Grading 2014 NBA Draft's Top Prospects During College Basketball Regular Season
There are eight guys we've counted who've been able to maintain their status as big-time NBA prospects from Day 1 of the regular season until now.
For the most part, these are the same names you hear on every top-10 draft board.
The grades are based on overall performance with relation to each prospect's role in the offense, the expectations they were given and how their draft stock has changed.
All stats courtesy of Sports-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
Andrew Wiggins, Kansas, 6'8", SF, Freshman
The bar was set at A+ for Andrew Wiggins. Naturally, he didn't reach it.
But throw away the preseason hype, and you're looking at one of the most productive freshman in the country playing for a national title contender.
Wiggins is averaging over 16 points per game against the toughest schedule in America. And though it took him a few months, he's flashed a complete offensive repertoire. It needs years of fine-tuning, but the skill set and framework are there.
As a scorer, he's been automatic in the open floor and nearly impossible to contain if he's got space or a lane to attack. He gets to the line over six times per game, though he's struggled finishing after contact or in traffic at the rim.
Wiggins has even shown he's a better shooter than he was initially pegged as. His 34.3 percent three-point clip won't win him any contests, but it's not a bad first-year number.
In between, we've seen the pull-up and step-back jumper, along with his patented floater on the move.
Defensively, he projects better than his statistics suggest, so we won't dock him too much for his 1.0 steal and 0.9 block per game averages or his 102.4 defensive rating. He's incredibly quick laterally, and he's got the size and length to guard three or four positions—Wiggins just needs to work on his focus and awareness.
The big knock on Wiggins, at least for the first half of the year, has been his tendency to take a backseat. He often has been caught just standing around on the perimeter or going long stretches without making a move.
Whether or not this is a red flag rests in the eye of the beholder, but it has certainly given some NBA folks a reason to feel hesitant—especially with Kansas' Joel Embiid and Duke's Jabari Parker both solid draft options.
Still, Wiggins had himself an excellent freshman season, and despite failing to meet the lofty and unrealistic expectations given to him, his No. 1 overall upside and All-Star potential remain intact.
Jabari Parker, Duke, 6'8", SF/PF, Freshman
It didn't take long to figure out who had the most pro-ready offensive game. From step-back and pull-up jumpers to fadeaways in the post and one-handed alley-oops, Jabari Parker has flashed it all.
He came out of the gate sizzling with at least 21 points in each of his first seven games. And for the most part, Parker has remained consistently productive throughout the regular season.
Only six times all year has he failed to notch at least 15 points, and he's shooting nearly 48 percent from the floor and 37 percent from downtown.
Outside of his scoring polish and versatility, it's also been encouraging to see him embrace the role as the team's go-to guy. Parker is ranked in the top 25 in the country in usage rate, per kenpom.com (subscription required), and No. 1 amongst freshmen in power conferences.
Parker has also been tremendous on the glass, where he ranks No. 1 in the ACC in rebounds per game.
Defensively, the eye test shows he'll likely have trouble in the pros with closeouts and keeping up laterally. But he has managed to average over a steal and 1.4 blocks per game, which highlights his deceiving athletic ability more than anything.
No, he's not as light on his feet as Andrew Wiggins, and he can't make the same two-way impact as Joel Embiid.
But Parker has established himself as the safest option amongst the top dogs, thanks to an NBA-ready game, exceptional physical tools and a high basketball IQ.
“But he is as close to being an NBA prospect right now as you’re going to find in college," former NBA star Grant Hill told Sporting News' Sean Deveney. "He is the real deal. He is talented, he is a good person. The thing that impressed me is the way he uses his size and strength—he is NBA-ready, physically. He is a special player and I think he will be a great NBA player.”
Joel Embiid, Kansas, 7'0", C, Freshman
Joel Embiid was labeled a project coming in—a 7-footer with loads of potential but the kind that usually takes a longer time to tap into.
Only Embiid has proven to be an extremely quick learner. And when at full strength, we've seen him dominate games at both ends of the floor unlike anyone else in the country.
His post game has grown dramatically since the start of the year. He's now got every trick in the book, including jumps hooks with either hand, up-and-under drop steps, dream shakes, spin moves and even a face-up mid-range jumper.
Embiid's footwork and fluidity are off the charts. He gets shots off with ease, and given his 7'0" size and 7'5" wingspan, they're tough to effectively contest.
It didn't take long for Embiid to start commanding double-teams with each touch he got. And while he struggled handling them at first, he's adapted. And now he's a weapon with the ball even if he's not looking for his own offense. Embiid has become a terrific passer out of the post, and when that double-team comes, he's been able to find the open man or shooter.
Defensively, he's still got plenty to learn in terms of awareness and positioning, but his size, length and athleticism allow him to shrink the size of the rim he's defending. Embiid is averaging 2.6 blocks per game in only 23.1 minutes, and if he's not swatting a shot, chances are he's influencing it in one way or another.
He's recently been bothered by back issues, and therefore he'll miss the final two games of the regular season. Hopefully it's just for precaution because there isn't another prospect on the planet capable of making the same two-way impact as Embiid.
Given his towering upside and ability to make his teammates better, Embiid looks like the No. 1 overall favorite heading into the 2014 postseason.
Julius Randle, Kentucky, 6'9", PF, Freshman
You can't argue the production. Julius Randle has been a walking double-double this season—an absolute terror on the low block.
He quickly established his presence after just a few games as a freshman. Teams immediately knew who they had to stop and inevitably game-plan around.
Relentless around the rim and on the glass, he's found ways to overpower and outwork opposing frontcourts. And he's shown some nice touch with that left hand.
