Ranking Biggest Early-Season Risers and Fallers of 2014 NBA Draft Class

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterJanuary 7, 2014

Ranking Biggest Early-Season Risers and Fallers of 2014 NBA Draft Class

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    Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports

    With conference play underway, we've already seen the draft-stock needle move for a fair share of NBA prospects. Of course, that needle moves in both directions. 

    Some guys have come out of nowhere, either by excelling faster than expected or by simply taking their games to new levels. On the other hand, some guys have regressed in years where many expected big things. 

    I've ranked the five biggest risers and fallers based on the distance of their jump and where they've landed. 

Riser: 5. Nik Stauskas, Michigan, 6'6'', SG/SF, Sophomore

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    Preseason Projection: Second Round to Undrafted (2014, 2015)

    Current Projection: Late-First to Second Round (2014, 2015)

    What a transformation it's been for Nik Stauskas, who's evolved into multidimensional scorer from essentially a one-dimensional shooter. 

    He's averaging 17.8 points a game as Michigan's top gun while maintaining that sharp-shooting three-point stroke. Stauskas is converting at a 45.7-percent clip from downtown on 2.5 makes per game, but it's the rest of his offensive repertoire that's landed him on first-round radars. 

    Stauskas has been shaking and baking off the dribble, showing he can change directions and create his own shot moving east, west, north or south.

    He's already taken more free throws (90) this year than he did all of last (87), averaging 6.9 attempts per game. Stauskas is also a much better athlete than he's been given credit for, and with a lane to hit, he's capable of exploding towards the rim and finishing above it. 

    I'm not sure how much upside he has, but at 6'6'' with an elite outside stroke, high basketball IQ and refined in-between game, Stauskas projects as a floor spacer who might be able to balance out a lineup.  

Riser: 4. Jordan Clarkson, Missouri, 6'5'', PG/SG, Junior

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    Preseason Projection: Second Round to Undrafted (2015, 2016)

    Current Projection: Late-First Round (2014, 2015)

    After sitting out the year following his transfer from Tulsa, Jordan Clarkson has emerged as an offensive machine for Missouri. 

    He's averaging 19.3 points and 4.1 assists on 49.4 percent shooting. Clarkson has been handling the ball as the team's primary playmaker, whether it's at the point or in a scoring role on the wing. 

    At 6'5'', he's got a quick first step, broad shoulders and live athleticism, which allows him to finish through traffic or make passes around it. 

    Though not pure in terms of point guard instincts, Clarkson's ability to break down defenses and trigger the collapse frees up shooters outside and big men down low. He's been going to work lately with the dribble penetration as a drive-and-disher, something that should appeal to NBA coaches looking for some life in the backcourt. 

    Clarkson's jumper has been somewhat erratic (31 percent from downtown), but he did make 37.4 percent of his threes as a sophomore and he's hitting 84.5 percent of his free throws as a junior.

    The NBA guys love sizable point guards, and if Clarkson can convince them he's one of them, it would reflect favorably on his draft stock. 

Riser: 3. Tyler Ennis, Syracuse, 6'2'', PG, Freshman

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    Preseason Projection: Late-First Round (2015, 2016)

    Current Projection: Mid-to-Late First Round (2014)

    Tyler Ennis' natural feel, poise and leadership at the point guard position have made it easy to overlook his physical limitations.

    Forget the fact that he plays below the rim, or he isn't 6'4'', or he's not the most explosive kid in the gym. Ennis knows how to use what he's given, and he understands how to run an offense. 

    With phenomenal instincts and a mean hesitation dribble, Ennis has been tough to contain off the bounce for the Orange. And that's where he's at his best—when he can manipulate the defense, break it down and create easy shots for himself or teammates. 

    He's also ranked No. 2 in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio. Ennis has full command of his offense and values each and every possession—no silly shots, no home run passes. 

    As a scorer, Ennis picks and chooses his spots like a pro—knowing when to pull up, take it strong, step back, use a floater. He's not the deadliest shooter, but he's making 38.5 percent of his threes (only takes open ones), and seems comfortable with his mid-range game. 

    Many expected Ennis to be more of a two- to three-year college guard, only he looks like a junior today at 19 years old. There just might not be a point in returning, especially if he's able to lead the Orange on a run deep into March or April. 

Riser: 2. Noah Vonleh, Indiana, 6'10'', PF, Freshman

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    Preseason Projection: Mid-First Round (2015)

    Current Projection: Top 10 (2014)

    There are some things you can't teach, and one of them is standing out. Noah Vonleh just stands out for Indiana, even when he's not the featured matchup.

    Vonleh's physical tools are can't-miss—at roughly 6'10'', he's got a strong 240-pound frame with an enormous 7'4'' wingspan. And he has a good idea of how to use what he has. 

    He's emerged as one of the top rebounders in all of college basketball with a per-40 average of 16.6 a game (Julius Randle pulls in 14.3 per 40). Kenpom's advanced stats (subscription required) rank him No. 9 in the country in defensive rebounding percentage.

    Offensively, despite lacking a refined post game, he's still converting more than half his scoring opportunities (54.6 percent). Vonleh just finds ways to score in the post, mostly by using his strength to earn position, his foot speed to separate and his length to finish. 

    In limited doses, he's also shown flashes of a face-up game. As a shooter, Vonleh has hit three three-pointers and 71.6 percent of his free throws—nothing to write home about, but it's enough to show there's something there.

    He's got tremendous offensive potential as an inside-outside mismatch, while offering top-notch glass-cleaning services. Vonleh might take a few years before fully blossoming, but he's going to be fun to watch as a finished product. 

