Teams fought their way down the standings all season for better positioning in the 2014 NBA draft, and the prospects with whom they'll be rewarded look as tantalizing as ever.
This draft class is loaded with star-caliber players atop the draft board. They're by no means finished products at this time, but they have the athleticism and varied games necessary to make an impact and keep improving at the next level.
We need to wait for the lottery to unfold before knowing exactly who will have first dibs on these wunderkinds, but as these young talents enter the individual workout phase of their perpetual evaluation process, we have a good sense of a general pecking order.
Andrew Wiggins, G/F, Kansas
Basically every other site had anointed Wiggins the top choice in this draft, so it's no surprise that Sheridan Sports' Joe Kotoch followed suit in his first 2014 mock draft:
Wiggins led Kansas with 17.4 points per game as a freshman, but the phenom actually disappointed on the offensive end. His jumper lacked consistency, and when he relied on it rather than taking opponents off the bounce, Wiggins rendered himself ineffective.
That said, Kotoch believes Wiggins' shooting struggles won't cost him the top spot. He pointed to how well rounded the rest of the Toronto native's game is and the capacity he has to improve:
Wiggins is the safest bet to be the first pick. While Wiggins is still improving as a shooter and might not be dominant force some thought he would be a freshman, he is a great defender that will be very good in transition and finishing at the rim. According to several teams, they view Wiggins as the prospect with the most upside.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a team that can justify passing up the 19-year-old's athleticism and two-way play. Wiggins might not be the best player on his team from the moment he steps onto an NBA court, but there is no doubt he'll get to that point sooner rather than later.
Jabari Parker, SF, Duke
Of course, another wing player has the offensive polish to knock Wiggins out of the top spot.
Dating back to before either prospect had played a college game, every prognosticator predicted Wiggins and Jabari Parker would engage in a two-man battle to be the first overall selection in 2014. A season later, albeit a mixed one, that appears to still be the case.
While Wiggins is the more popular choice to go first, John Parkinson of ABC News reports that one man whose opinion matters thinks otherwise:
The Milwaukee Bucks finished the 2013-14 season with a 15-67 record, earning the most draft lotto balls in the process. Should the odds win out and the Bucks get the top pick, their new owner is leaning toward the Duke product with the superior scoring touch.
Not only is Parker a legitimate three-point threat in a way Wiggins isn't at this point in his development, but he is also a better inside finisher. Both guys stand 6'8", but Parker outweighs Wiggins 235 pounds to 200 pounds. That bulk allows Parker to bully wing defenders inside more easily before going up strong and finishing through contact.
On the other hand, Parker just had an abysmal defensive season at Duke. Though having to defend as a small-ball power forward didn't help him, Parker often got lost on rotations and routinely got beat off the dribble when tasked with guarding a perimeter player.
With some teaching, he has the skill to bolster his defensive play, and his offense is clearly strong enough to make him a top prospect. Wiggins may be a more complete player right now, but depending on how the lottery balls bounce, Marc Lasry's opinion could be all that matters.
Dante Exum, PG, Australia
He's a 6'6" point guard with the athleticism to compete with any backcourt player and the savvy to run an offense right away at just 18 years of age. All of that makes Dante Exum a drool-worthy player, though talent evaluators haven't gotten a chance recently to compare him alongside the Wigginses and Parkers of the world.
As Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress points out, Exum's combine plans are particularly big news:
Big one here to me is the fact that Dante Exum is planning on coming to Chicago and attending the NBA Combine: http://t.co/KIEKaZvShl— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) May 5, 2014
Not that it's a surprise that a highly touted player would attend the NBA combine; Givony's unofficial list includes basically every other significant prospect in the 2014 class.
That said, the combine will be the first opportunity for talent evaluators to compare Exum directly to his peers. Granted, he has faced some of those same players in actual games at showcase events such as the Nike Hoop Summit, but that was when this year's talented freshman crop was in high school. A year makes a huge difference for players this young.
When Exum takes the court, and particularly when he faces fellow big point guard Marcus Smart, all eyes will be on him. With a strong performance in Chicago, he could potentially challenge Wiggins and Parker and become a top-two selection; we just have to see what he can really do.