2014 NBA Draft Prospects with the Steepest Learning Curve

Daniel O'Brien@@DanielO_BRFeatured ColumnistJanuary 24, 2014

2014 NBA Draft Prospects with the Steepest Learning Curve

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    Among the bevy of exciting 2014 NBA draft prospects, there are a few who have a lot to learn.

    Whether it's due to youth, inexperience or role changes, these talented candidates lack an advanced grasp of how to execute the game's various situations.

    Many players struggle with offensive decision-making and defensive awareness, and only time can strengthen those shortcomings. Meanwhile, international prospects face the challenge of translating their skills to the American style.

    We put together a list of the standouts with the most to learn in order to reach their potential. Which top-tier prospects have their work cut out for them?

7. Dante Exum, Australia G (6'6")

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    Areas to Learn: Decision-making in traffic, directing offense against tight defense

    Australian sensation Dante Exum has all the raw tools, disposition and instincts required to flourish in the NBA. What he doesn't possess is experience and refined floor-general skills against top-tier competition.

    In high school, he was an unstoppable playmaker who could make his whole team better and rack up tons of assists. In international play, on the other hand, he was more of a scorer.

    Leading an offense against high-caliber opponents isn't easy, and it's something he must get a feel for. When good international defenses pressured Exum, he was less efficient setting up his teammates and was more turnover prone.

    That's not surprising, considering he's 18 years old and didn't regularly play against elite athletes. The quarterbacking aspect is something he'll steadily develop over the next couple years.

    NBA stars like Dwyane Wade, Paul George and Chris Paul are infinitely better defenders than anyone he's ever encountered, so Exum is hoping for rapid growth.

6. Jerami Grant, Syracuse F (6'8" Sophomore)

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    Areas to Learn: Creating his own shot, man-to-man defensive principles

    Jerami Grant's draft stock has skyrocketed during his sophomore year, and for good reason. He's a long, disruptive factor in Syracuse's zone defense, attacks the glass, and his mid-range jumper has improved.

    However, if he wants to excel on the wing in the NBA, he must learn and develop more ball-handling moves. Grant isn't tall enough or bulky enough to live in the post, so he'll want to be a threat off the dribble. An expansion of his skills will lead to increased productivity and more opportunities to unleash his athleticism.

    In addition, Grant will undergo a learning process when it comes to man-to-man defense; he hasn't played substantial man-to-man since high school. Team defense in the Association can be tricky, so it will take him some time to learn how to effectively steer his opponents, play on weak side and approach the pick-and-roll.

    His NBA team will show patience; much of his value is based on upside. It's up to Grant to make the most of his early days in the league and soak up as much as possible.

5. Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky C (7'0" Sophomore)

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    Areas to Learn:  Defensive decision-making, low-post polish, passing in traffic

    Kentucky center Willie Cauley-Stein has the potential to thrive in the NBA, as he possesses a rare combination of size and mobility.

    The key word there is potential.

    He's an extraordinary shot-blocker at the college level, and he can rock the rim on the other end. But if he wants to be a truly productive player in his pro career, he needs to cultivate his low-post skills.

    Cauley-Stein has primarily scored on putbacks and alley-oops for most of his college career, so he's still learning how to catch the ball in the post and generate offense. With improved footwork and an increased awareness of positioning and angles, his playing time would jump dramatically. 

    Another area with room for growth is his defensive decision-making. Cauley-Stein is often an inefficient defender because he's too aggressive contesting shots, and he occasionally finds himself out of position.

    He needs to understand when to gamble on contests or charges and when not to. His ill-advised attempt to draw a charge recently against Arkansas damaged Kentucky's chances to win. If he doesn't play smarter on the defensive end, he will undoubtedly get torched frequently in the NBA.

4. Chris Walker, Florida F (6'10" Freshman)

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    Areas to Learn: A little bit of everything 

    Whether Chris Walker plays zero games or 15 games for Florida this year, he's an attractive NBA prospect with long-term potential. 

