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NBA Draft Expert's Notebook: An Early Look Ahead to Class of 2015

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NBA Draft Expert's Notebook: An Early Look Ahead to Class of 2015
USA Today

The projected 2015 NBA draft class doesn't quite offer the star power of 2014's, but there are some really strong incoming freshmen, along with a few returning upperclassmen to give this group some depth. 

Once again, expect the top of the board to be dominated by the one-and-done crew. There could be quite a few of them next year. 

I went ahead and broke down this projected class by identifying the potential No. 1 overall candidates and the impact freshmen to the breakout performers, the top returning prospects, the international stars and the guys with something to prove.

 

The Prize

Every class has a prize. This past one had a few, between Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid. And it's possible that a few more prizes emerge from this 2015 group as well. 

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But Duke freshman Jahlil Okafor will start the year at the top of our NBA prospect pyramid. 

At 6'11", 272 pounds with a 7'5" wingspan, Okafor blends overwhelming size and mass with nimble feet and delicate touch. It can be a dangerous mix at both ends of the floor, which ultimately plays to his upside as a two-way prospect. 

Okafor was a standout for USA's Under-19 team (with guys like Marcus Smart, Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton) that took gold at the 2013 FIBA World Championships. And he was only 17 years old at the time.  In nine games, he averaged 10.8 points on a laughable 77 percent shooting playing just 14.2 minutes of action. 

The appeal to Okafor as a prospect stems directly from his ability to create high-percentage shots for himself on offense and protect the rim at the defensive end.

This is a guy you can go to in the post and expect him to get you a bucket. And he's a guy who can single-handledly make it difficult for the opposing team to finish.

We're talking about an instant-impact freshman, yet one who also packs that long-term upside as a potential star NBA center. 

They just don't make many big men this polished and intelligent at such an early stage. 

 

Okafor's Challengers

Though he'll start out the favorite, Okafor isn't cemented into that No. 1 overall spot. He'll have some stiff competition at the top—specifically a couple of freshmen with similar eye-opening NBA potential.

 

Emmanuel Mudiay, SMU, 6'5", PG, Freshman

Mudiay will be suiting up for Larry Brown at SMU, where he'll make the Mustangs a routine must-watch for NBA draft enthusiasts. He's got sensational tools for a point guard, with big-time size and athleticism for the position. Mudiay is dangerous with the ball in his hands—he can run an offense as a facilitator, thanks to a nifty handle and impressive passing vision. But he can also take over games as a scorer. At 6'5", he's a mismatch with the entire package, from drives and floaters to stop-and-pop jumpers. 

Mudiay also projects favorably defensively, given his size and quickness in the backcourt, which should allow him to guard both 1s and 2s.

Like every other young point guard, he has to improve his shooting and decision-making, but neither are broken.

If anyone is going to replace Okafor as the top dog in the class, my money is this guy. Mudiay can flat out ball.

 

Stanley Johnson, Arizona, 6'7", SG/SF, Freshman

A physical attacker with ideal size, strength and athleticism, Stanley Johnson already looks the part of an NBA wing. He's dangerous in the drive-and-slash game, and he's a handful around the rim. On the perimeter, Johnson is more than capable, with the ability to create and make jumpers via step-backs or pull-ups.

He's also an absolute beast of a defender, with the quickness, muscle and length that can rattle opposing scorers. 

Look for Johnson to quickly hit the national radar. He's going to be an instant-impact two-way player for Sean Miller and Arizona.

 

Cliff Alexander, Kansas, 6'9", PF, Freshman

Alexander's game is all about power, athleticism and energy. He plays through contact and above the rim. At times, you fear Alexander might bring down the basket with one of his thunderous slam dunks.

He's not quite skilled enough offensively to pose as a go-to option in Kansas' offense, but Alexander's physical tools and motor should translate to a couple of easy buckets per game. 

Expect plenty of double-doubles and Amar'e Stoudemire comparisons to follow. 

  

Karl Towns, Kentucky, 7'0", C, Freshman

Towns' skill level is off the charts for a 7'0", 248-pound 18-year-old.  He can comfortably operate from just about every spot on the floor, whether he's stretching it as a shooter, handling the ball or scoring in the post.

