The 2014 NBA draft is just over a month away, and while the recently concluded NBA combine clear up questions surrounding some athletes, it has turned others into tantalizing prospects. There will certainly be a few players whose names will pop up with increasing frequency in the build-up to this year's draft.
Of course, the combine was missing Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid, the consensus top players in this year's draft. These players have been dissected so thoroughly that there was little for them to gain by running drills in Chicago with the scores of prospects jockeying to be lottery picks.
For the players in attendance, the numbers and chatter gave NBA scouts and executives a fresh look at them. They will take their spreadsheets home and combine them with the volumes of game tape at their disposal to create complete assessments.
Let's take a look at where some of the more intriguing players in this year's draft are likely to end up.
Dante Exum, PG/SG, Australia
Depending on who you ask, Exum's hype is either bolstered or hindered by the fact that few have seen him play competitively.
ESPN's Fran Fraschilla, via ESPN's NBA Twitter account, compared Exum's "it" factor to that of a highly regarded basketball legend.
This is indeed hyperbolic, but there's a kernel of truth in this statement. Exum does seem to have a knack for winning over the NBA brass (via Basketball Insiders' Alex Kennedy):
What Exum really has going for him, beyond the difficult task of putting his talent into context, is his ability to become one of the league's tallest point guards. At 6'6" in shoes, he would create a nightmare matchup for opposing teams on the perimeter. Exum would have no problem getting his shot off on smaller point guards, and would likely prompt plenty of zone defenses in attempts to contain him.
His myriad video clips show a confidence in his outside jumper—an aspect of his game he reconfigured in 2012, according to Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix—and a natural ability to get to rim.
He will have to prove that he is truly capable of playing point guard, and the jury is still out on his defensive ability, but his combination of size, speed and natural ability make him the player most likely to break up the trio of Wiggins, Parker and Embiid at the top of most draft boards.
Prediction: Top 4
P.J. Hairston, SG/SF, Texas Legends
Hairston's existence in a sort of basketball limbo in 2013 makes it somewhat difficult to get a read on the 21-year-old swingman.
For those who don't keep track of the NBA's D-League, Hairston averaged 21.8 points per game on 45.3 percent shooting for the Texas Legends. He was effective from three-point range as well, averaging 2.8 made three-pointers on 35.8 percent shooting from downtown, as per stats.nbadleague.com.
Not a bad haul for a projected 2-guard, although Hairston didn't show much of a distinguished game outside of his natural scoring ability.
He was able to make some noise with his athleticism at the NBA combine. Hairston's vertical leap was a fairly notable surprise, at least in the eyes of ESPN's Jeff Goodman:
He's also been quick to point out how the competition in the D-League has prepared him for a jump to the Association. He's faced consistently bigger and more ambitious players in his estimation, as per Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix:
"I'm playing against guys who are there playing on assignment or trying to get called up. Guys are stronger and much bigger. In college shooting guards are 6'1" or 6'2". Here, they are 6'5" or 6'6"."
Hairston impressed in the D-League and at the combine, but he has yet to demonstrate he can do much more than score. Without those extra incentives to draft him in his game, he is likely to hear his name called in the latter half of the first round.
Prediction: Mid- to late-first round
Zach LaVine, SG, UCLA
The slender LaVine surprised scouts with his athleticism at the NBA combine. ESPN's Chad Ford provided the key numbers:
LaVine's athletic ability is clearly special, but his 9.4 points per game at UCLA won't blow anyone away. However, those numbers disguise rather than clear up questions about his game.
For another recent example of a UCLA guard who parlayed mediocre college numbers into a wave of NBA hype, look no further than Jrue Holiday of the New Orleans Pelicans.
|Zach LaVine vs. Jrue Holiday, UCLA Statistics (all stats per game)|
|Player (Season)||Points||Rebounds||Assists||Steals||FG Percentage|
|Lavine (2013-2014)||9.4||2.5||1.8||0.9||44.1 %|
LaVine's numbers don't stack up, but he had much more talent around him than Holiday did in his one season as a Bruin. LaVine had to share the ball on offense with Norman Powell, Kyle Anderson (another projected first-round pick) and Jordan Adams, who led the team in scoring in the 2013-14 season. UCLA has produced a string of excellent professional players in recent years no matter the collegiate stats.
His diminished stats were also partly due to his increasingly diminished playing time as a freshman. He didn't always fit into coach Steve Alford's plans, but he has let it be known that he's capable of fitting in at different spots in the NBA. Projected as a 2-guard, LaVine expressed interest in playing the point, as per Aaron Falk of The Salt Lake Tribune:
"I feel like I have the size to play point guard. I have the speed, quickness and athleticism."
He will have to add some muscle to withstand the rigors of the pro game, but LaVine's undeniable talent and quantifiable athleticism will be too much for any lottery team to pass up this year.
Prediction: Top 10