Dark-Horse 2014 NBA Draft First-Round Prospects
A half-dozen unheralded 2014 NBA draft prospects are poised to crash the first-round party, but they want to do much more than that.
Several players who are on the first/second-round bubble will exceed expectations and win the trust of first-round general managers. America will sleep on them for most of the year, but pro executives will keep them on the radar.
Our group of dark-horse candidates includes a trio of savvy point guards, two European prospects and a couple of dangerous small forwards.
We broke down each of these unsung draftees and predicted potential landing spots. The projections aren't necessarily best-case scenarios, but they're definitely on the optimistic end.
K.J. McDaniels, Clemson G-F (Junior)
Vitals: 20 years old, 6'6", 200 lbs, 6'9.5" wingspan
As the year goes on, NBA scouts and executives will gradually warm up to K.J. McDaniels and his two-way value.
Clemson's standout swingman uses his length and springboard athleticism to hit outside jumpers, contest shots (and block them) as well as rebound. He's constantly following up misses with critical boards and timely putbacks.
Although he's not an elite ball-handler or refined playmaker, his offensive skill set has come a long way the last couple years. He can now put it on the deck a few times, as he sets up a spin move or jump-stop for a high-percentage look.
Earlier this season, Tigers coach Brad Brownell highlighted McDaniels' expanding skills and rising value:
He always makes the highlight plays with the blocks and dunks. His skill level has improved tremendously with his shooting, his ability to drive it and attack some close-outs. Those weren’t really things he came here with the ability to do.
There are several squads that could use extra depth on defense and a hardworking slasher on offense. Don't be surprised if one of those clubs takes him with their first-round slot.
Potential Landing Spot: No. 30, Phoenix Suns (via Indiana Pacers)
Cleanthony Early, Wichita State F (Senior)
Vitals: 22 years old, 6'8", 219 lbs, 6'9" wingspan
Some mock drafts don't even project Cleanthony Early to get drafted, but Wichita State's leader in scoring and rebounding has a chance to land in the first round.
A 6'9" wingspan and ample athleticism will enable him to score in transition and defend small forwards, and his developing skills make him a potential NBA role player.
He's got a great feel for scoring around the rim, but an upgraded outside shot will give him a chance to succeed as a pro wing. Early is in the zone as of late: He's drilled nine of his last 13 triples.
The former junior college player is fueled by a healthy confidence in his ability to improve. When ESPN's Andy Katz asked him why he opted out of the 2013 NBA draft, he explained that he knew 2013-14 would be a productive year at Wichita:
I had so much more to learn and improve and understand...I knew I could increase my stock. I knew I could get in a position to think like a pro. I know I can compete with anyone playing the game of basketball.
Early isn't an advanced shot-creator, but he's a solid slasher when given the opportunities. A well-established group would match well with him and give him a great chance to maximize his tools.
Potential Landing Spot: No. 28, Oklahoma City Thunder
Shabazz Napier, Connecticut PG (Senior)
Vitals: 22 years old, 6'1", 180 lbs, 6'4" wingspan
Shabazz Napier is a household name in college basketball, yet he's a dark horse in the 2014 NBA draft due to his height and the caliber of prospect competition.
During his career at UConn, he's improved in all the major offensive categories and proved to be one of the country's best backcourt leaders. He can find his own shot, set up teammates or hit from distance.
In the NBA, Napier probably won't be able to make as many creative plays or get all the way to the rim like he can in college. Nevertheless, his quickness will keep defenses on their toes and his efficient shooting will supply a scoring punch.
The 2014 class is deep, and there are a few scenarios where Napier may get left out until the second round. But his skills are good enough to hang with the first-rounders, and NBA teams know what they'll be getting from him; he's not mystery pick.
A unit like Charlotte might be looking for the best available point guard at this stage the draft in order to give Kemba Walker some support.
Potential Landing Spot: No. 26, Charlotte Bobcats (via Portland Trail Blazers)
Clint Capela, France PF
Vitals: 19 years old, 6'10", 211 lbs, 7'3.5" wingspan
Not only is Clint Capela a dark horse to land in the first round, he could end up being the steal of the draft.
The Swiss forward is still pretty raw, and has a lot to learn about the fundamentals of the game. However, his physical prowess is exceptional, as he can outrun and outjump most players his size.
When Capela's rebounding talents and transition athleticism give him scoring chances, he makes the most of them. He's got a nice touch around the rim and can dunk over foes when he needs to. Draft Express scout Jonathan Givony said Capela "can make a huge impact around the basket when dialed in."
While he's a risky pick due to attitude and awareness concerns, Capela is a worthwhile investment late in the first round. His upside on both ends of the floor is through the roof.
A team looking for some power forward punch off the bench in 2014-15 should definitely pick him if he's not already snatched up in middle of the first round.
Potential Landing Spot: No. 25, Los Angeles Clippers
Jahii Carson, Arizona State PG (Sophomore)
Vitals: 21 years old, 5'11", 180 lbs, 6'1" wingspan
If he played 5-10 years ago, Jahii Carson's odds of landing in the first round would have been be minuscule at best.
In 2014, teams are lured by the idea of picking up the next Nate Robinson or Isaiah Thomas. High-energy, speedy point guards can be a rough matchup for most opponents, and a shifty ball-handler can log 15-20 productive minutes every night.
Carson can be that kind of floor general, especially if his newfound jump shot is for real. CBS Sports' Zach Harper explains that his skills are worth consideration for late-first round clubs:
It's hard to believe GMs will trust such a small point guard, but with the success of Isaiah Thomas on the Kings, it might convince front offices that Carson is worthy of a first round selection. Talent is certainly there for him.
Earlier this season, Carson was widely projected as a first-round selection, but his stock cooled down to the point where he's generally a second-round name.
Now it's his turn to sneak back into Round 1.
Potential Landing Spot: No. 21, Oklahoma City Thunder (via Dallas Mavericks)
Vasilije Micic, Serbia PG
Vitals: 20 years old, 6'4", 190 lbs
Serbian quarterback Vasilije Micic is more than just a candidate to crack the first round. He could hear his name called in the teens depending on the situation.
While watching him carve up the Adriatic League, it's hard not to think his ceiling is somewhere around Jose Calderon. They're both superb table-setters, and if Micic is going to be close to Calderon's production long-term, he's worth top-20 consideration.
Bleacher Report NBA Draft Lead Writer Jonathan Wasserman broke down why scouts love Micic:
Micic is as pure as they come in terms of pass-first point guards—he's stood out abroad over the past two years thanks to exceptional vision and size for the position...His three-ball and perimeter game could use work, but Micic projects as the ultimate facilitator.
If he can hold his own defensively while directing traffic on the other end, teams will be more likely to give him a role. Consistent jump shooting wouldn't hurt, either.
Potential Landing Spot: No. 17/18, Chicago Bulls or Toronto Raptors
Daniel O'Brien covers the NBA Draft for Bleacher Report.
Follow him on Twitter: @DanielO_BR