Big Ten Basketball: NBA Comparisons for Top 10 B1G Stars

Mike SingerFeatured ColumnistFebruary 15, 2013

Big Ten Basketball: NBA Comparisons for Top 10 B1G Stars

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    Last year, only four players from the Big Ten were selected throughout the entire NBA draft. This year, it would be a shock if any less than that were taken in the first-round alone. 

    Cody Zeller is a sure-fire top-five pick while B1G stars like Trey Burke and Victor Oladipo have seen their stock soar throughout the past two months. 

    Might some GM find the 2013 draft's sleeper pick by mining the rosters of the Big Ten? Will history look back on this year's class as one of the best to ever leave the conference? 

    Enough already. Let's breakdown who the Big Ten's stars compare to in the NBA. 

10. Trevor Mbakwe, PF, Minnesota

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    NBA Player Comparison: Reggie Evans

    Once a potential lottery pick because of his NBA-ready body, Trevor Mbakwe suffered multiple knee injuries throughout college, but the 6’8’’ forward came back strong for his senior year. Like Reggie Evans, Mbakwe is a tenacious rebounder (he leads the Big Ten with 8.8 per game this season) and has a relentless motor. 

    Both players have similar builds, which they use effectively to fight for position on the block. Mbakwe is going to have a tough time scoring in the NBA unless he develops his offensive arsenal. As of now, his most effective method is scoring off of second-chance opportunities. Evans has never been much of a scorer either, but his 9.2 rebounds per game are intriguing. 

    Mbakwe likely won’t be a starter in the NBA, but a second-team energy guy isn’t out of the question. 

9. Christian Watford, F, Indiana

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    NBA Player Comparison: Ersan Ilyasova

    Christian Watford remains an enigma. He’s got great length and deep range for his size, but he has not really taken over as a leader for the Indiana Hoosiers in his senior year.

    Ersan Ilyasova, similar to Watford, is an outstanding outside shooter (44 percent) who’s also got enough bounce to snag 6.2 rebounds a game for the Milwaukee Bucks. 

    Those numbers are very attainable for Watford, but if he’s to positively impact an NBA team, he’s going to need to bring more consistent effort. The other knock on Watford is his strength. At 6’9’’, he’s somewhat lanky and does not have the muscle to battle for boards. Most of Watford’s 6.9 rebounds per game are due to his athleticism.    

    For a second-rounder, Ilyasova has carved out a nice career for himself. Watford has that potential as well.  


8. Gary Harris, SG, Michigan State

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    NBA Player Comparison: Bradley Beal

    Even though he’s just a freshman, Gary Harris has unbelievable poise from the perimeter, something Bradley Beal displayed during last year’s NCAA tournament. In 12 conference games, Harris leads the Big Ten with 33 made three-pointers on 52 percent shooting, via BigTen.org. 

    Both Beal and Harris have outstanding form from deep, and both play with a calm about them that makes it easy to understand why they thrived as freshmen. 

    Beal is one inch shorter than Harris, but he’s a better rebounder than the Michigan State Spartans freshman. Harris only grabs 2.6 rebounds per game, but that may be due to the Spartans’ deep frontcourt. Of course, Beal had to compete with Patric Young and Erik Murphy for boards last season as well. 

    Harris typically plays off the ball and sets up on the wing, waiting for PG Keith Appling to find him. As a freshman with a veteran PG in the mix, it’s hard to dominate the ball. But Harris needs to become more aggressive, both when rebounding and attacking. The potential Big Ten Freshman of the Year has enormous upside. 


7. Brandon Paul, SG, Illinois

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    NBA Player Comparison: Ben Gordon

    Brandon Paul is a gifted scorer, capable of beating his man off the dribble or knocking down shots from outside. He’s supremely athletic and instinctive, much like Ben Gordon.

    However, both are prone to dominate the ball at the expense of their respective teams. 

    The senior shoots just 33 percent from the three-point line, not quite high enough to justify the 168 attempts he’s taken, which are the third-most in the conference. Both are volume shooters with short-term memories—a plus for perimeter scorers. 

    Paul already has the body of a prototypical shooting guard, but his ball-handling and finishing need to improve. Gordon is a better driver, and too often Paul settles for the outside shot. If Paul can have a good showing at the conference tournament, he could slip into the late first-round.  


6. Keith Appling, PG, Michigan State

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    NBA Player Comparison: Ramon Sessions

    Keith Appling is one of the most difficult guys to project because of his progression. In each of his three years under coach Tom Izzo, some aspects to his game have improved dramatically.

    Last year, he became the top point guard and saw his assists jump by nearly three a game. This year, his three-point shooting has improved from 25 to 35 percent (29-of-82). All the while his defense has been stellar.   

    Like Ramon Sessions, Appling is a heady player who can get into the lane on his own and set up his teammates for open jumpers. The biggest similarity between the two is how both draw contact and can get to the line.

    Each player averages more than five free-throw attempts per game. Appling is more athletic than Sessions is though, and he uses his quick hands to his benefit on the defensive end. 

