While the marquee 2014 NBA draft prospects get showered with nationwide praise, a talented set of sleepers continue to get better under the radar.
Their stock might not be swelling at the moment, but sooner or later, pro scouts and executives will give them their due.
Our unheralded group includes gifted competitors from high-profile programs such as Kentucky and UCLA. Mid-major and Midwestern talent also crashed this slumber party, not to mention an international contender currently playing in the D-League.
Don't sleep on this crew, because their names will be called earlier than anticipated on draft night.
Vitals: 19 years old, 6'7", 220 lbs
Wisconsin forward Sam Dekker should be considered a draft-night steal if he's chosen in the second round.
Why? Because he's instantly going to make his NBA club better, and he's also young enough to improve over time and give his team a half-decade of polished and youthful play.
Dekker has the shooting skills, footwork and all-around fundamentals to serve as a supplementary device during his rookie year. Meanwhile, he will quickly learn how to implement his versatility at the pro level, thus making him a more multidimensional scorer.
Jim Polzin of the Wisconsin State Journal explained that Dekker is making a concerted effort to take advantage of low-post opportunities:
He has been posting up more often in practice and is eager to draw bigger defenders outside the paint and then drive past them. It’s reasonable to expect a substantial increase in the number of free throws Dekker attempts — he averaged about two a game as a freshman — and his overall scoring average.
His recent 20-point outings against West Virginia and Marquette were impressive, especially because they were ultra-efficient shooting efforts and were accompanied by 10-plus rebounds. Dekker won't post those kind of numbers in the Association, but it shows that he'll score when given the chance and rebound well for his position.
Vitals: 20 years old, 6'7", 215 lbs
Thanasis Antetokounmpo's age-to-upside ratio isn't as good as his younger brother's was entering the 2013 draft, so he won't be as highly valued by executives on draft night.
That being said, Giannis' older sibling is only 20, and he's poised for a robust NBA career.
Selected to the D-League's Delaware 87ers in November, the Greek forward is taking advantage of his close proximity to East Coast scouts. Antetokounmpo is starting to turn heads with his long-range accuracy, which only enhances his open-floor athleticism.
NBA.com's Brian Kotloff explains that the forward's lack of eye-popping statistics is directly related to low usage, something that should improve with time:
The team’s two intriguing, NBA prospect wings, “Greek Freak” Thanasis Antetekoumpo (watch highlights) and Sixers training camp cut Rodney Williams, have been limited in their production because of a lack of offensive touches; their respective 17.4 and 10.6 usage rates rank ninth and last on the team.
As a shooter, passer and slasher, Thanasis has demonstrated that his skills will translate to the Association, most likely as a small forward. His draft stock will soon jump if he continues to thrive in the D-League.
Join the Antetokounmpo train while you can. He might not be a sleeper for long.
Vitals: 21 years old, 6'5", 217 lbs, 6'8.5" wingspan
His shooting numbers are down so far in 2013-14, but don't dismiss Maryland guard Dezmine Wells as a late-draft afterthought.
The 2012 transfer from Xavier is shouldering a sizable chunk of offensive responsibility, and he's making the most of it. Wells has learned how to find scoring opportunities and attack the soft spots of the defense and is drawing more fouls per minute than ever before.
While he's not a dynamic shot-creator with advanced ball-handling skills, Wells can certainly generate offense off the bounce, using his agility and strong frame to get to the rim or dish to open comrades.
After handling the ball a bit recklessly to start the season, Wells has taken great care of it since the Paradise Jam in November. Alex Prewitt of The Washington Post explains the turnaround:
Even more noticeably, Wells curbed his turnover rate on the island. After earning public criticism from Turgeon after committing six turnovers against Connecticut, three against Oregon State and four against Marist, Wells committed just one in each of the past two games.
His production has started to ramp up the last few weeks, and I would expect his shooting efficiency to improve as his confidence grows and he gets more comfortable.
As an inside-outside threat with ample agility, Wells' stock should climb as general managers realize his value as a 2-man.
Vitals: 20 years old, 6'8", 230 lbs, 7'2.5" wingspan
For now, UCLA point forward Kyle Anderson isn't receiving major buzz.
But that will soon change, as his much-improved outside shooting will alter the opinions of countless scouts and analysts.
Anderson's size, court sense, passing skills and rebounding prowess were intriguing, but entering this season, there were huge question marks about his jumper. After shooting 8-of-38 (21 percent) from distance in 2012-13, he's already 7-of-13 (54 percent) this season. His confidence and execution are much better as he aims to prove he's a complete player.
After averaging 3.5 assists per game in 2012-13, Anderson is dishing 7.1 as a sophomore. ESPN's Jeff Goodman explained the huge uptick:
Anderson is a terrific passer whose athleticism, perimeter shot and ability to defend have been questioned. However, his distributing ability was masked last season as Howland decided to put the ball in Larry Drew II's hands much of the time.