Defensively, he's got the potential to be a force when you take into account his size, strength, 7'3.5" wingspan and foot speed. 

Kentucky's frontcourt will be loaded this year, but Towns is the guy likely to emerge from the crowd as the team's No. 1 prospect.

 

Impact One-and-Done Freshmen

Kelly Oubre, Kansas, 6'7", SF

Sam Forencich/Getty Images

Oubre is a versatile scorer with NBA size and a good-looking handle. He can generate offense in a variety of different ways, whether he's swooping to the rack, getting out on the break or finishing plays in the mid-range.

His jumper needs work, but Oubre's physical tools for the position and strong scoring instincts should lead to immediate production in Kansas' lineup. 

 

Justise Winslow, Duke, 6'7", SF

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With a developed 221-pound frame capable of taking and dishing out contact, Winslow blends smooth yet physical athleticism with a live, active motor.

Though not necessarily known for his scoring attack, Winslow's energy, high basketball IQ and instincts translate to rebounds, assists, steals and easy buckets in the open floor.

Winslow's jumper and ball skills aren't quite there, but he is the type of two-way competitor who doesn't need to shoot to impact a game. 

 

Myles Turner, Texas, 6'11", C

Andrew Nelles/Associated Press

Fresh off an 18-block tournament (five games) at the FIBA World Championships, Turner brings terrific defensive tools and instincts to the table. He's a rim protector who can also step outside the paint and stretch the floor as a shooter. 

Turner isn't the most fluid athlete, but the combination of shooting and rim-protection is a rare one that should hold plenty of NBA value.

 

Tyus Jones, Duke, 6'1", PG 

Andrew Nelles/Associated Press

Jones will be entering a backcourt already led by senior Quinn Cook, but his ball skills and floor game are just too good not to use. He's a true breakdown point guard who can run pick-and-rolls and execute as a drive-and-disher, and he's a sharp enough shooter to threaten the defense off the ball or the dribble. 

Jones isn't a standout athlete, but his high skill level should help make up for average physical tools.

 

Breakout Performers

Caris LeVert, Michigan, 6'6", SG, Junior

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

LeVert put up nearly 13 points and three assists a game on 40.8 percent shooting from deep, and that was with Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III also on the wing. Now that they're gone, expect LeVert's touches and scoring opportunities to rise dramatically. 

He's got the NBA size and athleticism, and in doses, we've seen him flash the game and scoring arsenal. Instead of flashes, look for steady volume production from LeVert in a featured role.

 

Delon Wright, Utah, 6'5", PG, Senior

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Delon Wright erupted for 15.5 points, 6.8 boards, 5.3 assists and 2.5 steals in his first year at Utah after transferring from junior college in San Francisco. At 6'5", he's got tremendous size and length for a ball-handler. And he's got this deceptive change-of-direction ability—between the hesitation dribble, the Euro-steps and inside-out crossovers, Wright is a tough target to stay in front of. 

And he's also an impressive passer with nice vision on the move. The big hole in Wright's game is that jumper, but he shot 79.3 percent from the line, so he's got some touch in there somewhere. Extending his shooting range should be atop his must-improve list, but I could see Wright flying up draft boards much like Elfrid Payton did this year. 

 

Jabari Bird, California, 6'6", SG, Sophomore

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Bird had some nice moments as a freshman, but now scouts will be looking for long stretches of high-level play—not just moments. 

There's no doubt he's got the talent and game—at 6'6", he's a good athlete who can create and make shots on the perimeter or explode to the rim for a slam. 

Bird should see a bigger role in the offense with Justin Cobbs no longer there. He'll enter the season as a strong breakout candidate.

 

 

Returning Studs

Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky, 7'0", C, Junior

Cauley-Stein didn't take that jump offensively as a sophomore, but his defense reached new levels. He blocked 2.9 shots in just 23.8 minutes per game, or 4.9 per 40. At 7'0", you won't find many better athletes in terms of mobility, hops and coordination. And Cauley-Stein figured out how to maximize that athleticism as a rim protector. 