Riser: 1. Zach LaVine, UCLA, 6'5'', PG/SG, Freshman

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    Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

    Preseason Projection: Mid-to-Late First Round (2015, 2016)

    Current Projection: Lottery to Mid-First Round (2014, 2015)

    As a freshman playing behind a junior and two stud sophomores at UCLA, Zach LaVine wasn't projected as a potential one-and-done candidate. 

    He is now.

    LaVine has erupted onto the scene despite his limited role off the bench, averaging 12.4 points on 54.8 percent shooting and 45.3 percent shooting from three. 

    He immediately catches your eye with a blend of length and smooth athleticism. Add a lights-out three ball and combo-guard handle, and LaVine offers a pretty serious package of offensive tools. 

    He'll need to put muscle on that scrawny 180-pound frame, and another year at UCLA probably wouldn't hurt. But the buzz might be too loud to ignore by March.

    LaVine's combination of size, elite-level athleticism and ball skills could trigger a team to reach in the lotto on his long-term potential.

Faller: 5. Alex Poythress, Kentucky, 6'8'', PF, Sophomore

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    Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

    Preseason Projection: Late-First Round (2014)

    Current Projection: Second Round to Undrafted (2014, 2015)

    Many had pegged Alex Poythress as a lottery pick one year ago. Today, I'm not even sure he's draftable. 

    As a returning sophomore on a team filled with freshman, scouts were looking for Poythress to take that next step in his development. However, we're still not quite sure exactly what he brings to the table. 

    His minutes have been slashed from 25.8 to just 18 a game, and he's only averaging 4.8 points. A non-threat off the dribble and minimal threat from outside, Poythress is an excellent athlete with no offensive game or position.

    The fact is, Poythress really doesn't look much different than he did his first day as a freshman. He might ultimately cut his losses and declare in 2014, but the first round appears out of reach. 

Faller: 4. Rasheed Sulaimon, Duke, 6'4'', SG, Sophomore

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    Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

    Preseason Projection: Mid-to-Late First Round (2014)

    Current Projection: Late-First Round to Early-Second Round (2015)

    It's been a bizarre year for Rasheed Sulaimon, who's found himself struggling just to get off Coach K's bench. 

    He's playing almost nine less minutes a game this year, and hasn't found an offensive rhythm all season. 

    "I've been struggling and whatnot," Sulaimon told ESPN's C.L. Brown. "Coach challenged me and I just have to step up to the challenge. It's something I can get out of, and I just feel like if I just stay confident and be mentally tough, I think I can get out of it."

    Many expected Sulaimon to solidify himself as a first-round prospect in 2014. Instead, he's shooting just 39.1 percent from the floor for 7.3 points a game, and his role with Duke has been severely diminished. 

    If it stays that way, you have to wonder whether Sulaimon will even bother coming back or if he'll take his chances now and jump to the pros before it's too late. Either way, Sulaimon's draft stock has taken a tumble early on. 

Faller: 3. Isaiah Austin, Baylor, 7'1'', PF/C, Sophomore

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    Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

    Preseason Projection: Mid-to-Late First Round (2014)

    Current Projection: Second Round (2014), Late-First Round (2015)

    We just kind of expected more from Isaiah Austin a sophomore. 

    At 7'1'', he's pulling in just 5.1 boards a game after averaging 8.3 a year ago, though he is playing five less minutes a night. 

    He also hasn't shown much growth offensively, nor has he defined his identity or NBA position. Austin flashed some stretch potential last season, having knocked down 30 three-pointers as a freshman. He's only hit one so far this year, as he's playing a bit more inside, only he's averaging just 10.5 points a game (down from 13 a game last year). 

    And at 225 pounds, the NBA interior doesn't quite seem like a welcoming home.

    To his credit, he's become a more productive shot-blocker, but many had high hopes for Austin has a big-time offensive weapon. Frankly, I'm not sure he's a first rounder if declares for the 2014 draft. 

Faller: 2. Mitch McGary, Michigan, 6'10'', PF, Sophomore

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    Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

    Preseason Projection: Mid-to-Late First Round (2014)

    Current Projection: Late-First Round (2015, 2016)

    Talk about bad luck—Mitch McGary's season appears to be over after electing to undergo surgery on his back. And nobody's stock ever benefited from back surgery.

    What's even worse is that McGary was considered a potential lottery pick last April. After playing ring and run at the NBA's front door, he's now in a position where he might have to return as a 22-year-old junior with something to prove. 

    Declaring in 2014 might not be the soundest strategy—not when the only thing on your resume is a strong couple of games in 2013 and a major season-ending surgery the following year. 

    I just don't see how anyone would hand him a guaranteed contract in the 2014 draft.

Faller: 1. Andrew Harrison, Kentucky, 6'6'', PG, Freshman

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    Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

    Preseason Projection: Lottery (2014)

    Current Projection: Late-First to Second Round (2014, 2015)

    He sure hasn't looked like your typical one-and-done first-round point guard. 

    Andrew Harrison has had a rocky start to his career at Kentucky, where the downs have outweighed the ups early on. 

    He's averaging just 3.4 assists to 2.5 turnovers, and can't seem to find any offensive rhythm. Harrison is shooting 39.1 percent from the floor, 32.1 percent from downtown and 71.1 percent from the line.

    It's tough not to admire his size and skills at the position, but he seems to lack the breakdown quickness and natural playmaking instincts of a point guard. 

    Harrison is going to have to get a lot better in the half court to play the next level—he's only making 2.1 two-point field goals per game.

    Who knows if he'll listen, but the doctor is likely to order another year at Kentucky. There's just no way he's ready to operate an NBA offense.