    On offense, Appling attacks the lane almost like Russell Westbrook, but has nowhere near the hops of the Oklahoma City Thunder point guard. Given Michigan State’s unexpected rise this season, don’t be surprised if a team takes a chance on Appling early in the second-round either this year or next. He could be a useful backup guard.  


5. Deshaun Thomas, F, Ohio State

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    NBA Player Comparison: Al Harrington

    Deshaun Thomas will never overwhelm anyone with his athleticism, and neither will Al Harrington (once he comes back from his latest knee injury). But they both manage to score with an impressive face-up game along with a nice outside shooting touch. 

    At 6’7’’, Thomas is two inches shorter than Harrington and is somewhat caught in-between positions. He’s not strong enough to play down low and isn’t really quick enough to handle many small forwards. He’s a below average dribbler, but has a quick release coming off of pick and rolls that should translate well at the next level. 

    Thomas leads the Big Ten in scoring at 20.1 points per game and is knocking down 40 percent of his three-pointers. His post game is predictable, and he’ll need to vary that as he adapts to bigger players guarding him. He should go in the second round. 


4. Victor Oladipo, SF, Indiana

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    NBA Player Comparison: Andre Iguodala  

    Has anybody’s stock risen faster than the ultra-athletic small forward from Indiana? Given how quickly he has burst onto the scene, he’ll likely be drafted in the top-15 based on his potential ceiling, which is about as high as he can jump.

    Andre Iguodala works in this case because of his all-around game.  

    The Denver Nuggets’ small forward is hovering near five assists per game and five rebounds per game, both realistic averages for Victor Oladipo. Iguodala can also create scoring opportunities for himself by putting the ball on the deck or pulling up for jumpers, the latter being Oladipo’s biggest improvement this year. 

    He went from a 20 percent three-point shooter last season to a 52.4 percent shooter from downtown. It could be scary once he begins to pull up from deep with more regularity 

    Oladipo’s biggest asset is his versatility on the defensive end. He has the quickness to matchup against a team’s best ball-handler, but also, the leaping ability to close on perimeter players. As impressive as he has been, Iguodala could very well be the low-end of Oladipo’s future NBA career. 


3. Tim Hardaway Jr., SG, Michigan

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    NBA Player Comparison: Paul George

    Tim Hardaway Jr. has impressed as much as any Big Ten player throughout conference play. His three-point shooting has been lights out (49 percent), and he’s averaging nearly five rebounds a game, despite playing mostly on the perimeter.

    His game and his body are eerily reminiscent of Indiana’s Paul George. 

    Like George, Hardaway Jr. has a smooth stroke from the three-point line and can shoot it in very little space. He excels coming off of screens, but is capable of taking his man off the dribble, although he doesn’t do it often. Both are great athletes, who can occasionally come out of nowhere and swat an opponent on defense. 

    The biggest difference between the two is size. George is about 15 pounds stronger and two inches taller than Hardaway Jr. He’ll need to bulk up to fight for rebounds, but there isn’t a better shooter coming out of the Big Ten this season. Hardaway Jr. could sneak into the top-20 if he decides to come out.


2. Trey Burke, PG, Michigan

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    NBA Player Comparison: Tony Parker

    Trey Burke is reaping the benefits of returning to school for his sophomore season. He’s received the press of a top-5 team, learned how to play as the focal point of defensive game plans, and has improved his shooting immensely.

    It may sound like a stretch, but Burke could be similar to Tony Parker. 

    Both are excellent floor generals and know where their teammates thrive. Burke, similar to Parker, has improved his three-point shooting to 38 percent this season, and he routinely wants the ball as the shot clock is winding down.

    Maybe most similar though, is watching how the two conduct fast breaks. Both have superior quickness and court vision, often seeing plays develop before the defenses can react. 

    It’s the decision-making that sets Burke apart from his Big Ten peers. Both Burke and Parker take care of the basketball, but are not unwilling to risk a tight pass if it is indeed the right play.  

    Burke’s biggest downside is his size, but that didn’t stop Allen Iverson, another six-foot crossover machine from taking the league by storm. The sophomore’s stock may have risen to fringe lottery status. 


1. Cody Zeller, C, Indiana

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    NBA Player Comparison: Brook Lopez

    It’s not easy to find an adequate comparison to Cody Zeller, the mobile 7’0’’ sophomore from Indiana, but Brook Lopez is as close as the NBA has to offer right now.

    Both are mobile big men who can keep pace with their up-tempo offenses, and both can create their own shot off the bounce, which is exceedingly rare for big men. 

    The other similarity isn’t necessarily a positive one, but it’s a reality. Neither one of them has a mean streak and genuinely loves to battle in the post. Maybe it’s because they can both score from outside of the paint, but Zeller has been criticized this year for not demanding the ball and taking over games.  

    That’s partially a result of Indiana’s balanced offense. It is, after all, the number one team in the country right now, so Zeller is doing something right. But he lets the game come to him instead of forcing it, which is probably only seen as a fault through the eyes of scouts and fans, alike. 

    To his credit, he bulked up this past offseason and is noticeably stronger. It’s just a matter of when he decides to use his strength in the paint that will take him from an elite prospect to a dominating one.