Ranking Top 10 NBA Draft Prospects to Watch During 2014 Conference Tournaments
There's going to be standout NBA prospects in each of the power-conference tournaments this week.
It's a tremendous opportunity for some of these kids to sell the NBA on their talent. Because it would look a lot better on their resumes if they're able to convert that individual talent into team winning streaks.
With Kansas' Joel Embiid out for the conference tournament, we have a new No. 1 prospect to watch during postseason play.
10. Aaron Gordon, Arizona, 6'9", SF/PF, Freshman
Except for a few hiccups here and there, Aaron Gordon has looked much better over the last month of the season, as an injury to starting power forward Brandon Ashley has allowed him to play a bit more to his strengths.
He's averaging 16.8 points and 7.4 boards over his last five games. Gordon has been so tough to contain around the rim, thanks to his ability to play so high above it. Whether it's off offensive rebounds, slashes, cuts, lobs or in transition, there's just no stopping him from elevating above traffic for high-percentage finishes.
However, he's only hit three three-pointers since December 23, and his in-between game off the dribble is suspect. At this point, Gordon is more of a catch-and-score offensive player than one who can create his own shot.
Defensively, he's been terrific, as he's shown the size and length to man the post and the foot speed to guard the perimeter.
If there's one area of Gordon's game to keep an eye on this conference tournament, it's Gordon's horrendous free-throw stroke. He's making less than 45 percent of his attempts, a disastrous number for a guy who can get to the line.
9. Zach LaVine, UCLA, 6'5", PG/SG, Freshman
Don't let the inconsistency fool you—coming off the bench behind three older guards, Zach LaVine's numbers tend to fluctuate.
But under the NBA lens, LaVine is a standout. At 6'5" with electric athleticism, a 40.2 percent three-point stroke and a legit combo guard's handle, he offers tremendous long-term upside as a dynamic backcourt playmaker.
With starting guards Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams suspended for a game against Oregon, LaVine got the chance to run the show for the first time all year. And he looked good, going for 18 points, eight boards and five assists.
LaVine can really get his own shot from anywhere, whether he's separating into a jumper one-on-one, attacking the rim or moving off the ball into catch-and-shoot position.
At just 19 years old with little freedom to create, LaVine hasn't done the best job of picking and choosing his spots. He could probably use another year to fine-tune his shot selection and decision-making. But there aren't many guards in the field with a higher NBA ceiling.
The Pac-12 tournament should be an excellent opportunity for LaVine to raise his stock if he's able to build and sustain some rhythm through a couple of UCLA wins.
8. Nik Stauskas, Michigan, 6'6", SG , Sophomore
He just might be the most improved player in America. Nik Stauskas has transformed into an dynamic offensive threat from a one-dimensional shooter, as he now leads Michigan in both scoring and assists.
Stauskas also happens to be on fire at the moment, averaging over 21 points on 16-of-30 shooting from downtown over his last five games.
But it's not just the mind-blowing numbers that's led to Stauskas' rise up draft boards. He's winning games for a team that lost Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. to the pros and Mitch McGary to injury.
The Big Ten certainly noticed—it just named him conference Player of the Year.
"This means a lot, I worked extremely hard over the summer to put myself in this position," Stauskas told Brendan Quinn of MLive.com. "And to be able to help my team be successful this year and get this award, it's an unbelievable feeling and I'm extremely happy."
After adding a crafty off-the-dribble game to pair with his 6'6" size, 2-guard athleticism and elite 45.8 three-point stroke, Stauskas has emerged as one of the top prospects in the country in 2014.
7. Rodney Hood, Duke, 6'8", SF, Sophomore
Rodney Hood hasn't showcased that takeover ability that teammate Jabari Parker often taps into, but as a complementary scorer, there aren't many with a better set of strengths.
Hood has made a three-pointer in every game but one this season. He's been above 40 percent from downtown for the entire year, where he makes 2.1 triples a night. And at 6'8", he's able to stretch the floor and draw opposing bigs away from the rim.
A terrific off-the-ball player, Hood finds ways to score off slashes, flashes and backdoor cuts to the rim.
One-on-one, he's not as threatening, but Hood can put it on the floor and attack in line drives, where he has a floater game and some deceiving athleticism. And with the ability to make shots from all different angles, he can score with his back to the rim or as a face-up option in the post.
Hood recently went for 24 points on 8-of-13 shooting in a win over North Carolina and 21 on 9-of-17 shooting in a win over Virginia Tech. He's got a hot hand right now, so look for Hood to continue stroking it in his first ACC tournament.
6. Gary Harris, Michigan State, 6'4", SG, Sophomore
Gary Harris is currently in the hottest shooting zone he's been in all year, as he'll be entering the postseason having made 18 of his last 37 three-point attempts.
