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NBA Draft: Breaking Down the Hottest Names Heading into Thursday

D.J. FosterContributor IJune 23, 2014

NBA Draft: Breaking Down the Hottest Names Heading into Thursday

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    USA TODAY Sports

    It happens pretty regularly this time of year. A few players get hot throughout the draft process and skyrocket up the list of big boards and mock drafts everywhere. It never fails.

    This year, the prospects flying up the boards have had some help from players who once occupied the top spots.

    Foot injuries to Kansas center Joel Embiid and Kentucky forward Julius Randle have created some room in the top 10, but there's more. According to Chad Ford of ESPN.com, one of the best international players in this draft, Dario Saric, may see his stock fall as well after signing a deal overseas:

    Croatia forward and 2014 NBA draft prospect Dario Saric has agreed in principle to a three-year deal with Turkish powerhouse Anadolu Efes, a source close to Saric told ESPN.com on Monday.

    The deal will have a player option for the third year. Saric is expected to receive and sign a contract in the next 24 hours.

    The move will essentially prohibit Saric from playing in the NBA for a minimum of two years, the source added.

    That's a lot of question marks near the top, which makes this year's draft start to feel a little like last season's. Of course, the depth of this class seems to be much better, which we're seeing as a few players have jumped up draft boards and have inspired plenty of speculation as draft day approaches.

    Here are five of the hottest names heading into the draft.

Elfrid Payton, Louisiana-Lafayette

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    Perhaps no one has seen their stock rise as much as Louisiana-Lafayette point guard Elfrid Payton. 

    There might not be a more difficult player to get a handle on, either. Calling Louisiana-Lafayette a mid-major would be a misnomer, as it's below that distinction. The Sun Belt conference is one of the weakest in college basketball, as Payton would regularly play against defenses that had centers who were around 6'8".

    Still, that shouldn't be viewed as an impediment to Payton's success at the next level. After all, Damian Lillard played at Weber State and caught fire during the draft process as well, and that turned out OK for the Portland Trail Blazers.

    Of course, Payton is a much different player than Lillard. He's wowing teams with his defensive ability and athleticism more than anything else, as the junior guard shot just 25.9 percent from behind the arc and 59 percent from the free-throw line last year. 

    Payton is catching some comparisons to Rajon Rondo, which makes sense given his size and strengths on the floor. Here's Tyler Lashbrook at SBNation.com:

    That jumper is important because it's one that Payton needs to learn to hit consistently. NBA defenses will sag on Payton anytime he has the ball, much like they do to Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo. In order for Payton to make them play honestly, he needs to be able to consistently knock down that mid-range shot, much like Rondo has slowly learned to do over the course of his career.

    Payton is currently projected to go 12th to the Orlando Magic, according to DraftExpress.com's latest mock draft. Orlando is in desperate need of a point guard, particularly if Dante Exum doesn't fall to them at No. 4. 

    It's hard to see Payton going much earlier than that, however, thanks to the lack of demand for starting point guards and the depth of the position in free agency.

    The Sacramento Kings are almost certainly the ceiling at No. 8, as they may need point guard help in case restricted free agent Isaiah Thomas gets too pricey. If Payton slips past Orlando at No. 12, Chicago could use the Derrick Rose insurance at No. 16, and Tom Thibodeau probably wouldn't mind having a defender in the backcourt.

Noah Vonleh, Indiana

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    Noah Vonleh didn't make a lot of noise during the college season, but it's been a perfect storm for him since the year ended. 

    Vonleh's pre-draft measurements are easy to drool over. His incredible 7'4.25" wingspan should allow him to cover a ton of ground defensively and contest shots at the rim, even if that didn't always translate at Indiana.

    ESPN's resident length enthusiast Jay Bilas raved about Vonleh's potential (subscription required):

    Athletic, skilled, freakishly long (in a good way) and hands the size of Kawhi Leonard—Vonleh has it all. He can step away and shoot it, and he is a high-volume rebounder. As he adds to his post game, Vonleh has the chance to be a complete player in the NBA...has the chance to be a special player.

    Vonleh definitely appears to have all the natural ability and skills to be a dominant player, which usually means more than production on the college level. More importantly, while there are questions about how Julius Randle's bully-ball style will translate and how Joel Embiid's health will hold up, Vonleh comes without any real issues.

    The shooting stroke might be the biggest appeal. Teams are dying to find power forwards who are highly skilled and can stretch the floor, and Vonleh could potentially add all that while not leaving his team vulnerable on the other end. 

