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The Biggest Steals from the 2014 NBA Draft

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJune 27, 2014

The Biggest Steals from the 2014 NBA Draft

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The NBA draft is an annual tradition marked by anxiety, epic mistakes and, usually, ridiculous suits.

    But it's also an opportunist's dream.

    Teams spend months poring over tape, haranguing prospects with questionnaires and paging through reams of data, hoping desperately to get their hands on the "right" guy.

    The only thing teams like more than snagging the one player they've been focusing on is getting the guy they never imagined would be available when their selection rolled around. Those are the moments that define drafts, when executives exchange incredulous glances in war rooms and scramble to lock in a selection they never dreamed possible.

    That's the good stuff.

    There were a few of those moments in Thursday's draft, with some involving high-profile collegiate talents and others featuring little-known imports.

    Here, the term "steal" essentially means "great value." So a player taken as high as, say, No. 3 could conceivably qualify for that designation. Let's see who pulled off the biggest thefts of the 2014 draft.

Joel Embiid, No. 3, Philadelphia 76ers

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    There's serious risk in taking Joel Embiid. A stress fracture in his back and a broken navicular bone in his foot had many pundits (and, apparently, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Milwaukee Bucks) worried.

    But every pick carries risk, and Embiid's just happens to be his physical health. What makes him an absolute steal at No. 3 is the fact that there doesn't seem to be any question about his actual ability. We know that because of the nearly constant comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon.

    Look, Embiid might be plagued by injuries for his entire career, but this is a home run swing by the Philadelphia 76ers when nobody could have faulted them for trying to poke a single through the hole.

    Plus, Embiid is a perfect fit for the Sixers as they continue rebuilding, per Kurt Helin of NBCSports.com:

    I’ve mentioned before that offensively, he and Nerlens Noel are different enough that they could complement each other, and they would form an imposing defensive duo. Plus, the return of a healthy Noel with Embiid out will give Noel time to develop his game on the court aside from being with another big man, and allow Embiid to take his time getting healthy.

    Embiid is in the right place, and there's no question he has the most intriguing package of skills in this draft.

    It's not crazy to assume he'll be fully healthy after sitting out the year. If that's what ends up happening, he will have absolutely been worth the wait.

Marcus Smart, No. 6, Boston Celtics

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    For most of the run-up to this draft, only three players—Embiid, Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins—were candidates for the top overall selection. Embiid's injury reduced that trio to a duo.

    But if you take a completely numbers-based approach, Marcus Smart deserved to be a part of that conversation.

    Here's ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton (subscription required) explaining why he rated Smart as the very best prospect in the draft:

    Several factors propelled Smart to the top of the WARP projections. He is young for a sophomore, just 10 days older than Joel Embiid. Smart's projected steal rate is tops for any projected first-round pick, which is important because steal rate has been a strong indicator of NBA success. He is also an excellent rebounder and has been surprisingly good playing against star point guards. Players similar to Smart tend to perform better in the NBA as the professional floor typically is more open, allowing them to create off the dribble.

    We can't just stop at the numbers when evaluating draftees, but Smart's statistical profile is impressive.

    Remember, too, that he probably would have been the top pick in last year's draft if he'd elected to leave Oklahoma State. Another year of school subjected him to the same thing that seems to happen whenever a player in his position goes back to campus: Scouts had extra time to pick his game apart, find his flaws and generally devalue him as a pro.

    Per Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe, Smart feels good about his chances to succeed: "I'd like to think I have an NBA ready body. I'm a great teammate and I'd like to win."

    Smart is a terrific pick at No. 6, one who's ready to play right now and can either be part of an exciting backcourt duo with Rajon Rondo or a cornerstone around which Boston can build its future.

Noah Vonleh, No. 9, Charlotte Hornets

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    On ESPN's draft telecast, Jay Bilas dropped the only piece of knowledge we should need to term Noah Vonleh a steal.

    "His hands are bigger than Kawhi Leonard's," Bilas said.

    Sold.

    Seriously, though, Vonleh earns a "steal" label for a couple of reasons. The first is his ultimate draft slot being significantly lower than many pundits had him pegged in their mocks.

    B/R's Jonathan Wasserman positioned him in the No. 5 slot.

    Kurt Helin of NBCSports.com had him at No. 4. So did Yahoo Sports' Marc Spears.

    So in terms of perceived value, the Charlotte Hornets got a great return on their No. 9 selection.

    But Vonleh also qualifies as a major bargain because of his skill set. He shot 48.5 percent from three-point range last year, has a ridiculous 7'4" wingspan, rebounds the ball like crazy and fits perfectly into that coveted stretch 4 spot NBA teams are constantly falling all over themselves to fill.

    Did I mention he has enormous hands? 

Jusuf Nurkic, No. 16, Denver Nuggets (via Chicago Bulls)

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    Jusuf Nurkic is a physical beast at 6'11" and 280 pounds, and he played like one in the Adriatic League last season, averaging 11.7 points and 5.7 rebounds in just 16.6 minutes. He shot 54.5 percent from the field and attempted a completely absurd 5.6 free throws per game in his limited time on the floor.

