged less than 27 minutes a game before non-conference play, largely due to the Hoosiers’ soft schedule where they had significant leads at halftime.

    In the Big Ten, he is averaging just under 34 minutes a game with 19.2 points and 8.8 rebounds. More importantly, Zeller has improved his field-goal percentage to 63.1 and has cut his fouls per game down to 1.9, sensational numbers for a big man in the Big Ten.

    While Indiana has had some struggles as of late, Zeller is still doing what he does best.

    He has great technique and footwork down low in establishing position and uses his soft touch to convert at the basket. On the high block, he squares up to the basket and has his seven-foot frame to make the appropriate decision in the half-court offense.

    When the Hoosiers rebound the ball, regardless if it’s Zeller or not, he runs the floor in transition as a trailer option to catch the ball with his big hands above the defense or at least poses a threat to open up the outside for his teammates.

    Defensively, Zeller might not rack up the blocked shots like some of the great seven-foot centers have done in college basketball, but the preseason All-American team member disrupts the opponents’ offense and alters shots in the paint as well as anyone in the country.

    The multiple threats that Cody Zeller poses to an opposition should have him selected in the top 10 overall.