    Vonleh is currently projected to be taken fifth by the Utah Jazz, according to DraftExpress.com's latest mock draft. That seems like a logical landing spot given Utah's likely desire to take the best player available, but don't rule out a team trading up to nab Vonleh. Players like him are in high demand, and it would be a major upset if he lasted past the Los Angeles Lakers at No. 7.

Zach LaVine, UCLA

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Every draft has at least one workout warrior, and this year's is undoubtedly UCLA guard Zach LaVine. 

    LaVine blew scouts away with his combine performance, registering a 41.5-inch maximum vertical leap (he hit 46 inches in a workout with the Los Angeles Lakers) in addition to the fastest lane agility drill time. At 6'6" with all that speed and athleticism, there's an awful lot to fall in love with.

    LaVine is currently projected to go at No. 13 to the Minnesota Timberwolves, according to DraftExpress.com's latest mock, and at that point overlooking a major lack of production in his lone year at UCLA and focusing on his potential makes sense.

    LaVine is probably the biggest boom-or-bust player in this year's draft, and it may take a few years before he really figures it out. It wouldn't be a surprise if LaVine follows a path similar to that of Phoenix Suns swingman Gerald Green, where he bounces around the league some but ultimately finds his place as an ultra-athletic wing who can shoot from the perimeter.

    LaVine could jump pretty high in the draft, and he probably wouldn't last past the Boston Celtics at No. 17. Minnesota at No. 13 is a good fit, though, as they could use LaVine's combination of athleticism and potential on the wing as much as anyone.

Aaron Gordon, Arizona

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    USA TODAY Sports

    This draft class is an interesting one, particularly because there appears to be more impact defensive talents than offensive-oriented players.

    Arizona big man Aaron Gordon is a great example of that. There probably isn't a position on the floor that Gordon can't cover thanks to his lateral quickness, length and intelligence. But what position will he play offensively?

    Baxter Holmes of The Boston Globe asked around for answers regarding Gordon's game:

    "If he embraces what he does really well, which is run, jump, play with energy, play above the rim, he’s going to have a phenomenal NBA career," said an Eastern Conference scout. "If he wants to prove to everyone that he’s a wing and he can shoot, then I think you’re going to have some problems, a la Derrick Williams."

    ...

    "The problem with him, the thing that I don’t like is that he doesn’t know who he is," said another Eastern Conference executive. "So when the coach tells him who he is, maybe that will help, but he thinks he’s a [small forward]. He wants to push the ball. He wants to cross people over. I’m like, 'Dude, stay in your lane. Do what you do. Seriously. You want to help us win, you have to rebound and run the court.'"

    Gordon's "tweener" profile might be enough to scare some teams off, as DraftExpress.com has him going 10th to the Philadelphia 76ers at this point. That defensive potential, athleticism and ball-handling could entice a team to take him earlier, however, as the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers both seem like serious threats at Nos. 6 and 7, respectively.

    Gordon desperately needs to improve his shooting touch lest he go the route of late-career Gerald Wallace, but he's so young and such an impact player already defensively that his floor seems relatively high already. He should be viewed as a modern-day power forward, but it will be interesting to see where he stacks up in relation to a traditional 4 like Julius Randle. 

Dante Exum, Australia

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    Here's who will likely benefit the most from Joel Embiid's foot injury. 

    Dante Exum may not have been considered by a team like the Philadelphia 76ers at No. 3 if Embiid were healthy, but now he's a viable option there as a dynamic guard next to Michael Carter-Williams.

    That's where Exum is currently pegged to go, according to DraftExpress.com, and it would be pretty surprising to see the Orlando Magic pass on him with the very next pick if the 76ers go in a different direction. Depending on how the Milwaukee Bucks feel about Brandon Knight, Exum would make some sense there as well.

    The big factor that makes Exum appealing is his size and ability to be a "lead guard" regardless of position. Think of a player like Brandon Roy, who facilitated at both positions for the Portland Trail Blazers, and you'll have a good idea of what Exum's role on a team could be.

    Milwaukee, Orlando and the Utah Jazz could all use a dominant backcourt player, and Exum's potential on both ends is off the charts. He easily could be considered the best two-way player in the draft, and if the Cleveland Cavaliers taught us something last year, it's that we should be ready for just about anything at the top of the draft.

     

    All player statistics via DraftExpress.com.

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