Underwhelming athleticism hurts his overall ceiling, so don't expect him to skyrocket into the top 10 like his teammate, Zach LaVine.
However, Anderson's length as a passer, instincts as a rebounder and upgraded shooting stroke could propel him up the draft board.
Vitals: 19 years old, 6'8", 220 lbs, 7'1.5" wingspan
Using his long arms and springboard athleticism, LSU power forward Jordan Mickey has displayed his potential on both sides of ball early in his freshman campaign.
He's not mentioned among the top-tier prospects in the 2014 draft class, but some late first-round clubs will have an eye on him come springtime. Mickey's physical attributes and two-way impact are too good to ignore.
In addition to his superb finishing ability and rebounding talent, the 19-year-old competitor uses his above-the-rim talents to block and alter shots. He challenges opponents who try to score one-on-one, and he's also a dangerous weak-side shot-swatter.
He's already racked up a couple of SEC accolades, and The Times-Picayune noted his double-double prowess:
...Mickey was named one of the best five players in the SEC for the month of November by CollegeHoopsDaily.com. He had four double-doubles (points-rebounds): 14-10 at UMass, 10-13 vs. Northwestern State, 16-11 vs. UNO, and 14-10 vs. Saint Joseph's.
Mickey earned SEC Freshman of the Week honors during the month of November, has averaged 33.3 minutes per game and made 39-of-70 field goal attempts (55.7%).
Mickey is not quite 6'8" with his shoes on, so it's tough to foresee him thriving as a full-time NBA power forward unless he dramatically improves his low-post skills.
Nevertheless, clubs will still be interested in picking him up as an electrifying role player, one they could mold into a key part of their rotation. There's definitely a place for his kind of explosiveness and wingspan in the NBA.
Vitals: 20 years old, 6'3", 213 lbs
Ron Baker was a huge sleeper coming out of high school, and he'll still be one when he transitions from Wichita State to the NBA.
He's not a sure bet to leave the Shockers this spring, but his draft stock might be so high that he decides to go. After an impressive 2013 NCAA tourney as a freshman, his early season sophomore ventures include four straight 20-plus point performances.
ESPN's Chad Ford (subscription required) notes that Baker is much more than a shooting prospect:
Baker is a terrific shooter, but he's shown this season he's a more versatile scorer than scouting reports have suggested. He's also playing some backup point this season, which is a good thing, as most scouts believe he'll have to be a point guard in the NBA given his relative lack of size (6-3) and length.
In today's world of inexperienced, unpolished playmakers, several teams would love to add a young guard who can make good decisions with the ball and shoot efficiently early in his career. Fred Mann of The Wichita Eagle explains Baker's poise at the height of competition:
Baker’s composure on a stage or court seemed to come naturally, according to those who know him.
Glenn O’Neil, his high school basketball coach, said Baker had the ability to make games seem normal to himself at the most critical times.
“He looks relaxed and confident. That’s the key to success,” O’Neil said. “Being basically a humble western Kansas kid, he doesn’t get too high or low. When there’s a chance to make a big play in a game, Ron has confidence he’s going to make it.”
Don't be surprised if Baker hears his name called late in the first round. At that stage in the draft, it's worth it to pick a non-star if you know they'll be consistent in their role and maximize their talents.
Vitals: 18 years old, 6'7", 202 lbs, 6'11" wingspan
No matter what he does, Kentucky wing James Young will be overshadowed by Julius Randle and others in Big Blue Nation. In fact, he's projected by some to be the third or fourth Wildcat selected on draft night.
After his early season play and breakout game against Boise State, there are already detractors who are downplaying his success. They point to his talented surroundings and dismiss him as a legitimate lottery option.
Don't make the same mistake, because Young is the best sleeper in the draft class.
Young's smooth shot can earn him points from anywhere on the floor, and as a pro, he will use his off-ball footwork to find shooting pockets. His 6'11" wingspan and underrated athleticism will be a huge help in transition scenarios and on defense.
During SEC media days, ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes (via Larry Vaught) lauded Young's underrated impact and potential:
His length is a problem on the perimeter for teams. I think he has gotten better in the last month from what I have heard about knowing how to get fouled and finish plays at the rim through traffic and contact, something he didn’t have to do a lot of in high school...by the time conference play begins, (college basketball followers are) going to know a lot about James Young and that he’s going to have a dramatic impact on Kentucky’s season.
When you watch him work within Kentucky's offense, it's easy to see that he'll be a great catch-and-shoot weapon in the NBA, as well as an alert passer from the wing.
If he somehow slips past the lottery and into the high teens, some lucky franchise will snatch him up.