The former Kentucky center is considered by many to be the favorite to go No. 1 overall, but he has stiff competition. Georgetown’s Otto Porter was getting consideration from the Cavs before they won the top pick, and teams are becoming enamored with a possible trade up for Indiana’s Victor Oladipo.
Those three, along with Michigan’s Trey Burke and Kansas’ Ben McLemore, comprise something of a "Big Five" in the the 2013 draft class.
As the draft draws closer, the "Big Five" will become the players with stories that we will know better than our own mother’s birthday. These are the guys who are most likely to see their picture on billboards and develop into superstars—though “superstar” is a relative term for this class.
Also, throughout history, the NBA has arguably done a better job than any other major professional sports league at plucking its top talent early. Basketball is a more inherently predictable sport, and thus, it is much easier to draft in this sport than in many others.
However, players like Chicago Bulls forward Jimmy Butler continue to prove that no system is infallible. While scouts and teams do a great job at discerning superstars from busts (relatively speaking), good role players continually seep through the cracks in Round 1.
With that in mind, here is a quick breakdown of a few underrated players worth considering for teams in the late first round in 2013.
Tony Snell (G-F, New Mexico)
As just about any Lobos alum would be more than glad to tell you, rooting for Tony Snell is not exactly the easiest thing to do. The former New Mexico star spent each of the last two years tantalizing fans, players and coaches with his talent, yet he never fully harnessed those abilities.
As a sophomore and junior, Snell’s stat lines were almost carbon copies. He scored two more points per game (12.5 compared to 10.5) as a junior, but that uptick in production can almost entirely be attributed to his increase in minutes (31.2 compared to 25.6).
When Snell decided to leave New Mexico a year early, it was a decision that a number of folks questioned. There was no NCAA tournament performance to put his name on the map like many other NBA-hopeful mid-major talents have had. In fact, Snell shot just 4-of-12 from the field en route to scoring nine points in the Lobos’ Round of 64 loss to Harvard this year.
Also, Snell doesn’t possess the tantalizing size and athleticism of, say, Pittsburgh center Steven Adams, who also declared for the draft to the befuddlement of most analysts.
It seems that doubting Snell paved the one-way ticket to opening at least part of his talent vault. The 21-year-old has been working seven days a week on his game, and he told Geoff Grammer of the Albuquerque Journal that the doubters played a major role in motivating him.
“It bothered me, but it also motivated me,” Snell said. “I know you can’t please everybody. When I made this decision, I did it with all the faith in Marvin [Lea]. I knew what I was capable of and I knew what he was telling me.”
Now others are starting to pay attention. Snell was one of the more buzzed-about names coming out of Chicago’s draft combine after again flashing an interesting combination of athleticism and outside shooting prowess.
He shot 74 percent in shooting drills, the second-highest of any player participating in Chicago. That number was the best among guards by a good margin, and Snell’s stock was only buoyed further by a 10.36-second time in the lane agility drill and a strong performance in the max and standing vertical jumps.
In other words, Snell is a very good athlete and an elite shooter. Those are both translatable skills, which should garner him consideration starting at the No. 20 slot in the first round with the Chicago Bulls.
Reggie Bullock (G-F, North Carolina)
Bullock isn’t unheralded—not by a long shot. In fact, there was a stretch last season after Roy Williams’ decision to go with a four-guard lineup where Bullock was North Carolina’s best player. The junior thrived while playing ostensibly as the Tar Heels’ power forward, showing off his elite rebounding ability for someone of his size (6'7").
While North Carolina’s season ended in disappointment versus Kansas in the Round of 32, Bullock’s resume was basically cemented. Scouts knew what he could do and knew what he couldn’t, thus making his decision to enter the draft a year early an understandable one.
The problem is that Bullock—like many of his semi-predictable contemporaries—became a bit of an afterthought once the Tar Heels were eliminated. Analysts often deride NBA general managers for taking risks on players with “potential” rather than ones with actual basketball skills. Yet we are the ones who are just as susceptible to those pitfalls of the draft process, allowing very good prospects like Bullock to slip through the cracks.
Luckily, Bullock put himself back on NBA radars at the combine. He impressed scouts in the shooting drills by knocking down 72 percent of his shots. Keith Langlois of Pistons.com also noted that Bullock looked the part of a professional shooting guard at the combine:
We’re not ones to worry about Bullock looking the part, but anything that helps the young man get into the first round is fine with us. Bullock is a smart player who showed his versatility by playing the 4 under Williams, and he can absolutely shoot the lights out of the gym in spot-up situations.
There’s no superstar potential with Bullock, but it’s hard envisioning a scenario in which he fails. Spacing has become the most important concept in today’s NBA, and Bullock’s commendable defensive commitment makes him an interesting two-way bench player.
Too often, real translatable skills get ignored toward the end of Round 1. Playoff teams—especially ones like the Denver Nuggets—will regret passing on Bullock if guys like Tim Hardaway, Jr. and Allen Crabbe are already off the board.
Isaiah Canaan (G, Murray State)
Canaan is one of the more interesting fast-risers coming out of the combine festivities. A lethal scoring threat at Murray State, Canaan has been on NBA teams’ radars for the past two years.
After leading the Racers to a 31-2 record and NCAA tournament berth in 2011-12, many expected the point guard to declare for last year’s draft. But Canaan came back to school and averaged 21.8 points per game while becoming a gunner from beyond the arc.
Normally a recipe for an improved draft stock, Canaan fell off NBA teams’ radars this year, as Murray State failed to impress. The Racers’ season ended in the Ohio Valley Conference championship game at the hands of Belmont, and Canaan was once again unable to impress scouts in March.
He’s wasted little time in the months since, though. Canaan impressed scouts at the combine upon arrival, showing off athleticism that was even better than expected. Ryan Feldman of ESPN Stats & Information notes that he was one of two players (Tim Hardaway, Jr. being the other) to finish inside the top-20 in all athleticism drills.
David Spahn of SLAM Magazine noticed that Canaan even participated in an impromptu dunk contest with his fellow Lilliputian guards:
Everyone knows Canaan can score. What interested scouts the most was whether or not he’d be able to become a better, NBA-style distributor at the point guard spot. While it’s clear that he has a lot of work to do, most scouts left impressed with the progress that Canaan had made.
We’re not going to see him rise precipitously up draft boards, much in the way Damian Lillard did a year ago. Canaan just isn’t garnering that level of excitement. That being said, though, he’ll be awfully hard to pass up for the Oklahoma City Thunder at No. 29, a team with desperate bench scoring needs that became apparent in the postseason.
Follow me on Twitter: Follow @tylerconway22