He's been somewhat inconsistent, but he's clearly expanded his offensive game since his first year with the team.
Harris has become a lot more threatening with the ball as a sophomore. One-on-one, he's implemented the step-back jumper off the dribble into his repertoire. As a complementary scorer, he's finding more ways to make shots within the flow of the offense, whether he's curling off screens for floaters, popping out for jumpers or stretching the floor as a spot-up shooter.
After averaging under 13 points a game as a freshman, he finished his second year with Michigan State as the Big Ten's third-leading scorer.
With a strong conference tournament, both for him and the Spartans, scouts might feel inclined to ignore his erratic regular season.
5. Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State, 6'4", Sophomore
Marcus Smart is playing some of the best ball of his career since returning from suspension. In his five games back, he's averaging 19.8 points, 6.4 assists and 5.2 boards a game.
He's even caught fire from deep. Smart has hit 12 three-pointers over his last five games, after making only 12 threes combined from January 4 to February 8.
He really looks focused and locked in out there. Smart recently took over down the stretch in a terrific win over Kansas, and he's seemingly willed Oklahoma State back into the national conversation.
There isn't going to be anyone in the conference excited to face the Cowboys, and with Kansas' Embiid out, it's anyone's tournament.
Just imagine how sweet it would be for Smart if he's able to run the Big 12 table after all the questions he raised throughout the season.
4. Julius Randle, Kentucky, 6'9", PF, Freshman
Julius Randle's offensive game has been spotty, but the big fella continues to rebound like an animal.
He's now pulled in double-digit boards in eight straight games. When Randle's motor is revved, there's just no slowing him down inside.
Still, he's had some trouble with offensive consistency this season. He recently made one of seven shots in a loss to South Carolina and six of 15 in a loss to Arkansas. And despite picking up the game-winning bucket against LSU a few days prior, he struggled throughout, finishing with just eight points in 37 minutes.
Randle is an awfully tough cover facing the rim in space and he's a train in the open floor, but scouts will be focused on Randle's post game and whether or not he's able to counter the constant double-teams and disruptive defensive length.
Regardless, Randle is capable of dominating and imposing his will on opposing helpless frontcourts. Look for Kentucky to try to establish Randle early and often inside.
3. Noah Vonleh, Indiana, 6'10", PF/C, Freshman
Don't bother examining Noah Vonleh's box scores when trying to evaluate him as an NBA prospect.
Vonleh's game is all about quality over quantity—at 18 years old with a 21.5 usage rate in Indiana's offense, he doesn't get too many touches or consistent opportunities.
But based on the skill set he's flashed, along with a 6'10", 240-pound frame and a massive 7'4" wingspan, he offers an extremely promising long-term package.
Offensively, he's a back-to-the-basket threat in the post who can score off drop steps and hook shots. He even took his game out to the arc the last few months of the season. Heading into conference tournament play, he's now hit 16 of his 31 three-point attempts on the year.
Vonleh also led the Big Ten in rebounding this season despite playing less than 27 minutes a game.
With an inside-outside game and the size to man the 4 or 5, he's starting to look like a younger version of Miami Heat big man Chris Bosh.
2. Andrew Wiggins, Kansas, 6'8", SF, Freshman
If Andrew Wiggins wants to leapfrog his way to the top of as many draft boards as possible, he isn't going to get a better platform to make his move.
With big man Embiid on the shelf, Wiggins should have the ultimate green light in Kansas' offense. All those questions and concerns over his alpha-dog mentality—this is his chance to put them to rest.
His confidence should be sky-high entering the Big 12 tournament—without Embiid in Kansas' last game, Wiggins erupted for 41 points. When he's active, that effortless athleticism translates to easy points or buckets in every facet of the game. Transition dunks, tip-ins, line drives—even a poor shooting performance usually won't stop Wiggins from denting the scoreboard.
But when that jumper is on, there's just not much anyone can do to stop him.
Look for Wiggins to try to take over for Kansas and ultimately power it on a run and his draft stock to the max.
1. Jabari Parker, Duke, 6'8", SF/PF, Freshman
After hanging 30 points and 11 boards on North Carolina to close out the regular season, Jabari Parker appears ready to roll for the 2014 ACC tournament.
I don't think there's a question as to who the most complete prospect in America is. He's a scoring threat from every spot on the floor, from behind the arc to the mid-range to the post and low block.
Parker averaged 19.2 points on 48.7 percent this regular season, and only six times all year did he fail to notch 15 points in a game.
He's also entering his conference tournament with six straight double-doubles. Parker has 14 this regular season. In comparison, Kansas' Wiggins finished with just two.
We've seen Parker take over games before. Now is his chance to put Duke on his back and showcase his leadership skills as a go-to guy in a win-or-go-home setting.
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