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Based on what we've seen through two years, chances are Cauley-Stein won't ever be a guy you feed the ball to for offense. But just look at Tyson Chandler— a coveted, successful NBA center who hasn't made an offensive move since 2010.

The only thing that's going to deflate Cauley-Stein's stock this year is inconsistency. He's got to find a way to keep from fading or disappearing. 

 

Montrezl Harrell, Louisville, 6'8", PF, Junior

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Montrezl Harrell went off the last five weeks of last season, having averaged 17.2 points and nine boards over his final 11 games. 

Physically, he's a monster with explosive athleticism and overwhelming strength. And he's expanded his scoring range around that low block. If Harrell can sustain that 17-point, nine-board average throughout the course of the year, I'd imagine it will result in 2015 lottery buzz.

 

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona, 6'6", SF, Sophomore

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson's defensive potential and versatility is what ultimately fuels his NBA appeal. He's got the size, quickness and disruptive length to lock down three positions. 

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And Hollis-Jefferson has one of those live motors that never seems to fade. 

Offensively, his athleticism allows him to finish plays around the rim off cuts, slashes and line-drives to the rack.

If Hollis-Jefferson can add to his offensive repertoire and ultimately become a bigger threat with the ball, his two-way potential should generate plenty of first-round or lottery noise.

 

International Stars

Mario Hezonja, Croatia, 6'6", SG, 1995

He's silky smooth and one heck of an offensive talent. At just 18 years old, he's gotten minutes for Barcelona in the Spanish ACB, though not enough to generate any real rhythm or consistent production. 

However, whether it's been at the European Championships, Eurocamp or during his 26-point outburst against La Bruixa d'Or Manresa, Hezonja has been able to flash and confirm his can't-miss NBA potential. 

If Hezonja declares in 2015, he'll likely get tossed straight into the lottery conversation. 

 

Kristaps Porzingis, Latvia, 7'0", C, 1995

One month ago, we were referring to Porzingis as a potential 2014 lottery pick. But after choosing to withdraw and return to the Spanish ACB, he'll now be a name to watch for in 2015. 

At 7'0", he's a fluid athlete who can glide down the floor or soar above the rim. He's got the measurements of a center, though his ability to attack off the dribble and shoot from outside make him more of a power forward at the NBA level. 

Porzingis has to add strength and bulk to his 220-pound frame, but between his physical tools, hops and skills, he's got some serious potential as a two-way frontcourt weapon. 

  

Something to Prove

Andrew Harrison, Kentucky, 6'6", PG, Sophomore

He just wasn't very convincing as a freshman. Not overly quick, athletic or explosive, Harrison struggled to get much separation, and it limited him as a playmaker. He shot a dreadful 36.7 percent from the floor and averaged just four assists per game, while he struggled mightily as a finisher around the rim. 

This will be a big year for Harrison, who showed signs of floor general qualities during Kentucky's run to the national title game. 

 

Wayne Selden, Kansas, 6'5", SG, Sophomore

Selden just didn't really stand out in any one area of the game last year. He averaged 9.7 points and shot just 32.8 percent from downtown, and despite that diesel 230-pound frame, he took just 2.5 free throws a game. “I went to the basket soft this past year,” Selden told Rustin Dodd of The Kansas City Star. “I really didn’t go too aggressive.”

Without Andrew Wiggins or Joel Embiid in the lineup, Selden should have pressure to step up as a sophomore and go-to player. His draft stock could take a major hit if he doesn't show improvement as a scorer and shooter. 

 

Chris Walker, Florida, 6'10", PF, Sophomore

Walker barely even played last year after finally being ruled eligible late in the season. And now he'll enter the 2014-15 season as a prospect with something to prove.   

In limited action last year, we saw the athleticism and above-the-rim presence he offers. This year, scouts will be looking to see how much he's added to his offensive repertoire. His finishing ability, shot-blocking and rebounding tools are nice, but adding ball skills, post moves or a jumper will ultimately raise his NBA ceiling

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