    There is a learning, curve, however, especially because he hasn't played in a single game yet due to academic eligibility issues; he missed fall practices and has only practiced this winter a handful of times.

    He's not ready to dominate in the NBA because he's not ready to dominate in college. Gators coach Billy Donovan talked about it in mid-December, via Nicole Auerbach of USA Today:

    He just got absolutely annihilated by (Florida senior) Patric Young for three days (in practice). It was a very humbling experience for him. He has no chance of stepping on the floor and even remotely helping us in a game, and it's not his fault. He hasn't played. He has the potential to be a very, very good player, but he is so lost and so far behind.

    Even if he has caught up a bit in the past month, there is still a big gap for improvement.

    In high school, Walker stood out due to his impressive length and athleticism, but he didn't have the greatest feel for the game. That obviously doesn't translate to early NBA success if he turns pro in 2014. On both ends of the floor, he needs to get acclimated to high-level competition.

3. Joel Embiid, Kansas C (7'0" Freshman)

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    Areas to Learn: Defensive positioning, offensive situational awareness, keeping ball high and tight

    He's absorbing the game at a rapid rate, but there's plenty left to learn.

    Kansas center Joel Embiid ranks high on our list because he still needs to learn many of the game's nuances. He owns tremendous natural skills and instincts, and he's a smart pupil, but we can't forget that this is only his third year of organized hoops.

    Defensively, he needs to develop better habits and know when to refrain from overcommitting. He's getting better as a shot-blocker, but he sporadically gets caught out of position or wanders too far as a helper.

    When he has the ball, he's a great low-post scoring weapon and a willing passer, but he often makes game-management mistakes. Mike Schmitz of Draft Express identified several instances where he's shown poor situational awareness for the Jayhawks: shooting long jumpers early in the shot clock, miscommunication on passes, rushing shots against double-teams, etc.

    This steep learning curve doesn't hurt his draft stock at all. It just means it may take him a little while to adjust to the pro game and hone the fundamentals.

2. Clint Capela, Switzerland PF (6'10)

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    Areas to Learn: Post-up basics, passing anticipation, defensive footwork and awareness

    Swiss forward Clint Capela is brimming with intrigue, and he's a worthwhile investment for an NBA team as long as they understand he needs basketball tutoring.

    He lands second in our rankings because he doesn't have a good feel for the game or the fundamentals. When he catches and looks to pass, he seems to lack the anticipation necessary to make a good connection, and sometimes he forces awful passes.

    The other offensive facet Capela must study is basic back-to-the-basket operations. It's OK if he never becomes Al Jefferson, but it would be great for him to acquire some simple, quick moves.

    As a stopper, he shows a meager understanding of how to prevent opponents from getting good position, and he also exhibits poor footwork. Most importantly, he doesn't always realize the importance of hustling back in transition and "beating his man to the spot."

    Some of Capela's deficiencies are easier to correct than others, but it's all going to add up to a couple years of intense training before he becomes a mature NBAer.

1. Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Delaware 87ers SF (6'7")

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    Areas to Learn: Shot selection, decision-making, off-ball defensive awareness, on-ball defensive poise

    Although he's older (21) than the other prospects on this list, Greece native Thanasis Antetokounmpo is far from the savviest, and he has a boatload to learn in a short amount of time.

    In fact, Giannis' brother is still learning many of the most basic, vital concepts of basketball. His youth competition wasn't imposing and his training was insufficient.

    During his time this season with the D-League's Delaware 87ers, we've notice a slew of shortcomings. Chief among them are his shot selection and pass selection. He takes too many poorly timed or poorly balanced jumpers, and he's not an astute or skilled passer.

    Antetokounmpo's defense is suspect as well. He's often overzealous on close-outs, which puts him out of position to defend one-on-one, and he also gets lost off the ball. An inadequate sense of help defense angles makes him susceptible to losing his man.

    Fortunately, things like effort and energy aren't an issue at all. He simply requires time, experience and instruction in order to know to to approach every NBA situation.


    Dan O'Brien covers the NBA draft for Bleacher Report.

    Follow him on Twitter: @DanielO_BR