However, as defenses begun to adjust, Randle had struggled to counter. He's had trouble with double-teams and turnovers, and he rarely goes right—you'll often see him spin the wrong way into traffic to favor his strong hand. And though he's hit a couple of jumpers, he hasn't really shown much of a perimeter game.
Defensively, he averages less than a steal and block per game, projecting him as a one-way big man.
At the college level, he's just too strong and talented on the interior, and he's been able to lean on those strengths as a crutch. But in the pros, he's going to have to expand his post game and continue developing that mid-range jumper.
But again, he's putting up 15 points and 10 boards on the regular. It's been an exceptional year for Randle—just not one likely to propel him into the top-three draft conversation.
Aaron Gordon, Arizona, 6'9", SF/PF, Freshman
Aaron Gordon's grade gets a boost based on the impact he's made for one of the few top teams in the country.
He's Arizona's leading rebounder and second-leading scorer. Offensively, Gordon has been terrific around the rim, where he's shooting nearly 77 percent, per Hoop-Math. He's given Arizona guards a glowing target off cuts and lobs, and with an open lane, Gordon has shown the agility to take a dribble and explode to the rack.
Defensively, he's been as good as anyone could have asked. Gordon ranks No. 2 in the conference in defensive rating and No. 3 in defensive win shares. His size, length and foot speed have allowed him to guard big men down low and wings on the perimeter.
However, from an NBA standpoint, he's still got a lot to answer regarding his position in the pros. Gordon lacks the skill set of a small forward and the post game of a 4. The more dribbles Gordon takes before a shot, the less of a chance it has of going in. And he's made just 10 three-pointers on the year, while shooting 43.4 percent from the free-throw line and 28.9 percent on his two-point jumpers.
At this point, Gordon is a catch-and-finish player. He's a tremendous athlete, and that leads to easy buckets. But Gordon has shown little ability to create shots on his own.
He's had an excellent college season in terms of production and impact, but he hasn't been the most convincing NBA prospect.
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State, 6'4", PG/SG, Sophomore
The 2013-14 regular season sure didn't go down the way Marcus Smart had planned.
After passing on the chance at possibly going No. 1 in the 2013 draft, Smart returned to college basketball expecting to dominate in 2014.
But his Oklahoma State Cowboys couldn't find a rhythm. And as the team started to struggle, Smart began to self-destruct.
We saw him karate kick a chair and storm off the floor against West Virginia. A few games later, he made national headlines for shoving a fan at Texas Tech, which resulted in a media firestorm and three-game suspension.
The unfortunate part about this is that it's been Smart's intangibles as a winner and leader that have allowed scouts to overlook his statistical flaws. But now that he's not winning or leading by example, that 29.4 percent three-point stroke and 4.7-2.7 assist-to-turnover ratio don't look too hot.
He's struggled with shot selection and decision-making, and though the production is there, the efficiency hasn't been.
But Smart has been awesome since returning from suspension. He took over down the stretch in a must-win game against Kansas after recording a career-high 10 assists against Texas Tech.
Smart is averaging over 17 points this year, so it's not like he has stunk it up. He's also been a monster on defense, ranking No. 1 in the Big 12 in defensive win shares and steals per game.
Still, from the mental meltdowns to his recent stretch where he missed 35-of-40 three-pointers, Smart hasn't had the year that many expected him to have. And it has to reflect on his 2013-14 grade.
Noah Vonleh, Indiana, 6'10", PF, Freshman
The stats might not show it, but Noah Vonleh has been playing almost as well as any other prospect in the country.
Vonleh doesn't get many touches, and though still raw and underdeveloped, he's become quite the matchup problem in the post. With a monster 6'10", 240-pound frame and a massive 7'4" wingspan, he's got standout physical tools for a power forward.
And he's quickly learning how to use them. Vonleh has a real soft touch in the paint, and he's got a good feel for backing his man down and flipping a high-percentage hook shot over the top.
He doesn't have the fanciest moves, but he's been able to convert in the post with the standard ones he's got.
Maybe the most promising aspect of Vonleh's offensive game has been his ability to play on the perimeter. He's 15-of-27 from downtown on the year, working as a catch-and-shoot stretch option around the arc.
Vonleh has also been dominant on the glass, where he ranks No. 1 in the Big Ten in rebounding playing just 26.5 minutes a night.
Unfortunately, Indiana didn't feed him the ball enough this year. He's only attempted double-digit shots in a game seven times all season.
He'll have to work on his footwork, off-the-dribble game and awareness, but at just 18 years old, Vonleh's long-term potential is obvious. Look for a team to chase it somewhere in the 2014 lottery.
Gary Harris, Michigan State, 6'4", SG, Sophomore
After playing more of a supporting role as a freshman, Gary Harris evolved into Michigan State's go-to offensive option and one of the top scorers in the Big Ten.
Harris is averaging nearly 18 points per game in the regular season, where he's become a much bigger threat with the ball in his hands.
Without it, he moves extremely efficiently, as he gets himself open by slipping off or curling around screens in the half court. From jumpers off the catch to one-dribble pull-ups and floaters around the key, Harris has been a scoring machine within Michigan State's offense.
His percentages have fallen as his shot attempts have increased, but he's making 2.6 three-pointers per game, and his assist rate has nearly doubled from a season ago.
Defensively, Harris has been stellar. He reads passing lanes and makes plays on them, where he averages two steals per game.
However, he's been somewhat inconsistent—Harris has had a couple of games where he just couldn't get the ball to drop, like when he missed 17 shots in a two-point loss to Wisconsin. And I've got to dock him a little for his erratic shooting.
But overall, Harris has had a strong individual season and one in which he has been able to raise his draft stock from the year before.
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