    At just 19, his combination of incredibly quick feet, a 7'2" wingspan and serious physicality make him a terrific prospect.

    Expected by many to go somewhere around No. 10, Nurkic fell all the way to the Denver Nuggets at No. 16. And the Nuggets only had that pick because they swept it up (and the No. 19 selection) in a deal with the Chicago Bulls for Doug McDermott, per K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune.

    Offensively, Nurkic has all the necessary tools to become a star. Whether his defense and maturity catch up to the rest of his skills remains to be seen.

    It's possible he'll remain stashed overseas for a year, but if the Nuggets bring him to the states this season, he could contribute as a scoring threat in the paint right away. 

Gary Harris, No. 19, Denver Nuggets (via Chicago Bulls)

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    Andy Manis/Associated Press

    The only real question with Gary Harris is whether he'll knock down triples like he did as a freshman (41.1 percent) or a sophomore (35.5 percent). If his stroke returns, he'll be a fantastic value at No. 19.

    Even if it doesn't, though, Harris is an NBA-ready shooting guard who can contribute on both ends of the floor. He plays extremely hard, seems to take special pride in his defensive work and has a whole lot of room to get better.

    At just 19, he comes into the league as one of the youngest sophomores in the draft.

    Per Grantland's Robert Mays: "The majority of teams in the league could lean on Harris as their starting shooting guard tomorrow, and even among first-round talents, that’s a rarity."

    That makes it two straight steals for the Nuggets, who did a great job of capitalizing on the Chicago Bulls' desire to shed a little salary as they position themselves to pursue a major free agent this summer. 

Jordan Adams, No. 22, Memphis Grizzlies

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    With Shabazz Napier, everybody's favorite underrated prospect, still on the board, the Memphis Grizzlies nabbed another guard: UCLA's Jordan Adams.

    Adams is a scoring guard, which makes him valuable to a Memphis Grizzlies team that has always struggled to get production from its wings. And while he went right where ESPN's Chad Ford pegged him in his final mock draft, the steal label still applies.

    Per Ford: "Not only was Adams one of the best scorers in college basketball, he's also a darling of the analytics crowd."

    Grizzlies Vice President John Hollinger is a pretty big fan of most basketball analytics, having actually created many of the most popular ones we still use today. So it's not all that surprising his team made a move to secure a player like Adams.

    In his sophomore season, Adams posted a true shooting percentage of 60.3 percent, which would have tied Dirk Nowitzki's accuracy rate in the NBA last year.

    Here's ESPN's Kevin Pelton: "A high steal rate works in Adams' favor, as does his efficiency as a scorer. He is the only player in the draft who doesn't rank in the bottom 25 percent at his position in any skill statistic in my database."

    A high-efficiency scorer who has a nose for the ball and essentially no weaknesses?

    Sounds like a steal to me.

Clint Capela, No. 25, Houston Rockets

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    Of course the Houston Rockets snagged Swiss import Clint Capela at No. 25. He's exactly the kind of undervalued asset that always seems to fall into their lap.

    Yes, Capela might be a stash pick, one the Rockets selected so they could acquire an asset that wouldn't add any money to a cap figure they're trying to shrink in pursuit of a superstar free agent. And sure, if he comes to the NBA next year, he might wind up being little more than trade bait for the Rockets.

    The point is, he's an immensely valuable piece, no matter how Houston chooses to utilize him.

    Talking about him as part of a financial puzzle doesn't do justice to Capela's considerable skills, though. At 6'11", he features a 7'4.5" wingspan, per Draft Express. Capela also rebounds like crazy, swats away every shot in sight and can run and jump like a guard.

    Add all that up and you get a WARP (wins above replacement player) projection from Pelton that ranks second in the entire draft class (subscription required).

    Oddly, Capela is a player beloved by analytically inclined observers, but he also has the body and physical abilities that make scouts swoon. If the Rockets hang onto him, he could be a seriously impactful player down the line. If they trade him, they'll clear room and collect an asset.

    No matter what happens, he's a fantastic value at No. 25.

Kyle Anderson, No. 30, San Antonio Spurs

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    Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

    Smart.

    Unselfish.

    Team player.

    Leave it to the San Antonio Spurs to finish off the first round with an absolute gem of a selection that fits perfectly into their culture.

    Kyle Anderson functioned as a point forward for the Bruins last year, flashing a keen passing eye, an advanced understanding of spacing and solid shot selection. Essentially, he's a quintessential Spur.

    The Boris Diaw comparisons that came flooding in after his selection were a bit much, as Anderson isn't nearly the athlete Diaw is. The 20-year-old forward has an extremely slow release on his shot and doesn't move around the floor with the Frenchman's fluidity.

    The mental game is somewhat similar though.

    Because he was basically constructed in a lab to flourish in San Antonio's system, Anderson is in the perfect situation to maximize his potential. If another team had drafted him at No. 30, the analysis might be different.

    But the Spurs are an ideal landing spot. Expect Anderson to thrive.

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